Visiting Kashmir

Melissa had wanted to visit Kashmir since we arrived in India nearly two years ago. She grew up around her parents’ Kashmiri artifacts and photos and imagined it as the most beautiful place on earth. You might imagine that nothing could live up to that kind of ideal, but Kashmir did. We only had four days for our visit, using up Tom’s last two available personal days, but we squeezed in as much as possible.

Traveling in a conflict zone is not something to do casually or without the right guidance and support, but luckily we knew just the right people to help us. CultureRings, a tour company focused on travel that teaches you about the culture and people of the places you visit, is run by our dear friend Kaveri Sinhji. We told Kaveri that we wanted to see both the natural beauty of Kashmir and meet the craftspeople who have made this region famous for artistry. She then partnered closely with Devika Krishnan who has worked extensively with the craftspeople of Kashmir. Devika created a beautiful itinerary for us and arranged for her friend Ramneek to guide us through the entire experience. We were both safe and delighted the entire time.

Our first day was a wee bit sleepy. To cram in as much as possible, we decided to take a 5:45 am direct flight that required us to get up at 3:00 am to head for the airport. On the upside, we landed in Srinagar at 9:05 and had a whole day ahead of us. On the downside, there was a fair amount of yawning. Our driver, Yusuf, from Mascot Travels was amazing. He greeted us at the airport and, from that point on, was always there for us right up to the last moment of leaving us back at the airport on Monday afternoon.

Yusuf drove us straight to our meeting point with Ramneek, and we began the two hour journey to Pahalgam. Because it was the last Friday of Ramadan in a state that is 96% Muslim, the roads were clear and the drive was easy. We were always conscious of the “conflict” due to the armed men stationed on every block of the main roads of Srinagar, and the incredibly good highway (probably the best we’ve experienced in all of India) that was built to facilitate ease of military movement. But our attention was focused much more on the stunning people we passed and the magnificent scenery. The dress in Kashmir is different than we’ve seen elsewhere. Tom was surprised that it was20190602_185143 (2) so different from what he had seen last year on his Himalayan trek. Most people, men and women, wear the pheran, a long loose garment that looks like a big shirt with three buttons at the top. In the chilly mornings, we saw men wearing a second one over the top that looked almost like a giant loose overcoat from the back. In the cold of winter when the snow many be seven feet deep, people keep warm by carrying a willow basket lined with a copper pot full of hot charcoal inside their pherans (that gives you a sense of their looseness).

For the most part, women’s heads are covered, but to vastly differing extents. Some wear a scarf set back on the head, seeming to hang from a large bun. Some wear a scarf covering the whole head and wrapping around to hang over the shoulders, and then tuck their hair and scarf behind their ears. Some wear a large gathered scarf that fully covers the head and wraps tightly under the chin leaving only the face visible. In the minority were women actually wearing niqabs that revealed only the eyes. In the vast minority (but still notable) were women who wore burkas, completely covered including a dense netting covering even their eyes. Those who weren’t wearing black were wearing bright, beautiful colors.

At this time of year, the shepherds of the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal tribes are in the midst of their annual migration up into the mountains. As we neared Pahalgam, we began to pass Gujjars on the road, sometimes with cows, sheep, or goats with long hair and curly horns, sometimes with their small horses, and sometimes just walking in groups. They have a distinctive look, with brightly colored clothing, embroidered saddle blankets and other ornaments on their horses, and small round hats on the women’s heads and long mustacheless beards on the men. Beautiful green fields and snow-capped mountains provided an idyllic backdrop.

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20190531_124611We arrived at midday at the Pahalgam Hotel, started by Ramneek’s great-grandfather on the banks of the Jhehlum River Tributary. With Ramneek’s nephew involved in the business, they are now into the fifth generation with this lovely hotel, and it is clearly treasured by everyone, family and staff alike. Our room had a separate bedroom, two bathrooms, and glorious views from every window. We were in heaven.

 

 

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The view from the hotel

After a delicious lunch, we had a brief rest before heading out to the workshop Ramneek has created for Shepherdcrafts. In a Gujjar home, used during migration, we visited with a group of women who are using their traditional embroidery skills to create products to appeal to a contemporary market. It has been a challenge. After an initial burst of great success, the conflict in Kashmir intensified in 2016, cutting off tourism and eliminating buyers for their beautiful work. The women are clearly frustrated – their lives are hard and it’s disappointing to make the time for extra embroidery only to have it sit on a shelf without a buyer. Ramneek is determined, however, to figure out how to make this work. In addition to encouraging people to visit Kashmir and meet these skilled artisans, she is also looking for ways to find a broader market outside of Kashmir. The goal of this effort is truly to improve the lives of people who struggle. The entire room was very proud of a young woman there who had completed 10th standard in school – a bare minimum in the US, but a major accomplishment for this nomadic tribe. Another woman has a daughter who completed 12th standard. With more education, women don’t marry in their mid-teens, they have fewer children, and they are able to better provide for the children they have.20190531_161447

