Travelogs & Reflections > Therese's Travelog > India > India: Part 2 of 2

India, part 2 of 2: Kanha tigers to Delhi


January 22, 2006

Taking Care of Business in Delhi

We spent our last three days in India in Delhi, wrapping up our business in India and preparing for the East African circuit of our trip. We stayed in luxury at the Marriot Hotel free of charge because my mother-in-law had points through their reward program. We are very grateful to the Marriot for their exemplary customer service and support of our trip, especially Tarana in the Business Center at the hotel. After a long day in the Business Center completing our travelogs for India, she treated me to a complimentary coffee and cookie tray in reward for my marathon efforts. She quickly became a fan of our undertaking. The daughter of an Indian air force officer, she also loves to travel and is currently applying for a flight attendant position so she can live out those desires.  We promised to send her postcards from many of our destinations in East Africa and Mediterranean Europe.


In our various errands across the city, we got a chance to see a little bit of Delhi, albeit fleeting. Significant tracts of land have been devoted to green space but because of the ever-pervasive air pollution in all of India’s urban centers, all the trees unfortunately bear muted green grey foliage. Though we didn’t have time to visit the Red Fort built by capital projects Moghul Shah Jahan at the same time as the Taj Mahal (!), we did pass it on the way from the train station to the Marriot and it was indeed impressive! Apparently the courtyard of this imposing red sandstone fortress, can hold 29,000 people, and, since it covers an impressive 82 square meters (1.5 miles or 2.41 kilometers in perimeter), we passed it for several minutes as we weaved through the also ever-present city traffic.


After all, India has a heck of a lot of humanity to house with the second largest population in the world (to China only) and three out of the top 14 cities in the world, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai.


None of us can believe that our Indian tour has come to an end. From Kolkata in the east to the western frontier of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and the Himalayas to tiger habitat in the plains of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh, we have experienced spectacular nature, culture and historical monuments and encountered the beauty and complexity of the Indian people throughout our travels. We will all hold cherished memories of this country and its people in our hearts always and pledge to return. especially since we unfortunately were not able to visit Punjab, the ancestral lands of our dear friends Dal, Nancy, Bayunt and Gobind in Eugene.  


January 18, 2006

Spires over the fort

After breakfast, we met our friend, Madu, who we had met on the train to Jaisalmer and who had escorted us with pride into the fort and to a hotel near his home. Madu was born and raised in the fort and now he and his wife, daughter, son-in-law, and 10-month old grandson still live in the family home imbedded in the fort’s wall. He sat us down on the porch along the narrow cobblestone streets and asked me to read aloud his “armchair notes” about the seven Jain temples in the fort. Madu will send us a copy of his complete and unique historical account of the fort at Jaisalmer and has asked Peter to record it, so that he can practice his English pronunciation and cadence and asked me to promote the publication of the piece in U.S. travel journals. Most of the ornately carved yellow sandstone Jain temples were built between the 12th and 15th centuries. They are designed in the architectural style influenced by the moghuls who invaded and shaped India’s landscape and the Chandela art of southern India and are typical of the grand temples of Khajuraho with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling ornate carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses, women in seductive poses, and men and women engaged in various sexual acts, as well as borders of lace-like embellishments. He first took us to yet another rooftop to see the tops of the temples as they protrude and artistically and colorfully decorate the fort’s skyline. From this rooftop, we could nearly touch the seven, miniature Mosque-like domes and could see clearly the carvings of small elephants, cobras and lions on the perimeter of the domes, as well as the distinctive dhwarza or stambla, the pole at the top of the temple that bears a brightly colored flag when the temple is completed. The stambla at the top of the Parasanth temple is made of gold and glistened magically in the soft morning light over the fort. Upon removing our shoes and entering the first temple, Madu asked me to summarize what I had read earlier to the family about the Jain religion. There, amidst walls and walls of beautiful carvings, I told the story of Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha and the founder of Jainism. Mahavira lived in 6th century BC and, like many spiritual prophets from other religions, came from a wealthy family but denounced the material world. As a young man, he married and had a child, but his spirit was not content with this ordinary course, and he eventually retreated to the jungle in a quest to achieve spiritual enlightenment. He stayed in the jungle for 30 years. When he emerged, he wandered the earth, sweeping the ground in front of him so as not to tread on a living thing. He never stayed longer than one night in any one place. He was ridiculed by many but never returned the jeering in kind; indeed he never spoke a word again. The basic tenets of Jainism are: ahimsa, or nonviolence, in thought and deed, fruitfulness, self-control, and absence of stealing or hoarding. Followers believe that, like Mahavira, one can purify the soul by practicing fasting, meditation, and retreating to lonely place. Ironically, their temples, however, are often lavish, filled with images of joyful living and expensive adornments. As we examined the carvings, Madu took great delight in making sure that we noted the specifics of these expressive and erotic scenes, reiterating that the purpose of this unique and vibrant architectural style was to teach history, religion, culture, and sexuality through elaborate sculpture art and that this purpose can be realized today through us as well as in centuries past. Peter and Paul got a very interesting and unique sex education lesson that day as Madu and I elaborated on the various animated scenes depicted on the walls of the temples!


January 17, 2006

Camels in the Desert: A tall order!

