Christchurch: back on its feet and dancing

It’s a balmy evening in Christchurch and I am dancing on the street to a Spice Girls song.

On a free walking tour of Christchurch, our guide Michael Borren has led us to an open square with what looks like a painted washing machine in the middle. He plugs his phone in to it, inserts $2 into a slot and voila! The washing machine is now a mean jukebox. That is how I end up channeling my inner Mithun Chakraborty and boogying under the disco lights strung up overhead. And it’s not only us who have danced to its tunes; in 2012, when on the Royal Jubilee tour of the Commonwealth, Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla boogeyed to it too.

Meet the Dance-o-mat, one of Christchurch’s unique delights. Designed by an urban regeneration group called The Gap Filler, it is meant to be response to the lack of lively public spaces post the earthquake in 2011 that left Christchurch devastated. Quirky, sure, but the city seems to understand that when you gotta dance, you gotta dance.

Dance

The earthquake– measuring 6.3 on the scale – struck the South Island’s largest city in February 2011. Four years later, remains of the destruction are visible everywhere. Our taxi driver takes over an hour to cover a distance of five kilometres, stumped by construction materials and bulldozers on every road. Almost all my interactions with locals are punctuated with references to those terrible days when hundreds lost their lives, homes and possessions.

Yet, as I wander around the city, I also find distinct signs of revival and even optimism. I am delighted to discover cheerful wall art everywhere, even dilapidated buildings sporting abstract images amidst the dust and debris. According to Michael, this is a recent phenomenon, another endeavour to boost public morale.

Art1

Art2

Art3

When my husband and I set out from our hotel in the morning, we stop for a coffee at Coffee Traders. Housed in a handful of shipping containers, Coffee Traders is just one of the city’s many eating and shopping establishments that has found a home – perhaps permanently – among bright shipping containers.

Coffee

At lunch, we head to one of the most innovative projects to use such containers, the Re:Start mall, a cluster of boutiques, gift shops and eateries selling kiwi and international stuff. The mall is packed with locals and tourists basking under the warm autumn sun at the alfresco cafés and food stalls. Re:Start is a place we keep going back to, not to shop or eat, but to just enjoy the vibe.

Restart1

Restart2

My favourite initiative though, is the cardboard cathedral, known locally as the transitional cathedral. This marvellous structure sprung up in place of the damaged 19th century Christchurch cathedral. The architect Shigeru Ban came with considerable experience in reviving broken structures and constructing new ones in disaster zones. He used his preferred material, strong cardboard tubes, tried and tested earlier in Japan and Haiti, in this building.

Cathedral
(Source: wikimedia commons)

The people have embraced this church – also using it as a space for community events – and see it as a symbol of moving on.

That afternoon, we take a lazy stroll in Hagley Park, where the trees are a blaze of yellow and orange. This verdant urban space, spread over 400 acres, seems untouched by the chaos on the streets. The only noises are the occasional birdsong and muted whispers of walkers.

Hagley

And later in the evening, we make our way to the Isaac Theatre Royal to catch a local Kiwi production of The Phantom of the Opera (excellent, by the way). Waiting in the foyer before the show, I eavesdrop on several conversations that centre on the recent restoration and reopening of this iconic theatre. By then, I know that this is common discourse among Christchurchers: what is the latest to come (back) to life?

The fact that Christchurch was listed by Lonely Planet among the top ten cities to visit in 2013 – just two years after the earthquake – is a testament to the way the city has risen from the rubble and carried on.

Amidst all this, Christchurch has not forgotten its dead. A street installation of 185 white chairs, empty and evocative, stands in memory of the lives lost. As we stand at the site – which includes wheelchairs and baby chairs – it is impossible not to be moved.

Chairs
(Source: wikimedia commons)

And it is impossible not to love a city so rooted to its past, while marching ahead resolutely.

***
A slightly different version of this was published in Mint Lounge on July 25, 2015

Straits ahead: Malacca in Mint

Iam trying hard not to laugh at my guide. He has been very friendly, chatting in Tamil on the bus to Malacca. He has also organized a vegetarian lunch for me, after he’s recovered from the shock of encountering someone who doesn’t eat meat. The reason I am having trouble is, talking about the history of Malacca, he keeps mentioning the Chineast and the Portugueast. Finally when he says, “After this, you all get into the bust”, a giggle escapes; I hastily turn it into a cough and end up choking.

