Sikkim

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From my hotel, Kanchenjunga, more than 60 miles away.

Sikkim is my final stop in India, an outlier literally and figuratively. It’s out of the way, far Northeast, a tiny state squashed between Nepal, China and Bhutan. And because it is a border area and because India and China are perpetually skirmishing, there is a heavy military presence.

The patron saint of Sikkim is Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. Bhutias (Bhutanese) call Sikkim Beyul Demazong, which means ‘”the hidden valley of rice”.[17] The Lepcha people, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, called it Nye-mae-el, meaning “paradise”.[17]  

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It’s thoroughly mountainous, like Nepal, but greener. Everything is built on ridiculously steep slopes. It’s environmentally conscious, being the first officially organic state in the world. Everything produced there is done so organically. Some plastic products and styrofoam have been banned. It’s wet, with rainfall and rivers galore. It’s relatively clean not only of litter, but, well…there are almost no cows. No. Cows. I’ve seen two cows and that was outside the city. No place for them to graze. Enough said.

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Gangtok

It’s melting pot of culture and language: Sikkimese, Ghorkhan, Newari, Tamang, Gurung, Hindi, Bhutia, Tibetan. Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism are the dominant religions. It’s comparatively affluent to other parts of India. Yes, there is definitely poverty, but beggars are scarce. The high-end walking street downtown Gangtok is full of people every night shopping and enjoying good food. The lone houses dotting the hillsides are relatively well-kept, some beautifully so with gardens.

When I arrived a couple of days ago, I was thoroughly aghast at the density and size of Gangtok development on the sharp inclines of the mountains. The average size of structures is 6-7 stories. As I entered the city, finding my hotel required negotiating a maze of ever more narrow and steep roads until, on arrival, unloading required that we block traffic. Driving is a regular dance of stopping, backing up to permit other vehicles to pass, brushing past retaining walls, open drains, children walking to school. Pedestrian traffic is often spared the traverse that vehicles must take, often climbing stairways, shortcuts to the next street level instead. I regularly climb a steep two blocks followed by 100 steps to a street where I can find food or an ATM.

Today I was driven in a large taxi west from Gangtok to Pelling, a distance of 112 km that takes 5 hours, winding up and down through thickly forested hillsides and small villages at an average of 20 km/hr. In some areas, the road is badly decayed, where pavement no longer exists. There are rock slides and mud slides partially blocking the road, even a downed tree or two. We cross many streams, wind through a hundred hairpin turns, carefully negotiate past other vehicles and hold our breath as large trucks barrel toward us as if they own the road.

Fortunately, there is a substantial portion of the road to Pelling that is newer and well-paved. The vegetation is lush tropical and thick with banana, bamboo, hanging vines, giant tropical plants and trees. Some parts of the road are so well-shaded, dark and moist, I am reminded of driving through redwood forest…without the redwoods. The uphill side of the road is frequently stabilized in parts by long stone retaining walls, covered in moss, ferns and climbing vines. Sikkim is home to 300 species of fern and over 4000 species of flowering plants. I could have been driving through Bolivia, Hawaii or Laos.

Every few hundred meters there is a stream falling through the vegetation to the road. Some are small. Some are waterfalls 30-80 ft high and strong enough to flood the road. The open drainage ditch by the hillside is always running full. Women carrying large baskets and small scythes harvest edible plants along the way.

In the city, this abundance of water is also common, but the stream beds are despoiled with garbage. In the wilder parts of Sikkim, they run clean and so fresh except right after a storm. Pipes are planted to run gravity-feeds to nearby homes. Truck drivers stop at the streams to wash their vehicles.

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The views down the mountainside and across the deep valleys between are dotted with small farms up to ridiculous heights, hyper-terraced with a practically fluorescent green of mature rice. Farther off in the distance, higher peaks jut upward into the clouds.

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I am on my way to Pelling to catch a closer view of Kanchenjunga, at 8586m (28,156 ft), the 3rd highest peak in the world straddling the Nepal-Sikkim border. Incredibly, from about 100km away, it’s visible to the northwest in the early mornings directly from my Gangtok hotel room. It’s also visible from Darjeeling, about 80 km away. From Pelling, it’s maybe 60km. Clear views are a treat, but it can also disappear in minutes as clouds close in.

