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My Trip to India


I have had the advantage of writing this while I was traveling and then posting when I returned.  For that reason you may begin here and read down, rather than the usual way a blog reads from bottom up.  I hope it helps you to stay on track.  When you get to the bottom of this page, click on "older posts" and that will get you to page 2. 

Namaste


Getting to India from California is brutal.  We went west so you have an eleven and ½  hour plane to Tokyo, a two hour layover and then a ten and ½ hour flight to Delhi.  It is the same difference going east, but with the winter storms we were grateful we had chosen the path we did.

We arrived at midnight, not really even quite sure what day it was, since you cross the International Date Line along the way.  The trip is about 45 minutes from the airport to our hotel, and I will admit I have absolutely no idea what time we finally got to bed.

The interesting thing is you would have thought we could breeze into town, but the roadways were as crowded at two in the morning as mid day.  The reason for this is that large trucks are not allowed into Delhi during the day so all the things that they would haul into a town of 16 million people is done during the night.

(16 Million is the official number of residents, the unofficial number is closer to 20 million).

We don’t join our tour group until Sunday, so we have today and tomorrow on our own.  I wanted to see Old Delhi, so off we went.  We hired a driver that took us to the edge of Old Delhi, then we hired a bicycle rickshaw to take us into town.  No cars are allowed in that section of town, called Shajahanabad. 

Shajahanabad was Delhi’s seventh city.  It was built between 1638 and 1649 by Shah Jaban. There were seven cities of Delhi.  Each was a fort erected by a powerful Sultan, and these cities were comprised of the settlements that grew around these forts.

The streets are narrow, and I was glad you couldn’t get a cab in.  It was nerve racking enough being in a rickshaw, with all the motorcycles, tuk-tuks and other rickshaws, both motor and bicycle.



A side note here; Traffic in India is as frightening as you read.  The lines on the roads I swear, are only painted there for the sake of giving line painters a job.  However, there is order.  Working vehicles have the right of way, and the larger the vehicle, the higher they are on the totem pole.  That being said, going down the street the wrong way is common, playing chicken at intersections is de rigueur and incessant honking is mandatory.  The drivers are the most nimble of people, the dodging and weaving is done with the skill of a fine dancer but that doesn’t mean my heart wasn’t in my throat and believe me, I closed my eyes several times.

So, back to Old Delhi.  We first visited Jami Masjid, India’s largest mosque. Built in 1656 it can accommodate up to 20,000 worshipers.



The mosque is made of red sandstone and white marble, making for a gorgeous structure.  The Red Fort, also made of this red sandstone was another stop today.  It is HUGE, with an impressive history, but what probably is most interesting is this is where the Peacock Throne (embedded with priceless stones) and the Koh-i-Nor both were from until they were looted in 1739.



We also visited a small area of the spice market.  I think both Mom and I would have liked to have spent considerable more time, our Rickshaw driver didn’t quite seem to understand.  I have a feeling that adventurous tourists are not that common, our driver really was completely confused when we wanted off the bike to explore. Our desire for wandering on your own would have been difficult, getting lost would be quite simple as the  streets are so crowded and there is no such thing as a street sign.  We even mentioned we might need to tie a string between us so we didn’t get lost from each other, that is how crowded it is.

In the market area we saw several Brahma bulls pulling carts, as well as, a shrouded corpse being taken for burial.  The shroud was covered in flowers and dusted with a pink powder, sadly they were going right as we were going left, and I had no time for a photo.


It is impossible to explain the overwhelming sea of humanity.  It is wall to wall people darting around animals, goods, carts, and general detritus that comes from a market that serves millions.  There literally was never a time when something wasn’t flashing in front of us, be it human, vehicle or a large stack of goods. I got some superb photos, but I do not know how, it seemed to me that every time I raised my camera something or someone stepped in front of it.  Having looked at my photos, you still don’t get the sense of what I am trying to convey.  I think that it needs the sound of constant blaring horns honking, the yelling of vendors and the sound of wall to wall muffler-less vehicles to give you even an inkling of the insanity.