Once again my fear of heights is challenged. We drove 60 km into the desert of western Rajasthan and bumped off road to our camel safari’s hitching post, and there they were waiting for us—these elegant creatures of very grand stature! For some reason, I was the first to mount my camel, Gangoolie, and then was stuck up high on the hump contemplating how high off the ground I was and growing increasingly more anxious. My family was quite amused when no sooner had my camel rousted me up that I announced that I’d like to take a break! None of the guides took my request seriously so I remained stranded on my camel while the others got settled, breathing deeply and focusing on Soi, a little desert boy who came to see us off and became my camel-riding muse! As long as I focused on his sweet, encouraging smile, I remained relatively calm. I don’t think he was aware of my distress but we did seem to bond and when I saw him later in the trek, we sat and “talked” as best we could and I was grateful to him for his kindness and attentiveness to me during my camel adjustment period!


Once all of us were on our camels, the camels proceeded in a very orderly fashion, single-file, clomping along through the arid scrubland desert. Peter was on 8-year-old Bob Marley, Mom on 9-year-old Guna, which means “baby,” Paul on the elder of the bunch, 10-year-old Kalu, which means “black,” and Steve on 9-year old Rocket. Gangoolie was the baby at 7 years of age. Once we set off, my dis-ease quickly melted away as I adjusted my gaze from the dizzying height way up on my camel to the sweeping desert panorama of tumbleweed, cactus and brush in the foreground and pristine dunes in the distance. The methodical clomp of the camels lulled me into a meditative safari posture; I was in tune with the environment and suddenly transported back to another place and time. Mom said the song, “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” had come to mind, and I too was thinking of biblical times as we traveled by camel through the desert. At the time Peter, Mom and I were traveling in a pod, and it really reminded me of our recent celebration of Epiphany and the journey of the three kings from the east to visit the Christ child in Bethlehem. Later as we watched the first stars appear in the evening sky and the nearly full moon rise on the horizon, I was again reminded of the brilliant star that guided those kings over 2,000 years ago to a manger in a desert village, where the baby Jesus, our Prince of Peace, lay.


On the way to our camp that night we visited a desert village. Here two castes resided—untouchables and Hindu middle class. Both lived in dome-like, sandstone-mud houses. They appeared semi-nomadic, very poor and tending sheep and goats in the surrounding dry land.


Just before we arrived at our campsite, Gangoolie, my camel, wandered out of line to a nearby watering hole. Sham Baba, our main guide, stayed with me while Gangoolie drank and drank and drank. Boy, was he thirsty. It was a little disconcerting when he bent over to drink because he, like the giraffe, has a very long neck, and the view from the saddle is that of a very steep slide! Thankfully, Baba distracted me with conversation and we eventually lumbered to camp and I was finally able to dismount my perch.


We camped amidst the dunes and found a seat on the highest dune to watch the spectacular show of sunset in the desert. Peter and Paul went running through the virgin, windswept sand, making a clean trail of human footprints. As the sun set over the dunes, the low-lying clouds, tinted in pink, looked like fluffy cotton candy in the sky.


Under a star-filled sky, we gathered around the cooking fire, reflecting on our favorite destinations—the top 5 in Central America, Southeast Asia, and India—and had just started a round of our top 5 sightings in each of these areas when dinner was served. We had a lovely meal of vegetable curry, dal, rice and chapatis. Peter sat next to one of our guides and did an impromptu apprenticeship in chapati-making, flattening the dough and slapping it on the frying pan. He noticed that his chapatis were too fat, compared to those prepared by his Indian compadres, and set about trying to improve his technique as he kept molding and shaping one chapati after another! I think 20-odd chapatis in total, an Indian staple, were prepared per meal!


I was spell-bound as our very own Arabian Night unfolded around us. Paul spotted the very first star of the night and we made our wish with this incantation, “I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight!” Soon, the indigo sky was filled with stars and we began to see familiar constellations but in the unusual orientation here in the southern hemisphere. Within an hour or two from sunset, the sky, remarkably, began to lighten and wash out the brilliant palette of stars, as the moon rose on the eastern horizon. The moon cast deep shadows over the dunes, and my path up and over the dunes to pee several times that night was well-illuminated! Burrowed beneath several layers of blankets, we slept under the open sky.


We awoke to wind and fog, the first fog for many months. Peter, Paul, Mom and I emerged from our cocoons when we saw a shepherd and his herd of goats come over the nearby dune, heading in our direction! As it turned out we had nothing to fear. The goats politely went around our camp. It was only later they invaded to scrounge the leftovers from breakfast! Our guides, Baba, Daniel and BaNa, prepared a warming breakfast of chai, porridge, scrambled eggs, and toast.


