Twin Heroes of Maya 4 - A Lone Ear of Corn

I wonder how many of us have experienced true darkness. We might think darkness is what we experience when all lights are switched off in the night. But you still have the moon and the star, the distance street lights, the light from the stabilizer etc. Real darkness is pure darkness, the darkness that engulfs the life of a blind man. Such was the darkness in the house of darkness. Different people fear different things. Some people fear wild animals, some fear insects, some fear snakes, some fear ghosts. The list can go on. There were not too many things that the Hunaphu brothers were afraid of. But the greatest fear is fear itself, an unknown, unnamed fear creeping up your spine. In utter darkness and silence, when all your senses are denied, you imagination springs into action to fill the gap. The brothers began to experience fear for the first time in their life. They realized it was matter of time before the fear overwhelmed them and drove them to madness. So they had to do something. So they lit up the torch to banish the darkness. With the coming of light, the fears just vanished.

Now that the fear was banished, they were feeling sleepy. They of course needed a good night’s sleep before the match. But there was a challenge. The house of darkness knew no day or night. It was dark all the time. So they would not know when morning came and it was time for the match. The last thing they wanted was to oversleep in the morning, forfeiting the match by default by failing to turn up on time. So they needed to keep awake. And what better than a good smoke to keep awake. So they lit the cigar and started smoking. Every half an hour, they peeped out to see if the day had broken. The guardians stood outside the door. They had seen the light of the torch and the smoke from the cigar. They had a smug satisfied smile on their faces. Their masters would be happy with them.

The torch and the cigar kept them company through the night. By the time they finally spent away, it was already morning and the brothers happy to have survived the night in the dreaded house of darkness, were all geared up to get ready for the match. To their surprise, the guardians came in to serve breakfast. The brother had never expected so much hospitality in the land of death. Probably their bad reputation was undeserved. After breakfast, the guardians prepared a bath for them and even gave them fresh clothes. As they were preparing to leave for the match, the guardians came up to them and spoke up,

Anything else you need, Sirs?

The brothers replied, “Thanks a lot for your hospitality. We are really overwhelmed.

The guardians replied, “It’s our pleasure to serve, Sirs. Can we not have back our cigar and torch, please?

The brothers were taken aback, “What cigar and torch. They got burnt away.

The guardians replied calmly, “We had told you clearly that we want everything given to you returned in the same condition in the morning. This is a clear abuse of our hospitality.

The brother tried to remonstrate, “But how can a cigar and torch be in the same condition after use?

The guardians firmly shook their heads, “We don’t know all that. A rule is a rule and you have broken the rules. And you shall be punished. The Lords shall decide your fate

So saying they bound their hands and feet and lead them to the Death Lords’ chambers.

Meantime let us see what is happening above the ground. A week had passed. The maize plant has remained as it was. The brothers’ mother Ixcumane watered the plant and took good care of it. But the plant did not flourish. But good thing was it did not wither either. But after a week the plant began to take a turn for the worse and began to show signs of withering. Within a month all that was left was one ear of corn, that still gave some hope to Ixcumane. The plant looked completely withered and likely to drop dead any moment. But months changed to years and years just rolled by. Still the brothers did not return. The one ear of corn still valiantly hung on over the years. But Ixcumane lost hope that her sons would ever return.

The only succor remaining for the bereaved old lady was her two grandchildren Chouen and Batz. She showered love and affection on them. She waited on them hands and feet. She encouraged them to develop their artistic abilities and did her best to take their mind away from the ball game as she had promised her sons. Initially the boys were very sad about the loss of their father. But with the time, the memories of their father faded and they became exemplary artists and musicians. They spent all the time painting and carving and playing music. They did not even think of moving a finger to help their old grandmother. The grandmother had to toil from dawn to dusk to tend the fields, cook the meals and keep the house clean. The boys stayed inside the house the whole day, resting on their backsides and enjoying their arts and crafts. Ixcumane was proud of their artistic prowess and doted over them. She was also happy that she was able to take the ball game away from their minds.

One fine evening, the grandmother was busy in her cleaning. Chouen was playing the flute. Batz was adding finishing touches to a small stone figurette. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. The two boys were too lazy to get up and see who was at the door. They just continued with their activities as if they had heard nothing. The old lady was surprised. No one had knocked at the door for years. She thought probably her ears were playing tricks on her and continued her work. The knock sounded again. This time it was unmistakable. She slowly got up and hobbled towards the door.

She opened the door and there stood a young woman. Not just any other woman! A woman of such grace and splendor never seen before! A beauty not of this world! While she stood there dazzled staring at her, she bowed down politely to Ixcumane and spoke up, “ I have so glad to have found you at last, mother. I am Xquic, your new daughter-in-law.

In the next episode, we shall learn Xquic’s story and the fate of the two brothers in Xibalba..

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Ode: Rupture of the Umbilical Cord of the Heart


The merry kite reigns over the blue sky
Riding on the rapid winds, flying high
The string still holds it firmly to the ground
The kite strains to be free to leap and bound

The Samurai’s sword sings a song of might
Dancing the dance of death does it foes smite
His Lord still holds him firmly to his oath
To bend and bow low, his free spirit loath


I emerged free from the prison of flesh
A new life stepping into the world afresh
Cutting free of the fleshy cord of life
I ran, I jumped, I danced, I played the fife

I still was bound in the prison of love
In vain tried I, from it to break free of
Too hard is the cord of the heart to cut
A free soul, I strove to escape life’s rut


The kite string suddenly snapped, setting free the kite
The lord’s heart suddenly stopped, setting free the Samurai
The winds tossed around the anchorless kite,
The kite drifted aimlessly; hopelessly lost
The Samurai became a rebel without a cause;
A lawless bandit without pride and honor

Poet's Note:  There are two opinions on whether a poem should be explained or left to the reader's intrepretation. But leaving it to reader's intrepretation works when it gets published as a book and the reader reads it over and over again and literary critics give explanation. A blogger does not have this luxury. So I think a short explanatory note can go a long way in making the poetry understandable to the time starved, low attention span readers of blogs. 

