Our Guest’s Personal Account – Sylvia Parnell
“STEPPING BACK INTO A BIBLICAL SCENE”
Will anyone ever again witness the awesome spectacle of
ancient and modern life colliding as in India
or will the worldwide Coronavirus shatter and reshape it.
Whatever happens I hope it is for the better.
After the Event…
Tuesday, 24 March 2020
Exhaustion has overwhelmed me since my return from India last Thursday after 15 intense days of the colours, sounds, explorations and dining experiences that have been almost too much for my brain to cope with, that I have agonised as to whether I could get it down on paper to perhaps encourage others to explore this amazing country, culture and people of India.
I made up my mind to sit at the computer first thing today and start my account of the trip, but no matter how much I pushed buttons, spoke encouragingly, shouted authoritatively and tried to wake it up by thumping the table, it stared blankly back at me in defiance and would not start up. So, much as I had heeded the presentation of an opportunity by my lovely friend Rita to visit a country I had never considered before, I took this to be yet another sign that I was not meant to write today despite my best resolve, and I once more snoozed the afternoon away. However, it won’t let me rest, this amazing, life-changing odyssey that we undertook that changed my perception and understanding of this ancient land. Believe me when I say, you have to go and see for yourself because I can’t possibly do it justice, but I will try.
In December 2019, over dinner at Chemainus Theatre with Rita and Jim Bell while waiting to see the play “Miracle on 34th Street”, Rita mentioned that Marlene and Mike Bell were going to India in March. It was a country she had always wanted to visit but Jim was adamant that he did not want to. She asked if it was a place I might like to visit and, although it was not on my bucket list, I said I would think about it. Rita had been a great friend, coming to care for me when I came out of the hospital in November after a hip replacement, and besides always considering opportunities when they present themselves I also wanted to do something to make her happy so I rang her the next day to find out more. Suffice to say that 4 weeks later we were booked to go and it became clear there was more than meets the eye to get there. I went to see Dr. Lee who told me I needed a Hep A and Hep B shot (with a third one due in a year’s time), a Typhoid shot, Malaria tablets, Dukoral tablets for “Delhi Belly” and a Visa to get into the country! For good measure, my pharmacist also gave me a Pneumonia injection but I drew the line at a Yellow Fever shot that several people assured me I needed but I hoped only really applied if I was going to Africa.
I didn’t have time to think too much about it all as a worrying situation was developing regarding a new viral infection Coronavirus with news filtering out of China, its source, during January 2020. Applying for the required Indian Visa online proved tricky as converting documents to PDFs and JPGs is not my strong point but Marlene was a great asset in helping me achieve it. I didn’t begin to pack until the end of February, for although the excellent tour company we booked through Explore India.ca had its staff members Nazir Karnai and Mandira Gauba liaising with us and helping in every way they could with arrangements and advice, the world situation regarding the virus was escalating and a niggle of cancelling was there. Also, there had been sporadic violence in North East Delhi with multiple waves of bloodshed, property destruction and rioting beginning on 23 February, chiefly caused by Hindu mobs attacking Muslims. The streets were littered with the debris of days of sectarian riots that had killed 33 people (this was where we would land and spend our first two nights). However, by now I desperately wanted to go having read the very appealing itinerary.
I changed money into rupees, scoured the shops for travel liquids small enough not to arouse questions (didn’t want a repeat of the Gatwick experience), dug out my sensible walking shoes, located my Tilley safari hat for Ranthambore National Park, made sure my Last Will and Testament was in order, paid my bills, dusted off my passport, ummed and ahhed over what clothes to take, and changed suitcases at least three times before settling on a bigger one to check and a small holdall to carry on (given to me by my daughter-in-law Pauline).
OKAY, READY, SET, GO……..Wednesday 4th March 2020
It was good to have a 5.20pm flight out of Nanaimo to Vancouver as it gave me time to yet again change things about in my suitcase and be ready for a pick up by Jim and Rita at 4.30pm to the airport just 10 minutes down the road. There we joined Mike and Marlene, proceeded to check-in, set the alarms off (as usual) and did the open scissor routine of being scanned. We departed on time, checked in at Vancouver 20 minutes later and then waited 5 hours for our connecting flight straight through to Delhi. A later flight from Nanaimo had been cancelled and our flight was half empty with 11 empty rows between those in the back and those in the front, most unusual, and perhaps a portent of things to come with the virus and cancellations. I was so fortunate because Rita had access to the Premium Lounge along with one guest where a free buffet was waiting with liquid refreshments, it was noticeably quiet and was staffed predominantly by Chinese personnel, but only one was wearing a mask. We were now being schooled by announcements and posters regarding the need to wash hands, keep hands away from mouths and cough into shoulders (later to be amended to properly disposed of handkerchiefs as the virus remains on clothing). I laughed when Rita inadvertently touched her mouth then smacked her hand but we were taking it seriously.
Our flight was delayed from 11.55pm to 1.05am, a disembodied voice announcing this was due to ‘grooming’ of the aircraft, evoking the saying ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. The plane was FULL, not a square inch to be had, 75% of which were Indians, westernised young men (with Peaky Blinder haircuts) and women in jeans, toddlers, babies, older women in traditional sari’s and resplendently rainbow-turbaned Sikhs with flowing beards. We had hatched a good plan of booking an aisle seat and a window seat, hoping the middle seat would remain empty, but as the flight was full a very polite, turbaned, student teenager arrived and I swapped him the window seat where he hunkered down and slept most of the way. Rita and I dozed and tried not to wriggle around, and all my carefully packed eye mask, ear plugs, hand sanitizers, bibs and bobs for the flight, remained in the overhead locker, impossible to get at in such a crowded cabin. I watched three films, Judy, Parasite and one I can’t even remember, occasionally venturing gingerly to the washrooms which became more and more ghastly as time passed. The in-flight meals were sparse, spicy and un-noteworthy, plus I managed to tip a cup of water down my right leg which I had to bear with fortitude until it dried!
Don’t ask me where Thursday 5th March went, I lost it somewhere between Vancouver and Delhi.
Friday, 6th March
During the 14-hour flight we made up our lost time. Weary but un-bowed, we disembarked at the huge, modern Delhi airport at the Indian time of 3.45am. A convoluted system of checks then ensued – if you didn’t have an Indian passport i.e. custom forms, Coronavirus forms, passport pages thoroughly scrutinised as to where you had been or were coming from, then we were hustled to yet another long line-up where the service was agonisingly slow, standing for an hour or so as airport staff came and went from their stations, aware of army personnel stationed strategically watching our every limb aching-move, until finally dispatched to where our luggage had been unceremoniously thrown off the consul onto the floor for us to sift through and claim. A young personable Mr. Khan (known as AK) met us beyond customs, and for the first time, as our group gathered, we saw who we would be travelling with on our tour. He led us willing, if shambolic, across the roadway and in that moment, we were drenched in a downpour before boarding a coach to our hotel. Through heavy traffic, with a commentary by AK and a distribution of welcoming garlands made out of gold and red fresh marigolds, we arrived 45 minutes later at the huge wrought iron gates of the Sheraton Hotel, trying to catch a first glimpse of Delhi through misty, rain splattered windows. After being stopped for checks by security guards with ground mirrors to check the underside of our coach, we proceeded to the lobby entrance where our bags were placed on a security conveyor belt for screening whilst we stepped through a body scan portal, and we experienced our first “Namaste” greeting from a resplendently dressed doorman. Ahhhhh, into the cool, calm, elegant space of the check-in vestibule with its resplendent sweeping staircase, flower bedecked rotund marble pedestal, and comforting lounge area where we parked our weary bodies. Rooms allocated, we took the lift to our respective floors to delightfully spacious and airy rooms before freshening up and descending for breakfast with John, Nancy, Barb, Cathy, Marls and Mike. The day was then ours to spend as we wished, some taking a private tour to a nearby temple, while Rita and I showered, napped and got to know some of our travelling companions.
In the afternoon, Rita and I ventured out through the courtyard security system, giving our names and room number before escaping through large padlocked doors onto the busy street beyond. My first vision was of a goat tethered to the wall to my left with a nomadic tent like structure on the pavement and noisy crowded traffic, which adheres to no rhyme or reason when it comes to flow! Dodging across the road I was aware of temple turrets, high walls, narrow streets and the wafting pungent odour of a vendor cooking food surrounded by a crowd of Indian men (no women). Seemingly ancient beggars were on the street, as well as very young children dodging about pulling at the clothing of the street walkers for food or suchlike. We dodged the traffic once more and entered the cool confines of a modern shopping mall, again having to pass through security scans at the door. To my delight, I spied Marks and Spencer and as if I hadn’t packed enough, I headed for the linen trousers’ counter. The styles of tops, blouses and dresses are obviously geared to local shoppers needs, e.g. less flesh showing, and were bright in colour and mostly made of lightweight materials due to the impending heat of summer. We explored a little more before returning to the hotel, navigating security and venturing up the grand staircase to conference rooms, then down to the lower level, through the sumptuous sauna rooms and outside to the coolly shaded gardens and shimmering blue pool with its waterfalls cascading gently over rock sculptures. Eventually, it was time to progress into the elegant, lofty ceilinged dining room and sample the delights of silver tureens of pungent smelling dishes, chefs’ cooking and replenishing, lavish salads and scrumptious desserts. Oh my, the bed sagged under my weight after this feast and I slept the sleep of the dead.
Note: Delhi, population 20 million, is a city that bridges two different worlds. Old Delhi, once the capital of Islamic India, is a labyrinth of narrow lanes lined with crumbling Havelis and formidable mosques. In contrast, the imperial city of New Delhi created by the British Raj is composed of spacious, tree-lined avenues and imposing government buildings. (Explore India Website)
Saturday, March 7th
Today, we had an early call to a 7.30 a.m. briefing by the guide who will be with us throughout the tour, Shyam Singh, and orders were taken for complimentary holdalls to carry on our internal flight down to Varanasi. Today we paid the sum of $195 which will cover all tips; retrospectively this was such a good thing as it saved us any hassle or worry with outside guides, hotel staff and restaurant staff.
