Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Dzong Good Enough for Heaven

In Punakha, Bhutan, there is another wonder of the world. It makes St. Peter’s of Rome seem dull.
The winter Dzong which houses the Lama who is overseer of all religion for the citizens of Bhutan - a position of equal power to that of the King who is master of government of the people- is one of the most extraordinary works of art and architecture I have ever seen. The ornate tall and multi-leveled white structure housing probably the most powerful temple and its administration headquarters in this country, sits where two large rivers converge (referred to as the male and the female rivers) and is approached by a cantilevered wooden bridge, equally decorated with the traditional wooden window and columnar decor of Buddhist architecture..
In the style of Bhutan homes, where the lower floors are used for storage of food supplies, animals, and equipment, this sample of glory rises up probably fifty feet to open roofs under which herbs and grasses are normally dried and birds dare to hide out.
But in this structure with its giant public squares where religious activities are held, the whopper experience is entering the temple where monks study, pray and sometimes eat. This room is held up by 40 gold plated columns embossed with dragons and on the north wall are statues of Buddha Sacamani (in his present form), Guru Rimpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in 746, and Sheptrung, who unified Bhutan in 1600. Each figure, at least three stories high, is shrouded in gold brocade capes and is gilded gold. Buddha is accompanied by two favored disciples also painted gold and holding gear for blessings. Placed among this distinguished lot of Buddhist power is the statue of the future Buddha (he will come again in a different form) seated in a Western position - on a chair. Multi colored wind socks hang from the ceiling, and thongka paintings attached to silk and brocade fabrics rather than frames depict Buddhism’s protective and compassionate personnel, gods, goddesses and heros. Painted on the walls are Mandalas and more familiar figures or icons of Buddhist culture, the art work itself an amazing feat. The only thing not decorated are the wooden floors, for which you must, as usual, remove your shoes to walk upon, because you are in a holy place.
On another wall are many glass boxes containing statues of saints. One who made me laugh with his wicked smile was that of Tupoc Kuenlua, the Divine Madman who sits in the Lotus position and is credited with creating the national animal, called a Takin, which has the head of a goat with it’s very twisted horns, and the body of a cow. (It does exist. I went to the preserve to see a few caged in a green environment. No one really knows how this cross happened but the takin reminded me of a wildebeast.) Tupoc was also the instigator of the phallus decor on houses. (If someone compliments the house, owners fear evil will enter, and so they paint the ugly phallus on the wall to ward off negative approaches.)
As we wandered through the huge Dzong structure, we could hear what seemed off key chanting. Later we discovered young monks, virtual children, were studying "chant." as they read Buddhist scriptures. Their voices rang in the wind. Attached but in a separate structure (you cover a lot of steep steps as you tour these holy places) was another temple dedicated to the architect of the Dzong who had a vision in a dream of what his task would be and created it. His chapel, filled with elaborate butter sculptures, bowls of offerings (looks like a candy store), fruits, thongkas, katas, rupees and rice offerings is under the care of a very young student monk who was dusting the ornate flower carvings and towering sculpture honoring the visionary. He sweeps the floors, freshens the flowers (I thought the fake orange tree was a hoot) and tenderly refreshes water bowls, candles and other offerings to Buddha. Sadly, photographs were not allowed in any of the temples.
A few years ago, an enormous glacier high in the surrounding Himalayas broke from its location and dropped into the river, causing it to rise hundreds of feet and flood the entire valley and this architectural marvel. Much was saved, the town was moved higher off the river, the dzong restored and life goes on. But distant glacier fall out could do it again. It is an environmental concern in many areas of the world.
As we had set out this morning on the narrow winding road from Thimphu, the capital, we noticed the narrow newly-paved road was packed with children and citizens dressed in their national finery. We didn’t know what was up until a policemen told us to pull against the curb and wait. Today was the arrival of Tilku Jigmne Chhoda, the religious head or Jey Kempo of Bhutan,(similar in power to the Dalai Lama who was religious head of Tibet) with two to three hundred monks following. It was the annual migration or transfer of the monk community from the winter home to the summer home in Thimphu. Punakha, the winter site, is 2000 meters lower and much hotter for the cold months for monks who have no heat in their structures. During the summer, they occupy a similar Dzong in Thimpu.
The Jey Kempo with his entourage moved slowly down the road in red Prados, which are Toyota vehicles, reaching out of the car window with his baton and touching those who wished a blessing on the head, us included. Other monks ran ahead of the car parade handing out blessed strings in the colors of prayer flags and holding out red sacks if anyone would be so kind as to give an offering. On the roof top of a Thimpu Dzong a dozen musicians blew long thin curved horns and beat cymbals as the Jey Kempo approached. It was a surprise joy for us to be a part of this.
As we picked up the road again - we began at 9,000 feet (I don’t even feel altitude changes any longer) - rose to about 10500 feet and after the three hour slow and cautious drive, we arrived deep in the Punakha valley which is sub-tropical, hot, and at about 3000 feet above sea level. We wrangled with a number of colorful trucks with brightly painted Buddha figures over their windows (I call them Blow Horn trucks, having seen then in India and Nepal as well, because on their back is written Blow Horn, otherwise they won’t move out of the way), lazy cows and sleeping dogs occupying the middle of roads as we rounded exciting hairpin turns, and one area cut out of the fern and pine covered mountains, was decorated with 1000 tiny stupas (Barbie sized) a family had placed in the tiny cave as a tribute to a cremated family member. These tiny stupas resembled a thousand white, yellow and blue butterflies as we passed. (My driver told me one body supplies enough ashes mixed with cement for the 1000 tiny sculptures.)
As we crossed the Duchula Pass, , we were greeted by 108 large brick stupas (holy structures that look like impenetrable blocks) which the eldest queen had built to honor the praiseworthy way her husband the fourth King had solved a problem with encroaching Indians who had moved across the border and settled without permission. He went personally with a car full of oranges, handing out an orange to each foreign person, and this way he was able to take a census of how many must be repatriated back to India.. He gently nudged then back over the border and won the admiration again of his people and his five wives, apparently.
The policy in Bhutan is if you want to settle in Bhutan, you cannot do it as a refugee. You must complete immigration legally, learn Bhutanese, wear the national dress, pay taxes and become a part of the nation’s work force and supporter. No leeching, in other words, and no free entry. In this way, the King has been able to keep Bhutan pure and workable. Amen to him. Bhutan is paradise. Sadly we leave here and head for our final destination of Bangkok, Thailand.
Photos: The Winter Dzong; a child in school uniform who followed me into the Dzong; a detail of the high walls inside; A Thongka of the various elements of life; the young monk caretaker; The first car bearing relics and valueable images from the Winter Dzong to the Summer one; high level monks await the arrival of Jey Kempo; more monks a buzz; the roof top horn blowers; a blow horn truck with Buddha images; tiny stupas made of ashes and placed along roadside niches; the 108 stupas the Queen made to honor the fourth King for his good works.

