Posts Tagged ‘india’

Photo: Gardens of Rajasthan

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009
Photo: Sadie McVicker

Woman in a garden, Rajasthan. Photo: Sadie McVicker

India’s largest state, Rajasthan, is home to Jaipur, the Thar Desert, and Kalibangahome to India’s most ancient ruins. Rajasthanis are known for their classical music, embroidery, carved temples, and love of brightly colored clothing and accessories. Rajasthani crafts, jewelry, and textiles are in high demand for their intricate adornment and celebratory spirit.

Visit Rajasthan for yourself on one of these tours to India.

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The Spiritual Ganges River

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Sadie McVicker is an International Program Manager at Smithsonian Journeys, where she oversees tours to a variety of international destinations. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, while living and working in France for six years. She has worked for several diplomatic missions, including the Embassy of Japan in Paris, as well as those of Singapore and Morocco here in D.C. Click here for more on Sadie.

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Practicing Surya Pranam at the Ganges in Varanasi. Photo: Sadie McVicker

I never expected that a river in India would remind me of a traditional Anglo-American folk song. But while floating in a small boat at sunrise in Varanasi on the Ganges River, or “Mother Ganga” as it is affectionately called, the old folk standard made famous in recent years by Alison Krauss, “Down in the River to Pray,” came into my mind as I watched people along the shoreline praying, doing yoga, and saluting the sun in the ritual of Surya Pranam.

Our Smithsonian group had arrived in Varanasi the evening before, just in time to take a rickshaw ride down to the river for a starlit wooden riverboat trip to observe the various activities happening along the ghats (stairs leading to the river). We witnessed the Hindu aarti ritual to ward off evil, as well as the blazing funeral pyres along the shore further downstream. Watching these rituals up close was an immensely moving experience. I felt connected to all that was happening. I thought of other rivers with mystical significance, such as the Tiber and Jordan rivers, and thought how beautiful it is that there is a universal connection around the world between rivers and spirituality.

I was fascinated to learn that Varanasi, the most sacred city in India, is also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was originally known as Kasi, “City of Light,” because Hindus believe that it is possible to reach the divine there, in the Ganges River. The whole Varanasi culture revolves around the river, the heart and soul of the city and of Hindu belief.

So many incredible sights, colors, sounds, smells, and beautiful cultural discoveries are forever etched into my memory from my Mystical India trip, but the experience of floating on the Mother Ganga stands alone in its mysticism and poignancy.

Click here to see Sadie’s photos from India.

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India: A Feast for the Senses and Spirit

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Minhazz Majumdar is a writer and curator of Indian art and co-founder of the Earth & Grass Workshop, an organization that promotes arts and crafts as livelihood. She serves as Study Leader on our India’s Arts and Crafts tour. Click here to learn more about Minhazz and traveling with her.

An aeral view of typical Indian street traffic. Photo: Courtesy Flickr user alex graves

An aerial view of typical Indian street traffic Photo: Courtesy Flickr user alex graves

Whether you seek it or not, consciously or unconsciously, being in India is a true wakening of the five senses and in some cases, the sixth sense too. And so it was with me on a recent India Smithsonian Journeys trip. Our group was returning from a trip around Delhi, culminating at the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our nation in New Delhi. The visit had been wonderful and hundreds of school children in their bright and clean uniforms were also there lending the space a great energy. In keeping with the Indian tradition of treating a guest as a god, all the children were eager to shake hands with the Smithsonian visitors, and some even wanted to have photographs taken with the guests from overseas.

As we were heading back to our hotel in the middle of evening rush hour traffic, we saw a sadhu (an ascetic) sitting on the ground in a traffic island, saying his evening prayers. Having renounced the world to seek union with the Divine, the sadhu owns nothing and has no fixed address. I shall never forget the sight of this holy man against the setting sun, in his faded orange robe with his matted locks piled up high on his head, oblivious to the traffic or people around him. He emanated peace and a higher learning, a knowledge forged in the fire of his faith. Seeing him, I too was transported to an inner world, where divisions of race and religion, rich or poor, do not matter, where I too could seek a Higher Truth. That single moment defined how mystical life really is and how we chain ourselves to the mundane everyday. In the middle of all of life’s cacophony, there is an island of peace and realizationonly we do not know where to look for it.

The vibrant colors and sights of India Photo: Amy Kotkin

The vibrant colors and sights of India. Photo: Amy Kotkin

India is a sensory overloaddon’t doubt that for a minute. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, there is an excessof people, color, sound, touch, taste, and smell. There is no escape from the sensual experience India offers. It is the one place in the world where you feel most intensely alive, be it in pleasant or not so pleasant surroundings. You will be bedazzled by the bright colors Indian women sportthe heady pinks and yellows together looking not garish but fantastic, the bright orange marigold garlands strung up everywhere, and the yellow of the lemon and green of the chili strung together on shopfronts to avert the Evil Eye.

