INDIA – Final Day (9)

December 31, 2015

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Taj Mahal. That’s where we were heading today. A two hour drive from Delhi to Agra on the expressway and we were there. No matter how much you read or heard about it, its magnificence surpasses it all. I won’t be telling any facts or doing any description, as those could be found everywhere, but I will be sharing my feelings, the story told by our young guide – some of which I haven’t come across, yet he says his sources are reliable. So come along and live the dream of love.

You can reach the premises by walking, camel or rikshaw, we opted for the latter, and once we were at the gate we were bombarded by professional photographers, no, not because we are famous😉 but because ever since late Princess Diana visited Taj Mahal every visitor wanted the exact same poses, and thus started the annoying business. We didn’t want someone to distract us by asking us to pose in every corner and our guide was willing to take up that task as well.

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Southern Gate to Taj Mahal

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Dwellings for serfs 

Once you are inside the gate, and if you center yourself exactly in the middle, you will be able to experience the beauty of symmetry and the splendid white marble mausoleum reflected in the pool dividing the vast garden.

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A long walk and many pictures later, we sat on a bench in the shade of a tree while our guide told us the story of Mumtaz Mahal, the favored wife of Shah Jahan’s three. She fell seriously ill after giving birth to their fourteenth child, and on her deathbed she asked her husband to commemorate their love. After her demise, the grief stricken emperor locked himself for three days, then came out with a plan to build his wife a resting place that would be remembered for eternity. He chose a spot where the Yamuna River curved, and ordered the construction of the mausoleum with translucent marble, inlaid with semi precious stones. The four minarets at its corners tilt slightly towards the outside in case there is an earthquake they would collapse outwards and not on the outstanding building. A mosque was erected on the left hand side, and to keep symmetry, an identical one was built on the right hand side but not for worshipping.

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Reflection of Taj Mahl in my sunglasses, cleverly captured by our guide

 

According to our guide, and unlike it is believed, Shah Jahan did not cut off the workers and builders hands, nor did he poke out their eyes so they would not be able to build anything of equal magnificence. What he did was compensate whoever worked there handsomely so they would not want for anything in their entire lives. They would not need to work, and thus would not replicate the Taj.

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The story goes on that one of the emperor’s sons was astounded to learn that his father was thinking of building another mausoleum for himself, in black marble this time. Taj Mahal had cost 32 million rupees in the 17th century and his son found it wise to put his father under house arrest to prevent him from going through with such a mad plan. Had his son known the value of his father’s “folly”, and what recognition it had brought along as being one of Seven Wonders of the World, would he have gone through with his plan? I can’t help picturing what a black Taj Mahal would look like … a shadow of the one we know.

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Monks preparing to enter the mausoleum 

Now it was time to enter mausoleum after donning overshoes. Groups of maybe one hundred are allowed in at a time and go around the replica of the tombs of the emperor and his wife. The originals are found way down beneath. We were then ushered out to the terrace overlooking the stunning view of the winding river.

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Symmetrical view from the other end – Taj Mahal behind me

The final stop in Agra without which visiting Taj Mahal would be incomplete, is The Red Fort. The residence of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal … and later where the emperor was under house arrest in confined quarters.

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Shah Jahan’s confinement quarters

The saddest part of their love story, at least in my opinion, was that he had a view of his wife’s resting place during his confinement. A reminder of their love, and their days of glory, when he was ruler of the land taking off to wherever he pleased and ordering whatever his heart desired. A point to ponder; was the choice of that specific spot for imprisonment a blessing or was it a form of daily torture for eight years till his death.

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Just a few steps away from those quarters was their bedroom, built specially for Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The wanted a private area where no one had called theirs before. The vast hall had enormous windows overlooking the river. Their bed, no longer there, was set in the middle and Persian carpets were let down from hinges on the ceiling to surround them from the four sides. What a setting for true love … and the perfect end of our trip to Incredible INDIA.

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INDIA – Day 8

December 29, 2015

 

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          It was time to say our final goodbyes to the yoga group and fly to Delhi. We reached Indira Gandhi airport and admired the design made of huge hands performing Mudras, the hand gestures from classical Indian dance. It was also decorated ahead for Diwali.

Again we were met at the airport, and after checking in the Holiday Inn, extra modern and full of hi tech gadgets and buttons in our room, we met our guide for the day, Jimmy. We didn’t have enough time to visit the highlights of the city, but what he did show us was at leisure and thoroughly enjoyed. First there was the Qutb Minar.

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            The 73 meter high tower of red sandstone and marble was built by Qutabuddin Aibak in 1193. It is believed to be either a tower of victory or a minaret of the Quwat el Islam Mosque present at the foot of the minaret and which was the first mosque built in India.

Alai Minar was an attempt of doubling the size of Qutb Minar by Alauddin Khiliji but was never completed.

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The place that is extremely beautiful in this complex is the tomb of Shamseddin Iltutmish, Qutub’s son in law. The 800 year old tomb is the first Islamic tomb in India. Its walls are engraved with Arabic calligraphy verses from the Quran.

