ASIA: Colorful Roses From South India Spread Fragrance Around the Globe

ASIA: Colorful Roses From South India Spread Fragrance Around the Globe

Next time you present a bouquet to your loved one or while welcoming a guest, thank the people of few villages in Krishnagiri district in south Tamil Nadu in India. Millions of these petite and fresh flowers spread fragrance in UK, Germany, Australia, Singapore  and Middle East. They bloom in plenty in Krishnagiri district in towns like Thally, Kelamangalam, Denkanikottai, Shoolagiri and Hosur. Though these places are just an obscure speck on the map of India they are some of the important floriculture address of the country. How do these colorful flowers bloom here? Does the hot and humid climatic condition of the country suit them? The response is a little dicey.  The way the flowers are grown in the gardens, situated at an altitude of 1000 feet above mean sea level is the answer to the questions.

Untouched by pollution and tourists these rose gardens are tucked away in small villages spread all over the Western Ghats on the border of the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.     

All along the well-laid roads that meander on these not too tall hills dot rose gardens where men, women and children, with a covering on their head, tend to rose saplings. A few feet away, in what seems like a plastic house and net structures, stand long rows of flowering plants. Inquiries reveal that these ubiquitous plastic shields are polyhouses.

Flowers in full bloom inside a polyhouse

Though they look like simple gardens, they are large farms where the flowers were grown using modern technology. The polyhouse is a structure made of translucent material like glass or polyethylene which help the plants grow and develop under controlled climatic conditions.    

Narrow paths from these polyhouses lead you to hi-tech floriculture companies. It is here these flowers are plucked at the right time, cut to size with the right machines and preserved in huge cold storage rooms before being packed off to the local market and local airport, to be flown abroad.

Those who manage them are not local farmers but engineers, IT and management professionals.

Bright roses, rich marigolds and huge carnations is the capital that drives them to invest more and more in this industry. One such businessmen who turns over crores annually is Jitendra Kumar Bajoria, who hails from Bagalpur in Bihar State.

Author’s daughter in a polyhouse growing marigolds

Attracted by the nip in the air and the lush green landscape, this entrepreneur developed a rose garden on an acre two decades ago. Enthused by the results he decided to go commercial and took a big business plunge. He set up huge flower farms on 65 acres, – Maa Floritech _  at Agalkottai in Denkanikottai taluk in Krishnagiri district in 2006. 

As time flew by, the farms became hi-tech but shrunk to 45 acres.  “We boosted production by modernizing the farm and using Israeli farming technology, said Kush Chokhani, manager of Maa Floritech, Agalkottai village.”   Using  Israeli technology, cultivation of roses and carnations grew in leaps and bounds on these farms.  They did not just increase in numbers but in varieties too. “Today we have 82 varieties of chrysanthemums and 25 varieties of roses on our farms,” said Mr. Kush. 

Growing the saplings

How are saplings actually grown and tended?  “The specialty of Agalkottai are the following. Altitude (1000 m above mean sea level, red soil (ideal for roses), temperatures always hover around 23 – 30 degrees centigrade (good for chrysanthemums, marigold and roses),” said Mr. Kush.  

The cuttings are planted in straight rows inside the polyhouses. Apart from air, water and soil the flowers need nutrients too. “We give them at the right moment when they get depleted in the soil. Thanks to Israeli technology nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, sulfur and potassium are sent through pipes embedded in the soil. Similarly whenever there is an increase or decrease in temperatures inside the polyhouses, the technology helps to control it. For instance, there are tiny fogging machines (fully automated drip and fogger system) which sprinkle water over the plants when it becomes hot,” said Mr Kush as he turned on the fogging switch.

It is a sight to watch these tiny robots swirl around and sprinkle water on the plants. For a minute, you are transported to a rainy setting.  “Also when it is cold outside, the temperature is survival- friendly for the plants as the polyhouses stop the greenhouse gases from leaving,” explained Mr. Kush.

Though there are less pests and insects inside a polyhouse, Mr. Kush opines that there is a need for regular consultation regarding the right kind of fertilizers and fungicides for the plants. “We are always on the look out for a a breakout of pests such as thrips, mites and aphids. The plants are susceptible to Powdery mildew ( a disease) when there is less humidity.”   

Horticulture officials in the district are of the view that these enclosures also ensure disease control, fertigation and other agronomical practices.  Thus the farmers of the region are assured of harvesting flowers such as carnation, gerbera, marigold, orchid and roses throughout the year without  worrying about crop loss or damage.

Controlled cultivation

Micro irrigation system ensures right amount of water for the roots (cuts water use by 80 per cent). Mainly the poly houses boost starch production as the carbon-dioxide emitted by the plants at night is retained inside the enclosure.

These polyhouses offer other sophistication too like the photo-synthetically active radiation (PAR) lighting. Plants grow tall under these lighting. But when they reach a specified height, lights are switched off and flowering commences.  Thus the Israeli technology helps control photosynthesis, humidity, good aeration, temperature and other conditions.

Rose buds capped with synthetic mesh

Once flowering commences, care is taken to cap each and every rose bud with a synthetic mesh to control its size. Rose stems ready for harvest during sunny days have to be pre-cooled. Soil and water need to be tested regularly. According to Mr. Kush, one cannot succeed in hi-tech farming without personal attention.

Once the flowers are in full bloom, they are harvested, precooled for 12-16 hours at 8-10 degrees in a cold room. The stems are then de-leafed using machines 25 % from the bottom. The stems are then graded for length. They are then bunched based on the length. “A bunch consists of 20 roses. They are wrapped after cutting and packed in a preservative for storing in cold rooms. They are taken out based on the orders,” explained Mr. Kush.      

