You can tell the year is beginning to come to a close when Ganesh puja comes about. Soon enough there will be a wave of little festivals leading to the crescendo of Durga puja, and then a diminuendo of several others, until, with a final flourish, Diwali brings it all to an end. What will be left are strenuous exercises and diets to shed the extra kilos you put on. And it all starts with a little plate like this, given by friends: a home made modak redolent of rice and juicy when you bite into the jaggery and coconut filling, a laddu coloured with saffron and embellished with the usual silver foil, a piece of a nameless homemade sweet with nuts embedded in a paste of figs and other fruit, and some peda from a store.
Sadly, in the last two months of medically enforced inactivity, I’ve put on weight. My indulgences this year will be mild, as I begin to work at shedding the adipose. But then maybe this year I can indulge in the East Indian Christmas sweets which we go so easy on.
At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.
Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.
There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.
Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.
Gertrude, do visit Bhuj to correct your mistake. (You too William; a rose would taste as sweet.) I had heard much about the chain of sweet shops in Bhuj called Khavda. Not being a Kutchi speaker, I assumed that the name was the imperative case of the verb “eat”. So I was quite surprised later when I passed the village of the same name. Apparently the shops are called after the village, because the family which owns the chain comes from there.
My first reaction was “A typical sweet shop.” Their topmost shelf displayed something called roasted barfi (that’s the tray on the right in the photo above). I asked for a sampler. The Family looked at me quizzically. “I’m full. And in this heat I don’t want to taste any sweets,” she said. When it comes to sweets (rather, when I come to sweets) I set no conditions; the antique Greeks called it agape. The barfi was nice, but it couldn’t be what they are famous for.
The Family didn’t want me to do a systematic taste test to figure out what they are famous for. She short circuited the process by asking the friendly young owner of the franchise. He pointed out the rose sweets. Two of them lay in trays side by side, in an obscure shelf. Clearly you don’t need to make a fuss about displaying what everyone knows is your best. The one on the left was the regular rose, and the other was roasted. This time The Family joined me in the tasting. The roasted rose passed muster. We packed a box to share with the bird watching group which would assemble the next day. Watching birds makes you a little peckish, I find.
“Anything else?” I asked Siddharth, the young man. He pointed out the special rose sweet, each individually packed. How long would it last? A couple of days without refrigeration. We couldn’t take it with us on the trip but we would pass through Bhuj again on our way out. Except that we would arrive very late and leave early in the morning. “Not a problem,” Sid told us. “We’ll deliver a box to your hotel.” That was done then. He sealed the deal by offering us a sampler of salties. The Family added a couple of them. She feels peckish too after a morning’s birdwatching.
It was the week of Ganapati puja, the equinox, and the beginning of the festival season. So the countertop was laden with trays of modak. I sent a photo to friends as my way of wishing them. Some are purists. One wrote back “These aren’t modak. They are just pedha stamped out in modak-shaped molds.” That’s right. The true modak is a thin rice-flour shell filled with grated coconut sweetened with molasses, folded into that beautiful shape before steaming. And they are made at home.
A large Ganapati idol being trucked to a local pooja, it was a normal sight until last year. This year seems a little incomplete without the bells and whistles. I suspect that what we saw this year, that is, what we didn’t see, will be the new normal. Looking again at the photo, isn’t it interesting that Ganapati is protected by a sheet of plastic, but Shiva, above him, requires no such protection?
Saturday was the first day of the Ganapati festival. When I went out to collect my new spectacles on Friday I didn’t notice any of the usual preparations: no idols being brought to their 10 days’ home in trucks, no stages being set up. On Sunday evening there would be the first day of immersion. This is usually an immersion day for the small gods from homes.
At nine in the evening we drove by one of the places set aside for immersion. There were traffic barricades and police, but no crowds of people. In other years, I have walked to this place with my camera and got nice photos of families come to immerse an idol. Nothing this year.
I passed a place where the residents get together every year and install a vary large idol. At 9 on the evening of the second day it would be rather crowded, especially if it happened to be a Sunday. Lights and preparation certainly, but no people this year.
Newspapers had carried photos of a crowded flower market in Dadar the previous day. I sat down to count the fraction of masked people. In the over hundred faces visible in that photos, I could spot more than 80% covered with masks. I wonder whether all the cities in India have compliance this good. I’ll have to wait for photos of Navaratri from across India to see that.
Sharad follows varsha. Sharad is often translated as autumn, but this is incorrect. It is still astronomical summer in the northern hemisphere when the season starts; the sun has yet to cross the equator on its southward trend. This is what the British called Indian summer. It is an uncomfortable time, since the monsoon has left the air full of moisture, and the weather warms up again. At this time the weather in the Himalayas is turbulent, there are dramatic cloudbursts and floods, and passes are closed. But also this is a time when nature reawakens in the plains, with warmth and water in plenty. On the coast the monsoon storms have passed, the time of the spawning of sea life is over, and traditional fishermen take their nets out to sea in newly painted boats. The featured photo was taken in Goa.
