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Elephants Tigers and Brides, Oh My!

Ok, so the groom did not enter the hall on an elephant, and there were no tigers. That is just what I was fantasizing about before I attended my first Indian wedding. There was however a bride. I’m not sure she wanted to be there, but there she was.

All I could think was that I hoped her day got better.

I’ll begin at 4:00 in the morning. The wedding was to start at 6:00. We did not want to be late, and we certainly did not want to miss it. As Mary Ann put it clearly when I suggested a 5 a.m. start time “we have travelled thousands of miles, spent thousands of dollars, and avoided thousands of traffic accidents. If we are early so be it. Besides we might have trouble finding the place”. As usual, my wife was right.

We set out in the dark. The town where the groom lives was 35Km away from our hotel. But that was not where the wedding was going to be. It was being held in a village so small it had no road signs let alone did it show up on a map. So, off we were into terra incognito.

We drove down a narrow country road in the predawn subtropical morning. The road was lined with what a cowboy would call haystacks. But they were (I believe) stacks of rice stalks drying. Later in the day I confirmed this when I found that they tied them into neat bundles for use as roofing on their indigenous housing. It made for an interesting tunnel vision view of Southern India countryside.

Every few miles we would come across a lodge like building off the road all lit up with colored strings of lights. It was obvious that they were wedding halls. As we went thru little towns in the dark, the only places showing life were many, maybe dozens of such little wedding halls. Each one had big pictures of the bride and groom to announce the festivities. I turned to Mary Ann and said “well, if we do not find the wedding we came for, we certainly have our choice of weddings to crash!” You see, it is prime wedding season in the Hindu world right now, because the monsoons are over, and the rice harvest is in, and also for luck. Also, this year, 6 A.M. on a Monday morning according to the astrologers in India was the time for the best of luck for a wedding. If someone invited to a wedding at 6 A.M. on a Monday morning in L.A., well good luck on me showing up.

We got to the groom’s home town, Kattumaanaroil, (boy my spell checker almost went on strike with that one) and stopped at a couple of weddings set to take place, asking for instructions to our wedding. Finally one man told our driver how to get to the correct town. It was like I said, barely a town, more a village. When we got there we just sort of followed gaily clad people hoping they were going to the same wedding. Remember, it is like 5:30 in the morning, and here are dozens of men dressed nicely and of course women in those magnificent saris wandering down the street in the same general direction. It reminded me of my youth when I followed the Grateful Dead from town to town. I would get to a city and have no idea where the venue was, so I would just follow the people in tie-dyes.

I have to go back a week before I tell you the ending of our search. The day before the groom left, he asked me for a picture of the two of us. I thought I understood that they would use it to make a collage of the guests, cool.

So, following red, yellow, orange, green and blue saris we turned a corner, and I went into shock. There was a big billboard sized sign announcing our friend’s wedding and in the lower left corner, almost as big as the photo of the dear couple, were us! Huge! With the words “Special guests from the U.S.A.”

We were astonished!

It was actually embarrassing.

Now we were greeted like sahibs.  People came running out of the hall to welcome us. Mary Ann and I got married at Dodger stadium, and we are both huge fans of Dodger HOFer Sandy Koufax. If I could have afforded it I would have paid him to attend our wedding. However, then the wedding would not have been about us. We did not want things to be like this, we were just people attending the wedding in our mind. In this village in rural-off-the-beaten-track India we were a special added attraction, we were Sandy Koufax.

We were probably the first white people in the village. The children looked at us like specimens from another planet, as did most of the adults.

After warm hugs, we were introduced to the groom’s family. All of them. One of his brothers is an EE who works in Singapore. All I could think of was how do you get out of HERE and go to Singapore or Dubai, and what must the culture shock be like in either case.

Everyone wanted their picture taken. Everyone brought us their children and held them up for the camera. All the 10ish boys jumped around in front of me trying to pose. I wanted to take photos of not only the cute little girls, but their big sisters. Most of them were somewhat camera shy. I photographed the band. The band consisted of two horns which I have never seen before, some bells and two drummers. Pictures were taken of the family, and us with the family. All total I took 450 pictures in an hour and a half.  You need to follow this link.http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_other_side_of_the_coconut to see a portion of them

The ceremony was of course a traditional Hindu service. It included washing the parent’s feet, “christening” a “tree of life”, and a dozen other rituals I enjoyed, but did not grok. Neither did the groom I figured. He had perplexed look on his face from start to end. He was “blessed” first by the holy man running the show. Then the bride came out for her ordeal of blessings. She looked like she was in shock, denial, terrified, anything but the picture of the blushing blooming bride. None of my photos so far were destined for the cover of Bride Magazine.

