Dedicated Follower of Fashion

Added on by John Fahy.

I recently got the chance to go to Paris for the Fashion Week, where I had backstage tickets to one of the catwalk shows. Amidst swarms of fashion photographers and journalists (and one grubby street photographer), some of the world's top models were getting ready, doing interviews and having naps. There were also rare sightings of models at the buffet table, but once they caught your gaze they would dart off like deer in the headlights. Though I have never done 'fashion photography' I figured this would be as fun a place as any to try to take what I have learned on the streets of India and show a different side of this glamorous event. In the chaos of preparation and the excitement of the runway, these are some of the moments I stumbled upon...

The models had to sit for hours while hair and makeup teams went to extraordinary lengths to make them all look exactly the same

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At any one time, about six hands would be plucking, twisting, painting, rubbing and brushing out any kinks for the show

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Models were expected to be ready to pose for the dozens of photographers doing laps of the backstage area

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It was all too much for some....

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It can be hard to find that 'unguarded moment' with models...they can hear your lens focusing from up to 500 yards away, and pose in the blink of an eye

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If not posing or being plucked, models were being interviewed on the collection

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It's important to water your models regularly, and keep them out of direct sunlight!

Miranda Kerr, just before being swarmed by screaming fans outside

Waiting for the show...

 The buildup lasted 2 hours or so, but the show itself was no more than 5 minutes

Land of the Kings

Added on by John Fahy.

Last week I found myself, weak from a bought of Delhi belly, laid out in a non-AC sleeper bus from Delhi to Jaipur. Sweating out whatever little nutrients were left in my body and choking on the dust that only an Indian highway can sweep into the air, I stared out the window at the endless 'hotels' and truck-stops that punctuate any self-respecting beaten track in the sub-continent. When the bus wasn't stopped or tipping over into a ditch to allow traffic come the wrong way down the highway, we crawled our way for 12 hours in what felt like a penance only a God could demand of someone.

It's been 14 months since I arrived in India, almost twice as long as I had been living in Cambridge, preparing for fieldwork. I have spent almost all of that time in Mayapur in West Bengal with occasional trips to Kolkata. I have been lucky enough to travel all over India, Nepal and China over the course of this last year, along the way seeing some amazing places and meeting some really lifelong friends (necessarily optimistic forecast). As I won't have so much time to run around taking photographs once I settle back to a life of an academic in Cambridge, I decided I needed one last photography trip before wrapping up my adventures. Where else would a photographer go, but Rajasthan, the 'Land of the Kings' (stopping by Rishikesh on the way).

For those of you who have followed my Photo Blog over the last year thank you very much. I hope it has provided some distraction from whatever (likely more sensible) path you are on, if nothing else. Do feel free to get in touch with any comments, questions, feedback or photos of your own! I'd love to hear from you!

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Rishikesh is a popular destination for both Westerners and Indians alike, packed full of yoga retreats, German bakeries and and ashrams offering whatever type of austerity tickles your fancy. These women were preparing for a small puja by the Ganga in the early morning.

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I'm not sure if there are more sadhus or cows in the alleyways of Rishikesh...

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This is how any self-respecting Indian starts their day (newspaper optional)

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...Even if you're a sadhu. By the river, these holymen queued up for their morning chai in what seemed to be a kind of Sadhu Soup Kitchen

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Setting up shop in the Pink City in Jaipur

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Hawa Mahal, Jaipur

Near the City Palace, Jaipur, where dozens of makeshift homes have popped up along the veranda

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A busy market near the Gopinath Temple in Jaipur, where women carry the heavy loads and the men conduct negotiations (or take extended breaks)

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Near the City Palace, where street kids get some respite from the 40 degree heat

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Amer Palace, Jaipur

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Picnic on the palace grounds

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The women who sweep the grounds of the palace and fort make a cheeky few extra rupees posing for pictures (they saw me coming!)

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Amer fort that overlooks Jaipur from a hilltop

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Pushkar is a small pilgrimmage town a couple of hours outside Jaipur. These women were preparing to bathe in the lake on the ocassion of Sarasvati's birthday (Brahma's wife)

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Like a lot of locals in Pushkar, people are always ready to have their photo taken for a small 'donation'. They seem to have nailed the distant/ pensive pose...

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This woman was preparing lunch for her family as I came down the alley that led to the doorway of her home (again a small 'donation' was requested)

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This photo is my tribute to Steve McCurry (Nat Geo photographer). We sat and chatted with this lady and her family for a while, taking a break from the heat in Pushkar. She was selling traditional clothes which my friend generously bought just to buy me time to get the photo!

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This little girl was cleaning pots by her family's restaurant down a small alley that leads to the mosque in Ajmer. In what is an otherwise unbelievably chaotic street packed full of beggars rolling on the street, pilgrims clambering to get to the mosque and traders screaming deals, she seemed to find herself a moment of peace

The Harvest

Added on by John Fahy.

It's been a while since I posted a blog about Mayapur and so I decided over the last few weeks to go and get lost in the fields. Though it is quite a small place, it's easy to spend your days between the temple, Madhu's bakery, and if you're lucky enough (which I'm not), an apartment with AC. There really is no need to leave the immediate ISKCON complex but I felt like I needed a bit of an adventure as I've been running around doing interviews recently (like a good anthropologist). As it's harvest time, hundreds of farmers can be seen working through 40 degree heat to clear the fields before the rains come. This is a closer look at the real Mayapur that most people never see...

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Death Knells and Wedding Bells

Added on by John Fahy.

WARNING: There are photos below that some people might find disturbing

From the safety of a small cafe in Bhaktapur, I sat and waited as the thunderstorm whispered itself into an inconvenient drizzle. People began emerging from doorways, and the market square, deserted just moments before, was now teeming with those brave enough to second guess the storm. Just as the narrow alleyways once again were pulsing with a steady flow of tourists, labourers and sacrificial goats, a carnival-like boom announced itself on the horizon. I had no idea what the occasion was but being a nosey photographer, I had to find out.

This post is about people coming together and pulling apart....

Throughout the day, there were dozens of these marching bands heading up wedding processions in Bhakapur. 

Nothing a little tape and ingenuity can't fix...

As there were several stops along the route (at the groom's house for example), the band would play through the rain, making sure to keep the party going through the formalities.

The wedding procession is a deliberately public affair. As it went by, windows and doors would slam open along the route, to see the bride and groom arrive.

Outside of the temple, the groom is greeted by the father of the bride...

He is given blessings before being allowed to proceed with the ceremony.

Over the past year I have attended several Hindu funerals and visited some of India and Nepal's famous 'burning ghats' (where dead bodies are cremated in the open air). For those not familiar with how Hindu tradition both perceives and ritualises death, some of the practises involved are likely to be shocking. Ideas of how we should leave this world are of course different across cultures. This is not the place, however, for an in-depth investigation into underlying ontologies and 'culturally-particular' notions about how we honour the departed but instead, I have offered an insight into these ideas through some shots of poignant moments of a Hindu 'funeral'. As in the west, where we have removals, wakes, burials etc. the cremation ceremony is but one aspect of a larger series of rituals, involving the family and friends of the deceased. 

The bodies of the deceased arrive at the Pashupatinath Temple sometimes just hours after death. Among the purifying rituals, the body is bathed in the water before being taken to be cremated.

Once bathed, the men take over, while the women traditionally don't take part any further in proceedings (one of the reasons for this is that women are thought to be emotionally incapable of coping with the situation)

Along with various offerings, prasad (or ritually offered food) will be placed in the mouth of the deceased for the journey)

The body, along with flowers and offerings, is placed on the pyre by family members 

The eldest male in the family is the chief mourner and carries out the main duties throughout the ceremony (though in some traditions it can be the youngest male). He must have his head shaved and following the cremation (along with other family members) will be purified over the course of several more ceremonies.