Malacca (or Melaka as locals call it) is one of Malaysia’s few Unesco world heritage sites. There is a lot of dispute over when the city was founded but my guide authoritatively says it was in the early 15th century. It flourished as a trading port, attracting the attention of invaders. In many ways, Malacca reminds me of Fort Kochi: Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese influences are scattered around the city.

The walls of Malacca

Prayer

Say hi to Bob!

More here on Mint – this appeared a few weeks ago – forgot to post it here… Have a nice day, lah!

Stranger in my country

Published in Mint Lounge (September 04) as Stranger in a strange land

Stranger in my country: travels in Sikkim

***
Nancy is the local school teacher at Lachung village in North Sikkim and has recently returned home after some years outside the state. She has been chatting non-stop with me in the darkness of the late evening about her school and students. Among other things, she says that Hindi is one of the languages taught in her school, as in all other schools in Sikkim now. In the middle of the conversation, she leans over and says confidentially, “It is for the Indian children, you know, Sikkimese children really don’t need Hindi”.

I am slightly taken aback but do not give it much thought. Till a few days later, when back in Gangtok, Norgey, the owner of the guesthouse we are staying in, tells me breezily, “Oh, but there is nothing much to shop for here in Sikkim, we do all our shopping in India”.

In the time I spend in Sikkim, India truly feels far away – and it is not just about what the people say. Like everywhere else in the country, kids are out on the streets but it is not cricket they are playing. It is football that rules here, the way it rules the streets of perhaps only Goa. It is Baichung Bhutia who smiles from posters and hoardings all over the market, kicking a careless ball and seeking votes for the reality dance competition he was once part of; from Soccer King to Dancing King, they proclaim.

Barely two hours out of Gangtok, on our way to Lachen – base village for the trip to the high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake – we encounter groups of giggling, uniformed children waving down our vehicle for a ride. Our driver finally stops to take in Shaily, who gets into the front seat with him and starts chatting rapidly in the local language. She smiles diffidently when I ask her a question in Hindi but refuses to answer. At school 7km away, she hops off with a soft thank you bhaiyya, thank you didi and disappears through the gate. All along the route, we see school children getting into and out of tourist vehicles, hitching rides with perfect strangers. The city cynic in me is horrified but our driver says this is normal in Sikkim: “Children have nothing to fear, madam”.

On the way to school

Apart from this distraction, the roads are quiet. No blaring horns, no overtaking on the hills, no stopping in the middle of the highway. I realize I am overly sensitive by this point but I keep thinking about how different Sikkim indeed is from the India I know. The “difference” is perhaps in my mind as much as it is in theirs.

For, in the general elections last year, Sikkim had a record 83% voter turn-out (compare this with just over 41% in Mumbai). In Gangtok, I keep meeting people who came back to their homes in towns and villages across the state just to vote. Sikkim became the 22nd Indian state in 1975, when the Chogyals (the royal family of Sikkim) gave up their right to the throne after 300 years – driven, people say, by fear of invasion from neighbouring China. It would be 18 more years before China finally gave up claims on Sikkim and accepted it as a part of India.

But it’s perhaps no accident that the army is omnipresent in Sikkim. Most of the state is served by the 19th regiment from South India and the signboards and slogans on the rocks are written in Tamil, perhaps aimed in keeping the soldiers motivated in their arduous efforts. In conversation with one of them (in Tamil), I get a sense that these army-men feel as much strangers in this part of the country as I do; the bitter cold, language, food and terrain all unfamiliar, perhaps even inhospitable.

After a pit stop at the “The world’s highest cafe at 15,000 feet”, proudly managed by the army, we pass only bunker after desolate bunker on our way to Gurudongmar Lake. There are no signboards to show where we are headed. Our driver forges ahead on the rocky terrain on what seems like pure instinct. The landscape is stark and stunning, the snow-capped mountains of the Kangchengyao range seem within touching distance. Most of this part of the drive is in monochrome, a dry brown with a few spots of snow visible in the distance. At the lake, the army makes its presence felt again, maintaining the tiny shrine on the shore and providing welcome cups of hot tea to visitors who feel rapidly breathless, sick and disoriented at that altitude (over 17,000 feet).

gurudongmar lake: 17000 feet

Even within Sikkim there is nowhere that gives such a strong sense of being alien as Gurudongmar. Like many other Sikkim lakes, Gurudongmar (named after Guru Padmasambhava) is held sacred by locals; indeed, it is the most revered of them all. The lake remains frozen for most of the year but, when the ice melts, the waters are a clear, sparkling blue. Colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze, as a few brave souls walk down the steep steps for a stroll around the edge of the lake. The wind starts to get bitter, cutting through the layers of protective clothing we are ensconced in. Despite the acute discomfort, there is a desire to linger but local legend has it that after noon, the wind factor is so strong that stones start flying. And so, we reluctantly head back towards Lachen village, and then on back to Gangtok.