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         Our next stop was the President’s Palace, or Rashtrapati Bhaven. The building was formerly the Viceroy’s House during the British administration. It was considered the largest residence of Head of State worldwide till Turkey opened the Presidential Complex in 2014.

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          We could see the cavalry in their red uniform and feathered helmets, trotting in formation on the grounds of the palace. India was hosting the third India-Aftrica Forum summit while we were there in October. Fifty-four heads of states and governments of African countries were there and we proudly stood beside our flag outside the palace while President Al Sissi was maybe inside at that time.

We went around the busy streets of Delhi, notorious for its number of vehicles which are counted in lakhs (a lakh being a hundred thousand), estimated to be 90 lakhs in March 2015, and increasing by the day. Just opposite the Presidential Palace, which can be seen from the distance, is the famous 42 meter high India Gate that was built in 1921. The archway that commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives during WW1 while fighting for the British Army bears the name of the soldiers killed in the Afghan war in 1919.

Below the arch lies an eternal flame burning day and night in honor of the soldiers who lost their lives in the Indo-Pakistani War in 1971.

 

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A piece of information Jimmy gave us and said we wouldn’t find a backup for is that INDIA actually stands for Independence National Day in August. Anybody care to comment?

As we walked around the spacious garden surrounding India Gate and watched it light in the evening, Jimmy pointed out the many beautifully dressed women. They were celebrating Karva Chauth by fasting from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands. The annual one-day festival is celebrated by Hindu women in North India, and Jimmy commented that he was fasting along with his wife, saying “If she can fast for my long life for a whole day, then the least I can do is refrain from eating too.”

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Jimmy was wise indeed; the stories, experiences and advice he shared were entertaining as well as very useful. Let me share a couple with you, bearing in mind that our guide looked nothing close to his 70 years, but closer to 50, this is what he does daily: 1) Jump rope for 15 minutes in the morning, don’t worry if you can’t at first. Start by 1 minute and build it up. 2) Wash your face with a tablespoon full of milk and rub it onto your face and neck. Leave for 10 minutes then wash off. You will never need moisturizers or anti-aging creams.

Back at the hotel we joined the dinner buffet along with many families celebrating Karva Chauth. More ladies even more beautifully dressed, coiffed, made up and wearing all kinds of accessories were surrounded by their family members as they broke their fast and wished their husbands well.

 

 

 

 

 

INDIA – Day 7

December 22, 2015

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Lord Shiva

Before leaving Chidambaram and after checking out of the charming Lakshmivila there was an important temple to visit. Actually one of the most beautiful temples you could set your eyes on. Built sometime between the 11th and 12th centuries the Nataraja Temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord of Dance – the cosmic dance of creation, preservation and dissolution.

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The high walls of the entrance illustrate the tens of poses of Shiva in the form of engravings. The temple known as Chidambaram Temple referring to the sky of consciousness, which is the ultimate aim one should attain.

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No words could describe the magnificence of the scene once you go through the entrance. I’ll leave you to take in the fine details of the temple with all it’s glory through the photographs below.

The Mulasthana or sacred pond – Sanskrit term meaning place of origin

Underneath a golden roof lies the sanctum sanctorum or holy of the holiest – the Cit Sabha meaning the Hall of Wisdom. We were fortunate to be allowed in there accompanying our priest friends, the Dikshitars. Through the solemn rituals we observed the richness and splendor of the place.

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Nataraja

Our next stop was the Thillai Kali Temple, where Kali is the deity of anger. Kali had lost the dance challenge to her husband Lord Shiva. Representing angry women, this temple is understandably a favorite to many who visit for blessings and to release anger and frustration. We were warned that the temple floor was covered in red kumkum and that our bare feet would be stained for sometime. The deity herself was heavily covered in red powder. We lit Deepam purchased before entering, depicting enlightenment and the path towards wisdom.

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After the priest tied a braided red thread around our wrists, a Kappu, meaning protection from evil eye, he handed us each a lemon. We followed Durga and watched as she slid her lemon on a pointed knife like object, on top of many other lemons. The angrier the woman the more forceful she slides the lemon. It is a purification process for cleansing the soul from impurities.

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Our trip with the group was approaching its end. The last leg of the journey was the bus ride from Chidambarum to Chennai. Sanjay wisely suggested we exchange contact info to keep in touch, and to each say a word. We all agreed on one thing, how grateful we were to have crossed paths and been on a spiritual trip together.

Joining us on the ride was the priest Deekshithar Kirubakara and his daughter Swarna from the night before. A silver pendant of Shiva that my sister had bought caught his attention for its fine craftsmanship. Here, Sagy is admiring his ring of nine precious stones representing the nine planets.

Ganesha,  the Lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. Bought this along with Shiva at the top after exiting from Nataraja TempleIMG_7987.JPG

 

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Baskets of offerings, including bananas, coconuts and lotus flowers (Padma) signifies divine beauty and purity

 

For our last evening we were invited yet again at the house of Selva’s family in Chennai … more hospitality and utmost generosity, with Selva answering many questions we all had about the extra rich culture we had opened up to. More gifts were presented to us, including a sari each, rudraksha prayer beads and a few rudraksha seeds. The benefits of rudraksha beads are believed to cycle one’s positive energy thus creating a cocoon of the wearer’s own energy.

