Saturday, November 27, 2010

Perfect Picture books by Post - To the Zoo by Eric Carle

Its always fun to get a book as a gift, and it becomes a lot more fun when you get a book from someone you don't know! When I signed up for the'Perfect Picture Books by Post' swap on Playing by the Book, both Samhith and I were excited about the whole process, and we sent off our book, waiting eagerly to see which book we would receive!

We got our book yesterday, and I waited eagerly for Samhith to return home from school before opening it. Here is what we received....

We both love reading Eric Carle, and have a couple of his books, but thankfully, this one we dont have! Samhith opened the book and went through them eagerly, seeing the pictures more closely than the numbers themselves. We both loved the mouse seen in every pic, but he was intrigued by the sketches of the train and its coaches, especially those on each page.

As to the book itself, he decided that counting from 1 to 10 was too tame for him, so he decided to first count all the animals, and then all the people, and then all the trees on the last, pullout page. He was thrilled that there were more than 100 in all!!

Thanks so much, Amber, for sending us such a wonderful book. We shall treasure this one!

Incidentally, coming to the books I had sent Amber, we started out wondering which book to send, and ultimately decided on sending one of his books on Ganesha, an all time favourite. As it happened, the book was available, but while his book had two stories in it, the two had now been published separately. He wanted to gift both, so we got the books and sent them off by post. Unfortunately, the books hadnt reached at the time of writing this post, which speaks volumes of the state of the postal system here. No one at the post office is able to give me a convincing answer about where it might be, either. I hope the parcel finds its way to Amber in good shape, and she and her kids can enjoy a bit of Indian mythology, with some cute little pics!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tirupati Part 2 - The Main Temple Circuit

A visit to Tirupati these days is usually a hurried one, people rushing to the main temple, making their way through the never ending queues just for a glimpse of the Lord, and then rushing back again to their normal lives. This time, when I decided to make a leisurely trip, one of the things I had in mind was to visit all the temples there in the order in which they were to be visited. Yes, there are more temples around, and each one is traditionally visited in a particular order.

To understand the reason for this apparent hierarchy in the temples, it is necessary to first understand the story of this temple. For those of who have the patience, you can read the entire story which I have posted earlier on this blog. Here is the link to the first part.
Each post is linked to the next part in the series, and is a complete and detailed account of the story. For those of you who either don’t have the patience to read through the entire story, or are pressed for time, here is an abridged version.

The story begins with an argument between Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi, which results in the goddess leaving Vaikuntam and taking up residence on earth, at Kolhapur, and plunging into a long period of deep meditation. Deprived of his consort, the Lord is disconsolate, and also descends on earth to meditate.  With the passage of time, Lord Vishnu becomes weaker, since he no longer is blessed by the goddess of prosperity, and he is covered by anthills. In such a state, the other Gods come to his aid, and plead with Lakshmi on his behalf, who agrees to help. Taking the form of a cowherd, she goes to the king of that area, and gifts him a cow and a calf (really Brahma and Shiva in disguise).  The king’s cowherd gets suspicious when the cow doesn’t provide enough milk. He follows the cow and calf to discover that the cow empties its udders on an ant hill. Spurred on by the king, the cowherd breaks the ant hill, only to find blood flowing out. When they clear the anthill, they find Lord Vishnu with a deep gash on his forehead. Disturbed from his meditation, and unable to remain there, Lord Vishnu wanders around the forests, looking for herbs to cure his wound. He meets a huntress and her son, who adopt him and take care of him till he grows stronger. He starts hunting to help out his family, taking permission from Varaha (Vishnu himself in the form of a wild boar), who owns the area, to live there. One day, he saves a princess from a rogue elephant and falls in love with her. She is Padmavati, a form of Bhudevi (the goddess of earth) born to the king of a nearby kingdom. Padmavati too falls in love with him, but is too shy to express her feelings to anybody. Vishnu confides in his adopted mother, Vakula Devi, who sets out to ask the king for the princess’ hand in marriage to her son. Meanwhile, the Lord takes the form of a gypsy and enters the palace, and informs the queen and the princess of the hunter’s identity, encouraging them to assent to the marriage. The gods too are aware of the developments, and Narada arrives to inform the king of his good fortune. Vakula Devi is welcomed into the palace, and the king agrees to the marriage without a demur. The lord, however, realizes that he is a pauper, and does not want to embarrass the king by arriving for the marriage like one. He therefore takes a loan from Kubera, the god of wealth, for the purpose, and the marriage is solemnized with all pomp and splendor. Once the marriage is over, the Lord is faced with two major issues – one is the Goddess Lakshmi, who arrives from Kolhapur, and the second is the loan from Kubera, which he has to repay at the end of the Kali Yuga. He explains to Lakshmi, the necessity of his marriage to Padmavati, who is Bhudevi, and gives them both a place in his heart – Sridevi (Lakshmi) on his left, and Bhudevi on his right. Moreover, he decides to take his abode at Tirumala (on the hill), while Padmavati remains at Tiruchanur, and pledges all the offerings from his devotees towards payment of the loan. Sridevi’s presence by his side there ensures not just his prosperity, but also her blessings to all those who arrive there to pray to him. He also asks his older brother (the son of Vakula Devi) to ensure that the regular payment of interest to Kubera is made. 
This then is the story of Sri Venkateswara, with all the characters who play prominent roles in the divine drama.

