Sunday, June 5, 2011

Day 1: Delhi

Sara E. McNeil, left, Shenetta Payne, Kalee Haywood  and Kate Zibluk don Muslim robes as they prepare to visit the Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque in Delhi, India, Tuesday, May 17, 2011.


With 17 million people crammed into the space of a middle-sized American city, it's just impossible to manage. All you can do is sort of keep it afloat. Sort of.

From the moment we stepped out of the Delhi Airport in the 96-degree heat at 1 a.m. Tuesday, the chaos was impossible to escape. Over a hundred taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, limo drivers and assorted others brayed and hawked for attention to take departing passengers to their destinations.

Even at that hour, the roads were full. Our voluble tour guide, Saurav (Sam) Somani,  explained that there are no rules to driving in Delhi, and "all you need are a horn, a a good brake and a sense of humor." He meant it. Little three-wheeled Tata taxis swirl on either side of the road, shared by everything from Rolls Royces to oxcarts to loose cows and donkeys. They pass on the left. Or the right. There are few stoplights.

A street scene outside the Jama Masjid, or Friday Mosque in Delhi, India in Delhi, India, 
Tuesday, May 17, 2011.

Somehow, we got to our small hotel in a safe neighborhood, guarded by a police checkpoint a few blocks away.

It's not that Delhi is particularly dangerous. It's just that the caste system keeps the untouchables with few options, and many become pickpockets and petty criminals.  The beggars and the impoverished slum dwellers, some who live in garbage dumps and pick food and reusable items from the litter, have few options.

 A sweeper cleans cleans the memorial to  Mahatma Gandhi, whose ashes were scattered on that same spot in 1948.


A Muslim woman worships at the Jama Majid, the Friday mosque.

A sweeper helps a tourist at Humayan's Tomb. Built in the early 1600s, the massive park is a model for the Taj Mahal. 

Above them are the low-level laborers, rickshaw drivers,  haulers, delivery people, and lavatory attendants. And there are entrepreneurs selling everything from food to clothes to electrical supplies on seemingly every street corner.

But there is quiet amid the din. And history. India has 5,000 years of civilization, and it served as a crossroad of the Silk Road that connected China to Europe. It has been influenced by Buddha, Alexander the Great,  Mohammed and Queen Victoria of Great Britain.
A sweeper cleans the square near the old Red Fort,  a 17th Century Muslim fortress and palace, in Delhi.

The Moslem Moguls, rulers in the middle ages through the 19th century, left the most famous monuments, from the Taj Mahal to the Qutab Minar, a tower more than 1,200 feet tall, built in 1199, when European structures a quarter the height were considered towers.

We spent the day visiting monuments and looking at the city and its people. We then took a Hindi lesson and visited the city's entertainment district and had dinner on embassy row, near the 1960s style U.S. embassy.

And tomorrow, Agra and the Taj Mahal.
A worshipper cleanses himself at a public fountain at the mosque.
A scene at the Jama Masjid mosque.

Jack Zibluk explores the Jama Masjid mosque.

Day 2: The Road to Agra and the Taj

Tour Guide Saurav (Sam) Somani, left, Carl Lindquist, Shenetta Payne, Kalee Haywood, Sara E. McNeil and Kate Zibluk leave the gateway of Emperor Akbar's tomb in Agra.

The five-hour drive from Delhi to Agra was itself an adventure.

The Delhi suburbs sprawl on for 40 miles as with New York or Chicago/ But American cities don’t have loose water buffalo and traffic going both ways in one lane.

The landscape of small stands and shops, some with electricity, some not, with dirty stands and stalls next to luxury auto dealerships, goes on and on, slowly giving way to  open fields.

But the crowds never really go away, not for 200 miles. The road in both, or all three or four directions, is full of trucks and three-wheeled cars and bicycles and motorcycles and pushcarts and rickshaws. There is no speed limit, but given the crowds, 40 miles an hour is equivalent to the German Autobahn, where they go more than 100 miles an hour.

A driver's-eye view of traffic in India. The truck in front of us was full of passengers near Agra.

They carry everything: wood, cement, eggs, recently harvested wheat, and people. A dozen or more people clamor onto the back of many trucks to get to work, or just out of town.

