Thursday, October 28, 2010

Memories of Angkor

The towers of Angkor Wat

A visit to Angkor leaves me with a backpack full of questions.
Whose tranquil face is it, I wonder, that is carved on each facet of the 54 towers that cluster thicket-like in The Bayon temple? Is it, as widely believed, the visage of Jayavarman VII, the great Khmer ruler who built The Bayon or is it of the Buddha? How is it that people who composed such exquisite verses in stone could also carry out acts of great cruelty some of which they depicted on stone panels? And what drove the apparently unassailable Khmer empire that created marvels like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to all but disappear?
But I’m getting ahead of the story, so let me go back a bit, to the beginning.
A few years ago, I was invited to a conference in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. Now Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park — a 400 square kilometer World Heritage Site dotted with temples, monasteries and other remnants of the mighty Khmer empire that lorded it over parts of modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar from the 9th to 15th centuries. The conference itself sounded interesting, but what was really interesting was that it included ‘field trips’ to some of the Angkor sites. 
Ta Prohm's gnarly trees
It’s not often that an invitation to visit a World Heritage Site comes along. So I grabbed the opportunity. A couple of weeks and a series of adventures — a visa that almost didn’t come through in time, waitlisted tickets and a flight on an Air India aircraft that shuddered and groaned ever so often — later I landed in Siem Reap on a lovely early summer evening.
Driving along sedately from the airport to the hotel, it was ‘Angkor’ and ‘apsara’ all the way. Every other restaurant, hotel or shop was either an ‘Angkor this’ or an ‘apsara that’. It was a gentle but extremely visual introduction to just how crucial the Angkor sites are to Siem Reap.
For Siem Reap breathes tourism. Tourism is the engine that powers the town’s economy. Yet, there was a very laid back feel to the place. Traffic — including the ubiquitous tuk-tuks — mostly puttered sedately along the leafy avenues with hardly a honk to be heard. Despite the frenetic construction activity, there was almost no rubble or dust on the streets. And though the US Dollar rather than the Cambodian Riel ruled, the bargaining was determined but friendly, with lots of smiles all around.
The Angkor Archaeological Park covers such a large area — some of it forested and difficult to get to — that it’s almost impossible to do any justice to it in a couple of days. So I didn’t even try and instead chose to spend a few hours each in a handful of the major sites.
Angkor Wat or 'temple of the capital city' is the acknowledged centrepiece of the Angkor sites. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, it was built by Suryavarman II as his state temple. Over the years, however, in keeping with the changing religious affiliations of the Khmers, Angkor Wat has also changed its affiliations.
The faces of Bayon
Yet, its Hindu origins are quite evident. For instance, the galleries that run along its fa├žade have exquisite carved panels that depict scenes from Hindu religious texts including the Ramayana, and the Mahabaratha. Though some of the carvings have eroded with the ravages of time and human action, I could spot a few familiar images including one of Hanuman rushing to Rama's aid and another of Bhishma resting on a bed of arrows.
Angkor Wat is still a functioning place of worship, where Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism co-exist in apparent harmony. Turn a corner and you’d probably stumble into an alcove with sticks of incense, flowers and other offerings to the gods.
Captivating Angkor Wat is. My favourite site though is the slightly mysterious Ta Prohm with its towering strangler fig and silk-cotton trees sprouting out of the rocks, their roots twisted around the structure’s stone blocks in an embrace so tight that it seems as if it is all one pulsing being. And in a sense indeed it is, for the trees and the buildings keep each other going. Built by Jayavarman VII as a royal monastery or ‘raja vihara’, Ta Prohm is being conserved and restored by a team from the Archaeological Survey of India.
Jayavarman VII, it seems, had this thing for building. His greatest contribution, perhaps, is the walled city of Angkor Thom and the intriguing State temple The Bayon — with its forest of towers with giant faces carved on each facet. He’s also believed to have built Banteay Chhmar, one of the more hard-to-access Angkor sites.
Sculpture at Prasat Kravan
I was also fascinated by another Angkor gem — the smaller and rather less famous Prasat Kravan temple. Believed to have been dedicated to Vishnu, it consists of five brick structures built on a single platform. It was quite magical visiting Prasat Kravan in the gloaming, with its bas-relief sculptures on brick of Vishnu and Lakshmi bathed in the warm glow of oil lamps and a few diffused spotlights. 
The sculptures, which almost seem alive, are believed to be the only surviving examples of this style of work in Khmer art, said our guide Pich Keo, a former director of conservation at Angkor and a professor at the school for guides in Angkor.
 “Why,” I asked Pich Keo, “Did the Khmer empire crumble so suddenly?” It was, perhaps, a combination of factors, he replied. Changes in the weather patterns leading to droughts and floods, a falling water table, the spread of Theravada Buddhism and invasions by the Thais — all could have played a part in the decline of the Khmer empire.
Pich Keo, though, was more troubled by what could happen to Angkor today. With millions of tourists — including many Cambodians — visiting the region, the pressure on infrastructure is growing, the water table is dropping and some of the Angkor sites face issues like flooding, he said.
However, being a World Heritage Site also means that the Angkor monuments are part of a UNESCO-led effort to safeguard the site and its surroundings. Equally important, lots of Cambodians now visit the Angkor sites, obtaining insights into their heritage and the indisputable need to protect it. So perhaps this time around, Angkor has better prospects than it did as the heart of the Khmer empire all those centuries ago.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Responsible Traveler checks in

