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South Indian mountains are worth seeing. But don't cross the Ghats by car.

We traveled from Wayanad to Pondicherry by car. Wayanad is in Kerala, the western side of India. Pondicherry is on the ocean on the east coast. In between is the south Indian subcontinent. It's divided by a couple mountain ranges, the Eastern and Western Ghats. The roads through the mountains wind their way up the side of the mountain and then back down. They're medium-small, as mountains go. We still found ourselves looking down at clouds rolling through the valleys below.

The tea plantations were gorgeous. Imagine an entire mountainside covered with lush deep-green foliage. The occasional worker adds a dot of contrasting color to the vertical planes of solid green. There were large carrot plantations, too. These are all at steep angles, with some terracing.

Michael was enchanted by a little mountain village. The rows of houses follow the contours of the mountain, like the villages found on mountainsides in Spain and Italy. We got out and walked around a bit. I watched a construction site, where workers shoveled dirt onto a tarp, four people picked up the corners, and they all scrambled up the hillside. The grade would be too steep to use a wheelbarrow, even if they'd had them.

We saw a nice waterfall and rapids area, similar to the Great Falls area in Maryland/DC. A short 1-km path leads down to some rushing waters. The weren't many people on the trail, but we passed by a few Westerners. No Americans, but an Australian couple and another who were speaking German. Several enterprising vendors set up shop at the head of the trail to cater to the tourists. We had a fruit drink, with something that was either frothy sweet-lime or frothy orange juice, squeezed and frothed right in front of us. I also noshed on a big bunch of chunky orange carrots (washed in mineral water). They were sweet, and amazingly fresh, since they had been in the ground that morning.

We also saw the botanical garden, planted in the nineteenth century. November is the off-season, so the tickets were at a deep discount--even the non-Indian price. Most of the flowers weren't blooming, but there were still some lovely flowers. The topiary was worth seeing too; there were hedges sculpted into squirrels, elephants, and mice. We wasted half an hour trying to get lunch in the town, but left the seedy hotel restaurant after seeing their hygiene standards. Probably a good thing; the service matched the quality, and they had been out of nearly everything on the menu. I went to the shop next door and bought some Lay's potato chips to eat instead.

We traveled through some dense rain forests. The moisture hits the mountains and falls as rain. The rain stays mostly on the western side of the Ghats. That area is supposedly one of the most ecologically diverse areas in Asia. For us, the mostly-nocturnal wildlife was still sleeping, so we didn't see many animals other than monkeys. We passed through a Eucalyptus plantation too; I wonder if there are Indian koalas? It rained for a few hours; not a hard rain but a softer, steady rain. The rain was refreshing to us, because it helped cut the heat.

We didn't know it, but the rain had washed out several roads that weekend. So we went up, and back down, at least three extra mountains. Each mountain takes at least an hour to traverse. There are winding roads that zig-zag back and forth across the mountainside, around some perilously tight bends at the top, then zig-zagging back down. The rain had raised the creek levels. Our trusty little Indigo car forded a couple creeks, mocking the larger vehicles stuck by the side of the road.

That night we pushed on through Tamil Nadu. In Kerala, we'd seen many signs in English. In Tamil Nadu, everything is in Tamil. The Tamil script is not Devanagari; it's a bunch of loop-de-loops that reminds me of Korean. Our limited Hindi was useless there. We ate supper at a hotel; some delicious ginger fish, and South Indian buttermilks with ginger and green onions. Michael also charged up his laptop during dinner, since his presentation was the next morning and we wouldn't be getting to the hotel until late.

As the hours wore closer to midnight, we were glad to enter a well-maintained Indian toll road. We weren't sure how close we were to Pondicherry. We saw signs for Chennai. I was hopeful for a bit when I saw an ambulance marked Pondicherry; we later passed it, parked at a roadside hotel. Several hours later, we left the smooth, well-lit highway, and went on a rickety road toward Pondicherry. Michael worked on his presentation. I dozed a bit, as much as the potholes would let me. Even late at night, Indian roads are active. There were women carrying big metal water-jars on their heads, walking down the side of the road in the dark. The men were relatively few, mostly bicycling, or driving camels or donkey-carts.

We finally pulled into Pondicherry around 4 AM. The theoretically eight-hour trip had taken Seventeen hours. We gratefully thanked our poor driver and went to the hotel.


Nov. 22nd, 2009 01:28 am
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Kerala is a green paradise in South India.  We flew down to Cochi (Kochin) before the fall Fulbright India conference.  More pictures are here: http://blacks.smugmug.com/India/Kerala

We'd booked a custom tour package through Ebenezer Holiday.  I would highly recommend them to anyone traveling through South India. Everything was prepaid and ready for us in advance.  The travel agent personally picked us up at the airport, with his driver. The car was clean and had working safety belts, even in the back seat--the first car in India we've seen with all seat belts working! 