Profitable farming

“We keep updating ourselves with new techniques and news about market conditions,” said Mr. Kush. There is regular knowledge-transfer to workers about upkeep of plants, weeding, transplanting, cultivation methods, irrigation, nursery development de-leafing and cutting. The workforce are not only from Tamil Nadu state but also from Northern states like Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand and West Bengal.

While men prepare the flower beds, carry buckets of water and remove weeds, women are involved in harvesting, de-shooting and other light jobs.

Roses being packaged for export

Based on their skill they earn approximately $ 4 to $ 5 every day. With a growing demand for these flowers, it will definitely attract more entrepreneurs . Indian chrysanthemums, roses and marigolds are sure to find a place in many a bouquets in every part of the globe soon.

Lalithasai

Lalithasai , a journalist par excellence, with an experience of over 25 years, has penned innumerable articles for the betterment of the society. For over two decades at The Hindu (India’s National Newspaper), she had written with sensitivity and understanding about marginalized women and children. She has also covered public education, communities, urban affairs and development in Tamil Nadu (India). She was actively involved in reporting extensively about the affected families in the fishing hamlets in India, when the tsunami struck in 2004. She has interviewed senior editors and liased with major media organisations to understand the situations and plight of women. Lalithasai who has many feathers in hat, has had her humble beginnings in a middle class South Indian family, but has risen to be an inspiration and tall leader for her own sisters and mothers in the world. she is a mother of two grown up children. Her son is an environmentalist and holds a position of repute in Henkel in Germany. Her daughter is a doctor,who is planning to pursue the subject in mental health. To know more about LalithaSai, please visit - http://www.lalithasai.com/

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INDIA: Robots, Go the Food Way

INDIA: Robots, Go the Food Way

India, basically an agrarian economy has made great strides in various fields and especially in the field of robotics. The robots have gradually entered into sectors such as defence services, agriculture, manufacturing industries and so on.

The petite man-like machines have therefore created career opportunities for many entrepreneurs in the food industry too. Do we need any extra talents to make a mark in this field?

“Not exactly, if you have the expertise and the interest to excel in your business and attract customers, success is yours,” say the duo Karthik Kannan and Venkatesh Rajendran, who took Chennai by storm with their robot-theme based restaurant, a few months back.

Launched early this year, this restaurant located on the Old Mahabalipuram Road is a crowd puller. Despite a spacious waiting lounge, on the ground floor, one can see serpentine queues to grab a table in the restaurant.

What is attractive about this theme? Robots, of course, says Karthik. People are curious about how they work here. he says as he leads us to the dining space on the first floor. Soon as you step out of the lift, you are caught unaware by a robot extending its tray to you. Unable to hold back a guffaw, Karthik points out that it is just a selfie corner and there is more suspense waiting for you inside.

Heading straight to the glass door before you, he takes you inside a dimly-lit restaurant. As your eyes get used to the darkness, the scene that unfolds looks straight out of a science fiction – a line of tall robots, with bright red eyes, turning around on their wheels.
Of the four robot waiters or servers, two are clad in a saree to suit the Indian style. Children vie with adults to reach out to the food on trays carried by the robots named Gia, Sana, Alice and Atika.

So, how do the robots locate the tables? Founders Venkatesh and Karthik have introduced a unique order system with phone tabs. The tablets display all categories of food available – Thai, Chinese et al. Once the order is placed by the customers, it is sent directly to the kitchen. When the ordered dishes are ready, restaurant staff arrange it on a tray carried by a battery-operated robot which promptly delivers it to the respective table.

Venkatesh Rajendran and Karthik Kannan

Venkatesh Rajendran and Karthik Kannan

On reaching the table, it alerts the guests to take the food from the tray and tap its hand after they are done with the task. It then proceeds to the kitchen on a fixed track around the tables.

If children, out of curiosity, go near the robots carrying the orders and block its way, alerted by sensors fixed inside them, they stop immediately. As one can get a seat only through booking, there is no jostling inside the hall to walk alongside or touch the moving machines.

In addition to the robots, the restaurant has also employed waiters to enable customers to adapt themselves to the new concept.
Why this concept? “The concept of ‘Theme-restaurant’ is taking Chennai by storm now. I am an architect (specializes in interiors) and my friend Venkatesh, a former IT employee, is currently in the food industry. Both of us wanted to combine our expertise and introduce a new concept in the city. Also, during my visits to China, I noticed that robots were a big hit in restaurants. Thus was born this concept,” explained Karthik.

How did it begin?

Karthik who imports building materials from China has his office there. Two years ago, when the concept of theme restaurants was catching up in Chennai, he took up the task of doing interiors for 747 Flight Theme restaurant. Here, he designed the dining space similar to the interior of an aircraft to give aeronautic experience to the guests. It was then Karthik met Venkatesh and they conceptualized theme Robot. It was a leap of faith for both of them and they plunged into business. While Karthik handled the interiors, imports and robot repairs, Venkatesh handled the business operations.

But the effort was fraught with challenges. The duo had to study the working of the robots (each costing Rs. 4 lakhs), obtain training in installing and servicing them. Off, they flew to China to understand all these concepts and avoid being bogged down by emergencies.
“I took up a 15-day training to solve any issue related to the running of the machines. Actually, it is easier to handle them. They are like any other electrical gadgets. You just have to charge them once in 24 hours and take care of their wheels if needed. They will not throw up an emergency and if there is one, I can handle it,” says Karthik confidently.

But, what really shook them was routing the robots to India. Little did they realize that they will face a hurdle with the customs department. “As this concept was new to India, the Customs Department did not have a unique code assigned to the product (assembled robots). We, therefore, had to pump in a lot of details about parts of the bots, convince them and use special permission. The entire operations took us 2-3 months as officials of many central departments had to be approached,” explained Karthik.

