Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Taj Mahal

Sheela and I are up before 5 AM and eager to get going so we can see the sunrise over the Taj.  Sheela manages to get hot water delivered to our room, and we make some instant coffee to help us wake up.  Breakfast will have to wait, because they don't start serving until 7.  We meet our driver outside at 6:30.  It is already beginning to get light, but there is a dense fog.

We arrive at the entrance and walk into the visitors center.  It costs only 20 rupees (about 30 cents) for Indian nationals, and 750 rupees (about $12) for foreign visitors, a difference that seems quite reasonable to me.  We climb into the open air taxi they provide and ride up to the entrance.  As we arrive, we are surrounded by vendors, each assuring us he has the best souvenirs at the best price.  Once inside the gates, it all quiets down.  We are early enough to beat the crowds, but it is still foggy.  As we go through the east gate and reach the point where everyone gasps at the beauty, this is what we see.

I'm told that the Taj Mahal is hiding somewhere in that dense fog!

So stay with me here, it does get better.  We walk around inside the Taj, and are rewarded for our early rising with few visitors and quiet surroundings.  We are able to inspect the fantastic floral designs and calligraphy up close.  

The Taj was built by Shah Jahan I as a mausoleum and funerary garden for his third wife, Empress Mumtaz, who died in 1631 giving birth to her 13th child.  Shah Jahan is said to have been so devastated by her death that his hair turned white in the few months following her passing.  The Taj is located on the banks of the Yamuna River, one of the two primary rivers of India, and is surrounded by beautiful fountains and gardens.  It is constructed of beautiful white marble, and is adorned inside and out with amazing floral designs and calligraphy that are made from inlaid semi-precious stones from around the world.  The Taj, the gardens and the outbuildings are all perfectly symmetrical except that the Empress's coffin is in the middle of the main room of the mausoleum, while the Shah's coffin is to one side.  (It's important to note which gate you come in, because one could easily accidentally go out the wrong gate and wonder where their transportation is!)

We took our time exploring the Taj, the gardens, and the outbuildings, hoping that the fog would lift.  We even took our time going through the museum.  But the fog just seemed to get denser.   We were getting hungry, and were wishing we'd brought a snack.  We also hadn't checked out of our hotel, so we needed to get back in time to do that.  Finally we sat down on a bench and just looked in the direction of the Taj.  And very slowly, the outlines of the building began to emerge.  We were finally able to see everything, even the crescent moon on top.  There was some magic in the appearance of the Taj out of the fog that made up for the initial disappointment.  All well worth the effort to see what Rabindranath Tagore called "a tear drop on the cheek of time."

We were requested not to take pictures inside the Taj building.  Many people did, but I didn't.

The inlays are truly beautiful.

Sitting outside the Taj.  We were all asked to wear these coverings on our shoes.

A panel on the outside of the Taj.

The floral theme is repeated in red sandstone in the outbuildings.


A lucky monkey to live surrounded by such beauty.

Watch for it...

It's getting better!

As good as it gets for us that day.

Good friends, an unforgettable adventure together.

Ok, just one more picture of me at the Taj.  

Leaving Agra.  I've taken a lot of pictures of people on bicycles, but I think this is my favorite one.

Transporting the bricks that are made in the area surrounding Agra.  Agra itself is a poor city.

They may just be dump trucks, but they are festive!

Trip to New Delhi and Agra

Sheela and I left for the airport Friday morning at 9:30.  Just as we were getting under way, she asked me if I had my ticket.  No, I never print it out, I just show them my ID and they find it online.  Oops!  Not so in India.  Turns out you need the ticket to even get into the airport.  So glad she asked me!

We made it to the airport in good time, with enough time to read the paper while we were waiting.  The flight itself was uneventful, lasting about 3 hours.  It was quite misty when we landed in New Delhi, and cold compared to Chennai.  I was glad I had brought a sweater!

Arriving in the New Delhi airport.  It's colder here, and people are dressed in sweaters and jackets.

Sheela is an experienced business traveler, so in no time at all we were in a cab headed to our hotel.  As usual, the traffic was crazy.  But the feel of New Delhi is different, and it isn't just the weather.  The roads seem to be in better shape, and we drove past some beautiful big buildings in park like settings.   Of course, this is the capital of India and here is where foreign dignitaries are received and entertained.  But there are really two New Delhis.  The other one, for the rest of us, is like the rest of India.  To quote a line from a novel set in New Delhi, "Delhi is a city where civilization can appear and disappear within five minutes."

