Thursday, 6 June 2013

Winter in the Summer! Himachal Pradesh

I recently took a 9 day trip with a friend to Himachal Pradesh, a northwest state in the western Himalayas. After exploring the tropical south and the Rajasthani desert, I was drawn to the snowy peaks. I would have preferred to go north when my knees were being paralyzed by the 110 degree October heat in Mumbai, but the usually snow blocked roads in Himachal Pradesh are only accessible in summer months. 

Rivers and glaciers surrounded us as we drove around this state, whose peak elevation reaches 22,966 feet above sea level. 

Getting around on buses and motorcycles, I feared for my life as we spiraled up and down the steepest and narrowest mountainsides I have ever seen. My knuckles were frozen white as I held onto the bottom of my seat. (When one of our bus drivers got off the bus and returned with two bottles of whiskey I thought of calling home to say bye to my family forever). But this fear (which I often have here when I put my life in the hands of people whose language and culture I don’t speak) dissipated as I looked beyond the edge of the mountain to the breathtaking views. It was astonishing. (By the way, he didn't open the bottles...)

We spent a day in and around Shimla, previously British India’s summer capital. While we enjoyed some horse riding and meandering through the town, it was generally too kitschy so we continued on our itinerary to Manali. Manali had a pleasant ambience, as a starting point for long treks. We spent a couple of days riding my friend’s rented motorcycle up to snowy peaks and into villages where we found short, attractive treks to waterfalls and hot springs. Wrapping around snowy mountains, feeling the cold brisk on my face was so refreshing after 10 months in sweltering Mumbai.
About half way through our trip we travelled to Manikaran, a small town celebrated for its hot springs. 

Hot Springs & Temples

It’s interesting that more often than not bodies of water in India have legends attached to them. In Hindu mythology, Manu was created as the first man who gave life to all mankind. The most famous story involving Manu relates to the great deluge that destroyed everything on earth. Some remarkable connections to the story of Noah and the flood are that Manu was told to build a ship to save himself and to bring two of each animal on board (one distinction is that he was told to bring seeds from every type of plant as well). It was in Manikaran where Manu is said to have recreated human life after the flood. During our visit, Manikaran was crowded with pilgrims coming to visit temples of Rama, Krishna and Vishnu. There was also an impressive gurudwara (Sikh temple) there. While it was enjoyable to walk in and out of temples, dipping my feet into the springs, it was more entertaining to watch Indians dip bags of uncooked rice into the natural springs to boil them. 

After Shimla and Manali we took a bus westward to Dharamsala, home of the exiled Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama’s residence. We arrived in the still dark early morning and ambled around McLeod Ganj, the main village in Dharamsala. Tibetan exiles- monks, children and women- walked past in orange and deep reds and greeted us with warm smiles. When daytime stirred, we found ourselves a hotel and relaxed a bit after the long overnight bus ride. 

We spent a couple of days in McLeod Ganj visiting Bhuddist temples, monasteries and a museum about the Tibetan exile. Watching monks debate in the traditional Tibetan style was impressive. The choreographed clapping after statements and the positioning of the defender and questioner’s robes are all key elements to a debate. Similar to the positioning of a Kathakali dancer’s eyes (see my post about Kerala), every hand motion and clothing position is telling. 


Bhuddist Temple Prayer Wheels

On our last day we walked around the forests surrounding McLeod Ganj. I ate my last momos (Tibetan dumplings) and breathed in as much of the crisp air of northern India as I possibly could.
After a 9 hour overnight bus ride to Delhi, I looked back on the journey with pleasure knowing that I had fresh memories and a broader understanding of the ways of life within India’s far-reaching borders.

Crazy Human Pyramids, Dahi Handi

My Gregorian birthday happened to fall on the same day as Dahi Handi, Lord Krishna’s birthday!
People had told me that I should stay in my apartment on this day. And I’m really glad I didn’t because I got to see this:

The night before, people hang handis (pots) of buttermilk on ropes between buildings and trees. Legend has it that Krishna had been playful as a child, stealing butter and curds from others. So basically what happens today is that teams who have been training to build human pyramids go around Mumbai searching for these handis. When they find one they try (usually two or three times) to build a pyramid that reaches the pot. Once the pyramid is erected, a small boy (around 5 years old) climbs on top of everyone, reaches for the pot, cracks it open and spills it all over everyone in the pyramid- symbolizing unity in accomplishing the task. Then they start dismantling the pyramid with care for about 10 seconds and then they fall all over each other, erupting in Bollywood dancing and music.

While there were many informal groups going around making small pyramids, there are formal competitions where teams who reach the highest hung handis receive a prize.
I watched ALL day. Every time I thought of leaving I saw a new team and had to see if they would make it. 

Unfortunately, I learned that one person died this year and over 200 people were injured.  

Taj Mahal, Agra

After a six hour drive I arrived in Agra just in time to see the sun melting into a distant image of the Taj Mahal.

