Monday, January 24, 2011

India videos now on YouTube!

Greetings again!

Here are links to a couple of movies I made for my home church in Stockton, California that might be of interest to some of you.  These nine-minute travelogues capture some of the sights and sounds of our trip.

The first movie begins in Delhi (ham on rye?) on January 4 and runs through January 12 in Varanasi (think the Ganges River).

The second movie picks up in Agra on January 15 (that's Taj Mahal country) and takes us through Jodhpur (in Rajasthan) on January 22.

I hope you enjoy them!

Don't sit under the Bodhi Tree with anyone else but me ...

January 11, 2011

Well, skip the comfortable bed – at least for a number of us.  Our hotel in Bodhgaya caters to Buddhist pilgrims from Asia (mostly Japan and Thailand) and most of these pilgrims are looking for an ascetic experience, sooooo …. the beds were rock hard.  Nonetheless, our hearty band of intrepid travelers took it in stride (“oh, well, it was good for my back”) and we started the day with a brisk walk to one of Buddhism’s holiest sites – the very spot at which Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation until he reached enlightenment.  The tree under which he sat, the Bodhi Tree (“Enlightenment Tree”), is said to have showered flower petals upon this Hindu Prince all night following his realization of the true nature of reality roughly five centuries before Christ.  The current tree was grown from a shoot taken from the original tree, which was subsequently destroyed by an enraged queen who was jealous of the attention her husband (King Ashoka, a devout convert to Buddhism) paid to the tree.

The Bodhi Tree where the Buddha was enlightened five centuries before Christ.

As we toured the temple grounds, surrounded by pilgrims from all over the world, it was apparent just how revered this site is.  With Buddhist monks and lay practitioners in prayer, meditation, or rising and falling in mindful bowing exercises, one lucky student (Elliot Longtin) noticed a leaf fall first on her shoulder before landing at her feet.  Devotees from every corner of the globe travel to this site hoping for such a blessing and, for whatever reason, the universe presented itself to Elliot with this great boon.

After a late afternoon lunch at a nearby hotel restaurant, some of us shopped the stalls for bargains while others walked the streets drinking in the sites or sat under the Bodhi Tree waiting for another leaf to fall.  Later in the afternoon, about half our merry band chose to join the monks at the nearby Japanese Temple for an hour-long session of chanting and silent meditation in their Buddha Hall.  The cool evening air kept our meditators from falling asleep (though the floors were only slightly harder than the beds the night before).  Before dinner there was just enough time for an hour-long Japanese hot bath at our hotel.  Since our hotel caters to Japanese tourists, they have separate facilities for men and women to take communal baths.  Earlier in the day we had arranged for them to heat the water and 90% of our group luxuriated in the two, gender-based baths (though it wasn't an "official" Japanese bath since we decided to take the dip in our swimsuits).

January 12, 2011

An early morning breakfast fueled us for the bus ride to Varanasi, Hindu India's holiest city.  Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River, is a busy city of about one and a quarter million people.  Rich with myth and history, for many pilgrims it a "must-visit" site on their list, even if for a brief period of time.  and, it is said that if one dies in this holy city, a much better rebirth is guaranteed.  As a result, many persons come to Varanasi late in their life.  Bicycle rickshaws shuttled us from our hotel to the Ghats (or steps) of the Ganges River where we boarded a boat for a cruise up and down the river.  As the oarsmen ferried us along the wide, slow-moving river, the ghosts of millennia past seemed ever present with the great accordion of time collapsed into a single instant, retraced in each of the well-worn steps of those walking the banks at this present moment.  One could easily imagine countless generations before the present one stringing flowers in garlands, washing clothes or bathing in the river, or offering salutations to the sun in praise of the energy it provides.  

Bicycle Rickshaws seem quaint until you realize that sometimes
they are the only vehicles able to cut through endlessly thick traffic.
While the Ganges is sacred, it is also polluted and while efforts to clean it up over the last two decades are beginning to change the situation, there is still much work to be done.  Contrary to popular belief, while bodies are cremated along the banks of this river at two prescribed spots (the largest being the Manikarnika Ghat), corpses are not dropped wholesale into the river and body parts are not floating along with the current.  Outcasts do handle the bodies, dipping them briefly into the Ganges before they are completely consumed by pyres.  Photography of the cremations is, appropriate to the subject, prohibited.

On the Ganges with steps (or "ghats") on the bank.
More to follow.

Online once again!


Our travels have gone VERY well but we've had very little time for posting online (and very little access to getting online!).  So, here comes the "catching up."

