Photo essay – Butterflies of the Chilika Lakes

I was waiting on the shores of the Chilika Lakes for a boat to take me out to view the dolphins for which the shallow lakes are acclaimed. As explained in the earlier Post 41, Day 22 of my road trip across central India, I had driven 50 kilometres south from Puri to reach the town of Satpada. It was from there that I had planned to hire my little craft.

But it was to be a long wait, for the boat my guide and the tour boat operator had conspired to hire to me was apparently occupied. And so to pass the time I ventured to the small well-tended garden that adjoined the booking office. The flowers there were of one kind, marigolds, and all were alive with different insects. But mostly they were alive with butterflies. These photos include a selection. Few I know the exact names of, some are genera that also occur where I live in Australia. All are from the families Nymphalidae and Lycaenidae. None seemed at all bothered by my presence.

I am guessing their great, great, grandchildren are emerging about now.



Photo essay – The Bhimbetka Caves….. and no, you are not in Northern Australia

Winding the ‘A Passenger through India’ narrative back to Post 1 I should remind that the blog is crafted in the form of a road trip by a somewhat quirky Australian biologist (obviously I’ve exaggerated the character just a little). And so there is an Australian perspective that emerges throughout the text posts.

But when I arrived at the Bhimbetka Caves World Heritage (see Posts 47, 48), located south of Bhopal, it was actually as if I had been transported to Northern Australia. Though of a different style, and featuring different animals, the artwork could have been anywhere on the rock uplifts and overhangs of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, or the Kimberleys in Western Australia. Different hands and different cultures are responsible for each, but in impact they are the same. Even the vegetation conveys a sense of sameness. The respective pigmented works are as if points along a cultural gradient, depicting their own but interrelated ‘Dreamings’. Only the Indian Ocean intercedes as a barrier. Yet for a time India and Australia were one, parts of the same Gondwana supercontinent that millions of years ago went their own ways.

Posts 47 and 48 tell one facet of the story of the Bhimbetka Caves, but this photo essay is meant to give a broader visual exposure, both of the individual pictographs and of the landscape context in which they survive. They speak to us across thousands of years, and they sing the dreaming songs of their makers.

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Photo essay – Ordinary Things and Earthly Delights

Posts 1-68 of ‘A Passenger through India’ were all about the day to day events that unfolded as I and my companions voyaged through central India; a voyage that became one very much of the mind as the journey unfolded. These earlier text posts explore India’s rich history and cultural diversity, as well as the opulence of past and current splendour. And they sometimes side-stepped into darker issues such as caste and gender subjugation, and the all-present poverty; but then ‘A Passenger through India’ was never intended as a feel-good and rose-coloured skip through a tourist wonderland.

But in this photo essay, I wanted to do nothing more than portray the humblest of roadside scenes; of food. Not ‘street food’, of which Indian travel lore is replete with tall tales and true, but the kind you buy and take home to the kitchen, there to prepare recipes of delight, or of necessity. My subjects here are largely simple vegetables, and the spices which attend to their preparation. I knew the names of barely a handful, and probably tasted even fewer during my stay, but their colour, form and texture invited my camera equally as did that of India’s grand architecture. I’ve probably presented more photos than necessary to convey my intent, but it’s food…and my eyes proved as gluttonous as my gustatory desire. The photographs were taken in New Delhi, Kendulhargarh, Satpada, Sunderbans, Ujjian and Varanasi. I hope you enjoy.

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Photo essay – The Opulence of What Never May Have Been

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“Street scenes: what allures me is that the most humble abode can be ornamented with the brightest of colours, their contrast imparting all the magic of a lolly-shop; the old fashioned kind with big clear glass jars that display the gaudiness of their sugary contents. The buildings washed sometimes in lime greens, the wooden shutters of their windows mauve and rich chocolate browns, the walls with small alcoves, these serving as tiny shrines. And like a rude voyeur trying to glean the intimacies of people I do not know, I gazed closely at the modest offerings placed in each one. The high balconies of some structures seem beyond repair, the decking dangerously ajar, held at delinquent angles by rusting wire, their awnings of ancient corrugated iron sheeting, all but about to plummet down to the detriment of those unfortunate enough to be walking below. People, the young, the old, all nameless to me, live inside. Within the ruined caverns of this architecture they sing and laugh, shout, cry and make babies. They share fears and joy, hear news from relatives living in foreign lands, suffer their country’s losses at Test cricket; and in time pass from this world. Yet, from out the most world-weary of doors and windows, waft delicate fragrances of burning incense, and the rich smells of spicy meals being prepared inside.”