This poem tries to express the mixed feelings one has for one's mother. One is bound by her love and at the same time one wishes to break free and chart one's own course free of the mother's smothering care and concern. In spite of the constant striving to break free, loss of a mother can be a shattering experience.   

I read about the ode form in this interesting article. I have tried to write one to the best of my understanding. I have used two metaphors - one of a kite and one of a Samurai bound to his Lord. In Japan, when Lords die Samurais have to either commit suicide or become bandits. As per the article, an ode has a strophe, an antistrophe and an epode. Going by that, I have introduced the metaphor of the samurai and the kite in the strophe. I give my personal reflections in the antistrophe. I have maintained a pentameter and AABB rhyme scheme in all stanzas of the strophe and antistrophe. In the concluding epode I have brought about the climax maintaining no meter or rhyme scheme. 

Wildlife Photography

More beautiful than anything made by man is God’s creation. I have always had a fascination for wildlife. I used to love watching wild life movies, read works by Willard Price and Gerald Durrell and don’t miss a single opportunity to visit the local zoo of whichever city I am in. So going over the Indian Wild Life photography blog of Angad Achappa was an absolute delight, an entirely entrancing experience.

The photos on this blog seem to be right out of The National Geographic. Once glance at the photos will tell you this guy is a thorough professional, who knows his job. The animals and birds look just splendid in the most natural of poses. I am sure he would have spent hours waiting in the wild to capture them like that. The photos reflect his passion for nature and wildlife. The photos have been taken with the right lighting, exposure etc. : clearly speaking volumes of the pedigree of the camera and the person behind it. Even a person like me with absolutely no knowledge of photography can see clearly that the photos here stand way above the photos found on any other typical blog.

The accompanying writeups are terse and to the point. The photos anyway speak for themselves. The writings just briefly give the basic necessary background information. The back drop is simple and pure black. I think with such good photographs, frills are unnecessary. So simple is best and bright photos look best on dark background. I like the choice of widgets also. There aren’t any unwanted widgets. The popular post and slideshow are appropriate navigational widgets for this kind of blog. The blog roll and advertisement widgets are all related to wild life and so highly relevant. One thing I would suggest is not have all widgets on one side. It causes too much scrolling. I feel it is better to have widgets on both sides and the not so important ones below the blog as well.

I must say for a change, I have found a blog whose navigation I actually like. As I mentioned earlier, the slide show widget is a nice one providing glimpses of the wonderful photos. The popular posts and archives provide another option. What I like best is the use of labels. The labels have been used creatively to create a species list. It provides a very useful reference for anyone looking to identify fauna. Related post and search widgets can give additional navigation options. But navigation is good as it is also. Beyond a certain point anymore of it might not add too much value.

In terms of interaction, I feel there isn’t too much interaction. There is reasonable number of comments but comments are not always responded to. But I am finding that is the case with most travel and photo bloggers. Possibly they believe when photos are speaking for themselves, the blogger need not unnecessarily waste words. But this blog definitely has scope for more interaction. The blogger clearly has lot knowledge on wildlife and photography. So the visitors might find it helpful to have a section where they can ask for tips and guidance. Possibly a separate static page for this purpose can be added.

Another thing I would mention before concluding the review is the facebook fan page. It has been done nicely by pagemodo and looks really appealing. I must say this was a tough blog to review with almost everything right and hardly anything to suggest for improvement. Only thing I can say is I hope he travels to jungles all over the world having varieties of species  and captures more and more rare gems such as these for us to savor.I would definitely recommend one and all to visit this blog and enjoy the beautiful snaps unless you hate animals for some reason. Find below a selection of works from the blog.

Kabini Calling!!
Slender Loris
Tiger Tales
Daroji Bear Sanctuary - Heaven for Sloth Bears
Greater Spotted Eagle with Kill

Twin Heroes of Maya 3 - At the Crossroads of Death

The brothers planted a corn plant in the middle of the house and told their mother. “Mother, as long as we are alive and well, this plant will flourish. If it withers away, it means we are dead. Then you will have to take care of Chouen and Batz. Make them wise and learned in arts and craft. But never let them play the ball game lest they attract the attention of the Lords of Xibalba

So saying they set out on their journey. The owls flew ahead showing them the way. The owls took them to the mouth of a cave. The cave was too narrow for them to enter. But there was no need to worry. The brothers were powerful magicians and they had the power to transform into any animal of their choice. One Hunaphu transformed into a rat and burrowed his way into the cave. Once he was on the other side Seven Hunaphu called from the other side, “Brother One Hunaphu, show thy true self. For you are not a rat but the most powerful wizard!” And One Hunaphu immediately transformed into his human form on the other side. It was now Seven Hunaphu’s turn to enter the cave.

Down the cave they descended into the underworld. Suddenly they were stopped by a pit filled with scorpions and snakes. They descended into the pit. The snakes bit them and scorpions stung. But they just walked over and crossed over to the other side for they were immune to all forms of poisons. Next they had to cross a river of pus and blood. The river looked so gory that any normal human would have fainted at its very sight. But here were the earth’s two most powerful wizards. They coolly swam through the blood and the pus. Their success in crossing these obstacles emboldened them. Their initial fear was now gone. Was this all the Lords had? They felt confident about facing the underworld Lords.

They were now at a cross road. There had come from one road. They had to choose from the three roads. The first road said, “I am the royal road, the road of kings. Walk along me and I will give you power. Absolute power! Even death will bow to your power if you walk along my path!
The second road said, “I am the golden road, the road of warriors. Walk along me and I will give you strength. Invincible strength! Strength that will strike down even death in one blow!
The third road said, “I am a humble road, the road of truth. I cannot make you powerful or strong but you will be wise and able to see things in their real form.