Accordingly, when we visit Tirupati, we first visit Govindaraja Perumal – the older brother of Lord Venkateswara, who resides on the foothills. It is said that he was so tired of measuring the offerings, that he decided to lie down with his head on the measure itself! So, this is the form in which we see the Lord at the Govindarajaswamy Temple. We visit him first because he is the Lord’s older brother, and it is the Indian tradition to visit the oldest people in the family first.

Here is the temple gopuram as seen from our room - since cameras had to be given up right at the entry, I had no chance of taking even a single pic of this temple... and yes, if you visit this temple, make sure you wear a saree, or if you are wearing a salwar kameez or even jeans, carry a dupatta or a stole along! I didnt have one, so they refused me entry! I had to buy one for Rs.60 at the entrance. Yes, thats another option too!

Once we climb up the hill, we are first supposed to visit the temple of Varahaswamy – the Lord in the form of Varaha, a wild boar. According to legend, the entire mountain range of Tirupati, or Sheshachala, is said to be the property of Varaha, who brought up the earth from the bowels of the ocean. Lord Venkateswara is said to have taken permission to reside here from Lord Varaha. The land itself is still believed to belong to Varahaswamy, and Lord Venkateswara is said to have leased this particular area from him. Since the Lord then had no money to pay for the lease, he is said to have asked his devotees to first visit Varahaswamy and make their offerings to him before visiting the main temple. This temple, then, is the second port of call when we visit Tirupati.

Image of Varaha Swamy in the temple.
Image courtesy: Internet

Next in line is the main temple itself, about which, nothing needs to be said.

Within the temple itself, in the left corridor of the main shrine, is the erstwhile kitchen, where we see a figure of the Lord’s mother – Vakula Devi. She is said to stay next to her son, to ensure that her son is properly taken care of, and she is the one we are supposed to see immediately after having darshan of the Lord.

Next in line is the figure of Lord Venkateswara on the gopuram – Vimana Venkateswara Swamy – who is an exact replica of the figure in the sanctum. These days there is huge crowd waiting in line to see this figure from the vantage points, but I think the reason for its importance is simply that it is easier to see the Lord here than inside the sanctum!

There is also an image of Lakshmi on the right side of the sanctum, next to the place where the Hundi (Box of offerings) is kept. Interestingly, I have noticed this figure only on my recent visits – and this time, another Hundi had appeared here too! There are also other deities inside the temple, but considering the crowd, it is practically impossible to see all of them, so let’s move on!

Once we finish with the temples on the hill, the first temple we are supposed to visit is that of Padmavati at Tiruchanur. As consort of the lord, she occupies a place of prime importance, and her shrine is these days as crowded as that of her husband. A visit to Tirupati is said to be incomplete without a visit to Tiruchanur.

