Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Grand Palace of the King in Thailand

Walking the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok is like stepping back into the ancient period. The images of strange and beautiful mythical creatures and demons are visible in every corner. The smell of the burning incense is overwhelming, the air sparkles and shimmers with heat. Everything seems to be encrusted with jewels and mosaic inlay. Several objects which are considered as treasures of indescribable nature are housed in the Grand Palace, including the legendary Emerald Buddha. Millions of worshippers and visitors from far-away lands travel to Thailand to see this fabled palace, for most, to make the pilgrimage, pay their respects and say their prayers, and for some, to admire its beauty and learn its history.

The Grand Palace is a complex of buildings at the heart of Bangkok. It has been the official residence of the Kings of Siam (and later Thailand) since 1782. The king, his court and his royal government were based on the grounds of the palace until 1925. The present monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), currently resides at Chitralada Palace, but Grand Palace is still used for official events. Several royal ceremonies and state functions are held within the walls of the palace every year.

Construction of the palace began on 6 May 1782, at the order of King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I), the founder of the Chakri Dynasty, when he moved the capital city from Thonburi to Bangkok. In shape, the palace complex is roughly rectangular and has a combined area of 218,400 square metres (2,351,000 sq ft), surrounded by four walls. It is situated on the banks of the Chao Phraya River at the heart of the Rattanakosin Island, today in the Phra Nakhon District. 

Rather than being a single structure, the Grand Palace is made up of numerous buildings, halls, pavilions set around open lawns, gardens and courtyards. It is divided into several quarters: the Temple of the Emerald Buddha; the Outer Court, with many public buildings; the Middle Court, including the Phra Maha Montien Buildings, the Phra Maha Prasat Buildings and the Chakri Maha Prasat Buildings; the Inner Court and the Siwalai Gardens quarter. 

Nowadays, the Grand Palace is currently partially open to the public as a museum that’s why it attracts millions of tourists every year who are willing to spend for air fare to Thailand just to see this magnificent palace. However it remains a working palace as several royal offices are still situated inside. 

The layout of the Grand Palace followed that of the Royal Palace at Ayutthaya in location, organization, and in the divisions of separate courts, walls, gates and forts. Both palaces featured a proximity to the river. The location of a pavilion serving as a landing stage for barge processions also corresponded with that of the old palace. To the north of the Grand Palace there is a large field, the Thung Phra Men (now called Sanam Luang), which is used as an open space for royal ceremonies and as a parade ground. There was also a similar field in Ayutthaya, which was used for the same purpose. The road running north leads to the Front Palace, the residence of the Second King of Siam. 

It is divided into four main courts, separated by numerous walls and gates: the Outer Court, the Middle Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Each of these court's functions and access are clearly defined by laws and traditions. The Outer Court is situated on the northwestern part of the Grand Palace; within are the royal offices and (formerly) state ministries. To the northeast is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, the royal chapel and home of the Emerald Buddha. The Middle Court housed the most important state apartments and ceremonial throne halls of the king. The Inner Court, situated at the most southern end of the complex, was reserved only for females, as it housed the king's harem. 

The highlight of visiting the palace is seeing the 75cm Emerald Buddha which sits on a high platform in a richly decorated bòt. It’s guarded by mythical giants called yaksha. The Buddha is always dressed in different robes for each season. It was discovered in 1434 A.D. when lightning struck a stupa in Changrai in Northern Thailand. A Buddha statue was found inside and was brought to an abbot’s residence. Shortly after, the stucco on the nose flaked off to reveal its green surface. Interestingly enough, the Emerald Buddha isn’t made of emerald. It’s thought to be jade. People flocked from all over the country to worship the beautiful statue.

Today the Grand Palace is still a centre of ceremony and of the monarchy, and serves as a museum and tourist attraction as well.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Holi Festival in India

Holi is a religious spring festival celebrated by Hindus. It is also known as Festival of Colors, held at the end of the winter season on the last full moon day of the lunar month Phalguna (February/March), (PhalgunPurnima), which usually falls in the later part of February or March.

Holi is also called the Spring Festival - as it marks the arrival of spring the season of hope and joy. The gloom of the winter goes as Holi promises bright summer days. Nature too, it seems rejoices at the arrival of Holi and wears its best clothes. Fields get filled with crops promising a good harvest to the farmers and flowers bloom coloring the surroundings and filling fragrance in the air.

In India, it is one of the major festivals thus it is celebrated with enthusiasm and gaiety with grand festivities. In fact, because of its popularity tourists search for cheap airfare to India just to witness the fascinating activities of this festival.

