Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Desert Giant

Jodhpur’s afternoons swelter. It’s a heat that sneaks up behind you, wrapping a heavy, sweaty arm around your ribcage, covering your mouth and nose with its clumsy, chloroform hands. Moments in the grip of such heat leaves beer boiling, soda scalding. It is a heat that immobilizes, penetrates, permeates. It hangs itself around your shoulders, a winding shawl, demanding you pay it homage. Gallons of sweat, liters of water.

Rajasthan, India’s desert state, is a land of camels and turbans. It is dry and dusty, yet full of mystery and magic. Johdpur’s fort is no exception. Full of exotic twists and curls, flourishes and artifacts, the fort transports visitors to another era. It’s a time of Maharajas and camel caravans.

The fort is a massive behemoth. Rising out of rock and desert, strong and impenetrable, it looms over the cubic crumble and tangle of streets that makes up this blue city. And the giant, its courtyards and winding staircases full of history, sleeps over the blue city. Its nap drips shadow pools where people and dogs while away the blistering desert afternoons.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wedding Crashers

“When we go to India, are you gonna wear a sari and get your hands henna’ed?”
“Probably not. It’s not like we’re going to be attending an Indian wedding.”

It’s conversations like this that make the universe silently chuckle about all the things you don't know.

Mid-way through gallivanting around India, we found ourselves sitting in a café with a group of perfect strangers. They swept in, sat down, invited us to a wedding three days hence, and promptly left.

Leaving me eating my words.

So, Win got a haircut and a Rajasthani-style mustache. My hands were henna’ed. A sari was purchased (to later be twisted, stuffed, folded, and pinned by the family of the bride). And off we went to an Indian wedding.

We had been invited to the fifth and final night of said wedding, a ceremony that turned out to be a triple-decker party of sorts. Two sisters were having arranged marriages; a brother-in-law was having a (less prestigious) love marriage.

The pomp and ceremony, makeup and costume changes, set design and pyrotechnics were enough to put a full Broadway production to shame. Grooms with feathers fluffed and turbans twirled rode in atop bedazzled horses. Brides shuffled slowly to center stage, at times carried by brothers, beneath the weight of beautiful, elaborate, bejeweled marriage saris.

Time between ceremonies, of which there was much, consisted primarily of eating. And being photographed. And being asked if we had eaten. And being asked if we would take just one picture.

It was exhausting, but it certainly wasn’t dull. Plus, the universe gave me good reason to wear a sari in India. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Haveli Heaven

In touristy Rajasthan, the Shekhawati region is seldom visited, bypassed for the grand forts and palaces of the other desert cities. The few visitors who do head to the towns of the dusty, arid Shekhawati typically go for one reason – the havelis.

In the intense heat of the summer months, we were the only visitors. There wasn’t another white face to be seen in the town of Nawalgarh, and most hotels were partially or fully closed. In overcrowded India, it felt like being in the middle of nowhere.

The havelis, extraordinarily painted homes, reaching often grand proportions, were the attempts of 18th and 19th century Mawari merchants, who often lived far from home for long periods of time, to show their neighbors how successful they were.  The murals often cover the mansion-like havelis from baseboards to rafters, depicting everything from everyday scenes to Hindu gods to family portraits.

Compared to the massive forts and temples available in other parts of India, the havelis represent an understated grandeur. Of course, many of the havelis are in need of some restoration and TLC. For most tourists, it probably doesn’t seem worth the fight and jostle of almost four hours on a local bus to see some rundown mansions. However, there is beauty in the understated, splendor in the dilapidated.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

A Drop in the Bucket List

The Taj Mahal tops any number of must-see lists. And not without good reason. It is iconic, a majestic, beautiful structure, renowned as a tribute to love eternal. Its marble inlay that covers the arches and gateways is delicate and precise.

It is also India’s biggest tourist trap. At 750 rupees (roughly $13.50), its entrance fee is more than double that of most other historic places of interest. For perspective, that’s more than our nightly budget for a hotel room.

And of course it doesn’t stop there. The city of Agra is a veritable sales pitch played on loop. Tuk tuk drivers encourage you to stop at shops, stay in hotels where they get a commission. Vendors don’t understand that sometimes, no matter how low the price, you just don’t want what they’re selling. Everyone wants a cut, a kickback, a couple more rupees.

But, every once in a while fortune shines bright on our little trip through Nepal and India. First, our timetable landed us in the Buddha’s birthplace on the Buddha’s birthday. Then, we found ourselves in Varanasi on the day when the newly-elected (in a landslide) Indian Prime Minister was visiting the city.

Turns out, in Agra we got lucky again.

We arrived on the last day of a three-day holiday honoring the death of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj as his wife’s mausoleum. During said holiday, the 359th Urs (deathiversary) of the Mughal emperor, the cenotaph chamber, which contains the graves of both Shah Jahan and his wife, is open to the public. Also, entrance is free.

Of course, free entry and a major holiday are not without their downsides – specifically the massive crowds that push and pulse their way through the gates. The line to get inside the Taj and view the tomb (opened once a year during the holiday), even during the height of an Indian midday in summer, was more like a mob four people deep, wrapping all the way around the outside of the mausoleum. Needless to say we only saw the outside of the building.

In the end it was a bit like a postcard, only far more crowded. Magnificent structure. Check on the ol’ bucket list. Happy we didn’t have to pay to see it. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sultry Sandstone

Bare asses, melon-breasted ladies, and entwined lovers entice tourists to central India’s Khajuraho. But these sexy scenes are nothing new. In fact, they’re between 800 and 1,000 years old.