We are glad, we did it, despite odds. Today, the concept is a success and they cater to customers from down south and far from north India too. Some of the dishes their guests come looking for is ‘Wow Paneer’ and dumplings (vegetarian) and Mayonnaise chicken (non-vegetarian). But both look forward to their and myriad varieties of home-made kulfis.

What are their plans for the future? Two months ago, Karthik and Venkatesh launched the themed Robot restaurant in Coimbatore (another major city in south India). They have plans of introducing the concept in all the states in the country. “We will source the bots from China and sell it across the country. Anybody with normal intelligence and sound knowledge of handling electrical goods will be able to manage the robots and do not need any special training session,” said the duo.

They further explain that they are willing to share the expertise with interested cafeterias, pizza outlets and in the hospital sector. They are open for franchises as well. Currently, they are authorized sole distributors of these robots for the Indian Market.

The robots are only an additional attraction and have not replaced the restaurant staff. But will they eventually do away with the human resource? What do you think?

Photo Credits: The Author

Lalithasai

Lalithasai , a journalist par excellence, with an experience of over 25 years, has penned innumerable articles for the betterment of the society. For over two decades at The Hindu (India’s National Newspaper), she had written with sensitivity and understanding about marginalized women and children. She has also covered public education, communities, urban affairs and development in Tamil Nadu (India). She was actively involved in reporting extensively about the affected families in the fishing hamlets in India, when the tsunami struck in 2004.
She has interviewed senior editors and liased with major media organisations to understand the situations and plight of women. Lalithasai who has many feathers in hat, has had her humble beginnings in a middle class South Indian family, but has risen to be an inspiration and tall leader for her own sisters and mothers in the world.
she is a mother of two grown up children. Her son is an environmentalist and holds a position of repute in Henkel in Germany. Her daughter is a doctor,who is planning to pursue the subject in mental health.
To know more about LalithaSai, please visit - http://www.lalithasai.com/

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INDIA: State of Kerala Ravaged by Floods, Still Gasps for Survival

INDIA: State of Kerala Ravaged by Floods, Still Gasps for Survival

Map of Kerala State

Map of Kerala State

Heavy rain during June and July is a normal phenomenon in the state of Kerala in South India. This year, the effect of the South-West monsoon was more profound not only in Kerala but in the neighboring state of Karnataka too.  Though meteorologists are of the view that it is not unusual, climate experts feel that it is a fierce reminder to India about climate change.

Though Kerala experiences heavy rain due to the South West monsoon, this year the rain was unprecedented not only in Kerala but in major parts of the adjoining state of Karnataka too. Even in their distant dreams, people of Kerala did not expect to face a calamity due to rain, which was a normal phenomenon all these years.

Kerala Ravaged by Floods

Kerala Ravaged by Floods

On August 9, large parts of the state woke up to large-scale devastation as the monsoon renewed its date with the state. There were flash floods and landslips in several places and the State Disaster Control sources were caught unawares.

Within 24 hours, death toll began to rise and the Indian government employed personnel from the Army, Indian Air Force, Navy and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) to the worst-hit districts of Kozhikode, Wayanad, and Malappuram.

People Wade Through the Flood Waters

People Wade Through the Flood Waters

“On August 12 we were given the first alert, when the authorities said they would be opening the Idukki dam (built on the Periyar river), which was reaching full capacity after a span of 26 years, if it overflows. Unfortunately, heavy downpour forced the authorities to open all the sluices within 24 hours and there was chaos and disaster all around,” explained Bindu, a resident of Ernakulum, presently relocated to Chennai. Deadly landslides bashed Idukki district, which was known for its tea and cardamom plantations, winding roads and scenic resorts. As Idukki is situated at a high altitude in the Western Ghats, people were unaffected by natural disasters such as storms or hurricanes but little did they think that torrential rain would displace their livelihood. “Our place was always referred to as Kashmir of Kerala. My heart bleeds when I see my hometown battered brutally,” said Anand Kuttan, whose entire family is employed in the tea plantations in Munnar (Idukki district).

By August 13, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) issued a red alert to eight districts – Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Idukki, Palakkad, Malappuram, Kozhikode, Wayanad and  Kannur. It was extended to others in the next few days.

But the scope of the disaster had outpaced efforts to cope with the disaster and the state had set up several flood monitoring stations and all of them notified extreme flood situation. The two regions that bore the brunt of the rain fury (August 19, 20) were Kuttanad and Chengannur.

Fishermen

The government took all efforts to help stranded residents. They involved all kinds of aircraft and boats. But, the real heroes who stood by the government and rescue personnel were the fisherfolk. They hurried to the flooded areas with their boats in which they navigate the high seas. In fact, they were the first to rush to Chengannur to rescue the marooned by the Pamba river. Said Bindu, “While the Army and government agencies could only  concentrate on towns, the fishermen deftly reached out to those in remote areas.”

The fishermen battled the adverse weather, held on to trees to veer the boats in the right course and faced the challenge of a strong water currents. They helped rescue heavily pregnant women, infants and almost swam in and out of all homes in a number of villages looking out for disabled persons and elderly.

“Women had no stamina, especially the elderly.  They had very little endurance, especially after the loss of property and near ones, they could not bring themselves to board the rescue boats,” added Bindu.

“They had to be cajoled and even bodily-lifted. We Keralites are attached to our homes and we could not bear to see it ravaged,” wailed Suresh her brother.

Relief operations

Sanitary Napkins Being Transported to Kerala

Relief Materials Being Transported to Kerala

Rain battered Kerala breathed easy only after August 19. According to officials over 2.55 lakh people were displaced and there was a steady rise in death toll.

But, despite being handicapped in all ways, Keralites rose up to the occasion. They did not panic, though their morale was badly down. Several NGOs and private relief teams swung into action from nearby Tamil Nadu and all over the country. Relief material began to pour in and they were housed in over 7, 24, 600 relief camps all over the state.

