Travel: Goa

I had a generally unproductive day today. Nick went off to visit some family that he had in Mumbai and although I had time to go explore before meeting him at the airport, I decided to let myself have a lazy morning.

My original intent was to catch up on some blog posts but I found myself mesmerized by a new book I was reading on my kindle.

I caught a taxi to the airport after I checked out after noon. There, I waited for Nick to arrive after a lunchtime meeting with his uncle. When he hadn’t arrived by 1:30 pm, I had a brief panic moment that we had missed each other. This was compounded by my schizophrenic cell phone issues. Fortunately, he was just running late, and I didn’t have to deal with all his luggage on top of my own.

We arrived in Goa around 6 pm, however, it took us about 2 hrs to taxi to our hotel because of how large the state is and the New Year’s Eve traffic. After we settled in, we rented a moped and went in search of dinner, I was surprised by how many Russians were on holiday there!

Goa has a history dating back as far as 20,000 to 30,0000 years. There are still rock art carvings that demonstrate the earliest traces of human life when our ancestors first began to transition from four legs to two legs.

Modern day Goa however can be traced back to the year 1510. It is at this point in history that that the Portuguese defeated the reigning sultan and claimed the region as a settlement. Portuguese sovereignty in present-day India would last for four and a half centuries until 1987, when, in the advent of claiming their independence from the British in 1947, the Indian Army moved to reclaim the territory that was rightfully theirs.

Goa is now one of the richest states of India, with the highest GDP per capita (2.5x the entire country’s), and an average growth rate of 8.2%! It is famous for its beaches and nightlife, which is exactly why Nick and I chose to spend our New Years Eve here.

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Travel: Elephants

imageElephants are creatures that are revered in India. According to Hindu Cosmology, the earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions. Sanskrit literature even attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when the elephants tire of their burden.

The deity Ganesh(a) is the god of wisdom, and he is distinctively represented by a human form with the head of an elephant, which was placed after the human head was either decapitated or burned from the body.

imageHowever, this is not how the Elephanta Caves, with origins dating between the 5th and 8th centuries, received their namesake. In the 16th century, the Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” in honor of a huge, monolithically rock-cut black stone of an elephant on a mound; this unfortunately has been relocated to the Mumbai Zoo.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 Despite being just 7 miles east of the port, the ferry ride took an hour to get there! Fortunately, I caught some great views of the Gateway of India, the exit causeway through which the last British troops passed through on February 28, 1948, signalling an end to British rule and the beginning of Indian independence.

In each of the caves, Shiva or Mahadeva, “Great God” is aniconically represented by a Lingam, a single rock rounded at the top. Aniconism is the avoidance of using images to represent divine beings, prophets, and religious figures.

However, I happen to find the monolithic rock to be an appropriate manifestation of Shiva.

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At his highest level, Shiva is considered limitless and transcendent, unchanging and formless. Why not abstractly represent him as something from nature that also adheres to these characteristics? Are rocks not powerful? Do they not withstand the test of the time?

I may not be Hindu, but even I was moved. I couldn’t help but place my palm against the rock and close my eyes, taking some time to summon my faith, and chant the Buddhist Mantra I learned as a child beneath my father’s wing.

Travel: The Other Side

We did something completely off the beaten path today by visiting a slum just north of downtown Mumbai. Nick had helped establish a Pre-K school here about eight years ago, and wanted to check on how it was doing. It’s inspiring to see someone put their heart into something and invest their time and knowledge into helping others, and still care enough to check its well-being so many years later.

You can imagine that I was feeling pretty apprehensive about the experience. While I knew that it would be educational, the opportunity to witness a slum in India first-hand intimidated me.

At first, I didn’t want to face the sadness that would overwhelm me, facing the stark truth that the luxuries I enjoy as an American are just that, unnecessary but expected. As one born in the USA, with opportunities afforded to me by hard-working immigrant parents, its easy to take everything we are given for granted. It’s so simple to think that the small unhappinesses and struggles we may experience are insurmountable, but in the cosmos of things, it’s but a small ripple.

Secondly, I didn’t want to make the locals feel like I was going to visit them as a tourist. My features make it impossible for me to fit in and I knew that not only would they be looking at me in curiosity, but they would also be wondering why I was there. I was concerned that the dwellers would feel like they were on display for a camera-snapping foreigner to watch, like they were in a snow globe village.

In the end, Nick and I went; he even commented that the conditions in the slum were a lot better than he recalled. Rather than propped up shacks made of scaffolding and tarp, I saw brick and mortar buildings, with weighted scaffolding as roofing. Along the paths cutting through the streets, you could see clothes drying on a line; there were vendors for everything from flowers and incense for the temple to little snack shops.