By mid morning, we had saddled the camels and packed our gear and were ready to set off for day 2 of our camel trek. After my successful expedition the day before, I was feeling quite confident and began urging Gangoolie to speed it up a bit with a little kick to the ribs. He didn’t much heed my signals and ambled along too slowly for Baba. Now riding with Paul on Kalu the camel, Baba came back to get Steve’s and my camel moving.  Kalu took matters into his own hands and, unbeknownst to me, nipped Gangoolie on the rear end! I was suddenly being bounced around on a bucking camel! I hung on for dear life as he bounded erratically and finally into a gallop and screamed for Baba to help me! Despite my hysterics, which were exceedingly comical for my family, especially Peter and Paul, I did have the presence of mind to pull back on the reins. Paul and Peter kept recounting from their unique perspectives, the hilarious antics of my head bobbing every which way and my shrieks of terror! My ordeal probably only lasted a minute or so but it left me badly shaken. When we stopped at a nearby village, Paul told me what had provoked Gangoolie. I found out later from Baba that Kalu is very jealous of Gangoolie because Gangoolie, whose name means “good cricket player,” is very famous around these parts; last year at the desert festival in February, he and Baba won first prize in the two-kilometer race, running at speeds of up to 50 km/hour! Baba plans to race him this year as well. Once I realized I was riding the steed of the herd, I became quite uncomfortable and ill-at-ease. Baba decided to have Peter and I swap camels as Peter was proving to be quite a natural on the camel. For the rest of the trek, I rode mellow, “no worries, be happy” Bob Marley. My only concern was that he kept sneezing on the return trip. Daniel said he must have caught a desert cold the night before. The whole way back I was hoping that he wouldn’t suffer any serious bout of respiratory distress with me on him!


In the meantime, Peter seemed to control Gangoolie with ease, turning him around, trotting and even galloping with him. We were all quite impressed to see Peter in the lead, holding the reins and steering Gangoolie or urging him into a trot and even gallop on a few occasions with a soft whip of the lead. Gangoolie of course was all too willing to oblige. Peter, who had learned some horseback riding at Camp Wilani, did admit to me that Gangoolie failed to heed him a few times as well and, even though it was fun, he had a hard time hanging on when Gangoolie decided to go really fast, jump over a crevice and race Baba, Paul and Kalu in the home stretch to our lunch campsite and back to the hitching post at the beginning of the trek. At the end, he announced that he preferred horseback riding.


In the last stretch, we encountered some beautiful wild camels and I prayed that our camels weren’t seduced by their wild state and take off in some rash, return-to-the-wilds frenzy! For most of the final segment of our trek, I followed Steve on Rocket. “Rocket” really didn’t fit Steve’s camel, who plodded along at an exasperatedly slow speed and even stopped significantly short of our final destination, seemingly unwilling to exert any more effort! This was a bit anti-climatic as we had seen the others gallantly trot into camp while Steve and I were herded back by Daniel and BaNa. Paul captured this humiliation on film of course. Never-the-less, I was grateful that we all made it back in one piece and was glad to get off my camel once and for all. 


January 15-16, 2006

A living sandcastle

We arrived on the overnight train in Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan in the middle of the afternoon and hailed two auto rickshaws and set off for the fort. Suddenly as we rounded a corner, there was unveiled a spectacular view of this golden sandstone city and the impressive fort high on the hill.  Also a Unesco World Heritage site, the fort is the last living fort in the world. The quaint cobblestone streets are teeming with life. Families live and work inside the fort, 99 of these families actually reside in the wall of the fort. Many of them run guest houses, usually with their own rooftop restaurant, small shops with traditional wood, textile and leather handicraft, snack vendors (stocked with the chips and chocolate bars foreigners love!), Internet cafes, and the… ubiquitous camel safari outfits! Built in 1156 by the Rajput ruler Jaisala, from which Jaisalmer’s name is derived, the fort was once an important strategic outpost on the camel-train trading route between India and Central Asia. As these routes fell into decline to shipping, the city once again gained strategic importance as an important military base in the ongoing border tensions between India and Pakistan. Today the military base remains but this giant sandcastle oasis arising from the surrounding desert enchants tourists by the droves. With the exception of the Taj Mahal, we hadn’t seen so many foreigners in a very long time.


Making friends on the rooftops of Jaisalmer

On our first evening in the fort, I took a walk through the narrow cobblestone streets vibrantly blanketed with colorful Rajasthani quilts. As I ventured up one street, I heard children calling to me from a nearby rooftop. They motioned for me to join them so I very ungracefully scaled the wall and descended with a thud on the other side. The group enthusiastically ushered me up to the rooftop and showered me with questions. I wanted to see them fly their kites, a favorite pastime in this city often whipped by fierce desert winds, but they were more interested in conversation. By the end of our visit, I had made several friends and had agreed to meet Kalu at his Nepali friend’s restaurant, Surya’s, that evening.


We ate dinner at Surya’s, overlooking the city by night from an enchanting castle archway, and were entertained by a musician playing a mandolin-like folkloric instrument. I introduced the family to Kalu, and Ram, his Nepali friend, and Paul and Kalu exchanged some coins to add to each other’s international money collection. Paul and I returned the next morning for breakfast. As we sat in our window seat on the wall of the fort, pointing out the unusual sites of camels hauling heavy loads, children flying kites, and people enjoying rooftop repose, there were more of my friends from the day before flying kites from one of the fort’s major cannon bays, waving to me and introducing themselves to Paul!