Responsible tourism is an approach to travel that’s been around for a while now.
Its appeal has been growing — leisurely but steadily — perhaps because of its emphasis on “creating better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit”. A tenet that allows people and destinations the flexibility to choose practices and strategies that suit the local needs and environment.
In India, a motley crew of hotel and travel companies, home stays, NGOs and the odd State tourism board have piloted responsible tourism, with varying levels of commitment and success. At the same time, Indian travellers too seem to be showing a growing interest in ‘ecotourism’ if not responsible tourism.
And now,, India’s oldest and, arguably, largest travel portal has dipped its toes into responsible tourism with the Responsible Traveler Web site.
Responsible Traveler is positioned as “an extension” of MakeMyTrip’s corporate social responsibility activities. At the same time, it seems that the company also “recognized the need for an ecologically-conscious community of travellers, who love travelling and their planet, equally; and thus the forum Responsible Traveler was born.”
So what is it that Responsible Traveler will offer? The site itself declares: “From the time you start planning your vacation to the moment you step back into your condo; Responsible Traveler makes sure that it gives you the right ideas, tips and advice to help make your travel eco-friendly, with bare minimum impact on the environment.”
For the moment though, the Web site seems a little raw, without a voice of its own; like a work in progress. Actually, I guess it is still a work in progress as it seems to have gone live only a few weeks ago.
However, the possibilities are tremendous. At the very least, Responsible Traveler could become the definitive Indian or South Asian resource on responsible travel. Commercially, the site has the potential to evolve into an online responsible travel company; one that allows travellers to book responsible holidays in India and South Asia.
It would, in fact, be a logical move for Responsible Traveler to become a link between travellers and hotels and home stays that practice responsible tourism. Consumer interest in this space is growing and it currently has just about one player — Travel To Care. With MakeMyTrip’s knowledge and experience of the market, coupled with its marketing muscle, Responsible Traveler has the potential to grow into a game changer for responsible tourism in India and South Asia.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Gods on the roads

