25 July 2009

The Immortal Love

Almost 400 years ago, a young king named Shah Jahan was the ruler of the vast Moghul Empire in northern India. In those days, there existed a market place in which only women were allowed, in which courtly women could shop and socialize free from the company of men- with one exception: the King, of course. One day, the King was visiting the marketplace, and his eyes met those of a remarkable young woman. She was well-educated (rare in those days), beautiful and quite intelligent, and the two fell in Love at first sight. He was only 21; she 19, but their Love was timeless, and they soon married, and from then on she was called Mumtaz Mahal. The King had other wives, would have more later, but these were all political marriages; this was his only marriage of Love. Mumtaz Mahal was a great Queen. She participated in many political decisions (her name and seal can be found on many documents), she was an advocate for the poor, she traveled with the King even on his military conquests. In 20 years together, they had 14 children, and lived a charmed, royal life; alas she died giving birth to their 14th child.
As she lay dying, the King wanted to go with her, but she told him that such matters were in the hands of the gods, not their own. But she did ask the King for one promise- to make their Love immortal. The King, heartbroken, brought her body to a new site in Agra, buried her in a tomb, and proceeded to build around her the greatest monument to Love in the world, the most beautiful and perfect building ever built, the Taj Mahal.
We went there today, and it is stunningly moving. 20,000 workers took 22 years to build it. Specialists were brought in from all over the known world; calligraphers, marble workers, semi-precious stone carvers, architects, artists and engineers from India, Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey and elsewhere. Semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli, malachite, black onyx, mother of pearl, agate, abalone, jasper and turquoise were brought in from everywhere (turquoise is from Turkey, i never put that together before). Huge slabs of white marble were brought in from the Indian desert over 300 kilometers away on the backs of a thousand elephants. The craftsmen lived on site during the construction, and contrary to rumor, they were not hurt or killed after it was built, they only had to promise never to build such a design again.
The attention to detail and degree of planning are amazing. The 4 minarets are angled ever so slightly outward so that in the case of earthquake, they would fall outward, and not damage the main building. The arabic letters on the building that were made of single pieces of black onyx got larger as they went up, so that to the eye at ground level they would all appear to be the same size. Negative space domes carved out of the side match exactly the main dome, as if they were neatly scooped out and placed at the top. Marble was inlaid with tiny pieces of semiprecious stones depicting flowers, made of dozens of tiny, intricately carved pieces glued into placed and rubbed with sandstone until the walls were smooth and shiny.

In person, it still looks like a postcard. Word cannot express the incredible beauty and majesty of it. I never thought a building could move me so, and surely it's the story too, but the building itself is gorgeous. And today i saw it with my Love, my Mumtaz. 14 years ago I saw the Taj and dreamed of returning with my True Love, and to-day I did just that.
In the end, Shah Jahan was deposed by his son, who imprisoned his father in a fort across the river for the remainder of his days. But at least he had a clear view of the Taj and the tomb of his Mumtaz Mahal, to forever contemplate their immortal Love.

An Indian Joke

Heard this joke today. Let me know if it works without the heavy accent, cultural context, and curious syntax.

An Indian man, a British man, and a Chinese man were working in construction, and every day they took their lunch together on the roof of the building on which they were working. Every day, they ate the same thing. After a while it became too much, they couldn't take the monotony of their lunches any more, and all 3 jumped off the roof to their deaths. Their wives were grieving together, and the Indian wife said, "if only he would have told me he wanted something different, I would have prepared something new each day!" The British wife said similarly "I too would have made a different lunch for my husband if he had only told me!". The Chinese wife then said, "I don't understand, my husband prepared his own lunches!"

