Dec 222017
 

December 2017

The monks chanted in the afternoon around the setup at Lalitgiri

The monks chanted in the afternoon around the setup at Lalitgiri

Over the course of the three days at our last stop, I was able to indulge my passion for archaeology. We visited Lalitgiri, Ratnagiri, and Udayagiri, all within a few kilometers of each other. These three complexes are known as the “Diamond Triangle”. Lalitgiri (also known as Naltigiri) is one of the oldest Buddhist sites in the state of Orissa. They each sit upon their own hill that bears their same names.

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There was little sculpture spread around the site at Lalitgiri as most were in the museum where photos were not allowed. What was on the site were incomplete but still interesting.

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One of the larger excavated sites at Lalitgiri

One of the larger excavated sites at Lalitgiri

dsc_2096Lalitgiri appeared to have a continuous monastic presence from the 6th century through to the 11th century.

After chanting we all scattered around Lalitgiri to meditate.

After chanting we all scattered around Lalitgiri to meditate.

While Lalitgiri was discovered in 1905 and had various small excavations, it was not thoroughly examined until the 1980s. These excavations were done by the Archaeological Society of India. The biggest find at Lalitgiri was the remnants of a large stupa on the hill (which was subsequentially rebuilt as you can see in the photo at the top). Within the stupa, two rare stone caskets were found with relics of what is presumed to be Buddha. The stone caskets, made of Khondalite stone, had three other boxes within them, made of steatite, silver, and gold respectively; the gold casket, which is the last one, contained a relic or dhatu in the form of a small piece of bone.  Items from this site date to the 2nd century BCE to the 13th century CE.

The museum, at Lalitgiri, is typical of Indian museums at archaeological sites. It has no temperature control, no labels and no order to its presentation with all the sculpture in one giant room. For this reason, the relic was removed and presently resides in Bubaneshwar. However, a very large, and very modern museum is almost finished on the site and the relic, along with other important items, it is hoped, will return to Lalitgiri.

Down the road is Ratnagiri (Hill of Jewels), not excavated until the 1960s there are impressive remains and a large number of sculptures scattered throughout the site. This site appears to have been first occupied in the 5th century with continuous occupation until the 13th century. These stone sculptures, along with a few bronze and brass images of Buddha and the Buddhist pantheon found during the excavation help to show that Ratnagiri was a Tantric center comparable to  Nalanda.

The entryway to the temple

The entryway to the temple.  In the niche on the other side of the open courtyard is a very large Buddha

The large Buddha found in the niche at the opposite side of the courtyard from the entry

The large Buddha found in the niche at the opposite side of the courtyard from the entry

Inside the Temple area sits this stunning piece of architecture covered in sculpture

Inside the Temple, area sits this stunning piece of architecture covered in sculpture

At Ratnagiri sculpture lays about everywhere.

At Ratnagiri sculpture lays about everywhere.

I had not noticed the banding on this votive stupa is a dorjay until one of the monks mentioned it.

I had not noticed the banding on this votive stupa is a dorje until one of the monks mentioned it.

I have always had a passion for votive stupas and at Ratnagiri there are thousands and all laid out in very interesting ways

I have always had a passion for votive stupas and at Ratnagiri, there are thousands and all laid out in very interesting ways

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In the evening the monks went to the temple area to meditate

In the evening the monks went to the temple area to meditate

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Looking back upon the temple from the top of the hill

Looking back upon the temple from the top of the hill

The following morning some of us returned to Ratnigiri, in this case, the monk came to pay respects by decorating the dieties on the stupas

The following morning some of us returned to Ratnagiri, in this case, the monk came to pay respects by making offerings to the deities on the stupas.

Like most Buddhist sites there was a small Hindi temple on the site

Like most Buddhist sites there was a small Hindi temple at Ratnagiri

The third site was Udayagiri (Sunrise Hill). The first excavation of this site was in the 1950s with the last being the year 2000. Udayagiri is the largest Buddhist complex in the state of Orissa, but the actually excavated area is smaller than the other two sites and does not hold nearly as many sculptures, but its location is idyllic.  The relics from this site date from the 13th century CE.

The center of Udaygiri is the stupa

The center of Udaygiri is the stupa with four Buddhist statues in the niches

One of the four beautiful Buddhas in the stupa

One of the four beautiful Buddhas in the stupa

There was one large Buddha at Udaygiri tucked way at the back of

There was one large Buddha at Udaygiri tucked way at the back of the site

This one is so incredibly lovely and has the Dharma Wheel on both feet and on the hand.

This one is so incredibly lovely and has the Dharma Wheel on both feet and on the hand.

This giant sculpture, that looks like an Easter Island figure to me, sits at Udaygiri

This giant sculpture, that looks like an Easter Island figure to me, sits at Udaygiri

An intricate water system was part of what you can see at Udaygiri

An intricate water system was part of what you can see at Udaygiri

These three sites are very close to each other and yet so very, very far away from civilization.  It is obvious that the Orissa government is trying to develop the area for tourism, but until they can build decent accommodations it most likely will not happen anytime soon.  However, every single local person I have had the pleasure to meet is so very proud of these sites that this pride should eventually move the mountains it will take to build decent enough accommodations to want people to spend time here.

Having said that I wonder if the tourism that comes won’t destroy what makes these sites so nice.  At present, the only tourists are true seekers of either Buddhist sites or archaeology, overwhelmed by children and families.  I hope a steady stream of “paying customers” does not do more damage than good.

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The Orissa government provided the chanting tables, I loved their simple craftsmanship

The Orissa government provided the chanting tables, I loved their simple craftsmanship

These were hanging from the tree in the courtyard where we took our meals, they added such a festive touch to the tree

These were hanging from the tree in the courtyard where we took our meals, they added such a festive touch to the tree.

It is hard to believe that my 58 days accompanying monks on 2 Dhammayatras and one giant ceremony at Bodhgaya has come to an end.

The emotions I feel will take months, if not years to process.  It was a religious experience for many, but for me, it was one of exploring a culture I had never been exposed to, i.e. Buddhism at its roots, and spending long periods of times with Buddhist monks from all over Southeast Asia.

The language barriers were immense, but smiles were too.

During the Theravadan Dhammayatra, Sarnath to Vaishali, I watched the monks all become friends once they realized Buddhism bound them and the heck with language differences.

A monk from Tibet and a monk from Thailand get to know each other during the Theravada Dhammayatra

A monk from Tibet and a monk from Thailand get to know each other during the Theravada Dhammayatra

Bodhgaya is a pageant of history and culture and so many countries, that the thing to concentrate on is sitting under the Bodhi Tree, where Buddha found enlightenment, and realize; if you are religious, how sacred it is, or if you are a history nut, just how many millions of people have circumambulated the Bodhi Tree and what it meant to each and every one of them.

dsc_0307The Mahayana Dhammayatra began with the walk in the Jethian Valley and ended in the Diamond Triangle.  I spent the last night watching the monks discuss their differences in practices, and then teach each other how their robes were different and dressing each other up in laughing hysterically at the “costume party”.  It was one of the more endearing moments of the entire 58 days.

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This is a Chinese monk being dressed in a Thai robe, they are considerably more complicated

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This picture is special because of the monk on the right. He spoke not one word of English, but he was a photographer. he was kind to me throughout the trip, even giving me a hand to pull me up on a fence during the Jethian Valley walk. That may not seem like much, but Theravadan’s are not allowed to touch women, so his gesture was out of pure kindness.

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You can see by this movement how difficult it is to properly tie a monks robe.

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The Japanese monk on the left gave the Thai monk on the right his outer coat. These two countries practice very different types of Buddhism, so this kind of interchange is truly significant.

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A little exchange of outer robes between Chinese (Mahayana) and Thai (Theravadan) monks

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As I said, I think it will take a long time for me to process what has just happened, and I thank each and every one of you that has come along on this journey.  I hope you have gleaned just one tiny look into the cultural restoration project of bringing the Tipitaka back to India, as well as the side vignettes about India itself.

 

Dec 182017
 

December 2017

The Sonbandhar Caves

The Sonbandhar Caves

All of India is an Archaeology site, so picking and choosing what you want to explore can be difficult when there is such a plethora of sites no matter where you are.  I chose to visit the Son Bandhar caves, which sit at the end of the Jethian Valley Walk as you enter Rajgir as they promised some interesting carvings.

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Son Bhandar Caves are two rock-cut caves located close together at the southern foot of Vaibhar Hill.

Both caves were apparently hollowed into the cliff in the 3rd – 4th century AD – an inscription inside the western cave, between the door and window tells that it was done by the Great Saint of Jains – Muni Vairadevi for Jain ascetics. Both caves were made at approximately the same time.

Son Bhandar means “store of gold” it is said the cave was used as the guard room containing an entry leading to King Bimbisara Treasury. This treasury is still believed to be intact.

The local legend goes like this:

The cave still hides a passage to the gold and the entrance is well hidden in the cave chamber behind an ancient stone wedge. Some also believe that the passage goes through Vaibhargiri mountain and reaches Saptaparni Caves on the other side of range.

dsc_0787Some believe that this treasure belongs to Jarasandha, others to Bimbisara. The Bimbisara legend goes that when Ajatashatru confined his father Bimbisara, his mother secretly hid some wealth and later donated it to a Tirthankar.

In the wall of the cave, there is an undeciphered inscription in Sankhlipi writing or shell script. It is believed that this inscription is a password – whoever reads it, will open the door and enter the passage. This ornate script has been found in India as well as in Java and Borneo and has never been deciphered.

The front part of the eastern cave has collapsed. The Southern wall of this cave contains important early Jain artwork. These exquisitely sculpted small reliefs are of six Jain Tirthankaras (spiritual leaders).The Sondebehar Caves

I found no gold, but the site is worth a quick visit none-the-less.

dsc_0772 Farm animals running everywhere is such a common sight in these small towns of India, but I am always enamored with them and love photographing them.

Leaping goats

Leaping goats

dsc_0774Rajgir is a town of around 42,000 people, and it is obviously tourism that drives its economy.  There are vendors lining every street selling street food and colorful trinkets begging to be photographed

The main for of transportation in Rajgir is the horse drawn cart.

The main form of transportation in Rajgir is the horse-drawn cart.  They are fun to ride and sit high enough to offer a good view of your surroundings

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The Math

The Maniyar Math

The Maniyar Math (another word for monastery) is, like so many sites in India, walk in and explore, but be prepared to be accosted by locals that want to tell you the history for a price.  There is so little to see as most everything has been either stolen or taken to the museums, but, again, all of India is an archaeological site, so catch as catch can.

Many of the statues found dated from the 1st to the 6th century.

Apparently, the place was built by Jains in memory of Naga (snake) Salibadra during the Shaiv Period.  It is said his treasure is buried in the well, which lies under the corrugated metal roof. (I am seeing a theme here).

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Parts of the Cyclopean Wall that surrounds Rajgir built during the Mauryan (322-185 BCE) rule to fortify the city.

The Pandu Pokhar

The Pandu Pokhar

These interesting structures are actually filled with “activities” such as ping pong and pool tables.  They are part of the Pandu Pokhar campground/amusement park.  Depending on what you want to do you pay between 10 and 300 rupees.  I paid the 10 just to walk the grounds, which is all 10 rupees will get you.

Here is what the Pandu Pokhar website says about the site: “Spread out in an area of 22 acres Pandu Pokhar at Rajgir is a truly wonderful and magnificent example of great Indian history that dates back to the Mahabharata. It extracts the story of how King Pandu, the father of the Pandavas attacked Rajgriha and converted the place into a horse stable. It is said that when he left this place, a swale was created and later rainwater accumulated in the swale and that’s how the historical Pandu Pokhar came into being. It’s a heritage that speaks of the glorious history of natural wealth. ”

I am not sure I understand what that has to do with the present site, but there you go.  It does have a river and lake running through it, but I had the feeling that was all man-made.

Beggars line the bridge that fronts the Hindi Temple complex

Beggars line the bridge that fronts the Lakshmi Narayan Temple complex

The center of town is dominated by the Lakshmi Narayan Temple.  The temple is devoted to Lord Vishnu and the dharma Patni Goddess Lakshmi.  It is located within the Saptadhara, a group of ancient hot springs that have been tapped and sent throughout the complex for hot baths.

Interestingly, all information points out that Muslims are prohibited to enter the bath hall.  Even traveling with Buddhists you can’t get away from religious hate.

I found the area covered with beggars and hawkers and simply stood outside.  I did, however, get the shot of one of the outdoor pools which is very similar to the step wells found throughout Rajasthan.

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Wandering the actual town, in contrast to the tourist-centric part of town, I tripped over a few craftspeople.

Starting the tire pottery wheel spinning

Starting the tire pottery wheel spinning

Making small oil lamps

Making small oil lamps and small pots

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*dsc_1451I have always been fascinated with the straw effigies that float down the Ganga.  These, however, are for Saraswati Puja which begins on January 22nd this year, so preparation of clay images begins in late December.  I wish I had been able to see the next step of dressing and ornamenting these figures.

Saraswati is either accompanied by or seated on a swan, and is dressed in white for purity. Saraswati is also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography – the consort of Manjushri.   Her early history is as a river goddess.

Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and arts, so most of these statues are made for school children. They take them to their classrooms for several celebrations and then take them to the river in a small ceremony so they can dissolve similar to the straw effigies placed in the Ganges.

These interesting sculptures are nothing more than straw and clay

These interesting sculptures are nothing more than straw and clay

Putting on the finishing touches

Putting on the finishing touches

Our evenings ended in cultural shows, one is The Chan Tea Musical, which is touring the world. The musical is about the meditation of the tea ceremony in China.

Just a small glimpse of the Tea Ceremony Opera

Just a small glimpse of the Tea Ceremony Opera

Our second entertainment was a dance troupe from Rajasthan.

The story of fire and water. These dances are normally just spontaneous and occur around campfires.

These dances are normally just spontaneous and occur around campfires and there is usually water in the urns.

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The dancers moved so fast it was almost impossible to catch their moves – I loved the swirling skirts.

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The male characters told a story of the defeat of a wrathful god, they did gymnastics in their, obviously, heavy costumes, and even then they were a blur

dsc_1295I do not know which of these was supposed to be the wrathful god, but the white one came out sitting on a dancer completely dressed as a peacock, so I think it was he.
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Rajgir has been a whirlwind and I did not get to see nearly half of what I wanted to see, it truly is an archaeological treasury worth more time to explore.

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Dec 162017
 

December 2017

We have begun our second Dhammayatra at Vultures Peak.  This time we are traveling with monks from the Mahayana tradition.

Looking down upon Vulture's Peak with the Mahayana Chanting Program about to begin

Looking down on Vulture’s Peak with the Mahayana Chanting Program about to begin

Looking up to Vultures Peak from the trail

Looking up to Vultures Peak from the trail

Vulture’s Peak may be the second “holiest” place of Buddhism, after the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya because this is the place where the Buddha spent so much time on retreat, in meditation, and most importantly, teaching.

One of the two caves along the path with Buddhist images. It is thought Buddha used these caves for meditation.

One of the two caves along the path with Buddhist images. It is thought Buddha used these caves for meditation.

Vultures Peak is frequently mentioned in Buddhist texts in the Pāli Canon of Theravada Buddhism and in the Mahayana sutras as the place where the Buddha gave particular sermons,  including the Heart Sutra, and the Lotus Sutra, both of which will be chanted while we are in Rajgir.

It is said the place got its name because vultures used to perch on some of the peak’s rock.

The sun setting on the chanting program

The sun setting on the chanting program

The program in Rajgir began with a late evening chanting program at the top of Vulture’s Peak.

The Senior monk from China

The Senior monk from China led the chanting program

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The Mahayana tradition utilizes more instruments in their chanting ceremonies.

The Mahayana tradition utilizes more instruments in their chanting ceremonies.

A dorjay and bell

A dorje and bell

A small drum

A small drum

Burning incense

Burning incense

I wanted to see the Vishwa Shanti Stupa first, which sits on the top of the hill above Vulture’s Peak.  You reach the Vishwa Shanti Stupa via a rickety, and yet fun, tram and then walk halfway down the mountain to Vulture’s Peak.

dsc_0816-001The Vishwa Shanti Stupa is part of the World Peace Pagoda Program.

The Vishwa

The Vishwa Shanti Stupa

Most (but not all) peace pagodas built since World War II have been built under the guidance of Nichidatsu Fujii (1885–1985), a Japanese Buddhist monk and founder of the Nipponzan-Myōhōji Buddhist Order. After meeting Mahatma Gandhi in 1931, Fujii decided to devote his life to promoting non-violence. In 1947, he began constructing Peace Pagodas.

By 2000, eighty Peace Pagodas had been built around the world in Europe, Asia, and the United States, including the one in Japantown in San Francisco.
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A second cave on Vulture's Peak

The second cave on Vulture’s Peak after the sun had gone down

Dec 142017
 

December 2017

dsc_0714December 13th we walked The Buddha Walk. First organized in 2014 by several Buddhist organizations it is intended to revive and spread the history of Jethian-Rajgir valley.

dsc_0643Before the walk, everyone from the very small village of Jethian gathers to distribute food to monks in observance of Sanghadana, an ancient tradition that stems from the time of the Buddha, who while staying in the village would visit homes to collect food.

waiting to feed the monksThe walk ends 14 kilometers away in Rajgir at the Sonebandhar caves.

Rajgir is in itself, an important pilgrimage center for several religious traditions, mainly, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism.

The hills of the Jethian Valley straddle the jurisdiction of the Nalanda and Gaya districts. This valley contains what is believed to be one of the main routes taken by the Buddha during his 45 years of wandering and preaching in various parts of India. During the Buddha’s time, Rajgir was the first capital of the Kingdom of Magadha, and according to legend, it is believed that King Bimbisara greeted the Buddha in the Jethian Valley and invited him to reside in the area of Venu Van (Bamboo Grove) where he gifted land for the Sangha’s rain retreats.

The streets were decorated in bright chalk patterns to welcome the pilgrims

The streets were decorated in bright chalk patterns to welcome the pilgrims

Every home that lined the main street had members of the family serving food to the pilgrims

Every home that lined the main street had members of the family serving food to the pilgrims

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The final stop was this open area where the monks sat to enjoy their food

The final stop was this open area where the monks sat to enjoy their food

Senior monks enjoying the rest before the long walk

Senior monks enjoying the rest before the long walk

Water served from the well by volunteers

Water served from the well by volunteers

Volunteers from around the town

Volunteers from around the town

Selfies are such a huge part of every culture, even in India

Selfies are such a huge part of every culture, even in India

Pilgrims taking photos with the locals. The traditional dress of pilgrims is all white

Pilgrims taking photos with the locals. The traditional dress of pilgrims is all white

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All the school children lined the streets as we left the village waving, saying Namaste, Goodbye, Have a pleasant journey. It was very sweet and heartfelt

All the school children lined the streets as we left the village waving, saying Namaste, Goodbye, Have a pleasant journey. It was very sweet and heartfelt

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We encountered villagers for the first 1/2 kilometer as we walked out of town

We encountered villagers for the first 1/2 kilometer as we walked out of town

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The sun was shining throughout the walk

There were approximately 1000 or more monks and lay people that did the walk

It was a very warm day making everyone seek the shelter of the shade from time to time

It was a very warm day making everyone seek the shelter of the shade from time to time

Despite the smog you could catch glimpses of the mountains from time to time.

Despite the smog, you could catch glimpses of the mountains from time to time.

While some of it was beautifully tree lined, planting trees in the valley is a priority for those discussing restoring this historic pilgrimage site

While some of it was beautifully tree-lined, planting trees in the valley is a priority for those discussing restoring this historic pilgrimage site.

Stupas were proposed for the area but the government pooh poohed it, so "kilometer markers" line the path instead.

Stupas were proposed for the area but the government pooh-poohed it, so “kilometer markers” line the path instead.

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Many were just too hot to finish, a truck passed by and they hitched a ride.

Many were just too hot to finish, a truck passed by and they hitched a ride.

If you made it all the way to the Sonbandehar caves several ice cream vendors awaited. This fellow was enterprising enough to move his cart 1/2 kilometer up the road to catch all of the business before you reached the caves

If you made it all the way to the Sonbandehar caves several ice cream vendors awaited. This fellow was enterprising enough to move his cart 1/2 kilometer up the road to catch all of the business before you reached the caves.

It was a lovely day, albeit, way too hot for this California girl.  Walking on a rocky path makes for very tired feet and very tired bones, but to have walked in the footsteps of Buddha is something very special.

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Dec 072017
 

December 2017

Wandering the town of Bodhgaya I could spot this old building peaking above the normal height of many of the other buildings, but it took walking down a dirt alley to actually get to it.

I walked through this doorway and down this little dirt pathway to find an odd array of delapidated structures.

Looking back on a set of beautiful wooden doors that led to the little dirt pathway where I found an odd array of dilapidated structures.

It took me some research to find that it was called the Math, which is a word I could not find any meaning or etymology for.  It is also called the House of the Mahant, and it has taken me quite a long time to find much about what I saw.

Hindi ornamental architectural remnants embedded in the doorway.

Hindi ornamental architectural remnants embedded in the doorway.

Essentially the Mahabodhi Temple of Bodhgaya was a very important Buddhist site until the first part of the thirteenth century A.D. and its destruction by Turk invaders. There is no information regarding the temple from the time of the Turkish invasion to the time of the arrival in the area of the temple, of a wandering Sanyasi (Saivite Hindu monk) named Mahant Ghamandi Giri in 1590.

