sun, sand and shiva

 

 

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Malaysia and many Southeast Asian places notably Java, Bali, Thailand and Cambodia owe a lot of their culture and language to an obscure historical region in India called Kalinga.

It is a fertile, fabled and forested land located a quarter way down the eastern side of the Indian Peninsula between the Bay of Bengal and an eroded broken range of mountains known as the Eastern Ghats.

The people of Kalinga were a peaceful, open-minded and artistic lot. They were also skillful with their sail boats and had good knowledge of the sea. When the wind was right they would set out south-easterly to fish for food and pearls and trade with people from distant lands.

Due to the region’s relative isolation away from the population centers of India’s Aryan north and Dravidian south, Kalinga developed its own distinct identity and an economy based on both its overland connections and maritime links.

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Wrapped up for the morning, a man begs for money at the beach in Puri. Coastal Odisha enjoys cool and pleasant weather from December to the middle of February. From March onwards the heat builds up until the rains arrive in June.
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A young female visitor writing on a boulder at the caves complex in Udayagiri, which means Sunrise Hill
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Ascetics getting their daily fix of paan in the village of Sakshigopal
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Photographer for hire, Puri
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Traffic policewoman standing in front of Biju Patnaik Signboard. In Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar many places including its airport are named after this local hero. Bijayananda or popularly Biju Patnaik was a freedom fighter, airforce pilot and two-term chief minister of Odisha. His son Naveen Patnaik is the current chief minister
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Couple having their photograph taken in front of the Sun Temple in Konark
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The beautiful Mukteswara Temple in Bhubaneswar built in the 10th century AD

Kalinga’s success soon attracted the attention and envy of its powerful neighbour.

Around 260 BC a  king named Ashoka from the Mauryan Empire sent his armies to attack and conquer Kalinga.

The people of Kalinga fought back bravely but they were no match for Ashoka’s mighty army. The scale of death and destruction occasioned by the Kalinga War at 100,000 dead and 100,000 enslaved was epic and appalling.

Just like Hiroshima two milleniums later the effect of the war caused an unprecedented show of remorse and repentance by its victor and chief perpetrator, Ashoka the emperor himself.

Ashoka turned Buddhist and proclaimed that so long as he was king he would never let such barbarity and carnage happen again. He promised to rule justly and ordered his new pacifist policy to be carved onto stone pillars near the battle sites for all to know and to guide future rulers.

After the Mauryas, Kalinga was ruled most of the time more or less as an independent country by a succession of kings and dynasties including the famous Kharavela of the Chedis, the Guptas and the Eastern Ganga.

It was during this period that Kalinga exported its custom, religion, architecture to Southeast Asia, the region the ancient Indians called Suvarnabhumi or the Golden Lands.

By the 16 th century and with the muslim invasion in 1568 and its later absorption into the Mughal Empire, Kalinga had all but disappered as a geo-political entity.

The territory of ancient Kalinga coresponds to roughly today’s Odisha, a state with a population of 42 million famous for its entrancing Odissi dance, monumental temples and indigenous tribal people.

Under British rule most of the area that was once the Kingdom of Kalinga became part of Bengal. In 1936 a separate province of Orissa was created on linguistic ground.

In 2011 Orissa became Odisha and its ancient Sanskrit-based language Oriya was renamed Odia by an Act of Parliament.