After a fulsome breakfast, at 11.30 a.m., we were assembled to venture out and discover what this fascinating country is all about. The traditional greeting of “Namaste” with prayer hands and bowing towards the heart was practised throughout the hotel with all staff and security personnel, and we met our coach driver plus his assistant for the first time. Because we were a small group of just 16 people, there was plenty of room to move around in this modern coach with a loo on board. We all bonded and it was never an issue on where we sat or with whom, a window seat was always available. Bottles of water were regularly distributed and bananas and tangerines purchased by Shyam to keep us going until our next amazing meal. Any fruit that could be peeled or had been divested of its skin was acceptable but we were advised to stay away from lettuce and such. Shyam started a running commentary as we set off to explore Shamjahanabad in Old Delhi and it soon became clear that we were taking a step back in time, not unlike biblical times, the culture shock was both amazing and thought provoking. Firstly, we learned that all animals are sacred and wander at will. Cows, pigs, goats, dogs, most with offspring, have right of way in the nose to tail cacophony of vehicles, cars, scooters, motorbikes, bicycles, tuk-tuks, carts drawn by hand, horses or camels and our luxury coach. Our driver navigating perilously and skilfully through, weaving in and out whilst smaller vehicles nipped into every conceivable space in the narrow streets to make headway, with no pattern of priority or largesse, just ‘first in the space moves forward’. Horns toot constantly announcing you are approaching or need overtaking space and our driver had the handling skills of a Grand Prix racer. He had to avoid cows that stood on the side and suddenly decided to cross the road, plus vehicles racing so close there was not even a breath of wind between as they squeezed perilously with acceleration across anyone’s path and roared out across the road to access a lane going the other way. Tiny three wheeled cars called Tuk-Tuks cram as many people as possible in so that legs and arms stick out at angles, and the motorbikes carry families, a small son usually tucked in front between his father’s knees, a wife sitting side saddle in a flowing sari behind clutching small babies or shopping in a precarious balancing act with only the male driver wearing a helmet (which is the law). Mostly its young males, legs akimbo clinging to the back part of the seat behind their friend who is hell bent on getting somewhere.
Along the side of the roads are dwellings of every description, side by side, tarps, cardboard, rubble, you name it the people make a home out of it. Shops are blocks of small rooms with every manner of goods packed into each one, usually with several male family members sitting in amongst it all with no air of urgency; carts stand full of vegetables and fruit ankle deep in mud, muck and rubbish. People just throw all their waste in the street which in the past fed all the free roaming animals and nothing would have been wasted, but now it is wrapped in plastic and synthetics so it accumulates and multiplies, making my heart ache at the sight of cows chewing on plastic bags and stomping non-biodegradable rubbish into the chaotic mix of unhygienic living. But and here’s the love already beginning to build inside me, people smiled, made room, laughed and lived cheek by jowl. The few women visible at this time were in brightly coloured saris and everyone appeared clean (cleanliness is next to Godliness) and I saw over the coming days people washing at street taps, in rainwater in the gutter, from hosepipes and bowls, both themselves and clothing.
Our first stop was at Jama Masjid, a Mosque and Hindu Temple built by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan in 1656. It has three great gates, four towers and two 40-metre-tall minarets constructed of strips of red sandstone and smooth white marble. The northern gate has 39 steps, the southern side 33 steps and the eastern gate used by the emperors, 35 steps. The courtyard can accommodate 25,000 worshippers and occupies 408 square feet. Shoes had to be removed on entering and cameras were allowed at a set fee.
Next, we moved to Chandni Chowk whose narrow lanes house the spice market and jewellers’ lane. We stopped at a corner crowded with bicycle driven rickshaws, riders eagerly pressing forward to gain two clients each for one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Thrust into the teeming narrow streets, clinging on for dear life, our rider valiantly stand-pedalled into the melee. Ancient, rusty cables hung and swung from every conceivable angle, bringing electricity and some technology to this heaving, grossly jam-packed neighbourhood of vendors, customers and sightseers. Barefoot children ran in and out of carts, barrows, animals, piles of plastic, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, camels, horses and now rickshaws carrying incredulous tourists. I saw a man trying to fix a bulky electricity cable with a bare wire inches from his fingers. Bicycles were being piled up with baskets freshly emptied onto a sheet on the pavement at which a woman in a bright, clean sari was touting fresh vegetables to myriads of legs stepping over, round and occasionally on her wares. The sound was difficult to comprehend, the sights too many to process adequately, and as I turned, I came eyeball to eyeball with a camel which made Shyam, riding in a rickshaw in front, laugh. The small square brick built units serving as shops were bulging with an eye-watering array of goods, I would say just about a little bit of everything, books piled in great columns, silks and cloth, shoes, jewellery, spices, Aladdin’s caves each and every one, all manned by groups of men squatting and carousing in the most laid back, languid of manners. It was the ride of a lifetime and so very hard to describe but my respect for these cheerful, waving residents was growing. Disgorged once more onto the street, we boarded the coach and continued on to the Red Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1638 the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan moved the capital of his empire from Agra to a newly constructed city in Delhi that he called Shahjahanabad, along with the construction of this new city he laid the foundations of his palace, the Red Fort on the banks of the river Yamuna. It took 8 years and 10 months to build and served as a royal residence from 1648 to 1857. It’s cool, lofty rooms and intricately carved ceilings and columns must have been a glorious sight when adorned with the finery of silk tapestry, richly embroidered carpets and candle lanterns in the many niches, reflecting light and colours from the huge mirrors onto a scene from the Arabian Nights. Wow!
The Red Fort derives its name from the red sandstone walls which make the fort almost impregnable. This fort was the seat of the Mughal Empire for around 200 years until it fell into British hands. Shyam’s distain for the British Raj period in history was profound as he felt they had introduced selfish and corrupt ways into the Indian culture, and certainly the more he spoke of the Hindu religion the more it became apparent what a nurturing philosophy it had practised covering all of the caste system. It also tolerated sexual preferences, i.e. gays and lesbians were accepted as a personal choice and left in peace until the British banned this practise, however, in this age of enlightenment, it is now acceptable once again.
Back in the coach once more, our next stop was a visit to Raj ghat, the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s final journey. It is a black marble platform that marks the spot of his cremation on 31 January 1948, a day after his assassination by a Hindu extremist. It is left open to the sky while an eternal flame burns at one end and is located on Delhi’s ring road. His ashes were not scattered in a river in accordance with Hindu belief, some were held back because of his fame and sent around the country to various memorials including the one in the Bapu Bhawan; a stone footpath flanked by well-manicured lawns leads to the walled enclosure that houses the memorial. It is possible to walk around the top of the wall and view it from above. It is a very peaceful park and quite divorced from the bustling city outside; chipmunks race and scamper up and down the trees, in the shrubbery and across the lawns.
The day was not over yet, we still had another Hindu temple to visit, the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple, an abode of God built in 2005 showcasing Hinduism and its age old culture. Over 8000 volunteers from all around the world were involved in the construction of the intricately carved marble and sandstone structure. The skill of carvers in days gone by, to the present day, is breathtaking and awesome and the complex is a home to India’s largest step well, plus a double main dome to support the enormous weight. In the marble hall is an imposing gold statue and in front of this we were invited to receive a blessing. Rita and I had red dots pressed to our foreheads as did, interestingly, most of our female companions but not so much the males. Marlene jokingly commented that it would be useful if someone wanted to line me up in their sights and shoot me! The dye can sometimes contain rice which is the symbol of prosperity, and signifies ‘welcome to my house’; I loved and welcomed it. Shyam told us that Mahatma Gandhi wanted it built and within it is a small room of mirrors which when viewed from a certain angle creates the illusion of a long, long corridor…….. fascinating.
Well, after this full on, very interesting day, we were all tired and in need of sustenance as the coach took us to the Kwality Restaurant, Connaught Place, New Delhi. Stepping inside it felt like being instantly swept up by an age gone by, with old world music, mahogany interiors and British Raj era chandeliers, entering a time warp of a century ago. The walls were lined with framed photos of prominent patrons from the 20s/30s. Seated at a long table we were served delectable dishes of Burrah Kebab, Beetroot Tikki, Chicken Kebab, Shakargand Ramadana Tikki, Kostvri Kebnab and Paneer Tikki, at least I think that’s what we were served, alcohol was extra. It was all delicious and most welcome, everyone being in fine spirits and bonding as a group. AK, our initial welcoming agent at the airport, turned up as a surprise to say hello and ask how things were going, it was very nice to see him.
That night we were all ready for our beds and slept well, not surprisingly.
Sunday, 8th March
A leisurely breakfast in our cool and luxurious hotel, with a buffet created for the senses, hot and cold dishes wafting tantalising aromas into the nostrils and cooks ready to present eggs in whatever format you could desire. Pungent coffees, aromatic teas and all manner of dainty pastries accompanied this feast. Our group is proving to be so very warm and friendly and ready for anything. As it is International Women’s Day today, all entries to monuments are free to them so we saw many family groups throughout the day with the females in a dazzling array of saris showcasing every spectrum of the rainbow and then some.
Our first stop is the Qutub Minar, a minaret “victory tower” built to announce and celebrate the might of the Muslim Empire after the victory of Muhummad Ghori over the Raiput King, Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192AD. Its construction marked the beginning of the Muslim rule in India, using red sandstone and marble from 27 Hindu and Jain temples torn down for building materials within the complex. Chickpeas were used as part of the cement mix and over time the plaster has fallen revealing the original carvings, not least because of earthquakes in the area. The tower was 73 metres tall before the final, fifth section was added after 1369, and tapers from a 14.3 metre base diameter to 2.7 metres at the top of the peak with an internal staircase of 379 steps. On 4 December 1981 the staircase lighting failed and between 400 and 500 visitors stampeded towards the exit; 47 were killed in the crush, most of these were school children. Since then the tower has been closed to the public. It’s pretty impressive, looming over the treetops, giving sneak peaks until you confront the hugeness and loftiness of this ‘standalone’ tower. Cathy lay full length on the ground in front of it, trying to capture its full height with her camera. It is surrounded by the ruins of a Hindu complex and was reminiscent of the ruins of Pompeii although not, of course, on the same scale. The faces on original carvings were also removed much as the marble figure castrations in Rome.
The Iron pillar in the Qutub Complex: Within an inner courtyard stood the impressive Iron Pillar, one of the world’s foremost metallurgical curiosities as it has not rusted over the centuries and scientists have been unable to establish exactly what compound has been used to make it; how astonishing is that! It was brought to its present location by Anangpal in the 10th century CE from Udaygiri when he built a Vishnu Temple here and wanted this pillar to be part of that temple. A deep socket on the top of this ornate capital suggests that probably an image of Garuda was fixed into it, as common in such flagpoles.
