Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category

Relaxing in God’s Own Country, Kerala Style

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

251_thumbnail Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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God’s Own Country …an outrageously ambitious tag-line for the southern Indian state of Kerala conjured up by a wizard at an advertising agency for the state’s tourism department. Surprisingly, this epithet really fits this tiny but beautiful state and has resulted in huge numbers of people coming here to discover for themselves the charms of Kerala.  How can one even begin to describe the amazing natural beauty of Kerala? Lush green hills, their slopes covered with verdant forests bearing unique medicinal herbs and plantations of the most aromatic exotic spices – cardamom, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace as well as coffee and cashew nuts.  Kerala boasts of a coastline with an ancient legacy – from the time of the Romans to the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, there have been major trading ports located here. Kerala is home to endless rice paddies, tender green at first and then changing to a burnished gold as the rice ripens.  And then of course, Kerala is synonymous with the ‘Backwaters’ – those languid channels of water that run parallel to the Arabian Sea where the brackish sea water and fresh-waters of rivers meet.

Journey Through India, the latest offering by Smithsonian Journeys allows for a fascinating exploration of the many aspects of India and culminates in Kerala, God’s Own Country. After twenty days of being in North and Western India, we flew from Mumbai, the bustling financial capital of India to Kochi, one of the major cities of Kerala.  As the aeroplane flew low over the city, one could see hundreds of coconut trees in every direction. No wonder, this state was named Kerala for kera means coconut. After landing in Kochi, we transferred to a coach which was to take us to the backwaters. Driving through the countryside was fascinating – Kerala is amongst one of the most developed states in India with a high standard of living and this really shows in the grand shopping malls, majestic apartment complexes and fancy homes we passed as we drove along.

Soon, our bus got off the main highway and onto a narrow country road. We stopped near a village surrounded by verdant green rice fields and the ubiquitous coconut palms. A few minutes of walking got us to our astonishing quarters for the next two nights – an impressive rice-boat cruising down the beautiful palm-fringed placid backwaters. We get on-board and are led to a beautiful open to the sky deck where hot tea and snacks await us. Even as we are drinking in all the beauty, it is time to set off. We watch a beautiful sunset and all the Smithsonian travellers get out their cameras to capture the beauty of the backwaters in the glow of the setting sun.

The rice boats that ply on the backwaters are known as Kettuvallams and are made from a local wood called anjali, planks of which are tied together with coconut coir ropes coated with a mix of cashew and fish oil. Once upon a time, these boats were a popular way to transport rice but today, rice is shipped by road and these boats have been converted to host tourists and take them down the waterway offered by the backwaters. Sitting on the deck, watching the stars in the clear sky, our group of travellers relax, the calmness and quietness of the balmy night seeping into our souls. We dock for the night and it is time for a lovely dinner cooked on board by the gracious staff.

Next morning, after breakfast, we set off, the coconut and banana fringe on the edge of the backwaters parting now and then to reveal brightly painted homes. We watch people begin their day at the water’s edge – washing their faces, bathing, washing dishes, hanging up washed clothing, filling up water, chasing birds from their fields, walking to work, praying and meditating. There are groups of neatly dressed school children waiting for their boat ride to school – sure beats a boring school bus any day. On the backwaters, fishermen ply their narrow boats, checking on their nets and transporting their catch. Churches appear along the shore, impressive in their soaring height, offering some competition to the tall coconut palm and betel nut palm. A temple or two announce their presence with religious music.

Soon it is time to dock and go for a village walk, the sight and sounds so different from what we have seen so far on this Journey Through India. The villages are more prosperous here, the money being repatriated by people from Kerala working in the Gulf countries and elsewhere. Houses are painted in bright shades and have beautiful verandahs that offer respite from the bright sun. The local flora is fascinating – the flowers, spice plants, medicinal plants and fruit trees in the home gardens offering a glimpse into the reasons why Kerala has been in the forefront of the spice trade and the centre of the ancient Indian healing tradition of Ayurveda.  Back to the boat and some more cruising along the backwaters till we reach an ancient church – there is a baptism going on and the Smithsonian travellers are delighted to view the proceedings in the beautiful church.