The idols of Saraswathy (on the elephant) and Subramania Swamy (on the silver horse) enter Trivandrum
Sometimes, even Gods need to travel on the roads built by men.
In September/October ever year, deities from three temples in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district go on a road trip to Thiruvananthapuram and back. The idols of Saraswathy from the Thevarakattu Saraswathy Amman temple in Padmanabhapuram; Subramania Swamy or Kumara Swamy from the Velimalai Murugan temple at Kumarakovil; and Munnuttu Nangama from the Sthanumalayan Temple at Suchindrum travel some 150 kilometers along India’s National Highway 47 on this annual jaunt. 
Of course, being Gods, they travel rather differently from ordinary mortals. For one, they are escorted by an entourage that balloons as they get closer to Thiruvananthapuram. And then, there are the vahanas or vehicles in which they travel — Saraswathy on the back of an elephant, Subramania Swamy on a silver horse borne by a phalanx of men and Munnuttu Nangama in a palanquin.
But why do the three deities go on this annual sojourn? To understand that, we need to back in time.
Many, many moons ago, it seems, there lived a Hindu mystic and poet called Kambar who wrote several works in Tamil, including the Kamba Ramayanam. Now Kambar, who travelled around a bit, always carried an idol of Goddess Saraswathy with him. Towards the very end of his life, realising that his time was up, the sage gifted the idol to the reigning monarch of the Chera dynasty that once ruled large swathes of Southern India. In return, the Chera ruler promised Kambar that the Navarathri festival to honour the Goddess would be held every year. 
The silver horse on which Subramania Swamy rides
All this of course happened long before the erstwhile Indian Kingdom of Travancore — which included today’s Kanyakumari district — even existed. However, over the years, those who ruled this part of the world kept the Chera monarch’s promise and honoured the Goddess every year; a tradition the royal family of Travancore continues even today.
It is, however, not very clear just how the idol of Saraswathy ended up in Padmanabhapuram. I guess the Chera King who received the idol built a temple for the Goddess in Padmanabhapuram, which of course later became the capital of the rulers of Travancore.
Late in the 18th Century, the capital of Travancore was moved from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. Soon after though, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the then ruler of Travancore made a vow to the Goddess that the Navarathri festival in her honour would henceforth be observed with all splendour wherever the royal family resided, by bringing the deity there, writes Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of the royal family of Travancore in her book Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.
And so, in the Malayalam month of Kanni (September/October) every year, the three deities are brought to Thiruvananthapuram for the nine-day Navarathri festival in honour of the Goddess. The festival is celebrated through music, dance and, of course, a panoply of poojas or religious rituals to honour the Goddess.
Once in Thiruvananthapuram, the idol of Saraswathy is installed in the Navarathri Mandapam that is part of the palace complex alongside the Padmanabhaswamy temple. The idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama are taken to two other temples — the Aryasala temple and the Chenthitha temple respectively — till it is time for them to return home after the festivities.
The elephants lead the way
What I’m not very clear about, perhaps because I haven’t dug around enough, is why Subramania Swamy and Munnuttu Nangama accompany Saraswathy on this annual visit. However, a report that appeared in The Hindu a few years ago says this:

“The idol of Sarawathi, the patron goddess of the arts, learning and weapons, comes accompanied by the idols of Subramania Swamy and Munnooti Nanga. Lord Subramania, the warrior god signifies the king, and the sword, the ayudham (weapon) that he wields for the protection of his state and subjects, while Munnooti Nanga symbolises the kundalini shakti.”
As in previous years, this year too, the three deities arrived in Thiruvananthapuram a few days ago. The times may have changed and Travancore is now mostly a memory, but the devotion with which the Gods were greeted as they travelled to Thiruvananthapuram was perhaps as passionate as it was a hundred years ago. And as the procession wound its way towards the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the Navarathri Mandapam, the timeless sounds of the chenda and kombu merged with the strains of a police band’s rendition of ‘saare jahan se achcha, Hindustan hamara’ to create a an exceptional symphony for an exceptional occasion.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lit fest thoughts

Some interesting conversations, a couple of fun readings, lots of rain, half an alphabet soup of security agencies and event organisers who need a crash course in Event Management 101.
That, in thirty words, is pretty much what Kovalam Literary Festival- Edition III that happened this past weekend was.
What I really enjoyed about this year’s festival was the change in venue — from the beach village of Kovalam, in Trivandrum’s suburbs, to the Kanakakunnu Palace in the heart of the city. This meant that people could drop in for a session or two, leave and return later for another session. And there were people who did just that — I for one.
Given how accessible the palace is, there were also people who came in for a ‘feel’ of the festival, decided it wasn’t quite their scene and left. The sad part, however, was that despite the change in venue, participation levels were still rather low; better than previous years, perhaps, but still low.
I’d expected at least a couple of hundred people to turn up. But I don’t think there were ever more than around 150 people at the festival, including the medium-ish posse of security men protecting Daman Singh, daughter of India’s Prime Minister, who read at the festival. I must confess that the rather lukewarm turnout on a long weekend puzzles me.
The festival sessions themselves were standard lit fest stuff; some entertaining and thought provoking, others not quite so. The hard part though was figuring out who was going to read or speak next as the festival schedule had undergone some pretty drastic changes, especially since a couple of authors did not turn up. But these schedule changes were really not communicated to the audience.
So there were no information boards or posters with the revised schedule. And things sort of chugged along.
Most of the time though, the really interesting things were happening not inside the main hall of the palace, but in the bandstand alongside it. Tea, smokes, cutlets, biryani and eclectic conversations. Conversations on how going for a run is the best way to orient yourself to a new city; on memories dredged up by the smoke from Pakistani Gold Leaf cigarettes; on how green Kerala is; on the hazards of being an artist or writer with an even more famous artist or writer as a spouse…
And that, perhaps, is where the Kovalam Literary Festival really came into its own — in the interesting conversations that happened outside the festival halls. For you never know just what those discussions may have sparked off.