India, Day 1 (plus 730)

2014-12-21-12-24-41-1Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.

I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.

India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.

As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]

Here is a full list of the India blog posts:

India, Day 1

Street Walking in Delhi

Night Train to Jodhpur

Christmas Eve 7000 Miles from Home

The Hidden Fortress at Kumbhalgarh

Falling in Love…AKA I (heart) Udaipur

Travelling Back in Time: Jojawar

Pushkar: Holy City By The Lake

New Year’s in Jaipur: Now is What Matters

Outskirts of Agra: More Time Travel and Amber That Shines Like Gold

Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Agra, Part II: The Taj, and a Word About Public Toilets in India

Solo in Delhi: Day 1

Solo in Delhi, Day 2: Wherein I Find My Temple and Learn the Gods’ Days

Delhi: Grand Hearts, Shining Brightly

Where do you stay: on Impermanence and making an impact…

 

Where do you stay: on Impermanence and making an impact…

DSC_1327I’ve been back from India for about 6 months now, but the bits and pieces I picked up there remain. The smiles, the centeredness, the amazing ability to shoulder great life burdens that we in the west need a fleet of doctors and comfort food to ease.

I wrote an article for Elephant Journal recently, about the concept of impermanence and some thoughts on being OK with the present…

While the jet lag is long gone, a lasting impression has lingered. I left a small piece of myself in Rajasthan, and some larger piece of its magic came home with me, alongside the trinkets and experiences that remind me of my travels…. Read more here.

Delhi: Grand Hearts, Shining Brightly

DSCF2367I have learned that Indian people have hearts as big as their smiles. Yes, there is greed and unrest and poverty and inequality and laziness (maybe all just components of human nature?) everywhere. And among the throngs and the close-quartered humanity there are amazing souls to encounter here, where so many believe that now is good and the practice of bramacharya (restraint, limits, and the knowledge that there is such a thing as too much) actually is a way of life.

DSCF2381On this, my last day of freedom and my last day in Delhi, I spent the day with the uncle of an old friend. This is a man I had never met. He is as old as my father might have been, with a family and responsibilities of his own. Yet he cleared his slate to play tour guide to an energetic American girl hell-bent on breathing in this city and seeing it through a local’s eyes.

He opened up his heart to me and told me stories about his experiences in India, about his family and about his personal philosophies… all this while he brought me on a sightseeing journey throughout the enormous and mesmerising city. I am eternally grateful.

The day’s adventures included tourist spots Jantar Mantar, which is this larger-than-life astrological park and sundial that looks like a comic book skate park. I think one needs a helicopter or hot air balloon to properly absorb the site. We wandered through Qutab Minar, a 12th/13th century mosque and religious site with a 73 metre high minaret and some truly impressive old stonework. There was the requisite pass by India Gate, Parliament, all the embassies… And because I was curious as to the difference between saag and palak, my gracious host took me to lunch at Cosy Restaurant  in Hauz Khas, explained the seasonal differences and how saag is prepared this time of year, and we ate a simple, yet excellent, meal of Saag Mukhan Wala (looks like a pile of creamed spinach, but tastes like ginger-cardamom-garlic heaven!) and butter rotis. There is nothing in this world like freshly-made Indian bread. After lunch, we made a quick stop to gawk at the outside of the outlandish Baha’i Lotus Temple, which looks like a cross between a spaceship and a sex toy springing from the ground to escape (or perhaps devour) the throngs of tourists and devotees alike.

2015-01-06 17.20.19The last stop of the day was my favorite: tea and sweets in a bustling cafe in the Bengali market. The sweet shop/cafe reminded me of a cross between a chinatown dim sum place and a coffee shop in the North End or Little Italy. Here we had chai, an Indian ice cream called kulfi, and I had my first taste of
jalebi
, cooked in a giant wok-like fryer. It’s the Indian jalebiversion of fried dough, only 4000% more spectacular. Made well, it is hot and crispy on the outside, sweet and oozy on the inside (the perfect street food…I am unquestionably hooked!). The racket was as warm as the tea, and we talked and laughed about the Indian chatter.

