Loy Krathong

A girl carries her krathong to the lake; a boy with his edible krathong; a variety of styles for sale.

Last weekend, Thailand celebrated Loy Krathong. Loi krathong (ลอย กระทว) literally means “to float a basket,” and during the Loy Krathong festival, people make or purchase elaborate little baskets that they put into the river or lake while saying a prayer. Symbolically, when a person releases a krattong into the water, one also releases one’s problems and sins. The baskets are made from banana leaves and flowers or, for the more environmentally-conscious, fish food.

Many Bangkok residents head down to the bars, docks and hotels of the Chao Phraya river for Loy Krathong, but I wanted to avoid the massive crowds, so I went to Lumpini Park, where the crowd was only huge.

Everyone was taking selfies or photographing their friends as they released their krathongs into the water. I understand that people want to memorialize their experience, but that meant that everyone’s photos also included the glowing bluish screens of the people around them.

After spending some time here, we went to Benjakritti Park, where the crowd was more dense.


with the coming of easter, it is carnival season in greece, and we went to a carnival parade this past weekend. regarding carnival, wikipedia says:

carnival typically involves a public celebration and/or parade combining some elements of a circus, masks and public street party. people wear masks and costumes during many such celebrations, allowing them to lose their everyday individuality and experience a heightened sense of social unity. excessive consumption of alcohol, meat, and other foods proscribed during lent is extremely common. other common features of carnival include mock battles such as food fights; social satire and mockery of authorities; the grotesque body displaying exaggerated features especially large noses, bellies, mouths, and phalli or elements of animal bodies; abusive language and degrading acts; depictions of disease and gleeful death; and a general reversal of everyday rules and norms.

shocking business!

as it happened, while there was some consumption of alcohol, the parade was carefree and family-friendly, with some impressive costumes (including a woman dressed as a contortionist on a table, complete with portable tabletop). we were accompanied through the streets by various troupes of musicians, including a brazilian percussion combo and a team of people playing hand drums; and then, about halfway through the event, the paraders piled into a courtyard where we were met by an even larger brazilian drum club and an accompanying dance troupe – a total surprise, and absolutely thrilling.

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the penis trick

the sadhus set up large camps while at the kumbh mela, and there were all sorts of activities going on when they weren’t in the bathing processions. that’ll be the subject of the next post, but in the meantime, here’s a little something the baba nagas did to entertain the crowds. it’s something they said is related to yoga, but we just called it “the penis trick.” don’t try this at home.

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first, take your penis, and wrap it around a stick.  make sure it’s good and tight. next, pull the stick back between your legs, one end at a time, so that it creates a little stand under your butt. finally, have your partner stand on the stick. ladies and gentlemen – the penis trick!

next: more scenes from the kumbh mela.

enter the sadhus

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militant and not-so-militant sadhus: a naga baba carrying a mace during his akshara’s procession, and a naga baba smoking a chilam, a clay pipe filled with tobacco and hashish.

while the pilgrims’ bath in the ganges is the biggest draw for the pilgrims, the sadhus’ bath in the ganges is the biggest draw for the tourists. specifically, the first two bathing days are when the sadhus go down to the water en masse, in processions organized by their various orders or sects. the most dramatic sadhu sects are composed of naga babas, the warrior ascetics. the naga babas were originally established to defend other shavaite (shiva-worshipping) sects: naked, covered in ash, hairless except for their wild hair, and armed with various weapons, they must have looked terrifying. the naga babas are organized into aksharas, or battalions, but they are relatively peaceful now – and they are often stoned, as shiva is the lord of hashish – but they still have a militant streak.

more on that in a moment.

on the 15th, our group assembled at 3.00 am and went down to the main bathing area, where the sadhus were going to march down to bathe starting at 5.00 am. the police had cordoned off an area for photographers without press credentials (the ones with credentials could go wherever they wanted). because the spot where a sadhu bathes is considered holy, the public had filled the banks and were taking their own dips in the water before the sadhus arrived. the area was packed with bodies until the police heard that the first akshara was on the march; then they quickly cleared the area.

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after about 20 minutes, we saw the head of the procession and the first group of sadhus, followed by the first akshara of naga babas.

