Archive for the ‘Mystical India’ 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!

Exploring Kalakho

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

Rita Rodha, Mystical India Study Leader with Smithsonian Journeys

Rita Sodha, a lecturer in the Department of Art History at the University of Baroda’s Faculty of Fine Arts, is an expert on Indian painting and contemporary art, holding degrees in both art history and fine arts.

Rita recently led a group of Smithsonian travelers in Northern India.

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Midway through our Mystical India journey, after our exciting stay at the tiger reserve in Ranthambhor, we set our sights on our next destination, the Dera Lake View Retreat in Kalakho. We were all looking forward to it, and the drive was picturesque, as we travelled through small hamlets and large stretches of green wheat fields.

We passed men, women, and children doing their morning chores, brushing their teeth with the neem tree twig, giving fodder to the cattle, and preparing breakfast in the open courtyard on little stoves made of clay and cow dung. Older men and women were seen with their hookahs, as their daughters-in-law prepared breakfast. They all seemed busy but were excited to see our coach pass by, and they waved happily at us. Their laughter and energy were delightful.

We drove past a morning vegetable bazaar bustling with activity, and saw people driving their locally made vehicles, called jugads. We also drove past a medieval fortress, perched on a hilltop, appearing formidable and recalling the bygone age of heroic stories, tragic deaths, poignant sacrifices, unheard valor, and romantic poetry.

Later on, we drove past a bigger village, where our enterprising tour director, Karni Singh, spotted a village movie theater. In no time, we were all out of the coach and Karni was negotiating with the theater manager to screen a Bollywood song for our group. We all went about peeping into the projecting room and the private viewing boxes, and then we enjoyed an impromptu Bollywood song!

At around lunchtime, we reached our breathtaking retreat, Kalakho. Situated in the middle of farmlands and close to a monsoon lake, it is surrounded by mountains on all sides. We disembarked from our coach and were escorted in several jeeps to the beautifully set retreat. After a traditional welcome with marigold garlands and the tika (the red mark of vermillion applied on the forehead), we freshened up in our cozy cottages and went for lunch.

After a superb lunch, we enjoyed a henna session. Henna is traditionally used to decorate the palms and feet of Indian women during weddings or festivals. Then it was time for a very special visit, to a nearby hamlet, on camelback. The camels and camel carts were assembled, and we proceeded to the hamlet through narrow tracks amidst the fields.

Camelback, Mystical India tour with Smithsonian Journeys

The hamlet comprised about ten to twelve houses, with courtyards and a row of adjoining rooms. The children had just returned from school and many of them were still in their uniforms. The families gave us a tour of their beautiful and fascinating village. We saw their homes, their outdoor kitchens, their grinding stones, and hearths, and enjoyed festive dancing and chatting.

Village - Mystical Indian Tour with Smithsonian Journeys

Dancing, Mystical Indian Tour with Smithsonian Journeys

After all the merry making, it was time to return to our retreat, where a local troupe had been invited to perform for us. Our visit to the village offered us a warmth and familiarity that remained with us long after we departed.

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You can read more about our Mystical India tour here.

Color and Chaos on the Banks of the Ganges

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Minhazz Majumdar, Smithsonian Journeys GuideMinhazz 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. Most recently, Minhazz led Smithsonian’s “Mystical India” tour through Northern India.
Varanasi, the final destination of the Mystical India trip is one place on earth that cannot fail to move you. Love it or hate it, this city will leave its mark on you. A city that goes by several names, Varanasi, Benaras or Kashi, this site is believed to be the oldest continually inhabited place on the planet. Varanasi may be one of the most ancient cities in the world—but do not come here looking for old buildings or ancient ruins —you will be disappointed. Varanasi is all about ambiance, atmosphere, a certain mood, a vibe and the settings.

The ghats—the steps that lead down to the river—are the centers of life and action in Varanasi. And the river here is no ordinary river; it’s none other than Mother Ganges herself—the life-giving river, the holy river in which devout Hindus come to bathe and wash away their sins.

Along the ghat, one can see life play out in many ways. There are ghats where people come for bathing or a ritual dip in the river, for prayer ceremonies, for yoga, for religious training, for meditation and mindfulness. There are even ghats for washermen (dhobis) to ply their trade, washing all the dirty linen in the river. But most powerful are the burning ghats where Hindus are cremated. For devout Hindus, to die in Varanasi and to be cremated on the banks of the Ganga, with the ashes offered to the river is to achieve “moksha” or liberation from the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

The winding and crowded city streets of Varanasi are no less action-packed. Every day is a celebration in this City of Light, the city that belongs to Lord Shiva, the powerful Hindu God of Destruction. To get to the ghats for our evening boat-ride on the River Ganges is a full-on sensory experience. We take our final rickshaw ride here–the streets are crowded, colorful and virtually a cacophony of people, animals, vehicles of all sorts, some with powerful horns which they do not hesitate to use.

No words are adequate to describe this ride—it has to be experienced to be believed. You feel your eyes cannot take in the color and chaos any more; your ears begin to feel sound, going beyond hearing; your nose is beguiled by the scents and the dust. It is one of the most exhilarating rides of your life. Suddenly, the rickshaw stops and you have to walk—your being is jostled by the crowd heading to the same place—the ghats. You are safe, you belong here, you are part of a larger whole, alive like you have never felt before.

A few minutes later or perhaps an eternity it seems, you reach the ghats where there are scores of people milling around, getting ready for the evening aarti (fire worship) ceremony. There is such fervor in the air, yet a sense of calmness pervades—instantly the clamor of the city streets is forgotten.

You make your journey down the steps to the river where the boatman is waiting, the journey on the river akin to the journey of life—from life to death to celebration. But that tale will have to wait for another time. It is time to let the ghats of Varanasi get under your skin.

Floating on the Ganges River.

Floating on the “Mother Ganga.” (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Muleonor.)

Ghants along the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Ghats along the Ganges River in Varanasi. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user ruffin_ready.)

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. (Photo by Sadie McVicker.)

Boatman on the River Ganges in Varanasi

Boatman on the River Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Vasenka.)

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges.

Man sitting on the banks of the Ganges. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Arian Zwegers.)

Varanasi at night

Varanasi at night. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user AinisR.)

Check out the “Mystical India” tour page for more information on Minhazz’s next trip.