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

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

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…

Street Sleepers

Street Sleeping (Kolkata, India)

An unfortunate part of the reality that is Kolkata. Some days, it seems I couldn’t take more than a few steps without having to walk by or around men, women, children or entire families sleeping on the sidewalks and along the streets of the city.

 

Taxi Sleeper

Taxi Sleeper (Kolkata, India)

As I wondered the streets of Kolkata around 5:00 in the morning, I saw a couple of taxi drivers sleeping on the trunk of their cars and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it (had it been a late night and they’d just not made it home?). Then I saw this guy this morning, then a few more. I’ve come to realize that this just may be their home, and I guess it’s cooler outside on the bonnet than inside the cramped interior…

 

When Broke Still Spoke

When Broke Still Spoke

“Toda, tab bhi bola – tabla” -a Hindi pun reflects a legend which credits the 13th century poet Amir Khusrau as the inventor of the “tabla” (Indian drum) after he split the single south Indian ‘mrudangam’ drum into two.

This drum maker has quite the reputation in his neighborhood. I was struck by his focus and his very lean, muscular arms.

Fresh

Fresh (Kolkata, India)

This fellow’s friends implored me to take a photo of him. He was reluctant at first, but as soon as I snapped the shot, he and his friends broke into a fit of deep belly laughter. I think his eyes are smiling.

Brother’s Love

Brother’s Love (Kolkata, India)

A young boy endures soapy water and a solid scrub from his older brother. Although this shot seems like it’s a private little corner of the city, there’s actually cars and buses and taxis and carts rushing by and people all around. It’s just another day in this crowded, chaotic, intensely hot city.

Got Gamcha

Got Me A Gamcha

Our fearless leader, Tewfic El-Sawy, has a thing for scarves – that’s no secret. This cotton scarf, or “gamcha”, is used by many Bengalis as a sarong for bathing, a cover for protection from the heat and rain, a towel for sweat and dirt, a bug swatter, a spread for sleeping, a mat for sitting…and so many other things. Behind this fellow’s gamcha is his empty basket, which moments earlier was full to the brim with fresh vegetables.

When You Gotta Go

When You Gotta Go

I spied a bare skinned little boy walk around the corner and quickly reached for my camera. Moments earlier I had been trying to record some music coming from the speakers on the walls of this building. My companion later told me that I had just recorded music from a ‘pay for toilet’ place. And that’s apparently where the little fellow is heading and where the bigger one is coming from.