Thursday, November 26, 2009

Temple Towns of the South

Time for vacation again! This time, our family was headed south to Pondicherry, for the Fulbright Conference. We were all excited to go, as the conference would give us a chance to re-connect with the five other Fulbright Exchange teachers posted in India and hear about all their adventures. Since we had a few free days before the meetings began, we decided to check out some of the famous Hindu temples of the South. Unlike North India, which was heavily influenced by various waves of Muslim invasions, the South was dominated by regional dynasties and developed its own unique religious and political institutions. The most visible legacy of these dynasties is their amazing temples, noted for their gigantic gateway towers, or gopura.
On Saturday, joined by fellow Fulbright teachers Evelina and James (who had flown in from Delhi and Mumbai, respectively), we flew out of Chennai to Tiruchirapalli (also known as Trichy, which is far easier to pronounce and spell!) in central Tamil Nadu. Due to flight delays, we did not actually get to our hotel until midnight. The kids are getting more used to travel in India now, as they barely complained about the late hour or the long wait for an extra bed and towels for our room.

Our first stop was the Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam, noted in one of our guidebooks as “the largest temple complex in India.” It was truly huge, composed of seven walled courtyards, covering more than 120 acres. We entered through an immense and very colorful gopura, which was crowded with a stunning array of carved Hindu gods, goddesses, and mythological figures. It is interesting to note that the temples are not just beautiful tourist attractions (for foreigners and Indians), but active prayer sites, and we saw a number of pilgrims performing puja, including small children with shaved heads. We declined the offer of a local guide, preferring instead to wander around on our own and absorb all the wonderful details. The kids were very excited at the appearance of the temple elephant, who had a neat trick: if you placed a coin in his trunk, he would scoop it up, give it to his handler, and then pat your head with his trunk as a blessing. James was blessed three times, so we figure he’s covered for luck. After Srirangam, we went on to the Rock Fort, which entailed climbing up 400 steps (James counted, and it was actually only 364). The view was pretty awesome, as we could see the gopura at Srirangam towering above all the other buildings in Trichy. James’ elephant blessing must have worked in our favor, as the rain held off until we were finished sightseeing in Trichy and headed to the next town, Thanjavur (also known as Tanjore).

In Tanjore, we stayed at a wonderful resort on the Cauvery River. We had a truly memorable swim at 7:00 p.m. that evening, in total darkness, as soft rain fell intermittently. Despite the rain, the air temperature was still in the 80’s and the water was even warmer! We were warned there were snakes on the paths, but all we saw was a lone frog, sharing the pool with us. In the morning, we went on to the Brihadishwara Temple (also known as “the Big Temple”) in Tanjore. This was another stunning monument, made of reddish sandstone, with two gopura gateways, a huge courtyard, a main temple building, and a pavilion containing the second largest Nandi (a bull, the vehicle of the god, Shiva) in India carved out of a single piece of black stone. Inside the temple wall was a passageway containing beautiful frescoes and Sanskrit carvings. Taz was able to recognize some of the letters, thanks to her Sanskrit classes at Vidya Mandir. Our final temple stop, on the road from Tanjore to Pondicherry, was at the awesomely named (take a deep breath, now) Gangaikondacholapuram. Unlike the other temples, which were crowded with pilgrims and families, it was very peaceful here, with only a few visitors and some pigeons and parakeets among all the carvings. As luck would have it, the rain started up again, just as we were leaving. Our drive took us through some lush scenery – palm trees, rice paddies, rivers and backwaters – a wonderful glimpse of the interior of Tamil Nadu. Even though we only saw a fraction of all the temples spread out across this region, we came away with a much greater appreciation of them, both for their artistic elements and their powerful spirituality.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Big Week at Vidya Mandir
In a school of 1,400 students, there is always something going on. This past week at Vidya Mandir was more eventful than usual, however, for two reasons: Project Day and Mike’s birthday. Project Day was held last Saturday, November 14. It is a yearly event, kind of like an Open House or a Parents’ Day, but with much more work involved. Each grade is assigned a topic (such as history, cultural traditions, temples) and given an hour or so at the end of each day to create projects focused on this topic. For example, Taz’ class (7th Grade) was assigned fairy tales and folk tales, and the students worked together to make colorful posters, shadow boxes, mini puppet theaters, and models showcasing the various stories. The kids are pretty much left to their own devices, to see what they can come up with on their own, all with a variety of recycled materials, and they are amazingly inventive. For James’ class (3rd Grade), the topic was Indian festivals, however, James himself was pulled from the preparations, as he was one of the lucky few primary students who was selected to participate in a play.