Photo: Flickr Carol Mitchell

Photo: Flickr Carol Mitchell

You will be greeted by a cacophony of soundsthe incessant honking of cars, as if everyone is intent on signaling their existence, haunting classical melodies, and joyous folk songs. Bite into an Indian dessert and the world’s sweetness will drench you. Or choose to taste a spicy Indian pickle and the chili in it will have you wanting to drench yourself in a monsoon shower! Smells waft around you everywhere you go in India, evocative like the scent of the first monsoon shower hitting the parched earth and of heady flowers that you want to draw like a scarf around yourself.

The point is that your senses are in top gear in this country. Yet in this ancient country of mine, in the middle of this entire sensory overload, you can have a deep spiritual experience, which draws you inward, into an interior world that is endless, mystical beyond description. That to me is the enduring beauty of India.

Photo: Virtual Illusion in India

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
Can you see the whirling dancer? Photo: Amy Kotkin

Can you see the whirling dancer? Photo: Amy Kotkin

Look closely and you can make out the colorful costume of a whirling Indian dancer. On our recent Extraordinary Cultures by Private Jet tour, Journeys Director Amy Kotkin took this photograph in India. Specially designed by Rajeev Sethi, the “Taj Mall—Agra Bazaar Revisited” was a multi-phonic bazaar pulsing with 170 performers singing, dancing, playing music, doing magic, acrobatics, and puppetry, juggling, and doing impersonations.

Click here to read the full blog post from the Around the World trip.

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Sunrise at the Taj Mahal

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Sadie McVicker is an International Program Manager at Smithsonian Journeys, where she oversees tours to a variety of international destinations. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Relations from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, while living and working in France for six years. She has worked for several diplomatic missions, including the Embassy of Japan in Paris, as well as those of Singapore and Morocco here in D.C. Click here for more on Sadie.

Taj Mahal at Sunrise. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Taj Mahal at Sunrise. Photo: Sadie McVicker

The greatest love stories in history often share two qualities: tragedy and triumph. I was reminded of this seeming contradiction as I walked barefoot amidst the gleaming marble chambers of the Taj Mahal just after sunrise on an invigoratingly crisp morning with a group of Smithsonian travelers. It is customary to either remove one’s shoes or to wear shoe coverings when entering the Taj. I opted for bare feet, and I didn’t regret it, as walking on the chilly marble provided another sensory layer to an already moving experience. Our insightful Smithsonian Study Leader Minhazz Majumdar illuminated the mysteries and lesser-known details of this one-of-kind monument, which the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore called “a teardrop on the cheek of eternity.”

The Taj is so magnificent that it is easy to forget at first that it is a tomb, holding the mortal remains of the Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved Mumtaz Mahal. And yet, it is so much more: a triumphant testimony to the transcendent power of love, captured for time immemorial in sleek marble lines and curves. I have had a lifelong fascination with the Taj, amazed that a man who had many wives was so in love with one of them that he built a temple of love for her which required 22 years and the slow and steady work of thousands to complete.

A carving detail with Arabic calligraphy within the Agra Fort. Photo: Sadie McVicker

A carving detail with calligraphy within the Agra Fort. Photo: Sadie McVicker

Our Smithsonian group had journeyed from the bustling streets of New Delhi to the remote Rajasthani countryside, before arriving in Agra for one of the most anticipated visits of our action-packed Indian journey. The entrance to the Taj bears the inscription, “O Soul, thou art at rest.” A certain reverent quiet came over the Smithsonian group during our visit, as we took in the soaring Mughal architecture and pristine white marble. There is much calligraphic writing throughout the Taj Mahal, enhancing its stunning architectural beauty with an air of mysticism and poetry.
Later in the day, we visited Agra Fort, just across the Yamuna River from the Taj Mahal.  Agra Fort is one of the most significant forts in India and a well-known UNESCO World Heritage site. What is less known is that Shah Jahan spent the end of his life imprisoned there by his third son, Aurangzeb. Shah Jahan’s only wish when he was taken captive was that he be held somewhere where he could look out upon Mumtaz’s tomb, a wish that was granted. Standing in front of his prison cell which has just a few tiny windows that look out upon the Taj, I could almost feel the spirit of the old emperor pacing back and forth in his marble cell, gazing through the drafty windows across the river at his beloved Mumtaz, and longing for the day when he would be reunited with her.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.