Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Photo of the Week: Home of the Sun King

This is the home King Louis XIV had built - Versailles. Not far from Paris, I stopped here on the way to Normandy with my family. We had our luggage with us, but didn't think it would be a problem, since there is luggage storage at the palace.

Rolling a suitcase, however, across all those cobblestones not only takes forever and jars your whole arm with each stone after a while, but it is also incredibly loud.

Despite that, the palace was worth it. As were the gardens (which I don't have pictures of, unfortunately).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis is the biggest little attraction in Brussels.

As the Dutch name implies, Manneken Pis is a small statue of a naked little boy making water on a street corner.

Many myths, legends and untruths surround the fountain's history and inception. Some say he was a nobleman's kid who urinated on an opposing army in the Middle Ages. Others claim he used his natural means to put out the fire of a fuse set to blow up parts of the city. Another popular tale is that he was the son of a wealthy traveler or merchant who was lost, then found by citizens as he did his business in a garden.

I personally found it odd that no one seems to be able to give an exact reason for the statue's construction, but I knew I couldn't see Brussels without paying homage to the bronze boy.

Throughout the past 200 or so years, visiting dignitaries have sought to clothe the boy. According to some accounts, French King Louis XV's soldiers made off with the little statue. Louis, furious with his soldiers, had a costume made for the boy and returned the statue.

Regardless of how the tradition came about, Manneken Pis now has a few hundred costumes at his disposal.

When I saw the fountain, he was naked as the day he was forged. He was, to my disappointment, eliciting a stream of common water. I'd heard he is sometimes hooked up to a beer keg and that passers-by are offered a drink. I think that would make quite an interesting social experiment, as some people would go for free beer at any cost, others would refuse it out of principal and still more might be on the fence.

Personally...I would have gone for the free beer from a unique tap.

In any case, I looked at him for a few minutes, shrugged and headed to the town square for a visit to the Manneken Pis museum - displaying hundreds of his outfits.

Wandering through display after display of outfits and photos, I realized the little lad has had quite a storied life. He's worn the uniform of multiple armies, including Napoleon's Imperial Guard and an American World War II uniform. Business suits, police uniforms, clown costumes and many, many more were on display as well.

At the time of my visit, I didn't know there are other Mannekens Pis in the country, but Brussels claims to have the oldest, and quite honestly, it's not that impressive, but is definitely worth a stop for the novelty of it.

And speaking of novelty, why not have a pint at the Taverne Manneken Pis, then pick up a Manneken Pis corkscrew/botttle opener combo? The latter has great shock value as a gift.

Manneken Pis is located at the intersection of Rue de l'Etuve and Rue du Chène, a few hundred yards from the Grand Place (town square).

For more information, visit a Web site claiming to be the official one here.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Photo of the Week: Vatican Guards

A pair of the famous Vatican guards - Swiss mercenaries in uniforms designed by Michaelangelo.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Elephanta Island

Elephanta Island appeared as a phantom through the haze from our boat as we neared the halfway point of the one-hour ride from Mumbai. The island, named by Portuguese colonists after the huge elephant statue they saw when they first arrived, is home to a complex of caves carved out of rock between 600 and 700AD and is today a UNESCO World Heritage site.

My travel companion, Deon, was visiting India to see his ancestral homeland. His father is Hindu, and Elephanta’s caves were carved by followers of the cult of Shiva, one of the most powerful gods in the Hindu religion.

Once our boat docked, we hired Milind, a local guide. He led us down the pier past moored fishing vessels alive with Indians scraping barnacles and weaving nets to the 120 steps leading up to the caves.

On the way up, we passed through a bazaar of vendors all selling items made on the island and included everything from pearl necklaces and silk paintings to carved fishbone elephants and religious statues. A mischievous monkey stole one vendor’s water bottle and finished it off in a tree.

After paying the $5 entry fee, we saw the mouth of the main cave. It appeared as a square hole cut out of solid rock supported by four pillars reminiscent of Greek or Roman architecture, but distinctly different. Milind explained that the whole cave, along with all of its pillars, adornments, reliefs and details, is carved from a single piece of rock.

Inside, we marveled at the artwork, which is a combination of the Gupta and Chalukyan styles. Enough light filtered between the square stone pillars to illuminate the relief scenes carved in the walls.

Standing in the center of the caves, walking in the footsteps of artists who carved them without machines almost 1,400 years ago was a humbling experience. Gone was the oppressive heat of Mumbai, the constant din of honking horns and hubbub of a city at once too large and not large enough. I traced the outline of a small elephant sculpted into the corner of a pillar and asked Milind about the namesake elephant that used to stand on the island, but which is now in Mumbai’s Victoria Gardens.

“The elephant is a Hindu sign of welcome,” he replied. “The Portuguese didn’t know what it was for.” He then pointed to a panel along one side of the cave. Shiva’s arms were missing, and there was some damage to the flat surfaces as well. “The Portuguese did that, too, with their guns.” I leaned closer and felt the rough edges of a hole made by a musket ball centuries ago, trying to picture the soldier who was a long way from home finding small amusement in a foreign land.

I turned to Deon and saw that he was transfixed by the relief on the back wall, portraying the three-headed incarnation of Shiva – Mahesamurti, in which the aspects of creation, protection and destruction are brought together, each represented by one head. Milind told us it is one of the most powerful in the Hindu religion.
Off to the right was a sculpture of the Seed of Life, which Hindus believe sprouted into the lotus flower and eventually became mankind. It sits in its own room, protected by towering stone guards.

In the courtyard between the main cave and one of the smaller ones, we learned there should be a statue of a bull, which Shiva rode, but it was another casualty of the Portuguese colonization.

Another pair of caves whose stone was too soft for sculpting provided housing for the builders of the main caves. Rather than tour those, which are empty, we asked Milind if we could see his village instead. He readily agreed and led us over a barely discernible trail he said is a local shortcut. It eventually opened into a larger path, and we rounded a corner to his village.

I felt like I was the first foreigner to ever set foot within its bounds, although that is highly unlikely. The first building I noticed was squat and no bigger than my bedroom. It had a brightly colored conical dome rising from one end, indicating it was a temple. A low stone wall set it back from the paved footpath and the other pastel buildings around it. A couple of dogs chased each other in front of it.

It turned out to be the 10th anniversary of the temple’s construction, which is dedicated to a local god. A festival was planned for that night, and a woman at the temple’s door handed us each a spoonful of masalah, a mixture of grits, raisin and butter for eating during prayers, when meat is not allowed. It tasted doughy and sweet.

As Milind led us through the haphazard streets of his village to his house, few people were out. Most were working as guides, selling trinkets at the market or fishing. The entrance to his house was guarded by a yellow lab named Lucky. His father sat on a plastic chair in the corner and greeted us in Hindi.

The house itself was only one main room with a small bedroom, but was floored in beautiful tile and well-kept. Silks hung on the walls, a vibrant cloth divided the bedroom from the main room and a family photograph sat on a shelf to one side.

Milind told us he would play the keyboard at the festival that night. We insisted he play for us, and he eventually gave in. After playing a song on the keyboard, he handed it to Deon and pulled out another instrument for himself. Together they played while I sat watching and taking pictures.

After they finished, we thanked Milind and his father, then headed back toward the pier for the next boat to Mumbai. We left Elephanta Island as we’d found it, a specter in the haze. Only this time that specter represented a new cultural perspective for both of us.