After admiring their work, we took a short walk to the Himalayan Cheese Factory, an artisinal cheese factory started by  Chris Zandee, a Dutch man who married a vivacious Kashmiri woman, Kamala. They wanted to create something positive for the community, something that could provide real livelihood for people while fostering a sense of pride in their beleaguered region. Chris grew up on a farm and had learned cheesemaking from his father, so it seemed worth a try. He sources milk from 150 different women in the area, making a point of paying every 10 days. Even a woman with only a half-liter to spare can expect to receive a small amount of money on a schedule. Chris is certain that this has literally saved lives, giving women the confidence to take their children to see doctors, knowing that they can afford to pay them. He gushes about how much he has learned from the community as well, about how business can lift up a community when the priority is not shareholders. Aside from the social enterprise, this is really good cheese! The gouda and cumin gouda were truly outstanding. Sitting in the lovely yard outside the factory with the river and mountains in view, happily eating bits of cheese and sampling local honey was a delight.Collage 2019-06-10 21_07_36

We took our leave in the late afternoon, a bit sleepy and bleary-eyed, and headed back to our lovely hotel with Ramneek who took us to visit the shop that she has created there. She sells many handmade Kashmiri items from the many artisans that she works with in Pahalgam and Srinigar. Everything there is beautiful. We were particularly taken with some embroidered wall hangings created by a Gujjar family with a particularly talented deaf boy who has taken up embroidery. Ramneek has worked with him for years, nurturing his natural talent and rolling her eyes when he periodically runs off to be with the men for a while, always confident that he will return to do this work for which he has such a gift. She also pointed out to us the work of some of the artisans we would meet the next day, getting us excited about what was to come.

20190531_131953Given our general sleepiness, we had an early dinner, once again absolutely delicious. We were quite taken with the kalari cheese, a local delicacy that looks like a flat disc, tastes a bit like a combination mozzarella and halloumi and is served fried until crisp. Similarly, we found that the Kashmiri paneer is also more mozzarella-like with a sort of chewiness that we had never before had in paneer. Yum. That night we slept in the total darkness and perfect silence never experienced in Bangalore. We woke early with the birds, which is a very pleasant way to rise. Tea was served to us in our room and we enjoyed some time gazing at the gorgeous view while sipping our tea and easing into the day.

20190601_105525After tasty idli, sambar, coconut chutney (made from dried coconut since we are now far from palm tree country), and the local morning bread called lavasa, we drove up toward Aru. The original plan had been to have tea with a Gujjar family in this stunning area high in the Himalayas, but the woman we were to meet had gone into labor the night before. We mentally sent her good wishes while stopping to photograph this amazing area with flowing glacial streams, wildflowers, and the ever-present snow-capped mountains. With a few more days in Kashmir, we definitely would have done some amazing trekking. As it was, we reluctantly turned the car back toward Srinigar.

Our reluctance was short-lived, however, when a couple hours later we pulled up to a dock on the huge Nigeen Lake and were seated in a comfy Shikara, sort of like a gondola20190601_134630 with a roof. We journeyed across the lake and ended up at the beautiful Mascot Houseboats. Houseboats in Srinagar have mostly been in families for generations. The fifth generation now runs this boat. The entire boat is ornately carved, from doors to walls to ceilings, and furnished with gorgeous antique furniture and carpets. While these boats are on the water, they are all permanently docked and do not rocking at all, but the views are magical, across the lake to the greenery of the far shore and up to the surrounding mountains. We were expertly cared for by Manzoor and his partner who served all of our meals and made sure we were always happy.

After lunch, we met Yusuf, our driver, and Ramneek took us into the old town of Srinagar. The old part of town is full of charming old two to three story buildings with high peaked roofs and ornate window frames. Many reminded us of houses more common in Portland than anywhere else we’ve seen in India. While the new part of Srinagar is at lake level and in danger of annual flooding, the old part of town is elevated and safe from water. It is not, however, safe from the ravages of time and an economy that can’t support preservation, thanks in large part to the continuing conflict. Many of these beautiful buildings have broken windows and hanging shutters, which broke our hearts.Collage 2019-06-12 07_07_26

Our first stop in Old Town was a Sufi shrine, Khankahi Shah-i-Hamdan. This 14th century shrine was rebuilt in the early 18th century, and is ornately carved, inside and out. We could not enter the shrine, but enjoyed walking the perimeter and were then invited to look through a window. The exterior is lovely, but the interior is magnificent with painted carvings covering the walls and ceiling above a beautiful carpet where people were praying.

