So 2017 is the year of discovering Paris for me. Sometimes stuff you never even dreamt of comes true. I’ve spent the last couple of months steeped in logistics for this stint here, chiefly to manoeuvre things so the family could join me for some time, but without actually thinking about what it would be like. Delayed gratification, have you heard of it?
When we actually got here, it’s in the middle of a heat wave. It’s like we brought the bad weather with us from Delhi. Ever tried 37 degrees without ACS and fans?
I’ve been at work during the day, in a stifling office with the nicest people wading through literature as part of a research stay. In the evenings, I’ve tried to join the mums and kids as they explore the city. Museums in the heat is the mantra they are loosely following, spending the mornings in our rental apartment and dashing into a museum in the hot afternoon.
Yesterday I met them outside the Musee Rodin and we walked around the area, ending up in the courtyard of les Invalides, which houses the Military Museum. In this beautifully proportioned space, Aadyaa was inspired to sketch and Udai conjured up fantasies about cannon balls, fire and destruction. The walk across the vast lawns towards the Seine felt good, with the cool grass under our feet and the winds beginning to blow.
We ambled pointlessly wondering where to eat. Food was very much on the mind of the young man, who can be super fussy and was likely imagining a proper Parisian meal. Down the steps right next to Seine, the city was settling into a long evening of fun and partying. On a whim, we ordered burgers and joined the picnic. What bliss to sit dangling our feet over the lovely Seine watching the world go by, hearing laughter and conversation and sharing a hearty meal. Doesn’t Aadyaa’s expression say it all?
The downside of Bali was the overtly touristy way in which everything was presented. Seminyak and Kuta were full of the same kind of knick-knack shops you find in tourist places the world over. Our only delightful find was a shop absolutely full of bead jewelry and the island’s superior artisanship made it possible, unlike say in Rajasthan or Goa, to pick nearly anything off the shelves and find it of decent quality.
Though less in your face that what tourists in India (especially white tourists) usually experiences, we found ourselves constantly accosted by people trying to sell us stuff from needlessly expensive tour packages to on-the-go manicures, sarongs and cheaper hotel rooms. Bargaining is de rigeur and even after we bargained and customised our own tour package, we probably ended up paying more than what it was worth. I’ll tell you why.
Tacky packaging for (what could have been) a fascinating cultural experience
On our one sightseeing day, we started our day with the most disappointing and poorly presented cultural performance I’ve seen, something akin to Ram Leela performances in India that are at times full of ribald jokes and casual acting. The Barong Dance was a classic good versus evil traditional dance drama full of evil spirits and fights and women who charm. Familiar characters from Hindu epic dramas and mythology like Dewi Kunti and Sahdev from the Mahabharata and Shiva from the Hindu trinity made the drama interesting, though the contexts were rather different. The elaborate costumes were charming as well, but that’s where it ended. Off key music that hardly changed no matter what the mood, actors that looked disinterested and periodic vulgarity, all left a bad taste and showed disrespect to the time even us ignorant tourists had spent in coming there and watching. I’m sure there are high quality versions of Balinese traditional performing art to be seen and I wish information about this was more accessible. I would not recommend the one we were shown as part of the widely offered tourist packages.
Who’s the bully? The struggle for authenticity
Wayan, our taxi driver, was an amiable chap. He was happy talking to us about his family, his migration experiences, his income pattern. He had questions for us too, and the first hour of our drive passed pleasantly. But he was obstinate too. He refused to stop at local eateries, deferring our requests time and again. When we expressed an interest in buying batik and ikkat fabrics, he drove us straight into a large, showy and overtly touristy crafts emporium where the prices were needlessly hiked. This, despite our pleas to stop at a small, more local place. We figured the tourist trail was all he had and he was used to counting on commissions from stores and restaurants where they took their customers. The Indian ‘setting’ was very much evident in Bali.
We got our way with the shopping finally, bullying Wayan to stop at a local store with more reasonable prices, and negotiating in sign language with shop attendants who spoke no English. But we were defeated when it came to our lunch stop. We found ourselves in the infamous lunch buffet advertised in every tourist pamphlet, facing Mt Batur, one of Bali’s most active volcanoes. We ate that very plain lunch only because of the very spectacular view of Batur and Lake Kintamani. It saddens me to think that tourists must settle for such a compromise. Perhaps it need not be so!
Religion at the altar of tourism: Compromise or evolution?
