Saturday, July 09, 2005

Jaipur, Rama Man Singh Temple, Elephant Ride to Shila Mata (Day 5)

We were up before dawn to depart for Jaipur. This city is in the state of Rajasthan, and is about 3 hours' drive away from Delhi. Jaipur was originally uniformly painted creme, and is set up on a grid with a main through-way that is six elephants wide (which, at the time, was a big deal). At some point, one of the area leaders decided the city would be painted pink, and now all stores are mandated to paint their storefront to this particluar color (which I thought was more of an orange than a pink, actually.)

Our first stop was at the Rama Man Singh temple (the City Palace). This was an intricately painted palace that was much more modern than many of the others we visited. I was surprised to see an Indian midget guarding one of the buildings. His name was Suraj, and I got a picture with him:

In this same palace, Lee was able to bargain for three tablas (drums) and two discs of tabla music for only Rs 3000. This palace was nice, but not entirely impressive.

At our next stop, we rode elephants! We were at Amber palace, and we fit four to an elephant headed up a path that cut back and forth up the hill. I sat next to Nikky Singh, and Donna and Megan sat behind us. When we reached the top, we were surrounded by people trying to hock crap on us. "Silk" pictures of elephants, pictures of us riding the elephants (one-minute photo, anyone?), little wooden carvings, etc. I was even offered someone's child to hold, which I've heard plenty enough stories about to know better than doing. Anyway, we headed past that to a Hindu temple dedicated to a blood-taking God. They used to sacrifice goats to it, but that was made illegal, so now I guess the God is hungry, but whatever. This temple, like most of the others, was constructed of beautiful white marble. Oh yeah, and you always have to take off your shoes when you enter these temples. And in this particular one, you couldn't bring in anything leather (which I found humorous, given that it was a blood-taking God). We headed out of here and further up to the palace above. It was expansive, and Cathy said that she almost got lost in it last time she was there. It was a very nice palace, with a large central garden and beautiful silver-inlaid rooms. A man lit a candle, and the reflections in all the inlaid silver looked like stars in a night sky. It was a very large palace with lots of long hallways, screened windows, and other architecture. It is built next to a man-made lake, which elephants were bathing in at the time. On our way out, I offered one of the beggars 2 rupees for some carving I didn't want, hoping he would be insulted and leave me alone. Instead, he followed me all the way out of the palace, and even back down the elephant path. I was bounding the steps three at a time and had almost lost him, when my group starting huddling at the top of the hill. I climbed back up, and eventually gave up and bought his wares. Please note that I am fairly adept at getting street merchants to leave me alone, both because I say nahi (no) and jow (leave me alone), and because I'm 6'2'' 190. But this guy was persistent. I ended up getting him to drop his price from Rs 300 for one elephant figure, to Rs 100 for 4. The bonus, of course, is that he finally left me alone.

We then drove back to the hotel. That night, we went to "Spice" a pre-fee restaurant. Pre-fee means you pay a set price and can have as much of as many of the options as you want, which they bring out one by one. Let me advise any fellow travelers against eating "Goat Trotter soup." Firstly, because argument by design suggests that goat's feet should never enter your body in any form. Secondly, because this soup made me cry twice before I gave up on it. I like spicy food, but seriously...I heard some guy almost have a heart attack later in the evening, and I think I know why.

That night, we planned to go to an Indian wedding. On the drive in, we saw chalked elephants, decorated camels, lights, and all other sorts of livestock and equipment being brought in for the processional. Unfortunately, as we were tired and had to be up early the next day, we ended up falling asleep instead...=(

As an aside, Christy Brook says hi.


We left Delhi early this morning to drive to Jaipur. More than 5 hours later we arrived for some very welcomed lunch. Under the Mughal Empire Jaipur was a vassal principality ruled by a prominent Hindu family. So we quickly snapped to visiting forts and royal palaces built between the 16th-17th centuries under these Hindu rulers. There is a marked expression of Hinduism in the architecture because this principality was the most favored vassal of the Mughal Kings and received special
treatment. The highlight of the day was getting to ride an elephant to one of the fortified structures - it was way cool, Thanks Dr. Asher and Purnima for making it happen. I really like Jaipur much more than Delhi. Delhi reminded me of Mexico city, whereas this place is very similar to the central plateau region; sort of rid and hot, distinct vegetation. Jaipur actually reminds me of good ol' home - except...there are elephants and camels everywhere. Right now a big Indian wedding is taking place and fireworks are being shot off with a huge parade. My new return plans have me leaving Delhi on August 1st, Sia I will send more info later. Shout out to Mom, Sia, The Fam, the gang, AKC, V. Hoek, Tunisia, LW, The Office, Exec. Media, The church family, and Mat.