One Hunaphu without hesitation chose the road of power for power had always been his companion above the earth. Seven Hunaphu chose the road of strength for he was a man of brawn who could knock his way through every obstacle. As all roads above the ground lead to Rome, all roads below the ground lead to Xibalba. Soon both the brothers found themselves in Xibalba fortified by power and strength. Even the Lords of Xibalba would be no match for them.

The Lords of Xibalba were cunning. They knew they could not match the Hunaphu brothers in a straight match of strength and skill. They had to be more devious in their approach. The two Lords sat on the high throne and other lords sat on the lower seats on the sides. The two Lords moved to the side of the throne and placed two wooded dummies on the seats. The two brothers had never seen the Lords of Xibalba and had no idea how they looked. They assumed the ones on the throne would be the Lords. So they walked in proudly and addressed the wooden dummies, “Greetings to you, Lord One Death. Hope you are keeping well, Lord Seven Death.

Immediately all the lords burst out laughing. The brothers realized their mistake and were shamed. Being shamed at the first contact took the wind out of their sail and they did not feel so powerful any longer. It did not feel so powerful to be a laughing stock.

One Death addressed the brothers, “Welcome to the Land of death, ball players of the middle world. Please accept our hospitality and take your seat.” So saying they beckoned to the two empty seats.

Within moments of having seated themselves our heroes jumped up, yowling in pain. The death Lords again burst out laughing again. For they had prepared special read hot stones and disguised them as seats. The heroes were now in pain and properly humiliated even before the game. The Lords of Xibalba had won the first round – the battle of the minds. That was most important. Battles were usually won or lost in the minds. The battle on battlefield was just an enactment of a pre-decided event of the minds.

Seven Death addressed them, “All arrangements have been made for the match. Let us begin the match early tomorrow morning. You have traveled a long way to reach here. So take rest and prepare yourself for an enticing match tomorrow. We have arranged sleeping quarters for you in the House of Darkness. Hope you find it comfortable.

So saying, he clapped his hands. A few strange looking creatures emerged. One Death spoke up, “These are the guardians of the House of Darkness. They will take you to your quarters. They will provide you with a torch and cigar for your comfort. Hope you enjoy them.

Now it was the turn of Blood Gatherer to speak, “I just wanted to tell you about a rule of the underworld. Anything given to you at any of the Houses has to be returned to the guardians in the same condition they were given to you. Failing which your lives will be forfeit. Enjoy a good night’s sleep.

So saying they motioned to the guardians and the heroes were lead to their sleeping quarters. In the next episode let us see how the heroes spend their night and what awaits them the next morning.

Image credit: LostMyHeadache

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Foundation Series Review

I heard the word science fiction sometime when I was in school. It sounded cool and jazzy. But kind of scary also! I had already read Jeffrey Archer and Agatha Christie while I was still at primary school. But I still felt science fiction would be too tough to read and was reluctant to go anywhere near it. I did try one of the books from Rama series by Arthur C Clarke. But somehow I could not connect and did not proceed far. I am sure there are many an avid readers out there, who have a similar feeling towards science fiction.

When I went to college, I experienced class for the first time. There was a class of people, the social and intellectual elite. I did not belong and I was one of the nobodies living in the shadows. Though I used to scoff at them in public as snobs, I used to observe them in secret and try to imitate them in private. I first heard of Foundation series, when I heard some of these guys conversing. Immediately I went to the hostel library and picked up ‘The Second Foundation’. Initially when I started reading, I got a feeling of being disoriented. But I persisted and was rewarded. It was an immensely gripping read and I was just hooked on. At the end of it I was a convert – I went on read all books written by Asimov I could lay my hands on and eventually became a complete science fiction buff. That is the power of this master. It was one of those books that totally blew me over.

Click here to read the rest of this review on my other blog dedicated exclusively to science fiction.

Chapters from my Life

Long back, I remember reading a book called ‘What Katy did’. One bit of conversation from that book had somehow stuck to my mind when I had read it. There is a character called Cousin Helen who tells Katy on becoming bed ridden that she is now a student in the “School of Pain” where she will learn lessons in patience, cheerfulness, hopefulness, neatness and the making the best of things. This came back to my head unconsciously when I was going over the blog ‘Chapters from my Life’. The blogger seems to have learnt a lot in the very same “School of Pain” and she is kind enough to share the learning with all of us. Her writings reflect a deep understanding of the essence of life and the value of every single moment in life. 

The blog appropriately titled ‘Chapter from my Life’ puts forth some chapters from the life of Farida Rizwan, an Indian rural house wife who has been through a lot of really tough circumstances in life and has emerged stronger for the same.  In addition to personal experiences, she writes poetry and shares thoughts on family, relations and life in general, caring for children and on fighting cancer. She herself has lost more than one family member to the disease and has a special needs child she takes care of. But that by no means makes the blog just a cancer support or child care blog. A few posts may pertain specifically to these topics. But the general public at large can relate to and have some takeaways from most of her posts.

I would like to point out some of the things that fascinated me most about her writings. In her articles on relationships, she has structured her thoughts really well and exhibits an amazing clarity of thought. Her personal experience posts are really vivid and capture all the key events associated with a particular incident in her life and the associated emotions in an interesting narrative. Her poems are a real delight. They come straight from the heart and reach straight to the heart. No pretensions, no unnecessary words, no complications! Hers are poems even someone who does not care much for poems can easily relate to.  One unique aspect of her posts is that she makes most of her own illustrations. Self made illustrations add more personal touch to the writings and connect better with the reader than images from Google.

Her back drop is a combination of light and dark blue with checks like a shirt. I feel it looks too austere like a hospital ward. Since she writes about the gloomy topic of cancer also (though with a positive frame of mind), I wish she would lighten the environment of her blog with something more cheerful in the background. As far as widgets go, some of the navigation widgets are nice but overall I get a crowded feeling with too many widgets. I am not sure if the advertisement widgets bring any revenue at all. The award badges are nice, but she has won so many contests and I am sure she will win many more. Maybe it will be nice to have separate static page to display the achievements instead of keeping them all on the side bar. The general badges pertaining to blogger sites that do not bring much traffic can be done away with or moved to a not so prominent location close to the blog footer.