Project Day, which was coincidently held on Children’s Day, started off with decent weather. We had just recovered from the first round of the Northeast monsoon, and were hoping the sunshine would hold for another day. No such luck. No sooner had we arrived at school at 9:00 a.m. that morning, than the skies opened up! I barely had time to run James over to the stage where the teachers were setting up for the play before getting soaked (I had gotten too smug during the small stretch of sunny weather and had neglected to bring my umbrella!). Even in the rain, the play went on as planned, with three performances, and James was very excited to be a part of it, especially since he got to wear his new Indian-style pajama kurta (long embroidered top). He was actually the focal point of the presentation, as an American kid visiting India, who is shown a variety of Indian dances – classical dance, regional folk dances, and even a Bollywood-style number. The dancers were all excellent, even though they were just primary school children. I was stunned by their beautiful costumes, their enthusiasm, and their expertise! All three shows went off without a hitch – no small feat, considering they had only practiced for two weeks!
In between performances, I wandered around the school, where the classrooms were set up to showcase the projects. Not only were the displays artistic and creative, but the students presenting them were eager to tell me all about them. (“Aunty, Aunty, you have not seen my project yet!”). There was a lot to take in, and I did not even make it to all the grades, but some of the things that really impressed me included: a model Navaratri display with mini kolu dolls made out of Styrofoam; a huge, room-sized model of Chennai, with various buildings made of cardboard; a beautiful drawing illustrating the Red Fort in Delhi, and a mini model of King Tut’s tomb and sarcophagus. And even through the rain poured down off and on all day, everyone’s spirits remained up, for the kids were so proud of their achievements.

Given the big excitement of Project Day, the next week was a little more low-key. Mike’s birthday was coming up on Thursday (November 19), but he had just planned to bring in some candy and milk sweets for the teachers and his classes. He hardly expected the day to turn out any differently than a regular Vidya Mandir school day. However, he sorely underestimated the enthusiasm of the students. For starters, he was greeted by hundreds of students (yes, hundreds!), all of whom wanted to shake his hand and give him birthday greetings. One of his 11th Grade classes brought in a cake, and another made him a colorful glazed plate with all their names written on it. He was also given a handsome crimson kurta, a beautiful metalwork box, a small bronze Ganesh figure and a number of other gifts. He is already something of a celebrity at the school, but on this day, he was a rock star! When he came home in the auto-rickshaw that afternoon, he was laden with goodies. To cap off the day, we shared wonderful snacks from our corner restaurant with our Tamil teacher, Prof. Dasarathan, when he came for our twice-weekly lesson. Now the rest of us are wishing that we could celebrate our birthdays in India, too!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Western Peacock - by Taz Cullen

In the three months I have been living in India, I have been taking dance at Raack Dance Academy, a studio about 10 minutes from our apartment. My class is not Classical Indian Dance, but “Western Dance,” meaning we dance to music by artists like Michael Jackson. Sometimes we also dance to Bollywood music. The class meets three times a week. We performed on stage in October in a show put on by Raack. My class did a dance to Michael Jackson’s song “Black or White.”

When I went to my regular class last Wednesday, we were asked to perform our “Black or White” dance for an agent from Vijay TV. Vijay is a music television station in Chennai. After we danced, he picked ten of us to come back and audition on Thursday. I was one of the lucky ones picked! On Thursday, I had to be there from 4:00 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. for auditions and practice. At the end, I got picked! I still didn’t even know what I was being picked for! On Friday, I went for four hours of rehearsals! I found out then that our group would be dancing for the opening act of a Vijay TV show called “Super Singer Jr.” It is a show like American Idol, except the contestants are kids. I was really excited, because we would be on TV in India!

