Friday, January 16, 2009

Uttarayan - The Kite Flying Festival

Ahmedabad, India: We made it back to Ahmedabad just in time for the festival of Uttarayan (The Kite Flying Festival). Alan and Xavi were suppose to get to Ahmedabad in the morning of Jan. 14th, the first day of Uttarayan.

Uttarayan is a festival to celebrate the change in wind direction and the beginning of spring. We fly kites in that celebration for 2 days. January 14th is an official holiday when everyone gets involved in flying kites. Jan 15th is not unfortunately an official holiday, but people still manage to celebrate the festival.

The idea is to fly the kite and cut other people's kite. The more you can cut other people's kite without getting your kite cut shows how skilled you are. The string is also of special kind. There is bits of glass coated on the string. You have to be skilled enough to cut kites without getting your fingers cut. It really does take some serious skills to be good at it. The only festival in India, I think, that requires that much skill. It is fun nonetheless. The only thing that can spoil the fun is the lack of wind. Everyone keeps their fingers crossed for good wind. We had ours crossed!

Kids start flying kites days before Uttarayan. Some start practicing their skills and make sure they ready for the big day. Women generally aren't that interested in this festival. They do however play a very crucial role of holding the "firki" (a wooden spool with handles). The truly skilled brag about not needing any assistance in flying a kite. There is also special food for the festival. "Udhyu" is made up of 14 different vegetables and takes a very long time to prepare. It is most eaten with "Jalebi". Jalebi is a round circular thing made up of dough that is deep fried in clarified butter, then dipped in sugar syrup. It is fricken good and the combo of Udhyu and Jalebi is amazing. The foodies always look forward to it and that includes me.

The day before Uttarayan, I thought it would be a good idea to go to the terrace and test my skills. Afterall, it had been about 5 years since I've flown a kite. I wasn't too sure of my skills. To my surprise, on my first kite, I cut 10 kites. I think it was one of my best scores. I was hopeful about the next day.

After dinner, my dad, Gin, Devarshi (our neighbor) and I went to buy kite. The best deals you get on kites is in the old city, but my dad didn't want to go that far (far is a very relative term in Ahmedabad, anything past 3 miles is considered too far). So we went close to our house to buy the kites.

Buying kites also require skills. First, your ability to tell how good the kite is: from the paper they've used to the weight and size of the kite. Second, how good you're at bargaining (pretty much required in India for buying anything). We were hopeful that we did a good job at buying the kites. My dad got in an agrument with the guy selling the kite because he didn't want us to check the kites. Everyone knows to check the kites because they sell the kites in bungles of 5 to 10. The sellers put the best kites in the front and the back and in the middle they stick in the damaged kites. So everyone knows to check the kites very well. The seller had to back down and apologize because he was in the wrong. Anyhow, we got our supplies and headed back for home.

It wasn't time to call it a night yet because buying the kites isn't the only thing required. You need to tie the strings to the kites which is a task that requires hours. It also involves multiple people otherwise it would take days to get the job done. The process is too complicated to explain. But the more people there are to help, the better it is. So my dad, my mom, Gin & I got to the task. It took us an hour and half to get half the kites ready for the next day (about 50). It was already late and we wanted to make sure we wake up early in the morning and catch good wind. Generally, mornings are the best time to fly the kite and then late afternoons.

Around 6am I could hear people on their terrace blasting loud music with their boom box. We all got up around 7am and by 8am we were on our terrace ready for some kite action. My first kite didn't last for too long and my lucky streak from yesterday was over. It didn't matter because I wanted Gin to see and enjoy the thousands of kites flying in the sky. It's an amazing site to see thousands of people on their roofs flying kites screaming and yelling every time they cut someone else's kite.

I tried teaching Gin how to fly the kite, but it was too difficult for her to do it. Instead, she chose to takeover the kite that I had gotten up. Everytime the kite took a nose dive, Gin would yell for help and I'd have to takeover the kite again. Few times it was too late for the kite and it would get stuck on someone's roof or in the nearby tree. So unless the kite was very stable, Gin decided not to takeover it.

Alan and Xavi's train was delayed and they arrived around 11am. It's not the best time to fly the kite because it gets very hot and the wind starts dying down. Anyways, since they specially came over for Uttarayan, we flew the kite for a few more hours. The only problem was that they had never flown a kite before. I showed them the basics, but with low wind, it was very difficult for them to get the kite in the air. We decided to take a break and go for lunch.