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I visited an old Nyingma monastery, Pedmayangtse, just outside Gangtok, an important outpost of Dzogchen practice.

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A giant 3D mandala constructed in a room above the main shrine. About 3 meters high.

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Guru Rinpoche awaits inside

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A past abbott of this monastery and an important 20th C. figure.

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By far the most ubiquitous architectural feature of India.

Farewell India. Time now for a deep reboot in Ao Nang and Phuket.

 

Rishikesh

 

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Rishikesh is the yoga training capital of the world. There are as many yoga schools here as there are city blocks, or cows. And there’s an ashram for practically every one of them. You can find a drop-in yoga class at virtually any time of day within 50 meters of wherever you are, though most are early morning. The beginners have to brave the afternoon heat for their dose.

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Rishikesh is built on both sides and wrapped around a few curves of Ganga-Ma, mother Ganges. Here, about 200km from the source in Gangotri to the north, the river is wide, mostly deep through town and swift. It’s also chilly.

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There are only a few bridges in town, accessible by foot or motorbike, but not by car. The eastern shore is more oriented to tourists, backpackers, yoga students, a younger and very international crowd. The narrow lanes are packed with the usual cafes, tour operators, jewelry and gift shops. Walking here, as in nearly all the other places I’ve visited, is a delicate exercise between dodging vehicles, mud, other people and cow dung, all while looking cool. Of course.

Across the river is more standard commerce, hotels in layers down the hillside toward the river, dust, traffic, rutted and decaying roads, ghats, battalions of noisy tuk-tuks. I attended ceremony one night at the Traveni ghat.

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Hanuman priest.

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Sunset ceremony:

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Farewell, Rishikesh.

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India: random shots

Tomb of Mughal Emperor Humayan, Delhi

Amidst the gardens, the magnificent gates, the grandeur of red sandstone and marble, the tomb itself is most humble.

Swaminaryam, Delhi. (100% marble)

Unfortunately, Ashkhardam, right next door, was closed the day I was there.

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Ghurdwara Bangla Sahib: Sikh temple in Delhi

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Golden Temple, Amritsar

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A continuous flow wait for entry into the inner sanctum.

The Guru Granth Sahib is being sung continuously and broadcast throughout the temple, with the verses displayed on giant screens. The musicians are not referring to any script. They know it by heart, an impossibly complex musical accomplishment.

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Engraved plaques cover the walkways.

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Headwear must be worn at all times.

 

McLeod Ganj

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I went to the railway station in Amritsar for my 8:20 train a week ago and discovered all trains had been cancelled-not only for that day but for four days. I had no choice but to take a taxi east to Pathankot and then north from there to Dharamsala and McLeodganj further up the mountain.
It was 85 degrees at 8am and the AC was not working. There was no way I was going to travel 4 hours in a car with no AC. So I told the driver he had to go back. He fiddles with the fuses, goes to an auto shop (an unmarked doorway behind a closed storefront), but can’t get the AC to work. Forty five minutes later, I tell him he can get another taxi to meet us. Soon his brother shows up.
Pathankot is about 120 km from Amritsar, and there was another taxi already there to meet me and take me to the mountains. All of this amounted to an unexpected expense of about 6000 rupees ($90), plus the train ticket I had already paid for.
There was also no internet in Punjab for three days because–a local guru with a global following of 60 million was convicted in an Indian court, in a trial lasting ten years, of two rapes committed 15 years ago. His followers hit the streets in mob actions that killed 38 people. The government response was to cut off internet, all train travel, some of cable TV and even schools in multiple western Indian states for three days.
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The main square of McLeod Ganj, the confluence of seven roads. This is early morning. By 10am and well into the night, it is jammed with taxis, cars, buses and people 

But yes, I arrived in McLeod Ganj just fine. This is the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. It’s cooler, more colorful, cleaner, with safe food (a Big Deal!) a large Tibetan population, monks and more spoken English. The Dalai Lama is teaching for three days starting Tuesday here at (the main temple) Tsuglakhang, so there’s an extra contingent of global visitors. Lots of backpackers, a few grizzled hippies, western tourists and western monks from everywhere.
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McLeod Ganj has the feel of an Alpine village, with the center of town full of boutique-y shops, street vendors, restaurants and cafes selling clothing, a wide range of jewelry items, religious objects, textiles, thangkas, coffee, fancy pastry and international foods. A  Little Lhasa. I’ve seen it all before, but it’s still interesting to browse. The rest of it is narrow, rough roads tucked between layers and layers of structures stacked far up the hillsides one upon the other.
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Looking down this stairway from street level, I thought I’d stumbled into an Escher drawing. Five walkways going different directions.

