The Pettah: Colombo, Sri Lanka

First impressions of Colombo are of a noisy construction site, as the modern capital busily reclaims land from the sea and erects new skyscrapers, five-star hotels and shopping centres. It seems a far cry from the tranquillity of the beaches on the south coast, the scenic hill country and tea plantations inland, and low-rise indigenous or historic Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial buildings dotted across the rest of the island. Head inland from the Fort district and coastline, and into The Pettah (bazaar) and you will find something completely different and far more seductive… the streets narrow, the humid air thickens, and there is barley room for pedestrians to squeeze through the buses, tuk-tuks, bicycles and manually pulled carts all sharing each narrow road. Following years of civil and religious unrest, it was also reassuring to see Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Muslim mosques and Christian churches all sharing these tight spaces in much the same way as the various modes of transport do. The largest thoroughfare through the district is aptly named Main Street and houses the stunningly kitsch red and white Jami ul-Aftar mosque built in 1909. A few roads on brings you to both the New Kathiresan and Old Kathiresan kovils; Hindu temples which could easily have been taken from the set of an Indian Jones film, both dedicated to the war god Skanda and pyramid shaped adorned with innumerable colourful carved sculptures all the way to the tip. Finally you reach Sri Ponnambula Vanesvara kovil – seemingly inconspicuous from the street, but once you remove your shoes and make your way around the building to the main entrance, it again renders you speechless! Whilst it lacks the lively colours of its’ neighbouring temples, instead being constructed from stone blocks and carved columns it has a quiet, regal impact. Inside, ten shrines add hints of colour via painted wooden peacocks and mythical figures, all flickering in the light of ghee lamps and cracks of sunlight.

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Sri Dalada Maligawa: Kandy, Sri Lanka

Sri Dalada Maligawa – or The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic – as it is more commonly known is situated in the northern hill country of Sri Lanka, in Kandy. With only two weeks to see as much of the country as possible, I’d only allocated twenty-four hours in the cultural hub so had to be picky about what we visited, saw and ate! But this temple was a must, with its’ stunning location on the man-made lake that dominates the city. The temple is within the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy; the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings before falling to successive Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule from 1600’s onwards. The structure you see today was built by Vira Narendra Sinha with later additions by Sri Vikrama Rajasinha, as well as extensive reconstruction following the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) bombing in 1998 during the country’s civil war. Historically it was believed that whoever housed the tooth relic (tooth of Buddha) held governance of the country, and today the temple continues to be venerated by local and international Buddhists, politicians, and tourists alike. Everyone is invited to remove their shoes before entering the sacred land, you then cross a moat littered with locals selling lotus flowers and other offerings, and enter via an archway flanked by elephant sculptures and decorated with vivid red, blue and yellow murals. An elaborately carved two-floor structure of wood and ivory bedecked with gem-stones, elephant tusks and traditional paintwork, topped with a gold canopy enshrining the tooth is breath taking. We were also fortunate enough to visit early and catch the morning Tevava ceremony with Puja drummers and pipes accompanying the ritual offerings to the tooth. The grounds add to the experience and are filled with the smell of incense, burning ghee lamps, jasmine and lotus flower – and a slightly tired but informative museum on the upper floors of an adjoining building helps give context to the significance of this temple.

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Wat Pho: Bangkok, Thailand

If you can cope with 34 degree heat, wearing multiple layers of clothing to ensure you are not exposing any skin as a mark of respect in such temperatures, and handle hordes of eager tourists clambering over a UNESCO World Heritage site in pursuit of the ultimate selfie – a visit to Wat Pho should rank highly on any Bangkok must see list. The complex stands on the site of an older temple dating to the Ayuthaya period and more specifically the reign of King Phetracha (1688 -1703), but did not exist in its current form until the time of King Rama l who ordered the renovation of the site in 1788. It underwent further development under Rama III and Rama IV in the 1800’s including extending the site and the construction of the fourth great chedi building. Today the site is most famous for housing the giant statue of the Reclining Buddha which measures a staggering 46 metres long and 15 metres high and is covered in gold leaf. The temple itself is also decorated in detailed murals and contains 108 bronze bowls (representing the 108 characters of Buddha) along the walls, and visitors can purchase a jar of coins to drop into these bowls which rings through the hall adding to the atmosphere. In addition to this giant statue, the complex is home to a further 394 Buddha images collected from various sites across Thailand which are positioned in impressive rows under various colonnades. There are also 91 stupas (or chedis); 71 containing the ashes of the royal family and 20 larger ones clustered in groups of five containing the relics of Buddha, all of which are wonderfully colourful and elaborately decorated with ceramic tiles and flowers which glisten in the sunlight, making it an extraordinary complex to explore.

Reclining buddha
Head of the Giant Reclining Buddha statue
Giant buddha
Length of the Giant Reclining Buddha statue
Buddha statues
Some of the additional 394 Buddha statues on site
Chedi
One of the 91 chedi

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Big Bang Data: Somerset House

Here’s a few facts to get things started: by 2002 more information was stored in digital forms rather than analogue, by 2007 ninety-four percent of global information was digitally coded information, and we continue to produce 2.5 trillion bytes of data each day. I almost feel guilty posting this blog and adding yet more to this ever increasing phenomenon… but this is exactly the subject matter Somerset House’s current exhibition ‘Big Bang Data’ is exploring. Data is discussed in all forms; from the sheer volume of selfies, tweets, Instagram posts and GPS information produced each day, to how it can be harnessed for the common good, its surveillance, what it fails to tell us, and finally examples of abstract creations by artists and designers using this data. One installation entitled ‘data.tron’ by Ryoji Ikeda highlights the infinite scale of the worlds’ data through a hypnotic and constantly changing screen of mathematic formulae and data sets. Another innovative interpretation of data came from Ingo Gunther’s ongoing ‘World Processor’ project started in 1988, featuring a series of acrylic globes representing mapped data on political, economic, social, historical, environmental and technological world issues. Data-centrism is also addressed as there is a growing belief that data contains all the answers, failing to acknowledge that numbers can be manipulated and skewed. This is succinctly summarised in Jonathan Harris’ printed monologue ‘Data Will Help Us’ which questions everything from advertising to dating and whether society has now reached a point where we are ignoring context and common sense, to blindly trust data. The exhibition does a compelling job of making a complex (and indeed dry) subject matter not only accessible but interesting and even beautiful. My only criticism is that the curators played it a little safe and could have probed a little deeper and been more controversial.

Ikeda
One of the ever-changing screen shots of Ryoji Ikeda’s ‘data.tron’ installation
World Processor
A selection of Ingo Gunther’s ‘World Processor’ acrylic, vinyl and paint globes
Harris
Jonathan Harris’ 2013 print ‘Data Will Help Us’

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