From there we traveled a short distance to a small storefront in which a coppersmith works his magic. He used to do everything by himself – shaping the copper, carving patterns into its surface and then polishing it to a shine – but now he focuses on shaping the copper while other partners in the business do the other parts. Copper is considered an essential in Kashmir where everyone eats off of plated copper plates and bowls, drinks from copper cups, and decorates their homes with copper vases, samovars, and lamps.

The coppersmith then walked with us to the woodcarvers shop where we watched themIMG_1526 carving intricate patterns into walnut and pine, making chests, stair railings, and table tops among other things. We couldn’t resist a big carved mortar and pestle. Now we’re really ready to make our own masalas from fresh spices!

We were now ready for a bit of nature, so Ramneek took us to Nishat Bagh or “garden of delight”, a stunning terraced Mughal garden created in the mid-17th century. We were amazed to see so many flowers that we recognized from home – hydrangeas, irises, roses, begonias, and so many more. We assume that even though we are much further south, the elevation creates growing conditions similar to those in Portland.20190601_175125

After the garden, we were ready to return again to our lovely floating hotel where we sat on the roof, soaking in the view until nearly time for dinner. Dinner was delicious, particularly the Kashmiri paneer in gravy. Yum. The night was a bit of a challenge for us. It turns out that Saturday night was a particularly special night of Ramadan with prayers going all night. Through our windows we could hear prayers through loudspeakers echoing across the lake from at least three different mosques all night long. Melissa finally drifted off, but Tom barely slept. As dawn came, the prayers finally stopped, but we were awake anyway. We had tea delivered to our room and moved slowly until breakfast. Happily, we were served the best aloo bhaji we’ve ever had, light, airy pooris, and girda (very like lavasa) with local honey.

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The morning sun hits the houseboats across the lake

After a slow start, we again found Yusuf and went to meet Ramneek who took us to the home of a family of weavers where we watched one man spinning thin pashmina thread onto spindles in preparation for weaving, and watched two other men working magic on a loom as they wove a colorful, intricate pattern into what will eventually be a large pashmina shawl. We got a serious education there into pashmina creation. A real pashmina is made from the soft hair of high altitude goats from Ladakh. These goats are shorn twice a year for their soft wool, but are in no way harmed in the process. The shepherds prize the well-being of these goats as their livelihood depends on them. There used to be a kind of wool from the undersides of juveniles and harvesting it used to actually kill them. This, however, has long been outlawed. In order to be considered a real hand made pashmina, with a certificate of authentication to prove it, the wool must then be hand spun into fine thread by women who do this specialized work. That fine thread is then woven on large looms by men, sometimes creating a featherweight fabric and sometimes creating a very dense and heavy fabric. People associate pashminas with incredible softness, but in fact the most expensive one have a bit of stiffness to them from the density of the weaving. Because tourists expect softness, some weavers will add rabbit hair to the thread or wash the completed pashmina with fabric softeners. Many completed pashminas go back to the women who embroider them in finely detailed patterns. This traditional and amazing artform is now struggling for a number of reasons: the ongoing conflict keeps tourists away so they don’t see the work that goes into making this product, uneducated tourists are then eager for bargains and happy to buy machine-made shawls made from different wools or synthetic fabrics embellished with machine embroidery, corruption has diluted the certification process, and other states seeing the interest in pashminas have begun to make cheap versions that they ship into Kashmir to sell there to people who can’t recognize the difference. The younger generations are not eager to go into a profession where you may have to invest 3-6 months of your life into creating a single garment for sale. Hopefully marketing strategies people like Ramneek are working on can ensure a continued demand for this special, skilled work and keep this amazing craft alive.

Ramneek told us that if we saw anything we liked, we should just take a picture of it because we could always come back again; we really appreciated this advice as everything was so beautiful that it would have been easy to buy something without yet fully understanding the extent of what would be available. Our next stop was in the home of another family of craftspeople. We started by sitting with a young woman who was embroidering a shawl. Her sure fingers moved quickly and the pattern was so pretty. She had also brought along a pashmina that she was embroidering for herself and had nearly finished.  It was gorgeous! She voiced the frustration that the men could work all day at their crafts, but the women had so many other responsibilities in the home that their hours for work were much shorter, but she still had a smile on her face most of the time.Collage 2019-06-11 19_24_58

After sitting with her for a while, we went into the next room where the painters sat. One woman sat painting an intricate floral design on kleenex boxes, a man and woman sat together painting a four piece metal tiffin set, and the embroiderer’s husband’s uncle, a master papier mache artist, Maqbool Jan, showed us the entire process of making a papier mache box. Usually someone else forms the boxes or bowls or whatever else they’re making while he focuses on the painting. When we got to the painting part, it was obvious why. He seemed to so effortlessly create a beautiful pattern of flowers and birds on such a small scale, it was breathtaking.Collage 2019-06-10 20_56_15

