Houseboat

November 13th, 2016

We flew to Cochin on the western coast of southern India.  We took a bus and then a tuk tuk to our houseboat.  It seemed as though we entered a new country.  Very few horns, less traffic, and greener environment.  We spent two wonderful nights and days traveling on a quiet river and lake, stopping to visit villages.  We saw a lot of bird life (not many photos) and lots of fishing boats.  We saw daily life of the people who live in this area.  During the first half day there were a number of other tourist houseboats but by afternoon of the first day there were only the two boats of our group.

Southern India has a larger population of Christians (20 %) as well as more Muslims (20%). Hindus make up only about 55%. Catholic churches are often topped by the India cross with a dove at the top and a lotus flower at the bottom.

We took several walks through villages.  The first day we were on the boat was U.S. election day.  We talked with a number of villagers about the election.  Others invited us in to their homes to see the incoming results on CNN.

One highlight during a village visit was riding the school bus.  We had walked quite a ways and were waiting for a local bus to ride back to the houseboat.  A school bus stopped and we joined it.  The children were so excited. The eyes of those that got on after us grew big and surprised when they got on!  Other times we saw school children on their way to school or on their way home.

Colorful homes and beautiful locations.  One noon we had a typical South Indian meal in this area—served on a banana leaf.  Good.  In fact, the food on the boat was great the whole time.

We saw a duck farm with several hundred ducks.  We disturbed two boatmen trying to herd their ducks to a special stop.  Rice has just been harvested so we saw rice being bagged and transported.

We found a man high in the coconut tree collecting juice.  The juice will be taken to a cooperative brewery and made into alcohol.  Later we tried some.

Visited the birth place of a local Catholic Saint—St. Kuriakose Elias Chavara born in 1805.  He founded the first Catholic school and became the first Indian to make the Profession of Religious vows.

One afternoon we came across a volleyball game and got some front row seats.  Another morning we came across a “pick-up” volleyball game the men were playing before they went to work.

Scenes from the boat.

Scenes in the villages.

 

Varanasi

November 11th, 2016

Varanasi, the holiest city of the Hindu faith.  Varanasi has also been known as Kashi, “the City of Light” or Benares.  It is situated on the west bank of the Ganges River with a spiritual and religious legacy that goes back nearly 3000 years.  It is the city of Shiva, the god of protection.

Upon arrival in late afternoon, we got in tuk-tuks and rode towards the river about 45 minutes.  Varanasi is crowded, dirty, noisy, and chaotic just as Agra.  After the ride we walked another half hour through crowded streets and alleyways.  We got on a boat and traveled to one of two cremation sites.  Varanasi is where cremation can take place 24 hours a day.  (Away from here, cremation is only done during the day.)  We saw bodies carried on pallets to the river to be splashed with holy water and then taken to a cremation site.  There were four or five fires going at the same time.  Our guide said the bodies burn for 2-3 hours.

We boated a bit far out in the river.  We were each given a light saucer.  We had a Brahma priest recite a Hindu prayer as we all mediated silently on our loved ones who have died.  We then put the candles in the water and watched them float away.  A holy moment.

We went up the river to a Hindu service being performed on a large open platform with seven priests.  Our guide said the priests were praying to the River Ganges on behalf of everyone.  There was a large crowd with many tourists.  We wound our way through the crowd till we walked right beside the platform.  Fascinating evening.

We returned early the next morning (5:30) to the river to participate in morning activities.  It was not quite as crowded.  We had head and neck massages.  Others had religious symbols painted on their foreheads.  We saw holy men praying with the person bringing the ashes of his relative which he will place in the river.   Some got haircuts.  Men bringing ashes for blessing shave their heads.  Some women also shave their heads after visiting the Ganges.  We saw a priest leading the morning prayer to the River.  Eventually, we got in a boat again and rowed up and down the river bank.  There is about four miles along the bank where many daily activities take place.  There are temples and shrines.  Daily bathing and laundry as well as yoga, religious rituals all take place.  The following day was a special day for mothers and we saw several groups of mothers and daughters together in the river.  We saw where the Beetles stayed.