Bhutan Blessings Never End

Chartreuse flowered dogwood trees with green seeds in the middle of the four petals, blue poppies in remote ranges, exotic orchids by the hundreds hiding out in thick pine and cypress forests hanging with moss, there is a world of horticulture that Bhutan citizens augment by their own interest in roses and potted flowers.
I had never seen green dogwood flowers until visiting the private residence of one of Bhutan’s most favored Lamas, who has been declared the ninth re-incarnation of Datong Tulku, who was the incarnation of Bami Yeshi Yang, one of the seven monk disciples of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Incarnation is based on certain chosen people being able to remember and to identify objects and events in a previous life. It’s complicated, it’s cuious, but Lama Datong Tulku is just straight out a nice, cheerful man who gives a warm welcome to strangers. He is known as the "Laughing Buddha." Lama Tulku with his Bishop-like miter, does efface a smiling Buddha, with red stain on his teeth caused by chewing beetle tree leaves smudged with limestone, a common habit in Bhutan. (Beetle leaves and chili peppers are national favorites.)

We had been invited for a special cleansing from sins and evil spirits followed by a lengthy blessing for long life from this holy Buddha disciple. If it is a chance to learn more about world spiritual, I’ll give it a poke. Although I’ve gained much security in my own beliefs seeing other cultures on this trip, I find there are many similarities in all religions, such as the use of holy water for cleansing (in our baptism, in Jewish rights, and in Buddhist and Hindu traditions.) Rivers such as the Ganges in India and the Jordan in Israel and streams that pop out of mountains without mouths take on curative powers, be it their water or their mud. Maybe we should re-think the Mississippi.

