Tuesday, March 29, 2011

From The Query Goblin: "Osland" by J. A. Beard

J. A. Beard has graciously allowed the Goblin to massage the query for Osland. Please pop by and see/say what you think!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

From The Query Goblin: "The Puppet Mistress" by All-Stars

All-Stars has graciously allowed the Goblin to massage the query for The Puppet Mistress. Please pop by and see/say what you think!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rise of the (Novel-Writing) Machines

I was reading this article, by Alain Miles on Writers Without Borders, which enthuses about where novels may be headed now that eReaders are becoming more and more common.

The article is great, although I disagree with the idea that more interactivity will make books better. I can see illustrations you can "play" with being a great addition to children's books, but to me, having to interact with the book itself, in any significant way, is just a distraction from the story.

To me, a book should slurp you into its world, not yank your attention away from it. I find flipping the page an invisible-enough activity, but if there are moving pictures on the screen? If I am prompted to pause my reading in order to play a video? Good Google, I find typos annoying--interactive content would drive me mental.

What I want from a novel is to get sucked in so powerfully that I miss my bus stop, that I don't hear the phone ring, that I find myself unable to put the book down even though I have to be up for work in 4 hours and my eyeballs feel like matzo ball vindaloo.

That said, if a story is gripping enough, I'm sure the interactive content would become as invisible as my bus stop does. Regardless, to me, it's not a desirable feature to add things that I plan to ignore anyway.

However, one thing the article mentions did zap by brain with thrill-juice. It notes Stefano Boscutti has a project to try to create "stories that can change in reaction to a reader’s physiological responses".

Now that could be awesome. Imagine an all-purpose book that turns into a romance novel, a horror novel, or an adventure novel, all based on which sentences make your palms sweat. The whole concept may be science fiction at this point, but it's the right idea: a device that measures my unconscious responses could potentially add value to my novel-reading experience without distracting me.

However, an infinitely-changeable, all-purpose book would also ensure people couldn't discuss their books with each other. The novel's plot would become personalized and irreproducible--non-portable, to put it in computer terms. It would exist only in your head, and the novel you read and adore wouldn't be the same novel your friend reads and adores.

And that brings up the issue of copyright. Who really wrote the book, if your body's responses helped dictate its text?

Also, as a writer, I recognize creating an all-purpose book would be daunting. You would either have to write a multitude of books, each branching in separate directions like a choose-your-own-plot novel, or the book would have to be written by a cloud of writers, each handling their own separate sub-plots.

Or--even more frighteningly--you would have to devise a computer program that seamlessly branches the story into uncountable directions. Sure, human writers would be needed to set up such a program, but once it's completed, would the computer then make human writers obsolete?

My brain is buzzing with the possibilities. None of this will happen soon, based on our current level of technology, but what if it does someday? Do you think an all-purpose book would be a fantastic creation, or the end of artists? (Or the beginning of machine-artists? Which is also a cool/alarming idea.)

Wow! This would make awesome science fiction. I may have just given myself a plot bunny.

Or a death sentence.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From The Query Goblin: "The Anasazi Conspiracy" by Newmancht

Newmancht has graciously allowed the Goblin to massage the query for The Anasazi Conspiracy. Please pop by and see/say what you think!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Deadly By the Dozen --Now Available!

Oh! Oh! I didn't even realized this had happened--more blogging buddies in another anthology!

Deadly By the Dozen features stories by Merry Monteleone, Travis Erwin, and (the alter ego of) Sex Scenes at Starbucks! (Did I miss anyone? I may have missed someone.)

You can pick it up an e-copy at Barnes & Noble and Amazon US. Please take a look!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever -- Now Available!

Phoenix Sullivan has just e-released an anthology of short stories that contains contributions from not one, but two, of my blogging buddies, Peter Dudley and (the benign alter ego of) McKoala.

The anthology revolves around a seriously cool writing prompt, too--"Extinct doesn't mean forever". Please consider checking it out!

You can win a free e-copy of the anthology by entering the contest on the anthology's blog:, Extinct Anthology, or you can buy it directly from Barnes and Noble, Amazon US or Amazon UK.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, March 21, 2011

Because I Think It's Funny:

Hardcore History

Via the Failblog.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

India Trip Report (Part 3 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, last Wednesday's post covers days 4 - 7, and today'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 8 - Feb. 26, 2011 - Driving to Jaisalmer, No Tours

Random Moments of Wow:
  • Acacia trees are sacred, so no one cuts them down, but you do see them pruned back. Apparently, people cut all the branches off twice a year and then dry them. The leaves are used as food for livestock and the branches are burned as firewood.
  • It turns out the Indians call goat meat "mutton" and sheep meat "lamb". This means JJ ate goat by accident! (But it was quite tasty and tender, and not too different than sheep mutton.)
  • We saw a huge crow! It was the size of seagulls in Stanley Park, i.e. almost as big as your head.
  • In a rest stop, we saw a wall that had broken glass glued to the top of it. El Husbando says people often do that as a cheap form of barbed wire. It's actually quite pretty in the sunshine.
  • On the road, we passed a location where, once per year, there's a pilgrimage. About 100,000 people gather 10 km from a Hindu temple, take their shoes off, and walk barefoot to the temple. They leave the shoes behind as a mark that they were there, and so when you drive past, you see the ditches full of shoes. (Someone must gather most of them up and remove them, because we didn't see 100,000 pairs of shoes there, but there's still plenty of sandals lying about.)
  • Where we stopped for lunch was very close to the Indian (underground) nuclear test site. Yusef didn't tell us that until afterward!
  • At different points, we had to slow down for a herd of camels, a herd of sheep, and a herd of goats.
  • This stretch of road was within 35 km of the Pakistan border. We passed a convoy carrying over a dozen tanks.
  • We also passed a wind farm (with those huge, white modern windmills) and a date palm plantation that still only had very young plants.

