Monday, December 22, 2008

A “Mess-rable” State of Affairs

This post has been deleted for reasons best known to the author. Contact the author if you feel it is imperative (and entirely your business) that you read the original post!

A New Roommate

Having spent more than a month now living with a man, I have a new female roommate for company. She’s got big round alert brown eyes, a white snout, a black body, white socks and a curly prawn tail. Our recent guest is Mayna – I can only hope that the name is correct. This mongrel with absolutely no hint of pedigree belongs to an officer currently on leave.

Sources have it that Mayna has spent the last month or more locked up in her mistress’ room during the night and tied up outside during the day. Feeling very sorry for the poor dog, who has spent nights whining in her room alone, we asked that she be brought to stay with us until her owner returns.

While she appears quite thrilled for the company she has now, Mayna also seems somewhat disconcerted at the sudden change. She slept peacefully last night, shifting place once in a while. That is more than I can say for overly concerned Ducky, who lost precious sleep checking on her every once in a while during the night.

This morning I bathed her – she badly needed some cleaning up. Initially, I was unsure of how she would react to a stranger dousing her with water, but she took so well to the bath that she’d put my two pedigree boys back home to shame. Not a whimper, not a whine. While one of my boys back home would have howled the place down like he were being slaughtered, the other would have slipped out to go flaunt himself out in the open, wearing nothing but soap suds. Mayna, on the other hand, just stood there while I applied ample amounts of Ducky's shampoo on her and gave her a good scrub. (I figured that after his super-short haircut this morning, he wouldn’t need much shampoo anyway.) The water ran black and I definitely needed a bath myself after that.

Mayna was given her marching orders almost as quickly as she was brought here – she turned out to be quite a handful to look after – the idea of cleaning up a strange dog’s poo did not appeal to any of us.

Menmaichhu Lake

Another day, another picnic, another beautiful locale. Having heard a lot about this lake, my expectations were rather high and, as is becoming regular with Sikkim, I was far from disappointed.

Menmaichhu Lake is about 2.5 kms away from the new Baba Mandir. It doesn’t seem to be a tourist hotspot just yet, which is just as well – the place is pristine, quiet, and absolutely spectacular.

Of course, the approach road leaves a lot to be desired. This probably deters people from making the trip too often. We were driven down in the Army Gypsies, and the ride was rather similar to sitting on a bucking bronco. The road is steep and is made of nothing but boulders. I was spared somewhat, being snugly sandwiched between two other ladies.

After gratefully scrambling out of our bumpy rides, we walked another half kilometer or so. There was a thick mist that lifted just about a foot or so as we approached, revealing clear sparkling water. The weather gods were in a jolly mood apparently – the mist soon disappeared altogether and the sun shone down, setting the water all a-twinkle.

Maintained by the state’s fisheries department, the lake is completely unspoiled. There are rainbow trout in the lake – although we didn’t get a good look at the fish, we could see bubbles rising every once in a while and a slithering form beneath the clear water’s surface.

A well-laid stony path allows one to walk the entire perimeter of the lake – this took us a good hour or more, including breaks for dozens of pictures. In some areas, it was difficult to believe we were in India. There wasn’t a soul besides us in the area and nature shone in all her glory – the crystal water reflecting an aqua sky and the thickly wooded perimeter battling the onset of winter. At the far end, the water escapes down a rocky path over which the authorities have constructed a little bridge. This provided yet another photo op!

Once done with the trek around the lake, we headed back on our bucking broncos for lunch at the Army Hut at Baba Mandir. The walk had made us ravenous. The Pav Bhajji on offer was delicious and we stuffed ourselves to the gills. This time, the souvenir shop was absolutely empty and I got a good look at everything. I picked up a little Buddha head made of fishbone that is supposed to bestow health, wealth, and prosperity – I figured a good dose of each could do us no harm!

On the way back, we stopped off at the war memorial that is a tribute to all those soldiers who gave up their lives during the Indo-China conflict at Nathu La, post 1962. The marble tablets with the list of martyrs’ names are as much a record as they are a reminder of the families those great men must have left behind when they put country before self.

Crooks and Croquet

A picnic at the Yak Golf Course, the highest course in the world according to the Guinness Book, for all officers at the brigade, their families, and a dog – a Miniature Pincher who is adorable if you fancy wide-set bulbous eyes on a ratty face that is constantly trying to lunge at you and take a good nip.

A croquet course adjoins the golf course and everything was set up by the time we arrived. We quickly divided ourselves into two groups – officers in one team with the ladies on the other team led by one officer.

