Stockholm: Gamla Stan

Our hostel of choice is located in Gamla Stan, the old town. This part of Stockholm is located on one of the small islands of the city’s earliest settlements, and it still maintains its medieval character. 

 After grabbing our customary coffee and snack, we took stroll down the waterfront to catch sight of the Riddarholmen Church. This church is the final resting place of all of Sweden’s monarchs. Parts of the church date from the late 13th century when it was first built as a greyfriars monastery. The building is only open to visit during the autumn and summer, so Tom and I were unable to get inside.

 
Our next stop was the Stockholm Cathedral, the oldest church in Gamla Stan. The facade is in the Swedish Brick Gothic style, but my favorite part was the wooden statue of Saint George and the Dragon. (If a sculpture or statue of this particular biblical event is housed in a house of worship, it is commonly what I admire the most). Attributed to Bernt Notk (1489), the statue was commissioned to commemorate the Battle of Brunkerg (1471), and serves as a reliquary containing the saintly remained of George himself in addition to six others.

 Adjacent to this lies the Stockholm Palace, the official residence of the Swedish Monarch. Nicodemus Tessin the Younger formed its shape like that of a Roman Palace. When he passed away in 1728, the chief architect role passed on to Carl Hårleman who is largely responsible for the the Rococo interior. Construction had started in 1697, but did not officially complete until 1760. This is because work on the building was paused for 18 years due to the expense of the Great Northern War. 

 We then took a leisurely stroll through the Skansen Museum, the first ever open air museum, founded in 1891. One can experience over five centuries of  Swedish history in a visit, and there were several animals romping about in their habitats. The only disappointing part was that the aquarium required an additional fee to visit, and despite my desire to have a close-encounter with lemurs, neither of us could justify paying an additional $12 for it. After all, the USA has some of the best zoos in the world. 

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: 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: Man Sagar Lake

This morning, we both enjoyed the luxury of sleeping in before heading for a walk around the Man Sagar Lake to observe the beauty of the Jal Mahal “Water Palace.” We even got to see an elephant just strolling down the street amidst the motorcycles and rigshaws, and a camel just resting its legs!

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Interestingly, Maharaja Madho Singh I constructed the complex in 1750 intending for it to be a lodge for himself and his entourage during duck hunting parties, it was never intended to be a palace.

imageIt is considered a classic example of Rajput and Mughal Architecture, and as we’ve seen often during our trip, composed entirely of red sandstone. There is a rectangular chhartri on the roof, and four octagonal chhattris on each of corners of the building. They are elevated dome-shaped pavilions that have become a signature of Indian Design.

Based on plain observation, one cannot derive the complexity of design and technological forethought involved in this structure. While we only see it as a one-story building, in reality, the palace has five floors in total, four of which are submerged in the lake

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As we savored the nice weather and strolled along the lake, we came across a costume peddler and decided to have fun and play “dress-up.” The most awkward part of this, was when they wanted us to pose and take a picture as a couple. [Insert Awkward Turtle].

 

 

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

India is still a conservative nation, so when they see a man and a woman travel together, assumptions are often made. Additionally, seeing an Indian and an Asian together is almost an unheard of circumstance. Fortunately, Nick and I had a good laugh about this.

 

 

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We wandered the area and found ourselves a nice open garden to take a seat in and relax, before grabbing lunch and heading to hike up to Galta Ji.

 

imageThe pilgrimage site lies in the town of Khania-Balaji, just outside of Jaipur. It is known for its natural water springs that accumulate in tanks “kunds”. Thousands come to bathe in these waters every year as it is considered auspicious. Additionally, some believe that the Saint Galav lived here. He meditated, did penance, and survived for years just drinking cow’s milk.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Galta Ji is also commonly called “The Monkey Temple” as a tribe of monkey lives there. Nick was being mean and joking that he had reunited me with my family. T.T.

 

 

I’ve self-perpetuated this ongoing joke when, a few years ago, I discovered that my strangely shaped thumbs coincidentally align with the thumb shape of a gorilla. It is all in good fun though, and I enjoyed getting up close and personal with my brethren.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Travel: Modern Jaipur

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

After our lunch break, we decided to cut through the Bazaar on our way to the Albert Hall Museum. I have never seen as much color as I have in Jaipur. Nick says that the handicrafts of Rajasthan are so vibrant to contrast the muted colors of the desert.

