Wednesday, March 31, 2010


My exodus from India went as planned, but that meant about 30 hours on the road, from my front door to the hotel in Kathmandu. That meant a flight from Pune to Delhi, a layover in Delhi before a flight to Patna. From Patna I caught an overnight bus to the India-Nepal border almost right away, on which I bruised my head falling asleep against the window. The last leg of the trip from Raxaul/Birganj to Kathmandu was the most difficult. I took a cramped jeep over six hours of bone-bruising, joint-cracking, muscle-pounding bumpy roads through the mountains. After already being tired from travelling for 24 hours, it completely exhausted me. The gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys barely made up for it. Obviously I took the afternoon to recover and get a sense of the city.

Here I got to know my new camera, which meant, of course, a bunch of overexposed photos. I didn't lose anything serious, and once I figured it out, got a few great shots that wouldn't be possible with my old point-and-shoot. I started on a walking tour south of the tourist area in Thamel to the main historic area Durbar square. Buddhism in Nepal comes from a different stream than Indian Buddhism, from the Vajrayana, or Tibetan, school. Most people are familiar with the Dalai Lama; this is the school of Buddhism to which he belongs. Often Hindus and Buddhists will pray at the same temple. It was fascinating to see how the features of the gods changed in a different culture; people certainly create god in their own image! In Nepal, porters carry incredibly huge loads. Shortly after I took this photo, this man put this package -- which looked as if it must be filled with rocks -- onto his back and carried it down the street.

I spent a lot of time at the Seto Machendranath Temple, which is a large temple covered in gold-coloured metal decoration, has prayer wheels around the walls and wooden carvings in the roof supports. Many small stupas fill the square around it, and several beautiful statues of the gods. I've included here a photo of the two Taras, who are Buddhist Goddesses. I found it somewhat annoying that the square was also filled with pigeons, so it was difficult to take a photo without including them.

Durbar Square is the main historical centre, with temples dating back to the 12th century. One of my favourites was the Shiva-Parvati temple, where the holy couple peer out of the top window. I was also very excited to be able to see Kumari Devi, the living goddess of Nepal, who lives in a house with beautifully carved wooden windows. Wood carvings are used in Nepal much more often than in India, where most of the carvings are stone. Photos of the Kumari are not allowed, but photos of her courtyard are.

Early one morning I visited Swayambhunath, the site of one of the most important stupas in the Kathmandu Valley. Pilgrims were circling the stupa and spinning the prayer wheels, or standing in line to visit the goddess Hariti. There is an important gompa here as well, with a huge golden statue of Sakyamuni Buddha. Prayer wheels come in all sizes, but these children were playing around -- I don't think it really took both of them to turn the wheel! The stupa platform and the surrounding Tibetan settlements are filled with prayer flags as well as with prayer wheels. Each flag has a prayer printed on it, and every time the wind blows it, it sends the prayer. Likewise, every prayer wheel has a mantra on it, and every time a pilgrim spins the wheel, it sends the prayer. Before I left I circled the stupa to spin the prayer wheels.

On another tour of the city I found children climbing on and residents praying at a huge chariot! These chariots are built for festivals and are incredibly tall. I didn't see them move it, but I can't imagine how it doesn't fall over when they roll it around the city. (Or how they maneuver around the knots of electrical wires that seem to fill every intersection.)

Finally, the good news is that the quarrel with India is reconciled, although I think that government officials will always be ready to remind me of the fight for the rest of the year, if not the remainder of my passport, if I ever return to India in the coming years. So I'll be heading back into India in a week or two, to make the long trip back to Pune.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Delhi and Amritsar

Funny, I'm posting from Delhi on a stopover on my way to Nepal! I was here less than a week ago! I spent some time shopping for books at the Jahawarlal Nehru University with a friend's boyfriend, Ankush. (If anyone knows where I can get a copy of the Therigathas -- preferably in Nepal, I would really appreciate it!) Then we visited Qutb Minar, a tower planned by the first Muslim Indian ruler Qutb-ud-din Aibak, I was amazed with the intricate carvings, and I'll probably go back some day just to take some photos in different lighting. The surrounding complex was built from the rubble of Hindu and Jain temples that were originally on the site, continuing the age-old culture-wide tradition of knocking other people's buildings down to build your own on top. The shorter unfinished tower was meant to be taller, but they just couldn't get it up.