After a splendid lunch of traditional Kerala cuisine on the boat, it is time to soak in the sun on the breezy deck and swap stories of travel. We dock at a boat-building yard,  which makes for a fascinating visit. There are new boats being built and old ones being repaired – we see for ourselves the ropes that tie the boat together and how they are water-proofed with the different oils. The boat-builders are very skilful, not stopping for a minute as we walk from boat to boat, the rhythmic sound of their hammers and saws a nice accompaniment to our tour of the yard. Back to the boat in time to catch  yet another gorgeous sunset.

All the travellers are relaxed and refreshed, going over pictures of the places we have seen so far, making plans for other travels. We tuck into another delicious meal and it is time to go to bed for we travel to Kochi next morning. Kochi with its delicious amalgamation of native Kerala traditions and Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences is a story for another time. For the moment, the backwaters and the rice-boat cast their spell and we enjoy every moment of the leisurely languorous mood here.

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

The Taj Effect

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

251_thumbnail Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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“There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who have seen the Taj Mahal and love it and those who have not seen the Taj and love it.” Truly this comment by former US President Bill Clinton sums up the magic and mystique of the Taj Mahal, perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. An ode to love, the deep abiding love of a King for his beloved Queen, the Taj Mahal is one of the most visited monuments in the world.

A symbol of everlasting love, the Taj Mahal figures high on the list of reasons why the travellers choose to come to India on the Smithsonian Journey’s Mystical India trip. And surely, the Taj Mahal never disappoints. If anything, the Taj is even more beautiful than one had ever dreamt of. On every Mystical India Trip, I have watched our guests stand in the presence of this awe-inspiring monument, their eyes widening to take in the wonderful vista of a snowy white building arising almost out of nowhere.

Built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum that took over 22 years to build.  The great Indian poet, writer and artist Rabindranath Tagore, the first Indian and non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature described the Taj Mahal as ‘a teardrop’ which ‘glistens spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, forever and ever’.  The Taj Mahal is primarily made of gleaming white marble from Makrana in Rajasthan and inlaid with 28 precious and semi-precious stones. The surrounding mosque, guesthouse and gateway are a great blend of marble and sandstone. Pattern and prayers abound on the exterior walls of the Taj Mahal complex – the pietra dura or inlay work comprises of beautiful flowers, geometric pattern and verses from the holy Koran.

On a recent Mystical India trip, guests could not stop clicking pictures of the Taj Mahal from the moment they had their first glimpse of this beautiful edifice from the grand entrance gateway. As the first rays of the sun fell on the perfect white marble onion domes and the walls inlaid with semi-precious stones, the Taj Mahal seemed to be enveloped in a wonderful golden glow. The Taj Mahal always exceeds expectations, appearing grander and much more magnificent than one has imagined. As they walked closer to the Taj Mahal, it seemed to fill their senses, looming larger than life with each step. Truly, nothing can compete with being at the Taj Mahal in person.

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

Diwali Fervour

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

251_thumbnailMinhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art, and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization promoting arts and crafts as livelihood. Minhazz has served as a development consultant for the government of India and for many Indian NGOs and has extensive experience leading groups through India.

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Coming to India is a sure tryst with colour, verve and vibrancy. And if you come in time for the biggest Hindu festival, Diwali (held in October or November as per the lunar calendar), you are in for a super-sized magnificent celebration that exceeds your imagination.  Diwali or Deepavali is one of India’s most well-known festivals and is celebrated with gaiety and pomp throughout the country. The name Deepavali comprises of two words – deep meaning light and avali referring to a row -   the name thus translates to a row of lights.  A festival of bright lights, fireworks, beautiful floor paintings called rangolis, beautiful new clothes, mouth-watering delicacies and sweets, Diwali is an opportunity to spend wonderful moments with loved ones.