Ram must have alerted Kalu that we were back because he suddenly appeared to greet us. After breakfast, Steve, Mom and Peter joined us and Kalu escorted us to his home in the wall of the fort to meet his family. His mother was busily preparing chapati when we arrived and we visited with her in the kitchen, gleaning any technique we could from her dexterous manipulation of this savory Indian bread. Kalu proudly took out a family treasure chest that contained an article about his grandfather, who died a few years ago but who had been a driver and guide in the city. One British author that he guided published a book about the moghuls of India and recognized Kalu’s grandfather with a UNESCO award of appreciation for his services during his travels in India. Kalu told us that he would like to be a guide like his grandfather and we asked him if he would guide us on a tour of the fort and surrounds the next day. He very enthusiastically agreed and invited us to see the view of the fort from his family’s rooftop. What a tremendous view they have of the entrance to the fort and the grand palace.


A long line of Maharajas

Because Jaisalmer is off the beaten track in the western-most frontier of Rajasthan, it largely escaped the conquest of Moghul invaders and trumpets a long line of Singh maharajas, dating from 1156 to the present-day maharaja of Jaisalmer. These descendants of Lord Krishna successfully warded off wave upon wave of invaders from their formidable fort in the middle of the desert. On our tour the next day, Kalu brought us to the maharaja’s palace where Peter, Paul and I experienced just how formidable this fortress is. The king’s chambers are insulated by a thick, nearly impenetrable wall of bricks. From the rooftop of the palace, the highest pinnacle in the fort at 220 feet, we were afforded a sweeping panorama of the kingdom below and felt the stir of this ancient line of rulers. Peter, Paul and I greeted the masses in the courtyard below, including Steve and Mom, from the maharaja’s balcony from which he still makes public addresses today on special occasions.


Outside the fort, we went on the haveli circuit, visiting the mansions of this desert kingdom. The most magnificent of  the Jaisalmer havelis is Patwon-ki-Haveli, which was built in the early 1800s by five Jain brothers, silver, spice and textile merchants. We wandered in and out of the rooms of this ornately sculpted sandstone dwelling and peered out of a few of the 66 balconies in this magnificent complex. A display of turbans described the significance of various turbans in denoting caste, relation and social status. It is considered an insult to knock a turban over. We also found the folkloric instrument that we heard the evening before at Surya’s. It’s called the kamaicha.


At Gadi Sagar, the reservoir that used to supply the city’s water, temples emerge from and ghats lead to the water, drawing many local Hindus in prayer. I was particularly intrigued by the reservoir's gateway. According to our guide, this was built by the maharaja’s girlfriend but Lonely Planet offered a far more intriguing account. Apparently, the gateway was built by a local and profitable prostitute. When she appealed to the maharaja to build the gateway, he refused as he felt it would defile him on his way to prayer. However, while he was away, the prostitute built the gate anyway and added a temple to Krishna on top so that the king could not tear it down!


January 14, 2006

The Birds!

Once again, we got an early start in order to commune with the birds of Ghana bird sanctuary. Birds from Europe, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, China, Mongolia and Siberia migrate to Ghana from October to February so we were visiting in the height of the migratory and breeding season. Without question, I have never seen such an extensive wetland ecosystem and so many birds of exotic varieties in all my life! The place was literally teeming with birds at every turn. This is a birders paradise and we saw plenty of bird enthusiasts from all over the world with their powerful lenses and binoculars scoping the panorama to sight a veritable multitude of birds.  We can’t wait to recommend this place to our friend and expert ornithologist and naturalist Steve Gordon in Eugene. Unbelievable, truly!  


The area was originally a vast semi-arid region but the maharaja of Bharatpur diverted water from a nearby irrigation canal and soon birds began to settle in the area in vast numbers. The maharaja was more interested in the area as prime waterfowl hunting grounds but in 1965, the national park was established and it is now a Unesco World Heritage site, attracting a staggering  364 species of birds from exotic destinations and even continents.


Within minutes of entering the park on our bicycle rickshaws, we had sighted not a bird but a couple of impressive mammals—a male chital deer with an imposing rack and Asia’s largest antelope! Before long, though, the bird sightings came raining in. We were surrounded by king fishers, bulbuls, jungle babblers, egrets, herons, cormorants, and water hens. It took some keen eye straining to pick out the eagle owl on an upper perch of a tree across the wetlands, but we were later able to make acquaintance with this shy bird in much closer range. Our highlight was coming upon the breeding grounds for the painted stork. There, thousands of painted stork inhabited all the available branches as far as they eye could see. It was amazing!  Another highlight was sighting the rare black-necked stork, from Sri Lanka. Our guides were very impressed with this unusual sighting. Apparently only a few pairs of these storks come to Ghana, and here we were so close we could see the delicate joints of his legs as he stealthily cruised the shallow waters in search of lunch. We were even able to make out the blue of his eyes, identifying him as a male (the female has yellow eyes). At another more sparsely vegetated wetlands or mud flats, we saw rose and dalmation pelicans in the distance with their distinctive beaks, swimming peacefully among a group of sambar deer. Once again, as we were leaving the park, we were bid farewell by a couple of jackals prowling for prey in a golden meadow.


Rail Rap

Once again, we were on the trail, catching a 5-hour bus ride to Jaipur and then catching an over-night train to Jaisalmer at India’s western-most border. The next morning on the train, Steve and I had an interesting conversation with a young Rajasthani man, who did his post-graduate studies at the University of Michigan. He asked about our impression of India so far and we gave him a recap of our glorious travels across the expanse of this amazingly diverse country. When he heard that our first encounter with India was Kolkata, he was shocked and exclaimed, “Geez, Kolkata is tough even for Indians! We go there and say, ‘What’s going on here? Look at the conditions of the roads, the people sleeping in the streets, and the lack of sanitation. This city is crazy.’”


