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Waiting for Grace

Grace came from nowhere, caught me unawares, like when you’re sitting in a park totally engrossed in your whodunit and suddenly there’s a delicious aroma of baking bread, yeast and dough with overtones of garlic and perhaps the gentle bubble of melting cheese, sizzling oil and fat, and you wonder what else is in the pizza topping, book totally forgotten, and you remember that you haven’t had breakfast yet, only a cup of coffee and you came out of the house to run a couple of errands on a Saturday morning, wandered into a bookstore on the way home and found this book someone had raved about, bought it on impulse and sat down to read and then were lost in the murder mystery. Life’s something like that. Creeps up on us. The best lives are lived mostly unplanned. Correction! The best lives are planned and then lived with so many deviations from the plan so that we ultimately arrive at a destination more perfect than we could ever have imagined. Life is as perfect as you make it to be. No great secret here. It’s what you make of it. I know that. You know that. So how do I imbue Grace with that knowledge without preaching?images

Yes, Grace! There’s me on that metaphorical park bench, reading the metaphorical whodunit of life and then, like the waft of baking pizza smells, Grace sneaks into the corners of my mind, invades it with tendrils of soft enticement and then I’m completely lost, I have to type, to search, to pin down this elusive character who beckons with so much mystery. What is Grace made of? How did she come to be? She has certain powers; powers that she herself is not aware of, perhaps. So how does she comes to know her own power? Is she humbled by it? Do they, these powers, make her over-confident and over-reach herself?

So for a frenzied three months, I sat down and typed. I typed in the morning and I typed in the evening, sometimes late at night I woke up with a vision and I was Grace seeing the answer to a puzzle, a mystery. Who poisoned the harmless old lady’s friendly Jack Russell terrier? And why? And why was the old lady so sure the poisoning was deliberate? What a shock to find that on this idyllic, almost paradisical, island! It was an island in the South China Sea near Hong Kong, very hot, very steamy, and the writing was like an outpouring from a fever of the brain. But somewhere in the soul of the scribe sits a heart of ice that dissects and says, no, no; this is implausible, this cannot be true. But life is like that! Life often cannot be true, and yet these things do happen. Take the disappearance of MH370, for instance; the best aviation brains and experts in the world still cannot deduce what happened, or how; until recently, a bit of wreckage was washed ashore that perhaps will provide some conjecture of the truth. But a novel does not have this luxury. And so the fevered search for the soul of Grace continued.

More about Grace in the next post…

The lake of deeds, and a dyslexic scholar

Ramcharitamanas (the lake of the deeds of Rama) is one of the greatest works of Hindu literature. Written by Goswami Tulsidas in the 17th century, it was written in Awadhi, a dialect of Hindi, and made the epic Ramayana, till then only read by the privileged few, (mostly upper castes) who knew Sanskrit, available to the common man. This widespread access to the Ramayana stories led to the birth of the tradition of Ramlila, the dramatic enactment of text, all over the north of India.

Tulsidas lived during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (the great, 1556-1605) who was noted for his religious tolerance, emphasised by his promulgation of Din-i-Ilahi, a religion derived from a syncretic mix of Islam, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. To underline the point the Emperor took three principal wives from three religious faiths; Muslim, Hindu and Christian. Presumably due to Akbar’s religious tolerance, the enactment of Ramlila’s beloved text spread through Mughal lands and were adopted by the Phad singers and puppeteers of Rajasthan where they are still performed today (see my earlier post: Facebook for the Gods). Akbar was believed to be dyslexic, so he was read to every day, had a remarkable memory and loved to debate with scholars.

Written in seven kandas or cantos, Tulsidas equated his work with the seven steps leading into the holy waters of a Himalayan lake, Manasarovar. The lake lies on the Tibetan plateau and covers an area of 320 sq. km. The name comes from the Sanskrit words manas, mind, and sarovara, lake and refers to the belief that Lake Manasarovar was created in the mind of Lord Brahma before it was manifested on earth.

Lake Manasarovar. 4590 m.

Lake Manasarovar. Tibetan Plateau, 4590 m.

Akbar’s acceptance of different religious beliefs led Time magazine to note in 2011 “While the creed (i.e. :Din-i-Ilahi) no longer lingers, the ethos of pluralism and tolerance that defined Akbar’s age underlies the values of the modern republic of India.” Quite a tribute to a dyslexic scholar emperor who died four hundred years ago!