After admiring their work and learning all about it, they invited us to join them for20190602_143705 (2) lunch, seated on the floor in their dining room with food arranged on a cloth on the floor. Everything was delicious and it was a pleasure to sit with the family. Some of them joined us even though they were fasting, but a couple of the men were eating because of health conditions. After lunch, we were taken to a room where we could see all of Maqbool’s finished products. Wow. Just, wow.Collage 2019-06-12 08_09_40

Ramneek and Yusuf then took us to Parimahal or “garden of the fairies,” another 20190602_165435stunning Mughal garden. This one is high in the hills with a very steep terrace and strong retaining walls that are almost fortress-like. Each of the seven levels has a different feeling, all of them beautiful. We finished the day at a tea house where the walls are covered with a mural painted by Maqbool Jan. There we sampled Noon Chai, a popular salty tea in Kashmir to which you add crushed, dried corn. We enjoyed it more when we thought of it as soup.

With that, we concluded another amazing day and returned to our houseboat, which was mercifully quieter than the previous night. The next morning, after breakfast and checking out, we went to Ramneek’s office where we met the papier mache artist from the previous day. He had brought pashminas, woven and embroidered by his family, for us to admire. The perfect patterns in the weaving, the beautifully intricate embroidery, and the story behind them made them to hard to resist. We ultimately bought two that will become heirlooms for our family. 

After another drive past military personnel on every block, a large military convoy that stopped the angry traffic, and multiple checkpoints, we arrived at the airport for our return journey. Yes, Kashmir is a conflict zone with reminders in not only the military presence, but also in the graffiti: “Freedom for Kashmir,” “Islamic State,” “Zakir Musa,” an Al-Qaeda affiliated militant killed last month, and everywhere “Azadi” which means freedom. It is also one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been, full of the natural beauty of mountains and water and flowering plants as well as the man-made beauty of architecture and traditional crafts honed to perfection through generations. We knew that we were in safe hands with Ramneek and Yusuf and strongly recommend that people visit this amazing place with the right guides. We left wanting nothing but to return.

 

A Perfect Weekend

With only four weekends before we leave India, we didn’t want to waste a moment. And yet there we were, approaching the weekend with CIS graduation on Friday night, a vague plan for brunch on Sunday, and nothing else at all. Our friend Farrah came to the rescue with a reminder about the opportunity to visit Chiguru Farm and pick mangoes. When else in our lives will we get to do that?! Melissa sent a message on Friday and we had confirmation of our space in the group by that evening.

Friday evening, however, was all about graduation. It was great fun to get dressed up, Tom20190524_2101504102186851861646486.jpg in his new custom suit and Melissa in her Sri Lankan jewelry, and go to celebrate kids that Tom has taught for two years. The ceremony itself was relatively short and quite lovely with a notable address by a very accomplished 2014 graduate who came from Canada to talk to the graduates about important things like kindness and gratitude. Plans for dinner under the stars were altered for rain (which one can expect nearly every evening at this time of year) so we sat in the cafeteria which was all dressed up with tablecloths and centerpieces.

Note from Melissa: I’ve never attended a graduation with Tom before and it was incredibly touching to see all the kids who came up to shake his hand, thank him for helping them, and tell him how much his class meant to them. One new grad said, “You are the nicest person I’ve ever met. You showed me how to be a good person.” Wow.

The next morning, we were up early, ready to get in our cab and travel 90 minutes south of the city to Chiguru Farm. As we hit the outskirts of the city and began to see the lush density of trees and flowering shrubs, we could feel ourselves already beginning to relax.  Aiding in the relaxation when we arrived was the oddly empty courtyard and lack of fellow tour participants. It turns out we were an hour early. While disappointed to have cut short our sleep, more time for just the two of us to meander around the grounds of the farm was lovely. We were fed a delicious breakfast (and later lunch), had a tour of the farm with explanations from naturalist Kavya of A Green Venture about all of their sustainable practices, and finally picked the last of the mangoes on the trees. It was amazing.

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On the way to the farm, we realized that our plan to save our voucher for a free night at 20190526_0911104182860389203015717.jpgthe Leela Palace to use after we move out of our apartment was not going to serve us since it can only be used on a weekend. Realizing that this was our last free Saturday night, Tom quickly called the hotel and got us a reservation for that evening. After our visit to the farm, we went home, hastily packed an overnight bag, and went straight to the Leela where we were upgraded to the exact room that we’d stayed in for Melissa’s birthday. So beautiful and so full of happy memories. We showered, lounged about, and then went to cocktail hour followed by dinner at Zen and a perfect night’s sleep.

The next morning, we took our time, enjoying our beautiful room, having coffee and a little snack on the Leela patio, and then checked out at noon to head for Sly Granny where we met our teacher friends Nadege, Kitty, and Ivana for a very nice brunch. The food was amazing and the service was well-intentioned if not yet very polished – they’ve just started doing brunch and clearly had not yet figured out how to make sure that each table gets all of the things they’ve ordered and only those things. They’ll get there in time, and it was lovely nonetheless.