We stayed at the Hotel Southern in the city.  It is a nice hotel, primarily targeted at Indian business travelers.  It is in a very busy part of the city, close to the Karol Bagh market where the streets are full of vendors selling everything!  We settled in and then went out to find a bite to eat.  The hotel staff recommended Sandoz, just a few blocks down.  It didn't look like much, but the food was good.  Then we headed to the market, of course!  It was overwhelming!  So many people!  So many vendors!  And they were all determined to sell us something.  The traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, was incredible.  Even where there were sidewalks, it was necessary to walk in the streets, dodging the traffic.  Sheela believes people in the north tend to be more aggressive, and their driving style seemed to confirm that.  We bought a few things and headed back to the hotel.  

Saturday Sheela had a business meeting in the morning.  I opted not to head out on the street, since I didn't have a specific destination.  I would have liked to walk the streets taking pictures, but I saw no other non-Indians in the area.  Besides that, I realized that I saw very few women in the streets!  It really surprised me, because in Chennai there are as many women as men out and about.  Maybe it was just that particular area, but it seemed to be true in other parts as well.  In Chennai it is common to see women dressed in bright colors driving motorcycles through the streets side by side with the men.  In Delhi, I saw few women even riding motorcycles.

I spent part of the morning looking out my second story window, which looked out on the intersection below.  Sometimes I opened the window and took pictures.  The morning passed quickly.  The hotel had been kind enough to allow me late checkout, so when Sheela arrived in the afternoon we checked out, found the car and driver we had hired to take us to Agra, stopped to buy some snacks, and hit the road.

Hiring a car and driver is more expensive than taking a bus, but it is also safer and more comfortable, and I believe is worth the extra money.  Even then, Sheela says one has to be careful to use a reputable service.   We hired the car and driver for the whole trip to Agra and back for a little over $100.

The ride to Agra was quite interesting.  New Delhi is in the state of Delhi, which is mostly comprised of Old and New Delhi.  Agra is in the state of Utter Pradesh.  The road to Agra is the nicest road I've been on here and rivals US expressways.  Good pavement, three lanes, limited access.  Even so there were  plenty of motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians.  But I don't think I saw a bullock cart on this road.

We drove through farm land with field after field of wheat.  To an old country girl like me, it was beautiful!  And we also drove through an area that was devoted to brick making.  Very interesting.

We arrived in Agra after dark, after about a 3 1/2 hour ride.  The driver took us to our hotel and warned us not to go out, because it wasn't safe to out after dark, especially for women.  We stopped to buy some fruit from a street vendor and headed straight to the Hotel Deviram Palace.  We had a few problems with the hotel - dirty sheets, cold water.  But Sheela dealt with each of these challenges, and we finally were able to take hot showers and climb into beds with clean sheets.  Thank goodness she speaks Hindi, which is the language spoken here.  Each state has its own language, so it can be a real challenge!  (I plan to do a whole blog on languages one of these days.)

We set the alarm for 5 AM, and I fell asleep with visions of the Taj Mahal dancing in my head!

One of the park like settings in New Delhi.  There are lovely places here worth exploring.

Crazy traffic leaving the airport.  No surprise.

The Karol Bagh market.  Vendors here can be pretty aggressive.

I did NOT stop in for a Big Mac!

The style of dress in North India has more bling, as you can see from these dresses.  I decided to stick with more traditional South Indian dress.

We stopped in at a sweet shop to buy a treat to take home to Ravi and the girls.  No, none of these translates to "dark chocolate."  Most Indian sweets seem to be coconut, nut or seed based, often made with jaggery, a traditional unrefined sugar that is a concentrated product of date, cane juice or  palm sap.  Very tasty, but not dark chocolate.....

There were a lot of bicycle rickshaws here.

And bicycles pulling loads.

Sometimes the load is so heavy one has to get off and push.

Who has the right of way here?  I could never drive in India!

Same intersection, just a couple minutes later.

If one is tired enough, he can sleep anywhere!

The wheat fields of Utter Pradesh.

Brick making in Utter Pradesh.

A very nice road.

Unfortunately, I saw a number of scenes like this on that very nice road!