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A lake palace, and a lake of tears

Udaipur is one of the must-see cities of Rajasthan, for its iconic Lake Palace situated in the middle of Lake Pichola with its grand series of stone and marble palaces that have been successively added along the shores over centuries. Udaipur’s royals belong to the longest unbroken line of rulers in the world, having endured for more than a millennium.

One of the world's longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

One of the world’s longest ruling dynasties, 1400 years

The present-day city was founded in the 1530s at around 1000 feet above sea level, close to the cooling influence of the Aravalli range of hills. The aboriginal hill tribes of the Aravallis, the Bhils, were traditionally self-sufficient hunter-gatherers and good archers. Bhil tribesmen assisted Rajput troops in their periodic wars against Mughal armies, and for this reason, the Mewar coat-of-arms portrays both a tribal armed with bow and arrows and a Rajput warrior flanking the shield with a fortress in the middle.

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

A wedding cake of a hotel on Lake Pichola

The lake dries out occasionally when there is a succession of bad monsoons, but a project is underway to ensure a steady inflow and expand the rainwater harvesting systems that were installed in the palaces from the 17th century onwards.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

Nowadays the royal barge is only for decor or the occasional VIP hotel guest.

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats along the lakeshore...

More palaces and bathing ghats line the lakeshore…

...most are hotels.

…most are hotels.

Pushkar: a holy lake of tears.

Pushkar is one of the holy places for Hindus in India. There is a temple to Brahma in Pushkar, a rarity. There are only six temples dedicated to Brahma worldwide and this is considered the most important. There are several beautiful stories associated with the reasons for Pushkar’s sanctity. One has it that Siva’s wife Sati was insulted by her father (this is a long story in itself, see the URL below for more) and literally burned with shame. Siva was so overcome on hearing of the death of his wife that he wept inconsolably. The pools formed by the tears from his two eyes are the lake at Pushkar and the Katasraj temple lake about 300 kilometers away that lies today in Pakistan’s Punjab province.

There is another story about the reason for Pushkar’s spiritual significance. In this, Brahma saw a demon named Vajranabha killing people, so he killed the demon with a divine lotus flower. In this process, the petals of the lotus flower fell to the earth and formed the lake. Yet another story tells of a mortal, a Rajput king, following a wild boar down to the lake during a hunt. He stopped to quench his thirst and found that dipping his hand in the lake had cured his leukoderma. Whatever the reasons for its perceived sanctity, the town exudes a certain contradictory bustling calm and the lake itself is surrounded by temples and bathing ghats. The biggest attraction for tourists is the annual 5-day camel fair where livestock are bought and sold.
See the stories of Siva and Sati at http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/bhagavata/bhagavata_4.html

Innumerable temples line the lake

Innumerable temples line the lake

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around...

A small sign reminds visitors to remove their shoes while walking around…

...this is holy ground

…this is holy ground


Blue City: britches, brahmins and battlements

Our tour guide showed us around the impressive Mehrangarh fort and indicated the blue-washed houses in the valley below. All those blue houses, he said, belong to Brahmin families. Further enquiry found many other explanations for the blue coloring, so the jury is out on this one. Other possible reasons: as in the case of imperial yellow in Austrian Habsburg palaces, the color could have been chosen because it was the least expensive. Whatever the real reason, Jodhpur is commonly described as the “blue city” of Rajasthan and, together with Jaisalmer and Jaipur, make up a trio of colored cites in the state. Jaisalmer really is a golden city; golden sands of the Thar desert that spread from its outskirts and the golden sandstone of which the city is built. Seen from the fort, the city of Jodhpur is speckled with blue, the afore-mentioned allegedly brahmin houses. Jaipur is called the pink city mainly because of the iconic Hava Mahal, and because its royal family preferred the colour on all their buildings. But in today’s Jaipur, bustling with handicrafts and industry and bursting at the seams with people, the pink color is lost unless one wanders among the historic buildings and older parts of the city.

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Blue-speckled city of Jodhpur seen from Mehrangarh Fort

Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur is probably the most impressive in Rajasthan and well worth a visit of 2 or 3 hours (there’s more than three hours worth to see if you can take it in at a stretch), from royal palanquins to a beautiful collection of swords, and finery worn by royalty in centuries past. A tip: the audio guides available in the fort are excellent and provide concise commentary at every important object on display. In addition to its blue-painted houses, the dominating fort, and riding breeches named after the city, Jodhpur was also famed for its Marwari horses. They are a hardy breed with distinctive ears that point towards each other. They have a regal gait and are descended from local ponies interbred with Arabian and Mongolian horses beginning in the 12th century.Close to Jodhpur lies Mihir Garh, a boutique hotel with only 9 rooms that Lonely Planet listed in 2014 as the most unique hotel in the world.

