Thursday, April 29, 2010


Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in West Bengal is one of the jewels of the British colonial period. Sort of. Who else but Europeans would build on a flood plain? Here I had a very strange experience when Times Guest House kicked me out after two nights. I asked for a receipt for my visa registration, and because their computer was "broken", they couldn't give me one and told me I had to leave. Sounds really improbable, right? Especially since the power goes out so often in India, no one relies solely on computer for their business. (In fact, the power went out while I was writing this!) I suspect that they didn't register me properly (whether for a legitimate or an illegal reason), and because I needed proof I was staying there, the paper trail would get them in trouble. At the least: Inconvenient! Yeah, I made a scene.

I took a worthwhile day tour with West Bengal Tourism. The most worthwhile part was the air conditioned bus. The temperature was only 36 degrees here, but the humidity: about 90%. The Sheethalnathji Jain Temple was a colourful confection of architecture with one really strange statue. I took darshan (seeing and being seen by the goddess) at Ramakrishna's Kali Temple, where I also saw the tide come up the Hooghly (a branch of the Ganges River Delta). We also visited the Vivekananda temple complex, St. Paul's Cathedral, the Police Museum, and saw the biggest reservoir in the world.

The Netaji Museum is in Subash Chandra Bose's former house. He was involved in the Independence movement, but we don't hear much about him in the Western world because he advocated violent struggle against the British. (We also don't hear much about how effective violent resistance sometimes was in achieving India's Independence.) Promoting Gandhi's nonviolence movement is much more popular for managing contemporary colonies.

The Victoria Memorial is surprisingly tasteful in white marble, and had an interesting art exhibit inside, showing colonial travelers' impressions of India.

The Indian Museum's collection of religious sculpture included Buddhist sculpture from circa 2nd century Afghanistan, where the Buddha sometimes grew a moustache. My favourite was a 5th century Buddha which looked surprisingly realistic in comparison with the stylized sculpture that was normal at this time. The museum also had some creepy bottled babies.

The last day I saw a good play called Wire put on by Jadavpur University English department. I also hunted down the flower market, which is popular for photos. This guy caught his friends trying to put all kinds of flowers in his hair while he was posing. On the way there I was much more delighted to find the FRUIT market, where a banana auction was happening!

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Varanasi (formerly Benares) is the holy city on the Ganges river. Hindus consider it auspicious to be cremated here, and pilgrims travel here when they grow old. I would also add that when you arrive and smell the city, you say "Holy #@%&$!" The 44 degree temperature probably contributed to the effect, but the open sewers didn't help.

I found a beautiful spider in my bathroom. Sunscreen bottle included for perspective.

My mom told me that when she returned to Canada after visiting me here, people kept asking her if she saw cows wandering around everywhere. She didn't, but she didn't visit Varanasi. In the cow belt, they ARE everywhere. I took this photo of a cow checking out the menu at a restaurant.

Sunrise and sunset boat rides are the best way to see the ghats, the steps down to the river's edge. Here people bathe, wash clothing, pray, teach, cremate the dead, and sell things. Because there were so many sales pitches, I often found it difficult to remember that most people come to the ghats to worship!

Lotus offerings to Mother Ganges float among the rowboats. Sometimes photography takes a little luck.

A little Photoshop work on the photo with holy men crossing the ghats. The bathing man wasn't naked, but the colour of his shorts sure made it LOOK like he was naked.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Life of the Buddha

During one week I followed the Buddhist pilgrimage circuit of the four major events of the Buddha's life.

The Buddha was born in Lumbini in the 6th century BCE, a prince named Siddharta Gautama. Now Lumbini is in Nepal, near the border with India. The Maya Devi temple, named after his mother, was built on the location, and is now surrounded by monastery ruins, prayer flags, and modern monasteries built by pilgrims from around the world. In the 2nd century BCE, Emperor Ashoka, who is the reason for the spread of Buddhism around the world, made a pilgrimage here and left one of his famous columns.

Lumbini was also the site of one of my worst travel experiences ever, when I caught someone watching through the bathroom vent while I was showering. I'm sure he was working there, or had some relationship with the staff, although the managers all denied knowing who he was. Obviously, after shouting at the managers for a while, I stormed out to another hotel. Lumbini Guest House: Do Not Stay!

Bodhgaya is the holiest pilgrimage site for Buddhists, because this is where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, or nirvana, while sitting in meditation underneath a bodhi tree. A descendant of that tree is in front of the Mahabodhi Temple in the photo. Surrounding the temple are numerous votive stupas built by pilgrims. Many of them are made of rubble of ruined stupas, with no apparent interest in putting puzzle pieces in order. Ashoka visited here too, and built an arch. Bodhgaya also has a huge Buddha statue, where I scorched my feet on a very brief attempt to approach the statue properly barefoot. The people who constructed the walkways in Bodhnath were definitely not thinking: red sandstone gets really hot in the sun, and even white marble is too uncomfortable. Black marble = egg-frying (or foot-frying) hot! I also attended a zazen session here--sitting meditation in the Japanese Zen Buddhist tradition.