Like many other Indian festivals, Diwali has its roots in ancient times when it must have started off as an important harvest festival. Several myths revolve around Diwali and thus it is a celebration with multiple meanings spread over five days. In North India, Diwali celebrates the return of Lord Rama, the hero of the Indian epic Ramayana who was banished to 14 years of exile by his father King Dashrath to fulfil a wish made to Rama’s step-mother Queen Kaikeyi. Rama, the heir to the throne, is a dutiful son and leaves for the forest accompanied by his wife Sita and younger brother Lakshmana. In the forest, Sita is abducted by the demon-king of Sri Lanka, Ravana and taken away to his island kingdom. Rama, aided by his devotees including Hanuman, the monkey-god, wages a battle with Ravana and brings Sita back. Diwali marks the night Rama comes back to Ayodhya, the capital of his kingdom with Sita and Lakshmana after 14 long years. The people of Ayodhya are joyous and light up the night with row upon row of oil lamps to celebrate his return, a practice followed even today.

Diwali also symbolizes the victory of Lord Krishna over the demon Narakaasura who troubled the gopis ( milk-maids) of Vrindavan. In the south of India, Diwali celebrates the defeat of Bali, a demon king by Lord Vishnu who appeared before him in his avatar as Vamana, the dwarf. The king offered to fulfil any wish and Vamana asked for three paces of land. The moment Bali agreed, Vishnu assumed his magnificent form – with one stride, he covered heaven, with the second, the nether-world. Bali in humility offered his head for the third stride and in doing so, attained immortality. Vishnu made him the king of the underworld and Diwali is the one day Bali is allowed to return to Earth so that his devotion to Lord Vishnu and his good deeds can be celebrated.

The Feminine is not forgotten on Diwali – Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu who is the goddess of wealth and prosperity is worshipped in every home. In India, ‘spring cleaning’ happens in autumn before Diwali as homes are renovated, painted and cleaned thoroughly in Goddess Lakshmi’s honour. Beautiful floor patterns called rangolis are made with rice-flour, coloured powders or flowers in different parts of the country. In the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, Diwali brings the worship of Goddess Kali, the fierce deity who represents power.

For our group, what better place to await Diwali than the holy city of Varanasi, one of the most sacred pilgrimage centres for Hindus all over the world. Even though Diwali was the day after the group was leaving for US, all of India was caught up in anticipation of this amazing festival. In fact, from the moment the trip started in New Delhi, Diwali ‘fever’ was in the air. The road to Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India was lined with shops selling fireworks and guests were able to see people buying up myriad crackers for Diwali. Colourful banners advertising the major firework brands lined the narrow streets of Chandi Chowk where we went for our rickshaw ride – a spell-binding ride if ever there was one.

En-route to the Dera Village retreat and thereafter to the city of Jaipur, the highway was punctuated by colourful stalls selling brightly hued yarn and tinsel-embellished truck decorations as well as black tassels to remove the evil eye, beautiful scarves, pennants, etc. For a truck driver, the truck is not just a machine – she is a beautiful woman, precious to the truck-driver and deserves to be gifted with ornaments. The stalls were a photographer’s delight – row upon row of intense colour and bling, a quintessential India image.

As our trip progressed, so did the Diwali ‘fever’ accelerate across the cities we visited. In Jaipur, all the markets were being decorated with strings of bright silver and gold tinsel spread out like a canopy overhead. Loops of lights were being festooned from one building to another and colourful fabric gates were being erected on all major roads – the bamboo scaffolding for the gates were like gigantic art installation in themselves. Stalls selling terracotta lamps or diyas  were prominent in all the markets. Stores dealing in electric lights and lamps were not far behind in advertising their wares by stringing up these lamps right out in the street from trees, bamboo poles or street-lights. Clothing stores, showrooms for cars and electric goods, furniture shops – each shop was bedecked as a bride with bright flowers, fabric pennants and fairy lights beckoning customers to come over. Customarily, most Indians invest in new appliances, clothing and vehicles at Diwali and it is a bountiful time for these stores.

Our last stop, Varanasi, was especially brightly lit up for Diwali was just a day away. Our boat-ride was magical that evening with the lights on the ghats. Early in the morning, there was a mile-long queue of devotees waiting to get into the Vishvanath temple as it was the auspicious day of Dhanteras, the day to worship Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Kubera, the deities representing wealth and prosperity. It is also a day to buy metal – precious ones like gold and silver  or less expensive ones such as steel and iron. During our bus ride through the city, we saw utensil store display a wealth of steel vessels, containers, pitchers and lunch-boxes. Another interesting and eye-catching display seen across the city were temporary stalls selling clay images of Lakshmi and Ganesha, ranging from plain terracotta colour to poly-chrome painted ones. Everyone in the group could not resist clicking pictures of these statues. Varanasi was well and truly geared up to celebrate Diwali and so were we!!