One thing that is different about the poor in India in contrast to other parts of the world is that you can see that the government cares. A lot of slums enjoy the benefits of electricity, cable, and running water. And often, despite springing up illegally on government land, the police do not forcibly remove families to make way for development. Rather, there is a government mandate that requires developers to build apartment-style housing to accommodate the displaced, but only if a majority of the slum community votes for it.

Unfortunately, due to funding issues, Nick was not able to find the school he so lovingly spent hours organizing. He had helped with organizing the lesson plans and worked with the sponsoring company to provide all the classroom essentials the students would need. It made me sad that Nick was not able to witness the longevity or expansion of all his good work. 😦

You may have noted that there are no pictures in this post. This is intentional. Over 2.2 Billion people across the world live in poverty. It is important to Nick and I that we don’t paste more pictures of slums and squalid conditions across the internet. How these people live is not an attraction, it’s not something to be remembered, it’s something, that as a community, and as humans, we work together to put in the past. Rather than something to be framed and on display in an art gallery, this way of life, these conditions, need to end and become a faint memory.

 

 

Travel: Matrimony

Today, I was fortunate enough to garner an invitation to a traditional Hindu wedding as Nick’s plus one. (You may recall the various Saree shopping debacles that we encountered in Jaipur and Jodhpur).

imageUnlike a typical wedding, which tends to be a more serious and understated affair, Indian weddings are loud and energetic. The one we attended, was actually a 3-day affair (we chose to attend only 1 of 3).

It started with a Swagatam “welcome” ceremony. Under the raucous beat of drums, the Baraat “groom’s procession party,” consisting of family and friends, joyously dance into the building. In contrast, the bride’s entrance is a much more solemn affair.

 

The introduction between the families is made, and there is a Jai Mala, a garland exchange between the bridge and groom. During all of this, there is a constant flow of food and drinks circulating the room.

imageHonestly I had no idea what was happening for the majority of the ceremony, and neither did Nick. We had hoped to make the reception, which is when the bride and groom both perform separate choreographed dances to Bollywood music with their bridesmaids and groomsmen, respectively, but apparently that had occurred the day before. Nick’s friends, did however, regale us with some of their drunken stories from the previous night.

imageThe most significant part of the ceremony is the Saptapadi, a 7-step ritual. The bride and groom have a part of their clothing tied together, and they walk around the fire 7 times. The fire, represents Yajna, the divine witness and each circle represents the oaths that they make to each other. It is after this event that the bride and groom are officially considered married.

It was a vibrant affair filled with colorful clothing, diverse sarees, intricate henna, and shiny jewelry. The food selection allowed me to try some curries I’ve never had before. Nick and I even became best friends with the Chai-Man! I do wish, however, that I had known what was going on. Everyone is so busy carrying on conversation during the ceremony, that it was impossible to know what was occurring on the dais. 😦

 

 

 

 

Travel: Ranakpur Apathy

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Our initial plan today was to hire a taxi to day trip to Ranakpur before being dropped back at the airport for our flight to Mumbai later tonight. Unfortunately, our lack of internet connection at the hostel proved to be our downfall.

 

While I had posited asking the staff for advice on taking buses, Nick didn’t hear me, and I was too snuggled into my cozy cocoon to emerge from the warmth. We did not make it to Ranakpur and I regret not summoning the willpower to face the cold. Admittedly though, it was really nice to have an open day with nothing planned.

Credit: Ingo Mehling

Credit: Ingo Mehling

Ranakpur is 91 km away from Udaipur, making it approximately a 1-hour car ride in US terms and a 2.5 to 3-hour travel time according to IST (one needs to factor in traffic, rough roads, and slower speed limits). It is home to a  UNESCO World Heritage Site, a massive, sprawling, Jain Temple constructed entirely of marble in 1437.

imageIt is with sorrow that I cannot speakbout how amazing the structure was, as it has over 1444 pillars that are each uniquely carved in exquisite detail. Additionally, there is a massive rock that is carved into 108 snake heads and tails. The layout of the building is in the form of a chaumukha – four faces in each of the four cardinal directions that symbolize the cosmos.

Instead, Nick went off to meet his Uncle and I found a little cafe to savor coffee in while using their wifi for some net-based tasks. We met up again later that morning to visit Monsoon Palace.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarmi

The Monsoon Palace was built in 1884 entirely of white marble on the Bansdara Peak of the Aravalli Hill. At a total elevation of 3100 ft overlooking Lake Pichola, the original intent was for it to be a 9-story astronomical centre to track the movement of the monsoon clouds. It would also be a vacation home for the royal family.