Back at the Park Hotel once more … Goodbyes were said and promises to meet soon, which we did! At least some of us at Puja’s for a home cooked Indian dinner, but we continue to be in touch.

The below interesting vintage car is a police car if you look closer, and is not vintage! The Ambassador is the pride of Indian car manufacturing and continued to take the same old fashioned design up until 2013 but with a strong motor and modern inside. So yes, it’s a functioning police car and not on display. Very popular in India!

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Oh, and a mystery was solved. The Park Hotel with the 70s décor and movie posters was built after a special theme inspired by films, performances and screen sets, and is actually listed in an international record book for worldwide signature hotels. Understandably we had to take pictures in the exact spots the catalogue showed.

 

INDIA – Day 6

December 17, 2015

 

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Today is to be the highlight of our trip. Today we are to wear our saris and attend a private ceremony in Chidambaram. But first there is another trip on our bus, which we call our second home now, from Thanjavur.

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More relaxing scenery sweetly interrupted by a surprise. Sharmila’s keeper is taking her for the daily walk. She needs to keep in shape. Ayanar stops the bus and we go down for a last goodbye and more pictures.

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Another breathtaking scene was watching peacocks in the wild. I didn’t manage to catch them spreading their tails, but I did take a picture of them flying across a rice field, much more beautiful than it appears here of course.

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Something that grabbed my attention was the school-boys waiting for their ride to school. They each carried a tablet. And I remembered reading somewhere, a number of years ago, that India decided to provide students with tablets to enhance computing education. I couldn’t help thinking of other students all over the world having to carry heavy bags of books and harming their young backs.

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We reached our hotel, Lakshmivilas. Built in 1855, it feels like going back in time but in style. Old fashioned setting of bathrooms, wooden windows and antique furniture but everything impeccably clean. On entering the open reception area it feels like you’re invited to a family farmhouse, there’s a wooden swing hanging with metal chains from the ceiling, bicycles, pots of colorful flowers, a wagon-cart and an old fashioned water pump. Of course Sagy and I couldn’t resist taking a spin on the double bicycle.

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After lunch at the hotel we had to get ready for Kavita to dress us into our saris. We were to meet in Durga’s room, but she warned us against walking over in our petticoats, although they looked like proper ankle length skirts they are still considered undergarments. So my sister and I braided each other’s hair after wearing the short blouses and draping the saris around us. Puja, our one and only makeup artist and beautician and Durga’s roommate, volunteered to give each one in the group a glowing look, not forgetting kumkum, which was golden that day. One by one we filed into their room for makeup then Kavita skillfully draping us in our saris before we emerged not only looking fabulous, but feeling so too. The last touch was jasmine flowers attached to our hair.

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There’s something serene about being dressed in a sari. I can’t really describe it, but you tend to stand with your back straight, smile more often and walk with sure steps, never rushing. A regal feeling actually.

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The young receptionist was more than happy to take a picture of us when we asked her to, saying “Can I take five?” She not only took many pictures, but she too like the man on the beach, suggested poses. Charming people.

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The sari was a gift from my dear Indian friend and yoga teacher, Sarisha

 

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When everybody was dressed, we all posed for a group picture. This one is so dear to all of us. It captures our moment of happiness, pride and sisterhood.

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We took pictures with another group of Indian ladies this time on an NGO meeting. Equally delightful, friendly and colorfully wrapped in saris.

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Our bus dropped us at the entrance of a small alley where every three of us shared an auto rikshaw to the 600 year old Gayathri temple, run and administered by the S.Rajasekara Deekshithar* family who are friends of Durga through our now friend, Selva.

They were inviting us for a private ceremony of Pooja performed by Selva’s uncle, Kirubakara, to be followed by dinner at their house. His bright young daughter, Swarna helped along lighting incense sticks and making sure we kept the entrance clear. Young family members were helping along. They were being trained from a tender age and were already doing a great job.

We all quietly for the duration of more than three hours as we followed the rituals which included Abhisekam, Archana and Deeparathai. Selva, a priest himself, explains that Gayathri is a combination of three goddesses Saraswathy (Valour) in the morning, Savithri (Wealth) in noon and Lakshmi (Wisdom) in the evening. She is the consort of Sun whose rays of light showers us all with fruit of wisdom and protects us all from evil.

At one point we were asked to step out of the temple and sit on a nylon sheet facing the entrance. As we solemnly followed the rituals listening to the chanting of the younger priests and the scent of incense lingering in our nostrils we found four or five cows running from a narrow alley heading in our direction. Try to stand up quickly with a sari. Impossible but we did, except for Amma who was not worried. The herd was shooed away and we took our places one more time … to be attacked yet again. Now I think it’s funny and I laugh, but then I had to coax Amma to get up quickly before we were stampeded this time.

With the rituals over, we went back inside for the customary kumkum and the blessing of the priest who placed an elegant shawl on each of our shoulders as well. I treasure mine, as I’m sure all the other’s do. And till now it carries the scent of incense.