I came here for teachings that were scheduled for Buddhist communities of Vietnam, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.  The venue is quite modest, really. Very simple compared to everything I’ve seen in Nepal and Tibet: a small inner shrine surrounded by large, multi-level, covered patios with a capacity of several thousand.
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Every square foot of this space and large spaces upstairs will be filled with those attending.

Inside the temple, the walls are lined with paintings of Tsongkhapa, of course, being the founder of the Gelug school. There are no large statues, only a couple of enclosed shrines and the teaching throne.
Each morning, the Dalai Lama enters from a residence behind the teaching venue, walking a corridor between seating areas, accompanied by his considerable retinue of security officials and high lamas, all of this to the strains of the Tibetan national anthem.

Large monitors are strategically placed to permit wider viewing. Seating areas are roped off for international groups from Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Romania, Russia and more. Thousands of Tibetans are attending. Ninety percent are sitting on the concrete floor. I sit in a designated area with several hundred chairs.

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Each day, the teaching is opened with a different international group reciting the Heart Sutra in their native language. Simultaneous translation of everything is occurring in 7-8 languages. The material for the teaching is Buddhapalita’s interpretation of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamikakarika), a text written 500 years after Buddha which has been a primary basis of buddhist instruction for 2000 years.

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Afternoon recap of the morning teaching.

Teaching on the Buddhapalita is new, but the Dalai Lama’s fluency with Nagarjuna’s highly sophisticated, meticulous and sometimes impenetrable logic is so impressive. He has taught it many times, I’m sure. The ease with which he conveys the material makes it seem, ironically, both fundamental and very advanced at the same time-which, of course, it is.BAF17D2B-80CA-4D86-BFBE-782531463532

Meanwhile, up here in the clouds, moments of clear weather are few and brief. Best to take note when they arrive.

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Old Delhi

Old Delhi–

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In my limited time in Delhi, I figured I’d walk around Old Delhi myself, just a random exploration. Not that I even knew exactly where it was or how I would know I was there. I got a taxi up to Jamma Masjid from my hotel, but soon discovered it was time for prayers. Not being muslim, I would not be admitted. I started walking westward into what I thought would be the old part of town and was approached almost immediately by a 60-ish man who started asking me questions. That’s how they do it. They are interested in you. Then they drop the proposition. “I will take you to see places in Old Delhi you would never find yourself. The real thing,” he says.

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I ask how much. He says, well, we can go for 10 minutes and if you aren’t interested you don’t have to pay me anything. I say OK. If we continue, what do you want? He says 1500 for one hour. I say one thousand, which is twice as much as I’ve paid for any tour so far. He says 1200 (~$20). I say OK.

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We go. He leads at a brisk pace down into some very narrow paths, narrower than a hotel hallway, difficult even for two motorbikes to pass each other. He stops me and says, “Stand here.” I obey. He points to a doorway and says,”This house is 400 years old.”

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He proceeds to tell me that there are three Delhis: one that was built by Shah Jahan 400 years ago (named Shajahanabad), another colonial Delhi built 200 years ago, and the modern city now rising atop the old, officially named “New” Delhi in 1926. The houses of Old Delhi are each owned by one family and handed down from one generation to the next. No one rents in this neighborhood.

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Standing outside a doorway, one has no idea how large the house may be, the size of the extended family within, the number of separate residences housing that extended family.

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But he had no hesitancy whatsoever about opening the doors and inviting me inside. Most of these houses had three original levels. One or two more levels were added later.

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The doorways are carved stone. The upper balconies may also be ornamental. Some houses contain 15-20 families, all extended from the original. One house was the very first English language school in Delhi.

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I see no other foreigners.