Shyam said it was thought to bring good fortune to those that could put their hands behind them and touch the pillar but it had an iron railing around it prohibiting this. Nathan, our talented photographer and film maker in the group, suggested he could photoshop me touching the pole so I posed and jiggled but without much avail I’m afraid, thus I have no claim to being a good luck symbol (real or imagined) having touched the Iron Pillar of Qutub!
Next stop was the Mughal Emperor Humayan’s Tomb, commissioned by his first wife and chief consort, Empress Bega Begum and built in 1569 with the patronage of Humayun’s son, the great Emperor Akbar. Persian and Indian craftsmen worked together to build the garden-tomb (a four- quadrant garden with the four rivers of Quranic paradise represented with pools joined by channels). The interior is a large octagonal chamber with vaulted roof compartments interconnected by galleries or corridors. The structure is of dressed stone clad in red sandstone with white and black inlaid marble borders and is also called the ‘dormitory of the Mughals’ as in the cells are buried over 150 Mughal family members.
This was another peaceful and beautifully manicured haven from the outside cacophony of sound. We marvelled at the survival of a fig tree, whose roots embraced a path and its trunk carried the wisdom and wizened epidermis of age which, if only it could speak, could recount the most marvellous of tales; I felt quite moved at its beauty. The flower beds were equally beautiful, very colourful and well-tended. Indian families were quick to respond to smiles and greetings, and a group of girls from Kerala in South India happily interacted and had a photo with the ladies in our group……a very happy and special moment.
Back on the bus, a ride to India Gate, a war memorial dedicated to the martyrs of World War I, built in 1931 and designed by Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens who declined to incorporate pointed arches or other Asian motifs but strove instead for classical simplicity. The result is often described as similar in appearance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, its cornerstone having been laid by the Duke of Connaught, third son of Queen Victoria, in 1921. On the rooftop above the archway is a broad shallow domed bowl that was for flaming oil on ceremonial occasions. No fires have been set in recent years but four eternal flames are now sheltered at the base of the structure which demarcate the Amar Jawan Jyoti, a small monument that has served as India’s tomb of the unknown soldier since 1971.
On our Journey again we alighted at Bangla Sahib Gurdwara. This magnificent white marble gurdwara (Sikh temple), topped by glinting golden domes, was constructed at the site where the 8th Sikh guru, Harkrishan Dev., stayed before his death in 1664. Despite his tender years, the 6- year- old guru tended to victims of Delhi’s cholera and smallpox epidemic, distributing medicines, food and clothes to the needy and the waters of the large tank are said to have healing powers which is taken home by the faithful. Before entering we were required to cover our heads with a scarf, dupatta or handkerchief, and bare knees with a wraparound cloth, i.e. those wearing shorts. Cameras were not permitted inside and we had to remove our shoes and socks which meant Susan could not come in as she was wearing a foot cast. In a side room kerchiefs and ‘skirts’ were issued and laughter bubbled up as I watched the antics of the men trying to fasten their wraps and tie skimpy pieces of material around their heads. Mike’s kerchief ended up perched on top of his head like a piece of origami gone wrong and it was hilarious. Rita had me in fits of laughter too which came out as snorts and snuffles as I was supposed to be quiet in this Holy place. I think I acquired another red spot on my forehead here?
Sikhism is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and 9 other gurus who were his successors. The 10th Guru declared there would be no other human Gurus after him and that instead the Sikhs could look to their holy scriptures for guidance contained in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, a large written volume consisting of 1430 pages. This book is kept on a raised platform under a canopy in the Darbar sahib or Darbar Hall in the Gurdwara (House of the guru). The readings at Bangla Sahib took place from 5am – 10pm daily. On entering, we walked round the outside of a Holy man reading (chanting and singing to music known as Kirtan) from the Holy Book, sat on a raised dais in front of a large group of the faithful sitting on the floor, cross legged. On reaching the other side of the dais there was a queue of the faithful waiting to receive flowers from a bowl set on the dais. I stood to one side and watched this ceremony and the young Sikh handing these out as he glanced occasionally in my direction. After a short while he pivoted, took some flowers from the bowl and then turned to me as I held out my hands into which he placed two small red rose buds. Oh my goodness, I am having such lovely experiences.
I took my precious blessing outside and decided to share it with our special guide, Shyam, who, being Hindu, had not sought an offering. Rita and I then walked around the huge tranquil marble pond, exchanging greetings, taking photographs and enjoying people dipping their toes in the water. My head scarf slipped down onto my shoulders but I was swiftly reminded by a male Sikh to cover my head. I was still clutching my second rosebud when a young Indian girl gave me the most amazing smile so I gave it to her and she was delighted to accept it. After our visit Shyam was going to take us to the kitchens where the concept of langar is practised (eating together as equal people before God), and all people. Regardless of race or religion, people may eat vegetarian meals sitting on the floor which shows that they are humble receivers of food from the Creator who is the supplier of everything on this Earth – It is a posture of submission and a mark of gratitude for the Supreme Being, God. Unfortunately it was closed.
During the moments we were travelling from monument to monument, the street scenes continued to imprint themselves on my mind. People living on the very basics in life such as workmen using improvised tools on all manner of projects (tree trunks used to pound soil, broom twigs used to sweep, rainwater used to wash, gas cylinders used to cook, bicycles used to transport, walls and ponds used as urinals, hanging cloth from a piece of string to form a door, all done in a pragmatic cheerful sort of way.
Back at the hotel, we freshened up then popped over to the Mall again through the security gates with Mike and Marls, and witnessed 6 very modern Indian women giving a live question and answer session to a mixed audience. I was surprised to see the young males sat there under the gaze of these strident females illustrating a huge divide between the inside of that modern mall and the outside gritty, starkly fought melee of survival where males dominate. Back in the cool of the hotel, the four of us played a game of canasta (Mike and I losing gracefully to Rita and Marls!) then a rest before another sumptuous and multi-choice meal at 7.00 p.m.
After that I was out like a light before a 9 a.m. wake up call to leave our bags outside the door for the trip down to Jaipur.
Monday, 9th March
A coach ride down to Jaipur (5 hours with coffee/washroom stop) with a tour of the old walled city known as “the Pink City” due to the King of Jaipur having the entire city painted pink (the colour of hospitality) to impress Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) during his state visit in 1876, prior to which the colours were white and a sallow yellow. The palace Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, the grandson of the founder of Jaipur. It has a unique 5 floors exterior akin to the honeycomb of a beehive with its 953 small windows decorated with intricate latticework. Shyam had us do a contest as to who could guess the number of windows but none of us succeeded. It was pretty impressive as this view is the back of the structure, not the front, the original intent of the lattice design was to allow royal ladies to observe everyday life and festivals celebrated in the street below without being seen since they had to obey the strict rules of “purdah” which forbade them from appearing in public without face coverings. 22 different languages are spoken and style of turbans and caps identify different religions.
As a point of interest, Shyam said there are 103 different varieties of mango ranging from 20g – 4½kg in weight. Jaipur is the best place to shop for jewellery and along the route was evidence of a slow move towards evolution from bullocks in yokes tilling the fields, to tractors, albeit not the monsters used by American farmers, but smaller, hardier vehicles. This is in complete contrast to the tech. companies springing up, with high rises, modern buildings and a new metro system, hard graft is still a-typical in the roadside fields, with labourers (mostly women in bright saris) digging up potatoes, gathering corn and stacking bundles of hay in huge plastic sheets to be transported by carts to feed the animals that wander at will. It’s bad luck if you hit or kill one and a priest has to be summoned to dispose of it in a suitable manner. Groups process alongside manic traffic in religious ceremonies intermingled with the usual wandering cow, or melee of goats, or grunting pigs; such a contrast, almost too much to take in.
We arrived at our beautiful hotel The Trident, with security guards dressed like London police, just as the festival of “Holi” was starting. Guests could participate if you don’t mind getting wet, dirty and saturated in water with colour all over your skin and clothes. Shyam recommended we didn’t venture out as the colorants used now contain chemicals and young Indian men become quite inebriated and can be aggressive. One touring group in the hotel lobby had changed into white tops and trousers and ventured out and looked hilarious when they returned (including one of our party Nathan) but the powders were thick and, in their hair, mouths and eyes. Instead, Shyam invited us back to his room at the hotel for a group celebration, and very friendly it was too, rum and beer being the chosen drinks and we had a laugh with friendships deepening. Shyam is such a lovely man, always thoughtful and kind, doing his very best for us at all times.
We also learnt that one of the big Ramada hotels in the city has been closed for cleaning after a group of Italian tourists stayed there and tested positive to the Coronavirus. Consequently, on arrival at the hotel we had to fill out a questionnaire about our movements, personal information etc., and have our temperature taken with a gun like thermometer. We are having such a marvellous trip we have been mostly shielded from all that is going on in the world.
We walked down the drive to the front gates and had a great rapport conversation with a lively group of males, similarly drenched in colour and wanting to share their delight. Because we showed an intrigue, Shyam later took us into town in the coach, stopping first to allow a group of decorated elephants lumber by with a great photo opportunity enabled by Shyam. Then a walk as a group, keeping well to the side, watching the hilarities of Holi unfold in the streets, and we were supposed to be “left alone” but a scooter zoomed past, I had a
white top on and a large blob of bright pink powder landed on my right shoulder…..
which was okay until Cathy tried to brush it off and it went up my nose and down my
throat. Shyam said it mean I had a lot of Karma so I was quite happy with that and
enjoyed being part of the fun, also the fact that a little of the powder had caught the edge
of his jeans but I had the most Karma!
Street scenes were again amazing, people squatting everywhere using the most basic of tools to create nuts and bolts and parts for motorcycles. Old women and young children sifting and sorting through rubbish, vendors cross-legged on the rubbish strewn pavements selling their wares, chewing tobacco, gum, shoes, vegetables, things cooking over steaming canisters perched precariously on carts, others already sleeping off the excesses of the day on boards atop bicycles, under ornately carved pillars and in doorways. Monkeys with young clinging to their mothers, scampered in and out picking up food discarded by the populous with the tradition of feeding anything that moved, be it human or animal, in an all-inclusive hubbub of life on an Indian street. Hundreds of scooters, carrying as many or as much as was humanly possible, dodged in and out of traffic, going all which-ways, vying for space with doe eyed camels, emaciated horses, trucks, lorries, carts, bicycles, rickshaws, humans, cows, pigs, monkeys, tents, tin shacks, open mattresses, you name it, it was on those streets! There were also more well constructed and gated houses dotted about in amongst the hovels, and new suburbs springing up with tall tenements, still with balconies adorned with the daily washing and the customary litter which seems to be so much a part of life one wonders how change will be brought about to dispose of all the plastics and, indeed, where.