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It was the perfect Bangalore weekend to head into our final month in India.

Spring Break 2019

With our time in India ticking away, we wanted to do something special for our last big trip. Our first plan was Kashmir, but the February terrorist attacks made that seem less advisable so we shifted our sights south. Our first big trip back in 2017 was in Kerala, and we had always meant to return. This seemed the perfect chance to do so. Plus, Kerala would get us close to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, and a place Melissa was eager to see.

We started the trip with a return to Kochi, a charming seaside town with Chinese fishing

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Chinese fishing nets

nets along the rocky beaches, easily walkable streets, and charming old architecture. It is also home to a Jewish community that dates back to 72 CE and has the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth nations, built in 1567. Our first visit to Kochi was on a Saturday so we couldn’t enter, but we made sure to time it better for this trip. Photography is not allowed inside, so we can only describe the large rectangular room with wooden benches along the walls, a floor of 18th century Chinese tiles, and Belgian chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. With its stately pulpit and the Torah kept safely behind a beautiful curtain, it truly felt like a place of peace and reverence, and it’s sad to think of this community dwindling.

We stayed in Heavenly Homestay, which provided a room with excellent air

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Kittens at our homestay!

conditioning. This is no small deal when temperatures are in the upper 90’s and the humidity levels are in the 80’s. In the afternoons, we wilted and were very grateful for a place to retreat. Our host suggested that we go see Kathakalli dancing, and Melissa was eager to go. Tom was less enthusiastic, but willing and ultimately very glad we went. We arrived at 5:00 to watch them put on their make-up, which seemed like a strange notion until we realized that the make-up application is truly a performance of its own. They used all natural pigments and transformed themselves while we watched. Then came a short demo of the amazing eye-dancing in which nothing moves but the eyes! This was followed by an explanation of the various mudras and expressions that tell the story, and finally a performance of a tale from the Mahabharata. It was great!

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We had an amazing dinner at History, which has a fabulous menu that describes the history of each dish they serve. The environment was lovely (and air conditioned), and the food was great. We enjoyed it all very much, except for the strangely gelatinous chocolate dessert.

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After a couple days in Kochi, we were ready to move on and headed for the train which was only running a couple hours late. Given that we were embarking on the third day of a lengthy trip, that’s not too bad. We enjoyed a relaxing 4 1/2 hour ride to Trivandrum where we got a taxi to the Leela Kovalam, a little heaven on earth. This hotel is completely open to the elements except in our individual rooms. We were grateful for our cool and comfy room and equally delighted by the lovely spaces and gorgeous views.

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For our last night, Melissa thought we should ask about upgrading from our very nice room with a beach view to an even nicer club room with an ocean view. We expected to pay a hefty price for this bit of luxury and were happily stunned to be told that they would simply move us over. Never hurts to ask! In truth, we think our first room was nicer, but the view in our second room was unbeatable. A highlight of the evening was sitting on our deck, watching the most spectacular lightning storm over the ocean that just went on for hours.

Our morning walks were also a highlight. It was so hot and humid that we wanted to get whatever little physical activity we would have over early, so we took walks on the beach

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before breakfast. One morning, we went to a tasty breakfast at German Bakery at the recommendation of our friends Ben and Christina. Every morning we watched teams of fishermen (yes, they were all men) pulling nets in from far off shore. For each net there were two teams of pullers, in what looked like a combination of tug-of-war and a bucket brigade, as they would pull this huge rope with one man’s job to coil the rope as it came ashore; when the pullers got to the back, they would peel off and head to the front and start over again. As the net got closer, the teams got closer together. Our fascination was heightened by the chanting they were doing as they pulled. One man told us that it was a very local tribal language, kind of a combination of Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) and Tamil (the language spoken just over the mountains in Tamil Nadu). It was fascinating, and one of the mornings, we saw them actually finish the process and haul the net ashore, with a catch of a bunch of what looked like sardines. All of that work for a few sardines!

After a few relaxing days, walking on the beach, watching the morning fishermen, reading our books, and generally reveling in our lack of agenda, it was again time to move on.

A three hour drive took us to Kanyakumari, a bustling little town filled with Indian tourists. The town has some impressive temples, a rocky monument to Swamy Vivekananda (who apparently swam to the rock to meditate), a towering monument to a philosopher poet, and a very nice Gandhi memorial, but mostly it offers the daily spectacle of watching the sun set over the ocean on one side of the town and rise again over the ocean on the other side of town.

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Our room in the Hotel SeaView provided for a pleasant (if crazy hot) walk to Sunset Beach for the western view, where we joined several hundred others for the show, and had a perfect view of the harbor and ocean to the east. Leading up to our visit, rains and overcast skies were predicted, so we wondered if it would be worth the trip, but it was! The skies cleared, and the sunset and sunrise both made for quite a show!