The afternoon passed quickly as both teams got into the spirit of the game, vying to get the ball around the course first by hook or by crook. We ladies were lucky to have the one officer who believes that winning is everything and no means is too low or too crooked to achieve that goal! To our credit, we did win one game without being sneaky.

After six rounds of croquet, a game of golf – chipping by the men and putting by their respective partners – followed. Ducky teed off with great enthusiasm and just about avoided sending his ball into the little lake nearby. Incidentally, this lake is actually an ice hockey rink when it freezes over later in winter. Once Ducky had chipped our ball back onto the browns, I putted it into the hole in three attempts – a far cry from my nightmare that I’d keep putting till the cows came home before I managed to get my ball home.

I’m not sure whether it was the chill in the air, the physical exercise, the general uncharacteristic bonhomie of the group, or the lovely Sikkimese brewed beer, Dansberg, but I was quite famished by the time lunch came around and quite enjoyed the chicken biryani on offer. The group was livelier and more engaging as opposed to its usual stiff uncomfortable stance and strained conversation about the weather (of each month of the year), children (their games and schooling), and turbulent stock markets (a subject that everyone seems obliged to bring up because of the nature of my job).

Baba Mandir

The Baba temples – the new one and the old – hold utmost significance for the troops in this part of the country. The temples have been constructed in homage to Harbhajan Baba, a soldier who died in an avalanche in the area. (There are various versions about his death and I will get into these at a later point.)The others could not locate his body until one day, he reportedly appeared in a comrade’s dream and told him where to find his body. They found the body exactly where he’d said it would be. Ever since then, Baba has supposedly looked after the safety and well-being of troops in the area.

The old Baba Mandir has Baba’s bunker that is now a shrine of sorts. His study table has a pile of notebooks in which one must write one’s wishes and they will supposedly be granted by Baba. On Sundays, the temple is crowded with soldiers and tourists alike. The halwa doled out as prasad by the soldiers who look after the place is absolutely delicious. Note: This is doled out only on Sundays – I found out this disappointing fact on my second visit here which was on a week day.

The new Baba Mandir was constructed when the adverse icy conditions of the area impaired accessibility to the original temple. Opposite the new temple is CafĂ© Thirteen Thousand – a coffee shop with a nice souvenir shop if you’re game to jostle with and out-yell hysterical tourists for little silk purses, mobile covers, Chinese fans, Buddha statues and other curios.

At the new Baba Mandir, hubby dear and two comrades, all in uniform, were asked to pose for a photograph with an awestruck tourist from Gujarat. He said he was grateful to the men in uniform who protect our nation. It appears that the apathetic Indian civilian population is finally waking up to realize just how much we actually owe our armed forces. It took a disaster like the Mumbai terror attack to evoke this. I can only hope that the recognition, respect and gratitude do not fade with time – public memory seems so short – and that it will translate into something good being done for our armed forces.

Temple Tok

Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok are two temples in close proximity to the Himalayan Zoological Park. Although quite a few people, both locals and tourists, visit the temples, the atmosphere is serene and quiet – qualities that I find are becoming Sikkim’s trademark.

Ganesh Tok is smaller than Hanuman Tok but offers a good view of Gangtok set against the backdrop of Mt. K and the Himalayan range. As we ascended the steps to the temple, a signboard instructed us to remove our shoes. “Should we remove our socks also?” asked a genuinely confused visitor. May be the scarcity of oxygen at this altitude was doing strange things to his brain.

Hanuman Tok is a bigger temple with a pretty, colorful garden. Again, the now omnipresent Mt. K and his comrades paint a spectacular backdrop for the temple. It appeared that the two foreigners at the temple were equally bored with Mt. K’s constant presence – they were keener on photographing a bunch of Nepali women workers squatting in the temple premises, eating out of their steel tiffin boxes. Scoop!


The park houses both the Snow Leopard and the Common Leopard (Spotted Panther). The single snow leopard was napping peacefully in his concrete house when we arrived. On the face of it, he paid us no attention at all and did not budge while we clicked pictures. However, the shrewdness of the beast was apparent, as he slyly watched us retreat through the corner of his eye, which was open just a slit. The Snow Leopard is a beauty and inspires some kind of awe. We scarcely even whispered in his presence. There is just something about the animal, which compels one to stay in his good books at all times! Opinion: Do not tug his thick fluffy tail no matter how irresistible the urge. I doubt he’d let you go with just one tight slap.

