Category Archives: India

Palaces and pots

Today turned into a relaxed day, starting with the City Palace, so much better preserved than the previous palaces we’ve seen. Jaipur was a planned city, built in the early 18th century, and the palace dates from 1699.  Along with numerous buildings, courtyards, galleries and offices, it houses the royal family.

Here is a touristy shot of me at the palace with two of the royal guards.  Notice my beautiful scarf, a present from Sujata and Amy on our first evening.

Inside are gorgeous spaces, including these beautiful blue rooms.  You can see why this is also a wedding venue.

Other rooms featured mirrors and jewels. Here you can see the group taking pictures like mad, we couldn’t stop ourselves!

Another view

In this room (above) a guide turned out the lights and showed us what it would look like by candlelight.

In the courtyard are beautiful gates, each dedicated to a different season and each beautifully decorated. This is the green doorway dedicated to Lord Ganesha.

And this is the lotus gate.

The peacock gate is especially  intricate.

After lunch and a much-needed liedown we headed to a pottery center with a plan to watch a master potter at his craft. Unfortunately, he was away that day, much to Sujata’s disappointment, and we would not have a chance to paint the pots ourselves.  Nevertheless, we rallied enough to do some shopping and I bought a big vase that when carefully wrapped was big enough to fill half my suitcase.  I loved the colors and the shape…Sadly, the TSA unwrapped it and it arrived in pieces, but I did manage to bring home intact a floral tile and a small head of Durga.

On our way back we had another tourist opportunity, this time to get a picture of the Hawa Mahal or “The Palace of Winds” or “The Palace of Breeze,” built in 1699 and recently restored. Women in purdah could look out of one of the 953 small windows and watch the world go by unseen.

A day filled with colors, sights, shapes, beauty!

A fort, a step well, some shopping

Today (Sunday) wasour first full day together, starting with a visit to the Amber Fort, high above the city. The landscape is entirely different from the flat, dry plains of Delhi and Agra; green, with hills and mountains in sight and the fort at the top of a dusty hill. We got on the minibus to the town of Amber and then took Jeeps up the steep mountainside. We stopped first at the Panna Meena ka Kund stepwell, dating from the 10th century.  Stepwells were commonly used to collect and store water but were also gathering places, especially for women, and provided cool air on sweltering day.  It functioned like a cistern, with steps along the sides so that you could get to the water no matter what the depth, depending on rainfall. The design was graphically strong, very striking and filled with patterns, light and dark. And of course there were monkeys everywhere. Here are Carol and Caron in a little gazebo overlooking the well.

At the top of the hill, we met our affable guide who explained the fort to us, though between being hard to hear and hard to understand it was not terribly iluminating. Though it’s called a fort, there are three palaces here, winter, summer and monsoon, where the princesses lived, with no man allowed in except for the king. Again, beautiful carvings and painted walls. And long walls along the ridgeline to keep out…someone? The winter palace featured mirrored walls to reflect the light on cold winter days.

(Bad hair day, but so it goes!)  (And this was my go-to costume: travel vest where I could put my phone, guidebook or pamphlet, hand sanitizer, tissues, etc., small purse, and backpack for other layers, water bottle, emergency book, etc. etc.  Luckily I no longer care deeply about how I look when traveling!)

And everywhere, beautifully detailed inlaid designs.

There are elephants that you can ride, though it’s not a good idea for the elephants, so we did not indulge.

On the way out of the Amber fort we stopped by a bookstore with an interesting selection.  I’m really liking the Dalrymple book so hope to read more of him when I get home.

After lunch at the hotel, we gathered for a quick intro by each one of us.  Many stories to tell – Pati and her benign optic nerve tumor, M and her debilitating car accident that’s still being litigated, Sujata and her recovery from breast cancer, Amy and her year of refocusing that included a decision to stop designing fabric, Ginger and her story of finding her true love in Saskatchewan, et al.  A great group!

The afternoon was long.  We began by stopping at a new city gate that has been decorated in the traditional style.  It was beautiful and much visited by locals, especially young ones.  Then off to two markets at which point I was beginning to sag.  The first was an outdoor market set up in conjunction with the Literary Festival, where I saw some fabrics that I liked but nothing I needed to own. (This is also where we saw the creepy monkey man.)  The second shop had lovely clothes but I was really dead on my feet by now. Dinner at the hotel around 8 and then fell into bed.

Agra to Jaipur

Our next stop on the way to Jaipur was a rug cooperative in Agra, which was fascinating.  On the main floor we saw people actually knotting the rugs.

Apart from admiring their skill, I could only think of the strain on their eyes and especially on their legs, sitting at an angle like that.