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On our final day of vacation, we headed back to Trivandrum for a glorious meal at the

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beautiful Villa Maya before catching our flight home.

It was, like all of our Indian vacations, a trip to remember.

Melissa’s Musings: Discovering Indian Art

I have always loved Indian art, but my definition of what that meant was pretty specific. I loved the Mughal miniatures that hung in my home as a child, that my parents showed me in their Indian art books, and that we went to the Met to see for a special exhibition when I was a teen. I loved the romantic images of gods and goddesses reclining with peacocks and tigers, of kings and queens embracing on terraces overlooking beautiful endless vistas, of colorfully (and scantily) clad women dancing in groves of palm trees. I even loved the battle scenes with men riding elephants and camels with huge spears over their heads. I loved the intricate detail and the vivid colors and the sense of something so huge wrought to small.

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A terrible photo of a beautiful piece that always hung over my parents’ bed.

After some time in this country, I now know that the Mughal miniatures are just a very small (if also very popular) part of what makes up Indian art. Tom and I have purchased a couple pieces of traditional art from Orissa that we fell in love with: one large piece that tells Krishna’s life story in detailed etchings on palm leaves and another smaller one in a similar style depicting Saraswati. I simply had to have a couple pieces done by a Gond artist from Madhya Pradesh: one of deer and birds, and another of birds in a tree. And we’re both on the look-out for the perfect carved wooden elephant.

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One traditional art form captured Tom’s imagination the first time he saw it, but took a long time to grow on me. Warli art depicts village life, showing people cooking, carrying sheaves of wheat, caring for children, shepherding animals, and dancing at festivals. They are usually surrounded by trees, deer, birds, cows, and other aspects of nature. The forms are simple with people and animals made up of connected triangles, usually painted in black on a light background or in white on dark background. They don’t paint in bright colors and they don’t romanticize their lives – I wanted us to get a painting because Tom loved it so much, but not because it spoke to me. And then I learned that there was going to be a Warli art class – this was my way in!

Last week, I had the incredible privilege of learning from Kusum who came from her village in Maharashtra to teach a series of classes at Sevita Centre for Arts. When I arrived for her first class, she had only been in Bangalore for a couple hours, having traveled by bus for 24 hours to get here. She speaks Marathi and understands a little English, but does not speak it. Still, this kind and talented artist was not going to let a little thing like a language barrier keep her from imparting all she was there to share. Devaki, one of Sevita’s founders and a former colleague of Tom’s at CIS, translated what we needed for context, but mostly the three of us in the class just did our best to observe and copy what Kusum was doing.

Warli art comes from the hunter tribes of the borderlands between Gujarat and Maharashtra. Their earliest art was drawn on the walls of their red earth huts, using a white paint made from crushed rice. It would fall off the wall after a year and then they would paint again. Eventually, they made the transition to a sort of light cotton canvas and created the backgrounds from a variety of materials mixed with a little water and glue to make sure they last: the reddish brown background is still made from red earth, a golden background comes from yellow earth, a greenish background comes from cow dung, and the black background comes from wood ash or charcoal. Again with an eye toward art that will last, they began using poster paints in either black or white mixed with glue. While some of the techniques have been modernized, much of the art is done as it has always been done, with whimsical characters created from triangles. Occasionally in modern works, there will be animals with curved forms. Because the traditional art only depicted domesticated animals and birds, there are only established ways of drawing domesticated animals and wild animals can be interpreted by the artist.

After spending time with Kusum and looking through the art she brought with her, I have a new appreciation for it and can see the beauty and light so much more clearly. I started a painting during class and Tom returned with me on Sunday to finish it together. We look forward to taking home some work by Kusum as well as one done by her son. This art form has been taught through the generations and it’s lovely to think of that continuing in Kusum’s own family.20190227_102856-15971970087656324484.jpg

Does our painting look like one done by an accomplished Warli artist? No, it does not. But will it be a happy reminder of time spent with an amazing artist, broadening my own concepts of art? Yes, it will.

Winter Adventures, 2019

We have been extraordinarily blessed with visitors during our time in Bangalore. We also have taken full advantage of Tom’s vacations, experiencing as much of the amazing diversity India and Sri Lanka have to offer as we can possibly fit in to what is suddenly feeling like a short amount of time. For our 2018-19 Winter Vacation, we got to revel in both visitors and amazing India. Our sister/sister-in-law Julie and niece Meagan made the trek around the world to spend the holidays with us, including Christmas. It was a little bit of home and family at a time of the year when we miss both tremendously. Together we explored ancient sites, Wonders of the World, crafts in the making.