The next few days I spent sick in bed, with a brief and traumatizing train trip to Amritsar because I bought my ticket before I got sick. I was lucky to stay at Hotel Grace, where the owners were incredibly friendly, checked up on me regularly, and even made me a snack once! Basically I lived on biscuits and water for almost five days.

Once I recovered I took the short trip to the Pakistani border to watch the border closing ceremony at the only land crossing between the two countries. It was fascinating! It's a combination of pep rally -- including a dance party with Bollywood tunes -- and choreographed border guard demonstration.

I also visited Jallianwala Bagh, the walled park where British soldiers fired without warning on a peaceful demonstration and killed hundreds of people. The park is a beautiful but sad monument to the tragedy. I've included a photo of the Martyrs' Well; people jumped into the well trying to escape the bullets.

Lal Devi Temple was one of the more memorable Hindu temples I've visited. It's like a funhouse! You climb up and down ramps and stairs, cross over bridges, crawl through passageways, and double back on the path. There's a rack of bells that everyone loves to ring, and some of the passageways are tiled in mirrors. Through one passageway you even walk through ankle-deep water, which delighted me and more than one child. After the fun, I sat for a while to listen to women singing devotional music to the saint.

Finally, the best part of Amritsar: The Golden Temple is the holiest site for the Sikh religion, and I spent almost a whole day there. Sikhism is known in the west for the turbans Sikh men wear to keep their uncut hair tidy, and for the kirpans, the ceremonial daggers which are rarely functional weapons, but often controversial. Uncut hair and the ceremonial dagger are two of the five symbols of the Sikh brotherhood; the others are a comb, undershorts, and a steel bracelet. The turban is a cultural, rather than a religious symbol, and women rarely wear it.

I found the people here very welcoming, and everyone must remove their shoes and cover their hair. The temple also includes a langar, or community kitchen, where anyone can eat for free. The traditional guards, Sardars, are both friendly and intimidating. While I'm still taller than average, in Amritsar I didn't feel quite as monstrous as usual, since the Punjab region is known for tall men and women.

I stood in line for about 45 minutes to pray in the gurdwara, take some prohibited photographs on the roof, and listen to Sikh men singing devotional songs and recite the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, which is also the living guru. Finally, I sat and watched the sunset from the marble walkway around the pool. As usual, I took many photos, which you can find if you access Facebook. At sime I'm looking forward to taking even more photos with my new DSLR camera, on which I blew an entire month's budget yesterday.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Delhi: The Old City

I haven't posted a blog for some time, mostly because India has been kicking my butt for the past six weeks. Let's just say that I was in a six-week whirlwind relationship with bureaucracy, and they decided they didn't want to see me anymore. So I'm leaving Pune for Kathmandu, Nepal on Tuesday morning, for a few weeks. On top of that I sprained my ankle badly, and then I ended up with some sort of stomach bug that knocked me down for almost five days.

The good news is I went to Delhi, and I took hundreds of photos! I started out at the Red Fort (Lal Qila), but the lineup was huge so I decided to return another day. From there I walked to Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated. The words on the front translate roughly to "Oh God," Gandhi's last words when he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

The Jama Masjid was the next visit, and I was surprised to find it the first religious site where I didn't feel welcome. (I suspect that comes from being a woman travelling alone, in the conservative Old City of Delhi.) The mosque is beautiful though, following the red sandstone and white marble theme of many of the historical buildings in Delhi. A short stop at the India Gate, commemorating Indian soldiers, and a brief look at the Parliament buildings, which are mostly enclosed by high walls.

Back to the Red Fort to spend half a day wandering around the old buildings. The immense outer walls are built of red sandstone, and most of the inner buildings are white marble. The Mughal emperor Akbar had a personal mosque built here. Many of the buildings had pietra dura, or semi-precious stone inlaid in the marble. Where water meant wealth (and still does, to some extent), it was incredible to see the complex of fountains and waterways, and to imagine the display of power it represented. Although most of the waterways are dry now, the wealth is still displayed in the green lawns.

A short stop for Old Dehli's famous jalebis, then onward. I planned to visit the Taj Mahal in Agra on this visit, but "Delhi belly" stopped me. I did manage to complete the other "bookend" to the Taj Mahal; in Aurangabad I visited Bibi ka Maqbara, built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and influenced by the Taj Mahal, and in Delhi I visited Humayan's Tomb, built by the wife of the Mughal emperor Humayan, and a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

Stay tuned for Part II of my north-western Indian adventures!