Exposures


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Belief

Text by Patty Simon | Image by Dick Simon
India

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Dick likes to tell everyone that this trip is about spiritual journeys and justifies why we headed to the largest religious gathering in the world at the Kumbh Mela in India. My gut cringes each time I hear because I am not very “religious” so when I witness various “religions”, it does not do much for my own spiritual journey. But, I let it go and try to just be open to whatever happens in these countries with such intense, varied belief systems.

We have gone from Christianity to Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and back to all four living next to each other side by side.

So here is where my journey has led. In terms of religion… Nowhere. Though I have always respected others beliefs, I find myself foreign to it all. I think I have a gene missing. When I go into these sacred shrines, all I see is decoration and fascination for what these gods look like or how they are honored with offerings. Even the Christian churches feel foreign because all I can think of are missionaries imposing foreign beliefs on an already embedded belief system of thousands of years.

As an artist I have always been obsessed with shrines. I take pictures of every one I see (well, in India this is impossible as they are every 50 feet and we could never get to our next destination). I collect offerings. I study design and what qualities make a “shrine”. I have wanted to do an art installation but I get snagged by one problem. Because of my lack of religious belief, what would I pay homage to? I have thought about this year after year and it keeps me from actually producing the show. (An invitation to anyone reading this, if you have any ideas, please let me know)

So… Belief! If not religious, what would my belief look like?

I’ve decided my belief is about what God creates… the beautiful natural landscape and the people that exist in this huge world. My belief is wrapped up in their belief that life is worth living and struggling for – in the everyday and the tiniest of kindnesses.

 

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Protocol

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
Sri Lanka

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Remember the saying, ” Do as the Romans Do”? This is our mantra in visiting other cultures. The only problem is what exactly are the customs. We are very conscious of representing our own country showing as much friendliness and respect as we can muster. We found often in Sri Lanka, even in the heavy tourist destinations, that we were the only Americans. There were many Germans and Russians. We did meet one US family living in Afghanistan.

So, the temples seem to have rules that are not quite obvious. We know to take off our shoes. We did not know but should have taken off our sun hats.  What we did not know was shirts are not allowed on men in Hindu temples. Dick was asked to remove his shirt just like the monks. Of course the monks looked good and Dick looked silly especially when he has two huge cameras hanging around his bare chest!

 


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Varanasi – City of Death

Text by Patty Simon | Images by Dick Simon
India

Have you ever been to a place almost 30 years ago and go back and feel like nothing has changed?

I remember the first time I went to Varanasi, it was all about fire and water and little clay pots.

We are here to watch the open-air cremations (2-300 per day) by the sacred River Ganges. All Hindus wish for this end, the most holy, and the best opportunity for nirvana.

It is all quite dramatic! As I wander thru the narrow lanes of the old city splashed with offerings on shrines found in every nook and cranny and vendors selling strings of marigolds, incense, shrouds woven with gold and tins of ghee to rub on the deceased for better burning… I watch families of mourners carrying their loved one’s body (one every five minutes).

Night seems to enhance these ancient rituals. It also conveniently covers up the “impure” habits of these wonderful people… The idea that garbage of any kind should be left anywhere and everywhere.

So, I prefer the darkness. It highlights the stacked pyres of wood (there is actually a rule governing how much wood a family is required to buy inI order for the body to be burned down to ash). I know there is a body burning but the blackness protects my sensibility and I only see the beautiful reflection of the flames on the water along with tiny tins of flower and votive offerings – one of which was mine! This is all quite charming in water that by day is full of trash, excrement, cinder and an occasional coin or gold necklace that was wrapped in the body and a scavenger will find the next day with a magnet fishing pole.

The cremations are the focus along with a beautiful ceremony, called Aarti, held at the edge of the river on platforms holding red-robed priests blowing conch shells, ringing bells, burning incense and brass pyramids of tiny candles chanting blessings galore.

As if this is not enough to burn a lifetime of memories into our minds, the next day brings another boat ride viewing pastel buildings of the past, the ‘ghats’ (steps leading to river) where locals are washing themselves, even brushing their teeth (remember in the same water as the night before!), and washing their clothes (beating the dirt out on a stone slab). Oh, and did I mention the sacred cow or two that seem to be using the river too!

Still, one can’t help but fall in love with the color, the ritual, and the seduction of the Hindu faith in the afterlife where life always gets to a better place.