The first day was sightseeing around Cochin, a port city.  The Chinese fishing nets were very interesting, and surrounded by flotsam. 
Kerala fisherman with the chinese fishing nets

We saw the seventeenth-century Dutch church. About one-third of the population of Kerala is Christian, especially Roman Catholic. Michael, dressed in his all-white kurta lungi, could even pass for a priest (one shopkeeper thought he was "a Father.")

Michael in front of the Jewish synagogue grounds in Jew-Town, Kerala

We also stopped by the local Jewish cemetery and synagogue in "Jew-Town," now an antiques district. The merchants lining the street to the synagogue were on the lookout for rich tourists.  We had to shoo them away constantly.  We decided we didn't want to go back for Shabbat services. We had a fantastic dinner at the Grand Hotel instead--delicious fish and chicken.

The next day, we traveled up to the Kerala backwaters. There are dozens of converted rice barges that now act as luxurious houseboats. We scrambled up the gangplank and spent a leisurely afternoon boating down the river, through palm tree forests and dense floating knots of water hyacinths.  We floated past muddy green fields of rice paddies, which oddly enough are lower than the water level.  Our boat pulled over to a local fisherwoman's hut, and we bought some fish and giant prawns for dinner.  We watched the birds swooping around, and the occasional boat-bus or boat-schoolbus zipping by.  The local people waved at us as they looked up from scrubbing their laundry or bathing in the river.  No nudity inhibitions there.

For the afternoon, the boat pulled over and we relaxed. We dined on succulent ginger-curried fish for lunch, served on banana leaves, of course.  There was a several-hour break for the crew's lunch break.  Michael lounged around and studied Hindi vocabulary, comfortable in his traditional South Indian blue-checked lungi. My husband is so handsome when he dresses up Indian!  I took a little nap. It was so peaceful.

There were many birds, swooping everywhere--and I mean everywhere!  The numerous crows have adapted to living with the people; they followed the women around to filch food scraps from their dishwater.  Three crows even invited themselves to our breakfast the next morning, swooping in as soon as we stood up, and grabbing the toast and eggs while they were still warm. There were plenty of semi-wild ducks and domestic chickens too.  We also saw a kingfisher perching and diving into the water, and some other seabirds that might be terns. I heard lots of frogs, too--bullfrogs, even--but I didn't see them.

Dinner was challenging.  After a picture-perfect sunset, the crew lowered the thick liners to shut the windows (never mind the wide-open doorways).  Michael noticed a little gecko snapping up clouds of flies next to the overhead lights. On closer look, he saw they were mosquitoes. Thousands of mosquitoes.  We don't want to get malaria; however, we didn't want to stink up our bedroom with curry either.  At first I tried duct-taping our mosquito netting to the boat's ceiling, but it was dusty and the tape wouldn't stick.  So I grabbed a couple of the chairs and set them up on the table, then draped our mosquito netting over them to form a canopy.  So under our improvised mosquito-tent, we ate our dinner in the main cabin of the boat.  They cooked us some delicious prawns in a curry coconut sauce.  We retired to our well-sealed bedroom.  The air conditioner drowned out the night noises, but the tightly-shut windows kept out the mosquitoes.

The next day, we traveled up to Wayanad, Kerala.  We passed through tea plantations, and spent the night in the Green Gates Hotel.  Rather, we slept in a bamboo treehouse made into a hotel room.  Green Gates was by far the cleanest, most comfortable room out of all the hotels we have ever stayed in throughout India.  Never mind that we could see through the cracks between the floorboards to the ground far below; that treehouse was a two-story luxury hotel room, with hot water and a comfy down comforter. After a tasty dinner, we snuggled in for a comfortable night's sleep.
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The ancient Indus Valley "cradle of civilization" is today an island in a dry sea of salt. Hundreds of miles of salt flats stretch across to Pakistan. It's a barren wasteland that looks eerily similar to snow. We saw it, and tasted it too.

We left very late. Kutch is a five hour drive from our home in north Gujarat. We planned to leave at 8 in the morning. Our driver came by 9. However, his jeep was out of town; it didn't arrive until after 10:30. We ended up leaving at 11. We submitted a ShmooCon abstract to fill the time.

The Great Rann of Kuch looks exactly like a frozen Great Lake in the midwestern USA. But it's *salt*, not snow. This was a great, shallow sea as recently as the time of Alexander the Great. Even now, when it rains in monsoon season, the sea briefly returns and fills with shrimp. Flamingos flock here by the thousands for the shrimp feast, turning pink from the shells. But in the dry winter months, when we visited, the Great Rann is a silent, barren landscape of solid white. Neither plants nor animals nor people live there. We saw only a handful of vehicles - mostly construction equipment. And mostly heading the other way. There aren't any gas stations out there; people mostly use camels or the rare, precious tractor.