The building that caught my eye. The buildings are occupied by squatters and it is very difficult to find anything about the site

The building that caught my eye. The buildings are occupied by squatters and it is very difficult to find anything about the site

The Shaivaite monastic institution grew to be an extensive landed estate surrounding the Mahabodhi Temple that may have covered as much as 17,000 acres. The Math, rose to prominence during the Mughal and British colonial periods, especially after a royal grant during the time of the late Mughal rulers.

A fun painted arch in one of the structures

A fun painted arch in the small structure that originally caught my eye.

The Math contained the ruins of old temples and many of these were used in the construction of new temples and buildings within the Math. Many of the images, earlier used as decorative panels in the older temples, became objects of worship by the Mahants and the local populace.

These rows and rows of Buddhist images can be found on the votive stupas inside the Mahabodhi Temple complex

These rows and rows of Buddhist images are inside the archway of the structure that originally caught my eye.  Passing through the archway your enter a garden area with more structures beyond

Small Buddhas embedded in just one of many votive stupas inside the Mahabodhi temple complex

The same small Buddhas can be found embedded in many of the votive stupas inside the Mahabodhi temple complex

Dr. Francis Buchanan, an explorer with the East India Company first visited the area in December of 1811 and wrote:

A large courtyard between many of the rundown structures

A large courtyard between many of the rundown structures

“This person in the course of his penitent wanderings came to this place, then overrun with wood and bushes, and finding the temple a convenient shelter, took up his abode in it, until his extraordinary sanctity attracted the notice of numerous pilgrims and he became a principal object of veneration among the powerful chiefs and wealthy merchants who occasionally frequented Gya. From these, he received the various endowments which his successors enjoy.”

“I went to Buddh Gaya, distant from the south end of (the) Sahebganj near six miles, and situated on the west side of the Fulgo. The houses and gardens of Gaya extend about 1.25 miles south from Sahibgunj. The country through which I passed, overloaded with plantations. I was here visited by and visited the Mahant, who received me very civilly, and his principal chelas, who have been very great travelers, were fond of talking on the subject, and had here laid aside the habit of begging; on the contrary, they are here exceedingly charitable or hospitable.”

There is a nice field that serves as a vegetable garden through the archway of one of the still standing structures.

There is a nice field that serves as a vegetable garden through the archway of the building that first caught my eye.

The Building maintains much of the same appearance it had in the times of Buchanan. Buchanan goes on to describe the math:

“The convent is surrounded by a high brick wall containing a very considerable space on the banks of the west branch of the Fulgo, between it and the great temple of Buddh Gya. The wall has turrets in the corners and some at the sides, and has two great gates, the handsomest part of the building.”

On the other side of the open field are these two votive stupas.

On the other side of the open field are these two votive stupas.

Just past the votive stupas is this beautiful red, very British looking building. It is a home for squatters.

Just past the votive stupas is this beautiful red, very British looking building. It is a home for squatters.

On the other side of the big open courtyard is an entry doorway to the Mahant's residence

Walking back through the Buddha ornamented archway and on to the other side of the big open courtyard is an entry doorway to the Mahant’s residence.

The interior courtyard of the Mahant's Residence

The interior courtyard of the Mahant’s Residence

Inside the courtyard of the Mahant's residence is a raised platform with a marble floor and a Hindi shrine

Inside the courtyard of the Mahant’s residence is a raised platform with a marble floor and a Hindi shrine.

One side of the Hindi Shrine

One side of the Hindi Shrine

Peeking into the rooms of the Mahant's residence you find a Buddhist shrine. These are most likely statues that once stood in the Mahabodhi Temple

Peeking into the rooms of the Mahant’s residence you find a Buddhist shrine. These are most likely statues that once stood in the Mahabodhi Temple

Cows in a stable that looks like it has always been a stable building

Cows in a stable that looks like it has always been a stable building

I have done a lot of research and could find no information as to what this is, what is says or why it is there. It sits inside one of the votive stupas in the garden and has, what appears to be, Sanskrit, Thai and Burmese writing.

I have done a lot of research and could find no information as to what this is, what is says or why it is there. It sits inside one of the votive stupas in the garden and has, what appears to be, Sanskrit, Thai and Burmese writing.

It was a great day tripping upon a very ancient and historic set of buildings, it is sad that they are in such a state of disrepair and in the hands of squatters.  One must, however, realize how many millions of ruins that stand in India, and just one more is obviously just something that would cost money if it were renovated or cared for.
It shows you, getting lost, looking around or just pursuing odd things you see, always makes for a great adventure.

Dec 042017
 

December 2017

The 13th Annual Tipitaka Chanting Ceremony in Bodhgaya began on December 2nd this year.  The first morning starts with a loud, decoration filled walk from the host temple, this year it was the Royal Thai Temple, to the Kalichakra.

The lead is a horse drawn carriage loaded with the Tipitaka chanting scripts.

The lead carriage

The lead carriage

The head abbot and the Thai Temple

The head abbot and the Thai Temple

Before the parade begins, blessings are given by the head abbot, followed by fireworks and dancing.

The drums beat for the opening ceremony.

The drums beat for the opening ceremony.

There was lots of dancing

There was lots of dancing by both Thais and Indians.

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Then the cutting of the ribbon so the parage could begin

Then the cutting of the ribbon so the parade could begin

The funny thing is, the parade had already started.  The parade set up was on a horseshoe driveway, so they just started from the other end.  This meant I ran the course 3 times to get all the entrants and goings on.

It is heartwarming and astounding to see how many countries participate in the Tipitaka Chanting ceremony.

It is heartwarming and astounding to see how many countries participate in the Tipitaka Chanting ceremony.

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Some had floats elaborately decorated and others simply walked with lotus flowers, the symbol of Buddha

Some had floats elaborately decorated and others simply walked with lotus flowers, the symbol of Buddha

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The lay dignitaries rode in horse drawn carriages.

The lay dignitaries rode in horse drawn carriages.

The important monks rode in highly decorated tuk-tuks

The lesser lay people and the important monks rode in highly decorated tuk-tuks

The horses were as decorated as the floats.

The horses were as decorated as the floats.

This is Nelson, a member of the BofD of LBDFI and one of my favorite nuns, Meiji Anita

This is Nelson, a member of the B of D of LBDFI and one of my favorite nuns, Maechi Anita.

The term maechi has a fascinating history.  It is technically illegal to be ordained as a Buddhist nun in Thailand, so they use the honorific maechi.

The drummers came along to provide noise.

The drummers came along to provide noise.

Nelson with Ahajn Amaro, a highly respected Buddhist monk, originally from England.

Nelson with Ahajn Amaro, a highly respected Buddhist monk, originally from England.

The were major donors to the event, and a wonderful group of people.

The Zen Flower group from Viet Nam were major donors to the event, and a wonderful group of people.

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The Royal Thai temple

The Royal Thai temple

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All of this was followed by a long list of speakers at the welcoming ceremony before lunch at the Kalichakra.

Sri Nangzey Dorjee, the Secretary, Head of the exceptionally important Temple Management Council

Sri Nangzey Dorjee, the Secretary, and head of the exceptionally important Temple Management Council

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More dancing was part of the program

More dancing was part of the program

Then we fed thousands.

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After lunch was over these four to five thousand people all headed to the Mahabodhi Temple to sit under and around the Bodhi Tree for more speeches.

Raji Ramanan

Raji Ramanan

The Master of Ceremonies was Raji Ramanan.  I have had the absolute pleasure of getting to know Raji over the last several weeks.  She is a gracious, beautiful and a highly intelligent, accomplished woman.  She is an author, translator for the Dali Llama and a scholar.  She kept the show flowing, even when the power went out and the microphones died.

The District Magistrate

The District Magistrate Kumar Ravi

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Dr. Ravindra Panth, Advisor IBC of India and faculty member at GBU. I have had the pleasure to spend time with Dr. Panth over the last several weeks, he is as delightful as his smile, and a true gentleman.

The festivities went well into the night with gift giving and more speeches and finished with chanting.  An auspicious way to open the ceremony.

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I have said before, I do not know what it is about Indian events that require 4 to 5 hours of speeches, but the parade was fun and the program has begun.

Dec 032017
 

December 2017

Where does one start to explain the monumental project that putting on the 13th Annual Tipitaka Chanting Festival even is. Thailand was the host country this year and so therefore, the main organizers. There was a phenomenal group of people that came, just to decorate the site.

The afternoon of the opening ceremony I was actually able to ask the main designer if there was a single orchid left in all of India, they did an over the top job.

There is really nothing more to say, I am just going to share photographs.

When you enter the temple portion of the great property you go under this archway, it was the first portion they began to decorate. They were only allowed to decorate between 4:00 in the afternoon and 9:00 when the temple closes.

When you enter the temple portion of the great property you go under this archway, it was the first portion they began to decorate. They were only allowed to decorate between 4:00 in the afternoon and 9:00 when the temple closes.

The same gate the next morning.

The same gate the next morning.

This altar table was previously decorated by the event before us, these are their decorations.

This altar table was previously decorated by the event before us, these are their decorations.

This is what the Thai team did. The off white flowers are thousands upon thousands of Tuberose blooms, the perfume is alluring.

This is what the Thai team did. The off white flowers are thousands upon thousands of Tuberose blooms, the perfume is alluring.

The main portion of the temple is a small room with the large golden Buddha, there were matching decorations on the two sides of the entry to the chapel area.

The main portion of the temple is a small room with the large golden Buddha, there were matching decorations on the two sides of the entry to this area

The entry to the small room with the Golden Buddha

The entry to the small room with the Golden Buddha

Buddha found enlightenment under the bodhi tree of Bodhgaya. This is the area directly under the tree where people pay homage to Buddha

Buddha found enlightenment under the bodhi tree of Bodhgaya. This is the area directly under the tree where people pay homage to Buddha

This is the focal point of our chanting area. Notice the peacocks on the wall.

This is the focal point of our chanting area. Notice the peacocks on the wall.

Another mind blowing peacock

Another mind blowing peacock

They came in the middle of the night and put up this three part flowered archway at the top of the stairs. In this case, they are silk, not real

They came in the middle of the night and put up this three part flowered archway at the top of the stairs. In this case, they are silk, not real.

The finished second archway

The finished second archway

There is a wall around the Bhodi tree that serves as a walkway for pilgrims to chant and walk, they decorated with cloth, and then came in and placed silk flowers completely around the two archways that allow access to other areas of the grounds

There is a wall around the Bhodi tree that serves as a walkway for pilgrims to chant and walk, they decorated with cloth, and then came in and placed silk flowers completely around the two archways that allow access to other areas of the grounds

Looking down into the walkway gives you just a small glimpse into the work put into the decorations.

Looking down into the walkway gives you just a small glimpse into the work put into the decorations.

The banner for the entryway to the complex

The banner for the entryway to the complex

They were able to enlist the monks to help. I have found so many of the monks so very, very talented.

They were able to enlist the monks to help. I have found so many of the monks so very, very talented.

Building the peacock tails

Building the peacock tails

 

There is just no way to show how grand these decorations were, but I can end with a photo of the team that put it all together, the woman on the right, in front, was the lead designer. (The team are the first nine all dressed in white)

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Nov 282017
 

November 28, 2017

We arrived in Bodh Gaya on November 21st. The time has been spent preparing for the 13-day Tipitaka Chanting ceremony held at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, beginning on December 2nd.

Making Kefir

Making lhassi. I love the stuff, but I will only drink pre-packaged ones.

I will admit that 95% of my time has been spent in the loud and uncomfortable lobby of our hotel, as wifi does not spread throughout the building.

I attended a meeting of all the most important monks in the area. Just like any board meeting, it had pads of paper, lots of discussion , and not much accomplished

I attended a meeting of all the most important monks in the area. Just like any board meeting, it had pads of paper, lots of discussions, assistants taking notes, and not much accomplished.

My thinking is regularly interrupted by entire busloads of people coming in, talking in loud voices in a room with marble floors, and carrying suitcases down a stairway to the rhythm of click, clack, thump, thump.

There is a minimum of 3 buses every day that roll in around 7:00 pm and roll out around 6:00 am the next day.
The, as ever, unimaginative food, services these large crowds, not the one or two of us that are there for 2 weeks.

This is reportedly a terrific Japanese restaurant, I have not eaten there, as you must order well in advance.

Outside of a reportedly terrific Japanese restaurant, I have not eaten there, as you must order well in advance, and my schedule has not permitted that kind of planning.

Fortunately, Stefanie Schur, a landscape architect from San Francisco, joined our group. She is here to work on the gardens at the Mahabodhi Temple complex and has been my guide to exterior restaurants and general overall, get out of the hotel moments. She has been a godsend.

There is not much to talk about, but I have had a chance to get out and get a few fun shots. Enjoy!

This fellow carves the items he sells

This fellow carves the items he sells

There are vendors everywhere, selling every imaginable item, most appropriate to the area, and others that make you go huh?

There are vendors everywhere, selling every imaginable item, most appropriate to the area, and others that make you go huh?

Do they produce good students, or remove their brains?

Do they produce good students, or remove their brains?

Gotta love the legs on this guy.

Gotta love the legs on this guy.

A fellow repairing his wares before selling them.

A fellow repairing his wares before selling them.

A delightful Thai monk, here to do the more important decorations for the ceremony. He spent 5 years in Texas so his English is pretty good.

A delightful Thai monk, here to do the more important decorations for the ceremony. He spent 5 years in Texas so his English is pretty good.

Can this Buddha get any bigger?

Can this Buddha get any bigger?

One of the bigger projects for this ceremony is the tent where everyone eats and then listens to Dharma talks in the evening.

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*dsc_7572The tent is called the Kalachakra, a term used in Vajrayana Buddhism that means wheel of time or “time-cycles”.
“Kālacakra” is usually used to refer to a very complex teaching and practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Although the teaching is very advanced and esoteric, there is a tradition of offering it to large public audiences. Thus the name for this huge tent.

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*dsc_7587I was completely blown away by the construction process. They bring in thousands upon thousands of bamboo poles and then erect this huge structure by tying them together with cloth strips.  Since there were workers climbing all over it, I must assume it is far stronger than you can imagine, but it is still a WOW moment, a far cry from steel poles and canvas covers.

To add to the fun, these boys all found pieces laying around and turned this soccer goal frame into a swingset.  They were having so much fun as their knots failed and they fell to the ground laughing.

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I have become somewhat of an expert on masala tea, much to the chagrin of my sugar intake and waistline.  This guy at the Royal Thai temple makes some of the best.

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I had the chance to stop by the farmers market for a stroll, the vegetables are lovely and so are the people

This is Sanjana, she is a friend of Stefanie's and was shucking peas when we ran into her and her lovely smile

This is Sanjana, she is a friend of Stefanie’s and was shucking peas when we ran into her and her lovely smile

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My favorite street sign in town.

My favorite street sign in town.

Nov 182017
 

November 2017

dsc_6783This is the highest ranking Buddhist in the town of Kushinigar, he is Burmese and he was celebrating his 82nd birthday.

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Nelson Chama, member of the Board of Directors of LBDFI and a resident of Rio de Janiero

After cutting his cake he fed the honored people surrounding him, it was really sweet, and yes, I was also honored with a bite of cake by his hand.

Stanzin found these young nuns as adorable as I did and brought them extra cake with lots and lots of frosting

Stanzin found these young nuns as adorable as I did and brought them extra cake with lots and lots of frosting

The closing ceremony for the Tipitaka Chanting ceremony included a walk by all the participants to the Rhamabhar Stupa which marks where Buddha was cremated.

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It is always quite a site to see two columns of monks walking for several miles along the busy streets of any town.

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After circumambulating the stupa twice they stood on the lawn and chanted for quite a while.  It was a lovely, lovely moment.

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We have two young monks traveling with us from Thailand that have been carrying statues of Buddha with them everywhere.  Taking these statues to the holy sites imbues them with goodness and holiness.  I caught this intimate and sweet moment where they were placing the Buddha’s on the stupa and praying.  They both will take these statues to their parents the next time they see them.

People place lotus flowers, candles and gold at most holy Buddhist sites.

People place lotus flowers, candles and gold at most holy Buddhist sites.

The march to the stupa was followed by a quick ceremony at the Royal Thai Temple.

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The grounds and the classic Thai architecture of this monastery are breathtaking.  I understand the Queen has had much to do with the building of the temple, but their website is in Thai so I was not able to get much information.  They also, apparently, have stunning accommodations, but you must be a Thai citizen to utilize them.

Dr. Jaran and Javana, both Thai high ranking monks asked that I take their picture in this stunning building.

Dr. Jaran a high ranking Thai monk and U Javana, a high ranking Burmese monk asked that I take their picture in this stunning building.

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Nov 162017
 

November 2017

Kushinigar is a pilgrimage site because this is where Buddha took his last breath.

Our first day in Kushinigar was amazing. It began with a parade. Granted it was a parade of Buddhists, but the town is only a few blocks long with just one street so the whole town participated in its own way.

The Siada is a Burmese monk

The town’s head monk is Burmese

The parade began on the grounds of the Thai temple

The parade began on the grounds of the Thai temple.  Notice the adorable little boy clinging to his mother.

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No amount of coaxing could get him to go with his grandmother and not interrupt the parade.

Just one of the many stunning buildings at the Thai Temple Compound

Just one of the many stunning buildings at the Thai Temple Compound

The first four hours of the program was various government officials expounding upon something. I have no idea, I do not speak Hindi. Some of them were Hindus and that seems awkward to me, but this is still a country that feels that 15 political speeches before an event are something everyone is excited to do, and then they pose for those kinds of photos with everyone smiling and pretending they are so very thrilled to pose for the photo. I wonder if they get this from the British or if it is part of a young country.

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The venerable monks that presided over the first day of chanting.

dsc_6048The afternoon was spent listening to chanting from each of the countries. There is such a huge difference between the countries, some are very hard to listen to. The “moderator” wanted to make sure each country got a chance, so instead of waiting for the usual end where the monks say Sadu Sadu Sadu, he just pulled the plug on their microphone. It was always so funny to watch the monks all look at each other like “what happened”.

dsc_6018Sadu is said three times at the end of many things in Buddhism. It is really a way of saying “nicely done” and the audience says it at the same time as the monks. You can sort of equate it to Amen in the Christian religions.

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Lamphone Leut Oudomsone and Jiengkham Ravavong from our group representing Laos.

Sanyot Rattanapanyakon and Jaran Suthi the two strongest Thai chanters joined the Laotians about half way through

Sanyot Rattanapanyakon and Jaran Suthi the two strongest Thai chanters joined the Laotians about half way through

We have two Laotians with us. They were the only two, and it was nice for them to finally be acknowledged as Laotian, they have been grouped with the Thais the entire time. What was so very sweet to me was to watch two of the stronger Thai chanters join the Laotians so their voices were stronger. They all really do support each other.

Carrying the cloth to the Buddha

Carrying the cloth to the Buddha

After the chanting was over the monks did a candlelight ceremony circumambulating the stupa and placing a cloth over the Buddha.

Laying the cloth on the Buddha

Laying the cloth on the Buddha

This Buddha was donated to the location in the 400s, and it amazes me that it still exists, that tomb raiders didn’t steal it or that the Muslim’s didn’t destroy it, possibly simply because this is such a remote location.

On the second day the nun's laid a robe on Buddha during the candlelight ceremony

On the second day, the nun’s laid a cloth on Buddha during the candlelight ceremony

Everyday pilgrims come and lay coverings over the Buddha. I had the opportunity to watch just one shift, of what I think was at least three, where the monks remove the cloths and get back down to the gold sheet.

Monks removing the many blankets that had accumulated in just a few hours

Monks removing the many blankets that had accumulated in just a few hours

This gold robe covers the Buddha and is all one sees of the body of the Buddha

This gold robe covers the Buddha and is all one sees of the body of the Buddha

I was utterly amazed at how many were taken off, I have asked what happens to them, and most everyone figured the cloth was donated, but for what or to whom none of us really know.

This was a very visual day so I will leave you with photos to help you see what I saw.

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The gentlemen hit the gong fairly consistently, at one point I was standing next to it, and it was very, very loud

The gentlemen hit the gong fairly consistently, at one point I was standing next to it, and it was very, very loud

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Our police escort

Our police escort

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Entering onto the grounds of the Kushinigar stupa

Entering onto the grounds. You can see the Kushinagar stupa in the background

Some of the sights along the parade route.  As I said the whole town participated just be being there.

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Lighting the butter lamps

Lighting candles

The ceremonial tent

The ceremonial tent

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The feet of Buddha. If you look closely you will see the Dharma wheel on the soles of his feet

The feet of Buddha. If you look closely you will see the Dharma-wheel on the soles of his feet

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Nov 122017
 

November 2017

Sravasti (or Shravasti) is on the pilgrimage site for Buddhists. One of the reasons is because it is where Buddha performed the Miracle of Pairs.

1-shravastiThe Miracle of Pairs, also called the Miracle at Sravasti, was performed by Buddha seven years after his enlightenment.

The miracle occurred in a contest with heretics, who wished to perform their own miracles. It is said that in Sravasti, standing on a jeweled walk, the Buddha proceeded to perform the Yamaka-pātihāriya (Twin Miracle), unattainable to any disciple and so called because it consisted in the appearance of phenomena of opposite character in pairs. Buddha emitted flames from the upper part of his body and a stream of water from the lower, and then alternatively. Flames of fire and streams of water also proceeded alternatively from the right side of his body and from the left.