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To learn more about our Mystical India tour, click here!

Climbing to Great Heights – The Potala Palace

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Ingrid Larsen is a Chinese art historian and specialist in early Chinese painting. She did her doctoral training at the University of Michigan and Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and received national scholarships from the National Academy of Sciences and the Fulbright Commission. While a Chinese language student in Taiwan in the 1980s, Ingrid worked at the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and more recently was a consultant for the permanent Ancient China exhibition in the newly opened National Museum of China in Beijing in 2010–11. From 1997–2007 she worked on the project to catalogue the Song and Yuan dynasty paintings in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, and has published on the formation of Charles Lang Freer’s Chinese painting collection. In 2012 she served as editor for a catalogue and exhibition of modern Chinese calligraphy at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University entitled Pictures of the Mind: The Art of Wang Fangyu. Her current research focuses on the emergence of Chinese art collections in American museums and private collections during the 19th and 20th centuries. Ingrid has been traveling to China for three decades, and spent five years living in Beijing––most recently 2009–2010.

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IMG_4890-Potala515

Lhasa, a trophy destination for 19th century explorers, is still a remote and mysterious place. When I first visited Lhasa in 1984 we endured a three hour bus ride on a bumpy dirt road from the airport. A new highway and tunnel has cut that trip in half.  Back then, Lhasa was a dusty, dilapidated town with wild dogs and open sewers. Today the city is much tidier. Paved roads, traffic lights, sidewalks, and public parks are signs of progress. Despite change, nothing can diminish the towering magnificence of the Potala Palace that tapers towards the sky and reaches an altitude of 12,500 feet on a mountain in the center of Lhasa.  The Potala was the winter residence and political-spiritual nerve center for successive Dalai Lamas who ruled Tibet since the 17th century.  Its fortress-like architecture comprised of the Red and White Palaces embellished with brilliant gold roof tops, is a beacon for Buddhist pilgrims and travelers from around the globe.

IMG_4702-SI-group-at-Potala515The morning our group visited the Potala, we joined the flocks of Tibetan pilgrims and began to climb the zigzagging stair ramps that lead up to the Palace. Feeling the altitude, we paced ourselves and rested on the landing of each stair set before pushing on to the next. Local pilgrims caught up, urged us on with their smiles, and then scampered upward with sure feet and adequate oxygen. At last we reached the top where a family of pilgrims sat on the final steps––savoring a snack and a spectacular view across the Lhasa valley. The women were striking, each wearing three large salmon-color coral beads woven into their hair. Tibetans cherish coral for its medicinal qualities and treat it as a hereditary gem. Our local guide identified the pilgrims as a tribe from a distant region in Tibet. For them as for us, this was a once in a life-time experience.IMG_4711-Pilgrims-climbing-to-Potala515

After reaching the top, we were first ushered into the White Palace to view the Dalai Lama’s main ceremonial hall and throne, private rooms, and a library lined with Buddhist sutras and historical texts. As our eyes adjusted to the interior light, every surface was super-charged with an explosion of color. Painted murals and hanging scrolls dressed the walls with Buddhist deities and historical scenes. Fabric banners and canopies embroidered or appliqued with the “eight auspicious symbols” were draped from ceilings and pillars. Thick Tibetan carpets woven with wool from highland sheep covered the floors and cushioned the seats where monks meditate daily. Here color seems equivalent to spiritual energy.IMG_4717-SI-traveler-climbing-stairs-at-Potala515

Then, through a tunnel-like passage, we entered a more sacred space in the Red Palace and were dazzled by the halls containing lavishly decorated burial stupas with the remains of past Dalai Lamas. Here the pungent smell of yak butter and incense smoke bespoke the daily rituals of monks who worship their past spiritual leaders. One of the most impressive and sacred stupa tombs belongs to the fifth Dalai Lama who is credited with initiating the construction of the Potala Palace in 1648. Standing 41 feet tall, the stupa is adorned with turquoise, coral, pearls and semi-precious stones and gilded with roughly 3,700 kg (8,157 lbs) of gold––amounting to 150 million US dollars at current values for the gold alone. Much of the wealth of Tibet is concentrated in these halls.IMG_4876-Potala515