The next evening, I am strolling on MG Road, the cobble-stoned promenade in Gangtok where locals and visitors, young and old alike meet, shop and drink. I am here to shop for souvenirs – local tea and cherry brandy mainly – to take back to ‘India’ with me. Kanchenjunga, the venerable protector deity is an invisible presence in the far distance, revealing itself only in the post-monsoon winter months.

Sikkim, I learn, is known variously as Sukhim (new home) to the Nepalese, Denzong (valley of rice) to the Tibetans and Ney Mayal Lyang (paradise) to the Lepchas. It is the Lepcha interpretation that I agree with the most.

In the next few years, it will be possible to fly into the new airport coming up at Pakyong, close to Gangtok. Enhanced connectivity with the mainland may perhaps infuse a greater sense of belonging among locals. For now though, I have to make that long drive to Bagdogra for the return flight. Entering West Bengal, the cacophony of cab horns and traffic jams sounds unnaturally loud after two weeks of peaceful driving on the Sikkim roads. Close to the airport, painted signs by the road say ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’. I think they could have just as easily been ‘Be Indian, Bye Indian’.

TRIP PLANNER

Getting there

Fly to Bagdogra from Kolkata or New Delhi (Rs. 8,000 round-trip on Jet Airways & Kingfisher). Or take a train from any of the major cities to New Jalpaiguri and a bus or cab further on to Gangtok (3.5 hrs by road). If you’re in the mood for a unique experience, try a chopper ride from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok (Rs. 3000 per head, 35 mts).

Where to stay

For the best local experiences, stay in homestays / small guesthouses in Gangtok. We stayed at The Shire Guesthouse (Rs. 1,500-Rs. 2,500 per night per couple, inclusive of food). Or stay at the Tashi Tagey Guesthouse for some of the best home-made Chowmein & local cuisine. If you are inclined towards the comfort of large hotels, check out The Oriental (double rooms from Rs.2800 per night) or the up-market Mayfair Gangtok (Rs. 12000/ onwards per night inclusive of breakfast and dinner). In North Sikkim, your travel agent will put you up in a small guesthouse as part of the package.

What to do

Take a day to visit the monasteries in and near Gangtok – Enchey, Phodong, Rumtek – and another to visit the China border in the East – Nathu La via Tsomgo Lake. Spend your evenings on the pedestrians-only mall road (Mahatma Gandhi Road). All trips to North Sikkim and Nathu La need permits which can be arranged by local travel agents along with tours.

Blowin' in the wind

In North Sikkim, drive on surreal lunar terrain to Gurudongmar Lake and take a picnic basket to the picturesque Yumthang Valley of Flowers, a rhododendron sanctuary. Closer to Gangtok, you can take white-water rafting expeditions on the cold waters of the Teesta. Make this another day trip from Gangtok, or as we did, stop en route to Bagdogra airport on your way out and end the trip with a bang. Of course, you get to the airport drenched and have to change before they let you into the aircraft!

An uneven path to peace

This piece on Sri Lanka appeared in Mint Lounge of April 24th.

Sri Lanka in Mint Lounge

I am in Anuradhapura at the Sri Maha Bodhi shrine, a must-visit destination for locals and visitors alike. The low fence encloses a cutting from the Bo tree (Ficus religiosa), protected and venerated by Buddhists, under which Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have attained enlightenment. Walking along the designated path, I muse slightly derisorily on the kind of things that take on religious significance. Suddenly, I stop.

Ahead in the open ground, a group of soldiers in full uniform (sans footwear) is sitting under the sprawling branches of a tree. They are listening intently to, and repeating, the prayers a yellow-robed monk is reciting. Or not so intently. I bring down my camera sheepishly when one of the soldiers, baby-faced, looks around and spots me. As I freeze, wondering if I have just committed a faux pas, he grins broadly at me. The chanting continues, the monk’s tones sonorous, the soldiers’ soft.