Monday, February 17, 2014

From the Heart: Motivation and Appreciation

Not sure why, but I've been indulging in a bit of reflection lately.  So I'm going to take a break from my typical travelogue today to do a couple of things.  First, to tell you why I blog, and second to thank you for reading this.  And just so I don't totally lose your interest, I'll include pictures that don't fit into any particular topics.

So, why?  Not why am I here.  Maybe I'll maybe address that later.  But why do I blog?  The primary reason is to share my experiences with friends and family.  I am very fortunate to be doing this, and it only seems right to share it with others, to the extent that's possible.  Besides, it means more than you can imagine to know that I have company on this adventure!  I do miss you, and every time I get a comment or email from one of you, it makes me smile to know that you are with me. I also am very grateful for the new friends I am making through the blog.  Another benefit is, of course, that I have a record of my experiences to look back on.

Watching the sunrise over the Bay of Bengal in Pondicherry.  Reflecting on my good fortune.

The other important motivation for this blog is to encourage people to have the courage to live life to the fullest, whatever that means for you!  I am a 67 year old woman who is on her own, visiting India for the first time.  If I can do something this crazy, if I can embark on such an unlikely adventure, if I can continue to learn and grow by taking on life's challenges, then what might you be able to do?

I know that as I've aged, it has been tempting to think that I need to stay home, not to take risks, to be safe, to believe that the most interesting part of my life is over.  I think it is especially easy for women who are older and alone to think that we can't do much.  I used to think of all the reasons I couldn't do something, and I always found plenty of them.  Now I look at opportunities that come my way as gifts, and I believe one should graciously accept the gifts that are presented to her.

I'm not trying to convince everyone to plan a trip to India, although I'm finding it to be a very rich experience.  What I do want to encourage you to do is to, "take risks, and be safe!"  as my friend Patick advised me.  It won't cure all your ills, that's for sure.  You will still be fearful, but you will learn that you can be courageous and do it anyway!  If you are lonely, you will still be lonely, but you will learn that life can be full and meaningful even on your own.  Whatever it is that you decide to do, once done, will increase your confidence in your ability to live life fully.  

So take risks, but please remember to be safe too.  One of the reasons I'm able to enjoy my time here is that I'm aware of the very real dangers that exist, and I'm taking appropriate actions to mitigate the risks.  So when I read that a woman was raped on a train leaving Chennai, I looked for transportation other than trains to take me where I want to go.  Pay attention.  Don't let your fear immobilize you, but do listen to your intuition.

Okay, enough of that.  The other thing I want to express is my gratitude to you for coming along with me!  As I said earlier, I miss my friends back home!  I get lonely, even though I'm surrounded by a loving family.  I would say I get homesick, but in fact this IS my home now, and I'll probably be homesick when I leave here!  Anyway, your company is very much appreciated.  It's good to have you along, and I hope you'll stay with me for the rest of this adventure.

And most of all thanks to all the people who are making it possible for me to do this.  Ravi, Sheela, Shruti, Shraddha, Pravin, Indrani, Vignesh, Kannan, to name a few of my support crew here in India.  And thanks too to the folks back home who are collecting my mail, paying my bills and taking care of my car.  It takes a village to send an old woman on an adventure to India!

Here are some miscellaneous pictures for you.  Next blogs will be New Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal!

Ravi and Sheela on their wedding day.  Aren't they a handsome couple?  Indian weddings are very elaborate events and typically last many days.  Their wedding was simple by comparison, but still seems quite elaborate, based on the pictures they shared.

Part of the wedding ceremony involves placing a ring on the bride's toe.  Interesting, isn't it?

The beach in Chennai.

It rained yesterday, a rare event for Chennai in February.  This picture of the rain is taken from my balcony.  I didn't put up the dragonfly decoration.  It was already here waiting for me.  (The dragonfly is my totem animal.)

Visiting Kalekshetra, wearing some of my FabIndia clothes.  

Just down the street from us is a shelter for abandoned cows.  I love walking past, since the smell reminds me of growing up on a dairy farm!

In Pondicherry, a monument to Ambedkar, who was a freedom fighter, a crusader for social justice and the first law minister in independent India.  He was in charge of drafting the constitution, and ensured that the practice of untouchability was abolished.  He himself was an "untouchable."  When his proposal to expand women's rights failed in parliament, he resigned in disgust.