If you've ever walked on a snow-covered lake, you have an idea of what Kutch is like. When Lake Michigan freezes over, it's a vast expanse of flat, sparkling white stretching beyond the horizon. Not completely flat; the wind sculpts the snowdrifts into long, horizontal white dunes. With sun or freezing rain, the formations develop a hard, brittle crust that crunches underfoot. Walking on the crust makes footprint craters that break through to the soft snow below. Now imagine that same landscape, but with a 90-degree temperature and absolute still silence. Add a briny ocean smell, and substitute salt for snow. That's Kutch.
View of the Great Rann of Kutch salt flats

We stopped the car and walked on the salt plains. The surface cracked under our feet exactly like frozen snow. We broke off a little bit of the crust and tasted it; natural sea salt. I stayed near the relative stability of the road.
Michael on the Great Rann of Kutch - before he fell in
My husband wandered over to a pretty, open pool of water, with Yellowstone-like colors from the minerals. The salt crust was thin at the water's edge, and Michael fell in!  He didn't go far, but he sank past his ankles in brine. When he extracted himself, his feet and sandals were completely covered in salt.

We needed the jeep. The sturdy, national highway ended 40 kilometers before Dholavira. The Indian Government was actively doing construction on the lengths on over the salt flats, with a strangely solid, single raised bed. On land, it was another story. We took two hours to travel the last 40 kilometers. After an hour of barely-road travel, our driver suddenly realized he'd passed the last gas station for 200 kilometers and we wouldn't have enough to get back. So he stopped at one of the villages and they poured a can of diesel fuel into the jeep. Whew!

We finally pulled into the Harrapan ruins at about 4:30, the only car in the parking lot. A handful of workers were still sifting through the archeological site with drum-shaped screens.  Other workers were coating the ancient bricks with a slurry of cow manure and mud.  There are huge, elaborate systems of reservoirs created to capture the monsoon rains for use in the dry seasons. Photography was prohibited, since it's an active archeological site.

There's a tiny, year-old museum there too. The workers followed around us, switching on and off the displays of the millenia-old artifacts.  They have found many toys, including carved marble chessmen-like figures and toy carts; pottery; stone and shell beads; and beautifully detailed seals for stamping designs into wax. The seals included several intricate, recognizable designs startling in their lifelike quality. Several seals showed a multi-headed water buffalo--like a bovine Cerberus. Their mundane, single-headed buffalo are today outnumbered by camels and goats in this part of India. The climate changed, and the area became deserted.
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We spent the post-Diwali week in Udaipur, Rajasthan, known as the Lake City.  We stayed with Dr. Neelu Ghosh and her family.

Dr. Ghosh and her husband have two charming, intelligent teenage daughters - Ashmika, 17, and Abiditi, age 14.  Their English is impeccable; Michael and I had to adapt our language to not talk down to them.  They're easily the most fluent English-speakers we've met in months.  They're also fluent in Hindi and Bengali, and proficient in Gujarati and Sanskrit.  And they're creative. Their family's home is beautiful, decorated equally in carefully chosen decorations and their daughters' own impressive artworks. And the girls are as nice as they are smart. 

Ashmika and Abiditi showed us around the sights in Udaipur.  We visited Lake Fateh Sagar, an artificial lake/reservoir in the shape of India.  We took a ferry boat out to the Nehru Gardens in the islands in the middle of the lake.  The ferry was packed with (Indian) tourists visiting for their Diwali vacations; it's normally not that crowded.
A photo of the lotus pond and historic fountain in Udaipur.(Click the picture for more photos of Udaipur.) 
We saw Udaipur's famous fountains. There's the Musical Fountain, an elaborate modern water fountain that plays traditional Rajasthani folk tunes to a sound and matching light show.  It was a little cheesy, but oh well.  The historic Saheliyon-ki-Bari (pictured above) made up for it.
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Camels are fun, and so are forts.

We went on a road trip to Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Jaisalmer was high on our to-see list. UNESCO ranked Jaisalmer Fort as an Endangered Site due to sewage/drainage problems and changing weather patterns; one big earthquake could seriously damage this ancient fort. It's in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, but it's still pretty far from Gujarat - about a seven-hour drive for us.  We left very early, about 6:30 on Saturday morning.

Professor Hiren Patel and his family came with us.  So Hiren, his wife Chandrika, and their two children (ages 4 and 7) all piled into the SUV with us and our driver, Alkesh.  The car was big enough that it wasn't too cramped.  Chandrika and the kids stayed in the back for most of the trip and slept. Michael and I are absolutely astounded at how well-behaved their kids are. No fussing, no fighting, the whole trip. Amazing.

