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Monday, October 22, 2007

Kolkata’s Durga:  From Home to the Himalaya

Sandy Ao brings a chronicle of the Durga Puja, honoring Hinduism’s Great Goddess and overflowing with flowers in the great city of West Bengal.


A clay idol representing Hindu Goddess Durga

floats in the Hooghly River, Kolkata, India

Photo: Sandy Ao

“So many pandals, so little time!” (“So many” as in 20,000 of these temporary shrines, and that’s in Kolkata alone!)

Headlines of India’s newspapers convey the frenetic and happy spirit of Durga Puja—the long, lush fall festival now winding down. “Now sinking” is more accurate, since after a week of festivity, the clay statues of the Hindu goddess Durga are being taken from their dry-land pedestals down to the closest river’s edge and ritually submerged.

The pandals are ephemeral shrines—temporary structures put together to shelter Durga’s statues, along with all the flowers, food and other offerings given in her honor. During this season, the people of Bengal and much of the rest of India drop everything to visit these splendid altars. The Durga custom is especially strong in Kolkata, making us at the Human Flower Project especially fortunate. Our friend and correspondent Sandy Ao has been trekking all over the city to photograph Durga Puja. This year, rather than visiting the larger community-built pandals and following their parades to the Hooghly River, Sandy sought out an older observance, the traditional family Durga Puja, conducted in private homes.

imageA pandal honoring Durga

is attended by a pandit (priest)

part of household worship ceremonies known as “puja”

in Kolkata (Calcutta), India

Photo: Sandy Ao

“It’s so different from the Durga Puja that I had been attending my whole life,” she writes.

Worship of the great female goddess Durga may be as old as Hinduism itself, but the celebration to venerate her intensified in Bengal during the Mughal period, the 16th Century. At that time, the wealthy families of the region began to elaborate the old religious rituals with more complex and ostentatious observances. Leading families (in Eastern India’s version of potlatch) put on competitively exorbitant, private displays.

And of course, that requires flowers, lots of them.  Sandy tells us that the pink lotus is one flower especially beloved by Durga. But with the puja season extending over several days, each one with its own demands, many other plants and blossoms join the celebration. Among them are marigolds, hibiscus, spicy “kusum” and medicinal “horitoki flowers” (Terminalia chebula Retz.) .

“For the daily puja, simple garlands are used,” Sandy explains, but for Durga puja, “the garlands have to be made with 108 flowers.” This is a sacred number in Hinduism, she says: “Almost all the God and Goddess have 108 names, and it also refers to the reincarnation of lives—108 times.”

Sandy spent most of this holiday visiting the home pujas of the Rashmoni family, who own several sumptuous properties in and around Kolkata. One of them—13 B Rani Rashmoni Street—is occupied by descendants of the fourth daughter of 19th century civic leader Rani Rashmoni (more about her in a later post).

imageOfferings are made to the fire god Agni, a purification, before approaching Durga’s statue in ceremonies at 13 B Rani Rashmoni Street

Photo: Sandy Ao

Here the durga statue is a doll-like figure dressed in doily white. “The man sitting before the pandal is a pandit (Hindu priest). He is praying for anyone who comes to visit the Goddess Durga,” Sandy explains. She also photographed fire ceremonies. “On the side of the puja hall, there is a room below the floor, the room for offerings to Agni (the fire God).  In Hindu religion, praying to Agni is always done first before the other puja begins. Bael wood is used for this ritual. You can see marigold flowers in the pit.”

With ritual foods and flowers, prayers and offerings changing daily (check this listing for some basics), it takes a religious specialist to keep everything in order. One wonders about the social roots of such an elaborate rite. A cynic might ask, “Was it all made this complicated so that only the rich people could worship rightly?”


A pandit (Hindu priest) sits before the pandal to Durga, greeting devotees

in home ceremonies of Durga puja at 13 B Rani Rashmoni Street, Kolkata

Photo: Sandy Ao

Over the last hundred years, the Durga puja celebration has been popularized and, it appears, somewhat secularized too. Now community groups pool resources to build beautiful pandals of their own. Schools and colleges, organizations and even businesses all take part. And just as the old zamindar (property-holding) families of Bengal once used the Durga puja to outdo one another, these popularizers also seem to be melding the god-pleasing rituals and public relations.