Entire India wears a festive look when it is time for Holi celebration, hence the beautiful sight brought about by this festival is more than worthy of cheap flights to India. Market places get abuzz with activity as frenzied shoppers start making preparations for the festival. Heaps of various hues of gulal and abeer can be seen on the roadside days before the festival. Pichkaris in innovative and modern design too come up every year to lure the children who wish to collect them as Holi memorabilia and of course, to drench everybody in the town. Womenfolk too start making early preparations for the holi festival as they cook loads of gujiya, mathri and papri for the family and also for the relatives. At some places especially in the north women also make papads and potato chips at this time.

The main day, Holi, is celebrated by people throwing scented powder and perfume at each other. Bonfires are lit on the eve of the festival, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). After doing holika dahan prayers are said and praise is offered. The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahladaccomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion. Holika Dahan is referred to as Kama Dahanam in South India.

Great excitement can be seen in people on the next day when it is actually the time for the play of colors. Shops and offices remain closed for the day and people get all the time to get crazy and whacky. Bright colors of gulal and abeer fill the air and people take turns in pouring color water over each other. Children take special delight in spraying colors on one another with their pichkaris and throwing water balloons and passers by. Women and senior citizen form groups called tolis and move in colonies - applying colors and exchanging greetings. Songs, dance on the rhythm of dholak and mouthwatering Holi delicacies are the other highlights of the day.

There is also a tradition of consuming the very intoxicating bhang on this day to further enhance the spirit of Holi. It is so much fun to watch the otherwise sober people making clowns of themselves in full public display. Some, however, take bhang in excess and spoil the spirit. Caution should therefore be taken while consuming bhang delicacies.

After a fun-filled and exciting day, the evening is spent in sobriety when people meet friends and relatives and exchange sweets and festive greetings.

People believed that the spirit of Holi encourages the feeling of brotherhood in society and even the enemies turn friend on this day. People of all communities and even religions participate in this joyous and colorful festival and strengthen the secular fabric of the nation.

Legends of Holi Festival

Holi has various legends associated with it. The foremost is the legend of demon King Hiranyakashyap who demanded everybody in his kingdom to worship him but his pious son, Prahlad became a devotee of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashyap wanted his son to be killed. He asked his sister Holika to enter a blazing fire with Prahlad in her lap as Holika had a boon which made he immune to fire. Story goes that Prahlad was saved by lord himself for his extreme devotion and evil minded Holika was burnt to ashes, for her boon worked only when she entered the fire alone.

Since that time, people light a bonfire, called Holika on the eve of Holi festival and celebrate the victory of good over evil and also the triumph of devotion to god. Children take special delight in the tradition and this has another legend attached to it. It says that there was once an ogress Dhundhi who used to trouble children in the kingdom of Prithu. She was chased away by children on the day of Holi. Therefore, children are allowed to play pranks at the time of 'Holika Dahan'.

Some also celebrate the death of evil minded Pootana. The ogress tried to Lord Krishna as an infant by feeding it poisonous milk while executing the plan of Kansa, Krishna's devil uncle. However, Krishna sucked her blood and brought her end. Some who view the origin of festivals from seasonal cycles believe that Pootana represents winter and her death the cessation and end of winter.

In South India, people worship Kaamadeva- the god of love and passion for his extreme sacrifice. According to a legend, Kaamadeva shot his powerful love arrow on Lord Shiva to revoke his interest in the worldly affairs in the interest of the earth. However, Lord Shiva was enraged as he was in deep mediation and opened his third eye which reduced Kaamadeva to ashes. Though, later on the request of Rati, Kaamadeva's wife, Shiva was pleased to restore him back.

Monday, March 19, 2012

EVENT: 2012 London Olympic Games

2012 Olympic Games will be held in London from 27 July to 12 August 2012. London will be the first city to officially host the modern Olympic Games three times having previously done so in 1908 and in 1948.

London was selected as the host city on 6 July 2005 during the 117th IOC Session in Singapore, defeating Moscow, New York City, Madrid and Paris.

The Olympics will see the construction of brand new, state of the art sporting facilities, as well as the use of existing facilities across the country. Olympic venues will be found all over London, with many in well known and popular locations such as Hyde Park. The 2012 Olympic Games Park and main stadium will be in Stratford, east London – which has been the focus of a huge re-generation project while sailing events will be held in Weymouth at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy.

As the budgetary considerations generated some criticism, the Games will make use of many venues which were already in place before the bid, including Wembley Stadium, Wembley Arena, Wimbledon All England Club, Lord's Cricket Ground, The O2 Arena, Earls Court Exhibition Center and the Excel Center.

