Amcan Travel visits India, the world's largest democracy and land of astounding diversity.
We arrived in New Delhi after 18 hours in flight from Seattle via Frankfurt. We were met in the wee hours at Delhi airport by Barbara's business contact, Prakriti Inbound Tour, and drove through the quiet morning fog to the Trident Hilton in Delhi's Gurgaon District - a tony residential and business neighborhood, where many US business call centers are located. The Trident was voted most beautiful hotel of India in 2005 (photo, hotel corridor) and it's easy to see why. The grounds feature stunning waterfalls and fountains (photo, water feature), a grand arch entry, spotless marble floors and walls. After a few hours' sleep, we met our hosts over breakfast and completed plans for our fifteen-day itinerary. Then we headed out to Qutb Minar (photo, tower), the ruin of a victory tower commemorating the defeat of the Hindu kingdom in Delhi in the 12th century. One of two mosques at the site, Quwwatu'l-Islam (photo, mosque), is the oldest in northern India. It was built of materials reused from 20 Brahman temples and an inscription over the east gate states that it was built from demolishing "idolatrous" temples. We saw the steps are made of broken Hindu god sculptures. It was our first lesson of the religious conflict of India. Over 90% of India's one billion people are Hindus, which makes it one of the major religions in the world, though so concentrated within the single country.
We stopped by India Gate, the Arc de Triomphe of New Delhi, guarded by handsome Sikh soldiers (photo, guard). Unfortunately the place is a bit of a tourist trap with touts trying to steer you their way. The National Museum is also very interesting, packed with bronzes, terracotta and wood sculptures dating back from 2nd and 3rd century BC. It is too bad we had so little time. After a Chinese lunch treated by our host, we were supposed to go to an authentic Indian Craft market where we may find good classical Indian music instruments. Our hired driver, something of a tout himself, steered us to his favorite shop where we were shown $900 carpet and $150 saris, and touristy quality instruments. What a disappointment.
Up very early next morning, we set out with our driver to Jaipur, a six-hour drive mostly through heavy fog. We arrived at Amber Fort (photo, fort) right around noon. Once a capital of the Rajput state, the fort looks like a mini-Great Wall from distance but the towers are typical Rajput style. We rode an elephant up to the palace (photo, elephant trail) and enjoyed the stunning views from the top. The fabulous colors of the buildings in Jaipur's old city are strikingly beautiful, though the street is jam-packed with cars, cows, rickshaws (both auto and human),camel carts, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians, either the hawking touts or their tourist-prey. The air quality here seems among the country's worst. The Palace of Winds in the "Pink City" (photo, Wind Palace) is the best example of the old city architecture. Beneath the wall, beggars chase tourists, snake charmers play their songs, snakes dance in their baskets (photo, snake charmers). Outside New Delhi, we began to feel the real India at its best and worst at the same time. Our Jaipur hotel was once a palace for the local Rajah, and features antique woodcarvings in the lobby and a real good-looking doorman (photo, mustache and turban).
Our next destination was Agra, where one of the world's miracles is located - the Taj Mahal. On the way, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri (photo, palace), a magnificent fortified city that was Capital of the Mughal Empire under Akbar the Great. Akbar is remembered for his tolerance of other religions. Since the city was plagued by water shortage, it was abandoned after Akbar's death. The ruined city spreads out as far as the eye can see, it is easy to imagine there used to be thousands and thousands of residents here once.