On land, I would scour the countryside in this season with my camera for wildflowers and insects. This photo of a chocolate pansy butterfly (Junonia iphita) was taken in the comfort of a garden. Even here photographing insects involved keeping a steady hand on the camera if a mosquito bit it just as you were about to release the shutter. When you look around you, it is clear that sharad is not autumn. Nature is bursting into renewed life. The fruits of this season are specially sweet and flavourful, the late medieval imports of chikoo (Manilkara zapota, also called sapodilla, or sapota), sitaphal (Annona squamosa, known elsewhere as sugar apple), and Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana, which has no local name although it is so widespread). I love these fruits just by themselves, or in jams and ice creams, or in rum based drinks.
But most of all, this is the season of festivals. It starts with the Ganapati festival, and culminates with the Navaratri, or Durga puja. There is an almost continuous stream of festivals from Ganapati to Christmas. It is a part of the year when your resolve is badly needed. The weather is uncomfortable, and you are tempted to forgo the daily exercise that had almost come to a halt in varsha. And now there’s the tempting food, from the wonderful fresh catch of pomfret (Bramidae, also called pamplet or paplet) to the special sweets of the many festivals. Everything conspires to force you to put on weight. It’s the season to be careful.
Very close to the Ramanathaswamy temple in Rameswaram we passed a large idol of Ganesha on a truck. Since we visited Rameswaram at the beginning of the Ganapati festival, this was not unusual. What made me stop was the drumming. A group of boys was ranked in front of the idol, wearing a white dhoti and a purple angravastram, playing a staccato rhythm on drums. It was loud, and the rhythm was not very complicated, but it was clearly the first act.
Behind them were older men with a yellow angavastram, with drums. I waited for them to start. It was a treat when they did. I discovered a wonderful new sound, made by rubbing the curved stick across the stretched membrane of the drum. Note the oldest man in the ensemble (at the center of the photo above, facing the camera). If the colour of the angavastram is anything to go by, then he was clearly special. He was absolutely focussed on the music, and seemed to be directing the others.
The drums are an announcement of an approaching event, and my guess was that this was merely the start. It would be some time before the truck moved, and the drummers would move behind it, announcing the approach of Ganesha.
We reached Rameswaram later than we’d expected. It was fairly dark, and the market around the Ramanathaswamy temple was clearly shutting down. On the other hand, it was the first day of the Ganapati festival, and there were pockets of crowds. We checked in to our hotel, and were out in no time for a circumambulation of the temple. The highest towers of south Indian temples are the entrance gates, gopuram. In the featured photo you see our first view of the temple: the north gate at night. We walked eastwards, towards the sea. Since the east gate is the most auspicious entrance, if there was any activity at this time, we expected it to be there.
We saw little. The bazaar was almost closed. I talked to the security at the gate about what I could take in (almost nothing) and turned to go when a well-decorated elephant slipped by. It was over before I could take a photo. But behind it was a long procession. A nadaswaram started up as the procession neared the gate, along with its accompanying drums. A crowd of umbrellas was advancing towards me down the street. I hadn’t expected anything as interesting as this!
The musicians and umbrella bearers took up position at the entrance, and I had a clear view of the center of the procession. The movement halted for a while, and I had a good view of the main attraction. This was an idol of Ganesha mounted on an enormous lion. The idol seemed to be made of copper, and the lion was probably made of brass. Although the mouse is most often shown as Ganesha’s vahana, a lion is also canonical. He is said to have inherited it from his mother, Parvati. But this is uncommon enough that this was the first time I’d seen this representation.
A crowd had gathered to watch the procession. I saw many other cameras out. The Family had taken up position across the road from me. This turned out to be a better place to take photos from, since she had the light at her back. The photos she took with her mobile phone were sharper than mine, for example that of the priest as he enters the temple (above). I was closer to the action, but shooting against the light.
Finally the attendants positioned the cart so that the wheels could turn in the right direction, and smoothly and without fuss the procession turned into the famous east-west corridor of the temple. Since photography is prohibited inside, this was one of the few opportunities I had to take photos of the corridor. We were happy that instead of flopping into bed we’d counted on Ganesh chaturthi being a special event and come out for a walk.
It is the middle of an unusually dry monsoon in Mumbai. But when it rains it seems the traffic becomes even worse. Stuck in traffic last week I edged past the obstruction and noticed at the last minute what it was. As the featured photo shows, a huge image of Ganesha was being transported, wrapped up in plastic sheets to protect it from rain.
Now the roads are full of images being taken from home to be immersed in the sea. A speciality of the Ganesha festival is that different people keep it for different durations: starting from a day up to eleven days. Over the years the management of traffic during the festival has improved. This year seems to be the best in recent memory. There were little slowdowns as we passed groups of people like the one shown here, but no blocks at all. This one was large, so it was clearly something a neighbourhood had got together for. The crowd with it was also of a corresponding magnitude.
Two thirds of the year are over. The eleven days of Ganesha will be followed by the festival of Durga, and then Diwali. Before you know it, December will be on us. January seems just like yesterday. Did the year really pass by?