Monday, June 22, 2015

Cambodia Trip - Dec.2014

The following article was written for MyIndMakers. Pasting it here for reference.

In the city of Siem Reap, Cambodia, we (a group of 4) were introducing ourselves to the tour guide in the hotel lobby. My introduction was uneventful. The guide's expression changed when my wife introduced herself. I was sure she found the name difficult to pronounce, so I tried to offer help! The guide didn't bother - and with a perplexed look, asked my wife - "Your name is Pragnya? Pragnya means knowledge in Cambodia, THAT Pragnya?" It was now our turn to get perplexed! This was the first indication of how close our ancient cultures were. But this was no indication of the awesomeness that was to follow for the next 3 days. 
Angkor Wat
Siem Reap in Cambodia is famous for the World’s largest temple – Angkor Wat. Given the ease with which information is available in these days, we knew a bit about the history of this temple. But nothing prepares you for the majesty of Angkor Wat when you actually see it – the sheer size of it blows you away. From land, a picture of the entire complex cannot be captured. We took a 10 minute balloon “ride” just to see this awesomeness in its entirety as you can see in the picture above.
However, the beauty of this temple does not just lie in the size, but in its intricate architecture. I never knew that this Buddha is considered as the 9th Avatar of Vishnu. One of the first sightings in the temple complex is this huge standing statue of Buddha with multiple hands! This was one of the biggest surprises to – for I never even knew Buddha was worshipped in this form too!
There are about 9 gopuras (towers) in this temple – each of them has multiple Buddha statues in various forms. If memory serves me right, there are more than 50 Buddha statues in the complex of Angkor Wat.
At this point of time, I wouldn’t blame you if you started thinking this – “Ok, basically this is a temple with a lot of Buddha Statues”. This was one of the thoughts going through my mind too, when the tour guide bought us to this wall with a lot of pictorial inscriptions on it.
This is a pictorial description of the Mahabharata War! We were simply astounded – there was no way I could see this coming! Here I am, in a far away land, looking at the pictorial description of the Mahabharata war and a tour guide telling us about the various characters and what they are doing in the war! We were also clarifying a few doubts that the guide had from a long time J - turned out to be a mutually beneficial tour! The guide was like this story is so complex – to which I told her that this is the beauty of the Mahabharata – there is nothing black and white in it!
Not just the Mahabharata – there were pictorial inscriptions of Ramayana and the Sagar Manthan too. This is something I never expected and was truly bowled over to know that these stories extended way beyond the present Indian boundaries.
Angkor Thom
The next stop is Angkor Thom – a vast area in which multiple temples were built. Phew – again temples? Wait till you see the first one – the Bayon.
This image is just a cross-section of the entire temple complex. Since this is a long shot, let me present to you a close up of one of the towers.
The temple complex has more than 50 such exquisite and beautifully carved out Buddhas – what brilliance must have existed in those days to have come up with such superb architecture! There are other structures in Angkor Thom area that are equally stunning!
Bayon and other temples also nice intricate art on their walls. These depict lifestyles of people – boating, farming, archery, hunting, dancing, even delivery of a baby!
Banteay Srei
This was one of the last places we visited, because this is a little far from Siem Reap. I was not too excited because by now, we have seen enough temples. But after seeing this temple, felt a tinge of regret of not being able to come here earlier! This temple is an ode to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma! The intricate carvings that depict the Ramayana and the various avatars of Vishnu are a treat to watch. In the below collage, note the superb carving of the 10-headed Ravana. Various other events of the Ramayana are also carved as beautifully as this.
Many of these heritage sites are undergoing a lot of renovation. Various governments are helping with renovating. Indian government is involved with renovating the Ta Phrom temple. This temple is famous for being held by trees (and for the film shooting of Tomb Raider!).