Then they joined up and both of them sat in the thrones of honor and they did yet more ceremonies. One of the ceremonies included the parents. The whole time the bride was next to her father she was showing signs of a serious daddy complex.

Somewhere near the tail end of the ceremony a man came around with a tray of orange colored rice. Everyone took a little. I had mine in my hand and looked at Mary Ann. She said “eat it”. So I did. Everyone around me started laughing at my expense. The purpose the rice, as ANYONE would know, was to throw it at the newlyweds. So the man came back, still humored by me and gave me some more rice.

The next ceremony was three circuits by the newlyweds around the tree of life, with a pause for some words from the holy man at each completed circuit. These words, as were the rest of the ceremony, were in ancient Sanskrit language. Nobody speaks it anymore. It is like going to a wedding in a church in L.A. and having it done in Latin.

Then it was time to give presents. Besides a nice cash present we gave the groom back in Sharjah, we found a really pretty marble photo frame for the bride. We had it wrapped and we gave it to a family member while we were being mobbed upon our entrance. It sort of disappeared.

The gifts from the other guests were ether some Rupees, or in most cases, gold. Everyone passed by the bride an put a gold chain on her, or a gold ring on the groom, or both. We realized that was just another thing we were clueless about. The bride started smiling a bit more as her chest became laden with that certain metal that causes fevers in us all.

Gold will do this to you!

We were out of Rupees because the ATM machine was not working that morning, and our present had been taken into some holding room. But then the groom’s brother showed up with it and told us to get in line to present it. An 8 x10 marble frame is heavy enough to make her think she was receiving a gold bar. I hope she is not disappointed.

The ceremony was now over. Right on time, 6 to 7:30. The band stopped playing and everyone made a dash for the dining hall. At first, Mary Ann was not so sure she wanted to eat anything here. But everyone was insistent we eat. They took us outside to wash our hands and sat us down at a community table where the only place setting was a banana leaf. They put generous helpings of wonderful dishes in front of us.  We had to eat with our hands of course, and mind you, as we were reminded, not the left hand. The food was really tasty. I know I’ll never eat anything we had ever again, but not because I don’t want to.

Wonderful food served off of a banana leaf!

I noticed during the ceremony that the bride’s father had a righteous moustache. I goaded him into a little moustache twisting competition. He won, his is a better moustache. We bonded on that one and I think he will remember me for it.

His was better than mine

I made the decision that I was tired of being Sandy Koufax, and decided we should head for the showers before we started being asked for autographs. We said or goodbyes. No one thought we should be leaving, but we wanted to give the day back to the couple, so off we went.

I hope you enjoyed crashing this wedding as much as I enjoyed telling you about it. Tell a friend. Stay tuned for the Taj Mahal, I hear it is a real shack!

At Last. The last from Nepal, THE KAMA SUTRA

Ok folks, the one y’all been waiting for.

Mary Ann and I were touring the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square. That is a mouthful, but everything in Nepal is.

Our guide walked us up to a shrine. I noticed a nice lady making an offering. Photo 1 in the slide show. Then I looked at the shrine. Photo 2.

He explained this was a shrine to the Hindu god that brought the Kama Sutra to Nepal, from where it spread to India. India might think it went the other way, but I prefer to think I was at the source!

I found myself wondering what the offering was for. Thanks for a good night or a prayer for good nights to come. Far be it from me to inquire.

Then the guide pointed at a temple which was dedicated to the practice of the Kama Sutra. He said there were “erotic” carvings all around it. Well, I left Mary Ann to hear more history and legends, and made an immediate trip over to the shrine to get these photos to share with my faithful readers.

This is not pornography, this is religion. At least some of the people in the carvings look like they are having a religious experience.

To make my point about the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism still being practiced, I have another story to relate. I was in a bookstore looking for postcards to send the Luddite friends I have, when I noticed a rather beautiful girl, maybe 20 wander in. She was wearing a bright red sari. She went straight for a section of books near me. She picked a couple up and was studying them pretty closely. I checked out what she was looking at, and behold…she was studying Kama Sutra positions in the books. If I was not so happily married I would have offered to help her with her research. When she left I wandered over and found Kama Sutra books with  paintings, line drawings, B/W photos and full color depictions. I also found a deck of playing cards with the positions on them. I started imagining a poker game.