Eager to escape the tourist traps, I ate dinner at the first restaurant I saw and fled to a pre-booked hostel near the closest gate to the Taj. Wanting to see the first rays of sunlight on the Taj Mahal, I went to sleep early and woke before 5 AM to begin the walk.  I couldn’t have been more on time! I was one of the first ten people there and had a good amount of time to sit and watch the sky’s reflection paint the white marble in front of me. 

I was overly pleased to discover that the Taj Mahal is not overrated. I spent hours walking in and around, noticing new details each time my eyes rested upon it. In pictures I had seen I never knew of the semi-precious stone inlays, carvings and Arabic calligraphy. 

Mughal emperor Shah Jahan had the mausoleum built for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. Thousands of artisans and craftsmen were employed and it was completed in 1653, after 21 years of construction. People say the Taj Mahal is the representation of true love. 

Shah Jahan wrote: 

Should guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free from sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made;
To display thereby the creator's glory.

While the building emits a sense of purity and love, there is another story of heartbreak which overshadowed the experience for me. Not long after the Taj Mahal was completed, Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, overthrew his father and put him under house arrest in Agra Fort. From there Shah Jahan could only look from afar to where his wife rested. Only when Shah Jahan died did his son return him to the Taj Mahal where he would rest with his wife.  

Once the sun’s heat overcame me, I made my way to Agra Fort and saw the Taj Mahal from the same distance Shah Jahan saw it for so many years. Reflecting on the love and heartbreak surrounding this beautiful World Heritage Site, I left Agra feeling emotionally overcome. As I drove back to Delhi I stared out the window at people, considering the great complexity and potential of our human relationships.

View from the Agra Fort

Rishikesh "The Yoga Capital of the World"

I recently decided to take a long weekend to see the Taj Mahal and explore Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World’ situated along the Ganges River. While I had used local transportation (trains, buses) on every other trip I took, I planned this trip too late and all trains were booked. So I decided I could treat myself to a driver and a car (which was actually relatively cheap). Although I always feel uncomfortable when I treat myself here, sometimes I just have to convince myself that it’s okay.

After being in Delhi for a couple of hours, eating an Indian dish I’ve come to like and finding the car company, I was on the road to Rishikesh (in the state of Uttarakhand). As we drove out of Delhi I was lucky to see a couple of elephants along the road! I recalled a time when I was driving around Mumbai with the JCC director on a search to buy items to use for the 10 plagues at our Pesach seder. We had driven past an elephant and I practically fell out of the car, foolishly ran through insane Mumbai traffic only to get a closer look at the elephant. Another time, when I was leaving the JDC run old-age home after Shabbat, I turned a corner to get in line for the rickshaws and found myself inches from an ENORMOUS elephant’s step. Now, seeing the elephants from the car window, I felt comfort knowing that my amazement at their grandeur and enormity was far from waning. 

As we drove four hours northeastward, we reached the Ganges River and my eyes were glued to the rapids and the orange clad sadhus (enlightened ones/wandering monks) walking with wooden sticks through the surrounding woods. Every day here I consider how my Judaism relates to the overall tangible sense of sanctity in this country. It is a wonderful feeling to recognize the multiple means of connecting to the divine. 

When we arrived in Rishikesh I began my usual search for a cheap, A/C, nicely located hostel. Only a few hours after settling in for the night, I was awoken to bells from the many temples along the river. Once the morning light seeped in through my window I quickly got dressed and began following the coaxing clangor. After a few minutes getting past chai wallas and people flagging me down for photographs with them, I met the 450 ft. long iron suspension bridge, Lakshman Jhula, connecting both sides of the river. I looked across and saw a riverbank flecked with ashrams and ghats where people were immersing themselves in the holy water. I could hear the bells more clearly than before and was eager to make my way across. However, as I stepped onto the bridge I stopped myself when I felt it swaying. I looked up and did not only see the narrow bridge covered with people, but with cows and swinging monkeys as well. After a couple of seconds I stepped forward and kept going, shielding myself from the monkeys and slipping past cows.

Once I reached the other side I realized that it wasn’t only the bridge that was populated heavily by cows- they pervaded the entire town. I remember during the first ten minutes of being across the bridge I thought I felt something touch my butt and I turned and slapped what I thought was someone’s hand. Turns out it was a cow’s head and though some onlookers laughed, others looked appalled. After laughing to myself I apologized to the cow I continued on my way.  

I spent the day exploring the Trayambakeshwar Temple, taking a yoga class at an ashram and going white water rafting in the Ganges! This last activity may have given me diseases but it was really, really fun. (Don’t worry mom, I didn’t swallow that much water!)

In the evening I took another yoga class at the same ashram and traveled with a few other tourists along the river bank to Swarg Ashram to watch an aarthi (Hindi form of worship in which praises are sung to a deity and people light special candles which they let float in the river). I always find it interesting to learn stories of Hindu deities and to observe another religion’s means of worship.

My time in Rishikesh exposed me to a fascinating piece of India and left me in a meditative state in which I was aware of every chime of a bell and whisper of incense. 

After returning to my hostel and repacking my bag, I fell asleep to the sound of bells- uncertain if they were in my head or across the bridge. 

I woke early in the morning, excited for my long awaited visit to Agra to see the Taj Mahal!