The domestic animals were interesting. Just outside of Visnagar, we had to wait ten minutes for hundreds of sheep to pass. The sheep are marked with dye on their wool to indicate their owners.  Then it was mainly farmers' fields, with the occasional herds of goats crossing the road. We crossed into Rajasthan and used the National Highway. After a few hours the countryside started looking more like California, with scrubby plants that looked like sagebrush. The number of goats increased, and so did the number of camels.  We occasionally see camels in Visnagar, pulling carts and so on, but they're far outnumbered by the water buffalo and cows (both ox-carts and free-range).  In Rajasthan, the camels are king.  We saw cows every now and then too, but mostly it was camels and goats.  They both like grazing on trees. Camels are natural pruners for those desert trees, and probably contribute to their umbrella shape; the leaves grow high and wide just above where a camel's long neck can reach.

The highway out to Jaisalmer is very well maintained. The road runs parallel to the India-Pakistan border, and India has a large military base there. A caravan of several dozen military trucks passed us. There's still several kilometers of desert between the road and Pakistan, so we weren't too close.

There were numerous herds of goats crossing the road. Mostly they moved out of the way in response to our horn honking. One stubborn little black goat decided to slow down, and it turned its back on us and stopped in the middle of the road. Our driver braked smoothly to a halt but the car still gave it a small push forward--kind of a nudge.  The goat glared at us and trotted away haughtily to the side of the road, and we continued.

Jaisalmer Fort was an outstanding tourist attraction. It's visible from pretty far away, a big yellow-brown fort on a hilltop near the Pakistani border. Jaisalmer is a "living fort," meaning people live in this millenia-old landmark. Jaisalmer is also a tourist attraction, though mainly for Indian pilgrim/tourists.  It's made out of carved yellow sandstone.  There are also several medieval Jain statues on display.  In terms of scale, Jaisalmer is the best historic palace/fort we'd seen yet.

Jaisalmer also has "non-veg" restaurants that serve meat. No beef of course, but they do offer chicken and lamb. Michael and I hadn't had meat in over a month, so we were very happy to eat some chicken. The Patels ate vegetarian dishes, of course. The chicken tikka was delicious, though the tandoori chicken was rolled in some kind of brown salt and it was much too salty. But it was just good to eat meat for a change. They also had some nice ginger tea and sweet milky coffee; we filled my thermos with a pot of their excellent coffee.

We wouldn't stay in a hotel that night.  While at the fort, Hiren found a good "Desert Safari Adventure" complete package deal: about $50 per couple including dinner, a night's lodging, entertainment, and transportation via camel. So we drove out to the sand dunes on the edge of the desert where the road ended, to the start of the camel trail.

Camels are too high to climb. Our camel knelt down in the sand and we climbed right on it.  I nearly fell off at the very beginning. I sat down in the saddle behind Michael, and while we were waiting for the camel-driver I took off my shoe and dumped the sand out of it. The camel stood up suddenly; I grabbed Michael with one arm and my shoe with the other, and somehow managed to not fall off (and even kept hold of the shoe!).  Michael and I rode one camel, and the Patel family rode another.  It was probably about 40 minutes, through the scrubland and into the giant desert sand dunes.

Camel riding was bumpy but easier than expected. The camel saddle was a Western-style saddle with a pommel, well padded in brightly-colored, quilted fabric. There's a little kids song, "This is the way the camel rides (bumpety, bumpety, bump!)" and it was just like that - we went up and down and up and down vertically as the camel strolled forward.  Camels have very looong legs.  Riding them makes you realize how high up they are. At least it didn't move faster than an (unsteady) trot. Our camel's handler walked on foot beside us, lightly switching the camel with a whip if it slowed down.  At the end of the ride, the camel driver asked our names. He laughed out loud when he heard Michael, and told us we must be lucky because our camel is named Michael too!  Michael Jackson!  Did we know Michael Jackson, the famous American star? Um. Michael Jackson has a completely different meaning in the USA. We didn't stick around to explain, but tipped the camel-driver 50 rupees and slipped down the sand dune toward the campground.

Our lodging for the night was a tent.  It wasn't really camping; Sweetie and I are both former scouts and we know what camping is.  These were permanent structures, cabins with cloth walls and roof and even a modern flushing toilet and sink.  We dropped our stuff in the tent and went to the campfire circle.

The dancers knew how to entertain. Several different Rajasthani women alternated, rotating in and out, in full traditional costumes with little bells jingling. The dance moves covered the full range of classical Indian and modern casbah-style dancing. The live band wore turbans, with drummers and musicians playing traditional instruments. At one point they dimmed the lights, and one woman filled a set of small scales with live coals from the campfire. She balanced the glowing coals, then danced with them, whirling the scales faster and faster over her head and around herself like a Harlem Globetrotter wields a basketball. It was just like some of the better parties at Pennsic. The audience applauded, especially the schoolchildren. 

Toward the end, one dancer came over and pulled me in to join her in dancing. She was excellent; she made eye contact and made sure I could follow her, giving me lots of cues as warning when she changed steps. I am not a dancer at all, but I managed to keep up and followed her rhythm and most of the steps. After a few minutes, the other dancers pulled in the girls from the school group, and we all did a circle dance where pairs of women join hands and whirl around. Dinner was rather anticlimatic after that.