For example, we read about the newly established Indian Association of Retired Persons building a pandal, apparently, to lobby for the over-50 crowd. Meanwhile, at a Kolkata college, the pandal manages to celebrate both Durga and the Indian cricket team’s recent victory over Australia.

There’s even an edible pandal.

Sandy Ao’s insight and generosity – as well as her wonderful photographs—help us to quit grappling so determinedly against what can feel like impossible contradictions. She writes:

“The whole concept of Durga is actually the wish for good rainfall during this monsoon season on this side of the Ganges. While immersing the idols, they will bid farewell to Durga, reminding her ‘not to forget to come next year!’

imageDevotees bring Durga’s idol to the Hooghly River, the finale of Durga puja, 2007

Photo: Sandy Ao

“She is supposed to go back to her residing place, Kailash (a mountain in the Himalaya) where Lord Shiva, her husband, resides most of the time. The waters of rivers Ganga and Jamuna and Brahmaputra all flow from the Himalaya snows. During monsoons the water rushes down from the hills, enriching the State of Bengal and the country Bangladesh where rice- paddy is cultivated. They say Durga has come down to earth through the rain, by boat. That could be a nice way to pacify us, not to lose heart when we face floods during the rainy season.

“After the monsoon, we will have fine weather for the harvest of the paddies, and the water will be evaporated back to the atmosphere, to the hills and the mountains. When they say ‘do not forget to come and visit us next year…’ they ask that the rain come on time so we will not face drought.” (Here in Texas, we really understand that, Sandy!)

“Actually Hinduism is not a religion,” she writes, “It’s a deep philosophy. Otherwise we humans find it very hard to face hardship in life—if we do not have some good discourse on Nature around us.”

With 108 thanks to you, Sandy Ao!

Posted by Julie on 10/22 at 04:19 PM
Culture & SocietyReligious RitualsPermalink

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Georgia’s News Bouquet:  3rd Week of Oct.

Georgia Silvera Seamans, of local ecology, tidies up the news garden and brings back floral stories from Afghanistan, New York, and Kenya. Thank you, Georgia!


Government agents destroyed an opium poppy crop in

Ningarhar, Afghanistan, in April, 2007. Some recommend

that the crop be harvested and used to supply needed

pain medications for people with chronic diseases.

Photo: Ahmad Masood, for Reuters

By Georgia Silvera Seamans

New York Times reporter, Donald G. McNeil, Jr., wrote about the use of the Afghan poppy as a pain reliever for the world’s poor.  Senlis Council, a drug-policy think tank with based in London, Brussels, and Kabul, is advocating for “protected status” for Afghanistan’s poppy crops as opposed to the current U.S., British, and local Afghan governors’ policy of eradication.

The feverfew and the common bachelor button have also made the headlines, this time on, for their curative properties.  The flowers contain parthenolide, a derivative of which is believed to be effective in the treatment of leukemia.  As of the reporting on October 9, phase one trials (to be conducted in Britain and, if successful, then the U.S.) have not yet begun.

In a less serious vein, a bride sued her florist over the “egregious” substitution of pastel green and pink hydrangeas for her contracted colors - dark green and russet.  Anemona (note that Anemone is a genus of species in the buttercup family) Hartocollis of the New York Times reported that the bride felt the pastels clashed with the décor of luxury restaurant Cipriani where the wedding was held.  The bride is seeking $400,000 in damages.  She paid $27,435.14.

Though working conditions in Kenya’s flowers farms have attacted international criticism and some major outlets in the U.K.have threatened to cut their consumption of African blooms, Kenyan growers have expanded their sales. Catherine Riungu writes for the East African that Kenya’s flower industry reports “an 8 per cent leap in market share for the period up to September.”

Finally, the Arizona Republic carried a Newsday story about an upstate New York resident who gardens with plastic flowers.  Perhaps gardening is not the most appropriate term for this activity.