We also talked about his experience in the U.S. and his impressions of Americans. He said that he loved his time in the U.S. and formed life-long ties with the friends he made in his program and their families. He was also dismayed by the conspicuous lack of world political savvy on the part of many of his colleagues. One time while teaching a course as a graduate teaching fellow, he was thoroughly dismayed when no one in the class was able to describe how the Cold War ended, one of the most significant global events of the 20th century. He dismissed the class early with the assignment: go home and get familiar with 100 current events of the past 25 years before the next class!


He also expressed his incredulousness that the American people elected Bush for a second term and that Bush and his administration continue to pursue their quest for total control of the world’s resources under the guise of “the war against terrorism,” a sentiment that has been expressed to us by locals and fellow travelers alike throughout our trip. I consider it a testament to the integrity of character of those we have met that they don’t hold this humiliating international reputation against us and instead seek dialogue and give us a chance to differentiate ourselves from this pervasive and unflattering image of Americans.


January 12, 2006

Lost and Found

A short way out of Agra, we arrived at our next destination, Bharatpur, at the gates of India’s premiere bird sanctuary, Keoladeo Ghana National Park. No sooner had we disembarked from the bus than we were hurled into a panic: Peter had left the pants we had just purchased and had altered for him on the bus. The manager of the Hotel Saras, to whom we had been recommended by our friends at Pugmark Resorts in Kanha, immediately sensed our family was seized with tension and inquired about the source of our distress. When he heard what had happened, he immediately assured us he would do everything in his power to retrieve our lost parcel. The bus’s ultimate destination was Jaipur, and he began calling colleagues in Jaipur, arranging for the bus to be met in Jaipur. After some time had passed, I remembered that the bus was scheduled to stop at Bharatpur proper. Mr. Faujdar immediately mobilized a driver and assistant to accompany me by jeep to the bus stand in town. The driver took a short cut to try and cut off the bus. We finally came to the junction and sure enough, there was a bus merging onto the main road. I recognized it as our bus and the driver pulled along side it, beeping constantly, and motioned for the bus driver to pull over. I hurried out of the jeep, boarded the bus, greeted the driver and conductor, scrambled my way back to our seats and lo and behold, there was the parcel! I let out a hoot of triumph and many of the passengers, as well as my friends at the hotel, joined in an enthusiastic round of clapping! From that point on, we were bonded and talked about our successful mission all the way back. Paul was there to greet us and join in the celebration, quite relieved that peace could once again be restored to his family!


That night we were treated in style to a lovely meal at Mr. Faujdar’s nearby resort, Swaraj Resorts. Mr. Faujdar insisted that we join him in a drink and we spent a lovely evening getting to know him and his story as well as some of the local dignitaries in the area. It looks like we may have recruited another student for the American English Institute at the University of Oregon (UO). Ratan, the son of Mr. Ravindra Singh, the general secretary of the region, is interested in acquiring an MBA in the United States and sounded very interested in the UO’s program. When we returned to our hotel, we joined Mr. Faujdar around his evening campfire, swapping stories of family and travel, before we retired for the evening.


January 10-11, 2006

Train Travails

Today we traveled by taxi and train to Agra. This was our second opportunity to experience second class on Indian’s railway system and once again we experienced the miracle of the multiplying of seats and the compressing of impossible numbers of people into one fixed compartment. Here we were burdened with bulky back and front packs. Essentially the strategy was to push and wedge our way in and wait until a communal consensus was negotiated about how best to store our luggage and arrange the already saturated seating. On this train, this process was conducted by an older couple who seemed to command authority among the crowd because of their age. The older woman basically orchestrated a series of highly complex shufflings whereby Steve’s large pack was compressed on the upper luggage rack, a few passengers made space for him (not without some protesting, I might add, but they eventually succumbed to the insistence of the elder) to sit up on the luggage rack too, and I was found a seat on the bench beneath him. Despite our efforts to remain as inconspicuous as possible, this woman would not settle for less than full accommodation of our needs. In the meantime, Mom, Peter and Paul experienced a similar process in the adjacent berth. Our self-appointed “host” on the train was only content until the situation was tidied up to her satisfaction, and we thanked her profusely for her kindness and a friendship was forged through mutual smiles and warm embraces when we finally disembarked at Agra and left her to orchestra I’m sure countless other humanity compressing feats! When we arrived in Agra, there were throngs of people desperately pressing to get on the train. I was one of the first to push my way through the heaving crowds but Peter and Mom were not so lucky. They got clogged in the logjam of people. I had to get aggressive about making a path for them to get through. A fight broke out between one belligerent young man who was bound and determined to bully his way onto the train and a few of the contingent who recognized that it made sense to let the passengers who were trying to deboard get off before they clambered aboard. Finally, Mom and Peter emerged and we got the hell out of there before more trouble erupted!