The next morning, we stopped by a little lake in Jaisalmer. The local people feed the catfish there twice a day, and over a hundred catfish all lined up at the water's edge to get the food. There's also a nice temple there. All of us rode up and back to the lake in a pretty little camel-carriage. We left soon for the many-hours drive to Jodhpur.

Jodhpur was outstanding, with medieval palanquins and howdahs--elaborate coaches for carrying royalty, on poles by hand or mounted on elephant-back. Some were solid silver. They also had some medieval manuscripts on display, though no medieval illuminations (the artwork was lovely nineteenth-century Moghul). They had plenty of eighteenth-century spears and lances too. Jodhpur also has a collection of musical instruments and turbans, but we didn't see them on display. Unfortunately my cell phone ran out of charge just when we walked into the fort, so I didn't get any pictures in Jodhpur. I would've liked a picture of the breathtaking view of the village below the mountain; I hope Michael's pictures turn out.
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If you don't like crowds, don't go to a major Hindu temple on a festival night of the full moon.

Per our driver's suggestion, we squeezed in Ambaji temple on the way back from Mount Abu. Many shops line the roads around Ambaji temple. The shops sell everything a pilgrim needs to make an offering, including cocumb (sp?), huge piles of the red powder used to mark the heads of religious pilgrims. Our driver bought incense and a coconut.

Ambaji's large temple attracts many Hindu pilgrims to its gold-topped turrets. This was a festival - Sunday night, the night of the full moon after the Navaratri festival. There were long lines of people waiting, winding around like the queues for an amusement park but much more tightly packed. We went through security (metal detectors and armed guards).  The guard took Alkesh's incense away; I'm not sure if it's contraband or if it would be offered later.  We left our phones and camera in the car (photography is prohibited there).

Imagine a crowd packed more tightly than a Metro train at rush hour, but with the chaos of a mosh pit and the zeal of a Pentecostal church. We were caught in the thick of it. The drums were beating and the Hindu pilgrims were in high religious fervor. We were buffeted forward and almost lifted off our feet in the waves of swaying people pushing forward and pressing behind and all around us. The crowd ebbed and flowed in time to the hypnotic rhythm of the drums. Every so often, the loudspeaker blared chants that were suddenly answered with loud shouts from all the people surrounding us.  Some people near the sides prostrated themselves; most were just standing and slowly moving forward in the crowd, getting as close as they could to see the place where the idol would sit, if there were an idol there. (It's a kind of decorated alcove; the lack of an idol there has religious significance.)  After maybe a half-hour, we somehow were pushed toward the side and out of the surge. We made it out to the cool night air and just breathed.

The beggar-children outside the Ambaji temple spotted us. Visnagar kids may follow us around, but the Ambaji kids were much more aggressive. They physically tapped and poked at us to get our attention. They followed us to our car and tapped on the windows all around us. Our driver actually slapped one child on the cheek when the boy would not let him get to his car.  The driver then somehow maneuvered it away.

We had dinner at a Gujarati dining hall. The waiters must not see Westerners often. They gathered around our table, refilling our dishes, constantly dishing out food so it was hard to actually eat.  The mutter paneer was done a different way than I make it; theirs had a thin rather than a thick creamy sauce, but I liked it.  I also liked the palak (sauteed spinach).

We would've appreciated Ambaji more if we had not gone on a festival day.
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Today we left Gujarat for Mount Abu, and saw a wild crocodile and some elaborate medieval Jain stone-carvings.

We made a day-long excursion north into Rajasthan. Rajasthan is the Indian state just north of Gujarat, the land of innumerable Mughal princes and marble palaces. We visited Mount Abu, in the southern tip of Rajasthan.  We left early in the morning and rode the three-hour drive or so.

State borders are not trivial here.  In the US, or even much of Europe, a border is typically a sign saying "Welcome to So-and-So".  In India, states are organized along language and cultural lines, not just geography. There's an actual border crossing checkpoint to cross between them. Drivers pay a licensing fee to the state. National permits are available, and the brightly painted "Goods Carriage" trucks proudly advertise that status. At the border, the signs all changed instantly from Gujarati to the Hindi alphabet (much easier for us to read).  Transliterated English is common in Hindi too. For instance, the border from Gujarat to Rajasthan has dozens of businesses selling the local building materials, beautiful marble stones, with Hindi signs transliterated from phonetic English "MARBL BILDEN MATARLS."

The road up Mount Abu is very scenic, if you're brave enough to look out the window. The mountains are beautiful, studded with palm trees. The countryside, and the road, looks a lot like Yellowstone National Park--complete with big drop-offs down cliffs. The Indian cement blocks serve as guardrails, but have occasional wide, ragged gaps about the width of a car (hmm).  There are constant hairpin curves.  Many have signs posted with a picture of a horn, to remind you to signal to the hidden, incoming vehicles. Alkesh, our driver, blared the horn at every blind curve; almost constantly. There were several times when we rounded a bend only to see a tourist bus blithely straddling the middle line and hurtling straight toward us. Somehow we made it up to Mount Abu.

