Tuesday, Oct. 31—After arriving in Mumbai (Bombay), some as late as 3:00 AM, we were taken to the Park Plaza Royal Palms Hotel for whatever rest we could get before beginning our morning tour. The hotel sprawled on top of a hill in a national park—along with the cows allowed for a dairy business. Our tour escort throughout India was Gyalgin Sherpa; Douglas was our city guide for Mumbai. Douglas told us that Bombay’s population is 17 million while the population of India is one billion. Mumbai was founded on 7 islands but since 1750 it has formed one land mass.
Traffic was bad in all the cities that we saw. We saw the local taxi, called a touk touk, a motorized alteration of the rickshaw. Douglas said more vehicles are running on compressed natural gas, which is cheaper here. With the booming economy, over 200 cars are added to the traffic per day. That’s in addition to the 55,000 Fiat taxis. We saw the numerous shanties for the very poor and Douglas said that the government can no longer displace them without first providing homes for them. India is characterized by the extremely rich and the extremely poor. Average family size has gone from 6-7 children to two children per couple. Douglas said that 40% of the taxes raised in Mumbai go to Delhi. There are 29 states in India for which Hindu and English are the national languages in addition to the local language. Hindus make up 75% of the population, with Muslums second at 11%. The rest are Christain, Jain, Farsi, etc.
As we noticed a train going by with people piled up in the doorways, Douglas said that the great train system in India (thanks to the English colonial period) provides cheap transportation for so many—every three minutes a train arrives in Bombay. Douglas said that Mumbai is one of the most cultural and safe cities anywhere; if a woman is being bothered all she has to do is cry out, and the perpetrator will need the police to protect him! Douglas said that India used to have numerous cotton mills to produce textiles for export, but now those factories have been reduced and moved to the suburbs so that the city land can be redeveloped for housing and malls. Globalization has led to the loss of jobs here too, but now many new jobs are available, such as the phone services provided by Indians. The Bollywood business is going strong, producing 1,000 movies a year.
We stopped to see the Dhobi laundry ghats where mostly men were working. Each had a “pen” formed by concrete walls that held water; they beat the clothes and washed them and then hung them everywhere to dry. Douglas said this system works really well—one pen supports 2-3 families; there are 10,000 washermen; it costs 10-20 cents a piece for the laundry. The clothes are picked up from the homes and delivered ready to wear.
Douglas pointed out a fine hospital and said that medical tourism is big; hospitals must provide 30% of the beds for the poor. Next we drove along Marine Drive or Cowpatty Beach and saw the Arabian Sea.
By now we were in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India stone archway that was built in 1911 for the visit of King George V.
After an hour’s ferry ride, we arrived on Elephanta Island to see the temple caves of the god Shiva. We climbed up 25 steps past vendors and hawkers to see the site carved out of the rock sometime between 200 BC and 1200 AD. Douglas told us a little about the gods of Hinduism, particularly Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is known as the “remover of obstacles and bringer of good luck.” He rides on a mouse. After Douglas’ thorough explanations of the carvings–which were somewhat lost on us as we suffered from the heat, fatigue, and jet lag–we ferried back to Mumbai, had a nice late lunch on our own at the Taj Mahal Hotel, and then returned to our hotel around 8:30 for some badly needed sleep. It was very warm under an intense sun during midday.
Wednesday, Nov. 1—We had to depart at 4:30 AM to get our flight to Udaipur, so it was another short night. The flight went well and we soon met our next local guide, Sharma, who conducted us to the Shilpi Resort Hotel in the countryside outside the town of Udaipur. We had breakfast in the courtyard and a short rest before beginning our sightseeing of Udaipur. The cool, quiet peacefulness of the hotel was soothing to our rather frazzled nerves. We seemed to be the only tourists in the hotel.
Udaipur is in the state of Rajasthan, meaning the “place of rulers.” Raj means king. Sharma said this state is very dry and desert-like. There has been a lot of mining of minerals here. Sharma said that too many children in the villages are not getting an education, partly due to religious influences; today the government is trying to get the children into the schools by offering incentives, such as free meals. Another problem comes from all the free-roaming pigs, dogs, snakes, and monkeys—they bite children and they are not vaccinated.
Maharaja Udai Singh II founded Udaipur in 1559 by after he was forced out of his home by his enemies. He built a dam to make Lake Picholi. Although Udaipur became the largest and greatest capital of Mewar, it was never a significant kingdom in Rajasthan. Next, after walking up a long driveway, we had a guided tour of the City Palace Museum built in 1725. The Palace—a blend of Rajput and Mughal influences– is a conglomerate of buildings encompassing the current Maharaja’s family palace at one end, the palace that is now the Fateh Prakash Hotel, and the part that is a museum today. After admiring the ornate exterior of turrets and balconies and lacy stone work, in the museum part we walked up and down narrow stairs and through a number of rooms. The museum was a maze of rooms and courtyards interconnected by narrow, low corridors. Most impressive were the mosaics on the walls, especially the peacock whose feathers were made out of 26,000 pieces of glass. We also noted other wall decorations, such as frescoes, mirrored walls, colored glass, tiles, and paintings. The guide also explained the miniature paintings, pointing out the three-dimensional look. After admiring the views of Udaipur through the small windows, we strolled back out under a warm sun. This was the winter palace for the Maharaja; the summer palace is in Lake Pichola, and the Monsoon Palace was visible on a hilltop.
Next came a boat ride on Lake Pichola, circling around the white Lake Palace Hotel built in 1754 by Maharaja Jagat Singh II as a summer palace covering the whole island; today it is an exclusive hotel. We get off on an island to walk around in the Jag Mandir Palace where the Mughal emperor Shah Jahaan once took refuge when he was trying to overthrow his father; it is said that he received inspiration for his Taj Mahal from this building. This small pleasure palace built around a pool was undergoing cleaning and restoration. It was warm in the sun and we were grateful that we hadn’t come any earlier in the season. By then it was 3:00 PM—and time for lunch, which we had in a private dining room at the City Palace—after we climbed the long driveway once again..
After that we drove back out into the country five miles to our hotel, going past some lakes, getting back around 5:30 PM. It felt good to have some down time after another long day.
Thursday, Nov. 2—We felt much refreshed after a long night of sleep. It was pleasant to wake up to all the rural sounds of the country. We began our sightseeing with a stop to see the ornamental gardens created in the mid-18th century for the entertainment of the ladies of the court. We saw fountains, elephants carved out of single blocks of stone that decorated a lotus pool, and landscaped greenery. Our second stop was to visit Bhartiya Lok Kala Museum, a small museum along a dusty road displaying artifacts such as pots and shards found in the area that date back to over 2000 BC.
Our third stop, by the museum, was Ahar, a place where over 250 white marble cenotaphs or monuments (chhattris) have been erected by members of the Mewari Maharajas and their families to honor their dead. The person is cremated on the grounds, then the ashes are taken to the Ganges while the memorial is built on the cremation spot.
Now it was time for a special treat—lunch at the beautiful Lake Palace Hotel, once the summer palace of the Maharajas. It was an elegant white building completely surrounded by water. For lunch we had a number of different dishes, all prepared with delicious Indian spices and served with impeccable taste on Rosenthal china in a Versace pattern—all for the price of $50.
After our relaxing lunch, we returned by boat to the City Palace to board our bus and drive through Udaipur. We were fascinated watching everything that was going on around us. Sherpa gave us a half hour to wander around the streets for a while. It was a crowded, noisy, dusty experience. It’s a wonder no one was run over or hit by one of the many scooters or bikes going in all directions at once.
On the way back Sharma talked about drug usage in India. He said that some usage is allowed for medicine. The government controls the business of marijuana and opium and one can be in serious trouble for illegal activity. Sharma said the drugs are used by high society and low society, not the middle class.
After a short rest at our peaceful hotel, in the early evening we walked around a crafts village adjoining our hotel, Shilpgram, where there was a crafts fair. The village consisted of traditional mud huts that represented the different cultures in the different states of India. We saw the works of artisans and performers.