A wonder of the world

We meandered through the Taj Ganj, the walled area on the grounds of the Taj Mahal, found a hotel and immediately went out in search of a rooftop restaurant from which to admire the Taj in the evening light. This spectacular architectural marvel has the uncanny ability to convey its presence even when it’s not visible! As we climbed the stairs to the rooftop, I could feel the weight of its glorious presence until it was unveiled in all its splendor from the rooftop panorama. The white marble shrouds this grand monument in a mystique, an aura, that draws you in, captivates and enfolds you in its beauty and grace. This is because the Taj Mahal is perhaps the most extravagant monument ever built for love. The Taj was built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan, for his wife who died in childbirth at a young age. It is said that the emperor was so devastated by the death of his beloved wife that his hair turned grey overnight. Heartbroken, he threw himself into this labor of love, constructing this wonder of the world in a mere 22 years! In total, 20,000 laborers and artisans worked on the building and marble and precious stones were imported from as far afield as Europe.    


We awoke early the next morning to witness the sun rise over the Taj. It was freezing in the pre-dawn chill but we were emotionally warmed by the experience of the Taj transforming before our very eyes. As the sun’s rays washed across its marble façade,  the building was bathed in a pinkish hue that brought out all its characteristic lines in relief. It was absolutely breathtaking and we watched this phenomenon in awe, literally mesmerized by the staggering beauty of this spectacle. As we approached the actual mausoleum where the Shah and his wife are buried, we were able to admire up close the pietra dura, the lovely inlay work of semi-precious stones on marble. Created by thousands of these multi-colored stones, beautiful flowers blossom along the walls of the Taj and Arab letters citing the Quran, holy Muslim text, are inscribed on the columns. Though the Shah is buried next to his wife in the Taj, his intention was to devote the Taj exclusively to his wife and to build another Taj in black marble across the river. However, his son squashed these prohibitively expensive plans decisively by imprisoning his father at the fort in Agra until he died. Shah Jahan is also responsible for the construction of the Red Fort in Delhi which occurred simultaneously with the construction of the Taj Mahal. His son, despite his protests, benefited from his father’s prolific building campaigns as he eventually moved the capital of his kingdom to Delhi and occupied the Red Fort as his principal palace.


January 9, 2006

Fully briefed by our friends at the resort Mr. Yadav, his son, Rahul and his brother regarding accommodations and transportation for the remaining segment of our travels in India, we made our way by bus, train and taxi to Khajuraho, starting out at 8 a.m. in the morning and arriving in Khajuraho at close to midnight after a harrowing ride on a narrow dirt road, where we had to dodge oncoming traffic and the occasional heavy construction equipment operating in the pitch dark! When we arose in the morning, however, all our troubles were worth it as we were amazed to find that we were across the street from a miniature Angkor Wat, a series of spectacular temples from the 10th century. Built in a remarkable 100 years from 950-1050 AD, these Hindu temples are filled with elaborate stone carvings depicting various Hindu gods and scenes from medieval India. Even more intriguing, most of the scenes are of various sexual activities and women in provocative poses. One Israeli visitor we met at the temples commented to me, “Isn’t it amazing? They certainly led a joy-filled life, eh?!” Just as these carvings provided the sex education for the Brahmin priests, isolated from the normal family structure, centuries ago, Peter and Paul were offered an unusual sex education lesson today from stone sculptures 1,000 years old! According to the interpretive literature, these carvings have shocked many a Victorian and puritanical archeologist by the graphic nature of their depictions! Beyond the sex education, however, the sculptures and carvings speak of the joy of living, free of guilt and in the fullness of human expression. In some Hindu teachings, full human actualization requires yoga, spiritual exercise, and bhoga, physical enjoyment.


Much speculation has been made about why these amazing temples were built in essentially the middle of nowhere—a remote village in the plains of Madhya Pradesh, but what seems to make the most sense is that they were built out of the way, where the marauding moghuls, intent on extinguishing all manifestations of Hinduism, might not venture. If that was indeed the rationale, they accomplished their objective for these lovely temples remain 1,000 years later as a spectacular testimony to the intricate artistry, devout religiosity, and richness of culture of the indigenous Indian people.


Paul was delighted by the large number of hornbills and parakeets that congregated in the gardens surrounding the temples, and he was constantly monitoring the vibrant bird wildlife as we proceeded through the temples. At most of the temples, there were small shrines or lesser towers called urusringas in which giant stone sculptures of sacred animals, the bull, elephant and lion are housed. Blanketing the walls of the temples are small tableaus of life in Hindu India in the 10th century as well as ornate designs along the edges and spires, of sikharas, that soar in successive waves skyward. Lakshmana, one of the larger temples, is dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver or sustainer god, and its urusringa houses an intricately carved sculpture of  Vishnu’s boar incarnation, representing Vishnu’s fierce protection of all that is good in the world. On the high terrace or adisthana of the largest of the temples in the western enclosure, Kandariya Mahadev, were a colony of long-tailed macaque monkeys. A patrol of what appeared to be dominant male monkeys seemed to be charged with guarding this grand temple. As we and a group of visitors approached, one monkey defended his post by running across the portico or ardhamandapa and jumping up on the head of one of two stone lion sentries on either side of the entrance and growling menacingly! Others scaled the face of the temple and found perches on prominent spires and barred their teeth at all the younger subservient monkeys that dared trespass their domain, although several youthful upstarts monkeys challenged their authority regularly while we were watching this primate social order drama unfold! Once we filtered through all the monkey antics, we found ourselves making several rounds around this temple which showcases some of the most spectacular examples of Chandela artistry and architecture in the complex. There are 226 statues inside the temple and sanctum, or garbhagriha, where the image of the god to which the temple is dedicated is displayed, and 646 on the outside, all nearly 1 meter high off the ground. Several spires arise from the sanctum of the temple, the main spire rising 31 meters into the sky.