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i was in one of the tourist-photographers’ corrals where i realized i wouldn’t be able to get any good shots, so when i saw our trip leader running with the sadhus even though he didn’t have credentials, i slipped through the fence and pushed my way into the crowd. i was too far back to get to see the naga babas go into the ganges, but i was able to photograph them celebrating when they got out. and then things got interesting.

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“akshara” is probably the best word to describe a grouping of baba nagas, because there isn’t another one that’s as appropriate. a bunch of nagas? a pride of nagas? a gang of nagas? perhaps a melee of nagas.

next: marching with the sadhus, or, things get even more interesting

throwing the baby into the bathwater

for many people, their children’s first dip into the ganges is a major life event. the ceremony might begin with tonsuring – i.e., shaving the baby’s head – and then the parent or grandparent carries the baby into the river. for some, a splash on the legs is enough; for others, only full immersion will do. either way, the baby isn’t going to be happy about it.

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see how much fun this is? i guess not. and again, not so much fun.
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the legs are okay … … but not in the face!
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some babies don’t handle head-shaving as well as others. fortunately, by the time they get older, bath time isn’t so traumatic.

next: the sadhus take a bath.

welcome to the kumbh mela

the kumbh mela is a hindu pilgrimage during which tens of millions of hindus come to the banks of the ganges to bathe in the holy waters. the kumbh mela is held every three years on a rotating basis at one of four sites – hardiwar, allahabad, nasik and ujjain – where, according to legend, drops fell when the gods and demons fought over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality. this year’s kumbh mela was held at allahabad, which is especially significant because it is the point where three rivers – the ganges, the yamuna, and the mythical saraswati – converge, and it is estimated that 100 million pilgrims came for it.

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they came by truck, they came by foot, they even came by bicycle.

during the kumbh mela, the pilgrims stay on the banks of the river, so one can imagine that the logistics would be a nightmare. however, the authorities handled the arrangements really well: tents and camps were well-laid out, there was running water and electricity, pit latrines and trailers with toilets, roads, and pontoon bridges crossing the yamuna river at various points. the bridges were organized so that you could cross only in one direction on the odd numbered bridges and only in the other direction on the even numbered bridges, and the police actually enforced this.

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some ashrams had fairly large and festive camps, while other folks lived in more basic conditions that weren’t so well-situated when the rains came. the roads were dirt, but with metal plates laid down for cars. the organizers even had clean-up crews for the river banks.  all in all, the logistics were impressively done.

the highlight, of course, is the bathing.  the current was strong enough that the organizers built fences as close as 20 feet away from the bank, at some points, to keep people from being swept away; and they also lined the more crowded parts of the river bank with sandbags to keep it intact.  these arrangements gave the river a less than organic feel, but with 100 million people trampling along the river banks, the damage would have been significant otherwise.

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                          bathing can be a contemplative, solitary affair …
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… or something a bit more hectic …
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… or just an irreverant good time.

next: more bathing.

the upcoming kali puja

two versions of kali – one by raja ravi varma and a more totemic local one.

we were in kolkata this past week, just after durga puja, the holiday for the goddess durga, and two weeks before kali puja, the holiday for the goddess kali. kali is the goddess of time and change, and is pretty badass. when the goddess durga is unable to kill the demon raktabija and his minions – duplicate raktabijas that spring up whenever the demon’s blood hits the ground – she calls upon (or transforms into) kali:

out of the surface of her (durga’s) forehead, fierce with frown, issued suddenly kali of terrible countenance, armed with a sword and noose. bearing the strange khatvanga (skull-topped staff), decorated with a garland of skulls, clad in a tiger’s skin, very appalling owing to her emaciated flesh, with gaping mouth, fearful with her tongue lolling out, having deep reddish eyes, filling the regions of the sky with her roars, falling upon impetuously and slaughtering the great asuras in that army, she devoured those hordes of the foes of the devas.

