Incredible India – A to Z, a month long discovery of India

In 2003-2004, as I was learning photography, I was publishing a photo a day and was part of one of the first online photography communities at Photography I realized was a combination of skill, practice and passion for the subject. You can only capture what you want to see. In my case, I wanted to only see the beauty in the world. I wanted to travel to places and learn to appreciate the art, people and culture of that place. So in December 2004, when fellow bloggers asked me to do a series about my native country, India, I jumped on the opportunity. This was published in Pbase and magazines ten years ago and I am now reproducing it here.

A-Z of India

A is for Anjali, Incredible India A-Z

Anjali is Sanskrit for ‘joining hands’. This sacred hand position, called anjali mudra (AHN-jah-lee MOO-dra), is found throughout Asia and has become synonymous with images of the East. In the West, this gesture is a posture of prayer. If you are visiting India, almost all traditional greeting will be followed by this gesture with the word “Namaste.” Saying Namaste properly always makes a great first impression.

The red “Dupatta” (scarf) is made from “Bandhini” (tie-dye) and is very common in India. The word Bandana comes from the Hindi word “bandhana” – to tie.

B is for Bharatanatyam, Incredible India A-Z

Bharatanatyam is a classical Indian dance. Bharatanatyam is thought to have been created by the Bharata Muni, a Hindu sage, who wrote the “Natya Shastra”, the most important scripture of classical Indian dance. Bharatanatyam proper is a solo dance, with two aspects, “lasya”, the graceful feminine lines and movements, and “tandava”, masculine aspect. The 3 basic elements of Bharatanatyam are Nritta – Rhythm, Nritya – Rhythm with expression and Natya – Dramatic element.

The story, scene, costume, jewels, they are all a very important part of the dance. The pose Gayatri is depicting here is ‘dreamy’. It is usually used to show longing for a loved one. The dancer usually wears a “sari” made from silk during a performance or cotton during practice. The bangles are an important part of the Indian tradition and most women have many pairs of them.

C is for Chakra, Incredible India A-Z

The word ‘chakra’ is Sanskrit for wheel or disk. You will come across the chakra in numerous places in India. In the center of the Indian flag, is the Dharma Chakra depicting the “wheel of the law” in the Sarnath Lion Capital made by the 3rd-century BC Mauryan Emperor Ashoka. The chakra intends to show that there is life in movement and death in stagnation.

Chakras are also the subtle energy channels that run through the body, located in different areas of the body. There are seven main chakras. Chakras are also used as decorations in almost all Indian homes and has a lot of ornamental value. There will be some form of the chakra adorning the walls.

D is for Deity, Incredible India A-Z

Deity – In India the predominant religion is Hinduism. Many believe that Hinduism has many gods. The truth is the scriptures speak of only one true God. The different deities are just personifications of the different forces, elements and moods. It makes it easier for the people to place faith and believe.

Every home will have a ‘Puja’ (prayer) room. These prayer rooms will contain many pictures and statues of the different deities. During different times of the year, prayers are offered to the different deities. Here in this photo is Hanuman, the god of strength during hardship. During times of difficulty Hindus pray to Hanuman to help them just as he helped Rama in the great mythology ‘Ramayana’. Hanuman is also a very wise god, and this photo portrays that.

E is for Elaichi, Incredible India A-Z

Think India, and you can almost smell the spices. Spice is a very important part of Indian cooking. This is a photo of ‘Elaichis‘ – Hindi for cardamoms. Elaichis contain a distinct fragrance that distinguishes it from the other spices. Around eighty percent of the world’s cardamoms are produced in India. There are three kinds of cardamom – black, green and white. Traditionally, in India only the black and green cardamoms are used. The flavor of elaichis are also used in many over the counter food items like cookies and ofcourse everyone’s had an elaichi flavored tea.

Botanical name: Elettaria cardamomum
Family name: Zingiberaceae

F is for Filmi, Incredible India A-Z

Filmi‘ is the Indian slang for over dramatization. India is the world’s largest producer of films. Every year almost a thousand movies are churned out and to the billion Indians this is the best source of entertainment. The stars are bigger than life, the stories are grander than fiction and the industry serves as the livelihood for millions.