Coming to my favorite topic of navigation, I must say she has put reasonable efforts in this area. There is a related posts widget and labels have been used as tabs to segregate different post categories other than the regular archives. Also there are in- post links to other posts where ever there is some connection. However navigation is an area where there is always scope for improvement. Using labels as tabs, makes it a bit inconvenient as reader has to scroll down 10-15 posts on a single page. Instead, having links to the posts on a static page with some small description can make it more visitor-friendly. In my opinion, a blog is not a news website but more a living book. So one must constantly be revisiting and reorganizing content. One can always change content in an earlier post as one gets fresh thoughts and also add links to a later post if found relevant. The ease of access must be same for a 3 years old post as a 1 day old post. In literature, personal, photo and most travel blogs content is not dated. So as more and more content is developed, a serious rethink is needed to classify and re-organize the content. In some ways it is very similar to how companies keep restructuring their organization as they grow in size.

One more thing I would suggest while organizing content is to segregate contest posts from regular posts. It has been my personal experience that regular readers of a blog do not appreciate contest posts, especially the ones with narrow guidelines or where one has to talk about a specific product unless the blog itself is a product review blog. So it will be convenient if regular readers have some mechanism by which they can easily identify contest posts and skip them if they do not want to read them.

In terms of interaction, in the older posts, the interaction level is quite low. But in the more recent posts, it is seen every comment is read and responded to. The volume of comments is also quite good.  For this type of blog, I feel the comments are sufficient interaction. I don’t see the need for any specific section for general interaction as is the case of information blogs.

This would be classified as a personal blog in most directories. But I find the very concept of a personal blog an oxymoron. A blog is something public. And personal is opposite of public. A blog should be classified from the point of view of the reader and not the writer. If a blog has no utility to a reader, then it is just a personal diary or a rough book. In this context I would prefer to call this blog an inspirational or motivational blog rather than a personal blog. It is the place to go to if one is feeling down in the dumps and that life has not been fair. This blog would definitely help lift up one’s spirits. Chapters from Farida's life also offer one lot of lessons about life in general.

Find below a few samples from the blog. 

The Twin Heroes of Maya 2 - Summons from the Land of Death

As the owls undertake their flight to the world above the ground, let us take a quick tour of the underworld. The Mayan underworld is more like hell than the Greek and Roman underworlds where both the good and the evil souls land up. The ones who die a brave death in a violent manner or through ritualistic suicide would ascend to the skies where the Gods live. Suicide was also considered a honorable way of death in the Mayan culture in contrast to Christian culture that holds suicide a sin. They even worshiped Ixtab, the rope lady who was supposed to be the Goddess of suicide who lead those who committed suicide to paradise. Only the ones who die of sickness and other maladies are supposed to be the cursed ones who were claimed by the underworld. That is why there are Lords pertaining to each of the diseases known at that time. The death Lords often used to hunt in pairs to kill of people in different manners and claim their souls.

picture credit : Felipe Sobreiro

The chief pair of course was One Death and Seven Death as I had mentioned earlier one. They were the overall rulers and did not go on individual soul gathering missions. That was left to the lesser Lords. The first pair of lesser Lords was Blood Gatherer and Scab stripper. These lords had domain over blood and injury. They claimed people who die of various forms of injury, gangrene, rotting of wounds etc. The next pair was Pus Demon and Jaundice demon. These lords had domain over people dying due to jaundice and swelling of body parts. The next pair was skull scepter and the bone scepter. These demons caused people to be reduced to skeleton. The people dying of starvation and wasting diseases were their domain. Wing and pack strap had domain over sudden death, coughing up blood. Maybe poisoning, heart attacks etc! Last but not the least, demon of filth and demon of woe, who were responsible for death due to lack of hygiene and mental sickness.

The underworld had six houses meant to torture the new souls brought here. They were called the house of gloom, the house of blades, the house of jaguars, the house of fire, the house of cold and the house of bats. The underworld had no laws and the tortures were not meant to be penance for sins. They were more for the sadistic pleasure of the Lords. The Mayan death Lords did did not have a sense of justice like Lord Yama of Hinduism or Hades of Greek mythology. They were egoistic and cruel. People had to worship them out of fear for them.

I must now stop psyching my readers with grotesque and gory details of the Mayan underworld for the owls have by now reached the home of our protagonists. So we can return to the world above the ground. One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu lived in a small hamlet with their mother and One Hunahpu’s sons Chouen and Batz. One Hunahpu’s wife was already dead and Seven Hunahpu  was not married. It is likely that Mayans followed the tradition of only the eldest brother in a family marrying and having progeny in order to avoid property dispute between cousins.

They were about to fall asleep when they were surprised to see four owls flying in through the windows. One must note these are owls from the underworlds and not cute fluffy snow owls from Harry Potter. So the surprise would not have been a pleasant one. The message was not on parchments. It was verbally delivered as the animals those days could speak the human language. The sender of the message could magically embed a message into an animal's stomach. The animal would speak out the message on being in presence of the intended receiver.

Picture Credit : Felipe Sobreiro

We bring you greetings from the Lord of Xibalba. Our Lords One Death and Seven Death, Blood Gatherer and Scab Stripper, Pus Demon and Jaundice Demon, Skull scepter and Bone scepter and Wing and Pack Strap wish you long life and health“, said Arrow owl.

Our Lords have been watching you play ball. They wish us to convey to you their great appreciation of your skill”, hooted One Leg Owl.

Our Lords find it dull in the underworld. They think a nice game would invigorate them. They would like to welcome you to their home for a game of ball”, added Macaw owl.

Pack up your gear at once and come with us. We will escort you to our Lords. They eagerly await your arrival.” , concluded Skull Own.

