Posts Tagged ‘travel to india’

Getting into the Spirit and Attire of India

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

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 popular Mystical India tour. Click hereto learn more about Minhazz and traveling with her and here to read her other blog posts.

Mystical India! Colorful India! The two walk together, like two best friends. A group of women stand by the roadside attired in rainbow hued saris. Parrot green and bright pink, mustard yellow and navy blue, fiery reds and oranges – a visual cornucopia of colors in combinations never seen before.  Our Smithsonian Journeys bus passes them by, the guests reaching for their cameras and vying for window space to get that one great shot. Colorful India – captured forever, on camera or in the mind’s eye.

Colorful Indian fashions outside the Taj Mahal

Colorful Indian fashions outside the Taj Mahal

Since time immemorial, India has been known as a treasure house for richly embellished, fine textiles. This rich diversity is reflected in the myriad costumes worn by both men and women across the country. In fact, very often in the absence of any common language, a person’s costume serves as an identity marker, hinting at place, religion, and even marital status.

For guests coming to India on the Mystical India trip, seeing the different clothing worn by men and women as we travel across North India is a fascinating way of exploring the culture and people of this ancient land. Starting from Delhi where one sees a plethora of Indian and Western wear, as we move deeper into the countryside, there are marked differences in dressing styles as people prefer traditional costumes in the rural areas where change is slow.

In Delhi, women wear sarees, salwar-kameez (loose pants with a tunic), churidar-kurta(pants that are gathered at the bottom with a tunic) as well as Western jeans, trousers, skirts, shorts, etc. As we move to Rajasthan, women wear the traditional skirt-tunic called the ghagra-choliwith beautiful diaphanous veils. From Rajasthan as we traverse to the land of the Taj Mahal, the state of Uttar Pradesh and further on to Madhya Pradesh, women are attired in saris while young girls prefer the salwar-kameez. In some villages and towns, young girls can even be seen in jeans. When it comes to men, sadly most Indian men in cities have eschewed the traditional kurta-pyjama (loose tunic and trousers) and the dhoti–achkan (unstitched wrapped garment) and prefer to wear Western style shirts and trousers popularly known as pant- shirt.

One great thing about the Mystical India itinerary is that it explores regions with special textile traditions – Jaipur, famous for its cotton hand-block prints and tie and dye fabrics, Ranthambore with its exotic tribal embroideries, and Agra’s zardozi textiles, while Varanasi boasts of an ancient silk brocade tradition. In addition to such wonderful fabrics, practically everywhere there are good tailors who can sew up a storm in a few moments.

Such is the allure of Indian textiles that inevitably Smithsonian travelers get Indian outfits tailored for themselves. Usually women prefer the salwar-kurta or churidar-kurta over the saree which is a little tricky to wear. Male guests usually get kurta-pyjama over the dhoti. We have great fun at the textile stores as we match and mix to come up with unique combinations – if anyone has ever shopped in India for fabrics, they know how bewildering ( and sometimes overwhelming!) it can be to choose from the wide array of textiles available.   And for those who are not getting outfits, there are thousands of scarves and stoles to choose from.

At our Farewell dinners as we gather to say goodbye and give thanks for a great trip, often the guests appear in their colorful and elegant Indian outfits or dress up their western outfits with lovely Indian scarves and stoles. Another round of photographs please! One thing is guaranteed – once the guests get custom tailored Indian outfits, they discover the biggest secret to Indian clothing – how comfortable and forgiving these garments are, and always flattering! The magic of India accompanies Smithsonian travelers home in their suitcases, bringing color and fond memories every time they are worn!

Now is a great time to discover India. Click here to learn more about traveling to India with us.

We love to shop for clothing while we travel – what’s the coolest thing you’ve picked up on the road?

Camel Trekking in the Thar Desert

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Camel in India’s Thar Desert. Photo: Honza Soukup

In Rajasthan, northern India, the starkly beautiful Thar Desert is home to a way of life that few outsiders have experienced. The small but vibrant desert community that thrives there includes chili and mustard farmers,  ranchers, carpet weavers, metalsmiths, potters, and carpenters with a strong folk tradition of music and dance.

At more than 75,000 square miles, the Thar Desert is a huge expanse of sand and scrub, but hosts a suprising amount of biodiversity. Herds of Indian gazelles, Indian wild asses, and blackbucks make their homes there in large numbers. The Thar Desert is also home to more than 150 species of birds, as well as a variety of trees and other plants. Eleven national parks within the Desert help to protect these animals and plants.

The Thar Desert is also home to Jaisalmer Fort, built in 1156 by King Rawal Jaisal, at a site which Lord Krishna was said to favor. Carved from Rajasthani yellow sandstone, it almost disappears into the desert, which helped to keep the fort safe from invaders.

Click here for stunning photos of the area from Flickr, and here to read more about the opportunity that Smithsonian travelers have to go on a camel safari with local Thar Desert guides, followed by dinner and a night in a tented camp under the stars.

What do you love about the desert? Please share.

From India to America: Notable Firsts

Thursday, May 20th, 2010
A Sikh boy gazes outwards with curiosity in Amritsar, India.  Photograph by Murray Stanford

A Sikh boy gazes outwards with curiosity in Amritsar, India. Photo: Murray Stanford

As the second most populous country on the planet, with over 1.18 billion people, India has had a tremendous influence worldwide. Geographically, it is ranked the seventh largest country while boasting the eleventh largest economy in the world. What you may not know is that India’s economy is making great strides—it is now  growing faster than any other in the world. By some estimates, India’s gross domestic product will quadruple by 2020 and even surpass the United States’ by 2050.

Here in the United States, we have seen Indian Americans make great strides with five notable firsts that deserve to be mentioned.

  • Dalip Singh Saund became the first person of Asian descent to join the United States Congress in 1956.
  • Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was an Indian born American astrophysicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 with William Alfred Fowler for their work in the theoretical structure and evolution of stars.
  • Dr. Kalpana C. Chawla was the first Indian American woman to fly into space.
  • Mohini Bhardwaj is the first Indian American Olympic medalist. She won the silver medal with the US gymnastics team at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.
  • And maybe you thought Doogie Howser, M.D. was complete fiction, but Balamurali Ambati, M.D. (born July 29, 1977) was the youngest person ever, according to Guinness Book of Records, to become a doctor. Ambati graduated from New York University at the age of 13 and Mount Sinai School of Medicine at age 17, becoming the world’s youngest doctor in 1995.

You can learn more about Indian Americans on Homespun: The Smithsonian Indian American Heritage Project and read personal experiences on their blogs —The Indian American Story and Bookdragon.

Have you been to India? Share your story.

Never been to India? That’s okay, you can go on our Mystical India tour!

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.

Click here to read other blog posts about India.

Have you been to India? How did it affect you? Share below.

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.