You will find representations of the Miracle of Pairs in a lot of Buddhist art.

As I mentioned in my last post we are in town with 2500 Tibetan Monks and lay people.  They are in the middle of a conference and we are here to chant.

Chanting the Dhammapada in Sravasti

Chanting the Dhammapada in Sravasti

Today our monks took the stage and chanted parts of the Dhammapada for one hour.

This was followed by the entire Tibetan audience chanting a goodly portion of the Dhammapada in one hour.  Tibetan chanting is done at lightning speed and is considerably more musical than Thai or Burmese chanting.

The Dhammapada is a collection of sayings of the Buddha in verse form and one of the most widely read and best known Buddhist texts.

There is always a leader in the chanting, sometimes they switch off, other times they remain the same for days at a time

There is always a leader in the chanting. The Burmese tend to trade off being the leader, while the Thai’s tend to keep the same leader from day to day.

During the chanting, the Indian contingency that is traveling with us came in, and wow, what an entrance.  It really was so delightful to see.  I have mentioned before, this is the first native group to actually participate in this ceremony, and that is both very important and historic.

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Lay devotees wear all white, it makes for quite a statement when there are 60 of them.

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I sat behind two young Tibetan nuns that were just a tad restless.  However, when it came to their turn to chant they were as focused as could be.

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We will be chanting at Jetavana. Jetavana, one of Buddha’s monasteries, was the place where the Buddha gave the majority of his teachings and discourses, having spent nineteen out of 45 summer retreats here, more than in any other monastery. We made a quick trip to the park to check it out.  The monks began circumambulating the Bodhi Tree and chanting.  It was a beautiful way to end the evening.

The Bodhi Tree in Sravasti

The Bodhi Tree in Sravasti

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The instant the sun went down a good 30 to 50 monkeys descended upon the park.

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Kavisara

Kavisara

This is Kavisara.  He is Burmese, his mother is Thai.  He is studying Pali and trying to learn English.  He has only been in India for 5 months, but he did attend the chanting ceremony in Bodh Gaya in 2012.

Nov 112017
 

November 2017

Today was another road trip. We were to start at 5:00 as the monk’s last meal must be before noon, and we had a long drive to reach our lunch spot.

Nelson Chamma sits on the Board of Directors of LBDFI - Brazil. Here is is giving yoga lessons to the monks on one of our pitstops

Nelson Chamma sits on the Board of Directors of LBDFI – Brazil. Here is is giving yoga lessons to the monks on one of our pitstops

This is actually their last meal of solid food, afternoon they are allowed liquids, so soup is always served to the monks about the time that we would normally have dinner.

Dining at Vihar Shanti Upvan

Dining at Vihar Shanti Upvan

We didn’t actually hit the road until 6:00 and that was in the deep fog, so driving was slow.

The monks informed us that there were no watches during Buddha’s time and that there are special dispensations for travel, but we still did not reach our destination until around 1:00. There were some monks that adhered to the rules, and as I write this at 9:00 at night, they are really very hungry.

Our lunch spot was at the Buddha Vihar Shanti Upvan in Lucknow. They served us royally in their stunning dining room

 

Group Photo

Group Photo

We were many miles from lunch to our final destination and I was able to give two lectures, one on Ashoka and one on Sravasti, our next stop. I was truly honored when the monks thanked me, and are starting to call me teacher.

A picture of the entire complex of Vihar Shanti Upvan

A picture of the entire complex of Vihar Shanti Upvan

Behind us is an entire large bus of lay people and monks from the temple that hosted us that will be joining us in the chanting ceremonies at Sravasti. We are honored and pleased to have Indians attending this ceremony, this is the first time that native Buddhists have taken part.

The problem is there are already 2500 Tibetan monks in town for another event. We had made arrangements for our monks and ourselves to stay in a monastery, but the plans for our traveling companions fell through, so our crew was on the phone for hours, madly trying to make other arrangements. The head monk in Sravasti, or Rinpoche, did all the arranging, including some that will spend tonight in tents.

Nelson being honored at the Buddhist temple in Lucknow

Nelson being honored at the Buddhist temple in Lucknow

Steven in honorary garlands

Steve in honorary garlands

Our crew will have arrived ahead of us, and I understand that an entire crew of Thai people are in town just to help decorate the event with flowers.

It is truly amazing to watch this all unfold when you realize how far out in the country we are. We are only about 50 to 60 miles from Nepal.

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This is Kavasara. He is still working on his English so I did not get much from him. He is from Burma and his Mother is from Thailand. She is 51, and he is here to do Buddhist studies.

dsc_5257Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, so Bodhi leaves are a sign of respect and honor and are given out in many ceremonies.

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Nov 102017
 

November 2017

Today was a repeat of yesterday.  We started quietly, in the heavy fog, chanting under the tree.  We broke for lunch and returned to find the holy day we experienced yesterday was taking place again today.

I am just going to share photos of the event, they say more than words.

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*dsc_5056This time the band stopped when the police asked, as you can see by their body posture they were not very happy.
dsc_5138After the ceremony we walked through the fields to visit another part of the Sankasya grounds.  These grounds have been buried and forgotten for thousands of years, and archeologists have still not spent much time digging and working, so farms have sprouted up over most of the other buildings from Buddha’s time.
dsc_5137Sankasya is where Buddha spent most of his rainy day retreats which is why the area is so important to the Buddhist culture and on the pilgrimage trail.  Buddhists still go on a retreat during the rainy season as walking and spreading the word of Dharma is pretty hard to do in the mud. The length of the rainy season depends on the length of the summer monsoon season in each country.
dsc_5126The story is also told that Queen Maya, The Buddha’s mother died seven days after the Buddha’s birth and was reborn in the heavenly realms. Since she had no opportunity to hear his teaching in this life, the Buddha manifested in the Heaven of the 33 Gods to preach the Dharma and ensure her progress on the path to enlightenment.

After teaching his mother for three months the Buddha descended from the Heaven of the 33 Gods on a celestial ladder down to Sankasya.  He was accompanied by Brahma on a golden ladder to his right and Indra and his host of devas on a crystal ladder to his left. The ladders sank into the earth leaving only 7 rungs above earth.

Chinese travelers from the 5th and 7th century recorded that ladders covered in jewels were still in place during their travels.  However, since Ashoka found nothing, it is most likely these ladders were placed by believers during these times and replaced as needed.
dsc_5116This is one of the spots where archeologists know something exists but have yet to uncover, as you can see it has become a Hindi shrine.
dsc_5114Throughout India you will find dung gathered and pressed into patties for fuel, this woman was just bringing hers to the kitchen when I ran into her and her son.
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Despite the young men of the bands, the women of the area were content to sit and listen to the chanting, it was truly a wonderful blend of cultures.

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This in Nandamala.  He was from the Mandalay region of Burma.  He is the only boy and has three sisters.  His dad died when he was very young and his mother sold vegetables to make a living.  He became a novice monk at 9 years old.  His uncle started a monastery to do missionary work, and Nandamala is following in his footsteps.  He is studying Pali and hopes to get a degree and then further his studies in English, he wants to be a teacher one day.

Nov 092017
 

November 2017

So the road between Delhi and Sankasya consists of a 6-hour bus ride.

Ice cream on the road!

Ice cream on the road!

dsc_4587Bus rides through India are a patchwork quilt of an agricultural landscape dotted with villages of wonder.

But this time the bus trip was occupied by learning the lives of some of the monks.

Remember, English is not their first language, and in some cases they are proficient, and in others, they are trying their best. The weak link is honestly my tin ear, but I hope, over the next month or so to bring each and everyone to you as best as I can.

Their personalities are starting to emerge, as well as their senses of humor and joie de vivre. It is a real thrill and honor to begin to get to know each of them.

Thaw Bi TaTHAW BI TA

Thaw Bi Ta is 34 years old. His parents are rice farmers and his monastery is the second largest in Burma with 1200 monks, but I am sorry, I do not know the name, that is where my ear is the fault of my lack of knowledge.

Thaw Bi Ta teaches Pali, and like most of the monks with us, he is furthering his studies in Bodh Gaya, in Thaw Bi Ta’s case, at the Magano University.

He did his undergraduate work in Buddhist Studies in a school in Sri Lanka, he is in Bodh Gaya to learn English.

The walk to the stupa in Sankasya to open the Tapitika Ceremony

The walk to the stupa in Sankasya to open the Tipitaka Ceremony

Day one was filled with chanting at the Sankasya Stupa. It is said that Buddha went up to the heavens to teach his mother the Dharma, as she died prior to his enlightenment. When he came down, he did so in Sankasya. There is so much more to the story, but if you want to learn that I will leave you to do so on your own.

Sankasya Ashoka PillarThe archeology geek in me was exceptionally excited to see the remains of the Ashoka Pillar.

Sankasya Shoka Pillar

The stupa is now just a very large mound of dirt, surrounded by a small park. The park itself sits well out in the countryside, making this pilgrimage site well off the beaten path, and rarely visited judging by what I saw.

Chanting in the shadow of the Sankasya Stupa

Chanting in the shadow of the Sankasya Stupa

We are joined by monks from throughout India, including one that came all the way from Jaipur. These monks are considerably older, and many are illiterate, so they sit quietly and can’t really participate, but it is nice to see them all sitting and attempting to gain an understanding of what is going on. Remember the chanting is done in Pali, so it means nothing to you if you don’t know Pali. All people can follow along as we hand out books in the script of your language, and as you can see by the photo, they aren’t words you understand, but there is a delightful rhythm to the entire scene.

The Roman version of the Sutras

The Roman version of the Sutras

If you study your Buddhism you will know what the sutras say as they have been interpreted but they are chanted in Buddha’s language, which was Pali.

The Sankasya ceremony opened with a prayer at the top of the stupa

The Sankasya ceremony opened with a prayer at the top of the stupa

Descending down to begin the chanting

Descending down to begin the chanting

Bells at the top of the stupa

Bells at the top of the stupa

Nov 092017
 

November 2017
Day two in Sankasya started out with a lovely morning of chanting. We always break for lunch and in Sankasya lunch has been at a Burmese monastery.

Woks, big pots and moveable burners make for dinner for 500 on the road

Woks, big pots, and moveable burners make for dinner for 500 on the road

Nadia, on the left, stays up late in the evening to make sure the meals are perfect

Nadia, on the right, stays up late in the evening to make sure the meals are perfect

We are traveling with a crew of Indians from Bodh Gaya, and that includes a cooking crew. However, to earn meta it is good to cook for monks and offer them food. This is where Nadia comes in. She has an amazing ability to put together a meal with a few ingredients one spoon and a giant wok, so we have been eating exceptionally well, and with a Thai bent rather than an Indian one.

Rice is the main staple, this is just one pot

Rice is the main staple, this is just one pot for just one meal

The afternoon of day two was such a magical India moment that even in my photos and my descriptions I am afraid it is one of those “you had to be there”.

There were many variations told of what the celebration was about, but the one that came to the forward most often was the young boy hair cutting ceremony. I was told that after the full moon young boys are shaven for religious purposes. I spent a lot of time trying to bring you more information, all for naught. There are many, many hair cutting rituals in the various religions of India so it could have been any number of them, or it is simply local to this village in Utter Pradesh.

The crowd gathers around the monks

The crowd gathers around the monks

It started very small, we returned from lunch and there was a man playing a horn and another on a tin drum with 5 or so women in sari’s moving and shaking.

It is always so nice when people don't run away from the camera

It is always so nice when people don’t run away from the camera

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*dsc_4980The monks slowly gathered in their respective places and began to chant. Now, chanting isn’t very loud. There is always a lead monk, and he has a microphone, but the chanting itself is only as loud as the number of monks.

Slowly that little group of people began to grow. There weren’t that many and it was delightful to see all these women in colorful saris with children in tow.

However, the group spontaneously simply became enormous, and the cacophony of voices from tens of dozen women and twice as many children began to truly take on epic proportions. However, it was fun, the gaiety contrasting with the solemnity made for true magic.

Chaotic would be an understated word for the next phase. A truck, loaded with amplifiers, stacked 5 high started playing Indian rock music. At that point, all I could do was roar with laughter. Of course, I was appalled at the rudeness, but when Tenzing, one of our English speaking crew asked them to quiet down, their response was, we celebrate our religion our way and you celebrate yours your way, and frankly, they had a point.

Notice the amplifiers on the back

Notice the amplifiers on the back

With that, all you could do was appreciate the spontaneity and go with the flow. This is what makes India so magical.

A little side project that is going on, sponsored by Nyingma Institute is Peace Bells. There is one in Sankasya and members of the community Steve and Stephanie have been in Sankasya all week to gold leaf it.

Steven leafing

Steve gold  leafing

Steve grew up in California with an art background and became a member of the Nyingma family when he was 32. Stefanie is from Germany and came to the US as part of a different Buddhist group. They met at a joint event and later Steve found himself learning gold leafing from Stefanie. They married and now live in Germany. This was a week of volunteer work for them, and it was so much fun for me to have one morning to photograph them working and get to know them.

One of their workers, they could not say enough good things about his talents

One of their workers, they could not say enough good things about his talents

Stefanie

Stefanie

At the end of the ceremonies in Sankasya the monks gathered to bless the bell and then we all had the opportunity to ring it.  The sound goes straight to your soul.  I am not that kind of mushy person, but I admit I cried when I heard it.

Blessing the Bell

Blessing the Bell

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This is Tenzing, he is very special to me, and a all around great guy. He is a devout Buddhist, speaks English and is always there to help.

This is Stanzin, he is very special to me, and an all-around great guy. He is a devout Buddhist, speaks English and is always there to help.

I have always said how India is a place where art and beauty are foremost in daily life and this project shows just that.

Meet Yay Wa Ta:

YAY WA TA on the right with Thaw Bi Ta on the left - they are always together

Yay Wa Ta on the right with Thaw Bi Ta on the left – they are always together

The monk on the right is Yay Wa Ta.  He and Thaw Bi Ta, whom you met in the last post, are always together, and their smiles always brighten my day.  They are both from Burma.

Yay Wa Ta has 4 brothers and one sister.  His father passed away when he was 12.  He has 2 degrees, one of which is in Pali.  He hopes to teach English one day, he speaks broken English at this point, but, no doubt, will accomplish his goal, especially with Thaw Bi Ta as a friend, because Thaw Bi Ta’s English is excellent.

 

A friendly face on my morning walk

A friendly face on my morning walk

Nov 082017
 

We spent the day and night at the Sri Aurobindo. It is an Ashram that was begun in Pondicherry with the Delhi campus built in the 1950s.

Sri Aroboundo Ashram Temple

Sri Aurobindo Ashram Temple

The ashram was our host for an all day chanting ceremony and a Dharma talk. We also ate our meals there and spent the night.

Wikipedia description: “The ashram grew out of a small community of disciples who had gathered around Sri Aurobindo after he retired from politics and settled in Pondicherry in 1910. In 1926, after a major spiritual realization, Sri Aurobindo withdrew from public view in order to continue his spiritual work. At this time he handed over the full responsibility for the inner and outer lives of the sadhaks (spiritual aspirants) and the ashram to his spiritual collaborator, “the Mother”, earlier known as Mirra Alfassa. This date is therefore generally known as the founding-day of the ashram, though, as Sri Aurobindo himself wrote, it had “less been created than grown around him as its center.”

The day ended with a stunning candlelight procession

The day ended with a stunning candlelight procession

Just on of the many educational buildings at GBU

Just on of the many educational buildings at GBU

Our next stop was Gautaum Buddha University for a conference, then chanting at the end of the conference.

GBU is a Research University established by Dr Rajesh Mishra located in Greater Noida, in Uttar Pradesh about one hour outside of Dehlhi. It is a state government University and opened in 2008. The campus has over 511 acres and offers Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degrees in Engineering, Business Administration, Computer Applications, Biotechnology and Buddhist Studies and is mainly focused on research.

Chanting in the temple at GBU

Chanting in the temple at GBU

We were here as part of a special all day seminar on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

We were joined by Chinese monks that use gongs and small drums in their chanting

We were joined by Chinese monks that use gongs and small drums in their chanting

The nuns at the chanting ceremonies don't get enough attention in my opinion. It is a very male dominated situation.

The nuns at the chanting ceremonies don’t get enough attention in my opinion. It is a very male dominated situation.

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I have found that at all the ceremonies the nuns are quick and generous with their smiles

So just as I am getting adjusted to Monks with cell phones and iPads, I see this coming down the street.

So just as I am getting adjusted to Monks with cell phones and iPads, I see this coming down the street at GBU

This lady was very special to me. She sought me out and explained that she had been a child, and her father a doctor, in Burma during WWII. She had fond memories of the Burmese and hoped I would introduce her to a Burmese monk. I did and they loved her as much as she was thrilled at speaking with her and we all listened as her Burmese came back, it was a very special moment

This lady was very special to me. She sought me out at Sri Aurobindo and explained that she had been a child, and her father a doctor, in Burma during WWII. She had fond memories of the Burmese and hoped I would introduce her to a Burmese monk. I did and they loved her as much as she was thrilled at speaking with her and we all listened as her Burmese came back, it was a very special moment.

 

Nov 072017
 

Bits and Pieces of Sarnath
November 2017

I had the chance to head into Varanasi and go to the Kriti Art Gallery. It is owned by Navneet and his wife Petra. I had met Navneet at the chanting ceremony, but this was the first chance I had to meet Petra as she had been traveling.

Navmeet runs an intern program for you artists. That is Navmeet on the right and one of his students from New Hampshire on the left.

Navneet runs an intern program for young artists. That is Navmeet on the right and one of his students from New Hampshire on the left.

They are a fascinating couple. Navneet regaled me with stories of leaving the fast pace of the investment banking world and joining the art world to open a gallery and how much he had to learn to make the switch.

He introduced me to an amazing number of Indian photographers through the books in his collection. It was very eye opening and such a pleasure to learn from such a passionate person. Navneet has ties all over the world, helping people create items in India, in particular, weavings. I bought a gorgeous scarf from him that had been made for a William Morris show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

He had also worked on the Ramayana project that resulted in a boxed volume of books that would take your breath away. I am linking to them for your pleasure, should you be interested. Navneet was one of the researchers on the project, and his stories of begging private collections to share their treasures were hysterical.

A giant Buddha in Sarnath

A giant Buddha in Sarnath

My phone rang and Wangmo asked me to have the SINI driver take me to a building in town to photograph for possible use in the future.

As we were driving downtown Sarnath I saw this sign Buddha Theme Park and laughed, well, you guessed it, that was the building I was sent to photograph.

The best part was the drive back, the driver was so kind and indulged me in the old “OH STOP” as I jump out and take pictures.

A plastic version of Buddha and 5 disciples

A plastic version of Buddha and 5 disciples

There is so much “commercial Buddhism” in Sarnath put up by the various temples of the various countries, and a Giant Buddha is just one of them.

The thing that excited me was the Chaukandi Stupa. I had read about it but had never had an opportunity to actually lay eyes on it.

The Chaukhandi Stupa

The Chaukhandi Stupa

The Chaukhandi Stupa is thought originally to have been built as a terraced temple during the Gupta period between the 4th and 6th centuries to mark the site where Lord Buddha and his first disciples met traveling from Bodh Gaya to Sarnath. Later Govardhan, the son of a Raja, modified the stupa to its present shape by building the octagonal tower to commemorate the visit of Humayun, the powerful Mughal ruler.

Nov 062017
 

Sarnath and SINI
November 2017

We are staying at the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute.

The classrooms and lecture hall

The classrooms and lecture hall

SINI is an amazing complex built brick by brick, literally, by a handful of volunteers.

While the final product is the result of hundreds of people it was driven by one powerful and stunning woman, Tsering Gellek, Tsering (think Serene) is the leader, but more importantly the heart of what you see and feel here.

The Monks Dorms

The Monks Dorms

SINI has four buildings, the temple, the school, and then two wings of boarding. One for volunteers, and guests and the other for the monks that board here on a three-year program.

SINI has many purposes, but the one that I related to best is the English for Dharma purpose.

This program is a three-year long program, for both students and teachers and designed to provide students from Tibetan monasteries with complete English language immersion both residentially and academically.

These monks sit daily with the staff not only in classrooms but in the dining hall and out and about on field trips or daily errands into town.

The woman in red is Tsering, the woman next to her is photographer and India/San Francisco resident Briana Blasko and the woman in green is the head of LBDFI, Wangmo Dixey

The woman in red is Tsering, the woman next to her is professional photographer and India/San Francisco resident Briana Blasko and the woman in green is the head of LBDFI, Wangmo Dixey

This is where I ran straight into a western prejudice and more importantly a western privileged way of thinking.

When in Tibet, these monks learn by rote. They can recite the sutras beautifully in their own native language, and then many can continue to do so in Sanskrit and/or Pali, but that is where we diverge radically.

When you are taught by rote, you know the words, but do you know the actual meaning of the words? Do you understand what is behind the words that you speak?

When you learn by rote, do you understand that to question is the greater path to learning?

When you learn by rote do you really learn anything at all?

I have spoken to the teachers about how rewarding and yet difficult it is to teach in these circumstances.

This is NOT a discussion on the students, this is a discussion on the concept of learning and how we are taught effects what we are taught.