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Meagan and Julie at Bangalore Fort

We started vacation with a few days showing Julie and Meagan around our lives in Bangalore. As with most international flights, they arrived in Bangalore crazy early in the morning, and after giving them time for a quick nap and some mango jammers, our goal was to keep them awake and be out in the light. We took a tour of the Canadian International School and a walk through our neighborhood, Malleshwaram. We capped off the day with a nice home cooked meal thanks to our once-a-week cook, Bharti. The next day we took them on the now-familiar tour of our favorite sites in Bangalore — Mavalli Tiffin Room, LalBagh Botanical Gardens, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, and KR Market. Intermixed in all of that was some serious Ticket to Ride playing, but we promised Meagan we wouldn’t disclose the results . . .

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Tom and Julie in a tuk tuk between sites in Bangalore.

It was wonderful having them see our lives for a few days. We have a hard time describing it to people who haven’t been here, so it is always great to have people come and understand what it is we’re up to. On the other hand, Bangalore doesn’t have more than a couple of days of touristy things to experience, so after a little bit of shopping, we were off to the bulk of our vacation in Rajasthan.

 

We started our adventures in Jaipur, one corner of The Golden Triangle of India, where we toured forts, a medieval astronomical observatory, and a palace. Then we were off to our nature experience in Ranthambore National Park while staying in a tent-lodging resort. Next off to Bundi for our small town experience, and more forts and palaces. Then we were off to Agra, to experience the never disappointing Taj Mahal. We said good bye to Julie and Meagan in Delhi, where we spent a couple of days over the New Year, then off for the last few days of break in the ancient town of Hampi in our home state of Karnataka

It was an amazing trip, once again thanks to an incredible amount of work by Melissa. To try to keep these stories to a reasonable length, we’re separating out the various legs of the trip into separate posts. Please follow the links to read about the details of each place, or at least as many of the stories as you can bear. We always appreciate when you share our experiences with us. Thank you for taking the time to read.

Hampi

As soon as we learned about the UNESCO World Heritage site in Hampi last year, it moved to the top of our list of places to visit. And yet we kept putting it off because the logistics were daunting. Hampi is in Karnataka, the state where we live, but in a remote area reached by an eight hour car ride or a ten hour train. To make it even worse, there’s apparently nothing of interest to see along the way. And then they launched a direct flight to and from Bangalore. Suddenly it seemed possible! It was still a challenge to get there, requiring a very early morning flight from Delhi to Hyderabad, then getting our bags and changing airlines for the flight to Vijayanagar airport where we were picked up for the 45 minute drive to our hotel. We were there by early afternoon and immediately in heaven.

We decided to finish winter break with a ginormous splurge in this place that we were so excited to visit, and stayed at Evolve Back. This is the kind of place that would never feel like an option in our normal lives in America, but can be in reach (if we really stretch!) while here in India. Every detail of this place is perfect, from the luxurious room to the fabulous food to the educational tours. And everywhere we went, there were smiling, competent staff who truly seemed to enjoy their work. We wanted to see the fabled ruins of Hampi, but we also wanted some time to relax and reflect on the year that was and year to come. This was the perfect place for all of that.

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We took two separate tours while we were there, one with a small group and one with just the two of us. Our guide was amazing and taught us all about the monuments we were seeing and the history of the empires that occupied this place. There is evidence of people settled in this area as early as the 2nd century AD and references to Hampi in ancient texts, but it really began to blossom in the 11th century and hit its peak in the 14th-16th centuries when the Vijayanagar empire made Hampi its center. At its height, Hampi was one of the largest settlements in the world, second only to Beijing. In the mid-16th century, however, it was conquered by Muslim invaders who destroyed the temples by removing their idols and drove the people out. From that time on, it was abandoned.

The Archaeological Society of India has been working in recent years to uncover forgotten structures and restore the entire 16 square mile city. It’s a huge undertaking, but oh so worth it.

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When not gazing at historical buildings, we were awe-struck by the rocky, hilly terrain. It was so beautiful to behold.

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This was truly the perfect place to finish our perfect winter break.

New Year’s in New Delhi

Our visit to Delhi started with the saddest part of the trip — saying good-bye to Julie and Meagan. They were such lovely travel partners, and as we said in our introductory post, it is so nice to have people from our other life in the United States see our lives here in India. We try to describe it, but it was wonderful to have them experience it with us.

Saying good-bye to Julie and Meagan also meant saying good-bye to our wonderful driver Arvind. If you have traveled in India you know, you can get wonderful drivers and you can get frustrating drivers. Arvind was beyond wonderful. It’s such a game of roulette. You hire this person to spend hours and hours and hours with you for several days, and you have no idea what you’re going to get. Arvind didn’t force himself into our conversations, but he participated when appropriate; he never did the blatant “I’m getting a kickback” trick of taking us to somewhere we just didn’t want to go; he rolled with our crazy notions; and he stepped in and let us know when are notions were just not going to work. If you are one of our India friends or if you are traveling to Delhi/Agra/Rajasthan, hit us up. We’ll give you his contact info.