Chitragupta temple is unique in that it is the only temple dedicated to Surya, the sun god. We communed with Surya depicted driving his chariot and seven horses in the inner sanctum. On the terrace we basked in the mid-day sun and watched many Hindu pilgrims seemingly basking in the spiritual warmth of this god as they paid homage to this god and blessed themselves in his presence.


My favorite temple was Vishvanath, flanked by giant stone carvings of Shiva’s vehicle, the bull Nandi, and lions on the northern side and elephants on the southern side. The sculptures are perhaps the most accessible as they can be readily tracked up the temple wall and include some of the more graphic and diverse sculptures of mithuna, men and women making love, and asparas or heavenly nymphs, or beautiful women dancing, nursing, playing instruments, and any other activity, but always provocatively portrayed.


That evening we had dinner from the rooftop of our hotel, overlooking the temples of Khajuraho, made even more grand in the illumination of the spotlights by night.


January 7, 2006

In Pursuit of the Great Tiger

With great anticipation, we arose early in search of tigers! Almost immediately upon entering the park’s core, we spotted a trail of fresh tiger pugmarks in the dirt along the road. Undisturbed and distinct, our guide suspected they were from earlier that morning. But as we passed, we could not find the owner of those prints in the surrounding brush. We remained alert though as we continued down the dirt road, eager to encounter the primary but elusive subject of our pursuit of the day. Enrooted to the main visitors center in the park, we passed the famous grasslands, or maidans, of Indian’s plains and were delighted to see peacocks, with their brilliant iridescent blue necks and train of eye-catching plumage, strutting through the undulating grass, so soft in the morning light. Across the open expanse were also plentiful herds of chital or spotted deer and languar monkeys scampered in the trees along the periphery.


At the visitors center, our guide ran to get word about the tiger sightings of the morning. Kanha is the only park where the tigers are tracked by the mahouts, or elephant trainers, every day. The mahouts, however, are much more than elephant trainers or drivers. These are a people who have developed a fine-tuned ability to communicate with the natural environment and its inhabitants. By listening for the warning cries of monkey and deer and tracking excreta, pugmarks, and claw-marks on tree trunks (all ways that the tiger demarcates its territory), they can as unobtrusively as possible penetrate the habitat of the tiger, which is generally mixed forest or dense bamboo groves or understory. In addition to offering park visitors the rare opportunity to encounter a tiger, the tracking also helps with the census of the park’s tigers, currently underway. Conservation measures have resulted in the population of tigers in the park rising from 48 in 1976 to approximately 131 in 2005. Since Project Tiger was launched by the Indian government in 1973, the tiger population is steadily growing, after its population was decimated by widespread hunting. It is estimated that in the early 20th century, there were 40,000 tigers in India. By 1972, there were only 1,827 tigers left. Now, there are close to 4,000 tigers in the country with over 700 in the state of Madhya Pradesh where Kanha National Park is located.


Our hotel had prepared breakfast for us and we hurriedly consumed our food (the Tofu Tiger Scramble we helped invent the day before!) so we would be ready if a tiger was sighted. No sooner had we finished our meal and were seeking refuge in the rays of sunlight that had finally crested over the surrounding hills than our guide came running back and signaled us to jump in quickly: We had received our ticket for an elephant ride to see a tiger! When we arrived at the site, there were several jeeps ahead of us and we anxiously waited our turn, hoping that the tigers wouldn’t leave before we got the opportunity to see them. At last our turn came. A ladder was propped against the elephant and Peter and I wasted no time shimmying up and settling ourselves into our perch on the elephant’s back and we were off! Just a little ways in, the elephant trainer motioned to a rocky outcrop covered in brush and I strained to see what I thought would be obvious. But, these tigers were well-camouflaged, especially the mother who was nearly completely concealed in the underbrush and sleeping pretty soundly. However, as we rounded the corner there were two male cubs as well, almost as big as their mother. We were told they were probably about 15 months old. One was pretty drowsy but the other was restless, especially with this steady parade of human beings and elephants invading his space. His eyes were bright and alert and it was some experience having this majestic tiger stare intently and directly at me. I was in awe and could not stop watching his every nuance. His gaze continually scanned the six or so elephants that surrounded him, his brother and mother, carefully monitoring all the commotion in the vicinity. He seemed to get progressively more agitated and finally stood up, surveyed the surreal scene of humans with numerous photographic contraptions on elephant back and moved up to a higher ledge to keep a better eye on all the goings-on. He seemed to be satisfied that he would be better able to monitor the activities from this higher perch because he reclined on this ledge. Of course we were pleased that he made this adjustment too because now we could admire him unobstructed by the undergrowth in the area. And, what a remarkable creature he was. His coat was a rust-orange and striated with deep black stripes. His paws were enormous, as was his trunk, and his whiskers were beaded in moisture in the morning dew. But, his eyes and his sheer volume of weight were his most compelling features. They say that eyes are the mirrors to the soul, and I think this animal was an extremely soulful creature, full of grace, beauty and pride. Of course, as Paul said, he’s the top of the food chain in this ecosystem and really has no predators so he really is of regal lineage, the king of his universe. And his aura is most fitting of a king. When he moved to an upper ledge on the rocky crag on which he, his brother and mother were nestled, he moved with deliberate, powerful strides and with an air of confidence and majesty. And, when he reclined on the upper ledge, there was no resignation or subservience about the posture. He seemed to emanate a commanding air as he continued to eye all the spectators so eager to make his acquaintance. I didn’t want to leave. I could have watched him all day but our mahout, who seemed to genuinely delight in our wonder at seeing the tiger, gently asked us if we were ready to return. Of course we weren’t but there were others who wanted to see the tigers too, and the mahout deftly turned our elephant around and brought us back to the roadside where our driver and his brother waited for us in our jeep.