After entering the Lama’s home, and greetings all around, we were led into the well lit, well decorated puja room with one wall a well-stocked altar. At the other end in front of huge windows and a carpet of dragons, sat Lama in the lotus position (I admire people who can sit that way, I cannot so I have to be careful I don’t point my feet at him) )with long thin pages of Buddhist scripture written in Dzonkha opened before him. These words were to be used in the ceremony, a script to follow as we Episcopalians look to the Book of Common Prayer for ceremonial regularity. On his elaborately painted desk was a metal vase with a peacock feather fan. The peacock is a bird who can eat poison and survive, the Lama explained, therefore the feathers symbolize the peacock taking away all poison that might be damaging a person’s heart and soul and body. Beside it was a bronze bowl of dried rice, often tossed during the ceremony along with seeds from jacaranda pods, and a yak butter candle sculpture, which was slowly melting, having been lit. All was ready for us.

We sat down on a thin mattress on the floor and I tried to cross my legs Yoga style, with no success. I asked the Lama how he can sit for hours with his legs flattened out in a cross underneath him and he said lamas and monks grow accustomed to that in childhood. I guess it’s like me sitting in a chair with my legs crossed.(Incidentally the future Buddha manifestation - yes, Buddhist believe Buddha will come again in another form recognizeable - sits Western style on a chair. Hmm.) There were two monks assisting and all three began to chant the Buddhist scriptures in a deep guttural hum. I sat beside the Lama on the floor since I was the principle character in this ceremony. My friend Sonam, an elegant Bhutan lady, instructed me on how to do things during the ceremony. Then when we were asked to repeat after the Lama certain words from the scripture asking for blessings I tried to repeat him just listening to sound. I knew nothing about what it meant, but trusted it fit in with my omnipotent God’s spirit. We frequently said "she she she" and that means "please please please."

Holy water from a sacred fresh water stream in the mountains, mixed with saffron so it was yellow, was poured on my white hair and then in my hands - "drink this and then wipe your hair with what’s left," Sonam said - and this was done a number of times during the cleansing phase. At one point we sipped a home-made sweet herbal wine - blood red - from a skull bowl and ate a long life herbal ball, the size of a large peppercorn, made by the Queen Mother of Bhutan and shared only with monks and lamas. There was drum thumping, and bell ringing, and chanting for a long while. The karma was good, the Lama said. He smiled as we finally came to the end and katas (the white scarves) were received, blessed, and given back, along with yellow and red string blessings tied around our necks. After the ceremony was completed and I’m around for a few more decades - if it worked - we moved to his living room and were served Masala tea (with milk) and homemade cookies. The Lama, who is in the process of restoring his monastery about three hours away from Thimpu, was off to meet the young fifth King of Bhutan to request a few logs from the forest to be used in the restoration project. I was told later he received the permit and felt like this day was a very special one.

Bhutan serves the chanting peace of the Buddhist mindset. Even buildings are trimmed in painted wooden frames, many depicting the four most powerful spiritual beasts - the tiger, the snow lion (mythical), the fire-breathing dragon, and a strange looking bird, also mythical. What you paint on the outside is to prevent evil and the unwanted to have a rein on your daily life. On the one hand, every single building resembles a Swiss chalet with wooden cathedral-like windows, , but on the other hand, the community decor gives more identification to a precious way of life and culture. I’m still impressed that 90 per cent of the people on the streets in city or rural land - and even sweeping streets or tilling the soil with oxen - adhere to the national dress custom, men in plaid knee length skirts, belted, with the top half very blouse-y and perfect for a carry-all; women wrapped up in ankle-length skirts of bright handwoven stripes and embroidered patterns, topped with colorful silk blouses with long cuffs that fold back over a silk or satin jacket in a contrasting color. The varieties are endless. Most women have the short bob haircut of 1920s flappers. (Their hair is only black). This habit of dress begins early in their lives, so there is no desire to not wear it when they are adults. It’s required in all official functions and in jobs. Sonam confessed that men become fashion plates and many have over 50 "gho"in their wardrobe. Our young guide said he has seven. The patterns range from a solid color like gray or navy, to the finely plaid tartan prints. At one point, men wore argyle socks with the dress, but now the favor is long black knee length socks.