The Common Leopards were sunning themselves too. Apparently, this time in the morning is tanning time for the park’s inmates. No doubt Ducky heralded the prospect of a tasty snack for, as we climbed up to their enclosure, one leopard immediately adopted a crouching stance and licked his chops in anticipation. Watching him, we almost missed seeing his considerably larger partner sunning himself right next to us.

I rather cautiously turned my back to Big Spotty to pose for a picture with him in the background. I didn’t think my little ticker would be able to survive the shock if he caught me unawares and decided to roar and hurl himself at me through the bars.

Crying Wolf

The Tibetan Wolf looks exactly like a slim white Alsation. The pack of them did not seem one bit bothered by our gawking presence. They were more intent upon soaking up as much sunshine as possible in this land where the commodity is scarce. With complexions as pale as that, they certainly looked like they could do with a lot more sun.

Himalayan Palm Civets and their sour-puss neighbors

The Himalayan Palm Civets were clearly Ducky's favourites – I doubt he’d love them as much had they decided to unleash their stink colognes on him.

However, rank odors aside, they are very cute to behold. They curiously crowded around Ducky as he posed for a picture with them. Their stance was not unlike meerkat lookouts.

Their neighbors, the Himalayan Wild Cats, were quite literally sour pusses. They kept their backs to us, scowling surly at us over their shoulders. Gee, someone sure got out the wrong side of their beds this morning!

Pheasantly Surprised

We came upon a path marked “Birds”. Not particularly into ornithology myself, and Ducky not quite keen on birds of the feathered variety, we, nevertheless, decided to take a look. We came upon the brightly colored Lady Amherst Pheasants. While busy photographing them for posterity, we noticed something bushy and red running around in the caged enclosure next door. I could scarcely control my yelp of delight – it was a podgy little Red Panda! What on earth he was doing along with the birds, I have no clue. The little guy kept running in circles around his enclosure – obviously not a slacker when it comes to the good old morning jog. He may have been in some distress due to the slightly warm temperature or the singing workmen nearby.

However, he decided to go right up to Ducky and take a good sniff – perhaps he rightly suspected that a certain someone had forgotten to bathe that morning. Astute fellow. I couldn’t get enough of the endearing little chap with his shiny round eyes and fluffy cheeks. With a good deal of reluctance, we finally left to visit the other inmates.

The Red Pandas

I need not have fretted about leaving our little panda friend. There were two more smaller specimens in the designated red panda enclosure further on. Although curious about our presence there, the two little red pandas were also very shy and quickly retired into the safety of their shed.

However, they did offer us a good view of themselves as they gracefully ran along logs and through the light green grass in their enclosure. I couldn’t get enough of them and it was with considerable reluctance that I dragged myself off to the next lot of inmates.

Dare to Bear

Ducky and I tromped down a path and came to a concreted viewpoint that offered a breathtaking sight of the snow-clad Himalayas and Mt Kanchenzonga that is now a regular feature in all my “scenic pictures”. Seeing the stupendous mountain so often has now begun to make it lose that novelty. My heart has ceased to skip a beat when the mammoth mountain displays itself!

While busy posing for photographs at this viewpoint, I suddenly noticed something peeking out of a little concrete shed in the walled enclosure just below us. It was a Himalayan Black Bear who just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to come out or not. He’d peek out every few seconds, raising our hopes that he’d make an appearance for our eager lenses (and give us a full frontal maybe?), but then he’d vanish again. He was almost as fickle as Ducky! His partner, who we spied much later, refused to oblige us and remained lolling about on his back behind a clump of bamboo.

The Himalayan Zoological Park

The existence of a well-administered and pristine manicured zoological park just about 9 kms from the heart of Gangtok seems largely unknown. This is just as well as the place is thankfully devoid of noisy, boorish tourists, who otherwise infest every other place of interest in Sikkim. My obsessive trawling for information about Sikkim before this trip placed the park at the top of my must-visit list. The park was far from disappointing. I was impressed with its upkeep and the overall health and well-being of the animals housed here.

The animals are kept in a semi-natural environment. After driving a certain distance, visitors have to walk on a path that snakes right through the park taking them up, close and personal to the park’s inmates.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Talk of Gangtok

Gangtok is a place after my own heart. The weather is ideal - clear blue, sunny skies with just that right amount of chill in the air. The place is clean and the people polite and friendly. Did I say the place is clean? Well, "clean" is an understatement. The main road here, M.G.Marg is a litter and spit-free zone. Littering here invites a fine of Rs 5,000 and/or six months imprisonment. The cobbled road is a walker's road and all vehicular traffic is banned here. The road is divided by a row of flowering plants, water fountains, and ornate street lamps. There is a sense of calm, quiet and general contentment as window shoppers, locals and tourists go about doing what they do best. The buildings along the road are neat and well-maintained. You could be in any quaint European city. One feels far removed from the regular dirt, hustle and bustle of other Indian cities.