After awhile I mentioned that the end of our time was approaching. He did not respond. He kept going, taking turns, giving orders. Explaining everything in heavily accented English. Then he declared that we would go to the roof of a large house to view the sunset, which required a tuk-tuk ride. I asked again about our time limit. He ignored me again.

The tuk-tuk ride followed a Main Street in the Chawna Market area, packed with fabric and jewelry shops, a favorite of tourists from everywhere, especially India itself. Traffic crawled, or mostly stood still. I began to wonder how long it would take or whether we would arrive too late for sunset. But eventually we did stop, hurrying again through narrow wet streets, stone paths, dodging laborers, hole in the wall shops, hordes of shoppers.

This is the sugar market, displaying a half-dozen varieties or more. There are 16 flavors of sugar made from the same source: sugar cane. I tasted 4-5, each one surprisingly distinctive and delicious. We moved quickly to the spice market, where I noticed a special black pepper selling for 800 rupees for 100g. That’s the equivalent of $125 per kilo, or about $55/lb. You have to pay even to smell it.

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Jain temple with a marble facade

Then we walked through a winding, climbing tiny alley lined with wholesale spice dealers to a stairway up to the next level. We were on a balcony stretching the length of the building, lined with more wholesale spice merchants. I pass huge sacks of black cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric and chili. The aromas are enchanting. The building is square, enclosing a large courtyard, three stories high. It was the British governor’s residence 150 years ago.

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Now up pitch-dark stairways by cell-phone flashlight two more levels to the roof. Here, after chatting and marking the different views, watching the sun set in a clouded sky, I am told we must talk money. Here is where he tells me has has spent 2.5 hours with me and expects to be paid accordingly.

I mention that I told him what I was prepared to pay before we started. He again mentions how long he has spent with me. I remind him that I asked twice about our time ending. We are getting heated. I am pulling out money and handing over 1200, plus a generous tip–but still far short of what he had in mind.

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Now, at the completion of an experience I would never have had on my own, I have a sour taste in my mouth about the entire matter.

The evidence has accumulated ever since I arrived in India. I am a target (no surprise), that whatever I pay is not quite enough, regardless of the negotiation in question, even if agreed upon in advance; that there are subtle permutations to the negotiation process and intuitions required to manage the financial transactions here is further reinforced by this episode.

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On one hand, I must acknowledge the skill, the finesse, the nuance that is employed to convey this feeling on the part of my Indian counterparts. But it’s as if they have been practicing for 200 years for their encounter with me. I must also wonder if they are merely playing a part, learned over at least 70 years (since Independence), whether their outrage is faux or their negotiating skills are honed to perfection to salve a wound not yet healed. Or whether it is via similar interactions with their own neighbors, vendors, service providers and artisans, merely being put to an even greater test with the foreigner, the white ghost representing the entire colonial history in that small moment of verbal jousting.

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And I, the self-conscious visitor who wishes to avoid offense, attempting graceful conciliation, now finds offense in the protest and tone of my guide. Am I paying for the sins of others or am I perpetuating the exploitation in the moment? Is it simply the nature of the transaction that recreates the familiar hierarchies of class and race? Or is there something I have not seen, a mistake I unwittingly repeat? And how many other transactions are operating elsewhere, playing out this hidden subtext?

We are both bound by culture and economics and encumbered by the universal pitfalls of attachment to the bias of our individual worlds. Very few items here, save restaurant food, pharmacy items, clothing sold in fashion boutiques and department stores, are marked with a price before purchase, which deliberately invites the scenario I have just mimed. Perhaps I make too much of it, but coming to genuine agreement that is satisfactory for both parties is not so easy or apparent. Even if there is an appearance of agreement, what is the taste that remains for the auto-rickshaw driver, the taxi driver, the tour guide? Is it even possible to step out of our roles, even for a moment?

What I have encountered here, as elsewhere in India, is the Old Delhi, the new Delhi and the city of many names other than Delhi. I’m just a traveler, finding my way and still far from expert-or even comfortable-in this domain.

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri–

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Fatepur Sikri is a palace-fortress and mosque complex about 40 km from Agra built by Akbar the Great, one of the Mughal Emperors of the mid-to-late 16th C. Fatehpur means “victory city.” It was completed in 1572 and almost immediately abandoned because of water scarcity and war.