The temples are often, erroneously, called Kama Sutra temples. The erotic carvings only compose about ten percent of the elaborately detailed imagery that covers all sides of the temples remaining in Khajuraho, but of course draw the majority of the attention. The other carvings depict daily scenes of musicians and farmers, women applying makeup, warriors preparing for battle, as well as numerous Hindu deities.

The erotic sculptures themselves shine a light on a couple of basic truths:
  • apparently sex has always been what sells
  • ancient Indian culture was clearly far less conservative about sexual matters than today’s India
  • men throughout history have thought that breasts should be bizarrely cantaloupe-shaped  

But even without the draw of sexy statues, Khajuraho’s temples are awe-inspiring. All of the carvings, in their dusty pinks, are surprisingly well-preserved. The time and effort that must have been lavished on these buildings, built over the course of 200 years, is evident in the minute attention to detail. Gods and humans carved from slabs of sandstone are exquisite, even after a millennium.

Absolutely astonishing, the things humans are capable of creating. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Sacred in the Profane

India assails the senses. It honks and shouts. It offers and begs. It is the drifting smoke of incense and the heavy stench of garbage. It silently whispers prayers. It calls out to you in the street.  It is stubborn cows stomping into traffic and skinny dogs catching naps in puddles of shade. It is color draped and wrapped, over shoulders and heads.

It is in this barrage that even the holy must exist, especially in one of their holiest cities, Varanasi. And in this world, religion has pushed and prodded into every available space.

On India’s holy Ganges River, which plies the banks of Varanasi’s step-like ghats, sacred and humdrum intertwine their fingers and greet each day.

Pilgrims bathe in the revered waters alongside people simply lathering up and bathing. Hindu ceremonies take place alongside rollerskating and cricket matches. Prayers are said, children swim, people squat and piss. Hundreds of blessings are asked of hundreds of gods.

Chai is drunk, beggers beg, hawkers peddle their goods, and the Ganges stretches her arms in preparation for another day in Varanasi. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Bit More Buddhism


Heading over the border from Nepal to India, sits the quiet, seldom-touristed town of Kushinagar. This is believed to be the place where the Buddha, at the age of 80, rolled onto his side, put his head in his hand and died.

The town itself isn’t much to speak of, a dusty spot boasting ruins of an ancient city, a fairly unique temple housing a reclining Buddha statue, a smattering of monasteries from various Buddhist countries, the stupa and ghat where the Buddha is said to have been cremated.

The wandering monks, the lack of other tourists, the relative serenity, make Kushinagar a place for contemplation and reflection rather than pomp and spectacle.


Just outside the bustling Indian city of Varanasi lies the deer park where the Buddha, after obtaining Enlightenment, gave his first sermon.  To those who would become his first five disciples he laid out what he called the Middle Path. This would become the basis for Buddhism.

Sarnath’s deer park isn’t much to see. The site sports a temple and the ruins of a stupa. The Buddha’s first sermon is posted in numerous languages – from Chinese and English to Burmese and Sanskrit – allowing those coming from any of the various Buddhist nations to read what was taught here. A miniature zoo (small zoo, not small animals, sadly) sits behind the temple, offering patron a glimpse of deer in the deer park, as well as a handful of rabbits and birds. A bit down the street a Thai monastery sits quietly beside a towering Buddha.

It felt fitting to visit a place of teaching in a fairly unassuming park. It seemed more suitable than the big, international jostling to build temples or the hordes of pilgrims. It was a quiet conclusion to our tour of the Buddha’s life, a peaceful respite from the honking traffic of the city.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Lumbini's Buddhist PuPu Platter

Lumbini, just near the Nepal-India border, isn’t much to look at. A couple of dusty streets, a handful of hotels, a smattering of restaurants and convenience stores make up the majority of the town. But what makes the town auspicious, what draws those who come here, happened some 2,500 years ago, give or take.

This is the place where it is believed that Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, was born.

Despite the fact that the deification of the Buddha and the material worship that tends to follow is fairly counter to the Buddha’s teachings, Lumbini is considered to be a holy place by Buddhists worldwide.

Temples, stupas, and monasteries abound. Theravada Buddhist organizations from Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia show off their various architectural styles. On the opposite side of a long, narrow reflecting pool, the Mahayana school of Buddhism is represented by places as far-flung as China, Vietnam, South Korea, Germany, and Austria, as well as semi-resident Tibet.

The Maya Devi Temple, ruins of an ancient temple believed to be built on the exact spot of the Buddha’s birth, is also considered holy by Hindus, who hold that the Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu. Hinduism is a bit of a grab bag like that in general, and Lumbini is a veritable international religious sampler plate anyhow. 

We were fortunate enough to have our trip to Lumbini coincide with the massive pilgrimage holiday of Buddha Jayanti, the celebration of the Buddha’s birth.

For the holiday Lumbini exploded with the sounds and colors of pilgrimage. Sari-clad Indians and Nepalis, Buddhist and Hindu alike, piled into the tiny city by the bus- and carload. Duffle bags and firewood were transported atop heads. Hotels set up stands to distribute free water and juice to combat the heat. Blessings were sold and handed out in every direction. At dusk, devotees ignited hundreds of butter lamps around the holy pond at the Maya Devi temple.

And though it wasn’t very true to the teachings of the Buddha, it was a beautiful thing to witness.