May 31, 2017

#53 - India - Part 3

Dear Dubrovnik,

As with most posts from trips where I lacked internet, I have made these entries span a few months, but I swear I'm wrapping up my India writing, well, at least for this trip! As we rapidly approach June, I find it hard to believe a year ago I was prepping for a trip to Iceland with my seeesters! Who knows what interesting travels the world has in store for me this year...! I suppose I should wait until I repay all my time-off before I try to find out!

Thankfully for the final stretch of our trip being the "touristic" part, we were partnered with the most wonderful tour guide from insight india voyage. His name is Anshul, and he turned out to be about the same age as most of us younger folks, but was way more polite and politically correct than any of us. He and his brother took over their father's business and both work hard to appeal to all sorts of groups for all different types of experiences from larger groups, to families and even honeymoons! Their company offers some pretty spectacular adventures and works through all the travel arrangements, sights, guides, and even plenty of great food experiences. Which leaves the sightseeing, oohing and ahhing, and of course, dining to us!

Some sanity exercises for the plane ride

We were very fortunate for this arrangement as I'm sure we would not have made it far without them! After an early flight to Delhi we met up with Anshul and our new drivers who would be taking us on all of our history-packed adventures! They presented us with flower leis as we began our trip into the heart of the city. We were about to learn what it really meant to go less than a mile in one hour, but this offered us much time to discover facts and history about the city that rose up around us outside the windows. Buildings constructed in the 16th century sat juxtaposed to new office buildings and palace-like mansions bordered by hedgerows of manicured trees all numbered and secured by low iron fences patrolled by armed guards. And the guards were literally everywhere--in the medians in the highways, on the roadsides, on the sidewalks, everywhere.

As an aside, I've spoken with a few folks since this trip who grimaced when I said where we'd been touring about considering the incidents and attacks in the news, (23 incidents in India from 2008 to present.) However it's important to remember (especially in this day and age,) numbers are often presented to fit one perspective on data, and highlight or hide information for a target audience. For a country of over 1.3 billion (second only to China) compared to the US with a population of just 326 million, I was interested what the figures looked like given I could only think of a handful of events here in the states. To my disbelieve, during the same 11 year period, 2008 to present, the US incurred 55 incidents of the same nature. I would like to think there could exist a world in which tallies didn't exist for events of such horrific events because they didn't occur, but in the interim, it's most important to remember data is often highlighted in such a way to favor, or throw shade on a situation. On the whole, I felt very safe throughout our whole trip and found that people were incredibly friendly and curious more than anything (rather than malicious,) especially when thinking back to visits to Time Square or Rome...!

I'm laughing to myself as I read through our trip itinerary because it's quite clear to me why I can't recall the order of events - we saw a crazy amount of sites each day and literally traveled the same distance of the first two weeks in a couple days! 

One thing I couldn't get a photo of (but it was totally a thing) were all the goats wearing sweaters. Most of the goats we saw, especially the kids were toting the cutest patterns imaginable due to the cold temperatures (40's-50's F remember no down jackets,) but I realized many of the events and sights I only captured on video, so perhaps there will be a clip once I string together all the footage!

So after tons of traffic, we made our way to our first lunch! We were all in such a daze from the early travels that we ordered tons of food and drinks and may have stayed a little longer than our tour guide would have liked given our packed itinerary, but I imagine we'd have all have crashed far sooner without the food! We first set out on a rickshaw ride among cars, busses, animals and more through Chandi Chawk but couldn't get as far as we'd hoped due to the highly congested side streets. We did a big loop and passed all sorts of markets selling everything from Nike backpacks, to fruits and spices, to used shoes. We also passed medians that were home to flea ridden dogs and homeless children and families alike picking through garbage and selling and trading items.