‘Bollywood’, ‘Kollywood’, ‘Tollywood’, these are just some of the film industries in India. The star shown here is Kareina Kapoor, the teen queen. Some of the other famous stars are Aishwarya Rai (Miss. World), Kamal Hassan (the winner of the most number of national awards), Shilpa Shetty, the Big Brother controversial winner, and Shah Rukh Khan, the heartthrob of many of the NRI’s and young Indians. If you have the opportunity, catch an Indian film, listen to the songs, watch the action and revel in the beauty of the stars. It is all filmi. Very filmi.

G is for Gita, Incredible India A-Z

The Gita or the Bhagavad Gita is a holy book from the great epic poem Mahabharata, the largest epic. The Bhagavad Gita is the story of the warrior-prince Arjuna and his mentor and friend Krishna, a reincarnation of the God Vishnu. In the great battle of Kurukshetra, Arjuna and Krishna ride out into the middle of the battlefield and as Arjuna sees his friends, teachers and relatives fighting for both armies, he is sad at the thought that he has to kill these beloved people. He turns to Krishna for advice.

Krishna counsels Arjuna on a wide range of topics, beginning with the tenet that since souls are immortal, the deaths on the battlefield are just the shedding of the body, which is not the soul. Krishna goes on to expound on many spiritual matters, the paths to devotion, action, meditation and knowledge. Fundamentally, the Bhagavad Gita proposes that true enlightenment comes from growing beyond identification with the ego, the little self, and that one must identify with the truth of the immortal Self, the soul, to achieve the ultimate divine consciousness.

H is for Hindi, Incredible India A-Z

Hindi, is the national language of India. This has caused quite a stir, as there are more than 20 languages in India and more than 1000 dialects. Hindi, however is spoken by the most people. Over 200 million people speak Hindi as their mother tongue. In this picture, Hindi is being written with Henna. Henna also known as Mehendi, is a plant, whose dye is used in art forms in India. During weddings, it is customary for all the women to have their hands and feet painted with henna. It is also used to dye hair. Henna is a coolant, thus is very prominent in the desert areas.

I is for Incense, Incredible India A-Z

Incense is a preparation of aromatic plant matter, often with the addition of essential oils extracted from plant or animal sources, intended to release fragrant smoke for religious, therapeutic or simply aesthetic purposes as it smolders. You light the incense on fire, and then extinguish the flame so that the incense continues to glow and smoke.

In India, there is a custom that is followed in almost every home. Every evening, at dusk, lamps are lit, the doors are opened and incense is lit. It is believed that evil spirits will come at dusk, thus lamps and incense are lit to scare them away. The reasons and beliefs might differ, but it is always nice to come home to a welcoming home in the evening.

Incredible India A-Z

Jute is a long, soft, shiny fiber that can be spun into coarse, strong threads. It is one of the cheapest natural fibers, and is second only to cotton in amount produced and variety of uses. It belongs to the genus Corchorus in the basswood family, Tiliaceae. Jute, one of the oldest surviving agro-industries in India, has been traditionally in use for flexible packaging, specially sacks. Nowadays, the fibers are also woven into curtains, chair coverings, carpets, and trendy handbags. Very fine threads of jute are also made into imitation silk. The fibers are used alone or blended with other types of fibers to make twine and rope.

India is the largest producer of Jute. It is also the leading producer of mangoes, cashews, peanuts, pulses, sesame seeds, tea, and many spices like cardommom, ginger and turmeric. It is also a leading producer of cauliflowers, onions, rice, sugar cane, apples, bananas, coconuts, coffee, cotton, eggplants, oranges, potatoes, rubber, tobacco, and wheat. India has the world’s highest percentage of arable land to the total geographical area, in the world. Agriculture accounts for about 10% of India’s exports and still serves as the livelihood for millions of Indians.

K is for Kumkum and Kajal, Incredible India A-Z

KumKum‘ is the red dot Indian women place on their foreheads. It is believed that the red colour in Kumkum gives immunity against hypnosis. Kumkum has also taken on a symbol of marriage. During the wedding the groom places the kumkum on th bride’s forehead and at the center of the junction of the hair and forehead. He also ties with three knots a ‘Thali’, a yellow thread, around her neck. The three knots signify the acceptance of the woman as the man’s wife, the joining of the two families and an announcement of the marriage to the public. Though tradionally the Kumkum is a red dot made at home from dyes, nowadays it is available in different colors, shapes and designs as stick-ons. It adds a lot of beauty to the Indian woman.