July 9-12

The workshop set off for a four-day (three night) tour of the Jaipur region in Rajasthan. In Jaipur and Amber students we were introduced to the culture and history of the Kachhwahas, a Hindu Rajput princely family that during the 16th through 18th centuries were the loyal supporters of their Muslim Mughal overlords. We visited the fort at Amber where we rode elephants to the top. We also visited the City Palace in Jaipur and attended darshan, that is the opening of the curtain to have auspicious sighting of the deity, in the Govinda Deva temple, which gave insight into the performative aspect of Hindu devotion. The workshop also visited a modern temple, known as the Lakshmi Narayan Birla temple, giving us insight into the changes that Hinduism has undergone over the last several hundred years. In nearby Sanganer, we visited a Jain temple, thus exposing us to yet another important minority community of India, one that frequently served as the bankers of jewelers of India’s princes whether they be Hindu or Muslim. We were also able to visit Salim’s Paper Factory where magnificent hand made paper is produced for international consumption. In addition they learned about the role Jaipur’s Muslim community had in the production of the arts in this Hindu principality. One day was spent visiting Ajmer, the site of India’s most important Muslim sufi shrine, the dargah of Muin al-Din Chishti, and Pushkar, a major Hindu pilgrimage site. At each place the students were introduced to important keepers of temples and shrines who spoke to the workshop about their own religious traditions. Particularly exciting was our contact in Pushkar, a Hindu priest, who contacted his friend, a Muslim custodian at the shrine in Ajmer, telling him to show the group around. This tradition of mutual cross-religious cooperation made a strongly positive impression on all of us.

On the return to Delhi, the group stopped at the AIIS headquarters in Gurgaon, just outside of Delhi, for a performance of qawwali, the sort of music that is played and sung at sufi shrines. While we had heard this at the Ajmer shrine, they enjoyed tremendously the two-hour concert. Afterwards the AIIS hosted a dinner at the Center.


Friday, July 08, 2005

Red Fort, Chodni Chawk, Jami Mosque, Sikh temple, Swagat (Day 4)

From here on out, I must apologize for mispellings or entirely incorrectly ascribed names. We have traveled so much, and had so much packed into our days, that things are getting lost in the shuffle. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Today, we began the day by taking a tour of Delhi's Red Fort with Navina Jafa, a recently inducted Sufi muslim, and also a recent Fulbright awardee. She was very intelligent, and told us a lot about the fort, which wasn't actually all that impressive (perhaps only comparatively).

We then headed out and across the street to Chodni Chowk. This area was teeming with life. Storefronts were everywhere. The hustle and bustle was as amazing as the heat. We went through the various storefront frenetically approaching a Jami mosque in the center of town. When we got there, we were ushered in under some sheets providing shade. We drank a bit of fresh lime soda (electrols!), then headed in to the prayer chamber itself. We then walked the perimeter of the area, and checked things out. After that, we left out through the Chowk once again. We were taken down a small alleyway, which then surprisingly opened to a pillared area surrounded by porches. We talked about urban Indian home life in the sweltering heat, then headed onward to a Sikh temple called Gurudwara. We circumambulated the area as "the book" was read. Sikh is based around the 10 gurus beginning with Guru Nanak, and after all ten had passed, the religion moved toward the teaching of the book. Sikh is very tolerant of all religious groups, and is more an ideology than a religion. I really enjoy the underlying philosophy, but don't have the time to detail it right now...=(

Upon our return, we were left with some free time. Maria, Christy, Lee and I went to shop at the South extension, which is a shopping center that caters more directly to locals. Lee ended up buying a really nice Giovanni suit! We were picked up and delivered there by the personal driver of Christy's boyfriend's relative. He waited for us, then took us to Puja's house. She and her daughter were SO cute. They took us to their neighborhood swimming pool, and we swam in crystal clear water. Maria was wearing a bikini, which is a big no-no in Indian culture. We had some good laughs as boys stared for an hour. Finally, we air-dried, and headed out.

That night, we headed to Swagath for dinner. We sat in the basement, and had some fabulous food. I was wearing a nice white korta with my new red shoes. We had SO much food, and, by Lee and my actions, SO much beer. We left in good spirits, and attended the adjacent bookstore. I ended up buying four books, then walking back to the guest house. Lee tried to ride a cow on the way home - it didn't go over as well as he might have hoped. Upon our return, Mary and I had an in-depth intellectual conversation, mostly politically oriented. Good times.

What day is it?

We have been in India for less than a week, yet it feels like I have seen and experienced so much that I have aged months. I am finding it very difficult to maintain a grasp on time and dates (for those who know me, I truly am running on Indian time now.) Inspite of all the trouble we had getting here this trip has been amazing. Dr. Asher (our leader) and her husband (also Dr. Asher) have been able to supply us with answers to virtually everything. There have also been several people
helping our group who have filled essential roles. I have trouble spelling the names, but our guide through Agra and Jaipur (affectionately known as "G-Mony") has been super. I do not look forward to Lucknow without him. Nikki (a professor from Maine who is coming with the group) specializes in religion and symbology, so it has been very valuable to listen to her comments on the temples and mosques we have been seeing. The Director of AIIS here in Delhi is one of the nicest women you will meet - she is so willing to help. I have been unsuccessfully trying to find something in the market for a couple of days so I went to her office to ask for advice. She immediately said, "I will take you" and we got in the car and she helped me purchase it. Now I have a really sweet turban (yes, it is Crimson, I am a wildcat to the grave.) I briefly mentioned Rick (Mr. Asher) but he has been in India for several decades and resolves problems nearly instantly (for the group, he reminds me of Mr. Mundy, a good guy to have on your side.) I absolutely could not forget Ashok, our cook - I am telling you the Dalis delish.

Tomorrow we leave for Jaipur - I don't know what to expect. As you can read we have already seen such amazing Temples, Mosques, Forts, and of course the Taj. Not to mention the massive rain storm that had us walking for like 20 blocks in sewage, garbage, and water to a living (active) Hindu Temple. That was something that words can not capture and I will never forget. I know it will have a tremendous impact on my life, seriously, it was a cultural experience like none other. Shout out to Mom, Sia, The fam, the gang, all the wildcats, and a few of you who are not.