When my newly-adopted uncle dropped me at my hotel, we were talk- and walk-weary. It had been a long day. What strikes me still to this day is the sense of inclusion one feels in India. On a continuous basis in this country, I have been invited to enjoy local custom, to ask questions, to learn about what makes this place tick. Strangers and merchants alike have shared food and tea and toothless smiles and namastes that warm me and make me feel like part of this great machine that churns and vibrates and belches and screams and whines and beeps and sings and shines brightly…

Solo in Delhi, Day 2: Wherein I Find My Temple and Learn the Gods’ Days

I’ve heard India described as “everything coming at you at once.” This is pretty close to the truth. The chaos has its own rhythm and creates this meditative background noise that I’m sure I will miss when I’m home in the quiet. Again, I become part of this ridiculously enchanting synchronised chaos.

The city of Delhi, simultaneously gritty, foreboding, noisy, hectic, crowded, ancient and in renewal has this heartbeat that is musical and pulsating with an energy unlike anything I’ve felt. It is compelling and intriguing and happy and heartbreaking. The smiles belie the poverty and the grit. The warm hearts soften the warnings I’ve heeded (and not needed). This is not the romantic city of Udaipur, but from the moment I acclimated to the pace and atmosphere here in India (I’m not sure whether that was 5 minutes or 3 days after I arrived), I’ve felt this magnetic attraction to the underlying energies that make this place just work.

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Today I visited Humayun’s Tomb, which is a fantastic oasis in middle of this great whirlwind. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, and the tomb was built in the 16th century by his senior wife. I dare not sidetrack on the contradictions inherent in this faith nor on the role of women in their society. At the time (Hindu or Muslim), the foremost role of the king’s wife was to bear a son. Multiple wives/concubines I guess simply increased the odds. Humayun’s senior wife was Persian, and with her heritage brought Persian style to Delhi. To me it seemed a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim architecture, the ornate marble/sandstone tomb (that looks like a red-and-white pre-Taj Mahal) and distinctly Mughal gardens.

hoopoe1With scores of eagles and migratory Mongolian cranes circling above, I wandered the restored monuments in awe. The birds in this city are a marvel… if one pauses momentarily and looks up (also down, as the stonework is truly impressive in many places), one notices the scores of parakeets, eagles, hoopoes (this fascinating Asian woodpecker-looking thing), starlings and even pigeons by the thousands and tens of thousands – in the sky, trees and perched on the buildings.

Back in Humayun’s place, Isa Khan’s tomb is an intricately-carved, grand and well-preserved/restored example of what I learned is Lodi architecture. It is a strong yet feminine building, with precious detail along the top. A grand walled garden makes this part of the complex its own mini fortress and for me really stole the show at this site. A side-highlight for me here was a litter of perhaps 2-week old puppies that I stopped to take as many photos of as I did the tomb.

After consulting Lonely Planet, the next stop was Hauz Khas village, an artsy shopping district beside a 13th-century reservoir with wonderfully-intact (and semi-restored) tombs, domed buildings and an old school. The gardens and structures were teeming with Indian students – all seemingly late teens or college-aged, hand-in-hand or giggling and chattering and selfie-ing in small groups of friends. The chatter and the laughter pervades the archways, steep staircases and 600 year-old facades. I think I have become enamored with the medieval architecture here.

My driver and I press on to the site that truly takes my breath away. We brave the traffic and fly (and alternately crawl) past the dozens of temples and parks and attractions that one could understandably miss if they only saw Delhi on a foggy cold day in December. The Laxmi Narayan Temple looks outlandish at first, with a “kiddie temple” off the car park, and its bright terra cotta and yellow exterior.

I did not do my homework, nor was I prepared for this temple. As I removed my shoes and walked into the entry parlour, I felt the energy of this place. I think people must feel this way when they enter their favorite church. It was a breath of fresh air and felt like coming home. I was the only Caucasian there. After wandering the exterior, I braved to step inside and see the puja stations. There were pujas for Lakshmi (Laxmi) in different poses, with other deities as necessary. I felt pulled to one of the pujas and watched for a few minutes as the guru there had offerings blessed (coconut, flowers, sweets, and a cloth – I’m not sure what it all represents, but I was mesmerized with the ritual of it). We began chatting and he blessed me, gave me a wreath of flowers and a dot on my 3rd eye, then returned with some sweets as prasad (as are the flowers, sweets are offered to the deity, blessed, and distributed to worshippers to share in the offering). I felt chills. Afterwards, as I wandered through the rest of the temple, I came across a room with excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita engraved in Sanskrit on the walls. The Lakshmi puja at the end of this room had the other deities (Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha) sitting at her feet… it was nothing less than a magical experience. I reveled in the sunshine as I exited the temple, with Indians in sarees and kurtas bestowing upon me confounded looks, stares and half-smiles.