Mount Abu is a major tourist attraction and pilgrimage place. There are many Bhramachaya centers there, like the "Center for Universal Peace." There's also a modern Jain temple with mosaics in tiny mirrors and cut glass. You can see what your image must look like to a spider, as you see your reflection in hundreds of little mirrors. There's a large, pretty lake; we walked around it a bit. A couple pilgrims came up, young men dressed all in white. They spoke excellent English and talked to Michael and Alkesh.  They talked and walked with us for over half an hour, and never said one word to me. I don't know if it's because I'm a woman and it would break some religious taboo of theirs, or because they assumed that, as a woman, I'm not worth speaking to. They invited Michael to their temple (we declined), but didn't ask for money. It still reminded Michael of an old Opus cartoon.

The medieval Jain temples at Mount Abu were the best part. There are several of them, two built between a thousand and eight hundred years ago, and other modern ones being added onto today.  Centuries ago, these temples were composed of elaborately carved marble, with dancing girls and figures representing the major Jain religious figures. The temples are free. It's forbidden to take photos, eat or chew. Large signs also warned menstruating women from entering. The temples closed at 6 PM, so we were glad to catch them before the day ended. The temples were relatively quiet, and we easily walked around between the large tour groups that had been bused in.

The Jain temples were covered in ornate stone carvings, made by hundreds of stonemasons over decades. In the center of a temple is a mammoth Buddha-like idol with gemstone eyes, and in front of the idol are a herd of marble cattle and animals. Around the periphery are about 50 or 60 cells, each one with a smaller idol inside.  Every surface is carved with translucent marble flowers, geometric tessellations, and dancing girls clad only in beaded jewelry.  The temples are quiet. Even the busloads of pilgrims walk quietly and pray silently.

We saw the wildlife sanctuary, but only one animal of note. We went on foot, walking for a couple hours, but we still didn't see any animals but one shanty's domestic chicken.  The sounds and sights were still good, though; we heard strange jungle birds calling and saw many beautiful flowers and some giant many-limbed ancient trees.  At the end of the trail was an artificial lake. A good-sized crocodile was lurking at the edge of the water, right under the guardrails. Michael suggested I jump in and wrestle it, and when the croc heard that it must've been scared because it immediately slipped away into the lake. Michael says that's proof that crocodiles must fear me!
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This past weekend we went on a long distance road-trip (10 hours) to extreme western Gujarat.  We saw Gir, Jahdtapur (sp?), Diu, Junagadh, and Somnath.

Unfortunately, Gir was closed for maintenance; it was all under construction. Turns out Gir National Park closes every summer/monsoon season, and it doesn't re-open this year until October 15. They weren't letting anyone in, no matter what. The large signs proclaimed in three languages that it is a point of pride that these public servants do not accept bribes or tipping. So we may go back and try to see the Asiatic lions in November.

We visited the large, famous Hindu temple at Somnath. There has been a temple on this spot continuously since about 300 BC. The site was a frequent target of raiders. Over the centuries, a couple Muslim mosques were also built at the same location. The current temple is about 60 years old, and controversial; they razed the latest mosque to build it. Maybe that's why there are guards with automatic machine guns at the gates. The temple does not allow any kinds of photography or mobile telephones, so we left our cell phones in the car.  As with all temples, you have to take off your shoes to enter. Michael and our driver, Alkesh, were barefoot. I was wearing socks and was just fine, but when the guys stepped on the sun-heated marble in their bare feet, they moved along quickly. Somnath was also my first sight of the Indian Ocean. There's a marker where from that point south, all the way to the South Pole, is completely ocean. Michael speculated that from that point north, all the way to the north pole, might be completely land.  We walked down and dipped our hands in the water.  Farther down the beach was a camel wading in the water and a stray dog playing in the surf.

The road to Diu was okay near Somnath, and then deteriorated. Our car rolled along for a couple hours through rural fields. There were field-worker camps nearby, with tarps propped up as makeshift tents. Part of the road, including a couple bridges, was under construction and our car followed detours diversions down into dry riverbeds and back up again.  There were even a few horses; our car swerved when two of them got away from the teenage boy who was holding them. We passed many auto-rickshaws and the occasional cycle-rickshaw or camel-pulled cart, but most of the traffic was motorcycles, Tata trucks, bullock-carts, and tractors pulling huge heaps of vegetation on trailers. I still can't get used to the traffic here.  When we got into the last town in Gujarat, we were directed along the better of the two roads to Giu.  The land gradually changed, finally becoming marshy estuary.  I smelled the sea air and it reminded me of home and the Chesapeake.   We finally rolled and bumped through the potholes to the checkpoint at Diu. 