For thousands of years in India, ‘Kajal‘, a black eyeliner has been used to highlight the lower eyelid. It is a mixture of black carbon deposits with wax, medicated ghee, coconut oil, camphor, etc. Mothers usually put Kajal for boys and girls as a symbol to protect the eye from evil. They also use it to make a black dot on the cheeks of the child to add a slight imperfection to their otherwise most beautiful child. This is called ‘Drishti’ and is again used to protect the child from evil and the jealous curses of others.

L is for Lungi, Incredible India A-Z

Lungi‘ is a very South Indian attire. It is worn by men (yes, men), mostly within the comforts of their home. In the villages, most men wear this in the evenings while relaxing. If you watch a South Indian movie, you will most likely see this pose. This is a classic pose of rowdyism, where the villain rolls up his lungi, flexes his muscles, smokes a ‘beedi’, a cheap cigarette, and gets ready to fight. The more sophisticated version of the the lungi is the ‘Dhoti’ or ‘Veshti’. This is worn by men at traditional functions. While the dhoti is mostly white and made of silk or cotton, the lungi is usually made from cotton and comes in many different colors and patterns.

M is for Maurya, Incredible India A-Z

Indian History 101 – M is for Maurya, Macedonia, Magadha, Money and Mahatma.

In the last weeks of 327 BC, the Macedonian king Alexander invaded the valley of the river Kabul, and in the next months, he captured Taxila, defeated the Indian king Porus at the river Hydaspes, and reached Punjab. He wanted to continue to the kingdom of Magadha in the Lower Ganges valley, but his soldiers refused to go any further. Alexander’s conquests had been spectacular, but he had not conquered India. In Taxila, Chandragupta Maurya had seen Alexander and realized he could raise an army too, he captured Magadha in 321 BC, and thus began one of the greatest dynasties in India…The Mauryan Empire. Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson, the great Emperor Ashoka, captured most of India and united it under one flag. However striken by the bloodshed he had witnessed he converted to Buddhism and was then instrumental in its spread.

Ashoka was a great patron of Architecture. Under his reign many Buddhist Stupas and pillars were built. The national emblem of India shown here in the coin and the wheel in India’s flag are symbols from Ashokas’s Stupas. The National Emblem of India is a replica of the Lion of Sarnath, near Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The Lion Capital was erected in the 3rd century BC by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where Buddha first proclaimed his gospel of peace and emancipation. It is symbolic of India’s reaffirmation of its ancient commitment to world peace and goodwill. There are four lions (one hidden from view), standing back to back, mounted on an abacus. At the bottom four smaller animals – guardians of the four directions can be seen: the lion of the north, the elephant of the east, the horse of the south and the bull of the west. The abacus rests on a lotus in full bloom, exemplifying the fountainhead of life and creative inspiration. Carved out of a single block of polished sandstone, the capital is crowned by the Wheel of the Law (Dharma Chakra). The motto ‘Satyameva Jayate’ inscribed below the emblem in Devanagari script means ‘truth alone triumphs’.

In the background is Mahatma Gandhi who was instrumental in shaping India in the 20th century and a great believer in non-violence as was Ashoka.

N is for Namkeen, Incredible India A-Z

Namkeen‘ (num keen) is the name for spicy, salty Indian snacks. Every evening it is customory for the family to get together and have ‘chai’ (tea) or coffee along with sweets and savories. There are many kinds of namkeen and they are differentiated mostly by the ingredients in them. This is a photo of Navrathan namkeen (navrathan = nine ingredients). If you visit an Indian home you will be offered different namkeens in little dishes and trays and this is usually passed around so you taste them all. You are expected to take a little in the spoon, pour it into your napkin and pass the dish around.

O is for Om, Incredible India A-Z

Om is the most powerful chant to the Hindu.