DSCF2365The last stop of the day was for fun. There is a 108-foot Hanuman statue and temple sitting beside a busy traffic roundabout by the Jhanderwalan metro station. To me, this is a great example of this culture not taking itself too seriously…the symphonic cacophany of traffic noise and trains and tuk tuk horns and stuff wallahs is epic and also perfect in its absurdity underneath this troublemaking god’s purvue.

I learned today that the gods each have their day…. Like the Norse gods for whom some of our days of the week are named, India has puja days for each important deity. Sunday is Surya, the sun god. Monday is Shiva and/or Brahma depending on who you ask (surprising to hear it’s not also Chandra’s day). Tuesday is Hanuman and/or Ganesha’s day. Wednesday is Vithal: Mercury (there is a loose connection between Odin [Woden], for whom the Norse named the day, and Mercury). Thursday is Vishnu and/or Ganesha again, also depending on who you ask. Friday is Durga, the Goddess, and Saturday is Shani and general astrology (Shani means Saturn, which is also the name of the day in other mythology, including Norse!).

Solo in Delhi: Day 1

Arriving solo to a city that everyone (including your own government) has warned you is “unsafe for female travellers” and dirty, ugly, crowded, polluted, etc. is daunting. Arriving solo to a city like Delhi could have gone one of two ways: I could have locked myself in my hotel room for 4 days and survived on the piss-poor WiFi in the room and modestly above average fare at the hotel’s restaurant. OR, I could have embraced the challenge, gone exploring and seen what Delhi had to offer. Even as solo travel anxiety built, I opted for door #2.

2015-01-04 10.42.59 2015-01-04 10.44.44 metro map2

My excitement to explore increased with the warmer temps and bright sunshine cutting through Delhi’s smoggy haze. And so, I decided that my first day of complete freedom in India could not be complete without a metro ride. Men can be pigs here and that is only partially-offset by the ladies-only train car. What a great concept, and a safe and comfortable way to take a daunting first subway ride in a completely new city whose sometimes-cryptic maps are written in Hindi and sporadic English. The Indian girls chatter away, taking selfies and revel in the safety of this space. I invited a co-conspirator for the adventure, a lone Australian woman staying at my hotel. Only later I realised that she was a timid and tentative traveller who, having only arrived the night before, was feeling her Aussie version of Delhi shell-shock. She was not amused by my carefree attitude and comfort in this sensory explosion of a city.

First stop: Swaminarayan Akshardham.

If this promo video seems over the top, I assure you it is… but it barely does justice to the over-the-topness of this place. I liken the Swaminarayan Akshardham to Hindu Disneyland. The temple is the largest Hindu temple on the planet; the complex covers 100 acres. While It’s a Small World was not piped-in, I somehow expected an Alice in Wonderland-esque rendition of Hindu chanting to begin at any moment.

2015-01-04 15.41.03-1After one walks through the security gates, checks one’s bag (cameras and cell phones are not allowed) and proceeds to the entrance, one expects to be greeted by a smiling monk with expert dance moves. While that didn’t happen, there was this pervasive feeling of nouveau-spiritualism as we walked along the grand pathways and in/around the ridiculously ornate yet beautiful reproduction temple buildings. Throughout the park, one has the opportunity to purchase Swaminarayan merch: the books, videos, CDs and photos (theoretically blessed by the swami himself). There is a food court which was teeming with school kids by the busload (lunch was cheap, authentic and surprisingly good!). And as you exit through the gift shop, you can pick up the 120 rupee picture you had taken early-on in your adventure, next to the moat and in front of the grand mandir (main temple). The experience would not have been complete without a blessing from the Swami himself (via recorded message) and a sales pitch on local Swaminarayan temples we could visit back home. Spirituality 2.0. The Aussie’s comment, “I like Americans. They’ll do anything.”

