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Posts Tagged ‘incredible’

I have to confess that I’ve never really known a lot about Sikhs. I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what made a Sikh different from other Indians. I knew that their men wore turbans to keep up the hair they never cut; I knew they had wanted an independent state; I knew that separatists took over the Golden Temple and were killed in a violent military campaign in the 1980s. In response, two Sikh bodyguards had killed Indira Ghandi for revenge and then subsequently thousands upon thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and across India.

But with all this I didn’t know anything about the religion. So before we went to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine, and the site of that terrible siege, I decided to read up. Sikhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Islam that began in the 15th century as a rejection of caste and idolatry. Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, like Hindus, but they worship only one god, like Muslims. I liked the concept already.

Golden Temple at night

But by going to the Golden Temple I really felt like I got a sense of what Sikhism was about, and I have to say it impressed me.

Obviously the most inspiring and attention-grabbing element of going to the Golden Temple is the structure itself – inside a large rectangular wall-like building sits a lake, and in the lake is a temple made of marble and gold (750kg of gold in total). We went both at night and during sunrise and at both times the temple itself shone like the sun. Especially at sunrise, when the rising sun hit it directly, you almost couldn’t even look straight at it. It was incredible. As you go closer you notice the detail – the marble base and interiors were inlaid with stones set in beautiful and intricate patterns. A door leading into the temple is made entirely of silver. Painted frescos cover every inch inside. The mastery of skill that it must have taken to build the structure is staggering.

But once beyond the physical structure, I noticed that there were many elements that were different in visiting a Sikh temple than other temples or mosques across India. First, we were completely welcome everywhere. We paid nothing to get in, we were not barred from any place and we could go and do as we pleased. Most historical and religious sites have fees to enter and require that foreigners not pass through certain areas. The Sikhs didn’t seem to mind if we went in as far as we wanted – we could even watch as men prayed from their holy book. It was an incredibly spiritual place, alive with singing over loudspeakers and hundreds of worshipers praying day in and day out; and we were invited to take it all in.

Cooking food for everyone at the Golden Temple

Secondly, this kindness and acceptance of strangers extended to their own people – every Sikh temple is encouraged to serve food to the poor, and the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a sight unto itself. Huge vats full of dal and chai are stirred over large fires. Large buckets full of utensils sit next to steel boxes loaded with plates or bowls. And inside a large hall dozens of people sat eating meals at any given time of day. Even we were encouraged heartily to eat or drink chai if we desired. There was a donation box but no one asked us for money or indicated we were required to give a contribution. It was not something you see everyday.

I still wouldn’t claim to know much about Sikhism – but having seen the beauty of their holiest site and the acceptance of others within its walls I’m certainly glad I came to know a bit more.

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When you’re out of breath, it doesn’t take a lot to take your breath away. But coming over the hill on the hike to Triund and seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas would certainly have had that effect on anyone.

A view from above of Dharamsala

I had arrived in Dharamsala the day before and stepping off the airplane was like entering another universe after time in Mumbai. Instead of the oppressive, dusty heat I was hit in the face with cool, crisp air and a view of mountains all around me. Everything was clean, the trees and flowers had changed from tropical to mountainous, and the people were no longer mostly Indian.

Dharamsala is most well known for being the home of the Dalai Lama and over 35,000 Tibetan refugees (number according to the Dalai Lama’s website), who moved here following the 1960 takeover of Tibet. The Tibetan government operates here in exile. Everything here feels far more Tibetan than Indian – Tibetan faces, Tibetan temples, Tibetan food, Tibetan prayer flags every way you turn. Monks in bright crimson robes walk past the backpackers and tourists without so much as a thought. When the Dalai Lama and his followers left the real Tibet they certainly created a convincing version here in India.

But beyond the cultural experience the most notable part of a visit to Dharamsala is the Himalayas – towering above the city, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a good layman’s viewpoint. Dharamsala boasts the ‘easiest’ hike to a Himalyan snow-line and we wanted to experience the world’s greatest mountain range.