An offering of ghee is poured on the body before burning

Everyone queues to throw a stick on the pyre, offering their final goodbyes in the process (the women are still kept at a distance at this point)

Circling the pyre seven times, the chief mourner lights the pyre

Once this is done, he collapses into the arms of his family 

As the pyre begins to burn, a monkey gathers some of the fruit offerings intended for the Gods

In devotion to Lord Ram, this sadhu spends his days writing out his Sri Ram mantra. Page after page are filled with a few devotional syllables that are thought to facilitate a transcendence between the mundane and the spiritual worlds. This is somewhat strange as most such traditions in Hindu theology are based on the sound vibration of uttering the mantra.

A few metres away from the burning ghats, there is an elderly home where people have come to spend their last years in the hope of attaining a good death in this holy place. Despite such a morbid premise, they were surprisingly a cheerful bunch!

The Streets of Nepal

Added on by John Fahy.

It was 6am in Kathmandu. The narrow city streets were showing hints of waking, still groggy from the night before. On the way to Durbar Square, I came across a small shrine where people from all walks of life were clambering to say a prayer in front of the deities before starting their day. You can hear the murmour of blessings, the babel of babies crying in the bustle, as broken shutter doors swing open into a new day, as if Nepal was staging a scene from Dickens...

The tiny country of Nepal is home to 8 of the 10 highest peaks in the world, is littered with UNESCO heritage sites and boasts some of the slowest internet speeds on the planet. Though Nepal has some of the world's most exciting hydro-electricity projects, like small countries all over the world, its resources are drained by its towering neighbour, India. This means that Nepalis must do without electricity for 10-12 hours of the day. Nepal is a popular destination for people applying for Indian visas, like a purgatory for wretched souls from all over the world, waiting for their ticket to self-realisation. On a recent visa trip, I was lucky enough to spend a week in the Kathmandu valley, between Bhaktapur, Nagarkhot and other day trips. The following photo blog is the first of a short series on Nepal...

Everywhere you go in Kathmandu, you can be sure that there are a few pairs of eyes watching your every move...

It was 6am in the market square. These women, sitting by a shrine,  were having a smoke and a chai before the morning rush

This little girl wasn't sure what was going on, but she was being blessed at one of the thousands of shrines that litter the streets of Kathmandu. As you would find in Bali and all over India, small shrines are a hub of activity in the morning hours as people get darshan (sight of the deity) before going to work.

Traditionally in Nepal, women (who do most of the heavy lifting) strap a doko (large basket) to their foreheads, with the bottom of the basket rests on their lower back, distributing the weight a little. It is not uncommon to see these baskets brimming with vegetables, cement or even bricks!

The kids in Kathmandu seemed to love nothing more than a day out chasing pigeons!

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Every morning and evening, the local women meet at the well for a chat and well, some water...

Buddhists from a nearby monastery out looking for donations (given in the large bowls they were carrying)

Every evening, Nepalis (mostly elderly) meet up and watch the world go by in one of the many public verandas on the corner of every block in the city

This guy was working on a decorative piece for the top of a nearby temple

At the crack of dawn, everyone would head to the busy marketplace to get their day's produce. This bustling area would, within a couple of hours, turn into a quiet deserted square...

The future was not bright for these geese. Though about to be separated at the market, they managed to get in one last kiss...

This lady spent about an hour going to give an offering in every shrine in Durbar Square (a central area famous for its old temples).

For the week I spent in Nepal, there were goats everywhere. People were buying, selling, feeding and parading goats throughout the city. I later found out that this was because there were to be mass sacrifices around the city for an annual festival...

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Paintings for sale in the 'Heritage City' of Bhaktapur

Even with heavy loads, people always had time to stop for some banter...

Talking philosophy...

These men gather, singing bhajans (hymns) by the temple entrance every evening

Brahmins and Boulangeries

Added on by John Fahy.

Mumbai, known previously as Bombay, is one of the most populated cities in the world and the financial centre behind India's recent (but wavering) 'boom'. Brahmins and boulangeries, parties and puja. Mumbai is a lot to take in. The old and the new, the east and the west, like inebriated dancers tangoing their way awkwardly into the same bed at the end of a night that got out of hand.

I was only in Mumbai for 3 days, and did not get as much opportunity as I would have liked to explore (beyond the comforts of Colaba anyway). There were the ethically dubious tours of the slums and a host of museums that undoubtedly smelled like 1759, but I chose to spend my time wandering the streets in an attempt to find 'the real Mumbai'. Giving myself such little time to get comfortable in such a huge city, especially without Marathi or Hindi, my quest was doomed from the start.

For the first time, as a photographer, however, I was showered with shrimp water in a marketplace where the women made it clear that they 'don't take kindly to my folk around here'. The following are a few shots from an under fire photographer lost in the big smoke...

 Family house in the heart of the dhobi ghat (place where laundry is done)

Family house in the heart of the dhobi ghat (place where laundry is done)

 I have no idea how they keep track of who owns what clothes but the whole dhobi ghat is completely colour coordinated and efficiently run, returning clothes on the same day if requested all over Mumbai

I have no idea how they keep track of who owns what clothes but the whole dhobi ghat is completely colour coordinated and efficiently run, returning clothes on the same day if requested all over Mumbai

 Once the clothes are wet, they are soaped and beaten on stone

Once the clothes are wet, they are soaped and beaten on stone

 Elephanta Island Temple carved into a cave

Elephanta Island Temple carved into a cave

 People gather to see an ancient Shiva carving

People gather to see an ancient Shiva carving

 View of Mumbai from the ferry

View of Mumbai from the ferry

 Birdman of Mumbai (not sure if this is his official title)

Birdman of Mumbai (not sure if this is his official title)

 This shot was taken in a clock shop..as you can probably tell

This shot was taken in a clock shop..as you can probably tell

 Kids watching a game of street cricket

Kids watching a game of street cricket

 Street cricket by on the promenade in Colaba

Street cricket by on the promenade in Colaba

 These kids were taking a break between boats, jumping into the filthy harbour water that was full of rubbish...still though, in this heat it was quite tempting!

These kids were taking a break between boats, jumping into the filthy harbour water that was full of rubbish...still though, in this heat it was quite tempting!

Fishing in God's Own Country

Added on by John Fahy.

The South Indian state of Kerala is famous for its its traditional 'Chinese fishing nets', its beautiful backwaters and most importantly, its epic moustaches. I have been living in West Bengal over this last year, where despite the stereotype, the moustache is noticeably uncommon, as is the famous (and often baffling) 'Indian head wobble'. On a recent trip down south, I was relieved to find that the moustache is indeed alive and well, just hiding in Kerala (where the internet tells me 80% of males have a hairy upper lip).

As Mayapur had been frantic over the last month or so with the Gaura Purnima festivities attracting thousands of devotees from all corners of the globe, I felt I needed a breather.  Where better to go, I thought, than Kerala,  with nearly 400 miles of coastline, golden beaches, exotic backwaters and some of the country's best ayurvedic retreats and yoga centres (not that I went near them). Though the phrase 'God's Own Country' has been used to describe more than a few places around the world, including my own home county of Wicklow, Kerala has seized upon this slogan to bolster its now booming tourism industry.

Though this post is about something I hate and fear with an equal zeal, namely fish, Kerala is a beautiful part of the subcontinent and though I made sure not to taste the famous fish curries, the following photos should offer a window of sorts onto the lives of the fishermen...and I suppose also the deaths of the fish they catch.

Small fishing village near the popular Kovalam beach, Kerala.

After an unsuccessful morning out at sea, these fishermen pack up for the day

On the golden beach near the harbour, these men were dragging their traditional boat onto the shore. This took almost 20 men quite a while

These women were waiting for their turn to bargain a good price

As the catch comes in, the boat is surrounded the second it hits the shore, prices are shouted as people push and shove each other to survey the catch. Men and women compete and out of the chaos, somehow a deal is done. All is quiet for about 2 minutes until the next boat comes in...

These are just a few of the hundreds of types of fish that continuously come in from the returning boats throughout the morning. Some are laid out in boats like this, others in the sand by the shore, where people gather to bargain

Once sold, the fish were collected (usually by women) and taken to the market where locals would come, and more bargaining would ensue...