Though the message sounded innocuous and friendly, any kind of message from the underworld was not a good sign. So the brothers were not too excited about the prospect. But the Lords summons could not be denied either. So One Hunahpu spoke up, “We are glad to accept your Lords’ invitation. But please give us time to take leave of our old mother

The owls nodded their assent. The brothers went up to their mother to tell her of the invitation. The minute she heard, she turned pale.
Please do not go, my sons. No one has ever returned from the underworld “, she pleaded with them.

We know mother. But now that their vile eyes have fallen on us, no place is safe for us anymore. Who can stall the inevitable! Let us go like men and face what is in store for us”, replied One Hunahpu.

Their mother knew he was right.

But we will try to keep our losses to minimum. We will not take our sons with us. I think the Lords are interested only in the two of us. If we go, they will be spared. Also we want to leave our gear in the middle world for our sons in our memory”, continued One Hunahpu.

So saying the two brothers put the gear in a bag and tied it to the roof beam. Next they had to take leave of their two sons.

We will leave the story at this point as the brothers ready themselves for their journey to the underworld. They seem to have already resigned themselves to their fate. Would they be able to come out successful in an encounter they have lost even before it has begun? In the next episode we will follow them on their journey to the underworld.

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I had been to the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I got really bored there within 2 hours. Then a couple of years later, I got to visit the art museum in Vienna. I managed to spend 6 delightful hours there and really enjoyed the experience. The difference was I had not taken the audio guide the first time. The second time I got the audio guide. I was able to get the background information and that helped me really appreciate each and every painting. Same is the case with photo blogs. Generally I am not too fond of photo blogs. I tend to quickly flip over, pausing over a photo for not more than a couple of seconds.   But the blog 'Lightscapes' changed things for me. Every post has an intelligent and thought provoking write up associated with it that makes the photos much more fascinating.

The photos cover a diverse range of themes – indoor and outdoor shots from day today life, travel photos, flora and fauna, monuments, scenery and those of the moon. I usually do not view photography so much an art as painting. But this blog changed that. I realized that the universe is not static so that you can just capture it any time you want. It keeps changing every second and certain beautiful moments just pass by us in a flash without most of us even noticing. The art of the photographer is in recognizing the moment and capturing it for everyone to view and admire at leisure. This blog has many such wonderful moments captured on a camera.  As I mentioned at the start, every snap is accompanied by a really well thought out or well researched write up as the case may be. Some of it is philosophical, some of it is humorous, some of it factual information about a bird, animal, flower or monument.  I would say the writings are just flawless and bring the pictures alive.

The title ‘Lightscape’ is quite a sensibly one for the theme of this blog as is the tag line. Equally well chosen is the backdrop that looks like a camera lens with droplets of water. Any new person venturing into the blog will have no doubt what the blog is about. The darker background I feel is appropriate for photography blogs except for maybe night photos. But then most photos usually tend to be taken in bright light.

Related posts’ and search are the two widgets. ‘Related posts’ is a good one to have. Not sure though if anyone will use the search functionality in a photos blog and what kind of results it will give. The ‘Random post’ widget will be a nice widget to have here. The popular post widget has been put somewhere far in the bottom displaying just 2 posts. I feel this widget should be set to display more posts and put in some place more prominent. I feel that will help the visitor quickly see some glimpses of the charming photographs that await him/her on the blog and get him/her hooked.

On navigation, I am beginning to sound like a broken record on all my reviews. I feel most bloggers are not giving serious thought to navigation and just let the blogging platform handle it for them. But it is something the blogger has to take in hand and work on in order to enhance visitor experience. In this context I remember a project I did for designing a global HR portal for a logistics company. My manager told me the HR team always likes to organize content as per their organization structure and that is the easiest thing. But the portal is for employee and the portal must be designed in a way the employee will look for information. For instance if the employee is new joiner, he will like links to all joining formalities in one place. It would be tough for him to go to recruitment section, compensation & benefit section, the tax section etc. to find out the necessary details. Same is the case with a visitor to a blog. The photo of a bird shot yesterday means the same to him as a bird shot 3 years back. If he is interested in birds, he will like to see the links to all bird related posts in one place rather than hunting all over the archives. The labels kind of serve the purpose. But Blogger labels do not show just title and summary for the visitor to click like Wordpress tags and categories. Instead it brings up all posts one below the other making the visitor scroll a lot, which is not very friendly. So it will be good if some work is done on the navigation. Even if existing labels only are going to be used, at least all posts need to be updated with labels.

A photo blog does not lend itself to too much discussion as such. But in general the volume of comments appears to be on the lower side. I think currently blogger does not seem to acknowledge comments either. I think acknowledging comments, even when there is no value add at least lets readers know the blogger has read his/her comment and will encourage him/her to leave more. An Indi Rank less than 80 seems to suggest traffic itself is possibly low. Such an excellent blog that has been running for more than 4 years deserves much more traffic. Possibly the blogger needs to more actively publicize the blog on various forums.

Overall, I would recommend anyone who has the slightest interest in art or beauty to go over this blog and I assure you will not be disappointed.  As usual, I have requested 5 sample posts from blogger to present along with my review.

Last Lunar Eclipse of 2011
Moist chocolate muffins
Birds of paradise
National Orchid Garden
Dance of Death

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The Canyon of Souls review

As per Tibetan mysticism, beyul are hidden valleys that are sacred and form some kind of gateway between the mortal world and the world of spirits. The canyon of souls is supposed to be one such beyul and the protagonists seek to undertake an arduous journey through the Himalayas to this place where no human has ever set feet before. An interesting premise that could shape up into a fantasy, a travel adventure or even a spiritual journey of self discovery if the author were Paulo Coelho!