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Back in the auto rikshaw taking us to dinner, Sagy and I sat with the priest Deekshithar in the front beside the driver and his young nephew squeezed beside us, both still in their Veshtis . And my wise sister whispered to me, “Can you wrap your head around this? We’re both in India, wearing saris, riding a toctoc with a Hindu priest and his son.” It was surreal.

We reached the home of the generous family, left our footwear at the door and walked inside. The simplicity of the place takes you by surprise and leaves you wondering why do we stuff our homes with unnecessary items? The large hall had bookshelves, a television and a large, wooden swinging plank hanging from the ceiling, big enough to seat three adults. As we sat around on the floor waiting for dinner, young family members entertained and welcomed a number of us to join in their games. Fun has neither age nor barriers, and soon their laughter was spreading across the warm house.

Hospitality and generosity to guests is a foundation of Hinduism. The family members come around serving you, each from a different pot with warm, delicious spicy food, rice and bread. They come around again and again making sure you had enough. Looking at you to make sure you are satisfied, supplying you with water and bread. Only when they are sure you are full do they start eating, first the men, followed by the children then the women; a custom that was practiced in Egypt and still is in some remote areas.

At the end, Deekshithar Kirubakara presented us each with a gift of a frame with the picture of Gayathri.

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* Donations are accepted through their trust Rathna Charitable Trust for Noble Services. Detailed description of their fund may be found at

www. Rathnacharitabletrust.com

 

 

 

INDIA – Day 5

December 9, 2015

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The previous night we checked into Ideal River View Resort in Thanjavur, the spacious rooms are provided with a dressing room and huge bathroom including shower and tub. And come morning we woke up to another gorgeous view and hearty breakfast.

Today we were visiting the thousand year old Gangaikonda Cholapuram Temple, which was dedicated to Lord Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity of Gods (Brahma, The Creator – Vishnu, The Preserver –Shiva, The Destroyer).

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Upon entering the temple you are met with vendors who sell offerings to be presented to the deities including flowers, coconuts, bananas and lemons. Sanjay explained the significance of breaking a coconut at the foot of a deity, it was akin to breaking your own ego. The shell resembles a human head with its hair and the three holes are the mouth and two eyes, the shell is the skull, the white part is the brain and coconut water is blood. So by breaking the coconut fruit one is actually breaking their ego. How awesome is that!

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Our group was now familiar with the rituals of visiting Hindu temples, but what made this visit special was interacting with people. As we emerged to the surrounding garden we heard angelic female voices chanting. The ladies clad in colorful saris were sitting on the steps, and welcomed us to sit beside them and get to know each other. They asked as where we came from, how we were enjoying our visit and how long we planned to stay.

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Another delightful group were school girls on a trip dressed in burgundy colored uniform with their hair braided and adorned with jasmine. Honestly, why wear perfume when you could wear flowers. The smiling young girls were interested to know our names.

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As my sister and I were posing for pictures, a young man came along and asked us why not pose as dancers, and he showed us how. He turned out to be a classical dancer himself and offered to dance for us! We had a private performance where he was singing and dancing as he thumped his strong feet on the ground. It was simply magical to watch him with the school girls sitting in a semi circle and the temple in the background.

In an annex to the temple we queued for a look inside another sanctum and get the customary kumkum dot on our forehead. It was there that the priest secluded Sagy and asked her name to give her a special blessing, he then gave her a small plastic bag. Seeing her confusion, Bhadrak our guide told her to take it quietly and leave. This was something rare, our guide explained as Sagy opened the bag to find flowers, a small packet of kumkum, two bananas and a picture of the temple.

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Apparently they were blessed items and Sagy generously shared the bananas with Durga, Bhadrak and me.

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Sagy was mistaken for an Indian on several occasions

For lunch, Puja suggested we order together and share the dishes so we get a taste of everything, and it turned out to be a brilliant idea. The meal went on for quite some time as we sampled dish after spicy dish along with my favorite bread, papadum, before we resumed our tour.

Our second stop that day was the Thanjavur Maratha Palace. Seems that my sister was in luck again. She was dreaming of meeting a Maharaja, and the only one around we had missed by a few hours as he was a businessman. On the other hand we were about to visit a Maharaja’s palace, now turned into a museum. To us, the palace itself was more import than the treasures within the museum. We were allowed to roam inside and upstairs and in the garden, imagining what life must have been like centuries ago. We came across our fellow yogis – professionals those two – Sarsawati and Devi, posing gracefully in picturesque asanas with heavenly lighting as Lakshmi took shot after shot.

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For some reason there was a skeleton of a whale in the tower, facing that was a wall with inscriptions by lovers throughout the years.

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Indian Beauty

Rain started to pour in buckets as we returned to our hotel. I had to pass the yoga session that evening and run for my massage appointment, the worst I’d ever had in my entire life. If I’d known I would have saved myself the trouble of wading through the rain soaked lawn to reach the pool area. Not even the shelter of the umbrella carried by one of the workers could protect me from getting drenched.

What made me stay throughout the hour-long oily torture session? Simply to wait out the rain, and that having not happened, I draped myself in a couple of pool towels, carried the umbrella and waded back through the puddles this time getting my shoe soaked too.