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A timeless scene under an ancient tree beside the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Flower Boy at the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar
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A  view of rural Odisha just before sunset
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Wedding reception at a village on the way to Bhubaneswar
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Crossing the bridge to the hidden village of Hirapur
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Afternoon prayer and bath at the village pond
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Kind Odia face at the Sun Temple in Konark
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Sunset over the Udayagiri Hill
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Man with colourful beanie outside a store for farm produce
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Young stall assistant, Puri

 

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Puri with its great Jagannath Temple is one of the holiest religious sites in India.
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Sex in sandstone and the climax of Kalinga architectural genius at the Sun temple of Konark
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Student couple on a motorbike outside the Sakshigopal Temple
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A famous sweet and dessert shop in Puri
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Udayagiri Caves
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Hot tea on the beach
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Greetings and smile under the hot sun in the village of Sakshigopal
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Vegetable Vendor in Dhauligiri
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Devotees outside the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Grocery shop in the precinct of the Jagannath Temple in Puri
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Turquoise green and Cobalt blue are favourite colours for homes like this one in a small village on the way to Puri
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Caretaker and priest at the 9th century Chausathi Jogini Temple in Hirapur
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Women in colourful sarees at the main entrance to the Lingaraja Temple in Bhubaneswar
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Devotees at a Hindu shrine on Dhauligiri
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Beach vendor in Puri
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A foreigner’s only view of the awesome Lingaraja Temple is from a platform outside the walls. Only Hindus and Indians are allowed inside.
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Young Odissi dancers after their performance
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Young souvenir vendor in Puri
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Puri the pilgrims town also plays host to many vacationers from West Bengal in search of a holiday by the beach
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Motorbike riders in the Jagannath Temple precinct where motorcars are not allowed

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All text and photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2018

 

blood, sweat and turbans

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The hairdryer heat of Amritsar gets big, serious and underway by the month of May. Amritsar is India’s most northerly city before you hit Kashmir, lying almost on the same latitude as Charleston and Shanghai. The days start early – in the morning at about five thirty.

My half drawn windows look across the view of the traffic on the Grand Trunk Road – a dawn parade beneath a concrete flyover of trucks, tractors and trotting horse carts. The brightness even in the pervading dust is intense and blinding. So that by the time I wipe my breakfast plate clean of dal makhani with roti the sun is up and ready to blaze down on this city of over a million humming human souls.

Strangely, the most uncomfortable feeling about traveling in Amritsar in the hot weather is not when you are trapped in traffic inside the narrow lanes of the old city, all your senses assaulted, as you breathe in toxic and fierce furnace air.

It is rather the sights of dark proud grimacing aquiline faces wrapped in turbans of elderly grandfathers who are reduced to skin, bones and muscles pedaling beastly loads of people and goods for a living in life-sapping heat.

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Traffic bottlenecks at the narrow lanes of Amritsar’s old city
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Morning on the GT (Grand Trunk) Road, one of the oldest  and longest highways in the world. It was built by India’s first great king Ashoka, improved by the British and spanned the width of old India. Kipling described it as “a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

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Amritsar is only 25 km from India’s blood-stained border with Pakistan. Despite its holy tourist town reputation, Amritsar has that somewhat clandestine, multiracial and more-than-meets-the-eye appearance of a frontier town.

Amritsar is in Punjab, a smallish state in north west India. The province over the border in Pakistan is also called Punjab.  Before 1947 when India and Pakistan was one country, Punjab covered a much bigger area. The Punjab region of the Indian Subcontinent is the large alluvial plain that is roughly situated between the mountains of Afghanistan and the River Ganges.

Punjab which means ” Five Waters” was named by Persian-speaking Central Asian Turks from present-day Uzbekistan who came down over the Khyber Pass to conquer and rule India in the 16th century.

The five watery expanses they referred to are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. These rivers flow and merge downstream to join the Indus – a larger and longer river that gave India its name.  The dynasty they founded was known as the Mughal  (from Mongol) for its first emperor Babur was believed to be descended from Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. The Mughals ruled most of India for about 300 years until the British came and took over from them.

In the early decades of their rule the Mughals proved themselves to be quite capable masters. Although they were Muslims and of foreign origin they tried to blend themselves into Indian culture and tolerated to a degree local customs and religion. Babur was said to have even banned cow slaughter out of respect for his Hindu subjects. His grandson Akbar abolished the hated tax on non-Muslims (jizyah) and started a new faith (Din-i Illahi) in the hope of bringing Muslims and Hindus together. However, not all the Mughal rulers were tolerant and wise. Aurangzeb the last in the line of famous Mughals, was a pious Muslim. He forbade music, ordered the destruction of Hindu temples and put people to the sword if they refused to convert to islam.