“I’ll see your _______position and raise you one ______ position”.

Then I noticed the most amazing and fun book of all. It was a cut out book of Origami worksheets, so you can fold your characters into the positions and play with them.

This was not the only temple in Kathmandu that had Kama Sutra stuff. You will notice photos from a couple others, one at Bhaktapur and another at Patan. These were competing cities in ancient history, and I guess they all needed to remind their people how to reproduce.

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Up to My Temples in Temples

I have officially become a temple free zone. As I said in a previous post, our guide claims there are 1.3 billion gods in Hinduism. I think I have seen a temple for every one of them. They are all different, in a way, but after about a billion of them you really have to look hard to see the differences. They are all quite old. Most of them are very big and substantially built. By quite old I mean built in the 13th 14th, 16th centuries. Old.

They are everywhere. This one in town

Some defy description they are so beautiful

This is the tallest temple in all Nepal, supposedly

They are always surrounded by creatures, usually tigers guarding them

This one is guarded by a Cobra

This one is guarded by big scary guys with big mustaches. A previous life??

This one has Mary Ann for a guard. For a little while. The view of the courtyard from here was wonderful.

Some have courtyards with even more stuff to see indoors.

This is the royal bath inside a temple. The cobra heads where the water comes from are solid brass

This is the largest Stupa in the world. The way the Tibetans who built say it, it is the largest in the universe. They are optimistic people

I am declaring "Not One More Temple" Notice my hat? Whenever I wore this around the Nepalis pointed at me and said "Abu Nepali", Meaning Old Nepali man!

I could spend hours of my time and bore you silly with explanations of these temples, but I won’t. You can thank me later.

My favorite temple so far? Easy. The temple dedicated to the practice of the Kama Sutra. I keep teasing you that I will share my photos of all the “erotic” carvings carved into this temple. I just might hold out on you unless you ask me for it by commenting on this post.

The most impressive thing about each and every temple we have visited is that they are still in use. All the god statues have offerings around them. Everything from butter candles, to colored rice, to flowers rubbed onto them.

For instance. This shrine has been there for hundreds of years. It depicts the birth of Buddha. The legend is that when Buddha left the womb he immeadiatly walked five steps. See the steps? Anyway, just before I took this photo an old man was praying at it.

I’ll give you one more teaser for the next post. The god that started Kama Sutra has his own statue, and of course he is naked, and his impressive groin region is worshipped by rubbing flowers on it. I actually have a photo of a woman doing just that. So read my next post.

This country is about evenly split between Buddhists and Hindu. Always has been. Some of the temples have Buddhist stuff on top and Hindu on the bottom and some vice-versa. Because living in peace and harmony and accepting that things are just the way they are, they live together nicely.

Over 100 thousand Tibetan Buddhists escaped Tibet when the Chinese decided Tibet was really China. They destroyed temples and monasteries in an attempt to destroy the religion. Many came here, and many went to India. The one’s here have survived and thrived.

The only people causing trouble here are the Maoists. They have actually gone to war with the government and are still in the hills. You even see the hammer and sickle painted as graffiti and I took this shot in a city. I guess the phrase “godless commies” should be used here, eh?

Political freedom I guess.

The government of Nepal practically does not exist right now. They had an election a while back, but no one got a majority and they cannot name a President. No one seems to care. It is what it is.

Nagarkot

First, sorry for the lapse in time since my last post. Internet in Nepal is slow, plus I did not bring the mouse for my lap top. Combining the two meant too much trouble and time to keep up the blog. We are back in Sharjah now, so expect a bunch of posts in a short while.

OK Nagarkot.

It is about two hours and a hundred years outside of Kathmandu. It sits at 2100 meters. The reason to come here is the views of the Langtang portion of the Himal. Himal, that is what the mountain climbers call the Himalaya. I’m becoming a local. I even bought a pair of used mountaineering glasses which supposedly went up to Everest. No boots though. I’m just pretending.

Nagarkot is a place the guidebooks say is a must see, but they say there is no use staying here for more than one night. Once you have seen the view, that’s it. Me? So far I think I would like to live here. It is very reminiscent of one of my favorite places on earth, Big Sur. No ocean, but it is very quiet and cool. Pine trees, hawks, and a lot of birds.

The hotel we are in sits on top of everything. Down below us are a couple other hotels, one of which has a big old hippy bus parked next to it. Right now, as I sit on the deck, it is cloudy. No view. But I can feel the sun trying to burn it off so we get the views. Word is that the 6 a.m. sunrise over the Himal is absolutely incredible, so we will get up early and have hope. I figure I have been good to all the Holy Men I have met so far, respectful in all the temples, so I might have some Karma in the bank. I have my fingers crossed.

