Thursday, June 14, 2007

Trip Photos

Originally uploaded by ecindia07
Hi everyone! Just to let you know that we are posting photos on our flickr website, which you can access by clicking on this photo. We will be adding more, so check back for updates.

Andrea and Martha

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Delhi and then home...

We arrived in Delhi this morning after a 16 hour overnight train ride, like something right out of the movies. We had several compartments for our group, with bunk-style berths. We had card games, reading, writing in journals, train-exploring, some interesting food experiences, and on the down side, a few sick kids. Not everyone slept, and not everyone was feeling so great when we got off that train this morning.

We must have all eaten something a little off when we were in Varanasi, because a number of folks have been sick in the past few days. Most of us are now on antibiotics as well as anti-protozoal drugs, and almost everyone has been feeling better by this evening. Thank goodness. When we arrived in Delhi, instead of doing our scheduled trips around the city, we took the day off so that people could sleep, unwind, and get their strength back. We will be able to fit in a few sites tomorrow, including a visit to the Gandhi park and to the largest Mosque in India. We also hope to be able to see the Qutab Minar and the India gate. And I think there is a little last-shopping planned at the Chandri Chowk, a large and famous traditional old market.

We'll be on the plane within 24 hours, and be back at Elmira College within 48 hours. As we get closer to our departure, thoughts of home seem to be coming up more and more frequently. We'll miss our terrific guide, Satendra Sharma, who was with us every step of the way (and who variously played guide, uncle, and protector to us). He's been just terrific. I think we'll also miss this amazing, confounding, difficult, beautiful, historic, and powerful country. I suspect that we will all be processing through our experiences here for weeks if not months after we get home. So many photos have been taken, Sara P has hours and hours of video, and we all have some great memories (as well as some *great* stories!).

Goodbye India, hello America.

Martha and Andrea

Monday, May 21, 2007


Varanasi is a very powerful place. There are a lot of people (2.5 million) packed into a relatively small space, plus the city is full of pilgrims coming to bathe in the Ganges. And of course, there are the tourists. In the 24 hours we have been here so far, we have packed in so many experiences, it is almost overwhelming.

Our Air India flight from Khajuraho was a little turbulent, but it was fun to try to figure out what the in-flight snack might possibly be (some kind of muffin, or was it more of a sandwhich...?). The flight attendants all wore matching uniform saris, which struck some of us as fun. The airport itself was small and looked kind of 'third world,' but the security was actually even tighter than it was when we left to fly internationally. Not only did they X-ray each bag and then go through them by hand, they had us through a metal detector and then wanded us individually. Interesting.

When we arrived in Varanasi, we drove in from the airport through much of the city, and got a sense of it. The city is incredibly busy, packed with people, vehicles of all sorts, and animals. The 'new' part of Varanasi is laid out much more like a European city, with parkways and roundabouts, and many more urban trees and parks than we have yet seen. But other than the layout, the resemblence to Europe ends. For example, as I sit here in this internet cafe (to call it that is generous), I can see a paved street (a main street in fact), the shoulders running to sand. There is a construction site across the street that is composed of a large hole in the ground, some piles of dirt with sleeping dogs on top, a pile of stones of which some spill out into the street, and a large cow that seems like it might not be feeling well. While traffic is running in both directions, it isn't following lanes, and everyone is driving or pedaling or walking right down the middle. Horns are honking pretty much constantly. A guy on a bicycle rickshaw just rode past carrying what must be 20 or 30 large bags of straw, piled up at least 15 feet from his rickshaw. He barely fit under the low hanging electrical wire across the street. The pace--like the sounds and smells--is big, fast, hard, and strong.

After we arrived yesterday, we paired up and took bicylcle rickshaws down through the city into the old town to get to the river. The closer we got, the more crowded it became, until we were literally hemmed in by people. One o the rikshaws actually had an fender bender with a motorcycle, and nobody even stopped! We finally couldn't move any more, and we dismounted and walked down to the most important of the ghats (ghats are the wide steps that line the river). This ghat was packed with pilgrims and celebrants, there were chants, candles, sitars, drums, bells, and of course, hawkers trying to sell us candles and postcards and relics.

