India: Cultural Enlightenment

In April 2014, we embarked on a month-long adventure, soaking up the vibrant cultural heritage of India including a short visit to Nepal. We received a solid education on Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam of the Mughals. In addition to visiting ancient monuments, passing through many farming villages made it abundantly clear that we were really traveling to a completely different world. Everywhere, women were dressed in richly colored saree, makeshift tents often served as housing, and cows and goats wandered obliviously through the streets or simply lounged on the roadside. As much as we found the people fascinating, our presence seemed to have aroused their curiosity as well. Many friendly locals lined up asking to have our picture taken with them.

New Delhi
04/01-02/14: New Delhi is the capital and 3rd largest city in India. We started the day at Lakshmi Narayan Temple (Birla Mandir), the largest working Hindu temple in Delhi. Narayan is another name for Vishnu the Preserver, one of the Trimurthi trinity along with Brahma the Creator and Shiva the Destructor. Lakshmi is the female consort of Vishnu or Narayan. The Lakshmi shrine and statue were elaborately bejeweled and covered with designer fabric that are changed weekly. We arrived in time for the beginning of a 9-day festival filled with fasting and floral leighs. Then, we took a drive around the seat of government: Parliament Building, President’s Residence and India Gate monument. Ended the day with Kashmir carpet weaving demonstration to support artisans in the war-torn region. Treated with sumptuous meals of curry and naan.

The next day, we continued our visit to monuments from the Mughal Dynasty. Humayun’s Tomb oldest Mughal monument & served as an inspiration for Taj Mahal. Jama Masjid, known as the Great Mosque of Old Delhi, was built by Shah Jahan Mughal emperor of Taj Majal & Red Fort’s fame. Enjoyed a rickshaw ride in vicinity through vibrant Old Delhi markets full of spice, flowers, vegetables, bangles and other colorful wares. Finally, visited Qutab Minar 12th century victory tower of the Slave Dynasty. We admired the intricate carvings of Hindu temple later turned mosque.

04/04-05/14: Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is nestled at the base of the Himalayas. Swayambhunath better known as the Monkey Temple serves as a place of worship for both Hindus and Buddhist. The temple is inhabited by numerous, playful macaus who swim and hang out in various corners of the structures. In Kathmandu’s Durbar Square, we visited several palaces and temples, including the Temple of the Living Goddess, where a young preteen girl serves each year. Finally, Bodhnath Stupa is a huge Buddhist stupa shaped like a mandala from above and surrounded by various crafts shops. The kids learned to use the prayer wheel and watched artists create beautiful Thanka painting.

Explored 3 quaint medieval towns in the Kathmandu Valley:
Took a leisurely hike up to Changu Naryan, passing colorful shops. Walked along cobbled streets of Bhaktapur to witness the Nepali New Year Festivals in main square. Finally, visited the charming town of Patan.

04/07/14: Konark Sun Temple is an impressive complex of sandstone engraved deities & Kama sutra scenes, 24 wheels which serve an accurate sundials, and 7 horses pulling the chariot prayer hall. The main hall is now filled with sand to prevent collapse. The dancing hall mathematically mark the equinox and solstice. Took unpaved roads through small farming villages, stopping for numerous cows and goats crossing. Spent an afternoon outing along the beach of seaside resort town of Puri. Kids delighted at chasing scuttling crabs. Lively beach nightlife with shops, camel rides, and wandering cows and goats.

04/09-13/14: Thus began our 6-day road trip along the south east coast of India,; we were fortunate to have a knowledgeable driver, who spoke good English who showed us various aspects of village life, customs, and crafts. We met up with local English-speaking tour guides at each location.

India SE Coast
In Mahabalipuram, we visited various monolithic granite & marble carved structures: Krishna Butterball, Arjuna Penance, Shore Temple, and 5 Ratchas from the 7th – 9th century. Our 1st guide today introduced himself as Stalin, the neighborhood friendly communist.

Pondicherry is a seaside resort known for the Auroville meditation site with a giant golden lotus dome. The highlight for the entire India trip was when the kids were thrilled to play with and feed the temple elephant Lakshmi. We caught a hilarious video clip of DD giving the elephant an offering. The elephant blessing the child’s face with her trunk then seemingly wiping off the human “ick” on her legs.

Kumbakonam is known as a the city of 1,000 temples. Visited Gagankoinda Temple built by Raja Raja emperors of Chola Dynasty in 12th century with Dravidian architecture. Bottom structures carved elaborately from granite but upper portions reconstructed using the brick and mortar. Most of the temples in these southern regions of India are focused more on Shiva, his consort Pavarti, his children Ganesha with the elephant head and Madorga. Made a quick roadside stop to observe rope spinning technique from coconut fibers. Kids made their own jump ropes.

In Tanjore or Thanjavur, famed for its bronze casting, the 9th generation artisan demonstrated the process of shaping with beeswax + resin, making a mold with clay, melting the wax embryo then casting with bronze mixture of metals tin, iron, copper, gold, and silver representing the elements. The flame is fueled by charcoal and cow dung. The great temple walls were lined with Nandi cow statues representing Shiva and the lingam male-female structure. Watched a colorful procession to welcome rainy season and hence mangos! Visited yet another temple in Trichy or Tiruchirapalli.

Madurai is the wedding site between Shiva and Pavarti. Thus, the Meenakshi Temple is a popular spot for wedding, fertility rituals and apparently sex education. Temple closes from noon to 4pm, so the gods can lunch and enjoy an afternoon nap. This location had strict security due to a recent bombing incident.

04/14-18/14: The original plan was to continue with temple hopping and visiting other world heritage sites. However, we seriously needed a break at this point and took a 5-day detour break at the luxurious Leela Palace Hotel in Mumbai where we enjoy some night relaxation, great food, and early mangos. Although we spent more time in Mumbai than any other city, we actually did no sightseeing and know it the least.