At intersections and rest stops, hawkers and beggars abound They knock on car windows with trinkets, cards, games, feathers…..anything. And if you take their picture, they expect 10 rupees, about 50 cents.
Sam, our guide, is friendly to them, but he advises us to ignore them, lest we be swamped with requests. Our Hindi lesson Monday included about five wsys to say no, but in general we ignored them.
A roadside merchant uses a monkey to do his marketing midway between Delhi and Agra.

A blind beggar sells jewelry at carside at Akbar's tomb.

A beggar girl stares at Kate Zibluk, who examines a jade necklace purchased from the girl's family.

Upon our entrance to Agra, we toured the tomb of Akbar, the grandfather of the builder of the Taj Mahal. The huge site was a quiet respite from the road. From there we checked into a luxurious-looking hotel, in which the electricity and the internet connection was sporadic.
A boy enjoys the shade at Akbar's tomb.

A Hindu woman uses a parasol to shade herself from the sun and 100-degree heat at Akbar's tomb.

Then we explored the Agra Fort, another Mogul monument, and at two miles in circumference, one of the biggest. The fort was a palace full of private quarters for harems and soldiers in its day. It was full of gardens and courtyards. It was the cite of riots in the 1857 Sepoy rebellion against the British. The Sepoys, were Muslim mercenaries, and when they found the British used pork grease to lubricate gun cartridges, they thought the practice defiled their religion. The practice set off a nationwide rebellion with many casualties on both sides.

But today, it is mostly filled with Indian tourists, proud of their own memories and the ability of their own people to build massive monuments, whether they were Moslem or Hindu. In the 100-plus degree heat, the tourists came in droves. We were among the few non-Asians there, and the Indians often asked us to sit in ith them as they took family pictures.

We were honoring their past along with them and they took pride that we bothered to do so as well. As a person of partially English descent, the irony wasn’t lost on me.

As we explored the fort, we could catch in the distance the Taj Mahal, and that awaited us in the morning.

The Taj Mahal and Akbar's lost city

The Taj Mahal on Thursday,  May 19, 2011

Kalee Haywood, Shenetta Payne, Kate Zibluk and Sara E.McNeil at the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal in Agra transcends description.

It is more graceful and intricate than any words can say.

And it’s one of history’s great love stories.   After the death of Mumtaz Mahal, third wife of Mughal emperor Shah Jhan died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1630, the empreror mourned for two months and his hair turned from black to white. In his grief, he built the Taj. It took 22 years.

The white marble building is entirely handmade, with inlaid filagree throughout. Visitors are silent and reverent even if thousands visit each day.

We stayed overnight at the usual Indian hotel that featured sporadic electricity and internet service. The Taj is the center of the crowded, busy city of Agra, noted for its lack of services, and some Indians say, its corruption. After our visit to Agra fort the previous day, our dinner was interrupted by a dusty, sandy windstorm followed by a rare pre-monsoon cloudburst. The storm toppled a few trees around the Taj, but little damage occurred.

The Indian  government provides shuttle buses from the park entrance to the building, and it also permits the usual hucksters and hawkers to accost tourists with their efforts to sell them Taj Mahal snow globes and refrigerator magnates. We have become adept at ignoring them even after only three days.
A local boy helps Kate Zibluk find an unusual view of the Taj Mahal. When he was offered 10 rupees for his services, he said, "Not enough for what I do." I gave the young entrepreneur 50 rupees.

We reverently circled the building, taking pictures and considering Shah Jhan and Mumtal.
We then left for a tour of Fatehpur Sikri, the ghost city of Akbar the great. Akbar built a new capitol about 40 miles from Agra in the 1700s as a buffer against growing Rajastan to the west. But he found he could not sustain the city due to a lack of water, and he abandoned it to the elements only 12 years later. The outer walls still stand, and the courtyards, harems and barracks survived out in the dry scrub.

Kate Zibluk explores Emperor Akbar's private chambers at Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal lost city.

Carl Lindquist and Sara E. McNeil take a break at the queen's private kitchen at the lost city.

An Indian soldier stands guard at the queen's study the way his ancestors did at the lost city.
We explored for a little over an hour, and then drove into Rajastan to its capitol, Jaipour, about 300 miles away. Around Fatehpour, the crowded squalor of Agra gives way to crop lands and farms. While many are still poor, the villages are neater and cleaner than the sad urban slums of Delhi and Agra.