We visited an arts and crafts school, sort of like Job Core for young artists, where they can chose between woodworking or doll making or Thangka painting or embroidery or weaving, among other crafts, and serve out a four to six year apprenticeship. The next step would be to work decorating houses and wood or in one of the textile enterprises where women sit on the floor, barefoot, and weave fabrics for national dress. A simple pattern would take about two days. A complicated colored pattern with an embroidered effect, takes over a month on back strap looms, is much more expensive, and the weaver can earn one fourth of the selling price. The faster the weaver, the more fabric she can turn out, the better her pay.

If nothing else, Bhutan never fails its faith. It is a country of prayer flags, stupas, chortens and Dzongs. Flags, new or faded, fly everywhere. Throughout the mountainous landscape you spot groups of tall poles of mostly white vertical prayer flags, 108 in a group, honoring the dead. Colorful prayer flags are draped at inopportune places (you wonder what fool crawled across open crevices and in giant trees to string them up) as well as at religious sites. When we arrived at a the Amanakora Punakha hotel, we were presented with prayer flags which we were asked to hang on the suspension bridge, the only way to cross the river to reach the small resort. As a gift there was a roll of prayer flags and incense on my pillow that night with this message: "Although there are only 700,000 Bhutanese millions of prayers and blessings are released into the world each day from the fluttering of the prayer flags each turning of prayer wheel and the silent mantras sent to the heavens on incense smoke. The horse at the center of your prayer flags is called the Lungta, the wind horse. It rides the winds of the world carrying blessings and protection to all those whom the wind touches." Long live horses and prayer. They’ve certainly been cornerstones for me.

Photos: green dogwood flower; Lama Tulku blesses me; altar at Lama Tulku's home; a snow lion trim on a house; a Thangka by a group of students; women weaving fabrics for the national dress; hanging prayer flags on the Arman resort bridge; A brilliant snow lion, a sacred mythological animal.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Land of the Thunder Dragon

In Bhutan, men wear skirts.
Seriously. They have sort of a robe thing that goes over a white shirt and the thick white cuffs folded back up over the robe. It’s a doozy to wrap and arrange, although the women’s long dresses made of one piece of fabric are more complicated. Men cover their legs with long black stockings and wear leather shoes. Youngsters don’t wear long socks, and do wear basketball style shoe or the heavy punk kick-ems. I wonder if the basketball style reflects the well-known fact that the fourth King of Bhutan is a major basketball fan.

Bhutan, Bhutan. Land of the Thunder Dragon. Where have you been hiding. Here is as close to paradise as I’ll probably ever get. Nestled into 7000 feet of altitude with snow capped Himalayas towering on every side, Mount Jumolhari, home of the gods of the kingdom, fights off morning clouds as the sun comes over its ridge. Huge mountains of pine trees, water falls. No horrid traffic jams as in Kathmandu and India. No car horns and poverty and kids knocking on the car windows to get you to buy a magazine. Everyone is a farmer and so every piece of flat land is planted with potatoes (in flower now) or has been turned into rice paddies.
At the Armankora (the Sanskrit word for peace and the Dzonghka word to describe a sacred circular pilgrimage) Hotel, (a sister to Amangani in Jackson Hole) a haven of simplicity in wood and window and natural fiber one can get one’s mind together, and deep breathe the first fresh air (the smell of cedars and pines after a good rain) I’ve breathed since leaving Everest. Here birds can be heard, and there is no TV or extraneous noise. Only local dogs bark about normal things. Here in this Buddhist nation ruled by a democratic King is peace. No wonder people put this on their dream list.

At this moment, the 28 year old son of the fourth King, now called the fifth King of Bhutan, has been handed the throne. Thimphu, the capital, is being spruced up for the 100th year celebration of the monarchy (yea, constitutional monarchy now turned into a democratic system) and the coronation of the new King. A new two lane curving highway has been finished and buildings in the capital are hurrying up their completion to house tourists and curiosity seekers who will join in the festivities. The King, who is an absolute monarch with the power of life and death, emerged around the beginning of the 20th century from the tribes of warriors who had occupied Bhutan for centuries. In 1616 Shebdrung unified the country’s warlords into a dual system of government that paired with religion. The current King is the great-great-grandson of Trongsan, a great warlord, so he really does have the country’s history in his blood. The Kingship was actually set up by the British, who used Bhutan to set up trade with Tibet when Britain had India in its colonies.