January 8, 2011

After a couple of glorious days in McLeod Ganj among the Tibetans in exile, it was time to pack up and head to Amritsar to visit Sikhism’s most holy site, The Golden Temple.  What was supposed to be a brief three hour bus drive to Amritsar turned out to take most of the day.  This was due, in part, to having to take a different route than originally planned (which would have been too twisty for our large bus).  Our progress was also delayed because we had to take a different bus as ours had somehow lost its windshield while we were in McLeod Ganj.  The tour buses in India have a separate compartment for the driver and his assistant so the rush of cold air that they experienced was only a minor annoyance to our group.  Nonetheless, our guide Nand Singh contacted the transportation company and they sent a second bus to meet us midway.  We transferred our bags, climbed aboard the new bus, and wound our way to Amritsar to discover that our hotel was right next to an actual Baskin-Robbins -- yum!

January 9, 2011

We woke early to a wonderful breakfast at our hotel (HK Clarks Inn) and hopped into half a dozen tourist cars, which dropped us near the Golden Temple in the heart of Old Amritsar.  The streets are too narrow and too congested for busses and even tourist autos aren’t allowed to get very close.  A good walk in the cold air of the morning market is a great way to wake up.

The Hari Sahib or"Golden Temple" in Amritsar (Punjab, India) on a very cold January 9, 2011

The Golden Temple was a fantastic sight to behold.  The exterior of the temple is covered with nearly 1,500 pounds of 24 carat gold over copper plates (that’s about 30 grams per square inch).  Cameras aren’t allowed inside the temple, which holds Sikhism’s scripture the Holy Granth (read continuously throughout the day).  Equally impressive, however, is the Langur (or kitchen), which feeds over 40,000 people each day – for free.  Donations buy mass quantities of food, which is prepared all day long by devotees giving selfless service (“Seva”).  True to Sikhism’s egalitarian nature, folks of all castes mix when preparing and eating.  Our students had a turn preparing some of the food that would be served that day.

Lauren O' Leary stirring a huge vat of Dal (lentils) while Elliot Longtin awaits her turn.

Kelsey Andersson (L) and Joy Makin (R) flipping chapati (baked flat bread)  in Amritsar

In the evening we traveled to the border of India and Pakistan to watch an elaborate ceremony that marks the closing of the border each day.  With great pomp and bravado, soldiers from each side of the border “charge” the gate in mock aggression.  An emcee on each side stirs up good-natured nationalist sentiment in their respective crowds.  The feeling is something akin to the rivalry one senses at high school football games (“We’ve got spirit, yes we do; we’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?”) – it’s “call and response” at its best.  Once the gates are flung open, a soldier from each side marches forward, shakes hands with his counterpart, salutes, and then “retreats” as the gates are slammed shut.  It’s great fun and lasts about 45 minutes or so.

Indian soldiers retreating with the Indian Flag following the border crossing
ceremony at the Indian-Pakistan border 

As we returned to the hotel, many of us offered silent prayers for clear skies the next day so that we could fly out of Amritsar on our way to Bodhgaya in the east.  The same, daily flight we planned to take tomorrow had been cancelled earlier in the day and we were getting pretty concerned we’d have to find another route to continue our trek.

More soon.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

So Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, and a Hindu priest all walk into a temple ...

January 4, 2011

Rajghat: The Site where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated, January 31, 1948
Rajghat, on the banks of the sacred Yamuna river in Delhi, is the location where M. K. (Mahatma) Gandhi was cremated on January 31, 1948, one day after he was assassinated while walking to afternoon prayers with his nieces.  The term “Mahatma” is comprised of two words, “maha” (great) and “atma,” the Sanskrit term for “soul.”  Saint Mary’s students stand barefoot on this chilly morning while watching two caretakers in prayer.  The black granite, flower-decorated slab memorializes the site were a quickly constructed brick foundation held the funeral pyre.  An eternal flame reminds one not only of the tragic pyre but inspires hope in the ideals for which Gandhiji stood as well.

Located directly opposite the Rajghat is the national Gandhi Museum, a trove of information and artifacts chronicling the life and work of Gandhiji (“ji” is an honorific).  Included among the many impressive displays are the blood-stained, white dhoti Gandhi was wearing and one of the three bullets that pierced his chest.  Unfortunately, cameras are not allowed inside or you’d be seeing some snaps of this amazing collection.