What we learned:
  • Jaisalmer became a ghost town after sea routes replaced the camel caravan routes. In 1971, its strategic significance increased due to conflicts with Pakistan and the town was repopulated.
  • Jaisalmer Fort, which is an impressive structure built on the top of a mesa, has about 2,000 people living in it. The town is located below the fort.

There was no tour this evening, as we would spend the entire next day in Jaisalmer.

Day 9 - Feb. 27, 2011 - Tour of Jaisalmer Fort, Camel Rides

First, we stopped at an artificial lake that was built by a wealthy dancer/prostitute. People didn't approve of her second profession and so kept destroying the lake's walls to let the water out. To counter that, she built temples all around the edges of the lake so no one would dare damage the structure anymore. It was a very pretty area with a few temple structures built right out in the water itself.

The fort is dramatic, sitting up on the cliffs, and while you walk in along utilitarian roads, the palaces of course gets very ornate and impressive. We got a great view of the city from up on the fort's walls, and the group as a whole indulged in some retail therapy in the city. It was a nice change from touring palaces and monuments, as we could just walk through the streets and enjoy both pretty and ordinary buildings, as well as see people simply living their lives. We saw some kids playing cricket on a tiny little porch, which confirms Yusef's claim that anywhere there's a bit of open space in India, you will find people playing cricket.

That evening, we went on camel rides! These were great in that we actually got to stay on the camels for about half an hour. There are vendors who follow you, and when we got to the sand dunes, there were kids dressed up in the clothes and makeup of dancers, hoping to get tips in exchange for photographs. The sand was very silky, and JJ had to pour quite an amazing volume of it out of her shoes later.

We discovered that evening that the tour company often doesn't pay for the guide or the driver to stay at the same luxury accommodations that the guests do. We felt so bad for Yusef, going off to a cheaper hotel without us that evening, but we felt even worse for Ram, the driver, who had to sleep on the bus!

Day 10 - Feb. 28, 2011 - Driving to Jodhpur, Tour in Jodhpur

Random Moments of Wow:
  • The 1,000 rupee note (the largest monetary bill India has) was only introduced in 2007. 1,000 rupees is about $20 Cdn.
  • We stopped at the side of the road and Ram paid a woman some money for feed, which he then fed to the woman's cows. This is supposed to bring luck.
  • 40% of India's chartered accountants come from Jodhpur. Yusef described it as an accountant factory.
  • On the way to the fort in Jodhpur, we drove (far away from, but) past the palace where the actress Liz Hurley was married. The king who built that palace originally wanted to give money to the poor people in the region, but when they refused, saying they weren't beggars, he employed them instead to build the palace.
  • The fort we visited has cannon damage, and when you're entering, you can see the holes in the walls and the gate from it.
  • On the way to the fort, we had to slow down considerably to get through a wedding party, and it was hilarious because the kids--who were already excited about the wedding--got super-excited to have us as their captive audience. They started waving and bouncing up and down, and they were thrilled when we took their photos, then turned the cameras around to show them the image on the LCD.
  • Jodhpur is a very pretty, well-maintained city with lots of flowers. An important minister comes from there, so much money has funnelled into the city in recent years.

What we learned:
  • Construction on the fort was started in 1459, but they had trouble with the walls falling down. When they learned that a Sufi saint had been buried in the region, they went looking for his grave and eventually discovered they had been trying to build a wall right over top of it. They rebuilt the wall with a space left over the saint's grave, and the wall never fell down again.
  • Near the gate, there's a plaque with red hands carved on it. Each handprint was placed there by one of the wives of the king and later carved into a relief, but there's a sinister significance to this plaque.
    • At the time, when a man died, his wife would take opium and climb onto his funeral pyre to burn with him. This was called sati, and it was usually voluntary. The handprints were left by the queens who burned with their dead king.
    • The Indian government has taken steps to stamp this practice out. The women who performed sati were considered goddesses, and temples were erected to them. The government has closed all these temples so no one can pray in them anymore.
    • Also, the last case of sati took place in a remote village in 1992. The government arrested the entire village and put them in jail! The logic was that something like this is cultural, and so everyone in the village was culpable for not stopping the woman.

This fort is called Mehrangarh, where "mehran" means "saint" or "guru", and "garh" means "fort". I'm afraid all my descriptions must be sounding the same by now, but again, it was utterly beautiful. The fort is built on top of cliffs, but it's much more ornate than Jaisalmer Fort was, and has building after building with complex carved stone screen as the walls. The royal family still owns the site and uses it for ceremonies. (And whoo boy, the crown prince is cute. No longer single, though.)

There were some museum-like displays there, such as a hookah pipe and the bags that were used to filter water over opium. There were also grass curtains that water trickled through, providing extra cooling to the room. Probably the most interesting object, however, was a small, functional pistol that could be worn as a bracelet!