Our last stop before heading back to Seminyak was to the beautiful Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring, a temple built around 960AD at the site of a natural spring. Legend has it that the spring was created by Lord Indra to revive his troops in his battle with the Balinese ruler Mayadenawa who had positioned himself against the influence of Hinduism, forbidding religious rituals and worship. The temple is divided into three courtyards. The first with the bathing pool and the meeting hall, the second where the ritual bath in the holy spring is conducted, and the third contains a number of elaborately carved structures with a demarcated place of worship. There is hardly any signage at the complex to explain the architecture, the legend or the significance of the rituals; I have gleaned what I know from Internet research after our visit. At the time, the visit was a pleasant but confusing experience.
The signage is unequivocal, however, about the need for modesty and proper dressing in the temple. Men and women are let in only once they wear sarongs and women are repeatedly urged to not enter if menstruating. Websites about Balinese temples have stressed on the importance of respectful dressing and the purification ritual in Tirta Empul especially was something we understood as a solemn ritual needing priestly intervention. What we saw inside though, was something rather different. There appeared to be more tourists than Balinese in the spring pool and many of them had discarded their sarongs to be in their bikinis and briefs. The priestly interlocutors or guides, whoever they were, were only to be seen taking pictures of these tourists! On the farthest side, some Balinese families were engrossed in thier prayers, offering a glimpse of what might have been the originally intended mood of this beautiful temple.
In the innermost courtyard, we were shooed away from the area of worship by priests who reminded me of the stern ‘pandas’ of the shrine of Jagannath in Puri. I got no real chance to explain my own Hindu origins and request a chance to worship at a Balinese shrine. Now that would have been interesting!
For next time: Over the mountains, under the sea
From the glimpses we got of the beautiful island of Bali as we drove to and from the highland area of Kintamani, clearly there remains a lot to be explored. The sunrise trek up Mt Batur is something I would have liked to do, given more time. I would also have liked to sample the snorkeling and diving on the island and certainly, those are on my list for the next time alongside a visit to more religious sites after I’ve gleaned a deeper understanding of Balinese Hinduism. I’ll be back, Bali, with better research and local contacts next time!
Visiting a heritage site always gives me a high. I’ve had people roll their eyes at me about my particular enthusiasm for ruins and tombs, palaces and serais, but there is a magic in the texture and aura of brick and stone that has stood there so long and seen so much change. The Humayun’s Tomb complex, so lovingly restored by the Aga Khan Foundation, is a real treat to visit. Perhaps ‘the’ showcase heritage treasure for Delhi at this time, as the city struggles year after year to get onto UNESCO’s Heritage City list (this year I hear it’s losing out to Amdavad). It’s a pity, but I do find that a number of Delhi’s important heritage sites are not well maintained, with no information to help visitors contextualize what they are experiencing and with very little connection to the city at large.
On the Saturday morning we rambled through the Humayun’s Tomb complex, we saw long lines of chattering school children, photography enthusiasts, tourists and families, all excited and many in awe. I learn something new each visit at the small exhibition set up at the entrance to the Tomb. This time, it helped me explain a bit of the history, architecture and cultural context of the monument to our visitors from the Netherlands.
Humayun’s tomb never fails to impress; its scale and proportions, its craftsmanship so perfect. But beyond its historical value and perhaps because of it, what Udai and me (we’ve both visited several times before) most enjoyed this time around were the beautifully landscaped spaces that surround the smaller monuments in the complex. Spaces that allow you to sit and contemplate life, spaces that involve a little climbing up and down and offer a sense of adventure. As I pen this post, it does occur to me that this is a metaphor for how in life side dishes are often far more pleasurable than the mains and what we consider the ‘extra’ often adds the best flavours!
Some snapshots from my iphone6.
I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.
My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!
We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.
Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.
After a congenial and comfortable train ride from Amsterdam to Berlin, we weren’t exactly tired. And so, shortly after we dumped our bags in our hotel room, all four of us were eager to walk around and explore our new destination.
At first sight, I found Berlin hard to read. So much was happening around me visually. Heritage structures abounded, but the skyline was dominated by the slender and modern TV tower, the 4th tallest structure in Europe. Cranes dotted the horizon as well and I could sense the energy of a city that seemed to be in a constant state of re-invention.
Despite the broad research I had done, I hadn’t dwelt on what it would be like to walk the streets of Berlin and I loved the feeling of taking in a new place, the tingling sense of curiosity, the eagerness to discover. Rahul and the kids seemed to share this feeling as well and we found ourselves walking around the Nikolaiviertel (St Nicholas Quarter) that was adjacent to our hotel.