Even getting to Bhutan was like the beginning of an exciting novel. After a freak squall in New Delhi this morning, stopping up traffic like a sewer, people running into people, pushing them off their lane like a polo player rides off another to get the ball, providing nervous tension for those of us pushing to get to the international airport in time for our flight on the Bhutan national airlines. The sky finally cleared although the streets of Delhi were flooded, and the Ganges overflowing, (this is freak weather for them), so we took off on time with a brief stop in Kathmandu. When we left Kathmandu, and flew high in thick white clouds, there peeking their peaks above the fray was the top sides of Mt. Everest, Mt. Lotse, and all the fellow mountains we had lived among during our trek, but this time we were looking at them from 30,000 feet. I wondered of Noam, one of our Sherpa friends guiding a 78 year old Japanese gent up the summit had made it, (it would be his sixth successful summit) since today was their day of reaching the peak of the highest mountain in the world. Everyone on the plane was on the left side gaping at the magnificence of the Himalayas and taking photos. I knew at that moment, things were finally going to change. And they did.

Men and women are called Ap or Aum. I am Aum Audrey, which sounds kinda lovely. Taktshang Gompa, (Tiger’s Nest) which hangs off the face of a cliff 3000 feet above the valley floor - legend Guru Rimpoche flew into Bhutan on a mythical tigress, meditated in a cave before bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, and thus Gompa was built around the cave. You can get there on foot or on a tiny pony with a saddle made from yak skin. I chose feet with a wooden stick. It was steep and I’ve gotten out of shape since our trekking time, so we made it at least up to the cafĂ© where we had a splendid view of the gold-guilded monastery. It had burned to the ground (from faulty yak butter candles) a few years ago, and has since been rebuilt on the extremely steep uninviting rock cliffs. Getting there is following the prayer flags, which are strewn everywhere in their bright colors.

There are three kinds of prayer flags in Bhutan. The usual Wind Horse string of five colored ones representing the five elements: white for iron, green for wood, yellow for earth, blue for water, red for fire. There are the simple tall vertical flags - when someone dies 108 of them will be positioned somewhere on one of the mountains. And another flag on top of homes to ward of evil. On the brightly decorated three story homes (the roof floats and leaves an open space where farmers dry meat, crops, herbs, and laundry), one often sees a painted Phallus. This is to ward off bad news and evil presence. Bhutans believe if someone praises the home, that opens the door for something awful to happen, and so they paint a phallus on the front wall - and this covers any negative possibilities. Of course, I’m so entranced with these homes, I keep saying in my innocense, "Oh I love that one - with the tiger heads across the windows - sort of series of four or five cathedral windows in blocks of eight or ten. So I wasn’t helping the situation.

Also in Bhutan, where cheap labor comes from the Indians across the border, there are three kinds of chortens (the roadside monuments: the Tibetan with gold pointed tops, Nepalese which are round and white, and the Bhutan style, square with intricate painted wood patterns around it. (These are the spiritual thoughts around which you walk clockwise for luck.). In the mountains one comes across huge prayer wheels as well, constantly moving because they are powered by wonderful surging water from the waterfalls everywhere. What a cool idea. Prayer is constant.

We also visited the National Museum, (no photos allowed) which is Paro’s 340 year old watchtower, fortress and prison (the first king of Bhutan was imprisoned there) to view an enormous collection of Bhutan stamps and items of history. Bows and arrows were major weapons, and archery is still the national sport. At this time of year, yellow broom blooming everywhere gave it an enticing fragrance. Winding around seven round stories you find the philately collections to the wooden red hats, similar into style to the Pope’s, used by Dalai Lamas when riding horseback and my favorite, the Tshogzhing Chapel, which is a three dimensional Mandala, each of four sides elaborately carved with many figures and statues related to the Tantric Buddhism of Bhutan. It is like a huge tree in pyramid form with colorful monsters and Buddha forms and his consorts and manifestations and ugly protective multi limbed creatures. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the artistic stamps honoring world wide events and coveted by collectors, including three-dimensional ones, and some that change as you move them up and down. They also make little CDs to go with stamps and I’m told there is an Elvis one, which I couldn’t find at the museum.
Photos: Men in skirts, the national dress of Bhutan; school girls in uniforms; a monk and an assistant at Amankora Hotel in Paro; vertical prayer flags; view of Paro on landing; Mt. Everest from the plane; Tiger's Nest Monastery; colorful prayer flags on a hike; the phallus protection; a water turned prayer wheel in a typical Bhutan chorten; drying yarn.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