I was struck by the well-laid pavements around the city. It is neatly cobbled with a green railing all along the side, separating it from the road. One can almost get from one end of the city to the other using these well-planned walkways without having to skitter through traffic. Even better, you can walk without fear of busting an ankle on uneven stones or falling through gaping holes in the pavement - a far-cry from the sorry excuses for pavements we have back in Bangalore. Shame on IT city.

For a woman, Gangtok seems ideal - at least as far as I have experienced. I could walk through the place without fear of lecherous men with groping hands, catcalls, or lewd comments.

Although I have little information on just how effective law enforcement is in Gangtok, the appearance of the police officers of the city is something to write home about. Policemen and policewomen here are very smartly turned out and look very fit and alert. No disheveled, potbellied, paan-chewing, head-scratching, lathi-wielding types here. Note to self: Must try to sneak a picture of one or some of these police officers for my blog viewers.


That night we dined in Siliguri at Hotel Ranjit. The place was filled with big Marvadi families with dozens of spoiled, wailing kids. Ducky and I settled down to enjoy some beer, tandoori chicken and fish tikkas. However, it was not to be. The fish was a letdown and I got a few disapproving looks from the women around. Virtuous women do not guzzle beer around these parts apparently. Not that I really gave a rat's arse. One kid came and stared at me (the sinner) with her kohl-filled eyes until I began toying with the idea of issuing her some kind of threat of bodily harm. Fortunately (for her), she lost interest and wandered off to hammer a table with a pepper shaker. I was entertaining all sorts of images of permanently destroying the little wretch, when even nature decided it had tolerated more than enough. The child simply toppled over and whammed her mouth against the table. I had to restrain myself from standing up and applauding. Her bleeding mouth and loud wails finally caught the attention of her so-far unconcerned mother. We decided this was a good time to vamoose from the place. Please note: My maternal instincts have obviously not kicked in even now.

Miles to go Before I Sleep

The next morning, we set off by road for Gangtok in Sikkim. As we crossed the border into Sikkim from West Bengal, I felt a little thrill. I also felt a lot of relief to see the last of West Bengal. The drive was absolutely spectacular. The narrow road snakes all along the Teesta river. Although there isn't much water in the river at this time of year, the emerald green water studded with smooth grey stones set against the thick green mountains is a treat to see. The crisp and fresh mountain air was a welcome change after smelly West Bengal. In about four hours after we'd started out, we reached Gangtok. We halted here briefly to visit the ATM and pick up some baked goodies from Baker's Cafe, which I'd read about before my trip. From there we zigzagged our way up to Mile 17 - the acclimatization camp and my home for the next six nights.

Bargains at Bagdogra

We disembarked at NJP and proceeded to Siliguri, where we were to spend the night at the Army guesthouse. From Siliguri, we made a quick trip to Bagdogra to shop for warm clothes and take a look at the market there. I picked up a nice warm hooded jacket for Rs 350 and a thick, soft polo-neck sweater for Rs 100! For someone used to expensive Bangalore, this was quite a jaw-dropping shopping expedition. We also picked up 36-movies-in-one DVDs for Rs 50. I now possess a single DVD with almost all of Johnny Depp's blockbusters! I feel quite ashamed for having rejoiced in Bangalore when I ferreted out a place that sold single-movie DVDs for Rs 60 or even 4-in-one Bollywood DVDs for Rs 40!

Time Pass

The diminutive fellow with large mischievous eyes and a cheeky smile arrived at our compartment with a host of his homemade fried goodies. "T-T-Time p-p-passsss", he called out in a sing-song fashion. He then proceeded to dole out little samples of his condiments with an interesting story for each. "Whatever is loose will become tight after you have this", he told Ducky with a wink and a sly smile, before proffering some fried mixture. "Hello, half-young man!" he called to the grey and balding Gaseous Clay and offered him a sample. As we tasted each thing, he'd croon "t-t-time p-p-pass" before fishing out another sample. "For bachelors and those who have nobody to love", he announced with aplomb and revealed a packet of fried peanuts. He had us all completely amused, fascinated, and more than willing to buy his goodies with his unique charm. He had us stuffed to the gills with just his samples and I was more than willing to forfeit dinner at this point. Nonetheless, he wouldn't stop plying us with more samples. "T-t-time?" he said and cocked a brow at me. "P-p-pass" I squeaked back in what sounded like a very poor imitation. "P-p-passss", he replied, nodding his approval with a smile and refilled my eager open palm with another crunchy delicious mixture. Needless to say, he did booming business and was a hit with passengers of every gender, age, and creed. He will remain etched in my memory as the best salesman ever. The poor fellow will no doubt be disappointed to hear that a thieving rat at a guest house in Siliguri ravaged the t-t-time p-p-pass we bought from him. B-b-blasted v-v-vermin.

