Kodungallur Oracles

Kodungallur Oracle

The annual Kodungallur Bharani festival is known for the raucous and unrestrained devotional practices of its participants. Thousands of devotees chant sexually explicit songs to the rythmic beat of short wooden sticks, while Oracles of the Goddess Kali, called ‘Vellicapads’ (illuminators) beat their foreheads with sickle-tipped swords to make offerings of blood and to reveal the Goddess‘ wishes through trance.

Red rivulets stream down the Oracles’ faces, as devotees throw tumeric, peppercorns and live chickens to literally ‘trash’ the temple and its grounds. Although some Hindus find these rituals reprehensible, the devotees believe their celebration of Kali’s ‘sakti’ (power) and their expression of raw, unrepressed emotions serve to please the Goddess.

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Oracle and Daughter

Kathakali Dance-Dramas

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Kathakali is a form of highly stylised classical Indian dance-drama that blends literature, music, painting, acting and dance. It originated in the country’s southern state of Kerala during the 16th century AD, approximately between 1555 and 1605.

There is no dialogue in Kathakali. Instead, communication among the characters, and to the audience, is through an intricate language of hand gestures, combined with facial expression and body movements.

The make-up, called Chutty, is an art form in itself. The colourful faces are the results of hours of painstaking handiwork by expert artists. The basic materials used for the make up are very crude items like raw amorphous Sulphur, Indigo, Rice paste, Lime, Coconut oil etc. It can take up to 6 hours to prepare a performer’s make-up.

Kolkata Rickshaw Wallas

Rickshwa Wheel Repairs (Kolkata, India)

More than 18,000 rickshaws ply the streets of Kolkata.  The Rickshaw Pullers Union claims they earn about Rs100 ($2.25) per day.  Many believe that figure is grossly inflated.

Kolkatta is the last major city in the world where hand-pulled rickshaws still carry passengers.  China, where some of the earliest rickshaws were invented, outlawed the “bourgeois and exploitive” practice in 1949.

Kollkatta tried to outlaw pulled-rickshaws in 1996, but the ban was overturned after citywide protests.  The rickshaw pullers argued that it was no more inhumane than working in the mines or in the fields.

The city subsequently offered a payment of Rs 7,000 (about $155) for every rickshaw that was voluntarily turned in.  None were.

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Pink Pandal

Pink Pandal (Kolkata)

This beautiful woman stood with me for nearly an hour off to the side of a huge pandal (temporary structure erected to house festival idols) watching an endless crowd of pilgrims prostrate and make offerings before the clay painted statue of the Goddess Durga. Every once in a while she would gently tap me on the wrist to point to some interesting group of people or to explain what the priest was doing. She spoke hindi, which I don’t speak – but somehow we managed to communicate.

Streetside Puja

Streetside Puja (Kolkata, India)

It is said that the Durga Puja, which honors the Mother Goddess Durga, cannot come to an end until all the women have had the opportunity to make offerings and receive her blessings – and this includes all the women who may live or work on the streets. So, although i’ve been to probably a dozen or more ceremonies over the past few days, from lavish affairs in private homes to simple blessings in neighborhood temples, for me, this small spontaneous gathering on the side of an incredibly busy street was one of the most memorable ceremonies.

Kumartuli Widow

Kumartuli Widow (Kolkata, India)

There are more than 40 million widows in India – 10 percent of the country’s female population. And for the majority of these women, life is what some have described as a “living sati”, a reference to the now outlawed practice of widow burning. A widow is sometimes called “pram” or creature, because it was only her husband’s presence that gave her human status. In some Indian languages, a widow is referred to as “it” rather than “she”.

Hindu widows especially are faced with a battery of societal taboos; the general rule of thumb is that the higher their caste, the more restrictions widows face. Traditionally when a man dies, his widow is expected to renounce all earthly pleasures. Widows should no longer look attractive, and are expected to wear only simple white saris for the rest of their lives. On news of their husband’s death, they break their bangles and can no longer wear jewellery or use sindhoor – the red powder women wear in their parting and on their foreheads to denote their married status.An orthodox widow may be expected to cut her hair or even shave her head. A widow from the south of the country may not even be able to wear a blouse under her sari.