Rainfall pattern

Rainfall Pattern

Rainfall Pattern

According to the IMD, in just 20 days (August 1 – 20), Kerala had received the highest amount rain in 87 years. Idukki district alone received a breaking record of 1419 mm in August (till 20). Scientists opine that this is a once in a century rain which has displaced more than 1.3 million people in the state.

According to farmers, they have received nearly two and a half times the normal amount of water across the state, during mid-August. “We depend on the right amount of rain at the right time for our livelihood and food. How do we cope with this situation,” asked, Lakshmanan a farmer of Ernakulam?

Thousands of hectares of agricultural land are under sheets of water. Paddy and banana were the worst hit by the flood and they are yet to know the actual loss which they expect to be very high. The state has also lost poultry, milch animals, and ruminants.

Expert warnings ignored

The floods have washed away multi-storeyed buildings, commercial establishments, bridges and eroded roads. Several tribal communities, hilly areas and villages are still surrounded by the swirling flood waters and totally cut off from the rest of the state.

The flooding also affected the Kochi airport as it has been built on the floodplains of the Periyar river. According to officials, the airport has been carved out of paddy fields. “All rivers have a floodplain that is used to hold water and if the government does away with such an integral part of the water body, who can we blame now?” ask activists and experts.

Rainfall Pattern in mm (1960 - 2016) in Kerala

Rainfall Pattern in mm (1960 – 2016) in Kerala (Courtesy: Regional Weather Forecasting Centre and Area Cyclone Warning Centre, Chennai)

With millions displaced in flooded Kerala, climatologists warn that devastating floods of this enormity will become a norm if the Indian government has a callous approach towards climate change.  This is a major challenge that is staring at the country now and most of its plans to deal with it are more rhetoric and lesson planning and policy decisions.

Eco-system of Western Ghats

The situation has created awareness among the residents about the importance of preserving the environment and its role in climate change.

After reading the report submitted by scientist Madhav Gadgil (headed the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel formed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2010), many of us feel that the problem faced by the state due to the floods was partly man-made, said Aparna, a resident of Ernakulam.

The report submitted in 2011 by Madhav Gadgil had identified that nearly 37 percent of the Western Ghats, covering an area of 59, 940 sq km was ecologically sensitive.  Here, good natural vegetation and forests spread over 1,500 km cover six states – Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Goa, Gujarat and includes protected areas and world heritage sites.

A high-level working group had also recommended that state governments should prohibit projects and activities in the ecologically sensitive area which have a maximum destructive impact on the ecosystem “Wish we had taken proper steps to preserve the fragile eco-system of the Western Ghats and followed environmental laws. Above all, we feel that the government should have strongly recommended a ban on new industrial and mining activities.”

Families in districts such as Idukki and Ernakulam, where destruction was gargantuan are critical about the attitude of the government. They opine that without a concern for the environment, hotel owners, real estate sharks, and land mining mafias were encouraged to set up business here and this has spoilt the ecosystem of the state.

Wetlands and lakes, which is where the floodwaters should have taken refuge have all given way to concrete structures. “If the government does not form committees and involve more officials to conserve the environment, all the highlands, Midlands and coastal plains in the state will suffer damage of increased magnitude due to unjustified human intervention,” opine some of the residents of Kerala.

Lalithasai

Lalithasai , a journalist par excellence, with an experience of over 25 years, has penned innumerable articles for the betterment of the society. For over two decades at The Hindu (India’s National Newspaper), she had written with sensitivity and understanding about marginalized women and children. She has also covered public education, communities, urban affairs and development in Tamil Nadu (India). She was actively involved in reporting extensively about the affected families in the fishing hamlets in India, when the tsunami struck in 2004.
She has interviewed senior editors and liased with major media organisations to understand the situations and plight of women. Lalithasai who has many feathers in hat, has had her humble beginnings in a middle class South Indian family, but has risen to be an inspiration and tall leader for her own sisters and mothers in the world.
she is a mother of two grown up children. Her son is an environmentalist and holds a position of repute in Henkel in Germany. Her daughter is a doctor,who is planning to pursue the subject in mental health.
To know more about LalithaSai, please visit - http://www.lalithasai.com/

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Guest Post: Life of a Mother, Married to a Cop

Guest Post: Life of a Mother, Married to a Cop

Three Decades With a Cop

Lalitha Sai and her Husband- Just Married

Lalitha Sai and her Husband- Just Married

Life was not easy,

Life was also not bad,

Life had everything,

Life did lack something,

Yes, this is the life of a cop’s wife!

Our marriage is close to three decades now. Back in 1990, (June 13) I did not know what I was getting myself into. All I knew was I had to be patient and have a lot of understanding with a grumpy police officer. He too warned me that life would not be a bed of roses.

Lalitha Sai and her family after 25 years of marriage

Lalitha Sai and her family after 25 years of marriage

But was he actually grumpy? Were there thorns? No, his heart was one that would melt with the warmth that glowed from within me. His spells of anger would fizzle when his eyes meets mine, full of fear of having incurred his wrath.

Beneath his hardcore exterior were streams of love in which he still bathes me ceaselessly. I bore him two precious jewels which he cherishes from the bottom of his heart.

But his call of duty was his priority. He was married to his job. There have been many a celebrations (marriages, birthdays and outings) without him. His absence has made us wince with pain, cringe with shame, and cry out loud for want of love. But, his duty had always been his priority.

Still, the man did turn the family livelier.

There were difficult times, best moments, lovable minutes and tearful seconds. But in all we were united as a family. To the best of my effort I tried to steer him clear of any family problems and tried to give him peace. But, he would not move away.