Posted by Julie on 10/21 at 12:08 PM
FloristsGardening & LandscapeMedicinePermalink

Thursday, October 18, 2007

American Lotus: Taking Sides on a Michigan Symbol

In Southeastern Michigan, landowners and conservationists spar over eradication of a plant on the state’s threatened species list. And not just any plant—but a symbol.

imageDr. Bruce Manney with lotus husks near Plum Creek, Michigan

Photo: Charles Slat, for Monroe Co. News

Why is this man smiling? Because he’s found seed pods of the American Lotus, a species that’s been on Michigan’s list of “threatened” plants for years. The plant is now making quite a comeback, to the delight of most Michigan naturalists and the chagrin of some shoreline landowners.

Dr. Bruce Manney works with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor. A few months back, at the height of lotus blooming season, he toured the Monroe County Lotus Garden Club through several watery stretches of Southeastern Michigan and delivered boatloads of good news: not only is the American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea Willd) growing well, but “whitefish have been found spawning again in the lower half of the Detroit River for the first time in 90 years.” According to Dr. Manney, “The Detroit River has got to be a lot cleaner than it’s ever been in a long time for those whitefish eggs to survive on the bottom of the river from November to March.” He added that some wildlife researchers had even seen baby sturgeon in the river, too, and mayflies, which the sturgeon eat. 

imageAmerican lotus spread through Eagle Island Marsh, near the Automotive Components Plant outside Detroit

Photo: River Raisin Area of Concern

The Lotus Garden Club began its annual tours in 1992, after some of the future-members spotted the gorgeous water plants from the air growing near power stations on Lake Erie. They gained permission to seed more lotuses in the area. What it is about lotuses and factories? We found that two years ago the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with Automotive Components Holdings, LLC,  to turn 240 acres behind the company’s plant into a coastal wetlands, now called Eagle Island Marsh. The American Lotus appears to have taken off there as well.

Meanwhile, closer to Detroit, folks aren’t so happy with the lotus’s roaring comeback. Tina Lam of the Detroit Free Press interviewed residents of Hickory Island who want the plant cleared from Gibraltar Bay. They say that a once-small patch of lotus has been egged on by conservationists who’ve seeded the edges of the natural growth—so that now a floating lotus garden extends across 10 acres, choking the waterway and making it impassable for their boats. Since Amercian lotus is on the state’s list of threatened species, removing it can bring a fine of up to $500; but if indeed these lotuses were sown, they wouldn’t qualify for protection.

The very same plant, in fact, is considered a “noxious weed” in Connecticut. And we came across this interesting message from Chuck Surprenant, now retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Michiganers leery of the lotus have cause for concern, he writes. “Experience here in southern Illinois on Crab Orchard Lake (7,000 acres) has shown the plant to be mysterious in its ability to dominate one portion of the lake for years, then inexplicably decline and appear in another part of the lake. For 20 years, American Lotus dominated Grassy Bay, in the south central part of the lake; then it mysteriously died off. Currently, the plant is spreading rapidly in the upper location of the lake, growing from a small 1-acre patch to at least 1,000 acres in just a few years.” That sounds less like “threatened,” more like “threatening.”

imageAmerican Lotus

Nelumbo lutea Willd)

Photo: Susan R. Crispin

We find the push and pull, the “noxious” v. “threatened” debate over the American lotus fascinating. It’s a showy example of how even the most rigorous science can sometimes be swayed by the powerfully symbolic force of flowers (a sway-ableness we consider admirable and wise, by the way). For in Michigan, Nelumbo lutea Willd is not just another plant whose numbers decline and increase. The native lotus is, as Tina Lam writes, “the state’s official symbol of clean water.” The president of Monroe County’s Lotus Garden Club, Jeanne Micka, stressed, “They’re like the canary in the cave. If you see a lot of them, it means your water quality is pretty good….If they disappear, you’d better look out.”

Micka added (in keeping with the “mystery” Chuck Surprenant described) that lotus seeds can remain viable for as much as a century. Oh, Jeanne, symbols tend to be “viable” a whole lot longer even than that.