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The palace-fortress is of the same style at the Red Fort of Agra, with a few interesting architectural twists. Akbar had three wives, a Hindu, a muslim and a Christian wife. Different parts of the palace were devoted to each wife. Design elements of each culture and faith were incorporated into the structure such as vaulted ceilings, wall and pillar carvings employing religious symbols.

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Different levels of this pillar display muslim, Christian and Hindu symbols.

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The mosque is one of the biggest in the world. The gate itself is known as the largest entrance to any mosque. Within the courtyard of the mosque, housed in a white marble structure, is the tomb of Salim Chrishti, considered a Sufi saint. The mausoleum was constructed by Akbar as a mark of his respect for Chrishti, who foretold the birth of Akbar’s son, named Prince Salim and who later succeeded Akbar to the throne of the Mughal Empire, as Jahangir.[1]

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Akbar allegedly was interested in creating an ecumenical religion, likely under the influence of Salim Christi, his spiritual guide. The exterior designs support this view.

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The swastika is the hindu symbol of luck, health and prosperity.

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Courtyard and gate

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Mausoleum of Salim Christi

Four different stones in the entryway to the mausoleum are from four different nations.

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Before going into the mausoleum, I was invited to partake in the traditional offering of flowers and to take a cotton string with me to make a wish. Everyone believes Chrishti, is a remover of obstacles, a powerful healer who grants your wish.

All of the sounded just a little hokey to me and I wasn’t comfortable making a wish for something personal anyway. But I humored them. Took the flowers and the string.

The mausoleum is white marble with Qu’ranic verses carved into the stone as well as latticed marble walls.When I entered the small inner room with several attendants around the four-poster ebony bier, something happened. The energy inside was entirely different from outside. I formed a clear wish that wasn’t personal, without equivocation or doubt, tied my string to the latticework and walked out. That was a very clarifying moment.

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Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal

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Commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1632 and completed in 1648.

I’m pretty sure I can’t say anything about this place that hasn’t been said before….except that this is my second visit, the first occurring more than 50 years ago.

Described by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as “the tear-drop on the cheek of time”,[7][8] it is regarded by many as the best example of Mughal architecture and a symbol of India’s rich history.

It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It is summer. It is hot. Yet the crowds are large and ever-renewing. They are even bigger in the cooler months. 7-8 million per year.

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Main gate

The gate alone is impressive. Around are written in Arabic, in black marble and jasper  embedded in the white marble, mourning verses of the Qu’ran:

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O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.

A second gate, across the exterior grounds from the main gate, was dedicated to the workers who built the Taj. They were imported, 20,000 of them from Persia, and took 20 years to complete the main building and all the surrounding structures. The white marble, having a pinkish tint and a unique translucent quality, comes from Jaipur.

The entire structure soars 240 feet from the garden level. The height of the dome itself is 35 meters. The chief architect was probably Ustad Ahmad Lahouri, an Indian of Persian descent who would later be credited with designing the Red Fort at Delhi.

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The workers and their families stayed in Agra afterwards, assimilating and continually renewing their status as master craftsman for 40 generations, in marble cutting and inlaying shops, homes and studios throughout the area.

I don’t mean to diminish the experience of the Taj itself. It’s just as thrilling as it ever was. But the crowd control is also more evident now than ever.

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Further inscriptions from the Qu’ran outside the main entrance as well as inside.

The tombs of Mumtaz and Shahjahan are in a small space inside. They are actually faux sarcophagi. The real ones lie below floor level.

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Groups of visitors are allowed in about 100 at a time. The tombs themselves cannot now be touched, photos are prohibited (a universally ignored rule) and continuous movement is encouraged. We are herded in and out. This rule was no doubt instituted because visitors became ever more inclined to attempt to remove the precious stones inlaid in the walls and especially the sarcophagi.

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Jewels and precious stones embedded in the marble throughout the exterior and interior

An identical mosque and guest house border the main building.

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The four minarets were deliberately built out of plumb so in case of earthquake, they would not fall upon the main building.