Friday, Nov. 3—We left our quiet, relaxing country hotel for the long drive to Pushkar. Along the way Sharma said that marriage is a very big event in India—in the villages 500 guests is common; weddings can easily have 2,000 guests. And a wedding costs at least $3500. He said that marriages are arranged and once engaged, it takes the couple six months to make all the arrangements. Today the law requires marriages to be registered in court. Sharma said that today under the protection of law a couple can marry against their parents’ wishes and be safe from murder. He also said that day by day the law is helping ladies—they can now take legal action against abusive men. It also helps women that there are more female police and nurses.
We saw marigolds for sale; Sharma said the lorry drivers buy them to offer in the temples and to decorate their trucks. The monsoon season goes from August to July; in the south the monsoons occur in June and July. “Pushkar” means town of flowers. He said a good camel can sell for $600 and a buffalo for $500. In the fields we saw sugar cane, corn, barley, maize and vegetables.
We stopped along the road for a potty break—behind the bushes! Sharma said the thorny bushes were planted to keep cattle out of fields.
Sharma said that everyone knows your caste in India. He is Brahmin, belonging to the top, priestly class. He said there is big tension in India today because many object to the special concessions and privileges given to lower castes to create more job equality—like a quota system. Some politicians tell the villagers that if they vote for him, once elected, he will give them special privileges.
The caste system does not matter as much in the cities. Military service is voluntary, but men compete to get into the army, as the benefits of free food, health care, education, etc are excellent. It is hard to get into the army today with so many competing for the positions. Men join the Air Force but the pay for pilots is so poor that after five years, many eventually leave to fly for commercial airlines. Doctors and tech-trained people are emigrating. The government is trying to change that. Speaking of immigrants, India has a high number, especially from Nepal and Bangledash.
We saw cows wandering on the highway and just about everywhere. It is prohibited to slaugher a cow because Hindus view cows as a mother-figure. Camels provide more than transportation; the dung is mixed with straw and burned for fuel; the skins are used for leather. Pasteurized milk is often a mixture of cow, goat, and camel milk.
Sharma said that Indians have to respect everyone since a law in 1947. Christians and Muslims are protected.
There must be a lot of marble quarried in Rajasthan because we saw lots of cut marble along the road. However, the rich Indians still want Italian marble for the status, Sharma said.
Sharma talked about the Jain religion founded by the Prince Mahavira. It came to the fore around 500 BC. Like Buddhism, Jains believe that one reincarnates again and again due to karma; release can be gained through austerities and meditation. Jainism is the most radical in believing that every living thing has a soul. They are strict vegetarians and the very strict ones avoid killing even an insect and will not work the ground for fear of disturbing tiny creatures. There are four to five million Jains in India.
Sharma also said that crash helmets are mandatory but only in Delhi is the law enforced. Over 80,000 a year die in traffic accidents. We could believe that! He also said it is illegal to cut down a tree. We saw eucalyptus trees that came from Australia. Vultures are disappearing, killed by pesticides. We learned that many smoke tobacco mixed with limestone for a greater high and the cancer rate from that is very high. Alcohol consumption is high; most drink. In the cities the women do, too. When Indians started making their own home brew, the government opened up shops for the low income people so that they could make good money off the taxes. To curtail the liquor business, the liquor stores have to close the first of the month—after people get their paychecks. The government also gets a chunk from the tax on cigarettes. Sharma said that 80% of the land is privately owned. Agricultural plots keep getting smaller and smaller because the land gets divided and sub-divined within families, plus development is taking away the farm land.
Sharma talked about the Partition in 1946 when India was divided in Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India and how over one million died. Sharma explained that Hinduism believes in a Trinity of gods—Brahma the Creator; Vishnu the Preserver; and Shiva the Destroyer of evil and Recreator.
By now we were in Pushkar, population 15,000, entranced by the sights outside the bus. “Camel” someone cried every time we spotted a camel train. Pushkar is one of the holiest sites in India and we arrived during the annual Pushkar Camel Fair. The waters of Pushkar Lake are believed to possess magical powers during this full moon period in November when Pushkar celebrates Brahma’s creation of the world with the largest camel fair (50,000) in the world. After traffic delays and some confusion, we finally got checked into the Pushkar Palace Hotel. The vegetarian dinner was served in the dark in the courtyard while he heard all the loud noises coming from the ghats around Pushkar Lake.
Saturday, Nov. 4—After breakfast we played “follow the leader” through narrow, very crowded, bustling alleyways over to the camel grounds. Eventually we went by camel-drawn carts to the Pushkar Palace Hotel’s tent camp in the desert, Royal Desert Camp, for a vegetarian lunch. It was really hot in the desert sun. We never knew why we had to go so far under the desert sun for lunch, but it was another experience in India! After lunch we returned to the Fair by camel cart. Some went back to the hotel for rest, some wandered around and shopped, and some had a massage. Dinner was in the courtyard once again. How does one describe the Pushkar Camel Fair? There were hordes of people doing their religious rituals at the ghats around Pushkar Lake—we could see them across from the Pushkar Palace Hotel. Discordant chants and exhortations and readings in a foreign language blared from loudspeakers. There were camels and horses decorated with colorful tassles, ribbons, etc. People were camped in the dusty sands around the town. Women were draped in bright veils, especially red, faces painted, neck, arms and legs ajingle in bracelets and other jewelry. The men also wore long, flowing garments, turbans, and moustaches. Children running around or staring at the scenes before them. There were relentless venders and hawkers, the disturbing sight of maimed beggars,as well as the quiet sellers attending their tables and stalls along all the walkways. It was an overload for the senses!
Sunday, Nov. 5—We woke up early to amazing sounds and sights—the full moon shining on the lake right outside our hotel, the Indians making the pilgrimage to the water, putting lit candles on the water. The loudspeakers were blaring sounds all night. Sharma told us that this was the last day of the Festival and the main holy day for Hindus—as many as 500,000 were descending on the town of Pushkar. We walked through the quiet, subdued crowds in the dawning light to the sister hotel property, Jagat Palace, for breakfast.
We tried to escape the city ahead of the huge crowds as we headed for Jaipur. Sharma told us more: The government provides the crematories and the people just pay for the tax and wood. There is a movement to use electricity instead of wood to preserve the trees and keep down the air pollution, but cremation is so much a part of the Hindu culture that 95% of the population still use wood. In the monsoon season the disposal of the dead becomes more of a problem. Christians make up 2% and Buddhists 1.2% of the population. The government passed a law for freedom of religion, so Indians cannot discriminate against each other based on religion. Intermarriage between religions—Sharma said that it is still a problem in the villages. Hindus are not allowed to marry cousins like the Muslims do. In the Muslim religion a girl is grown up at the age of 16 while in the Hindu religion it is 18. In the villages the girls marry very young and there is a high death rate among the girls and their children.
Sherma told us about Jaipur—it was founded in 1728 by Maharaja Jai Singh. In 1856 the city was painted pink to look good for the visit of Albert, Prince of Wales—hence the name Pink City.
To explain some of the hotel confusion we experienced in Pushkar, Sherpa talked about the hotel situation in India today. He said that with the booming economy in India, the corporations are taking over the hotels with their business. Tourists are now “trapped” and India is no longer one of the cheaper destinations—just the opposite. He said “every minute it changes. Lots of things don’t work here. In the seven developing countries life is disorganized and the laws don’t ordinarily work. Those with money rule—not the law.” He said that our hotel room at the Pushkar Palace ordinarily cost him $60-75 a night, but during the Festival he paid $250 a night.
Sharma continued to point out sights along the road. It was Sunday so many were flying kites. The kites have very sharp strings and even pieces of glass on the kite strings. The object is to fly across someone else’s kite and cut their string.
When the bus appeared to be stopping along the road for a potty break, Nan exclaimed, “Where are the trees to hide behind??” We laughed—the driver was backing up to pull into a rest-stop.