Then we went downstairs, where a world of carpets awaited us.  I had not realized that we would then spend hours buying carpets! But who am I to talk, since I bought one, too. There’s a story, of course.  The original was in the Taj Mahal and now lives at the Met in New York.  This shop has exclusive rights to reproduce the rug, only 60 copies (I think) in two sizes.  (Another blogger bought this, too, by the way, not long before before I did, apparently…)  I looked it up later, and there it is in their collection, though not on display currently.

There was lots of bonding during this experience, from falling into the piles of wool  to discussing possible purchases with each other. I think that most of us bought at least one rug, and several bought multiples.  These are savvy shoppers!  But it took forever and we did not get on the road until close to 1:00.

But first, a visit to the Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (check another off the list!), and the home of the Mughal emperors until 1638.  Built (or rebuilt) of red sandstone, it was more like a city than merely a fort.  The Indian military still uses part of it.

Some lovely architectural details:

We had been scheduled to visit a step well, but we were obviously way out of time, and there’s another one on our itinerary in Jaipur.  So we hit the road and  enjoyed a late lunch at a lovely garden spot (visiting the small gift shop where I bought an Indian edition of Kipling’s short stories). Finally, the long trip to Jaipur. We arrived at 8:00 just in time for an elegant dinner at our hotel, including this welcome laid out in marigolds, this delectable dessert, and music.  The musicians kindly invited me to sit down and join them, so I did, strumming the stringed instrument with more enthusiasm than skill.  We also met everyone, very important, but, typically for me, I have no pictures of the group.  But more to come later.

The trip before the trip

After breakfast we hopped on a little bus for a tour of Delhi.  Our first stop was the spice market, which was almost as crowded and narrow as the souks of Morocco. There was so much traffic, so many overhead wires, and so many little shops that I had to take a video in hopes of getting it all in.

And over our heads the monkeys were navigating along the wires, just the way squirrels do at home.  Here’s a look at the market where we got a tour of the various teas and spices and how to use them.  I ended up with several varieties, some for presents and some for ME.

A few more views, of hot peppers for sale and a dried fruit stand. 

We walked back through the market, where I noticed this broom, which I was to see often as women swept the streets or sidewalks in front of their stores.

From here we got into auto rickshaws, or tuktuks, for a little tour of the streets.  This is Carol and her sister Lucy traveling next to ours.   Our rickshaws were actually larger than the usual ones.  The smaller ones are used by everyone: three wheels, open sides, often crammed chock full of people and belongings.  Here’s an image taken by someone else.A wild ride and you have to hang on tight!

Back on the bus, we traveled through the center of town with some difficulty, since many streets were closed in anticipation of Independence Day celebrations.  Modi had invited Bolsonaro, the Brazilian autocrat, and I can only imagine they had a great time together, plotting how to oppress their people.  We caught sight of several government buildings and of the Red Fort, which, sadly, was not on our agenda.

(Not a great picture, since it was taken from the bus.)  I was reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns on this trip and it made me wish that we could have spent more time here.  A reason to go back!

Partway through the tour, our guide tried to explain the difference between Hindus and Muslims. Well!  They (the Muslims) are all terrorists, their allegiance is to jihad not to India, they breed like rabbits while Hindus have only one child, where will the Hindus go, there is no Hindu country, and on and on.  It was quite unpleasant, but at least we did hear the unfiltered views of a man who undoubtedly represents quite of a few of his countrymen.

Our final stop was Humayan’s Tomb, commissioned by Humayan’s wife and completed in 1572.  It is said to be the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  I fear that I did not fully appreciate the architecture or the setting, but I do know that the building and the surrounding gardens are a an example of Mughal architecture, borrowing from Indian as well as Islamic styles.  Built of red sandstone and white marble, its lovely arches and tiles again reminded me of Morocco.  Our guide took a picture of us standing in front of it. 

The happy crew:  Caron, Cathy, Caity,  Christine, Linda, Carol, Lucie, Pati and me (looking oddly belligerent).

We left Delhi and our guide about mid-afternoon and headed for Agra in a little bus with seats for fifteen, so we each had room to spread out our marigold necklaces, bouquets of flowers, and personal needs (water bottles which are passed out by the guides throughout our trip, purse, phone, guidebooks, snacks, etc.).  It was a long, long drive to Agra through very flat country but worth it in the end. We had a delicious late dinner (not  my  usual  style  but I survived!). It was nicely presented even though we were not sure what we were eating.

After checking in at the very first-world Radisson Hotel, we agreed to meet at 6:30 the next morning to see the Taj Mahal at dawn.

Such a good idea! The light was magical as we entered the site,

and there were crowds to be sure, but not as insane as it will undoubtedly get later.

We entered  through the west gate,which is decorated with elegant calligraphy

using pietra dura, inlaid with precious and semi-precious stones.  (As always, applique designs leapt out at me.)

Our first sight through an archway was the iconic view, with the early morning mist giving it an ethereal look.