At the Channi Carpets and Textiles Factory we were treated to a demonstration of layered printing on cotton with wooden block-print designs. An Indian with seemingly only one eye layered ink upon different coloured ink over the outline of an elephant with a precision and swiftness that defied the time I could process just what he was doing; very skilful and obviously perfected by hours and hours of doing it repeatedly for a meagre wage. On into a larger room where we were seated and treated to a demonstration of woven carpets, then a shop filled with textiles from clothing to bed linen to table wear. As soon as, or even before, interest is shown there is a very amiable and helpful young man at your elbow to guide and tempt you to the wares. Mine took me to the napkin counter where I leafed through a pile of such printed cloth (I just wanted a few small things and this was something I had seen being produced). However, some of the hand printers were not as skilful as our demonstrator, even though he appeared visually handicapped, as inks had not landed within outlines which rather spoiled the joy of the handmade napkin. Eventually I chose one and then found myself negotiating to buy more with this seasoned young man, multiplication bringing the overall price of purchasing just one, down, whilst quietly pushing the overall price by purchasing three at a discount, up! He made me laugh, he was very personable, and we agreed on a price for three; others in the group were also gaining souvenirs or items to wear. I enjoyed the experience very much, and found one of the demonstration pieces popped into the bag with my purchases.
On this ‘Holi’ day, as night-time falls, people gather to perform religious rituals in front of bonfires on the pavements and pray that their internal evil will be destroyed and a fresh start given. Some of the customary drinks include Bhang (made from cannabis).
We dressed in our finery to visit a restaurant with a large outdoor dining area. The meal was an enormous buffet and a group of young men sang and played instruments while two girls danced and performed on a raised dais. The singers were young and didn’t quite have the rhythmic and dedication to traditional melodies me thinks, as they caterwauled and grinned at each other in a song reminiscent of cats sparring! One of the young girls whirled and twirled and invited guests to join in, whilst the older girl displayed her skills at balance with both feet and head, standing on the narrow rim of a bowl whilst balancing ever increasing pots on her head. There was also a fire-eater who swallowed a liquid before blowing out great streams of fire, which was exciting if somewhat alarming as there was a strong smell of petrol each time he did it! It was very colourful; and entertaining and the food was very spicy and good. On the way back to the hotel, the street scenes were amazing with burning bonfires and drums, and we toured the roads around the Hawa Mahal to see it lit with changing rainbow colours in the dark…..quite spectacular.
We also saw the illuminated coloured light show at the Albert Hall Museum, constructed at the behest of the then Maharaja in 1876 as a large concert hall, for one sole purpose, to ensure Prince Albert of England would visit Jaipur during his tour of the country. It was rumoured, according to Shyam, that instead of visiting the Hall, he changed his plans and chose to go to a different province that had a spectacularly large table that could seat an unheard of number of people, no doubt his carousing nature getting the better of him, so he never did see the edifice specially constructed in record time for him. As a matter of interest, Jaipur has one of the world’s most eligible, wealthiest bachelors, Maharajah Padmanabh Singh, 21 year old polo playing godson of Prince Charles.
As “Holi” day may have been absorbed into Western language, Shyam also explained that “Tata” was the name of an Indian company and people passing would wave and shout its name. Apparently, Ta ta has been incorporated into the English Collins Dictionary listing it as a form of goodbye. Shyam is delightful with his small anecdotes.
Tuesday, 10th March
Another amazing, memorable day, beginning with our coach leaving Jaipur early morning to visit the Amber Fort. Travelling by luxury coach once more the scene outside is repeated with rubbish, glass and plastic covering every square inch in some form or another amidst animal dung, which is made into round patties and stacked in high piles ready for using as an ingredient to make repairs to ancient wattle and daub shacks, or meld bricks together as and when they can be afforded. Consequently, there are many half-finished walls, cloth sheets acting as doors, corrugated tin used as roofing and piles of wood everywhere. Every now and then we passed a succession of craft workplaces with fine sculptures, huge statues, finials, contoured slabs etc., denoting fine ancient craftsmanship but stacked on muddy roadsides, or colourful pottery, again crafted by hand using ancient methods, or bricks made in tall soot blackened kilns belching smoke across the landscape. Bricks and cement seem to be taking over from the cow dung patties but it’s a slow process affording new materials in such a poor country. Why is it so poor when one hears of all the aid pouring in from UN countries?
Buildings are still being constructed in a traditional manner, a row of small box like spaces that can house individual shops or homes. There is a unique way of construction using felled trees as props for upper concrete floor mantels, and lots of buildings left half built with copper wires sticking out as though they’ve been struck by lightning but indicates land is claimed and buildings can be completed mañana meanwhile no tax is paid on what is unfinished!!
We also saw very young children running beside the coach or gesturing with their hands towards their mouths on the roadside to give them money for food, but Shyam counselled us that these children are bidden and used by parents to get money in order for them to buy drugs. Most children were well cared for and surrounded by family matriarchs, others ran wild with no shoes and performed dances or pitiful acts of theatre in the middle of the road alongside the coach to attract a monetary gift. Parents strive to send their children to private schools and we saw several of these, once again sandwiched between old and new, rich and poor. There were quite a few deformed adults begging too, some seated on skateboards, one walking on his hands in a pair of sandals as he had no feet. So very heart-wrenching in every way.
We stopped for a washroom on the way where we were handed individual paper napkins to use when washing our hands; each toilet had a spray-wash nozzle with extending pipe by the side of the pan. It was also a coffee come souvenir shop; the coffee was good as was a packet of English crisps. Shyam was very good at making these stops during a long day, not only for our convenience, but to help small businesses survive I think.
On reaching the Amber Fort we stopped below to wonder at this sprawling, resplendent palace, along with Jaigarh Fort located immediately in front and above us on the Cheel ka Teela (Hill of Eagles) in the Aravalli range of hills in Amer, Rajasthan, on the outskirts of Jaipur. It was the residence of the Rajput Maharajas and their families. Raja Man Singh had 12 queens so he made 12 rooms, one for each Queen. Each room had a staircase connected to the King’s room but the Queens were not allowed to go upstairs unless bidden. The palace and Jaigarh Fort are considered one complex as the two are connected by a subterranean passage. This passage was meant as an escape route in times of war to enable the royal family members and others in the Amber Fort to shift to the more redoubtable Jaigarh Fort. We assembled in a courtyard below the palace and joined a queue winding up steps to a high wall. Vendors urged ornate braided turbans on the men and all manner of statues, hanging ornaments, books and brightly embroidered umbrellas on the ladies. Nathan purchased a turban as it is his 65th birthday and he was Maharaja for the day!
The scene on reaching the top of the wall was stunning! Below were a herd of elephants decked out with carrying seats and brightly coloured vestments; coloured flowers and symbols were etched in powder on their trunks and legs. Someone had told me that I would have to stand on the elephant’s foot and he would lift me on his back……well, much as I had looked forward to and anticipated this delight, I was just as happy to step off the wall and sit back in the seat with Rita for our walk up the hill to the huge Jaleb Chowk courtyard. A few of our friends on the tour were already on their way, swaying and holding on tight as these most gentle of creatures ambled upwards with their weighty goods strapped to their backs and an ignominious leather rope holding things in place around their stomachs and their ‘tail’ which sadly rubbed and grated with each step; we were reassured that these elephants are well cared for, performing their daily exercise in the mornings and let out to grass in the afternoons….I do hope so.
The view was stunning to the left on the way up, right down the valley and an orderly queue of elephants strode with uniform dignity, all that is except ours! We had a budding Lester Piggott as a jockey, determined to get to the top first, and perhaps we had a young eager jumbo because he didn’t need much urging to step to the right and lumber at double pace alongside the wall, past all the others with his ears flapping and the seat swaying to the drum of his feet on the path. Good job we didn’t meet any elephants coming back down, there just wasn’t room for three abreast. We laughed, waved, tried to take photos, and in a flash it was over, hairdos askew, ribs aching, we then dismounted as gallantly as we could atop a high wall overlooking the courtyard; it was hilarious. Rita is such a fun companion to be travelling with.
We made our way across the courtyard, forming a group as each couple dismounted, traversing from one courtyard to another, each leading to more private and opulent chambers, plus temples, peaceful water channelled gardens and terraces. The first is the many pillared Diwan-i-Am, the Hall of Public Audience which must have been an awesome sight when it was draped in resplendent silks and tapestries. From there you enter through the beautifully painted Ganesh Pol (gate) to the private inner apartments of the fort. Rita and I set off to explore and reached the upper rooms, wandering into a narrow passage with a window at the end overlooking the procession of elephants making their leisurely, swaying way up the winding path. A foreign tourist asked me in broken English if I would take a photograph of her with the elephants in the background. Because of the confines we were in and the angle, she insisted on trying many positions to capture the moment. Momentarily diverted and eager to please as I know the frustrations of getting self-portraits when you travel alone, I lost track of time until Rita called me away to meet up with the group as instructed. We hurried back down to find Shyam and Greg hunting for us, a group photo having been taken with birthday boy Nathan resplendent in his golden turban on the lower steps, but we had missed it because of my dalliance……darn it……sorry Rita. The Diwan-i-Khas includes an ornamental garden and the dazzling Sheesh Mahal, Hall of Mirrors, whose walls are covered in an intricate mosaic of shards of mirror and coloured cut Belgian glass. This room was made by the Maharaja so that the Maharani (Queen) could see the stars at night, as when candles are lit the room seems to reflect thousands of stars from the walls and ceiling.
Other inner rooms include the Jal Mandir, Hall of Victory which has craved marble panels, a mirrored ceiling and expansive views over the ramparts. The Sukh Niwas, Hall of Pleasure, is a marble room that was cleverly cooled with water during the intense summer heat and here the Maharaja relaxed with his ladies. The oldest part of the fort, completed in 1599 includes the Palace of Man Singh and the Zenana, women’s quarters. In the centre of the zenana is a pavilion and the wives’ rooms were ranged around the courtyard. Again, the pavilion must have looked a splendid sight in its oriental exotic drapes and carpets, cooled by gentle winds on the hilltop; my imagination was enchanted by this place.