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After a hot bath Sagy begged me to join her in the Cashmeri gift shop she had discovered, but I was adamant to stay in bed and enjoy a hot cup of tea while checking my email. Wifi wasn’t working so I called reception. “We’ll send you a person!” And indeed they did send a very helpful person, not once in that pouring rain, but twice, the other time being for Sagy later that evening. I must say I’ve never seen better service.

I was content and happy to be in bed although still stinking of that funny oil. Sagy came back and showed me her merchandise. Every single piece was beautiful, but not enough to entice me to join her.

“Tell you what, bring me back some stuff to choose from,” I said jokingly. And sure enough, she ran out in the rain and returned a short while later, and believe it or not, the young shop owner came in tow carrying a huge basket of silk scarves and other items I showed interest in! I wonder if anyone has shopped from the comfort of their bed before with the salesman standing at the door, hmmm.

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INDIA – Day 4

December 6, 2015

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An early morning yoga session by the pool on the roof of the hotel was followed by a four-hour drive to Thanjavur, also known as the Rice Bowl of Tamil Nadu for its vast rice fields. Our first stop was at the Brihadeshwara Temple, one of the largest temples in India. Over one thousand years old, the granite carved temple is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Great Living Chola Temples.

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Upon entering the high walls, you can see the temple tower, the tallest in the world, at its apex is a huge spherical structure carved out of a single rock weighing eighty tons. Another huge carving out of a single rock is Nandi, or the sacred bull, facing the entrance of the temple.

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Bhadrak greeted us today dressed in a typical southern Indian costume today in a shirt and a lungi which is a piece of cloth tied around the waist that reaches to the ankles, and could be folded to become of shorter length above the knee. As we gathered around him, he explained how he felt a special connection to this specific temple since he was a child. His eyes gleamed as he told us how he was now delighted to witness the once abandoned place that was crawling with snakes and insects transformed to a temple with hundreds of worshipers and visitors nowadays. Whereas the temples we had previously visited were purely monumental.

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Pharaohs vs. Hindus

We were in luck, as we were about to attend Abhishekam, a solemn ritual conducted by priests where they pour libations (offerings like milk, yogurt, ghee, honey, rosewater, sandalwood paste) on the image of the deity being worshipped in the main sanctum. In this case it was the second biggest lingam in India (nine feet high), again carved out of a single stone.

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Picture of lingam taken from internet

We quietly entered into the age-old temple to the chanting of mantras and instrumental music. The high ceilings, darkness within and different aromas carried us back in time as we saw the people seated on the floor on either side watching the washing of the lingam by the priests dressed in white dhoti, bare from the waist up, with their hair tied in a knot at the top of their heads.

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Two young priests didn’t want to have their picture taken at first

At one point a curtain is drawn, blocking the view for a short while, then reopened to expose the lingam now covered with flowers and cloth. As we exit, we each bow as we accept a dot of kumkum on our foreheads.

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Newly weds come for the blessings

Outside, we sat to rest for a short while in the vast garden before making the customary anti-clockwise walk around the main temple. Bhadrak told us the story of how Lord Shiva challenged his wife, Parvati to a duel-dance. Let’s see if I remember it properly. Parvati was the icon of perfection, but when Shiva confronted her fearing she may be losing her humbleness she became angry. He challenged her to a dance where she managed to keep up with his steps. At one point one of her earrings fell, and with a clever step, Lord Shiva picked it up with his toes and handed it to her. Parvati who was wearing a sari couldn’t imitate that step and became angry (giving her the name Kali). Shiva wins the dual and Bhadrak points the engraving on the temple wall of his look of triumph as he looks to the side. Later Lord Shiva consoles his wife. I managed to capture a picture of our guide doing the same gesture, with his face averted to the side.

Let me go back a couple days when my sister, Sagy asked our guides if there was any chance we could see an elephant. She explained that our dear brother said he would not believe we’d been to India unless we actually mounted an elephant. Our guides were surprised by the request but promised to find out if it was possible. After all, elephants were not as common as they used to be long ago when they were used as beasts of burden.

True to their promise, they had located one of the locals who had adopted a couple of elephants, along with a few horses for the benefit of renting them for weddings and other festivities. We were welcomed to visit and maybe pay a small donation to help the owner with the expenses. Every single one in the group was delighted to jump to the opportunity. And so our van went off the road to a private dwelling in the middle of the fields.

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There we found lovely Sharmila waiting for us. On her head there was a beautiful white pattern drawn with a paste of rice powder and water, and small bells around her neck. Sharmila had the kindest eyes with long lashes, and true to her name, she brought us comfort and joy.

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Let me tell you that climbing on top was no easy matter; leaping sideways and upwards from a ladder onto her back. Actually I was going to give it up completely hadn’t I been the first of the group to make the attempt. I was rewarded by cheers, but felt rather silly when Amma managed it quite successfully with her recent double knee replacement to even louder cheers and applause.

The sun was setting and it was time to head to our hotel but not before Sweet Sharmila gave us her blessings.

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Sharmila blessing Sagy

 

Another relaxing yoga session with our amazing Durga in the garden of our hotel and we were all ready to call it a night.