Although I often think of films to be a not-so-accurate portrayal of the world that exists, I do find  Slumdog Millionaire and Lion both did an incredible job at capturing the raw reality faced by a large population of India. However, this could be my bias as I think Dev Patel is literally the bees knees. Additionally, a few years ago I read an interesting article about India's slums in conjunction with Katherine Boo's book, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers that accurately described the world I witnessed. Both movies and writings reflected their own gritty detail that seems unfathomable to someone like myself who has never experienced such great hardship. But there was an interesting liveliness to the 'informal' cities and businesses that make up a massive market of underground production and output in India. I will never think of fish oil capsules the same--but that aside, there is also something tranquil about being content and happy with life as a gift in itself. So many of the people we met were happy for everything, (chai, rice, sunshine, a nice shirt, a smile) when we often encounter events such as a low phone battery that can "ruin" a whole day. I'm not sure if I mentioned it previously, but one of the boys we met was gifted his first cell phone after high school from a group of his friends who all pooled their money so they could get in touch with him. Can you think of five of your friends who would pay your cellphone bill so they could talk to you?

Anyway, I'm very good at drifting off from the topic, so back to the journey! After our rides, we rode past the Red Fort which was massive, and you guessed it, red! It was constructed in the 17th century as a citadel for Shah Jahan. Our next stop was to Humayun's tomb which was constructed in the 1560's AD. The gardens leading to the tomb served as perfect napping spots for sleepy dogs who were just as loved as the goats, some sporting little shirts.

 The tomb seen above, as well as many other sites all across India and the world mystify architects and scientists alike who can't determine how they were built with such accuracy considering the lack of technical tools during their construction period. It was the first building to use red sandstone on such a large scale and used a building technique where the corners are angled off creating the illusion the building could go on forever. (This is best seen from a corner perspective as this, and many buildings like it such as the Taj Mahal are mirrored on all sides to be identical from all angles.) One unique thing to note is for most Muslim burial sites we saw, said individuals lie (in their tombs) either with their feet facing Mecca, or laying with their head north, and turned towards Mecca to the west (from India).

The tomb of Isa Khan, located at the same complex, constructed prior Humayun's tomb.
Can you spot some peeking eyes?
Okay, so this next section is about the Qutb complex which contains a few magnificent sites for the history of Delhi. Full disclosure, that between my notes, and reading articles online, I'm still a bit confused behind all of the meanings for [why] all of the events occurred at this location. There were something like seven to ten successors at this site who deconstructed, and rebuilt certain elements trying to embody their own architectural standards.

One of the first things I noticed at this site was that despite the amazingly detailed carvings tucked into all the corners buildings and arches or spiraled and wrapped around the cloister columns, every carved figure, animal or otherwise, had their faces scratched off. I can't determine exactly which time period this all happened during, but from my notes I believe it took place under the rule of an Indo-Islam regime which believed in aniconism, or the idea that statues, art and the like are to not depict sentient beings. The main mosque that stands on the complex was constructed with the pieces of twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples that were torn down.

Qutb Minor is the tallest brick minaret in the world at just over 72 meters, or 239 ft.

 The iron pillar is the most pure example of iron extraction dating back to 402 CE. There has been no success in extracting iron of such quality to date. At 23 feet, the pillar weighs in at 13,000 pounds, and despite appearances (the bottom appeared a bit rusted when I was there,) I was corrected, the tarnish is a result of a tradition that used to occur where tourists would stand back to the pillar and try to reach their hands around the pillar, and touch behind the pillar. This act alone began to deteriorate the iron, and given the site in the early 2000's was seeing 3.9 million guests per year, (about 1.5 million more than the Taj Mahal,) they had to put a kibosh on that ritual. Today, the pillar has a fence around it to deter people trying to test their luck!
I love the intricacies of the stone work!

Quwwat-ul-Islam arch

Qutb Minor through the arch. Looks like a painting! 

Indian chipmunks are perhaps sneakier than in the US!
Here you can see the faces that are 'defaced'

I learned that these columns are actually two from the original site,
stacked vertically to create a higher ceiling.

