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.

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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: 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: Hinduism and Peace

The one thing about traveling in a foreign country whose citizens are predominately one ethnicity or skin tone, is the complete incapacity for me to blend in. Much like a blonde friend of mine who studied abroad for a semester in Hong Kong, I am a curiosity to the locals. More so an anomaly, because it seems that East-Asians do not often visit India.

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Credit: Juthani1

It is a little strange to feel eyes on oneself everywhere I go. This was best exemplified today when we went to visit the Akshardham. A toddler baby pulled my hair as we were going through security, and an entire school trip of boys all shouted hello and goodbye as we walked past their orderly line. One even ran up to me to shake my hand.

 

. . .If only they had been a few years older, it would have certainly been a major ego boost. 😛

The Akshardam is a massive complex with a Hindu temple, devoted to Swaminarayan as its central focal point. Swaminarayan is the founder of one of the sects of Hinduism. Originally born in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781, he began a 7-year pilgrimage across the country on June 29, 1792 at the age of 11 after the death of his parents.

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Credit: Juthani1

He traveled across India and Nepal in search of an ashram that practiced what he considered to be the correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy.

 

 

Finally, in 1799, Swaminarayan’s travels as a yogi concluded in Loj, where he stayed as a disciple of Ramanand Swami, and took over leadership as guru after Ramanand died. Swaminarayan passed away on June 1, 1830.

The Akshardham, although a more recent structure that was just completed in 2005, is designed according to ancient Vedic text, and features a blend of architectural styles from across India. It is not supported by steel nor concrete, but is constructed entirely from Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble. Pictures can’t even begin to illustrate the ornate detail and craftsmanship that was invested into each microscopic niche of the temple. It’s truly an awe-inspiring piece of architecture.

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Credit: Stanislav Sedov and Dmitriy Moiseenko

 

To quantify, the main monument is 141 ft high, 316 ft wide, and 356 ft long. There are 234 intricate pillars, 9 domes, and 20 0,000 murtis and statues of Hinduism’s sadhus, devotees, and acharayas. It also contains 148 scale-sized elephants. This total building weighs a massive 3000 tons.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

In stark contrast to the elaborate and jaw-dropping Akshardham, Raj Ghat is understated and simple, as one would expect of the burial place of Mahatma Gandhi.  Its difficult not to be overwhelmed by the legacy this great man left behind.

 

 

Not only did he free his nation through peace, but he also inspired countless movements across the world. You can see his influence span from the American Civil Rights Movement to the Occupy Wall Street Moment. So many of the leaders we admire today have used Gandhi as there guiding light, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are but a few.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Our last stop of the day was Humayan’s Tomb, the inspiration behind the Taj Mahal, and the resting place of Emperor Humayan.

 

 

 

I shall leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Be the Change  you wish to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.