 

 

 

 

 

INDIA – Day 3

December 2, 2015

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This morning we would be driving to our next destination, Pondicherry, and stopping on our way in Auroville. The two-hour drive was scenic with the flat landscape reminding us again of rural Egypt. There were rice fields and en lieu of the palm trees there were coconut trees. Moderately speeding through villages and street markets we saw red vintage tractors in perfect shape, school children in uniform clustered in groups waiting for their bus ride, mud and straw huts under a warm sun all promising a busy morning for everybody.

Sanjay said that we all knew each other by name by now, but didn’t actually know each other. He suggested we each say something about ourselves and handed the microphone to my sister Sagy, his fellow tour guide, to start off. It proved to be a good idea, and moreover Sanjay gave each of us a Hindu name. Our teacher was Durga or Goddess which suited her perfectly with her blonde mane and the way she elegantly carried herself. Her aunt was Amma or Mother (a name also used in rural Egypt). Then there were the two sisters Lakshimi, goddess of wealth and fortune, and Devi or heavenly. The Lebanese member of our group was Puja, or prayer. And then there was Saraswati, goddess of knowledge and wisdom, and her mother Parvati, goddess of love. As for my sister and me we were Priya and Padma, beloved and the sacred lotus, but we were referred to as a unit called Sagy Sisters😀

After a short stop, more of the enchanting scenery was now accompanied by Sanjay singing love songs in both Indian and English, and Puja’s angelic voice chanting in Arabic.

As we approached Auroville* or City of Dawn, Durga briefed us about the universal town where people from all over the world could live in human unity and harmony regardless of politics and nationalities. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, or The Mother who was the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindu; a philosopher, yogi, guru and poet who joined the Indian movement for independence from the British rule before becoming a spiritual reformer.

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At the Visitor’s Center we watched a short film explaining how the place the construction a golden, metallic sphere called the Matrimandir, in the center of the town which is “a symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection”. This place is off limits for the regular visitor as silence is maintained within. It could be seen from a viewing point where you had to walk to in a shaded are for about fifteen minutes, or reserve a ride on the shuttle bus. The Matrimandir is surrounded by a Peace area to ensure even more tranquility, which is further surrounded by neatly trimmed gardens all of which you can see from a viewing point. There are four zones radiating from the center; residential, industrial, cultural and international. These are bordered by the Green belt.

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As we started our walk, armed with cold water bottles to sustain us to and fro, we looked forward to seeing the hundred year old banyan tree which the Mother decided to be Auroville’s geographical center since it was a lone tree in an almost totally barren plateau at the time of construction, and also because banyan trees are regarded as sacred in India.

And sure enough, the tree stood big and proud with tens of aerial roots spanning to a diameter of fifty meters.

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Along the walk we came across twelve quotes by the Mother about different qualities. They represent the meditation rooms inside the petals surrounding the Matrimandir, sincerity, peace, equality, generosity, courage, progress, receptivity, aspiration, perseverance, gratitude and humility. I will be posting pictures of the stone blocks carrying the quotes separately.

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Having reached the viewing point we stood there to take in all the glory and serenity of the magnificent golden sphere. While taking many pictures, solo and en group, I couldn’t miss the couple in love oblivious to their surroundings.

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Sagy and I were lucky to catch a ride back to the visitor’s center in our first experience on a toc-toc. The driver had one of those old fashioned horns which he honked gleefully to our incessant laughter.

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The group met for lunch at restaurant where everything was available from curry to pizza before we dispersed again to do some serious shopping in the store complex of the town.

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A short drive from there and we reached Pondicherry where our first stop was a solemn visit to Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, or dwelling, and final resting place. As customary, we left our footwear outside and quietly followed the queue who were paying their respects in the flower-covered marble mausoleum, and sat down in the open area for a few minutes. On the way out you get a glimpse of the rooms, but more important I got to buy a few good books; one about Sri Aurobindho’s confinement in prison and the other including quotes by the Mother.

Now was the time to enjoy the streets of Pondicherry which was a French colonial settlement and still carries that legacy in the style of architecture of villas on the tree lined street carrying French names. All this we were able to enjoy in rickshaws, two of us in each, going from the French quarter and passing by the flower market and other shops way till we finally reached our hotel. For me, it meant a well deserved massage in the spa, for Sagy … more shopping.

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You can learn more about Auroville at www.auroville.org

Quotes by The Mother in Auroville

December 2, 2015

 Auroville* or City of Dawn is a universal town in Pondicherry, India, where people from all over the world could live in human unity and harmony regardless of politics and nationalities. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa, or The Mother who was the spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindu; a philosopher, yogi, guru and poet who joined the Indian movement for independence from the British rule before becoming a spiritual reformer.

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Along the walk to the Matrimandir, we came across twelve quotes by the Mother about different human qualities. They represent the meditation rooms inside the petals surrounding the Matrimandir, sincerity, peace, equality, generosity, courage, progress, receptivity, aspiration, perseverance, gratitude and humility.

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For more about our visit to Auroville, please see above post also auroville.org for details of the place.