Sarnath, where the Buddha began to teach the Middle Way, is filled with gorgeous monastery ruins, the ruins of the huge Dhamekh Stupa with unique carvings, another Ashokan column, and a temple built by a Sri Lankan pilgrim, with lovely frescoes by Japanese artist Kosetsu Nosi. The archaeology museum here holds the famous Ashokan lion capital, now a symbol of India on all paper currency. The sculpture stands alone in craft and preservation; aside from a broken jaw on one lion, and other minor bumps, it looks like it was carved last week. I was also fascinated with a large sculpture of a parasol--important in Buddhist symbolism--but other visitors to the museum seemed much more fascinated with the foreigner.

The Buddha took mahaparinirvana (the great final nirvana)

in Kushinagar, when he was an old man. A person can achieve nirvana, or escape from suffering, during her life; someone who dies in this state achieves parinirvana, and escapes from the cycle of rebirths. As far as I know, only the Buddha claims mahaparinirvana. A stupa was built on the site, and a temple to house the 5th century CE statue, carved from red sandstone, and now covered in gold leaf by pilgrims. Here also are the ruins of a huge stupa, and a temple built on the site of the Buddha's last sermon.

All of these sites were windy, dry, dusty, and hot--around 40 to 45 Celsius. While traveling around by bus, train, and foot, the parched landscape caused me some deep anxiety. I wonder if this was a completely unfamiliar landscape to me, having grown up in the middle of vast amounts of water in the Canadian Great Lakes, when two weeks without rain is considered "dry." Or perhaps this was some other deeper fear of the famine that is often associated with such a landscape. I've included photos of the dust blowing across the road, and the necessity of covering up from the sun and blowing dust. No, I don't look like a "terrorist," I look like someone trying to keep cool, and to keep dust out of my mouth, nose, and ears. It seems counterproductive, but covering yourself from the sun in such a heat makes a big difference. Drinking 4 litres of water a day also helps.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Around Kathmandu, and Pokara

I'm looking back to last week for this post, but I wanted to add a short note about right now. It is 40-45 degrees during the day right now, which is REALLY REALLY hot!! I've found it interesting that when it gets so hot, I better cover up. I generally don't go outside without covering my head, and I'm sorry that I didn't bring a long-sleeved cotton shirt.

My last few days in Kathmandu I spent visiting the areas outside the centre. Bodhnath (also known as Boudha) is yet another stupa said to contain a relic of the Buddha. I spent half the day wandering around visiting the monasteries and watching the pilgrims. One monk led me through a prayer in a monastery. For a while, I also watched a nun prostrating herself around the circumfrence of the stupa. I also tried Tibetan tea, which is made with yak butter.

From there I made my way to a tiny village which has a beautiful Vajrayogini temple. On the climb I met a god coming down the mountain, carried by people living there. Just as I got to the top it started to rain and thunder, which was great because I had been missing rain and thunderstorms, but not so great for photos. I also had some time where I thought I might get soaked getting back down the mountain in time for the last bus.

The next day I visited Patan, and was very impressed with its Durbar Square. I've included a photo where you can see King Yoganarendra's statue on a pillar in the centre, which is over 300 years old. This square was much quieter than the one in Kathmandu proper, because traffic was blocked, and there were no markets set up.

On a walking tour around Patan I came upon a festival at the Kumbeshwar Temple, which has five storeys. I'm not sure what was going on, but almost all the women were dressed in red saris, and the focus was on teenage boys dressed in yellow, with shaven heads and decorated bow and arrows. I watched them go through several stages of puja.

The Buddhist Golden Temple was filled with beautiful icons, and you can see more photos in the Facebook B-list. Nepali temples are strikingly different from Indian temples. They are usually built with pagodas, and I saw as many as 5 tiers on the roof. They also have a metal banner laying down one side, which I don't know the meaning of, and I definitely intend to learn more about this style of religious architecture!

Pokhara is a much smaller and MUCH quieter tourist town, where many people begin a trek to the Annapurna range in the Himalayas. Due to a lack of time and a still-healing ankle, I only did short walks around the hills. On the hike to the World Peace Pagoda I grabbed the first foreigner I saw, so I wouldn't have to walk alone. He happened to be a really cool American named Ben, and I don't think we ever ran out of things to talk about. First, Devi's Falls, with some amazing erosion, but not such an amazing amount of water. I'm really starting to see the effect of the summer dry season. I was somewhat disappointed with the World Peace Pagoda. I hear it has some really great views of the Annapurnas, but the haze/pollution really got in the way of seeing anything.

Finding Ben to split the cost of an early morning (five am) taxi made it worthwhile to go up into the mountains to Sarangkot, where there are legendary views of the sunrise in the mountains. That day there was a running commentary from a stout German man to everyone within range, so there was no doubt when the sun rose over the mountains. It was amazing to see Macchupucchre, the most distinctive peak in the range, looming through the early morning glow. It shook me repeatedly to realize that when I looked for the peak, I always needed to look higher. Then, the best yet. After a small breakfast on the mountain, we decided to go back for one more look, and there were the mountains! It continued to get clearer for the next hour, but it was impossible to capture on film. The mountains actually fill the sky.

The hike back down was nearly as interesting, because we decided to disregard the locals' advice that we "wouldn't find the path" and spent some time wandering through the terraced fields, and eventually walking down a dry stony riverbed. That afternoon we visited one of the Tibetan refugee settlements, and watched young monks at the monastery sit through a ceremony with various levels of boredom. Finally, since the local public transportation is not designed for tourists (ie. non-existent for tourists), we hitched a ride back into town on a tractor. That got us plenty of smiles from the locals we passed!