The story is narrated in first person by the main character Tim Overleigh. It starts off with Tim stuck in a cave with a broken leg lying there waiting to die. Possibly a metaphorical reference to the present state of his life! A broken man, who has lost his wife, his artistic capabilities and the will to live! He blames himself for his wife’s death and wallows in self defeat and is going down a destructive spiral, finding succor in alcohol. The sudden appearance of an old acquaintance Andrew with an interesting proposition offers him a chance to emerge out of his psychological cave as he emerged out of the physical cave in the starting chapter.

He meets five other strangers who have been similarly summoned by Andrew to undertake this conquest of the conquest of demons of nature in order to quell their internal demons. The story follows their journey through the Himalayan ranges in Nepal passing through places with exotic sounding names such as Valley of Walls, Stairway to Heaven and Hall of Mirrors. However, only the names of the places sound fascinating. The general tone of the overall narrative has a darker tone. The journey is plagues by misfortunes – pilferages, injury and death. The story finally culminates in a totally unexpected climax or you might call it an anti-climax depending on how you look at it.

The best part of the narrative is its richness. It is loaded with appropriately chosen similes and metaphors. The author has taken great pains to take the reader into Tim’s shoes. The reader almost can visualize everything Tim is seeing and feel what he is feeling. In the natural way, our mind drifts towards the incidents in our past at times, Tim’s mind drifts towards his past suddenly at times during the journey. I found that a pretty interesting way to unravel Tim’s past story of his relationship with his wife, his feelings for her, why she left him and how she met with her death. This also serves the purpose of providing relief from the narrations of the journey.

The pace of the story is excellent. There is not a dull moment. It is the kind of book one can easily finish in a single sitting. Talking of characterization, the main character Tim Oberliegh has been etched out really well. The reader gets to associate intimately with him and deeply empathize with him. However the other characters are at best skeletal like the faceless soldiers Tim sculpts for the war memorial. The author has of course tried to give Andrew a kind of omnipotent aura, Chad a bit of juvenile immaturity, Petras a mature confidence and Shotsky some naiveté. But I felt there was scope to have developed these characters further.

I am sure the readers who like twists in the tale will enjoy the ending. But I personally felt a bit let down. As per me, the ending lacked strong logical base. But possibly in these kinds of novels, one should suspend logic and just enjoy the thrills. After all who goes to an amusement park for logic!

Let me add a word of caution as I conclude. The title and synopsis is a bit a deceptive. There is hardly any mystic element in the book except for the occasional appearance of Tim’s wife’s ghost and the general mention of the concept of beul. Though the protagonist regularly shares what is happening inside his head with the reader, I would say the psychological aspect is at best shallow. Also the name Canyon of Souls and Himalayas seem to suggest poetic or philosophical associations. I would warn the reader against harboring any such expectations. This is just a light thriller and a reader with the right expectation is sure to find the reading of this book an immensely enjoyable experience.

I have written this for the website bookchums. I have reproduced the article on my blog with their permission. You can find the original article here.   

Hot Tea Across India Review

All of us would be familiar with the popular dictum ‘Don’t judge a book by the cover’. However when you have to pick up a book by an unfamiliar author at the book store, you need to go by cover and title only. The book ‘Hot Tea Across India’ is a book that charmed me with its title and cover design. The illustrator Gynelle Alves had done a really remarkable job with the cover illustration. Coming to the title, tea is something close to my heart and I am sure same will be the case for many others as well. The teas that have brought relief amidst the hectic office hours! The teas during bus and train journeys! The teas by the roadside during road trips! So the minute I saw a book titled ‘Hot Tea Across India’, I felt like picking it up.

I would call the book a complete mixed bag with various shades of experiences. You have comedy, you have action and you have adventure. The best thing I like about this book is the quality of writing. The modern day Indian authors seem to be waging a war on the language of their former colonial masters. Among them, this author Rishad Saam Mehta stands out for his beautiful language with its subtle nuances. I would recommend this book just for the language alone.

This book tries to cover the myriad experiences the writer has had during his trips across the country. Though there are bits from every part of the country, most of the anecdotes are based closer to the Himalayas. The book has no formal structure as such. It is kind of like a blog with bits and pieces from different experiences. Some of the trips are short with just one chapter devoted to it. Some are longer with 4-5 continuous chapters covering the same trip. From the title one would assume tea would form an integral part of every story. That is not the case though. Tea does form the crux of a couple of stories. In some others, tea just plays a supporting role. In yet other cases, tea is used in a figurative sense. For instance in India, government officials would euphemistically demand bribe by asking for tea and water. In few of the narratives, tea is totally absent. But tea makes sufficient appearances across the book to merit the title.

The experiences in the book are things that each one of us can relate to. Some of them like biking on the Himalayas are something many of us may not have done. But a few of the other experiences are ones we would have had in our day today lives and just overlooked. He has managed to capture all the details and narrate in a really interesting manner. He has covered quite a range of modes of travel – bike, car, bus, and lorry. He introduces the reader to quite a few interesting characters. He has experimented nicely with different forms of narrative. Most of it is in first person. But here and there you see some poetry, retelling of some local folklore and one chapter has the autobiography of his car. With so much variety, there is hardly a dull moment in this book. And there is often a sprinkling of humor here and there to give the reader a hearty laugh. Then you have some real fascinating descriptions of the beauty of Himalayas.

If one were to look at the short comings, lack of structure and end to end storyline could be viewed as a short coming. But India is the land of chaos. It kind of makes sense for a book on experiences in India to be like that. The quality of language in the book could be a double edged sword. Whereas it might endear this writer to people who love the language, the typical Indian reader brought up on a diet of Chetan Bhagat might find the language too sophisticated.