Around noon we got our rooms at the very nice Rajputana Palace Sheraton in Jaipur. Before long we were on our way out again. We were taken to the Channi Carpet and Textile place for demonstrations of carpets and silk printing and of course, shopping. At least they gave us a free typical vegetarian Indian meal. After that we made stops for liquor and the ATM before finishing up at the Birla Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The modern Temple built by the Birla family was impressive for the size and white marble. The vast white hall was empty except for the shrine to Vishnu at the front. We had to leave our shoes behind; Al Simpson was funny—when we were ready to leave, he was heard to exclaim, “Thank God!” when he saw that his size 15 E E shoes were still there. Back at the hotel we celebrated Jacquelyn Wonder’s birthday with cake and song. She loved her massage gift in Pushkar. Then we dispersed for the evening.
Monday, Nov. 6—After breakfast in our lovely hotel we set out for Amber Fort. On the way Sharma told us that we would ride up to the fort on an elephant. He said that recently the elephant rides were stopped after an elephant rebelled and killed its driver; this was due to an overuse of the elephants. The rides have begun again but now the elephant can only carry two people (instead of four) and make three turns.Sharma explained the role of the Maharaja today. In 1947 when Indian gained its independence, the question arose as to what to do with the 500 Maharaja kings, 20 widows, and 35 Queens who ruled over various provinces. They were allowed to keep their jewelry but it had to always stay in India, their ownership of property was limited, they were given a small allowance and small political positions. To have real power, the royal families now had to win elections just like other people.Sharma gave some historical background on the Amber Fort. It was built on top of the mountain as a residence/fortress by Raja Man Singh, a noted general in Akbar’s army in 1600. The Jaipur Maharana were always at war with the kingdoms of Agra and Delhi. Once we gathered inside the Fort, after riding up the ramp along a high defensive wall on an elephant, Sharma pointed out various rooms and features of the Amber Fort, such as the architectural styles, the marble carving, the Hall of Mirrors, the painted decorations, and then we had time to look around. One could see quite a way into the distance from the Amber Fort, but the pollution created a hazy light. The long road to the Fort was lined with tourist buses, further proof that the Amber Fort is one of the most popular tourist sites in India. Around the Amber Fort one could see miles of old city walls and more Forts built higher on the mountain. And, as usual, the vendors and hawkers were very persistent.
It was warm in the hazy sun but not quite as bad as the previous days. We took a jeep back to our bus and then returned to Jaipur. We stopped at the Prince’s Palace, also known as the Raj Palace, to admire the peaceful, elegant courtyard and to use the restrooms. Jaipur has a number of these beautiful Raja palaces that are 5* hotels today. Then on we went to the City Palace Museum. We saw a collection of old carriages. In one large room we saw a collection of carpets and miniature paintings. We saw the beautiful front façade of the palace where the current Maharana lives. We saw an open room with chandeliers fr0m Bohemia and “the biggest solid silver pots in the world”—each one was made from melting 16,000 silver coins. One of the Hindus security guards unraveled his turban of 10 yards of red fabric and then showed us how he wound it around his head. We saw the textile collection showing fabrics and dresses/costumes of the former Maharajas and Maharanis of Jaipur. Sharma pointed out the terra cotta walls with white decorative lines typical of Jaipur. The last stop was the Observatory or sun dials designed by Jai Singh himself, as he had a great interest in astrology, which was interesting but somewhat lost on us as we stood in the bright sun, thinking of lunch and a rest. We left the City Palace and drove past the “Palace of the Winds,” which was a palace wall with lacey screens through which the ladies of the harem could see out.
We had a delightful lunch in the courtyard of another former palace, the Jai Mahal Palace. Then it was on to the Gem place where we saw a short demonstration of gem preparation. He learned that there are over 200,000 stone cutters in Jaipur. Muslims were brought to Jaipur over 250 years ago and trained in making gems and that is how Jaipur got its start as a gem center. Some shopped in the showroom while others returned to the hotel. We had another leisurely evening.
Tuesday, Nov. 7—It took us all day to drive from Jaipur to Agra; one stretch of the road was terrible—narrow for all the two-way traffic and very rough. Plus the bus engine was loud and the driver had to constantly honk to weave through the traffic. So Sharma had plenty to time to give information. He reviewed Mughal history and that information is in the history section. Someone asked who spends the most money, Americans or Japanese. He said definitely not the Japanese. Someone pointed out that there were public toilets for men but where were the toilets for women? Sharma said, “This is a man dominated country. Women have more patience than men.” And men work while women are home in the houses. Sharma said that “In Rajasthan villages everyone takes opium—in pill form.” Muslims are very particular to observe prayer time. They leave their shops unlocked to go to the mosque and no one steals anything. To prevent theft, some Muslim countries have very strict punishments—a finger, hand, or even arm can be cut off for stealing.
We noticed fields were cultivated and planted. Sharma said they grow rice, wheat, mustard, corn, chilies, and beautiful vegetables. We saw sandstone quarries along the road and things carved out of sandstone for sale. It is hard work and today the young people prefer to go to the cities. We saw Indians using camel carts for transporting things and we were amazed at the loads of straw packed in white canvas and hanging over the sides of the lorries.
Those in the front of the bus gasped as we had a very close call with a head-on collision.
Snakes only come out for one month in August or September. In India 80% of the population lives in small villages. We saw rows of mud bricks drying in the sun after being baked in tall chimneys. We also saw dung patties drying in the sun. Every house has 1-2 cans of kerosene to start a fire; then the villagers use dung patties and/or straw from the wheat and sugar cane and even old tires for fuel. The driver Swaran Singh was grinning, so Sharma explained–a few years ago that stretch of the road was lined with prostitutes who made themselves available to the lorry drivers. He pointed out some of them along the road.
Sharma pointed out a bird sanctuary. He said many animals became almost extinct after the Maharajas and royal families nearly killed them all for hunting and for shooting practice. Today all hunting is illegal. Sharma gave two examples of movie stars from Bollywood who got in very serious trouble for killing wildlife. The peacock is the natural bird and we saw some in the fields; the lion is the national animal.
Sharma said the old caste system has caused a very big problem in India today. India was divided into four distinct classes until recently: the priests and Bramins; the royal family and the fighters; the business, farmers, and traders; and finally the “untouchables,” those who sweep and clean up waste, etc . There was no chance to move up or change one’s caste. The priestly class came to view the lowest class as smelly and unclean and mandated the “don’t touch me” idea. The Untouchables couldn’t even go to the temples. Today the old caste system is causing new tensions. The government has passed laws against caste discrimination and now 40% of all jobs have to go to the lowest, poorest class. Women make up 20% of the work force. So that leaves 40% of the jobs for the rest of the population. The system reminds one of affirmative action. The upper classes are very upset at having to take so many tests etc. to get a job. Now they feel discriminated against. Politicians promise to represent the lowest class in exchange for votes, so they get elected and then represent the lowest caste. Whew! We passed into the state of Uttar Pradesh and the road smoothed out.
It was about 4:00 PM when we finally got to Fatehpur Sikri, a fortified city which the Mughal emperor Akbar had built to use as his capital when he wanted to move out of Agra. Akbar used the city for fourteen years and then abandoned it in order to move back to Agra. Why? It could have been due to drought conditions or political reasons. Since it was so late, we had a quick walk around before going on to Agra, the capital of the Mughal Empire for almost 100 years. At Fatehpur Sikri we saw a long red sandstone wall topped with battlements surrounding the site and a huge courtyard where Akbar and his counselors received petitioners. We saw a number of other buildings and courtyards, including a five-story pavilion for the court ladies and the stables, plus a magnificently carved small room thought to be Akbar’s private meeting room.
To repeat a little history given by Sharma: The Mughal Empire was founded by Babur; he invaded India from Kabul and continued fighting battles in India for most of his life. He spent his last four years in Agra. Babur was succeeded by his son Humayun, who died 26 years later in Delhi. Akbar, who grew up in Afghanistan, took the throne in 1556 at the age of 14 and declared Agra to be his capital. Through battles Akbar expanded the Mughal empire to include most of northern India. Then in 1569 he declared that Fatehpur Sikri would be his capital (1570-1585). A Sufi saint from the village of Sikri (Shailkh Salim Chishti) told Akbar he would have a son, and when that finally came true, Akbar decided to build his capital on the site of the village. That son, Jahangir, succeeded Akbar. Fifteen years later, shortly after Akbar’s death, Fatehpur Sikri was abandoned—due to drought or political reasons—and the capital was returned to Agra. Akbar is remembered for his tolerance of other religions.
