India and Nepal, November 2013


India and Nepal, November 2013

Taj Mahal scan2Today is the second last day of our fifteen day visit to India and Nepal and, as a result of the hectic schedule, the first time that I have had to try to put together a summary of the trip. In fact, the only reason I can do it now is that today is Election Day in Nepal when just about everything shuts down so we have no daytime itinerary. I think for most it came as a nice break but we are confined to the hotel and the very short street of shops leading to it. This is mainly because there is no transportation available and presumably all the sites are closed, but there is also a real concern about potential violence. There was a strong military presence everywhere we went yesterday and there are armed personnel on the rooftops around this hotel – but that might be due to the fact that former President Jimmy Carter is staying here as he is one of the contingent of foreign observers of the election.

So, how do I cover a visit to these two countries in an e-mail that won’t be too long but at the same time captures the essence of the experience we have had. The easy answer is that it can’t be done so I have opted to try to “hit the highlights” and provide little background data.

Both India and Nepal have large Hindu populations (about 80%) but have many Buddhists and Moslems – in fact, India has the second largest (after Indonesia) number of Moslems in the world. So we have seen holy sites for all three religions, but mainly Buddhist and Hindu – in their many forms. I cannot pretend to understand the literally thousands of gods that are worshipped and the inter-relationship to one another but suffice it to say that we have once again been struck by the similarities between these religions and Christianity. That might sound odd since there are thousands of Hindu gods but the hierarchy and the mythology surrounding their birth and their lives are strikingly similar – at least in my mind. Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism (as are several other religions, such as Sikhs and Jains) so there are many similarities between these also – but equally there are some distinct (and in some cases very significant) differences. If you want more background, either visit here or get on Google – we recommend the former!

On our very first day of the tour (we are with a 28 member group plus guide, as opposed to our more usual “do it yourself” trip) we saw many different monuments and learned a lot about the various religions and faiths which make up this country of almost 2 billion people. However, it is that statistic alone (the number of people) that underlies every impression that we got of life and culture in this country. It manifests itself in the traffic on the roads (which are totally inadequate and populated with every form of vehicular traffic), the crowds that one has to negotiate simply to get from one place to another and – perhaps most of all – in the sub-standard living conditions that so many must endure. Obviously there are some very exclusive and expensive homes, particularly in the ex-Colonial and Government area of New Delhi, but there are many more tenement houses, shacks and shanty towns within the city. This creates garbage and maintenance (roads, buildings, sidewalks, etc) issues that are difficult to describe and even more difficult to imagine tackling as the country further develops. Despite this, and the attendant need for so many to perform menial tasks and to beg to scrape a living, people are generally very friendly, helpful and appear to be happy. It truly is amazing and humbling to see such poverty and squalor on this immense scale.

Having said that and with the recognition that things are quite different than those in Western developed countries, Delhi has a lot to offer as a result of its 500 year history, its mix of religions and its architecture. It certainly retains a good deal of British colonial influence (particularly New Delhi which was created by the British and laid out with wide European-style boulevards and is still home to all government and armed services offices as well as many embassies) but the dynasties that ruled for several centuries provided most of the sites that we visited today. The first was a huge Moslem Temple (biggest in India if not in the world). The three large onion-shaped domes, the two tall towers and the ornate frontage to the prayer rooms stood in front of a huge courtyard in which as many as 20,000 worshippers can be present.

As a stark contrast to the beauty of the mosque we were next taken on a 25 minute pedal rickshaw ride along the very narrow and very crowded streets that run alongside the mosque. We had a slow but somewhat bouncy ride past shops of all kinds, markets selling fruits, vegetables and flowers – and underneath some very dangerous-looking overhead electricity wiring that must be a nightmare to fix when things go wrong, or, perhaps, when some other resident simply taps into this haphazard grid. Next we drove to a very large park (a mile long we were told) in which is the cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern, post-British India. It is a very simple stone with a well-kept flower bed and an eternal flame but I found the visit to be quite moving.

On our bus ride from Delhi to Jaipur (our next destination) we witnessed a mix of human beings (immense volumes in many places and now largely Moslem) and animals. At the sides of the road, and indeed in the middle of the road, we saw cows, camels, pigs, goats and monkeys. The cow, of course, is revered and is allowed to wander across a motorway and stop dozens of vehicles if she wants and is probably less vulnerable to being run down that we would be. Likewise, other animals (with the possible exception of the monkey which can be quite dangerous) are not only tolerated but accepted wherever they wish to walk, much as you or I might be.

