Wednesday, March 16, 2011

India Trip Report (Part 2 of 3)

I travelled to India recently, and for the benefit of family members, I'm posting my trip report here on the blog. Because the report is looooong, I'll split it up over three postings.

Last Monday's installment covers days 1 - 3 of the trip, today's post covers days 4 - 7, and next Monday's post will cover days 8 - 15.

My husband does not like his name appearing on my blog, so I've referred to him as "El Husbando" here. My family members can mentally swap in his real name :-)

Passage to India; February-March, 2011

Day 4 - Feb. 22, 2011 - Tours of Agra, then Driving to Jaipur

Random Moments of Wow:
  • We saw monkeys on the roofs of Agra Fort.
  • In a lot of tourist sites, if you look down at the ground, you see sequins and small beads caught between the pavement stones. This is because of all the women passing through wearing their traditional Indian suits with beads and sequins inevitably lose a small fraction of the sparkly stuff.
  • On the drive to Jaipur, in one of the towns, we had to wait as a herd of water buffalo was moved across the road.
  • We also saw a herd of hefty deer-like animals on the drive.
  • In those areas, they were growing wheat, mustard, and chickpeas in the fields. Rice farming is saved for the monsoon season.
  • We saw a kingfisher bird sitting on the railing of a pool in the city of Sikri.
  • Like people who own trucks, the people who own camels decorate them! We saw many camels with words painted on their necks, or with patterns shaved into the fur of their flanks, and often the camel's saddle is decorated with pom-poms and fancy fabrics.
  • JJ saw this old, small, red sandstone mosque that has apparently fallen into disuse because it has bushes growing out of its cracked, white-painted dome. It was very quaint and lovely.
  • We saw a brick factory out in the middle of nowhere on the way to Jaipur. It had about six very tall, angular kiln chimneys poking up from a flat plain, with stacks and stacks of bricks in the area between their bases. The fired bricks were stacked closely, like walls, while the raw bricks were stacked with spaces in between them, like brick lattices, to aid in the mud drying.
  • PEACOCKS!! Ahem. Which is to say we saw wild peacocks and peahens on the walls of Jaipur as we drove in to the city.

Agra Fort is another of those forts that really should be called a palace, although it has impressive military fortifications too. There is a land moat, which was stocked with tigers, and a water moat, which was stocked with crocodiles. The main gate is actually a series of three gates, and they were arranged at right angles to one another. The reason why was so that if an elephant with a battering ram was being used to knock down the gates, it would have to turn 90 degrees to get at the second gate, and then it wouldn't be able to take a run at that gate because the elephant would now have the moat wall right behind it.

Inside the first courtyard of the fort, there is a grave for a British soldier. He died in the fort during a time of unrest, and they didn't want to risk taking him out to bury him, so he was buried inside the walls like a king.

We next entered a courtyard of white pillars, but they are white paint over sandstone because the 5th Moghul emperor loved white marble but didn't dare tear down the walls his grandfather had built to replace the sandstone pillars.

The garden of the white courtyard is subdivided into small scalloped parcels of land. The emperors were fond of wine and opium, and apparently one of the royal wives decided to grow grapes. The divisions were to keep her root stocks pure.

The fort contains one of the finest mosques in India, the "Pearl Mosque", but it was closed to the public while we were there. The palace did burn at one point, so the carpets and furniture are missing, but you can still see the semi-precious stone inlays in the marble, the ornate carvings on the walls, balconies, and windows, and the intricate designs of the ceilings. There was also what looked like a bathtub with a scalloped edge set slightly-below flush with the floor in one courtyard, but this was actually a waterfall fountain. The water poured in from the sides, then rushed down to the bottom of the well. It was dry, so JJ hopped in; it was about five feet deep.

This is the emperor's apartment; I've belatedly realized the text on either side of this photo would lead you to believe you're looking at something else. Sorry; it's just a random pretty picture. Fun/Gross Fact: The lump and puddle you see behind this fountain is proof that monkeys do not respect the memory of dead emperors.

On our way out, we passed a bathtub the 4th Moghul emperor gave to one of his wives, a princess from Jaipur, as a wedding gift. It's said he filled the tub with diamonds, rubies and emeralds when he gave it to her. And folks? That tub was about two metres across and a metre and a half deep. She would have had jewels up to her chin.