Looking out over the city, there was a large cluster of houses with blue-painted roofs. Only Brahmins are permitted to do that, and it makes for a very pretty view.

Day 11 - Mar. 1, 2011 - Driving to Ranakpur, Tour of Jain Temple

Random Moments of Wow:
  • In this region, the men wear great big turbans, almost ball-shaped, on their heads. It's for protection against the sun, since the hot fabric isn't resting directly against your scalp.
  • We passed a shrine to a man who had been killed on the highway on his motorcycle. He died far from home, his body was transported back, and then his motorcycle showed up also and no one knew how it got there. This was interpreted to be a miracle, and so the shrine was constructed and the motorcycle stands just behind it.
  • The big trucks in India always have a string of black pompoms attached to outer rear-view mirrors. The colour black is supposed to ward off all evil. A few of the ladies in our group bought themselves strings of pompoms off a boy selling them by the side of the road and attached them to our bus.
  • We passed an area full of eucalyptus gum trees from Australia. They're very nice (and smell great!), but are considered too thirsty a plant for India.
  • A banyan tree is a type of ficus tree, so it's related to fig trees. It's also called the "tree of life" in India because it never really dies; it just keeps putting up new shoots.
  • MONKEYS!! And by that, I mean a lot of monkeys. At the Jain temple in Ranakpur, there was both a group of Langur monkeys, which have whitish bodies and black faces, and some smaller, golden Rhesus monkeys. You had to watch out for the latter type, as they will snatch things and run away, or bite if you try to scare them off. We saw some of them climb into a jeep, grab something with beads and satin ribbons on it, and then run under a (stationary) tour bus to attempt to eat whatever it was.

When we got to Ranakpur, we toured a Jain temple that is 500 years old. The temple was situated in Ranakpur, which is small, isolated, and serenely lush in vegetation, to aid meditation. The temple is simple on the outside and decorated on the inside to represent how one should strive for inner beauty first. This also helps discourage the interest of thieves.

The inside of the temple is white marble and contains 1044 carved pillars, every one of which is unique. The temple has many spots where it is open to the sky, so it's quite bright within. It was really an amazing place, and there was plenty to take photos of, but we weren't allowed to take photos of the niches where the statues of the gods were located. This is too bad because the niches were dark, with black statues that had gold on the whites of their eyes. This meant that when you looked in, you saw two seemingly-glowing eyes staring back at you from the darkness.

That evening, we opened the hotel window and just listened to the birdsong pouring in.

Day 12 - Mar. 2, 2011 - Driving to Udaipur

Random Moments of Wow:
  • Driving through the mountains, we took a tiny winding road and saw some wonderful small villages. There were:
    • Ox-powered wells ("Persian wells")
    • Mango trees and chickpea fields
    • Little, elegant white cranes walking around green wheat fields
    • A tree full of sleeping flying fox bats
    • Fences on the sides of the road that held back the frequent rockslides
  • When we got onto the main highway closer to Udaipur, we saw three cows complacently lying in the middle of a lane.
  • We also saw a lot of factories near Udaipur with huge (car-sized) blocks of marble sitting in their yards. The area is famous for its green marble.
  • Udaipur is called the lake city because there are many lakes in the area (in among mountains.) On an island in the middle of one of these lakes, we saw an observatory.
  • The lobby of our hotel had all these brilliant coloured-glass mosaics set into the white plaster of the walls. They were beautiful!
  • At the top of one of the mountains, you can see the "monsoon palace" of a former king. He would go up there during the monsoons and pretty much live in a cloud for the whole season.
  • In the centre of Pichola lake, near where our hotel was located, is the famous Lake Hotel, which is situated on its own island. The James Bond movie Octopussy was shot there.

That evening, we took a stroll into the old city to a gate where we could look at the Lake Hotel. Udaipur has a lot of backpackers because you can get a room in someone's house for 500 rupees ($10 Cdn) a night, and foreigners are no big deal to the locals there.

Day 13 - Mar 3, 2011 - Tours of Udaipur

What we learned from Yusef:
  • The City Palace is owned by the world's longest living dynasty. This royal family dates back to 734 A.D. (which is roughly 1,300 years.)
  • The dynasty has had some rough times because they refused to accept the Moghul emperors and were thus uprooted from their original capital. In ~1550 A.D., Udai Singh asked a Hindu saint what he could do, and the saint said if he made a palace in the location where Udaipur is now, he would get his kingdom back.
    • Udai did this, although he had to make peace with the Moghuls to do so.
    • His son Protap Singh never accepted this, and fought the Moghuls, first with traditional warfare and then with guerrilla tactics. He died in battle and is considered a great hero.
    • A third revered king of Udaipur was Bupal Singh, who was paralysed but still considered one of the best and most progressive rulers in the city's history. After Independence, he was the first king to choose to become part of the new India.

The City Palace was a little more run-down than some of the places we visited, but it had some amazing decorations. The glass mosaics we saw at the hotel weren't anything compared to the intricacy of the ones at the palace. There was a king's bedroom whose walls and ceiling were decorated all in mirrored glass, and the floor was mirrored too. This was said to be so no one could sneak up on him, but perhaps he was just vain! We saw a lot of blue-painted white tiles too, and some very impressive peacock mosaics.