First week in India

Apart from mild stomach sickness, sometimes referred to as DelhiBelly, things here are going very well. Our accomodations are far more luxurious than I would have expected (let's hear it for A.C.) and the culture, the food and the scenery are fabulously diverse and rich in unexpected ways. So far I've seen many temples and important sights in Delhi (including a Hari Krishna temple) and temples en route to Agra where we got caught in monsoon rains in the street with water up to our knees. Also we have just returned from Agra, the city made famous by the Taj Mahal, and other Moghul monuments. The mixture of Hindu, Islam and a world of other influences is everywhere as are people. Literally, you are rarely out in public somewhere where there aren't many many people all at once. Quite the change from the midwest. Today it's quite hot with no rain, but high humidity and tomorrow we leave Delhi again to make a trip to Jaipur, Pushkar, and another city I can't remember off the top of my head. Yesterday we were informed of the London bombings and a warning on religious sites within in India. At any rate, I'm doing very well, and being very careful.


An Extraordinary Group

You are an extraordinary group, and it's been a privilege to work with you. Your energy level, enthusiasm, an innate curiosity have been wonderful to see. As you head off to wonderful places -- Jaipur, Ajmer, Pushkar and Lucknow -- please know that I'll miss you and look forward to seeing you and hearing about your adventures when we're all back in Delhi.
Best wishes, Rick
Frederick M. Asher, Chair
Department of Art History
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55455
Phone: 612/624-4500 Fax: 612/626-8679
AIIS on the Web

The Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and a screening of "Bombay" (Day 3)

This morning, we woke early and headed down to grab a complimentary breakfast. We had mango juice, omelettes, bhaji, something like fish sticks, and much more. It was great. Then Lee and I headed out to the pool for a swim. It was being cleaned at the time, and apparently is every day. The pool was oddly shaped, with marble footsteps running across one part of it. Lee and I thoroughly enjoyed our morning swim. He did the whale, and I did the otter (swimming techniques we made up at the time, I think). Staff brought towels out to us, then took us down to show us the health center. It had a steam room, sauna, hot tub, and massage table (I SO wanted an ayurvedic massage, but there wasn't time). We then headed up to pack our bags, and Lee lent me a green korta that everyone said made me look sort of like a prince. We left the exquisite Man Singh hotel, on our way to one of the 7 wonders of the world.

We went to a parking lot, where we boarded some electric cars headed to the Taj. We entered through security, walked through the open courtyard, and through the entry. In front of us, under a grey sky, was one of the most breathtaking sights mine eyes have ever been laid upon. After admiring it from a distance for a while, we made our approach. We walked along the water pool to the marble base of the massive structure. We checked our shoes, and headed up. Cathy, Nikki and I first headed out to the mosque facing in the direction of qibla (muslims face this direction when praying, to face Mecca). It in itself was just a daunting building. I ended up sitting, looking through a dark arch, at the Taj, mediatating and feeling humbled. I feel uneasy and yet complete all at once. I felt alive. I knew it would be impressive, but it really is otherworldly. I'll happily share pictures, but they'll be insulting incapable of capturing the wonder and majesty of Shah Jahan's mosque.

Afterward, I headed over a large expanse of red sandstone, up some stairs, and out onto another level from which you could enter the tomb. We looked at the carvings on the outside, which showed herbs and flowers in beautiful colored marble, along with sanscrit script. I headed in alone, and circumambulated the tombs themselves. Akbar's wife, Nur Jahan, was in the tomb that is directly at the center of the whole complex. During a brighter way, it is said to radiate white, as all light comes to that point. Shah Jahan's tomb is just to the left of hers if looking in from the door. The script on the wall, I was informed, is made of one solid sheet of marble, as were the gates surrounding the tombs. This is incredible to me. Cathy informed us that the basement has several small vaults. Because the Taj is a heavy marble structure on the bank of a river, it is hypothesized that the engineers built a system of seven wells on which the Taj actually FLOATS. In-freaking-credible. After staring in awe at the inside of the tomb, I headed back out, and circled the tomb on the platform outside. The four minarets at each corner were imposing and incredible. Around back, the river was clear to see. The Taj Mahal is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life. I don't know how better to express my sentiment toward this structure.

From there, we headed off to Fatehpur Sikri. Built by Akbar, this was a living center for his mother, himself, and the harem, as well as a meeting place for his nobles. The private audience chamber was aligned with Akbar's open-air bedroom, which was aligned with his personal showing window. The symmetry of the site was just plain cool. Built of red sandstone with white marble trim, this superstructure is one I would be happy to call home. The complex system of waterways moved water along, letting out branches at various locales. Fatehpur Sikri is so large that it is almost mazelike. I really don't know how to describe it much more than this, but it deserves a longer paragraph, Then again, let this be a reflection on just how incredible the Taj was, and we'll call it even.