A well-paved road leads from Jodhpur to Udaipur, again a city named after its founder Udai Singh in the 1530s, although this dynasty has ruled in the area for more than a thousand years, and represents the world’s longest unbroken ruling line, from the 9th century to the mid-twentieth. More on Udaipur and Pushkar in the next post.

Travels in the Land of Kings

For some people the best journeys are those that take place in the mind. If you have good company and travel in the right frame of mind, an inward transformation occurs with each step and each changing view of the landscape. This was a summer of encounters in Rajasthan that changed the inner landscape of my mind but words are a poor way to show the changes, so I will post a few pictures here instead. This is offered by way of apology that this blog has been inactive for the past six weeks.20140712_161027

Rajasthan is India’s largest state. At 340,000 sq. km, around the size of Germany, it comprises 10% of India’s territory. The name, literally “the land of kings.” is very apt. There are ruins aplenty and reminders of past glory at every turn. But take a moment to look behind the ruins and there are stories behind every crenellated wall and jharoka.

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

This is also a land of stories, a place where myths are born. The stories are a glorious mix of fact and fantasy, like the great Indian epics themselves, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. More about this land and the stories in the blogs to follow.

9th Century cool decorates a step-well in Rajasthan

9th Century cool adorns a step-well in Rajasthan


Banyans, Cuckoos, Cannonballs and Theosophy

Sounds like a strange mix, but the caption above is easily explained. The international headquarters of the Theosophical Society occupies an area of 104 hectares (260 acres) of wooded land. Nearly 15 acres of this land is occupied by just one tree, a 450 year old banyan that has had room to spread within the protected grounds.20140218_14442020140218_144520The Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1857 by Helena Blavatsky with several others. Madame Blavatsky was a widely travelled, spiritually inclined, well-read Russian emigre. She came from a privileged, aristocratic background but reputedly had a strong egalitarian streak and eschewed any notions of superiority based on birth or race. The Society aimed to foster the universal brotherhood of humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color. In 1875 the Theosophical Society moved its headquarters to the present campus that lies alongside the banks of the Adyar river in Chennai, about a mile before it reaches the sea.20140218_144532

 Although largely unknown, the Theosophical Society has had major impact on world affairs. For example, the Indian National Congress, today one of the two major political parties in India, was started by, among others, AO Hume, a Scotsman and prominent member of the society. The New Age movement reflects many of its characteristics, including holism and eclecticism. In 1902 Rudolf Steiner became General Secretary of the Austrian/German branch of the Society. Philosophical differences between this branch and the international leadership under Annie Besant arose and the faction under Rudolf Steiner founded the Anthroposophical Society, an attempt to bridge the gap between science and spirituality. The movement is better known today as the philosophical underpinning of the Steiner/Waldorf school system.

20140218_150659The extensive gardens of the Theosophical Society and the nearby estuary where the Adyar River meets the sea are home to a wealth of plants and birds, including pipits, lapwings, curlews, golden orioles and parakeets. There are more than 100 tree species, including several cannonball trees (above) with their spectacular fruit that grow straight off the trunk and are hard and heavy enough to kill anyone thoughtless enough to sit under one. The tree is considered sacred in India because the flower petals (click on the image above to enlarge it) resemble the hood of a Naga, a sacred snake.