Footprints to Sikkim

Getting to Sikkim in itself was quite an adventure. Ducky and I boarded a Spicejet plane from Bangalore to Kolkatta. I mumbled at having been allotted an aisle and middle seat. Luckily, a very (and I cannot underline that enough) rotund lady waddled up and told us to take her window seat and plonked herself into the aisle seat. The rest of the flight proved quite uneventful save my having to curb Ducky's ill-concealed amusement at the rotund lady's continuous eating habit. I don't think either of us would have survived had she decided to bean us one each on the head for his comments. Toward the middle of the turbulence-ridden flight, a woman fainted while walking along the aisle. A call for any medical practitioner onboard yielded no results - whatever happened to the millions of doctors this country supposedly has? Not even a quack onboard? Strange. I suppose Bangalore-Kolkatta flights carry only software techies or Satyajit Ray-wannabes.

From Kolkatta airport, we took a cab to the railway station. All cabs there are the good old (albeit beat-up) Ambassadors. However, my initial nostalgic glee quickly turned to a feeling that I was too young to die. This was a cab from hell, a cabbie with a death wish. As he swerved around other equally homicidal vehicles and suicidal pedestrians at breakneck speed, I distracted myself by taking in the shabby, filthy streets, loud people, and quaint trams and smoke-belching buses. I realized with horror that the city's smoky air turns you into chimneysweep of sorts. After freshening up at the Army rest house at the station, we boarded the Kamrup Express for New Jalpaiguri (NJP).

Our fellow passengers included an Army Colonel, who couldn't understand why I would voluntarily give up a place where "oxygen is free" and head to the oxygen-scarce boonies of Sikkim. On my first day at the acclimatization camp, coping with strange symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), I must admit I thought he had a valid point! Our fellow passengers also included a belching old man and his gold-bedecked wife wielding the proverbial five-tier tiffin carrier. Almost needless to say, Gaseous Clay and Aunty Gold kept me amused for quite a while. However, they paled in comparison to the singularly most amusing character I have ever encountered on a journey - the "Time Pass" man. The written word can do very little justice to this enterprising seller of peanuts and other fried condiments. I wish I had captured his unique style on video.

Sikkim Ahoy!

I am finally here and I write this sitting "13,200 feet closer to God" as a sign board outside very aptly puts it. Inking my thoughts (and trademark strong opinions) about the place, people, and general setup has taken some time in coming. I shall attribute that to the fact that this cold freezes everything - including one's brain cells apparently! Not to mention a highly unreliable Internet connection!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Great Kodava Wedding

I have had a number of queries about what happens during a typical Coorg wedding. Since I can hardly count myself an expert on the subject, I turned to Google. Voila! I had all the information I needed. However, as I read it, I had a few mental yawns. So I've decided to break down the entire wedding process into little chapters and throw in some of my comments. Hopefully that will not scream "Snooze Fest" quite so much.

1. Karik Muripa / Panda Pani

Cutting vegetables for curry and erecting the marriage 'pandal' (stage)

One day before the wedding, members from the bride and groom's 'okka' (no, it’s not what you’re thinking) and villagers (where do we find these guys?) assemble for the 'karik muripa'. All the women gather together to cut vegetables in the main courtyard of the house (the women will offer to help but will really just sit around to drink and gossip as Mr Ravi caterer, of “wedding on the “falace” fame, will take over), helping the cooks prepare for the feasts that follow, while the men help to erect the 'pandal' (buggers, is that all they think about?)

2. Potti Dumbchiduva

(not potty, fool)

Packing the bride's trousseau in boxes.
After the people depart, it is time to pack the bride's trousseau. Members of her family gather in the 'nellaki nadu baade' and fill the boxes with her trousseau, which may include vessels (thank you, Prestige, for “Kitchen In A Box”), money (ha! Okay, maybe some Monopoly currency), jewelry and clothes. (Bride being prone to worry ulcers and finicky about getting things done ahead of time, this step will be done many days before the wedding day!)

3. Oorkudo Ceremony

Get together of close family, relatives (and friends looking for free food and booze).

