Friday, 18 November 2011

Cacti and cave-paintings on the way to Marseille

On the way to a meditation workshop in Marseille we stopped off to do a bit of hiking in the Calanques, which are the inlets and caves to be found along that stretch of the coast. The hills were full of a smokey blue light and the air was very clear and fresh, making everything seem much closer than it really was, as though you might be able to reach out and touch it.

It's amazing how quickly the French countryside changes; one moment you're driving along beside sandy golden stone laced with iron deposits and the next you're looking at limestone stuff like this. I would be interested to know what happened however many millions of years ago that concertinaed the landscape in such a way, or whether, like Douglas Adams' award winning fjord-designer, Slartibartfast, somebody amused themselves putting down all their artistic flourishes too close together to be really believable. I seem to remember the science fiction epic Saga of the Exiles by Julian May was set in this neck of the woods, though in the Pliocene Era. For anyone who hasn't read it I won't spoil the premise, but I think one of the plot-lines involves the landscape being rearranged by some cataclysmic event. If I can't remember properly then it's time to read it again!

We were also very close to the Cosquer Cave, on whose walls can be seen these paintings dated at about 20,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age; some even older. The entrance to the cave is 37 metres below sea level, so I think we can be forgiven for not visiting it this time. These photographs are by one of the scientists supervising the site, Jean Clottes. You can see the layout of the cave by clicking here. There seem to be a lot of prehistoric cave paintings in France; it's anybody's guess why that's so. For a truly stunning virtual visit to a decorated cave, you might also like to take a look at the official website of the cave paintings at Lascaux in south-western France; I found them very moving.

So, back to our hike; here you can see my companions; from the top, Keyarie, Mukunja and Padmasini. Of course I am at the end of the procession, cooing appreciatively over the plants and rocks. This whole area is quite arid, but the variety of plant-life is still remarkable.

Cacti next to pine trees. A strange mix, but alluring. A few years ago I saw something similar in a Sicilian lemon grove where the cacti were growing much taller than this and bearing fruit a bit like papaya but covered with mildly poisonous spikes. We put gloves on, filled the boot of the car with them and drove them all the way back to Milan, where I then found the same thing in a market. Ours tasted better, of course!

Keyarie and Padamasini waiting on the other side of a hairpin bend for me to catch up as I stop yet again for photographs.

Some of the bushes had blossom and fruits at the same time, which is a bit unsettling but you see it everywhere now; others, like this, were doing their best to pretend we had bypassed winter and headed straight into spring.

Rounding a corner, I saw a very young cat staring meditatively into the distance and a little boy about to throw a stone at it, probably just to see it do something exciting rather than with any particularly malicious motive. My French was sufficient to prevent this happening and the cat turned around and fixed me with a dreamy but penetrating gaze.

This is what the cat was contemplating; no wonder it was so calm! And no, I didn't alter the colour of the sea in Photoshop, it really is turquoise. Or "azure", if you happen to be Shelley or Keats. The darker blue areas are banks of seaweed.

Dali trees.

Mukunja trying to get a portrait of herself with the sea behind her.

Usually it is best not to suddenly loom over people when you are all trying to keep your balance on the side of a steep hill in a strong wind, but you get the best smiles when they don't expect the photo, right? It will not surprise any of my Italian friends to know that I did actually lose my balance on the way down this hill and slid over in such a way that I haven't been able to sit down comfortably since! When I was living in Milan I was so completely accident-prone that after a month or so they reckoned I was well enough known at the hospitals to leave my identity papers at home... I injured my knee, had a very amusing allergic reaction to strawberries in which my face swelled up (I'm not even allergic to strawberries so I don't quite know what happened), broke my foot stepping over a roll of linoleum, and also managed to be so ill flying from the UK to Milan that I had to be carried off the plane and into the airport hospital. I also had a few accidents navigating their public transport system on my crutches, but the one that springs most easily to mind is a tram door closing on my plaster cast and the other passengers having to pull me free. Embarrassing! But you get used to that kind of thing when you're me. 