Little did I know how much work would be involved! On Saturday, we had six hours of practice! And this was during the huge monsoon in Chennai, so we had to get to Raack in an auto-rickshaw in the pouring rain. By Saturday afternoon, we still didn’t even have our costumes, but I knew I was going to be dressed like a peacock! Some of the little kids were going to wear flower costumes, including three of the boys! On Sunday, my dad and I had a really long day. We went to Raack at 8 a.m. (in the pouring rain again) and from there went to the Vijay TV studio. The TV studio was not at all what I expected!! It was moldy and funky-smelling, the changing room was smaller than a regular-sized bedroom, the bathroom did not have running water, and there were only 20 seats for the audience! I put on my peacock costume, which was pretty cool. We were there for about five hours, but we spent way too much time waiting around. We only ran through our dance three times to practice, and when we filmed it for the camera, it took five takes to get it right. But the hostess of the show could not memorize her lines, so we had to keep waiting until she got it right! Once we were finished performing, we had to exit through this tube-like tunnel, but when we got into the area that was hidden from the audience, it was really creepy, with dirty tarps, broken glass and wires hanging everywhere! There was nothing glamorous about this studio!

It was an interesting experience overall, but I won’t be going back to Vijay TV studio any time soon!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rain, Rain, Go Away . . .

I feel like we’ve been waiting for the famous Northeast monsoon for weeks now. There was a lot of talk here in October, about how it was a much hotter month than usual (i.e. 95 degrees Farenheit instead of 85!), because the monsoon had not yet come. Then predictions of the upcoming monsoon were in The Hindu newspaper- first it was October 20 (conveniently right after Diwali), then October 26, and then it was just “coming.” Now it is finally here.

So what is a monsoon? According to the Internet, it is a seasonal wind in southern Asia, which blows from the southwest in summer and from the northeast in winter, bringing rain with it. The monsoon season is different all over India. On the west coast, in Kerala, the season is usually in September. In the states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it was in October, when there was massive flooding. As much trouble as the monsoon causes, it is desperately needed for filling the reservoirs and for agriculture; some states receive up to 80% of their rainfall for the whole year during monsoon season. When we asked people here about the monsoon in Chennai, we were given a variety of answers, in terms of when it would arrive and how long it would last. As a result, we didn’t know if it would be more like a “rainy season” or if it would rain continuously for days on end. I’m thinking now that it might be the latter.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, the rain was fairly heavy at night and in the morning, but it cleared up by mid-afternoon. Not too bad, I thought – certainly not any worse than a few days of spring rain in Wisconsin. But then on Thursday night it started raining, and raining, and . . . raining. When we went out to catch our usual auto-rickshaw to school on Friday morning, our street was flooded in ankle-deep water. At one point during the commute, traffic at the intersection was unbelievable, with cars, auto-rickshaws, and motorcycles jumbled up in all directions, while a few hapless civilians tried to direct traffic without being run over. Few people wear raincoats or rubber boots here; most still dress as they usually do, though there were a lot of men and women with plastic bags on their heads! Although our street looked like a small river, our neighborhood was not hit as badly as some of the others; we heard tales of roads closed, knee-deep water, and two-hour traffic jams in some parts of Chennai.

Friday and was declared a holiday for all government schools in Chennai due to the rain. Unfortunately for our kids, who were hoping for a “monsoon day,” Vidya Mandir was still in session. It continued to rain all night and then all day on Saturday, with the roads getting progressively worse. We had already bought movie tickets for Saturday evening, so we braved the pouring rain, got soaked riding in an auto-rickshaw, and barely made it home, as it was slow going in the deep water. Now it is Sunday evening, and the rain has let up a little, but we’re still very leery of what is to come. And the kids are still hoping for a “monsoon day!”