It was unexpectedly moving.  Like seeing Michelangelo’s David, the image is so well known as to be a cliche, but when you see it in person it is arresting.

We all kept taking pictures, because the light kept changing.  Here it is with the pink light of dawn.

Inside the mausoleum, you can see the tombs (though they are apparently replicas) and appreciate the beautifully carved stone filigree screens. 

Guides are positioned along here with flashlights so that you can see how the semi-precious stones glow in the light.

We saw lots of birds, including big green parakeets and the iconic hoopoe (not my picture). We wandered along the plinth and enjoyed the beautiful views of the Yamuna River below, with boatmen looking like an impressionistic painting.

Of course, when planning the trip it seemed logical to visit the Taj Mahal since it was so close to where we were going, and I was thrilled when Cathy set it all up for us.  But I had never longed to see it, so although I was expectant I was not exactly excited.  But then we saw it, and it was simply magical.

 

Wildlife and exoticism

This was not a nature trip, but you can’t help noticing the animals everywhere in India.  In my neighborhood I’m likely to see cats, dogs and squirrels, along with robins, wrens, finches, woodpeckers, chickadees, hawks, etc.  But here was a new array of everyday creatures!

Dogs are hardly unusual, but they were everywhere in the streets, never on a leash or seeming to belong to anyone.  This one was enjoying the sunshine while stretched out on block-printed fabric drying in Bagru. 

They appeared healthy and were beautifully behaved, so I asked one of our guides who took care of them.  He said that when you made your chapatis in the morning, you made one for the dog, and when you made your chapatis in the evening, you made one for the cow.  I’m not sure if that was metaphorical or literal…

There were several kinds of cows, some dairy cows and some not. 

This dairy cow was strolling through Bagur.

This beauty was surrounded by words that I can’t decipher.

And this one seems to have been decorated?

Monkeys were ubiquitous, climbing up telephone poles, along the rooftops, and hanging from wires. 

These monkeys were outside of the vegetable market in Jaipur.

This one was strolling along among the tourists at the Taj Mahal.

This monkey is posing with a kite at the step well. (Kite flying is a huge pastime in Jaipur, and we saw these tiny kites in the sky all the time, especially at the end of the day.  When they coat the strings with powdered glass for competitions, they can be a danger to people and especially to birds, but it is beautiful to watch them soar.)

This mama and baby were climbing above electrical wires in the spice market in Delhi.  We were cautioned not to play with them or feed them, and, fascinating though they were, I wasn’t tempted.

We saw a few elephants thumping along the streets, but the only one I captured with my camera is this one, decorated for tourists, along the lake.

Cathy is paying the driver for permission to pet it.

Camels were seen more often, usually as beasts of burden but for tourists, too.  Here’s a glimpse of one in the street in Sanganer that carried a load on its back.

This one was waiting for customers down the road from our hotel who could be tempted into a ride.

But the creepiest of all was this human monkey.  He was roaming around in a craft market we visited.  If I had managed to get a video, you would have seen just how awful he was, coming up behind people and grabbing their bags, racing along on all fours like a real monkey, and in general behaving like a scary creature that’s supposed to be funny.  I think he might have been a representation of Hanuman, a god who is “generally depicted as a man with the face of a monkey and a long tail.”  Although the people in these pictures are laughing, there were a couple of children in tears.

Finally, a note on exoticism.  It’s defined as “the charm of the unfamiliar,” but it can also be a way of distancing yourself from what you are seeing.  In a culture as different from mine as India is, I’m afraid that some of what I saw was just that:  a strange and fascinating way of life that I don’t really understand.  But I’m trying!

So, I went to India!

I must have been on a mailing list from Amy Butler, because that’s how I learned about her workshop. She and Sujata Shah went to India two years ago with three groups, one week each, and 2020 was the return trip. Since none of my usual traveling companions was interested, I just signed myself up, thinking that I would be with like-minded people and in a little bit of a bubble for my first encounter with a very different place. Sixteen of us were signed up for the trip and nine of us went on a pre-trip jaunt to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.  It was exhausting, gorgeous, surprising, beautiful, and overwhelming.

The drill is that you land in Delhi close to midnight and go immediately to your hotel.  Steve from Eternal Journeys had arranged all of our transport and escorts, so we just looked for our name at the airport and trooped onto a minibus that took us to our hotel.  The marigold necklaces and bunch of flowers are traditional, and we festooned ourselves and the bus seats with them for the next few days.

After breakfast – we had our choices of coffee, tea, eggs, yogurt, bread and Indian delights, a spread that would become familiar soon – we took a quick walk around the neighborhood before the bus came, and I saw my first cow in the street.  This soon became routine, but it is startling the first time you see it.

(Those are house crows on top of this cow.)

First impressions: a friendly group of women, a very different place, and delicious food.  Onward!