INDIA – Day 2

November 30, 2015

The view we woke up to on the 2nd day

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So my sister and I didn’t make it for the early yoga session, but we did make it for breakfast, dressed in our first Indian outfits. We had a stroll in the hotel grounds where we met a few of the local gardeners and cleaning women. How friendly were they to greet us and pose in our pictures and to yield the tricycle carrying coconuts for more posing, giggling in amusement.

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The group met in the lobby, all fabulously and colorfully dressed. Our teacher displayed a selection of bindis for our choice to stick on our foreheads. Where some may consider it an exotic accessory, in fact it has a spiritual significance. It is a mark of completing prayers and a reminder of the purpose of life. The receptionist added her touch by applying a dot of the red powder kumkum between our eyebrows, signifying devotion of God in Hindu religion.

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As Ayanar drove in the busy streets of Mahabaliporum also known as Mamamallapuram, we watched the vendors displaying the merchandise in small carts, women in saris galore doing their shopping, rooftops of small temples we listened as Sanjay explained how this ancient historic town was a bustling seaport during the first century.

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The group of monuments we were going to visit that day were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our first stop was at the Five Rathas or five huge rock cut architectures in the shape of chariots which were never completed (missing the wheels). Mistakenly called a temple but was not consecrated.

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As we roamed all around the ancient rocks, selfie stick in hand, my sister and I were delighted to find that the Indians were equally excited to join in our pictures, they didn’t mind if you carried their children either.

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Understandably, our first stop lasted longer than intended, but our generous guides rewarded us with fresh coconut juice, and it was then when we saw our first Cow walking by gracefully. Her hide was of a warm, golden color, glistening in the sun with not a scratch or a mark. Cows have a gentle, nature which is the main teaching of Hinduism. They are considered as sacred animals and are NOT worshipped, as some may believe.

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Our second stop was at the rock carved Cave Temples. Among the beautiful sculptures there we were nicely surprised to find a carving of a figure similar to the Egyptian sphinx with a man’s face upon a lion’s body, but this man had a moustache! My sister, a tour-guide herself, started observing the similarities between both Indian and Egyptian cultures, which turned out to be numerous throughout our trip.

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Bhadrak pointed out the rich details of the intricate bas-relief of the Descent of the Ganges. Let me see if I remember this clearly, we had to pay attention to the explanation while taking tens of pictures, but he did tell us a story of the elephant who had lost his supremacy as a cat stood bravely on its hind legs at his feet, totally unafraid that he might strike her, but then there were rats around the cat, hmm. Anyway, somebody was losing their power here.

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We then walked on to Krishna’s Butterball which is a giant rock balancing on a smooth slope and never budging. Sanjay said he bet any of us to move it, that’s okay, we believe you Sanjay :) too hot to get up there. Maybe a few silly pictures from our spot would do as a good reminder.

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The Shore Temple was the highlight of the day. Built with blocks of granite on a cape on the Bay of Bengal, the extraordinary 8th century temple was saved from the tsunami of 2004 when the UNESCO foresightedly suggested a thick screen of trees be planted there and huge rocks be placed on the beach to protect it from the waves and high tide.

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Now we were ready for the typical Indian lunch we were promised. A set menu for everybody is a tray lined with banana leaves and included many small dishes with different types of food, including dessert, all around. It comes with bread which you remove and a heap of steamed rice is placed instead. Bhadrak demonstrated how to spoon our right hand and use it if we so chose, and that we could have as many refills of whatever we liked.

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With mind as well as tummy fully satisfied, we headed back to the hotel. My sister and I couldn’t resist the beckoning of the beach, so instead of resting we changed and partly walked, partly rode the golf cart to our destination. Once we reached the beach we were amazed to find the same Casuarina trees as we had in Alexandria also one the beach in Montaza. We could see the Shore Temple at the left, then our photo shoot started. Something that we would encounter many times was when we asked a person to take a picture of us, they not only agreed, but suggested poses and smiled as we happily obliged.

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Standing together, looking at the open sea, I asked my sister, “Where do you think our next trip together will be.”

“Not a clue,” she said.

“Dream on,” I urged her.

“Japan?” she looked at me in wonder.

“Well, you never know.”

 

We couldn’t find the golf cart on the way back, so we had to walk back to our room, but not before taking a dip in the inviting pool where a group of young men were playing water volley and we both had a laughing fit for some reason. Maybe it was their loud voices of which we couldn’t understand anything, or maybe the simple fact that we were truly happy and content.

 

The plan was to have a seafood dinner by the beach after a yoga and meditation session. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed yoga more than that day with the moon in its gibbous phase and the waves gently rolling on the shore, just enough to be heard.

 

The night ended with much laughter as the our dinner came to the table bit by bit, yet no one was annoyed or complained as we munched on the yummy bread and watched a herd of some wild cattle running on the beach.

 

 

INDIA

November 29, 2015

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Our footprints on the beach – the following day

I don’t think I’ll be able to write the name of that rich country in any form except in capital letters, INDIA. As a friend once said, even voicing the word is exotic. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve returned from a yoga trip to Tamil Nadu in the South, and I’m at a loss as where and how to begin pouring out the overwhelming experience of satisfying my curiosity and senses. Saying it exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. Maybe if I write it one bit at a time I would be able to relay the message, and moreover relive those nine exquisite days.