It was in such a restive and volatile environment that a new religion and fearless race of people emerged. One that would change forever the faith, feel and face of Punjab and make the land they live in different and distinct from the rest of India.

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Sweltering crowd at one of the entrances to the Golden Temple
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The temperatures in Amritsar in May and June, its hottest months regularly exceed 40 degrees celsius in the daytime.
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A quick douse of lime juice drink at a road divider
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Although it is difficult to find anyone who speaks English, the shopkeepers of Amritsar are amongst the friendliest in the world

The Sikh religion was founded by a Guru (holy teacher) by the name of Nanak who lived in Punjab at the time when Babur was emperor. Guru Nanak taught his followers to worship only one God who was formless, eternal and invisible whose name was Truth. His disciples called themselves Sikh meaning someone who learns.

At a time when there was much violence between Hinduism and Islam, the early stage of Sikhism was a reformist movement that sought to combine the softer sides of both faiths into a kind of social and religious synthesis.

The Sikhs treat their Gurus with the highest adoration and respect as they believe the divine spirit is passed down from one Guru to the next. There has been a succession of ten Gurus starting with Guru Nanak. The tenth Guru, Gobind Singh declared that there would be no more human Guru after him. He decreed that thenceforth Sikhs should look to the Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhism that contained the writings and hymns composed by various Gurus and saints some of whom were Hindus and Muslims – as their living, sovereign and eternal Guru.

Although the Sikhs were historically a minority they largely shaped Punjab and created its unique character. The Sikhs championed the use of the Punjabi language by writing, reading, learning and spreading the words of the Gurus in its special script.

The Sikhs even had their own empire once during the time when Maharaja Ranjit Singh reigned over all of the Punjab and beyond.

The greatest testament to Punjab’s spiritual glory may still be the city that grew around its golden temple surrounding a pool of elixir – Amritsar.

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The word “Singh” which means lion is appended to the name of all Sikh men
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Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple was first built in 1604 by Arjan, the fifth Sikh Guru. The temple was destroyed several times by Afghan invaders and was rebuilt in marble, copper and gold during the reign (1801-39) of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
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Slightly more Hindu people live in Amritsar than Sikhs who together make up nearly 98% of the city’s population. Christians (1.23%) and Muslims (0.51%) are small minority groups in Amritsar.
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A family’s reflective moment beside the sacred tank of water called the Amrita Saras (“Pool of Nectar”)
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The famous old-style midday pose of Punjab

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A family eating prasad (sweet offering) from a small bowl made of pressed leaf
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Punjab is the food basket supplying India with wheat, rice and other cereals
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Punjabi is written in its own script- Gurumukhi (” Guru’s mouth”). Standard spoken Punjabi is based on the dialect spoken in the Majha the region around the cities of Lahore and Amritsar
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A Sikh and his tractor are the stuff of legends

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Seva or selfless service is a central concept in Sikhism

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Texts and all photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng May 2017

long way from tiruchirappalli

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“Uncle! Many mutton!” Muralee exclaims from behind the wheels of our rented Innova, mustering the English he picked up as a municipal cleaner in Singapore. I awake from my front seat doze to focus blearily on a herd of grazing goats hurried along the roadside by a tall thin man with a long stick.

Muralee stops the car. I get off with my camera. Goats in the blinding afternoon sun make good foreground subjects against the featureless scenery that typifies much of Tamil Nadu – scrub forest, dusty fields and thirsty palms. We have left the hill town of Palani and are now deep in India’s spiritual South.