Khyenrab Wozher and me

Khyenrab Wozher and me

This is Khyenrab Wozher. Last night he asked what state in the United States I was from, and I told him California.

He instantly said Fire! We are just coming off of the worst fires in Northern California where so many people in the Sonoma/Napa area lost their homes and some their lives.

Khyenrab knew of the fires because they had held a prayer session during the fires, he then insisted that since I was from the area and could smell the smoke that I was very brave to have been in such a dangerous situation.

I attempted to explain that I lived far away but he still was very concerned.

We then had a discussion of the how and why of fire. It is difficult to explain to someone that comes from an area where underbrush is not the most prevalent part of your forest system, and where dryness is the definitely not the norm how a small fire can become a raging fire in just moments. Khyenrab spent a lot of time questioning me and trying to learn.

He asked, what kills fire? I tried to explain that water kills fire, but then one must explain the concept of giant fire hoses and even the idea that airplanes can drop water from the sky. If you had a video it would be simple, but over the dinner table, it is an entirely different skill set for both of us to understand each other.

I was so heartened by his kindness and moved by his intense desire to learn.

One source of income is the tailor shop. The make pillows and mats for prayer halls and many many other beautiful things.

One source of income is the tailor shop. They make pillows and mats for prayer halls and many many other beautiful things.

SINI is a very special place and my hats are off to each and everyone one that is here, out of the kindness of their hearts, to better the lives of others through their contributions of time and love.

My special thanks to Renatta for sharing her room, her knowledge and her kindness, to Patricia for her eagerness to help me understand the learning process at SINI, to Doug for his laughter and to Andy for his downright American wholesomeness and joy and Todd for helping me teach about fire.

Papaya was in season, and I did not get enough

Papaya was in season, and I did not get enough

They grow a lot of their own food at SINI

They grow a lot of their own food at SINI

The laundry service showed up as I was walking out the door.

The laundry service showed up as I was walking out the door.

Nov 052017
 

Sarnath Day 2
November 2017

Day two was a day of fun and relaxation. We rose at 5:00 in the morning to go for a river ride on the Ganges. I have done this trip before and if you are interested in photos and history please click here. This trip was all about the monks.

Ganges RiverIt started out quietly, the Ganges is foggy and smoggy in the morning, and the beggars are intense, so if you are not used to morning on the Ganges it can be intimidating.

We boarded two boats and headed out into the fog with the motors roaring loudly in a put-put kind of way.

The GangesIt is a long slow saunter down river passing many sites not usual to the western eye. It is very common for people to bathe in the Ganges and that is the hardest to understand when you look down and see how terribly polluted the river is.

Laundry on the GangesThere is the launderer’s, not only the men beating the laundry on stones in the river but the clothes and sheets spread out to dry.

Then, of course, there is the reason for present-day Varanasi, it is one of the most prominent sites for cremation. Varanasi is the place every Hindu hopes to be when he or she dies so they can escape the cycle of rebirth and death. If a person dies in the Ganges or has Ganges water sprinkled on them as they breathe their last breath it is believed they will achieve absolute salvation. I never photograph the cremation sites as I believe they are holy and should be honored when the boat passes by.

Grafitti on the GangesI instead love to find the graffiti, there is no graffiti in India to speak of, so to capture it along the Ganges is fun.

Tea consists of nothing more than fresh squeezed lime and masala. It was absolutely delicious

Tea is poured over fresh squeezed lime and masala. It was absolutely delicious

By the time we stop for tea we are intermingling a little bit more than when we started, but a turn to the other shore changes it all.

We get off on the other shore and there we put our toes in the sand, but more importantly, there are camels and horses for riding.

This may be the first time some have seen a camel, and two took rides, THAT is what really broke the ice. When we returned to the boats I instantly saw those that did have English begin to introduce themselves to others they did not know and strike up conversations.

 

There wasn’t a sea change, but it was a start.

prayer candlesWhen on the Ganges you can buy small candles, surrounded by flowers to place in the river to carry your prayers. The monks chanted, and we all placed our candles into the water.

candles in the riverThe monks then practiced a “Life Releasing Ritual” which involves releasing fish, (purchased onshore), into the Ganges. The main purpose of this practice is to save lives that are in danger and to pray for their ultimate Enlightenment as well as for that of all sentient beings.

fishAfter lunch we visited the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara Monastery I don’t know if this was an auspicious day due to the full moon, or they open the relic room once a week, but we had a chance to enter the relic room and gaze at a “piece” of the Buddha. I am rather certain there are as many parts of the Buddha around the world as there are parts of Christ.

Relics
The joy of traveling with the monks is we cut in front of the line, it appeared people had been waiting up to an hour to get in to see the relic.

The Tipitaka Ceremony in Sarnath was aided by two Buddhist communities in Sarnath, so the afternoon was spent visiting their temples and offering them rice and oil to thank them for their help. One was a Thai temple and the other a local Indian temple.

Giving gifts of thanks to the Thai Temple

Giving gifts of thanks to the Thai Temple

Giving thanks at the local Indian Temple

Giving thanks at the local Indian Temple

At the Thai temple, I saw a very small building set on stilts, I asked one of the monks what it was (after he had peeked in the door). He said it was a monks room, and how this is what they should be like. He commented how time had given monks many advantages, I don’t think he wanted his small luxuries taken away, but he did acknowledge that they no longer lived as spartan as the Buddha.

A monks room at the Thai Temple

A monks room at the Thai Temple

The evening wrapped up back at SINI with an incredible ceremony consisting first of a female chanter, chanting in the temple, followed by a sitar concert in the outdoor courtyard.

The Temple at SINI

The Temple at SINI.  The walls are completely covered with murals by Kaveri Singh.  Each tree is different and represents a period in Buddha’s life.

An amazing cultural day filled with very surprising moments.

Everywhere we go there are more cameras than you can imagine, and the words GROUP PHOTO are uttered constantly

Everywhere we go there are more cameras than you can imagine, and the words GROUP PHOTO are uttered constantly

When I took the above photos I said 1-2-3 and then said they must all teach me 1-2-3 in their language.  So far I have learned it in Burmese and Thai, fortunately, Hindi is similar to Thai.  I am trying to learn one word a day in one of the three languages, my brain is mush already and I only have numbers done at this point. – Wrapping my tongue around southeast Asian languages is a real challenge.

At the Indian Temple the monks explained to me how there is one of these gongs in every temple, and they demonstrated how they hit it with their fist

At the Indian Temple, the monks explained to me how there is one of these gongs in every temple, and they demonstrated how they hit it with their fist

Birdhouses along the Ganges

Birdhouses along the Ganges

I found it fascinating that a beggar would ask a monk for money

I found it fascinating that a beggar would ask a monk for money

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Nov 042017
 
The day begins with a walk from SINI to the Stupa. The Chatra (umbrella) and the Buddha, as well as Buddha's words are all carried with reverence and respect to the ceremony.

The day begins with a walk from SINI to the Stupa. The Chatra (umbrella) and the Buddha, as well as Buddha’s words, are all carried with reverence and respect to the ceremony.

Day one in Sarnath was spent chanting the Dhammachakka Sutra in the shadow of the Damekh Stupa, where it is thought Buddha delivered his second sermon.

Walking through the town of Sarnath to the Stupa

Walking through the town of Sarnath to the Stupa

On day one we were very separate groups all divided by language with only the common thread of any group that has just been thrust together.

Lay people carrying the words of Buddha

Lay people carrying the words of Buddha

The morning opened with a gathering in the courtyard of Sarnath International Nyingma Institute for a walk to the Stupa. The monks gather, wrap the words of Buddha in golden cloth and carry them to the site proceeded by the umbrella, another sign of the Buddha.

The Dharma Wheel, the words of Buddha and much more

The Dharma Wheel, the words of Buddha and much more

The site is decorated with the Wheel of Dharma, or the Wheel of Knowledge, flowers, especially the lotus; a symbol of Buddha, water (a typical Tibetan offering) and then the statue of Buddha and the holy texts.

Tipitaka Chanting

Lunch is graciously provided for all the monks and lay people by the local Buddhist community

Lunch is graciously provided for all the monks and lay people by the local Buddhist community

The Chanting covers the entire day, with a break for lunch. There were over 500 monks and lay people at the event for the day, a feat for all involved to carry off not just the crowd at the site, but lunch and tea as well.

dsc_3784The evening ended with a Dharma talk explaining the Buddhist Monk’s summer retreat. It was given in English as best the students could, with a constant pressing by the moderator to ask questions at the break of each speaker. It was difficult for me to understand the whole lecture due to the heavy accent and language difficulty, but it was fascinating to sit in a room and learn a small amount of information.  I can not imagine how difficult it was for the monks that have very little English, but that is all part of this experience.

The monks in attendance

A few of the monks in attendance

Monks and lay people, my camera lens was not big enough to capture all of the attendees, this is just one third.

Monks and lay people, my camera lens was not big enough to capture all of the attendees, this is just one third.

The nuns of the group

Nuns also participate in the chanting

As the began to set the green parrots, known throughout India, began to cover the Stupa

As the sun began to set the green parrots, known throughout India, began to cover the Stupa

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The Buddhist flags, and the young man charged with their care.

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I am not sure I will ever get used to monks on cellphones

Nov 032017
 

November 2017Tibetan Prayers I am at a total loss as to how to convey what is actually transpiring on this journey. The coming together of cultures with a huge language barrier and incredible cultural and educational differences is not something we all experience every day, if in fact in one’s lifetime.

These comings together are not diplomatic, taking place in elegant ballrooms with fresh coffee and bottled water, no these are taking place on the dingy streets of India.

I am accompanying 41 monks to 8 of the holy sites of Buddha. The primary purpose is to chant the sutras that were written by Buddha in the sites that we are visiting.

Tipitaka ChantingThe chanting takes place over an eight hour day and then we end with a scholarly talk about the Buddha, his life and how we fit in the world.

The chanting in each site lasts one or more days and in the case of Bodh Gaya, it will be 10.

That is the purpose of this trip, but these posts are going to be more about my experiences, my interactions, my impressions and my thoughts.

The Stupa at Sarnath

The Stupa at Sarnath

Regular readers of Passport and Baggage have come to expect history, architecture, food, and art, and I will, of course, weave those in. But, over the next two months, I trust you will bear with me as I depart from my usual format and turn this into much more.

I hope that you will meet individual monks and if I can I will try to tell their stories.

I mentioned, there is a very large language barrier. Many do not speak more than a word or two of English, and they are from Thailand and Burma, and needless to say, I do not speak a word of their languages as well.

A monk from Tibet and a monk from Thailand get to know each other

A monk from Tibet and a monk from Thailand get to know each other

When we arrive at a location, the local monks speak Hindi, so that compounds the language aspect, and we are not traveling with interpreters.

This alone forces us all to help each other to simply get to dinner on time, let alone solve any problems that may arise.

So please follow along, it is going to be an interesting ride.

 

Feb 262015
 

New Delhi

The Taj, Delhi India

A reminder of once again how brutal the flight is from California to New Delhi with an arrival at midnight, but a few hours sleep and a good cup of coffee and the day begins…

Rickshaw Drive in New Delhi

I think it should be de requeur to spend the first day in Delhi with a rickshaw ride in old Delhi.  The noise the insanity, the crowds and the color, all an introduction to what is to come.

rickshaw ride in Old Delhi

It is day one of my trip and on my own, so a short jaunt out to get acclimated before joining the tour group tomorrow,  550 rupees an hour for a rickshaw and a walk through the market.  I would have enjoyed a little bit more, but it was obvious that the rickshaw driver I hired really didn’t want to take the time to take me around if I wasn’t spending money is his “brothers” shops.  So alas, the streets were too crowded after the first stop.  It was okay, an hour and a half is more than enough to get the flavor and time to head back to the hotel.

Flower seller in Delhi

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Old Delhi

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Old Delhi

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A stop in the spice shop

A stop in the spice shop

DSC_8153I also made a stop at the Mahatma Ghandi Garden or Raj Ghat. This was always an historic ghat on the Yamuna river. Raj Ghat loosely translates to King’s Bank (where King alludes to the importance of the place and Bank, because it sits on the river Yamuna).

The memorial consists of a black marble platform and an eternal flame marking the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation, on January 31st, 1948, one day after his assassination.Mahatma Ghandi grave India

The words inscribed on the marble read “Hey Ram”, reportedly to be his last words. In the First Information Report (FIR) filed with the police, the last words uttered by Mahatma Gandhi are reported as ‘Ram… Ram!’ (Oh! God).

The flowers are changed daily, and you must remove your shoes in order to enter the lower section of the memorial.

It is a lovely and very peaceful spot, despite the many, many school children encountered today.

Beer in India

Today is the day they count the votes for an election in New Delhi, so why the photo of beer?

Republic Day,  Gandhi’s birthday, as well as a host of other days, including 48 hours before an election, as well as, the day that the votes are counted, are all dry days in India.

The Indian government has never been particularly favorable on the subject of alcohol, most likely due to Gandhi’s objection to it. In 1937, when the Indian National Congress came to power, they instituted prohibition. In 1939, the British abolished prohibition. When India gained independence in 1947, prohibition was encouraged but it was left to the discretion of individual states.

This is not a religious issue as Hinduism allows alcohol, while, of course, Islam and Sikhism do not.

While you can read about the problem of alcohol in India it appears that banning it outright doesn’t work and it has led to a real problem of illegal brews that often blind or kill the imbibers.

Apparently days before these holidays, handwritten signs will go up outside off-licences across the country warning patrons that they have fewer than 24 hours in which to stock up but that can easily be circumvented I hear with a wink and a tip to a cab driver for non-locals.

new delhi

The weather was a perfect 72 degrees F, but the smog, as always, leaves me with a headache, at least until I get used to the terrible air, and I am sneezing like crazy.

I am staying at the Taj Hotel, while lovely, I do not believe it to be as nice as the Oberoi.

Until tomorrow – Namaste.

One of several porcelain panels on the wall in the lobby

One of several porcelain panels on the wall in the lobby

Feb 252015
 

Delhi
February 2015

Pepper preparer Delhi IndiaIt was a long day today, packed with many places, all of which I have seen before.  We started at the Indian Gate, and you can see pictures of the gate here.  

Built in memory to the of the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died during World War I,  and those that died in the Second Anglo-Afghan War the Gate also serves as India’s memorial of the unknown soldier. The gate was designed by Edwin Lutyens as the final point of the Rajpath or Kings Way.

Chhatri (canopy) near the India Gate once held statues of the British Royalty

Chhatri (canopy) near the India Gate once held statues of the British Royalty

Jama Masjid

Our next stop was the Jama Masjid Mosque which I have described here from my last visit.  Above is a photo of the arches from one of the side walkways.  This mosque is considered the ultimate example of Indo-Islamic Architecture, and these arches are an excellent example of how Muslim architects changed the simple round Roman arch to a scalloped arch leaving their signature on the architecture.

Feb 242015
 
Sarnath

Dhamekh Stupa

We rose early in Delhi to head to the airport for a flight to Varnasi.  Alas, the plane was late in arriving so our day became an exercise in catching up.  It was not a problem, it just meant for a long and very exhausting day.

We checked into the Taj Ganges Varanasi, and I will say it is not the best, but I am told it is the nicest hotel in the area.  I only find this of interest because of the incredible importance of this area, I would assume a high end tourist hotel would have been a natural, but I guess I am wrong.

This area is of such sacred importance to both Buddhism and Hinduism that I hope I don’t confuse you in my telling.

Sarnath

After an insane drive on half paved, oxen crowded roads we arrived at Sarnath.  Sarnath is  one of the Buddhists most sacred spots.

Buddha arrived in what was then Deer Park, in 528 BC, at that time Sarnath was already one of India’s greatest centers of learning.

It is here, under where stupa above now sits, that Buddha came to preach the Wheel of Law, his first major sermon after his enlightenment.

This stupa, the Dhamek Stupa. was built in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure commissioned by the Mauryan king Ashoka which was built in 249 BC. This stupa stands about 110 feet high  and is about 90 feet in diameter.  The lower portion of the Stupa is covered randomly with beautifully carved stones.  Buddhists come from around the world to circumambulate the stupa.

carvings of the Stupa at Sarnath

The accompanying museum has a superb collection of artifacts, sadly photos were not allowed.  As you enter you get the first glimpse of a polished sandstone Ashoken Lion Capital. The piece in the museum is considered the pre-eminant of the many found around the Buddhist world.  The one in the museum does not have the wheel attached.

Ashokan Lion Capital

The pillar was adopted as the national emblem of India. It is depicted on the one rupee note and the two rupee coin.
These columns were commissioned by Emperor Ashoka (273-232 B.C.) who was a staunch follower of Buddhism and who visited Sarnath.  It is assumed there were many pillars but only nineteen survive with inscriptions, and only six with animal capitals, the columns were a target for Muslim iconoclasm, thus their destruction.  All the pillars were placed at Buddhist monasteries, these were important sites from the life of the Buddha and places of pilgrimage. Some of the columns carry inscriptions addressed to the monks and nuns. Some were erected to commemorate visits by Ashoka.

 

Two Rupee Coiin

 

One Rupee Note

 

 

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The symbolism of each and every part of the capital is worth studying, but in a nutshell.

The top of the column—the capital—has three parts. First, a base of a lotus flower, the most ubiquitous symbol of Buddhism.
Then, a drum on which four animals are carved representing the four cardinal directions: a horse (west), an ox (east), an elephant (south), and a lion (north). They also represent the four rivers that leave Lake Anavatapta (the lake that lies in the center of the world) and enter the world as the four major rivers.  The moving animals follow one another endlessly turning the wheel of existence.

The four lions stand that sit atop the drum, also face in the four cardinal directions. Their mouths are open roaring or possibly spreading the Four Noble Truths of the dharma. The lion references the Buddha, formerly Shakyamuni, a member of the Shakya (lion) clan. The lion is also a symbol of royalty and leadership and may also represent the Buddhist king Ashoka.

The wheel (or Dharma chakra), was assumed to be originally mounted above the lions.

The Ashokan Capital at Sarnath as found before moving to the museum

The Ashokan Capital at Sarnath as found before moving to the museum

This is the first time that I have been in India and presented with beads, rather than flowers, when entering an establishment. These beads are called Sadhguru made from the Radraksha seed. Rudraksha is the seed of the Eliocarpus ganitrus tree that once grew mainly in the Himalayan region. Unfortunately, most of these trees were used to make railway sleeper cars, so there are very few of them remaining in India. Today, they are mostly found in Nepal, Burma, Thailand or Indonesia.

Mala, Prayer Beads

Usually the beads (seeds)  are strung together as a mala. A mala is a set of beads commonly used by Hindus and Buddhists,  used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Traditionally, they believe the number of beads is 108 plus one. The extra bead is the bindu. There must always be a bindu to the mala, otherwise the energy becomes cyclical and people who are sensitive may become dizzy. The Radraksha seed is said to have a certain harmonic resonance.  The larger beads are prized for this resonance.

When we arrived at the hotel we were given a colorful set, not 108,  In one form of Buddhism, for instance, 27-bead malas are common. These shorter malas are sometimes called “prostration rosaries” because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations.

Prayer Beads

We spent a few hours riding down the Ganges to witness the Aarti Ritual, but that will be another post.  Dinner was a true highlight and I would like to show you that.

We arrived via boat

Ganges Boat

To this…

Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli

Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli

We were greeted with marigold necklaces, showered with marigold petals and escorted in to the sounds of traditional Indian music and chants.

A beautiful chorus of chanting greeted us upon our arrival

A beautiful chorus of chanting greeted us upon our arrival

After a welcoming drink we were given a show of traditional Indian dancing by a beautiful woman, accompanied by a male singer with a voice of angels.

DSC_8484

This is Amrit Rao Peshwa Haveli (mansion). Built in 1807 as a fine restaurant to the Brahmins, it sits on the Raj Ghat. Ghat is a Hindi word meaning a wide set of steps descending to a river, especially a river used for bathing.

Dinner was Thali,

Thali

Thali

Thali (plate) is an Indian meal made up of a selection of various dishes. Thali dishes vary from region to region in South Asia and are usually served in small bowls, called katori, which are placed on a round tray. Ours was fabulous.

A boat ride home by and to bed after a long, exhausting and yet exhilarating day.

MandalaNamaste

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 10.17.19 AM

Feb 232015
 

“Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain

Varanasi

Varnasi,  also known as Kasha (the City of Light) or Banares, is Hindu’s holiest city. It is the holiest of the seven sacred cities (Sapta Puri) in Hinduism, and Jainism. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Varanasi is also known as the favorite city of the Hindu deity Lord Shiva.

Hindus regard the Ganga (Ganges) as Amrita, the elixir of life, which brings purity to the living and salvation to the dead (Some Hindus believe that death at Varanasi brings salvation);  outsiders tend to focus on all-persuasive and extreme lack of hygiene.

Varanasi is like any other Indian city when wandering within the town, it is when one delves into the life on the river that you see the religious and revered side of Varanasi.

Our first introduction to this world was at night.  There are two events that make the river at night the center of the world.  First is the Manikarnika Ghat, one of the oldest ghats in Varanasi.  This is where funeral pyres burn day and night.  The shroud wrapped bodies are placed on biers besides piles of wooden logs. According to legend,in the middle of the ghat is the well that Vishnu carved out with his discus before the Ganges flowed here. (out of respect, I took no pictures)

Farther down the river are the formal evening Aartis.  These daily prayers (aarti) are done at dawn and dusk and serve as salutations to the river.  This ceremony consists of fire offerings, ringing of bells, gonging of gongs and chanting sacred mantras.  It is a colorful, and lively ceremony.