Cave Temples
04/19-20/14: Took a pre-dawn flight from Mumbai to Aurangabad to visit the ancient Ellora and Ajanta Caves. These are the world’s largest monolithic structures carved into soft basalt rocks of the dormant volcano. The temple structures were slowly carved across the span of a millennium along pilgrimage route to provide shelter for devotees during the monsoon season. These temples were first dugout from top to bottom up to 3 stories tall. Then they were intricately decorated from the exterior to the interior. They were quite an engineering and artistic marvel.

The Ellora Cave temples were grouped into 3 kinds. The temples of Jainism always had the 24th saint centered between male-female statues and other iconic symbols. The Buddhist temples often had a giant sitting Buddha in a large arched prayer hall that resembled the rib-cage of a giant elephant. Finally, the most impressive of the Hindu temples includes giant Shiva sculptures and wall reliefs of the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. The entire complex is structured in a chariot’s form and surrounded by giant elephants, columns, and towering statues.

The Ajanta Caves contain over 30 Buddhist temple prayer halls and monasteries lined around a horseshoe shape. The interior of these structures were brilliantly decorated with dry fresco paintings.

04/21-22/14: Agra was the capital of the Mughal Dynasty and home of the famed Taj Mahal. We started at Akbar’s Tomb and learn how this great emperor promoted tolerance by incorporating symbols of all the major religions of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity into all his architectural details and even married 3 wives: a Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. He is remembered for his great deeds despite being illiterate because his father had been in exiled during Akbhar childhood, so he was not able to receive proper education. The grounds provide refuge for wild antelope which had been driven out of the jungles due to construction.

The Agra Fort was an impressive structure built of red sandstone. It was well protected with crocodile infested moat, outer courtyard of lions, tigers & bears, and a sloped entrance where giant folders and burning hot oil greeted intruders. The interior boasted the lavish palaces of Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. Sadly, many of the precious gem that once adorned the walls have been looted under British rule. The fort provided Shah Jahan the view of Taj Mahal across the river during the final days while imprisoned by his succeeding emperor and son Aurenzeb.

The Taj Mahal, the majestic tomb of hard, while marble, was built by Shah Jahan for his favorite wife Mumtaz. Supposedly, he fell in love with her while visiting a women’s bazaar at the marketplace in Agra Fort and the 2 were inseparable. For 19 years together, she bore him umpteen children and ultimately died in childbirth. Her dying request was for a monument to be built in honor of their love. The octagonal monument with 4 minarets took 22 years to build and is the epitome of absolute symmetry. A building was constructed on the right solely to balance the mosque on the left. Legend says, Shah Jahan intended to build a matching tomb of black marble facing the Taj Mahal. Both emperor and empress are now entombed within. There was so much pollution in Agra that the white marble was beginning to yellow. The government eliminated all industries within the city borders. Only battery powered vehicles, horses, and camels are permitted as transportation to the monument’s vicinity.

The Fatehmah Sikri is situated 40 km outside of the city of Agra. Akbhar originally came to the town asking for a saint’s blessing for heirs. When his wish was granted, he moved his capital here for 17 years and obtaining fresh water became a problem. Then, they moved back to Agra.

04/23/14: We took a train from Agra to Jhansi and went on a short drive to Orchha. Orchhas was ruled by a local king who paid tribute to the Mughal Emperors. An exquisite 3-story palace complex was built for Jahangir’s visit and was only used for 1 night.

04/24/14: Khajuraho is a small town with a population of only 3,000. On the morning before departure, DH made a quick visit to their local temple, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

04/25-26/14: The holy city of Varanasi along the Ganges River is the oldest living city. It is a contemporary of Luxor and Babylon. Hindus believe that if they die within the city’s border and are cremated here, they will break the cycle of birth-death-rebirth to attain moksha. Thus there are free cooperative housing for the elderly and dying. Crematoriums run 24-hours in contrast to elsewhere which run from sunrise to sunset. We took a evening cruise of the Ganges River to watch the Aarti ritual performed by 7 priests.

Sarnath is considered the birthplace of Buddhism and was also center of Buddhism for a millennium, established by King Ashoka. This is the site where the newly enlightened Buddha came to deliver his 1st sermon to the 5 Hindu priests and 55 noblemen. The ancient site is now archeological remains. A replica of the main temple was built by devotees of Sri Lanka. A deer park is situated adjacent to the sites to commemorate the story of the golden deer when Buddha sacrificed himself to a hunter in order to save a doe.

04/27-28/14: Our visit coincided with India’s national election. It was interesting to see campaign processions through the villages with loudspeakers blaring. Locals even show their political affiliation by painting party colors the horns on their working cattle. Finally, we were able to enjoy some early ripened mangoes but sadly, we just miss the peak season by a couple of week.

India Trip: Reading List

Here’s some favorites from our reading list and study resources in preparation for our upcoming extended field trip to India. Most of the books were free from our local library, but the Illustrated Indian epics were worth ordering.

Hindu Stories by Anita Gainer
Stories from India by Anna Milbourne
The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India by Marcia Williams
Ganesha’s Sweet Tooth by Emily Haynes
Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni
The Fantastic Adventures of Krishna by Demi
Buddha by Demi
Buddha Stories by Demi
Taj Mahal by Caroline Arnold
Gandhi by Demi

Illustrated Ramayana for Children by India Epic
Illustrated Mahabharata for Childre by Indian Epic
The Little Book of Hindu Deities by Sanjay Patel

Little Krishna episodes on youtube
Story of India (DVD)
Religions Of The World/Our World Faiths Animated (DVD)