The land of thousand lingas
Let’s move away from Buddha and temples for a while J. We were taken atop a hill which was called the Land of Thousand Lingas. So I presumed that on the hill someone built a lot of lingas, and hence the name (And there will not be a 1000 lingas for sure!). I was right – there were no 1000 lingas. There were perhaps ~5000 lingas!! A river flows on top of the hill, and all of these lingas were build on the river bed – so essentially you get to see the lingas below the flowing water. This is a sight that can only be experienced and cannot be adequately described in words.
It was plain fascinating to know that a king, more than 1000 years ago thought about an idea like this and had this implemented with such precision. The river bed also has a carving of Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi devi too. Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture it well on my camera.
Just nearby to this hill is another small hill on top of which is a very large sized Buddha statue – I forgot the name of this place, but this was carved out of the rock on the hill itself.
Worshipping of the Naga
One other new thing we have learnt is that the Naga is a worshipped here a lot. Almost every single entrance has a Naga. A few bridges have the “Sagar Manthan” as the barricades. We went to a hill, en route Phnom Penh to Siem Repp and the railing for the entire stairs was the “Sagar Manthan”. There are many statues of Naga Buddha too. Nagas are essentially prevalent everywhere you go!
A country with a rich ancient history, but a sad and gory recent history
The first city we landed in was Phnom Penh – the capital city of Cambodia. People insist that we visit the “Killing Fields Musuem” to know and learn about the sad and gory years of the 70s and 80s. The people of Cambodia had to face the wrath of one of the worst dictators to have ever graced our planet – Pol Pot. His party – the Khmer Rougue – went on a murdering spree. Anyone who is educated, anyone who has any skill other than farming, anyone raising their voice against the Khmer. A whopping 30 lakh people out of a population of 50 lakh people were killed by Pol Pot and his minions. Many buildings were razed to the ground. It is a miracle that the Angkor Wat was not touched (actually a bigger miracle that it was not touched by the muslim invaders in the ancient past too!).
The killing fields are a chilling reminder of this past. The mass graves, the hundreds of skulls in the museum, bits and pieces of cloths coming out from the roots of the trees – not only will this trip leave you depressed but one cannot but be thankful for having gotten such a privileged life when compared to the generations that have been wiped out.
This is also one of the main reasons for the poverty prevalent in the country. Due to poverty, heads of various statues across these heritage sites have been looted. Statues without their heads are a very common sight in many of the temples including the Angkor Wat.
Cambodians now are hell bent on rebuilding themselves. Tourism and hospitality are their major attractions and revenue generating industry.  Poor children are trained well in both these industries. The manager at the hotel we stayed in Phonm Penh (whose name was Mani J ) explained to us how this training happens.
There is also a 4 year degree course in tourism – only if you pass this course will you be recognized as a guide! As part of this course, the history, geography and politics of various countries are also taught, so that the guides can connect well with the visitors!The people of Cambodia are so humble and most of them we met were so hard working, we really felt there is a lot to learn from them.
Now to the most important part – Food
I strongly believe food is a very integral part of the history and culture of any nation. The longer the history of the nation, the richer the variety in food. Cambodia was no exception! First thing I learnt was that no one drinks milk in Cambodia. Their staple liquid diet is Coconut water! They dice it beautifully so that it sits well on the table! Various curries are also served in the Coconut J. Another interesting way of serving is to wrap the food in banana leaf – particularly the fish amok (which is also very tasty). I purchased the “amok” powder to try this at home and failed miserably to get the taste! Street food is also widely available – they look enticing but we tried only bits and pieces of this food.
The politics
It takes about 7 hours to cover the 300kms distance from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. There are a couple of hills around Siem Repp which are good tourist locations. All along these routes, we were intrigued to find the banners of only one political party (even in some very remote locations, we saw these banners!).
The guide told us this party and its president have been ruling them since 1992 – when democracy first came to Cambodia. We were very quickly able to identify with this scenario.
One last thing.
Following is the image of a screen grab on one of their TV channels.
Geographically we maybe far, but culturally we are quite near – back then and even now !

Reaching the unreached..

The following article has been written for MyIndMakers. Pasting it here for reference. 