We went out into the wide Ganges by boat, and moved up the river so that we could get a sense of all the different ghats (they all run into each other). The boats were long and narrow, made of wood. The boat boys used large bamboo pieces to paddle and pole us along. There were probably a hundred other boats out in the river with us, moving up and down the bank. People were swimming, some were bathing, and others were lighting candles and chanting, all along the banks. We went up as far as the main crematorium. It is considered extremely important for all Hindus to be cremated at the Ganges, and it is especially auspicious to be cremated at this particular crematorium. We could watch, from the river, as a number of what looked like large camp fires burned. We could also see the bodies, wrapped in bright colors with a golden mantle on top, waiting to be burned. After the fire goes out, the family members sift through the ashes and put them into the river. We could see families standing around the fires. It was very powerful and quite lovely.

As our boat came back to the main ghat, the sunset flower ceremony started. It was incredible! All along the steps, thousands of people sat and clapped, rang bells, chanted, and chimed. There were 7 orange and gold robed priests up on pedestals, ringing ceremonial bells in the left hands, and following a ceremonial offering to the river with their right hands. They moved their right hands in unison as they faced the river, then moved to face each side, and face back to the crowd. Their hand motions looked like very slow yoga poses, with different objects. They slowly swung a burning candle, then a large oil lamp, then a burning head of Shiva, then spices that they threw down into the river, then some kind of fan. There was chanting over the loudspeaker, and along with the bells and drums (not following any discernable pattern), it was loud and colorful and dramatic, and in some way, it was very moving. Many of the worshippers were swaying and medititating, apparently using the noise as a way to focus their prayers. As the sun set, the main priest went to the center and blew out some loud notes on a large conch shell. The drums and bells got louder and stronger, and then it was over. I think this is one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my life. The river, the crowds, the colors, the sounds....

Varanasi is amazing.

Today, we went out on the river again (to see the sun rise). This time, instead of going back to the main ghat, we disembarked in the old city and walked through tiny narrow streets (in some places no wider than 3 feet across). In places, we would round a corner and come face to face with a cow and have to edge around. There were tiny shops no bigger than a closet, and all around us, other pilgrims wandering in this holy city. This warren of streets got us to the most important Hindu temple in Varanasi, with its roof of solid gold. Sharing the same site, and even the same wall, was an ancient mosque. This site is so disputed that we had to pass armed guards all around, get frisked, and go through a metal detector set up in the street just to get close. We weren't allowed in, but we could climb up some steep old steps to look down on the temple and mosque (and see the armed guards).

Later, we went out to the site where Buddha (the real person!) first gave the talk that set out the principles that became Buddhism. In Sarnath, we saw the 3rd century BC ruins that were built to honor Buddha, and we went to the relatively new main Buddhist temple. It was an amazing thing to get to walk where Buddha actually walked 2600 years ago.

We now have some free time, and there's a lot more to see in Varanasi. We get on a train (a night train!) tomorrow to go back to Delhi, our last leg of the journey.

Home soon. Mixed feelings.

Martha and Andrea

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Charming Orchha

We spent the last two nights in Orchha, quite a charming little town in the countryside. We have left Rajasthan behind and are moving more centrally into the Indian interior. The terrain is changing along with us. The countryside here is much more green, with trees and vegetation all around. It is still pretty dry (we are only a few weeks from monsoon season after all), but there is definitely less of a sense of being in a desert here. The henna bushes are in bloom, and the gentle scent is all around. We are seeing more palm and coconut trees, even giant mango trees with actual mangoes on the branches. Interestingly, the most impressive trees around, with huge trunks, are actually ficus trees, which certainly gives me a newfound respect for my humble office plants (!).