The monk and the soldiers

All alone in the rain

While the world may be debating whether the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has truly been vanquished, the country itself seems to be enjoying its hard-earned peace. Everywhere in Sri Lanka, there are domestic tourists in large numbers. The president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seems popular among his compatriots for the tough decisions that steered the country towards the end of the civil war. Everywhere there is a buzz about the impending general election and the streets are lined with fluttering pennants. In a predominantly Buddhist country, these could be prayer flags but for Rajapaksa’s beaming face on them. My driver sings his praises and is confident that he will win (and despite his several detractors, he subsequently does).

On Galle Face Green by the sea in Colombo, hundreds of people are walking around, thrilled as much by the cool evening breeze as their new-found sense of freedom. A young couple I talk to say they have never seen so few soldiers on this road. “This is the first time nobody has stopped to question us,” they say. There are groups of soldiers on the main streets of Colombo, but they all wave us through with friendly smiles. There are metal detectors everywhere too, but coming from a country where they are just as common, I do not view them as particularly ominous.

Monk at the seaside

The only time I experience a frisson of tension is on the second day of our week-long drive through Sri Lanka, when I reveal to our driver-guide my Tamil ethnicity. A Sinhalese Buddhist, he has been telling us all morning about the racial strife in the region and describing in great detail the numerous bomb blasts the country has survived. He stops mid-sentence but recovers immediately and asks in a worried voice: “Aishwarya Rai? She is not Tamil, no?”

In Sri Lanka, aggression seems to have co-existed with or preceded peace throughout its history. Sigiriya, now a part of the country’s cultural triangle, stands testimony to this fact. Built on a foundation of violence by King Kassapa, who murdered his father Dhatusena in the fifth century, Sigiriya was partly absolved when it was converted into a monastery after its ruler’s downfall.

When I reach Sigiriya, the morning drizzle has turned into a downpour. I am standing on the muddy path leading to the Lion Rock, staring in dismay at the sheer rock face (600ft high, I remember reading) that appears and disappears in the thick mist. I am half tempted to turn back: Do I want to risk life and limb to see the ruined palace of a patricidal king? An old lady clad in a monk’s white robes stops next to me and flashes an almost toothless smile. Holding on to a thin plastic sheet that serves as her raincoat, she points to the rock and me in turns, silently urging me on. I smile in return and start walking ahead, only to see her scamper away into the fog that has descended on the steep steps. Each time I stop to catch my breath, I look around for her, but doubtless she has climbed all the way to the top by then.

To Sigiriya in the rain

Sigirya's maidens

I understand Sigiriya’s inaccessibility—Kassapa intended it to be an impregnable fortress—but that knowledge does not make it any easier for me to walk down the wet steps. I am suddenly distracted by the cackle of the young boys next to me, oblivious to the rain. No such worries for them; they are giggling, perhaps at the memory of the topless women on the walls midway to the peak, the frescoes of the mysterious “Sigiriya maidens”. I remember seeing in Anuradhapura a group of schoolboys roughly the same age, walking single file holding lotus buds in their hands. None of the boisterousness of the young there, they fit right into the rarefied surroundings.

It was faith that brought them—and kept them well behaved—to that small shrine to worship a tree, just as it is unassailable faith that attracts people of all ages to Kandy, home to the temple that holds Sri Lanka’s most important religious artefact, believed to be the tooth of the Buddha himself, retrieved from his funeral pyre, no less. Legend has it that the tooth was carried into Anuradhapura in the fourth century by Prince Dantha and Princess Hemamala, hidden in the latter’s hair. Paintings in the temple show the princess in a hairdo reminiscent of actor Sharmila Tagore’s 1970s beehive. The tooth soon came to be associated as much with royalty as religion; among contenders, custody of this relic guaranteed access to the throne. Consequently, it has a troubled history and has changed hands several times—including, in later centuries, the Portuguese and the British—before arriving at its final abode in Kandy.

At the tooth temple

At the Kandy temple

The relic lies in a casket behind closed doors, taken out only for important visitors and on important days. That does not deter the thousands who make their way to the temple daily. “Every Buddhist in Sri Lanka must visit it at least once in his lifetime,” says our guide. I join the men and women clad mostly in white who queue outside, patient through the numerous security checks and barriers. Inside, they devoutly place their lotus buds at the entrance of the shrine, take photographs, light lamps and head straight to the pleasant lake beside the temple, with its duck-faced paddle boats bobbing about idly in the middle.