After a delicious lunch at the nicely appointed “Chicken Inn,” we made our way to the new (2005) Akshardham Temple, which boasts of being the largest temple complex in India and, with more than 20,000 carved stone images of gods & goddesses, it may well be.  The mandir (temple) is a working temple, though many come for the splendid interpretive programs (which more than one student described as Disneyland-meets-Hinduism).  The massive temple’s programs include: a “walk-through” series of scenes with auto-animatronic figures retelling the story of the sect’s founder, Swami Narayan; an hour-long IMAX experience of the founder’s story; as well as a “It’s a Small World”-like boat ride recounting Indian history through the ages.  All were impressively done, if a bit too slick for the taste of some students who found the message of humility and simplicity overshadowed by the flashy presentations.

A delicious dinner back at our hotel rounded out the day and sent us to bed ready for another day’s adventures.

January 5, 2011

Saint Mary's students on a chilly Delhi morning at the Lotus Temple

When we began the day with a visit to the Lotus Temple, we didn’t have any idea what a long day it would be; or just how cold Delhi could get.  We knew it would be a full day with lots of sightseeing and a departure by overnight train for Dharamsala scheduled for 9:00 p.m.

The Haha'i House of Worship, a.k.a. The Lotus Temple

The Baha’i Faith is a relatively recent faith by any standard and in it’s infancy when you stand it along side Indian traditions, which trace their roots back many millennia.  The youngest of the world religions (finding its roots in the nineteenth century), Baha’i is dedicated to bringing unity and peace to the world.  The Lotus Temple was erected in 1986 and is open daily for prayer and meditation to practitioners of all faiths.  It is truly spectacular inside but such pictures are not allowed – sorry.)

The Martyr's Column marks the site in Delhi where Gandhi was assassinated

The waist-high stone marker (known as the “Martyr’s Column”) pictured above rests on the site where Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948.  The words “Hai Ram” (Hindi for “Oh God”) are reputed to be Gandhiji’s last.  The column is located in the garden behind the house (now a museum) where Gandhi was staying as a guest.

The Jama ("Friday") Masjid ("Mosque") just before the 4:00 p.m. call to prayer

The Jama Masjid (“Friday Mosque”) is the largest mosque in India. It was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between the years 1644 and 1658, and can hold up to 25,000 people for prayer.  Though we had sufficient time for Audrey Reid to deliver her site report about the mosque, shortly thereafter we were asked to leave (as non-Muslims) for the call to prayer.  Hearing the muezzin call out “God is Great” in soaring Arabic was a surprisingly uplifting, if haunting, experience.

Walking the crowded, bustling streets around Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi

After the mosque, we headed to Chandni Chowk – an ever-crowded sea of humanity in constant motion selling, honking, bartering, littering, etc.  The narrow maze-like streets are unimaginably crowded with motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, and men and women carrying all manner of things on their heads or on their backs or under their arms.  A tangle of spliced wires overhead pulses with electrons in what can only be described as the most precarious circuitry ever cobbled together.  Navigating the labyrinth would have been impossible save for our intrepid guide, Nand Singh (a truly wonderful guy!).

After dinner we headed for the Delhi Train Station to discover that our train was delayed one … then two … and ultimately 4 hours.  Huddled together (playing cards, listening to music, telling jokes, observing others) inside the station was cold enough but when we walked out onto Platform #6 to catch the train (which was coming in 20 minutes), we discovered just how cold Delhi air could be.  A stiff wind and frigid temperatures (actually record-setting lows that broke a century-old mark) made the 20 minutes seem like an hour and a half … well, the stiff wind and frigid temperatures and the fact that the train didn’t actually come for an hour and a half made it all seem much longer than any of us would have liked had we had our say in matters.  But, since neither Mother Nature nor Indian Railways contacted us, we were forced to go with the flow.  Fortunately, the train was relatively warm and the wool blankets were not only warm but soft as well.

January 6, 2011

Some of us slept very well on the train while others seemed to get in at least a good doze before the omelet sellers and chai tea vendors started plying their custom up and down the isles of the train (both the omelet and the chai were delicious and cheap -- $1.00 total!).

Our next leg of the journey was by bus.  A long leg it was.  Having snaked our way through a series of traffic-jammed narrow streets in small towns, we finally arrived at McLeod Ganj just after dusk.  We grabbed our bags and headed into the Asian Palace Hotel, a suitably nice place on the main chowk.  An evening meal was all most of us needed to slip off to bed though a number of us searched in vain for WiFi, hoping to catch up on Facebook or update our blogs.  Alas, none of the visible WiFi signals were accessible.