He has held our hands,

…in times of need,

…in times of physical pain,

…in times of mental stress,

…in times of illness,

…in times of delusions,

…in times of joy,

…in times of pleasure!

He molded every one of us to be independent and a leader too. He gave us all the space whenever we needed it. He taught us to focus on the good and not the bad.

Though there were times of regret about marrying a cop, I still think it is the best decision I have ever taken in life. For, he has been a real inspiration to his engineer son, doctor daughter and journalist wife.

In my view, I also think that though he had misdirected his official stress on his loved ones at times, he has always made it up with all of them.

I would be thankful if he can, to all his intimate relationships, give more patience and diligence and make them his priority. I thank God for making us a family and giving him to me.

If not for him I would not have known love, affection, compassion, interactions, build communication skills, leadership qualities and interpersonal skills. May God bless him with good health and mental stamina to take care of all us for many more years to come.

My wish, as always: Whenever Nature thinks it is time, let me be the first to leave so that I can welcome all of them one by one till they reach the feet of the Almighty. For I know not how to live without even one of them.

How has your married life made you feel, after all those years of togetherness?

This is an original post for World Moms Network written by guest poster, Lalitha Sai, in India. 

Lalitha Sai, Journalist, India

Lalitha Sai, Journalist, India

Lalitha Sai, is a writer based in Chennai, India. She is happily married to a police officer. Her son is an engineer in Europe, and her daughter is a doctor in Chennai. She has 25 years of experience in journalism and has held posts of senior editor in the leading news dailies of India, “The Hindu” and “DT NEXT”. She focused on women empowerment in her articles.

She is now working as the head of operations of content releases in a private company.

World Moms Network

World Moms Network is an award winning website whose mission statement is "Connecting mothers; empowering women around the globe." With over 70 contributors who write from over 30 countries, the site covered the topics of motherhood, culture, human rights and social good.

Most recently, our Senior Editor in India, Purnima Ramakrishnan was awarded "Best Reporting on the UN" form the UNCA. The site has also been named a "Top Website for Women" by FORBES Woman and recommended by the NY Times Motherlode and the Times of India. Follow our hashtags: #worldmom and #worldmoms

Formerly, our site was known as World Moms Blog.

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Lumbini, Nepal: Buddha’s Birthplace, What Remains Now and the Ethos of the Heart

Lumbini, Nepal: Buddha’s Birthplace, What Remains Now and the Ethos of the Heart

THE BIRTH OF Siddhārtha Gautama

6th Century BC:

The old nurse looked at her radiant Queen, Maya Devi. She still had the same sweet smile on her face, and nothing seemed to have changed since the day she was born, the day the old nurse picked her up as an infant. Pregnancy only made her glow more like the full moon. She still insisted doing things her way in that same charming captivating way like now, when she went bathing all by herself in the Puskarini pool, even though she was about to give birth in a fortnight. Her nurse watched helplessly as Maya played in the pool, with her friends amidst the pink and white lotus flowers. The nurse sighed, and got up to ready the sleeping arrangements for Maya. Maya had wanted to leave for her father’s home for birthing her child as was the custom of those times. But instead of leaving earlier by a month, she spent more time with her affectionate husband, King Suddodhana, the leader of the Shakya clan. On the way to her father’s place, she wanted to spend the night at the beautiful garden in Lumbini, which meant ‘the lovely.’

Just as the nurse was about to walk away towards the tents, she could sense something waswrong. She turned to see Maya’s face contorting in pain for just a moment. Or did she imagine it? She squinted her near-sighted eyes, and watched intently for a longer moment, and noticed the same expression again. Maya met her gaze, and the nurse knew it was time. She waded mid-pool and quickly helped her out of the water. Maya insisted on walking all the way to the tent without support, wincing during every contraction, supporting her hips with her arms. She did not reach the tent. She took a quick detour and halted below a strong and sturdy sal tree, under the full and bright moon of the first lunar month Vesak, of the New Year. She rested for a moment, as her womb contracted in divine agony. Her nurse held out her hand, but the all-time-self-sufficient Maya supported herself by clutching a branch, and birthed her handsome Prince, whom she named Siddhārtha, the one who achieves his goal. The Gods from heaven showered a stream of lukewarm water to clean the baby, and then another cooler shower. She thanked the Gods silently. As she gazed lovingly at her just born beautiful new baby boy, Siddhārtha walked seven steps on the lotus in the pond, as the lore goes.

 

Nativity Scene: The Birth of the Buddha

Nativity Scene: The Birth of the Buddha

Maya passed away 11 days later, leaving Siddhārtha in the hands of her sister Prajapati, who was also the second wife of her husband. Prajapati’s motherly love for Siddhārtha never made him realize the absence of his birth mother. The court astrologers predicted that the Prince would either become a great saint of modern times or a mighty Monarch.

As the story of the Buddha goes, Prince Siddhārtha abandoned the palace and the kingly riches in search of meaning for life and wandered away to the forests, at the age of 29. Through the strictest of penance, he eventually attained Nirvana or enlightenment at the age of 35.

Just before passing away at the age of 80, Buddha told his primary disciple and cousin, Ananda, that Lumbini his birth place would be one of the 4 holiest places which would attract Buddhists for all time.

***

May 2018:

LUMBINI, BIRTH PLACE OF BUDDHA, UNESCO World Heritage site

2500 years later today, the Lumbini garden remains so, as predicted by Buddha. In my eternal quest for all things Buddhist, I was taken to the serene land of Nepal, which is adorned by the whitest and most beautiful Himalayan Range to the north, and by the rather nondescript town of Lumbini to the South. I won’t go into details of how to reach Lumbini by road/air, where to stay once you reach there, or the best things to do there. You can find all of that in travel websites and travelogues written by travelers and tourists who have visited the place before me and who would visit after me.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO World Heritage Site

For the travel-lusting curios, however, I am going to briefly share my experiences of visiting the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini. This temple is housed inside the Lumbini development complex which also has the Monastic zone and a Lumbini village zone. In 1978, many nations came forward to build monasteries depicting the evolution of Buddhist culture in their countries and I am going to share a few pictures of those different monasteries below. To confuse you further, when you visit, there are many gates to this complex, depending on how you plan to enter. Whichever of the 9 gates you choose, be sure to cover all the monasteries. They are absolutely lovely and unique and give you a flavour of their own respective countries.