There must have been no more than a couple of hours between catch and consumption, with women setting up stalls along the harbour to prepare and sell the new arrivals

Until the boats came in, all you can do is wait...

With all the fish and scraps up for grabs, there were hundreds of birds circling the harbour all morning

These fishermen were making preparations for an 6am departure the following day

In Cochin, these fishermen had just arrived back from an outing. They spent over an hour whipping the nets to get the small fish free and ready for sale.

The Lungs of Kolkata

Added on by John Fahy.

Rudyard Kipling wrote of 19th century Kolkata:

Thus the midday halt of Charnock–more’s the pity!
Grew a City.
As the fungus sprouts chaotic from its bed,
So it spread–
Chance-directed, chance-erected, laid and built
On the silt–
Palace, byre, hovel–poverty and pride–
Side by side;
And, above the packed and pestilential town,
Death looked down.

Straddling the Hooghly river, the old Raj capital sprawls 'like fungus' towards the horizon, which itself is lost somewhere between the moody skyline and gloomy firmament. From a distance the city looks like it is in the throws of a nuclear holocaust, some barking dogs and beeping horns the only signs of life in an otherwise smouldering ruin. What Kipling described as 'The City of Dreadful Night' was once the second city of the British Empire, though as your taxi driver pulls up to urinate on the side of the main road, you wonder where it all went wrong…

Having spent three months living in Kolkata (and during several trips since), I have explored the markets, the ghats and the alleyways. Each market like an organ, the alleyways like veins and between them flowing everything Kolkata needs to survive; vegetables, rice and rickshaws, if my experience is anything to go by. In this post I want to step outside of the bowels of the city and take a look at another corner of the city. Often called the 'Lungs of Kolkata', the Maidan is a huge park located near the Victoria Memorial building. While this may not be Central Park (the dogs in New York have more clothes than some of the people here), it is a hub of recreation, a reprise from the relentless soundscape of the city, and has been a culturally and historically important space for Kolkatans for centuries.

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The park is owned by the army and used on occasion for drills and ceremonies

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I am not completely sure what was going on here, but I think it's reasonable to assume the whole West Bengal army were learning the dance to the popular 90's song 'Macarena'

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Taking a break between dance routines, these soldiers hung out for most of the day while it was others' turn to step it up

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Just as I took this photo, he pulled the trigger. I had barely reaslied what happened until his superior slapped him a few times on the head and took his rifle away...I guess I'm lucky bullets aren't standard issue

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Kabaddi is a style of team wrestling popular in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, Punjab and other parts of India. These locals were training for an upcoming competition.

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Face-off...the calm before the storm. The idea is for the guy in the shorts, once tagged, to get passed the other guy...

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As you might guess, this sometimes ends in tears...

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This guy had his pet monkey perform tricks for tourists just outside the park. Most of them were less impressive than disturbing and certainly cruel. The monkey clearly was tired of the routine...

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This guy, carrying his stall on his head, was roaming around the park looking for a spot to set up

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These kids were watching on as the army worked through its drills

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Among other attractions here for tourists, kids ride horses around the corner of the park and charge a small fee for a more tame ride

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This poor kid was taking a long nap in the middle of the park. Extreme poverty is never far away in Kolkata

Big Trouble In Little China - Play

Added on by John Fahy.

Centuries before Geertz made fieldnotes on the deep play of Balinese cockfights, Michel de Montainge wrote that "children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity." Famously using the games children play as a window into their developing character, Montaigne was convinced that play was a formative arena within which values were cast, and character could be detected early on. Should there be any value in his observation, what then should we make of the games adults play? I should point out at this point that Montaigne, ironically, was himself was an avid gambler.

When most of us think of the word 'play', children come to mind. Children play in the dirt, they play with their friends, they play with toys. Children play a whole range of games, from the universally popular 'Tag' to the more Irish 'IRA' (a game whereby one team has to chase and beat the other team up until each individual submits and reveals their letter, ultimately making a word). Though we, as adults, may resent children for the freedom they enjoy and the games they can play, we soldier on, leaving playtime behind us, replacing it with more serious pursuits like making money, deciding on insurance providers or folding matching pairs of socks. The idea of play of course is hardly absent from the lives of adults, but has to be recast as 'recreation', 'leisure' or something more palatable or 'appropriate' for our age. But we play. Be it playing an Xbox, playing a sport, or just gambling, we all turn to some form of the recreational other to escape whatever it is that otherwise fills our days.

The aim of this post it to show the Chinese idea of 'play', leisure and recreation. Over the course of my brief trip, it seemed that the Chinese were uninhibited by the boundaries we in the West impose on 'playtime'. Playtime seamlessly blends into bustling social spaces, where we would expect only children to be allowed to kick footballs, play with kites or dance in the street. I should preface this, as usual, by saying this is not an in-depth anthropological project (and reeks of naive exoticism). This is more than anything a convenient net to cast over the photos below. Sitting here writing this, however, I can't help feeling the urge to jump up and run out the door shouting 'I'm going out to play!'

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In the middle of the main shopping street in Shanghai on Christmas day, these women burst into a bout of Thai Chi.

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The parks of Shanghai are full of people playing cards, and usually attract a small audience of enthusiasts, resulting in arguments and applause.

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The parks are immaculately clean and make for a great space for people watching

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This guy calmly set down his things, set up his speakers and without looking for donations of any sort, just started dancing. If this was to happen in Ireland, I can imagine he would be ridiculed, or worse still, removed for disturbing the peace.

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From 5am and throughout the day, the Bund is home to dozens of men flying kites (they take it quite seriously) and stop to compare their toys as they pass each other.

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In my search for Chinese culture, I came across this tourist dressing up in Ming attire. Seconds later he was outside dancing 'Gangman style' for photos

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After taking a dip in an icy lake (literally a lake mostly covered in ice), this man then stretched for a while by the road

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This is may be the happiest person I have ever met. I stayed for a while watching him in the park, though our interactions were restricted to hand gestures. He was quite old but had the energy of a 12 year old and was clearly delighted to be out in the park on this crispy morning. He excitedly ran over every couple of minutes to see the shots, laughing his head off at his expressions and dance moves!

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This shot was taken on the Bund at 6am or so. This man goes there every morning for at least an hour of Thai Chi, ignoring the joggers, kite flyers and speed walkers.

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From a hilltop nearby, I heard a saxophone in the distance. I followed the sound to the corner of the park. As I got there, this guy was playing Mozart's Turkish March, which seems incredibly difficult on piano, but surely impossible on sax? He asked me where I was from and when I said Ireland, he played something that resembled Oh Danny Boy. Again, not looking for money, just playing in the park.

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These women work on a hilltop station in the park, which left me out of breath after climbing its steep stairs. Once I asked to take a picture, they started fixing each other up, breadcrumbs still clinging to their lips!

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Relaxing in the sun. All along this wall, elderly people sat out reading the paper and chatting.

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This was one of many intense games of Xiangqi going on in this small park. A small crowd gathered here to watch this particular game.

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This guy had the right idea. He had been watching cards for about half an hour, and decided he needed a quick power nap before getting back in the game!

Big Trouble In Little China - The City

Added on by John Fahy.

Like cities all around the world, both Beijing and Shanghai, have lost much of their traditional architecture to 'progress'. Though there are of course still some 'hutongs' (old-style alleys)  that creep around the cities' roots, China in this respect was again disappointingly (though impressively) 'modern'.

In this installment, as in previous weeks, I am going to leave the photos for the most part speak for themselves. Though I didn't find one 'Little China Town' in all of China(!), I did stumble upon some beautiful colonial buildings on the Bund, some megalomaniacal Chinese architecture in Beijing, and a little French enclave in the heart of Shanghai(?)...

 The Bund in Shanghai stretches a couple of miles along the Huangpu River, offering great views of Pudong on the other side

The Bund in Shanghai stretches a couple of miles along the Huangpu River, offering great views of Pudong on the other side

 Progress. This is the financial centre of the city, called Pudong. Though it has skyscrapers that rival those of Dubai, it is never far from one of the many parks or open areas in Shanghai

Progress. This is the financial centre of the city, called Pudong. Though it has skyscrapers that rival those of Dubai, it is never far from one of the many parks or open areas in Shanghai

 The Oriental Pearl TV Tower

The Oriental Pearl TV Tower

 These guys were having a casual chat on the Bund at 6am, most likely about the pollution that managed to pull a curtain of smog across an otherwise magical sunrise view!