In the afternoon we visited the site where Buddhism was started–Sarnath.  It was the site the Buddha preached his first sermon after becoming enlightened.  There was also a temple where the walls had paintings of Buddha’s life.

The last evening we had our farewell dinner. Women were dressed in saris and men in the white tops and pants.  We began with an hour sitar and drum concert – very good.

Khajuraho

November 7th, 2016

We took a train from Agra to Jhansi.  Good ride; good experience.  The countryside changed from drier environment to a bit greener and more farming.  We then had a 5 hour bus ride to Khajuraho.  We enjoy seeing rural life even though it was a long ride.

We stopped at a rural farmstead to see a “Persian” well.  The cattle pulled the shaft that ran the wheel that lifted and dipped into the well to bring water up for irrigation.

Before arriving at our hotel we stopped at a single standing 12th century temple to see the evening light.

The Khajuraho World Heritage temple complex was built between the 9th and 10th centuries by the Chandela dynasty which dominated Central India at that time.  It is dedicated to Vishnu.  The complex reminded us of the Prambanan in Indonesia but much bigger and Angkor Wat in Cambodia but much better restored.  It was a beautiful spot.  The main temple is huge, complex with harmonious composition sculptural embellishments.  There are over 800 sculptures cover the temple, depicting gods and goddesses, beasts and warriors, sensuous maidens, dancers, musicians and many erotic scenes.

We had lunch in a small rural café.  And then we flew to Varanasi.

Agra

November 7th, 2016

From peaceful, quiet countryside back to bustling, crowded, dirty, noisy city.  This time we are in Agra, home to Taj Mahal.  We arrived in late afternoon and went to see the Taj across a river with the setting sun shining on it.  However, the smog was so bad that one can barely see the sun through it, let alone have it shining on the Taj.  It still was a beautiful sight and we enjoyed the garden area.

The following morning we got up early to see the Taj in the morning light.  Security lines were very long as they do a thorough search of everyone.  The Taj Mahal is a national gem.  It was built by the Mughal emperor in memory of his favorite wife who died in 1631.  We won’t say much about the Taj because it is well known.  We do, of course, have lots of photos.  It is massive; it is beautiful.  It was also in the smog and there were thousands of others there also!  It was hard to really enjoy.

We visited the Agra Fort built in the mid-1500’s of red sandstone.  It had four defenses – a wet moat with crocodiles, an 80 foot wall, a dry moat with tigers, and finally another 80 foot wall.  If one got past all those, above the gates were spouts for pouring hot oil on the enemies!  There were beautiful courtyards, pavilions buildings.  There was even the tower where the Emperor was imprisoned by his son.

A highlight was our stop at Sheros.  This is a café and business run for and by women who have been acid attack victims.  The program gives the women confidence to appear in public after being disfigured.  It may have been by a husband, a mother-in-law, or a friend.  It attracts 500 customers on an average day in its two locations.  It is the first initiative of its kind to reintegrate survivors back into mainstream Indian society.

One evening our guide gave all the women in the group a chance to have a henna painting.  The artist painted.  It dried and then was scratched off.  Oil was then put on painting.

Interesting street scenes.

 

 

Camp and Step Wells

November 6th, 2016

We drove to our “camp site” for the night.  We’ve never had such luxurious camping.  It was a beautiful spot and so quiet.  It was great to sleep with no air conditioner and to hear the crickets as we fell asleep.  Before our evening meal we had a short cooking demonstration of potato and spinach curry and parantha.  Some area farmers came and entertained us with music and dancing.  We joined in.

Before we left in the morning we had a chance to partially dress like the area people.  Women were fitted with scarves and men were fitted with turbans and dhotis.

We stopped at a “baori” or step-well which was built in the 8th-9th century.  It is 19.5 meters deep to provide water to people of the area.  Part of the baori was for bathing and a separate area was for fresh drinking water.  There are a number of stone sculptures housed here to protect them from further damage.  We could see the defacing of these sculptures by the Moghuls (Muslims) when they conquered this area.

We watched a potter making clay mugs, incense holders and a few other small objects.

We stopped at a colorful Hindu temple.  So different than what we have seen before.  Our guide said it is similiar to those we will see in south India.  So expect to see more photos!