Things we learned from Yusef in Agra fort:
  • Although Muslim men are allowed to take up to four wives, a man who wanted to take a second wife back then would need to ask his first wife's permission, and he would have to have a good reason for wanting to do so, such as his first wife not being able to have children, or the second woman being widowed and in need of a husband.

After the fort, we visited a marble factory where they create tables and smaller items with semi-precious stone inlays in white, green and black marble. The craftsmen start by colouring the marble with henna, scratching the design onto it, then carving out the depth of the inlay. They shape the inlay pieces by hand, then glue them in and do a final polish with zinc oxide. Some of the patterns are extremely intricate and fine. The families that run this particular factory claim their forefathers decorated the Taj Mahal. Note that the work is so fine that retirement age from doing inlay work is about 45 years. After that, most people's fingers and eyesight are no longer up to the task, and the workers move into support roles by, for example, making the grinding wheels the inlayers use.

The white marble in Agra is some of the densest, hardest, and most non-porous in the world. They showed us how you could pour Coca Cola, which is usually hideously destructive to marble's finish, onto their white marble and do no damage.

After this, we drove to Jaipur, with a stop at the abandoned city of Sikri, and again Yusef taught us some interesting facts:

Things we learned:
  • At independence, India's literacy rate was only 9%. Today, it's 72%, with most of the shortfall in the older generations. Primary school is compulsory, and the government gives families financial benefits when they send their daughters to school. This has helped reverse the trend that existed ten years ago where people didn't educate their girls. Now, girls and boys go to school in equal numbers.
  • School is always taught in the local language, but English as a second language is taught beginning at the 6th year.
  • Teaching is considered a very noble profession in India. Lots of women do it, it is a well-paid profession, and students--even years later--will greet their former teachers by touching the teacher's feet as a sign of respect.

The city of Sikri was a surprise! It's a city that was used as the capital for only 15 years before being abandoned, but the palace complex is beautiful and airy, and the buildings are still in perfect condition. I hadn't expected a city that was abandoned to be so lovely and pristine.

The history of the place is interesting too. The 3rd Moghul emperor was illiterate because he ascended the throne at age 13, but he became one of the most tolerant and forward-thinking rulers. He had no male offspring, and went to visit a Sufi saint (guru) who lived in the area where Sikri would eventually be built. That saint prophesied the king would have more than one son. The king married a Hindu woman, which was shocking for the time given he was Muslim, and she gave him three sons. In gratitude, the king moved his capital to the area the Sufi saint lived in, named his eldest son after the saint, and named the city Sikri, which comes from the Arabic word "shukraan", meaning "thank you".

The king never asked his Hindu wife to convert, and he built a Hindu temple for her in the palace at Sikri. He also built a Christian chapel for a Portuguese missionary he was friends with, and later took a Portuguese, Christian wife. The king also removed the taxes on Hindus travelling on pilgrimages, so he was definitely committed to religious tolerance.

Sikri was built in six years, which is astonishing given how ornate and complex the palace is. The problem with the location is there was no river nearby. The floors of the plazas all slope into drains to help collect rain, but the shortage of water was an enduring problem for the new city. Fifteen years after it was built, uprisings in Pakistan required the king to leave for Lahore, and the people moved back to Agra because why stay there when the king isn't there?

The palace features many courtyards and Buddhist-style pagodas and terraces. The Hindu wife who gave the emperor sons had the largest palace complex with a summer wing, a winter wing, and her temple all bordering a courtyard with basil planted in the centre (basil is associated with the god Shiva.) The winter palace is decorated with blue tiles from China.

The Christian wife also had her own palace, and in the centre of another courtyard, there was a pool with a platform in the middle of it. This was so musicians and dancers could perform in the middle of the pool while the king and his court enjoyed the performances from the balconies of the buildings around the courtyard. One building in that area had many pillars in it; the story is the king used to play hide-and-seek with his concubines in there.