The day after the Taj, I had hired a driver to take me to Fatehpur-Sikri and the tomb of Akbar the Great, the third Mughal Emperor and the grandfather of Shah Jahan. By mid-afternoon, I was tired and ready to return to my hotel. But he insisted on taking me to a marble shop. I decided to go more to humor him than out of authentic interest.

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This 14″ plate has over 3200 separate pieces of stone embedded: coral, mother-of-pearl, turquoise, malachite and jasper

But I had no idea what I was about to see: the masterwork handed down over 400 years. The technique is the same now as it was then: grind the stones to make the desired design. Trace the design on the marble, cut the marble to exact specifications to seat the design. Embed the stones. Polish to perfection. All done by hand with hand driven grinding tools. My personal piece of the Taj Mahal.

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Each different color in each petal is a separate piece of stone (turquoise and mother-of-pearl)

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Agra

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When people think of Agra, they naturally think of the Taj Mahal. It’s also a city of 2 million, was the capital of the Mughal Empire 4-500 years ago and has a few other sites worthy of interest.

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The Mughals, muslim descendants of Genghis Khan, descended from Mongolia about a millenium ago and established a very significant presence in India from Agra to Lahore. Agra was the winter capital and Lahore was the summer capital.

Before the Taj was built, there was the Red Fort, overlooking the Yamuna river (a tributary of the Ganges), occupied by the father of Shah Jahan as well as himself, his brothers and family.

The Red Fort is a massive place. It was constructed as a defensible palace. So the outside looks like a fort, but the inside looks has many artistic and luxurious features of a palace. The moat was famously filled with alligators and crocodiles, with a ring around the moat occupied by Bengal tigers. The parapets were equipped to throw boiling oil on any intruders. If an invader ever managed to breach the gate, he could expect massive rolling stones hurtling down the narrow walled entry path to the palace level.

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The courtyards, chambers, performance and assembly spaces of the palace are bare now, but at one time were covered with carpeting, the walls painted with gold or silver and the hand carved walls inlaid with precious stones.

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Bats live in the walls.

Some of the more impressive features of the fort include the drainage systems as well as methods of collecting water for storage, gravity feeds to keep the fountains operating, architectural features facilitating ventilation (especially useful during hot summers) and, since temperatures varied between 40 C in the summer to below 0 C in winter, there were also ingenious methods of insulation.

 

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The Harem

The Shah had 300 concubines. His most favored wife, Mumtaz, bore him 14 children, 8 boys and six girls. Eight of them died in infancy or childhood, leaving 4 boys and two girls. Mumtaz died giving birth to the 14th child. I think we can assume he hardly ever listened to her.

But he did build the most beautiful mausoleum ever in her honor.

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Varanasi III

Varanasi III

 

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Sarees seem to be a major industry here. I never saw so many shops. Some of them advertise their factories as well.

In the middle of all my temple-hopping tour, we stopped and met an elderly small man who guided me through a warren of narrow pathways, dense with saree design shops and weaving factories. One hears the hum and click of the looms behind shrouded windows and wooden doors. It’s a constant presence except on Sundays.

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I looked into a small design shop, no bigger than a walk-in closet. On the floor was a worker kneeling over a board used as a backstop for the hole punching process. Holes are punched through thin slats each about 4″ by 15″.

The holes in the slats are code for a specific pattern. Each pattern can involve punching holes in 200-300 slats. The entire set of slats for a particular pattern are attached to the looms, which then weave according to their sequential instructions.

DSC07702It seems both an effective and complex technology that I don’t understand, but is also a primitive and very traditional technology proven for generations.

Anyone familiar with the first generation computers knows that data was first coded onto punch cards, which were then fed into the computer as instructions for operations. Here in the back-alleys of Varanasi, the punch card method is still in full bloom producing sarees.

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The weaving operation was magnificent, loud machines packed into close quarters and monitored in the heat by workers wearing only the barest of clothing.

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I was also led to a small hand-weaving shop. An everyday sari might cost only 500 rupees, but the complexity, fabrics, the addition of gold threads and the time to produce them can raise the cost of a single sari to 50,000 rupees.