Here in France I have been lucky so far; only the minor cuts, burns, bruises and scaldings that you get for the first couple of months at any restaurant. I now have some golden rules: "*Do not attempt to do anything complicated with one hand whilst holding a sharp knife in the other (sounds almost Biblical, doesn't it?) *Do not use knives whilst hands are buttery *Do not put sharp knives in washing up water with other cutlery" etc etc. The only good thing about cutting yourself before a three hour washing-up shift is that hot water seems to stop the bleeding more quickly.

More cactussy things. They looked edible so I ate a bit and it tasted nice. Salads here are so much more exciting! Especially when bloodstained...

Here you can see Marseille in all it's glory! I know it looks a bit rough but it's a fascinating city; the second largest in France and a Greek colony originally, I think. Money is being pumped into it now and lots of it's dodgier areas are being stylishly revamped. I like it, and I'll be back at some point to investigate further; especially the business bit of the waterfront, which has really huge ships and forbidding-looking dockyards full of things in crates to be carried onboard. Very exciting.

And, of course, the best thing after a day of hiking is an icecream, on this occasion courtesy of "Le Glacier de Roi" in Marseille. I am not very adventurous with icecream flavours so I had a scoop of caramel and chocolate, but we have a whole list of places with advanced flavours to visit as soon as it gets warm again.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Ramayana, in a nutshell

The Ramayana is a very long story, so for those of you who have never heard it, this is a potted version, you might even say an egg-cupped version. The illustrations are close-ups from the tiny wedge shaped originals (4cm-7cmx10cm) I painted many years ago for the Ramayana clock described in my previous blog. I have missed out the stuff about Rama growing up and jumped to the place at which most western fairytales begin; when all the trouble starts.

The ruler of Ayodhya, King Dasaratha, decides to name one of his sons, Rama, crown prince. Rama is virtuous, skilled in battle, devastatingly good looking and everyone loves him. He’s also the son of Dasaratha’s first wife, Kaushalya, so he’s got everything going for him. But fate intervenes in the form of evil handmaiden Manthara. She reminds her mistress Kaikeyi, who is one of the King’s younger wives, how difficult Kaushalya is going to be with Rama on the throne, and urges Kaikeyi to act before it’s too late. Kaikeyi once nursed Dasaratha through what should have been a fatal wound on the battlefield, so she has his eternal gratitude. She also has a promise from him that when the time comes, she can have one boon, without reservation, no matter what it is.

Kaikeyi now fakes a fit of depression and says she wants her boon. Dasaratha, blinded by his concern for her, promises she can have anything she likes. No sooner has Dasaratha spoken than Kaikeyi asks him to banish Rama to the forest for fourteen years and appoint her own son, Bharata, crown prince.

You can imagine how Dasaratha wishes he had thought more carefully before making such a promise but there’s nothing he can do about it and so he summons Rama.

Dasaratha explains the problem, bitterly regretting his boon, but Rama only says that of course the king must honour his promise and he’ll start packing at once. He also thanks his stepmother Kaikeyi for allowing him to prove a king can still be true to his word and says he hopes she will enjoy being the Queen Mother. Dasaratha blesses Rama one last time and then falls into a coma from which nothing will waken him. When Bharata hears the news he is furious; not only because Rama is his favourite brother but because the whole affair has cast a terrible slur on his name. He kills Manthara and vows never to speak to his mother again.

Meanwhile, Rama’s wife, Sita, and another of Rama’s brothers, Lakshmana, insist on joining in the banishment, and nothing Rama says can put them off. Laksmana bids his wife, Urmila, farewell and promises to be back in fourteen years. They leave Ayodhya for the forest and the entire city lines the streets to see them go. The country plunges into mourning. While the palace is going through the motions of Bharata’s coronation Dasaratha quietly dies of a broken heart.