 

Ranthambore Fort, Game Park, and Khilchipur

November 4th, 2016

Our accommodation near the game park was fabulous.  We have some photos but go to the link for Narhargarh to see a bird’s eye view of the hotel!  Our room was on the right in the second courtyard.

“Surrounded by a 16th century style fortress, Nahargarh is built like a traditional Rajput hunting palace complete with a vast “Char Bagh” or formal Mughal garden.”

 Since it was Diwali we had firecrackers one evening.

We visited the Ranthambore Fort located within the game park.  The massive fort was built in the 5th century.

We also had two safari drives in the Game Park.  It is a park best known for seeing Bengal tigers.  However, no tigers seen on the two drives!  Other wildlife and birdlife were abundant.  However, we didn’t have our long lens so not many photos.

Overseas Adventure is part of the Grand Circle Foundation.  Some of the trip price goes to help a school and a village.  We spent a morning at the school and in the village.  Since this is still Diwali vacation, most of the 300 children were not there.  However, there were a few students who had come for extra tutoring during this time.  We talked with the founder and principal of the school, her husband, and the English teacher.  The school is a private school and is English medium.  The foundation has just begun working with the school but has given a bore well and water filter and is in process of giving benches and solar power.  Our group put on an impromptu skit of taking care of teeth and then distributed tooth brushes.  We were all given paper and pens.  The students drew pictures of Diwali and tour members drew pictures of either Halloween or Christmas.

We walked through the village noting various activities taking place.  The foundation is providing solar power to the village.

We stopped to have tea in a home.

 

We drove to a Women’s cooperative which the foundation is helping.  The foundation is providing water pump, tin roof, and power back-up.  We learned that this cooperative is providing Ten Thousand Villages with tablecloths!  An interesting visit which ended with a lunch.

 

Jaipur

October 31st, 2016

We flew to Jaipur, about 170 miles southwest of Delhi.  Jaipur is sometimes called the ”Pink City” because many of the buildings are painted/washed in that color.  The early city was built in 1720’s by Sawai Jai Singh II, a Mughal.

We visited a  1000-year old Jain Temple.  Here again, we did not know much about Jainism before.  Jainism is a religion of eternity and followers believe their religion is eternal.  Some say it began before Hinduism.  Their main beliefs are non-violence, non-absolutism, and non-possessiveness.  Followers take 5 main vows: non-violence, not lying, not stealing, chastity, and non-attachment.  Interestingly, Gandhi was greatly affected by these beliefs and adopted many of their principles.  (No photos inside)

To Jantar Mantar – an observatory built in 1730’s of masonry, stone, and brass and still used today.  Sawai Jai Singh II built 5 observatories around India but this is the largest and best preserved.  The large stone instruments form a natural artistic sculptural garden.  A “small sundial” calculates Jaipur’s local time up to an accuracy of 20 seconds.  The bigger one (largest sundial in the world) is correct to within 2 seconds.  There is a group of 12 pieces, each of which represents a sign of the zodiac and therefore faces a different constellation.  The instrument is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes.  Astrology is very important in the life of Hindus.  There were many other instruments which were all fascinating.  (If anyone is really interested, the web site above talks about it more.)

We visited the City Palace Museum.  This has been home of the rulers of Jaipur since the first half of 18th century.  Architecture combines Hindu, Muslim, and British colonial influences.  We saw manuscripts, carpets, musical instruments, royal costumes, weaponry, and miniature paintings.  We even watched an artist who has presented at the Chicago Museum of Art and Indianapolis Art Museum.  He demonstrated miniature drawing using a brush of one hair of a squirrel’s tail and then gave us the drawing in a book which we had bought.

One evening we went to the Birla Hindu Temple.  The same family that built the large temple in Kolkata that we visited, also built this one.  It is more recent (1988) and did not seem as elaborate.  However, it did have some stained glass windows.  It has three domes – the first in the style of Islam, the second in the style of Buddhism, and the third in the style of Hinduism.  The sculptures around the outside include Hindu deities as well as great historical figures from all religions, including Socrates, Zarathustra, Christ, Buddha, and Confucius.

