Alta: At First Sight

 The trade-off we made to stay in Alta, which is a bit off the beaten path, was having fewer day activities unless one wants to shell out $$$ to go dog-sledding or snowmobiling. I personally would have liked to visit the Sorrisniva Hotel, a hotel that is carved entirely out of 250 tons of ice every year, but at an entrance fee of $24, the price was too steep for either Tom or I to justify.

We intended to have our time in Alta be a bit lazy hazy, so we slept in and savored some extra sleep. As a result, we didn’t roll into town until the early afternoon. We popped-in to check out the inside of the Northern Lights Cathedral before grabbing some coffee and free wi-fi at a nearby pub.

The current design of the church is the result of a competition in 2001 that was won by a collaboration between schmidt hammer lassen architects and Link Arkitektur. The city council wanted an icon that would highlight Alta’s role as a gateway to the Northern Lights. In the words of founding partner John. F. Lassen, “The Cathedral of the Northern Lights is in its design a result of the surrounding nature and local culture. The building is a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,…The cathedral reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the northern lights: ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful. It appears as a solitary sculpture in interaction with the spectacular nature.”

 The sun sets earlier in the North than it did in Oslo, so we were greeted by darkness when we exited the pub. Outside, waiting for us was a varied display of ice sculptures. Some depicted human forms while others were animal sculptures. My favorite, however, was a realistic human heart that had a beating red light inside it. The heart was enclosed by icy brick walls, and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the warmth and life that lies in each of us despite whatever cold, outer, exterior persona we may present to the world. Tom thought I was overthinking it, but I personally like trying to analyze the message an artist is trying to convey.

 We then hopped into the car for Day 2 of our hunt. This time we drove about 2-hours west. The forecast was looking good for clear skies, and based on the lessons from yesterday, we knew we had to look for the stars. After all, if you can see the stars clearly, then you know that clouds are not obstructing the view. Eventually, I started seeing a light green shadow to our back right. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating it due to my deep desire to see the Northern Lights, but Tom pulled over to have a look and verify my suspicion. It turned out I was right!

 Not too long after, bands of green danced across the sky. Tom and I were so excited about our discovery that we couldn’t help but laugh, and hug, and smile. It was a glorious gift that the universe had presented us, the gift of light. After you truly see the lights with the naked eye for the first time, you know exactly what to look for. It is true what they say, that the lights dance. You can see the shape and the density of the bands and swirls change as the particles shift with the wind. I was so happy to be able to share the experience with someone that is so special to me. 

P.S. I didn’t exactly have the right photography equipment for this shot, so we faked the lighting we’d need by using the car’s headlights.  

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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: Generous Jodhpur

imageShukriya is the first word that I learned in Hindi. It means “Thank You.” This is always the first term I learn when traveling in a foreign country because it allows me to thank all the kind people who help me find my way when I am lost and confused.

 

For me, it tells the locals, ‘Thank you for sharing your culture and heritage with me, Thank you for your generosity, and Thank you for welcoming me.’

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Today, is Christmas Eve, and it seems like an appropriate day to be grateful for the luxury of traveling. Too few people are given the opportunity, or have a passion to explore the world as I do. Let’s be honest, the hobby of adventure requires both capital and time, and such a large portion of the human population enjoy neither.

 

imageA family who can afford this extravagance is the Jodhpur Royal Family, and we visited their private residence, the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Built in 1943, the construction of the palace provided employment to thousands of citizens during a famine. Numbering at a total of 347 rooms, the building serves three purposes. It functions as a home, a hotel, and a museum.

imageLeaving the opulence of the structure behind, we headed back to the Saree store from yesterday for a final fitting. The fit was off, and the design of the blouse was not what we had discussed. Nick and I were both extremely frustrated as we had spent about 2-3 hours at the store yesterday to discuss and hash out all the details to make sure we got what we wanted.

We ended up walking out of the store unhappy and disgruntled.  Fortunately, my deposit was negotiated down to 500 rupees, so I only lost about $7 on this Saree attempt.

imageWe ended up making a third attempt at buying a Saree at the Sadar Bazaar, and settled on a dark blue Saree of a different style. I already decided that I refuse to buy more shoes or bangles to match this new color, so some clashing may occur. Thankfully, I know that no matter what I wear, I will still stand out of the crowd at the Wedding.

imageAfter dropping off our purchases at the hotel, we started to hike up to the fort before realizing it was closed for the day. On our way back down the streets, Nick started conversing with a young man, around our age, who promptly invited us into his home, which had been in his family for over 100 years. His mother and father were super inviting, and presented us with chai. Granted, much of the conversation was lost on me, but the mother asked to take a photo with me because she thought I was so beautiful. 😀

imageWe bid adieu with the intent to return to our hotel. A group of kids in an alley stopped us and asked for American coins, I felt bad because I didn’t have anything to offer. Their family also proceeded to welcome us with open arms, and we spent some time talking with the kids and their parents while savoring our second cup of Chai. They played a few games on my cell phone, and when the girls wanted to paint my nails, I couldn’t say no. Their future dreams ranged from working in Law Enforcement to being a Doctor. It was incredibly heartwarming to hear about their ambition, and Nick and I encouraged them all to study hard as we left.

Our hotel, the Castle View HomeStay threw all of its lodgers a party for Christmas Eve. We lit a lantern and attempted to let it float up into the sky, but alas, the windy conditions were not in our favor, and the lantern dropped like a rock. It was really funny at the time, and incredibly endearing how much effort the staff had put in. A ‘Santa Claus’ was nominated who gave us small handicraft gifts that are local to the region, and we enjoyed a buffet dinner together with some Gulab Jamun, a sweet milk dessert from a famous bakery in the city.

