Monday, February 28, 2011

Udaipur Market

After an hour or so, things began to pick up, with more people (and animals) wandering the streets, as well as shops unfettering the pull-down shutters on their shops. Huge blocks of jaggery (sugar from the sap of a date/coconut palm tree) were wheeled through The street on a cart, tempting people with its scent to buy a chunk. Other sold fresh juice from their wheeled vending cart. People were now gathering at the local produce market, with some ladies placing purchased goods in woven baskets balanced on their heads. A cow wandered suspiciously close to the produce, licking up the few pieces of grass as if waiting for an opportune moment.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Streets of Udaipur - Early Morning

The next morning we engaged in one of my favorite activities while traveling in a new town - wandering the streets. In the chilly early morning, most of the shops were still shuttered and streets quiet. Men huddled on benches and chatted, wearing shawls, scarves, and stocking caps. A few sheep wandered through the street, sporting burlap bags as protection from the cold. In a long narrow opening barely wider than the frame, an elderly Muslim man patiently stitched zari designs onto a red sari. A construction woman instructed her donkey to stop while she texted a message. Women began bringing out baskets of fresh flowers to sell in front of small temples.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Evening Performance, Udaipur

That evening we attended the Rajasthani arts performance at a haveli just a stone’s throw from our hotel. I had attended it on my previous visit to Udaipur and found it to be a well-crafted performance, giving visitors a sampling of some of the different folk arts and dances of Rajasthan. The colorful costumes of the fire pot dancers and young veiled women swirled in fast dancing. The female marionette did her shimmying and male marionette comically played with his decapitated head. I was also pleased to see the older woman (around 64) expertly balance and dance with clay pots on her head - eleven at the end of the performance.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

City Palace, Udaipur

Braving the disorganized mass of people all trying to buy tickets (one criticism of India is that its citizens do not know how to follow queues), we bought tickets to the City Palace and proceeded through the gates leading to the complex of palaces built between the 16th and 20th century by various maharajas. We followed (and were sometimes pushed through) the marked tour through the labyrinth within the palace, past rooms with a dominant color, others with decorative glasswork over the walls and ceiling, some with jail windows, through narrow corridors, and into more spacious courtyards. Displayed on the walls of some rooms were an excellent collection of miniature paintings, for which Udaipur is famous. The Mor Chowk (Peacock Courtyard) was particularly popular, with its brilliantly colored glass mosaics of three dancing peacocks dating back to the 19th century, along with some other excellent figurative and floral mosaic designs.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Taj Mahal Slated for Demolition?

Did you know that legend has it that in 1830, Lord Bentinick (governor of India) actually proposed to demolish the Taj Mahal? He wanted to dismantle the Taj Mahal and sell the marble and was stopped only when he was unable to find buyers. Whether or not this story about this known penny pincher is actually true, what definitely is known is the looting and destruction that occurred on the Taj and other sites by the British. On the Taj, carpets, jewels, and silver doors were removed. Soldiers chiseled out the precious stones and lapis lazuli out of the walls. Visitors also chimed in, using hammers to remove chunks containing carnelian and agate from the floral designs. In the mid 19th century, the Taj had become a pleasure-resort, with the mosque and symmetrical building being used as a honeymooner suite. Indeed, the Taj Mahal had become a sorry sight.

Around 1904, Lord Curzon (Viceroy of India) demonstrated his love for culture and heritage by passing an Act to protect the Taj and other monuments. In 1908, he initiated the restoration work on this heritage site. The interior received a large replacement lamp, outdoor canals made to work again, and gardens restored  - but in a more British style.

In the 20th century, India sought to protect the Taj against potential bombing during several wars, but then let pollution heavily degrade it, leaving the monument again in an imperiled state in the late 1990's. Since then, factories have been moved away and no vehicles (besides electric and bicycle rickshaws) being allowed within a certain radius of the site.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Jagdish Mandir, Udaipur

Walking up the hill past several tailoring shops and other stores catering to tourists, we turned left to visit the Jagdish Mandir. A 17th century Hindu temple made of white marble, the Jagdish Mandir begged at least a few minute’s visit. A few women sat below the stairs with large baskets of flower garlands ready for sale for temple worship. Up one side of the stairs a group of women gathered, chanting and clapping their hands. Two sadhus, with their brightly painted foreheads and orange outfits, posed for tourists wanting to take their photo for a tip. Circumnavigating the temple, the exterior was a feast for the eye, with elaborate carvings of dancing figures, elephants, and deities covering the entire surface.