After this, we went to a store that housed many different traditional craft items from stone carvings, to paintings, incense, teas and beyond! And of course, we got the deluxe carpet show! We learned throughout our trip, that as tourists from the US, store owners and venders were under the assumption we would be big spenders. But with 3/4 of our group being just 2-4 years out of college--boy were they wrong! Carmet knotting was an intricate process, depending on the quality of the fibers, and thinness (camels fur, to silk), the time could range in the years for creation. Each knot is hand tied, and cut on a diagonal so the color appears different from each end on the carpet. As it's not one long strand, the carpet can't be undone, and they even took a hand rake to the carpet as we all gawked in horror as nothing happened to the carpets! Pretty neat. The materials were very soft and cool to the touch. 

An interesting fact, all Indian crafts can be shipped free to other parts of the world (shipping paid for by the government) to try and promote, and encourage the sales of traditional Indian crafts and goods. I was very interested to speak with the owner about this trade, but ended up talking with a rather sweaty man who was so intent on selling me a carpet. Oddly enough, my genuine dis-interest in buying a full-sized carpet for my fully carpeted apartment only seemed to drive him more and by the time I left, he was ready to offer up a 4'x6' carpet, any colors or material, and my tiny 1'x2' carpet I ended up with, for less that $450, which was ridiculously low. But hey, this ended up working to my benefit when I really wanted something special, as even the hardest bargainers couldn't stand up to my poker face. I believe I inherited that one from summers yard-sale-ing with Gram Douglass who could talk down a $2 book to 10 cents.

 We then headed off into the night to have dinner at our hotel and rest up for another big day of traveling! This began the first (of every following night) where we would go through our worn clothes and papers from travels and decide if there was anything we could part with!

The next morning we packed all the bananas we could sneak from breakfast, and piled into the bus for a day of driving to Agra! On this day we arrived to our hotel which was very tidy and had it's own little shops inside, and after unpacking, we set out for a quick lunch before heading off to the Taj Mahal! 

It was truly as magnificent as you have heard! It felt rather surreal to be standing on the same grounds as one of the monuments I've seen and heard of for so many years through film and story. As with most amazingly spectacular wonders, you don't get the 'wow' factor until you visit for yourself! Two interesting details, no traffic is allowed near the Taj Mahal, all guests must walk, or commute by electric bus. Also, there is a ruling against any factory emitting pollutants near the site. Perhaps one day that will grow to include not only famous sites!

To my great surprise, we were allowed to wear our shoes (clad with some cloth slippers/ socks we put on over our shoes) when we got to the first platform of the Taj Mahal. I was also really caught off guard by how much smaller the inner space was, to go in and walk around the false sarcophagi was not a strenuous trek (the real tombs are below the site). The whole mausoleum itself though is most impressive from the outside. All the stone has immensely detailed stone work and carvings. We had originally planned to visit at sunset but had to shuffle plans. It is said with a sunset, (or full-moon light) the whole building sparkles like a great crystal, and when you see the stone up close it's understandable why. Also, this photo above will show the incredible process that is 'cleaning the stone'. Look at the tower to the front left and you'll notice it's much whiter that the central dome. The cleaning process is quite intensive, but clearly makes a big difference when you take into account all the dust and smoke! Another thing that was very special for me was that the monuments are free of graffiti and scribbles. (Pens and all writing utensils are banned from the site,) but it was nice to see that people had a great appreciation, and respect for their famous monuments.

The Taj Mahal served as a memorial site for Shah Jahan's wife, Mumtaz (when she died giving birth to their 14th child.) Completed in 1653, the monument took about 22 years to build, but employed over 20,000 Indian artisans through the construction process. As a designer, one detail that gave me butterflies was learning that the inlaid script (made from stone hollowed out, and fitted with dark marble) was skewed towards the top of the doorway to account for type distortion from the views POV some 20-30 feet below. A 'myth' to some, and fact to others is that across the river Yamuna, there is the foundation for the black Taj Mahal where Jahan hoped to be laid to rest. I saw for myself, it's there, and it's black, though some say it's white stone turned black and it had a different intention. 