These guys were having a casual chat on the Bund at 6am, most likely about the pollution that managed to pull a curtain of smog across an otherwise magical sunrise view!

 One of the many colonial style buildings that dominate the Bund waterfront

One of the many colonial style buildings that dominate the Bund waterfront

 Self Portrait

Self Portrait

 Long exposure on the Bund

Long exposure on the Bund

 Though Shanghai has grown up to be one of the major economic hubs of China, the city is covered in parks, where people play cards, exercise or just have some banter!

Though Shanghai has grown up to be one of the major economic hubs of China, the city is covered in parks, where people play cards, exercise or just have some banter!

 The Forbidden City, built by the Ming Dynasty, still stands as a symbol of power in the heart of Beijing (complete with a giant picture of Mao)

The Forbidden City, built by the Ming Dynasty, still stands as a symbol of power in the heart of Beijing (complete with a giant picture of Mao)

 Tucked away in a small enclave in Shanghai is a small network of alleyways called 'The French Concession'. This area is home to craft beers, European style cuisine and artists of all stripes. This girl was finishing off a photo-realistic painting, so realistic that it makes you wonder if you should just stick with the photograph! I of course then took a photo of it to restore balance to an otherwise crazy situation.

Tucked away in a small enclave in Shanghai is a small network of alleyways called 'The French Concession'. This area is home to craft beers, European style cuisine and artists of all stripes. This girl was finishing off a photo-realistic painting, so realistic that it makes you wonder if you should just stick with the photograph! I of course then took a photo of it to restore balance to an otherwise crazy situation.

 I stumbled upon this place in Beijing, where progress has obviously left some people behind. Somebody had made a home of sorts in this abandoned building

I stumbled upon this place in Beijing, where progress has obviously left some people behind. Somebody had made a home of sorts in this abandoned building

 On a freezing cold public holiday in Beijing, the area around Hou Hai Lake was thronging with locals getting some fresh(?) air

On a freezing cold public holiday in Beijing, the area around Hou Hai Lake was thronging with locals getting some fresh(?) air

 Apparently, it's a must to take a selfie over Mao's selfie.

Apparently, it's a must to take a selfie over Mao's selfie.

Big Trouble in Little China - Dogs

Added on by John Fahy.

One of the first things people think of when they think of China is the 'One-Child Policy'. Though nowadays the policy is more nuanced and there are situations where a couple can have more than one child, we in the west continue to scoff at what is sometimes portrayed as a breach of human rights and dignity.

A significantly less controversial policy in both Shanghai and Beijing is the 'One-Dog Policy'. As you can imagine, this means that people can only own one dog. To make things a little more awkward for dog-owners in Beijing, dogs above 13.7 inches tall are not allowed in the city. Among other canines that break this law are 'large and vicious' dogs including, by their criteria, golden retrievers.

Over the last few years, dog-owners have taken to walking their 'legally over-sized' dogs at night, hoping that they won't be spotted. The penalty for owning large dogs is more severe for the pet than the patron - they are taken away and 'disposed of'. Night-raids and scenes reminiscent of 101 Dalmations have become a common problem for those daring owners who stand up to the might of the People's Republic, with an act of rebellion so cute, that it just might topple communism....doubtful though.

This post is intended as nothing more than an ode to dogs for no other reason other than the fact I like them. Maybe in time, however, the photos here will represent scenes of a bygone era where man and beast lived in harmony...but well, probably not.

 It's not uncommon for dogs, especially in the winter time, to wear little outfits

It's not uncommon for dogs, especially in the winter time, to wear little outfits

 These dogs were hanging out in Kunming, waiting to be sold (there are less restrictions on big dogs in this part of China)

These dogs were hanging out in Kunming, waiting to be sold (there are less restrictions on big dogs in this part of China)

 I met this guy in Shanghai. He was taking his locusts for a walk in the park.

I met this guy in Shanghai. He was taking his locusts for a walk in the park.

 To buy or not to buy...

To buy or not to buy...

 This girl's parents seemingly run this pet shop. As I was walking by, I noticed her whispering and chatting with these little dogs who seemed happy for the attention

This girl's parents seemingly run this pet shop. As I was walking by, I noticed her whispering and chatting with these little dogs who seemed happy for the attention

 This dog seemed a little confused as to what he should do now for his break outside of the cage! (Again, in Kunming large dogs are allowed)

This dog seemed a little confused as to what he should do now for his break outside of the cage! (Again, in Kunming large dogs are allowed)

 On a nearby street, there were some cats for sale...horrible creatures

On a nearby street, there were some cats for sale...horrible creatures

 Apparently, it's really hard to clean a puppy's pen when they think everything is a game! These are some of the 'large and vicious' dogs that the laws in Beijing prohibit.

Apparently, it's really hard to clean a puppy's pen when they think everything is a game! These are some of the 'large and vicious' dogs that the laws in Beijing prohibit.

 A night walk in Shanghai. This dog was about the same size as me.

A night walk in Shanghai. This dog was about the same size as me.

  I came across this intimate moment in Kunming. On a street where hundreds of dogs were for sale, the workers who look after them clearly don't like saying goodbye once they're sold!  After brushing this dog and preparing it to leave, these two hugged for at least 2 minutes.

I came across this intimate moment in Kunming. On a street where hundreds of dogs were for sale, the workers who look after them clearly don't like saying goodbye once they're sold! After brushing this dog and preparing it to leave, these two hugged for at least 2 minutes.

Big Trouble in Little China - Streets

Added on by John Fahy.

I can't remember the last time I felt 'culture shock' of any sort. Cambridge at times feels like a parody of itself, or a figment of Stephen Fry's imagination, while Rome felt like someone had recently built some ruins where the Via Appia had given up.  Somewhere in between, Bahrain seemed like an Arabian-themed California where Gucci shades come half-price with every purchase of two or more hijabs. Though each of these places of course can boast its own rich cultural heritage, architecture, cuisine, music and so on, it can be difficult to peel away the layers of H&M's, KFC's and Starbucks and actually get a sense for the 'culture' of a place or a people (whatever that means).

Having spent 7 months in West Bengal, I was ready for a break. Though the prospect of Christmas alone in Shanghai was a strange one to say the least, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really excited to get a quick breather from all things India. I had never been to China and had absolutely no Mandarin apart from the token 'Nihao' (which is not going to get you out of a sticky situation). In my naivete I assumed that China would essentially be a larger version of the various 'Little Chinas' you find in London or New York for example. This was not the case.

This 'Big Trouble in Little China' series of blog bites is a collection of memories and musings. Over the course of two weeks, I walked for days through the streets and parks of Beijing, Shanghai, and briefly, Kunming. The aim is not so much to make any cultural observations (or judgments!) but rather to present what I found on my travels, as I saw it, through my trusty lens. More than anything, this blog outlines one anthropologist's humble quest to find some culture shock!

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Along the historical Bund walkway, which traces the Huangpu River in Shanghai, couples get their photos taken. They pose for 30 seconds or so and then get wrapped up in heavy coats to fight off the freezing temperatures and biting winds.

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I can only guess that this was a mannequin store...though who would need a jazz hands mannequin, I don't know

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In the small (and deserted) 'historical town' of Cuandaxia about 2 hours outside of Beijing, we came across a goat being gutted (note the head against the wall in the background). When we first came across them, they were skinning the goat, and half an hour later, this is what we found!

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This scene was just off a bustling market street in Shanghai. This seems to have been where traders would come for a quick break

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Fast food and banter in Shanghai

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This old man was just relaxing outside his home in a hutong (traditional narrow alleyways in Beijing). The hutongs are some of the only places in Beijing where you get a sense for 'traditional' or 'authentic', at least in an intimate way.