While in Jaipur we drove about 20 minutes to the Amber Palace. Amber refers to the name of the township which was the predecessor to Jaipur and it was from this palace that the maharajas ruled for several centuries before they outgrew it and moved into what is now Jaipur. The palace and accompanying fort are situated on adjacent hilltops overlooking the valley and are reached today (as most likely three hundred years ago) by a 20 minute ride on an elephant up a very steep incline. So, after about a 30 minute wait in the ever-growing line, we started our day proper sitting side by side on an elephant’s back, just behind its driver. We had experienced a camel ride in Jordon several years ago and thought that was probably the most uncomfortable form of transport – but we soon felt that the elephant was a true competitor to that title!

The maharaja at the time was subservient to the Moslem leadership in Delhi and tensions and outbreaks of war had been an issue for generations. He chose to solve this problem by marrying one of his daughters to a prominent Moslem man and thus brought a period of relative peace. This also meant that the palace buildings themselves had a unique mix of Hindu and Islamic influence in the architecture. The Islamic parts were basically Persian in style as the Mughals in charge had originated in Persia so there are columns, for example, that have floral bases and elephant heads at the top. Similarly there are many walls and rooms that have no human or animal figures (Moslem buildings contain no such icons) but are ornately decorated in precious stones and mirrors that create unique lighting effects. Other areas are clearly Hindu in style and the various gods are prominent over doorways and on walls in beautiful frescos.

Also in Jaipur we visited an open-air observatory built by the maharaja almost 300 years ago to provide an accurate (to within 20 seconds it is claimed) time for the city (not for today’s one time zone India) and to a series of astrological features that would allow the priest to accurately predict a newborn’s life based on zodiac signs. The whole area (a good-sized park) is filled with stone features that mimic sundials of various kinds but on a grand scale. The largest piece looks more like an Olympic ski jump!

Finally, we visited the City Palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur. After gaining Independence the power of the maharaja diminished but it was Indira Gandhi in the early seventies who said that they would no longer have any direct power over their regions. The descendants are still given the title and a certain amount of the respect but no longer have any ruling authority. Consequently, although many remain among the rich, a lot of their former palaces and homes have been converted to museums and a range of rather exclusive hotels. Jaipur was originally built as a walled city and still retains most of the walls. In 1886 when the Prince of Wales paid a visit, the maharaja decided to honor him by having all the walls and homes painted pink. The facades facing the main streets (very wide boulevards set in a grid system) are still maintained in pink – hence Jaipur has the name of “The Pink City”. The museum has many beautifully decorated courtyards and a number of rooms in which are displayed the clothing and household effects of the maharajas from the height of their glory. In one room are the trophies won by the maharaja of the 1950s for his polo prowess when India (where the game was invented) was world leader. In fact, Jaipur itself had a world-class polo team and the maharaja was a key player.

Our next city was Agra and our visit to the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal was built between 1622 and 1655 as the mausoleum for the third and favorite wife, Muntaj, of Shahjahan, the fifth Mughal emperor. The Mughals (Persians) had essentially conquered Indian the previous century and Jahan was the last emperor before the dynasty lost its power. This accounts for the very strong Iranian influence in Indian culture and architecture and, of course, for the very large Moslem population both then and now.

Before she died he had asked her what she wanted him to do after her death and she had asked that he not marry again (he didn’t) and that he build the finest palace “in the entire world” to house her remains (he did). The complex covers a huge area and the palace sits in the center, surrounded by gardens divided into quadrants by long pools, including the quintessential channel that defines the Taj Mahal in most pictures. The building itself is entirely symmetrical with minarets at each corner and a huge dome in the center above the sarcophagus of the Muntaj.

The entire palace is built of Indian marble, quarried about 150 miles from Agra, which is claimed to be even better than that from Italy in that it is non-porous (and very hard) and translucent and thus “changes” color with the light changes, at times appearing pink or orange. Today the sun was out and the smog (notorious in this area and very bad last night) was minimal so we saw the Taj in its typical brilliant white. The first impression immediately corresponds with all the pictures one has ever seen of this iconic place but, in addition, it seems so much more and cannot fail to impress. For most in our group, this was the reason they had made the trip and no-one expressed any disappointment; in fact several said that they could happily return home now having seen “India”. Neither Molly nor I had this as our only (or even major) reason for our visit but obviously it as a highlight and is one of those places that we have heard about forever but never thought we would.

As with so many world class sites, it is extremely difficult to describe and capture the feelings of respect and humbleness that accompanies such a visit. On the one hand it could be argued that to spend so much time and money on a burial place is decadent but it is impossible not to be moved and certainly impressed by the structure as you stand there 450 years later. On his death, Jahan was entombed next to his wife in the mausoleum he built for her.