After Akbar, the fourth Mughal emperor was his son Jahangir. He wasted himself on alcohol and women while his wife Noor Jahan took care of business. The next Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, was crowned in 1628 and during his time the Mughal empire reached its highest point. Shah Jahan had fourteen children by his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died in childbirth, he was heartbroken; he had the Taj Mahal built for her tomb. Later on his youngest son Aurangzeb overthrew him and imprisoned him in the Red Fort. Two of his daughters kept him company.
Aurangzeb ruled for 51 years, from 1655-1706. He wanted to spread Islam by force, which put him at odds with the majority Hindus, and this furthered the decline of the Mughal empire. After Aurangzeb there were so many incompetent Mughal rulers. Finally they were routed by the British in 1857.
It was good to get out of the bus and into our Mughal Sheraton Hotel in Agra. The evening was free.
Wednesday, Nov. 8—We left at 6:00 AM to see the Taj Mahal in the early morning light. It was certainly hazy from pollution that comes from the vehicles burning dirty diesel fuel and people using fires for cooking. We didn’t get great photos of the Taj Mahal in the morning sun because of the hazy, polluted air, but we tried. The white marble Taj was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their fourteenth child in 1631. Specialists were brought in from Europe and other places to do the exquisite marble carving and pietra dura (marble inlay) work; thousands of semi-precious stones were used in decorating the flowers, etc. Then we walked inside around the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Their son Aurangzeb, who usurped Shah Jahan, allowed his father to be buried by his mother in 1666. The bodies are buried in the ground and marble tombs were built on top. Tourists are no longer allowed to go into the basement. Sharma once said there was a large diamond on top of the tomb but it has disappeared. We couldn’t see much inside in the dark. Sharma pointed out the mosque on the left, which was a real mosque for Agra’s Muslims, and the one on the right that was added for symmetry. And he pointed out how the four minarets lean outward—Shah Jahan thought that that way if one fell down, it would not fall on the main building. Were the hands of the workers cut off at the end so that they could not create such art for someone else? Sharma said he thinks not, that the workers may have just sworn an oath of secrecy.
After that we had breakfast in the hotel and a short rest before going out to see Agra Fort. Sharma said one time he saw some sad-looking Australians and so he asked, “When did you come to India?” and they answered, “We came to-die.” So Sharma asked, “Why did you come to die?”
Anyway, we were duly impressed with the Agra Fort. Three generations lived in the Fort. Akbar began it in 1565 and his grandson Shah Jahan greatly expanded it. Akbar liked sandstone, hence all the red sandstone. Then his grandson Shah Jahan liked white marble better, hence the marble decoration on the sandstone. Also some sandstone was covered with a layer of white limestone to look like marble. After looking at the walls and a courtyard with a flower garden thought to be similar to the original, we proceeded on to see the corner room where Shah Jahan was imprisoned for eight years by his son Aurangzeb in 1658 and the rooms on each side where his two daughters stayed with him. Ironically, Shah Jahan as a prisoner looked out his windows across the river Jamuna to the Taj Mahal where his wife was entombed. Later Shah Jahan was buried with her after his death at the age of 72. Jahan’s son allowed no one to see Jahan during his imprisonment—word was that Jahan was mentally ill. The last thing we saw was a huge bowl carved out of a single stone, which may have been used for bathing. (The novel Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors is about Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal, etc.)
Later in the afternoon three of us women were walking back to the Sheraton Hotel in Agra when a young man called to Mary Jean, “Do you remember me? I talked to you in Pushkar?” He was a vendor who sold her some jewelry in Pushkar! She said, “Am I the shopper or what? They follow me all over India.”
Thursday, Nov. 9—We left Agra for Khajuraho. First we took the train to Jhansi; the passing scenery was mostly rural fields, farm animals, and flat dry land. Our jaws dropped in amazement when we saw Indian porters at the Jhansi train station stacking two or three of our heavy suitcases on their head to carry to our bus! Amand Singh was our young guide for the day. He said that there were touk-touks everywhere “like insects.” Amand showed us some beetle nut that they all seem to chew; when he couldn’t get the word he wanted, he said,” I know the word but it is dismissing.” The air was still hazy with pollution and many were continuing to have sinus problems.
Amand guided us through Orchha, once the capital of the Bundela Rajputs during the 17th and 18th centuries, now just a small but pretty village. We drove through the village of about 8,000 people to see the stone palaces and citadel built bythe Bundela Rajput ruler Rudra Pratap (1501-1531). The complex was abandoned in the 18th century—no one knows why. We walked uphill and up stairs to enter the turreted gate into the complex. Amand showed us the first palace, which had a central courtyard surrounded by various rooms; one could still see some of the wall paintings of Hindu myths and court life. Then Amand showed us the third palace built for the visit of the Mughal emperor Jahangir; the interior courtyard with a fountain in the center was surrounded by apartments and hanging balconies with balustrades on three stories. The umbrella-shaped tops are called chhatris (we thought it was a cupola). This palace was used only once when Jahangir visited. We noticed the blend of Persian and Muslim architecture. At the end we saw local women pulverizing bricks by hand to make the mortar they were using as part of the restoration work on the palace/fort complex.
After that we had a buffet lunch (with ice cream!) in a new, peaceful restaurant before proceeding with our 4-5 hour drive to Khajuraho in the state of Madhya Pradesh. We were a bit weary from the journey and the air pollution when we checked into the lovely Radisson Hotel.
Friday, Nov. 10—Govind was our guide for the morning. He said that the last monsoon here produced little rain, so there is a big drought. Govind showed us the temples at Khajuraho, considered the purest examples of Hindu (Indo-Aryan) architecture and carving.
It was a pleasant relief to walk into the quiet, green walled park containing the temples. We began with the Western temples built under the patronage of the Chandela dynasty, descendants of the moon god. The Chandela dynasty lasted for five centuries (9th-14th) before falling to the Mughal onslaught. Once there were 85 temples here, but only 22 are left. By the 15th century the Chandela dynasty became powerless. These temples were damaged by invaders and nature and then with time they were hidden by vegetation for over seven hundred years until 1838 when a British army engineer discovered them.
Khajuraho is a long way from anywhere; no one knows why these magnificent temples were built at Khajuraho. Its very isolation helped preserve the temples.
The temples were set up high on stone platforms. The spires rise in ascending order. These temples are famous for their outer walls—they are covered with carvings depicting Hindu mythology, the Tantra, and daily life. The ultimate goal in life was to reach Nirvana through yoga and meditation.
Govind pointed out in particular the Lakshmana Temple, the best preserved. Some carvings show couples engaged in sexual positions. Scholars are uncertain about the reason for the erotic carving. Govind said that during the full moon the King and Queen engaged in exotic sex as an example of how two people united their bodies in order to unite their souls—a rite which gave sexual intercourse a ceremonial significance. The carvings show a joyous celebration of all aspects of life. Govind said that the female figures show celestial beauty. These temples are made of a hard sandstone quarried nearby and brought to this site, carved, and set in place without cement. Sixteen thousand craftsmen worked on these temples. Vishnu incarnates in various forms to fight evil. Krishna had 1600 girlfriends. Buddha was the last incarnation of Vishnu. The 10th incarnation is expected to come in this era like a man on a horse with a sword to reincarnate the universe.
Govind pointed out a carving of Ganesh, son of Shiva, who brings good luck, wisdom, and new beginnings. Each of the gods is known by their transportation—bull, eagle, goose.
Govind pointed out the two parallel friezes that showed scenes of their social life. And scenes of men copulating with horses or elephants—that would be the soldiers who lacked women, Govind said A row of elephants runs along the bottom; their energy and power holds up the temple. Govind pointed out a statue of a lady writing a letter on a leaf. Her smile suggests she is writing a love letter. These sculptures of young, voluptuous women in a variety of poses are called apsaras.