Aside: We stayed at the Novotel and Aadyaa called it the No-Hotel for two whole days to our utter amusement. A decent place to stay, not luxurious but well located.
Interestingly, this is the oldest residential area in Berlin dating back to medieval times. We circled Nikolaikirche, the oldest church in the city, which was to become a familiar landmark over the next few days. We walked past the ornate Ephraim Palace and the red Rathuis (Townhall). We admired the River Spree and paid our respects to St. George slaying the dragon.
Everywhere, I saw the infill new buildings that had been fitted into the fabric of the older city and it took me some time to shake off the visual symmetry of the Dutch landscape and accommodate the more kitschy urbanscape of Berlin. Somewhere in between our wanderings this first evening, we sat down to a hearty German meal of bratwurst and potato salad, beer and schintzel. A good beginning to a packed 4 days ahead in one of the most interesting cities in the world!
It is the Dalai Lama’s birthday today and he addresses the world, urging us towards inner peace and tranquility. A month and a half ago, we were in McLeod Ganj at his abode. The drives and views were glorious, the weather perfect, the food delectable, but what really put this place in perspective for me was the little museum inside the temple complex that told the story of Tibet.
We were stepping into the museum after seeing the temple, where we had been entranced by monks practicing their rituals and had soaked in the curiously informal yet deeply spiritual, traditional yet uniquely modern feel of the temple. Beautifully curated, the exhibits told the story of the expropriation of Tibet by China, a story of war and a searingly painful loss of religion, culture and identity. The countless lives lost, the homes abandoned, the livelihoods destroyed were one part of the picture, but what came through was the poignant and enduring sense of betrayal, loss, deep sadness.
Udai read every word on display, peered into every single photograph. Aadyaa too sensed our mood from the stillness in the air and asked to be informed. Panel by panel, we went through the story of Tibet’s transformation from an independent State with a very distinct blend of cultural and religious identities to its present amalgamation with China. New concepts like self-immolation caused my children to widen their eyes with wonder and curiosity.
Udai compared the Tibetan story to the hacking off of Hindu sculptures by Portuguese colonizers at Elephanta Caves outside Mumbai, where we had been, fortuitously, just a week ago. It’s the same thing, he said. Someone comes and does not respect what they see. They are stronger, so they destroy it, without thinking.
Not just respect, I gently added, but also inability to tolerate. And a need to destroy what exists to exhibit power, establish supremacy, quell rebellion.
Why, he asked? Why did the Portuguese want Elephanta, why do the Chinese want Tibet so much that they would do this?
Land, mineral wealth, natural resources like water, basically wealth. It is not just foreigners who do this to someone. In our own country, many tribal areas are being destroyed to mine minerals by our own countrymen, because we need those minerals to feed our factories, make machines and products that we now use. I saw a deep sadness in Udai’s eyes and I knew that, at some level despite the complexity, I had been able to get through to him.
I have been wanting to write about my feelings ever since we returned from Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile. It cut me deep, the story of these self-respecting, proud, stoic people. Everywhere you walked, they sat selling goods that tourists would like- jewelry, curios, umbrellas, hats. As they sat, many of them continued to work with their hands, sewing and knitting and creating macrame wrist bands too. Some were happy to talk, albeit with a reserve and hint of suspicion; others refused to even get pictures taken, especially the old men. Monasteries and workshops, NGOs galore, all trying to rehabilitate a broken people. How resilient they are, I kept thinking. To lose everything and then pick up the pieces is a truly remarkable thing.
We missed hearing the Dalai Lama speak, but the spirit of the Tibetan leader left its mark on me. Many years ago, when Rahul used to fly the Dalai Lama often, I had had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak at a private audience. I had little background then, of what had transpired in Tibet, but hearing the stories of his escape from Tibet had sent shivers down my spine. Now perhaps, I understand a bit more of this fascinating maze of events. I have no answers, no one does. Nor do I know enough to have convictions. I am hesitant to paint people, nations, ideologies in black and white.
But in everything around me now- in the lessons we derive from Uttarakhand’s tragic flash floods, in the debate around Maoist rebellion in states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, in stories of college students not being allowed to practice street theatre at Connaught Place’s central lawns, I see a stark mismatch between what is real and what we want to believe. I see a desperate need to slow down, to truly evaluate before we take steps forward, to be inclusive in how we build our community, our city, our nation. Above all, I feel a need to be calm, patient, and ways to control anger and despair and turn these into positive forces. The way I interpret it, this is what the Dalai Lama teaches us. I hope more of us are willing to step off the speeding train hurtling towards we-don’t-know-where, and listen!