We arrived in Agra in the early afternoon, and proceeded directly to the Taj Mahal (photo, Taj Mahal). Big crowds were visiting, since it is an Indian holiday. The locals pay 25 rupees admission and foreigners pay 750 rupees. This is a common practice at tourist centers in India, as we found in China and Russia a few years ago. Standing at the edge of the pond in front of the Taj, the spectacular white marble mausoleum is so overwhelmingly beautiful we could not take our eyes off her. During 20 years of construction in the 17th century, the most advanced science and mathematics were implemented. The grand entrance is over 100 foot tall with a carefully calculated arch frame, so looking up the lines appear to climb straight up. Four guiding towers were built to lean slightly away from the mausoleum, so a possible earthquake might destroy the towers but, falling outward, not harm the beloved Empress. The central Taj is constructed of semi-translucent white marble, carved with flowers and inlaid with thousands of semiprecious stones in beautiful patterns. Below the main dome is the Cenotaph of the empress, an elaborate false tomb surrounded by exquisite perforated screen also inlaid with semiprecious stones. Light is admitted into the central chamber by the marble screens. The physical tombs of the empress and emperor are in a locked basement room below the main chamber. It is such an amazing sight that no word description does its justice, only being there, with your own eyes, you can feel the shock and joy. We stayed in the gardens watching the light fade until the place closed.
The next morning, we took a three-hour train to Jhansi, followed by a four-hour car ride down the single lane road filled with potholes, reaching Khajuraho in late afternoon. Remote though it is, Khajuraho is famous for the surviving Hindu temples built in the 11th to 13th centuries. Remoteness actually helped the structures escape destruction at the hands of invaders. We spent the afternoon visiting the eastern temple group. These are mostly Jain Temples (photo, Jain icon) with simple and elegant decor signifying their belief. After checking into the hotel, we both passed out without taking any dinner. The next morning, after a big breakfast, we set out to spend a a full day among the western temple group (photo, temples). We started at Kandariya Mahadeo - the largest, and most typical temple at the site, with about 900 statues (photo, temple carvings). It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Next to it is Chaunsat Yogini - dedicated to the goddess Kali and the oldest surviving temple in the group. This is the sole granite temple at the site, and dates from 900 A.D. Only 35 of the original 65 cells remain, and no image of Kali has survived. The carvings and sculptures are dominated by women shown in various aspects of their life (photo, carvings), including applying makeup, picking thorn from the foot, writing love letters, and playing with babies. Men are also featured in battle scene, playing music and making love to their ladies (photo, couple). We met a big Indian family from a town 200 miles away, with a half dozen kids very excited seeing the sculptures, as well as us foreign tourists. Some brave ones asked to be photographed with Barbara (photo, mugging for the camera).
We left Khajuraho on the afternoon flight to Varanasi, one of the most ancient living cities in India, located on the left bank of the Holy Ganga. From time immemorial it has been a great religious center for Hindus and one of their most sacred places of pilgrimage. On the way to town from the airport, we took a detour north to Sarnath, location of the Deer Park where Buddha preached his first sermon. Here he revealed the eight fold path that leads to the attainment of inner peace, Enlightment and Nirvana. We visited the archeological digs and nearby museum that holds the capital of the Ashoka Pillar, four back-to-back lions standing on top. This has been adopted as the state symbol of modern India. The ruins around the Dharmarajika Stupa are truly beautiful and peaceful at the sunset. Back in Varanasi, we checked into our hotel, and ventured out into the old city to look for some dinner. The downtown area is super congested with rush hour traffic and vendors. We took a rickshaw to the closest street we can get toward the old city, where houses are built along the Ghats (river bank). The lanes between the houses are so narrow even a bicycle has trouble going through. We relied on our flashlight to dodge cows and their droppings. A young kid heard us speaking English and came to offer help. He took us deeper into the dark alleyways until suddenly, we found ourselves above the river. About 30 feet below us, we saw the Manikanika Ghat, the famous burning ghat. A dozen bonfires burning in the dark, hundreds of people singing and chanting, logs piled up five stories tall on one side. The burnings continue 24 hours a day, with family members surrounding the fires, singing and praying. The flames light up the whole ghat. We stood there, holding our breath, silently looking down the process.
While searching for the recommended restaurant, we encountered a tiny music school, Sur Sarita, where they were about to start a concert in this tiny classroom off the alley. We were invited in enthusiastically, and it turned out we were to be the only audience. Nevertheless the classical music played by a Bansari master, followed by a powerful singer and finally a sitar master, accompanied by a young but very skillful and energetic drummer, made the whole evening so fun. We bought a CD and a bansuri flute, and paid the musicians. With only our rickshaw fare left in our pocket, we were happy to trade dinner to enjoy the wonderful music.