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In the Forbidden City, something caught this guy's attention (probably the sound of my camera taking forbidden photos')

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Early in the morning before going to the Great Wall, dumplings were some of the only breakfast food available...apart from a conveniently placed McDonalds. I bought a small bag of them but unfortunately, as they are steamed, they tasted like soggy bread with the tiniest sliver of spinach (apparently) inside.

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This street was one of the busiest snack streets I came across, and it was hard to navigate without bumping into a rickshaw or hungry locals. Not a bother for this guy! He sat on a stool in the middle of the street, awkwardly splitting the road, eating nuts and spitting out shells, completely oblivious to everything going on around him.

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Hygiene standards on the street were similar to what you might find in India...dangerous!

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On a frozen lake near the Forbidden City, people were renting various kinds of improvised skis, including "ice bikes",  "ice shoes" and "chair-skis" with sticks...everything you can think of expect ice skates! I think they got the chairs from my old primary school in Bray!

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Maybe this is what culture shock looks like?!

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Cobbler chatting away with a local

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All over Shanghai and Beijing were these little motorbikes. They were so quiet, they seemed to spring out of nowhere. Coming from India where beeping seems to ad to the aerodynamic efficiency, this left me quite confused...and almost run over on several occasions.

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Markets in Shanghai often take the form of crates sprawled in front of shop fronts...much like India, but with crates.

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These kids were playing in the Forbidden City (though I can't remember what got the girl on the right so excited!)

COMING NEXT WEEK!

The next blog bite in the series is about animals, in particular dogs. If you care deeply about legal issues surrounding golden retrievers in Beijing, or more likely, if you just want to see some pictures of cute puppies, watch this space!

The Meaningful in the Mundane

Added on by John Fahy.

The closest I have come to a pilgrimage in my lifetime would be the few trips I went on with my dad to see Manchester United play. The god was Alex Ferguson, the cathedral, the Theatre of Dreams. Outside of the stadium, the smell of greasy battered sausage and chips wafted through the buzzing crowds as thousands waited for the players to pull up before the game. Inside, a red sea of 70,000 fans sang of the glories of the inimitable Eric Cantona, as my dad learned all about the creativity of my cursing (thanks, funnily enough, in no small part to my singing in the stands with the Old Trafford faithful).

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself signing up for the Nabadwip Parikrama, which is essentially a 6-day pilgrimage around sacred sights of the Nabadwip and Mayapur area. Each day, devotees spend 12 hours, from 5am-5pm, traveling around the area, stopping at various temples, shrines or spots by the Ganga for example, where they would gather and sing or listen to lectures about Krishna and other important figures that illuminate the path back to godhead. Most days' proceedings were led by senior Vaisnavas, devotees from all over the world who have spent their lives in pursuit of Krishna's mercy. I had recently read a book about the sites and had also visited a few of them out of curiosity, so I felt I was somewhat prepared. I was wrong.

 Guided spiritual tour around the sacred places of Nabadwip

Guided spiritual tour around the sacred places of Nabadwip

5am on the first morning: the birds are yet to wake but I find myself surrounded by Hare Krishnas singing bhajans (devotional songs) in the park. Once this session is finished, we are then loaded onto buses to take us to our first destination, which in this case was 3 minutes down the road. Stepping off the bus onto the road that runs through Mayapur, a number of devotees begin rolling around on the floor, and in the process covering themselves in dust and dirt from the ground. This dust, I was told, is itself sacred, as it is part of the 'Holy Dham'. While this served as a reasonable explanation, it certainly did not serve as motivation, and my feet remained firmly on the ground. 

 In the background, the new Temple of Vedic Planetarium dominates the Mayapur skyline, as the local women go to work on the fields

In the background, the new Temple of Vedic Planetarium dominates the Mayapur skyline, as the local women go to work on the fields

Over the course of the parikrama, I sat for hours and hours on end listening to stories about Krishna, Caitanya (the 16th century saint to whose lineage ISKCON belongs), and other devotees of the Lord. Sitting on marble floor in temples for some of the time, dirt roads covered by plastic sheets for the rest, it was far from comfortable. Austerity, however, is a necessary element of the parikrama. Ridding oneself of material attachments and worldly comforts paves the way for Krishna Consciousness. Again, understanding the logic behind the practise did not encourage enthusiasm in this 'conditioned soul' (what devotees call non-devotees). Though I have been in Mayapur just over 4 months at this point, and although there are thousands of verses of 'Krishna's pastimes' (stories about Krishna), I find myself getting bored of hearing a small repertoire of stories repeated over and over again. 'Hearing about Krishna' is an ethical imperative for devotees, something which they build their day around and something that animates an ever-intensifying emotional relationship with the Supreme Lord. It is a mistake to think of this storytelling as a form of entertainment, but rather as a necessary element of devotional worship.  For someone without that ruci (taste) for love of Krishna, hearing these stories repeatedly can be monotonous, as of course can be said for the chanting, the kirtan and the daily schedule at the temple. It seems that the closer I get to the practises at the heart of ISKCON, the further I feel cut off from the philosophy.

 Morning chores

Morning chores

Every Saturday evening during the winter months, the devotees put on what is called the 'Hati procession' ('hati' meaning elephant in Bengali). From the main temple, a parade of devotees, deities and a variety of animals complete a lap of the temple complex, accompanied by kirtans, dancing and drum performances. This is watched by thousands of pilgrims and residents who follow the procession around the route. Gaura-Nitai deities are wheeled out in front, pulled by oxen and surrounded by singing and dancing devotees, performing familiar kritan tunes. Behind them is a group of boys from the local gurukul school performing in a drum circle. Beyond one more layer of singing and dancing devotees, the two resident elephants are accompanied by more gurukul boys chanting Vedic mantras and stopping every couple of hundred feet, so that pujaris can make offerings.

 One of the twin pujaris stands by as puja is offered in the background

One of the twin pujaris stands by as puja is offered in the background

This spectacle represents exactly what ISKCON is about. At processions like these, the complex becomes a stage upon which ISKCON performs itself for itself, with the added bonus of pilgrims lining the route. In the holy land of Mayapur where the multimillion dollar Temple of Vedic Planetarium rises in the background to pierce the skyline, devotees of all ages and races come together, bound by a commitment to an ideal of ancient Vedic culture. Propelled by the proselytising mission at the heart of that ideal, devotees, just as Caitanya had done 500 years earlier, line the streets singing and chanting the holy names of the Lord.

 Street puppies

Street puppies

Over the past 6 months or so, I typically go out once or twice a week taking photographs, whether in Mayapur, Kolkata, or across the river in Nabadwip. The goal is always the same; to take photographs of people in spaces. From women selling fish on the ground at the market, people bathing in the Ganga, or the whole village posing for a photo, I have spent months trying to capture moments. I have tried to narrate, through photography, the lives of the people of West Bengal in their element, doing whatever it is they do. Just like my ethnographic research, photography demands that I find the meaningful in the mundane.

Photography is not just about framing a shot, adjusting the aperture, or buying a fancy camera. Photography is about relationships, interactions, moments. Searching, as I am, for the meaningful moments, photography is more than anything about blending in. Over 6ft tall, with Irish skin that oscillates seasonally between a pasty glare and a rosy burn, and ears that threaten lift-off on a windy day, this is no small feat. More often than not when I set out to take photos, I walk. I walk for hours through city streets or village dirt-paths. On the way, I stop and ask people if I can take photos. Some say no, in which case I walk on. Some say yes, in which case I do my best to make it as painless as possible for them, taking no more than a couple of shots and moving on, depending on their enthusiasm. At times, the interactions can be incredibly brief, though at other times I myself turn into the unsuspecting spectacle behind the camera. 