kali destroys raktabija by sucking the blood from his body and putting the many raktabija duplicates in her gaping mouth. pleased with her victory, kali then dances on the field of battle, stepping on the corpses of the slain. … (source: wikipedia)

in the kumartuli neighborhood, shop after shop of craftsmen are busy creating statues of kali to put around the city at various celebrations. they come in various styles, but they are fairly benign in appearance, which is surprising, considering kali’s fierce reputation.

deeper in the neighborhood, however, the craftsmen get a little more creative. photographing these was like eating potato chips …

sadly, i can’t get back to kolkata in time for the holiday, but now i have a reason to come back to india after 2013.

mariamman festival

the portraits i posted in the previous few posts began from this image … i was walking through one of the many metal-working districts in chennai last week when i came across these figures. the guys working on them told me they were for a festival down the street, so i walked into the neighborhood and learned that their mariamman festival was starting the next day.

the mariamman festival started with the setting-up of the stage and the idols, followed by a neighborhood meal; afterward, the temple priest held ceremony in which, traditionally, he asks mariamman if she is ready for the festival, if everything has been prepared correctly. there were a number of women dancing in front of the temple in an ecstatic trance, and one of them took on the role of mariamman and gave what i assume was the appropriate answer.

an artist decorates one of the mariamman statues while other workers prepare the main stage; the initial blessings (pooja) before the dance ceremony.
women dance in front of the temple – a small building tucked in at the end of an alley – while channeling mariamman. given the constrained quarters, my angles weren’t great here, but as people got used to me over the weekend, they made sure i got the best views, as will be evident further on.

i came back on saturday, but not much was going on: kids were playing on the stage, and the girls had had their hands painted with henna. i was tapped to take more portraits, and a few people told me that not much would be happening that afternoon, so i spent about half an hour there and promised to come back.

sunday began with a procession. there was a set of drummers and, behind them, a string of women carrying burning pots. they brought these to the temple to offer prayers to mariamman. the pots smoked a lot, which may have been the point, since the prayers go up to the gods with the smoke, but they didn’t look comfortable to hold, and my eyes stung after just a few minutes of walking with them. after the offerings, the games started, specifically a game that is very much like a piñata, except that the players swing at a clay pot filled with water. the guys running the game invited me to take a swing at it, but i declined. eventually, the pot shattered, the woman who hit it got showered with water and won a plaque, and then the band played and everyone danced.

*           *           *

those of you who are squeamish about extreme body piercing probably should stop here.

at 3.00 that afternoon, people began preparing for the main event – the religious procession that would wind through the surrounding neighborhoods. the worshippers of mariamman show their devotion by piercing their bodies with needles, vel (spears), and in some cases, hooks. this is not dissimilar to what i’ve heard about in other religious celebrations, such as ashoura or semana santa, and i’d even seen one of these types of processions last year; but i’d never seen how the spears get from a, through b, to c. this time, the people made sure i would.

i’d gone home for a few hours after the dance, so when i returned i was surprised to come upon a man wearing a shirt of apples. “interesting garb,” i thought, but on closer inspection i realized the fruit had been literally sewn into his skin with thread; then i saw men and children all around with fruit dangling from their chests, backs or ears. the adults (and the older kids, some of whose, whose faces had been painted for the occasion) do it for devotion, but when the little ones are sewn with the fruit, it may be because the parents were making this offering in exchange for an answered prayer when the child was sick, or something of the sort. the babies didn’t take to the needles … philosophically, let’s say.

soon it was time for the men and women to line up in front of the temple for their vels. the priest made some incantations for each one, and a guy whom i can only assume is the local expert rubbed their cheeks and “sterilized” the vels with a powder made from burned cow dung, and then …

this went on for a while. meanwhile, on the main street, other worshippers were getting ready for the procession in their own ways.

a boy waits for his turn while another one gets his piercing, and then stiffens as the vel pierces his cheek during his turn; neighborhood boys look on
the master piercer cleans up his work; a devotee is fitted for a harness of vels; a rather unhappy girl waits for the procession to start.

all of this was amazing, and i was grateful to the community for allowing me nearly free rein with my camera; and as they say at passover, “dayenu“. nonetheless, there was only last tableau of the procession that pretty damn remarkable. i saw some guys on a truck and wasn’t quite sure of what i was looking at, until suddenly i was: