Archive for April, 2014

"My life is a counter-point, a kind of fugue and a falling away - and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man" - Jorge Luis Borges. Bergamo, March 3, 2007

“My life is a counter-point, a kind of fugue and a falling away – and everything winds up being lost to me, and everything falls into oblivion, or into the hands of the other man” – Jorge Luis Borges. Bergamo, March 3, 2007

Bergamo was but a brief stop on the way to Como and beyond – a convenient destination in northern Italy courtesy of Ryan Air’s seemingly endless expansion. Situated at the base of the foothills of the Italian Alps, to the north of the flat plains of the Veneto – the hips of Italy’s leg, if you will – Bergamo was welcomingly dry and bright after some variable early spring weather in England. I recall very little about Bergamo, outside the photographs I took, and don’t remember how I arrived at this point, aside from taking a bus into town from the airport. I can only assume I was drawn to this vantage point from the views it promised to offer. Tired as always on day one of a trip from having had next to no sleep the night before, I felt almost high and elated from the bright light and elevation.

It was around 1030 in the morning and, being a Saturday, the town had a pleasingly slow pace to it. There were plenty of people about, but no one was in a hurry. The air was cool enough for most to be wrapped in coats, yet the sun had a clear, if entirely dry warmth to it – a welcome break from damp. This acropolis of sorts was a favoured place for people taking their constitutionals. A couple of old gents played chess, women waited as their lap dogs sniffed at things and some cool kids smoked cigarettes with the carefree air of not having anything else to do. Initially I had been impatient to get on my way to Como, yet the welcome sunshine and sense of space held me in thrall for a few hours.

This remains my favourite photo from that brief visit. Whilst I liked it from the start, as with so many photos, it wasn’t until, on Facebook, my friend Chris appended it with the quote contained in the caption that I really came to appreciate it. Sometimes, even when confident about a piece of work, it takes a second opinion to convince myself that I do truly like it. The quote from Borges may not actually suit the narrative of this old gent’s life, but it certainly goes well with the image, and for that I have Chris to thank. Cheers, buddy.

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Hampi is a striking place – an odd landscape of giant, tawny granite boulders, strewn across dry river plains and low hills. The weathered, rounded rocks protrude from the rusty, orange soil like scattered marbles, giving the place an otherworldly feel. Hampi is not only a geological wonder, it is also an archaeological one. Having once been the capital of the Vijayanagaran Empire – at its height between the 14th and 16th centuries – the site is full of monumental stone ruins – covering a whopping 26 square kilometres.

Hampi Bazaar

2583 Hampi

2851 Hampi stones and palms

3030 Epic landscape

The city of Vijayanagara was founded on the Tungabhadra River in 1336 by two brothers – Harihara and Bukka, and quickly rose to become a major centre of trade and Hinduism. Its wealth came primarily from cotton and spices – a market monopolised by the local rulers to great effect. With such ample stone reserves to be quarried, Vijayanagara experienced an extended construction boom which peaked in the early 16th century under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529). It is from this time that many of the major structures are derived; vast temple complexes and colonnades, bath-houses, cisterns, aqueducts, palaces and elephant stables.

3352 Temple platform Hampi

3217 Hampi 2

3064 Hampi Temple

4393 Bicycle and ruins

3695 Elephant stables, Hampi

2720 Hampi

Much of the architecture bears similarities to Hindu structures elsewhere, particularly with regard to the temples, yet Vijayanagara also reflects a local bent for ingeniously blending its buildings into the rocky landscape. It is a busy style, sporting countless high relief carvings and patterned motifs which give the buildings an organic quality.

3112 world of Conan

3291 Horse with horse motif, Hampi

2956 Hampi

2859 Temple, Hampi Bazaar

At its height, Vijayanagara, which means, city of victory, had a population somewhere upwards of 500,000 people, making it the second largest city of its day – surpassed only by Beijing – and a rival to ancient Rome. Vijayanagara fell not long after reaching its peak – sacked by a coalition of Muslim rulers from the north – the Deccan Sultans, who defeated the Vijayanagarans at the battle of Talikota in 1565. After the 16th century, the city fell into decline and ultimately, ruin.

Vijayanagara, and modern day Hampi, are both major sites of ongoing archaeological activity and popular tourist destinations. The town itself – Hampi Bazaar – is tiny, a mere village of neatly swept dirt streets populated as much by animals as people. The town was, until very recently, a good deal larger. Concern about overdevelopment and the locals’ tendency to re-use the ruined buildings as dwellings or for commercial purposes led the local authorities to demolish a number of structures built in the last 50 odd years, and to evict people from re-purposed medieval buildings. Despite this, Hampi Bazaar still sits right amongst the ruins of Vijayanagara and the transition from one into the other is seamless.

2978 Medieval gate, Hampiu

3969 Hampi morning

2822 Ruined street, Hampi bazaar

2793 Clothes line

Hampi Bazaar, whilst by no means an inhospitable place, is likely not for those who are used to luxury – most of the hotels are very basic and some lack hot water and private bathrooms. Many hotel rooms are also quite musty and mouldy – a consequence of the humid conditions and walls apparently lacking damp protection from the earthy foundations. Yet it is a lovely place to stay – the colourful houses are intimately close together, and the local people can be seen getting on with their lives in the midst of the tourist hordes who inevitably fill this place.

2818 Dances with goats

3823 Hampi Bazaar

2799 Simple street Mandalas

3963 Hampi

It is especially popular with younger, more alternative travellers – some of whom come to Hampi and get stuck for days or weeks. It has a very chilled aspect to it and the many roof-top restaurants, despite the disappointingly average quality of the food across the board, are excellent places from which to view both the village and the surrounding landscape. The proximity of the torrential river makes the setting all the more idyllic and exotic.

2394  Temple, Hampi

4011 Tourist

3954 Hampi ruins

2599 Hampi

3867 Tourists, Hampi

As noted above, Hampi Bazaar has its fair share of ruins and intact medieval structures. The monumental Virupaksha temple, flanked by an epic cistern, seems almost embarrassingly oversized for the modest village. Yet this but a taste of the wide array of impressive structures and temple enclosures dotted around the huge site. The number of temples is astonishing and their intactness gives some parts of the site the sense of a ghost-town, hastily abandoned. It is possible to walk for hours, for days and still only touch on what is on offer here.

2836 Virupaksha temple 2

2513 Temple and tank, Hampi

2895 Hampi Temples

Following the river to the northeast leads one through a glorious landscape, past a fantastical collection of ruined complexes to the immense Vitthala Temple with its famous stone chariot – the wheels of which still turn. Though it is less than five kilometres, one could spend at least an entire walking there and idling back, exploring the temples and enjoying the natural setting.

2761 Hampi, Age of Conan

2579 Hampi

2602 Hampi 2

2651 Hampi

2586 Hampi, rock cut steps 2

2580 Hampi

The Royal Enclosure, to the south of Hampi Bazaar, marks the old centre of the medieval city. It is here that some of the most impressive monuments are to be found – such as the Lotus Mahal – said to be the queen’s pleasure palace, and the elephant stables. At least a day is required to satisfactorily explore this wide area, depending on your patience, curiosity and temperament. Either way, be prepared for a lot of walking, or else hire a motorbike or auto-rickshaw with driver as the massive scale of the site means many of these monuments are widely spaced.

3579 Vijayanagara

3044 Hampi temple

3720 Elephant stables, Hampi

3088 Hampi Temple

3083 Rocks and ruins

3794 School group, Hampi

Whilst the landscape seems, for the most part, dry, rusty and scrubby, it is full of bright green palms and banana plantations. The rich, dark soil of the flood-plains also yields brilliant, emerald green rice-fields which illuminate the dry, toweringly smooth rocks with radiant verdure.

4349 Near Anegundi

3321 Sitting under the tree

3135 sensuous bananas

4257 Anegundi

4218 Goats eating cornhusks

It is a curious mix of the lush and the semi-arid, and can also contain some nasty surprises should one venture off the beaten track. Hard, sharp white thorns, up to an inch and a half long and strong enough to penetrate a rubber sole, often lie in the undergrowth. I learned about these the painful way, when I put my full weight on one in a pair of thongs and nastily punctured my foot which then spasmed awkwardly for the next two minutes. The thorn went so deep into my foot that it nearly came through the other side and for days afterwards walking was a very tender exercise.

3141 Thorns

Another place worth visiting is the small, historic village of Anegundi. It lies a few kilometres to the north east of Hampi Bazaar and, without taking an enormous detour, can only be accessed by ferry.

4113 Ferry crossing

Construction of a bridge crossing at Anegundi began in 1999, but was halted the following year over concerns about the impact on the site, both physically and visually. Shortly after reconstruction was resumed in 2009, the bridge collapsed, killing eight construction workers. It now lies like a crooked slippery dip, angled into the river – an interesting modern ruin.

4056 Collapsed bridge 2

The local people remain with no choice but to take the tiny ferry or another, private boat, across. A few motorbikes can fit aboard the ferry, but cars are forced to drive some forty-odd kilometres to access the nearest bridge.

4091 Off the ferry

A local guy from Anegundi with whom we spoke on the ferry was very vocal, if philosophical about the bridge. It was corruption, he said – poor construction due to cutting corners. “This is an India problem,” he said. So it seems.

4166 Anegundi

4135 Anegundi

4175 Anegundi

4202 Anegundi

4408 Happy locals

With such an unreal and captivating landscape, Hampi demands being seen at both sunrise and sunset. There are many vantage points which will yield a mind-blowing view, and the elevated places immediately outside Hampi Bazaar are some of the best. At these times of day the landscape’s colours are smoothed with an orange wash from the low-hanging sun. One morning, V and I set out before dawn to climb the rocky hill at the eastern end of the town. The wan light of morning was powerfully evocative of sunrise on another planet.

3903 Sunrise on Mars

3897 Sunrise, Hampi

When we descended from the boulder atop which we had been sitting, we came across another temple site we had not found yet, nestled between hills and palm trees. The heaviness in my heart and guts was the heaviness of awe – weighty feelings of eternity and mortality, fuelled by aesthetic beauty and the visceral freshness of the early morning grandiose. For four days Hampi had me under its spell – it is not something I’m ever likely to forget.

4270 Near Anegundi 2

4426 juicer

3956 Coracle crossing

4234 Hampi rocks

3938 Hampi 2

3643 Hampi

3746 Shrines on the rocks

2426 Street scene, near Hampi

3634 Islamic quarter, Hampi

2965 Tending the lingam

2461 Hey ladies

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Macaques, Monkey Forest, Ubud, March 13, 2009

Macaques, Monkey Forest, Ubud, March 13, 2009

The Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal village, on the edge of Ubud in Bali, is a natural highlight for tourists – attracting roughly 10,000 visitors a month. A 2011 monkey census put the monkey population at exactly 605 crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis), a figure which has no doubt shifted since. It is a lush, dark and deep green place which, with its shrines, stone-carved animals, Hindu gods and hanging roots and vines, would not be out of place in an Indianna Jones movie.

Whilst the macaques are called “crab-eating,” you will likely only see them eating bananas, durian, cucumbers and watermelon. Perhaps some species of fresh-water crab inhabits the primeval stream which runs through a short, steep gulch beneath a fantastical stone bridge, though I saw no evidence of this. The monkeys are, as monkeys will be, cheeky and impudent and will quite happily snatch anything faintly resembling food from visitors. If they were any larger, this would be more intimidating, yet it is certainly enough to give a person a fright, should one of them run up your leg. On my first visit there my brother made the mistake of buying some bananas to feed them and promptly found himself with three monkeys running up his legs onto his head and shoulders, hanging from his arms and snatching at the bananas. His only option was to drop the bunch, which vanished quicker than chips in the beaks of seagulls.

At quiet times the monkeys can be mysteriously absent, then suddenly appear in a bunch, usually chasing each other or seeking food. Many sit around in small family groups, unafraid of people, though seemingly more concerned about the mischievous intentions of their own kind. The group of monkeys in this shot were placidly sitting, maintaining a sort of crèche with several youngsters. The light was very low under the forest canopy and the exposure time less than instant, hence the blurring effect on the adults. I was very fortunate that the young monkey remained so still, creating the pleasing effect of sharpness and clarity in the midst of the textured blur of the adults’ fur. It is a cute face presented by the little one, if a little ghastly – like a strange homunculus. I do, however, like his curious little mohawk.

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The Talking Pillow

One afternoon in 1977, a year before I began primary school, my mother and I went to pick my brother up from school. He was very excited about an upcoming school fete and couldn’t stop raving about it.

“There’s going to be a raffle,” he said, “which is this thing where you can win prizes. And the first prize is a Sound Pillow!”

“What’s a Sound Pillow?”

“It’s a pillow that talks!”

“A pillow that talks? Far out, no way!”

“Really. It’s a talking pillow.”

My mother, who was on the Parent and Teachers Committee, confirmed that there would indeed be a raffle with a whole range of prizes – including this fabled Sound Pillow.