The evening before the wedding all family members of the bride and groom get together in their respective wedding halls and have a big pre-wedding party. This is generally started off with an unlimited flow of booze and followed by dinner and dancing to the local valagakaara (folk musicians) music.

4. Rituals for the Groom

Kshoura (part of the Muhurtha)
Ritual shave for the groom (no, you pervs, not that kind of shave, although I know a certain someone who might volunteer to do that)
Early on the morning of the wedding, the groom (who I am quite certain will be heavily hung over from the previous night’s drinking session) is led to the 'kanni kombare' (the sacred room in the southwest corner of the house) where he sprinkles a little rice on the lamp that is kept there and salutes it. Next, he is led to the 'kanni kamba', the sacred pillar in the southwest corner of the inner courtyard of the house. He salutes the pillar and then proceeds to the sacred lamp kept in the 'nellaki nadu baade', sprinkles rice on it and salutes this also (didn’t know that action was called saluting!).

The barber applies milk on the groom's face (to get beautiful skin) and shaves his facial hair and a part of his forehead (if he has hair enough to spare for this). All the shaven hair is put in a plate of milk, making sure that not a single strand falls on the floor! (this is will be on sale on the next day, so hurry!).

Bath: Ritual bath for the groom (everything is a ritual this day)
The 'kshoura' over, the bridegroom is led by his 'aruva' or bojakaara' (best man) for his bath. Three 'muthaides' (married ladies) pour water on him for his ritual bath (this is something of a fantasy come true for the groom).

The 'bojakaara' dresses the groom after his bath (shame, shame). Once he is dressed, the groom applies 'vibuthi' (sacred ash) on his forehead and chews betel leaves and areca nuts (How attractive is that?) before proceeding for his 'muhurtha' in a ceremonial walk.
A live band (mandatory in all Kodava weddings) now starts playing music to herald the arrival of the groom. The 'bojakaara' holds an umbrella covered with white cloth over the groom's head throughout the ceremonial walk to the 'muhurtha' site (just in case some well-meaning birds decide to shower him with their blessings).

5. Rituals for the Bride

Bale Iduva: Bangle wearing ceremony for the bride
In her house, the bride, dressed in a (deep red/ maroon) silk sari and long-sleeved blouse (in a bold break from tradition, brides now have three-quarter sleeves, ha!), is led by her 'bojakarthi' (Bride’s maid)'. A mat is spread on the floor and the bride and the bangle-seller sit on it. Glass bangles of various colours, such as red, green and black are slipped onto the bride's wrists by the bangle-seller. Black bangles are believed to ward off evil and have to be put on the bride's hands at this time.

Bath: Ritual bath for the bride
A lady from the 'aruva's' family or the 'bojakarthi' leads the bride for her ritual bath and three 'muthaides' pour water over her (too bad no men doing that).

Dress: The 'bojakarthi' helps dress the bride
After her bath, the bride's 'bojakarthi' helps her dress for the wedding ceremony (complete with silver shackles on feet and metal spikes driven through head). Once she is ready, the bride applies 'vibhuthi' (sacred ash) on her forehead, chews betel leaves and areca nuts (who is game for a spitting competition now?), before being led to the 'muhurtha' site in a ceremonial walk (by beauteous maidens, ripe for matrimony, holding lamps).
As in the bridegroom's case, the 'bojakarthi' holds an umbrella covered with a white cloth over the bride's head throughout the ceremonial walk (Again, same birds deal).

6. The Muhurtha Ceremony

Separate Muhurthas for the bride and groom.

Women come forward and bless the groom/bride before the men can do so. The mother is the first to bless the groom/bride followed by two 'muthaides'(them again!). These three ladies usually give gold coins as gifts (gold coins are welcome from everyone else also).
The special mode of blessing and presenting gifts at this time is as follows: a little rice is taken from the plates placed on either side of the groom/bride and if the Kodava (Coorg) guests coming to the wedding are older than the person who is welcoming them, the latter honors them by touching their feet and seeking their blessings. It is customary to offer guests water to wash their feet (and to drink so they get filled up before they hit the bar. The guests also bring cash for the bride/groom, and loads of it).

7. The Wedding Procession

The groom proceeds to the bride's home. The groom then touches the feet of all the elders, seeking their blessings (bend it!) before proceeding on his journey. Very close friends and relatives of the groom only go with the groom to the bride’s place (lucky for him, the bride is in the same place so he can save on petrol costs)

8. Kodiyaal or Koru Arapuvavu

Announcement of the arrival of the groom's procession (Ma, that boy is here. I think he needs to use the toilet again.)