Delhi is huge and sprawling.  There is no continuity to it at all, it is as if people just move in and occupy what is available.  I have read that since the great partition in 1947 the people have no sense of their history.  This feels very true.  In Old Delhi, the beautiful older buildings house shops that feel as though someone opened the front door and as many shopkeepers that could crowded into the space.  I saw goods stacked in every space available, inside of what were most likely fabulous mansions in their day.  Many buildings are falling down, and yet occupied at the same time. It is difficult to figure out where yesterday left off and today started, as everything is a mish mash, built catch as catch can with no thought to what the original intent was nor thought to what might be needed in the space tomorrow.

Delhi

This morning we once again hired a driver to take us around some sights.  We started with the India Gate, which, like all triumphal gates and arches is a memorial to the fallen of war.  The interesting thing was the men sitting under the gate making a flower mandala (about 50 X 50 feet), and the many, many children that had come on field trips.



This is a good point to make an observation from our arrival.  When we first started driving into Delhi I felt as though I was back in Saudi, the trees are plentiful but brown with dust and the bushes are scruffy and look to be struggling to survive.  The rains will come later this month and in January (not the monsoons, just the regular rains) and will wash away the dust, but for now it is a bit sad looking.  However, we have beautiful weather, with nice gentle breezes and cool evenings.



 With the India Gate at our backs we drove up a gentle long slope flanked with a continuous length of grass to the Presidents Palace. The Palace originally the Rashtrapati Bhavan was designed by famed British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens as the British Viceroy’s Palace. You are unable to go onto the grounds, but you can go right up to the ornate gate designed by Lutyens.


I studied Lutyens in school and many of you may know the name by the famous benches he designed.  What we did not study was how much work he did in India.  He designed cottages throughout a section of Delhi in what is called Lutyens Delhi.  Lutyens was responsible for much of the civic and residential design of India when it was under British Rule during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Our driver was Sikh and we are pretty sure he wanted to pray, so he asked if we were interested in seeing the gurudwara (place of worship).  It was amazing.  He encouraged me to take photographs and the place was very welcoming.  

There was a giant pool with catfish and koi, I asked what the pool was for and he said if you had worries you came and washed your self of them.  We didn’t see anyone in the pool, but it was four times the size of an Olympic pool, and surrounded by an inlaid marble floor and a large colonnade. 


They also had a commercial kitchen with volunteers making food in some of the largest pots you can imagine.  They feed anyone that comes to the door.  Again, he encouraged me to take pictures, it was really an interesting experience.

 Our next stop was going to be the Lotus Temple.  It is a Baha’i House of Worship designed by Persian architect Fariburz Sahba.  It is a giant unfurling 27-petaled white marble lotus.  It sits on 94 acres and is meant to be a place of reflection.  The Baha’i of Persia believe that all of humanity is one race.
 While we did drive by it, the amount of people that were there made even me say, no thanks.  There were thousands upon thousands of people waiting to get in.  I do not know if it was a special day, or simply the way it always is, but there were hundreds and hundreds of school buses and tourist buses all around the 94 acres, so we decided it was going to have to be for another time.





We called it a day around 3:30.  While, that seems pretty darn early for me, it is exhausting being out and about in Delhi.  The constant traffic, the overwhelming noises just drain you.  It was nice to come back to the soothing calm and beauty of our hotel, which has large grounds and utter peace.

Delhi


Today we joined our tour group.

We toured two sites today and had a lecture on the religion/history/architecture of India.  A nice overview, and a start to trying to understand 3000 years of intermixing of races, religion and customs all in one country.


 Humayun's Tomb


National Museum of India

It is election time in the state of Delhi, so there was a note in our room that they, by law, must stop serving alcohol 2 days before the election.  Fortunately, that will not impact our welcome cocktail party tonight.

All over town for the last few days we have experienced the marches and bullhorns of the election.  I doubt that politics in Delhi are any more exciting to the general public than they are at home.  They have about a 50% vote rate in the cities but it drops to as little as 20% in the countryside.  They say that people are fed up, but that they expect better turn out because the candidates are promising a clean sweep.....yeah right.


Today was Sunday, the mornings were very quiet as families tend to stay close to home, but as the day wears on they set out for family outings.  By the time we hit our last destination the place was packed.  Mom and I were approached by many Indian women asking us to join in their photographs.  We have absolutely no idea why.  They were sweet, friendly, and dressed so beautifully in their sari's we really could not figure out why they wanted two old American women in their shots, but we happily obliged.