My dad had gotten the food specially from a place about 100 miles away. It was darn good. There was no Jalebi, but the Udhyu made up for the lack of the sweet dish. Instead, we had Puri (puffed deep fried flat bread) with Udhyu which was a good substitute for Jalebi. Now with our bellies stuffed, we were too lazy to go to the terrace and do the work of flying the kite. Instead, we decided to hangout and my parents took some rest.

When the sun wasn't so bad, we went back to the terrace. This time around with the wind in our favor, Xavi was able to fly the kite. He was very happy about it. Getting the kite up in the air is the easiest part of flying the kite. Keep the kite in the air and not getting it cut by someone is where skills come in. I tried explaining to Xavi how you have to feel the string when someone comes to cut your kite. It's like someone is pulling the string away from you or sometimes like a jittery feeling to the string. Needless to say it was difficult to explain, it would just require practice and a lot of patience. In the end Xavi had good luck with cutting other people's kite. His personal best was cutting 3 kites before his was gone. Soon Alan and Xavi paired up and were having a great time trying to fly the kites.

After dinner, we were going to fly some lanterns in the sky. Yup, Lucy in the sky with lanterns. Instead, of Lucy it's kites that take the lanterns in the sky. Basically, you put a little candle in a paper lantern and attach the lantern to the string of the kite. Up, up and away it goes the lantern in the sky with the kite. It looks really nice in the sky and a little spooky because you can only see the lanterns but not the kite. About 6 paper lanterns are attached to a kite. Since there are people simply waiting to cut the kite with lanterns, you need windmen. One on either side of the kite that's treated like airforce one plane with wingmen. The wingmen's job is to make sure they take care of any kites that want to cut our lanterned kite. Now having explained all this, we actually never flew the kite with lantern because there was no wind. We decided to try again the following night.

The next day we woke up early and had a great morning. Again we rested in the afternoon and headed back up for more kite action. Unfortunately, the wind had totally died out. We decided to go to my dad's friend's apartment because their building is a lot higher. It didn't help. Alan couldn't go with us because he was sick. But Xavi went with us. We also had dinner at their house and Xavi found his favorite food there, Bataka Pauva (potato flakes with boliled potatoes, onions, green chillies, coriender, etc.).

Upon returning from my uncle's place, we regreted not trying to fly the lanterns the night before. At least the night before Gin saw some of the flying lanterns and she had better understanding of what we were talking about.

I was so happy that I was able to share this festival with Gin, my parents and my friends Alan & Xavi from Spain. What are holidays and festivals without friends and family anyways...

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Golden Temple of Amritsar

Amritsar, India: Finally, we were able to "kidnap" Shani for a few days to Amritsar. We got to Amritsar at the crack of dawn. As soon as we came out of the train station, we were flocked by rickshaw drivers wanting to take us to the downtown area near the golden temple. We refused the guys and decided to go out of the train station. There was one guy who would not take no for an answer. We finally flagged another rickshaw down and took that one. It wasn't how we wanted our 2 days in Amritsar to start.

I had informed the rickshaw driver to take us to a spot which was very close to the golden temple. Once we got off, he wanted to charge us much more than what it should've been. Shani got in an argument with the rickshaw driver and the tourist police got involved. Turned out the rickshaw driver was in the right, so we paid him.

The next step was looking for a hotel to stay. A random guy started following us to show us a room for a "good price". Everywhere we went, he kept on following us. We told him to stop following us several times, but he kept on following us. Finally, Shani got so frustrated, he threatened the guy. It worked! We were able to stay at a nice place specifically made for N.R.I (Non-Resident Indian). They were ok with Gin because she was my wife. No other people could stay there - even Indian Indians. At least, that guaranteed peace and cleanliness. It was the cheapest and cleanest place we'd stayed so far.

After we freshened up, we headed out for the golden temple. People from all faiths are welcome as long as they cover their heads and take off their shoes. It was a very beautiful place and you could feel the spiritual energy. We hung out there for a very long time, but decided not to go inside the main area because it was very crowded. Besides, we were very hungry by this time.

We decided to try the food in the "bhandar", a communal feeding area where the temple serves about 50,000 people free food everyday for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was by far the most amazing temple experience I've had in my life. About every 15 minutes a flock of new people come in and eat. The food is very simple, but extremely delicious. Dal (lentils), rice, a subgee (vegetable), and chapati (flat bread). They even had a desert, ciro (made from clarified butter, flour, sugar, and maybe some more stuff I don't know about). After the lunch, they also provide tea. Not the best tea in the world, but it's more like a "prasad" (food that was offered to God, which in turn, is distributed to people to eat).