Orchha is a very old place, with buildings that predate the Islamic Moghul architecture of Rajasthan. The palace up on the hill (actually 6 different palaces and forts, built at different times) was very beautiful. Orchha has a mix of Hindu and Muslim history and we saw both influences in the buildings. Atop the palaces were a series of onion-domes, with the Mulsim influence, except that they were gently shaped into lotus flowers. There must have been 20 or so of these domes of different sizes along the roof line. Then, there were the Hindu influenced domes, which aren't really domes at all, as they are much more pointy, like intricately carved inverted cones. These cones are called by the Hindi word for umbrellas, which is both charming and apt. The palaces are almost completely abandoned, and we could walk around parts of them freely, going up and down secret staircases, up into the ramparts, around the narrow walkway at the top. The view from the very top had one of the most wonderful vistas some of us had every seen--the shining river, forests and fields, a pair of far off bridges rising in the distance, beautiful birds circling and soaring high up in the clouds, and best of all, in every direction, the pointy domes of ancient abandoned Hindu temples in the woods and fields. The sun was shining, there was a gentle breeze, white puffy clouds rolled through, and it was a truly glorious time.

Also at the top of the Orchha palaces were literally hundreds of buzzards. These giant birds circle high up in the sky, really catching the wind to soar and soar. They also perch up on all the carving of the domes and ramparts, almost blending with the carving. They are huge, and it is easy to mistake them for gargoyles or something similar. We managed to get close, when we were at the very top, to a nest with at least one fuzzy baby. We could actually see the mother bird feeding it. Buzzards are kind of creepy up close, and it was all quite an experience.

We had a day trip to Chanderi, which is off the beaten path to some degree. It's a small town, known for the very special hand woven fine silk saris made by the women. We had the opportunity to watch the weaving of a sari, and the thread is so delicate, the work so tiny, it was clear the amount of time and craft that went into just a single piece of cloth. We had the opportunity to buy saris and scarves from a women's collective, which employs widows who would otherwise be homeless. In Chanderi as well, we saw some abandoned ancient temples and graves. Unlike in the US where everything historic is carefully preserved and presented, much of what we are seeing here--especially in Chanderi--was just completely abandoned and open. We could walk around these ancient Hindu monuments, way out in the fields, and all around us were carved rocks, fallen temples, graves, all in the middle of the fields and trees. The site at Chanderi was more than a 1000 years old, and it was pretty amazing to be there.

We arrived in Khajuraho yesterday, which also happened to be Kate's birthday. Kate wore her beautiful sky-blue sari when we went out to see the famous temples here, and it was quite a day. The temples here are a world heritage site, and they were carefully protected and maintained. These temples are also very old, both Jain and Hindu, carved with the cone domes, and covered in very detailed carvings of all the gods from the Hindu religion. Each of the gods is shown as part of a pair, and some of them were quite intimate. There must have been hundreds of carvings on each temple. One of the temple sites was more wild, and we were the only Westerners there. We could walk around and go inside and explore all across the grounds. Several of the temples, all dark inside except for whatever little light comes in the small windows, had bats in them. It was very Indiana Jones, and very cool.

We had a birthday cake for Kate yesterday, and this morning, for breakfast, we had another cake for Matt, who gets to celebrate his birthday today. I think it must be great luck to get to have a birthday in India...

We get on a plane to Varanasi this afternoon: the world's oldest continually inhabited city, and certainly one of the most holy. The Ganges flows through, and we should arrive in time for the evening flower ceremony.

More later!

Martha and Andrea

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Taj

Well, the Taj Mahal was pretty darn amazing. We woke up before 6:00 AM so that we could get there as the sun rose, which is the time that has the best light. We were staying only 2 KM away from the Taj, but our bus couldn't get close. We drove to a drop off point, then switched to an electric shuttle, which drove us to the gate. All the while, we could see the top of the giant dome above the skyline. As we waited in line to go through security (almost airport level!), we waited with other groups of tourists. There was a group of orange-robed Buddhist monks waiting with us, and they were so amused by us. They asked to take our photos, then asked if they could come pose with us. And then some Japanese tourists asked to pose with us, and some Indians, and it was really a turn-around to be the cultural spectacle of the moment. Part of the fun might have been the fact that a large number of the female students were wearing beautiful saris and salwar kameezes, so we didn't look like the typical Western tourists. It was an experience...!