In the next city, Khajaharo (which we reached via train and a five hour bus ride!), we saw a huge complex of Hindu Temples – one of many UNESCO World Heritage sites in India).This is a huge complex that once contained 85 temples – one built by each Maharaja in the state – and are all built in the Aryan-Hindu style. The period during which they were built was from the 9th to the 11th century which is about two hundred years before the majority of the temples at Angkor Wat (in Cambodia) were built. And the similarity in style to Angkor is amazing. The temples themselves, pointed like the Himalayas on which the design is based, is covered in intricate carvings depicting scenes from everyday life, the various gods, and – at the first temple we visited – many of the Karma Sutra positions.

There are currently 25 temples on the site in various states of ruin and renovation and, unlike Angkor, they are all in a beautiful park-like setting. Like Angkor, they were abandoned in the 13th century or so and were taken over by the forest until being re-discovered by a British hunter in the mid-1800s. The envelopment helped preserve many of the buildings but also caused the destruction of others but those that are left are in marvelous condition for the most part and the intricate carvings are essentially like new.

The final city we visited was Varanasi, The Holy City for Hindus. We had a pre-dawn visit to the River Ganges, which is not only a good time to see the sun rise over the river (through a slightly hazy sky in our case) but also the time when Hindus perform their ablutions in the river or offer prayers to the rising sun. We were herded through the crowds to a boat on which we took a 40 minute ride past the many steps (ghats) used by the devotees to enter the water, often fully clothed but in some cases in underwear only. There were dozens (hundreds?) of tourist boats like ours, all with thirty or more passengers snapping pictures of these rituals. I must admit it felt somewhat of an imposition on our part to watch and photograph people as they performed their religious activities but we were assured that it was acceptable.

Varanasi is called the Holy City of India because it is here that pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges and where many wish their cremated remains to be deposited. All Hindus are cremated within 24 hours of death and all wish to have their ashes spread on the Ganges. There were a few cremation pyres burning as we sailed by although we were told we would see much more of that in our evening visit. The cremation pyre is built using 200-300 Kg of wood on which the body is burned and then the remains are pushed into the river.

In the evening we went once again to the Ganges for the evening prayer service. This time we had to take cars to a parking place about ¼ mile from the river as the streets were too crowded to allow buses. We had been warned that the walk would be a test of our skill and faith in other human beings (particularly those with any form of vehicle) and indeed it was a hair-raising experience. Our guide had said many times on the trip that we hadn’t seen crowds in India until we reached Varanasi (which was difficult to believe) but he was in fact absolutely correct. He said that perhaps as many as a million people (maybe up to two million) would be in the area through which we walked and, although I certainly was too busy watching traffic to attempt a count, it would be difficult to question his judgment. It was absolutely wall to wall people, animals and allowed vehicles (mostly motorcycles and bicycles).

The evening prayer service is performed every evening of the year and tonight was said to be a fairly typical crowd with thousands on the river bank and perhaps an equal number in boats like the one we took. The boats tied up together (probably twenty deep) in front of the main stand from which the prayer service was conducted. The service consists of lots of lights, lots of singing and many fires – unusual to most Westerners but obviously very important and symbolic for the Hindus.

Our boat then took us downstream to see a place where at least a dozen cremations were taking place simultaneously. The body is brought to this place on a wooden platform carried by the chief mourner (husband or first son) and several other family members. It is wrapped in a white cloth for the procession and the further wrapped in perhaps several layers in multi-colors. These outer layers are removed at the banks of the river and then the body is carried in the white shroud to the funeral pyre where it is cremated in the middle of a large bonfire. The cooled ashes are then thrown into the Ganges after about two days. The faith allows a thirteen day period between cremation (the day after death) and the washing in the Ganges so clearly it is impossible for many poor in India to receive the ultimate final treatment, that of being washed of all sin in the Holy River Ganges. However, so many faithful do in fact make this final journey that Varanasi performs cremations twenty four hours every day of the year. Varanasi is a city with a population of about two million (depending on how you count and your source) but it is said that there is an equal number of tourists, pilgrims and bereaved here at any time. No wonder the streets are so crowded!

On this past Sunday we flew to Kathmandu in Nepal and got our first glimpse of the snow covered Himalayas as we descended into the city. We left the airport immediately to a 5th century Hindu Temple which is the equivalent of those in Varanasi in that it sits on the Bagmati River which flows into the Ganges and where cremations are ongoing twenty four hours a day. We actually witnessed one pyre in flames and saw another shrouded body being carried into the area for subsequent cremation. The temple is built in a pagoda style but only Hindus are allowed in so we could simply admire its beauty from the outside as well as taking a walk to see several smaller temples, in many of which were sitting the priests – charging for photographs!