Going off topic for a while, here is something for all those of you who visit South Indian temples. In most temples I have visited, the gopuram has an image of the deity inside, and stories related to the deity. At the most, the gopuram might have images of deities related to the main one! Now, I have no chance of getting a closer look at the main temple gopuram - if you linger around, even for a minute, a security guard comes to shoo you off! But if you notice the gopuram of the Varahaswamy temple, it has an image of Lakshmi on it! and the gopuram of the Tiruchanur Padmavati temple is covered with images of Narasimha! Any ideas why????

A visit to Tiruchanur usually concludes a visit to Tirupati. However, in a broader sense, the visit is incomplete without a visit to Kolhapur, which is still considered to be the abode of Lakshmi. While I have visited Kolhapur before, I have not yet combined the two pilgrimages, though these days it is quite easy, with the Indian Railways running trains from Tirupati to Kolhapur! We even met a family on the train who does the entire circuit every year, from Tirupati to Kolhapur.

A visit to Tirupati is not all that difficult these days. It is possible to book sevas and accommodation online through the TTD website. TTD rooms are available at various rates, but the demand is high, and rooms are not always available, so you need to plan your trip well in advance. Another disadvantage with TTD is that rooms are never given to single travelers, and even for families, only one room is given. Besides, rooms are allotted only for one day (24 hours) and extension is not all that easy! However, accommodation is the least of the problems, since there are plenty of options, and you can easily book hotels in Tirupati online. These provide better options for stay! For a quick trip, I would advise booking a seva online, and a room at Tirupati (on the foothills), and making the journey up and down the hill by car at the time of the seva. Staying on the hill presents its own problems, such as road restrictions and crowd.

Incidentally, these are just the few main temples at Tirupati. There are a lot more coming up!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Karthikai at home - all lit up!

Karthikai or Karthik Poornima, the full moon day in the Tamil month of Karthikai (mid Nov- mid Dec) is the south Indian equivalent of Diwali, where we light up our homes with lamps. Having missed Diwali this year, I was all the more eager to celebrate Karhikai, and did so enthusiastically with Samhith helping me out! He helped me unpack all the wonderful Diyas from their storing place, and looked on patiently while I prepared them for lighting, putting in wicks and pouring oil in them. He was curious about the shapes, and so eager to help, that he wanted to light them too! It was difficult to convince him, but finally we agreed on a deal - I would light them and place them, but he could choose where to place each Diya! So, here is what Karthikai was like, at our place..... and the placing is totally Samhith's idea :)

The big diya is a new one this year..... a gift. Normally, I avoid such decorated diyas since we cant really light them properly, and what use is a diya which cant be lit? But we managed to solve the problem by placing a smaller one inside..... the smaller one is new too, and you know what, once I poured in the oil and lit it, the glass ensured that the lamp stayed lit for over 12 hours!!! Thats the kind of lamp I like to buy.... one which I need to light just once, and relax!

This is another new one - one I bought - and this one stays lit for a long time too...

Our neighbour is out of town, and so we decided to use their part of the landing too..... since I didnt have time to put a kolam there, I placed the diyas on a plastic plate - that way, they wont drip either!

Interestingly, one of my online friends, Sowmya, had this wonderful post on her blog where she tried to look for the reasons why Karthikai is celebrated. Like most Indian festivals, there is no simple answer to this one, but from what I have heard and read, the most believable reason is the story of Shiva appearing as a column of light at Thiruvannamalai, where the festival is celebrated till this day by lighting a huge lamp on the hill which can be seen for miles around. Richard, who lives at Thiruvannamalai, has some wonderful pics and descriptions of the festival held there. The day the lamp is lit there is known as Annamalai deepam. The day before is called Bharani Deepam, while the next day, when other temples celebrate the occasion by lighting lamps, is called Sarvalaya deepam. Well, that explains the legends, but practically, the festival must have begun with the idea of lighting lamps during one of the coldest months of the year in the south, when the days were the shortest. My mom still lights lamps for the entire month of Karthikai, which sort of explains this. 

So, that's my world for now.... all lit up!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Clowning Around - The International Clown Fest, Mumbai

Every morning I wake up to realise how many things are overdue, and top on the list is this blog. I have been meaning to post everyday, and believe me, I have loads to write about. But some problem or the other comes up, the latest of which is that my Picasa account is full! There is no more space to upload photos, and I have had to create yet another account just to load my pics! All you photographers out there, how do you manage to save so many Yes, the keyword here is 'free'. Other than upgrading my account, or getting a pro Flickr account, any other ideas???????

