Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bhaktapur and Changu Narayan

Nepal is vastly underrated. This past year I took two trips, primarily for visa purposes, but both times I discovered amazing landscapes, gorgeous architecture and sculpture, fascinating history, and cool people.
I'm looking forward to visiting again some day, perhaps in winter just after the monsoon, to complement my summer and monsoon visits.

Bhaktapur hosts the third historical square in the Kathmandu valley, after Durbar Square in Kathmandu, and Patan's Durbar Square. Durbar Square in Bhaktapur has an amazing golden door into the king's palace.
In the photo of Vatsala Temple you can see two bells; the Taleju bell on the right was for prayers, and the "barking bell" (partly shown) on the left was erected to counteract a king's vision.

A walking tour around Bhaktapur gives a glimpse into more traditional Nepali life, from worship at the Mahakali Temple to red chilis drying on the roadside.

Apparently another Canadian was wandering the streets, because I ran into this boy with a flag pin in his ear. His friend got a pin from me.

Religious icons often have flowers on them, but the monsoon made some striking combinations. Halfway through my walking tour, and well into the afternoon, it started to rain, so I grabbed a bowl of juju dhau, and caught the bus back to Kathmandu.

The southeast side of Bhaktapur included Potter's Square, filled with drying clay pots, and surrounded by pottery wheels and shops.

This photo shows Bhairabnath Temple from Nyatapola Temple at Taumadhi Tole.

The next day I returned, and took a side trip to Changu Narayan, a temple complex with the most impressive single collection of religious carving: all outdoors! The most interesting were an idol of Vishnu riding his mountGaruda (also on the 10 rupee note), and Vishnu with seven of his ten incarnations represented as heads on one body. Although there's a high risk of getting rained on during the monsoon, it's also a wonderful time for photography, because of the explosion of growth and colour. Many things outdoors grow a green fuzz. Pack a rain jacket and stick your camera in a bag!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Although I didn't get to trek in Nepal, I did the next best thing and went to Chitwan National Park. I spent most of my time relaxing, and met some great people, including Ruthanne, Dan, Natalie, and Izzy from Ireland, Scotland, and England.

The bus arrived in the tourist-town Saurasa in a heavy downpour. Fortunately I had packed everything into plastic bags, forseeing the possibility of my pack sitting on top of the bus during monsoon. The Tharu Cultural Dance program put on by young men from the region really impressed me. Some dances were just odd, especially the one where two men dressed as women and a third danced suggestively with them, described as a traditional funeral dance? I must have missed some culturally-specific humour.

A morning jungle walk didn't show many animals--lots of deer, supposedly a rhino who had just lay down in the tall grass--but plenty of fascinating sights nevertheless. The tall grass cut up the skin on my arms (long sleeves people!), and we saw tracks of wildcat, mongoose, rhino, and more deer. Claw marks on a tree from a tiger, a flying dung beetle (described as a "shit beetle" by my guide), and plenty of insects and flora, including mimosa, which curls up its leaves if touched. The coolest thing I found myself was this bubble-like fungus.

The elephants are a big draw in the park, although a source of moral conflict, since they don't always appear to be treated well.
I took an elephant safari where we saw (more) deer, and rhinos. Riding on an elephant is surprisingly uncomfortable; their walk is really jerky, and the faster they go the worse it gets. It makes those historical battle-elephants even more impressive, since riding on a running elephant and looking intimidating at the same time challenges my imagination.

I also checked out the elephants bathing, where I saw an old male getting a scrub. When I walked out to the elephant breeding centre, I passed through traditional villages where some teenage Nepali girls danced and posed for photos, and a buffalo showed far too much interest in me for my comfort. The elephant twins were the main attraction.

Sunsets were amazing, and also a great time to people-watch. One misguided tourist kept trying to break up dog fights. I don't really understand how she avoided getting bitten, but I don't doubt that she got fleas. The locals seemed completely baffled by her behaviour. Also, a crocodile was always hanging around in the river by the restaurants!

Finally, some adventure on the way back to Kathmandu. A strike had been called, and only one bus was travelling that day. We kept taking back roads to avoid blockades, and one of the bus workers instructed us to say we were part of a group, and we had to catch a flight in Kathmandu. They also packed an extra 10 people onto the bus (no fare reduction of course), which meant most of the younger guys rode on the roof. The locals we passed found it hilarious. Anyway, great conversation with a Canadian and an Australian, Deanna and Ele.

Friday, September 24, 2010

One Last Trip Part I: Pashupatinath

Before travelling back to Canada, I spent two weeks in Nepal to bridge the gap between my visa expiry date and my flight home. The original plan was to take an eight day trek in the mountains, but some health problems prevented that. They didn't prevent me from having a great time in Nepal, but I guess I'm just not meant to trek!

I started with a trip to the holiest temple in Nepal, mostly dedicated to Shiva. I lost count of the small temples.