A view of the mountains on the climb up

We set off in the morning with a rag-tag crew: myself and my two friends; a friend from Mumbai who also happened to be here this weekend with her friend; a guy I’d met at the airport; and a group of three we’d encountered at dinner.  Everyone wanted to hike and we figured we’d all take it in together. We began hiking and I was keen to not stay at the back of the pack – I am obviously not the best or most experienced hiker and I was worried from the get-go about rocky terrain and high elevation.

Hiking up!

But we moved slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to gaze out at the beautiful view as we climbed higher and higher. At a few points along the way there were chai stalls where we could stop and have a break. We walked up and up – we started to feel we were getting close when we encountered a a snow covered area. My legs were starting to feel a bit like jelly but I wanted to continue on.

A few of us with our first snow sighting!

As the elevation grew and the slope became steeper I started to hope that the top was close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could balance myself on varying rocks along the way and climb up. But just as I started to wonder how much further I’d have to go, I came over the top and saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

The sign letting us know wed arrived

We were at Triund, 2,827 meters above sea level. And the view in front of us was like something out of a postcard. I think I audibly gasped. One minute we had been climbing and then suddenly, there it was. Every step had been worth the journey.

A shop at the top of the hill was happy to sell us more chai and some noodles. The two men who ran it lived on Triund 10 months out of the year in nothing but a small hut. I wondered how they managed. A few dogs ran around, happily enjoying their surroundings. How could they not? It was as though we had escaped the rest of the world and all there was was the sight of the Himalayas.

The Himalayas and a happy dog

Eating our very well-deserved noodles

We could have gone further up to the snow-line, but clouds started coming in quickly and we decided that our view was quite spectacular enough. I had to admit I was relieved- as much as I’d wished they would, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me up much further.

We came back down and had a hot bowl of Tibetan noodle soup. I felt victorious – we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. And beyond that it gave me a greater context to the Tibetan culture and their home away from home. I may not be able to comprehend the depth of their plight, but I do know one thing now: if you had to find a new home for a spiritual movement, this would certainly be an inspiring place.

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Sometimes words are not enough.

That’s how I feel about the last 24 hours – after all the excitement, all the buildup and all the anticipation India won the Cricket World Cup right here at home in Mumbai. The city exploded. Fans flooded into the streets. Cheers could be heard until the morning. Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan came out in his car and Bandra was suddenly an excitable mob scene.

The next day, we happened to walk into the Taj Hotel for tea and lo and behold – the entire cricket team was leaving. It was pure chaos – fans shrieked and shouted and pushed and shoved just for a chance to touch their team and their god, Sachin Tendulkar, holding the cricket world cup. And we got it all on video. Incredible.

What a case of the right place at the right time. The right city for the world’s biggest event of the moment. The right hotel to actually see the players. And only photos and videos to even begin to explain it. Go India!:

Shahruk Khan waving the flag

Waving flags on Carter road

People standing on a public bus

The ecstatic crowd at the Taj as the players left

Sachin Tendulkar with the actual World Cup

Daniel and I with our very own India shirts

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See You In the Final

On Wednesday it was one nation, under cricket.

The government declared a bank holiday and most businesses shut for the afternoon. The streets were empty except for the unlucky few. People crowded around televisions in their homes, in bars, outside of shops and anywhere they could be found. India was playing Pakistan and nothing could have been more important.

We went to a large party for the beginning of the game. Daniel rushed me over in hopes of not missing any part of the first half – India was batting first and he wanted to watch everything. I was not quite as keen to watch the game in its entirety. After all, these matches tended to go on for at least eight hours and even with the added excitement I wasn’t sure my attention span would last that long, especially on a game where the entire first half is one team batting without any knowledge of how that score will compare to the other teams’ in the second half.

I mostly listened with amusement as the commentators tried to fill the immense amount of time:

“Ah, he has a lot of energy. He must have eaten a lot of yogurt for breakfast.”

“The only way Pakistan can get out of jail is wickets.”

“I’ve gotten the feeling that Tendulkar is slowly losing interest.”

It went on and on. After four hours India finished their half with 260 runs. It was not as strong a showing as the people around us would have liked. They could win, but it would be close.