Govind talked about how the Kama Sutra, written in 1480 and showing 84 sexual positions, inspired the artist in his carvings. He pointed out another sculpture of a woman picking a thorn from her foot with the help of an attendant carrying a Louis Vuitton bag—he said it is often shown in postcards. Govind said the temples all have a similar plan: a fancy archway, a portico, an open room/assembly hall, a vestibule for the priests to worship, and finally the inner sanctum. Only priests could live in the temples. Outside the temple was a lion, the symbol of the Chandela dynasty.
Then Govind pointed out the Kandariya Mahadeva Temple—the highest and biggest temple, its 84 peaks represent a mountain.
Then we drove over to the East Jain Temples; Jain is a branch of Buddhism. Jains have some strict rules—they do not eat vegetables grown underground because they might contain insects. The Jain gods always stand naked in a straight position or in the lotus position. A flag on a temple means the temple is active and in use. The first temples we saw were smooth with little carving and they were from the last 150 years.
After we saw the temples at Khajuraho, we returned to the Radisson Hotel to pack, check out, and go to the airport for our flight to Varanasi. Well, the airport scene was very crowded and chaotic, to say the least. Security was excessively tight because of an earlier bomb threat in southern India. We couldn’t even carry on board a lipstick. People were pushing and shoving. Marcia had her suitcases sprawled open–thought she left her passport and money belt back at the hotel, so she asked Sherpa to call the hotel. Faith got claustrophobic in the packed, shoving crowd waiting to get through security. Everyone was yelling for Sherpa. For some unknown reason, Maria was not in the computer, so she had no ticket. Sherpa gave up his plane seat to Maria and made the nine hour drive to Varanasi by jeep. The plane was two hours late and the waiting area was packed and hot. It was not a day for the faint of heart!
Then when we got to Varanasi we had to deal with the baggage claim business. Things got sorted out and Santosh got us on the bus and on our way to the hotel. He said that the day before an entire tour group was unable to get on the flight to Kathmandu and had to return for another night in Varanasi. As he said, “In India anything can happen.”
But, anyway, all’s well that ends well. We made it intact with all our bags to Varanasi, Hindu’s holiest city and the god Shiva’s chosen city. Varanasi is also called Benares and Kashi. We ended up in the luxury of a brand new Ramada hotel. We retired to our rooms for some peace and quiet.
Saturday, Nov. 11—We got up early today in order to take a boat ride on the Ganges (Ganga) River at sunrise to see the devotees of Hinduism at the Manikarnika and Jalsain ghat, dipping themselves in the sacred waters of the Ganges River to cleanse themselves of sin. Our local guide Samrina, a woman this time, gave us each a paper holding flowers and a candle; we lit our candles and put them in the water along with our prayers.
Hindus want to die in Varanasi, believing that if they do they will be liberated from the cycle of birth and death. Samrina pointed out a dead body wrapped in a shroud, waiting for cremation. We saw smoke rising and stacks of firewood. We also saw an electric crematorium. Looking up, we saw the mansion of the Dom Raja, the master of cremation ceremonies.
Back on land, Samrina led us through some narrow alleyways in the old city. We had to watch where we walked, as the path was littered with feces and trash. We had to leave all our stuff with Sherpa and go through a security check point in order to walk by a mosque, Aurangzeb Mosque from the 16th century, almost hidden behind a tall wire fence. There were lots of policemen around. The officials are trying to prevent a bombing of the mosque. Next to the mosque was a Hindu temple, Vishwanath Temple or Golden Temple, its tower and dome covered in gold plating supplied by Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Lahore 50 years ago; it’s the most important Hindu temple in Varanasi.
Next we drove through the campus of the Benares Hindu University. Samrina said that there are 25,000 students living on campus along with 2,000 teachers, so that it is like a family living together. The lush vegetation is supposed to make students feel at home. The University offers 142 subjects for study, making it an international university. English is the language of instruction although villagers can have classes in Hindi. Most books are in English. The instructors are the best paid in the country.
It was around 10:00 AM when we returned to the hotel for a late breakfast and a short rest before setting out again. This time we headed for Sarnath on the outskirts of Varanasi. Sarnath means “deer park.” This place is sacred to Buddhists because it is the place where Buddha preached his first sermon to five faithful followers after he found Enlightenment. This was in 532 BC when Buddha was only 35 years old. The emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC) promoted Buddhism by supporting the building of stupas, monasteries, and other monuments in the area. Buddhism, which was founded about 2,000 years after Hinduism, was declared the second official religion in India. In the 11th century the tide turned against Buddhism and it was almost extinct by the time the British came to India. The buildings at Sarnak were demolished and abandoned until Jagat Singh discovered the site in 1793. Archaeological excavations began and went on for a long time. Excavations show the foundations of a number of monasteries. We saw the solid-stone Dhamekh Stupa under renovation. Before that we visited a fairly new Buddha temple; Samrina explained the paintings on the wall and pointed out the “Preaching Buddha” in the sanctum. She answered questions about Buddhism. Our last stop was to go through a museum; Samrina pointed out the fine carving of the lion capital in the central hall housing Buddist artifacts discovered in the area. Next to the lion capital was a large red sandstone statue of Buddha, the oldest image found at Sarnath.
Varanasi has over three million people. We did notice that sweepers had swept trash into piles; we wondered if anyone picked up the piles.
The Radisson Hotel gave us a free buffet dinner as compensation because they were not able to accommodate us due to a delay in renovation. We gained more than a free meal—the Ramada where we stayed just opened within the last month and was beautiful. After the dinner we were taken to a Maharaja Palace converted into a place to promote local arts and crafts. First we were entertained by three musicians and a dancing lady dressed in native Indian costume. Then came the carpet pitch. No one was in the mood to shop, so we left soon after.
Sunday, Nov. 12—Today was a travel day to go from India to Kathmandu in Nepal. We had a leisurely morning before leaving for the Varanasi airport. All went remarkably smoothly at the airport—thanks to tips to the authorities. They processed our tickets, passports, and luggage while we sat around. We were relieved to have things go so smoothly after the stressful departure from Khajuraho and arrival in Varanasi.
In Kathmandu the travel company and our guide Krishna Kharel met us and conducted us to our rooms at the Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel. We noticed that thankfully the air quality was better than in India and it was a joy to see blue sky, sunshine, and green vegetation. And there was not the cacophony of horns honking in traffic. Also, the streets were cleaner—and there were no cows! Krishna said that the municipality outlawed cows on the streets and you would be fined if you let yours go. The cow is the national animal—Hindus worship the cow, believing that cows bring wealth. For that reason one is not allowed to wear leather in the Hindu temples. The population of Nepal is 24 million. Hindus make up 86% of the population, 10% are Buddists, and 4% are Christian, Jain, or Muslim. The winter months of December, January, and February are the holiest months. The end of December they will get snow in the hills but not in Kathmandu. Soccer is big here and cricket is also.
After we got checked into the hotel, we were treated to a welcome dinner and cultural show (music and dancers) at Nepali Chulo. We sat on the floor—not so easy on our old bones.
Monday, Nov. 13—What an awesome experience we had! Our group flew in a small plane along the Himalayas. In full morning sun against blue sky we saw the tallest mountain on this planet—Mt. Everest! The white snow-capped mountain peaks were more jagged and pointed than we are accustomed to seeing. Only fourteen mountains rise above 26,000 feet and eight of those are in Nepal.
After a quick continental breakfast in the hotel, we left to sightsee. Krishna led us on a fast walk through the oldest part of Kathmandu to Durbar Square—we were behind schedule with our sightseeing, hence the pace. It was a fascinating area with many unusual old buildings to look at—to say nothing about the street scenes. Our first stop was at the Kasthamandap Temple from the early 13th century. It appeared to be constructed totally of dark wood–tradition has it that all the wood came from one tree. In the open ground floor at each corner was a statue of Ganesh. Hindus come to the temple, ring a bell, bow to Ganesh, and put some vermillion powder on the forehead.