Photo from "About Travel"

Photo from “About Travel”

The formal aarti is performed on a stage by a group of young pandits, draped in saffron colored robes and puja plates* spread out before them. It begins with the blowing of a conch shell, and continues with the waving of incense sticks, feathers, peacock fans all in elaborate patterns. The movement of the various chosen items, held in the pandits’ hands, is tightly synchronizing to the rhythmic chants and clanging of cymbals.

*Puja consists of a variety of ritual offerings and prayers to be performed as mentioned in the puja vidhi (protocol of worship).

Evening Aarti

Performing in the evening Aarti

An aarti is a devotional ritual that uses fire as an offering. So while this formal ceremony is taking place, many are performing their own personal ceremony.  These are usually made in the form of floating lit candles or diyas down the river during this period.  The diyas, that we sent down the river, consisted of marigolds and a little votive, placed in a cup made of leaves. It was interesting that little girls ran after us at the end of the night begging for our marigold flower garlands to recycle into these offerings to sell again the next day.

aarti candles

 

candles floating down the Ganges

It is a religious ceremony, that by now seems to be more of a chance to watch the people watch, that the spectacle of watching is of as much interest as the ceremony itself.  No matter how you feel about mixing tourism with religious practices it is so much a part of India as to be a wonderful and confusing experience, like so much of this amazing country.

Feb 222015
 

Varanasi in the Morning

February 2015

Up before dawn to catch the river as it wakes. It was truly amazing to be in an Indian city where it is quiet and the streets, while not deserted, were empty but for the sleeping cow and early worker.

Ganges in the Morning

Once at the river however, it was the beginning of the day. People are out, washing clothes, performing yoga asanas, offering flowers and fire to the river and also going for a swim.

day 5-2

Ganga “supermarkets” are floating along side happy to sell you whatever you may need, playing cards, post cards, malas, and even candy bars.

Ganga Supermarket*

day 5-7

Today we passed many fabulous buildings, several funeral ghats and various religious temples doing morning prayers.

day 5-21

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Ganges in the Morning

Here is our guide serenading us as we float down the river.

A quick breakfast and onto the bus for a six hour ride to Badh Gaya.

It is harvest time for some type of grain so, at 50 miles an hour, a painting of the process opened before our eyes.

Grain Harvest in India

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Grain Harvest in India

The straw left from harvest is put to many uses in India included bio-fuel

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A beautiful form of storage for the straw

A beautiful form of storage for the straw

BODH GAYA

Bodh Gaya

Bodh Gaya is where the Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa).

For Buddhists, Bodh Gaya is the most important of the main four pilgrimage sites, the other three being Sarnath, Kushinagar, and Lambini.

Bodh Gaya

Next to the Bodhi Tree there is a platform known as Vajrasana, or the Diamond Throne. This was originally installed by Emperor Ashoka to mark the spot where Buddha sat and meditated.

Bodh Gaya

Buddha’s Footprints

In the shrine are the footprints (Padas) of Buddha carved in black stone that date from the 3rd century BC when Ashoka declared Buddhism to be the official religion. He had thousands of these footprint stones installed all over the kingdom.

Bodh Gaya 1

 

Apparently the architecture is a mystery. It appears to have been constructed with the intent of being a monument but later became a receptacle for relics of the Buddha. The temple is one of the few early monumental brick structures to have survived in eastern India.

The base is approximately 50 feet square and the tower, a 19th century construction, rises 170 feet.

Bodh GayaInside the temple there is a huge image of the Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra “touching the ground pose”. This image is purported to be 1700 years old and is facing east exactly at the place where Buddha obtained enlightenment.

We arrived as the sun was going down and evening prayers began, it was absolutely magical.

Here is a small sample of that magic-

Feb 212015
 

It was an 8-hour drive from Bodh Gaya to Munger to catch the R.V. Bengal Ganga. Along the way we visited Nalanda. Nalanda is an ever expanse of partially excavated and reconstructed brick structures. Once the most prestigious of the Buddhist sites it was founded in the 5th century and was reputed to have over 5000 international students and teachers, along with a library of over nine million manuscripts. It was built on a site Buddha was supposed to have stayed. The Turks destroyed Nalanda in 1199.

Nalandia

 

stupas

These are votive stupas. All temples are surrounded by these in various sizes. They often contained tablets bearing the Buddhist creeds.

Munger is a fascinating town, not because of what we saw but because of its history. The East India Company came in and forced the area to plant indigo and opium in place of food crops, after many years the Indians began to uprise.  These uprisings, along with millions of other insults by the British, eventually led to the independence movement.

DSC_8985

We picked up another American scholar along the way, Dr. Debra Diamond, and the lessons that are being imparted are phenomenal. There are millions of texts, yet un-translated, in India showing scholars how little we actually know and understand about what occurred during the times of the Buddha and afterwards. The discussion of the practices of Buddhists monks, and their process to enlightenment may be so very different than what is out their in common lore.

Pomegranates

Our evening cocktail hour was accompanied by a full lecture by Dr. Diamond on Yoga. This lecture was a detailed rundown on the history of Yoga and the enormous (and frankly that isn’t even a strong enough word,) gaps there are in the education of the subject of Yoga when it made it to the western world.

R.V. Bengal

Our boat is a beautiful ship, built in Burma.

Feb 202015
 

Our first stop in the morning was to the Bihar School of Yoga. The school was established in 1963 and also serves as an Ashram with about 50% western students. We left with a sack of propaganda leaflets and a Rudraksha seed.

Bihar school of Yoga

The seed is thought to be the eye of Shiva. Some also think that the word Ohm is written in the seed.

We boarded the boat and off down the Ganges. The river has very little or no commercial traffic on it, so sailing is quiet and peaceful.

The R.V. Bengal Ganga is an interesting vessel. The company was started by our river guide Sumit Bhattachryya in 2009. He has had to open doors like no ones business. When he first began there were no ghats to land at in many of our stopovers, and getting parts for the boat should say, the propeller, drop off, was impossible. Today, going to Vikramshila University we were in a caravan of Tata jeeps that he had to form, it is such an interesting venture to hear him discuss. The boat only runs six months of the year and only twice a month, so as we cruise down the river, we are still unique. People come out along the shores and wave, and when we pull into a docking area people come out to greet us and they wave and wave as we go through town. This is a very unique period of time in this area for Indian tourism, and it is interesting to be a part of it. There will be the inevitable discussion of destroying outlying villages with tourism, but that needs to be countered with the influx of dollars to help feed and educate, which is far more rare when you get out into the rural areas than one thinks. I realize that these villages will change with tourism, but that is the nature of life itself.

Our Forward Boat

Our Forward Boat

On the river we are accompanied by two boats, a forward boat that works as essentially a sounding boat for depth, and then our own ferry in case we moor too far away to walk onto shore. The boats do not sail at night, as the Ganges, varies between 43 feet in depth and 6 feet, difficult to navigate even on a good day.

Our personal ferry boat sails with us

Our personal ferry boat sails with us

Along the way today we passed these two granite rocks. One is crowned with a mosque and the other holds a temple of Ghaibinath Siva. This is a highlight as much of the scenery we pass is farm land.

temple

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rocks-2

Floating along the banks we noticed this straw figure or Kumhar. These figures of gods and goddesses, created during festivals, are framed on an armature of sticks, then wrapped with straw, and then covered with clay and painted. “In the clay there is the seed of all creation, a drop of God that springs to life with prayer.” The best of the artists are from the Kumharkalli section of Calcutta.

Khumar

Feb 192015
 

February 2015DSC_9081Our only stop today was Vikramshila University in the town of Bateshwarsthan. This is the birthplace of Vajrayana Buddhism. Originally established by King Dharampala in the late 8th or 9th century in response to what he saw as a decline in the quality of education at Nalanda. Vikramshila is one of the more important centers of Buddhist learning, along with Nalanda. This center, however, is much smaller with only one hundred teachers and one thousand students. It taught such interesting subjects as theology, philosophy, grammar, meta-physics and logic.

The university was destroyed by the Turks around 1200.

Stupas at Vajarhana

Stupas at Vajaryana

Vajarayana is a branch of Buddhism, related to esoteric ritual practices associated most strongly with a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, Tantrism. Tantrism is found in both Buddhism and Hinduism.

There is a local festival of which I do not know, but the animals have been colored for this festival

There is a local festival of which I do not know, but the animals have been colored for this festival

Colored Goats

Colored Goats

While it is quiet I wanted to go back to a site we saw in Varanasi. We had a quick stop at the Mother India Temple to view a map. Maps are an interesting concept in India. We have used maps throughout time and consider them a vital part of exploration and getting around, but this is not so in India.

map of India

Pilgrimage maps were the first maps of India, and these make the most sense. The candles and oil lamps that light the holy rivers drew the body of the Goddess (Bharat Mata) and gave sanctification to what was imagined to be the landscape of the country. So the concept of India can’t really be drawn in a western manner.

The second problem arises with “What is India?”

“There is no such country, and this is the first and most essential fact about India that can be learned. India is a name, which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it.” – Sir John Strachey, 1888.

Because maps are such a touchy subject in India the Geographical Survey of India is the only organization that that is authorized to make official maps of India.

In April of 2013 the national surveying and map-making body filed a complaint with the Delhi police accusing Google of violating India’s national map policy. According to India’s 2005 National Map Policy,  no department or entity, apart from the Survey of India, has the authority to produce maps of the country.

The Mother Goddess drawing the map of India with her body and clothing

The Mother Goddess drawing the map of India with her body and clothing

We passed another ethereal rock form today with a temple called Khelgaon or Jahngira.

rocks

Some sights from our slow, relaxing journey down the Ganges.

washing waterbuffalo in the Ganges

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Ferry Boats on the Ganges

Feb 182015
 

February 2015bathing on the Ganges We have been told of the dolphins of the Ganges, and in fact two days ago we sailed through the Vikramshila Ganetic Dolphin Sanctuary, but until today, I have only seen the backs of what I assumed were dolphins.

Today we finally saw them jumping out of the water and I got a full sighting of the animal. They are really small, and I did not even attempt to get a photograph.

Our only stop today was the Raj Mahal along the Ganges, not to be confused with the Raj Mahal in Jaipur.

RajMengalRaj Man Singh renamed the city of Agmahal to Rajmahal. He then went about building a palace, a fort and the Jama-i-masjid (mosque). The city lost its strategic value when the Ganges receded two miles, leaving the city dry-docked, and then in the 1500s an unknown epidemic wiped out a good portion of the population. Eventually the capital was moved to Dahka and Raj Mahal fell into ruin.

Raj MahalThis somewhat recreated structure is stunning in its use of brick.

The mosque, locally called Jamil Masjid consisted of a large prayer hall to the west and a spacious courtyard enclosed by a high compound wall. The wall has arched recesses on the interior side and three gateways on the north, south and east the last being the main entrance with a porch in front. The prayer chamber of the mosque consisted of a large central hall that looks two storied from the outside because of the effect produced by large widows and the continuous parapet below. The western wall of the prayer chamber consists of several niches….Taken from the plaque in front of the building.

The mosque, locally called Jamil Masjid consisted of a large prayer hall to the west and a spacious courtyard enclosed by a high compound wall. The wall has arched recesses on the interior side and three gateways on the north, south and east the last being the main entrance with a porch in front. The prayer chamber of the mosque consisted of a large central hall that looks two storied from the outside because of the effect produced by large windows and the continuous parapet below. The western wall of the prayer chamber consists of several niches….Taken from the plaque in front of the building.

The Bardari

The Baradari

After visiting the mosque and the Baradari (living quarters) we strolled into town. Here we were able to actually interact with the people that have been waving at us from the banks. I could truly never decide who was on display, they were as curious about us as we about them, they pulled out their cell phones and took pictures as we snapped back. While we did not share a common language there was still an attempt to interact with waving, hellos and goodbyes, even throwing kisses by the children.

We are in the state of Jharkand, a realtively new state and a rather wealthy one due to its large deposits of coal. Here we see the women move the Sari to their left shoulder, and if they are married they wear a red and white bangle. The married women also put the same red coloring of their bindi into the part of their hair.

The women are also tattooed before marriage to prove they have the right to enter the kitchen. It was hard to interperet between the guide and the villagers, he wasn’t exactly sure what the story was, but essentially these are a sign that the Mother-in-law approves of the daughter-in-law entering the clan. I asked if they had to take a cooking test first, and the guide said “most likely”.

Notice her tattoos and bangles.

Notice her tattoos and bangles.

Evil Eye

The children are given black bindis and black under their eyes to help keep away the evil spirits.

The discussion of tourism and its effects on this area came up, and we were assured that we are very unique and that tourists to this area are extremely rare. India does not make it easy to do what the RV Bengal does. The boat has 4 different liquor licenses for the four Indian states that we pass through. They pay a VAT at BOTH ends of the journey, and the jeeps we needed to get to one site after docking had to come from fifty miles away, through Indian traffic.

India Faces 7

*India Faces 6

*India Faces 5

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India Faces 3

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*faces of India

Svarga-sopana-sarai “Flowing staircase to Heaven” – The Ganges

Feb 172015
 

February 2015

There is a gentleman in the front pulling while this guys punts.

There is a gentleman in the front pulling while this guys punts.

Our third night out was the second night of thunder, lightening and rain. It makes for a rather humid day, and this morning it was raining as well.  It was a very quiet day of sailing down the Ganges to the Farraka Barrage.  We did have one hour off the boat to walk the town near the barrage.

Birds on the Ganges*

It is boat repair season, getting ready for the monsoons.

It is boat repair season, getting ready for the monsoons.

Our personal ferry, notice the safety railing

Our personal ferry, notice the safety railing.

Siva and Parvati, notice the falls symbol, this is a Siva Linga.

Siva and Parvati, notice the phallic symbol, this is a Siva Linga.

A linga is the symbolic form most commonly used to represent Siva. They are frequently found in conjunction with a yoni (female element). They are essentially a disc with a drain, out of which waters of ablution flow.

Shiva (Siva in Sanskrit) is regarded as one of the primary forms of God. He is the Supreme God within Shaivism, one of the three most influential denominations in contemporary Hinduism. He is one of the five primary forms of God in the Smarta tradition, and “the Destroyer” or “the Transformer”.  Parvati is the female manifestation of Siva. She is almost always depicted together with him, either standing next to him or sitting on his knee while Siva embraces her.

This is pretty typical of school transport in India

This is pretty typical of school transport in India

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The girls riding in the school van.

The girls riding in the school van.

I was happy to finally capture a woman pumping water. This is woman's work, and while I saw it everywhere, this was the first chance I had to grab a photo.

I was happy to finally capture a woman pumping water. This is woman’s work, and while I saw it everywhere, this was the first chance I had to grab a photo.

The Farakka Barrage regulates the Ganges water between Bangladesh and India. Essentially they turn the spigot on for 10 days for each country so that water distribution is “fair”.

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

The highlight of the day was our evening cocktail hour in teak chairs around a fire with Bix Beiderbecke in the background and the chance to let off lanterns and sparklers.

Dropping anchor

Dropping anchor

Evenings on the Ganges

We sent at least 10 of these off across the Ganges Plains, it was truly magical

We sent at least 10 of these off across the Ganges Plains, it was truly magical

IMG_6121When we moored, we were in sight of the Farraka Barrage, by morning we had moved to the locks.  The boat travels through 24 miles of Canal to get to the river.

The Farakka Barrage

The Farakka Barrage

The barrage was constructed by Hindustan Construction Company. It has 109 gates. The Barrage serves water to the Farakka Super Thermal Power Station. There are also sixty canals which can divert the water to other destinations.

Farakka Barrage is located in the Indian state of West Bengal, roughly 10.3 miles from the border with Bangladesh. Construction was started in 1961 and completed in 1975 at a cost of $25 million. Operations began on April 21, 1975. The barrage is about 7,350 feet long. The feeder canal from the barrage to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly River is about 25 miles long. We are going to be taking the Bhagirathi River from here to Calcutta.

The purpose of the barrage is to divert 1,100 cubic feet per second of water from the Ganges to the Hooghly River for flushing out the sediment deposition from the Kolkata harbour without the need of regular mechanical dredging. After commissioning the project, unfortunately they found that the diverted water flow from the Farakka barrage is not adequate to flush the sediment from the river satisfactorily.

Waiting to go through the lock in the early morning.

Waiting to go through the lock in the early morning.

The locks belong to the Indian Army so no photography was allowed, and I know why, they don’t open the doors quite enough so our side tires had quite a job to do making sure the boat wasn’t damaged, its nuts.

The fun thing about moving into Bengal is that you hear TaTa from the children, it is a way of getting your attention and sort of means hello, and hey there, all in one.

We have had two really amazing lectures, one by our accompanying archeologist Nancy Wilkie, on the looting of the treasures of India. It was really an excellent overall look into the shady side of the art world, and had us all on the edges of our seats.

The second was by our Indian guide Sumit about the Caste system, the subject engendered quite a lively conversation.

Map of India Farakka Barrage

Feb 162015
 

February 2015

Bengal is proving to be horribly hot and humid, it is lovely on the boat as the breezes blow but we have been off for a few excursions.

Baranagar

The first to the town of Baranagar for a visit to the Jor Banla Shiva temple. Constructed between 1716 and 1795 by the tax collector Rani Bhabani. The temple has a triple arched entrance and is completely decorated with small ornamental terracotta plaques. The plaques tell the story of Ramayana, the life of Krishna and the various incarnations of Devi.

IMG_6171Bishnapur was the capital of the Mallabhumi kingdom between the 17th and 18th century. The town is renowned for is many elaborately adorned terracotta temples made of the local red clay, Shama Raya being the most imposing.

Baranagar*

Baranagar

*Baranagar

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Garden of Delight,

Garden of Delight,

The next day started with an early morning walk to the Khusbagh (Garden of Happiness) the burial grounds of the Nawabs of Bengal. Nawabs is an honorific title bestowed by the reigning Mughal Emperor to semi-autonomous Muslim rulers of princely states in South Asia.

Tonga of IndiaThen a Tonga (horse driven carriage) ride to the Katra Mosque. The mosque was built by the first Nawab of Murshidabad, Quli Kahn in 1724 using materials from Hindu temples that were destroyed in order to build it. The mosque was damaged severely in 1897 by an earthquake.

DSC_9576*Day 10-4

 

Day 10-2A horse ride back to the Hazarduari (a thousand doors) Palace which is now the historic Museum of Murshidabad. The palace was built during the reign of Nawab Nazim Humayun (1824-1838) by Scottish architect McLeod Duncan. This Greek palace is a great representation of Indo-Saracenic architecture, and one-upmanship. There are over one thousand doors (some false), large corridors and a magnificent domed receiving room. Sadly no pictures were allowed inside.

 

Hazuradini PalaceThe Indo-Saracenic Revival (also known as Indo-Gothic, Hindoo or Hindu-Gothic, Mughal-Gothic, Neo-Mughal) was an architectural style movement by British architects in the late 19th century in British India. It drew elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian architecture, and combined it with the Gothic revival and Neo-Classical styles favored in Victorian Britain. Saracenic was a term used by the ancient Romans to refer to a people who lived in desert areas in and around the Roman province of Arabia, and who were distinguished from Arabs.

Poop Ka-Bobs

Dung-Ka-Bobs

 

Our Tonga's horse was named Miss Julie

Our Tonga’s horse was named Miss Julie

 

Feb 152015
 

February 2015

Our last day on the boat held a cooking class by the chef. It was not so much to get recipes as to get a view into the complicated concept of the Indian kitchen.

Cooking in Indi

There is absolutely no prepared food in India, you want spaghetti sauce, you make it from scratch. Every dish takes hours of preparation. The chef brought much of the items to the table ready to be spiced and fried. You know it is Indian food if it is fried!

Hing

Hing or Asafetida

The biggest thing I took away from this was how beautiful the food is when freshly prepared, and the spice Hing or asafetida. It was a completely new ingredient to me. It is the gum of a resinous plant with a garlicky taste. I have been reading Curry – A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors while on this trip. Here is an excerpt from the book – “Hing became popular with the Indian vegetarian population. When it was cooked in oil it took on a garlicky flavor that made it a good substitute for onions and garlic, which were avoided by devout Hindus. Asafetida was also known for its digestive properties and was therefore compatible with the vegetarian staple of pulses and beans that are difficult to digest. European visitors to Muhal India complained that the Indians ate so much hing that it made the smell odiously.” A little goes a long way.

Cooking in India

We had a lecture from our accompanying professor Dr. Annapurna Garimella on saris of the region. Considering there is a 276 page,  $50 dollar book on Sari’s, her one hour lecture was just a drop in the bucket, but here is some of the information.

There are a minimum of 20 different Sari traditions just in the territory we covered on this trip.  Historically preparing the yarn was woman’s work and the weaving was mens work.  During the Mughal court time embroidery was also done by men because menstruating women could have nothing to do with anything regarding the gods.

Within India there are approximately 354 different types of hand loomed Saris and the weaving industry is the second largest industry in India.