Rajasthan is undoubtedly the most successful state in India in terms of attracting tourists and retaining their interest. The people of this state genuinely take immense pride in their culture and heritage. Their natural sense of hospitality and humility adds to the experience and numerous travelers have returned with the fondest of memories.
Being married into a Rajasthani family has given me a personal peek into the state’s rich culture, an experience I treasure and enjoy with every interaction and visit. Rahul’s village is located in Baran district in Rajashtan. This region, popularly called Hadoti deserves a longer, more relaxed visit and it’s been a long time wish of mine to trawl this region for lesser known heritage and natural sites. For now, I caught some short but delightful glimpses that I share today.
For background, Hadoti is a region in the southern part of Rajasthan bordering Gujarat comprising the districts of Kota, Bundi, Jhalawar and Baran. This area was consolidated in the 12th century by the Tripta Hada Rajputs, a branch of the Chauhan clan and they rules for several years. Many delightful forts are still visible today as we drive around this area and even the most ordinary village can offer the most delightful heritage treasures if you go looking!
We were fortunate to pass Bundi, which is undoubtedly the jewel in Hadoti’s crown as far as heritage tourism is concerned. From Kota to Jalwara, we passed Palaita, which is a fort right on the banks of the Chambal, a lovely location indeed. We always see it on our drive to the village and each time, I long to stop and drop in. Next time, surely!
Our own village Jalwara has some a small ruined fort and our home abuts it, so we literally live alongside this quaint structure. The village has an adorable little baodi (step well) and this time, I took the time to take some pictures here to document it, just in case we go back another time to find it’s gone!
One our drive back towards Dausa from Kota, we also passed Indragarh, another imposing fort that the Hadas built and rumored to be quite a vibrant heritage town with a nice kund (water tank). Another place that begs to be looked at with some time on our hands.
Besides the rich heritage, this region is blessed with plenty of natural beauty as well. A combination of the River Chambal and its tributaries, many wetlands and marshes, plus some bits of the Aravalli range means interesting landscapes and many migratory birds. More about that later. All in all, I am definitely planning a more leisurely visit to Hadoti sometime next year. I need more research on places to stay and more background on the family histories in this area to make the visit richer and more insightful. With the way the tourism industry is expanding, niche tourism to a less explored area like this is definitely something I would like to contribute my experiences to!
I promise. This will be the last of my Punjab posts, unless I visit again! That said, I write today about devotion, the pursuit of God and the experience of peace within a shrine. What you consider your devotion and your shrine is a very personal thing.
Personally, religious tourism has never excited me. And so, when locals mentioned that the Naina Devi temple is a must visit while returning from the Bhakra Dam, I wasn’t quite sure if expressing negative sentiments would ruffle feathers. I was curious about the cable car ride up to the temple though. And that turned out to be quite an experience. The rickety, locally fabricated cars painted in garish colors inspired no confidence at all. And when we saw a guy pour fuel into the motor using a severed bottle of Bisleri as a funnel, we really did not know whether to laugh or cry as we climbed in to the cars for the ride up. Fortunately for us, the fantastic views of the simply enormous and breathtaking Gobind Sagar Lake distracted us from being nervous; after all, all’s well that ends well and I am here to tell the tale!
The shrine was nothing spectacular, but there weren’t too many people and the visit was pleasant enough. I found a bunch of raggedy kids playing with cons outside the temple. Or rather, they found me. As I put my shoes back on, they pestered me for money. We ended up cracking jokes and I got a few good shots of them in the process!
This vacation turned out to be quite a pilgrimage, for the next on our itinerary was the Keshgarh Gurudwara at Anandpur Sahib. It’s pristine whiteness, pleasing proportions and sense of queit discipline, a submission to higher powers so to speak, made this a spiritual experience, even for someone like me who confesses to not having much of a spirit! Three aspects set gurudwaras apart for me, making them my favorite places of worship. The first is the divine sounds of the raagis singing the gurbaani, in perfect tune, with voices that sear through me and bring tears of joy to my eyes. Really. The second is the truly equal treatment of everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, adult or child, whoever. The third, of course , is the Karah prasad! We caught a spectacular sunset that made this visit extra memorable.
Our trip was nearly over. We had seen the sights and lived the holiday. I brought back with me the sound of our singing the classic old Hindi film melodies as the breeze blew our hair, the astonishing variety of green we saw outside the window, the rippling flow of zillion little streams and brooks that flow down from the Shivaliks, the simple wholesome food and open-hearted people of Punjab- a memorable three days indeed.