But before I get to that, I just pass along the slight condition we learned of, pertaining to the artisans working on the Taj Mahal. Due to a fear that they would go on to help construct a similar masterpiece, all who worked on the site had their thumb-tips cut off when done working the site. It's also worth saying each person was paid enough so that even their grand children wouldn't have to work a day and live happily, and for many, that was a job that was the highlight of their career. But back to the story of Shah Jahan. Unfortunately, when you have fourteen children, it's possible that one may turn out to have ill intent. Aurangzeb, the 6th child, and one of 4 sons, lived in a time when primogeniture wasn't a thing. The way to claim the throne from your father, was to defeat your brothers. SO, an interesting story to look into (too long for me to share here) led to Shah Jahan being imprisoned by his son (Aurangzeb) in Agra Fort for the rest of his life in a small chamber that looked up the river Yamuna directly facing the Taj Mahal. Coincidence? 

After touring the Taj we set out by motor car to said fort, which was reconstructed in 1573 having once been in disrepair after loosing ownership through battles and generations.  History aside, Agra Fort was beautiful, and was the first place we learned about the game 'Yatzee's' origins. I have a better photo of a similar game board from the following day, but for a simple summary, the king/ ruler sat center, with four boards on each side of him with a courtesan on each board. He'd roll a die, and the each would dance the moves rolled, and who ever landed on an ex would be out. The winner... gets the king! This was also the first place we saw monkeys and they were larger than toddlers, and very willing to steal shiny items and barter then back for bananas! Luckily we never had to test that game. 

 View from the prison room where the king was kept once overthrown. 
 All of the intricate stone work you can see in the small example above was hand carved and inlaid with jewels, most, if not all of which have been looted over the years.
 After this tour we stopped by an incredibly ornate shop that weaved gold strands and jewels, but we didn't stay long as there weren't many things within the price range of our whole group. The salesman would ask what we did in the US and scrunch his nose and move to the next realizing we weren't the people dropping by for a jade tiger...! We then stopped off at a stone inlaying workshop and store to see the process for stone inlaying, and it was exhaustive. The time to hand grind and sand the most intricate pieces for a side table could be a few months. It makes the Taj Mahal seem impossible! We then headed off to the hotel for some much needed sleep before an eight hour day of driving to Jaipur!

On our way to Jaipur we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri which was a whole city perched in the hills constructed by Akbar the Great in 1569. After only fourteen years, the city was abandoned for political reasons, and because the springs and lake that supplied water to the city were run dry. It's hard to imagine, but all of this would have been draped in luxurious fabrics, and decor in its prime. It all seemed so preserved, it was as though people just left recently--not in 1585. Funny that this place was built, (and later abandoned) almost 200 years before the US was declared an independent country.


Panch Manal

In its prime, each space had mirrored glass in place over the whole room 
Frescos and paintings

Tiny doorways

Jama Masjid

Our only more intense experience with beggars was here while visiting the tomb of Salim Chisti (seen white tomb at center)

Screens carved from marble... so much for saying wood carving is hard!

Fletch takes in all the history
 We then headed off to have lunch, and get back on the road to Jaipur, also known as the pink city! We arrived a little while before sundown and had time to visit the astronomical observatory Jantar Mantar built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh in the 18th century. Given that Jaipur has its own time (an additional half-hour gain,) time is really only told there. But no less, the park is full of amazing sun dials and time tellers that hold accuracy to two seconds.

Jai Prakesh was my favorite dial (two bowls) create the entire sky for charting signs and important dates.

Brihat Samrat - the largest sun dial in the world.
 As we were truly fighting daylight (all the parks and museums closed then) we hurried off to the palace where the king happened to be home, but we didn't run into him. Did I mention King Maharaja Sawai Padmanabh Singh is just 18 years old? We got to see many neat pieces of history from polo outfits, to crests, to swords, and backscratchers! No photos were allowed in those sites, and I understand why. Much of the fabric items aren't maintained in light sensitive or air guarded containers, meaning they age as though they were sitting out on the street. Quite unfortunate given that the means exist, but perhaps they will be in place at some point! 