We stopped in front of the Palace of the Winds.  This isn’t really a palace but an elaborate wall from where women could look out on life and not be seen.  We stopped at a “milk market.”  Farmers bring their milk in, buyers come to buy.  There is a “tester” who sticks his hand in the milk and tastes to determine the quality/amount of cream.

We visited Amber Palace, begun in 1592, built of red sandstone and marble.  Amber Fort is located on an opposite hill.  There is elaborate relief work and glass which helped in the heating and cooling of the palace rooms. There are four levels each having a courtyard.

We stopped at a textile place where they demonstrated block printing.  (We have seen this elsewhere! Indonesia & Ivory Coast)  They also were making rugs but these were from wool—often camel’s wool.

Diwali is the most important festival in Hinduism, celebrated this year on Oct 30.  It is the festival of lights and reminds us of Christmas in the U.S.  Everyone is shopping; decorations are everywhere.  It is auspicious to buy something new two days before Diwali.  There is variation in regional practices and rituals of celebrating Diwali but they all signify the victory of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance, and hope over despair.  In this area Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity and wife of Lord Vishnu is celebrated especially.

We walked through a local market one evening.  It was extremely crowded, and yes, everyone was buying.  New clothes, new kitchen utensils, even new cars are bought.

On our last afternoon we took a balloon ride.  Fun.  We flew over rural areas and often just at tree tops.  Children especially, liked to wave.  Farmers were not so happy since we scared the cattle and goats.  Erosion was clearly visible.

We had supper with a local Indian family which was very interesting.  She had artistic and craft talents and he worked in the government.

And then there are some photos from various parts of our visits that don’t fit anywhere!

 

Delhi

October 28th, 2016

Our visit to Delhi began with a visit to a Sikh Temple – Gurdwara Bangla Sahib Temple.  We had never been to a Sikh Temple and in reality, knew nothing about Sikhism.  It is a monotheistic faith founded in 1469.  A Sikh believes in One God and the teachings of the Ten Gurus which are enshrined in the Holy Book.  There are 5 distinct principles represented by 5 symbols known as five K’s –

  • Kesha (long & unshorn hair) – the way you were born is the way you are
  • Kangha (a comb) – be presentable in life
  • Kara (a steel bracelet) – remind self of what you are doing
  • Kachha (pair of shorts) – self-control of human nature
  • Kirpan (a sword) – not to harm but to protect humanity

To enter the temple, shoes and socks must be removed and all heads must be covered, even men.  We entered the temple (no photos allowed) and sat and listened a bit to the chanting & explaining of the scriptures.  Outside the temple was a large “holy” pool.  Sikh temples have a high flagpole with a saffron flag flying to show followers where the temple is.  This temple also has a gold dome.

The temple featured a Langar (common kitchen) where food is provided to everyone.  It is a symbol of equality, fraternity and brotherhood.  Rich and poor, educated and ignorant, kings and paupers all share the same food sitting together in one row.  We participated.  It was quite astounding to see it working.  They feed close to 10,000 people a day.  We also visited the kitchen where Sikhs and volunteers prepare all the food.  Sally Jo even helped form some chapattis.

We then visited the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India which was completed in 1656.  It was quite different than any mosque we have been in.  There is only a small part under roof and the worship area is a big open space.  All the women in our group had to wear colorful gowns to make sure our legs were not showing, but we did not need to cover our head.

We took a short rickshaw ride and then a short walk through the Chandni Chowk bazaar.  Our guide wanted us to compare the Muslim section (many meat shops, auto mechanics, and more intense activity) with the Hindu section (vegetable stalls, silver & brass artisans, and a calmer atmosphere).  They don’t usually live together but they work together.  Lots of decorations for Diwali festival (Hindu festival of lights).

We visited the Qutb Minar built in the 12 century.  The mosque was built where Hindu and Jain temples had been originally.  There are Hindu panels among the Islamic domes and arches.  The 73 metre tower is the tallest brick minaret in the world.  It was amazing to think about and see this work – done with only hand tools.  A 4th century nonrusting iron pillar is a tribute to ancient Indian metallurgy.

To Mahatma Gandhi’s final home.  He spent his last 144 days here and was assassinated here Jan 30, 1948.  It is now a museum.  It was very well done — very informative with photos and explanations of his entire life. What an inspiration.