Bharata places Rama’s sandals on the throne and takes an oath that even though he is now king he will rule only as Rama’s deputy until his safe return.

The brothers build a little hut for themselves and life in the Panchavati forest begins. The years pass quickly; good company, simple food and lots of fresh air being the best medicine for all kinds of problems. Life in a palace drags on, with its endless rituals and duties, but the forest is full of variety. The simple life of subsistence teaches them patience, endurance and peace.

Unfortunately, dark things also enjoy the outdoor life. Prowling the forest one day, a demon called Ravana chances upon the clearing with its little hermitage. He catches sight of Sita at her everyday tasks and instantly falls in love with her. Now, Ravana is no ordinary demon, but a powerful king-demon, and his chief vice is pride. The more his subjects warn him not to interfere with Rama and Lakshmana, and to forget Sita, the more he cannot think of anything else. All his palaces, gardens and endless wealth seem as nothing compared to the beauty of the thing he cannot have. Ravana is extremely good looking for a demon, and he convinces himself that once Sita is parted from Rama she will consent to be his own wife. He has watched Rama practising martial arts so he knows that brute force is not going to work; he will have to do something really underhand to separate the two of them.

Showing his extreme cunning and understanding of princessy psychology, Ravana disguises one of his henchmen as a beautiful golden deer and orders it to prance about enticingly in front of their hut before taking off into the forest.

Sita immediately wants the deer as a pet and sends Rama out after it. The deer manages to evade capture and mimics Rama’s voice, calling out in pain. Laksmana warns Sita that it is a trick, but Sita insists that he goes to his brother’s aid.

Laksmana draws a magical protective circle around Sita and instructs her not to step outside it under any circumstance. Whilst the two brothers are looking for each other in the forest, Ravana approaches Sita in the form of a holy man. He tells her he has not eaten for days, and because Sita is well brought up she steps out of the circle to make him some food. 

No sooner does she step outside the circle than Ravana assumes his everyday form, snatches her up into the air and speeds away towards his far-off lair. When Rama returns and discovers she is gone the two brothers have the first argument of their lives and then set out to find her.

Rama and Lakshmana soon chance upon a great and kingly bird called Jayatu, who is dying from one of Ravana’s arrows. He attempted to rescue Sita but the demon was too stong for him and he warns the brothers not to underestimate the job in hand. Rama vows to avenge Jayatu and the bird dies satisfied.

As Sita was being carried through the air she managed to let fall a scarf in the hope that someone would find it. Two talking monkeys come across the scarf and bring it to Rama. They and all their relatives swear their allegiance to the brothers, so Rama now has an army. They introduce Rama to Hanuman, who is a real hero in the monkey world, and will also, in the fullness of time, become his greatest devotee.

Hanuman takes Rama’s ring for Sita and follows her trail. When he reaches the sea he never pauses but throws himself into the air and leaps across the waves to Sri Lanka, the land that plays host to Ravana’s palace and vast armies.

Magically disguising himself, Hanuman sets off in search of Sita but begins to fear the worst. The streets are full of gossip about the endless temptations Ravana has conjured up for Sita in the hope she will become his latest wife. The denizens of Lanka are all laying bets on when she will succumb. On the one hand she’s already married; on the other, Ravana is handsome, rich, sophisticated and he’s never going to release her anyway. Only the demonic bookies are certain of a win...

He finds Sita in one of the palace gardens. She is thrilled to see the ring and desperate to get off the island as Ravana is fast coming to the end of his patience. The dastardly demon has given her an ultimatum and soon she will face an unenviable choice; marriage to him, or being served up as his evening meal.