We also met a very friendly group of students from Kerala, Southern India, who posed for a group photograph with us ladies, a lovely joyful encounter. Then for the ride down the mountain in a jeep, hair-raising to say the least, Le Mons comes to mind, another young man aspiring to be a winner. Getting up and into the jeep was a feat in itself but once mobile, we flew down the cobbles, careering round tourists and barely managing not to climb up and over the jeep in front when it slowed slightly. Oh my, we clung on for dear life to the bars above our heads, but I came to the conclusion I would rather be a jockey than a racing car driver!
That night we ate out again at a courtyard restaurant with dancing entertainment and Nathan celebrated his 65th birthday, sharing a cake bought by Shyam as a surprise and singing a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. On one side of the courtyard guests could try their hand at cooking pretzel shaped dough and on the other side of the courtyard a cook was demonstrating how to cook poppadum’s in a small cylindrical oven where he delved into the heat, slapped the round mixture on the side before skilfully extracting it in a peeling motion, whilst putting the next one in. It was a wonderful end to the day.
Wednesday, 11th March
An early start of 7:30 a.m. for the five-hour drive to our next hotel, the beautiful Tigress Resort at Sawaimadhopur, Ranthambore, and our visit tomorrow to the National Park to hopefully see the elusive Bengal tiger. A nourishing packed lunch had been provided by the hotel and a beverage of gin and tonic was provided by Shyam and served by the ever delightful and smiling Sonu, the driver’s assistant. We all felt very well cared for, our driver also being very skilled at navigating so many hazards encountered on the crowded, uneven roads.
The scene through the countryside villages was much as in the capital of Delhi, with women doing washing under taps, in bowls, even in a puddle at the side of the road. Twice I saw bare breasted women hanging out washing, possibly only having one sari, but I was not aware of anyone looking dirty, just ingenious ways of staying clean. Washing is strung in trees, on walls, on lines in upper ram-shackled courtyards, lots of building have half built walls of bricks and all manner of plastics, paper and bottles mix and get broken down into the very earth everyone walks on, sleeps on and dines on. An amazingly resilient and resourceful people. Cars and bikes stop to offer food to monkeys, pigeons, dogs etc., and households have bowls outside their doors for cows to munch from. I saw a cow suddenly head into the road and poke a man in the back who was in his way, making him jump and leap to one side. Dung is resourcefully gathered and made into high heaps of patties for building and other purposes. Similarly, I saw many males personally watering walls, ponds and fields whilst keeping their backs discretely to the road!
Our beautiful hotel was down a long, dusty, bumpy track, before disembarking in a cool, colonial style courtyard. This led off to other delightful courtyards i.e. one with a swimming pool, one an outdoor eating area with water features etc., delightfully fit for any Maharaja passing by. We were welcomed with another fresh marigold neck chain and a red spot on the forehead, and the now obligatory forms to complete regarding the whys and wherefores of our travel, plus a temperature screening process. Because of a lack of twin-bedded rooms, Rita and I were able to enjoy the luxury of a king size room each, next door to each other, each room leading out onto a private balconied sanctuary area at the back. We adjourned for coffee and snacks until partaking of another delicious evening meal.
Thursday, 12 March
We had a wakeup call to be ready by 6am to drive into the National Park early to get a head start on other tourists aiming to see the tiger. I have heard of people going back for several days and still not catching sight of this elusive beast. Once again, we were in the hands of a great guide and driver. The roads through the park were dusty and bumpy and we saw monkeys with babies, deer with fawns, peacocks, exotic birds and…….wait for it……..a sloth bear ambling around and foraging in the undergrowth. Our guide was so excited as this too is a rare sighting, the bear is black with a white nose and we all have a good, close encounter from our jeep until he ambles off across the road. Fabulous……but not the tiger, and we as Canadians are used to black bears (although not with white snouts) but the park is lush with tall hills and our guide gets very excited towards the ends of the morning when he spots a leopard up in ‘them thar hills’. Unfortunately, the rest of us, including those with high powered zoom lenses, could not spot him but the sloth bear was great.
Back to the hotel for a hearty lunch before we once more set off in the afternoon for Ranthambore and get the same guide we had in the morning who is more than determined that we WILL see the tiger. We don’t stop to study other creatures in the thickets but press on up a different track, on our own at this point, and the truck is bouncing and sliding off ruts on the pathway. It slides to a halt and backs up as a tiger paw print is spotted by the eagle-eyed driver, and YES, indeed, there it was, a large imprint on the side of the road, we may just be in luck! Anticipation builds as the guide radios in what we have seen (only fair to other paying customers) but we have the lead aha! We listen for the sound of birds calling and monkeys chattering which might indicate a big cat is on the prowl, then wait, proceed, wait, crawl forward and crowd to the side of the jeep when someone shouts, “I see it”! “Shhhhhhh” says the guide, keep very quiet but this is so thrilling, cameras start clicking, some clamber on seats, others lean over the side. I can’t see a darn thing even though I have dear friend Heather’s binoculars pressed tightly to my nose, trying to adjust the zoom, balance in the melee and scour the undergrowth at the same time. “There, there, by the rock”, I could see the lichen on the rock quite nicely and very up close and personal, whether it was the right rock or not remained to be seen, so I zoomed out again and saw the back of a head. As cameras frantically continued to click, I wailed “I can’t see it”, “It’s right there” said someone bouncing around on the seat next to me. I was at the back of the jeep and the guide shouted “come up here” so with heart beating, I scrummaged my way to the front, tripping over bags and feet before being pulled by my arms and hoisted onto the front seat, the binoculars threatening to swing into a noose round my neck. “There” he said, stretching his long arm out with finger extended tight as an arrow about to be released. It moved, that blessed, wonderful animal moved and the bright orange colour that I had been looking for, looked like yellow with stripes that could have been reed grass. I didn’t need the zoom lens, he was that close, and even I could see that he was a spectacular male although we had only been promised a female as the males are so elusive. His head was ENORMOUS, so incredibly beautiful as he lay in the culvert under the rocks. By now word had got around and there was a steady build-up of jeeps behind us, with some zipping past us to spot this phenomenon. Noise filled the air as those way back became exasperated, the tiger yawned, looked left and right, decided enough was enough and STOOD UP, oh boy, he wandered on a little bit then settled back down in the grass but still very near to our jeep. The noise swelled and the click of camera shutters filled the air, he remained stationary for a while then rose majestically again, climbed up the rock and sauntered up the hillside into the shadows of anonymity once again.
Our guide was beside himself with excitement, letting on that this was quite the sighting, very unusual and rare, as was the sloth bear…….we had been extremely fortunate. We were so happy, so completely satisfied, and settled back down to enjoy the rest of the serenity of the park with its tribes of monkey families, herds of deer, range of colourful birds, warthogs wallowing with young, and two mongooses for good measure. If a tiger is seen, it is recommended that 100 rupees be given from each passenger for the guide and driver, well worth the tip, their efforts paid off. WOW, quite the tale to tell.
Dinner that evening was a joyous affair of comradery and regaling of stories to Shyam (he had not accompanied us and had been gently teased that he was going to put on a tiger suit and prowl about the park to make sure we saw one) of our individual experience of this wonderful day.
Friday, 13 March
Today we are driving to Agra, the city of the famous Taj Mahal, a monument commemorating a great love, and today is the anniversary of the passing of the love of my life, Malcolm. Shyam had diverted us from visiting Fatehpur Sikri , another temple, knowing that we would enjoy the history and beauty of Chand Baori at Abhaneri, the largest and deepest step well in India. He was right.
En-route, it was interesting to see goods being delivered by methods which pre-date even memories from my own, long ago childhood. We saw fresh milk in churns precariously balanced and swaying from the handles of a bicycle, fodder for street animals in huge plastic bundles on carts pulled by camels, water still carried in vessels balanced on women’s heads as they walked straight backed and confident along the beaten tracks. On the way, Shyam explained the hierarchy of the different caste systems which divides Hindus into 4 main categories which are believed to originate from Brahma, the Hindu God of Creation:
Brahmins who were mainly Priests, Gurus, teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head
Kshatriyas, warriors, military and rulers, supposedly from his arms
Vaishyas, traders, merchants and financiers, who were created from his thighs and lastly at the bottom
Shudras, who do all the menial tasks, servants, growing food and cleaning, who come from Brahma’s feet. Shyam is from the warrior caste and has sincere hopes that his 20-year-old only son will pass his exams and enter the army.
We witnessed another great feat of engineering and design at the step-well Chand Baori which is said to be named after a local ruler called Raja Chandra and the oldest parts of the step-well date from the 8th century onwards. It has 13 storeys and 3500 steps arranged in a symmetrical order extending down 100ft to the water. At the bottom of the well the air remains 5-6 degrees cooler than at the surface and was used as a community gathering place for locals during periods of intense heat. Amazing feat of balance, no hand rails, just concentration to get in and strength of character to get out, especially with water vessels.
Shyam also took us to a typical small village community off the beaten track, which appeared quite prosperous. We were soon surrounded by kindly, curious women in brightly coloured saris and young enthusiastic teenage girls, eager to try on sunglasses (plucked from noses), scarves (pulled from necks), earrings (touched and pleas to hand over) and anything removable from our bodies, including handbags! The boys tended to hold back and the younger children were more mischievous, slapping and pinching bottoms at every opportunity. A great deal of laughter and reclaiming of personal belongings ensued, and an older woman that I had made eye contact with lifted her head scarf and put it over my head in a show of friendship. It was a lovely, meaningful gesture as I had felt an instant connection with her, and others followed suit. Farming equipment was inspected by the men of the group with children crowding into the cab with them. Warmth and friendship across two very different lifestyles, I just love these Indian people. The children followed us out of the village with the girls clasping my hands and laughing and although counselled by Shyam not to give them anything, I confess I donated the earrings I was wearing to a young girl who had the kindest eyes and sweetest handhold. Mike came back to rescue me from the melee and I was last back on the bus. Another very interesting experience thanks to Shyam.
On the way to the Hotel Trident in Agra, we visited a workshop demonstrating the art and intricacies of inlay marble. We were given a demonstration of the painstaking cutting and fitting together of slivers and shapes of precious stones and marble into beautiful artwork, pictures, statues, furniture and lamps. We saw such amazing workmanship to delight the eye when ushered into a larger room and offered tea or coffee whilst the intricacies and beauty of lamps and tabletops were revealed under light, truly awesome, I saw so many things I would have loved to bestow as gifts on others, and watched Barb and Cathy absorbed in the demonstration of artwork on small tables with amazing marble tops, one of which Cathy purchased and I think Nathan purchased something too. Deals were being negotiated!