Being among these bearded four legged creatures is auspicious and  culturally comforting. I am smitten  by conscience for abandoning family and friends on the second day of the Chinese New Year of the Goat for a Hindu pilgrimage to India.

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Playing with a young billy goat in the village square, south of Madurai
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Owner with working pet elephant, Srirangam
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Proud and glistening. A handsome headman strikes a pose outside his homestead on a farm on the road to Palani
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Freshly harvested bananas near Kallanai Dam in the Kaveri River, Tiruchirappalli District

The desire for this trip was born  more than a few years ago when  I made a call to my late friend and guide Logan for his help in planning it. He asked for my horoscope to prepare an astrological chart to work out the right temple to go to for the prayers. Sadly, Logan passed away before our trip details were discussed and finalised. I make this trip now to pay belated obeisance to Murugan -the God of the Tamils, in his home temples located in the plains, hill and shore of Tamil Nadu and in memory of Logan.

Tamil Nadu -the land of the Tamils, is  vintage Vedic India in so many ways.Here Hinduism has managed to still keep many of its traditions, lexicons and amazing temples. Separated from the racial and religious cauldron of the northern plains by monsoonal seas and the Deccan plateau, the land of the Tamils developed its own kingdoms, culture and customs, safe and far away from the pathway of muslim invaders and conquerors.

Today together with the rest of South India, Tamil Nadu is the domain of the Dravidian people. Smaller, darker brown and speaking melodic tongue-twisting languages, Dravidians have been “Indians” for far longer than the Indo-Aryan northerners whose ancestors only began settling in India around 3500 years ago. Tamil civilisation is one of mankind’s oldest. It is the world’s only surviving classical civilisation, one that has continued in almost its original form unchanged since the age of ancient Greeks and Romans.

Making a pilgrimage through the temples and holy shrines of Tamil Nadu is for me a deeply meaningful experience and a privilege. It is also the closest thing to time travel in the 21st century.

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Vendor selling limes and lamps at the entrance to the Samayapuram Mariamman Temple, outside Tiruchirappalli
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Crowded bus, Tiruchirappalli
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Scooter at the road junction, Srirangam
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Evening in Srirangam
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Happy devotees at the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam
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Construction works at the temple complex in Srirangam which is located on an island in the Kaveri River north of Tiruchirappalli. The Srirangam Temple occupies an area of 156 acres and is the largest hindu temple in the world.
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Pilgrims at the foothill of the Temple, Palani
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Tourist horse cart, Palani
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caged pilgrims waiting in the queue to get onto the rope cars up to the Murugan Temple, Palani
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Devotees with offerings at the foothill of the Temple, Palani
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Begging for penitent’s pennies, Palani
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It can take up to an hour’s wait in the queue for a seat in the rope car even for passengers in the 50 rupee lane, Palani
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Lunch time at the temple courtyard, Palani Murugan Temple
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Pony cart ride, Palani
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Muralee and Madhi getting ready for our lunch served on banana leaves, Palani
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interesting rock outcrop before Madurai
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In a village we stopped for tea and cigarettes before Madurai

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Outside the Temple, Thiruparankundram
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Wedding receptionists, Thiruparankundram
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Sternness in monochrome, Thiruparankundram
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Women devotees at the Murugan Temple, Thiruparankundram
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Thiruparankundram Temple Priest and devotees
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Devotees with gentle faces, Thiruparankundram
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Holy dip at sunset, Thiruchendur
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Popular road side tea stall serving a pre-dawn cuppa, Kanyakumari
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Kanyakumari Sunrise
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off to the beachside market with pot and scales, Kanyakumari
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Singing the Lord’s praises at Land’s End in a church overlooking the southern most tip of India, Kanyakumari
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Kanyakumari or Cape Comorin
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Boy squatting next to auctioned fish, Kanyakumari
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Auctioning the morning’s catch, Kanyakumari
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Girl from Nagercoil
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Goats near Palani

All images Copyright Kerk Boon Leng February 2015