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Then, as the coup de gras, I was led to a shop selling fabrics of all kinds, brocades, pashminas in addition to pillow covers and upholsteries. I experienced the smoothest sales pitch ever. I had no intention of buying anything…..that is, until I saw what they had to offer.

small tapestries- not much bigger than a placemat

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Brocade

Brocades–these are about 24″ x 96″

These shops have specialties, pillow coverings, upholstery accessories, brocades, pashmina and sarees. They are sold all over India and in a few foreign countries. In Delhi, if you ask where the sarees come from , they will tell you Banares. A company in Seattle buys sarees (a uniform six meters each) strickly to make dresses.

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Wrathful utility deity?

Oh, incidentally, in my limited time here, it’s rare to see Indians smoking cigarettes. I haven’t even noticed places that sell cigarettes. But then I noticed tuck-tuk drivers tearing open small packets and dumping the contents into their mouths. And naturally, they discard the packet without a thought. Then I noticed every single tiny vendor, every hole-in-the-wall shop selling various brands of these packets.

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They are some kind of snuff. A tobacco product. A stimulant. The package has a nasty looking cancer warning on it, which of course has no effect whatsoever.

Tuk-tuk drivers, and I presume many others as well, are consuming enormous quantities of this stuff. It’s a mere 2 rupees each. And everywhere the drivers congregate, around busy commercial areas, open markets, large intersections, railway stations, these packets make up a huge percentage of the already enormous amount of litter. In some areas that’s all I see on the ground.

This, everywhere:

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Varanasi II: The Hindu Riviera

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Blowing conchs at Assi ghat at dawn

The predominant experience of Varanasi is the permanently precarious nature of it, the common tightrope-walk hardly distinguishing between multiple near-death experiences occurring multiple times a day and the ongoing spiritual restoration. I also notice that I am not worried about my next meal, I feel a little out of place.

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Assi ghat at dawn.

The holiest part about being in Varanasi is praying that you reach your destination without bodily injury. Whether it’s tooling along in a tiny tuk-tuk without any cushioning and no shocks traveling at maximum allowable speed along roads that are dangerously punishing on your body, or simply walking the ghats through the tiny alleyways without being hit from behind by motorbikes weaving through, one simply has to grit one’s teeth and pray, or……just relax.

I woke at 4:30 to meet the boatman at 5 down by the river for the morning tour. One could hardly say one has been to Varanasi without doing this. The ride this morning was terrific.

As soon as we were underway, I felt the vibration of the ancient diesel all the way into my teeth. If I wanted to take a picture, I had to stand up to get any stability. The first few pictures were fuzzy because I couldn’t control the camera. When we got to places of interest, I had to ask the boatman to slow down.

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The former residence of the Maharajah of Varanasi–150 years ago. Notice the high-water line across the doorway.

Varanasi is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world–2500 years old. The culture as a whole is 5000 years old and people have been bathing in this holy river for a very very long time. Purification ceremonies are common practices of Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism. Where else do we immerse ourselves in the refreshing primal experience of new beginnings then at the edge of the water?

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At 5am, the Ganges is glassy calm. The tourist boats are already stirring–heading toward Assi ghat for the morning ceremony. A row of priests wield fire, incense, bells and conch, calling the gods in unison. From there we drift downriver toward Manikarika, the burning ghat.

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Crowds at the main ghat: Dasashwamedh

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Manikarnika ghat

Manikarika ghat: There seem to be 12 pyres. Each burning takes at least 3 hours. That’s 36 bodies every ~4 hours, or about 200 bodies per day. It takes about 500kg of wood to burn one body. That works out to 100,000kg of wood per day–max.

These ghats are not mansions of the wealthy, of course. We are passing the Hindu Riviera, some of the most valuable holy real estate in the world, where the five elements (earth, fire, air, water and space) meet, focusing and fueling human aspiration.

(see the guy in the 3rd floor window? That’s how high the river was in 1978)

They are the home of ritual, platforms for ceremonial purification, built in the 18th and 19th centuries by maharajahs from various parts of India and each dedicated to specific gods.

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The ghats are interspersed with guesthouses, housing for sadhus, and a few luxury hotels, although telling which is which is not so easy.

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Housing for sadhus only

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A 5-star hotel

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Alamagir Mosque built by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (17th C).

Ganges swimming club? Srsly?

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