Rajastan is mining country and the origin of the sandstone and marble of which the Mughal monuments are built. Even today, sandstone and marble cutters dominate the economy as well as farms and businesses. There is far less crowding and the roads less congested, but just as chaotic as the urban thoroughfares.

We arrived in Jaipour in the evening, and Sam, our tour guide and fixer surprised us by finding rooms at a small 19th century hotel near the downtown. Being midweek, we were able to get our rooms upgraded to their best ones, decorated in British Raj style, with huge mahogany furniture, beds with large bedposts for mosquito netting, marble floors and other amenities.

And the internet connection works.

We are truly looking forward to our days in Jaipour.

A tour of Jaipur, Rajastan

Carl Lindquist and Shanetta Payne ride an elephant up to Amber Fort in Jaipur, Rajastan, India.

Jaipur, the capital of Rajastan, is a little cleaner, a little better developed and a little more cohesive than much of the rest of India. It’s a little cleaner and a little richer than Delhi, Agra and other Indian cities.

It’s a commercial center, an educational center with several good universities, a transportation center building its first subway and a historical center. Since the city was only founded in 1727, its history doesn’t weigh heavily upon it.  A single hereditary dynasty of rajas still holds forth from City Palace.  Other royal families, who hold no formal political offices, but who still exert a great deal of influence and power, remain in Jodphur and elsewhere in Rajastan, providing a certain stability and cohesion.

The view from Amber Fort, complete with elephants, shows its strategic importance.

The fortress is surrounded by parapets and other fortifications.

Jaipur is called the Pink City because the walls of its center or old city are made of pink sandstone, and that image was burnished when several pink sandstone gates and monoliths were erected for Prince Albert’s visit in 1857.

Nevertheless, its greatest monument is Amber Fort, which is the color of its name, a golden yellow.  The fort was first built nearly a thousand years ago by royal Hindu families before the founding of the city.  It guards the western approaches to the city on a cleft in the mountains leading to it. Other forts, walls and parapets ring the area, making it defensible against armies far larger in number than defenders.

Kaylee Haywood explores Amber Fort.

We rode a popular elephant ride from the bottom of the valley beneath the fort up to the big monument. It was full of courtyards, smooth rice-paste-washed walls and many secret passages, which allowed rajahs to visit various wives and concubines without making others jealous, according to our guide, Saurav (Sam) Somani, a native of Jaipur.

After a tour of the fort, we explored the downtown area, which included Jantar Mantar,  a 10-acre complex of astrological calculators and sundials constructed by the first maharajah, Jai Singh, in the 1730s. Despite its age and function, the various calculators look like modern-art sculptures.
We also visited City Palace, where the rajahs still live. The last raja died just last month, and his 12-year-old grandson has been named his successor.

The arrow of sunlight on the brick floor of the celestial calculator at Jantar Mantar,  bottom left,  points to Taurus, letting observers know the current zodiac sign.

A guard watches over visitors at City Palace.

Despite its fairly recent history, or perhaps because of it, Jaipur, on the edge of the Thar Desert, is becoming more of a tourist city, a taking-off point for tourists who wish to explore authentic Indian sights and culture while avoiding the squalor of other parts of the country.

It is also a center for shopping and touring. We spent the last part of our afternoon touring the city by rickshaw. And tomorrow we will being seeing more. You can see typical Indian traffic in the video below.

Shenetta Payne and Kalee Haywood enjoy a rickshaw ride.

On our own in Rajastan

Shenetta Payne shows off her new nose ring. It's just a clip-on, by the way.

On Friday, we had a day to explore Jaipur on our own. Since ASU International Programs director Carl Lindquist knew Jaipur, he suggested shopping for souvenirs and handicrafts, for which the city is famous.

We made a list of places to visit, and the hotel manager called up a small fleet of three motorized  rickshaws, or “Tatas,” the little three-wheeled, two-passenger taxis found throughout India.  We had their services for 300 rupees, or about $8, for four hours. Our drivers were Dinesh, "Super" Salim, and Srinivas Gropal.