The rest of the trip could only be deemed a misadventure. I got us lost, a mere kilometer from the hotel. My intrepid navigational skills pointed us in the opposite direction and we had to back-track to find the hotel, taking the main road, which necessitated dodging sleeping homeless, food vendors, tuk tuks, pedi cabs and dogs (and their landmines) along the way. Suffice to say, the Aussie was Not Amused. By this juncture, Verging on Horrified might have been the better explanation. We arrived back at the hotel in the nick of time, as I saw in her eyes that “real India” was a lot to experience on one’s first day in country.

Agra, Part II: The Taj, and a Word About Public Toilets in India

DSC_1928Fog greeted us this Taj day, so a sunrise visit was not to be. Clouds parted only briefly, the day giving a less than stellar royal show. Even with the fog and gray skies the monument is wondrous, though truth be told not my favourite site in India.

DSC_1969-1In the days of the Mughals, the way to show your devotion was to build an edifice to your beloved. It is said that Mumtaz’s last wish was that Shah Jahan make something to honour her time on this earth for all eternity. Hindu poet Tagore called the Taj Mahal a “teardrop on the cheek of time.” It took 22 years to complete. So money meets romance in this fairy story of true love. I wonder if Bill would build a monument of this stature to his beloved Melinda?

The mastery of these kinds of artisans is lost today in our immediate gratification and disposable thing-filled world. And maybe as a cry for help we see the once-pristine Taj Mahal graying these days. Ironically, electric vehicles and horse-drawn carriages vie side-by-side to provide tourist transport. And new mandates aim to curb coal fires and other carbon emissions within 10km of this precious landmark. The question that comes to mind, of course, is whether there’s time (or true willingness) to save it.

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I leave the Taj Mahal feeling something like longing for the romance and gallantry surrounding the forts and palaces of Rajasthan, though I would not have missed seeing this Wonder for anything. Its smooth precision and imposing grace make you forget that you are in a mausoleum and not a palace. One might envision a concert with pitch-perfect acoustics in the main chamber or perhaps a grand ball, though Maharanis did not dance with men other than their husbands, and jewel-bedecked grand saris aside, this might have been a rather dull affair. Mughal or Rajput, these dynasties were steeped in princely tradition and familial honour. And as visions of these luxurious lifestyles dance in my head, I follow the teeming crowds to the exit and on to the next destination.


An aside: This is as good a place as any to add my thoughts on being a Westerner and using public toilets in India. As expected, these come in a wide range of, erm, conditions. I give the pay toilets at Agra Fort 5 stars for being cleaner than most. For a mere 10 rupees, a woman shows you to the stall, demonstrates how to use the high/low flush buttons and (once business is finished) turns on the sink. In contrast, though not the worst I encountered, the Taj loo gets maybe 1-1/2 stars. Under the best of circumstances, queues in India are a joke, and he (she) who pushes hardest (or perhaps speaks the best Hindi), usually gets to the head of the line before foreigners. This is where the orderliness of the western world does not work in our favour. Relegated to the queue for “first available Western toilet” was not how I had hoped to spend my last hour at the Taj Mahal. Suffice to say, I see the value in both Indian squat toilets and the accompanying squirt nozzles, though I have yet to figure out proper operation of the latter. The trainer in me thinks there should be a discreet how-to video at immigration.

Agra, Part 1: Where Mughal Emperors Reign(ed)

Having recently finished The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie, which takes place in and around the city that is Fatehpur Sikri, I have newfound appreciation for the great sandstone marvel that is this place. (I highly recommend that you read it if you have a chance…it does an incredible job of bringing alive the history of this World Heritage Site)

I share some history I learned while in India in this blog post, as we in the West (at least in the suburban NY high school I attended) do not necessarily learn these Eastern historical tidbits in school – we need to seek and ask questions and walk among the ancient structures that survive. The magic of the stories has been carved deep into and woven among the sandstone bricks that have been preserved all these centuries. And as I wander amongst the terracotta and marble structures, I am continually in awe of the handiwork, the craftsmanship and the grand vision it took to erect these palaces, fortresses and walled cities. Will they say this about our McMansions and strip malls 1000 years hence?