City of Charms

I wake up with a huge white dome posing outside French windows of my hotel, the only one that has a view of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
It’s like a white marble planet. Every side is equal, now some more than others as scaffolds have been rigged to facilitate restoration in process. On one side is a mosque on the other is its twin, but a guest house. Many Indians visit it during the off-tourist season. From a distance women wrapped in sarees look like jelly bellies poured down the white marble trails. Many are barefooted. Europeans/Americans are allowed to wear shoe covers, which knocks out the holy place concept and keeps the floors from being scratched.
This is the Taj Mahal, the seventh wonder of the world. I don’t know what counts to make it such a treat, other than the dramatic legends of love associated with it, and the fact twenty thousand artisans and cheap labor spent 22 years building it mid 17th century. One Emperor footed the bill. There are expensive books of nothing but the Taj Mahal in photographs but it’s not that the details are particularly earth-shaking. It’s how the sun or moon reflects on it. At night, the city of Agra does not light it up.
I suppose it’s the legend more than its architectural presence that gilds its personality. A tomb is a tomb, after all, and this is a Muslim one, which means decor is abstract and patterned. It looks as if it would rise up at any minute like a shuttle from Kennedy Space Center. You wonder if it would fly. Kites do, not to far away. And the usual bevy of pigeons pester exotic gardens in the humid sun. Water pools reflect the domes and Indian families huddle together for photographs.
I was invited a number of times to be in family photos. I have no idea why other than I wore my white Raj scarf with holy words on it that I don’t know how to translate. I have not seen a duplicate except in the textile museum of the maharajas under the category of block printed - and am embarrassed to say I brought it from America. The new friends were usually young Muslim women covered in black robes. It was really steamy hot, but the atmosphere was light and I made note that Muslim women and a Christian woman were shoulder to shoulder.
Mausoleums abound in India, some in white marble, others in pink stone or brick, others in yellow, but the Taj Mahal is the queen of them all. Women world wide wish they were loved by someone who’d spend his fortune on this kind of tribute of affection, rather than grieving at a golf course or some bar or in some medic’s palm. The story of Emperor Shah Jahan, grandson of Akar, the first champion of India, and CEO of India in the 17th century, and his love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, a descendent of Kubla Khan and Genghis Khan, is a tear-jerker. Jahan, who also built the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid in Delhi, squired and married her and by the time she had hit 36 years of age, she had given him 14 children. She died in childbirth but not before receiving the promise he would do three things: not marry again, build the most beautiful tomb in the world, and take care of the children. Many of the offspring died, as was natural in 17th century conditions, but the youngest son Aurangzeb, a greedy ambitionist, led a rebellion and gained power by killing off his brothers, and putting his father in prison for eight years. Mind you, the place prison was inlaid marble with major balconies overlooking the city of Agra and the famous Taj Mahal. The son, a fundamentalist Muslim, destroyed the Mongul empire and turned India into chaos, destroying the temples of the Hindus, until the 18th century when the British colonialists took control.
We had risen in time to catch the 6 o clock train from New Delhi to Agra - a two hour experience on India’s railways, where breakfast was served in the exact style of an airplane meal. Rats and sleeping bodies congest the station at dawn and human waste was all over the tracks. Crowds with tall porters carrying large bags of white people on their heads (everyone else carried his own) mixed with flies, pigeons, cell phones and products to become breakfast once loaded. In the first class car, seats had pink arms and tray tables.
Agra was another crowded city with elegant hotels behind large walls. But it was as touristy as Jaipur with the usual barrage of beggars, pickpockets, police armed with wooden sticks, and aggressive barkers trying to get you your veins. Water buffalo, humped brahma bulls, goats and javelina wander the littered streets planted with bougainvilla between street vendors with their artfully arranged trays of bananas, mangos, coconut slices, custard apples and fresh melons. Men on the street looked terribly junky, poorly dressed, with the only fashionable ones being doormen and waiters in sikh attire. After the walk through Taj Mahal, our guide insisted we experience how artisans inlaided the Taj Mahal’s precious stones (turquoise, lapis lazuli, cornelian, etc.) and of course I’ve gotten used to that by now. You go see beautiful products that you cannot resist. Once the salesmen so skilled in smooth talk have hooked you, and you purchase small tables inlaid with elephants and rabbits, they say, "now let me show you a special room." They do this as a carpet scam too. Everyone is selling carpets, for some reason. And pashminas. Bite the hook, and they drag you along at their speed. I just say, I have no carpets, I want no jewelry or souvenirs. Of course, they don’t believe you and keep hassle you just to the point you are out the door. I hate this part of shopping in India, or Tibet, or Jerusalem or almost anywhere outside the US.
But the creme de la creme for me this day was a visit to a dusty square to see a snake charmer. Yep, the old cobra trick. I couldn’t leave India without adding that to the bucket list. Although it was out of tourist season, my guide was able to arrange for two charmers to charm me with their bulbous flute and magic vibrations that kept cobras under control. These two cobras looked like they’d been in vaudeville for years, one was five, the other six, and they were not eager to rise from their baskets, puff out their necks, and sway to the rhythm of that piercing sound. But they were coddled and woken up and they did what they were supposed to do, delighting me.
Photos: Elephant welcome at Agra hotel; Sue and I with first view of Taj Mahal; Centering at the Taj Mahal; posing with Muslim youth; Two police security officers; Red Fort with view of Taj Mahal; prison of Shah Janan; artisans setting precious stones; inlaid tables; the charmers enticing two cobras; two cobras who had rather roll up in the basket and sleep.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Pink City