Today was a day where you could just sit and watch the parade of fashion.  The saris and their varying colors and ornamentation are something to behold.  Indians tend to dress really very nicely if they can afford to do so, and Sunday is the day to dress up and show off, so it was really a great day to people watch.  

I have not entirely figured out what each different outfit means.  Mostly, they are regional, but I haven't developed an eye enough to completely understand.  



The males that wear the turbans in Delhi are primarily Punjabi and usually Sheikh, the colors of their turbans are significant, but again, I haven't completely got that one straight.  However, there are also turbans worn by other religions in other parts of India, they are simply tied differently.  The male muslims wear a small Topi, or woven hat.  I have only seen one man in what americans consider traditional Indian dress, the dhoti-kurta, most men are in jeans or suits.


The women, as I mentioned, wear sari's, and they are really gorgeous, but they also wear what is called the Salwar-kameez or baggy pajama pants with a loose tunic.  These are worn by women in Punjab primarily, but apparently has been adopted by most Indian women of today.  


Delhi to Agra

Today we drove to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

The drive was extremely interesting.  Getting out of Delhi was the usual mad house, and as we got farther and farther away the traffic slowly died down.  About an hour out of Delhi we got onto their new expressway, and it was just that.  I had joked that Indian Expressway was an oxymoron but once we were on the road about 1/2 hour there was virtually no traffic at all, it was rather amazing after the last couple of days.  We drove for 3 hours through the countryside.  They grow sugar cane, and fruits and vegetables in the area we were in, later in our travels we would encounter fields and fields of mustard and cotton.

Far more interesting to me were the many, many brick factories.  There would be men in the field digging and mixing the clay and forming it into bricks, and in the middle of all of that would be these giant smoke stacks for the firing.  Notice the smoke adding to the already horrendous air pollution of this country.

The other fun thing to come upon were the number of women making cow dung patties.  They mix the dung with the dregs of the sugar cane and apparently you can cook a meal for 2 off of one of these patties.   There would be fields and fields of what appeared to be plates, but you knew otherwise. There is a specialty in this area that cooks in a clay pot all night over the fire of cow dungs, it is supposed to be exceptional, which makes sense as what ever it is, it stews all night at a low temperature.



Driving through Agra was an experience.  I spotted my first monkey here.  They are rhesus macaque monkeys, uuuuuuugly, and pretty much four legged rodents.  



Now that we were out of a metropolis you start to notice garbage.  There would be large fields of household garbage with cows, pigs and monkeys rooting through them.  What is left, of course, are plastic bags and plastic water bottles.  It is a shame, and really horrible to drive through and see not one or two but tens of twenties of these.  

That is the back end of a cow in the forefront


Back to the air pollution.  It is appalling.  I never really thought about it before we left, and really, the world is so busy discussing the air pollution of China there really isn't much discussion in our press about India's pollution.  The skies are thick with smoke.  The Indians, like China, burn coal for electricity, but they also arbitrarily burn garbage, and of course in this religious country, they are cremating regularly too, and yes you can see that smoke as well.



The Taj Mahal



Well I promised I would write about it, but I am not sure I can.  It is magical, it is regal, it is elegant, and oh by the way, did I mention it is magical.

There are no words, and also, pictures do not do it justice.  It isn't real,  you feel that it is a mirage that will fly away laughing at you the whole way.

You enter through a beautiful red sandstone and white marble pre-building I will call it for the lack of a better word.  When you come through the three story tall archway there she is, enticing you, bringing tears to your eyes, making you sure you have stepped into a fairy land that just can't possibly be real.  

The closer you walk the grander and more elegant she becomes, and then you notice she is jeweled.  Why didn't you notice the white goddess in front of you was jeweled so magnificently?  Why didn't her exquisitely carved jewels not yell here I am like some garish princess?  No she is far more elegant, she doesn't need for her jewels to speak of her regal standing or her beauty, they are beyond compare, the jewelry is just something she threw on, because she was sure her husband would like it, after all he paid for it.



