taking a walk in india: photos | stories | essays

7 December 2015

Comic Con Delhi 2015





Three years ago people paid Rs 20 to attend Comic Con for free at Dilli Haat. That is still the standard fee to enter the government-run cultural events venue in south Delhi. Then Comic Con was a small affair with a handful of stalls. Those who came to Dilli Haat to buy ethnic products - kurtas, jams, pickles and digestive condiments from India's villages - ended up walking into posters of Avenger heroes and Uncle Pai's creations.

Over three years later, people paid upwards of Rs 300 to visit Comic Con. The organisers sold a three-day "superfan pass" for 650 bucks. If money is one of the yardsticks of success, Comic Con has licked success.

The world of comics has changed a lot (at least to the not-so-old generation that journey basket belongs). Do children read comic books these days? They do, but they don't. 

One of the qualities that Comic Con has consistently shown over the years is that this event gives creators a good market to sell wares related to comic books and the characters that appear in them. The focus has slightly shifted from the books to their allied products. There are mugs, t-shirts, collectables, toys, coasters, notepads, the list is long. 

Welcome to the future.    












31 October 2015

Ugyen's house





There is a 200-year-old house in Haa Valley, west Bhutan. It has three spacious rooms under a very tall ceiling, a dormitory, two toilets, a lawn with enough space for a large bonfire, three cows, one hen and one dog. A brown cat occasionally comes, and tourists mistakenly assume the feline is a resident. Inside the old house the floor is made of wood, waxed every month, and the walls are hard clay.

Forty-nine-year-old Ugyen, the owner, speaks some Hindi and Dzongkha, Bhutan's national language. His wife helps him in running the homestay. To communicate with visitors, the couple brings out their bright daughter, a primary school student who speaks fluent English. The girl listens patiently to people who have come from halfway across the globe and passes the message to her attentive parents. Prices are fixed, requests for hot water are taken, food preferences – pork, beef or dal – are noted down.

Ugyen is many people rolled into one. No amount of luggage (thanks to weary tourists) is too tiresome for him to carry. He also cooks, tends to the garden and runs a sauna. One of the activities that he insists visitors must do here is to take a "stone bath". "I put hot stones in water with some herbs, very good for health, no common disease for next six months," he says in broken Hindi. "The stones come from the stream that you crossed while walking up till here from the main road."

Those who have taken Ugyen's stone bath say the herbs give a dizzy effect, and for some time after coming out from the sauna the person feels happy-high, as if she has had a drink or two.

The family works tirelessly from dawn to dusk. Ugyen's wife wakes up at five in the morning to prepare tea for guests while he goes downstairs to arrange firewood. Their daughter is also up, seeing off tourists to waiting vans before getting ready for school. Looking at them work, some visitors even asked Ugyen to increase the room rates and hire a help to manage the harder parts of running the homestay. Hauling heavy bags of tourists when a person is about to hit half century in age might alarm city dwellers. But it's not that he hasn't thought of it. "All the boys have left town," he says. "Maybe in summer I will get help."

Haa Valley is a silent town. Visitors won't get much to see or do here. It appears that the few tourists who visit the valley end up walking inside Ugyen's house. And leave with unforgettable lessons in humility.














Concludes. 

See: Part-I, Part-II and Part-III

23 October 2015

Durga Puja, pandals and people


Statues of Goddess Durga and sundry demons, which took some two months for artisans to build, finally reach the big stage on the big day.

20 October 2015

Haa Valley


Haa Valley in western Bhutan is a quiet, uneventful town. The Indian Army has a large base there to check intrusion by the Chinese military. It is said that the Indian Army used to call the valley High Altitude Area, hence Haa Valley. But this story could be heresy because Haa Valley existed long before the army set up shop there.







The main market wears a deserted look most of the time. A couple of shops selling Chinese blankets and sandals are all that tourists would find. A parking lot that can easily accommodate some hundred cars would be occupied by only a handful.










Part-III of a four-part series on Bhutan. Links to Part-IPart-II and Part-IV.

17 October 2015

Paro


Paintings and woodwork of the phallus have been integral to the belief system of the people of Bhutan for several centuries. It is said to bring good luck. According to locals, the symbol of the erect penis started from the Chimi Lhakhang monastery not very far away from Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. It is said that people in urban areas are shying away from using the symbols at home, though it's still a rage in the countryside.

A 2014 story in the Washington Post 'Bhutan takes a second look at phallus worship' says:
Bhutanese believe the “scandalous” yet integral image aids in fertility, offers protection from evil and dispels malicious gossip. Now, Bhutan’s phallic worship is getting a second look. The age-old tradition is being reconsidered — to preserve its rich narratives, as artistic inspiration and as a tool for religious belief. In fact, the phallic symbol is suddenly again in vogue, contrary to the popular belief that modern Bhutanese are discomfited by the graphic paintings of an erect penis. 
A Thimphu-based freelance journalist told journey basket a brief story on how the phallus symbol came to be regarded as sacred in the Himalayan nation: "There was a holy man named Lama Drukpa Kunley who lived in the 15th century. Also known as Divine Madman, his unique way of curing ills and bringing good luck and prosperity was to have sex with women. He had sex with every woman in the village."








Paro is a small touristy town with an airport; it's about an hour drive from the capital Thimphu. Resorts start to appear from where the town limit ends abruptly. A wide road said to be centuries old cuts the main market into two halves. Paro is perhaps one of the most picturesque places in Bhutan, with an eclectic mix of the old and new.













The Tiger's Nest or Taktsang Palphug Monastery is the highlight of Paro. The structure is solid rock carved out of a cliff, some 3,000 metres above sea level.











The Old Man's Beard tree of the genus Usnea, which looks similar to the Spanish Moss, grows only in places where the air is clean. Locals also believe this tree purifies the air around.




Part-II of a four-part series on Bhutan. Links to Part-Ipart-III and Part-IV

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Journalist. Taking a walk in India. | Email to journeybasket[at]gmail | Special thanks to M.S. Gopal | All rights reserved. No commercial use.

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