On the coach, Shyam gave another very interesting perspective of the Swastika symbol. We have seen this symbol at various locations along the way, sometimes on small versions of temples built in fields, in-between shacks, and even in the middle of the road. It has curved lines pointing right indicating a clockwise movement between light and darkness and in Buddhism represents the footprints of the Buddha, whilst in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, swastika means “well-being”. The swastika was also present among the archaeological remains of the Germanic tribes, and Herr Hitler adopted it as a potent symbol to rally the masses to his ideology of victory for the Aryan man, taking credit for a slight change to the design, creating a black swastika rotated 45 degrees on a white circle set against a red background. In truth, this is a very ancient symbol of the circle of life.
We certainly saw the circle of life happening through the coach window. Aspirations to own a motorbike are high and thriving workshops pinpoint a huge trade in the hundreds of bikes on their courtyards and on the road. Riders weaving precariously in and out of stupendous traffic, turning on a breath and a gasp, so close I could literally see the whites of their eyes (the drivers with helmets on, the small sons squashed between father’s knees, wife and baby side-saddling on the back with no helmets), youths demonstrating their skills to friends lucky enough to get a back seat ride, sometimes a companion on the back seat clinging for dear life to a large rolled carpet, or a pot of paint, or all manner of goods needing to be delivered home. Welding, shoe mending, steel bending, food cooked on carts by propane gas in steel canisters, cows, pigs, sleeping dogs nestled in scraped out dirt holes, ruins of broken down single dwellings being painstakingly repaired brick by brick as money allows, groups of males waiting to bathe under a standing tap, women hanging washing from any edifice available, women toiling in the fields with ancient tools, and a feeling perpetuating and radiating out of everyone working together to survive, wide smiles and enthusiastic waves, not scowls and frowns for these foreigners in their luxury coach tooting through their lives with cameras poised. How can you not feel affection for these people?
Safely delivered to our next hotel we had time to relax after some very hectic days; Marls, Mike, Rita and I played a game of Canasta in the peace of the bar lounge. During these forays out there were never crowds or difficulties seeing anything because tourists were dwindling and temperatures taken, forms filled in at each hotel and news on I-pads becoming worrisome due to the Coronavirus, but we were protected and shielded from overall worries by the liaison between Shyam and the tour company in ensuring our experiences were very positive, filled with colour, history and unforgettable scenes of everyday rural India.
Saturday, 14 March
Today we should have started with a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal but the day had clouded over and Shyam decided to delay our visit for an hour or two to see if the mist would clear. Oh my, such anticipation driving up to the great red brick wall that surrounds the complex. Some of us dashed down to the washrooms to be sure of an uninterrupted visit, but on arrival it was portaloo type structures housing squat toilets and my desire to use it vanished on opening the door; it didn’t return either during the visit I’m glad to say! Proceeding on through the impressive Great Gate, the calligraphy reads “Oh Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you”. Our first sight of this majestic white shrine was awesome, with a mist lingering in the air to give it an aura of mysticism that fills the mind with wonder.
Shyam explained that the large outer brick wall and colonnades were built to symbolize the strength of the male gender protecting the marble tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved favourite wife of Shah Jahan, who he married when she was 15; she died aged 40. This large white marble structure stands on a square plinth and consists of a symmetrical building with an iwan (an arch-shaped doorway) topped by a large dome and finial. Like most Mughal tombs, the basic elements are Persian in origin and said to have involved the skills of 22,000 labourers, painters, stonecutters and embroidery artists. It was commissioned by Shah Jahan in 1631, the year Mumtaz Mahal died on 17 June giving birth to their 14th child, and completed in 1643. Shyam explained that 4 daughters and 4 sons survived, with the eldest son expected to inherit the throne. However, the youngest son, Aurangzeb, was opposed to the exorbitant costs of building the tomb and the subsequent plans of his father to build a neighbouring tomb in black marble across the Yamuna River for himself, using the money of his subjects who lived in poverty.
The Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal
Aurangzeb had his three brothers killed and deposed his father, putting him under house arrest at nearby Agra Fort. Upon his death, Aurangzeb buried him in the mausoleum next to his wife in the 18th century, consequently putting the line of symmetry of her tomb through the doorway to the gardens beyond slightly out of kilter, her ornately bejewelled and decorated plinth visible on entry but his tucked in beside, protected by an inner chamber.
Again, there were just hundreds of people enjoying the tranquil ambiance of the incredible gardens, most of them Indians in wonderful saris and tunics, not the thousands of world tourists that are usually at this site. We were able to take pictures, stroll leisurely, enjoy the wonderful gardens (completed 5 years after the Taj Mahal) and wonder at the water channels and fountains that must be spectacular but which were drained and silent due to the virus taking place in the outside world. But we were mostly unaware of this, able to stroll right up to the stone seat where Princess Diana had her now famous picture taken, and sit to have ours taken without queuing for an hour or so (as is usual).
We exchanged many greetings with other visitors, mainly Indian, willing to have their photos taken and join in a loving greeting in this most serene of compounds. We climbed the steps to the upper courtyard looking out at the incredible vista from the balcony over the Yamuna River, taking in the beauty of two grand red sandstone buildings which mirror each other either side of the mausoleum, the western building being a daily used mosque, and the other a jawab (answer) thought to have been constructed for architectural balance, although it may have been used as a guesthouse.
Taj Mahal and outlying buildings as seen from across the Yamuna River (northern view)
Rita and I respectfully entered the mausoleum, stepping into the inner sanctum where the enclosed tombs lie encased by a filigree marble screen. A guide stood ready to demonstrate the wonders of the acoustics by asking Rita’s name. He then called “Riiiittttttaaaaa” and her name bounced and reverberated up into air. He then asked my name and called “Syyylllllvvvviiiiiaaa” sending a chill up my spine as it too echoed and bounced back to my ears. He indicated that we should donate money on the floor but Shyam had counselled against taking purses in so we had none and moved on round the structure. Rita made her way out but I lingered in the outer chambers and re-entered the place as before and asked the guide if he would call “Allah”. He smiled, lifted up his chin, open his mouth and sang “Aaallllaaaaahhhhh”, wow; it rose on the wings of expelled breath and danced around that dome like a dove with an olive branch. I was so enchanted, he called again “Aaallllaaaaahhhhh”, which made my throat ache and my eyes water (and no money was exchanged, just an act of kindness). We strolled back through the gardens, stepping on occasional stones with strange symbols and back to the coach for our next stop, the Red Fort.
The Red Fort at Agra was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, and is a maze of rooms, cool courtyards, underground tunnels and a garden with a pool where the Shah and his ladies would bathe. To the north is the Mathamman Burj, an octagonal tower where Aurangzeb imprisoned his father Shah Jahan, which gave his father a panoramic view of the Taj Mahal on the other side of the Yamuna River but where he never set foot again. One of his daughters placed mirrors around the walls to create an illusion of space and light for her father. In the third courtyard stands an impressive raised dais with skilfully carved pillars where the Peacock Throne once sat and the Shah would conduct public and private audiences. The tomb of the British Lieutenant Governor John Colvin lies in a garden within the fort. Large iron rings are mounted in the ceilings where tapestries and drapes would have been hung.
Our next adventure was a porcelain factory. First, we were treated to a demonstration of how beautiful pieces of marble are cut and shaped and tiny slivers or hand cut coloured stones are intricately placed to form exquisite tops for tables. In the larger showroom, whilst sipping coffee or tea, lights were placed under tables and lamps to show off their wonderful colours and opaqueness. The room was bedecked in spectacular pictures, tables, lamps, ornaments and statues, the likes of which are not seen at the average Mall. I would love to have shipped many of these delights back for friends and family to enjoy but made do with listening whilst Barbara and Cathy admired small side tables with mosaic tops. Cathy could not resist and bought one and Nathan and John were charmingly seduced but I’m not sure if they bought anything.
Back to our elegant hotel for a quick change before venturing out once more to a local theatre for a live performance of a play depicting the saga of love and a memorable journey into history regarding the Taj Mahal. This was classical Indian dancing and music performed in colourful costumes in a time-honoured way. The theatre was reminiscent of the old classic music halls with earphones to hear the Indian script translated into English (or other languages). After this busy day and another sumptuous, colourful meal it was off to bed for an early morning start tomorrow, with our luggage, to the railway station.
Because of all the testing and form filling at each hotel, Jean and Tim were in touch with their travel agents trying to cancel an extended 3-day trip to Nepal and get an earlier flight home; just as well as the Nepalese border was about to be closed. They secured a flight a few hours before we were due to leave and continued to enjoy the tour. John and Nancy, and Greg and Wendy were due to travel south on an extended trip but were in a similar quandary as to whether to cancel or continue. Our tour company in Vancouver and Shyam were working in the background to ensure all would be well, meanwhile we were given our very effective, smaller holdalls by the company while our larger luggage returned to Delhi by coach.
Sunday, 15th March
Our last ride for a couple of days with our constant faithful companions, the skilful coach driver and Sonu, the kindest young man with a wife and two young children, who have taken such good care of us. Dropped off at the Agra Fort railway station, we waited on the platform for about ½ an hour for the 2-hour train journey to Jhansi, a centre of Bundela civilization and a medieval fortress city. Against expectations, once again there were not crowds of people waiting for the train, we had beggar children, mothers with babies and disabled men circling us as we watched porters carrying cases on their heads and curious looks at those of us, by now, wearing masks in public places. The trains were older models, coming and going with frequency, and in between emaciated and poorly dressed workers walked along the tracks, some with bins picking up litter and some with bags, sweeping with twig brooms, clearing plastics and food. Surprisingly, there were small pot plants placed between the tracks….. who waters those I wonder? We had seats (mine was No. 41) pre-booked in the first class carriage with tables and newspapers headlining news of the pending epidemic. All seats were occupied but at least no-one was standing in the aisles although the seats and carriage were very dirty. The toilets were squat for Indians and pans for Westerners, not at all clean, with no toilet paper or soap, and were situated beyond the carriage’s rickety joins and necessitated stepping over bodies laid out in every nook and cranny trying to get a bit of shuteye! The passing scenery revealed multi temples built on hilltops, the usual detritus strewn at random and then suddenly palm trees, lush grass, more modern housing before the slums took over again. In contrast we passed spectacular wedding venue hotels in amongst the chaos. Shyam ensured our safe passage and on disembarking led us a short walk to where a new bus was waiting to take us to a restaurant in Orchha for lunch. Mike, as always, lugged my carry-on bag over his shoulder with his own knapsack, which saved me a lot of aches.