23 July 2009

the good, the bad and the stinky

We've been here a week, and it seems like forever. California seems like another lifetime. India is an assault on the senses, true sensory overload, so much to see and smell and hear.
Cows and goats, elephants and monkeys, dogs and donkeys, pigs and chickens, all share the roads with pedestrians, bicyclists, cycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, motorcycles, ox carts, cars and buses, all making their own noise, announcing their presence, cajoling others to get out of their way. In general, the bigger you are, the more you have the right of way, but there are ways of doing things, and you get there eventually. In touristed cities like Delhi and Varanasi, they are somewhat used to seeing foreigners, but in small towns, like the one we trekked to for the eclipse, they rarely see non-indians, and they crowd and stare. Heather and I felt like Brad and Angelina driving through town. They stare like mad, but they are just curious, and quick to smile or wave hello. The ones that speak a little English, and there are many, even in small towns, will quickly say Hi, How are You, What is your Country, or any other phrase they know. I, in turn, am trying to pick up a little hindi (tori tori hindi), and so I reply asking What is your Name, or How are you, the only Hindi phrases i've got down so far.
Other useful Hindi is Namaste, of course used for Hello and Goodbye, and meaning "I honor the god(dess) inside you, and chalo chalo! which means hurry up, or let's go, or you go away. That one is very useful. and when i say ask Aapke naam kya hai, (what is your name), and they ask me excitedly You speak Hindi?, all i can reply (so far) is "tori tori hindi", meaning a very little hindi.
Now the bad, to be perfectly honest, we didn't see much of the eclipse, what can i say, we road tripped to Taregana, which was filled with scientists and declared by NASA to be the best place to watch, but when the time came, the clouds were thick and angry. Don't get me wrong, it was still a fantastic, spectacular experience. It got very dark, suddenly so at the end, and the energy and spirit of the moment was certainly with us, we just didn't get a clear view. There are many lessons for me in this. Opening my throat chakra, which makes comparisons to others and is the seat of jealousy when closed. when open, one realizes that we are each unique with our own path and experiences, which frees us to experience our own Godhood. Also, I must remember to not be so active; when one is doing doing doing, there is less room for the Universe to offer its bounties. But the experience was still amazingly wonderful. We got a car and driver for the day, and drove a long way to the small town of Taregana, which, as i mentioned, does not see many tourists. Every so often our driver would stop and ask for directions, it was such a small town. When we arrived, we were directed to a small school which was ready for eclipse visitors. We slept in a dorm with a few other people, and while the night was fitful for us, the mosquitoes had a good time. the next morning we climbed up to the roof to watch, and were joined by a couple other westerners and lots of Indian tourists. We talked while waiting, and when the time came, we were all awestruck by the majesty of darkness an hour after dawn, and the second dawn that day. The road took us through a lot of beautiful countryside, rice paddies, small villages with straw huts, open air marketplaces, and so much beauty and scenery that we had not seen until then. so the trip was very much worth it, despite the clouds.
Varanasi is a crazy city, a holy city on the Ganges river (Ganga in Hindi, with both hard g's), but very busy and very touristed. it seems that everyone wants to sell us something. boat rides, silk, jewelry, massages, everything. i'm getting back into the feel of turning them down with a smile and a Namaste. even the silk dealers let us off the hook eventually when i explain that to us, money in India means time in India. they soften up after that.
Tonight, in just a couple hours actually, we get back on a train and head for Agra. it's an overnight train, and we've got 2nd class tickets, which means A/C, and 2 bunks on each side of the train, one upper and lower. a higher class gives you your own car, overkill for us, and lower classes give 3 bunks per side, or just a chair in the lowest class. it's actually pretty cozy, and we end up talking to any traincar-mates that we have. We are heading west, to see the Taj Mahal in Agra, with a side trip to Krishna's hometown of Vrindavin along the way. That's another holy town, where not many tourists go, where spiritual pilgrimages by westerners are respected. The Taj is not open on Fridays, because it has a working mosque, so we will see it on Saturday, at sunrise hopefully. Then we head deeper into the desert, for camel rides, an elephant ride to a temple on top of a hill, and ancient astronomical observatories.
vids and new pics are posted on my facebook page.