The temple is built on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu. Here's a line of eleven temples with lingams/yonis. Cremations were also happening continuously, and here you can see the smoke rising up behind a trident, a symbol of Shiva.

I was fascinated to find anthropomorphic representations of Shiva focusing on his virility much more graphically than those in India.

The temple was filled with hundreds of red-sari-clad women. Apparently there was a festival going on, and the goal of one religious organization was to make a huge number of clay lingam/yonis.

Holy men also congregate at this temple.

I've mentioned in other blogs that I've really come to dislike monkeys; they're dirty and aggressive, but the temple had some incredibly cute baby monkeys which were at the stage of walking just enough to annoy their mothers, but still uncoordinated.

Finally, a five-temple enclosure is now the site of a home for the destitute elderly.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Fantasy Rock Garden and a Second Helping of Delhi

I'm in Nepal for two weeks, and very late (a month!) posting the final edition of my last trip. I probably won't post this Nepal trip until I'm back in Canada. My Rajasthan-Agra trip ended in Delhi to visit Nishant, another PhD student at my university in Canada, York University. The main tourist area, Pahar Ganj, had a totally different face, since the street had been gutted in preparation for the Commonwealth Games this year, and was under construction.

But first, I took a looooooong day trip to Chandigarh, the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana. Nek Chand started the Fantasy Rock Garden in the 1970s to express his artistic energies using industrial waste. The garden is a maze of imaginative landscapes, walls of mosaic art, and populated with whimsical people and animals. At times it reminded me of the Spanish artist Gaudi, but it was entirely unique at the same time. I loved it!

With a little time left before my train back to Delhi, I stopped at the High Court, and took a few photos of the Open Hand sculpture.

Back in Delhi I spent the day with Nishant. We visited the Dr. Ambedkar National Memorial, built on the site where Ambedkar died December 6, 1956, and took a brief tour around the Delhi University campus.

Next we stopped at Delhi's main gurdwara. I'm a big fan of Sikh temples; I find them very welcoming. We sat to listen to devotional songs for a while, and talked about our religious inclinations.

On to Firoz Shah, which includes a ruined mosque where people still come to pray. An Ashokan column is perched on the top of a hill which was converted into Muslim shrines. The ruins make an interesting contrast with the new sports facilities across the road under construction for the Commonwealth Games.

The light was fading fast, and then the monsoon hit with a huge force! Torrential rain flooded the streets, and my waterproof jacket was hardly any use. On top of that, our autorickshaw broke down, so we had to find a new one. Even that autorickshaw had problems navigating the flooded streets, so we had to walk a few blocks to reach the train station, sometimes through knee-deep water! A good experience of the power of the monsoon, before heading back to Pune once again.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Abandoned City

The Mughal Emperor Akbar built the city of Fatehpur Sikri, but abandoned it soon after it was built because of water shortages. It was really interesting to explore the palace complex, and the city ruins behind the palace.

The Great Gate leads into Jama Masjid, which is an active mosque. It was the single worst location for hassles in India. Shopkeepers pose as "not-a-guide" or "practicing-my-English" or "foreigners-are-required-to-have-an-escort-in-the-mosque" and they will do anything to get you to talk to them. Once you talk to them, it's almost impossible to get rid of them. "Leave me alone"; "Go away"; "I want to be alone"; and "Stop bothering me" are all useless, regardless of your level of rudeness. The only thing that works is a firm "Goodbye." It's best to just ignore them in the first place no matter what.

Once I figured out these basics, I could explore the beautiful mosque in relative peace. It's filled with regular people worshipping, intricate relief and lattice carvings, and is the site for a shrine with the tomb of Sufi Saint Salim Chisti which has amazing lattice carvings and colourful mirror and glass inlays. The saint predicted that Akbar would have a son, so people still come to pray for children here.

Inside the palace complex there are many unique buildings, including the Panch Mahal, a five-story building for keeping cool. Most of the buildings were open to the air. Some of them had fantastic carvings, especially the Khwabgah or Khalwat Kada-i-Khass, which looks like a library.

The exit to the city complex leads through the Elephant Gate, and not many people visit here, because it's not well-indicated. The elephants' heads were knocked off because representations of people and animals are forbidden in Islam. (Which allows for the development of such gorgeous geometric, floral, and calligraphic art forms in many Muslim societies.) Akbar wasn't very religious, but the later emperor Aurangzeb was fundamentalist, and he destroyed a lot of the representational artwork when he was in power, aside from doing a lot of harm to Muslim-Hindu relations.

Behind the palace is a strange-looking tower covered in stone elephant tusks, where the emperor and other dignitaries shot wild animals, after someone else flushed the game toward the tower. There were also interesting tanks, and a very nice baoli, or step-well. Here I met Katsu, a Japanese traveller, who encouraged my interest in eventually visiting Pakistan.

Agra, Finally, and a Lesson in Fashion

I'm back to blogging after moving out of my flat amid two health problems... long story, but I'm mending.