Varanasi is known for its silk brocades.  The brocade is introduced not as a supporting weave but as a decoration within the weave. In Varanasi, Badi Bazaar which is the largest area of textile selling in the area, takes in over $1million per DAY.

The Varanasi area produces a few different types of patterns. Kinkhab (little dream) is made up of tiny flowers.  This is where the paisley came from, the large paisley in the pattern is called a mango.

Paisley fabric and the Mango

Shikargarh (The Hunting)obviously consists of hunting scenes, and Beldar (creeping vine).

Sikargarh

Sikargarh

 

Ghagalpur Silk is essentially raw silk.  The area employs over 30,000 weavers on 25,000 looms and brings in over $1billion rupees per year.  These silks are made from the Antherea moth.  You do not have to kill the moth to get at the silk so this type of silk is called Peace Silk.

The Rashidabad area produces Baluchari Sari.  These are silk in only 1 or 2 colors, and sometimes the addition of gold.  The patterns mimic the patterns found in the terra cotta temples of the area.

Baluchari

Baluchari

The last area on our journey is the Dhaka area and the Jamdani Sari comes from here.  This is a Mughul era textile of very, very thin muslin.  This type of weaving was declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.  The background is all white and the color is introduced by the use of bamboo needles.

Finally, the end of the Sari is extremely important.  This is the point where the wearer engages with the world, and it is a very personal portion of the sari.

The design and style of wearing the Sari has evolved with the times.  It has stayed popular due to the fact that it keeps up.

I just wanted to mention an oddity, plastic bags filled with sand and the Sisyphean situation on the Ganges.  These bags are just that, sand bags, and they are placed along the banks to attempt to stop erosion.

Ganges Plastic Bags

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Feb 142015
 

February 2013
Ganges River City of TemplesOur only stop today was Kalna or Ambika Kalna called the “Temple Town”, and dedicated to the goddess of power, Maa Kali.

After disembarking at the only available ghat, which obviously served as the garbage dump, we had a fun rickshaw ride to the Rajbari temple complex.

Kanla, IndiaThe complex contains a unique mixture of Bengali temple architecture. On one side of the road are the Nabakailas Temples. Built by Maharaja Teja Chandra Bahadhur in 1809 to celebrate the transfer and ownership of the royal estate of Bishnupur. The Rajbari complex is architecturally amazing, the temple structure is made up of two concentric circles, with 108 small aat-chala, or eight-sided slopped roofed temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. These individual temples represent beads in the mala.

Kalna, IndiaThe outer circle has seventy-four temples and the inner one has thirty-four temples. Each of these 108 temples has a Shiva linga. The lingas in the inner circle are all white (symbolizing good deeds), while every other one in the outer circle is black (symbolizing sins).

Shiva LingaA linga must point to the north, so you will notice how they move position as I walk around the circle of temples.

Shiva LingaIt is always preached that a human with his faith can connect to the Almighty through his sincere prayers and meditation. To attain solace, one needs to come over all worldly interests and wholly and solely dedicate his life towards the attainment of God. The same concept is being advocated through this temple structure. The outer circle portrays the world we live in while the inner circle symbolizes the world with pure thoughts, attained by offering prayers to Lord Shiva.

Kalna, IndiaOn the other side of the road is a walled complex with several temples. Pratapeshwar temple, built in 1849 contains a plethora of terra cotta plaques depicting themes of Hindu epics, the mythical life of Sree Chaitanya, images of Durga and various aspects of day-to-day life. The other temples are the Lalji temple built in 1739, the Krishnachandra temple built in 1751 and a flat roofed temple Giri Govardhan.

Kalna, India

Krishnachandra Temple

While visiting the Krishnachandra Temple our guide showed us where a chunk had been hacked out of the side in the last two weeks, an excellent example of the art theft that is rampant in India. There are over 50,000 pieces of art looted from India every year.

Pratapeshwar Temple

Pratapeshwar Temple

Ganges (12 of 20)

Krishnachandra Temple

 

Krishnachandra Temple

Krishnachandra Temple

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Ganges (17 of 20)

Ornaments of the Lalji Temple

*Lajli Temple

Kandla

We have seen a variety of forms of transportation to take the gods to town on festival days

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Red Feet of India

Alta is a bright red dye or liquid color used to adorn palms and feet in simple patterns. Painting the soles with this red liquid dye is a common Indian tradition, particularly during religious festivals and weddings. A common ritual followed by the womenfolk in West Bengal, Alta is also known as Mahavar, which is dark pink in color. A Bengali bride is incomplete if her hands and feet are not adorned with Alta. As brides from other regions are not complete without Mehendi or Henna.

 

 

Feb 122015
 
Shiva and the Ganges

Shiva saying Goodbye

Our morning began with disembarkation from the R.V. Bengal in Kolkata (Calcutta). We were given a very brief tour of Kolkata along with two stops, normally this would be highly disappointing to me, but one drive through the city and you know it is not somewhere you want to spend too long. That is not to deride Kolkata, the frenzy of New Delhi is enough, quadruple that and you have Kolkata, a city to be taken in small bites.

Coming into town we passed the RCTC or Royal Calcutta Turf Club and the RCGC, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club. The RCTC was founded in 1847 in Calcutta, British India and became the premier horse racing organization in India during the British Raj. It is still an exclusive private club and still operates the Kolkata Race Course.

Royal Victorian MuseumThen our first stop, the magnificent Victoria Memorial Museum. We did not have time to go in, but the building itself takes your breath away. The domed classical structure was dreamed up by Lord Curzon, apparently one of British India’s most flamboyant viceroys. The building was completed in 1921 and is constructed with Makrana marble, the same marble used in the Taj Mahal. The building was financed by “donations” from princes and “ordinary” citizens. When the museum originally opened it was to showcase the Queen, but now it houses a large collection on differing subjects.

Queen Victoria in CalcuttaThis amazing bronze of Queen Victoria was by Sir George Frampton. There are also two incredible bronze panels that depict a vice-regal procession. The work is just stunning.

Sir George FramptonThe museum sits on 64 acres of gardens and was so quiet and peaceful you could forget for a few minutes where you were.

Our second stop was St. John’s Church. Imagine, if the Mayflower landing is also where the Liberty Bell was and where they signed the constitution. All the British important happenings, and monuments are here.

The Last Supper

Jesus was portrayed as Greek priest, Father Parthenio. Judas was portrayed as the auctioneer William Tulloh. John is represented by W.C.Blacquiere the police magistrate of Calcutta during the 1780s. The effeminate police officer was a master in adopting female disguises.

St. Johns was the first Anglican parish church in Kolkata and was established in 1787. It houses the Last Supper by Johann Zoffany who gave the 12 disciples the face of British personalities famous in the city at the time.

St Johns Church CalcuttaThe Mausoleum of Job Charnock is here, he was believed to have laid the foundations of the English settlement in Calcutta.

Black Hole of Calcutta

*DSC_9861Here also stands the memorial to the “Black Hole Tragedy”. When the the Nawab of Bengal captured the British Fort William  (which contained the Black Hole Prison) in 1756, he imprisoned an unknown number of Brits in a small airless cell, (One of the prisoners, John Zephaniah Holwell, claimed that 123 prisoners died out of 146 held. However, the precise number of deaths, and the accuracy of Holwell’s claims, have been the subject of controversy). The story continues, that they were simply forgotten, and when they were found the next morning only 23 were alive. Hence the saying “The black hole of Calcutta.”

Ambassador TaxisI can’t leave Kolkata without discussing the cabs. This is the Calcutta Taxi, in production from 1958 to 2014 with few improvements or changes. It is based on the Morris Oxford series III model, first made by Morris Motors Limited at Cowley, Oxford in England from 1956 to 1959.

An Ambassador car in Kalna

An Ambassador car in Kalna

The Ambassador was the first car to be made in India and was once a status symbol, but began losing its dominance in the mid-1980s when Suzuki introduced a lower priced car. Despite its British origins, the Ambassador is considered the definitive Indian car and is referred to as “The king of Indian roads”. The automobile was manufactured by Hindustan Motors near Kolkata. As of May 2014, the Hindustan Motors suspended the production of the Ambassador.

Next stop the airport for our flight to Bhubaneswar. Bhubaneswar is the capital of Orissa. We were all impressed from our fist sight of this town as to how clean and calm it is. The town is considered a Tier-2 city and is one of modern India’s first planned cities. It would be complicated to go into India’s urban planning at this point, but suffice it to say, we all are very comfortable in this town.

Chusath Yogini TempleWe made only one temple stop today at the Temple of Chausath Yogini in Hirapur village. This circular temple was built during the 10th century to harness the supernatural powers of the Yogini. It is filled with 64 (chausath) exquisitely carved, black granite panels that are about 2 feet tall and represent the 64 manifestations of the goddess Shakti, who symbolizes female creative energy.

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Yogini

A Shiva offering outside of the temple

A Shiva offering outside of the temple

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Namaste

Feb 112015
 

February 2015

There are over 400 temples, only a fraction of what is thought to have once been 7000 temples, in Bhubaneswar and today we went exploring.

Udagairi

The Queen’s Cave

Our first stop was a pre-temple structure. The Udaigiri and Khandagiri caves were honeycombed with little retreats for Jain monks in the 1st century BC. The highway cuts through the two “hills” and we explored Udaigiri.

monks

These are small rooms for the monks, when it was time for them to depart the world they would have their acolytes seal them in and they would then leave their bodies and this world.

The concept of, what in the west, would be termed suicide, is not, in any way, what the Jain’s practice. Theirs is one of the more scripted and strict religions regarding harming any life form; they simply believe that it is not important that their bodies are part of this worldly space. If you are interested in reading one of the most poignant articles on Jain spirituality I suggest you read William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

The caves are covered in these exquisite carvings

The caves are covered in these exquisite carvings

Next stop the Tribal Museum

Odessa Tribal MuseumThe state of Orrisa has 62 culturally vibrant tribes and 13 Primitive Tribal Groups.  These people constitute 22% of the states population (as of the 2001 census). Orissa is very aware of the fact that these tribal traditions are vital to their history and has several government agencies watching, documenting, educating and bringing nutrition to these remote areas and peoples. These groups fall under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Research and Training Institute (SCSTRTI)

Tribal OrrissaThe museum is the focal point of this work, while it does not allow photos inside, it is a truly well laid out museum with a wonderful collection of tribal art.

Now the temples… over centuries, under the patronage of different dynasties these temples have evolved and grown taller. There is no real understanding of the exact reason for the various types of architecture or ornamentation, but they are each unique in their own way. Most of the temples have two main components, a convex curvilinear spire (deul) which holds the inner sanctum, which is where the deity is kept, and then the assembly hall (jagamohan), which acts as an entryway.

Parsurameswar Temple

Parsurameswar Temple

Parsurameswar Temple (7th century AD), dedicated to Lord Shiva is the best-preserved specimen of early Hindu temples of this period. The experimentation in design can be seen in its ornate carvings. The jaghamon structure is one of the only surviving, substantially intact, jagamohans of this earlier period.

The roof of the Parsurameswwar jagamohan. It is possible that this is patterned after what would have originally been a wood structure, but it is not really known.

The roof of the Parsurameswwar jagamohan. It is possible that this is patterned after what would have originally been a wood structure, but it is not really known.

One of thousands of carvings at Parsurameswar

One of thousands of carvings at Parsurameswar

Mukteswar Temple is considered one of the jewels of Orissan temple architecture. The sculptures and ornamentation are just sumptuous.

Mukteswar Temple Complex

Mukteshwar Temple Complex

Ganesha at the Muketwewar Temple

Ganesha at the Mukteshwar Temple.  The red is from rubbings during offerings.

Snakes are a big part of worship and play a prominent role in the temples here in Orissa.  According to Varaha Purana, Lord Brahma’s son Kashyapa had four wives. Kashyapa’s first wife gave birth to Devas, second to Garudas, third to Nagas (snakes) and fourth to Daityas (demons). Enough said.. the Hindu religion is filled with gods and would take a dissertation to explain.

The alter in one of the Mukteswar Temples

The alter in one of the Mukteswar Temples

The beautifully sculpted torana of Mukteshwar

The beautifully sculpted torana (gateway) of Mukteshwar

The Rajarani sits out in a lovely middle class neighborhood.  This temple, renowned for its magnificent sculptures, is such a peaceful place.

Rajarani Temple

Rajarani Temple

The goddesses on the top of the Rajarani Temple

The goddesses on the top of the Rajarani Temple

Rajarani

This copulating couple sits at the point where one of the many sided walls comes together.  It is not really known why but it is interesting to speculate that the joining of the couple and the joining of the walls are symbolic.

One of many snakes on the Rajarani Temple

One of many snakes on the Rajarani Temple

Our last stop was the Lingaraj Temple. The temple is off limits to non-Hindus, however they have erected a tower outside the walls to peer in. This temple complex represents the high point of the Orissan style where both sculpture and architecture have found harmony.

Only one small section of the Lingaraj Temple

Only one small section of the Lingaraj Temple

It is enshrined within a compound wall of laterite measuring 520 feet  by 465 feet. The wall is 7.5 feet thick and surmounted by a plain slant coping. Alongside the inner face of the boundary wall, there is a terrace to protect the compound wall against “outside aggression”. The tower is 180 feet high and the complex has 150 smaller shrines in its courtyard. Each inch of the 180 foot tall tower is sculpted.  The tower is not scaffolded, that is a ladder for the monks to light a fire on the top during a recent festival.

Laterites are soil types rich in iron and aluminium, formed in hot and wet tropical areas. Nearly all laterites are rusty-red because of iron oxides. They develop by intensive and long-lasting weathering of the underlying parent rock.

Laterites are soil types rich in iron and aluminium, formed in hot and wet tropical areas. Nearly all laterites are rusty-red because of iron oxides. They develop by intensive and long-lasting weathering of the underlying parent rock.

The temple is built in the Deula style that has four components namely, vimana (structure containing the sanctum), jagamohana (assembly hall), natamandira (festival hall) and bhoga-mandapa (hall of offerings).  It has a dance hall that was associated with the raising prominence of the devadasi system of the past.  A  Devadasi is a girl dedicated to worship and service of a deity or a temple for the rest of her life.  These woman were temple dancers, and revered within their society.

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The kitchen at Langarj is the largest in the world and serves over 100,000 people per day.

The kitchen at Langarj is the largest in the world and serves over 100,000 people per day.

Bindusagar Tank

Bindusagar Tank

Walking to the Lingaraj Temple one passes the Bindusagar Tank. This man-made lake has a pavilion in the middle and is believed to contain water from every sacred river in India. The main deity of the Lingaraj Temple is brought to this pavilion and lake each year for a ritual bath during Ashokashtami (in March and April).  Keep in mind that during the monsoons this tank fills with fresh rain water and is far cleaner.

DSC_0111These funny little figures are seen everywhere.

Jagannath (or Jagannatha) meaning “Lord of the Universe”, or Vishnu, is the Black one.  Balabhadra or Balarama is the older brother of Vishnu and is the white one. Sudarshana, the yellow one, is his only sister.

A woman fishing in the Bindusagar Tank

A woman fishing in the Bindusagar Tank

A little more about Bhubaneswar: Bhubaneswar replaced Cuttack as the capital in 1948, the year after India gained its independence from Britain. The modern city was designed by the German architect Otto Königsberger in 1946. Along with Jamshedpur and Chandigarh, it was one of modern India’s first planned cities. Bhubaneswar has decided to make tourism its major source of income and attracted about 1.5 million tourists in 2011.  Their new governor has been responsible for placing tribal paintings on most walls you see in the city, making it a very art forward city.

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Feb 102015
 

February 2015

Our last day in Bhubaneswar, was very long, and yet amazing, sadly, tomorrow we fly to Delhi and home.

It began with a short stop at a Rock Edict of Ashoka (Asoka). Ashoka was first introduced to us at Sarnath.

Asoka Rock EdictsDiscovered in 1837, this set of Rock Edicts contains eleven out of the well-known fourteen Rock Edicts of Ashoka. (BC 273-236). The omission of the thirteenth edict is deliberate as it describes Ashoka’s conquest of Kalinga through a horribly bloody war. Kalinga was the turning point of Ashoka’s career and what converted him to Buddhism. In place of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth rock edicts, two special edicts know as Separate Rock Edicts or Kalinga Edicts have been incorporated here, which are conciliatory in nature and meant to pacify the newly conquered people of Kalinga.

On the rock above the inscription is the sculpted forepart of an elephant carved out of rock which symbolizees Buddha, the "best of elephants". This is believed to be the first sculpture of India.

On the rock above the inscription is the sculpted forepart of an elephant carved out of rock which symbolizes Buddha, the “best of elephants”. This is believed to be the first sculpture of India.

Some of the Edicts that do a good job of summing up Ashoka’s rule are: Prohibition of killing of animals. Making arrangements for both human and animal beings to receive medicinal treatments. The order that  officials must set out on tour every five years to propagate moral codes. They ordered Ashoka’s officers to report to him on matters of administration related to the affairs of his people at all times and at all places. They proclaimed that morality is the only act of fame and glory.

I spoke with an Indian gentleman from Kerala, and he was just in awe of Ashoka and his humanity, all our countries need the return of a man as great as Ashoka.

KonarkOur first temple stop was Konark, the site of the 13th century Sun Temple. The name Konark comes from the Sanskrit words Kona (angle) and Arka (sun).

When you enter the grounds the first thing you encounter is the Nirtya mandapa (dancing hall) a big pillared hall built on a very high plinth, in front of the Jagamohana (gathering hall) which was intended for offering arati-nrityas (dances) by the devadashis (dancing girls) during the worship. We saw this type of dancing hall at the Lingaraj Temple, it is where traditional dance began in India and was a revered art form.

Karnak

The roof has disappeared but the pillars and walls are elaborately carved with dancing figures in various poses, playing instruments and carrying incense burners and lamps.

The temple has only one named person in the entire place, and that is not of the king that built the place, but of the dance instructor.

The temple has only one named person in the entire place, and that is not of the king that built the place, but of the dance instructor.

The temple, built in the middle of 13th century, is a massive co-ordination of engineering and artistry. It is said that King Narasimhadeva I had this temple built, with the help of 1,200 artisans within a period of 12 years (1243-1255 A.D.). The temple was considered as a chariot for the Sun God and is designed in the form of a gorgeously decorated chariot mounted on 24 wheels, each about 10 feet in diameter, and drawn by seven horses. The poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote of Konark: “here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.”

The wheels also work as sundials.

The wheels represent the months of the year and  also work as sundials. They do this by dividing the day into three-hour sections.

The large structure of Konark Temple seen today is actually the entrance of the main temple. The main temple which enshrined the presiding deity has collapsed, no one is quite sure how, but even in its ruined state it is magnificent.

Entry to the Dance Hall

Entry to the Dance Hall

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The evening Sun God

The noon time sun god

The noon time Sun God

There are three images of the Sun God at three different sides of the temple, positioned in proper direction to catch the rays of the sun at morning, noon and evening.

The seven horses pulling the chariot represent the days of the week.

After a drive along the Bay of Bengal we stopped at the town of Puri. Puri is one of Indias most important pilgrimage towns and the center of this is the Jagannath Temple.  The temple was built in the 12th century by King Anantavarman. it is surrounded by a 20 foot high wall, but this time we could not climb up to peer in as the tower was under repair.

The Jagannath Temple of Puri

The Jagannath Temple of Puri

We had the chance to visit the town of Pipli.  This small town is filled with artisans, some good and some not so good.

The artisanal town of Pilpi

ARTISANS OF INDIA

Rice harvest along the way

Rice harvest along the way

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Street scenes of Puri, around the temple.

Puri

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Feb 092015
 

February 2015

As this is my second trip to India, albeit to a completely different region, my ending thoughts are far different than my last trip and I thought I would share them.

India Internet

The strange thing about India is the Internet. One thinks of India and thinks technology and especially Internet, but it just isn’t so. Internet is spotty at best, and even if you can find it, you are dropped so regularly as to want to pull your hair out. The interesting thing is that the technology and expertise is there, but it seems that the next step “is not my job”. This leads to perfection right up to the millisecond before the critical point, and that is where it connects you to the rest of the world. It is nuts!

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Airports and Airport Security

This is an exercise in redundancy on steroids. You cannot enter an airport without a ticket, great, unless you live on line (see above) and don’t have one. In that case they bring out a long dot matrix printed list of every manifest and see if you are on it.

Now, you go to the counter to get your boarding pass, if it is a domestic flight they weigh your bags. On one flight I was 7 kilos over (an in country flight you are only allowed 15, but I had 22 because you are allowed 34 coming into the country). No problem, pay the overage. BUT, that is not here at the counter, we will hold your bags, come back with a receipt. You get to the overage counter and say “I don’t have any more cash than this”, that is okay ma’am, but it will take 15 minutes to print your receipt, no ma’am you can not get back through security without your receipt, you wait, no problem, everything is okay.

Next is the real security, there is a line for the men and a curtained room for the women. You MUST have a tag on every piece of hand baggage and once you go through security it must have an official stamp, because you cannot get through the door of your plane without this stamp. OH, and if you shop in the airport and they forget to give you a tag for the bag that holds the things you bought, well welcome to hell.

This is why you arrive at an airport in India a minimum of three hours in advance.

Once on board DO NOT loose your boarding pass, you cannot get off the airplane without showing it. This final step is not so much idiocy as making sure you haven’t gotten off at the wrong airport.