Hanuman shows her the ring and promises she will be rescued, once they’ve solved the problem of getting an army over the sea without a boat. At this point he comes up with the obvious solution, that he can carry her back over the sea and out of harm's way, but Sita insists that it is Rama who should come to rescue her. Opinion is divided on the subject of her motive; after all, why hang around? Some think it was her adoration of Rama and her wish for him to glorify himself in battle, some say she wanted Ravana to suffer for her abduction. Whatever the reason, she refuses Hanuman's offer and he leaves empty-handed, although not before torching a large portion of the capital city.

When Hanuman gets back to the camp his story causes an uproar. The army marches straight toward Lanka until they reach the sea. Rama paces up and down the shore thinking of Sita waiting for him in the garden. He is completely at a loss, for although he has studied the magical arts of war he never thought he would have to walk on water.

Seeing his predicament, the local monkeys, bears and squirrels get on the case and in no time at all they have built a bridge over to Lanka. It is said that Rama blessed the squirrels especially because they were so tiny and that the blessing left its mark in the black stripes Indian squirrels have on their heads to this day.

Rama’s army marches over to Lanka and an epic battle begins (which I didn’t have space to depict.) During the course of the battle, in which demons are falling like ninepins, Laksmana takes a mortal wound and Rama sends Hanuman off to find a cure.

After many days of patiently searching the Himalayas, Hanuman discovers a herb that will do the trick but is not sure of the correct dose so brings the whole mountain back. Laksmana is cured and continues to cause havoc amongst Ravana’s army.

The battle rages for many days and nights. After killing Ravana's sons, commanders and his special guard of honour, Rama finally comes up against Ravana himself. The demon performs many marvellous feats but his time is up. Rama fits an unbeatable arrow to his bow and looses it straight into Ravana’s heart.

Ravana takes a long time to die (we all know the type) but it is said that Rama’s arrow is fulfilling a certain Rakshasic prophecy and so the demon is not too gutted; at least he is being sent to the other world by a great hero.

When they reach the palace and rescue Sita there is much rejoicing, until Rama makes an announcement. He feels that the people of his kingdom will never believe she stayed true to him whilst living in the handsome Ravana’s palace, and being a king he must consider the will of his people. Therefore, he does not wish to keep her as his wife; he has rescued her out of a sense of duty, and not for any personal reason. When Sita hears this quite extraordinary accusation she calls out to the gods to witness her purity and causes a fierce fire to be built. Casting herself onto the fire, she declares her faithfulness will protect her (don’t try this at home.) It does, and Rama publically apologises. He says he knew he would have to goad her into establishing her innocence once and for all and now nobody in Ayodhya will doubt her fidelity. The happy couple are reunited.

Everyone returns to Ayodhya as by now the time span of the banishment has elapsed. Bharata gives Rama’s sandals back and Sita rewards Hanuman with a beautiful necklace. 

Many happy years pass and then, somehow, the question of Sita’s supposed infidelity raises its head again. Bowing to public opinion, or to the threat of public opinion, Rama banishes the pregnant Sita from his kingdom. 

She takes shelter in the hermitage of Valmiki, and in secret bears Rama two sons, Kusa and Lava. Many years later, Rama happens to be passing through the forest and hears two boys singing a song describing his life's story. When they get to the bit about her banishment, Rama starts to cry and to ask himself how he could have sent her away.

Sita appears before him, asks that very same question and when he has no answer, instead of repeating herself with another fire, causes the ground to open up and swallow her. At this point it is revealed that she is an incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi and her disappearance into the earth is symbolic of her re-assimilation into the higher worlds she originally came from. Rama, completely distraught, wanders his kingdom for a few years before leaving the crown to his sons and following Sita to the other world.

Look, I didn't promise you a happy ending, did I? Please note that I have made no comments about Rama's treatment of Sita; you can draw your own conclusions about how to balance kingship with marriage. Anyone sympathising with Sita might enjoy Nina Paley's amazing animation, "Sita Sings the Blues." It is funny and sad and has some unforgettable scenes of dancing monkeys.

Some of the full images of these pictures are already on sale at ETSY, the rest will join them in a few days.

That's all!