For the first two hours of the second half everyone watched lazily with one eye and chatted as Pakistan batted. There wasn’t much to do but wait and see how the numbers slowly ticked up. But once the more interesting count came up (ie: how many runs Pakistan would need versus the number of balls they had left to potentially hit) it started to get exciting. It seemed like India’s bowling and defense might have done well enough to keep India’s hopes alive.

As the time ticked on everyone started watching more and more intently. With only a few balls left it seemed inevitable – but no one was willing to say a word until the last out came and cheers could be heard from the street below. Fireworks exploded and the city came alive. As I was driving home I tried to capture some of the excitement:

It’s only one game to go and India could have the World Cup in their hands for the first time in almost thirty years. Time to get ready for Saturday

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In India you always have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of the experience. So I suppose it’s only fitting for my parents that one day after seeing the Taj Mahal they’ve come down with a case of Delhi belly.
 

The 'Great Gate' at sunrise

We woke up yesterday at 5:30am to get ready to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s a strange feeling anticipating seeing a monument that you can picture so well without ever having laid eyes on it. There’s only a few places in the world like that: the Eiffel Tower. The pyramids of Egypt. The Chrysler Building. And of course the Taj Mahal. Part of the joy of India is that you usually don’t even have a concept of what to expect. But this is an entirely different scenario.

 
We arrived at the ticket counter and hurriedly purchased tickets before taking a trolley-like vehicle up to the South Gate (regular cars aren’t allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the pollution). We waited in separate security lines for men and women and my mom and I huddled together to try and minimize the chill from the pre-dawn air. As we stood in line waiting to be searched and prodded I watched as the sun slowly began to rise. I kept expecting to see a glimpse of the Taj every time I stepped forward but it was hiding from the gazes of all the tourists waiting in line.
 

The Taj in the morning fog

When we finally got through the gate we had to go through a magnificent sandstone arch and then… there it was. It wasn’t yet its magnificent white color due to the hazy morning light. It was almost gloomy, towering over us as the sun began to peek out in the distance. And it was beautiful. It seemed almost like a postcard or a mirage – it was so new and yet so incredibly familiar. We took the many requisite photos as we walked closer and closer and as the rising sun made the marble gleam whiter and whiter.

 

All of us in front of the Taj Mahal

Close-up of calligraphy and inlaid stones

When we finally reached the steps the sun was high and we made our way up close. From every angle it was beautiful – immaculate marble everywhere you turned, Arabic carved in delicate black calligraphy four inches deep into the stone, semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble that fanned out into flowers and vines. We looked from the front, from inside, from the back, from inside the neighboring ‘guest-house’. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the actual beauty or maybe it was seeing the legend up close, but I certainly was not longer tired from my early wake-up.

Me and the Taj

One common sight driving in India

We let the memory sink in as we drove the long drive to Delhi. The highways of rural Uttar Pradesh are a stream of different Indias. Farmlands of wheat give way to dusty smoggy towns. Huge goods carriers swerve around camels pulling carts loaded with goods. I haven’t minded the drives because there’s always something to look at.

 
But after settling in to Delhi, eating dinner at our hotel, and going to bed I woke up with some bad news – my mom was sick. She hadn’t eaten anything questionable (no roadside food, no salads, no water from a tap) but she had a case of the notorious Delhi belly. One day after India gave her the gift of marveling at its beautiful architecture it had struck her down with its just as renowned stomach problems. My Dad wasn’t feeling great but he was excited to sightsee, so we let my mom sleep and we decided to venture out into Old Delhi
 
My dad has been reading a book called City of Djinns (thank you to Daniel’s parents for giving it!) which is William Dalrymple’s memoir of his year living in and exploring the history of Delhi while trying to find the  remnants of the Moghul and British culture and architecture. My dad really wanted to find some of the places mentioned in the book (not normally on the tourist trail) and we set out to see if we too could spot the old architecture and charm amidst the chaos of the old city.
 