India

All of this is India. Things are simply done differently in India. There are no large machines to off-load trucks, that would take jobs away, mechanization is hard to find and in a way that is a very good thing, more employment, but the time it takes to do simple tasks is mind-boggling.

India

If you have been a reader of mine, you know I love India. The people are so friendly and the entire country has an open arms policy, you just need to learn that this family just works on a different time schedule than you.

IndiaIndia has an artfulness to living that is so missing in the United States. Everyone here stops to smell the roses. Things are done with beauty in mind rather than efficiency and cost. An ever changing daily mandala would never survive the corporate bean counters of the west, but here it as much a vital part of the day as breathing.

mandala

Being required to leave your cab when he gets a CNG fill-up would strike anyone outside of India as ridiculous, after all your safety is far more endangered on the insane roads of this country than blowing up in a fueling accident, but it is the law, and everyone piles out of the car when it enters the station.

IndiaThese are the things that endear me to India and will make sure I keep coming back.

Bulls of India

Namaste

Dec 172013
 

November/December 2013

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There are many books out there about India.  These are ones I highly recommend if you are planning traveling in the area.  These are not travel books, those are a dime a dozen, these books are about the history, the economy and the culture.
 

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta
City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann
India by Shashi Tharoor
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
M.S. Oberoi by Bachi J. Karkaria


Namaste
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Getting to India from California is brutal.  We went west so you have an eleven and ½  hour plane to Tokyo, a two hour layover and then a ten and ½ hour flight to Delhi.  It is the same difference going east, but with the winter storms we were grateful we had chosen the path we did.
 
We arrived at midnight, not really even quite sure what day it was, since you cross the International Date Line along the way.  The trip is about 45 minutes from the airport to our hotel, and I will admit I have absolutely no idea what time we finally got to bed.
 
The interesting thing is you would have thought we could breeze into town, but the roadways were as crowded at two in the morning as mid day.  The reason for this is that large trucks are not allowed into Delhi during the day so all the things that they would haul into a town of 16 million people is done during the night.

(16 Million is the official number of residents, the unofficial number is closer to 20 million).
 
We don’t join our tour group until Sunday, so we have today and tomorrow on our own.  I wanted to see Old Delhi, so off we went.  We hired a driver that took us to the edge of Old Delhi, then we hired a bicycle rickshaw to take us into town.  No cars are allowed in that section of town, called Shajahanabad. 
 
Shajahanabad was Delhi’s seventh city.  It was built between 1638 and 1649 by Shah Jaban. There were seven cities of Delhi.  Each was a fort erected by a powerful Sultan, and these cities were comprised of the settlements that grew around these forts.
 
The streets are narrow, and I was glad you couldn’t get a cab in.  It was nerve racking enough being in a rickshaw, with all the motorcycles, tuk-tuks and other rickshaws, both motor and bicycle.
A side note here; Traffic in India is as frightening as you read.  The lines on the roads I swear, are only painted there for the sake of giving line painters a job.  However, there is order.  Working vehicles have the right of way, and the larger the vehicle, the higher they are on the totem pole.  That being said, going down the street the wrong way is common, playing chicken at intersections is de rigueur and incessant honking is mandatory.  The drivers are the most nimble of people, the dodging and weaving is done with the skill of a fine dancer but that doesn’t mean my heart wasn’t in my throat and believe me, I closed my eyes several times.
 
So, back to Old Delhi.  We first visited Jami Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Built in 1656 it can accommodate up to 20,000 worshipers.
The mosque is made of red sandstone and white marble, making for a gorgeous structure.  The Red Fort, also made of this red sandstone was another stop today.  It is HUGE, with an impressive history, but what probably is most interesting is this is where the Peacock Throne (embedded with priceless stones) and the Koh-i-Nor both were from until they were looted in 1739.
We also visited a small area of the spice market.  I think both Mom and I would have liked to have spent considerable more time, our Rickshaw driver didn’t quite seem to understand.  I have a feeling that adventurous tourists are not that common, our driver really was completely confused when we wanted off the bike to explore. Our desire for wandering on your own would have been difficult, getting lost would be quite simple as the  streets are so crowded and there is no such thing as a street sign.  We even mentioned we might need to tie a string between us so we didn’t get lost from each other, that is how crowded it is.
 
In the market area we saw several Brahma bulls pulling carts, as well as, a shrouded corpse being taken for burial.  The shroud was covered in flowers and dusted with a pink powder, sadly they were going right as we were going left, and I had no time for a photo.
It is impossible to explain the overwhelming sea of humanity.  It is wall to wall people darting around animals, goods, carts, and general detritus that comes from a market that serves millions.  There literally was never a time when something wasn’t flashing in front of us, be it human, vehicle or a large stack of goods. I got some superb photos, but I do not know how, it seemed to me that every time I raised my camera something or someone stepped in front of it.  Having looked at my photos, you still don’t get the sense of what I am trying to convey.  I think that it needs the sound of constant blaring horns honking, the yelling of vendors and the sound of wall to wall muffler-less vehicles to give you even an inkling of the insanity.
Delhi is huge and sprawling.  There is no continuity to it at all, it is as if people just move in and occupy what is available.  I have read that since the great partition in 1947 the people have no sense of their history.  This feels very true.  In Old Delhi, the beautiful older buildings house shops that feel as though someone opened the front door and as many shopkeepers that could crowded into the space.  I saw goods stacked in every space available, inside of what were most likely fabulous mansions in their day.  Many buildings are falling down, and yet occupied at the same time. It is difficult to figure out where yesterday left off and today started, as everything is a mish mash, built catch as catch can with no thought to what the original intent was nor thought to what might be needed in the space tomorrow.
Dec 162013
 

This morning we once again hired a driver to take us around some sights.  We started with the India Gate, which, like all triumphal gates and arches is a memorial to the fallen of war.  The interesting thing was the men sitting under the gate making a flower mandala (about 50 X 50 feet), and the many, many children that had come on field trips.

This is a good point to make an observation from our arrival.  When we first started driving into Delhi I felt as though I was back in Saudi, the trees are plentiful but brown with dust and the bushes are scruffy and look to be struggling to survive.  The rains will come later this month and in January (not the monsoons, just the regular rains) and will wash away the dust, but for now it is a bit sad looking.  However, we have beautiful weather, with nice gentle breezes and cool evenings.

 

With the India Gate at our backs we drove up a gentle long slope flanked with a continuous length of grass to the Presidents Palace. The Palace originally the Rashtrapati Bhavan was designed by famed British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens as the British Viceroy’s Palace. You are unable to go onto the grounds, but you can go right up to the ornate gate designed by Lutyens.

 
I studied Lutyens in school and many of you may know the name by the famous benches he designed.  What we did not study was how much work he did in India.  He designed cottages throughout a section of Delhi in what is called Lutyens Delhi.  Lutyens was responsible for much of the civic and residential design of India when it was under British Rule during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Our driver was Sikh and we are pretty sure he wanted to pray, so he asked if we were interested in seeing the gurudwara (place of worship).  It was amazing.  He encouraged me to take photographs and the place was very welcoming.  

There was a giant pool with catfish and koi, I asked what the pool was for and he said if you had worries you came and washed your self of them.  We didn’t see anyone in the pool, but it was four times the size of an Olympic pool, and surrounded by an inlaid marble floor and a large colonnade. 

They also had a commercial kitchen with volunteers making food in some of the largest pots you can imagine.  They feed anyone that comes to the door.  Again, he encouraged me to take pictures, it was really an interesting experience.
 

Our next stop was going to be the Lotus Temple.  It is a Baha’i House of Worship designed by Persian architect Fariburz Sahba.  It is a giant unfurling 27-petaled white marble lotus.  It sits on 94 acres and is meant to be a place of reflection.  The Baha’i of Persia believe that all of humanity is one race.

While we did drive by it, the amount of people that were there made even me say, no thanks.  There were thousands upon thousands of people waiting to get in.  I do not know if it was a special day, or simply the way it always is, but there were hundreds and hundreds of school buses and tourist buses all around the 94 acres, so we decided it was going to have to be for another time.

We called it a day around 3:30.  While, that seems pretty darn early for me, it is exhausting being out and about in Delhi.  The constant traffic, the overwhelming noises just drain you.  It was nice to come back to the soothing calm and beauty of our hotel, which has large grounds and utter peace.

 
Dec 152013
 

Today we joined our tour group. We toured two sites today and had a lecture on the religion/history/architecture of India.  A nice overview, and a start to trying to understand 3000 years of intermixing of races, religion and customs all in one country.

 Humayun’s Tomb
National Museum of India
It is election time in the state of Delhi, so there was a note in our room that they, by law, must stop serving alcohol 2 days before the election.  Fortunately, that will not impact our welcome cocktail party tonight.
 

All over town for the last few days we have experienced the marches and bullhorns of the election.  I doubt that politics in Delhi are any more exciting to the general public than they are at home.  They have about a 50% vote rate in the cities but it drops to as little as 20% in the countryside.  They say that people are fed up, but that they expect better turn out because the candidates are promising a clean sweep…..yeah right. 

Today was Sunday, the mornings were very quiet as families tend to stay close to home, but as the day wears on they set out for family outings.  By the time we hit our last destination the place was packed.  Mom and I were approached by many Indian women asking us to join in their photographs.  We have absolutely no idea why.  They were sweet, friendly, and dressed so beautifully in their sari’s we really could not figure out why they wanted two old American women in their shots, but we happily obliged.

Today was a day where you could just sit and watch the parade of fashion.  The saris and their varying colors and ornamentation are something to behold.  Indians tend to dress really very nicely if they can afford to do so, and Sunday is the day to dress up and show off, so it was really a great day to people watch.  
 
I have not entirely figured out what each different outfit means.  Mostly, they are regional, but I haven’t developed an eye enough to completely understand.  
The males that wear the turbans in Delhi are primarily Punjabi and usually Sikh, the colors of their turbans are significant, but again, I haven’t completely got that one straight.  However, there are also turbans worn by other religions in other parts of India, they are simply tied differently.  The male muslims wear a small Topi, or woven hat.  I have only seen one man in what americans consider traditional Indian dress, the dhoti-kurta, most men are in jeans or suits.
 
The women, as I mentioned, wear sari’s, and they are really gorgeous, but they also wear what is called the Salwar-kameez or baggy pajama pants with a loose tunic.  These are worn by women in Punjab primarily, but apparently has been adopted by most Indian women of today.  
Dec 142013
 

Today we drove to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

 
The drive was extremely interesting.  Getting out of Delhi was the usual mad house, and as we got farther and farther away the traffic slowly died down.  About an hour out of Delhi we got onto their new expressway, and it was just that.  I had joked that Indian Expressway was an oxymoron but once we were on the road about 1/2 hour there was virtually no traffic at all, it was rather amazing after the last couple of days.  We drove for 3 hours through the countryside.  They grow sugar cane, and fruits and vegetables in the area we were in, later in our travels we would encounter fields and fields of mustard and cotton.

Far more interesting to me were the many, many brick factories.  There would be men in the field digging and mixing the clay and forming it into bricks, and in the middle of all of that would be these giant smoke stacks for the firing.  Notice the smoke adding to the already horrendous air pollution of this country.
The other fun thing to come upon were the number of women making cow dung patties.  They mix the dung with the dregs of the sugar cane and apparently you can cook a meal for 2 off of one of these patties.   There would be fields and fields of what appeared to be plates, but you knew otherwise. There is a specialty in this area that cooks in a clay pot all night over the fire of cow dungs, it is supposed to be exceptional, which makes sense as what ever it is, it stews all night at a low temperature.
Driving through Agra was an experience.  I spotted my first monkey here.  They are rhesus macaque monkeys, uuuuuuugly, and pretty much four legged rodents.  
 
Now that we were out of a metropolis you start to notice garbage.  There would be large fields of household garbage with cows, pigs and monkeys rooting through them.  What is left, of course, are plastic bags and plastic water bottles.  It is a shame, and really horrible to drive through and see not one or two but tens of twenties of these.  
That is the back end of a cow in the forefront
Back to the air pollution.  It is appalling.  I never really thought about it before we left, and really, the world is so busy discussing the air pollution of China there really isn’t much discussion in our press about India’s pollution.  The skies are thick with smoke.  The Indians, like China, burn coal for electricity, but they also arbitrarily burn garbage, and of course in this religious country, they are cremating regularly too, and yes you can see that smoke as well.
 
Dec 132013
 

Well I promised I would write about it, but I am not sure I can.  It is magical, it is regal, it is elegant, and oh by the way, did I mention it is magical.
 
There are no words, and also, pictures do not do it justice.  It isn’t real,  you feel that it is a mirage that will fly away laughing at you the whole way.
 
You enter through a beautiful red sandstone and white marble pre-building I will call it for the lack of a better word.  When you come through the three story tall archway there she is, enticing you, bringing tears to your eyes, making you sure you have stepped into a fairy land that just can’t possibly be real.  
 
The closer you walk the grander and more elegant she becomes, and then you notice she is jeweled.  Why didn’t you notice the white goddess in front of you was jeweled so magnificently?  Why didn’t her exquisitely carved jewels not yell here I am like some garish princess?  No she is far more elegant, she doesn’t need for her jewels to speak of her regal standing or her beauty, they are beyond compare, the jewelry is just something she threw on, because she was sure her husband would like it, after all he paid for it.
Her ivory dress is covered with pierced carved ivory windows to let the sunshine in.  At her entry she is covered with inlaid stones creating pictures of flowers, and birds and dancing geometric patterns.  These stones, lapis lazuli, malachite, mother of pearl, turquoise, and carnelian, all come together to make a painting that you simple stand gaping at.  Then, in black marble the Koranic verses thrown around like a gentle shawl placed with loving hands.
Well that was my first impression.  That was last evening.  We did not go inside that evening, I simply walked around and enjoyed.  Also the crowds at night are unbelievable, so just drinking in the majesty was enough.
 
We were up before the sun this morning.  The Taj is open from sunrise to sunset, and sunrise was 7:36 so we were in line before that.  Wow, my awe and wonder has not diminished, there still are not words, and then…we went inside. My mouth dropped open and I couldn’t speak.  A symbolic tomb sits in the center of the rotunda.  According to Islamic tradition, tombs are buried at least 7 feet under ground.  The tomb is surrounded by a marble screen, again, inlaid with the precious stones in patterns of flowers, birds and geometric shapes.  I just sat there blubbering, there just aren’t words.
 
So THAT was our Taj Mahal experience.  Today was filled with a lot more, and I will write about that soon, I promise, but for now I hope I haven’t bored you with words that simply say, I just don’t have the words.
Dec 122013
 


Our guide, the professor Annapurna Garmiella (you can google her if you are interested, and by the way, she is far, far prettier in person, especially when she smiles).  She lives in Southern India, and we got to talking about conditions in India.  She mentioned that there are no men over 35 in her neighborhood.  They drink themselves into an early grave.  So I had some private time to talk with her as to why.  The answer just floored me.  The reason it did, is that I feel it is exactly what we are experiencing at home.  The men have older trades that are dying, and the things they want to do are no longer of value.  Tech has taken over, and if you aren’t in tech you don’t have as much value.  When I mentioned this to Mom she said that her friend Nanda had said as much the last time they were together – so Nanda, I would love to meet you and talk one of these days.
 
Also the empowerment of women.  Christianity, and then education are giving women power, and like any woman’s movement, at first, when this happens women seem to think that men are superfluous.  We did it in the U.S. with the posters that said men are like bicycles, you really don’t need them. (and there was a frog riding a bicycle)  I had it in my dorm room.  It isn’t until the movement progresses that you realize that the point of liberation is to become a partner and work as a team, making your life and his better for the partnership.
 
It is sad, and something I would love to learn more about, it will be interesting to see how this movement plays out.
Next – garbage.  We are truly, truly appalled at the amount of trash everywhere.  I delicately asked Annapurna about this, saying I thought it interesting when a country that has so many religions that worship cleanliness that you can walk outside the temple and it is dirty.  She said not dirty a PIG STY, and absolute PIG STY!  So much for delicacy :-).  
 
Apparently “going green” is left to the children.  They are taught about the vanishing tigers, and the need for clean water and picking up trash and recycling.  HOWEVER, once they get older they are taught that they must work hard, drive big cars and build big houses.  The mixed message is obvious.
 
I wrote a bit earlier that the cows, pigs, and monkey root through the trash.  She did say that the cows stomachs are full of those plastic bags, so much for the intelligence of cows.  But it furthers says what a serious problem these piles and piles of trash everywhere are.
Today we visited a Suffi Temple.  As someone who has done a lot of reading about Suffi mysticism I was thrilled.  It was quite an experience.  You enter and are given a thread to tie on the marble screens, you ask for something, and if it occurs you are supposed to go back and untie the string.
 
The process made me wonder how the true worshipers feel with foreigners traipsing through their house of worship taking photographs.  Then again, it is done all over the world, but it doesn’t stop me wondering how ludicrous the whole concept is, and how offensive it can be.
Today we did a bird sanctuary. I know it sounds odd, but sometimes it is nice to just do something as soothing and relaxing as bird watching. In this country that is so full of energy, that never turns off, it was a real nice quiet break.
 
Dec 122013
 

Our highlight today was a block print/ cotton cloth museum/store.
 
Block print is well known to all of us, but what I found interesting is that a British woman understood how cool Indian prints were during the Beatles, 1960’s, Ravi Shanker period and she revived the dying art of block print fabrics. 
 
We all saw them, bought them at Pier 1 and promised we would never don those clothes again after giving them to the Goodwill infused with the smell of Patouli oil, marijuana and free love
.
Here we are today, touring the museum and once again buying them.  Granted today they are slightly more stylish, more sophisticated, and more elegant.
 
As in so many cultures, it took a  Brit to take this old craft to the world.  The art was dieing, and I applaud her ability to find the craftsmen, nurse the trade and make it viable again. As a woman that runs a craft business, I am thrilled that the art is still alive, that artisans are employed, and that modern patterns are bringing the art to the world again.

 

 
Jaipur is an amazing city.  The same hustle and bustle exists, but the pollution seems to be less, making things a little easier to handle, breathing wise.  It is a walled city, called the Pink City with a fort on a hill and a royal duck blind in the middle of a man made lake.  Because it was built as a walled city with the bazaar incorporated into the wall at the time of its construction, you don’t feel the mish mash here.  The city feels like a city, not a city sitting on top of six other cities.  You can see the delineation of shops and homes.  This is also why it is a tad calmer, however, the din of horns blaring here is just as loud as in all the other cities we have been in.
 
 
Jaipur, means City of Victory and construction began in 1727, it took six years to build and because of its grid pattern and crenelated walls, punctured by seven gates it is one of India’s finest example of a planned city.
 
As I edit this, before sending on, at 6:30 am on December 6th there is a cacophony of green parrots in the tree outside our bedroom window.  I have never, ever heard so many squawking birds in one place, and the tree looks as though the leaves have dropped and replaced with birds.  It is another little treat from this magical land.
 
Dec 112013
 

This is wedding season in India.  Weddings are not necessarily on a Saturday like we think of them in the US, astrologers are called in and an optimal day is chosen, so it could be any day of the week.  However, this is the Season for weddings.  We have been seeing elaborate set ups for weddings everywhere we go.  

 
Today at the Maharaja’s Palace in Jaipur we came upon people setting up for one of the largest affairs we have seen to date.  Our guide mentioned that renting the Maharaja’s palace was about 1 million rupees, that translates to $16,000 U.S..  
 
 
 
Then flowers – they are EVERYWHERE, the guide joked that we buy flowers by the stem in India they buy them by the kilo.
 
 
 
Also the guests, there were buffet tables being set up that would make a major hotel blush, I cannot even imagine how many guests this particular wedding is going to feed.
 
 
 
Brides change their saris throughout the ceremony.  The bridal colors vary between regions, but primarily they wear a white sari edged in red to signify their virginity.  Then after the ceremony they will change to a colored sari to show their change in status.
 
The ceremony takes place under a canopy-like structure called a mandap. A Hindu priest will officiate and numerous relatives perform specific roles under the guidance of the priest. The bride and groom sit in front of the priest for most of the ceremony who recites verses in Sanskrit.
 
While exchanging rings is not a traditional part of the Indian ceremony some couples choose to do so. The groom will also give the bride a mangalsutra, or sacred necklace, as a symbol of their marriage. There are seven vows taken during the ceremony, but you won’t see kissing.
 
 
 
So why did I title this elephants?, Typically, the groom arrives at the wedding hall with a dancing entourage and seated in a fancy car, on a horse, or most often, at least in Rajastan (the state we are in) on an elephant.  We saw a few horses, but what we really saw were elephants.  
 
 
 
You can ride elephants in India, but we will not be doing so.  We have been told they are mistreated in the North and the tour company does not want to be responsible should they turn on anyone.  However, today I was standing alone and was able to pet one and get some fun photos.  
A note…We stayed at the Raas Hotel in Jodhpur, and no finer hotel can one find.  It is a restoration dream.  Here are a few small photos.
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Dec 102013
 

We spent day 10 in the bus driving to Jaipur, so not much to report.  Day 11 we have spent at a fabulous fort in Jaipur, and then we were to head out to the countryside.  HOWEVER, today is election day, and the police have closed many of the roads leading in and out of town.  Not for danger purposes, but to make sure the ballots can get through to the court where they count the ballots.  So we couldn’t get out of town today.  That means Mom got a nice massage and I am finally finding time to sit down and write.