Next Khrisna showed us a large white building, once the King’s Palace but now a museum housing the possessions of former Kings. In front was a guard in a black uniform with white straps—that was the traditional dress of the Burkas, famous WW II soldiers knows for their fierceness, especially with the saber. We noted Jagannath Temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, famous for the erotic wood carvings on the struts. Why erotic? To encourage fertility or maybe to keep away the gods of lightning and thunder. Nepali people are very superstitious.
On top of one temple was a strange gold form which turned out to be the hood of the cobra protecting the statue of a former King. Krishna pointed out a temple that is open once a year for animal sacrifices—all male animals but the cow. The animal’s throat is slit and then the dead animal is taken home for a feast. The idea is that one liberates the animal’s soul to a better life.
Then we saw a very unusual temple with the colorful painted face of Shiva. There were skulls painted below his face. We saw scribes writing for other people and Krishna said they were helping people prepare a case to take to the police station across the way.
The Kumari Temple, built in 1757, was most unusual. We walked into the small courtyard and looked around at the elaborate carved wood on all four sides. The upper stories had open windows. Inside lives a virgin girl thought to be the reincarnation of the goddess Durga. The King’s priests select the girl from a number of candidates around the age of seven and then she resides in the temple until she reaches puberty. The girl must come from the Newari tribe, one of the oldest in the valley, her horoscope has to match the King’s, she has to have big eyes, long hair, and a fair complexion. Once chosen, the girl may not leave the temple except for once a year when she is carried around Durbar Square on a palaquin for the people to worship. She is a Buddist goddess worshipped by Hindu people; Krishna said this is a good example of how the two religions mix. Superstition has it that when the girl goes back home, she brings bad luck to her husband, so she may be shunned. However, experience has proven that wrong. The girl gets a government stipend and is privately tutored. Although she lives in isolation, her friends can visit and someone spotted a dog in the window. Once a day she usually comes to the window all dressed up for the people to see.
That finished our look at Durbar Square. We followed Khrisna through the winding streets and traffic to the bus. The vendors and hawkers were annoying.
We drove past “The Queen’s Pond,” a pond and park dedicated by the late King to his dead wife. The current King’s Palace was near by. We saw poinsettia bushes blooming. Nepali women wear red a lot—it is the color of courage and strength.
Now we drove to the outskirts of Kathmandu to see Pashuaptinath, the holiest Hindu site in Nepal. We saw the Temple in the background, along the Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges. And along the river we saw ghats or platforms for cremation; two cremations were going on across the river from where we stood. The smoke was bad for a while. Hindus believe that if a body is cremated here and the ashes put into the Bagmati River, the soul will go to heaven. The Hindus try to bring the body here within the first three hours after death. All the sons should be present. They put the dead body on the pile of wood and replace the clothes with a white shroud and yellow shroud. We came into the world naked, so the Hindu leaves the world naked. Then the sons walk around the pyre three times. The eldest son lights the fire at the corpse’s mouth and then they light all four corners. Wet straw is added to create more heat. The body is burned to ashes in 3-4 hours and the ashes are then put in the river. Rich people will put some ashes in a silver box and put it in the Ganges River. Villagers take their bodies to the nearest river for cremation, as all rivers flow to the Ganges.
Krishna said that ten years ago the government tried to get people to change to electric crematoriums in order to reduce the air pollution, but the people wouldn’t go for it—they wanted their traditions. The government subsidizes some of the cost of these cremations. Only 3.4% of the population are Muslim. They stay together in their own communities but all get along in Nepal.
Our next stop was to see the Boudhanath Stupa, built around 500 AD, one of the largest stupas in the world. The Stupa consisted of a very large white dome built on top of a high platform and surrounded with prayer wheels that Buddhists spin as they walk counter-clockwise around the Stupa. Krishna said the Stupa exists to commemorate senior monks and llamas. Usually a Stupa is built over a bone or tooth or some belongings of a person. Khrisna said that everything about the Stupa has significance. The large white dome stands for the earth or womb. The eyes represent the four directions and the all-seeing eye of God. The 13 steps up to the dome represent the 13 steps Buddha went through to reach Nirvana. The prayer flags represent the five elements of fire, water, wind, earth, and sky.
Krishna said there are a lot of Buddists living around the Stupa. Over 30,000 Tibetan refugees settled there after they fled Tibet when China took over in 1959. Well, we walked with the crowds counter-clockwise around the Stupa, some spinning the prayer wheels in the niches in the wall. Khrisna led us into a Buddhist temple along the way. We soaked up some of the peaceful atmosphere and checked out the shops; as day was ending, we returned to our bus for the drive back to the hotel.
When Joan Brown came on the bus with a prayer wheel, chanting “Om Mani Padme Om,” Krishna really chuckled. He said that “oom” stands for God or the Universe and “Mani Padme” means “Hail the jewel of the lotus.” Buddha is considered the jewel sitting on the lotus. One person explained it as “making Namaste to God.”
Krishna explained the political situation in Nepal. He said that they have had major problems in the last six years. Maoists were unhappy with the politicians and so took to the jungle, from where they were working havoc. Six years ago there was very little crime in Kathmandu, but since the Maoists became active, crime was risen. Samjeep from the travel company said that the Maoists visited his office and demanded $3,000 in extortion money; they settled for $300. He said there would be trouble if you didn’t pay.
Seven different political parties have come together recently and the Maoists have joined in to create a coalition.
Krishna reminded us that three years ago there was a massacre of the royal family. The previous King Birendra was very popular with the people. According to tradition, once a month the King invited all the royal family to dinner. Three years ago they were all present for dinner except for King Birendra’s brother Gyanendra, who is now the King. Gyanendra’s wife and children were present, however. All the royal family were killed by machine gun, except for Gyanendra’s family. After the massacre the official palace position was that King Birendra’s son was in love with a politician’s daughter but the King and Queen did not approve. So at this dinner the Prince/son went crazy and shot all the family present–except the wife and children of the King’s brother Gyanendra. The Prince then shot himself. Krishna said this was very shocking to the Nepalis, especially since their religion is very opposed to the killing of one’s parents. The suggestion is that the Prince did not and could not have done the killings. The massacre points to the present King Gyanendra, but as Khrisna said, the truth will probably never be known.
To quell the unrest, curfews were enforced as the King’s brother slowly took over. He dissolved any democratic process, including Parliament, three years ago. He formed his own government and held all power in the Royal Palace with the support of his army. Six months ago there was a rebellion and the Maoists were actively involved. They said the King should not be a dictator. There was a 7-day curfew. The last day of the curfew the people defied it and started a march. The King capitulated and said he would give his power to the opposition parties. Since then he has been in virtual seclusion in the Palace.
Khrisna said Nepal has been going through tremendous up and downs. Tourism, the #1 industry, slowed way down and industries were closing.
Now the plan is for the Coalition to select a cabinet and hold a general election in the next 2-3 years. The people are happy and support the political changes. Other countries have added their support. Other countries threatened to withhold aid and travel to Nepal under the old conditions. There will eventually be a referendum to see if the Nepalis even want a King. Krishna said people are slowly forgetting about the massacre and they may never know the truth of what happened that fateful night in the palace.
We were happy to retire to our rooms after a full day of sightseeing in and around Kathmandu.
Nov. 14, Tuesday—Today our sightseeing took us to Tapan, almost a suburb of Kathmandu. We climbed up a bunch of steps to see both the Swayambhuth Stupa dedicated to Buddha and the Hindu temple beside it. Khrisna said that is another example of how the two religions mix in Nepal. He said that the yellow paint that swirls around the top of the white dome is supposed to make the dome look like the lotus flower from above. There were a lot of monkeys frisking about, ignoring us. And there were the usual vendors around the site and we couldn’t resist some more shopping, mostly for jewelry.
