Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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 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
Thursday, August 5, 2010
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 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.
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
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.