From there, we headed to the mosque at Fatehpur Sikri, which is not considered an archaeological site. This means that it is free, and thus swarming with people trying to sell things. My basic knowledge of Hindi quickly came to use, as it had a few times before. Necklances for 100 rupee? "Nahi." (No) OK, ok, I make you special deal. 50 rupee. "Nahi. Jow." (No, go away). When you are 6'2'' and 190, you really kind of tower over many of these people. Being assertive in a way they understand is quite effective. Anyway, the mosque was built by Akbar as a thanks to the muslim saint Sheikh Salim Chishti. Chishti had predicted the forthcoming birth of Akbar's heir, after he had lost several children in infancy. After the child had lived for two years, Akbar developed Fatehpur Sikri for Chishti and moved there himself. The mosque was large and open, with a lot of visitors. A guide named Abdar came up to give me a tour, claiming he was a student and not a salesperson (he was telling the truth, more or less, and gave me a very informative tour). It turns out that many of the beggars and merchants at this site are actually descendants of Chishti, and because there are no available jobs, the people stay in his mosque. I ended up paying 200 rupees to buy cloth, flowers and string (knowing that was a hustle, but feeling like he deserved it). I made my offering in the tomb, and then headed out.

Soon after, we were on the bus headed back to Dehli. After a crazy-bumpy 5 hour drive, we arrived back home. We had a delicious supper (the okra was the best), then settled in to watch a movie called Bombay, which we projected onto the wall. The movie is about a Hindu man who falls in love with, marries, and has children with a muslim women, much to the dismay of their relatives. They move to Bombay, where he is a journalist. About halfway through the movie, the love story takes a twist toward reality. The bombing of Ayodhya, an event that actually occurred, spurs rallies and murders. The complex struggle the main characters go through in defining themselves as a family, as opposed to Hindu or Muslim, makes for a tearjerker of a film that is really moving and telling. I spent thirty minutes struggling as hard as I could to keep the tears welling up in my eyes from running down my face. This was a good movie to watch given the context in the real world recently, as a bombing has lead to riots in part of India far from us. The religious sites will be on high alert from here out though, and we really hope we will still have access to them. Honestly, I'm not all that scared, because we will be in safe areas. But bombing and killing in an attempt to bring oneself closer to God is foolish and puzzling, and something that, though we wish we could put behind us, does not seem to be a way of the past just yet.

July 8

The day started by visiting Old Delhi’s important sites under the guidance of Dr. Navina Jafa, who has written her dissertation on gender issues and patronage of the performing arts in north India. She commenced her tour at the Mughal Red Fort in Delhi, then went to the huge Jami mosque built under the auspices of the fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan. The group walked through Old Delhi’s famous narrow gullies with its silver shops and areas that sell the apparatus needed for Indian weddings. Navina Jafa also showed us Delhi’s old mansions known as havelis, explaining the fast-fading culture of Old Delhi. This trip concluded with a visit to a famous Gurudwara, a Sikh temple. This gave everyone an opportunity to learn about another important religious community in India, the Sikhs. Nikky Singh, a Sikh herself, explained Sikh beliefs and customs, contextualizing them within the larger Islamic and Hindu traditions. In the afternoon students were given free time so they might explore Delhi on their own. Dinner was at one of the many fine restaurants in Delhi’s Defence Colony.


Thursday, July 07, 2005

AIIS Trip Update

I thought that some of our parents and friends might have heard about some trouble in Ayodhya or Varanasi in North India. We'd like to assuage any fears at the present; there have been some riots in Varanasi but that is more than 500 miles from here. We will never be closer than 300 miles away from Varanasi, as well, while we are on this trip. The directors of the program wanted to make sure we knew about the trouble, and we have confidence in the judgement of Cathy Asher who has spent much of her adult life studying or living in India. The directors don't seem worried, but we'll keep you updated if they have any concerns. We've already visited a major monument of religious signficance (the Taj Mahal), with no hint of trouble at all in the air. So for now, we're on schedule and having a great time!


Agra is over.

Well we got back from Agra tonight around 6pm (it's 10:45pm now) and ... wow.. I dunno. It's just a lot at once i guess. When we got back we talked about the bombing in India and the ones in London that happened today. So, needless to say I'm kinda feeling shitty right now. Everyone says we're safe here, and I believe them... I'm just worried about the ride home. I'm definately coming home the 21st... I don't think I can take more time here. Wish I was more balsy, but I'm not. Other than that, I'm slowly,slowly, slowly getting used to the beggers. They're as bad as you might think. Cripples trying to sell you postcards,and really young children. I broke down and cried like a baby today in one mosque. I was doing fine until this little girl, must have been six or seven tried selling me stuff... I dunno... just got to me. Okay, on a happier note, yesterday we had an unexpected little pilgrimage of our own. We were in Vrindiban heading to the temple known for being the birth place of Lord Krishna and wow!!! Straight out of the National Geographic. We had to trek through one those really narrow crowded streets in calf-deep water from the monsoon rains. What made it all so crazy was that our destination was this temple like nothin i've ever seen before... it was just this ultimate crescendo.. wow that sounds cheesy but it's true. So yeah... that's the kinda stuff that's goin' on here. I just wanted ya'll to know that in light of all the bombings and stuff I'm fine, and expect to continue being fine.So please don't worry (Mom and Dad, especially you :))Mom, I do have my holy water with me everywhere :).
Well, I miss you all, and my pampered American-ass misses home.

Lots of love,

A Memorable Day in India...

After my first three days in India, I already felt that a month had passed. I tried to journal as often as I could to hold on to the scents, the colors, the architecture, and everything else, but I couldn't imagine any way to properly convey the spiritual journey that the trip had already become. Writing is my way of capturing forever the experiences and people that make life worth living. Reading these entries later is an adventure and a rediscovery of the world, the past, my past, and myself.