Next stop was a village called Bungamati in the Tapan area. We did a leisurely walk through the village and around the outskirts. We saw many, many interesting things: rice spread on mats for 3-4 days to dry in the sun. At night the Nepalese put mats on top to cover the rice. We saw rice being cooked in a large pot; then it is beaten, the husks sifted out, and eaten as a porridge. We saw ears of corn/maize hanging on walls to dry. We saw millet also drying on mats. Women were outside their homes, semi-naked, washing themselves or nursing babies—Khrishna said that they are very natural and un-self-conscious. We saw how the men smoke tobacco in a houka. We saw many products that were being grown or harvested—coriander, lentils, beets,
In the central courtyard of the village we saw Temples accommodating both Buddhists and Hindus. The villagers put metal markers in a pit in front of the Buddhist temple to represent all the deities. We saw that the community toilets were built with donations from the Mormon Church. We saw animals around, including roosters and baby ducks. We all seemed to really appreciate the opportunity to observe the progression of everyday life in a rural village.
Back on the bus, Khrisna said that Nepal is divided into 75 districts and those are divided into 14 zones. Parliament is similar to the Parliament in the UK—the members of the Upper House are nominated while the 205 members of the Lower House are elected by their districts. The Katmandu Valley is divided into three districts.
Khrisna said that corruption was high in Nepal and that creates an unstable government. He said the top officials are more clean but at the department level it is bad and bribes are all too common. The police are very corrupt. The seven political parties and the Maoists have promised to fight corruption and it is slowly diminishing as people become more educated and know their rights. They have to pay taxes but not much is collected because there are a lot of loopholes, etc. There are no pensions or insurance policies except for a few government employees. If you get sick or need medical attention, it is a big problem. Both medical treatment and hospital care are expensive and hard to obtain. Private clinics are very expensive. Khrisna said that it would take half of his year’s salary to pay for medical care if there was a problem.
After a washroom break/stop at a place called the Patan Industrial Estate, a government protected enterprise to promote local arts and crafts, we went on to see Patan’s Durbar Square. Once again we walked through the narrow streets to the old city center, plagued by the usual vendors. Well, of course we saw more temples. We saw the Mul Chowk temple. In the interior courtyard we looked around at the wood carving decorating the three-story structure. The heavily carved lattice windows on the third floor were for the women—so that they could see what was going on without being seen. Women were not seen out in public. Khrisna said that there is a huge festival there once every year when thousands come. Animals are sacrificed inside the temple—we saw dried blood on the walls around the door. Statues of female goddesses flanked the temple door—one was standing on a crocodile and the other on a turtle—that means they were deities of water. Khrisna said there is a worry about earthquakes; many temples were heavily damaged by a big one in 1734. The renovations were so well done that you can’t tell the old part from the newer part due to the skill of the craftsmen. The arts are dying out as young men no longer want to do it.
Hindus in Nepal do eat meat; just one tribe does not. The Buddhists do not kill meat, but they will eat meat if it is served to them.
We saw another temple, that one called Bhaivaz Shiva. And we walked into a courtyard that was once the old part of the King’s palace and is now a museum.
For lunch we ate in an open courtyard at a restaurant called The Bakery Shop. On we went for the drive to Nagarkot, a small remote village 6,000 feet up in the Himalayas. We loved the scenery—as we ascended the mountains along a winding, single-track road we saw beautiful terraced fields, bamboo, yellow flowering mustard, and small plots of various vegetables. We saw the typical Nepal three-story houses. The first level is used for the animals and kitchen, the second for sleeping, the third floor for storage of farm products.
The bus couldn’t drive all the way to the hotel on the narrow road, so we had to walk up hill to the hotel. And we were enchanted with the Fort Resort in Nagarkot. After we got our rooms we hurried to see the sun setting over the Himalaya Mountains. It was a little hazy, but awesome nonetheless. We felt privileged to be where we were. After a happy hour party hosted by Nan and Joan, we descended to the dining room for a buffet dinner before turning in.
Wednesday, Nov. 15—We were up on the roof of the Fort Hotel early to see the sunrise on the Himalayas; we did see the white peaks kissed by the sun; the rest was in a cover of cloud and haze. After breakfast we reluctantly walked down hill from Nagarkot through the peaceful mountain scenery to our bus. The terraces created by the farmers were particularly pretty; some were a yellow color from the blooming mustard plants. Off we were finally, headed back to smoggy Kathmandu to pick up the road to Chitwan Jungle Camp in Royal Chitwan National Park.
Khrisna said they have had no snow there for the last ten years. He talked about marriage in Nepal. Not long ago marriages were always arranged; today there is an emerging trend for young people to select their own spouse. Girls used to be married at the age of 11-12 but now the average age is 22-26. The Sherpa women can marry several men; there are more men than women. The dowry has been done away with. In the very high mountains where wood is scare, a dead body is left for the vultures or put in the river unburned. Hermits and yogis are buried rather than cremated. Child labor in factories used to be common, but now it is outlawed. School is free through grade ten and parents today are more aware of its importance.
We drove along the Trishuli River where we saw a few people rafting. We saw a truck full of very young-looking armed soldiers. Khrisna said they are used mostly for crowd control. He said that the Nepal army and the police are VERY corrupt. Extortion from them is common. As we drove through a town, some men flagged us down and the driver gave 25 rupees to go on. Khrisna said it is best to pay. Police, for example, may pull over a driver and threaten to take his license—so you pay a bribe. Since the downfall of the King, the press has freedom of the press. When the King was in power, he controlled the media.
Khrisna said that it had been months—even years—since he saw a large group of Americans like ours. He said that the staff at the Fort Hotel said the same thing. And at the Chitwan Camp an Australian guest told one of our members that she was surprised and pleased to see a group of Americans and commended us on our courage. The US has named the Maoists as terrorists and so, of course, the Maoists try to arouse anti-American feelings. Khrisna said that the Maoists have never harmed tourists and wouldn’t as tourism is the life blood of Nepal. Last year 375,000 tourists visited Nepal; and 1/3 of those were from India. The Japanese and Chinese are not coming as much these days either. Tourism had been seriously hurt in Nepal but hopes are high for an excellent year in 2007 due to the peace process. Nepal has undergone tremendous change in the last few months.
For lunch we stopped at another Bakery Café; it was pleasant eating outside along the Marsyangdi River. Nepal has a monsoon season of June, July, and August when it is very hot, humid, and rainy. The road we were on, a main artery, often becomes impassable then and Kathmandu can experience shortages as a result. It was a narrow, treacherous road. Nepal is only 147,000 sq. miles. For the last leg of our journey we were on flatland.
Finally we reached the town of Chitwan. We had to transfer to jeeps for the drive to Chitwan Jungle Camp. Twenty-three of us plus all our luggage had to fit into two old jeeps. We did it! What an adventure that was! Especially when the road ended at a river—and the driver kept right on going! Somehow both jeeps made it safely to Chitwan Jungle Camp where we were welcomed by Deepok, the manager, and told the rules. It was very dark in the jungle at night and the only light we had in our cabins came from a dim little bulb in the bathroom and a feeble light from a kerosene lantern. After we were settled in our cabins, we gathered at the dining room for a buffet dinner.
Nov. 16, Thursday. We began the day with a nature walk, starting out in drkness at 6 AM. Our guide first took us by the pen with the two baby elephants with their mothers–a precious little nursing baby born a few days ago and another one 18 months old. They grow in the mother’s womb for 22 months. The father of the new one came from the wilds to mate with the camp female.
Our guide pointed out a plant used for medicinal purposes—a paste with it on the head flushes out lice and they also make a funnel with a leaf, stuff the leaf with more leaves, heat it, and the sap that drains from the stem heals earache. Another plant, wild asparagus, is made into a soup with crab meat and given to a mother to induce more milk if a nursing mother needs it. The natives here can use the sap from a milky tree that will induce abortion. Then the fetus is buried under the tree, believing that the milk from the plant feeds the baby.
We saw a little mountain of dirt by a tree—made by termites. The guide pointed out the tracks of a mother and baby rhino—made the previous night. He pointed out a vine that eventually kills its host tree; it makes good food for the elephants. We saw some lanpur monkeys high in the trees and several species of bird. By now the sun was up and we headed back to camp for breakfast.