We were unaware until chatting at the meal table that this day was in fact Susan’s birthday. Too late to surprise her with a cake, but she did get a very special satsuma from Shyam and a large golden marigold from the proprietor. Happy Birthday was also sung with gusto and we all enjoyed this unexpected interlude. Susan was a nurse when a young doctor (Ray) fell in love with her at first sight and eventually persuaded her she was the one for him, leading to a long and loving marriage. (Malcolm and my story exactly, well not the nurse and doctor bit!) A lovely couple. The group had gelled so well together, everyone so kind and inclusive and after lunch we enjoyed a stroll down to the river, past huge bougainvillea’s in full bloom to admire huge Chhatris, which are dome shaped pavilions built as memorials over the site where cremations of important personage were performed.
Retracing our steps, we were to walk into town (I thought I would rest in the foyer of the restaurant whilst the group did this but the bus was meeting us at the other end of town!) We strolled through a market selling all sorts of wares and lots of colourful vegetables and fruit, and here we parted with Shyam for a few minutes whilst he caught up with friends and acquaintances and we continued over the River Betwa bridge to admire the huge palace-fort from the outside, with gurus in bright robes waiting to have their photos taken for a small fee. The usual street people were trying to sell us their wares and back on the bus Shyam would allow them to come to the door and would hold up the articles for sale and ask if we wanted any, this saved us having to scrabble or carry money on the streets, but still gave them an opportunity to sell. I bought a camel skin bag with an Indian scene etched on it (although maybe at a different time, I can’t remember).
Leaving Orchha we endured a 5 hour journey towards Khajuraho, bouncing and swaying side to side like a drunken sailor along a new highway under constructions for the last 3 years, a section of which had unfortunately been swept away causing a delay, but astonishingly its 180 km is under construction as one long, long, never ending project. It was quite the experience weaving in and out of road-making materials, bollards, diversion signs, mounds of earth, half-finished culverts and machinery. It will be monumental when it is finally completed (no guesses when) but meanwhile life right beside the highway continues in a time honoured way, goats being herded, cows wandering casually, field workers toiling with ancient tools, scarred but unbowed townships right on the edge of technology, pushed back on themselves regardless of time honoured trade in pursuit of the future. It’s a dramatic change, like inserting a zipper into an old, much loved sweater causing a vacuum into which the ancient ways will fall with no time to catch up.
Wearied but still enjoying this amazing journey so much, we checked into our hotel, the Radisson Jass. The conversation at our yet again amazing and delicious dinner centred around Nancy and John, and Greg and Wendy foregoing their onward journey and trying to get an earlier flight back to Canada. We were still scheduled for our flight on the 19th although we were also learning that access to monuments and public places were being closed down such as the Taj Mahal!!!!! Shyam remained very focused on the group, sharing his wealth of knowledge of his beloved India with us (he really should have been a teacher but would rather spread his teachings wider without the confines of dusty chalk fingers scribing onto a blackboard) and his lovable sense of humour that is so attractive and inclusive. He shared photos of his wife and son with us as we shared stories of our loved ones back home. He was also on the phone a lot with our tour company family both in India and Vancouver, who were working hard to secure safe early passage home for our 4 companions (Jean and Tim were already sorted although their 3 days in Nepal had a significant purpose. For some years Jean, supported by Tim, has overseen fund raising and surgical help in Africa for children who had been damaged by falling into a fire and their skin not healing correctly, pulling their face down towards their shoulder. A tremendous humanitarian act that had seen Jean travelling to Africa yearly. Nepal was being looked at too so I hope all goes well in the future for this amazing couple). Tomorrow we are visiting the temples at Khajuraho, still miraculously open to the public.
Monday 16 March
Our first visit of the day is to the Chandela Dynasty Temples accompanied by Shyam, which are set in beautifully tended and peaceful gardens, with huge colourful flowering shrubs and chipmunks racing up and down the shade giving trees. At the site we had another guide join us, an expert historian on these amazing structures with erotic carvings commonly misconstrued as just eroticism in the Western world but which does in fact define a Hindu philosophy. This outlines four main goals of life which are necessary and sufficient for a fulfilling and happy life, which the artwork symbolically highlights:
Dharma – behaviours, duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues that make life and universe possible “the right way of living” within the cosmos.
Artha – activities and resources that enables one to be in a state one wants to be in and incorporates activity to make a living, financial security and economic prosperity. The proper pursuit of artha is considered an important aim of human life in Hinduism.
Kama – signifies desire, wish, passion, emotions, pleasure of the senses, the enjoyment of life, affection or love, with or without sexual connotations or impediment on ones journey towards moksha (spiritual liberation).
Moksha – signifies emancipation, liberation or release, freedom, self-knowledge, self-realization and liberation in this life, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The Kama Sutra is an ancient Indian text on sexuality, eroticism and emotional fulfillment in life, not predominantly a sex manual on sex positions but written as a guide to the art of living well, the nature of love, finding a life partner, maintain ones live life and other aspects pertaining to pleasure oriented faculties of human life. As Dan Cruikshank once said in one of his travelogue films “its erotic, sensual, meaningful and even communal”!
These temples were built of Granite or sandstone in shades of buff, pink and pale yellow between 950-1050 by the Chandela Rajput kings. Only 25 of the original 85 survive; all but one faces sunrise. Among the surviving temples, 6 are dedicated to Lord Shiva, 8 to Lord Vishnu, 1 each to Lord Ganesha and the Sun God and 3 to Jain Tirthankaras. The territory is laid out in three triangles that converge to form a pentagon; the temple site highlights Shiva, the one who destroys and recycles life, thereby controlling the cosmic dance of time, evolution and dissolution. Sex was not a stigma or a forbidden thing in the society but rather the sculptures signify the ecstasy, the beauty and the truth of life’s cycle.
We could see how the practise of Yoga would have greatly enhanced the positions adopted to achieve the maximum benefit to fulfil the perpetuation of life; indeed, most carvings depicted helping hands to steady the more acrobatic of these positions. The philosophy of deep and satisfying relationships is beautiful, but there are also smaller carvings that denote couplings between humans and animals in a country where all life is considered sacred. Previously we had learnt that prior to the occupation and rise of the British Raj system, all love was considered possible, even between same sexes, but this was outlawed by the invaders. Books and packs of cards were purchased when we returned to the coach, with a frenzied clutch of vendors’ arms and hands waving in the doorway at Shyam as he held up wares for purchase.
After this thought-provoking tour our attention then turned to a trip to Khajuraho Airport for a one-hour internal flight to Varanasi, formerly known as Banaras during the British Raj. Temperature tests by fully suited medics and luggage checks have been ramped up even on internal flights for the dwindling number of tourists still in evidence (there was a large party of Chinese people waiting for a flight at the airport). I think we all breathed a sigh of relief that no-one displayed a high temperature and we were shuttled through into the departure lounge with time to have a little wander round the shops, where Jean bought two lovely pairs of very pretty shoes at the behest of our urging. On arrival we transferred to our first class hotel the Taj Ganges.
Varanasi is home to one of the world’s most ancient cultures and is the oldest living city of India. It has one of the most time honoured and mysterious cultures dating back 5000 years and is Shyam’s birthplace. His father and his wife’s father were friends in the army and both their wives were expecting at the same time so a thought was born that maybe in time they would end up married to each other. Shyam related the meaningful story of his ‘arranged’ marriage to this friend’s child who was born three months after him. He did not meet her until the marriage and they had one son a year later. He explained a little of his life, the hopes for his child (now 20 years old) and that he and his wife aspire to open a Yoga Studio in the future. At present she gives free tuition to the less fortunate in society. I sincerely hope he gets to realise this dream; I have a great deal of respect for him after 12 days in his company.
Tuesday, 17th March
The bus arrived at the hotel to take us into the town for a stroll through the streets, avoiding peddlers and small children begging. Shyam stopped at a market stall and invited us to choose a coloured ribbon which he then purchased for us. This was a Kautuka, a red-yellow ritual protection thread which is part of festive ceremonies and processions, where the protective thread is tied to the wrist of festival icons and human participants. He helped us tie them round our wrists and we continued on to the high steps leading down to the mighty Ganges river. All senses were once more on overload at this fascinating and incredible scene, once again multi ramshackled shops, street vendors of all descriptions, gurus in colourful dress with flowing beards posing for photos, animals roaming, food cooking, children playing cricket (evident simply everywhere we have travelled, be it with a piece of wood or a proper bat, in the street, in the field, on the steps). They were only too delighted to show off their skills, hitting the ball as hard and as wide as they could before racing like mad to score runs.
We descended to the water’s edge and clambered aboard a motorboat for a slow ride out and along the waterfront, taking in the incredible scene of ancient buildings, ritual bathing (devotees drink the water as well as bathe in it and indeed Shyam dipped his cupped hand into the water and brought it to his face and lips), clothes being washed, fully clothed ladies laughing and fully immersing, the young and the elderly side by side in the joy of this most mysterious and meaningful river. I watched an elderly man with the traditional cloth bound round his loins like a huge nappy (such as Gandhi used to wear) and then to my enlightenment he unbound it so that it dropped from his waist to his feet in the long, traditional tunic style dress that is more commonly witnessed. So that’s what it’s all about, it’s an aid to walking and bathing to be able to hitch the tunic up……well I never. This has been a huge learning curve for me with the dispelling of myths, listening to the depths of a great culture, gaining a respect for a nation’s fortitude, and feeling a love of the explosion of thoughts that this country has awakened in me. The most poignant was yet to come…….
Huge piles of logs were evident on one section of the steps with fires burning alongside, the site of traditional Indian cremations. Nine or ten burn at a time, taking up to 3 hours, which continues throughout the day. We observed the ritual of bringing a deceased loved one through the town on a wooden platform carried by male family members, no matter how poor the deceased is encased in a white shroud covered by richly coloured burial shrouds. It is taken to the water’s edge for the face to be bathed in the waters of the Ganges, before the top robes are removed and the white shrouded body placed on a log pyre with more logs on top. Each body is accompanied by family members and a priest and the pyre is lit. I found it very beautiful and moving in being able to attend your loved ones throughout them leaving their earthly bodies to move into another world. However, groups of mourners were much smaller than usual, and there was no great throng of visitors on the embankments so we were aware things are happening in the wider world regarding the virus.
After disembarking we walked through the town’s narrow streets, past a mission with Mother Theresa’s name above the doorway, before being driven back to the hotel for another sumptuous feast, lively discussions and laughter.