Vrindavan. We began the day by making a stop at an ISKOM temple. It was made of white marble, and a group of devotees sitting near the back wearing orange kurtas were chanting "Hare Krishna" while playing instruments. It was a pleasant temple, and meshed well with the ideas and images of India I had before arriving. However, as I would soon discover, this temple paled in comparison to the experience that would ensue. From there, we went to a popular pilgrim site at the heart of the city. Vrindavan is said to be the childhood home of Lord Krishna, who often appears as a small mischievous boy. He is believed to be a blissful God, and the first to introduce the concept of love to Hinduism. On the bus ride to the Banke Bihari temple our guide, Cathy Asher, gave us a brief overview of the relevant details. She's a wealth of knowledge, and these fact-filled introductions to sites served both to inform and to get us really excited. And in this case, excitement was definitely what we were in for. Soon after exiting the bus, the monsoon rains began to pour. Because the temple was not near any main roads, we began our trek through the narrow streets and rushing water. It came from all angles, and at times we were almost knee-deep in the runoff as we hustled past the small storefronts of craft workers. We spotted tribes of monkeys sleeping on buildings, along with stray dogs, goats, and other animals swimming along in the streets. Smiling faces and chants of "raday raday" greeted us at every turn. Motorcycles whizzed by, and the smells of street food surrounded us. In short, it was chaotic and exhilarating.

After a long, rain-soaked journey, we finally hit the marble. Inside, the crowd of worshippers was thick. Sporadically, exuberant cheers would erupt from the crowd as the Brahmins transferred offerings of food, flowers, cloth and coins between Krishna and his devotees. The ceiling was open to the sky, and the scent of incense permeated the air. Toward the back was the cause of all the excitement-- the image of Krishna had been revealed. We worked our way through the crowd quickly and made it to the far corner where, behind a small door, a few people were baking prasad. Christy offered some flowers to be delivered to Krishna, and we were given a leaf-full of the sweet dough balls. We each ate one, then bullied our way through a dense and energetic crowd to approach the altar. With a little strategic body posturing, I was able to get Christy close enough to offer our prasad and flowers. The Brahmin gave us coins in return. Indeed, many of the offerings are redistributed to the worshippers as gifts from Krishna, and are given even to the poor and homeless in the community (those of the Shudra caste) who have nothing to offer but their devotion. We then headed back down to the main floor, where waves of devotees were kissing the wet marble at their feet, letting out loud expressions of faith, and encouraging us to join them in worship. Before heading out, I stopped to soak all this in one last time. Upon exiting, our foreheads were smeared with a yellow powdery substance (known as tilak), signifying that we had been freed from the dualities of human existence. As I said earlier, the emotion and intense spirituality of this experience can't really be put into words, as the above account seems dull compared to my memories. It's worth noting, here, that all of this happened before lunch.

Reflecting at and on Man Singh's red sandstone
temple in Krishna's birthplace - Vrindavan, India
The day was young. We continued to travel back until we made it to Rama Man Singh's Red Sandstone temple in the center of the city (which is where the picture in this article was taken). We stepped in to get out of what was now only a drizzle, and viewed a really impressive structure that Man Singh had commissioned while serving under Akbar to increase dynastic visibility. (Without going into too much detail, Akbar is one of the most famous rulers of the Mughal empire - a liberal, music-loving guy who created the notion of "shuli-kur," or universal religious tolerance. In other words, my kind of guy!)

Akbar's Tomb and Agra. We then headed to Akbar's tomb. This large complex is rather plain, to reflect Akbar's piety and likeness to the common man (though he was believed to be semi-divine.) The intricate carvings on the building face were just incredible. The tomb itself had three walls, one for each wife: one Hindu, one Muslim, one Christian. After Akbar's tomb, we continued toward Agra. We decided it was too late to head to the Taj, plus we were feeling a little overwhelmed with emotion still, so we went to Agra Fort instead. Situated alongside a river, this large complex was made of red sandstone and trimmed with white marble. It was massive, and much of it is actually still used as a military complex. There were a number of mesjids, including the one that Shah Jahan (Akbar's grandson, whose name translates to King of the world) had built. Shah Jahan had added considerably to the site throughout his life, which turned out to be a good thing, since his son Aurangzeb, when assuming the throne, imprisoned his father there for the last 6 years of his life. We viewed the Taj from across a highway, likely from the same balconies that Shah Jahan is said to have sat at and cried as he viewed the superior structure of his own creation that he could see but not attend. Lucky us - we were headed there bright and early the next day!

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Vrindaban, Akbar's tomb, and Agra Fort (Day 2)

First off, I must apologize. I am short-changing my readers. I have been in India for three days, but feel that a month has passed. I had no idea I had this much room to grow, but now I don't see an end in sight. So please enjoy what can only be an unfair snippet teaser. I'm not skilled at expressing emotion, and the spiritual journey that this trip has already become is something I will be horribly, horribly inadept at conveying.

We began the day with breakfast, then were on the tour bus by 7. Fittingly coincidental, the word "tourist" was printed across the sun visor on the bus. to be fair, the side of the bus did say "unique." We drove for a few hours to a small restaurant at which there were camels, horses, and an elephant. Though we could have paid for a ride, there was no time. Instead, we headed in for some tea and vegetable frittatas of some sort that were -so good.-

After a short drive, we made a surprise stop at Iscom, a Hari Krishna temple in the center of a small village. It was made of white marble, and had a group of devotees in orange kortas singing "hari krishna, hari krishna" toward the front. It was a pleasant temple, but looking back, it pales in comparison to what was forthcoming.