 This was one of my favorite photos from the trip. Although it's not very clear, (driving by at 90 or so Km/h) kite flying is a huge tradition in Jaipur, much like in Kabul. I've read a few books on Kabul and found the culture of kite flying and running quite fascinating. Not to mention people were outside enjoying flying kites. Love it. So when we saw kites cut loose, I couldn't help but follow them as they soared high above, to see if some lucky kid retrieved a new kite when it finally touched down on earth. 

Our final day in India began early, and turned out to be one of the longest days, of all our lives (in a good way). Our first sight of the morning was Hawa Mahal, or, the Palace of Winds. This intricate facade of stone screens allowed women from the royal family to watch the events going on in public, without having them be seen. This was common in almost every palace we visited and I was surprised to find what good visibility there is despite it all being stone.

Next we set off for the Amer Fort built in 1592. The fort sits up on a hillside overlooking Amer, which is bout 11km from Jaipur. We had to push our way through huge throngs of vendors and felt good having left most of out important items on the bus. We then climbed up onto our elephants and began the slow climb to the fort!

Going on the fort on an elephant!
Everything extraneous is something you pay for, from a photo of the elephant, to one taken for you, so we were lucky to have snagged one on our own! Once at the top we got so much information that some folks had to sit down for a moment to take it all in. As with most memorable historic sites, the stories are best taken in through your own ears, but I can verify that it was one ornate, and gorgeous fort/ palace. I was fascinated by the Sheeh Mahal that was covered in mirrors and metals.
Ornate decorations of the Sheesh Mahal

Gardens beginning to bloom in the Amer Fort

Looking to the mountain where the Jaigarh Fort oversees the area.

View of the town Amer from the fort.

Looking back on the Amer Fort from Maota Lake.

All of us with out guide Anshul at the Amber Fort!

Reading through my Indian horoscope it felt like they knew me!
Between my families' parties and new homes, and my projects,

I'm just waiting on my candlelit dinner for two! 
We only saw a few camels, but they all seemed quite relaxed.
 We then stopped off at a camel fur rug maker to see the process for those rugs, it involves burning, and washing the fibers which smelled a lot like--burning hair! Next we quickly stopped of at some roadside stores where I had another round of bartering with a man who declared to me that he "didn't barter." It was a good time again given that I didn't have an attachment to the items, but beginning to walk away certainly in convincing! We then began our ride back across India (This whole week only covered about 2 inches of India on a 24"x36" map...!) to depart from Delhi at 3 am! We stopped off for a final traditional Indian and Mughalal meal. Anshul also surprised each of us with a small wrapped statue of one of the many, many gods to remember India by. Mine was Lakshmi, who is the goddess of health, prosperity, fortune and wealth, and she currently presides with all my other mini travel memories looking over us all.

Last but not least, for those who've been waiting with bated breath, THIS is what the traffic was life. 19 lanes to the left, and (not pictured) 5-7 to the right. THAT is what highway traffic jams look like. 

 We headed out for the airport at 10pm, and did some touristic shopping (I had my first Starbucks coffee at 2am, in India) and then we settled in for two (and for some folks three+) flights back to the wintery weather of the states. It's tough to summarize all that India changed within my perception of myself and the world, but I think in the least, I can say it is life changing. You really evaluate the reasons you find joy in things, when you could enjoy time with others. You see the importance behind doing what you can to help others, and are more inclined to find your place in it all. You see how fortunate you really are, and know that the worst day you might ever have won't come close to the challenges abandoned, and homeless women, children, and men in India (and all over this Earth) encounter on a daily basis. Remember to count your blessings, and even if you're not religious, take a moment to think positively on those in your life, and those you may never meet.

Until next time,