“I’m not sure the pillow actually talks,” she said. “But you can listen to it.”

These words of caution, perhaps because they didn’t go far enough in detailing the exact nature of the pillow, failed to deter my brother from his belief that the pillow could actually talk. I implicitly trusted my brother in everything – because he was older and already at school, so it was only natural to assume he knew what he was talking about. Once the idea had taken root in my mind, I was utterly convinced that the words “sound pillow” could mean nothing other than that the pillow could speak. After all, what other sounds would it make? It wasn’t exactly going to bark or miaow, now was it?

For days before the event I constantly thought about the myriad possibilities of the Sound Pillow. Lying in bed, the sky still light in the early autumn, I would ply my brother with questions.

“Can you ask the pillow questions? Can it answer them?”

“I think so,” said Matthew.

“What does it sound like?”

“I don’t know. Like a person. An adult.”

“Does it know everything?”

“I guess. Or else it couldn’t answer questions.”

“Can it sing?”

“I suppose.”

“But how does it work?!”

When my brother got tired of answering, I lay quietly thinking of the incredible powers of the pillow. How great that it should be a pillow too, for pillows were such marvellous things; comfortable, comforting, soft and friendly. The idea of one that could converse on any topic was beyond my wildest dreams. If my brother did win the raffle, I’d have to make sure he let me have access to the pillow. After all, if it was as smart as all that, it would be just like a family member, like another brother – perhaps even more so than Jason and Lady, our dachshund and bitsa. It was only right that we should all share in the pillow.

When the day of the fete came, the only thing that mattered was the raffle. It was sunny and warm and we were gathered before a demountable table on the bitumen in the junior playground. Whilst we were all excited about the Sound Pillow, I had also noticed a large, red, soft-toy tortoise amongst the prizes. As a child, I was completely obsessed with tortoises and turtles and already had three stuffed ones of varying sizes among my “favourites.” The red “tort” would make a fantastic addition to the collection, and make a suitable wife for “Papa Tort.”

Fate must have been on the side of the Cornford brothers that day, or else my mother had rigged the raffle. For, when the ticket numbers came to be called, my brother won the sound pillow and I won the red tortoise. It is difficult to express the joy that my brother and I felt, suffice to say that if you’ve ever been to a children’s birthday party…

The Sound Pillow came in a light brown cardboard box with orange lettering, or so I recall, and as much as I wanted to rip it out of the box and start chatting with it immediately, my mother insisted we wait until we got home. Fortunately, I had “Mama Tort” to offer solace during the interminable wait.

When we finally did get home and open the box, my brother seemed to have already dismissed all his imaginings of the much vaunted pillow’s capability. In a disappointingly, yet still impressively pragmatic way, he showed me how you could plug the pillow into a television or radio and the sound would come through via a speaker inside the pillow.

“But doesn’t the pillow talk?” I pleaded.

“No, you can just listen to the television or radio.”

I was astonished. Not only by the revelation of the Sound Pillow’s less than spectacular abilities – though it was still worthy of some reverence – but also by my brother’s apparently cool knowledge of the reality of the situation. How long had he known? Had he worked it out days before, or had he just read the information on the box? If the former, why hadn’t he told me, or was it that he didn’t want to disappoint me, nor dispel the illusion himself?

Either way, that Sound Pillow, for a short time worshipped as potentially the greatest invention in the history of human ingenuity and a worthy rival to God in its infinite wisdom, was now just another curious item, hardly more amazing than a transistor radio. And worse, it wasn’t comfortable to lie on – having a rather chunky speaker inside which the stuffing and padding had not quite succeeded in softening. It was also, ultimately, practically useless. For, if my brother wanted to use it, it meant I could not hear the television, so it hardly saw any service. Indeed, the poor old Sound Pillow was even relegated from pillow fights – one hefty whack from the speaker could render a child unconscious.

Rather than fulfilling all our dreams and more, the Sound Pillow wound up stuffed in the corner of my brother’s bed, against the wall, and failed to live up to its role either as a (rather crappy mono) speaker or, indeed, a comforting headrest. The final indignity came when, during a bout of gastro, my brother vomited all over it and the Sound Pillow ceased to function. It lived on in the house for a while longer, a sad and sorry reminder of how brutally infinite possibility can be reduced to disappointing banality. Eventually, however, all sentimentality evaporated in the face of its growing tattiness and the pillow was out on the street.

Ah well, may the Sound Pillow rest in peace.