There is no hunting allowed in Nepal and poaching is no longer a problem. The forest/jungle we walked through was all reforestation; in the 70’s a timber company cut down the trees to make railroad ties.
After breakfast we divided into two groups. One group was led on a canoe ride down the Rapti River in a handmade dugout canoe. They saw birds and on the way back they saw langur monkeys swinging in the tree tops, as well as the top of a sleeping crocodile across the river. We saw animal trails, elephant dung, and tiger and rhino prints in the dirt. The other group went on an elephant safari. Unfortunately the four on the last elephant were attacked by bees, beginning with Joan. Nan and Ann were bit and Al had about four bites. Their elephant driver was also bit and the elephant was trumpeting and acting up. So that elephant and riders returned to camp. Fortunately Ann had Benadryl for the group and the camp people iced the bites. Nan had a swelling reaction in her hand and arm, but it turned out okay. Al said that he loved all the sympathy.
The rest of the elephant safari returned disappointed—a rhino was the only animal life seen.
After lunch an elephant caretaker told us about the elephants while we sat and watched the mother and her 20 month-old baby. The baby entertained us as she got her foot entangled in her rope and then tried to get out of it. The man told us the differences between the Asian and African elephants. Her trunk had 45,000 muscles. Their vision is poor and peripheral; they find their way by smell through their trunk. They have four sets of teeth and they get replaced six times in a lifetime. They live about 80 years. Elephants can have stomach problems. A baby gestates for 20-24 months, the mother usually has just one, and the babies nurse for two years. Around the age of two some elephants are sent to a training school to learn 15-18 commands. The six elephants here are all female; males can be too difficult. A male sells for about $8,000 to $9,000. When the new mother was ready to birth, she broke her very strong chain and ran over to the others to deliver. They grieve for a dead elephant and will bury the bones. At the end of the talk, the man fed cookies to the elephants while we took pictures.
Later we went out again, switching activities—for the canoe trip or the elephant safari. Again the safari group was disappointed in the lack of wildlife sighting, although the long ride through the lush jungle was beautiful. It was our luck that for the next two days the local people were allowed to come into the National Park and cut the straw; some were at it a day early. Khrisna said there would be 90,000 people in the Park for that purpose. We figured that may have driven away some of the wildlife. Those on the canoe ride found the walk back a challenge as it was an uneven path and getting dark. Al Simpson, with his unflappable humor, was heard to mutter as he trudged back to his room: “God damn death march!”
After a short slide show about the camp, flora, and fauna, we went for another buffet dinner; this one was not as good as the night before. We celebrated Jerry Grabill’s birthday with a cake and he was happy with the Scotch. After that we gathered around a campfire and did some singing and fooling around before retiring in the darkness to our cabins.
Friday, November 17—This morning we fumbled around in the dark to get packed up and ready to jeep out of Chitwan Jungle Camp in the nature preserve and board our bus again for the return journey to Kathmandu. We noticed women on bikes and Khrisna said that five years ago knowing how to ride a bike was a qualification for marriage, as a girl would have to be able to ride a bike in order to take milk to the city to sell. Back 10-15 years ago couples had six or seven children, but since the work of the Family Planning Association of Nepal, couples now have no more than three children. In the Hindu religion a son has to cremate his mother, so it used to be important to have a son. That is not so important today. There are over 550 species of birds in Nepal. In addition, migratory Siberian birds come during the winter. Bramini ducks always live together with a partner; when one dies, the other will die. Today malaria is totally eradicated; the fear of malaria kept the British from colonizing Nepal. Surrounded by mountains and forests, Nepal has never been invaded by another country; it has always been a free state. Unemployment is over 50%.
We were happy to return to the Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kathmandu to rest and clean up.
Saturday, November 18—We had a leisurely morning and the women were happy to get another chance to shop. In the afternoon we flew to Delhi and checked into the 5* Grand New Delhi Hotel. Nan and Joan graciously hosted another happy hour and presented the poem they had written to thank the group leader, Diane Woods, and present her with a beautiful pashmina jacket from the group, which she very much appreciated. This poem loses much without the oral delivery, but . . .
It all began with Di-ane
On this terrific trip
We came to Mumbai—to die
To die over
Seeing the sights, and plan
Observing the rites
Friendships and shopping
Money we’re dropping
Cobras and cows,
A monkey for me
A rhino for you
We’re nearing the end
We’re eager to send
Our best wishes to all
Many thanks to Di—ane
Who completed the
We traveled by train,
bus, and plane
Sunday, November 19—Our last day of sightseeing—and this time it was Delhi with city guide Suresh. We drove past a crowd on the sidewalk and Suresh said they were all candidates waiting to take the entrance test to pursue an MBA degree. There were 1,800 sitting for the test that day. He said there is great competition for the jobs with multinational companies and only one in 500 gets a job. Although the literacy rate is 40% in India, the country produces very well educated professional managers that are in high demand. Suresh also said that Delhi is the federal capital of India and the states are not that strong. Most of the taxes go to the central government, and political parties stick together and support each other. States with political parties in Delhi get better treatment than those that do not have connections with the parties in power.
First we saw the Qutb Minar complex that marked the start of Islam in India. The Muslim general Qutb-ud-din came from central Asia, conquered Delhi, introduced Islam, and started the Delhi Sultan kingdoms. In 1199 he began building this five-story tower of victory to memorialize his name. Adjoining the Qutb Minar were the walls and arches that remain from the first mosque in India and other buildings in the complex. The terra cotta sandstone tower was beautifully decorated with different styles of fluting, contrasting colors, and honeycombed carving along the balconies.
Suresh said that Delhi is 50% Hindu and 50% Muslim. Next we drove past the Institute of Medical Science, the top government hospital in Delhi. It takes care of 5,000 patients a day. Those who train there have an immediate chance to work in the US. We could barely see Humayun’s Tomb behind the trees. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, son of Babur. Next we drove past mansions hidden behind trees and walls. Suresh said they were the residences of politicians, one of the job perks. Today was the birthday of Indira Ghandi, so many were gathered around the public buildings. We walked to a central park from which we could see the federal buildings. The English architect and designer Edwin Lutyens designed the President’s House and the Parliament Building during the British colonial era. The British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. The President’s House includes 300 acres of grounds, 330 rooms, and a staff of 10,000. The President is a bachelor. Suresh pointed out some of the other government buildings in a European classical style. The arch in the distance is India Gate, now a War Memorial to Indian soldiers. The statue of George V was removed and Suresh hopes that one day a statue of Mahatma Ghandi will stand there.
Suresh and Diane picked up cheese sandwiches, a pastry, and chocolates for lunch, which we had at another shopping emporium. There was a revolt when the carpet sellers started their pitch. We had had enough of that! A salesman in one of the emporiums we visited said that his salary was $251 a month and he made no commissions. He worked 13 hours a day seven days a week with no holidays off. After a year there are some incentives. He had to keep increasing his sales or he would be fired. Some folks still shopped and then we went on to see Old Delhi. We saw the red sandstone walls of the massive Red Fort, begun by Shah Jahan in 1639. Next we took bicycle pedaled rickshaws through the narrow old alleyways of Chandni Chowk, ending at the Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan, the largest active mosque in India. We climbed the stairs, entered the huge open courtyard, and looked into the mosque.
Next we drove past the Mahatma Ghandi Memorial where he was cremated after his assassination in 1948. About all we could see was a quiet manicured park. The day was passing, so we returned to the hotel to pack. Some were flying out after midnight while others continued on with their travels in India.
Conclusion: We certainly covered a lot of territory, saw a lot of India and Nepal, and had many adventures on this journey. It was a full itinerary and we learned a lot. We were fortunate in that we had no serious disasters. It was a marvelous group of people who kept a sense of humor and were congenial, good sports, interested in learning and interesting in their own lives. While it wasn’t an easy trip to make, we felt the tour was a success and we gave thanks for our blessings. We are so rich!
November 25th, 2006