One of the biggest reasons for the success of Prime Minister Modi’s campaign last year was the participation in it by a varied section of people. Another big reason was that Modi was able to reach out to a large section of people, given his relentless campaign for months. Upon assuming office, Modi has just extended these traits – and has devised a few programs that reach out to the unreached.
Swachh Bharat
There are extremely few examples in history, where people from a varied section of the society rise to the call of their leader and contribute to the development of the society. Seldom (or perhaps never?) have we come across a war-cry like Swachh Bharat. We are terribly notorious for most unhygienic surroundings. In fact, some take pride in spitting on the road, throwing waste on the streets and littering the surroundings. It took one call to the higher conscience by the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort to show us the mirror.
What is the effect it has had? Let’s first take a look at the collation below:
The only time we have heard little kids participate in government programs, are during Independence Day, Republic Day etc. At times, we also see them line up on the road to welcome a visiting dignitary. This is perhaps the first time children have actually come forward to be part of the nation building and are reminding people of their responsibilities. It is a matter of immense pride that almost all schools across the country have taken up Swachh Bharat in the right earnest, and are preparing the future citizens of the country to behave more responsibly.
Let's move away from children and take a look at this video of Sachin Tendulkar (yes, THE Sachin Tendulkar) actually cleaning up a footpath in Mumbai (if this doesn't inspire you, what else will?). Or this video of Priyanka Chopra who has transformed a slum into something livable. Or read this report on Anil Ambani cleaning the Badrinath and Kedarnath temples. The Telangana government, led by the TRS party (which the BJP opposes strongly) has whole-heartedly taken up Swacch Telangana program.
No mention of Swachh Bharat is complete without talking about Temsutula Imsong. For those on social media, this name started becoming familiar about 4 months back. Prime Minister Modi made a unique and special mention of Temsutula's work on twitter. And then, during his visit to Canada, he made a mention of "two daughters" who worked towards cleaning up of Prabhu Ghat in Varanasi - the recognition was complete. In her own words, with this recognition has come added responsibility too! That an ordinary citizen feels more responsible, instead of resting on the ultimate laurel, makes her even extraordinary.
“Touching a raw nerve” is a phrase that is often used. In my view, the call of the duty by the Prime Minister has touched the “responsibility nerve” of people. What else can explain a Sachin Tendulkar, a Priyanka Chopra, a Anil Ambani, a Temsutula Imsong, a bunch of kids in an apartment complex, a batch of retirees, a group of doctors – working towards a common goal? Most of these folks have little to do with governance; are busy with their lives, and yet have now committed themselves to doing their bit, even if it only means picking up a toffee cover and throwing it in a dustbin. This is why precisely Swachh Bharat program has reached the unreached.
When it comes to Swachh Bharat, I must mention the wide gap in the coverage by the "national" media versus the regional media. Since I am from Hyderabad, I can primarily refer to the Telugu media. The largest circulated Telugu daily, Eenadu , had two front page editorials expressing fullest support to this program and exhorting people to join. Their newspapers and TV network (ETV) very regularly carry reports of various sections of society, from cities to towns to villages, taking part in cleanliness drives.
They are also one of the best critiques of this program too.v They have regular reports and pictures of how abysmal garbage disposal is; how no authorities are taking action of unclean surroundings in government hospitals etc. Mr. Venkaih Naidu has even nominated the proprietor of another newspaper, AndhraJyothy, as one of the brand ambassadors of Swachh Bharat. Various other newspapers also regularly cover these activities in their editions. A snapshot from another newspaper Sakshi, during the recent Swachh Hyderabad drive is below. 
Contrast this to the coverage by the famed "national" media. Do you recollect any 30 minute program (leave alone a few) that tells us about the successes and failures of Swachh Bharat? Any front page, or for that matter, any op-ed, that discusses about this program?
Swachh Bharat has a very long way to go. We are fighting both the apathy of the government agencies and the apathy of a large citizenry. This fight is to not just change procedures, but to change mentality. This is about us, not about Narendra Modi alone. Every hand that joins in this mission only strengthens it. Speaking of hand - have you all noticed how the Congress party is maintaining an arms length from anything that's got to do with Swachh Bharat!