We headed further on, headed toward Vrindavan's bankibhiari temple, which is dedicated to Lord Krishna. This temple is renowned for the extreme shows of devotion by its Hindu visitors. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, often taking the form of a small naughty boy. Krishna is known as a happy God, and the first to introduce the concept of love as primary in Hindu religion. The people of Vrindavan greet each other with the term "raday raday," which is similar to namaste. The temple is actually far off the main road, and necessitated a walk. Soon after exiting the bus, the monsoon rains began to pour down upon us. As we walked through the narrow streets, the water rushed from all angles, and at times we were almost knee-deep. As we walked through the sewage water along the poor-quality concrete streets, we passed the small storefronts of craftworkers. We saw tribes of monkeys sleeping on buildings, stray dogs, goats, and other animals. We were greeted by smiling facing and chants of raday raday everywhere we turned. After a long, wet, exciting journey, we finally hit the marble. We removed our shoes, and entered the temple. The crowd of Hindu worshippers was thick, and let out occasional exuberant cheers as the brahmans transferred offerings of food, flowers, cloth and coins to Krishna. Christy B, Maria and I worked our way to the front quickly, and were led aside to a small door, on the other side of which were a few people cooking prasad (dough balls). Christy offered some flowers to be delivered to Krishna, and we were given a leaf-full of prasad. We each ate one (they were tasty), then bullied our way through a moshpit-like crowd to approach the altar. With a little strategic body posturing, I was able to get Christy close enough to offer our prasad and flowers. The brahman gave us coins in return (many of the offerings are redistributed to the worshippers as gifts from Krishna, and are given even to the poor and homeless in the community (those of the Shudra caste). We then headed back down to the main floor, where waves of devotees were kissing the wet marble at their feet, letting out loud cries of faith, and encouraging us to join in. Upon exiting, our foreheads were smeared with a yellow powdery substance. The emotion and intense spirituality of this experience can't really be put into words, so I wrote a little poem of free association when I got back, knowing I could do nothing better:

scents smells
smiling boy
women's circle
shoes off
raday raday!
Cathy, Mane-ji
Rama Man Singh
Red Sandstone temple
snake basket
mosh pit
street concrete
forehead exit

We were followed out by a small boy who spoke only Hindi, but who was so happy to spend time with what was surely a spectacle to him. He followed us out, pointing the way, smiling, saying things that only Christy could somewhat understand, but altogether being happy just to share our company (he was way cute). About half-way out of the city, another boy approached Tony with a basket, and opened it to show him his pet snake. Tony was freaked out, and mentioned it to me. The kid slowly made his way around our group, and even when Christy told him to leave, he kept approaching other members of our group. After turning a corner, Nikki Singh turned around and asked what all this was about a boy with a snake at the EXACT SAME TIME that he opened it and offered it to her. She went off in a way I never thought she could in Hindi, and that little boy left us ALONE. (Go Nikki!) We continued to travel back until we made it to Rama Man Singh's Red Sandstone temple in the center of the city. We stepped in to get out of what was now only a drizzle, and viewed a really impressive structure that Man Singh had commissioned while serving under Akbar to increase dynastic visibility. (Without going into detail, Akbar is one of the most famous rulers of the Mughal empire, a liberal, music-loving guy who created the notion of "shuli-kur," or universal religious tolerance. In other words, my kind of guy)

Eventually, we made it back to the bus, and headed toward Agra. On the way over, Christy taught me a few Hindi expressions that have since proved very useful (more on that later). We then headed to Akbar's tomb. This large complex is rather plain, to reflect Akbar's piety and likeness to the common man (though he was believed to be semi-divine.) The intricate carvings on the building face were just incredible. The tomb itself had three walls, one for each wife: one Hindu, one Muslim, one Christian. When Lee, Johanna and I circumambulated the structure, we were approached by some Indian guys a little younger than us who just wanted to talk. They were happy to talk to Americans, and think it is a good country. They were anxious to take pictures with us, especially Johanna. We chatted for a while, then continued to walk, taking note of the green gardens, the gazelles who live on-site, and the large monkeys that were out under the trees.

We then continued toward Agra. We decided it was too late to head to the Taj, plus we were feeling a little overwhelmed with emotion still, so we went to Agra Fort instead. Situated alongside a river, this large complex was made of red sandstone and trimmed with white marble. It was massive, and much of it is actually still used as a military complex. There were a number of mosques, including the one that Shah Jahan (Akbar's son, whose name translates to King of the world) had built. Lee and I actually pulled ourselves up onto one of them to get an amazing vantage point on the entire area. Shah Jahan had added considerably to the site throughout his life, which turned out to be a good thing, since his son Jahangiri, when assuming the throne, imprisoned his father there for the last 6 years of his life. We viewed the Taj from across a highway, likely from the same balconies that Shah Jahan is said to have sat at and cried as he viewed the superior mosque of his creation that he could see but not attend.