The peacocks are peowwwwing at dawn. The pigeons sneak sips in the enormous fountain of water in the middle of the patio at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, India. Two Rajastha men wrapped in white pajamas (Punjab style) with bright red turbans twirled on their head carry large white flags and a stick. They roam the enormous patio-garden (called chowks) beating the flags periodically with the stick because it sounds like a shot-gun. Their job is to shoo away the pigeons over and over, those persistent birds only going up to another levered edge of the palace temporarily. This is pigeon city. Balconies, yards, streets are filled with them. At one sidewalk strip where vendors sell grain and corn, my driver points it out as the pigeon restaurant. Behind the open booths, thousands of pigeons partake of corn kernels scattered hopelessly across the ground.
The contrast of life in Jaipur - home of many castles, palaces and enormous forts built buy Rajasthan warriors and extremely wealthy Maharajas (where bankers, merchants and jewelers thrive) while the streets are overdosed with cheap hovels for shops, beggars and pickpockets - doesn’t lessen the impact of a city where almost all the buildings are pink - sort of a brick pink in most cases but with elaborate trim in a custard color and elaborate old buildings with balconies and fancy window treatment. Primarily, it is suffocatingly hot but women still go about in bright colored saris whether they are working in construction, doing marketing, or begging from tourists. You don’t see the regal class on the streets ever. You guess they are here by the appeal of their palaces - one floating in a huge lake - but no Rolls Royces plie the streets.
This is the most touristy city I’ve visited in India. For this reason, I’ve been told, terrorist select Jaipur or Agra (Taj Mahal) for their disruptive bombs. I asked to go to one of the bombing sights, which was on the way to Amir Fort, my destination this morning. The death site was at a major crossroads. An enormous distorted tree ,probably a Banyan tree, with roots wrapped around its trunk, gave a touch of shade to merchants and pigeons there. Shops were open. There were no markers, no pouring out of flowers and cards in tribute to the innocent who were killed on that spot. The sum of lives lost has been estimated at 70 from the multiple bombings. I remember the photographs of one merchant’s products, brightly colored bangles, being strewn across the street among the blood splatters. I’ve been buying bangles ever since. If there is a symbol of Jaipur, it is these inexpensive bright colored glass stone bracelets women wear up their arms to enhance beauty. Women do insist on adorning themselves like Ballywood stars (Ballywood is Bombay.)
This was another thrill day for me. At Amber Fort, which was built high on a mountain and is surrounded by what locals consider a Great Wall of China kind of wall that extends for miles, tourists can ride elephants. Sigh. I got the urge again but this time I wanted to find a painted elephant. No problem. All the elephants were decked out in royal robes (long saddle blankets) and pink metal boxes for riders. Their faces were made up with colorful flowers. They lethargically swung their trunks, not at all interested in this kind of tedious work and had to be shouted at to get them to get close to the mounting tower. Today their task was to carry customers down a paved road alongside a construction area in the fort. When strong dust storms approached, the elephant riding was over. I got my 20 minutes in and before we had done a turn around, my driver, who may have thought he was auditioning for Ballywood as he sang cheerful songs and waved to the workers on the road as we went, was quizzing me about a tip. Jaipur is the first city where tips were negotiated. And watch out for the photographers who charge five dollars a shot. They are printed out on pretty good paper and are pretty good photos, but lots in Jaipur is overpriced.