January 7, 2011

Looking back at a portion of McLeod Ganj from Tsuglagkhang Temple

As you can see in the picture above, McLeod Ganj is a former hill station located at about 6,000 or so feet above sea level in the shadows of the Dhauladhar Range in the Himalayas and has become home to the Tibetan Government in Exile.  It is also the site of Tibetan Buddhism’s most revered temple, Tsuglagkhang Temple, second only to the Jokhang Temple in Chinese-controlled Lhasa). 

His Holiness, the XIV Dalai Lama waving to well-wishers as he leaves his home for Varanasi 

Directly across from the temple is the Dalai Lama’s residence and, owing to the good graces of a Tibetan man with an infant strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn, we had opportunity to see His Holiness for a brief second but in relatively close proximity as he left his home by auto (accompanied by Indian Police and Military escorts).  He was leaving for Varanasi where he will begin teaching in about a week and, if all goes according to plan, we’ll be there to hear him teach.

Sakyamuni Buddha looks on as a monk philosophizes

A giant image of Sakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama) inside the Tsuglagkhang looks on serenely as a Tibetan monk is makes a point to other monks while debating Buddhist philosophy.

After our temple visit we were free for lunch and shopping.  Many of the students bought scarves, prayer flags, various Buddhist ritual implements (prayer wheels, “singing bowls,” or meditation bells), or other small curios.  At 3:30 all but a few of the class elected to go on an optional 2 kilometer hike to Bhagsunath Temple and falls.

Bhagsunath Temple priest sitting next to image of Shiva

Above, the temple’s priest sits beside the deity Shiva while handing out “prasadam” or blessed food to members of the trip.  A very nice man, this panditji patiently received each one of us with grace and a smile.  Many of the students had seen puja (devotional worship) performed at the Shiva Vishnu Temple in Livermore, California so much was familiar to them.  For others, questions abounded.

Elliot, Audrey, Kelcy, Jackie, and Norrie (L to R) all received blessings
(and headbands) from the priest at Bhagsunath

The wash of yellows and oranges painted above McLeod Ganj by the setting sun seemed the perfect benediction to an absolutely wonderful day. 

Sunset over McLeod Ganj -- what more can be said?

The next morning would bring another bus ride, this time to Amritsar – home of Sikhism’s Golden Temple.  But that will have to wait for the next time WiFi is available.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Slice of Delhi

Our group is healthy, happy, and enjoying the food though it's been much colder in Delhi than we thought it would be.  No matter, we're here for the experience of a lifetime and won't let a little chill keep us from experiencing it all (and, having packed warm clothes for another leg of the trip really helps!).

Here's a taste, in pictures, of our last few days.
En route from Hong Kong - not too bleary-eyed yet!

Early risers gathering for breakfast at our hotel in Delhi

Waiting for our transport on a Delhi street

Not our transport!

Our transport!

Some of the SMC crew heading to Emperor Humayun's Tomb

Tour Guide Nand Singh Rathore with our group in Delhi

Getting to know you ...

... getting to know all about you ...

Water channels serve as symbolic rivers of paradise at the tomb

Restoration crews at work on Humayun's tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Rajghat is the site were Mahatma Gandhi was cremated on January 31, 1948

Tonight (1/5) we head by overnight train to Mcleod Ganj (above Dharamsala), the home of the Tibetan Government in Exile.  Look for another post sometime on the 6th (or as soon as we have access to reliable internet service!).  Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A safe flight followed by a warm bed

Greetings all,

We've arrived in New Delhi and are in the hotel and off to bed.  After roughly 24 hours in transit (with many students having been awake at least 32 hours), we landed to 50 degree (F) temps and the smiling face of our tour guide, Mr. Nand Singh Rathore.  I've traveled with Saint Mary's students and Nand Singh twice before (2006, 2008) and I was glad to see him waiting patiently for us when we arrived.  We're in good hands -- he's an incredibly good guy!

The name of our hotel in Delhi is "Home@F37" and thus far it seems very nice (and, thankfully, includes free WiFi).  We'll sleep in a bit before getting started with the tour.  After a late breakfast we'll exchange currency and then strike out for a half-day of sightseeing.

Just so any of you following this from the States will know, India is 13.5 hours ahead of PST.  So, right about now it's 3:30 AM (January 3rd) in Delhi and 2:00 PM (January 2nd) in California.  (I'm not entirely sure why the date of this blog will show January 2nd but we'll work on getting things straightened out as we go.)

Watch for some pictures in the coming days.