These are lines taken directly from Post 54, Day 30, of ‘A Passenger through India’. They are about the seemingly ordinary buildings and back alley scenes that collectively construct the architectural panoramas of India’s old cities; the images of tired buildings and humble ornamentation that don’t make the tourist brochures. None are likely to make any heritage list. Yet for all their weathered and at times collapsing facades, these sit as kernels within the city matrix. Everything else, be it the grandeur of the Taj Mahal or the Sun Temple at Konarak, can be dismissed as cultural embellishment, regardless of how splendid or nationally iconic it may be.

You can lose yourself in the back streets of India. Sometimes dim and foreboding, and ever unknowing as to what will unfold beyond each constricted corner, regardless, therein can be found a richness of experience that transcends the confrontation of impoverishment. The buildings tear you from the dull sameness of packaged Western suburban architecture. To walk these streets is anything but ordinary. There is no numbing monotony of urban existence.

(photos from Kolkata, Osiyan, Ujjain, Varanasi, Vishnupad)

Photo essay – The Tears of Death and other street art

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“I am heading for the imposing Buddhist ruins at Sanchi. Driving through the city I first pass the incredible Taj-ul-Masajid mosque, then the site of the Union Carbide Company gas poisonings in 1984. Activist slogans, poetry and street art adorn high concrete walls either side of the road there. The pictures portray anguish and despair, the slogans anger, the poetry Hope. Written across one wall in perfectly executed typeface were the words:

‘Union Carbide You Can’t Hide.
We Charge you with Genocide’.

Not a single piece of graffiti or mindless spray paint ‘tags’ defaced it.

There is no sense of defeat here, not even in death. Ghosts prick at one’s conscience. Here sits an obscenity as terrible as Katyn, or Belsen, but the presence of the walls masks and dilutes the outrage. It is not a place or time for humour, not even of the blackest kind. I take photographs but cannot see over the surrounding walls into the expanse of the factory complex hidden beyond. The site, this place, needs a viewing platform. My driver urinates by the roadside. I do not know if the timing of this act of bladder evacuation is a political statement or an artefact of human physiology. I do not ask.” (from ‘A Passenger through India’, Post 46, Day 25.)

I could have started my short text to this photo essay with inadequate descriptions of the vibrant artwork that adorns the otherwise architecturally humble walls of the heritage craft village of Raghurajpur located somewhere on the road to Puri in the eastern Indian state of Orissa. Or maybe a brief reflection on the pictorial oddities encountered in the back alleys of Varanasi, the fading images of symbols appropriated for political purposes, pictures suggesting religious associations of which I am ignorant, or just pictures that symbolise nothing more profound than bits of wall-board advertising. These all have street merit, and I will let the graphic attributes of the photographs selected for this post, speak for themselves. Back in Hometown Australia all would have long been targets for vandalism.

But Bhopal, large as the disaster remains in the mind of the Western World, demands constant reminder. Like so many acts of human immorality and calamity before it, it is already slipping away from the world-memory. Other terrible events of the moment vie for our attention.

Visit Post 46 for backgrounding on the Bhopal tragedy.

(photo locations: Bhopal, Varanasi, Kolkata, Raghurajpur)

Photo essay – The Temple of Candy and Magic

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Post 28 (Pt 2) Day 14, at Kolkata: “I next visit the Jain temple complex, the Parshwanath Temple, at Baridas Temple Street. The complex was built in 1867 and is divided into four temples. The ornamentation that confronts the visitor is like Sydney’s Luna Park ‘fun park’ gone crazy. It’s a wild mix of fairground figures, pseudo-Rococo and Pre-Raphaelite statues and mosaics, all madly gaudy and coloured as if put through the pastel paint blender of a candy store. If you got all your old toys and sent them away to the lolly factory that makes old-fashioned ‘love hearts’ this is what they’d look like when they came back, this would be their play ground. The only architectural parallel I know to the Parshwanath Temple is that of Gaudi’s masterpieces of architecture and functional splendour in Spanish Barcelona, but his style of design and ornament is totally different, it’s only the mishmash of exuberant madness that the two styles convey that makes me lump them together. It’s all a maze of magic; yellow lions, swan ship castles, candelabra-lollipop fountains, candy colours of pinks and blues and others besides, Greek muses, men atop an elephant, column capitals that make the Greek Corinthian style look dull, ornate glazed tiles, mirrored wall mosaics, exuberant floral motifs, enamelled images of peacocks and Babylonian kings.”

If indeed it was made of candy I just might have nibbled pieces whilst no one was looking…… forget the risk of tooth decay. But I suspect the worst that would have happened would have been lots of smiles, just like the happy man within the temple’s precinct who followed me in hope of my custom.

Photo essay – The Colours of Saris

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The sari may not define India, but it certainly defines the women of India. No other garment so strongly projects their quintessential identity, and so on Day 14 (Post 27) of the road trip that became ‘A Passenger through India’ I found myself adjacent Kolkata’s Dakshineswar Kali temple. “A group of young Indian teenage girls in fashionable scrub denim jeans walked elegantly among the throng of pilgrims, holy men, beggars, and devotional attendees. The chic teenagers could have fitted into the trendy Paddington or Glebe markets on a Saturday morning without a cosmopolitan glance out of place.