On reaching the plantain stumps, three men from the groom's party go to the bride's house to inform her family of the arrival of the groom's procession.
The bride's family offers these three men refreshments (yeah, for sure they will be a thirsty lot) and then a chosen few from the bride's family along with the wedding band accompanies them to the spot where the plantain stumps are staked, to welcome the groom's procession.

9. Baale Birud

Cutting the plantain stumps

On the path leading to the venue of the 'muhurtha' in the wedding house, nine or more (always multiples of three) plantain tree stumps, each measuring approximately a yard in length, are fixed vertically to small wooden stakes driven into the ground.
The guest who is going to perform the 'baale birud' calls out to the gods and prays with the people who may be accompanying him. During the prayers all turbans and headgear are removed as a mark of respect.
After the prayers the guest cuts the three plantain stumps with the 'odi kathi' (knife). Before cutting them he walks around the stumps thrice, gently tapping the the top, with the 'odi kathi'. Then he cuts the stumps one by one, each with a single stroke, and then dances to the beat of the music (huh, hero).

10. Welcoming the Groom

"Come into my parlour", said the spider to the fly...
After the ceremonial cutting of the plantain stumps, the bride's family offers a traditional welcome to the groom. A young girl washes the feet of the groom and his 'bojakaara' with water. (The groom is trying to organize a foot massage at that same time, while the bride is coaching her young niece to demand money and lots of it for pedicure services).
The bride's family then showers him with blessings by sprinkling rice (or hurling rocks) on his head as he enters the bride's house. He and his 'bojakaara' are then led to the central hall of the house and are seated there.

11. Muhurtha

Preparations for the Muhurtha for the bride and groom

Before the bride or groom arrives at the 'muhurtha' site, the 'aruva's' wife lights the sacred lamp in the 'nellaki nadu baade'. She then spreads two or three mats, facing in a North-South direction, at the 'muhurtha' site. The washer man covers these mats with a carpet. In the center of this carpet the 'aruva's' wife places a 'mukkali' (low stool) and covers it with red cloth. Two other 'mukkalis' are placed on either side of the one in the center. A silver or bell-metal plate containing rice is placed on each of these and a 'kindi' (small metal pot with a spout) full of milk (or vodka, according to the choice of the bride/groom) is placed on top of the rice on one of the 'mukkalis'. Two tall brass pedestal lamps are lit and placed on either side of the 'muhurtha' site.
The bride/groom along with the 'bojakaara'/ 'bojakarthi' walk thrice around the 'mukkali' kept in the center. Before sitting on the stool the bride/groom, stands behind the 'mukkali', sprinkles rice on it three times and salutes (??) it by touching it with both hands and raising them to his/her forehead and then steps over it with the right foot (Bride’s nightmare: tripping at this point).

12. Dampathi Muhurtha

Combined Muhurtha for the bride and groom

The bride and groom are seated together under the canopy for the 'Dampathi Muhurtha'. The groom is seated first, to the bride's right. All the rituals observed here are identical to the ones observed in the earlier separate 'muhurthas' (you know, this is where guests come over and hand over their generous gifts, money and useless casseroles). After the 'Dampathi Muhurtha' is over, the groom showers rice on the bride's head, offers her milk in the 'kindi' and gives her the 'cheela pana' (a small bag made from red silk containing at least one gold, one silver and one copper coin) (and there better be more considering this bride needs to survive inflationary conditions in an emerging economy). This signifies that he is sharing his wealth with his bride (who is now giddy with glee – what is his is hers and what is hers is hers it seems). The couple then exchanges garlands.

13. Batte Thadpa

Blocking the path

It is time for the wedding procession to return to the groom's house with the bride. The bride's cousin, who could have married her by tradition, however blocks her path at the threshold and after much hilarity 'releases' her after her husband gives the cousin a gold coin! (Gone are the days where a gold coin will suffice, people get really demanding now and ask for a bottle of scotch and cash.)

14. The Wedding Feast

The Kodavas (Coorgs) are renowned for the smorgasbord of sumptuous dishes they serve at their weddings. Many kinds of meat dishes are served (and several different preparations of each type of meat) including pork, lamb and chicken (courtesy Mr Ravi Caterer of “wedding on the falace” fame).