After Sikri, we went to lunch in a little village. It was a lovely, clean, and picturesque place, the food was wonderful, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the little kids in the village were adorable. They would all greet you with hello, and some would ask if you had a pen you could give them. Apparently, it's a bit of a status symbol to go to school with a pen that came from a foreign land, given to you by the hand of a foreigner. We really enjoyed the visit there, and our tour company (On The Go Tours) collects donations to help buy supplies for the village's schoolhouse.

On the remainder of the drive to Jaipur, we again learned some facts from Yusef, including the amusing story of how he ended up married:

What we learned:
  • 80% of all marriages are in India are arranged marriages. The parents look for a spouse for their child within their own caste, and apparently it's quite entertaining to read the weekly matrimonials section in the newspaper to see what people are looking for.
  • In India, love is something that starts at marriage, rather than culminating in marriage.
  • Married ladies wear a silver ring on the second toe of one foot. In Hindu marriage ceremonies, the husband will dab a red bindi (the mark of colour between the eyebrows) on his new bride. Thereafter, she will reapply it every morning.
  • Yusef's own wedding story is pretty entertaining--although it wouldn't have been if it hadn't come to a happy ending.
    • Yusef had a new job in the United States, and just before he was going to leave, his brother came to him with a photograph and said the family had chosen this girl for him, and they wanted him married before he left.
    • Yusef balked, saying he wasn't ready for this and it wasn't fair for them to spring it on him. He tore up the photo. The discussion that evening grew heated. He finally grabbed his passport and took off to stay with a friend in another city. And then the friend finked him out, because apparently it's not okay to refuse to marry the girl your parents chose for you.
    • Yusef's brother came and said Yusef's actions had affected their mother badly, and that if she died because this strife, Yusef would be "without caste" to his family (this is another way of saying they would consider him an untouchable; it's a pretty raw bit of emotional manipulation.) So Yusef came back and got married under duress.
    • That night, his family locked him in a room with the girl. Nothing happened; Yusef sat in one corner, and the girl sat in the opposite corner. She tried to talk to him a bit, but he wouldn't have any of it.
    • Three days later, the girl was crying a lot and Yusef was leaving for his job. He told his family to do what they wanted with his wife; he was never coming back to India.
    • A year later, his brother called to say their mother was very ill and that if Yusef wanted to see her again, he had to return. Yusef visited, and he noted his wife was taking very good care of his sick mother, but he still wasn't interested in knowing her. Yusef returned to the States.
    • When his holidays came around the next year, Yusef visited again, and when he left, it began to prey on his mind that he was being quite cruel to his wife. She had accepted him as her husband, and although it's easy to get a divorce in India, those who do it are shunned and disdained. So during the next year, Yusef began calling and talking his wife about once a month. It was always an awkward conversation.
    • When his holidays came around again (three years after he married), Yusef flew his wife over to the United States to visit. Finally, something began to click between them, and they now have two children and are happy enough together. Yusef admits, however, that if they hadn't "clicked", they both would have faced a lifetime of compromises and accommodations.
    • He says the best part of the story is that his mother is still alive and quite healthy.
  • Enough about marriage! Our hotel in Jaipur was a small palace used by sub-kings when they came to visit the maharajah of Jaipur. As you can imagine, it was a lovely old building. The kings of Jaipur made treaties with the Moghul emperors, so they were allowed to keep ruling their own territories. As a result, Jaipur has never seen wartimes, and its rulers going to fight on behalf of the emperors helped make the city rich.
  • Jaipur also made friendly alliances with the British. It's called the pink city because in 1876, the ruler asked the people to paint their houses and businesses pink to welcome the Prince of Wales. Pink is considered the colour of welcome and hospitality.

Day 5 - Feb. 23, 2011 - Tours of Jaipur

Unfortunately, we didn't get to see Jaipur, as El Husbando and JJ succumbed to the dreaded "Delhi belly" at this point.

Actually, it was food poisoning, and ten out of the fourteen people on our tour group came down with it over the next two days. Yusef said that was unprecedented; he's been doing these tours for about twenty years and says out of a group of twenty people, he might have two or three become ill, but it's usually something minor that can be dealt with using Imodium. El Husbando backs that up, saying that while he was at the institutes, he was eating ice cream and chai tea bought off street vendors, and he never had any stomach problems at all.