A few of the monasteries below …

The Thailand Monastery

One of my favorite monasteries. It stands magnificent in snowy, pristine white glory; embodying purity. It is very well maintained with manicured lawns and neatly trimmed trees.

Thailand Monastery

Thailand Monastery

The insides of the Thai monastery is also very beautiful. The decorations of the Buddha, the culture reflecting in the ornate decorations, information on neat bulletin boards, and so on – all gave a very nicely organized monastery.

Insides of the Thai Monastery

Insides of the Thai Monastery

The Cambodian Monastery

This monastery reminded me very much of the Angkor Wat temple in its looks and structure. It is still work in progress with construction work going on, and dust billowing towards us, in the heat. We were forced to make a hasty retreat to the other monasteries, though this breath-taking beauty did not stop beckoning us…

Cambodian Monastery

Cambodian Monastery

The Myanmar Monastery

The Golden monastery from Myanmar decorated with green and gold paint, and a maroon balustrade to match, was a splendid sight from outside and inside too. It is a replica of the monastery in Yangon. My husband’s bucket list grew, with Myanmar as one of the places to visit, before the end of this year, as we breathed in the sight of this beautiful monastery.

Myanmar Monastery

Myanmar Monastery

The German Monastery

As we kept walking, we came across a circular lake, and on one side there is this beautiful German monastery called, ‘The Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa’. Do not let this humble, yet beautiful monastery mislead you, for you are about to witness wonder inside it.

German Monastery

German Monastery

As we entered this monastery, we were slowed down. There was not enough time in the world, to complete admiring the beautiful murals on the walls. There was a prayerful atmosphere which the monks tried hard to maintain inside the prayer room. It was simply splendid. I recommend, you sit down for a few minutes to meditate here. No photography is allowed inside, for which I am thankful, because our senses were already assaulted enough, just admiring the murals inside.

Inside the German Monastery

Inside the German Monastery

At times, I was so glad for these “No photography” signs because Nature was giving us a chance to just sit, allow the beauty to descend into you, both in a way of the senses and also into the heart. No more thinking about Portrait mode or Normal mode or other modes, light exposure, and all those umpteen photography things which my husband and son keep discussing about, but just a mind which needs to calm down, and a heart which needs to look inward.

Colorful Murals Inside the German Monastery

Colorful Murals Inside the German Monastery

And we moved on, because a noisy group of tourist arrived and were discussing with the care taker, as to how they could seek permission to take pictures inside the prayer room.

The International Nuns Temple of Nepal

On the right side of the International Nuns Temple, you can see that there is a place of stay for the nuns from Nepal, and is maintained by the Government of Nepal. It has a long courtyard where footwear was not allowed, and as our feet were getting burnt, we were reminded of childhood memories of playing hide and seek with our cousins, during summer break, on the hot terrace at midday. We had to make a hasty retreat this time too, because we could not bear the burning of the hot grounds on our naked feet.

(*If I did not tell you earlier, you are requested to leave your footwear outside most of the monasteries, as a sign of respect and cleanliness.*)

International Nuns Temple in Nepal

International Nuns Temple in Nepal

The Singapore Monastery

This was closed and we could not learn much about it. So we resorted to taking pictures of it and us.

The Author and her son in front of the Singapore Monastery

The Author and her son in front of the Singapore Monastery

The Chinese Monastery

The Chinese have built the biggest monastery in the complex. It is very well maintained and organized with a lot of information displayed. There was so much to assimilate about the culture and history of Buddhism in China and about the monastery itself.

Chinese Monastery

Chinese Monastery

The entrance of the Chinese monastery is guarded by their traditional ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ and other deities. There was even a Maitreya Buddha at the entrance. This is a very beautiful and colorful monastery.

Guardians of the Chinese Monastery

Guardians of the Chinese Monastery

Though the entrance looks not so huge, the courtyard was heavenly. The visitors who entered never felt like leaving. You would also notice that the entry and exit of the monastery is structured such that it makes you circumambulate in clockwise around the Buddha which is a holy practice of Hindus and Buddhists.

Courtyard of the Chinese Monastery

Courtyard of the Chinese Monastery

World Peace Pagoda

We were then directed towards a path by one of the tourists, saying it led to the Eternal Flame, The World Peace Pagoda and the Maya Devi temple. They are all in a straight line.

Inside the Peace Pagoda

Inside The World Peace Pagoda

As you walk on this path, you can find the golden Bodhisattva statue glistening in the sun. It is a fairly recent addition, in 2012. It is supposed to personify that image of the infant Buddha when he took the seven steps on the lotus, as soon as he was born.

Golden Bodhisattva statue

Golden Bodhisattva statue

The Maya Devi Temple

Our walk brought us to the Sacred Zone at the Maya Devi Temple. There was an ambience of tranquility in the atmosphere. But something else was also missing. I couldn’t quite sense what, yet. There is a pond beyond which the temple stands tall and majestic, in white serenity. It felt that the temple was celebrating Buddha’s mother rather than the Buddha.

Maya Devi Temple

Maya Devi Temple

There are rows of small stupas outside the temple. Excavations seemed to be happening continuously since the discovery of the Ashoka pillar in 1896.