15. Neer Edpa / Ganga Puja

Bride fetches water from a river or well (or stainless steel barrel)

This ceremony symbolizes the bride's becoming a part of the groom's family and helping in household chores (the groom can only hope at this point). The entire ritual also tests the stamina (and whether she visits the gym to actually work out) of the newly wed bride!
She is then led to the well or river for the 'Ganga Puja' (worship of the sacred river, Ganga) accompanied by the wedding band. Four small pots are kept ready beside the well. The bride draws water from the well and pours it into each of these pots. She then places two pots of water on her head, one on top of the other, on a small circular cushion. Two other ladies (beauteous maidens ripe for matrimony) from the groom's family carry each of the other two pots of water on similar cushions and walk with the bride, one in the front (preferably one who can push and shove) and one at the rear.
This procession is now ready to return to the pandal accompanied by the wedding band playing a slow beat. The bride is supposed to take very small steps ('mangalth mott' or wedding step) to the beat of the music. (Drunken) Members of the groom's family dance in front of her, not allowing her to proceed, thus blocking her path! (This could go on for hours and the bride has been warned that she will be standing with the pot on her head for at least 4 hours. Once this is done, the fun is over, folks, go home.)

16. Kombarek Kootavu

The groom is led to the bridal chamber (no guests get to see any of this so use your imagination)

Either the 'bojakaara' or the 'aruva' leads the groom to the bridal chamber (chamber!!? is this …..) where the bride is seated with her veil covering her face (and her mother’s orders to “act demure” ringing in her ears). Before he can proceed to the chamber, the (eager beaver) groom is led to the 'nellaki nadu baade' where he sprinkles rice on the sacred lamp and salutes it (what is with the saluting?). On entering the chamber, the groom lifts the veil from his bride's face (the tee-hee-shy-is-coming scene) and she touches his (damn smelly) feet (note to groom: get camera shots from all angles for this since this will be the first and last time this happens, it will be a reversal of roles hereon) seeking his blessings. It is now that the groom presents his bride with an ornament, usually a gold wedding band (Bride giddy with glee again. The groom is now officially done for life!)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In the Beginning

As is the case with most other damsels my age, the pressure of the big “M” weighs heavily on the mind. For those who are lucky enough to have escaped the trauma, “M” is “Marriage” – a dilemma society will insist on thrusting one into. It is the dreaded deliberation that causes a furrow on many a young, fair brow in Indian society.

Having now found myself well and truly ensconced in the rigmarole, I plea-bargained myself some time to mull over the prospect before giving a definitive answer.

And in this pensive state of mind, I made my way to the northern frontiers. As I gazed out at the vast, brown and dusty expanse that makes up most of UP, I sent a silent request up to the powers that be. “Show me a sign”, said I, “show me that this is the path I should go down with this man of arms.”

Almost immediately, my vehicle came to a grinding halt at a railway level crossing. With a sigh I turned a rather glazed eye toward the passing train. Lo and behold, it was filled with army men. Slightly hassled, I shrugged it off and proceeded to challenge the powers that be to send me another sign. This could have been pure coincidence.

We passed through more towns – all cantonment areas so I could barely miss the bright sign boards with the names of various regimental centers and so on. I was still unconvinced and continued bickering and reasoning with myself about these so-called “signs” when I arrived at Dudhwa National Park. What do I get presented with there? More signs, of course. Our guide, Rana – an eager Nepalese boy – was dressed in army-type camouflage pants.

“All right, here’s a toughie”, I hissed at the powers that be, “show me a tiger. That’s a surety.” I sat smugly through a number of safaris as we quite fruitlessly looked for the elusive striped cat. A “just-five-minutes-ago” pug mark was all we were rewarded with. A hearty brunch to appease the wailing gastric system and I waddled onto the terrace to take in some sun. I gazed out into the grassland, shutting out the sound of my brother commenting on the strange fact that spotted deer were running away from the area. Were my eyes deceiving me? No. For there, slinking through the grass was one of those elusive stripes. I gaped as the form quickly blended into the tall amber grass.

I guffawed mentally, now rapidly sinking into denial. “Well, it wasn’t a very good view, so no deal”, I reasoned with the powers that be. “I need more.”

And “more” is exactly what I got. I walked into “Dilli Haat”, a shopper’s delight in Delhi where one can pick up various specialties from different ethnicities of India. The “theme state” was Kashmir. I entered and stood still for a moment – for there were rows and rows of stalls set up by (a drum roll should be good right about now)… the Army Wives Welfare Association (AWWA).

The powers that be were not finished with me. They socked it to me in the form of a portly co-passenger on my flight back home – he was dressed in a camouflage sweatshirt and remained in my line of vision at all times, even on the bus ride from the plane to the terminal.

Needless to say, I kept my eyes closed during the drive back home on Airport road. I knew full well I’d keel at the sight of the numerous ASC Centers, army sentries, and the war tank on the way.