The Taj Mahal itself is, of course, very impressive. It turns out that the Taj is a giant octagon, which we certainly found interesting (!). It is made of glowing white marble, with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones. Most of the design was floral, including some very beautiful irises (!). Just as with the Hindu temples we have been visiting, we had to remove our shoes in order to start up to the raised platform that houses the Taj. Since it was early morning, the marble wasn't yet too hot for our feet, thank goodness. Inside the Taj, the actual tombs of the king and queen were not on display (they are being cleaned and restored). But we did see replicas carved of marble that sure seemed pretty true to what the originals must be. Inside the giant dome it echoes, so even whispers carried around. It had a peaceful and contemplative effect. Outside, as we wandered around, several people pointed out that the light seemed brighter around the Taj, and we speculated that the white of all the marble actually brightened the reflected light.

Our guide showed us the original foundation, across the river, for what would have been the matching tomb, made in black marble. Apparently, the king who built the Taj, Shah Jahan, also planned to build himself a matching tomb across from the Taj so that he and his favorite wife would be linked for eternity. But his son, afraid of bankruptcy, had his own father locked up in jail so that the building couldn't continue past the foundation. When we went to the Agra fort, we saw the jail "cell" that Shah Jahan lived in until he died. It was rather swanky, I must say. Upon his death, his daughter had her father entombed in the Taj next to his wife, so I think in a way he got his wish to be linked for eternity.

After visiting the Taj, we went to Pizza Hut. Not only has it been fun to go to some of our American chain restaurants here to compare them, but this particular experience was very--shall we say-- memorable. It ended up being like something out of a Bollywood movie or something! All the waiters were rather good looking young men, and I think they were having a fun time waiting on us (I mean, we do have a number of very pretty young women with us, come on!). When we were finished eating, they said they had a surprise for us. And was it ever a surprise! They turned up the music (some kind of Indian pop dance music), and 4 of them (including the manager) actually danced for us! I mean, like dancing in a video, choreographed dancing! They could move! It was so much fun, and I suspect there may be footage showing up on YouTube sometime soon! Personally, I have an unexpected and new-found love for Pizza Hut...

Some of us went shopping in Agra, in the Sadar Bazaar, which is an area about 2 blocks long with indoor clothing and shoe stores. This was definitely not a tourist area, but it was (for Indian standards) quite a middle class shopping area. We were the only Westerners there, and some of us bought clothes and shoes. It's really interesting shopping in Indian stores; if the clothes don't fit, they immediately offer to tailor them on the spot, for free. I bought a fun skirt, but I didn't like the length, so they cut off about 8 inches and hemmed it right there. It's so very different from the American shopping experience.

At the Bazaar, we stopped in a pretty nice American style coffee house for cold drinks. Inside with the glass and chrome, we were sitting and cooling off, surrounded by Starbucks-level luxury. And then a goat walked past the windows. India.

Today we are in Orchha, after a train ride of a few hours this morning. The experience of the station and boarding the train was pretty interesting. It was a mad crush of people, moving in different directions, hawkers, children begging for money, Indian travelers, freight, loose animals, and what amounted to some fairly modern trains that were quite comfortable. Of course, we were not in coach class, so we had some air conditioning, so we can't really say we had the full experience of Indian trains, but it was still interesting.

Orchha is an ancient town, very quaint, with more trees than we have seen before. There is a river, a number of charming temples, and an old fortress on the hill. We are going exploring later in the day. Our hotel is moorish style, again around a large courtyard, and we are currently spending some time relaxing, unwinding, recovering from various stomach events, and some of us are even swimming as I type. Orchha, I suspect, is going to be a lovely experience.

More later,

Martha and Andrea

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tomorrow, the Taj

Hi everyone!

We arrived here in Agra at around noon, after an early morning visit to the Keolaodeo Bird Sanctuary just outside Bharatpur. The sanctuary was simply amazing. They don't allow motorized vehicles, so we had to take cycle rickshaws to get into the interior of the park. The cycle rickshaw was an interesting experience; while the ride was certainly well ventilated, most of the drivers pedalling us (two at a time) seemed worn down. They do their work while dressed in full length pants and long-sleeved shirts in the hot and humid environment and get paid very little (around $1 US for a 5 km drive).