 

imageUnfortunately, despite the innovative water harvesting system the building utilized in its underground cistern, the storage capacity proved to be inadequate resulting in the abandonment of the palace.

After the palace, all we had to do was get Nick a shave for the wedding, and find him some shoes. This was surprisingly almost as difficult as finding me a Saree; there’s not much you can do about a gigantor’s foot size when you are on a continent that tends to produce petite-sized humans.

 

Travel: Colorful India

Since Udaipur is a smaller city and Nick and I have already seen our fair share of ancient temples, palaces, and fortresses, we chose to experience the diversity of India by visiting Shilpgram.

Much like the Dilli Haat in New Delhi, Shilpgram is a heritage village composed of 5 west-zone states. Its purpose is to expose the diversity of tribal cultures to the general public and foster a spirit of collaboration between rural and urban artists. This cultural complex was incredibly large with a total square area of 70 acres!

Nick and I didn’t intend to stay for so long, but there was so much vibrancy to be seen amongst the artists. I’ve attached a brief collage below to illustrate the range of work.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni and Myself (some are his and some are mine).

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

 

One of the things I enjoyed the most were all of the regional dances that were performed. As someone who studied traditional chinese dance for over 8 years in my youth, folk dancing continues to fascinate me. It is such a rich part of one’s ingrained heritage and it would be a true pity if these arts got lost in the sands of time.

 

 

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Some of the female dancers kept inviting me to join them! I didn’t, but I did pick up the rhythm and pattern of their movements. At the end of it all, they were really friendly and invited me to take a picture with them.

 

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Nick and I both hopped on Camels and went for a ride as well.

 

 

 

 

We finished our day with a sunset boat ride on the lake, followed by more famous dances from Rajasthan at the Bagore Ki Haveli.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

My favorite dance by far was the Teratali dance. Performed by the Kamar tribe while sitting down, the woman balance a pot on their heads and clench a sword between their teeth while they use Manjeeras (cymbals) to acoustically provide thirteen different beats. The sounds made vary by the angles at which the cymbals collide, making this dance one that requires technique and precision.

Unfortunately, the seating area was less than optimal, otherwise I would have provided a video. 😦

 

 

Travel: Venice of the East

imageNick and I actually delayed our travels to the city of Udaipur by a day because we wanted to visit the Fort. Hence, rather than a 7:30 AM bus, we caught a 6.5-hr sleeper bus. Since it was a non-AC bus, we were feeling pretty optimistic that it would not be too cold. After all, how often does a typical commercial bus have openly ventilated windows? Much to our dismay, even though each cot had its own glass-enclosed cubicle, the windows to open air were not tightly sealed, and therefore it was impossible to limit the amount of penetrating cold desert air.

imageEven worse, I woke up at 3 AM with a pressing need to use the toilet, with no possibilities in sight. I was concerned that even if I asked the driver to pull to the side, the language barrier would prevent him from fully understanding that I needed him to wait for me. I was terrified that he’d drive off and leave me, in the desert, by myself, in the middle of the night. A long struggle later, Nick finally woke up, and he made sure the bus driver didn’t leave me behind (though he was concerned when he felt the wheels of the bus inching). 😦  There is never anything glamorous about popping a squat in a dark ally out of sheer necessity.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

When we finally arrived at our hostel around 6 AM, they had given our beds away (even though we had called the previous day to give them fair warning)! Nick and I ended up having to squeeze ourselves into two very small chairs with a blanket to catch a little more shut-eye.

 

Needless to say, we did not feel very rested when we finally awoke, and had a pretty lazy day.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Udaipur, often called the “Venice of the East” for the its beautiful lakes, was founded in 1559 by Maharana Udai Singh II as the last capital of the Mewar Kingdom. It was during this time that the City Palace first came into existence. In reality, the City Palace is not merely one palace, rather it is a sprawling complex consisting of many different palaces that were constructed by 76 different kings over the course of nearly 400 years.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

The royal family, the Sisodia Rajputs “Worshipers of the Sun God,” built each palace to face east, in order to greet the rising sun. The exquisite facade of the 11 palaces spans a total length of 800 ft, and a total height of 100 ft. A unique trait of the architecture is that, since the total structure was built over an extended period of time, one can see a diverse blend of different styles. Each characteristic of the Rajasthani, Mughal, Medieval, European, and even Chinese Architecture is paradoxically homogenous and unique at the same time.

 

It is said that the Maharana (distinct from the term Maharaja) built his palace atop the hill following the advice of a hermit who he had found meditating at the summit.

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