From the moment my sister and I set our foot on the midnight flight from Dubai heading to Chennai (known before as Madras) we were excited to find that maybe we were the only non-Indians on that plane. With women in Saris and the a language completely foreign to our ears we were thrilled that the trip we had been planning for all summer was finally happening, we were embarking on our First Sister Trip and sleep eluded us.

We arrived to a bustling airport before the break of dawn trying to take in the novelty of our surroundings while picking up our luggage from the belt. We were met at the exit by smiling Sanjay, who would be one of our two guides during the seven-day tour of Tamil Nadu. In a small van we were asked to wait till two more members of the trip arrived before we all headed to our hotel. We met a young Saudi lady, already a yoga trainer herself, who was accompanied by her mother. Trying to keep my eyes open, all I can remember is driving over and under bridges. In a residential area with plenty of trees the van pulled up in the drive of The Park Hotel.

We were to stay at five different hotels in the span of those seven days, but fortunately Sanjay would do all the checking in. We couldn’t wait for our keys and the much longed for bed to rest for a few hours before the group met at 7 am after breakfast, yet we couldn’t miss the 70s modern décor of the lobby. All I could remember of the room that night was the posters of Indian movies on the wall and in the bathroom. “Welcome to India,” I smiled at my sister before we dozed off.

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Day 1

How were we supposed to rush breakfast with such a spread! The buffet included the all the usual international breakfast items plus pots of spicy foods in all colors, aromas and textures, and the breads! My favorite was dosa – a crispy crepe – which I devoured with a tri-color of chutneys, green mint, red tomato and white yogurt, and that sort of made up the Indian flag🙂

Back in the 70s modern lobby we met with, our yoga teacher, who was wearing an exquisite sari (and would continue to dazzle us each day with a new one). She introduced two ladies; her aunt who had joined from Minneapolis, and a Lebanese lady from her class in Riyadh. Sanjay was there so was our other guide, Bhadrak*. Our plan for the day was to go shopping for Indian clothes as the places we were visiting were of a conservative nature, lunch would follow then a two-hour ride to our first destination, Mahabalipuram.

Outside we were introduced to Ayanar, the driver of the air-conditioned mini-bus that would drive us all around, and Maari, his young helper who would open the door, hold the umbrella if it was raining, help us up and down, etc. The bus had a partition between passengers and drivers for privacy.

Right hand driving, getting on the bus from the left side, bustling streets with yellow auto rikshaws or 3 wheelers (toctocs), hundreds of vespas in a single traffic light (many driven by women in saris!), try to take all that in along with deep green foliage and posters of upcoming elections.

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Our first stop was Fabindia, an exquisite modern Indian store that sells almost everything and ships worldwide. We must have spent a good couple of hours choosing between sarwals and churidars, kurtis and kurtas, stoles and duppatas, fabrics and colors to our hearts content. Behind the cashier I couldn’t resist the selection of spices, tea and soap (lemon grass was my favorite).

Maari helped us with our bundles as we climbed onto the bus to our next destination for sari shopping … and more. At one point of our trip we were all to dress in saris for a special ceremony in one of the temples. Prices could range from $20 to $400 dollars but every single piece was simply beautiful. In India I learnt that all colors match … somehow. From nine yard long sari, the tailor in the basement would cut and sew a blouse that had to be short sleeved and quite tight, and short, exposing the midriff. The remainder would be draped around the waist over a matching petticoat. No easy matter to wear especially when you wanted the elegant pleats down the middle and over the shoulder. But no worries, Kavita*, a co-worker of Sanjay and Babu would dress us all up for the ceremony, and arrange to send the saris and whatever else needed sewing or tailoring to our next destination

With more shopping bags carrying souvenirs, accessories, figurines of Hindu gods, silk scarves and Kashmiri pashminas from the four floored store we emerged to find heavy tropical rain and a smiling Maari waiting with an umbrella to escort each of us onto our bus. By then we had built up quite an appetite and were eager to sample the lunch buffet before returning for encores. Midway through lunch we were joined by two young Saudi sisters, one was also a yoga instructor. Our group was complete, but they still had to do the shopping bit before joining us in Mahabaliporum that evening.

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I was struggling to keep my eyes open to take in all the scenery on our drive but it was impossible. The gentle humming of the engine and rain falling on the window lulled me to sleep.

“Rise and shine, Ladies,” came Sanjay’s voice. “You have reached The Chariot Beach Resort, your home for the next two days in Mahabaliporum.”

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While Sanjay checked us in, we were offered watermelon juice as a welcome drink then the receptionist placed a necklace made of sea shells around each of our necks as she bowed, we thanked her with the traditional palms joined in respect.

The rooms were spacious and overlooked what would turn out to be a fantastic view the following morning, but for now we were to start our first open air yoga session. Halfway through the practice I was bit twice by a mosquito. I managed to strike the first irksome insect, but the second caught me causing an immediate and painful swelling in the middle phalanx of my right index finger. Not such a nice welcome, I thought to myself before excusing myself and heading back to my room. Luckily one of our group members, a nurse, had a miracle cream that immediately eased the pain.

My sister and I ordered soup and fresh cut fruits before calling it a day.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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