The symbol Om written in Sanskrit represents everything. The material world of the waking state is symbolized by the large lower curve. The deep sleep state is represented by the upper left curve. The dream state, lying between the waking state below and the deep sleep state above, emanates from the confluence of the two. The point and semicircle are separate from the rest and rule the whole. The point represents the state of absolute consciousness. The open semicircle is symbolic of the infinite and the fact that the meaning of the point can not be grasped if one limits oneself to finite thinking.

The chanting of Om drives away all worldly thoughts and removes distraction and infuses new vigour in the body. The chanting of Om is a powerful tonic. I believe when chanted correctly it is simply breathing in and out, breathing in during the O and out during the M. Repeated often it simply clears your lungs and makes you feel better.

Here is the most famous mantra… The Gayatri Mantra


Translation = Oh God! Thou art the Giver of Life, Remover of pain and sorrow, The Bestower of happiness, Oh! Creator of the Universe, May we receive thy supreme sin-destroying light, May Thou guide our intellect in the right direction.

P is for Paan, Incredible India A-Z

Paan’ is an ethnic Indian chew usually served at the end of an Indian meal and ceremonies such as weddings, receptions. Paan can be bought in nearly every street corner in India. Paan is a beetel leaf wrapped around beetel nuts, Cardamom, small candies, cloves and spices. It is folded into a triangle and eaten as a whole and chewed. It serves multiple purposes. It serves as a breath freshner, it is believed to help in digestion and it turns your whole mouth red. Though this might look bad now, in olden days women used to chew paan to redden their lips.

P is also for Peacock the national bird of India. The earrings shown here are made from peacock feathers with beads attached. The colors of the peacock are some of the most beautiful you could ever see.

Qutb Minar, Delhi

India has been influenced by many cultures through its vast and glorious history. In around 1100 AD, Islam made its way through India, and this laid the foundation for the Moghul Empire later. This brought not only a diverse religion and culture to the country but a grand new style of architecture. Domes and Minarets were built. Marble and sandstone was used.

This is the Qutb Minar. Soaring high above the Quwwatual Islam mosque is the tower Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak built in AD 1196 to celebrate the invincibility of Islam. The tower has inscribed on it, verses from the Holy Quran. The red sandstone tower of Qutb Minar is 72.5 m high, tapering from 2.75 m in diameter at its peak to 14.32 m at its base, and alternating angular and rounded flutings. It is the tallest tower in India. It is very close to Delhi, so if you are in the neighborhood, take a look. India is a Secular state and it has gained richly by being so.

R is for Rakhi, Incredible India A-Z

Raksha Bandhan is an ancient tradition. Indra (the king of the gods) was feeling depressed. At that time Indra’s wife Sachi took a thread, charged it with sacred verses or Mantras for protection and tied it on Indra’s hand. Through the strength of this thread Indra conquered his enemies. Since then this festival has been celebrated.

Through time Raksha Bandhan has taken on another tradition. Raksha Bandhan is also known as Rakhi. Rakhi has become a sacred festival for sisters and brothers. Sisters tie rakhis or the sacred thread on their brother’s arm and it is a symbol of love between them. It is a symbol to strengthen ties between them and the sister putting her faith in her brother to forever look after her. Nowadays Rakhis are decorated with soft silky threads of various colours, and also with ornaments, pictures, gold and silver threads etc. Many artists now create custom rakhis and they can range from under 10 cents to over $20.

S is for Salwar, Incredible India A-Z

‘Salwar Kameez‘ or simply ‘Salwar’ is the most common dress worn by women in India. It is made up of loose pants, a long top and a ‘Dupatta’ which is worn as a drape. Though the sari is a very traditional attire and worn by more women in South Indian, the salwar is known for its casualness and comfort.

Nowadays, with the influence of modern fashion and MTV, these clothes are become restricted only to older women and no longer worn by girls unless it’s an occasion. Most girls in India today have adopted the jeans and t-shirt look, which is sad because I think these traditional Indian clothes suit the Indian women so much better. It is ironic because sometimes you can spot more women in Indian clothes on the streets of New York than you can in big Indian cities.