Thankfully, everyone in the tour group kept their senses of humour and didn't let the illness spoil their trip. Also, we were able to establish this highly, highly scientific index of stomach durability versus nationality:

Macho-Robustness of Stomach (+)
New Zealanders
Sicky-Wimpiness of Stomach (-)

Day 6 - Feb. 24, 2011 - Driving to Shekawati

Random Moments of Wow:
  • On the road, we were slowed down by this huge herd of cattle being moved. Some of the animals had outlandishly fat, large horns compared to the size of their bodies.
  • One of the cowherds ran over grinning and had the New Zealander lady take his picture just so he could take see it on her LCD screen afterward.
  • We saw a long line of women and donkeys in some sort of procession.

We arrived at the hotel in Shekawati, and it was this wonderful house with two courtyards and all the interior walls painted very beautifully. We had it to ourselves that night, so Yusef referred to it as "our palace".

The only tour we did this evening was to stroll into the village and look at an old house, still owned by a wealthy family, that has fallen into disuse. It was obviously once very grand and beautiful, with an Islamic style of construction, but plants are taking over the courtyards and the walls are growing stained from the rain.

There are quite a few of these sorts of houses in the city. The families can't really sell them for prestige reasons--people would assume they're going bankrupt if they sell their ancestral properties--but at the same time, the younger generations aren't interested in living there anymore.

That night, a wedding took place beside the hotel, and some of our tour group snuck in to see the celebrations, which are always pretty grand. El Husbando and JJ were still recovering, and went to bed early instead, but the fireworks from the wedding were very loud and kept us awake for a while. The next morning, we walked into the hotel's lobby to find a heavy dusting of ceiling plaster and debris on the furniture due to the force of all the explosions.

Day 7 - Feb. 25, 2011 - Driving to Bikaner, Tour of Bikaner Fort

Random Moments of Wow:
  • You see a lot of swastikas here, as it was originally a Hindu symbol. The arms rotate clockwise, not counter-clockwise like the Nazis' did, and there's often a dot in the inner corner of each arm. The words "swasi tika" mean "a good symbol".
  • The trees along the sides of the road have all been painted with a pattern of white stripe/red stripe/white stripe. This is to act as a reflector, since most rural areas don't have streetlights.

This was the point when half our tour group split off, so we had to say some farewells to some very nice people. We carried on in a group of seven along with Yusef and a new driver, Ram. The remaining group was all Australians except for us and one New Zealander who lives in Australia.

The drive to Bikaner was not far, but still took 5 hours due to the cracked, bumpy road. Most of the highways in India are excellent, and this stretch was one of the very few exceptions we encountered.

Bikaner Fort is another fort that should be called a palace. The founder, Bika, was a son whose father saw him chatting with someone at court, and asked if Bika was plotting against him. This so offended Bika that he told his father he would never take anything from him, left court, and then carved out his own nation. The construction of Bikaner Fort began in 1589.

The coronation throne is located in a courtyard in the middle of a small pool, and the upper balconies of the courtyard are covered with carved sandstone screens so ladies could watch the ceremony in privacy. There's also a coronation room that is mind-blowing; it's huge, with great arches of red sandstone, and all the walls and ceiling are ornately carved with polished flower and vine patterns.

Many of the rooms in the fort are extremely ornate; there is one area that has 17 kg of gold painted onto the ceiling. Because Bikaner is in the Tahr desert, there is also a room with clouds painted on all the walls and a shrine so one can pray for rain there.

The fort is used as a museum now, and we saw some pretty amazing objects. Moustaches were popular at the time, so there's a soup spoon that has a moustache guard built onto it. We also saw palanquins for carrying men and women around (the women's always have screens), a mechanical swing for a statue of Krishna, all these beautifully decorated weapons--including a spring-loaded dagger designed to let you disembowel a person with one stab--and a war plane that one of the later kings bought and had shipped in and reassembled.

Specific Moment of Wow:
  • OUR HOTEL!! Ahem. Which is to say, our hotel was a palace, and a freaking impressive one too. If Yusef had said we were taking a tour of the place, and had to buy tickets to get in the door, I would have believed him. The building was a large, imperial-looking structure of carved sandstone with a huge courtyard garden in the middle. We saw peacocks wandering around near the tennis court.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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