Her ivory dress is covered with pierced carved ivory windows to let the sunshine in.  At her entry she is covered with inlaid stones creating pictures of flowers, and birds and dancing geometric patterns.  These stones, lapis lazuli, malachite, mother of pearl, turquoise, and carnelian, all come together to make a painting that you simple stand gaping at.  Then, in black marble the Koranic verses thrown around like a gentle shawl placed with loving hands.



Well that was my first impression.  That was last evening.  We did not go inside that evening, I simply walked around and enjoyed.  Also the crowds at night are unbelievable, so just drinking in the majesty was enough.

We were up before the sun this morning.  The Taj is open from sunrise to sunset, and sunrise was 7:36 so we were in line before that.  Wow, my awe and wonder has not diminished, there still are not words, and then...we went inside. My mouth dropped open and I couldn't speak.  A symbolic tomb sits in the center of the rotunda.  According to Islamic tradition, tombs are buried at least 7 feet under ground.  The tomb is surrounded by a marble screen, again, inlaid with the precious stones in patterns of flowers, birds and geometric shapes.  I just sat there blubbering, there just aren't words.

So THAT was our Taj Mahal experience.  Today was filled with a lot more, and I will write about that soon, I promise, but for now I hope I haven't bored you with words that simply say, I just don't have the words.



Insanity and Tranquility


Our guide, the professor Annapurna Garmiella (you can google her if you are interested, and by the way, she is far, far prettier in person, especially when she smiles).  She lives in Southern India, and we got to talking about conditions in India.  She mentioned that there are no men over 35 in her neighborhood.  They drink themselves into an early grave.  So I had some private time to talk with her as to why.  The answer just floored me.  The reason it did, is that I feel it is exactly what we are experiencing at home.  The men have older trades that are dying, and the things they want to do are no longer of value.  Tech has taken over, and if you aren't in tech you don't have as much value.  When I mentioned this to Mom she said that her friend Nanda had said as much the last time they were together - so Nanda, I would love to meet you and talk one of these days.

Also the empowerment of women.  Christianity, and then education are giving women power, and like any woman's movement, at first, when this happens women seem to think that men are superfluous.  We did it in the U.S. with the posters that said men are like bicycles, you really don't need them. (and there was a frog riding a bicycle)  I had it in my dorm room.  It isn't until the movement progresses that you realize that the point of liberation is to become a partner and work as a team, making your life and his better for the partnership.

It is sad, and something I would love to learn more about, it will be interesting to see how this movement plays out.



Next - garbage.  We are truly, truly appalled at the amount of trash everywhere.  I delicately asked Annapurna about this, saying I thought it interesting when a country that has so many religions that worship cleanliness that you can walk outside the temple and it is dirty.  She said not dirty a PIG STY, and absolute PIG STY!  So much for delicacy :-).  

Apparently "going green" is left to the children.  They are taught about the vanishing tigers, and the need for clean water and picking up trash and recycling.  HOWEVER, once they get older they are taught that they must work hard, drive big cars and build big houses.  The mixed message is obvious.

I wrote a bit earlier that the cows, pigs, and monkey root through the trash.  She did say that the cows stomachs are full of those plastic bags, so much for the intelligence of cows.  But it furthers says what a serious problem these piles and piles of trash everywhere are.




Today we visited a Suffi Temple.  As someone who has done a lot of reading about Suffi mysticism I was thrilled.  It was quite an experience.  You enter and are given a thread to tie on the marble screens, you ask for something, and if it occurs you are supposed to go back and untie the string.

The process made me wonder how the true worshipers feel with foreigners traipsing through their house of worship taking photographs.  Then again, it is done all over the world, but it doesn't stop me wondering how ludicrous the whole concept is, and how offensive it can be.



Today we did a bird sanctuary. I know it sounds odd, but sometimes it is nice to just do something as soothing and relaxing as bird watching. In this country that is so full of energy, that never turns off, it was a real nice quiet break.

Jaipur

Our highlight today was a block print/ cotton cloth museum/store.

Block print is well known to all of us, but what I found interesting is that a British woman understood how cool Indian prints were during the Beatles, 1960's, Ravi Shanker period and she revived the dying art of block print fabrics. 