Ashoka Pillar

Ashoka Pillar

King Ashoka in the 249 BC is supposed to have originally discovered Buddha’s birth place and built this iconic pillar with detailed inscriptions and the various stupas around it.

Details - The Ashoka Pillar

Details – The Ashoka Pillar

Around the temple building, there are numerous small stupas and they have been archaeologically dated back to the second century BC.

Archaeological Ruins Around the Temple

Archaeological Ruins Around the Temple

We entered the temple, and began walking on the wooden floor, following the signs. People were throwing coins below into the ruins, as offerings for good luck. We stood above and gazed from the railings, there were coins from different countries. As we kept walking, we finally reached the Marker Stone which marks the exact spot where Buddha was born. Devotees were praying, some tourists were gazing intently trying to capture everything in their memory, as you see, photography is prohibited inside the Maya Devi Temple. The path further leads to the Nativity sculpture where you can see mother Maya Devi holding the branch of a Sal tree and Buddha standing on a lotus. As we walked beyond, the path led to the exit of the temple.

The sun was very bright and almost scorching, and glared my eyes, because the temple was very dimly lit, like the insides of a movie theatre. I waited for a moment, for everything to sink in. Everything seemed like nothing.

I noticed the colorful prayer flags in the garden outside. There was a small pond, and a few monks were sitting around a tree, chatting. There were benches for tourists, and some were meditating on it.

I got the feeling that perhaps it was time to leave.

What did I seek in Lumbini?

As we made our way towards the exit, we halted for a drink of water at the watering pool. A few monks were filling up their plastic bottles too, and we waited patiently for them to move. It gave me a moment to reflect.

When we made this journey, all the way from Chennai, South India, what did I anticipate to find? I was allured to Buddha’s birthplace, but I couldn’t find him here. Lumbini is no doubt a very important and holiest of sites for followers of Buddhism and even followers of other religions and I appreciate the beauty of the Lumbini development zone and commend the effort of the Government to preserve this as place of value and heritage.

However, as I fill up my bottle, with the cool water from the tap, I wonder, “What did I get, which I sought from this visit to the birth place of Buddha?”

Did I get enlightenment like Buddha? But did I seek that? I don’t even know what that means…

Did I seek to find Buddha somewhere hidden in the beautiful monasteries constructed by various countries? Or somewhere near the Marker Stone, which claims he was birthed there?

I was not seeking his physical presence – surely not!

Was I seeking to find some meaning to the strong presence he left behind in this world? Perhaps…! But what of it?

Well, whatever I was seeking or not, I surely was trying to find some essence of Divinity in all of this. One could call it peace, or bliss or a meditative calm or any other word… and it all can be identified with something akin to Divine. But I was vaguely disappointed. I felt generally at peace at a superficial level in some of the monasteries, but I still was trying to figure out what I was searching, assuming that I would know once I found it. And here I was experiencing an anti-climax of having found nothing at all.

My water bottle overflowed and I sensed an impatient monk behind me who was being fidgety with his bottle, tapping it against the railing of the water taps. I closed my bottle and allowed him to use it. He smiled his thanks but I did not have the energy to smile back. I was drained by the heat and my own contemplation.

We walked back along the long path leading to one of the exit gates, each of us silent in our hearts and in our own world.

Long after I came home to India, and decided to write about my experience in Lumbini, I felt emotional about not having experienced Buddha’s presence. I just did not feel him or find him anywhere in Lumbini. It felt like ‘time’ had trapped all of Buddha back in the 6th century BC.

It just felt like memories of Buddha lost in time, accentuated by celebrated tales, and an active humanity in the future which tried to relive the enlightenment of a single man (or God) of the past. 

The Ethos of the Heart

As I was wondering about my experience, my friend texted me and offered to have a Heartfulness meditation session, where one meditates on the source of light in the heart. I could not say no. After the session, I felt lighter and peaceful in a general way. Later, I remembered something I read long ago, written by Daaji, the Global Guide of Heartfulness. This seemed to be a fitting climax to my experience.

“Imagine for a moment that we don’t have to go anywhere, or to do anything, except simply sit wherever we are, and allow ourselves to be found? Imagine that heavens are waiting to enter our heart, right here and now! What a powerful concept! How do we make this a reality and allow ourselves to be found? How do we create such a state where the higher presence naturally settles within our hearts?”

He goes on to explain as below …

“The answer possibly lies in cultivating the seeds of contentment within our hearts…

It starts with a simple suggestion that everything we need is already present within us. All the love of the world, the beauty of life, the seed of perfection is present in our heart represented as a source of light. This suggestion is strengthened through actual experience in meditation, as the idea of light leads to a feeling of an inner presence.  This inner presence becomes a reality as our consciousness expands, and we become aware of a wholeness of being. When we begin to experience this state of wholeness and perfection at our core, the clouds of discontent and ignorance start to dissolve. The heart regains its light and innocent nature.

Under such circumstances, the egoless heart, the humble heart, automatically draws the heavens towards itself. Such a heart is perfectly adjusted to its external circumstances.  It creates heaven around itself.”

Full article here. 

I felt light instantly. This seemed to be the missing puzzle to my experience-jigsaw. I had read this article almost 2 years ago, more or less agreed with it, and swiped away to the next article, devouring words and ideas. But the joy of the pudding is not merely in the eating, but in the conscious experiencing of the taste, or the sweet of it. The Universe is so vast, and the world of learning and experiencing is also as broad as the Universe and perhaps even more so. As the human soul tries to imbibe everything or parts of the universe in a quest which is directed external – to new places, new understanding of the senses, and new knowledge, there is something limiting to that, as the façade never fully lifts.

As I try to understand what he meant in the article, I also realize that perhaps humanity is unconsciously seeking an ethos of that content heart, which satisfies itself with everything within, which knows with confidence that indeed the Universe is present within. 