More Animals of Kanha

We were all high from our encounter and kept chattering breathlessly about the awesomeness of the experience. In the meantime, there were many more mammal sightings to be made. In one expansive maidan in the far reaches of the grasslands was a rare barasingha, or swamp or stag, deer. This deer has been on the verge of extinction as well. In 1938, there were 3,023. By 1970, only 66 remained. Now in 2005, there are 500.


As we traveled deeper into the park, I became enthralled with the many diverse ecosystems in the park. In addition to the lovely maidans or grasslands, there were dadars, large grass and scrub-encrusted plateaus, tree-covered slopes carved by mullahs, or rocky ravines or stream beds, and towering forests of the character-full sal tree. Approximately 60 percent of the forest is sal and 30 percent is bamboo and banyan and mango trees add additional character. I was particularly intrigued by the sal trees with their mangled trunks that created variegated patterns of light on the forest floor, and their large, pock-marked leaves, curled at the edges, that produced a soft, stippled canopy. As we passed through these dense, majestic stands, Steve, who still has well-honed guiding instincts, sighted a male sambar, the largest of the Indian deer. By the time we backed up, however, we only caught a glimpse of its rear, as it quietly moved deeper into the forest. A very shy deer, its keen sense of smell and hearing helps it avoid the tiger, though, because of its beefy size, it is the tiger’s favorite meal.  Also in the forest we spotted a barking or mouse deer, as well as a gaur, the world’s largest cattle.


In a large wetlands on our return trip we finally spotted the common kingfisher and Peter captured it on film in a bush dressed in its stark winter wardrobe of only branches. When we showed our hosts at Pugmark the photo, they requested a copy because they were very impressed with the clarity of the shot of this difficult-to-shoot bird. We also saw cormorants, black-winged stilt, little grebe, heron, egret, parakeet, Indian roller, greater racket-tailed drongo, and black-hooded oriole in this literal bird sanctuary in the middle of the park. As we emerged from one ravine, there was a crested serpent eagle on the top-most branch of a tree, standing like a sentinel of the uphill slope of this steep ravine.


Just before we left the park, we drove through our last maidan. Herds of chital deer roamed the grassland and their coats glistened in the setting sun. A pair of jackal appeared stealthily on an upper plateau, also illuminated in a radiant, golden aura.


On our last day at Kanha, Paul, Steve and I walked to the observatory tower at the perimeter of the park and watched the sun set over the park. We heard the calls of many of the park’s inhabitants and saw many of the birds we had seen during our safari scampering among the tree tops and more densely dressed branches. Just as we were leaving, we saw the profile of two grey hornbill as they sailed across the sky, a fitting farewell from a dearly loved park.


January 6, 2006

We awoke to brilliant sunshine and spent the morning sipping Indian tea, eating vegetarian cuisine, sketching and writing. I special-ordered a tofu scramble with tofu, potatoes, green pepper, cardamom, and turmeric, and the dish was such a success I think the cook will add it to the menu. Steve dubbed the new entree the “Tiger Scramble.” That afternoon Mr. Yadav accompanied us on another walk to a nearby pond to do some bird watching. The sun set as we watched a bird of prey hover in the sky over several sites before finally plunging to the ground and emerging with what looked like a small rodent.


January 5, 2006

After an overnight train ride and 5-hour bus ride, we arrived in the plains of Kanha in the central province of Uttar Pradesh to see tigers, leopards, elephants, stag and many other species of deer, and other wildlife in one of India’s premiere wildlife sanctuaries. Mr. SN Yadav, our host at our resort, led us into the buffer zone of the park where we saw a couple of villages of the native people of this area. These villagers now live and cultivate plots of land on the border of the park and work on conservation projects in the park. The ecosystem is safari-like with an expanse of grasslands punctuated with broad-leaf trees and transitioning into dense forest of ancient sal trees that can live for 500-plus years. From an observation tower, we could hear cries of alert from deer in the vicinity. When we reached the road near the park’s visitors center, we discovered the cause for their distress: Several jeeps were congregated at the side of the road; a leopard had just been prowling the area among the herd of deer and had just crossed the street into the nearby thicket. Unfortunately, we missed the sighting and walked warily to the outdoor amphitheatre to watch a movie about the Tiger Project in India, an initiative of the Indian government and World Wildlife Fund to rebolster the dwindling tiger population in India.