By the time I fumbled through my pockets for my camera the girls had been swallowed up by the crowd, so I passed my time photographing the unfolding display of sari clad women, in family groups or with their mothers, husbands or children, walking to and from the temple. Hundreds, though their numbers were, I did not see one garment in duplication, not one instance of repetition. Each sari was unique in its choice and combination of colour, print design or embroidery. I just stood there unobtrusively clicking away, steadily archiving images as they walked past.” In Hometown the street parade is largely one of drabness, but here it was a kaleidoscope of eloquence, no matter how humble the situation of each wearer may have been.

Photo essay – Doors, gates, and the occasional aged grill

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The world is full of doors and India is no exception. They come in all colours, tones and textures, but it is those that are weathered and worn that frequently are the most attracting. Every broken panel and rusting bolt and hinge projects its own declaration of beauty, and each one cries aloud its historical narrative. Many do it in colours that age does not damage, rather being enhanced by it; achieving what the Japanese would recognize as ‘restrained elegance’. There may even be a word in Sanskrit that precisely defines the condition.

You cannot walk through the streets of India without colliding headlong with their diversity. Many, admittedly not all, but many, are painted blue. There is significance to this, for universally the colour ‘blue’ bespeaks welcome, restive warmth, and love. It is a colour that is also understood to keep away evil spirits.

This is my selection. The subjects were photographed in Kolkata, Maheshwar, Raghurajpur, Ujjain, New Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, the Kumbhalgarh Fortress, and Varanasi. By and large, I encountered them in back streets and narrow alleyways. Yet for all their varied splendour few hint at what lies behind, or give insight into who passed in or out their portals. In this sense they call to you, beckoning.

Photo essay – Barabar Caves

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Day 9 of ‘A Passenger through India’ found me at the Barabar Caves, “a series of man-made rock cut chambers located 24 kilometres north of the city of Gaya in the Jehanabad District of Bihar. The caves were used as a backdrop in E. M. Forster’s 1924 novel, ‘A Passage to India’, in which he masks their true name with that of the ‘Malabar Caves’, a useful enough deception. The novel is based on Forster’s experiences in India and is set within the context of the growing Indian Independence movement of the 1920’s, still a time in which India was firmly within the control of the British Raj. Though I have never read ‘A Passage to India’, I had seen the 1984 movie adaptation of the book in which the Australian actress Judy Davis starred. However, when organising my tour itinerary, I had not realised the association of the Barabar Caves with Forster’s novel. My interests were solely driven by the caves early history and unique method of construction, for I found them quoted in several textbooks dealing with the origin and developmental stages of Indian temple design.” (from Post 18 – Day 9 ‘A Passage to India’).

The simplicity of the caves stands at odds with the supposed expansive natural cave system portrayed in the film. In size they give an impression more like that of a tomb, but comforting rather than confronting. So maybe ‘womb-like’ is a more apt description. However, their outstanding feature is the almost glass-like smoothness of their inner walls, this in stark contrast to the coarse landscape in which they are set. It is impossible to comprehend how those who laboured to construct these dim places of worship and spiritual reflection were able to achieve such highly polished surfaces. I recall a story about a Zen-Buddhism master who sat beside a young novice. The Zen master commenced rubbing two bricks together, and after some time had passed, and from curiosity, the young novice finally asked the master what he was doing. The master replied that he was making a mirror. The exercise of rubbing the bricks to make a mirror, a seemingly impossible task, meant to demonstrate to the novice the futility of some of our actions. But those who had laboured so assiduously to construct the inner sanctums of the Barabar Cave complex had obviously not heard the tale of the Zen master and the impossibility of rubbing bricks so smooth so as to make a mirror. Here were walls as fine as could be made, and as the flash of my camera fired the reflected faces of those within were caught for a moment on the mirror-like surface of the polished stone.

Photo essay – Sarnath

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“Sarnath is the site of Gautama Buddha’s first teaching and is not far to the north of Varanasi. Consequently this site has been one of Buddhist pilgrimage and veneration, but the traffic through which we press to reach Sarnath is already congesting the roadways. We compete with slow moving cattle hauling wagons laid high with produce. There, fog still clouded Sarnath’s ruins, shrouding whatever the colour of the sky was on that morning.” (from Post 11- Day 4 ‘Sarnath’). What is here is little of what there once was, and what there is, is blurred from clear view. The haze precludes any prospect of vivid photographs. Only the 44 metre high Dhamekh stupa pierces the grey veil that otherwise envelopes the ruins. The mind alone is left to reconstruct the past grandeur and daily spiritual intensity of Sarnath.