Mirrored king's bedroom

There was also a large gold image of the sun (with a moustachioed face) at one side of a courtyard, and a mirrored shrine at the other. The king was supposed to fast until he could pray to the sun every day, so on cloudy days, he would face the shrine and pray to the reflected fake sun in the mirror.

At the upper level of the palace, there is a fountain in a courtyard that is surrounded by mature trees. This was possible because the palace is built on a hill, and the courtyard--even though it's on the highest floor--is located at the very tip of the hill. From that height, we were able to look down at the enclosure where they used to hold elephant fights.

The palace has many tiny corridors and low doors. This isn't because people were smaller back then, but to force invading soldiers to move in single file through the palace and to bow their heads when they entered a room, which made them easier to decapitate.

We saw a display of a horse wearing a fake elephant's trunk on its nose. The kings in Udaipur didn't have as many elephants as their adversaries did, and apparently by attaching a false trunk to their horses, they could fool the enemy's elephants into thinking the horses were baby elephants, and thus keep them from attacking the horses.

After the City Palace, we went on a boat ride around the Lake Hotel and then to a second island with a nice complex where you could be served tea. We skipped the tea, strolled around, then headed back because the boat ride was actually the most enjoyable part. Swallows flew right through the open sides of the boat twice while we were out on the water.

That evening was the last night of the tour, so we walked through the old city again to a really good restaurant on the lakeside where we could see the City Palace and the Lake Hotel. It was lovely, but we were sad to say goodbye to everyone--especially Yusef, who had been so great!

Day 14 - Mar. 4, 2011 - Flying to Mumbai

Mumbai is very humid compared to the Rajastan area, but that's hardly surprising. On the way in from the airport, our transport guide called the hotel and learned our room wasn't ready yet, so he took us to see a laundry farm that took up several city blocks, Victoria Station (for municipal trains), which is huge and very British-looking, and some government buildings, which were likewise very British-y.

Our hotel's location proved to be ideal! We were just down the street from the famous Gateway to India arch and the Taj Hotel (which again oozes with British-ness.) We walked down to the Gateway, which is 26 m (85 ft.) high, and El Husbando indulged in a treat he's only gotten in India: a green coconut's juice drunk straight from the shell. The vendors machete the ‘nut open in front of you, stick in a straw, and away you go. Since the coconuts only cost 25 rupees each (50 cents Cdn), El Husbando slurped away at least five of these during the 2.5 days we were in Mumbai. JJ, on the other hand, decided she didn't like the drink very much.

That evening, we saw bats as big as crows sailing around. The big ones really do sail, rather than fluttering like the smaller ones.

Day 15 - Mar. 5, 2011 - Elephanta Island

We walked back to the Gateway that morning and bought tickets for the boat to Elephanta Island. The ride takes about an hour, and it's really lovely out on the water, although the humidity haze blurs out most of the view. Close to the island, we passed another island that had a very long railroad stretching across the sea to the big container ships anchored in deep water.

Elephanta itself was a bit of a disappointment in that there wasn't much to see. What was there was very cool, however. You walk into a series of caves, and the walls have all been carved into large statues of Buddha or Hindu gods. The caves closest to the dock are the most impressive, and we saw about six caves in total. There are other things to see on the island, but they involved a lot of walking, and the heat and humidity sapped our enthusiasm. El Husbando did buy some really good guavas from a vendor on the way back to the dock, however.

Day 15 - Mar. 6, 2011 - Prince of Wales Museum

We needed to make sure we had enough cash to pay our hotel bill, since it's sometimes difficult in India to get the hotels to accept traveller's cheques or even a credit card. We thus found ourselves waiting for a bank to open at 10 AM. Only one person is allowed at the ATM at a time, so the bank has chairs outside for those waiting to sit upon. Because we were there early, the fellows who pick up the night deposits were also there, and El Husbando spent about ten minutes sitting beside a fellow with a shotgun propped up in front of him!

After getting our wad of rupees, we walked to the Prince of Wales Museum, which doesn't look quite as British-y as its name implies. It has several Islamic-style domes on it, for example, and beautifully carved pillars in the foyer.

This museum's emphasis is more on history than art, so there was a natural history section with stuffed animals as well as various rooms containing statuary, paintings, glassware, and ornate household goods such as make-up or jewellery chests carved from wood or ivory. There were two large rooms on the top floor with art collections donated by members of the Tata family. This won't be obvious to a lot of Canadians, but the Tata corporations are a HUGELY successful set of businesses. There are 114 Tata companies in all, and two of them are Fortune 500 companies.

And that was our trip! We had the room in Mumbai for another night, but we were flying out at 3 AM and so left just before midnight. It was sad to leave India, but great to be home again. You never realize how handy it is to drink straight out of the tap until you can't do it anymore!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Arr, Matey--Hand Over that Sedan

Here's an article I think is just 'sploding with the potential to be hijacked (no pun intended) for a story:
Engineers Can Now Wirelessly Hack Your Car
The experimenters were able to control the car's door locks, dashboard displays, and brakes using this technique.

And how did the hackers gain access to the car's systems? By hiding a Trojan Horse virus in the data file of a song burned onto a CD.

That's right, folks--be careful what music you pirate, or the pirates may come for you! (and the sweet, sweet booty of your Honda Civic.)