Meanwhile, here's one long overdue post about a wonderful event we attended in Mumbai. We had just returned from Tirupati, and I found this email about this event which was to end in just a couple of days. I hurriedly booked tickets and rushed off, thanking my stars that I wasn't too late! The event in question was the International Clown Fest held from the 5th to the 14th of November. Clowns from the USA, Canada, Europe and Japan were part of this event held all over the city. Their last show was on the 13th at St.Andrews Auditorium, Bandra, and this was the one I attended. 

I dont know what I can write about a show that was pure entertainment. From the word 'go', it was a laugh riot which the kids enjoyed thoroughly. For once, no one asked them to be quiet, and they laughed and shouted with sheer happiness as one performer followed another! As to us adults, it was evident that it wasn't all that easy to clown around, and we really enjoyed it too, becoming kids with our own kids in tow!

Here are a few pics from the performance. Usually, I avoid using my camera in auditoriums, but this one was special, and they openly allowed us to click away, and lots of people were even taking videos. I stuck to stills, though... and here they are... They aren't all that great, but I loved the way the camera captured the motions.... so coulnd't resist sharing so many of them with you!

Isn't that headgear interesting?? It was amazing the way he made it in minutes for the kid who was called up to  participate.

Isn't that kid's excitement palpable???

This was something I loved...and the photos are interesting too! Couldn't imagine how he managed to skip the way he did! and look at the way the motion has been captured!

This was a performance Samhith loved - playing with 3 flutes at once! Yes, this pic shows just two, the one with the three didnt come out well :(

Here are the lucky kids who got to get on the stage....

More of the lucky ones!

These were again really interesting....

This is my favourite.... which is yours???

And finally, here are all of them....

From the left are Debbie Fowler (USA), Mike (Canada), Harlen Pierson  (USA), Martin D'souza (India), Jonathan (Cananda), and Bob Neil (USA). Behind them is  Molly Kleeman (USA).Unfortunately, she cant be seen in this pic. 

After the performance, we could meet the clowns and interact with them, which means that all the kids rushed to take pics with them!

Yes, of course, Samhith did too..... Here he is, with Bob and Martin....

It was a wonderful evening, one we enjoyed to the hilt. Samhith was thrilled by the announcement that this would now be a regular, yearly affair, and that they would be back again next year with more performers! I really look forward to that!

For more information, see the website of International Clown Festival, Mumbai 2010

There should be more such performances all over India, and at various venues so that more people can go and see what real clowns are like. As they say, clowning is serious business too! 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tirupati Part 1 - Climbing the Seven Hills

The Tirumala hills or Sheshachalam, as they are known, when viewed from the air, appear to be coiled like a serpent, with seven prominent peaks. This is what has probably led to the name – Sheshachala – the mountain of Shesha. Shesha or Adishesha is the divine serpent with seven hoods, the couch of Lord Vishnu. From time immemorial, the hills have been regarded as sacred, as being the abode of Lord Vishnu in this age. The seven peaks are named Sheshadri, Vedadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabadri, Narayanadri and Venkatadri. It is on the last one that the temple of Lord Venkateswara is located.  The ancient scriptures talk about these hills as the border between the Tamil speaking region on the south and the Kannada and Telugu speaking region in the north, Tirumala being the prominent outpost on this border.  The puranas further compare these hills, the central range of the Eastern Ghats, to a huge recumbent serpent, and locate the Mallikarjuna temple of Srisailam on its tail, the Narasimha temple of Ahobilam on its back, the Tirumala temple on the back of the hood, and the Kalahasti temple at the opening of the mouth.