Diu is its own independent little district; it's not part of Gujarat. Gujarat is a dry state (no alcohol), and Giu is not. The bars advertised their alcohol in neon lights. But away from the tourist strip, it's a lovely little seaside village with dozens of fishing boats pulled up on land in low tide. The old fort was especially picturesque, with waves crashing on the carved stone blocks. Michael had a cute little brown calf come up to him, as friendly as a puppy, and licked at his pant legs.  We saw the sun set over the old fort.

On the way back that night, we saw some sort of local traditional procession, with men dressed in long garments and covered in red streaks (paint? blood?), all hollering and carrying bamboo sticks. Our driver said he guessed this was some kind of local tradition for Navaratri (the goddess festival). It still felt wild when the traffic stopped and the apparent mob surged through, including directly around our car, with the men shaking their staffs and all shouting some unknown language.  They moved on, then so did we.

We bumped our way back to Junadgadh and stayed a second night at the Hotel Indralok. It's a good Western-style hotel there, with bathtubs and toilet paper. Cost is around 40 dollars a night for a super-deluxe air-conditioned room.  And all the plastic wastebaskets, buckets, pitchers, etc. said "Flora" all over them. :-) We considered driving back, but our driver had been fasting all day, and been up since 6 AM and would have been driving all night.  We found out why our driver had not liked the hotel the first night. He is not normally a driver, and he had to sleep in the driver-room barracks (cramped, with bunk beds). Alkesh is a successful businessman, the owner of his car-rental business. (In India, rental cars always come with a driver.) With the holiday, Alkesh had not been able to have one of his normal employees drive, so he had to take us himself. He didn't mind too much (he likes to travel). But he had not wanted to go back to the hotel and share a room with the other drivers. So we paid for his private hotel room ($14 for a non-AC room) and he was much happier.

The next day we took a longer stroll around Junagadh's historic fort and mosque. Those were beautiful, with elaborate carvings.  Michael went down to the very bottom of the early stepwell there; I was hot and went down part way and rested in the shade.  Michael said the well reminded him of dark caverns he's seen only in dreams.  We also went into the Buddhist caves there. The pigeons were thrumming in deep tones in the underground caverns, and it gave it the right atmosphere. We saw our first cobra, a small yellow snake peeking out of the fort wall. I also saw a lovely big lizard sunning itself in a hole in the rock.

I think my husband is part mountain goat.  After the fort, he insisted we go to the nearby mountain, Girnar. There's a guru there, at the top of a staircase of what locals call 9,999 steps. Both Hindu and Jain believers make pilgrimages there and climb the steps to the top; elderly people included.  It was already afternoon, and there was no way we could even think of climbing it; but Michael went up for about 20 minutes anyway, and came back down. Alkesh marveled at his boundless energy.  I remarked on it later, and Michael says his attitude is, "What would Michael Palin do?" That sounds like the right attitude to have in this country. 


Sep. 19th, 2009 10:08 pm
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Patan has very old Hindu carvings

This was Sweetie's excursion on Saturday, accompanied by Bhavesh, the MBA professor and our faculty coordinator's best friend. I was at home sick with GI issues, though I recovered by lunchtime and put in almost a full day of work. Michael still hasn't reviewed this, but I'm posting it anyway. I may edit this later and move some details around if I mixed up anything.

The Temple of the Sun

The Mughals are famous, but you never hear much about India's Hindu kings. Like the ancient Egyptians, the ancient Hindu rulers claimed to be descendants of the sun gods--no longer actively worshiped even in the long-running Hindu religion. The temple was outstanding. There were many carvings and pillars. The sun at its zenith shines through a particular window and marker at certain times of the year.

Lake of a thousand temples

This was sad. It should be called, more accurately, a thousand former temples. They've all been vandalized and toppled down. Bhavesh said there used to be at least some temples in the middle of the lake, when he was a teenager. But now they're all down, vandalized. India has an incredible wealth of cultural heritage. It seems like there's so much emphasis on looking forward, there's not much value on the past. Given the choice between a modern shopping mall and centuries-old temples of long-forgotten gods? They'll take the shopping mall.

Patan Step-Well

Patan has the largest of the step wells in western India, the Ran Ki Vav carved in the mid-1000s. These wells were the major sources of water for people in the surrounding towns.  They're multiple stories deep, with elaborate carved steps going down and walls decorated with gods and worshipers. I went to a different well with Michael earlier that week, and write about that separately.

Most of the Patan stepwell was closed off that day; the apparent reason was because another tourist had been severely stung by bees or something. But it helps to have an American along who came thousands of miles for this trip. So Bhavesh and the driver pleaded, and the guards looked the other way while they ducked under the ropes into the restricted area.  (The group behind them also went, but they bribed the guards outright with some good haggling; the price went from 20 dollars to 20 rupees, or 40 cents.) 