A visit to the palace in the fort area was at least healthy exercise, i.e. steps and inclines. In most palaces and on some street-side structures, the Maharajas were considerate of women, who were not allowed outside the palace confines. They built high, elaborate facades called Hawa Mahal with whimsical facades and one or three tiny windows that would expose nothing about the women, but where they could, mostly concealed, sit and watch the Maharaja or dignitaries arrive in to the city and any other celebration or bazaar activities going on below. This practice of keeping women hidden from all men except a husband was called Purdah. There were even chess boards for ladies but none of the pieces were of kings or queens or even horses. They were different sized little mushrooms, so it seemed. The 18th century was a major macho era, maybe still is. I can’t find any Maharanis or Maharajas in house, just pictures of them in coffee table books.
Returning to the city, there was a camel stand. Yes, here camels and elephants add noise and congestion to all the motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws that hog the road. Camels, their tall lanky bodies standing up above the crowd, pull carts of wares. Elephants carry workers and often giant loads of grass. But at the camel stand, I yelled, Pull Over. I want to ride the camel. There were about a half dozen, gaily decorated with red and gold things hanging from their bridles, and blankets ranging from a printed one to one glittered with spangles. A little boy was the driver of the sweet faced camel I chose. The beast got on her knees and I easily mounted the saddle with stirrups which was hidden under a red throw. Hold on, the boy said. Then there was an extreme movement as the camel rose on her fore-feet and then her back feet, me trying to balance as she did, and we were off. What a pleasant gait this camel had. However, the kid was leading us wrong way down the busy highway, every kind of vehicle whizzing past us and beeping horns. Yikes. I yelled, couldn’t we walk on the side of the road and not the middle? The boy was oblivious, and very prideful because he had a customer. A man who said his name was Tony kept taking photographs and yelling I will bring them to your hotel. Heck, I wasn’t giving out the hotel name since is was the luxury palace. But my driver made arrangements so I could see the photos later. The camel ride was a hoot and I hated that it was over, but the dust and heat was excruciating, even though I had wrapped my head in a thin scarf Indian lady style. This impressed the photographer.
A trip to the City Palace which has a partial museum of Maharaja clothing and Diwali dresswas also fascinating. Most of the fabrics were embroidered with gold and silver threads, in thick brocades and one outfit for a 19th century male, white muslin, had three hundred and fifty pleats called kalis or pamels - for a man. But most interesting was the polo uniforms from the wardrobe of Maharaja Sawai Man Sing II, famous for his polo and billiards. Here I learned about the "fiery ball" or night polo when a candle was secured in a metal ball that looked very Muslim in design, called a ‘palas’ and somehow it was playable in the dark although you’d need one hard hitting polo mallet. This was a 16th century delight of the warrior Akbar whose polo mallets were decorated in gold and silver, and if one broke, and another player was able to pick up the pieces, it was finders keepers. Women, who were not allowed to show their faces in the daytime, often would play polo in the dark as well. The early uniforms were thick, heavily embroidered jackets and trousers, but later the jodphur was created for polo, and now even hotel employees wear them.
At the end of the day, another curiosity was answered. A young lady painted my hands with henna, a habit women in Jaipur are known for especially when they dress up for fiestas and balls. Of course I was just going to have dinner and Indian sweets in my room. But it was the know how I was after. It is a tedious job for the artist, who must have a patience beyond Job. Once the black henna dries on your hands - you cannot wash them for a couple of hours - you rub it off and what is left is a beautiful brownish design. I found some henna and hope to show my college-sorority granddaughter how to do it since she’s the artist in my family and it might make a fun fad at her university.
Photos: Pidgeon swatter at Ramburg Palace; Pink Palace at city gates with pigeons; At the hoteol, lux shade; Women in construction; a load on the road; the bomb site; a camel cart; Hawa Mahal, a pink hideout for females; Should we take this lady? Riding the camel India style, ie, with scarf on head; Hawa at City Palace - that's me up there; What I saw; New Henna being app-lied; Henna done - it's red.