The park was full of all kinds of animals - we saw wild jackals, water buffalo, and a small herd of spotted deer in addition to many spectacular varieties of birds. Some of the interesting birds that we saw included an ibis, cranes, egrets, a bright red duck, buzzards and vultures, peacocks, and an adorable little snowy owlet watching us from up high on a tree trunk. Perhaps the most impressive bird that we saw was a black-necked stork, an endangered species of which there are only 30 nesting pairs in India. We also saw some giant turtles and some multicolored lizards, and, best of all, a HUGE monitor lizard sauntering across the road right in front of us. All in all, the visit was a refreshing change of pace after some busy cities, and seeing nature in India was a true pleasure.

After the bird sanctuary, we had breakfast and then headed back to our rooms for some relaxation before the (mercifully short) hour and a half drive to Agra. En route to the city, we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, the one-time capital of northern India, now a complex of abandoned palace buildings on a small ridge over a dried-up lake. The palace was built by the Moghul emperor Akbar, considered the greatest Moghul leader in Indian history. As the story goes, Akbar moved from Agra to move his palace at Fatehpur Sikri because a holy man told him that he would be blessed with sons if he built there. While Muslim himself, as part of a conquering force, Akbar chose to have three wives, each of a different religious faith - Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Each of the wives had their own separate quarters in the palace complex. The Muslim wife had stone carvings and inlaid tile decorating her walls and the Christian wife chose to have her walls covered with murals painted with gold, but the Hindu wife had an entire courtyard to herself. The courtyard had a Hindu temple and both a summer and a winter residence, each of which faced the best sunlight of the season. Interestingly, in the center of her elaborate courtyard was a simple small stone planter for holy basil, which is considered to have a multitude of medicinal and religious properties according to the tenets of Ayurvedic medicine. There was also a private meeting hall with an enormous central pillar carved in six different styles, one for each of the six main religions in India at the time. The carving was incredibly precise and was crafted out of a single piece of stone. The king sat at the top, which was reached by four carved elevated walkways, not unlike an architectural design one might see in Star Wars! Another interesting aspect of the palace was a life-sized parcheesi board inlaid into the stone of the main courtyard of the king's palace. The king and his favorite (Hindu) queen would sit on a raised platform in the center of the board and dictate the moves of the "pieces" - the king's concubines, who would dance from square to square as moves were called out.

Tomorrow we will rise at 5:15 am to see the Taj Mahal by the light of dawn. Our only glimpse so far has been from the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel where we had dinner. Some of us are planning to wear our gorgeous new saris and salwar kamises for this special occasion (though the professors are trying to convince them that an Elmira College t-shirt is equally elegant).

More later,

Andrea and Martha

Sunday, May 13, 2007


Today is our second day in Jaipur, which is the largest city in Rajasthan. We got here yesterday, after a stop to see the only Brahma temple in India. There are three main gods in Hinduism, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. There are temples everywhere, but only this one for Brahma. We've learned that Brahma only has one temple because he is the creator, and creation only needs to happen once. Vishnu, however, is the protector and helper, and he's got a lot of temples. Shiva is the destroyer (necessary for new beginings), and yes, there are also a lot of temples for Shiva too. In fact, this morning we saw a temple at the Amber Fort that was dedicated to Kali (another name for Shiva). This morning, there was an active worship service going on while we visited, and we were right in the middle of the chants and prayers. It was colorful and flower-scented as we tried to get a view of the Kali idol at the front. By the way, the other god who we seem to see around a lot is Ganesh, the god who blesses new journeys. Every house and city gate, every hotel, almost every building has a picture or painting of Ganesh by the front door. Ganesh is the son of Shiva, and has the head of an elephant (long story). But we have kind of adopted Ganesh as the symbol for our trip. Appropriate somehow.

And as for elephants, we in fact all rode elephants this morning on the long walkway up to the Amber Fort. On the one hand, it was a really interesting experience to be riding in a carrier on the back of an elephant. On the other hand, the elephants didn't really seem very happy. All in all, it was worth experiencing, but I think some of us have some mixed feelings.