What do you look for, when you visit holy lands? Tell me, your experiences … 

Photo Credit to the Author.

This is the first in the series of articles by #WorldMom, Purnima from her travels in #Nepal.

You can read the series of articles from her travels in #Bhutan here.

Purnima Ramakrishnan

Purnima Ramakrishnan is an UNCA award winning journalist and the recipient of the fellowship in Journalism by International Reporting Project, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Her International reports from Brazil are found here .

She is also the recipient of the BlogHer '13 International Activist Scholarship Award .

She is a Senior Editor at World Moms Blog who writes passionately about social and other causes in India. Her parental journey is documented both here at World Moms Blog and also at her personal Blog, The Alchemist's Blog. She can be reached through this page .

She also contributes to Huffington Post .

Purnima was once a tech-savvy gal who lived in the corporate world of sleek vehicles and their electronics. She has a Master's degree in Electronics Engineering, but after working for 6 years as a Design Engineer, she decided to quit it all to become a Stay-At-Home-Mom to be with her son!
 
This smart mom was born and raised in India, and she has moved to live in coastal India with her husband, who is a physician, and her son who is in primary grade school.  

She is a practitioner and trainer of Heartfulness Meditation.

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The magic of a mother’s handbag

The magic of a mother’s handbag

Flipping through my travel diary of some years ago, brought me to this entry. Dear reader, I, as a mother, if you have ever come face-to-face with logic-defying moments, while preparing for travel, do read on…

Others have “aha” moments. I make do with “What on earth am I doing?!” ones. Such a moment happened to me last evening, as I filled a clear plastic bag with salt and put it into my handbag.

No, dear reader, I haven’t completely lost it. Salt hasn’t become the new currency. Nor am I on some kind of strange detox that calls for the everyday kitchen ingredient. The salt owes its presence to the leeches. “Which leeches?” you ask. The ones that inhabit the roads from Bagdogra, West Bengal, to Darjeeling, and further to Kalimpong, and Gangtok in Sikkim.

It happened like this…

I called up a well-read and senior neighbor who is rumored to be the inspiration for the Lonely Planet series. Her expertise in all things related to travel, is legendary. So I thought of requesting for her travel-tips before setting off on a 19-day vacation to the afore-mentioned places. And our pleasant talk stopped to a halt upon hearing of the leeches that live in these regions. “No stepping on the grass during breaks in the long car journeys” she said, “And wear your footwear when you need to respond to nature’s call”, she added.

I repeated this to my family. Abhishek, my cautious 10 year old, knows all about salt and leeches. He was convinced that hordes of these blood-sucking fellows were eagerly waiting his visit to their home, ready to pop out of the grass at the first onset of rains, which is once every day or so. He would imagine them falling upon unwary tourists (us!), with maniacal shouts of laughter (o.k. so I made up the last part!).

He looked at me with a knowing look. Turning to his father, he said, “Mamma will carry salt in her hand-bag”. Not asked. Not requested. Simply declared. After all, past experience has shown that Mamma does indeed carry a mini universe in her hand-bag, all for the express purpose of being able to keep him healthy, happy, comfortable, safe, cut-free, and non-bored.

Is there a term like the last one? There ought to be; parents know all about how much it takes to not have a child say those dreaded words, “I’m bored!”

Why not follow the “Prevention is better than cure” dictum and simply avoid presenting one’s blood to leeches? “Sure” responded Abhi, “I’ll wear my shoes at all times. But you will carry the salt too, won’t you?” Yes I will. Is there any doubt? And so the evening found me trying to fit in a bewildered guest of my kitchen into an equally bewildered handbag.

 

“Just look at me, I’m already bursting at the seams” declared the harried handbag.

I looked. My money pouch stared back at me. Next to it was my cell-phone, a handkerchief, a comb, my address book (yes I still have one of those antiquities), the house keys, a tiny box of cloves and cardamom, two pens, some sticky-paper and my “usual travel-bag” containing credit cards, the airline tickets, Abhi’s passport, frequent flyer airline cards, photographs of family members, photos of my gurus, my driving license (which is a handy identification document but otherwise completely useless as I don’t drive), some hygiene essentials, a taxi and rickshaw tariff card, some “carry at all times” pain killers, band-aids, an emergency “looks-fixer” kit with a mirror, bindis, safety-pins, 2 tiny vials of perfume, a lipstick, a pair of earrings, a tube of lip balm, hair clips and hair-bands, and finally, the little tag that was tied around Abhi’s neck at the nursing home where he was born (I know, I know! But am sentimentally attached to it).

Next to this nestled the vacation-specific mini-bag that had a torch, a scarf, some anti-nausea medicines for Abhi, some tissues and plastic bags (to wipe up the mess if and when the above-mentioned medicines failed, which they usually do), a tiny box of pepper powder (helps digest oily food, I swear!), some soothing ointment for the skin (mosquitoes and assorted insects like to make a beeline for Abhi and greet him like a long-lost friend.)

“Where’s the calendula”? The irritated boy rubbing his red arms will invariably ask, within twelve minutes of venturing outdoors. And last, a bundle of assorted toffees and chewing gum for the family.

I looked at the handbag in one hand and the bag of salt held in the other. Time to say goodbye to something…

Out came a bigger handbag from the cupboard. And the residents got transferred into a larger home. My husband saw the activity and admitted that he was relieved; he had plans to make me carry the digital camera in the handbag. “And the hotel allotment papers too”, he added smiling sheepishly.

I picked up the new handbag and sighed. “Oh well, my shoulders and arms will look more defined by the end of the trip” I muttered.

At dinner, Abhi asked, “Did you take enough salt?”. “Enough for an army of leeches”, I smiled. Watch out jungles, the Mukherjee handbag is here!