Overall, it is an excellent book for a light read. Since there are separate incidents in the book, it can be an ideal read for a bus or waiting in a queue, as it need not be completed in one sitting.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

The Twin Heroes of Maya 1 - The Ball Game

Fantasy has been favorite fiction genre and I dream of writing one myself one day. Actually my attempts at reviewing fantasy and science fiction is an attempt to take them apart piece by piece to see what makes good fantasy so that I can pick up those elements and put them together and write my own. One thing I observed in most fantasy is that they had some connection to the various mythologies – the Celtic, the Greek and Norse mostly. Today I see Indian authors also emerging trying to make use of Indian mythologies. That got me interested in different mythologies. I thought of reading some of them up and retelling them in my own words. This being 2012, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with Mayan mythology. After all if the world ends this year, my blog’s readers will know why before they die.

The first story I am going to start with is the story of two Mayan heroes Hunahpu and Xbalanque. These are pretty tough to pronounce. I thought of changing the names to make things easier. But then many ancient people believed names had power. I don’t know how far that is true. But what I know is it’s not cool to call your Mayan mythical heroes George and Bill just to make it easier to pronounce. And anyway guess no one’s going to read this story aloud. So how does it matter even if you can’t pronounce their names? As the story moves, you will have more names of this sort. Let us not bore each other trying to pronounce them properly. A typical blog post is 500-1000 words long. So I will keep to the limit and try to post the story in a series of posts. That the intro part. Now let us get cracking on the story.
As with all traditional stories, it all began at the time of their father. Incidentally he was also called Hunahpu. Calling him Hunahpu senior may sound a bit contemporary. So let us call him One Hunahpu and his son just Hunahpu. He had this brother called Seven Hunahpu. I am not sure why it had to be seven and not two or three. But I guess it had something to do with seven being a sacred number for the Mayans. As we move on with the tale, we will come to know their antagonists are called One Death and Seven Death as well.

Like Mahabharata, here also the story begins with a game. The game in question here was known as the Mesoamerican ball game. It was probably an ancestor to the modern day volleyball and basket ball. It was played on a stone court with a hard rubber ball the size of a short put. The court was bordered by stone walls on all sides. Instead of a net there was a high hoops well above their heads right in the middle of the court suspended from the walls on either side of the court. The objective of the game was to hit the ball with their hips, arms and other parts of their body without using their hands and try and get the ball through the hoop. The first team that succeeded in doing that won. The balls always had to be in the air and there was a penalty for letting the ball drop to the ground. The players wore gauntlets and harnesses to protect their arms and hips. This game had great importance to the Mayans and in many cases, these ball games often served as substitutes for war between tribes.

One Hunahpu has two sons Batz and Chouen. So the three of them along with Seven Hunaphu used to divide themselves into teams and play this Mesoamerican ball game. The problem begins when the Lords of the Xibalba get disturbed by the game. Xibalba is the Mayan underworld, the equivalent of Greek Hades. This is where souls of the Mayan people were taken after their death. It was ruled by these bad guys, One Death and Seven Death along with their terrifying underlings. So these Lords get irritated with all the shouting and stomping of the ball players and decide to teach them a lesson.

Like all villains in stories, the Lords of Xibalba do not just like that want to come out and kill the heroes and be done with it. They prefer to do it in a long drawn complicated way, gloating over the heroes’ torments, deriving sadistic pleasure. Thankfully so! For if villains were not like that, there would be no stories.

These Lords also had an ulterior motive of wanting to acquire our heroes’ gaming equipment. So they got their head together and devised a more devious plan. As part of the plan, they decide to summon the players to the underworld.

Andrew Stuart on Flickr

The death Lords send four owls to One Hunahpu with their messages. The owls have interesting names – Arrow Owl, One Leg Owl, Macaw Owl and Skull Owl. The names were based on their physical characteristics. Arrow Owl had a piercing look like an arrow. One Leg Owl had somehow lost one of his legs. Macaw owl had some red shades like a macaw and skull owl looked like a skull. I guess owls do have some of these characteristics. No wonder are they feared birds. The Mayans were not the only people who considered owls as messengers of death.

So let us leave the story here with the owls on their way to deliver the message to our heroes. The heroes are still happily playing the game with their sons unaware of the death Lords’ dubious plans. In the next episode of the story we will meet the death Lords and their minions. We will follow the heroes in their preparations for their death match. If a match against the lords of death in the land of death cannot be called a death match what else can be? Do come back for the next episode.

                                                                                                                               Next Part >>>

Huchare Santhe

All around me are familiar faces
Worn out places
Worn out faces
Bright and early for the daily races
Going no where
Going no where

These are the opening lines of one of my favorite songs ‘Mad world’ by Gary Jules. The title of the blog ‘Huchchara Santhe’ which means mad world in Kannada (literal translation would be mad man’s market) reminded me of this song. A person who leaves the wonderful pubs and discos of Bangalore in the weekend for a visit to a jungle or who gets excited about a stupid bird or a lizard will be considered a mad man by many. And possibly they are too. Such people are best avoided for this madness is infectious and addictive. I went on just one birding trip with few such 'mad men' few years back. And I have ended up purchasing two bird books and a binoculars and much to the chagrin of my near and dear spend most of my vacation time trying to track and identify elusive birds. This blogger Santosh who maintains seems to be one such 'mad man' who is mad after nature. Much better this madness for nature than the madness for money, career, girl friends, alcohol and what not!

To me this blog embodies the spirit of the quintessential Bangalore trekker. I have been associated with this crowd for a brief period a few years back. Reading this blog made me all nostalgic about those days. I feel a pang of regret giving up those pursuits for the sake of higher studies, career and family. Hopefully I get back and do a few treks in the coming years. This blog also points to lot of interesting opportunities to observe nature much closer to the city itself as well. I would definitely look to explore those as well.

If there is one thing that stands out in this blog, it is the quality of photographs, especially those of birds, insects and lizards. I can’t imagine how he managed to take such breathtaking photographs. I would possibly look to him for tips on selecting the right camera and the right techniques for photographing birds. The landscape shots are pretty good as well. The write ups accompanying the photograph are terse and to the point. But they give all the necessary information for somebody looking to undertake those treks. The contact details, the routes to take, places to stay, birds in the locality, best season are some of the details covered. Possibly the blogger should consider putting more garnishing on the writings. But I am not sure if he will be able to do so. A trekker would rather spend more time in the jungle than in front of the computer I guess. Also unrelated photos in the middle of the writing distract from the flow of the writing. When one stops to admire the photos, one tends to lose the flow.So I would suggest photos that don’t go with the flow of the writing to be put at the end of the post or at the beginning.