Travel: Khajaraho Temples

image*Disclaimer: The photographs contained in this post may not be suited for younger eyes.

This morning, we bid adieu to the chaos and clamour of New Delhi, and hopped a quick domestic flight to Khajaraho for the night.

Khajaraho lies 385 miles southeast of New Delhi and is home to a mere population of 20,000 people. It was the seating ground of the Chandela Dynasty which ruled much of the Bundelkhand region of central India between the 10th and 13th centuries.

imageThe name Kharjuravāhaka is derived from ancient Sanskrit (kharjura, खर्जूर meaning date palm, and vāhaka, वाहक meaning “one who carries” or bearer). As the legend goes, there was once two golden date-palm trees at the gate of the temples. Kharjuravāhaka also has another meaning in Desai, scorpion bearer; this is a symbolic name for the deity Shiva, who bears snake and scorpion garlands upon his shoulders. This is fitting, as Khajuraho is one of four holy sites linked to Shiva. Hindu mythology recognizes the town as the location of his marriage.

imageIn its prime. Khajaraho had 85 temples spread over 20 square kilometers. Today, there are only 12 temples spread over 6 kilometers. As is typical with Hindu temples, they are clustered near a body of water and face east, towards the sunrise. Each temple integrates the interdependence between feminine and masculine deities and highlights the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha, and Moksha.

 

 

imageLike most Hindu temples, these temples follow a grid geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala, which has three important components. Mandala meaning circle, Purusha conveying universal essence, and Vastu meaning a dwelling structure.

 

This is displayed by the geometric use of squares and circles. A square, divided into 64 perfect sub-squares (padas) circumscribe the circle of mandala. The square is considered divine and represents the product of knowledge and human thought while the circle, considered earthly, symbolizes everyday life.

imageTo further illustrate the comprehensive design of the site, the Chandela’s laid out the territory in three triangles, which converge to forma a pentagon. The three triangles represent the three realms (trilokinatha) and the five-side pentagon, indicates the five cosmic substances (panchbuteshvara).

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For me, the most interesting thing about the temples, is that the sandstone blocks aren’t glued together with mortar. Rather, in a fashion similar to classic Chinese wood construction, each mortise and tenon was precision cut so that the male piece could interlock with his female counterpart, allowing gravity to keep them joined.

 

We decided to take this side trip primarily because the temples are best known for the erotic carvings that adorn the faces.

imageHowever, these sexual figures only account for about 10% of the detailing on the temples, and are not prominent nor emphasized compared to the others. It was a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” scavenger hunt, as we went searching for these. Other sculptures depict the numerous aspects of human life and the values vital within the Hindu Pantheon.

Some of the positions just didn’t seem humanly possible! Although, given that the art of Yoga was developed in Ancient Pre-Vedic India between 5th to 6th century BC, perhaps our ancestors possessed a depth of flexibility that current humans do not.

Travel: Agra Cantonment

We woke up at 4 AM today, because we needed to catch the 6 AM Shatabdi Express – India’s Fastest Train – to Agra for a day trip. Needless to say, it was a long day as our transit time was 2-hours one-way, assuming that everything is executed flawlessly.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Agra, a former cantonment of the British empire, is the home of the Taj Mahal, one of seven wonders of the world. It is an eye-catching structure consisting entirely of white marble and its impossible to miss the light reflecting off of its surface as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

 

Its origin story is one of love, despair, and tragedy.

imageIn the 17th century, Shah Jahan, one of the Mughal Emperors, lost his third wife, a Persian princess named Mumtaz Muhal during the birth of their 14th child in 1631. The following year, construction of the Taj Mahal began. Over the course of 20 years, this project enlisted the labor of over 1,000 elephants to transport building materials from all over India and Asia. In addition to the iconic white marble that the building is known for, 28 other types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the ornate design.

 

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As this was a period of prosperity within the empire, a skilled labour force of twenty-thousand workers were recruited from all across India. A total of 37 men were selected to form the creative unit behind the Taj Mahal.

 

There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern india, stonecutters from Baluchistan, and individuals who specialized in everything from turrets to the carving of marble flowers.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Not too soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, the Shah was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned at Agra Fort. It is said that he was given a cell with a window facing the Taj so that he could gaze at the resting place of his love. Shah Jahan was later buried in the mausoleum next to his wife.

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As a young professional trying to balance the scales of career and ambition between passion and family in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine the depth of emotion, much less, the hollow shadows that the Shah must have felt on his wife’s passing.

 

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I feel that so much of my generation tends to trivialize the word love, that it’s merely a word to convey feeling, but the term amor speaks volumes more. It means depth of commitment, being willing to compromise, accepting the flaws of your significant other, and most of all, not giving up on your relationship when things get rough. You have to be willing to fight for it.

That’s what Shah Jahan did. Although Mumtaz was long gone from the world, she stayed alive in his memory. He wanted to commemorate her significance in his life, and the empty space left in his world by her departure.

The Taj Mahal was truly a tribute to the joy they shared.

imageNot too far away, is the Agra Fort, a towering fortress where the throne-less shah was held captive. A fort has stood at this location since the 11th century, although the current structure was built by the Mughal Empire. Spanning a total area of 94-Acres, the red sandstone is a staunch guard that dominates the skyline.

As the stories say, Shah Jahan was actually held in the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony facing the Taj Mahal.

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After our visit to the fort, it was time to catch our train home. This took a large amount of patience as, despite our 6 PM tickets back, our plane was consistently delayed. First it was by 40 mins, and then it was 1-hour. This soon changed to a 2-hour delay, and progressed further to a 3.5-hour delay. Eventually, we bought another set of tickets for the Shatabdi Express (which is always on time), and managed to get back to Delhi around 11:30 PM. Whew!