This is the second part of a post describing a 90 minute “photowalk” around my new neighborhood in Chennai, India. Everything you see is within a 500 meter radius.
So continuing yesterday’s story, the main destination I’d had in mind when starting this walk was yet to come. The other day I had heard drums and festivities from a nearby neighborhood and wanted to check it out. It seems that there are a few roads which do not appear on Google maps; along the canal are row upon row of small houses and narrow, unpaved alleyways that run between all of them. It was there that I headed, and getting access to that area was not easy – there’s basically one way in and out at the east and west end of the neighborhood, so you’re kind of trapped once you’re in there. Yesterday’s post was mainly about getting to the far end of this particular neighborhood. Here’s what it looks like:
Seems like a working-class neighborhood, not really poor by Indian standards, but once you get to where you can afford a car, you’d probably want to live elsewhere because it’s basically foot- and two-wheel traffic that can get around here. And it became quickly apparent by the behavior of the ‘tweens and teens that a foreign white dude was not a common sight around here – I was definitely getting noticed and getting a lot of friendly waves and curious smiles. Initially I turned around to head out – everything is so close together you feel like you’re walking in peoples’ personal space – but I decided to continue on.
I was self-conscious about taking photos and how people might react.
Eventually I came upon a small neighborhood temple and some young men started talking to me. They wanted me to take photos of them in front of their temple:
I could tell people were pretty excited about some festivities planned for later today (the guys later told me I was welcome to come back at 1 pm for the “big event”), and they encouraged me to go inside and take a look. Not knowing much about proper etiquette at a Hindu temple – other than knowing to remove my shoes – I was a bit worried about offending. I was alternately encouraged to “take a photo of this, but not that.” Then they would change their minds and say “ok take a picture of that too”. Inside the temple I could see offerings had been placed at the altar and eventually dug out a 20 rupee note, offering it. This seemed to be the right thing to do and I slipped it into an offering box and that meant I had to be offered some ash and a red powdery substance to mark my forehead – which of course had me stumped again.
This object was to the left of the altar. Take a close look – I’m not sure what the actual face is made of, but virtually everything surrounding the face is made of tiny flowers or leaves tied together on pieces of string, and individually applied to the frame!
Here it is again, with the actual altar shown. Notice the doors which open inward, and the bells – in many temples bells are rung by hand at the start of worship – the doors are closed when the temple is not in use. Coconuts are on the altar as offerings, and not in view on the photo are various fruits and flowers. The ash and the red substance on the plate itself and in the small containers to the left is what I was offered for my forehead.
Outside many temples you will find people like this lady putting flowers into long garlands, which I initially thought was for home decoration – but given the stack of bananas and seeing inside the temple, I realized she is selling offerings. Earlier that morning I had bought about a meter of jasmine flowers on a string – cost about a dollar.
Researching afterward revealed so many variants of forehead marks that can be applied, I was almost more confused than when I started. Suffice to say I received a blessing often given by temple priests, both to Hindus as well as to non-Hindu visitors at temples. In this case we were to apply the mark ourselves, as there was no priest.
In any case, I continued on, and came across families preparing different items outside their house, which I realized later were likely offerings for the procession I would soon run into:
Next I ran into a couple of teen boys playing drums, and decided to record some video of their impressive drumming. You will see in the video, a the guy in the blue shirt is excited about the camera and is alternately encouraging me to film this, then that, then he tells me to photograph the lady drawing water at the well (recall earlier I had tried to do this subtly)
And then I ran into the procession – they were getting set up and I couldn’t really get by, and these guys, like many others that day encouraged me to take photos, even insisting I back up so I could get a better shot. You’ll see a lady put 10 rupees on the offering plate, and I did the same in return for letting me shoot the video. At the end of the clip you see the guys in response insisting I accept more of the ash and red substance – apparently being created on the plate as flowers and other small offerings are being burned, maybe with ghee. Who knows!
And so that was pretty much my morning. I made my way back home and spent the rest of the day on the internet, trying to make sense of it all. In so doing, I discovered there are some photography groups in Chennai that do “photowalks” – and I’ve sent them notes to see if we can link up. It seems I did not commit any egregious offenses during my morning jaunt – out of sheer luck – but hopefully doing this next time with some locals to guide me on the “do’s and don’ts” will ensure that I keep out of trouble in the future as well!