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Two Beehives, Rishikesh, April 5, 2010

Two Beehives, Rishikesh, April 5, 2010

This shot was taken from the top floor of the now abandoned Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram in Rishikesh, India. The man-made beehive structure is a chamber for transcendental meditation, designed to focus your thoughts and prayers more effectively (ahem). The other beehive is bee-made, and very nicely placed to form a curious juxtaposition and uncannily fortunate symmetry. The hovering bee, waiting, it seems, to dock with the mothership, was a neatly-timed addition to a set-up that seemed too good to be true.

The ashram was abandoned in 1997 due to an expansion of the national forest on which it bordered. The place was simply locked up and left to nature, with no real attempt to demolish or dismantle the structures. I visited the place in 2010 with a cool Canadienne I met at the end of an unexpectedly epic eleven-hour journey from Delhi – Kumb Mela was on at the time in Haridwar, a mere ten kilometres from Rishikesh, and the roads were choked with millions of pilgrims. Rishikesh itself was flooded to the gills with saffron-robed holy folk and it was a constant pleasure to walk among them, curious sight that they were.

There weren’t any guards or attendants at the entrance to the ashram, but there was a gate-keeper of sorts; a lame young bloke with a pair of crutches. He “let us in” for a couple of hundred rupees and once inside we were free to roam about. It wasn’t long before we were met by a long, white-bearded former ashram guest named, I think, Mohan (?), who offered himself as a guide in such a friendly manner that we accepted his offer immediately. Mohan had spent his life working as a high-level public servant in the transport sector and now, in retirement, he had taken to wandering around India like a holy man. Clearly, having spent years at the ashram in the 80s, he was pursuing a long-standing inclination.

Mohan led us along the leaf-strewn paths, through the curious overgrown structures. Most of the buildings were sturdily stone and concrete built, and where they were damaged it was largely through having been looted for fittings. He took us to the four beehive huts where the Beatles had stayed, numbered 7 through 10, if I remember correctly, with John Lennon having been in number 9. Alyne and I had a few great fan-boy moments, exploring and taking photos, quietly contemplating along with excitedly chatting about the rock n roll history of the place.

In one of the buildings we explored, Beatles fans had painted murals in the abandoned rooms, depicting Beatles themes and lyrics. These had a lovingly amateur quality to them, somehow appropriate considering the stylised charm of the Beatles’ own cartoons. Eventually, we came to the largest structure on the site – a three-storey concrete mass with more beehive domes on the roof. It was in this building that I came across this actual bee hive, looking out across the low foothills towards the gorge cut by the Ganges. Its context in the derelict human structure offers a sense of caveat and foreboding – as though a prelude to the fall of civilization. It also reminds me of an important thing to bear in mind when contemplating human civilization – that, of course, the human beehive is natural too. It’s just a more elaborate nest.

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Young Bulls, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, March 30, 2010

Young Bulls, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, March 30, 2010

You walk past a lot of animals in India; cows, goats, monkeys, dogs, camels, horses, elephants… There’s something very evocatively medieval about the blurred lines between town centre and rural hinterland; a boundary that only seems to exist in the very heart of the major metropolises – and even then such animals can still be found. The intrusion of the rural into the urban (or is it the other way around?) brings with it all the scents of the countryside – that rich fug of beast and manure – which seems anomalous to the scale of the towns and reminds me of when the Easter Show used to come to the old Royal Showgrounds in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Then, every morning, for roughly two weeks, I woke up to the smell of cows, sheep and pigs in, of all places, Paddington.

The presence of large animals on the street can be intimidating at times. Mostly they are placid and docile, yet occasionally a narrow passage will be blocked by a cranky bull. Whilst he might exhibit only the most minor irritation – a flicking tail, a restless stamp, a displeasured snort, stung perhaps by a sand-fly – it would be unwise to get into close proximity. Sometimes the condition of the animals can be quite distressing, though generally it was the stray dogs which seemed the most malnourished. Indeed, I was surprised at how robust most of the cows and bulls looked – a little thin at times, but rarely emaciated.

These two bulls were mucking about in the streets of the Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, having a playful wrestle. There was little animus in their proceedings, just a languid and lazy butting practice. It was good of them to provide me with such a symmetrical subject, and indeed they remained like this for some time, pushing slowly to and fro. It seemed the bovine equivalent of a fist-bump; a soft, yet muscular display of power; a subtle reminder that such friendliness could not always prevail – not when the time came to compete for cows.

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