We then went to the Buddha Stupa, which was also built in the fifth century and is enormous. It is made of white limestone with orange texturing and must be close to a hundred feet high. It is said to be the holiest place for Buddhists in Nepal, which is the birth country of Buddha. The stupa is set in the middle of a large circular plaza which is surrounded by three or four storey buildings which are basically shop houses, with living quarters above the ground floor shops. We were told that the buildings – which are very European in style – are owned by Nepalese but the shops are rented primarily to Tibetan refugees who sell their local work but actually live elsewhere in the city. Apparently there is a large and growing Tibetan population in Nepal, although most are illegal immigrants and so the exact number is difficult to calculate. The government turns a blind eye to them most of the time except when China “complains”, at which time some number will be forced to leave.

The next day was a full day of sightseeing in the three cities of the Kathmandu Valley. We started by driving perhaps 25 miles, the last ten of which were on a very steep, twisty road that was barely wide enough for the bus in most places.

We kept getting glimpses of the snow covered Himalayas but when we reached our destination at an elevation of 7200 feet, we had some absolutely magnificent views of many peaks. The weather was very clear but we were told that one had to be at this spot very early on a very clear morning – and be a little lucky – to actually see Mt Everest.

The Himalayas are a very young range and have much more jagged peaks that the majority of the Rockies and appeared to us to be similar in topography to the Alps, but obviously a lot higher as there are dozens of peaks here that are over 20,000 feet. The road we had traveled to get here leads to Tibet which is only 120Km away but we were told that the drive would take a minimum of five hours due to road conditions and the hairpin nature of the route.

From this magnificent viewpoint we re-traced our steps down the winding road to visit Durbar Square which has been in existence for many centuries and is now another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of beautiful temples set in two major squares which are joined by narrow streets filled with shops and street vendors. If we thought it was difficult to remember the hierarchy of the Hindu gods in India, in Nepal it is impossible. Nepal is 80% Hindu and so shares a lot of commonality with India in that respect but the Nepalese have put their own twist on the subject. For example they have vegetarian gods (only two arms) and non-vegetarian (multiple arms). Apparently about 80% of the Indian and Nepalese versions are similar but there are differences that make up the rest. Again, although the guides were very good and I felt that I could understand the nuances as they spoke, there was just two much information, most of which had a half-life of about five minutes.

One major difference here in Nepal is the practice of making animal sacrifices to the gods. We certainly didn’t hear that much about it in India (although there may be areas where the practices continue) but in Nepal it seems to be a frequent occurrence. In fact we witnessed from a distance the sacrifice of a small water buffalo outside one of the temples, as we were having lunch! I had no idea that such sacrifices were still ongoing in any part of the world.

After lunch we drove to the so-called Monkey Temple. It is actually the oldest Buddhist temple in Nepal dating from the first century and is reached by climbing 130 steps. Lots of monkeys live around the temple, hence its nick-name. It is also set in a round plaza which has great views of the city and, as with all Buddhist temples, one must always walk around in a clockwise direction. This too is a UNESCO World Heritage site (it is claimed that Nepal has more than any other country) and has undergone some recent renovations, including the addition of about 200 pounds of gold to the upper portion.

Our final stop was in the Old City of Kathmandu which was similar to the Durbar Square area but much bigger. I have no idea how many temples and other structures are in this complex founded in the ninth century. It is certainly not the oldest area we have seen but it houses the residences of the former royalty as well as two huge temples, one of which is devoted to the god Shiva and was the one where the Hippies of the sixties came to smoke marijuana. Apparently there is still one day of the year when this still happens despite the fact that marijuana is illegal in Nepal today.

If you have read to this point (thank you) you must be as confused as we are with the culture and religion of these two countries. But I hope you have also felt a little of the countries “behind” its monuments and have some impression of the way of life that is so different to that we experience in the US or the UK. If so, good; if not, blame it on my ability to capture it. Either way, if you get a chance to experience it for yourself –DO!

Tomorrow we are leaving Nepal after a very early morning flight to get a close-up view of Mt Everest and then we start the journey home.


Mt Everest

(Congratulations to those who read or scrolled this far)

Bob and Molly

PS. Molly proof-read this document and she told me there were perhaps half a dozen “typos”. I read it though again and found one – so apologies for the remaining ones.



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