Posts Tagged ‘india’

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.

Photo: Romance in India

Thursday, February 11th, 2010
Romance Blooms in Agra at the Taj Mahal

Romance Blooms in Agra at the Taj Mahal

There are some love stories that have become legendary. Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, and Scarlett O’hara and Rhett Butler to name a few. Then there are love stories that are actually true, like the love between The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz of India. While we may not have their names on the tips of our toungues, their symbol of love is a lasting icon:

The Taj Mahal.

The Emperor created the architectural treasure after his wife passed away when giving birth to his 14th child. Not only were the Mughals wealthy, they were incredibly supportive of the arts - including architecture, gourmet foods, and music. In the mid-17th century, the Emperor built the symmetrical memorial out of white Makran marble, placing his wife’s grave at the center.

While this may have perfected the symmetry of the Taj Mahal, it wasn’t the end of the story. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his zealous and fanatical son Aurangzeb, held under house arrest, and later buried alongside his long departed wife – which technically throws off the symmetry of the building, but doesn’t mar its beauty in the eyes of visitors who flock to it each year.

What was the most romantic thing you’ve done for someone you love?

Take your love to the Taj Mahal on Mystical India, a Smithsonian Journeys Signature Tour.  

Photo: Elephant Polo in India

Thursday, December 10th, 2009
Elephant polo line up

Elephant polo line up

It may not be the next Olympic sport, but Elephant Polo has been played in India since the beginning of the 20th century. Mixing British polo traditions with the animals available, residents came up with Elephant Polo which is still played today in Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. There is even the  World Elephant Polo Association, an organization that has regulated these teams for over 25 years.

Congratulations to the winners of the 2009 World Champion title! On December 5th, the Tiger Tops from Nepal beat Thailand’s TEPA team with a score of 6 to 3.

Experience the animals of India including tigers, camels, and elephants on our Mystical India tour.

What is your favorite not-quite-mainstream sport?  

Video: Birthplace of the Hope Diamond

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Say you were on a game show and they asked you, “In what country did the Hope Diamond originate?”

Would you know the answer?

The answer is India, but the details are sketchy at best. It was most likely found in the very productive Kollur Mine located in south central India, which operated between the 16th century and the mid-19th century. The diamond was first owned in the mid-17th century by Jean-Baptiste Tavernier as a roughly cut 112 3/16-carat gem, where it was then known as the “Tavernier Blue” until it was sold King Louis XIV of France in 1668 with 14 other large diamonds and several smaller ones. It has been recut by different owners since then and is now 45.52 carats.

Eventually Golconda, India’s Kollur Mine was depleted of its diamonds and interest shifted to mines in Brazil. But the Kollur Mine provided the world with several notable diamonds such as the Koh-i-Noor Diamond (meaning Mountain of Light), which is 105.6 carats and is part of the British Crown Jewels.

Today, The National Museum of Natural History has provided the Hope Diamond a home for the past 50 years, but the iconic gem has a long history, full of twists and turns. It’s surrounded by mythology, and has changed hands again and again over time. You can read more in Richard Kurin’s book The Hope Diamond: The Legendary History of the Cursed Gem.

See the original home of the Hope Diamond on our Mystical India Signature Tour.

If given the opportunity, would you wear The Hope Diamond?

World Heritage: The Taj Mahal

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

The Taj Mahal

Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan ordered the construction of the massive, multi-chambered Taj Mahal in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, his true love and steadfast companion. Mumtaz died during the birth of their 14th child, inspiring the Emperor to build the mausoleum in her honor. Both Mumtaz and her husband were later interred there. Between 1632 and 1653, thousands of artisans and craftsmen worked to erect the towering buildings that are regarded as the finest examples of Mughal architecture, a style that combines Persian, Indian and Islamic architectural styles. In 1983, the Taj Mahal was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The central focus of the complex is the large, white, marble dome situated on a 7 meter drum-like base, which soars 35 meters into the air. Decorated with a lotus design and topped by a bronze finial, the onion-shaped dome has become a symbol of India’s cultural identity. In keeping with the emphasis of symmetry in Islamic architecture, four minarets of equal height and width flank the sides of the dome. An expansive garden featuring carefully positioned trees and fountains as well as the famous reflecting pool on the north-south axis reflects the image of the mausoleum, thus creating a stunning double image of the Taj.

The small decorative details of the interior and exterior are indicative of the care and precision with which the Mughal architects designed this tribute to the emperor’s beloved wife. Because Islam prohibits the use of anthropomorphic forms in art, flowing abstract forms, intricate calligraphy, and vegetative motif are used through the Taj. These were created by applying paint, stucco, stone inlays or carvings to the marble walls of the exterior. The interior of the tomb is decorated with inlays of precious and semi-precious stones.

Unfortunately, the Taj Mahal has experienced deterioration in past years due to environmental pollution and acid rain. At the end of the 19th century, it was restored and today the Taj attracts between two and four million people each year. Despite its many visitors, the Taj Mahal is characterized by a quiet and solemn atmosphere. Guests report an overwhelming sense of calm and spirituality within the marble walls of the mausoleum.

What intrigues you most about the Taj Mahal? Comment below.

We hope the Taj is near the top of your “must see” list. Join us there today on a journey to India.