We all saw them, bought them at Pier 1 and promised we would never don those clothes again after giving them to the Goodwill infused with the smell of Patouli oil, marijuana and free love
.
Here we are today, touring the museum and once again buying them.  Granted today they are slightly more stylish, more sophisticated, and more elegant.

As in so many cultures, it took a  Brit to take this old craft to the world.  The art was dieing, and I applaud her ability to find the craftsmen, nurse the trade and make it viable again. As a woman that runs a craft business, I am thrilled that the art is still alive, that artisans are employed, and that modern patterns are bringing the art to the world again.



Jaipur is an amazing city.  The same hustle and bustle exists, but the pollution seems to be less, making things a little easier to handle, breathing wise.  It is a walled city, called the Pink City with a fort on a hill and a royal duck blind in the middle of a man made lake.  Because it was built as a walled city with the bazaar incorporated into the wall at the time of its construction, you don't feel the mish mash here.  The city feels like a city, not a city sitting on top of six other cities.  You can see the delineation of shops and homes.  This is also why it is a tad calmer, however, the din of horns blaring here is just as loud as in all the other cities we have been in.


Jaipur, means City of Victory and construction began in 1727, it took six years to build and because of its grid pattern and crenelated walls, punctured by seven gates it is one of India's finest example of a planned city.

As I edit this, before sending on, at 6:30 am on December 6th there is a cacophony of green parrots in the tree outside our bedroom window.  I have never, ever heard so many squawking birds in one place, and the tree looks as though the leaves have dropped and replaced with birds.  It is another little treat from this magical land.



Elephants


This is wedding season in India.  Weddings are not necessarily on a Saturday like we think of them in the US, astrologers are called in and an optimal day is chosen, so it could be any day of the week.  However, this is the Season for weddings.  We have been seeing elaborate set ups for weddings everywhere we go.  

Today at the Maharaja's Palace in Jaipur we came upon people setting up for one of the largest affairs we have seen to date.  Our guide mentioned that renting the Maharaja's palace was about 1 million rupees, that translates to $16,000 U.S..  



Then flowers - they are EVERYWHERE, the guide joked that we buy flowers by the stem in India they buy them by the kilo.



Also the guests, there were buffet tables being set up that would make a major hotel blush, I cannot even imagine how many guests this particular wedding is going to feed.



Brides change their saris throughout the ceremony.  The bridal colors vary between regions, but primarily they wear a white sari edged in red to signify their virginity.  Then after the ceremony they will change to a colored sari to show their change in status.

The ceremony takes place under a canopy-like structure called a mandap. A Hindu priest will officiate and numerous relatives perform specific roles under the guidance of the priest. The bride and groom sit in front of the priest for most of the ceremony who recites verses in Sanskrit.

While exchanging rings is not a traditional part of the Indian ceremony some couples choose to do so. The groom will also give the bride a mangalsutra, or sacred necklace, as a symbol of their marriage. There are seven vows taken during the ceremony, but you won't see kissing.



So why did I title this elephants?, Typically, the groom arrives at the wedding hall with a dancing entourage and seated in a fancy car, on a horse, or most often, at least in Rajastan (the state we are in) on an elephant.  We saw a few horses, but what we really saw were elephants.  



You can ride elephants in India, but we will not be doing so.  We have been told they are mistreated in the North and the tour company does not want to be responsible should they turn on anyone.  However, today I was standing alone and was able to pet one and get some fun photos.

Sweets of India

We spent day 10 in the bus driving to Jaipur, so not much to report.  Day 11 we have spent at a fabulous fort in Jaipur, and then we were to head out to the countryside.  HOWEVER, today is election day, and the police have closed many of the roads leading in and out of town.  Not for danger purposes, but to make sure the ballots can get through to the court where they count the ballots.  So we couldn't get out of town today.  That means Mom got a nice massage and I am finally finding time to sit down and write.




I decided it was time to address the food in India.  I am not ready to do the main courses, so I thought I would start with desserts.  There are regional sweets, and more common countrywide desserts.  I will try to give you an idea of the variety we have had thus far.

Gulab Jamun


This is the most popular dessert in India.  They are deep fried balls of dough soaked in honey, or aromatic sugar syrup. 