Finally, we headed out toward our hotel. We stayed at the Man Singh hotel, which would be considered a five-star hotel in America. Marble floors, ceiling, everything. I took a quick shower, then ended up passing out in Maria and Christy's room for a while. Nikki and Cathy (our amazing program director, who is an endless wealth of knowledge) called to wake us and invite us to dinner. I could only eat soup, but it was really good soup. Eventually, Lee, Tony, Christy and Maria made their way down, but also weren't hungry. When Nikki and Cathy headed up for bed, we headed out. We went just across the street to a shop, where we looked at all sorts of clothing. I bought a nice marble box and a few kortas. Then I hung out and talked with one of the owners, who lived above the shop, about its history, and his life, and Agra, and everything. He was very open, and it was a great conversation. As we headed out to leave, he came out to smoke a cigarette. I had heard about a drink called bong lasse (sp?), which is basically a marijuana derivative used widely at Indian weddings to encourage dancing and good times. I had the nerve and felt comfortable asking, so our group ended up learning about it, and finding out that they are relatively difficult to find outside of weddings. He could have found some, but it wouldn't have been until the next day, and we already would have departed.

Some of the more reserved readers may think negatively of me for having even had an inkling to try something like that. I urge you to recognize the culture-specific prejudice involved in your line of thought. I was surprised to find that even Cathy had once tried bong lasse at a wedding. Unlike in our country, where many pejorative, untruthful statements are made about the marijuana plant, Indians are much more open-minded with regard to the use of bong lasse. Still, its a good idea to have some sober supervision. But with proper safety precautions having been arranged, it would have been an experience I definitely would have tried, likely enjoyed, and never regretted.

We headed back with our purchases to the hotel, and decided we would go swimming. Unfortunately the pool was closed, so we decided to head to bed, looking forward to a quick dip in the morning.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

July 6 & 7

Under Cathy’s guidance we took an overnight tour to visit the Hindu monuments of Vrindavan (ISCOM Temple [new modern Hari Krishna temple], the 16th century Govind Dev temple, and Banke Bihari with its ecstatic devotees], an important Hindu pilgrimage site, and the Muslim Mughal monuments of Agra including Akbar’s tomb, the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort, and Akbar’s palace and shrine complex at Fatehpur Sikri. This gave us insight into India’s dominant religious traditions as well as to the important historical developments under the Mughals during their height in the 16th and 17th centuries. During part of this particular trip it rained very heavily and to reach some of the monuments the group had to walk through narrow streets with knee high water. Rather than being horrified at this, everyone found it to be great fun and felt they were experiencing what they called the “real India.” This positive attitude lasted the entire workshop.


Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Qutb Minar, Dali Haat, The International Center (Day 1)

Our first day in India could not have served better to expose us to its history and culture. We began with a solid Indian breakfast consisting of mangoes, cereal with hot milk, toast, preserves, and tea. We then had an orientation session, and met Rick and Cathy Asher, Purnima Meta, Narayani Gupta, Nikki Singh, Pandeep, and a few others (my spelling may be horrible, but suffice it to say these people are absolutely wonderful). We then packed into the vehicles with Cathy and Nikki to head to the Qutb Minar.

The Qutb Minar is a spectacular muslim shrine. It was built in three phases, and the architecture of each was very distinct. At the time of its construction, the Qutb Minar was the tallest building of its kind. The spolia screens that surrounded the prayer chamber were intricately carved with arabic script and flowers, some pointed in to the chamber (where the light of God would be). Because the capability of dome-building was not known during the first construction, many of the ceilings had corbelled domes (much like when you build an arch out of legos.) The site was fascinating and impressive.

An interesting side note: We were at one point approached by Hindras requesting rupees. Hindras are hermaphrodites, and often dress as women though they pretty obviously are not. Unlike in our country, where difference is shunned and hermaphrodites are "fixed" at birth, hindras are viewed as almost holy. The can come and take away hermaphrodite children from parents and raise them on their own. They can actually do almost anything they want with fear of harm. Some people fear them, thinking they will be cursed for crossing them. Other people do not fear them at all. Anyway, it was an interesting experience, to say the least.

Upon our return, we had a traditional Indian lunch at the guest house. I love Indian food, particularly because the spices open up my nasal cavities and I can breathe so much easier. This was a very mild meal, but some of the students had trouble with it...they're really in for some fun! After lunch, we were graced with the presence of T.N. Madan, a world-leading sociologist. He spoke with us about Indian religion and its rich and varied history. During the presentation, the building's power went out, which is not uncommon in India even at as nice a place as the AIIS guest house (though the presence of 12 students, likely all running AC units, probably played a significant role). After Madan-ji's presentation, we had tea. Then Narayani Gupta gave us a lesson about language and regions in India. When India claimed independence in 1947, the states had been pre-conceived by many of the congress party leaders while they were in prison (plenty of time to write and think.) The states are roughly divided by language spoken in the region, minus the "cow belt" of central India in which mutually intelligible versions of Hindi are spoken.

After this, we headed out to Dali Haat, a market in Dehli. It cost Rs 10 to enter, and I spent Rs 1100 to buy two pairs of shoes, a korta (sp?), and a chained bell. I think everyone did pretty well. The most valuable thing in the market, in my opinion, was free of charge: the conversation with the sellers. I chatted with a Rajasthani who makes brushes out of squirrel hair, and paints silks. I met a small boy who spoke English well enough to discuss his school day with me, and he then introduced me to his family, who ran several of the shops. I also did a considerable amount of people watching. Indians are a pretty people.

Afterward, we returned home, then headed to the International Center for dinner. The invitation-only club is attended by intellectuals and the arts crowd, as well as liberal political people (my type of crowd!). I had a fresh lime soda to drink, and a thali, which is basically a sample platter. All nine options were delicious. I had naan (a puffy bread) as well. For desert, I had honey and fig ice cream (a-freaking-mazing). My fellow travelers had mango and honeydew ice cream. All of it was just delicious.