Posted by Julie on 10/18 at 05:42 PM
Culture & SocietyEcologySciencePermalink

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Time for Bulbs & Identities

The students have come back to Cambridge with the task of identity-creation ahead. John Levett (who created his awhile back) opens his bulb order—too many—and searches for an open bench—too few.


St. Botolph’s Churchyard, Cambridge, England

All Photos: John Levett

By John Levett

One April, twenty-three years ago I was avoiding someone’s fiftieth birthday party. I had great affection (do I hear “But not enough!” from the cheap seats?) for the birthdayee, for her vivacity, her cultural confidence, her extravagant generosity, her food, wine, garden, car (not the crap record collection) but just couldn’t get along with her friends (all air-kissing & “Dahhhhhhling” & very Noel Coward & Diana Mitford-ish). So I drove up to Hull. I could have made an excuse, feigned an illness (“Don’t you ever do that. Ever make up excuses. Ever.” Gran once said. “God pays debts without money” plus “Many a true word spoken in jest” plus…and so it went on…), pleaded something or other, invented a previous something or other (God & debts got into that one too). But I drove to Hull. (“It all depends if I’m back from Hull in time.” “The traffic out of Hull on Saturday afternoon is wicked.” “When the fog comes off the Humber they have to close the bridge and the only way out is north through Leeds and that’s at least another hour’s drive, maybe two.” All sounded better than “I can’t come I’ve got piles” and didn’t amount to instant immolation by the debt-collector in the sky.) So I drove.

imageSt. Edward’s churchyard (now benchless), in Cambridge

To Hull. For me, there was something to Hull that made it not Leeds or Sheffield or Bristol. Go back another twenty years. 1964 and a more decent starting date to the ‘60s than given by chronology & cultural history. On the first Monday of October, I took a meandering tour through middle England in some mate’s car to the banks of the Humber (“...And the widening river’s slow presence…”). Hull was my first university (of five during that decade) and I lasted three days. Got there on Monday night, registered on Tuesday, went back home Wednesday. (Following Monday I turned up at the London School of Economics and asked could I stay. They said “Yes” and I stayed ’til Christmas. The point of this parenthetical aside being that my abiding memory of LSE was opening the Yearbook, coming across a list of previous students recently deceased & stopping short at JFK’s name.)

Where was I? In Hull in ‘64 and it’s now a Tuesday afternoon in October and we have an hour’s induction by the librarian (“Wow! Fab! Groovy!” as we always allegedly said throughout the decade). If I’d had my wits around me and paid attention to the programme I’d have stayed. The librarian didn’t introduce himself but looked out from the platform at we spotty mass & said: “I feel like Hitler or John Lennon.” I should have been alerted by that but I was already planning an escape route. The librarian was Philip Larkin. I’d bought The Whitsun Weddings that year and never knew this speccy bloke was the library bloke in the place I was headed. I could’ve stayed and sat at his feet!

In the twenty years after that I’d never been near the place. Regretted never having read in Larkin’s library; kept a fond memory; thought I might one day catch a train for the day…“Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows and traffic all night north.” But never went back. Then in that twentieth year it was the place to go. In order to avoid. If you’ve followed so far.

Then I got diverted. I remember driving up the A1 (slow followed by slower in those days) as far as Newark and then took off through Lincoln and had a thought of driving up through the Wolds and over the Humber Bridge that I’d never seen. I got to Nettleton and saw a sign: Potterton & Martin. It rang a bell which tolled ‘Alpine Nursery.’ I turned left. It wasn’t a large affair but it had quality. And those stone troughs beloved of alpine gardeners and which last after you’re dead and take the plants on to next generations. I bought two troughs, plants to fit and enough to overflow onto a scree which I now had plans of creating. I’d already grown a habit of trailing down to Ingwersen’s in Sussex each Spring. Now I had P & M’s for the early Summer. And that’s how it turned out for the next few years before life changed along with habits.