At 4:30 the next morning, we dragged out of bed to go down to the Ghats for a boat ride on the River Ganga, the holiest river for Hindus (photo, Ganges boatman). When we set out, the sun was not yet up, but we saw people getting ready to go into the water for their holy bath along the Ghat. The river is dark, quiet and mysterious. We sailed past the Burning Ghat, listening as women sang their prayers around the flames (photo, ghat). The scene will be in our memory for a long time. The sun finally began to rise, through heavily polluted air. It shows a very strange color of beauty, a rare red sunrise (photo, sunrise).
After a late breakfast, Richard went back down into the old town for a two-hour lesson in Indian music from a flute master at the Triveni Music Centre (D-24/38, Pandey Ghat, Dashashwamedh Road). Then we piled in the car for a long drive to Bodhgaya via the Grand Trunk Road. The Road is a living, bustling diagonal strip stretching 2600km across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent from Kolkata to Punjab. Known to 17th century European travelers as 'the Long Walk', the route has existed for 400 years and is still by far the busiest, wildest road in India. Thousands of trucks, buses, cars, and tractors were passing and passed by us. Near dusk, a truck ahead of us broke its axle on a narrow bridge, blocking traffic in both directions for several hours. Our five-hour road trip became eight-hour and our bottoms were numb from the pothole filled road when we finally reach Bodhgaya.
Because the Bodhi Tree is there, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, Bodghaya is the holiest city of Buddhist faith. The town is filled with Buddhist temples and monasteries, and jammed with pilgrims from all over the world. We visited the giant 25-foot-tall statue of Buddha (photo, statue) and a dozen Buddha Temples around town. The temples have been built by Buddhists from all over Asia. So in the Japanese Temple, the Buddha statue has Japanese features. In the Tibetan Temple the Buddha looks more Tibetan. There are also Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Bhutanese and Thai temples. The Dalai Lama spends his winter in Bodhgaya, in the most luxurious building in town. In the afternoon, we went inside the Mahabodhi temple (photo, big temple), which is located near the spot where Buddha attained spiritual enlightenment under the great Bodhi tree and started his teaching. Unfortunately, 2500 years later, Bodhgaya's State, Bihar, is among the poorest in India with illiteracy of more than 50% of its population.
We met a local monk, and through him learned about the Bodhgaya villagers' contemporary life. A man working a full day makes less than one US dollar. Polio is still common, along with malnutrition among kids. It's quite a contrast to see all the pilgrims quietly prostrating themselves to the Buddha, using their wholebodies to measure their pilgrim path, or doing nonstop bowing in front of the Bodhi Tree, walking clockwise around and around the temple, or simply sitting still in meditation (photo, meditating) while beggars click their steel bowls against the wall and ground with their loud begging. We feel so alienated from all of them, yet they are our fellow human beings under the same crisp blue sky, breathing the same cold winter air. The everlasting burning lights, hundreds of them in rows, truly overwhelmed us.
We left Bodhgaya for nearby Gaya to catch the overnight sleeper train to Kolkata. The city does not offer a lot of ancient history, though it has a beautiful art museum, a grand Mosque (photo, Kolkata mosque), St. James Church (photo, St. James), and the sanctuary-like Tagore House. We were both Tagore fans since young age and it was nice to visit where he studied, wrote and played. It's like being pilgrims paying homage to our own hero. The day was New Year's Eve, and we walked by a local community center putting on a children's play in the public square. We stopped to watch with the enthusiastic audience (mostly parents of the children in the play, just like back home). Dinner was not very memorable but the halvah dessert was divine, the best we ever had.