Just as an aside, has anyone else found that Blogger is now behaving weirdly whenever you edit? When I try to highlight and change part of a word, it erases the whole word, and sometimes words to the right or left of the one I wanted to change, too! Quite irritating.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From The Query Goblin: "White Blood" by Angela

Angela has graciously allowed the Goblin to massage the query for White Blood. Please pop by and see/say what you think!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Monday, March 14, 2011

India Trip Report (Part 1 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.

Today's installment covers days 1 - 3 of the trip (hey, they were busy days!), next Wednesday's post will cover 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

This trip featured a lot of moments that could be described as culture "shock", although they were mostly just exciting. Regardless, because they weren't hugely noteworthy, I'll list these "Random Moments of Wow" as a bullet list on the appropriate days.

Day 1 - Feb. 19, 2011 - Arriving in Delhi, First Impressions

This was really the day JJ arrived in India; El Husbando had already been there for three weeks meeting with colleagues at institutes in Pune and Chennai.

From the air, Delhi has strings of bright street lights interspersed with large areas of softer light. Presumably, that's from home fires, as the whole city was scented with wood smoke when JJ arrived. The taxis at the airport look like they dropped out of a 1940s movie, and the trucks on the road were all decorated with paintings, strings of pompoms, and welded-on ornaments. They were thoroughly charming.

Delhi has a shortage of hotels, so our travel agency warned us our room would be clean but rudimentary. This turned out to be both accurate and inaccurate. We had a three-room suite with a nice bed and marble walls and floor, but the bathroom had a jury-rigged feel to it. The toilet did not have a tank but was instead attached, via a hose, to a faucet on the wall. The sink was completely modern, but when you looked under it, a hose dangled from it into drain on the floor. The shower was as you'd expect, but if you wanted hot water, you had to go down to the lobby and ask them to turn on the boiler. El Husbando said none of this was surprising based on what he'd seen so far at the institutes. Overall, we rather liked the room; it was functional, pretty, and quirky.

After getting some sleep and then breakfast, we took a cab to the National Museum. And everything we saw on the streets was just SO India! There were zillions of people, and although you saw some young women wearing jeans and t-shirts, most of them wore lovely traditional garb with jewel-bright colours, glittering sequins, and flowing chunnis (scarves worn over the head or around the shoulders and trailing down the back.) It was hard to believe that was their every-day wear.

The traffic was very free-form and flowing, with pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles weaving in and around each other liberally. Yes--you do see cows standing in the middle of the road and people just drive around them, but same goes for dogs and goats too. Drivers used their horns often, and later in the tour, our tour guide Yusef explained why.

Yusef said that when driving in India, there's so much going on in front of your car, it's not a good idea to take your eyes off the road to check your rear-view mirror too often. Thus, you use your eyes to keep track of what's going on in front of you, and your ears to keep track of what's going on behind you. The other drivers tap their horn to let you know they're there, and thus you don't need to shoulder-check very often.

In general, Indians display the common-sense courage that our (I'm speaking as a Canadian here) culture used to have back in the 50s. People ride motorcycles without helmets; they drive without seat belts; their kids go out alone to play with their friends beside busy streets. The over-protectiveness our culture has developed in the past half-century just isn't there--and why should it be when no one is behaving recklessly? We frequently saw families of four all riding on one motorcycle, or cars packed with eight or nine people, but we never saw anyone speeding or driving aggressively. It's generally quite safe.

The city itself showed that this was a developing nation, as everything you looked at either needed some repair or seemed unfinished. El Husbando said Delhi was extremely clean compared to the places he had seen so far. Later, JJ also saw some litter-clogged areas, but she noticed a correlation, too: the villages and towns that had livestock roaming around tended to be nicer places than those that only had people. The more rural a spot, the more pleasant it was. The larger cities, however, were an exception in that they also looked attractive and liveable.

The roads were almost always excellent. When we got out in the desert, we drove on some sketchy stuff, but India generally takes great care of its road system. The people, too, always seemed to be well dressed--even those who were obviously very poor. El Husbando saw more hardship while he was at the institute cities, but at least while on tour, we saw looooots of people and virtually no one looked scruffy.

Oh--the museum. I got a little side-tracked there, didn't I? The museum featured mostly artwork in the form of carved statues, cast statues, intricate "miniature" paintings (comparable in size to a sheet of paper, rather than something that covers a big swathe of wall), and decorative textiles. One thing we noticed for the first time there was that Indians will pay perhaps 20 rupees (40 cents Cdn) to get into a tourist attraction, whereas foreigners will pay perhaps 200 rupees ($4 Cdn). This makes sense, in that even Indians who are poor can enjoy their country's culture, and yet it's still a very cheap as far as the foreigners are concerned to do the same thing.

After the museum, we took an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. Those beasties must be amazing on gas, because it only cost 100 rupees (about $2 Cdn) for a half-hour drive. In shape, the auto-rickshaws look a bit like a VW van from the 1960s, but they're smaller than a compact car, have open sides and only three wheels. JJ loved it; El Husbando was disappointed because he had ridden in much faster auto-rickshaws already.

Day 2 - Feb. 20, 2011 - Tours of Delhi

Random Moments of Wow:
  • We saw a laundry farm--a city block dedicated to washing and drying (on clotheslines) hotel linens.
  • On a bridge, a wool dyer had draped all his washed bundles of raw wool on the railings to dry.
  • We drove by the world's largest market for 2nd hand books. It's 7 km long.
  • We also drove by what has been knick-named the "Thieves Market" because it deals in all kinds of second-hand goods.
  • We saw a weasel! Neither of us had seen one in the wild before.
  • A golf course we passed not only had walls around, but also had razor wire lining the tops of those walls.