We decided to only spend a couple of days in Delhi in favor of spending a couple of extra days at our end-of-vacation heaven in Hampi. As a result, we had to narrow our priorities. Tom wanted to see Gandhi Smitri, a museum at the site of Gandhi’s assassination. We wanted to not travel a terribly long time to anything. We wanted to find our favorite wine we discovered on our trip to Nasik, York Arros, not yet sold in our home state of Karnataka. Finally, we wanted to limit our time outdoors; the air quality fulfilled Delhi’s stereotype.

Our first full day in Delhi, which happened to be New Years Eve, was spent at a couple of sites Melissa had already visited.  Lodhi Garden is lovely, with three ancient tombs that were part of the evolution toward the Taj Mahal. The park was also filled with several school groups having a good time and what looked like corporate events playing camp games. Then we went to Humayun’s Tomb, an even closer relative of the Taj. It is spectacular. It has been recently restored, so it is in great shape. There is also a huge construction project creating a new garden near by which is going to make the area an unforgettable experience, if it isn’t already.

On our way out of the Humayun’s Tomb, we had two experiences that made us love this attraction even more. First, there was a small museum in the old gatehouse to the tomb. One part of the museum explained the history of Humayun (which is a little crazy, and worth a quick read). The other part of the museum was an explanation of the groups involved in the rehabilitation of the tomb and the construction of the new park nearby and their efforts to reach out to the surrounding communities, many of which are very poor. We had no sooner been discussing the loss of a generation of Indian craftsmen to the large construction projects in the Arabian peninsula, but we read the story of these groups training the people in the local communities in the trades needed to build the parks. As Americans, we took pride in the fact that our State Department is one of those partners. On our way out we had our second experience that moved us so much. There was a small stand selling art created by the community members trained in the crafts that adorn the antiquities. We were moved enough that we bought a couple of pieces, both to support their efforts and because they are beautiful.

Our hotel, the Lalit New Delhi, has several bars and one nightclub. We figured it would be safe to assume that Baluchi, the fancy Indian restaurant upstairs and far away from the noisy spots, would be a nice romantic way to ring in the New Years. It was fun. It was delicious. Intimate and romantic? Not so much. A DJ was set up, playing music loud enough that we had to shout at each other to be heard. We stopped rolling our eyes at the empty dance floor about 10:30 when it started filling up nicely with very satisfied revelers. We, we had to admit, were the weird ones here. We had a lovely dinner and a bottle of our sought-after Arros (of which Tom only had two glasses, which will be important in moments). We left a little before midnight so we could ring in the New Year just the two of us, perhaps watching the fireworks from our window. Modi’s ban on fireworks seemed to work, as there were very few, but we were very glad we went upstairs early. It was nice to have that bit of quiet time. And then about three minutes in to the New Year, Tom’s first, and only (knock on wood), bout of Delhi Belly struck with a vengeance. His 2019 can only get better from there.

Fortunately, our second full day in Delhi was not very heavily planned. Tom had an easy time of the recovery, and we set out to see a couple of sites. The day before we tried to visit the Gandhi Smitri, but it was closed on Sunday. We were worried it would be closed again on New Years Day, but thank goodness it wasn’t. Melissa visited during her trip with her brother Jesse, and the way she described it made Tom want to see it, too. It’s one of those places that simply inspires awe knowing this man who changed the world, who laid the ground work for others to change the world, walked here, met with important people here, inspired countless here. And the reverence with which they established the memorial to his assassination shouldn’t be surprising but is simply breathtaking. They went to great lengths to tell the entire story of Gandhi’s life, both at the site and around India, Britain, and South Africa. They touched on his many and profound flaws, which to us make him all the more human and astounding, but the story as presented does kind of err on the side of deification. Still, it is an inspiring site. It reminds us all that we need to be more like the Mahatma. Maybe not exactly like him, but more.

The teetotalling Gandhi wouldn’t approve, but that just leaves the hunt for wine.  Scattered throughout the two-and-a-half days, we took three different walks through the Connaught Place neighborhood in search of Arros. We had pictured buying a couple of bottles: one to share in Hampi and one to take home to Bangalore. We finally found one wine shop that sold York, but not Arros. We were more and more thankful for that New Years Eve bottle we shared. Again, if you are travelling in Delhi, Rajasthan, or Maharashtra, let us know. We’ll give you some money if you pick some up for us.

Our last night in North India was lovely. We had a drink in the lobby bar at the Lalit. We tried to play a little rummy, but we were promptly told to put them away. Apparently, cards aren’t allowed in bars. In a land of arbitrary rule enforcement, this seemed like a weird place to draw the line. Then we walked to Sorrento, a highly rated Italian restaurant not too far from our hotel. It didn’t disappoint.

We had to wake up early the next morning, because we were off to the last stop of this wonderful winter break . . . Hampi!