This is the hotel.

OK so it is 6 A. M. and no mountains, bummer. I hear this even happens to people who trek for six or seven days to Everest base camp, only to have the entire mountain clouded over. Weather is a big factor in life everywhere, so just get Buddhist about it and take things as they come.

OK so it is 7 A. M. For a few minutes a part of the range made an appearance. I took a few photos, excuse me that they are not so good. I took a photo of a large poster they have here which shows what I should be looking at.


This is what we saw. The ornate thing in front is one a roof of the hotel. Look close, yes that is a part of the Himal in back. Look closer. See?

It is now time for some coffee and a good book. Our driver will show up when he shows up. Then we are going to take a short tour of the town called Nagarkot. In Nepal’s history there were a lot of warring city-states that dominated areas, 3 or 4 of them in the Kathmandu valley. Nagarkot was one of these. When it was powerful the local potentate commissioned some amazing architecture and that is what we will see.

Meanwhile I am reading a novel called Escape From Kathmandu. It was written in 1989 by a guy named Kim Stanley Robinson who obviously spent some time in Nepal. It is my style of writing, irreverent and goofy. So far the protagonists (a couple of space cadet yanks who are trekking guides and their sidekick who happens to be 500 years old) have captured a Yeti on his way to the zoo and set him free. Then they kept a group of people from bringing George Mallory’s body off of Everest and gave him a fitting burial where he died. A little history here. Mallory may well be the first person to summit Everest but not only didn’t he live to tell about it, he left nothing behind, like his camera or anything on the summit to prove it. If this novel is correct, Mallory was also  the guy who said “because it is there”, and not Hillary. Now these guys are trying to save Shambala, otherwise known as Shangri-la from the encroaching development of 20th century do gooders. A fun read. And by the way, Everest was the name of the chief British cartographer back in the day when they still needed to name things. The real name of the mountain is Chomolungma. That means, in a Tibetan language, Mother Earth Goddess. Sounds a lot better than the name of some bureaucrat.

Ahhh, the coffee shop just opened. Gotta go feed the habit.

Now some photos of Nagarkot

Entrance to town square

This is just one of the many beautiful temples in this town dating from the 16th century

wherever you walk in this wonderful old old city you find buildings that predate American history. I am amazed that they are not only still standing. but that they are still in use!.

Hindu Cremation Service, In Person, With Photos

Welcome back faithful readers.

I was amazed when our guide took us to the sacred river where they deposit the cremains of Hindus who die. What I did not expect to see was the entire process of the cremation, from the blessing of the body to the actual funeral fire. Grieving family members stood by. Women cried while men took turns using sacred water that flows out of a spring in a temple above the river and then flows through the remains of a god ( not sure which, the Hindus have 1.3 billion of them according to our guide) and is then mixed with sacred cow milk  and sprinkle it on his head. I was moved. Even though these ceremonies are open to public viewing, I still felt privileged to  there.

Me and the Monkey God at the crematorium. This is not a scene from Planet of the Apes.

this is the temple where the god is buried that he holy spring flows from


Attendants prepare the pire the body will be burnt on

male family memebers prinkly holy liquid on forehed of body

Eventually the body is set afire. They use firewood and damp straw. The straw keeps the fire going long enough to completely burn the body. Then they sweep the ashes into the river.

I have given Mary Ann strict instructions that I am to be cremated. Ideally I want her to pile me on top of a half cord of Redwood, and then spread my ashes under the Golden Gate Bridge. I would not mind having my body covered with flowers and wrapped in silk first, but I won’t be around to insist. Also, sacred river or not, the water in SF Bay seems a lot cleaner than this river. One little detail. They put gold coins on the body before it is cremated. The gold melts, and is then swept into the river with the ashes. There are little boys whose livelihood is to dive into the river and recover the ingots, which then get melted and recast into the ceremonial coins. OK fine, melt some gold with my body and let’s see if anyone will dive into SF bay to get it!

Check out the dreds on this holy man at the crematorium. He has probably never cut his hair.

These Holy guys hang out at the crematorium. According to our guide all they do all day is smoke hash. If so, they were holding out on me!

Internet here in the capital city, at least our hotel, is incredibly slow, when it is available at all. That makes it tough to update my blog, so the posts tend to lag.

Stay tuned.

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