Ordinary folks like me look forward to budget speech to know what changes happen in the tax structure; what will happen to the rates of electronic goods etc. Rest is always financial mumbo-jumbo as far as I am concerned. Most of the discussions post  budget  presentation always go over my head. So when I saw this small report in The Hindu, one day after the Budget was presented, it was equivalent to the mumbo-jumbo - Micro Units Development Refinance Agency Bank sounds like mumbo-jumbo to the uninitiated. 
Few days later we had the opportunity to read some brilliant articles on this topic by Shri S. Gurumurthy and Prof. R. Vaidyanathan (Samples 1 , 23) . Slowly, it began to emerge that this is one of the biggest reform measure in this year's budget. And when we saw this easy to understand graphic - the bigger picture of how this move will benefit nearly 6 crore people became quite evident.
It was indeed a surprise that there was no formal credit system for the crores of small business units across the country. It does not require a genius to figure out that these small business units form a very critical part of our country's economy. That it took nearly 70 years for the Government of India to come up with a formal structure for them, is a reflection of what went wrong.
MUDRA bank was formally launched on April 8th. The "missing middle" are no more missing. By "funding the unfunded", the Modi government just took another step towards reaching those left out so far. As expected, coverage for the announcement and the launch of MUDRA bank in the famed "national" media has been negligible. A host of a 9pm show on one of the English TV channels tweets this a few moments after his show:
"In all the noise of news, @PMOIndia Mudra bank initiative deserves a mention. Let's hope it helps 'fund the unfunded'. Good move."
Here is the link for the program from that night. Please watch his headlines for the first two minutes. ZERO mention of the launch yesterday. Even some news related to Shobha De was headlined, but the initiative that “deserves” a mention could not find place on *his* show. This summarizes the apathy of the media towards a scheme that will make a difference to nearly 6 crore people;towards a scheme that reached the unreached.
Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna
Is this the first time in the world, that a government program created a Guinness record?
Even without the Guinness account, isn’t it such a big testimony to the capabilities of this government that a massive 15 crore new accounts have been opened within such a short span.
One of the major failings of the UPA government was to get any job only half done.To avoid pilferage, they told us that all payments will be linked to having your bank account linked to AADHAR card. In some cases, they made it mandatory to have AADHAR card before a deadline. No systems were put in place to deliver those AADHAR cards before this deadline. In any case, if a bank account and AADHAR are compulsory to get payments/reimbursements from the government, then it is common sense that they first ensure bank accounts exist in the first place! It simply defies how the UPA wanted to function, by not finishing AADHAR deployment and not having easy mechanism to open bank accounts.
Opening a bank account was a big deal earlier. You needed to have a proposer, a bunch of documents, a minimum balance and reams of documentation. Prime Minister Modi simply removed all these impediments. Forget standing in line to get these accounts opened, bank officials themselves had to go visit the houses of people, and ensure that they have their accounts opened. No minimum balance is required, but if  a certain balance for 6 months was maintaind, some benefits were extended. Other benefitssuch as accidental insurance have been offered too. More importantly, with the creation of a bank account, every person can now directly receive what is due to him/her. No more worrying of middle-men to take care of this process. A bigger success which no one talks about is a whopping amount of nearly INR 17,000 crores that has been deposited into the Indian banking system. All this has been achieved by reaching over to the unreached masses.
Obviously, Jan Dhan Yojna has a long way to go for a full fledged success - it is imperative that the flaws of this system are bought out and made more robust. It will only be a matter of time before the vast number of empty accounts will come back to bite the government, but like they say, well begun is half done. The only critique I have seen so far of this scheme is this one from NDTV - based totally either on hearsay or from a sample of 1 district! Surely, we can do better than this? 
There have been many things that went right, many things that could have been handled better. A good beginning has been made, the most important hallmark of this one year being enhanced participation by the citizenry. There are still a vast majority to reach out to. Here is wishing that the government succeeds in doing so in the 2nd year as well.