 Nabadwip (across the river)

Nabadwip (across the river)

Walking through Nabadwip last weekend, I came across a small area splashed with colours in an otherwise rather grey area of town (see above photo). I decided this would probably be a good place to try to get some shots, so I stopped at the chai stand across the road. Trying to think of a subtle enough reason to invade these people's private lives, I was ambushed before I could finish my small clay pot of chai. Noticing the camera, the chai-wallah ('tea guy') asked for me to take his picture. I needed to check the light and adjust the settings anyway so I was happy to take a couple of shots and show him. While he was posing for his close-up, little did I realise that behind my back swarms of kids had begun to emerge from the colourful neighbourhood across the road, as if smelling the bideshi (foreigner) from a distance. By the time I got a vague sense that I had company, I turned around to find about two dozen local kids pushing and cramming, all eagerly surrounding me to get their photo taken. I felt like the last barrel of ale before prohibition, though this has become quite common in my travels around India, and something I certainly have no right to complain about.

 The whole village literally came out to see me...and my camera

The whole village literally came out to see me...and my camera

This being a day I was determined to spend outside of the confines of the ISKCON temple, I ended up spending about an hour in this area, drinking tea and taking photos of an ever-demanding throng of impatient kids. Some wanted single photos, some wanted photos with their friends. Some people brought their babies to be photographed, some their parents. It turned out to be absolutely impossible to get the oft-requested 'single chobi' (single photo), as wherever I pointed the camera at least 5 kids would appear in the frame, battling for their place in yet another photo. After taking the shot, I would turn the camera around so the kids could see their picture. Without fail, regardless of how serious or silly their pose, this would result in an eruption of laughter and giggles that would ripple to the edges of the crowd, all the way to the smaller kids who didn't even catch a glimpse of the photo.

 My local chai wallah in his element

My local chai wallah in his element

People often ask me when they see my photos from India, 'how do you deal with the poverty everywhere?' This is a reasonable question, and to the neophyte, India is certainly a challenging place to visit, let alone try to discover beyond the beaten tracks. Through interactions like this however, you learn not to see the poverty. Maybe this is a necessary skill to develop in order to stay in India so long or maybe it's a deeply unsatisfying excuse for what might seem like apathy. Perceiving poverty, in my experience, requires an analytical distance, made possible only by the absence of interaction. When lost in a moment, you quite simply do not have the required analytical distance to assign labels. A newborn baby is not ‘Indian’, smiling faces don’t belong to a particular ‘caste’ and the economic background of the chai-wallah has nothing to do with my craving a cup of tea! Poverty too, in this way, has a funny way of hiding itself, disappearing at the very point you would expect it to become uncomfortably real. Without the necessary distance between us, and in the context of brimming interactions and uncontainable laughter, poverty has no choice but to wait…most probably to reveal itself once more to the taxi car that goes past, full of bemused bideshis wondering how it is that Mother India could allow her people live in such squalor.

The theatre of ‘doing photography’ reminds me of Geertz’s ethnographic experience of cockfights in Bali. What starts out simply as me taking a photo of one person, turns into a circus, at the centre of which I find myself stammering through broken Bangla, trying to understand the order/ chaos unfolding before my eyes, all the while trying to decide at what point I should just run for cover. Much like my fieldwork, it is not queues or crowds that form around me when I am taking pictures, but billowing hierarchies, cherished relationships, and microcosms that point to meaning well beyond the immediacy of the act we are all engaging in. As a photographer, my aim is to capture these fleeting shadows, freeze-frame these moments that can only whisper their way in and out of the photograph. The art of photography maybe is best summed up in the words of Derek Mahon; "At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime."

 Mother and baby

Mother and baby

Like Socrates, after visiting the oracle at Delphi, I feel like I am at that point now where I know just enough to know that I don't know anything at all (though comparing myself to Socrates may be a strange way to establish a humble tone to this concluding paragraph). At this stage, as is often the case (if not always) with anthropological fieldwork, my ideas have changed with my experience. Wavering between ideas of knowledge, emotion and 'Vedic Culture' ("whatever that is", as one of the most senior devotees in the movement commented in an interview), I find myself tip-toeing through a network of rabbit holes. It seems that every time I have a ‘realisation’ (to borrow a theistic phrase) and I feel like the field data is cohering around a central theme, it turns out to be just another rabbit hole in disguise. Despite the frustrations of the field, however, things are going relatively well. I have been going to the gurukul classes where we are studying the first canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam (a key text of over 18,000 verses) and I have also attended both cooking classes and deity dressing classes. I have been very lucky to meet with some of the leading figures of the movement and have a lot planned for January and beyond. Next week I will be traveling to China for a break and some good ol' Christmas cheer (whatever that looks like in the land of the red dragon!) so watch this space for my next blog post, "Big Trouble in Little China".

And so it goes...and so it goes.

 Local kids watching western devotees having lunch

Local kids watching western devotees having lunch

No such thing as a free lunch?

Added on by John Fahy.

On an overcast Wednesday afternoon, waiting for my teacher, I sat at the back of a quiet temple trying desperately to play a clear note on my flute. As the deities were resting, and almost everyone in Mayapur taking a nap, I had arranged to meet my flute teacher here for my first class. We had met the week before when he gave me my flute and, I had assumed, would introduce me to some basics. This meeting ended after about 10 minutes of his head in his hands, as I dragged some tortured sounds kicking and screaming out of the new flute. I wasn't sure whether I was particularly bad or if this was not intended to be a class in the first place, but we quickly decided it would be best if I called him as soon as I figured out how to make the flute sing (strange teaching method I thought!).

Day one then ended with no instruction on how to hold the flute, no tips for beginners about how to make the correct sound (thank God for youtube). Understandably then, I was quite nervous for my first proper lesson. In whatever free time I had over the course of the week, I had tried to squeeze in some practice, though it's quite boring to practice when all you are doing is playing one note (so I ventured to one or two more notes…which didn't work out very well). As devotees pottered in and out of the temple, I passed the time waiting by quietly playing my now confident (almost triumphant) one note. I am used to people being late in India (in fact it seems that to be on time or early is almost offensive) but it had come to 2.20 pm and still no sign of my teacher. By now it had started to rain heavily and without an umbrella I was trapped in the almost empty and eerily quiet temple room. I called my teacher and trying to hide my frustration, I asked what I thought were reasonable questions. 

 Dawn on the way to the Gurukul

Dawn on the way to the Gurukul

The conversation went something like this (read with comically racist accent):

Me: I am in the temple, where we arranged to meet at 2 o'clock today for our class?
Teacher: Yes, ok.
Me: Are you coming? It's already nearly 2.30.
Teacher: It's raining prabhu (term used to refer to others within ISKCON)
Me: I know it's raining, but it wasn't raining until after 2 o'clock!
Teacher: Yes, but with rain, I cannot come.
Me: Ok, why did you not call me, I have been waiting here for you!
Teacher: Ok, but you see I cannot come with raining so heavy!
Me: I understand but if you were on time, it would not have been raining. You should have called me if you couldn't make it!
Teacher: Yes prabhuji, but you see it's raining very heavy like this.

And so it went on. We continued speaking over, under or around each other for a few minutes. I couldn't understand how he couldn't have called to let me know he wasn't coming, and he seemed still boggled by the fact it was raining (keep in mind, the monsoon lasts 4 months or so in India every year). I had no other option than to wait with baited breath for my next lesson, all the while blowing obnoxious flatulent sounding wails out of my poor flute.

 Crossing the Ganga the traditional way

Crossing the Ganga the traditional way

A lot has gone on in recent weeks, hence my tardiness in posting this blog. The Gurukul (Vedic school) here in Mayapur celebrated its 30th birthday. ISKCON celebrated the Holy Name Week, and devotees crossed the river with the Food for Life Program, distributing food to the underprivileged. On a slightly more important note, I finally got a haircut and have discovered an amazing shubji wallah that sells really great oranges.

The Food for Life Program is something that has always confused me. It typically is one of the first things people think about when they think about ISKCON (apart from kirtans at airports), and the program certainly took off in Africa and India in the past. To date, however, it doesn't seem to be a major focus in Mayapur. Considering the staggering poverty of some of the surrounding areas, this seems odd. Prabhupad, the founder guru, was very clear that this should be maintained as a way to the hearts and minds of the people, but the mundane reality is that devotees can only go out and distribute food to the villages when they get donations to do so. The program is carried out in the context of Hare Nam (which is a mobile kirtan, or group of devotees singing); this way bellies are filled and souls are saved!