Her diet is also strictly restricted – she is forbidden from eating meat, fish and eggs, as well as anything touched by Muslim hands. And as traditionally, bakeries were run by Muslims, bread, biscuits or cakes are banned. She’s expected to fast several times a month, sometimes eating nothing but fruit for days on end.

Traditionally, Bengal has been particularly harsh in its treatment of widows, especially when coupled with the centuries-long tradition of child marriage in the region. Copying the myth that the god Siva took Parvati as his wife when she was only eight, girls were married off as young as eight or nine years old. Often the girls were married off to much older men, and there was even a tradition of giving daughters in marriage to travelling Brahmin priests who would come to visit a family for a night, marry the daughter, before moving on and leaving her behind. Such child “widows” usually were unwanted in their in-laws’ house, so they either stayed in their parents’ house as unpaid labour or were sent off to the “widow cities” such as Varanasi or Vrindavan.

These cities are still magnets for widows and today they are full of dingy guest houses and ashrams where impoverished and abandoned widows come to try to eke out an existence till the death they long for comes to claim them. It is common knowledge that younger widows are often sexually exploited in these places, though the subject is taboo enough to earn an instant brush off if brought up with the authorities. The older women are often left to beg near temples or on busy streets. Some go to bhajanashrams where they sit in shifts to chant prayers – for a four hour shift they can earn a cup of rice and 7 rupees – about 12 cents.

excepted from The State We’re In Oct 2009

Rabdense Woman

Rabdense Woman (Sikkim, India)

I met this woman on the trail near the Rabdese ruins. She became curious and sparked a quick smile when she saw that I wanted to take a photo of her. Her nose rings are very similar to those worn by the bengali women at the festivals in Kolkata. That, plus the ash marks on her forehead suggest that she is bengali hindu rather than tibetan or bhutanese – all cultures which have come together in this area.


Enough Already

Enough Already (Kolkata, India)

After I snuck a shot of this woman washing dishes in the morning dawn, I moved slightly to my right to get around a big cement block that was in the way….oops, she spotted me just as i snapped this shot and waived me off. So I guess it’s time to move along…

Blue Bricks

Blue Bricks (Kolkata, India)

An alley in the middle of Kolkata’s Chinatown, a neighborhood which was once dominated by more than 500 tanneries. The chrome used in the tanning process not only turns the leather a blue color, but it also pollutes the water and the air, leaving its mark on walls and doors and walkways. A 2002 Supreme Court Order aimed at controlling pollution led to the relocation of more than 250 of the tanneries that were previously located here.

Khecheopalri Bells

Khecheopari Bells (Sikkim, India)

Bells, like the prayer flags, prayer wheels and mani stones, are used by the tibetan buddhists to spread their prayers of compassion, wisdom and peace. It is believed that when the wind blows and the bells ring, the sound of the bells spread the prayers into all pervading space for the benefit of all. ..wish I could stay here a little longer than planned.

Sangachoeling Monk

Sangachoeling Monk (Sikkim, India)

Sangachoeling Gompa is a small, very old monastery that sits on a ridge near the town of Pelling. It’s home to probably a dozen or so monks. I came across it during an early morning stroll through the mountains. There weren’t any other visitors and their supporters seemed modest in both numbers and means. This fellow blew the conch shell as they circumambulated a stupa before their mid-morning meal.

Sikkim Prayer Flags

Sikkim Prayer Flags (Sikkim, India)

Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception; rather, buddhists believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.

Butter Lamps

Butter Lamps (Yuksom, India)

These butter lamps are kept burning 24/7 in a small little hut on the shores of Khecheopalri Lake off the road between Pelling and Yuksom.

Khecheopalri Lake, originally known as Kha-Chot-Palri, is a sacred Lake for both Buddhists and Hindus, which is believed to be a wish fulfilling lake.