Everyday there are hundred of people that volunteer at the Bhandar. People that help cleaning dishes, serving food, making the food, etc. While we were going for some tea, an old gentleman saw us and directed us where the tea was being distributed. After we had the tea in our metal cups, he started chatting with us and got us a place to sit. He kicked some people out of the sitting area, so that we could sit there. He was talking to us mostly in Punjabi and I could barely understand him. He didn't speak much Hindi.

He offered us to go to his village and stay with his family there. Unfortunately, we had only 2 days in Amritsar, otherwise we could've taken up on his offer. Instead, he took us on a tour of the kitchen where all the food is prepared for 50,000 people everyday. It was a massive undertaking. There were utensils that I did not know even existed to make the food. The dough to make the chapati was being made by an extremely complicated machine, then taken to people where they made the dough flat and cooked it on a huge grill. It was absolutely amazing to be able to see something like this. Normally people aren't allowed in the kitchen area, but since we were with the old gentleman, no on questioned us. Besides, my Nikon camera makes people think I'm a journalist and lets me take as many pics as I want. Actually, there was an audience that wanted me to take their pictures and mail it to them. I took a lot of shots of them cooking food, making the bread, or simply hanging out in the kitchen. Women, as usual, wanted me to take their pictures with Gin. After about an hour or so, we decided to leave the kitchen area. It was a worthwhile experience to be had and now it was time to get some more tea.

We decided to hang out directly outside our hotel where there was a chaiwala (tea maker). We spent hours sitting there and chatting. Shani's phone was dying and he hadn't brought his charger. Luckily, the chaiwala also had a Nokia phone which allowed Shani to charge his phone while sipping his tea.

After chai, we went to the main area of the golden temple. I'd never felt such strong spiritual energy in my life before this incident. The chanting and singing inside the golden temple was so uplifiting, it almost brought me to tears. All I wanted to do was join them in their chanting and spend hours there. It was an experience I'd never had before going into any kind of religious building and that alone made this long journey worth it.

We returned to the hotel hoping to go back to see the temple closing ceremony. However, we were having such good conversation that we decided not to go and see the sacred ceremony of putting the temple's holy book to sleep. Yes, that's correct, putting the holy book to sleep. There is a separate area where the Sikhs bring their holy text every night at about 9pm and bring it back to the main area inside the temple at about 5am.

We did leave for dinner. By the time we left the hotel, almost everything was closed. Since the temple doesn't ever close except the main area, we decided to go and see it at 11pm. It was a beautiful time to visit because there weren't too many people around. It was very cold as well. The marble floor got so cold at night, it felt like walking on bare ice. Fortunately, at some spots they had a carpet where we could walk. Once we had gazed at the temple to our heart's content, we called it a night.

The following morning we woke up late and by the time we got to the temple it was past noon. Again, there were too many people around and we decided not to go inside the main area. We did go to the Bhandar for lunch again. It was an experience we all wanted to have again. Midafternoon we decided to hire a rickshaw driver and go check out the Jaliawala Bagh (a garden where about 2000 Indians were massacared by the British, an important event in history which fueled the fire of India's independence from the British. A scene you may remember from the movie Gandhi.), an imitation of the golden temple and Attari.

Attari is a village at the India-Pakistan border where they perform the border closing ceremony everyday. It's a ceremony where there is a parade on both sides of the border and there is a flag lowering ceremony on both sides. It's suppose to be quite a spectacle. It was quite amusing to see the ceremony. Men and women had separate sections (rightfully so because women get harrassed by men frequently in India, especially in crowded places). Unfortunately, we didn't realize that they had a separate foreign tourist sections until it was too late.

I think our experience would've been much more pleasant had we been in the foreign tourist section. The return journey was pretty terrible considering the sun was down and it was pretty cold. In an open rickshaw, it gets very chilly and the exhaust from the rickshaw was somehow getting in the sitting area which was nauseating after about 5 minutes in to the ride. Unfortunately, it was about an hour ride back to Amritsar. Upon returning back to Amritsar, we decided we could've skipped the border closing ceremony considering how unpleasant experience we had.

Overall, going to the golden temple in Amritsar was a very unique experience. To find such strong spiritual energy is rare these days. I am glad that we had an opportunity to experience it together with Shani.