Depending, of course, who you ask, it is said that one of the finest Indian emperors was Akbar the Great. This was a Mughal ruler who had a vision for the future and devised – I’m sure much to the dismay of those around him – his own brand of religion, combining core principles from Islam and Hinduism. To show his broader faith, he took Muslim, Christian and Hindu wives. The Hindu wife*, a Rajput princess, was his favorite. *Rushdie introduces an alternate yet fantastic tale about her existence, which is simultaneously believable and enchanting. But I digress…

Akbar was a visionary for his time and an advocate for women, strongly discouraging the common rituals of the day of child marriage and the practise of sati – widows’ throwing themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This was revolutionary for the time – it wasn’t until Gandhi that the concept of women’s rights began to gain a modicum of traction in India.

Fatehpur Sikri, this palace complex and microcosm built by Akbar, contained a city within a city (markets, lakes, parks, recreation) and residences for himself and each of his three wives. These were built in the Mughal style with accents from each wife’s tradition. The Christian wife’s palace seems to have a mix of styles, and the Muslim wife had the most intricately-carved and most lushly-decorated residence (jewels, gold inlay, fine painting). But his Hindu princess received a literal palace within Sikri. As she came from Rajput royalty, she was entitled to a residence befitting a queen with a royal pedigree. While less ornately-furnished, this palace is immense and combines the Persian domed ceilings with intricately-carved columns and Hindu architecture, an immense courtyard and the layout I had seen in the other Rajput palaces. It is gorgeous.

As you wander the courtyards and the complex’s structures, you find an astrologer’s room, a “treasury” room with its hidden wall wells in which Akbar stored jewels and treasures (we are still in the age of battling kingdoms here), and Akbar’s sleeping quarters, with a 10-foot high 15’x15′ sleeping platform that allowed cooling water to pool on the floor in the summertime and fires to be placed below the platform in winter. So as not to let anyone forget that Akbar was indeed a Great, in the main courtyard his men constructed a human parcheesi board… his concubines would act the part of playing pieces and he’d order them to their respective places. Great fun for one with that level of power over human lives.

There is also a mosque dedicated to his favorite elephant, Hiran (Hiran Minar; said to have been studded with elephant tusks). This elephant was responsible for the execution of bad guys… (Tarantino might have been impressed: this task was accomplished by Hiran squashing their heads like watermelons!) A hook still can be seen in Sikri’s public courtyard, where Hiran was tied as he did his duty. Rushdie’s words come back to me in vivid sandstone colour as he writes of the raging elephant in its old age… These rulers lived in a manner and with societal rules I can’t even process.


As if Fatehpur Sikri was not enough grandiosity for the day, the next stop was Red Fort in Agra (also called Agra Fort). Truth be told, I was a little “forted-out” by this juncture and was prepared to be unimpressed. But as we arrived at this landmark, I was once again wowed by its largess. While most of this building is still currently used as a military fort (i.e., used by the Indian Army), the public side does not fail to impress…

So the history lesson continues in Agra proper. Akbar began the construction of Agra Fort in sandstone (it is reminiscent of Fatehpur Sikri, though much more fort-ified in many ways), then Shah Jahan (Akbar’s grandson, and the emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal) finished it with touches of the white marble he loved. Agra Fort became Shah Jahan’s prison for the final years of his life as his power-hungry son, to ensure that the throne was his, killed his brothers and imprisoned his father. Bittersweetly, Shah Jahan’s quarters held a spectacular view of the Taj Mahal. The inlay work in the marble alone should be a Wonder…not to mention the lattice work (carved in marble) and the attention to the views from every angle of this part of the fort.

View of Taj Mahal from Red Fort

And so it was here that I received my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal in the foggy foggy distance and was surprised at the awe (and wonder) that this Wonder of the World elicited in me. We have all seen pictures of this iconic structure, but they don’t do it justice. It all seems surreal. As soon as I left, it was as if it was all a big fairytale. And maybe it is…