 Devotee leading the Hare Nam through a village across the Ganga

Devotee leading the Hare Nam through a village across the Ganga

Leaving the temple complex at 3pm, we hauled two carts (one with vats of kicharee and one with huge amplifiers and portable deities). I say 'we hauled' but it was more a case of me photographing other people hauling. Arriving in the small village after a nervy boat ride across the Ganga, the devotees lead the way, carrying the deities and singing the Hare Krishna mahamantra. I wasn't sure what to expect but it was clear the locals did. As we made our way down narrow streets, kids began to appear wielding metal bowls and containers. To get an idea of what Food for Life is like, picture that moment when, as a kid, you heard the ice-cream truck coming around the corner…only in this case, the food is free and served by a team of enthusiastic (and apparently exotic) westerners in dhotis and saris! I will leave the photographs to speak for themselves!

 These orderly lines soon descended into a free-for-all

These orderly lines soon descended into a free-for-all

 Waiting to be served

Waiting to be served

 Rush for prasadam

Rush for prasadam

 Kids enjoying their free lunch

Kids enjoying their free lunch

This last Saturday, I decided that my research was going well and I had been productive enough that I deserved a massage. I had never had an ayurvedic massage and so I thought it was worth a try. In my experience of Thai, Swedish, Turkish massages etc., massages were very rarely painful and at worst, mostly just boring, so I felt I had nothing to lose. As my research is orbiting ideas of building an Ideal Vedic Society in the modern world, I had also convinced myself that it was an integral part of my research to investigate the therapy centre. It just happens that it is also a conveniently relaxing part of my research too. The therapy centre is run by a couple who offer a range of therapies, from quantum healing to reiki, past life regression, numerology etc. As is a recurrent theme in my research so far, a clear mistrust of the west (in this case western medicine) was apparent from early on in the session. The masseur enthusiastically explained the procedure to me, in the process touching upon nearly every idea that makes sceptics' skin crawl. There was reiki, chi and energy lines, followed by meridians, chakras and quantum matrices, all bound up in effortless swoops that purported to trump 2,000 years of western medicine. It would be dishonest of me to say that such new-age metaphysical concepts and therapies ever struck me as credible, but I thought I should try it out and try to keep as open a mind as possible. While part of me was stunned at the confidence of the therapist, and the grandiose nature of some of his claims, my role as an anthropologist is not to challenge these deeply held beliefs, but rather to understand them on their own terms. As the following extract from an email sent around here in Mayapur (within the community forum) will show, devotees here are prepared to mount a militant defence of all things Vedic, especially in the face of western epistemological imperialism:

"The ancient medical science of ayurveda is the most sophisticated and comprehensive approach to health care the world has known. Modern medicinal practitioners consider Ayurveda to be superstitious or "folk" medicine and that allopathy has come along to replace it. But in comparison to ayurvedic science, allopathy is simply so much guesswork and superstition promoted by the greed of the pharmaceutical companies.Ayurveda diminished as a result of the foreign domination that lasted in India for over 1,000 years. Ayurveda is not just an ancient treatment system, it is an integral part of the Vedic world view."

Evening dip in the Ganga

I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the massage, as I would be if I said I particularly enjoyed it. I found it pleasant but boring, though it was nice to get out of the temple complex and clear my head. The massage began with the masseur circling me ringing a bell, and explaining about his having to expel certain negative energies. Brahma, he told me, created the universe by first creating sounds vibrations…(he continued…). This went over my head, as I was more concerned at this point about how ridiculous I looked in a blue disposable thong lying flat on the massage table! There are plenty more therapies offered here, and while I wouldn't pay for any of them in my personal life, I think this might be one of the more relaxing and maybe entertaining elements of my research over the next year.

At this point, about 2 months into my field research in Mayapur, it's safe enough to say I have settled in. If I go to the temple, the shops, or restaurants, I regularly bump into people I know. I am invited to more and more events, including home programs, kirtans (sessions for singing the mahamantra) and just last night I was lucky to be invited to spend the evening with about 50 South American devotees who were gathering to meet with their 'Guru Maharaj' Jayapatak Swami. Jayapataka was one of Prabhupad's closest disciples and has energetically taken Mayapur from one mud hut in the early 70's to an international headquarters that attracts 1 million pilgrims per year. 5 years ago, he had a stroke and so is wheelchair bound and has trouble speaking clearly. Nevertheless he is constantly traveling and visiting his thousands of disciples worldwide. Wherever he goes, there is a frenzy of emotional outbursts, swarms of prostrating devotees and cries of 'Guru maharaj'. He is tended to by a team of 6 or so devotees 24 hours a day. He is the preeminent figure in the movement because of both his closeness with the founder and his 40 years or so of dedicated service.

There are of course still some things I am yet to get used to. Getting up at 3.30am is incredibly difficult. Typically, I find it very hard to sleep here and the thought of sacrificing that little bit of REM I might get is torture. For the brahmacharis (monks) they have to go to the temple at 4.30am every morning. Luckily, however, the grhastas (householders) go less regularly, some a few times a week, some a few times a month. I have slipped into this schedule and try to go a few times a week…though it's not getting any easier. The temple itself at this time of the year is like an oven and though the early start offers you spectacular sunrises at times, it can leave you lethargic for the rest of the day.

 30th Anniversary at the Gurukul

30th Anniversary at the Gurukul

Once inside the temple, it can be treacherous. At certain points throughout the morning program, all of the devotees will prostrate. This involves a scramble to find space to lie face-first flat on the floor and pay respect to the deities. In this culture, it is disrespectful to step over someone who is prostrating, so like a strange game of musical statues, I often find myself frozen on the spot, terrified I'll trip over a devotee, and not being able to move for fear of stepping over one...all the while people are diving on the floor around me chanting a particular verse appropriate for the deity or guru. Unfortunately, this is no solution, as it's also very disrespectful to be the only one in a temple of hundreds still standing and everyone else rests their forehead on the cold marble!  As people approach different altars within the temple, they too will prostrate, meaning as you walk around the temple you always have to have your radar on in case someone jumps on the floor in front of you! (editor's note: the terms 'jumping' and 'diving' may be a little misleading, but add to the dramatic effect). Slowly, in any case, I am coming to terms with temple etiquette and life here in Mayapur.

 Hard day's work...for a five year old

Hard day's work...for a five year old

The 25th of September marked the anniversary of my leaving Bahrain. A year on, my life couldn't be more different. While I loved working in the middle east and a big part of me misses it a lot, a bigger part of me is delighted to have shed the shackles of suits and sales to get back to the world of academics (if there is a way of combining both I would love to hear about it!). I spent only 8 months in Cambridge preparing for fieldwork, and having left a little early to squeeze in a Bangla language program, I am now already over 4 months in India. I have certainly questioned my decision at times (as anyone would who had left a job they loved to go back to school!), but trials and tribulations aside, I am doing my best to embrace everything India is throwing at me. I will be in Kolkata for a week or so for Durga Puja (the biggest festival in West Bengal's calendar) soon, a much needed break from the piety of Mayapur! Watch this space for plenty of photos and festivities!

 Watching the sun go down (and then doing a cannonball off the boat) 

Watching the sun go down (and then doing a cannonball off the boat) 

The Sacred and the Profane

Added on by John Fahy.

By some divinely inspired act of tolerance, this last week Chris (a fellow student) agreed to let me tag along on his adventure to Uttar Pradesh. We had just finished an intense 8-week Bangla language program in Kolkata, which for me ended appropriately with my performance of a blues song I wrote in Bangla (entitled 'Please Don't Break my Balls'). Located in Northern India and just south of Nepal, UP is home to over 200 million people. Within its borders are some of the most sacred sites (tirtha) in the sub-continent including Varanasi, Vrindavan and Mathura. Together with some photographs taken along the way, this blurb is intended as a window, muggy as it may be, into the sometimes magical and ever-frustrating India.