Srinivas Gropal drives through Jaipur traffic in his three-wheeled motorized rickshaw.
See and hear what it's like to ride with him at the following link:

My driver, Srinivas Gropal, explained that the taxis are a major mode of transportation for working Indians, business people and tourists. He said he had operated the same little vehicle since 1991, when he was a chauffeur for a French tourist who bought the car for him after she went home.

Since we started our expedition before most retail outlets opened, Mr. Gropal took us to a vintage art dealer, who specialized in hand-made prints and paintings, largely in the style of Mughal-era miniatures, on antique parchment paper, often a century old.

We then shopped at several local stores for gifts, including a government co-op, Rajasthali, that provides space for local merchants, at which we bought kurtas, the stylized Indian shirts, saris, the famous Indian dresses, and other items.

Kalee Haywood tries on a traditional Indian sari at a cooperative store in Jaipour. Local clothing makers sell their products through the co-op.

On our way back to the hotel, Mr. Gropal, hearing that we wanted to support local businesses, brought us to a local jeweler, Vishnu Gems, which provides a portion of its profits to help the many beggars and street people in the city.

Shenetta Payne, Kalee Haywood and Kate Zibluk look at jewelry at Vishnu Gems in Jaipur.

Kalee Haywod tries on amethyst earrings to go with an amethyst ring.

Sara E. McNeil shows off a diamond ring. Jewelry in Jaipur sells for a fraction of retail prices in the U.S. and Europe.

Baba Singh, manager of  Vishnu’s, reminded us that mining and jewelry are among the top businesses in Rajastan, and customers from throughout the world, notably Europe, come to buy jewels and jewelry at a fraction of their retail costs. By buying jewelry in bulk, trips to Rajastan are actually a profit-making proposition to many jewelry suppliers worldwide.

Baba Singh, manager of Vishnu Gems, shows off a solid silver earring.  Singh's company donates a portion of its profits to help beggars and street people in Jaipur. It also employs local artisans to design and make jewelry.

Singh also noted that he employs several young jewelry designers in Jaipur to train them and help them start their own businesses.

While members of our group said they spent a little more money than expected, Singh pointed out that the jewelry will only appreciate in value and that buyers had the option of re-selling the merchandise back home.

“It’s a real investment in the future, at least,” he said.

The Shatabdi Express and the Holy City

Kalee Haywood, Shenetta Payne and Carl Lindquist pause along the edge of the
Ganges River  as it flows through the lower Himalayas at Rishikesh, India.

It's a long road from Jaipur at the edge of the arid Thar desert to Rishikesh in the lush forested foothills
of the Himalayas.

For us, it took two days to travel 700 miles by car and train to Rishikesh, a center of small devotional
temples and ashrams led by assorted, often self-proclaimed, holy men, called maharashis.  The most famous  resident
maharishi, Mahesh Yogi, founded the Transcendental Meditation movement in the 1960s. His ashram
drew all four Beatles, actress Mia Farrow, singer Donovan Leitch and others in 1968. While the high-living
yogi's presence has faded after his death a few years back, Rishikesh still draws pilgrims seeking enlightenment from throughout the world.

And the pilgrims are mostly Indians and other Hindus seeking to touch the sacred river, the Ganges, which
flows here through the gorge down to Haridwar 30 miles below, where the river meets the Gangetic Plain,
watering fertile croplands on the way to its delta in Bangla Desh.

We followed the Ganges upward for a time as we headed north by a train dubbed the Shatabdi Express
northward. We watched the parched, hot and dusty lowlands turn wet and lush.

Kate Zibluk watches the farmlands of north India roll by on the Shatabdi Express from Delhi
to Haridwar.  Passengers enjoy free meals, tea and coffee during the six-hour ride.

Shenetta Payne enjoys a chat about American education and its opportunities with an Indian
woman riding the Shatabdi Express from Delhi north to visit her husband, who works for a major
engineering firm.

A meeting with a holy one

Kate Zibluk participates in the Ganga Aarti, the Hindu fire ceremony, on the banks of the Ganges River in India. Our group was the only group of westerners in the front of the throng of 500 participating in the ceremony.