I was reminded of this by a package last week. The annual bulb supply. One of those things I do in Winter—go through the new bulb catalogue, order more bulbs than garden space and allow myself to be surprised in October (“That many? Am I mad?”). Martin died a few years ago but the nursery remains as Potterton’s and still at Nettleton. Until a couple of years ago, when I gave up the car as an unnecessary expense, I drove up each year, carried on over the Humber and stopped for a coffee and a sarnie at the University. Always took a Larkin with me, sat just inside the library and read a few lines. On a fine day I’d drive out of Hull (“...beyond its mortgaged half-built edges…”) towards Spurn Head where “silence stands like heat.” I’d sit on a demolished pill-box and read ‘Here,’ ‘Afternoons’ and ‘Wild Oats’ then drive the long miles back in gathering dusk.

I did that on friend’s birthday. Then came home to the phone ringing. “Hi John. It’s Sarah. Mum’s been trying you all day. When you coming? Bring a bottle.” A few more lines of emotional blackmail later I went. Hated the friends but got blotto.

Autumn’s not only the bulb package. It’s the student-back-in-town time too. Old hands come back and the new ones can’t believe they’ve made it here. And there’s only a week (it might seem) to create an identity; the Emma Thompson-Stephen Fry-Hugh Laurie moment. Stand up, stand out, turn a head, turn heads (even better), find a niche, avoid a clich(é), stay up, stay awake, find a partner, find a foil, be myself, create myself (of course!).


St. Edward’s, Cambridge, England

When I was a student (a state I retained until age twenty-seven; one of my finest feats) the collective student distinguishing feature was a college scarf; without it a bloke looked like his dad and a girl looked like her mum. Until Bowie, everyone in Britain grew up to look like their parents. Now we all look like students. Hence the essential re-definition in the first week of October. In this town, avoiding the obvious and finding the item that stamps difference is good spectacle. Too much difference shouts ‘obvious’; too little makes you look like you’re back in the school you’ve just come from. The best I’ve seen this year (every year) comes from inside; think Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. So simple.

One problem in Cambridge is finding a place to sit and watch the dance. We’re over-populated. It’s not just the universities (there are two); it’s the foreign-language schools, the specialist colleges, the sixth-form colleges, the out-of-season tourists, the film crews, the construction crews. And the residents. And the drunks. Cambridge, like…errr…everywhere, has a drink problem and that’s not including the masters of colleges. The town drunks, bless ‘em, get moved on from one neighbourhood to another, bench to bench; hence, lack of benches for people-watching.


St. Edward’s, Cambridge, England

Last week, a fine week of Indian Summer, feeling stressed from stressing myself, I looked for some old places where I used to quiet-down in town. Next door to Corpus Christi College is St. Botolph’s Church. There’s a narrow lane by its side and a gate into the small, overgrown burial ground. I used to come here when I first arrived in Cambridge in the mid-90s; catching up on a previous decade of non-reading, non-writing, non-reflection. It was a discovered spot; a place you walk past and beyond for an age and then it allows you to discover it. Your own place where you resent company. No chance of that now. Locked. I walked up Trumpington Street to St. Edward’s, squashed between the Arts Theatre and David’s Bookshop, more passed-by than passed-into. I used to bring a Chelsea bun from Fitzbillies here and read Blake. Not any more. Standing room only; the bench in the churchyard gone the way of the drunks it seems.

imageSt. Botolph’s Churchyard, Cambridge, England

And spaces gone. Cambridge isn’t Buenos Aires or Johannesburg and it’s free of favelas but I still notice the closing in of space, the growing out of urban extensions, the accumulation of generic apartment blocks on what used to be someone’s back garden or a community’s vegetable plots, the easy sale of public space with rare payback to public sensibilities or planning gain. I was recently re-reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and I know that many people now find it quaint and soooo of its time and so forth, but what it has above its words is its humanity. Lose the spaces and lose the human-ness. People come to this place because of what it was, what it represents, what it did and who did it here. I can still walk past places and feel a quickening of the pulse because I know who walked this lane, slept in that room, betrayed her in that park, sat under that apple tree (allegedly). It’s in the spaces between where I’d still like to reflect on these things. Then go home and let someone else sit down. With Blake. (Dan Brown? The next wagon leaves at noon!)

To Hull.

Posted by Julie on 10/16 at 11:44 AM
Culture & SocietyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsPermalink
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