2012 Summer Olympic Games will feature 26 sports and a total of 38 disciplines while there will be 20 sports and 21 disciplines for 2012 Paralympic Games.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lantern Festivals of Taiwan

Lantern Festival is commonly regarded as one of the most significant as well as the most romantic festivals in Taiwan. Held on the first full-moon night of the lunar year, it is celebrated with lantern making, lantern riddle games and displays of glittering decorative lanterns.

It is believed that this festival originated in the festive activities of agricultural people celebrating the lengthening of daylight hours and the coming of spring after the New Year. Other legends have it that the festival was actually started by an emperor of the Han Dynasty during 206 B.C – 220 A.D., who was a devout Buddhist. The emperor ordered his people to display lights on the fifteenth night of the first month of the lunar year to pay respect to Buddha. According to the same legend, holding torches or lanterns on this night makes it easier to see deities descending from heaven to give blessings to the earth.

The Tourism Bureau has been holding the Taiwan Lantern Festival for 22 years to attract visitors and raise the international profile of the cultural charms of Taiwan. Traditionally, the festival has been celebrated by carrying hand lanterns. The Taiwan Lantern Festival adds a high-tech to this traditional custom and brings the event to the international stage. From to the theme lantern displays to folk arts and performances, the festival has become a perennial favorite of locals and foreign visitors alike.

Tangyuan, also known as yuansiao is the traditional food for this occasion. Tangyuan is a glutinous rice dumpling with sweet or savory stuffing's. It comes in different choices of flavors. Sesame, peanut, red bean paste and minced pork are the most common and popular flavors while new flavors such as taro, green tea and sweet asmanthus preserves have also been attracting followers in recent years.

In Taiwan, several lantern festivals are held to promote local tourism, to attract tourist to book airfare to Taiwan. These festivals held in different parts of the country become a major tourist event in Taiwan over the years.

You will surely love the gigantic lanterns erected in the middle of the plaza of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The lanterns usually carry the theme in line with the Chinese horoscope sign of that particular year. The installation includes performances combining laser lights, music and sculptural arts. On the four sides of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, smaller lantern installations depicts folklore and historical events, large multi-colored lanterns in the likeness of various plants and animals such as butterflies, dragons, dinosaurs and birds are hung up along the road. They also have interesting live folk performances such as lion and dragon dances, acrobatic acts, folk art skits, mock battles, and booths that demonstrate and sell traditional handicrafts like fan painting, lantern making, dough sculpture, candy-figure blowing, paper cutting, Chinese knotwork and many delicious snacks and sweets. A tunnel of lights is also put up on the roads of Taipei, dressing up the whole city with glittering lights. Every year, this event attract tens of thousands of people from around Taiwan and other countries in the region to purchase airfare to Taipei, making it one of the biggest tourist highlights in Asia at the beginning of every year.

The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is one of the most colorful activities of the Lantern Festival. Pingxi is a remote hillside town. In former times, those who worked or farmed in the mountains faced the risks of being robbed or killed; so the people used lanterns to tell their families they were safe. The lanterns have lost their function as a warning signal, and today they are a symbol of peace and good fortune.

The fireworks display put on by the God of War Temple in Yanshui, Tainan City is one of the more popular and much awaited events during the Lantern Festival.

The display starts one day before the Lantern Festival with the tour of the god's sedan chair, accompanied by the discharge of firecrackers. The noise, lights, and festivities that follow continue well into the following morning.

The official lantern festival, Taiwan Lantern Festival is usually celebrated on the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese calendar with a series of activities throughout Taiwan. Among the highlight events at this time is the inspection tour of the deity Master Han Dan in Taitung City. As guardian of the celestial treasury, Han Dan is revered today as a god of wealth, but people believe that he was once a real person named Chao Kong-ming. When the god makes his annual inspection tour of the earthly world, crowds turn out to pray for his blessing and good fortune. On the day of the festival, Han Dan is also joined by other gods of the temples in various townships and Taitung on tours of the community. Households in these areas prepare offerings of fresh flowers and fruit and light strings of firecrackers to welcome the Han Dan. The person representing the god on the tour wears only a headscarf, mask and pair of red shorts. He stands courageously amidst the fusillade of firecrackers protected only by a tree branch. There are several stories as to why the people throw firecrackers at Han Dan. In one version, it is because Han Dan is the god of hooligans and his power grows with the loudness of the explosions. A less widely accepted explanation is that Han Dan is afraid of the cold, so the people throw firecrackers at the god during his tour to keep him warm and win his blessing.

Indeed, Lantern Festival is the best time for visitors to experience the best of Taiwan. From rich historical culture and customs to authentic Taiwanese cuisines and local festive delicacies, Taiwan is a place you surely would not want to miss!