Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Festival of Raksha Bandhan

A few weeks ago the festival of Raksha Bandhan was observed in India. This unique celebration is dedicated to the love and affection shared between a brother and sister. The country over girls and women pray for a long life for their brothers and tie a symbolic rakhi bracelet around their wrists, symbolizing the strong emotional bond between siblings.  In response, brothers promise to protect their sisters, and often give them small gifts of sweets or jewelry.

The origins of Raksha Bandhan are not well known.  One early example of rakhi-giving is described in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic poem from ancient India, in which the princess Draupadi tied a cloth around the god Krishna's wrist where he had been hurt by a thorn.  In exchange, Krishna promised to protect her.  

In my Jaipur household the actual giving of the rakhis was a solemn event. The women quietly moved among their brothers and sons, tying on rakhi amulets made of string, glitter and plastic jewels and blessing them by applying a tilaka mark to their foreheads.  The men in turn gave the women some small item of costume jewelry (I really liked mine - dangly earnings made of wire and glass beads). After the serious ceremony the mood lightened as the boys compared their rakhi bracelets, the women gossiped, and everyone ate Raksha Bandhan sweets like rasagoola and ladoo.

Some of the members of my extended host family showing off their rakhis

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

     (in the Nilgiri biosphere reserve)

The Nilgiri biosphere reserve and its constituent parts - source: Wikipedia Commons
Continuing our quest to see more of the tri-state Nilgiri biosphere reserve we bused south from Mysore through the heart of three abutting national parks in three different states - Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala, and Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu. Our timing was a bit unfortunate - it was April, the driest time of the year just before the monsoon starts in late May, and most of the core areas of the parks were closed due to the increased likelihood of a careless cigarette butt thrown out of a window starting a forest fire. But upon arriving at Mudumalai National Park we found that although the core area was closed, it was still possible to see some of the buffer area on jeep tours and guided walks. So after finding a cheap but decent hotel and meeting the resident toad living under one of the beds we went out for an evening jeep safari in the lands buffering the core area of the national park from human encroachment. These areas are used for low impact human activities, such as limited grazing and fodder collection, and serve to protect the core area from such activities. The landscape in this area was very park-like - dense stands of trees interspersed with open grassy areas with closely cropped grass, probably grazed by both wild and domestic animals.

Our jeep safari was a bit of a disappointment - we didn't see much other than chital deer and some hulking vultures squatting in a tree, waiting for a pack of stray dogs to leave the corpse of a calf. Supposedly our tour guide kept getting wind of elephant sightings from other jeep drives, and so we tore back and forth trying to find an elephant for ourselves.  No luck.  We did, however, get to ride on the roof of our jeep!  

Next morning we ventured out on foot with our guide into the buffer area. The stillness of the early morning misty forest was broken by distant music from a village temple. Primary targets for the morning - elephant and tiger. In addition to the English-speaking safari organizer, we also had an inscrutable local village man with us. He wore a dohti and turban and padded through the dewy grass with bare feet. Not once during our three-hour walk did he look at or speak to us tourists. It was his job to 1) find us some wildlife, and 2) make sure we weren't eaten by/stepped on by said wildlife. Going on safari in elephant territory on foot is quite a different experience than in a jeep. As Lonely Planet puts it, hiking safaris sound great until you really consider the phrase "trampled to death".  As we slipped through the morning forest we kept our eyes open for tell-tale signs of the proximity of wildlife. These can include warning calls from other animals, broken branches, and of course, scat.  Our guide was very excited when he found this still-steaming pile of elephant poo. "Very fresh" he said. "Elephant must be close".

Sure enough, just a few minutes later, we saw it, our first wild elephant encountered while on foot.  We kept a very respectful distance from it, and because we were downwind and very quiet, our guide said that it likely didn't know we were there. Elephants have excellent hearing and sense of smell, but poor eyesight. After a few minutes, it faded into the scrub, moving surprisingly gracefully for such a big animal through the dense vegetation. I'm no expert, but this one looked to me like a young-ish female. Any thoughts, all you elephant aficionados out there? No tigers seen on this trip, sadly.  Now that would be an intense on-foot encounter!