According to a book I bought at the TTD Publication stall at Tirupati, the Venkatadri hill on which the temple stands is the lowest one, surrounded by the others which are much higher. There are apparently five paths leading to the temple. Two of these start from the town of Tirupati – the stepped pathway which is seven miles long (about 11 or 12 Km), the traditional way to reach the temple; and the motor road which is twelve miles long (about 19 Km). The third route is from Chandragiri, called Srivari Mettu, again a walking path, which passes through the jungle and is a bit more strenuous, but much shorter – about 6 Km; the fourth starts from Mamandur railway station and the fifth passes by Nagapatla. I was unable to get information about the last two paths, which nobody seemed to have heard of, not even the auto drivers at Tirupati!

The most- used route is the one starting from Alipiri or the foothills, at Tirupati town, and is a well organized place. There are arrangements for luggage to be conveyed uphill, and the steps are clean and well maintained. The whole pathway has been covered to protect us from the elements. I was a bit wary of such comforts, but realized how useful it was when it poured and poured, but we didn’t need to carry an umbrella! There are also ample refreshments and clean water available throughout the route and the journey uphill takes about 4 hours on an average. The TTD has also made arrangements for free accommodation, free shaving of hair, and free darshan for those who climb the hill, and these free tickets are given midway up. Of these free services, the last gets you entry into the long, never ending queue easily, and then it is up to the crowd to decide how long it takes you for darshan. Being a Sunday, it took us about five hours. Unfortunately, the free accommodation is available only on days when the crowd isn’t too great, so we couldn’t use it, and I have no information about the rooms allotted. We had to take the Rs.100 rooms available, which we have used before, and they were quite comfortable. The rains however ensured that the solar heaters didn’t work, and we were denied hot water for the entire duration of our stay!

Now that all the information is out of the way, come along with me as I re-live the fascinating climb up the seven hills.

First of all, it is considered insulting to climb up the hill wearing slippers, as the entire range is considered sacred. People leave their footwear along with their baggage at the baggage counter, from where it finds its way uphill, and waits for them at the conclusion of the journey. We, however, decided to wear slippers since it was pouring heavily, and my ankles were weak enough without having to cope with the additional burden of slipping or getting numbed by the cold water. We were among the few who chose not to walk barefoot, and received glares galore from the others, who were making the journey in the true spirit of their faith. There were small kids, even smaller than Samhith, being  encouraged to walk, chanting the name of Govinda at every step, there were old men and women, propped up by walking sticks or their young sons, sitting down to rest after every few steps, and then there were the crowds of young men, probably just past their teens, working as a team – one applied turmeric to each step as he walked, the second applied kumkum, the third placed a ball of camphor on the step while the fourth lit it with a candle! But what really got to me was the sight of two men – one old and one young – both climbing the hill on their knees. These chaps never got up on their feet, sitting once in a while to rest. While the young one had his jeans over his knees at least, the old man just had his dhoti folded over, so that he climbed on his bare knees. I shudder to think of the sight of his bare knees at the end of the ordeal, and marvel at the faith which gives him the strength to bear the pain! It is this faith which draws me to temples, not my own, but the faith which I see around me, and which I wish I had, for faith gives one the strength to bear any adversity with a smile!

The climb starts at the temple on the foothills where the padukas (slippers) of the Lord are kept. People traditionally pick up the padukas, place them on their head and circumambulate the small temple before starting out.

There is also an idol of Hanuman on a stone next to this temple, where people bow down on their hands and knees, asking the lord for the strength to climb the hill. After this comes the first Gopuram, from where the steps begin.

To give you an idea of the steps and the route, see the pic below.

There are 3550 steps in all, of which only two sections are steep and difficult – the first is the trek to the Gali or Kali Gopuram, the first stretch of about 2000 steps, of which about 1700 are really steep. Then, it is a breeze, for we walk on almost plain ground for quite a while till we reach the Mokalimitta Gali Gopuram, which used to be called ‘Mozhankaal Mudicchu or Mozhankaal Mudivaan’ in Tamil, meaning a section of about 500 steps where the knees give way. This name apparently came to this section thanks to Sri Ramanujar who climbed these hills on his knees, and this was the section which really tortured him. After that again, the final stretch to the luggage counter is fairly easy.

Incidentally, contrary to what most people think, we don’t really cover the seven hills when we climb the hill, or even when we take the motor road. From Tirupati, the hills we pass over are Sheshadri, Garudadri, Anjanadri, Vrishabadri and Venkatadri.