Having traveled nearly every weekend around West Bengal (and briefly to Puri), this was the first time that I was stripped of the tinfoil armour that is my Bangla. Cast into the wild wild west of Hindi-speaking India, I was lucky to have a Hindi-speaking Chris by my side. Leaving behind the now inexplicably comfortable surroundings of Kolkata, we set out on a 20-hour train ride to Janpur.

 The women of ISKCON (also known as the Hare Krishna movement)

The women of ISKCON (also known as the Hare Krishna movement)

For those of you who have never had the privilege of taking a train in India, let me elaborate. As train routes span the length and breath of the country, it's common for journeys to take over 10, 20 or up to 50 hours. Settling in, and sometimes getting a little too cosy with your neighbour, you can expect your thoughts to be constantly disrupted by the never-ending parade of vendors, selling everything from snacks, chai and biryani to chains, locks and reject toys (that would probably terrify most children). As well as vendors, there are beggars vying for your attention (and rupees), from blind men with sticks to magicians hammering out the routine they have already under-performed on 20 carriages before yours.

The sleeper train (a different beat altogether) offers you some respite from the traffic, if only in the form of a little blue curtain, but just in case you miss a great deal, the vendors will never pass without shouting (almost melodiously) their wares at you. As night falls, people turn to the arduous task of making their beds. In each cabin area along the carriage (blocked off from the corridor by optional curtains), there are 6 beds, 3 on each side from the floor to the ceiling. While the sheets are stained and sometimes hairy, perks from the top bunk include not being able to see the mice and bugs scuttle about the floor below you. On this particular train (I am told, as I slept through this episode), we had the distinct honour of sharing our cabin with a talkative individual who was transporting 3 fine Kashmiri chickens in a bag that could barely carry 3 eggs. Less fortunate than myself - at this stage in a deep sleep - Chris was on the bottom bunk and had to listen to this man's colourful tales while he clucked over the chickens trying to escape.

 Sadhu in Banaras

Sadhu in Banaras

Back to the trip...our first stop was Janpur where we visited some mosques and forts. In light of the apparent lack of anything else in the area, we quickly headed for Banaras (also known to the British as Varanasi, or more traditionally as Kashi). Banaras, 2 hours away by train, is arguably the most important religious site in India. It is home to an amazing variety of colourful sadhus and ancient traditions and along with Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, is very much on the beaten track for most backpackers, especially at this time of the year. We arrived, checked in and quickly got back out as I was keen to get some dusk shots by the ghats (steps leading down to the river). After a long rickshaw ride, we finally reached the Ganga only to find that as a result of flooding, the very ghats that made this city famous were submerged in the very river that made them auspicious. Having waded through some swampy roads, and getting stuck in the mud by the river, we decided it was a lost cause.

 Cow picking through trash in Banaras

Cow picking through trash in Banaras

I spent the next day doing what I do in most new cities - walking. I left the hotel at around 7am and headed for the ghats. Though they were far from the spectacle I had hoped for, the area surrounding the ghats and the bazar was buzzing. From very early, the streets and alleyways are bustling with fruit and vegetable vendors, chai wallahs, rickshaws and everything you would expect from a vibrant city centre...in India. Visiting the burning ghat (where photography is prohibited for obvious reasons), you cannot help but be overwhelmed. Though most of the ghat was under water, there was an elevated platform where one body was being prepared, two were burning, and another had all but disappeared, now reduced to charred cinders. Family members (male only) gather here to perform the rites as the body is prepared, wrapped and covered in garlands and other offerings. I was told by a local that over 100 bodies are burnt here a day. If a family lacks the financial resources to pay for the cremation, bodies were weighed down with a rock and dumped into the river from a small boat. Not only is the Ganga the very lifeblood of the city, but also its graveyard.

Wandering around Banaras, I came across many of what anthropologists might call 'dramatic delights'. In the bazaar, on the way to the golden temple, a man and his son, dressed almost like clowns, approached me with a basket. I accepted their advances (not in that way!) and inquired as to what they were carrying in the baskets (rookie error). Smiling suspiciously, the man quickly pulled off the lid to reveal a cobra. After taking about 40 steps back and throwing out every curse word I could think of, I grabbed my camera as he began to play his pungi (snake charmer's flute). It was definitely a good show watching the snake dance to the music, but my (very rational) fear of snakes stopped me from getting a close-up shot.

 Snake charmers

Snake charmers

A few feet down the road, I stopped for a glass of chai. After the usual interrogation one should expect in India, the chai wallah spoke Bangla with me. Unfortunately, his Bangla was as broken as mine, and so our awkward smiles and nods were punctuated by phrases and words that we both agreed upon, but didn't understand. Luckily, I was distracted afforded escape by a kid across the street who was playing with his pet monkey…on a chain.

 Boy with pet monkey

Boy with pet monkey

And back on the road...From Banaras, we took a 16 hour train to Mathura. This is traditionally the birthplace of Krishna and though I had been there a couple of years ago, we didn't have time to stop by as we were on our way to Vrindavan. Along with Mayapur (my home to be), Vrindavan is a sacred site for Vaishnavas. This is where Krishna grew up, and where his lilas (pastimes) took place. From the forests of Mathura to the groves of Vrindavan, most stories that involve the young Krishna (stealing butter or playing pranks for the most part) are said to have happened here. This is also home to the ISKCON Sri Sri Krishna Balarama Temple, one of the most important temples in the movement and one which dominates the Vrindavan area. We were very lucky over the next few days to get darshan (glimpsing the deities) in some of the oldest and most beautiful temples in the area and to taste some great prasad (offered food) from some really generous devotees from various sects.

 Waiting for  prasad  at the Sri Rangji Mandir

Waiting for prasad at the Sri Rangji Mandir

Unfortunately, as is the case with a lot of sacred sites in India, Vrindavan can be very difficult to appreciate. The town is a major pilgrimage site (as it has been for centuries) but amongst the open sewers and particularly public toilet habits of both locals and pilgrims, it can be very difficult to accept that this is quite literally a transcendental 'heaven on earth' for Vaishnavs all over the world. The devotees of Vrindavan share their sacred space with an amazing array of wildlife - from cows, goats and rats, to dogs, pigs and monkeys. Warning: The monkeys in particular are notorious for stealing from pilgrims.  One evening, as we wound down a narrow lane towards a temple, a monkey, timing his decent to perfection, swooped down and landed on our rickshaw. Pulling the glasses off Chris' head, he scampered onto a nearby roof and waited, all the while chewing Chris' glasses. We were told that the monkeys have developed a system whereby they will relinquish the glasses, wallet or phone in return for some food. Before we could open negotiations a local hit the monkey with a rock and Chris was able to see again (though this service was of course not free of charge).

 Waiting for Darshan at the temple

Waiting for Darshan at the temple

Escaping the madness of Vrindavan (particularly busy because of Jhulan Yatra), we were lucky enough to meet up with a friend of Chris' from another Vaishnav sect in Gokul nearby. We walked for miles in the midday sun after taking prasad, and met with, among other characters, an incredibly high but curiously articulate sadhu. Unfortunately, as set out on our return to Vrindavan the rain started. The monsoon rain needs no more than 5 minutes to turn villages into waterparks. Despite the bravery (or stupidity) of our tuk-tuk driver, tackling puddles that went up to our knees in what is a lawnmower engine with a shell, we finally cut out….in the middle of a river that was once a street (ironically beside a shrine to Krishna). Through the swampy sewer water, we managed to push the tuk-tuk onto dry land…where after several attempts at blowing on various parts of the engine like a Sega Megadrive, the driver gave up and we got another taxi home.

The next day, we set out on our epic voyage back to Kolkata. From Mathura, the train that was to take us to Delhi for our connecting train home to Kolkata was delayed - at first by one hour, and after several more revisions by about 3 hours. With little other options, we finally got to Delhi and decided to catch a plane back. As a result, and to our shame, what began as a well-intentioned yatra into the heart of sacred India, ended unceremoniously in a KFC in Delhi airport.

 Probably the only one to catch a train from Mathura that afternoon

Probably the only one to catch a train from Mathura that afternoon