Early Morning in Udaipur

Thankful for a few hours’ rest in some rather comfortable recliner chairs in a quiet part of the Delhi airport, we proceeded to the gate to board an early morning flight to Udaipur. Nicknamed by some as “the Venice of the East” and regarded as a very romantic city, this southern Rajasthan location is a favorite spot on the tourist trail. The still early morning light cast its magical glow on all it touched. Standing at the edge of Lake Pachouli, I took in the scene. Milky white havelis danced in the rippled water. Green and yellow - reflections from some trees and a larger building - competed for attention. At a small temple across the lake, women were already partway finished with washing clothes in the lake, with freshly laundered items already strung out in front of the temple. Off to my left, an older woman beat her wet sari with what looked like a cricket bat. Along a railing, clothes hung like misshapen beads. A young woman with long wet hair continued wrapping the length of blue sari material up and over her shoulder, looking across towards the Jag Niwas palace in the middle of the lake and the mountains beyond. Flocks of birds swooped synchronously in the blue sky as if part of a choreographed performance, pausing briefly on old domes.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Long Way to Delhi

After a pleasant early morning walk, we returned to the hotel where our taxi was waiting to take us to the airport. To our dismay, a message on my cell phone from the airlines revealed that our flight was canceled. We had heard that sometimes the airline cancels flights when it doesn’t have enough passengers; for a rather expensive domestic flight, we had hoped that this wouldn’t happen to us. With only one flight by this one airline per day, the only way we would catch our upcoming flight from Delhi to Udaipur would be to take a taxi. Pooling our rupees together, we came up with enough to pay for the very long taxi ride. It would enable us to see more of Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Haryana. As we traversed the countryside, we saw many more Seikhs wearing various colored turbans, cowpies stacked neatly against the side of simple buildings, women carrying large bundles of sticks, veggies, and grasses on their heads, and numerous colorful trucks, carts pulled by horses or bullocks, and overflowing buses. Finally, at about 11:30 pm, we arrived in Delhi after nearly 12 hours of driving. We were at the airport with PLENTY of time to spare.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Avalokiteshvara and a Cockroach

Off to one side was a collection of writings from Buddha – over 100 volumes, sutras and tantras neatly wrapped in smaller rectangular packages with orange fabric, creating what reminded me of a fabric-coated card catalog.
Behind a grilled gate was a series of large golden statues, including one of a multi-armed and headed Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. Butter lamps reminded me of ornate chalice-like cups. A cockroach scuttled on the polished surface towards an aluminum bucket.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Inside the Tsuglagkhang Temple

Considering the importance of the temple and the ornateness of the one at Norbulingka, I was a bit surprised to see that it was such a simple hall. With a light yellow exterior and no carved rainbow-colored doorways, the outside was particularly unpretentious. A sign next to the shoe rack by the open entrance to the temple warned people to “make sure your shoes are not stolen by someone.” Dropping off our shoes but not quite sure how we were to watch our shoes while inside the temple, we proceeded to enter. Sunlight from the upper windows fell onto the warm colored, wooden floor of the temple. The larger back portion of the temple was void of any items, except for the painted Thangka banners hanging across the periphery. In the front directly at the center was a large seated statue of Buddha. In the altar in front of the golden statue, boxes of cookies were piled neatly next to apples and other offering items. Directly in front of the large Buddha statue was an elevated seat draped with gold-colored silk fabric. Normally this would be occupied by the Dalai Lama.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tsuglagkhang Temple Entrance

Up a short hill and through security screening, we had reached the Tsuglagkhang Temple where the Dalai Lama usually held discourses. A Tibetan woman dressed in black walked up to the row of golden prayer wheels, with her young girl in braided pigtails skipping closely behind. Rows of tiny lamps glowed inside a nearby building, with other lamps still containing unlit wicks.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On the Way to the Dalai Lama’s Temple Complex

Back in Dharamsala, we headed down the street that led toward the Tsuglagkhang Complex, located at the southern edge of town and visible from our hotel. On the steps of a small store, three men were engaged in a game of cards. Others sat near a wheeled vendor cart, deeply entrenched in village talk. Tibetan-looking women sat next to their cart, busily knitting additional hats to sell while their young children sat by their side. Other carts contained colorful embroidered caps, turquoise and silver jewelry, chunky beaded necklaces, and the ever-present Kashmiri items. Tibetan music from a tiny shop broadcasted samples of its CDs for sale. Women wearing striped woolen skirts balanced bundles of firewood on their heads. As I paused to take a photo, a young man asked, “Want some hashish?” Nearing the temple complex, we spotted a woman busily selling steamed momos. For pocket change, we enjoyed a few as well.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gyuto Tantric Monastery, Dharamsala

Following our wonderful visit of Norbulingka, our driver took us to the Gyuto Tantric Monastery, a short distance away. Built in 1993, the monastery was rather simple in design and lacked the decorative enthusiasm of Norbulingka. Bright colors still were present, with the red robes of the monks contrasting against the yellow buildings, which were framed by the distant mountains and brilliant clear blue sky.