On New Year's Day, we went to visit the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali. This is the spiritual center from which the city of Kolkata originally grew. People still sacrifice goats to Kali, and New Year's is apparently a most popular day to worship, so we found the line in front of the temple over a mile long. The local flower and incense vendors were making their best money of the whole year. We bought some sandal wood incense too, but decided against waiting in line to view the goddess's icon. We paid a visit to the Durga Mandir shrine, then drove out to the northeast corner of town where we visited three beautiful Jain temples. The central Paresnath temple is famous as the "mirrored temple" (photo, mirrored temple). Sitting in its lovely courtyard, it reflects the light of the sunny morning from thousands of mirrors inset all over the interior and exterior walls. We spent some time in the Indian Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of bronze statuary. Coming out of the museum we walked directly into a parade of Sikh worshippers just finished with their New Years prayers (photo, Sikh parade). The parade trailed down the busy street for about two miles, the revelers distributing fruits and flowers to passers-by. Barbara got a pack of cookies, an orange and some flowers. We hope they bring us good luck in year 2006!
We got up early the next morning to fly to Kochi via Bombay. Our Air India flight was delayed several hours, so our planned day trip in Kochi was pretty much ruined. We arrived very late in the afternoon, with barely enough time to visit Kochi Fort before it closed. We paid a visit to St. Francis Church. Built in the 16th century, it's the oldest Roman Catholic Church in India. And of course Kochi's Synagogue (photo, Synagogue gate), is the oldest Jewish place of worship in India. After enjoying the hectic city life we found in north India, the fresh air, clean streets, and calm people of south India surprised us. The state of Kerala has 100% literacy. The State government is dominated by a communist party, similar to West Bengal. Along the beautiful south Indian shore, we saw big Chinese-style cantilevered fishing nets (photo, net), using an old counterweight system to operate the nets in high tide. Fishermen were selling their catch on the shore. You can buy it fresh and have one of the small restaurants dotted around the shore cook it for you. Too bad we had to pass them in order to be in time for the Kathakali performance. This is a renowned stage dance-drama rooted in ancient methods of the 2nd century. The show normally goes on all night long, but for tourists' sake, they present a shortened version. The performers endure 14 years of strict training and devote their whole childhood and young adult years to this art. We didn't know any words they were singing, of course, but their expressions are so vivid you understand them all the same.
Next morning our flight took us to Chennai, the last city of our visit. As a major Indian city, it lacks much of the hassle and tourist hunting atmosphere we found farther north. People seem to be more relaxed and friendly. We visited the national museum complex, one of the finest in India. The buildings are arranged in a graceful courtyard which looks small from outside but is quite large inside. We stopped in at an exotic music instrument gallery where antique sitars, tambouras, veenas, and drums are diplayed (photo, five-headed drum), along with beautifully crafted harps and other instruments that we don't even know names for (photo, tamboura(?)). In the afternoon we went to the National Snake Park and finally to the Kapaleeshwara Hindu temple. The temple exterior is very ornate with hundreds of god sculptures packed together on a layered roof, each with its own story, myth and symbolism (photo, Hindu Temple). We were told the interior is quite plain. However, not being Hindu prohibits us going inside the temple.
Our last day in India we bought more flutes and music CDs, visited a department store with entire floors dedicated to cotton Saris. One floor was entirely wedding saris, the bride-to-be leading her female family members to form their own army to attack each counter where clerks show them miles and miles of saris in every possible design and color. Other than some female workers wearing their sari uniforms in the same style and color, we never saw two saris alike the entire time in India, though we must have seen hundreds and hundreds of women in their colorful saris. Barbara chickened out at getting one for her feeling incapable of wearing the 6 meter long cloth properly. We also took long walks along the street markets, buying chickpeas for snack or just people watching. We were lucky to be in the middle of the cultural festival time in Chennai and there are a lot of traditional performances. We found a music school doing a five-day program in a local community theatre. We went to hear a concert presentation with five graduating flutists students playing their recital, followed by a master singer in his 70s with an incredible powerful voice and a lot of throat technique. The final closing performance was on a jaltarang, or glass harmonium. The performer was another senior master in his 70s, the jaltarang composed of 16 different sized porcelain bowls filled with various volume of water. Two sticks are used to hit the bowls to make the unbelievable harmony (photo, jaltarang). All this is accompanied by a mringdigam drummer, tamboura player and a violin. It is a true treat for our ears and our eyes, a perfect ending of our Indian trip.