Our tour group started out with 14 people, although half of them split off a week later to go on separate tours. It was a good group, with a French family, an Icelandic couple, a Malaysian couple, one New Zealander, and a whole mess o' Australians. We were the only people from the Americas.

Our guide Yusef proved to be amazing. He could answer pretty much any question you asked, from culture to sports to industry to history. When the tour began, he struck me as quite reserved, but when the group got smaller, and it was clear that everyone was good-tempered and getting along well, he loosened up quite a bit and seemed to genuinely enjoy our company.

Our tours that day were to the Red Fort in Old Delhi, to the "Friday Mosque" near the fort, then to the cremation site of Ghandi, and then to lunch at a restaurant reputed to serve the best butter chicken in Delhi. After lunch, we went to a tomb reputed to be the architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal, and the Qutab Minar, which is the world's largest minaret.

Things we learned from Yusef that day:
  • At any given moment, there are 5 million vehicles on the road in Delhi. However, commercial vehicles like taxis and buses run on compressed natural gas, which has helped reduce the pollution. Delhi has the world record for the most cars that run on this fuel.
  • When a city's name ends in "-bahd" or "-bad" (such as Hyderabad), that means it was founded by a Muslim ruler. When it ends in "-pur", that means it was founded by a Hindu ruler. Both words mean the same thing: "place". Thus, Udaipur roughly translates as "Udai's place", where Udai was the city's (Hindu) founder.
  • Recent excavations reveal that Delhi dates back to the 3rd century B.C.
  • Delhi officially has 18 million people, but is probably closer to 20 million. It's India's largest city by area, but Mumbai is larger by population.
  • Up until 1192, Delhi was ruled by Hindu leaders. Then it was invaded by Muslims, and the "Moghul" dynasty--which would last through 650 years, 17 rulers, and become one of India's most important dynasties--was established. The Moghuls were direct descendants of Genghis Khan through the female line and of Turks through the male line.
  • The first six Moghul rulers were the most important. The first four of them ruled in the city of Agra, but the 5th ruler moved the capital to Delhi because Agra reminded him too much of his deceased wife--who is best remembered as the woman the Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for. Yes, that fellow mourned hard.
  • The British moved the capital to Calcutta, then transferred it back to New Delhi. King George and Queen Mary came to lay down a foundation stone in Delhi, but it was laid in an inappropriate location. After they left, some locals quietly moved the stone closer to the river.

At the Red Fort, or Lal Quil'ah, we learned that when Indians call something a "fort", we should not be expecting a Spartan military structure--we should expect a palace! Construction began on the Red Fort in 1648, and the British added a few buildings to it while they were in power. The fort encloses a large garden full of fountains, two pavilions for the king to hold audiences in, and several smaller palace complexes.

The first pavilion we saw is called the "place of the common peoples" because the king would have audiences with the commoners there. The pavilion was carved sandstone with intricate stone screens behind the throne so royal ladies could watch the proceedings without being seen. These types of screens for the royal ladies were a common feature in all the palaces we saw.

The next pavilion was built to receive important guests and was all white marble with flower decorations inlaid directly into it in semi-precious stones. The colours of the inlays were amazing!

The pavilion once housed the famous "Peacock Throne", which was made with 250 kg (no, I did not mis-type that unit) of precious stones--including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond now owned by the British monarchy--and 1250 kg of gold. The throne, however, was said to be cursed as only two rulers sat upon it. The second was actually a Persian invader, and although most of the throne was dismantled and spirited away when he was deposed, some portions of the Peacock Throne still exist in the museum in Tehran, Iran.

It was at the Red Fort that we got our first taste of something that seemed pretty odd at first. The tourist sites are, of course, mostly full of Indians seeing their own country's history. Many of them haven't seen many foreigners except on television or in magazines. Thus, at these sites, the locals would often come up and ask members of our tour group if they could take a photo of themselves standing next to us. It was usually younger people, and they were always very polite and friendly, but it was startling the first time it happened! It's so strange to be thinking that you're in an exotic locale and then suddenly be reminded that no, you're the thing that's exotic here, not the locale!

El Husbando and JJ got their share of "photo ops", but the French family, who had light hair, and these two pretty Australian women, one of whom had very pale blue eyes, were the most popular. Our guide eventually started joking they should charge 10 rupees a photo like the men who walk around with tamed monkeys do.

Our next stop was at the so-called "Friday Mosque". At this point, we got to see how very tolerant of different religions India has always been. Just outside the Red Fort, there is a Jain temple (Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism), followed by a Hindu temple, followed by a church, followed by a Sikh temple, and then the mosque we visited is just off to the side of them all.

We took a bicycle rickshaw through a market to get to the mosque, and that was pretty neat. The small, winding streets and general packed-to-the-gills state of the place certainly reminded us of the medina in Fez, from our last trip.

About 20,000 people come to pray at the mosque on any given day, and about 25,000 show up on Fridays. Thankfully, when we were there, it was just tourists and the plaza was thus empty enough to walk through. The mosque was the last building built by the 5th Moghul emperor, i.e. the one who built the Taj Mahal, before he was imprisoned by his son.