In the afternoon we boarded the bus once more to return to the Ganges to witness the devotional ceremony of Aarti performed by devout Hindus. Shyam dealt with young children selling candles with flowers in small paper bowls who were clustering around us. In purchasing enough for us to participate in a ceremony of launching them on the Ganges, he was so kind and fair, choosing with care from each child, making sure all were included, before bringing them back to the boat to be lit and distributed. It was growing darker by now and priests were beginning to perform chants and rituals along the riverbank which now had a backdrop of rainbow lights, with a bridge spanning the Ganges in the distance also lit up in spectacular fashion. A priest stepped from boat to boat painting a blessing on foreheads and I was very glad to receive mine, a white stripe with a red dot. I launched my little light, along with the others, and watched as they gently bobbed off down river with the current, all the while absorbing the deep Om-like sounds of ancient prayers accompanied by the melodious dong of the bowls and rhythmic drumming on the steep steps in front of us, plus bells ringing from temples across the Holy Ganges. Shyam had previously explained and demonstrated the ‘Om’ in answer to one of my questions, as this meditation practise is one, I would like to develop, my friend back home having presented me with small finger bells to facilitate this which I have yet to explore. I loved the whole concept of the respectful send off for those departing this world that had taken place that morning, filling my being with colour, peace, harmony and a love for my fellow human beings.
Wednesday, 18 March
A very early 7:30 a.m. start for the group to attend a one- hour yoga session in the hotel grounds to learn how to remove stress and purify the body and soul, led by a female doctor/teacher of yoga. I was so tired from the previous day I was sleeping like a baby at the allotted time and woke with a start to find Rita’s bed empty and I had probably missed the session. I literally threw on my clothes and dashed down into the garden but could see no signs telling me where it was being held. Fortunately, I ran into John who had gone with Nancy to do the yoga but had given up as his long limbs did not like the sitting position on the ground. He escorted me to a small walled garden and indeed, Marlene was oblivious to the world in a prone position and the others were concentrating hard on the basics of meditation that they had been taught. I just had a quick wafting of my hands to surround myself with positive thoughts then it was over. Mike was the only male at the session. I was asked to take a photo of the group and made sure I got the teacher in view with the rest of the ladies who were sitting a distance away. Unfortunately, I didn’t realise that I had cut Rita out of the picture but she was very gracious about it having just learnt to remove her stress (she is one of the calmest people I know!) I should have set my alarm clock!
We were due to take a guided excursion to Sarnath, the centre of Buddhist learning and the buried Buddhist city where Buddha preached his first sermon but this was now closed to the public, as were other places we had been lucky enough to visit. However, we stopped outside the locked open-ironwork gates of the deer park and were able to see the impressive Dhamek Stupa. Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist tumuli, in which ascetics were buried in a seated position called chaitya. After the par nirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under 8 mounds with 2 further mounds encasing the urn and the embers. The Dhamek Stupa is said to mark the spot where Buddha gave the first sermon to his first 5 Brahmin disciples after attaining enlightenment revealing his Eightfold Path leading to nirvana. King Ashoka built stupas to enshrine small pieces of calcinated bone and other relics of the Buddha and his disciples. In its current shape, the stupa is a solid cylinder of bricks and stone reaching a height of 43.6 meters with a diameter of 28 meters. The stone facing has delicate floral carvings of Gupta origin and the wall is covered with carved figures of humans and birds. The gates which lead into the park where the stupa stands were closed and locked but we were able to take photos from outside and learn of Buddha’s birth in Nepal (his mother was trying to make it home to India for the birth) and his journey and legacy in India. I had the impression that Buddhism is not as well practised here as in the past, the population being mainly Hindu or Sikh.
Nearby, we were able to stroll in the beautiful gardens of the Thai Buddha Vihar to marvel at the 80 ft tallest statue of Lord Buddha next to Wat Thai Sarnath Temple in Sarnath, Varanasi. In the water culvert leading up to the statue were small green frogs peering up from large green lily pads, spotted by Marls. The flowers and grounds were very peaceful with smaller golden statues of Buddha; again, very few visitors, giving us a unique experience. Shyam took photographs of the group (all of us this time) in front of the Buddha…….very beautiful.
Moving on to the ancient city of Banaras we entered the Ressler Silk House to see Purnima silk being woven. Two elderly men were working in unison to produce a silk runner, one choosing from a range of knots as to where the silk would be woven, the other passing coloured threads through the knot patterns rows. A very ancient technique that will be lost in the future as young men do not want to learn this skill any more. Then into a large room for a demonstration of large to smaller carpets, some stunningly made of pure silk. Nathan and Kate bought a carpet! On into another large showroom for a demonstration of beautiful bedding, table adornments, picture hangings etc., made of pure silk or a mixture of silk and cotton. Quite a few sales were made here, including a lovely kaftan for Kate. I purchased a wall hanging which is of Indian women posed so that when you stand back from it, their bodies and limbs make up the shape of an elephant….fascinating…..I am going to frame it.
Back at the hotel we had dinner before enjoying our first free afternoon to sit by the pool, take a nap, relax or whatever. Jean, Tim, Nancy, John and Wendy all relaxed with a book whilst Marls, Mike, Rita and I played a game of 5 crowns. Later, a young man knocked our hotel door and asked if we would like a foot bath. Intrigued and just a little foot sore, we agreed so he proceeded to bring in two very large round copper foot bowls, filled them with warm water and added a liberal handful of rose petals to each….ahhhh what a treat.
We now knew the Taj Mahal and Ranthambore National Park had been closed to all visitors and felt extremely privileged to have been able to experience them. Nazir’s kind, helpful and very personable brother joined us in the foyer to reassure everyone that our flights are secure tomorrow, that Jean and Tim will leave later that night, and that the other four are booked on our flight (albeit that Nancy and John will have to travel first class at a cost, a good night’s sleep as opposed to no seat at all, a small price to pay and much relief for them). He also delivered small sachets of skin cream that a previous fellow passenger had loved so much she had asked the company if they could secure more for her. Rita had agreed to take them in her luggage after the Karnai family had gone to so much trouble to make a fellow traveller happy.
Thursday, 19th March
At 5:30 a.m. we enthusiastically embraced another very early start to revisit the Holy Ganges to see the sunrise from a boat on the water. Very few boats were on the water, tourists had disappeared, funeral pyres still burned but we had the most peaceful glide out into the water to sit and watch the sun gradually rise and fill the opposite riverbank with its orangey yellow glow. Birds sang, ducks floated by and the dwellers of the Ganges gradually made their way down to the water to bathe, wash clothing, sit in contemplation in the morning ray’s warmth, or celebrate the successful journey onwards of their loved ones. Just incredibly beautiful.
Back to the hotel to see our luggage safely on the bus for the drive to Varanasi airport to return to Delhi on Vistara Airlines. Shyam informed us that as of noon today all visitors are confined to their hotels and can only make trips to the airport, which is precisely where we were going; how full of Karma was that! Jean and Tim will leave tonight, the rest of us will leave at 4:45 a.m. There were more stringent checks at the airport, we are the second to last of these particular tours to leave, the last tour was stranded in Nepal as the Indian border has been closed. We were kept standing in crowded queues to pass through thorough passport checks. No one at the counters seemed in any hurry although most attendants were now wearing masks.
Our first driver, luxury coach, and Sonu (such a lovely young man) were waiting for us on arrival at Delhi to take us to the Hotel Pride Plaza, for dinner, happy and thankful farewells and a brief sleep before we had to be ready to leave at 2.00am in the morning to catch our flight direct to Vancouver. We also said our fond farewells to Shyam at the hotel and we certainly missed him at the airport and his constant presence making sure we were safe. He contributed so much to this unique experience.
Temperatures taken, luggage screened, passports scrutinised for any recent travel, then boarded at last on a very crowded plane. We were all seated in various places, Rita and I had an elderly Indian lady in the aisle seat and a very, very fractious child in front of us who objected loudly and volatilely to having her seat belt fastened. Finally, a stern word from the stewardess just before takeoff went unheeded but by now, she had exhausted herself and quite quickly fell asleep thank goodness. I thought of John and Nancy up there in first class…..oh my. We dozed, we watched movies, we ate and drank a little, then stretched when we felt able to get out as the elderly lady on the end visited the washroom, ousting her out of her seat again when we reluctantly returned, trying not to listen to the coughs and sneezes punctuating the restricted air around us. Unusually a trolley was made available at the back of the plane where we could help ourselves to cookies and drinks.
On one stretching of our legs I bumped into Kate at the tea trolley, who explained she had trained as a ballerina as a young girl with the Royal Ballet and had danced on stage with Nureyev and Margot Fontaine towards the end of Fontaine’s career……wonderful! And so, the 16 hours passed, all the hostesses wearing gloves and masks, flying over the Himalayas and leaving this incredible experience behind.
It wasn’t over just yet, there was Vancouver Airport to negotiate, surprisingly few checks done, just a cursory question as to whether we had a cough, cold etc., to which the answer was always an anxious “No” (as if anyone was going to say Yes!) No temperature tests, no form filling, just a pamphlet about who to contact if you should feel ill, some of which were discarded on vacant chairs. Rita and I made our way to the coffee bar and I had a bite to eat knowing I had left very little food in my fridge. Lastly, a short, fully loaded flight to Nanaimo, passengers arriving from all over the world, no masks worn, no gloves, no checks, crowded terminal and Rita into the happy arms of Jim, me slowly following on my swollen ankles amazed at what I had accomplished regarding walking, climbing, coach hopping, etc. (not to mention hauling myself up into that rickshaw which must have been quite the sight). They dropped me home and I found my fridge had been stocked by my much-loved daughter-in-law and son.
Oh boy was it quiet, but what an adventure to reflect on; how lucky was I to have taken this visually mesmerizing, heart and mind stimulating journey of liberation and enlightenment. Nathan generously put together a short video of the trip plus a second one of our Ranthambore experience and sent it to us all, plus Rita, Mike and Marlene also shared their photo journey with me. Thank you all for being such amazing travelling companions and thank you ExploreIndia.ca and all your colleagues for this excellent tour.
Sylvia Parnell, completed Monday, 13 April 2020 at 12.15pm…..whew!
Now to scrapbook all the photographs
Footnote: Unfortunately, distressing scenes unfolded the week after we left India as the government imposed a total lockdown and hundreds of migrant workers in Delhi and other large cities, tried to board any available transport to get back to their villages. Some groups were even sprayed with disinfectant and many ended up trying to walk the great distance, fearing starvation. My heart and prayers go out to this incredible nation.