 

 

 
I decided it was time to address the food in India.  I am not ready to do the main courses, so I thought I would start with desserts.  There are regional sweets, and more common countrywide desserts.  I will try to give you an idea of the variety we have had thus far.
 
Gulab Jamun
This is the most popular dessert in India.  They are deep fried balls of dough soaked in honey, or aromatic sugar syrup. 
 
Jalebi
 
The batter for Jalebis is piped directly in hot oil or ghee in circular shapes  then soaked in syrup. They’re bright orange or yellow in colour and are very common around India, you see people lining up outside the Jalebi stores first thing in the mornings, I assume it is a lot like donuts and coffee for us. Jalebi can be served warm or cold and has a somewhat chewy texture with a crystallized sugary exterior coating.  The best we had was at the hotel, covered in a sweat cream sauce.
 
 
 

Halwa
This is carrot Halwa or Gajar Halwa
 
Halva also spelled Halwa has the texture of what we think of Turkish Halva, but that is not what it is. I have been told that Halwa means ground up, I don’t know if that is true, but it works for me. The halwas are made out of finely grated vegetables, milk, sugar and flavored with cardamom. They can also be grain based and made out of semolina or pulses like the mung bean.  The semolina halwa known as Suji Halwa is common and popular in India.   I believe I have tried everyone :-).
 
 
 
This is what they look like when I don’t know what the ingredient is – but they all taste great
 
Gajar halwa or a halva made of carrots is widely popular in India. It is prepared with condensed milk and ghee, without semolina to bind it together. 

Some halvas are put in molds to give them a shape or they are  neatly cut in squares or diamonds and garnished with a nut, raisin or beaten silver foil.  We have been having a lot of the ones with silver foil.  
 
 
Rasgula
 
 
 
These are soft and very spongy balls which are made of milk or indian cottage cheese that soaked in sugar syrup and rose flower water.  The texture is somewhere between custard and a very, very finely sieved cottage cheese. The larger they are the better they are because the more rose water they soak up the tastier they are.
 
 
Burfi
 
 
The only time we have had Burfi was when it was passed around on the bus.  Plain burfi is made with condensed milk and sugar, cooked until it solidifies.  There are many types some made with gram flour, some with cashews, or pistachios (which is the type we had).  It can also be flavored with fruits and spices, the most typical being rose water and cardamom. These can also have a thin layer of edible silver
Dec 092013
 

FINALLY had kulfi.  Saffron Kulfi to boot.
 
Kulfi is traditionally prepared by evaporating sweetened and flavoured milk via slow cooking, with almost continuous stirring to keep milk from sticking to the bottom of the huge pot.  It is stirred until it has been reduced by half, so it is thick and has a higher fat, protein and lactose density.  It has a distinctive taste due to caramelization of lactose and sugar during the cooking process. It is then poured into these sort of triangular shaped molds and frozen.
 
When we were driving through the country they pointed out the Guar that was growing, and stated it was used in ice cream making in India – LIGHT BULB – I had been wondering what the recognizable, powdery, vanilla flavor was in all their ice cream but couldn’t put my finger on it.  One taste mystery solved.
 
Then we had Chikki – this is really similar to Joyva Sesame Crunch that we get in the U.S., but here it is more sesame seed than hardened sugar syrup.  
 
 
 
The last was at a Jain Restaurant (more on that later).  This was noodle pudding, or seviyan, and looks just like it sounds.  Noodles cooked slowly in sugar syrup.
 
Today – December 9th, we left Jodhpur and headed for Udaipur.  It was a very, very long trip.  It was however, broken up by a trip to Ranakpur. 

Ranakpur is a Jain Temple.   The temple was founded in the 6th century BC.  Jain is  based on a doctrine of non-violence towards All living things. It is not a religion in the sense that there is no central god, or a central type of worship.  However, they do have temples, and elders and lots of other practices, not something I am going to go into here.  
 
 
Ranakpur is jaw dropping, breath taking and impossible to believe.  Another Indian spot that photos will not do justice.  Mother has been to Ankor Wat, and this place is 500 years younger and somewhat fashioned on Ankor Wat, but she said this is far, far more spectacular.
 
The temple is all marble.  Inside is a literal forest of pillars, everyone carved differently.  There are domes of marble with intricate carvings, it is just, again, impossible to fathom.   
 
One last thing for today.  Driving through the farm land our guide stopped when we ran across a Persian well.  Some farms are so small that purchasing electric pumps just doesn’t make sense so they still get their water through oxen and old fashioned pump mechanisms.
 
 
 
These wells feature an ox-driven pump where the ox walks in circles around a central drive shaft which turns a wheel that raises water via a chain of buckets from the well. 
 
 
With that I will leave you with a new type of monkey that is found in the hillsides. This fellow is a Langur Monkey
 
Dec 082013
 


We began our morning with a tuk-tuk ride to a small Hindu temple. We have been in tuk-tuks in most every city, and every time we do they are a different color combination.  I don’t know what that means, but it is funny.  
 
 We circumambulated  the temple, just as in the Buddhist temple you always keep the holy spot on your right. We then went into the temple and made offerings and received blessings. 
 
We then walked a block or so to the Temple Palace.

 

 

These are all glass mosaics – they are everywhere in the palace and indescribably beautiful.
 
Udaipur is a town that, oddly enough, could call me back.  It is, in an odd way, very cosmopolitan. The streets are a tad cleaner, and the city air is a tad clearer.  Udaipur is a city of lakes.  The Raj’s palace, which, in this town is actually about 4 is built in clusters around these lakes.  Way up in the hills is the Monsoon Palace (we did not visit this), built to enjoy the monsoon rains.  Then there is his actual palace, which holds a great museum, and now is a hotel.  Then there was the Rani’s summer palace, it sits in the middle of the lake, it is now a 5 star hotel, and is where Octopussy was filmed.
We visited a third little island which served as a palace for one of the many Raj’s that had to leave his home town for a while due to warring factions.  This island now serves as a little park, and a wedding venue.
 
During our half day in Udaipur, both Mom and I kept trying to decide if we were on the klongs of Thailand or the banks of Lake Como, as I said, in a weird way it is very cosmopolitan.
 
Dec 072013
 

November 2013

After our lovely morning in Udaipur we flew to Mumbai.  The hotel was a lesser quality as it was near the airport.  It was absolutely packed with 20 somethings participating in a karate tournament.  The most fascinating were the girls from Iran with their head scarfs and nike shoes and sweats.

 

The bar was hysterical.  Black naugahyde benches and chairs, a stage set up for karaoke, mirrors every where, and the worst service we have ever encountered.  Which is saying something as waiters in India fawn over you, almost to the point of annoyance, so to be ignored by a waiter is shocking.

 
After a horribly ridiculous early morning we flew to Aurangabad.  We touched down and drove straight to Ellora.  Here we go again, how does one describe Ellora.  There are 34 caves carved out of a mountain.  The caves stretch for 1.3 miles.  Did I mention they were carved from a mountain.  You can not even fathom the time and manpower it took to even begin to do the basic digging, let alone the elaborate carving.
 
 
 
The caves fall into three distinct categories. 
Photos don’t do this justice.  This Buddha is 10 feet tall
 
The first was Buddhist. Carved between the 7th and 8th century.  There are monks quarters and then an amazing (sorry that word is becoming overused lately) Buddhist temple.  Our guide began reciting a prayer and the sounds that reverberated throughout the temple just sent chills down my spine, it was sooooo beautiful.
 
Then there is a very involved wandering series of carved caves that form a Jain temple.  These were the last to be carved and were done in the 9th century.
 
 
The third, and most magnificent, is the Hindu temple Kailasanath which was done in the 8th century.  During the carving of Kailasanath they removed 85,000 cubic meters of rock.  They started at the top of this giant rock and just started carving down from there.  Think about that, you carve DOWN.    

 

 

 

 

 
There is a lot of questions as to how long these carvings took, but we are discussing hundreds of years to their completion.
 
I mentioned how much the Indian’s seem to like us and want pictures taken with us – here is a sweet moment we encountered in Ellora
Dec 062013
 

November 2013

Today I decided to address food – I have been hesitating to do this because frankly, most Indian food consists of vegetables, meat if you are not vegan and a brown sauce covering it.

 
Now – I know that sounds insulting, but it isn’t.  
 
Food of IndiaLet me give a little bit of background to food in general first.  India is 80.5% Hindi.  Hindus do not eat beef or pork (except westernized ones). Muslims (which make up 13.4% of the population), eat beef but not pork, again unless westernized.  Bengalis are known for their consumption of fish, and most Brahmins are vegetarians, but the Brahmins from Kashmir and Bengal are not.  
 (Got it :-)?
 
So back to curry.  The yellow powder that most westerners consider to be curry is just that, a western invention, so is the word curry.  Here is why my opening salvo is not insulting.  “Curry” simply means any dish with a gravy.

Curry

We are on a tour, so most meals are buffet.  It is really the nicest way to go, since you are presented with at least 20 – 30 Indian dishes at every meal.  The problem is they are all dishes with gravy.  The underlying ingredient is delicious and is either vegetable, chicken, fish, lamb, or a combination, but you can’t tell what it is, as all the names of the dishes are named by their Indian name. 
 
Regarding spices – oddly enough food is hotter in the south where the weather is hotter, and milder in the north where we are – fortunately.  We have not had much food with coconut as that is more for southern food.  Cardamom seems to be the overriding spice where we are, which makes me very happy, also saffron, although it is just as expensive here as it is at home, so it is used sparingly.  
 
Mustard oil is the primary oil used in the North.  I finally had some cauliflower cooked in mustard oil to see exactly what it tasted like.  It adds a bit of a vinegary taste to the food, very pleasant.  
 
Most Indians eat with their hands, scooping curry up with roti or naan, but yes, unlike many chinese restaurants, knives, forks and spoons are also set at every table. 
 
So we have happily been eating our way through India with no idea of what most of it is.
 
Sure we all know naan,  and my favorite bread Papadams, but who knew that my first breakfast I would fall madly in love with Puri.  

Puri

Puri is an unleavened deep-fired Indian bread that is usually served with curry, and no, I have no idea what curry I would get with in the morning, but it was delicious.

Saag Paneer

Next food most Americans know is Saag Paneer.  This is spinach with curd.  The curd is much like tofu.  The spices vary from region to region, and the fresher the paneer the better.

Potatoes and Cauliflower

Next are potatoes and cauliflower.  Both of these are served hundreds of ways and show up in EVERYTHING.  Aloo Gobi is a dish with both ingredients 
 
We had “wraps” for two meals on the road.  They are essentially Indian burritos and boy are they fabulous, vegetarian, or not.  Wish I could remember the name – sorry, however, I know six of my friends are saying it to themselves as they read this.

Indian Samosas

Samosas – another well know Indian food to most Americans, but did you know they come stuffed with a lot more than just potatoes?  A samosa is a fried or baked pastry with fillings of onions, peas, lentils, potatoes, ground lamb, ground beef or ground chicken and are usually accompanied with chutney.
 
I could go on and on and on about pickles, chutneys, sauces, and yogurts but I will stop here.
 
I will discuss one very special night we had in Aurangabad.  We were staying at the Taj and after our lecture we were all set free to have dinner in any restaurant we chose.  Mom and I sat down outside on the lawn for their Bar-b-que.  The brought out a small metal bowl filled with wood and we had our own little fireplace, then they proceeded to bring course after course of bar-b-qued items, very similar to the ones we had at the bar-b-que I described earlier.  The crackling fires by the tables, a nice bottle of red wine, a song and dance performance, it really doesn’t get any better than that!
 
Dec 052013
 

November 2013

We flew into Mumbai Friday around 10:00 a.m..  We are truly confused as how we got here, as it seems we were taken in a space ship to an entirely different country.  

 
Mumbai was once known as Bombay.  – Allow me to digress a bit here.  India is impossible to discuss in missives such as this, but one aspect that would be hard to fathom to many is the mix of religion and politics.  They are inseparable, AND YET, India IS a secular country when it comes to their politics.  Now, that sentence makes no sense, and this is NOT the place to try to explain it, but it is relevant to what I am trying to point out.  There is a small religious minority that are insisting on the renaming of places and landmarks in India because they feel that the existing names reflect the colonization of India by others.
 
While traveling I have been reading a book by Shashi Tharoor, Tharoor is the Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development, and a member of Parliament.
 
I am going to quote him here regarding the renaming.  “Bombay” has entered global discourse; it conjures up associations of cosmopolitan bustle; it is attached to products like Bombay gin, Bombay duck, and the overpriced colonial furniture sold by “the Bombay company.” In short, it enjoys name recognition that many cities around the world would spend millions in publicity to acquire.  THAT is why very few people call it Mumbai, or as I have found myself doing using both names in one sentence.
 
Mumbai is the most populous city in India (with 12 million people)  and the fourth most populous city in the world. It is the wealthiest city in India, and is the center of Indian’s financial world, with both the Bombay Stock Market and the National Stock Exchange (there are 24 exchanges throughout India, but that is a whole other conversation).

Mumbai India

 This is a horribly smoggy picture is of the slums
The city is markedly cleaner than any we have seen in India, the traffic, while horrendous, is polite and obeys traffic signals.  Yes, there is honking, but it is not incessant as we have experienced elsewhere.  
 
Mumbai/Bombay is a city of contrasts.  As you drive in from the airport the first thing you see is extreme poverty, people living in areas similar to the favelas of Rio de Janiero, this with a background of brand new sky scrapers and Antilia the 27-floor residence belonging to businessman Mukesh Ambani, which cost 1 Billion dollars to build – yes I meant that with a B. (some accounts say $2billion)  Oh and by the way, he only has 2 daughters, so there are only 5 people living in the house (his mother being the 5th), oh except the staff of 600.

Antilla, India

Antilia
 
Bombay comes from the Portuguese word Bombaim, and the Portuguese architectural influence is truly in your face in the heart of the city.  This architecture combines Gothic, Victorian, Art Deco and Indo-Saracenic along with modern and highly contemporary styles.  After Miami, Bombay has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world.

Bombay, India

The Victoria Train Station
The smog is horrific, and the poverty so prevalent, and yet the wealth is so prevalent, it is truly and sadly a great city of contrasts. 
Dec 042013
 

The very first night that we joined our tour group the leader asked us to say why we had come to India. ” I love my country, don’t get me wrong, but it takes a special type of traveler to come here.”  

 
You all know I just did it because I have no memories or emotional attachments to India, and I needed to get away.  For those reasons I had not done any research, again those of you that know me, know I would normally have read 15 books by now on the subject, but I just couldn’t rally to do anything but follow Mom onto the airplane.

 
I do not know if that was a good or bad idea, it was simply the way it was.
 
It is true, it takes a special type of traveler to do India.  If filth, and poverty appall you, do not come.  If a consistent diet of a foreign country, with no real “American food” in sight bothers you, do not come.  If the lack of a moment of silence is too much for you, do not come.  If heat, bugs and frightening toilets bother you, do not come.  If having poor and filthy hands shoved in your face everywhere you go, begging for even a crumb of food or a coin, do not come.  If every time you get out of your car or bus and you are surrounded by trinket hawkers that DO NOT GIVE UP until you have either slammed the door or purchased something, do not come.
 
HOWEVER, I have fallen in love with this country.  All of those things are counterbalanced by some of the most gorgeous art and architecture you can imagine.  I have tried to write and photograph the thousands of moments that have taken my breath away, I cannot, for that, you must come. 
 
Those hawkers and beggars are dressed in saris and lungis of colors and patterns that make you want to go home, import every piece of fabric you have laid eyes on and share them with the world. 
The smog and filth abounds everywhere.  I read where a French ambassador to Calcutta went home after three years and was told he had the lungs of a habitual smoker (he had never smoked in his life).  To a point it makes it difficult to travel here.  Most of our fellow travelers have developed colds and I have constant headaches, but remember Los Angeles looked like this in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  I do not condone the situation, I am just trying to make an historical point.
 
This country has a truly horrible graft and corruption problem.  I have found however, that it is out in the open.  People get into government for the express purpose of taking baksheesh for permits, line jumping, favors of all sorts.  Who ever thinks that doesn’t happen in the United States is naive, we just call it political campaign support.
Here however, since it is so accepted, the newspapers no longer report on it, and people no longer get upset, hey, if everyone is doing it, what is the big deal?  How far away are we from that?  To counter that argument, we have clean water and clean air, because we got fed up with large corporations dumping toxics into our environment and demanded something be done.  I do not know how long it will take for India to choke to death on its own pollution before people start standing up and saying, bribery, progress and profits aside, we are killing ourselves.  
 
In 1996 a World Bank study estimated air pollution killed more than forty thousand people annually in just 6 cities that it surveyed. The total health costs for the country resulting from illnesses caused by pollution was estimated at $9.7 billion, approximately 4.5% of India’s GDP.
 
 
 
India’s population is growing annually by the size of Australia.  By 2020 they will have surpassed China in population.  Sadly, however, the infrastructure is not keeping up.  At the rate of growth they need an additional 127,000 schools, therefore their Illiteracy rates are appalling.  They need 2.5 million new homes, which is why people sleep on the sides of the roads and in the public places, the poor will never be able to compete for housing when there is that kind of shortage.  They need 4 million new jobs, hence the poverty.  Even simple things like the need for 190 million meters of cloth to clothe that type of population growth, is something to think about.  Then last, and of course saddest, is that they will need 12.5 million quintals of grain each year. 
Dec 032013
 

I mentioned that our guide had the most wonderful smile, and a fabulous laugh.  THAT is India.  Smiles and laughter are everywhere, and they are infectious.  I also want to talk about helpfulness. If we do not have Indian colleagues or friends most Americans contact with the Indian culture is through call-centers.  We dread them, we rail against them, and frankly I have always said that hearing, yes ma’am, I am sorry ma’am, I am so sorry ma’am, does NOT answer my problem it only makes me angry.  Fix the problem and stop punctuating every single sentence with sorry ma’am!  BUT, I have found that is very much a part of the culture.  Obsequious helpfulness is the norm, but when you see the smile put with it, not something you get at the end of a transcontinental phone call, it somehow is no where near as annoying.  Probably isn’t going to change my abhorrence of call-centers, but at least I get it now.

The bindi.  Sanskrit for drop.   The bindi is the color or ornament between the brows.  The bindi has many, many other names, but that is the most common.  It has historical meaning, religious meaning, even to some, it states marriage versus single. The colors also can have meaning to some, but today in the era of stick-on bindi’s the color meanings are somewhat lost.  The area between the eyebrows is the sixth chakra, and is the area for knowledge and enlightenment. The bindi is said to retain energy and strengthen concentration.  It is also said to protect against demons or bad luck (the representation of the third eye). Cool huh?  We should all sport the bindi, we could use all the knowledge and enlightenment we could get in this day and age.

The pen box decorates the cenotaph of the traditional Mughal male and the writing tablet was placed on the top of the woman’s cenotaph.   This was for you to write your good deeds down that you did together when you go to meet your maker. How romantic!

The light.  This is a discussion more for my friend Alex, and fellow traveler Christian, but I want to mention it here.  We are so spoiled with the light in California.  The sky is blue, and clean and that effects your photographic settings, i.e. it is easy to get a good shot, that is why soooo many photographers say “the light’, “the light” when they discuss shooting in our beautiful state.

Well, I feel I failed miserably with my photography in India.  The smog refracts the light and makes your photographs look pixelated.  I shoot on aperture, and no matter how much I adjusted the ISO my photos were usually blown out.  It is sad, and now I know I need to go back home and take a photography class for those stuck shooting in less than ideal conditions.  And yes Alex, I even shot on auto (heaven forbid) and those didn’t even come out – ouch!

I have spoken many times of the religions of India.  When millions of people, of different religions live in close proximity so much can happen.  In India, throughout their history they have lived together peacefully and happily.  Sure like everywhere, there are extremists and problems, but basically they get along.  For example, Muslims make the traditional masks and paraphernalia required for the Hindu celebration of Ramlila, without the co-operation of these two religions the Benares Hindu could not celebrate their religious epic.  They accept each others beliefs, and sometimes take on each others deities.  There are two famous Hindu tennis players that happily wear christian crosses around their necks. Our guide Annapurna called it “opportunistic praying”.  When you believe in more than one deity, why not ask all of them for help!

Mom jokingly said she could become hindu.  Their religion is easy going, happy, and based on the most delightful mythical stories.  As a buddhist, I truly feel at home with all the different deities, Ganesha ( a Hindu diety) is my new companion, he removes obstacles and brings good luck, I need that right now so very much.

I brought up this subject because I wanted to say how at peace this country has made me.  After a long walk on the Camino de Santiago with Julie Belott, I was getting there, and came home from Spain much calmer, but here I have found peace.  My journey of mourning is no where near over, but this was a marvelously peaceful and refreshing stop on that journey.

My last thing I wanted to discuss was my Mother.  WOW, she was a trooper.  She is the energizer bunny, about the time most people were ready to quit and head for their rooms she looked at me and off we went shopping!!!!  We had three places where stairs were rather considerable and she took a palanquin, frankly I think that is the way to live! The Indian people loved her, and she loved them.  They would constantly stop and ask if they could take her picture and she would happily oblige.  The kids on field trips would ALL want to say hello and shake her hand, she was like the president, she never missed a one.  I thank her for being such a GREAT traveling companion and so much fun to be with.