A ride down the street

We haggled a price with a bicycle rickshaw driver and made our way up Chandni Chowk and then turned down a narrow road. It was like stepping back in time- on this road bicycle rickshaws, men pushing large hand-carts, vegetable-wallahs, cows, people carrying goods on horses and pedestrians made their way slowly along the road, past crumbling old shops with dirty retro signs. Monkeys climbed along the balconies. The electricity and telephone wires were a jumbled mess above and even motorcycles were few and far between. It was odd to watch the street-life pass by as we sat in our rickshaw, slowly meandering through the very dense traffic. And it was so different to the India I know in Mumbai.

 

A monkey making his way in Old Delhi

When we came to the end of the road we found what we’d been looking for: Turkman Gate, one of the old major gates to the city walls. It was like crashing out of an old city into a new one- once you stepped past the gate the narrow ancient lane morphed into a modern highway. Next to the gate was the Delhi Stock Exchange. You couldn’t come out of time travel faster if you tried. It was a shock.
 

Where we bought some extra medicine...

But the more difficult shock was that my dad had slowly started to feel bad as well. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that Delhi belly had claimed another victim.

 
They’re resting now and my fingers are crossed that their illness is the food poisoning it appears to be – usually these things don’t last more than 24 hours. It would be a shame to miss seeing the highlights of Delhi, even is some would argue that the illness might also be an ‘Indian highlight’. We’ll see tomorrow!

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Ranakpur

I have seen some pretty unbelievable man-made structures in my life. Versailles. Ankor Wat. The Hagia Sophia. The Chrysler Building. So I suppose by now I shouldn’t be surprised by human ingenuity and skill. But it still would never have occurred to me that you could make an entire giant structure – inside and out- out of marble.

Wide interior view of Ranakpur

But that is Ranakpur a Jain temple about two hours drive outside of Udaipur. And it is a work of art, a true example of man’s devotion to his god (or gods).

For a bit of context, its important to note that (according to our guide the day before) 95% of the marble in India comes from the environs of Udaipur. It explains why the Lake Palace and the City Palace are adorned throughout with beautiful white marble. But they have nothing on. Ranikpur.

One of the many, many marble sellers outside Udaipur

Just the drive is worth taking- you drive out of the city of lakes, drive past dozens and dozens of marble dealers (your first clue of what’s to come), and into a mountainous world that seems like a cross between the Scottish Highlands and Lord of the Rings. Rajasthan in the monsoon is very different to the desert most people associate with the region- it is a lush grouping of craggy mountains with monkeys and goat herders co-existing with the cars and motorbikes making their way along a road reminiscent of Amalfi’s perilous drives.

When you pull up to Ranakpur’s main temple you start to get the sense you’re seeing something unique. Every piece of the structure is marble- the steps you climb, the wall you lean against, the ceiling you walk under. And when you finally step into the entranceway you are greeted by an imposing labyrinth of a space, with 1,444 pillars holding it up- all are intricately carved top to bottom and no one pillar has the same design.

One of the ceiling designs in Ranakpur

The temple dates back to the 15th century and the same group of families have looked after it since that time. Our guide’s entire family had devoted their lives to its upkeep- he spent every morning cleaning and ‘feeding’ the temple with a bath of milk. Tourists are allowed to visit between noon and five every day, although certain areas are off limits to non-Jains.

A close of some of Ranakpur's columns

For those unfamiliar, Jainism is a religion focused primarily on non-violence. It has been explained to me as a cross between Hinduism and Buddhism (pardon the complete oversimplification). A Jain friend of mine and I joke that the Jains are like the Jews- small in number, powerful in business, but very focused on family and education. And like the Jews who often give significant contributions to Jewish causes, so have the Jains, across the centuries, donated funding for some extraordinary temples.

Everywhere you look in Ranakpur you see some new intricate design- on walls, on pillars, on statues and most especially on the ceiling. Some of the designs are so finely carved that they appear translucent.

Carving of a snake made from a single stone

When you walk out you’re supposed to look up and make a wish on one of the more staggering ceiling designs. Our guide insisted that there is a 100% success rate here. Perhaps that belief comes from 600 years of wishing to maintain the beauty if the temple. That wish certainly has stayed true.

Another interior view

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