Yesterday, after we arrived in Jaipur, we went to see the Observatory. This was an amazing and fantastical place, with huge stone instruments that precisely measured all kinds of phenomena. Using a 17 degree angle, there were at least 4 giant vertical sundials (one of which must have been 5 stories tall!). Each of the sundials could measure with very precise accuracy the time. There were also large two-story zodiac dials to measure the progression of the constellations, one dial for each sign of the zodiac. There were large inverted bowls in the ground, with lines in the inlaid stone slabs, which could measure how the constellations moved into each zodiac sign. There was a huge circle made of rock slabs, looking sort of like stonehenge only much more regular and complex; this circle somehow could track every single movement of all the visible stars at night. The Observatory was all outdoors, like a giant monument park made up of fantastical stone machines. (And you might be able to tell that some of us geeked out a bit while we were there)....

We saw the Amber Fort this morning, up in the mountains outside of Jaipur. We have seen a number of forts and palaces, most from the Moghul time period of India history. But we could see, from the Amber Fort, the ruins of the fort built by the previous rulers, which dated all the way back to the 11th century. The Moghul time period brought a lot of Islamic influence to this part of India, so we have lots of examples of Purdah (with amazingly beautiful carved marble screens to keep the women hidden). We have also noticed that this style of architecture (technically called Indo-Islamic) looks very much like what we might call Spanish style, with large courtyards ringed with covered walkways and doors opening out onto the walkways and into the courtyards. There are also a lot of arches and tile-work mosaics. It's given us an appreciation for how the Spanish (and by extension, Californian) style must have been influenced by Islamic architectural ideas. We have also noticed how traditional Rajasthanti folk dancing has elements of Middle Eastern dance blended in. India is such a multi-cultural place, with so many cultural traditions mixed into something amazing!

After the Amber Fort today, we stopped at a textile "factory," in order to observe traditional wood block print work on textiles, and watch rugs being woven by hand on giant handcarved looms. It was really amazing to see how much work goes into rug-making (and block printing!). And it was also interesting to be so close to the creation of some of the things we might buy in the US. It isn't often that most of us can purchase something from the actual person who made it.

We went to McDonald's for lunch today, which seemed to make us all happy. Most of us had a lot of fun with the in-store advertising and the menu options (a Chicken Maharajah Mac? the McVindalo? Veggie Cheeseburgers?). No beef, of course, but lots of vegetarian types of burgers and chicken. Fries tasted just about the same, as did the soft serve ice cream. It was good to experience, lots of photos were taken (including a series of shots of one of the professors--nameless--trying to assess and then eat a Maharajah Mac. The attempt was a spectacular venture. Literally.)

We have had free time this afternoon, and some of us went to the common market (not the tourist market). It was huge! And crazy! (Crazy, at least to the American experience. It was loud and crowded and dirty and there were people and animals and traffic. Color everywhere!). Others went to the local mall, which is fascinating in itself, with a blend of Western and Indian shops--a Subway sandwich shop and a Sari shop. A DVD/CD music store and an incense store. A gorgeous sari was purchased there, with a handmade top sewn in a matter of hours.

Many of us are now back in the hotel, which is part of an old palace/house (I'm not sure which). It is large and beautiful, with marble and tilework, small passageways and couryards, a pool with a carved fence, archways in the doors and rooms, balconies, flowers, and best of all, air-conditioning! This place, the Shahpura Hotel, is one of the nicest places we have stayed. Last night, dinner here was served on the rooftop, with candlelight and singers and dancers. The stars were out, the music was lovely (even the Indian blended version of Frere Jaque/the Macarena. Yes, it's true). After all the intensity of our travel experiences so far, it is very nice to have a whole afternoon and evening off. Swimming, shopping, and I suspect, some serious repacking of suitcases to fit all the new purchases. Napping too.

Happy Mother's Day! Moms have been a major topic of conversation today.

We move on tomorrow. We'll post again when we can.

Martha and Andrea