After the mosque, we went to the cremation site of Ghandi, which is a black marble slab in the middle of a lovely open garden. It was kept intentionally simple because that's how Ghandi lived his life.

After the cremation site, we drove to the Humayum Tomb, but on the way we got to see some of the more impressive government buildings and a large stone arch that commemorates the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in WWI. Our guide Yusef also pointed out a field full of cricketers and noted that anywhere you see a bit of open space, you'll see people playing cricket. He jokingly referred to the sport as "India's national religion".

The Humayum Tomb was built by the widow of the 2nd Moghul emperor for her husband. He had an interesting life story, in that he lost his kingdom to an Afgan noble, went to the Shah of Iran for support, won his lands back in 1555, and then died in 1556 when he slipped on the stairs while hurrying to prayer one evening.

The tomb is thought to have been the architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal, although it does not have the four minarets the Taj does. The building is also smaller (about 40 m, while the Taj is 74 m) and is made of sandstone with white marble trim, unlike the Taj, which is all white marble. There are about 100 graves at the site, all for close relatives of the king.

Decorating the front of the tomb is what looks like a few Stars of David, but these are actually a Hindu symbol depicting the joining of male and female energy. The male Hindu gods can create matter but not energy or life; the female gods do that. Thus, the joining of the two creates something special.

After the tomb, we visited the Qutab Minar, which was mind-blowing. It's the world's largest minaret, and it only gets more impressive as you get closer to it, because you begin to realize how detailed the decorations are. Some of them are huge, carved calligraphy. Also, there's a madrassa (school) behind the minaret that is equally beautiful, albeit in ruins.

The minaret is 800 years old, 732 m high, and was built in stages. The original 4th story was destroyed by lightning and replaced by two more stories, bringing it to its current height. There are 384 steps to the top, but tourists aren't allowed in it anymore after some deaths. Close to the minaret, a later king had begun constructing a minaret intended to be twice as big as the existing one. He died when it was only a few metres in height, and the project was abandoned.

The tower was never intended to be a working minaret (who would hear the imam singing from the top of something that high?) but as a show of power. It marked the eastern boundary of the territory they ruled when it was built. The mosque attached to it was also never a working mosque because some of its pillars were taken from a disused Hindu temple and thus depict gods and animals. Islam forbids the depiction of humans or animals.

Near the minaret is an iron pillar that is 1000 years old. It's a single piece of metal, no machines were used to construct it, and it still hasn't rusted! We scuttled out of the area just as a rainstorm started, so you know it isn't the dry climate that preserves that pillar.

After the tours, we visited a rug emporium and got a little demonstration of how they weave carpets, as well as a nice green tea with saffron and cardamom.

Day 3 - Feb. 21, 2011 - Driving to Agra, Tour of Taj Mahal

Random Moments of Wow:
  • We saw sweepers with twig-brooms cleaning off the sidewalks first thing in the morning.
  • There was a truck carrying women to work, and it was neat to see all their elegant, brightly-coloured head scarves bobbing around in the back of this battered old truck.
  • Everywhere we go, whether rural or urban, has a thick haze in the air. We've decided it must be water vapour. (Later in the desert, the air got clearer, but not completely clear.)
  • MONKEYS!!! Ahem. That is to say, we saw monkeys for the first time this day. They were sitting in the shade under the trees by the side of the highway.
  • We also saw those very sculpted-looking cows with high mounds on their shoulders, dangling neck-wattles, and very shiny, swoopy hipbones. (The locals must think tourists are insane, the way we go nuts over things like a cow.)
  • People mix cowpats with straw and dry the mixture to make a fuel for the rainy season. You see cowpats lined up like ceiling tiles all across people's roofs, particularly in rural areas. Apparently the ‘pats burn blue and without any smell.

This day was spent bussing to Agra with the intention of seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset. On the way, Yusef taught us some things:

What we learned:
  • Indian civilization starts at least as far back as 3,000 B.C. The British discovered red bricks that date back to then. Not much is known about those people, but they had sophisticated water storage and sewage systems.
  • By 1500 B.C., there was a caste system, but it wasn't as harmful as the one that developed. There were four castes, and people could move between them. (Teachers/Priests = Brahmins, Warriors = Shadriyas, Merchants = Vishiyas, and Farmers/Menial Workers = Shubras.) In 1000 B.C., the castes became rigid, and those without caste became the untouchables. The Brahmins became the supreme caste because they were literate, and they made the rules and began to exploit others.
  • Buddism and Jainism both rose in reaction to this exploitation, and in both cases, a member of the warrior caste started this new religion.
  • Buddha lived in the 6th century, and in his lifetime, Buddhism didn't catch on. In fact, because Buddhism challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins (anyone can attain the state of the Buddha), Buddhists were persecuted in the 7th century and the religion spread east. By the 9th century, Buddhism was wiped out in its birthplace of India. In the 12th century, a warrior had a crisis of faith in the wake of a war and converted to Buddhism. He sent out teachers, and Buddhism was re-established in India.
  • Jainism developed at roughly the same time as Buddhism, in the 6th century. Jainism is an extreme religion, but thankfully what they're extreme about is non-violence.
    • They are vegetarian, cover their mouth and nose when they go out to prevent inhaling an insect, and won't work as farmers for fear of killing insects as they till the soil.
    • This led them into gold-smithing, and so Jains, as a group, are very wealthy--they control about 90% of India's jewellery trade. However, they are not allowed to store wealth, i.e. to have savings. What they do not use, they must give to charity, and so there are many hospitals and services that have been built by Jains.
    • They do have some disturbing practices when it comes to death, however. They revere a fire god, so bodies are not cremated. Instead, they are put on high towers for birds of carrion to eat. However, pesticide use has damaged India's vulture population, and sometimes the consumption of the body doesn't proceed quickly enough, creating a smell that is a nuisance. Thus, electric cremations are catching on.
    • It's very rare nowadays, but some Jains, when they decide they are old enough and have done all they want to in life, will take a vow to refuse food and thus slowly starve to death. While still living, they are treated as gods. Suicide is illegal in India, and the government has asked Jains not to do this.
  • Sikhism is a young religion, and they've had a pretty robust start already.
    • Because the religion requires men to carry a dagger or knife, they've made useful warriors in a variety of situations.
    • A Moghul emperor killed a Sikh guru, so the Sikhs resisted the Moghuls.
    • In the 1970s and -80s, they were agitating for a separate Sikh homeland, but given that Punjab is the breadbasket of India, India wasn't willing to let them secede. When Indira Ghandi ordered police into the Sikh's (most holy) Golden Temple--and please note the police in India are forbidden to go into any temple--in order to confiscate the Sikh's weapons, a Sikh assassinated her.
    • Nowadays, Sikhism has been mainstreamed and India's government is having fewer problems with them.
  • The government is working hard to alleviate the oppression of the formerly-known-as-untouchables people. First, it's illegal to call someone an untouchable, and second, half of all jobs are reserved for the lowest castes. Also, education and medical help is free everyone, but books, school uniforms, and medicines are not--except for the poorest people.
  • In India, there are men who walk around with monkeys on leashes, and there are snake charmers, and there are people who sell peacock feather fans. However, Yusef advised us to not give any of them money because all of those practices involve animal cruelty. The monkeys are subdued with beatings, the charmers pull out the cobras' fangs and venom glands despite the snakes needing their venom to help digest food, and people poison the peacocks to get their feathers.
  • 8 of India's 10 prime ministers have come from Agra (the city we drove to on this day.)
We got to the Taj Mahal well before sunset and stayed long enough to see the sun go down. The entrance gate takes you into a garden, and then you turn right in order to pass through another gateway into the Taj Mahal's main garden. That gateway of course features the famous view of the Taj above its own reflection in the pool. No matter how stridently the tour guides instruct their groups to move to the side, everyone jars to a halt at that point, squeals incoherently, and then starts snapping a zillion pictures. It took our group about 10 (very excited) minutes to finally get to the meeting point Yusef specified.

The Taj's dome actually rests on a second dome, which is unusual but effective for bearing the weight of the upper structure. At the top of the upper dome is a carving of an inverted lotus blossom, and the gold spire above this represents a pot of ambrosia. The entire building is symmetric when viewed from the four directions. There is a mosque to the Taj's right, and an identical building to its left (which was used as a guesthouse because it faced the wrong direction to be a mosque too.) The fountains all spritz water to the same height, which was quite tricky to manage given the technology of the time.

The inner tomb is decorated with inlays of 27 different types of semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers and vines. The orange stone is carnelian, which is translucent, so Yusef pressed a flashlight up to it and showed us how the orange flowers could be made to light up like neon in the dark.

It is not true that the emperor cut off the architect's hands when the Taj Mahal was finished; he didn't want any negative associations with his wife's tomb. Instead, everyone was paid fairly according to their contribution, and the emperor even bought the land the Taj sits on from a sub-king in Jaipur despite the fact the emperor could have annexed it. He even gave that sub-king twice as much land in Agra to make up for the land the Taj sits on.

The building rests on a foundation of wells filled with bamboo and gravel. It's estimated the building could withstand an 8.0 Richter scale earthquake. The building's four minarets lean very slightly outward from the structure so that, if an earthquake knocks them over, they will fall away from the domes.

The Taj was built as a tomb for the 5th Moghul emperor's third wife, who was adored by the people as well as her husband, and who was given real power in her lifetime despite being a woman. When she married, her name was changed to Mumtaz Mahel, which means "chosen crown of the palace". She and the emperor were married for 17 years and she died giving birth to their 14th child.

It took the emperor 22 years to build the Taj, and he originally planned to build an identical, second Taj in black marble on the opposite side of the river, then join the two Tajs with a bridge. The foundations were laid for this, and you can still see them, but before any more work was completed, the emperor's third son killed his two older brothers, plus an accomplice younger brother, and then imprisoned his father and seized the empire.

The emperor spent his remaining 8 years of life in Agra Fort, where he was able to see Taj but not visit it. He was imprisoned with his remaining wives and concubines, but it's said he never touched another woman after Mumtaz Mahel passed away. After his death, he was entombed beside his wife, and the placement of his body is the only asymmetry that exists in the Taj Mahal.

The gardens of the Taj are large and serene, and when you get up to the building itself, you can take your shoes off (or put on little booties over them) and walk up to and into the Taj Mahal. It's a zoo in there; approximately 45,000 people visit the Taj every day.

After viewing the Taj, JJ took a quick look through the guest-house building on the Taj's left, and then she and El Husbando enjoyed the garden as the sunset changed the colour of the dome.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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