A pleasant evening at Kandy

The people I meet across Sri Lanka—the happy families at Galle Sea Face, the white-robed monk at Sigiriya, the young soldier at Anuradhapura, the lotus vendor in front of the Kandy tooth temple—have all been gentle and friendly, making it easy to forget that they live in a country that has seen decades of violence. Perhaps they smile hoping—or knowing—that it is now time for peace.

Outwhirling the dervish

Published in Mint Lounge as Going round in circles

Sema

She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl. I cannot get this line out of my head and to my complete dismay, I find myself mentally humming the rest of the song as I watch the four Mevlevi spin in front of me. I mean, here I am at a performance I have been dreaming of, ever since I planned the Turkey trip and I am thinking about Maria and her whirling and whistling abilities?

A secret turning in us,
Makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
And feet, head.
Neither cares.
They keep turning
.

(‘The Essential Rumi’ – translated by Coleman Barks)

This describes the dancers perfectly, as they whirl and whirl and whirl, white skirts billowing gently, feet never once faltering, attention never once diverted, even by the sudden and harsh light of a forbidden flash camera. Just to put things in context, I read somewhere that initial training for a Sema performer includes standing on a wooden plank one square meter large, with a nail in the middle and learning to turn his foot so that the nail is between his big toe and second toe. Those taking part in this ceremony are traditionally called ‘Mevlevi’ – followers of Mevlana (meaning ‘our guide’) Jelaluddin Rumi.

The entire ritual is based on symbolism, the dancer departing from his ego and turning towards truth and spiritual perfection. The English speaking guide explains the significance of each element of the performance but his voice fades away from my consciousness as the musicians begin playing in the background. The initial segment is a eulogy to the Prophet Mohammed and the sound of the flute (known as the ney, thought to breathe life into all creatures) is especially mesmeric.

After a few minutes, the four dancers enter the room dressed in the traditional long, black coats and the tall conical fez on their heads and greet each other formally three times. As they begin moving, the first step is to remove their cloaks, symbolizing the shedding of the ego, or falsehood. The dancer’s arms are open, the right hand directed to the skies, seeking god’s benefaction and the left hand facing the ground, passing this blessing on to all things around him. The whirling of the dervishes is supposed to replicate the movement of planets revolving around the sun (in this case, God), each rotating on his own axis, while slowly circling around the room. The whirling is anti-clockwise, the minds of the spinning men on meditation mode; Let yourself be silently drawn, by the stronger pull of what you really love (Rumi).

Going round in circles

A local friend later says dismissively, “If it was the genuine religious thing, you would not have been allowed there”. Ah, well, the real McCoy or not, I am captivated by it all – the solemn ritual, the haunting music and hymns, the serene expression on their faces. In the 1920s, Kemal Ataturk, the revolutionary Turkish leader in his zeal to modernize Turkey and make it more European, banned the Mevlevi sect as being backward, traditional and just too ‘Islamic’ (the list of things banned by Ataturk is long and includes the traditional fez and the native Turkish script). Later in the 1950s, the government legalized the Mevlevi order as a cultural (non-political) organization and allowed the whirling dervishes to perform annually in Konya on December 17, the anniversary of Rumi’s death (celebrated as his union with his beloved god).

Today the whirling dervish is one of the most visible and popular icons within Turkey, found everywhere from fridge magnets to tea coasters and ceramic bowls. While weekend performances are popular within Istanbul, the annual ceremony at Konya is on another scale altogether and attracts thousands of Sufi followers from across the world. The lodge where Rumi lived is now a museum and the entire town is a silent and enduring homage to the philosopher-poet.

And Maria, Mother Superior, don’t take this personally, but you just cannot throw a whirling dervish out of whirl.

General Information

In Istanbul, Sema performances (the more authentic ones – avoid the ones in restaurants) take place regularly at the Galata Mevlevihanesi, the hall for the Mevlevi at the Southern end of Istiklal Caddesi in the throbbing Beyoglu shopping district. You can also catch performances at the atmospheric Sirkeci station, the old railway station where the Orient Express used to end its long run from Paris. I booked my performance at the Cemberlitas Press Museum in advance on email (galatamevlevi@gmail.com) through this website (http://www.rumimevlevi.com/en/index.php)

The Whirling Dervish Festival at Konya is held between the 10th and 17th December each year. Konya is connected with Istanbul by bus (roughly 10 hours), train and flight (Turkish Airlines has daily flights) though during the festival period, it is advisable to book travel and stay well in advance.

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