The carvings were outstanding. This whole area was only recently excavated in the last few years. The carvings have persisted for centuries,
buried, but now are unprotected from the elements and vandals. It's not certain that they'll persist. Even the architect's original carving and site plan was still preserved, scratched into the wall. 
There were also many detailed carvings showing ritual acts of honoring the gods. In the interests of keeping this blog safe for work I'm not posting pictures, but there were all kinds of combinations and configurations: men and women, women and women, groups of people, people and animals, gods and humans. The actions likely have religious significance, but it's not certain if they were done primarily for fun or for worship or both. It was enough to make one of our Indian friends lament the prudishness of modern-day India, where the police will arrest even married couples for kissing in public. 

I'm hoping we will go back there together. Patan is relatively close to Visnagar, less than two hours away, so it's day-trippable.
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The Kadi university faculty and a couple MBA students got a car and drove Michael to the local tourist sites.  There were two local sites, one a nice big Indian temple.  Michael enjoyed the temple, but he really got into the well.

The Kadi stepwell was a dark, evil ruin of glory; it was the best thing Michael had seen yet this trip, and the most interesting landmark he'd seen in India. Imagine an underground temple, totally subterranean, going down and down and with all the intricate sandstone carvings we remember from Fatepuhr Sikrhi and the Red Fort.  There is a giant circular amphitheater with balconies, going up hundreds of feet. You go down all the way to the giant well at the bottom; way way way up above is the sky. But it's a dark creepy well, and filled with screeching sounds from bats flying in every direction shrieking constantly.  It looked exactly like Khazad-Dhum in the Lord of the Rings.  There were stone cut spiral staircase going down; you couldn't use your hands to guide you through the darkness because you'd grab a bat.

After that, Michael said I would have to see it. But his guides said no, this is nothing. The one in Patan is even bigger and more elaborate.

[ETA: Turns out, Patan has even better carvings, but it's not as dark and dismal and foreboding. I want to see both.]
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Visiting Vadnagar

The old city of Vadnagar, Gujarat, is nearby and has several historic attractions.  One of the professors, Jagat, grew up there, so on Saturday he showed us around his hometown.  We took an auto-rickshaw there, since the streets of Vadnagar are too small to navigate by car.

Our first stop was an 800-year-old temple. There were carved oxen and a turtle, guarding the god. 
Cow sculptures gaze in awe at the idols of the gods.

The temple's stonework was reminiscent of the Notre Dame cathedral, with chimeras and carved dancing girls.
Exterior view of the temple, showing stonework

The actual city of Vadnagar is pretty neat. The current structurdates at least from the medieval era, and has walls all around it. There are five impressive gates.  When we were taking pictures of one of the gates, one of the nearby citizens invited us over to pet his baby goats and take our picture with them and his family. They were adorable goats. We wouldn't mind having a pet goat or two.
Vadnagar people

Vadnagar family with their goats

We visited a lake Sfiartha(sp?). Legend has it that the lake went dry, and to get the water back, a local girl had to give up her life. In honor of her sacrifice, the lake is named for her.  They also fly a white flag from the center of the lake, symbolizing her innocence and virtue.  There is now a park there, built just in the last two years.  The chief minister of Gujarat is from Vadnagar, so he has an interest in promoting tourism there.

There was a massive Well - a huge, incredibly deep well.  It's so deep we couldn't see the bottom.  We dropped in a stone, and took about six seconds to hit the bottom.  It's dry. It gives new meaning to the term, "when the well runs dry."  At the driveway back to the well, there's a little farm with a camel (who let us pet it, then spit) and water buffalo (who snuffed at Michael and also spit at him).
Me petting a camel

Michael's favorite was a large open-roof bath, with water, with columns stretching down from ground level. We'd seen similar structures to Fatapur Sikri, but this one had water.  Looking from the steps at one end had a gorgeous effect, a hallway of water.  With the carved stonework and the greenery hanging down, it felt like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 
View down the well
As part of the malaria-control program of the Gujarati government, the bath was stocked with tiny mosquito fish - little fish that eat mosquito larvae.  They were schooling about.  Michael also spotted a tiny little frog, the size of a fingernail.  We snapped its picture with the cell phone.

The local people in Vadnagar don't see foreigners often - maybe once every month or two. They're very friendly and everybody wants us to take our picture with them.  Michael was interested in knowing how one of the men tied his dhoti and turban, and when Jagat asked (in Gujarati), he was happy to demonstrate. 
Tying a dhoti on Michael
All day, Jagat was walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation, and people were happy to talk with us.

There were some more remote sites.  We saw two 500-year-old arches, like Indian versions of the Arc de Triomphe.  Apparently they were excavated a few years ago, and erected for tourists to see.
Ancient carved stone arches in Vadnagar, Gujarat, India

There was also a garden with the graves of two sisters; I didn't catch the full story. It had a beautiful flower garden and some peacock topiaries.  It was out in the middle of nowhere but quite beautiful to see.

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