The Taj Mahal, the world's great monument to death... er, love, built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for one of his wives, Mumtaz Mahal, is just as beautiful in reality as its reputation. I finally understood why people take so many uninspired photos from the front. I prefer to capture the essence of such a huge monument through detail, and use a part to represent the whole. The Taj Mahal, however, is most beautiful as a whole; it is greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, it's impossible to capture that beauty on film. If you like my photos, just imagine how much more amazing it is in reality!

My attempts started at sunrise, and in the outtakes, I've shown some of the different lights reflecting from the white marble. The mosque to the west of the Taj, and the guest house to the east, are both beautiful monuments in themselves, and nearly identical, to maintain the symmetry of the Taj as a whole.

Photos are prohibited in the tomb interior, but it has the finest latticework carving, and pietra dura--or marble inlay with semi-precious stones. It also has the most incredible acoustics I've ever heard. This room had an echo of at least 15 seconds; it was difficult to tell, because the echo feedback created by the murmurs of visitors created something like a jet-engine roar.

Chini-ka-Rauza is the tomb of Allama Afzal Khan Mullah. He was the court poet for Emperor Jahangir, and the tomb is a sadly decaying example of the lost method of Kashikari tilework.

Itimad-ud-Daulah is the tomb Jehangir's wife built for her father. The carvings are lovely, and you can see some of the inspiration for the Taj Mahal in the all-white marble construction, the symmetry, and the marble inlay.

Agra Fort was rebuilt by Mughal Emperor Akbar, and is surrounded by a moat. Apparently they used to keep crocodiles, but now the water's smell is enough to keep away invaders. The second photo shows the Zenana, a courtyard surrounded by the women's apartments, and a central meeting pavilion. Genealogy note on the Mughal Emperors: Humayun - Akbar - Jehangir - Shah Jehan - Aurangzeb. Akbar was generally awesome, Aurangzeb was usually awful.

What Not to Wear! Most important: no matter what a shopkeeper says, and no matter how many places sell these pajama pants, they are not "Indian dress;" they are "ridiculous dress." They are meant to be worn with a knee-length kameez (long shirt), but this pant style is not in fashion right now. They are certainly not meant to be worn with any Western top, and definitely not meant to be tied at the knee! Secondly, both women and men should cover their shoulders and wear long pants or a long skirt. Thirdly, wear loose clothing. It's not just modest, it's actually cooler.

I fully support dress codes for all religious sites and other tourist attractions in India. If modest dress, from shoulders to ankles, is required to visit St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the same requirements in India are reasonable. Foreign women who dress immodestly reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that Western women are "easy," and make it way more difficult for people like me, who hope to be respected (and not propositioned all the time) while living here. It only takes one person dressing immodestly to get their photo in the newspaper and come to represent all Western women.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Pink City and the Bandh

Jaipur was my second stop in Rajasthan, and had even more wonderful forts and palaces and landscapes than Udaipur. The downside was really aggressive rickshaw drivers; you couldn't walk five steps without someone offering to drive you somewhere else. I had to reassure a woman just starting her trip in India that the hassles were particularly bad in Jaipur, and it would only get better.

In the morning, the walk for breakfast was much farther than I expected. (Guess why.) An all-India bandh, or strike, was going on that day too, so nearly every shop was closed. It was eerie! 40 minutes later I was back at my hotel for breakfast. Then I started out for the Old City. Jaipur is known as the Pink City, in a trinity with Udaipur, the White City, and Jaisalmer, (sadly not on my path) the Gold City.

Fortunately, the historical sites were open, so I stopped at Jantar Mantar. I don't know much about astronomy, but these enormous observatory structures were fascinating - and fun for photography!

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the City Palace, where Jaipur's royal family still lives. The best was Pitam Niwas Chowk, a courtyard with four entrances representing four seasons. I've included a detail from the peacock, or monsoon gate. Then the quest to find a restaurant in a closed city. On the way I met Elisa and Guillermo, a couple from Chile and Paraguay respectively. We found an open restaurant, where I had an amazing Rajasthani thali and practiced Hindi with our server, and we talked late into the night.

The next day I visited the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds, built so the royal women could watch city life while remaining in purdah. It has more than 900 windows, and the latticework allows for a nice breeze. The central part of the palace is designed to resemble a crown. Several hours of shopping later, I acquired a meenakari bangle and earrings, a couple of puppets, and some lac bangles.

The state bus schedule did not support leaving for Agra in the late afternoon, and I wanted to see Amber Fort. It was worth staying an extra night! The fort is set in the hills, so fort walls punctuated with towers wind up the rocky slopes in every direction! This courtyard is the zenana, the enclosure specifically built for the royal women, and surrounded by their apartments.

Much too close to closing time I hiked up the steep path to Jaigadh Fort above Amber Fort. There were even better views of the landscape here, and I could see all the way to the water palace. The fort also displayed what is apparently the largest wheel-mounted cannon in the world.