Tomorrow, we're up at 6 am to head to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. On Thursday, we will visit Fatehpur Siri and the Agra Fort. I likely will not be able to write about these until our return on Friday, so until then...namaste (the inner light in me bows to the inner light in you!)

July 5

All the students had arrived by the 5th thus making it possible to commence the workshop officially. We started off with a trip to visit the Qutb Minar complex, North India’s first mosque after the Islamic Ghorid conquest of India. Cathy led the tour and discussed the monument in terms of its historical context. After lunch two scholars made presentations to begin orientating the students to India, its culture and history. Dr. T.N. Madan, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University, discussed the regions of India with a special emphasis on the growth of Islam in Bengal and Kashmir, regions where there was mass conversion to Islam. Narayani Gupta focused on a discussion of regions and languages in India. We all had dinner at the Guest House.


Monday, July 04, 2005

Mango Ice Cream

Hey Guys,

It was our first day in India. It was very cool. We went down to the market and to a Hindu Temple built in 1939. The best was the house where Ghandi was killed. They had brass markers for his last footsteps, it was cool. The food here is great, there is no way any of us will lose any weight. We went to a really nice academic club for lunch (our professors, Dr. Rick & Cathy treated us.) The mango ice cream was the best, even better than Michocana bars (if you know me that is a high standard of quality.) The rest of the cohort should be here soon. Chris B., Chris C, and I walked down to a market tonight - exploration! I found a book store that is so cheap. I got a dictionary for 99 rupees which is like $2 american. Hopefully this will post for all of you (I have been having trouble with that.) Shouts out to Mom, Sia, Yari, The fam, The gang, C-Woo, and Max.


Happy 4th of July

Hello All, Sorry I have not been blogging much so far, this is the first time that I am not paying 25 cents a minute to use the internet. I believe now I have told everyone to check this site so I can write a single message to all. I am finally in India. We came in at about 1 am on the morning of the 4th. I am not quite sure but I must be at least 13 hours ahead of E-Burg. I did not get to go to Milan, nor did I get here a day early. After our flight cancellation on Thursday, I was scheduled to fly out of Dulles Airport on Friday. Instead I spent the entire day in the airport; I did not even make it past the initial ticket counter. Throughout the day represenatives of Northwest were rude, demeaning and even lied to me (I wrote about 6 pages in my journal on the incident just to calm myself.) Eventually, on Saturday I flew out with Chris B., Chris C. and Jo. My flight buddy to Amsterdam was a very smelly Dutch man, but the flight went supprisingly quickly. In Amsterdam we left the airport and grabbed a train into the city - wow. I have never seen a social structure that was built so completely around Pot, Mushrooms, and Sex. Also, when we arrived a large party of about 45,000 youth had gotten over, so there were large groups of people walking around in all white. We did have a delay in Amsterdam because our engine might have been broken, but that was the end of the excitement. Our arrival in India was almost anticlimatic, but I think that was a good thing. Today we are going to a market where I can purchase authentic Indian garb; I am also excited to reunite our cohort. Shout out to Mom, Sia, the fam, the gang (Faithius, Mundy, CB), The Office, Castle, Luke, V Hook, DHC.


A day in wait

Today was airplane day! We had two semi-consecutive 7 hours flights, interrupted by a 4 hour layover in Amsterdam at a time I deemed too early to bother traveling out at. So Maria and I had draught Heineken instead. I had some crazy allergies going on on the plane, which was unfun. The played "Robots," which I found cute. I also listened to some lectures on tape about Gandhi's use of Power and Indian economics.

When finally we arrived, the scent, which I heard was notable, was. But I actually sort of liked it. It was a beautiful night out, and we've just checked in. I went out and stood by a fence to look at the city and traffic, and saw a little kitten further down the way (didn't touch, did admire). Everyone has been helpful, and I am anxious to begin.

But now we sleep.

July 4th

The four students who were able to reach Delhi by the 4th of July were taken to lunch at the India International Center and then to Birla House, which marks the spot where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. We then visited the famous Birla temple, one of New Delhi’s first Hindu temples provided by a major industrialist and supporter of Mahatma Gandhi. The temple, built in the Gandhian spirit, was the first to be open to all followers of Indic religions regardless of caste. After this the students walked through Lodi Gardens which are renowned for its 15th and 16th century tombs, mosque and beautifully planted gardens.


Sunday, July 03, 2005

A "Monumental" Occasion

It was an active day. The eight of us that remain in DC (Mary, Maria, Megan, Lateka, Donna, Brent, Lee (von) and myself) headed out to the World War II Memorial. On our way, we stopped by for a few photos at 1600 Penn Ave. Then we headed to the newly-opened WWII memorial, which was pretty impressive, and took pictures by the post for our state. Afterward, we walked along the reflecting pool to check out the Lincoln Memorial, then the Vietnam Memorial, then we headed back. I stopped in the Folk Life exhibit for another Fruit Smoothie, then Lee, Donna and I headed to the AmerIndian museum. It was pretty impressive, and we got some good chews afterward.
Later that evening, we got some tapas at La Tasca, then Mary, Maria and I headed down to the lawn of the capitol to watch a non-dress rehearsal of a July 4th performance. Nifty.

When do we get to leave?