 

In truth, the aristocrats of Jaipur were avid patrons of the arts. They often coaxed skilled artisans from around India and abroad to settle in Jaipur and make it their home. I’ve included a few pictures below to illustrate the broadness of their crafts.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

imageThe Albert Hall Museum was designed by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob in 1887, and exemplifies Indo-Saracenic Architecture. This form of architecture originated in the late 19th century as a movement by British Architects to merge elements from native Indo-Islamic and Indian Architecture with the Gothic and Neo-Classic styles of Victorian Britain. Some of the typical characteristics you may see include: Onion Domes, Scalloped Arches, Minarets, and Domed Kiosks. We decided not to meander too long on the exhibits, because Nick isn’t a fan of museums, and I’m still a little museum-dead from my epic Eurotrip.

Our last stop of the day was the Birla Temple. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the preserver, and his consort Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth.

imageDespite being a “modern” structure, – completed in 1988 – symbolism is still rampantly prevalent in the architecture of the building. Each of the three huge domes of white marble represent the three different approaches to the religion, and intricately stained glass windows illustrate scenes from Hindu Scriptures. Something that is singularly iconic to Hinduism is the acceptance of all other religions. This is demonstrated by the carvings along the exterior walls that depict import figures from both history and other faiths.

 

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Taking one last glance at the temple as the sunset illuminated it in the background, Nick and I returned to the bazaar in search of a Saree for me. While I don’t typically buy ethnic clothes while I travel, I felt it necessary for this trip as I will be attending a traditional Indian Wedding when we reach Mumbai.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when I am shopping in Asia, we hit some roadblocks in the form of sizing. I found a color scheme and pattern that I loved, but, as Nick would put it, my broad,, manly shoulders made the top a bit too snug. T.T.

Travel: Varanasi

Given how hectic and crazy the past few days have been, I’m happy that today was just a “kick back and relax” transit day. With an early afternoon flight out of Khajaraho en route to Jaipur, we savored the luxury of sleeping in. 🙂 Unfortunately, I’ve gotten into the habit of waking up at 8 am of my own accord, this happens pretty consistently for me regardless of how late I went to bed the previous night.

imageThe downside of visiting a smaller town is the limited amount of conveniences that we have grown accustomed to as Americans. This is not to say that neither of us were adaptable. Contrary to that, both Nick and I have the prior experience of traveling through Asia, and we were prepared for the likelihood of the squatting toilets, limited hot water, lack of heat, and taking sponge baths from a bucket. Still, warmth would have been nice given how cold it was in the room last night and this morning.

imageOur flight to Jaipur included both a stop in Varanasi and a layover in Delhi. Varanasi, is recognized as the Holy City for Hinduism, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is set along the Ganges River. You may recall that the Ganges is the Holy River. It is considered sacred and is personified as the goddess Ganga.

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Credit: Babasteve

The common belief is that bathing in the river, results in remission of sins and facilitates Moksha – liberation from the cycle of life and death. Many Hindu’s pilgrimage to the Ganges to immerse the ashes of their dead. The river is also a water lifeline for millions of Indians across the country, as it is the largest body of water in India. Unfortunately, the cumulative purpose of the Ganges has resulted in it being named the 5th most polluted river in the world.

At Varanasi, I picked up an interesting row-mate named Wayne. It turns out that he was also born and raised in New Jersey! (Jersey City to be precise). He also happened to spend a few years living in Houston.

imageSometimes I think the world is so large, that I can’t even begin to explore all of it, and then coincidences such as these happen that remind me how small the world can actually be. We had a very thorough conversation and I quickly became envious of him. Wayne is a General Orthopedist that works in contracted positions. This has somehow allowed him to work in Europe, Africa, and now Asia! He also happens to own some great sports cars (although they are in storage) such as the Lotus, Ferrari, and Maserati. Still, my jealousy had its limits. Averaging 18-hr days for continuous weeks with a brief reprieve of a week here and there takes its toll.

We parted ways at Delhi and Nick and I caught our connection to Jaipur, “The Pink City.” After arriving at our hotel, we were both happy to settle into our rooms and savor a long, relaxing hot shower. I also had time to Skype with  friends from back home ^_^.

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.

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