 Single lines of laundered socks were strung in the small balconies of some of the monks’ residences. We arrived there when it was lunchtime and saw monks carrying a plate of rice and bananas. A young boy monk proceeded to walk down the steps with his lunch, careful not to trip in his too-large sandals. Framing the stairways were rows of tree-sized hibiscus plants in red and white, along with many rose bushes. Scattered throughout the grounds were light poles powered by solar energy.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Deden Tsuglagkhang Temple, Norbulingka (Dharamsala)

A stone structure with colorful wooden ornamentation, yellow framed windows, and the golden Tibetan symbols of the two deer & wheel of life near the top of the building, the Deden Tsuglagkhang Temple’s architecture embodies what I had anticipated a Tibetan Buddhist temple to look like. In the porch-like area in the front, bright red pillars were ornamented near the top by painted flowers. Large Thangka murals of Buddhist scenes in a flame-like style balanced the walls between the entry door. A brightly painted wooden doorframe with geometric designs and Chinese-like dog symbols formed the doorframe.

A sheer white curtain over the entrance fluttered in the breeze, quietly inviting guests. Inside, attention was brought to the 14ft (4.3 m) gilded copper statue of the Buddha, surrounded by a carved, gold-gilded wooden curved panel.

 To the left, two large banners with Thangka Appliqué hung nearly 2/3 down to the wooden floor. More Thangka murals covered the interior walls, along with decorative elements in all colors and a bright yellow ceiling.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Norbulingka Sculpture Room

In still another building, a few people were working on larger, more dimensional pieces. A motorcycle helmet was placed near the wooden shavings and tools, with its owner carving an incense box. Novices start with pine wood and then graduate up to using teak. Carved dragons slithered their way up the sides and top of an incredibly detailed cabinet, whose designs were created in high relief and through negative spaces carved out using a traditional bamboo fret saw and chisels.

One young man was pounding copper sheeting in a form that looked like a helmet. Two others were working on the copper bust area of a Buddha sculpture the size of a child. Another was hunched over a Buddha only 2 inches high, tapping in details with metal tools. A larger-than-life Buddha sculpture waited for its second hand to be attached. Craftsmen would typically start with using copper and then utilize gold. These sculptures would take about a month to complete.

Thangka Appliqué, Dharamsala

Next door, people were working on an equally tedious artform – Thangka Appliqué. Like the Thangka paintings, the fabric designs were very detailed and contained Buddhist motifs rendered in bright colors. In the first step, the powder design is transferred to the cloth through a hole punching method. Fabric of varying patterns and colors were cut into shapes and then sewed by hand onto the cloth. From 300-400 pieces are used on a typical Thangka. The all-important details are intricately stitched using silk thread combined with Mongolian horsehair. Once mounted on plain white cotton backing, the image is then framed in a brocade border. According to our guide, it would typically take one person about 4-5 months to finish one Thangka appliqué, or about 19 days for 20 people.

Read more about Appliqué Thanka at

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Thangka Painting, Dharamsala

Seated on low cushions in a sunny wooden floored room were a group of painters intensely working on their canvases. Stretched over a wooden frame with an adjustable tension cord, the gessoed cotton canvas surface was then polished with a smooth stone or glass until no canvas texture remained. One artist was drawing his intricate traditional (and fairly prescribed) design on the canvas with a pencil. Others were applying natural pigment paint to the surface with small brushes, ensuring that brushstrokes were not apparent. Colors were tested on the artist’s hand. The detailed painting is embellished in gold and then mounted in silk brocade. A Thangka painting can take between 18 days to one month to complete.

Norbulingka Architecture Symbolism

According to our guide, the architecture of Norbulingka is heavily based on the Buddha of compassion. Its U-shaped arrangement symbolizes the 1,000 arms of the Buddha, which can simultaneously help many people. Windows represented eyes. The main building represented the head. Even the varying parts of the grounds had meaning – such as the legs and heart.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Norbulingka Insitute, Dharamsala

Recommended by both my guidebook and our hotel manager, we went to visit the Norbulingka Insitute, a short drive outside of Dharamsala. This institute aims to preserve Tibetan culture, particularly its arts and crafts. Through the traditional Tibetan entryway with its painted doorframe, I could already see the gardens that gave the site its tranquility (Norbulingka means “jewel garden” in Tibetan). Here, flat rocks were stacked neatly to form banks along the flowing water. Others were placed alongside each other to form a pavement, on which the dappled light danced. Stones formed an altar, from which streamers of prayer flags were hung. Women, part of the 435 people employed here, picked up fallen leaves by hand. Benches were scattered throughout, providing a place to admire and reflect. Modeled after a Japanese garden, the landscape emphasized a feeling of tranquility, so different from the hustle and bustle of chaotic Delhi, where we were just two days prior.

See more photos of the Norbulingka Institute on my Flickr Dharamsala page

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Colors Fluttering in the Breeze

After a short tour through the streets and a visit to the Tibetan Children’s Village handicraft shop (where singing bowls and a few other gifts were purchased), we headed back to our hotel. Streamers of prayer flags in front of our room’s windows were now silhouetted against the colorful bands of the sunset. Off in another direction, the moon peeked in between two rows of flags, announcing that nightfall was here. For dinner, we enjoyed homemade carrot soup and local dishes that were as colorful as they were tasty.

See more photos of Dharamsala on my Flickr Page