“When you look at yourself and ask ‘What am I doing here?’, you’ve gone from going on a tour to being on an adventure,” my best Connecticut friend and photographic mentor, Bill Treloar, once said after a grueling canoe trip.

As I looked around the Ganga Aarti, or Ganges fire ceremony in Rishikesh, India, and noticed we were about the only western participants, I think we crossed that line.

Rishikesh, at about 55,000, about the same size of our small city of Jonesboro, Arkansas, is famous for its ashrams where Hindu devotees study and pray, the holy men who study and worship, and its swamis who lead the congregations.  It is famous for the Ganges, whose cold and fast waters, it is said, come from Vishnu, the god of balance and control, and it is popular with pilgrims from throughout the world who come to visit, some seeking enlightenment, and some who want to see the spectacle.

Hindu pilgrims, tourists and others come from throughout the world to visit the spiritual center of Rishikesh.

The fire ceremony provides the primary spectacle. It is presided over by the city’s current lead swami, Chidanand Saraswati, head of Parmarth Niketan ashram, who has an international following. A swami is not a formal title. There are no rules or board certification requirements to become one. A swami is a holy man who through spirituality, charisma and not a little self-promotion, builds a following.

He demonstrated it at the fire ceremony, where he led the chants as devotees danced, swayed and prayed.  At sunsets, acolytes gather around an amphitheater at the river’s edge facing a walkway with a giant statue of Rama, the idealized male form in which Vishnu was reincarnated, according to Hindu doctrine.

The swinging bridge is the major thoroughfare across the Ganges for residents and visitors to Rishikesh.

See what it's like to cross the swinging bridge:

About 500 monks, pilgrims, worshippers, acolytes, devotees and sightseers gather around the swami, following the evening taping of his television show. 

Hindu monks ready themselves for the Ganga Aarti ceremony, held daily at sunset on the Ganges in Rishikesh.

He then leads an hour-long set of hymns and chants. Participants set little boats made of leaves and full of flower petals and a candle into the river and watch them sail by, and then the participants pass candles to one another as they chant a mantra led by the swami or simply sit and pray.

Hindu women enjoy the ceremony in their respective ways.
Participants float little boats made of paper and leaves,  full of flowers and lit by a candle, into the Ganges.
Swami Chidanand Saraswati leads an hour-long session of chanting as the the focal point of the Ganga Aarti.

The ceremony is in two parts, according to Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, who hails from New York and holds a degree from Stanford University, and retains a California-girl style of self-expression. She  has also been one of the swami’s main aides for 15 years, leading seminars worldwide and appearing on the Discovery Channel and other international networks. She said the first part is about reaching out to others and putting your dreams upon the water, and the second part, in which participants share candles, is about cleansing and burning away sadness and unhappiness, and then sharing the experience.

The swami and his chief aide, Sadhvi Baghwati Saraswati, a Stanford University graduate, discuss and explain the ceremony at a special invitation-only reception at the ashram or residence, after the Ganga Aarti.
Saurav "Sam" Somani, our guide, negotiated with the swami’s staff to get us front-row seats. We were the only westerners in our part of the crowd, and the only non-Hindu participants in candle lighting and passing ceremony.

Afterward, we were invited to an audience with the swami in his inner sanctum, or ashram, during which followers asked for his insights and wisdom. Mostly they asked about evangelizing his message. 

We then shared a vegetarian dinner (Rishikesh is totally vegetarian and alcohol-free by law) with several followers, one of whom was from our neighboring state of  Missouri, and who recently edited an encyclopedia of Hinduism. The group asked about our impressions of the country, and we were polite and positive about the friendliness and the willingness to reach across religious and political barriers that is endemic in the culture. Afterward, another Missouri acolyte, a University of St. Louis student, met us and discussed his efforts to protect the river from pollution.

We discussed the commonalities between our faiths, and I talked about my hope to build bridges between Americans and the people of India.

After we thanked the staff for the hospitality, other followers stopped us before we left to fill out a customer satisfaction survey, complete with a request for a tax-deductible donation.

It was a reminder that besides the fact Christians and Hindus share many beliefs and philosophies, we also share an appreciation for showmanship, and an understanding of the necessities of the financial bottom line as well. Finding the balance of the sincere and authentic, the spiritual, the practical, the financial and the promotional is the key for success in any culture.