A fence at Auroville.  Not sure how it was made, but it was quite effective and went on for quite some distance.

In the waiting room at the eye doctor's.  The man in white is wearing the traditional veshti, also known as a dhoti.  It is common to see men in traditional dress in Chennai.  By the way, I got an excellent eye exam for under $10.  Although my prescription has changed some, it doesn't warrant new glasses.  I need to go back in one year to see how my cataracts are doing.

The veshti can also be folded up.  It is very common to see men going about their daily work, walking down the street, riding motorcycles or bicycles, dressed in veshtis that have been folded up.

I often take pictures from the car, trying to capture candid street scenes.  This time I was in an auto rickshaw, and I got caught!  

Indrani is not only a fantastic cook and a dear sweet person, she is also beautiful!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Arunachaleshwar temple

It is impossible to visit India without seeing temples.  They are like churches in the U.S. in that they are ubiquitous.  They are different in that they are usually much more ornate.  Some temples are truly amazing and attract a lot of tourists, both foreign and domestic.  Temples are also often destinations for pilgrims.  It is estimated that there are several hundred thousand Hindu temples in India.  The official government count for Tamil Nadu, the state I am visiting, is 34,000.  Ravi said it's probably double that if you count all the little village temples.

Last month when Barbara and I were on our road trip, we visited a number of temples.  The first was the Arunachalaeshwar temple in Tiruvannamalai, not far from the Ramana Ashram.  (Remember - the place where we ate sitting on the floor from banana leaves.). We visited the temple on Pongal, the festival day.  Both the temple and the crowd were overwhelming.

Arunachaleshwar temple seen from a distance.  This is not a picture I took, of course, but only with this perspective can you get an idea of the immensity of it.  

The temple is situated at the foot of Arunachala hill, which is believed by many to have special religious significance.  This hill is what brought Sri Ramana to Tiruvannamalai, and in fact Sri Ramana lived in the temple for about 6 months when he first arrived here.  The temple covers 24 acres, and is the largest Shaiva temple in India.  It is believed to have been around for about 2000 years, although the towers and columns probably date back about 1200 years.

A word about The Hindu religion.  There are a lot of gods and goddesses, and most can be categorized as either Shaiva or Vaishna gods, so the temples usually fall into one or the other of these categories.  I may try to tackle a blog entry on this topic in the future, but I haven't even really gotten a good start on Hinduism for beginners.  I've been quizzing Ravi on this, and was thinking about finding a book that would lay it all out neatly for me.  But Ravi said most Indians don't really care about that.  They choose their god or goddess for their own reasons, either because it was their family or community deity, or due to a personal reason.  So I may or may not try to figure it out, and for now, I'll just leave it at that.

In retrospect, it would have benefited us to do a little more homework before we went to the temple.  As it was, we weren't even sure exactly which gate we got dropped off at.  The crowds were so thick, we were lucky to get to any gate!  We joined the throngs of people, left our shoes with all the others, and headed into the gate.  As you can see, there are temples within temples here, and we just kind of followed the crowds.  Actually, the pavement was so hot that at one point our main objective was to find a shady spot to head towards so our feet wouldn't burn up.  This was good preparation for walking on hot coals, in case we ever decide to give that a try.

Once we got into the depths of the inner temple it was dark and felt very closed in.  There were long queues to get into the innermost sanctum, which we opted to forego.  We didn't want to find ourselves somewhere we weren't supposed to be.  We didn't see any other non-Indians, and in fact we became the tourist attraction when we were asked to pose with children so they could have their pictures taken with us!  Everyone was very friendly, but it was kind of overwhelming.  We discovered that many of the people there were from other parts of India, and were there to celebrate Pongal.

A disclaimer.  It is very difficult to take picture of anything so big.  I also felt a little conspicuous taking pictures, so I took fewer pictures than I might have otherwise.  I chose not to take any pictures at all inside the inner temple.

Outside the temple there are lots of street vendors.

Looking back at one of the towers once we had entered the temple gate.

Dancing Shiva.

Every direction we looked there was another amazing sight.

A kolam that was beginning to show wear after all the people walking on it.

How in the world did they do this?  It really makes one think.

Mount Arunachala in the distance.

A model of the temple complex was provided so people could get a better idea of the layout.

Looking back at the gate as we are leaving.