Jalebi

The batter for Jalebis is piped directly in hot oil or ghee in circular shapes  then soaked in syrup. They're bright orange or yellow in colour and are very common around India, you see people lining up outside the Jalebi stores first thing in the mornings, I assume it is a lot like donuts and coffee for us. Jalebi can be served warm or cold and has a somewhat chewy texture with a crystallized sugary exterior coating.  The best we had was at the hotel, covered in a sweat cream sauce.




Halwa


This is carrot Halwa or Gajar Halwa

Halva also spelled Halwa has the texture of what we think of Turkish Halva, but that is not what it is. I have been told that Halwa means ground up, I don't know if that is true, but it works for me. The halwas are made out of finely grated vegetables, milk, sugar and flavored with cardamom. They can also be grain based and made out of semolina or pulses like the mung bean.  The semolina halwa known as Suji Halwa is common and popular in India.   I believe I have tried everyone :-).



This is what they look like when I don't know what the ingredient is - but they all taste great

Gajar halwa or a halva made of carrots is widely popular in India. It is prepared with condensed milk and ghee, without semolina to bind it together. 

Some halvas are put in molds to give them a shape or they are  neatly cut in squares or diamonds and garnished with a nut, raisin or beaten silver foil.  We have been having a lot of the ones with silver foil.  


Rasgula



These are soft and very spongy balls which are made of milk or indian cottage cheese that soaked in sugar syrup and rose flower water.  The texture is somewhere between custard and a very, very finely sieved cottage cheese. The larger they are the better they are because the more rose water they soak up the tastier they are.


Burfi


The only time we have had Burfi was when it was passed around on the bus.  Plain burfi is made with condensed milk and sugar, cooked until it solidifies.  There are many types some made with gram flour, some with cashews, or pistachios (which is the type we had).  It can also be flavored with fruits and spices, the most typical being rose water and cardamom. These can also have a thin layer of edible silver

Jodhpur to Udaipur


FINALLY had kulfi.  Saffron Kulfi to boot.  


Kulfi is traditionally prepared by evaporating sweetened and flavoured milk via slow cooking, with almost continuous stirring to keep milk from sticking to the bottom of the huge pot.  It is stirred until it has been reduced by half, so it is thick and has a higher fat, protein and lactose density.  It has a distinctive taste due to caramelization of lactose and sugar during the cooking process. It is then poured into these sort of triangular shaped molds and frozen.

When we were driving through the country they pointed out the Guar that was growing, and stated it was used in ice cream making in India - LIGHT BULB - I had been wondering what the recognizable, powdery, vanilla flavor was in all their ice cream but couldn't put my finger on it.  One taste mystery solved.

Then we had Chikki - this is really similar to Joyva Sesame Crunch that we get in the U.S., but here it is more sesame seed than hardened sugar syrup.  



The last was at a Jain Restaurant (more on that later).  This was noodle pudding, or seviyan, and looks just like it sounds.  Noodles cooked slowly in sugar syrup.

Today - December 9th, we left Jodhpur and headed for Udaipur.  It was a very, very long trip.  It was however, broken up by a trip to Ranakpur. 

Ranakpur is a Jain Temple.   The temple was founded in the 6th century BC.  Jain is  based on a doctrine of non-violence towards All living things. It is not a religion in the sense that there is no central god, or a central type of worship.  However, they do have temples, and elders and lots of other practices, not something I am going to go into here.  



Ranakpur is jaw dropping, breath taking and impossible to believe.  Another Indian spot that photos will not do justice.  Mother has been to Ankor Wat, and this place is 500 years younger and somewhat fashioned on Ankor Wat, but she said this is far, far more spectacular.

The temple is all marble.  Inside is a literal forest of pillars, everyone carved differently.  There are domes of marble with intricate carvings, it is just, again, impossible to fathom.   

One last thing for today.  Driving through the farm land our guide stopped when we ran across a Persian well.  Some farms are so small that purchasing electric pumps just doesn't make sense so they still get their water through oxen and old fashioned pump mechanisms.



These wells feature an ox-driven pump where the ox walks in circles around a central drive shaft which turns a wheel that raises water via a chain of buckets from the well. 


With that I will leave you with a new type of monkey that is found in the hillsides. This fellow is a Langur Monkey