Here are some pics from our climb.

The hills and the overcast skies make some wonderful sights...

Our obsession with snails continues to the hills...

More of the skies...

The steps lit up by camphor....

And here is the first big Gopuram - Some call it the Gali Gopuram, some call it the Kali Gopuram. Apparently, there was once a small idol of Kali here. We couldn't locate it, though!

Can you see the 'namam' made on the gopuram? It is lit up at night and can be seen from the foothills, and even from the train while going from Tirupati or Rengunta to Chennai.

A closer look at the gopuram

the whole mandapam... you can see the chakra on the right, which is also lit up.

Since this is the first major halt along the way, and signifies the completion of one of the most difficult stretches, people stop here for some rest and refreshments. The place is just full of shops selling idlis, dosas, tea and coffee. They run round the clock.

We saw what looked like a well and went to investigate.....

and it was an old well, with steps leading down... there must have been a temple here too!

This was Samhith's favourite part of the walk - leading through the deer park.....

He fed the deer....

here is the family... Shankar, Samhith and my mom...

Part of the steps here....

Samhith even took a few photos... this deer actually posed for him!

The next halt was at the statue of Anjaneya - Hanuman

And as usual, Samhith just had to pose...

This was the only bird we were able to photograph... Its not too good, but I know its a jungle babbler. We saw so many of these birds... they were making a racket all along the way, but the path being crowded, they stayed just far enough to be safe. There were surprisingly, quite a lot of birds, from babblers to magpie robins to bulbuls and some others we couldn't identify. We also saw a lot of butterflies... huge ones, not like the ones we see at home. Unfortunately, getting them on camera was just too difficult!

Another view of the lush green hills and valleys...

One stretch of the route took us along the road.... this is the road going down, so there is no chance of taking a ride from here :) Being the monsoon, there were plenty of waterfalls along the way, making things a lot more interesting.

Here is what the road looked like...

Samhith got a lot of appreciation... he was among the few kids who climbed up happily, tiring only towards the end.... A bunch of army chaps, as well as boy scouts gave us company!

Look at the fog!

Can you see the Gopuram that looms up ahead???

Here it is....

This is the gopuram which heralds us to the most difficult part of the steps - which I spoke about earlier....

Apparently the gopuram is one which has been re-assembled... Interesting, isnt it???

Here is a look inside...

I wonder why we deface our monuments, writing names, or even covering sculptures with kumkum! It looks so much more beautiful left alone.. look at the work on the walls, pillar and ceiling!

Here is a board explaining the importance of this stretch.... What i spoke about earlier isnt mentioned in the English version, but in the tamil one! Guess they couldnt express themselves in English!

There is a small temple to Ramanujar here...

By the time we completed the stretch, I was just too tired to take any more pics. There were some interesting statues of the Alwars - devotees of Vishnu with their stories, but I just wanted to complete the ordeal by then to take any pics! However, this was something I couldn't resist, in spite of my tiredness....

We started out from our room at 5AM, and by the time we had relegated our luggage and finished the puja at the paduka temple, it was 6AM! We reached the top at around 11AM, which means that we took about 5 hours. Not bad, considering that we stopped often, to rest, eat or take photographs! When I first mentioned that I was going to climb, people asked me how we would manage Samhith. As it happened, I wasn’t really worried about that, since I first climbed the hill when I was just  a year older than him. I was a girl who preferred to stay indoors rather than do anything strenuous, so I was confident that Samhith being as active as he is, wouldn’t have any problem. My mom had her share of aches and pains, but I was the one whose ankles got swollen up and had to take painkillers! Doesn’t say much about my fitness, does it? But then my ankle has been weak ever since I twisted it a few years back, so I was prepared for it. Shankar was the only one who was bored, since he had to wait for us at every stage. Left to him, he would have climbed up in less than 3 hours! In spite of all this, I must say that I really enjoyed the climb. It was certainly the best part of my whole trip, and something I would willingly do again and again! Besides, I also want to try out the other routes sometime. Anyone like to join me?

Since there are so many photos of the skies in this post, I thought I would make this part of Skywatch Friday.. For more skies around the world, go to


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