As we left the Potala and started our descent into Lhasa city, one person puzzled about what happened to all the cultural and historic relics in the Palace during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the Red Guard demolished many monasteries around Tibet. The Potala was spared at the insistence of Chairman Mao’s comrade, Zhou Enlai, who reportedly deployed his own troops to protect it. Zhou Enlai is also the patron saint who saved the Forbidden City.

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Read more about upcoming departures of our Classic China and Tibet tour.

Standing In Awe of Buddha

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Carol Morland is a Japanese art historian, with special expertise in the painting of the Edo period. She has taught courses in East and Southeast Asian art at the University of Michigan, the University of Washington, Nanzan University (Nagoya, Japan), Temple University Japan (Tokyo), and the University of Hawaii. In addition, Carol has been an editor for Orientations in Hong Kong and has translated Japanese articles for that magazine and other publications. Most recently, she was an assistant curator at the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she focused on the museum’s collection of ukiyo-e. Carol holds an M.A. in Japanese Studies and a Ph.D. in Japanese art history from the University of Michigan. She has two decades of experience living, working, and studying in Japan and China. Current research topics include the changing concepts of Japanese portraiture in the early modern period and the rise of amateur painting circles in the Nagoya area during the 19th and 20th centuries.

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The smell of incense and the sound of chanting fill the air, as we step into the huge space of the image hall at Todai-ji temple in the ancient capital of Nara. Our eyes are immediately drawn upward to the face of the principal image of worship, the Great Buddha Dainichi, one of the largest bronze statues in the world. The original sculpture was cast in the 8th century by Emperor Shomu, who wished to proclaim both his devotion to Buddhism and his own imperial power. Standing before this Buddha, even hundreds of years later, we can understand the awe felt by the Nara period worshiper.

Like devotees of earlier eras, we reached the Great Buddha Hall by proceeding down a long, wide walkway that passes through two gates: the outer South Gate, an important architectural monument in itself, and a smaller gate that leads into the inner compound. We have been greeted along the way by the many tame Sika deer that roam the temple grounds and are considered sacred. While we have visited many temples on our journey, it is here at Todai-ji that one can truly feel the power that Buddhism wielded in Japan. And the grand scale of the site and the setting of the Great Buddha Hall within a series of enclosures give us an understanding of the experience of worship as no description, photograph, or museum display could.

A short bus ride brings us to another important monument in Nara, also located within Deer Park: Kasuga Shrine. While the Todai-ji compound was open and level, organized symmetrically in the Chinese fashion, and hot in the late morning sun, the approach to the Shinto shrine draws us into a very different world. Walking up a stone pathway that cuts through a forest of enormous cedar trees, the air is cool and damp. We pass by hundreds of large stone lanterns (there are more than 2,000 in all), some dating from early in the shrine’s history and covered with moss, and others from later years. Kasuga Shrine is, in fact, famous for its lanterns, both these and the many smaller bronze lanterns that hang in the shrine building itself. Kasuga was founded in the 8th century, but its continued importance to worshipers is everywhere apparent. Many of the stone lanterns bear paper squares with the names of recent donors, and among the popular auxiliary shrines are those dedicated to finding love.

After a delicious lunch of Japanese noodles, we return to Kyoto and visit one last temple. Kiyomizu-dera is perched high on a hill, and walking out onto the broad porch extending over the valley, it feels as if we are suspended in air. The road up to the temple is crowded with young women in bright kimono and alive with the sounds of shop keepers hawking their wares. There are many stores selling ceramics and local specialties, including yatsuhashi, a triangular treat made of pounded rice filled with a sweet paste. Perhaps best of all is the soft-serve ice cream flavored and then sprinkled with matcha, the powdered green tea introduced into Japan in the 12th century and used in the traditional tea ceremony—a particularly successful combination of East and West, past and present.

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To learn more about our Eternal Japan tour, click here.