20140218_145516The Common Hawk-Cuckoo

Badami: 7th Century Cave Temples

There are 4 cave temples on a rocky hill above the town, all carved out of the giant rocks that form the hillside. The first two caves are dedicated to Shiva, the third (and grandest) cave is dedicated to Vishnu. Shiva and Vishnu are the second and third members of the Brahmanical Trinity, the first being Brahma, who is traditionally accepted as the creator of the entire universe.20140205_145309 20140205_13585120140205_135835The fourth cave is a Jain temple, adorned with an image of Mahavira, the last of twenty-four teerthankaras, or spiritual role models in Jainism. Mahavira was born into a royal family around 540 BC somewhere in today’s Bihar state in India and he reputedly lived till around 468 BC. This makes him a contemporary of Gautama, the Buddha, who lived from around 563 to 483 BC according to the latest reckoning of historians and scholars. Further coincidences in their lives abound. They were both born into princely families. They both lived traditional family lives until they left their homes at the ages of 30 (Mahavira) and 29 (Gautama) and wandered in search of spiritual truths. Interestingly, although Gautama was born in today’s Nepal, he reputedly achieved enlightenment while meditating under a pipal tree in Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, where Mahavira was born. The present day state of Bihar is relatively poor, but was a great center of learning and spirituality at the time. One of the earliest universities in the world existed at Nalanda, from the 5th to the 11th century AD.and lies just 90 km from Bodh Gaya. The Badami cave temples are in Karnataka state, not far from the scattered ruins of Vijayanagar in Hampi. 20140205_142435

Hampi: On the banks of the Tungabadhra

A city of well-preserved temples, palaces, elephant stables and elevated viewing points; the remains of a wealthy 14th-16th century empire scattered over 350 square kilometers of sparsely populated countryside; the vibrant Virupaksha temple, still being used and worshipped in by thousands every year. All this lies on the banks of the Tungabhadra river that flows, deceptively serene, nearby. Swimming in the still flowing waters is strongly discouraged by large signs that warn of treacherous whirlpools and undertows caused by the rocks in the water. The signs forget to mention a further disincentive, the occasional crocodile that floats sluggishly by.20140204_112038

Domingo Paes was a Portuguese traveller who visited the Vijayanagara Empire around the year 1520.
About the ports under the rule of Vijayanagara, Paes writes: “The said kingdom has many places on the coast of India; they are seaports with which we are at peace, and in some of them we have factories, namely, Amcola, Mirgeo, Honor, Batecalla, Mamgalor, Bracalor, and Bacanor.
Writing about the irrigation, “The land has plenty of rice and Indian-corn, grains, beans, and other kind of crops which are not sown in our parts; also an infinity of cotton. Of the grains there is a great quantity, because, besides being used as food for men, it is also used for horses, since there is no other kind of barley; and this country has also much wheat, and that good. This country wants water because it is very great and has few streams; they make lakes in which water collects when it rains, and thereby they maintain themselves.”20140204_130811

About the marketplace, he writes “Going forward, you have a broad and beautiful street, full of rows of fine houses and streets of the sort I have described, and it is to be understood that the houses belong to men rich enough to afford such. In this street live many merchants, and there you will find all sorts of rubies, and diamonds, and emeralds, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and cloths, and every other sort of thing there is on earth and that you may wish to buy. Then you have there every evening a fair where they sell many common horses and nags, and also many citrons, and limes, and oranges, and grapes, and every other kind of garden stuff, and wood; you have all in this street.”20140204_145014

20140204_152217About the city “The size of this city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it, in the gardens of the houses, and many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes; and the king has close to his palace a palm-grove and other rich-bearing fruit-trees.”

“This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, MOONG, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap; but wheat is not so common as the other grains, since no one eats it except the Moors.”

Hampi’s ruins are today a UNESCO World Heritage site and well worth a visit. It might be best to reserve 2 or 3 days for the visit, because of the extent of the site, the magic of the rocky landscape, and the many beautiful views along the river. There is also a sloth bear sanctuary nearby.20140204_153556Coracles and small boats are available for tourists who wish to cross the river to see the ruins on the far side.

Sravanabelagola: Stairway to Heaven

Ask any mountain climber why they climb mountains and there is often a touch of the mystic in their replies. Although their replies might be couched in intellectual terms, or even though they might write whole books to explain why, the reason can often be condensed into a short sentence; to be closer to God; to feel an overwhelming sense of peace; to transcend the self for a brief moment,or; it’s simply out of this world.

20140206_163439The impulse is an ancient one. Emperor Chandragupta Maurya is said to have meditated here after abdicating the throne in 298 BC. Sravanabelagola, the white pond of the Sravana (the colossal monolithic statue on the hilltop), is a site that exudes an undoubted sense of peace and sanctity, some of it induced no doubt by the need to rest after the strenuous climb to the top.20140206_160451 20140206_154555Various inscriptions have been found at this site and are dated from 600 to 1800. The statue itself was erected around 981 AD. Some of these inscriptions attest to the rise and power of a succession of regional empires, including that of the Vijayanagar kings who ruled in nearby Hampi from around the 1300s to mid-1500s. More about Hampi in the next post.