S is also for ‘Shwetha‘ which means white or pure.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Taj Mahal “A white marble tomb built in 1631-48 in Agra, seat of the Mugal Empire, by Shah Jehan for his wife, Arjuman Banu Begum, the monument sums up many of the formal themes that have played through Islamic architecture. Its refined elegance is a conspicuous contrast both to the Hindu architecture of pre-Islamic India, with its thick walls, corbeled arches, and heavy lintels, and to the Indo-Islamic styles, in which Hindu elements are combined with an eclectic assortment of motifs from Persian and Turkish sources.”

—Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p223.

T is also for ‘Tanjore painting‘. Tracing its roots to the historical golden era of the early 18th century, Tanjore artwork is one of the many indigenous art forms for which India is noted. Originating in Tanjore about 300 kms from Chennai( Madras), which was the then capital of the Gupta empire, this form of art developed at the height of cultural evolvement achieved during that period. Crafted with meticulous care the Tanjore pictures are unique. What sets them apart from Indian paintings in general are the embellishments made over the basic drawings with precious and semi-precious stones as well as the relief work which gives them a three dimensional effect.

U is for Upanayanam, Incredible India A-Z

Upanayanam or the thread ceremony is the one of the most important times in a Brahmin’s lifetime. It is performed to mark the beginning of student-hood for a Brahmin. It also deems the bachelor as eligible to study the Vedas. In the ancient days the father taught his son the Gayatri Mantra, and then left him with a Guru, under his care and tutelage. The Guru taught him the Vedas (i.e.taught him to chant them in the traditional way) which in turn ultimately took him near God.

It is believed in Hinduism that the life passes through four stages or ashramas.
* brahmacharin, or celibate student
* grihastha/grihini, or householder
* vanaprastha, or stage of retirement from society (traditionally into the forest)
* sannyasin, or renunciant who breaks all social ties

It is to mark the entry to the first stage that the Upanayanam is celebrated. During the ceremony the boy is given the sacred thread comprising of three strands. These are worn by the boy throughout his life. It is worn like a sash across the left shoulder to the right hip. Before the boy is given the sacred thread, the boy is taught the Gayatri mantra. Then everyday it is the custom for the boy to recite the mantra 1001 times. Of course nowadays, no one follows the tradition though every brahmin boy is given the Upanayanam ceremony.

V is for Veena, Incredible India A-Z

Veena is a stringed instrument. It consists of a large body hollowed out of a block of wood. The stem of the instrument is also made of wood. The national Instrument of India is the celestial Veena. The Veena is associated with Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning (‘Vidya’) in Hindu mythology. Veena is also known as the Queen of Musical Instruments.

W is for Well, Incredible India A-Z

The Indian well is a very familiar sight in most homes. When we bought this house it was one of the first things that caught my eye. In olden days almost every home had a well. The well is usually about 100ft deep and provided water supply to the household. This was before homes started getting water from the Corporation. The water used to be pulled from the well using a pulley and a bucket and rope. Nowadays this has been replaced by motored pumps. The water from the wells these days are used mostly for the garden.

X is for Xmas, Incredible India A-Z

X Mas – India is a secular country. It is in our constitution. I have through this series shown the Hindu and Muslim influence in India. What better time than Christmas to highlight the importance of Christianity in India.

Christianity was brought to India by Jesus’ disciple St. Thomas in 52 A.D. He established seven churches in the Malabar district of Kerala, a south-west coastal state of India. St. Peter then came in 68 A.D. Christianity quickly spread to most of Kerala and to neighboring states. Today there are over 25 million Christians in India. There are Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. There are many different churches and the work of the Christians continues to influence and spread through India.

India is in my opinion one of the most tolerant countries in the world. Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Budhists, Jains, Sikhs and more all coexist and this truly makes India a very colorful and beautiful country.

This is a picture of the Sacred Heart church at the Mother Teresa Circle in Bangalore, India. Merry Christmas.

Y is for Yoga, Incredible India A-Z

Yoga has probably been one of the biggest Indian influences on the Western world. There are many clubs and organizations and people are slowly realizing the true value of Yoga. Still it has this mysticism about it and people do not relate yoga to true science. The art of yoga is truly scientific.

Yoga has its roots in works more than 5000 years old. It is believed to have been influential since the times of the Vedas. Nowadays there are leading experts and they try to spread the true art form through their disciples. Since Swami Vivekananda many gurus have tried to teach the science behind the art and this is what we must really try to understand.