Our last stops included a Kashmiri carpet maker (beautiful works of art), a drive around the government buildings (security didn’t allow walking), and the India Gate (war memorial).  India Gate honors Indian & British soldiers who died in WW I and other wars.  The eternal flame is burned in memory of the 1971 Pakistan-India conflict.  An interesting note – facing the gate is a cupola where once stood a statue of King George V.  This statue was moved to another spot.  At one time it was suggested that a statue of Gandhi be placed here.  However, it was decided that since this was a war memorial it was inappropriate to place someone representing peace.

Kolkata

October 25th, 2016

We had a short stay of only two days in Kolkata, India.  We stayed at the MCC Guest House with the MCC Reps serving as our hosts.  We walked to the “flower market” our first morning.  We walked through small streets in the early morning as vendors were setting up their wares.  We stopped at an old Armenian Church.  The original wooden church was built in 1688 but burned down; the present structure was built in 1724.  The church and its grounds reminded us of the Armenian Church in Old Dhaka.  Flowers arrive in the morning and vendors buy and take to sell in other parts of the city.  Flowers are used in many aspects in the Hindu religion.  We stopped by the Hooghly River which is a branch of the Ganges through this part of India.  Crossing the river at this point is the Howrah Bridge, the third longest cantilever bridge in the world.  Across the river is a huge train station.  We brought a tram back to the Guest House.

We had a good walk in the Botanical Gardens.  The main attraction is a mammoth banyan tree thought to be at least 250 years old.  The main trunk rotted away in 1925 but it continues to live with its aerial roots.  When the trunk was removed it was 50 feet in circumference.  The present canopy occupies more than 1500 feet in circumference.  It is huge!  We also saw the giant water lily pads—like we saw in Chiang Mai.  They can be up to 1 feet in diameter.

We attended St James Church Sunday morning, a high Anglican service.  Afterwards we visited St Mother Teresa’s Mother House.  We visited the museum and her final resting spot.

We roamed the Victoria Memorial.  The grounds are well-cared for “colonial British” gardens.  The marble monument was completed in 1921.  We could only visit the first floor and photos were not allowed inside.  There is a large gallery of oil paintings and watercolors from the 19th century illustrating the lives and time period of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.   The other half of the museum tells the history of Kolkata from mid 1600’s to the partition of India in 1947 and on through to the 1970s.  A fascinating collection but far too much information to retain!  There was even a life-size diorama of a street in Kolkata in the late 1800s.

We stopped in at St Paul’s, the Mother Church of the diocese of Kolkata in the Church of North India.  The architecture was very different than we normally see.

 

In the evening we visited Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple built of marble in the late 20th century by an industrialist family.  Again no photos but a fascinating temple and especially beautiful at night when it is lit up.  Inside are statues to several of the deities – Krishna, Radha, Durga, Shakti, and Shiva.  There were many people paying their respects and/or just enjoying the site.

 

Botanical Gardens … and more

October 7th, 2016

We spent a wonderful morning with an MCC office colleague.  We often complain about the noise and chaos of traffic and people here in Dhaka.   But this time we were in the Botanical Gardens far away from traffic noise and among the tall quiet trees.  Our morning included a few other places.

Bangladesh is getting ready for the Hindu festival – Durga Puja.  We stopped first at a Hindu temple where we saw several of the gods.  However, the main god will not be unveiled until later in the day.  An interesting encounter was with the man who explained the temple; he knew MCC!

We then went to the Gardens.  Our colleague is a bird watcher and knows Bangladesh nature.  He told us the names of birds we heard or saw and the plants/trees.  Fascinating.  However, we don’t remember all the names.  We have only one photo of a bird (we didn’t have our long lens) but we saw beautiful woodpeckers and orioles, along with more common birds.  We also saw and heard a colony of bats.  Huge bats – wing span of a meter

We then went for a ride in a small boat/canoe on the river.  Fun

We traveled from our flat to the various places by CNG, the 3-wheeled “box” — if you could reach through the window grates, you could touch the vehicles beside you.  (CNG stands for Compressed Natural Gas – their fuel.)