There are 3-4 informational posts as well in the blog on topics such as naturalist information, waterfalls in Karnataka, facts about birds and animals etc. I really liked them and look forward to more such posts. Possibly one idea for a post would be tips on bird watching and bird photography.

Coming to the blog ambience, I like the choice of background. Most of the photos are shot in bright light and the contrast comes out nicely in the pure black background. Choice of widgets is one area that the blogger needs to pay more attention to. I feel there are too many widgets related to traffic that do not add too much value and unnecessarily take up space. Instead a few more widgets that improve navigational power would be more helpful. The thing I like most on his sidebar is the blog roll. It contains a selection of real gems on nature travel. In the coming days I look to explore some of the blogs on his blog roll.

Navigation is an area that can do with a little bit of improvement. The archives, the labels and search are the three ways to navigate the blog. I am of the view that labels are a bit messy and not the best way to navigate blogs. Anyways that is my view. Maybe there are other people who like navigating through labels. The archives as it is not the greatest navigation construct either. Added to that, in this blog, one can’t see the titles. So one has to pull out all the posts month by month to access older posts. Also the reader may like to separately see posts under the naturalist instruction category, trek diary category and other categories. It will be nice to have that option.

The blog gets a decent number of comments. But overall interaction level is a bit on the lower side. The typical Bangalore trekker in general is not too talkative I guess. Anyway there is not much to discuss about a trek diary. One just has to read and enjoy. But it will be nice to have a separate section where readers can be encouraged to ask specific questions. I am sure Santosh would have a wealth of knowledge on nature travel, bird watching, photography and the Western Ghats. Lots of readers would be eager to partake of the same. Higher interaction level keeps readers more engaged. Ardent nature enthusiasts like him need to encourage and grow the nature lover community.

In the end analysis, I must say a really great blog for anyone who loves nature. It has a wealth of information on travel in the Western Ghats in Karnataka and observation of birds and other flora and fauna. The photos are just out of the world. Do check them out. I have provided below a few sample posts selected by the blogger to give a preview of his blog. Read and enjoy.

Kodachadri Magic
Ganesh Gudi Birding

 If your a blogger and you like this review and feel you want a similar review for your blog, check out this post.

My Yatra Diary

Yātrā, in Hinduism and other Indian religions, generally means pilgrimage to holy places such as confluences of sacred rivers, places associated with Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana, and other sacred pilgrimage sites. And My Yatra Diary is Arti’s record of her visits to places of pilgrimage in India. Arti itself is an interesting  name with religious associations. It refers to kind of ceremonious form of welcome that is done at homes and temples both for dieties as wells as humans. And I welcome the New Year on my blog with a review of Arti’s blog.

Management theory says for a new entrant in any business to succeed, one must develop a niche of his own and emerge the top player in that niche. In that way My Yatra Diary I would say is emerging as the top blog covering the area of religious travel in India. As on now the blog focuses more on northern and western parts of India. Hopefully going ahead the blog will reach out towards the southern and eastern parts of the country as well.

The style of writing is simple and minimalist. As the clichéd saying goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’Keeping with this dictum, she lets the pictures do the talking most of the time. The writing is more like a commentary to support the pictures. All the basic logistic details needed by a traveler are provided. This includes details on places to stay, places to eat, cost of trip, accesibility and shopping.  Explanation of the myths associated with a place would be a hygiene element in any religious travel blog. This of course she provides. In addition she makes it interesting by starting off each blog post with a relevant quotation to set the tone. She also gives it a bit of personal touch by adding a little bit of her personal impressions. Her blog would serve as an excellent resource looking to travel to any of the places she has covered. However I would say her writing is closer to Lonely Planet than William Dalrymple. She gets a full 100% in her objective of providing information. In order to entertain readers as well, she has to add more drama and romance into her writings. She has to mesh all the elements together into a story that will charm readers making them come back for more.

The backdrop of the blog has been kept quite simple with the title bar prominently bringing out the theme of the blog. I especially like the title bar with the catch phrase ‘Let us explore India’ and 2-3 typical photos indicating travel to places of pilgrimage in India. I like the way widgets have been managed as well. The blog has not been cluttered with unnecessary fancy widgets. The ‘search blog’ and ‘related post’ widget are highly appropriate for this blog and improve navigability. In addition to the widgets, she has also provided labels and of course the archives are there for navigation. She also provides appropriate links to other posts within her posts. However I usually like a structured hierarchical navigation mechanism which most blogs don’t seem to provide. I would have liked it if there was some way I could select the state and then the district/city and from there see all the posts related to that district/city.

The interaction volume is quite high in this blog. I like the no nonsense way in which interaction is being handled. Readers are encouraged to pose queries about visiting the places mentioned in the post. All questions are promptly responded to. Any general words of appreciation or observations are just accepted without acknowledgement. And going by the repeat visitors, clearly the readers don’t mind not being acknowledged. She also steers clear of frivolous activity such as awards and tags. She has put a polite BUT firm note in this regard on her blog. This I feel kind of adds to the respectability of the blog. Maybe a separate static page for all generic queries unrelated to any specific post may possibly further improve interaction.

This blog is a must read for anyone wishing to travel to Northern or Western India and for those interested in knowing about places of pilgrimage in these areas. Find below five posts selected by her to give the reader a sample of her writings.

Kabirvad, One of the oldest living trees in India
ISKCON Temple in Delhi
Sunrise at the Neelkanth Peak
Magh Mela in Allahabad
My Tryst with evening Arti at Har ki Pauri, Haridwar

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For whom the bell tolls

A book of faces