The pose here is called ‘Trikonasana’ or the triangle pose.

Z is for Zero, Incredible India A-Z

The use of zero is traced to the Indian mathematician Aryabhata who, about 520 A.D., devised a positional decimal number system that contained a word, “kha,” for the idea of a placeholder. By 876, based on an existing tablet inscription with that date, the kha had become the symbol “0”. Meanwhile, somewhat after Aryabhata, another Indian, Brahmagupta, developed the concept of the zero as an actual independent number, not just a place-holder, and wrote rules for adding and subtracting zero from other numbers. The Indian writings were passed on to al-Khwarizmi (from whose name we derive the term algorithm) and thence to Leonardo Fibonacci and others who continued to develop the concept and the number.

Aryabhatta was the first to propose these two statements.
1 (or n) X 0 = 0
1 (or n) / 0 = Infinity
Both these brought a consistency to the mathematical calculations, that was not around before.

Through this series I have tried to highlight the cultural and religious diversity of India and the rich history that it occupies. However to end the series I wanted to emphasize the scientific accomplishments. From Aryabhatta to Ramanujan to Subramanyan Chandrasekhar to Amartya Sen to our president Abdul Kalam, there have been many great scientists and real thinkers. Today India is developing into a leader in technology and development and this will lead India through this century.


31 days in December

Incredible India A-Z

Lighting the lamps

This is a very ancient tradition in India. For generations lamps are lit in the house. The types of lamps vary from household to household and in the olden days the grander the lamps the grander the status of the house. The flame in the lamp is equated to the lighting of the soul. The lamp that is being lit is called the ‘Kuthu Villake’ and has five corners, each representing the five elements. This is one of the most common lamps and you will find it in most houses. The lamp to the left is the ‘Paavai Villake’ or the lady lamp. It is a beautifully carved lamp with a very ornate base. The lamps are lit with oil and a thread called the ‘Thiri’. The thiri is soaked in the oil and then lit.

Incredible India A-Z

Kolam‘ or ‘Rangoli’ is a decorative design that is put in all Indian houses. You will usually see them before entering any Indian home. Traditionally the kolams are put not only at the entrances to houses but also on the table underneath your plate while eating, near the idols and on kitchen counters. Kolams are made from rice powder, thus it was believed that ants will come and feed of the rice powder and thus will not eat your food or enter your house. This was the original reason for putting kolams. Over the years the practice has developed into an art form with people using it to exhibit their creative side. Rangoli competitions are a common sight in school exhibitions and it requires a lot of skill to make one.

Incredible India A-Z

This is the Daily Sheet Calendar. This is a very essential calendar for many Indians. On the left is the day, date and month according to the Julian Calendar. On the right is the day, month and year according to the Tamil (Southern Indian Language) custom. Jan 1st 2004 is equivalent to 17th of ‘Margazhi’ month of the year ‘Tharana’. In the Tamil calendar the date, month and year differs from the Julian calendar.

At the bottom is more important information about the day. I have expanded that part in the photo. On the first line in yellow is the Star that is ruling on that day. Each day there is a different star and this cycle repeats. In the Indian system, the star that is ruling on your birthday is very important and has a very strong influence on your life. On the third line it simply tells you any important occasion on that day. In this sheet it says it is a new year and that it is a government holiday. On the fourth line, in pink are the times of influence of the ‘Ragu’ star. It is customory not to hold any auspicious events duing this time. In the last line is the good or lucky timings for the day and the important events are held at those times. Thus each daily sheet gives very important information about the day and helps the Indian plan the day’s activities.

The god in this picture is Lord Karthikeya.

Incredible India A-Z

A girl with flowers in her hair is common lyrics in many songs. However in India it is a tradition. Across India you will find women adorning themselves with flowers. Husbands usually buy flowers for their wives and they in turn wear them proudly. This is no longer practiced as India becomes westernized but still in all religious functions, women are expected to have flowers in their hair. The most common flower is Jasmine.

Incredible India A-Z

Blowing the conch. During the olden days when two kingdoms used to fight, when they stood on the battleground, each would announce their preparedness by blowing a conch. The Bhagavad Gita, the holy book of Hindus begins with the blowing of a conch. It is thus a sign to herald a new beginning.

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