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The Brits

Time Building, Mumbai, India

Walking through the impressive buildings the Brits built in Mumbai I could not stop thinking how did they feel to be sent to India. Probably at the time Bombay was not so crowded as today but for sure it was as hot and humid to unbearable levels. So for them coming from their $%#@! English weather to India was a major change and malaria took also its toll, the cemetery being full with young lads who did not make it back. For the ones who could afford an option was to move to higher ground and live part of the time in Manali or Shimla, the famous hill stations. I decided to walk by myself in the Fort area but it turned out to be a almost impossible task for the short time that I had In Mumbai. I was used with Indian heat from the south or the sejour in Varanasi where the temperature was 43C making myself the only foreigner out shooting video relentlessly. But in Mumbai the heat and the humidity took its toll and no matter that I wanted to move quickly I was constantly held back by an incredible number of people who were clogging the sidewalks that forced me and many others to walk symbiotically into the chaotic Mumbai traffic. I started at the impressive train station and the The Times building but I could not make it further than the Flora Fountain. And to make things worse the entire city is a building site, digging for the metro and few and far between things could be seen. Beside the traffic is completely stalled and the bad idea I had to go by car killed easily two hours while I simply sat in traffic.

Double decker in Mumbai

In the end I gave up after seeing something on the main buildings route and coming back in the same traffic. We turned to the Marine Drive, a sort of Cuban Malecon but without any Latin vibe where the heat was a little subsided by the breeze but the haze was such that you barely could see any of the buildings in front. It was obvious that not to much can be done in Mumbai by driving and I had a brief stop for the main Hindu Temple, Mahalakshmi Temple dating from the 18th century.

Haji Ali Mosque, Mumbai, India

Haji Ali Dargah Mosque sits closely to the Hindu temple on an island ind the Mumbai Gulf. It is connected by a causeway that gets covered in water during high tide. Pilgrims come to the Mosque continuously and the walk to the mosque is aligned with beggars and cripples waiting for alms. When the tide is high the mosque is looking like is floating on water. The mosque dates from the beginning of the 15th century commemorating a traveler/saint from Uzbekistan who eventually settled in Mumbai and performed numerous miracles. At his wish his shroud was dropped in the ocean in order not to exist a place to be worshiped but his followers figure it out and built a mosque that float in high tide on the place his shroud was dropped.

Sunset over the mosque

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Posted by on February 15, 2018 in Blog, India

 

The guru

If you were ever traveling in India mainly in spiritual places, in villages, in holy temples, attending traditional melas and pilgrimage places, the moment you reach Pune you would be at a loss. Because for a change you would encounter a city that is nice and clean, with no dirt to be seen around, with sizable sidewalks, with fancy restaurants, coffee places – of course Starbucks – and nice hotels, with young people smartly dressed hanging out in front of bars and cafes off from their 9-5 jobs, with no visible poverty at least in the posh area of Koregan Park that is peppered with elegant villas hidden behind tall fences. The young people that swarm the streets of Koregon park look like any professional around any large world metropolis, be it New York, London or Paris. And being used with the India of almost medieval village life, what first came to my mind when I saw all this was : “This is not India”. And it may have been true because Pune symbolizes “The New India”, a completely different reality that you may not have perceived as a spiritual traveler. But for sure not everything is lost spiritually because Pune has several of the most important ashrams in India, one of them being the one dedicated by Osho, the eccentric meditation-sex-guru with a fleet of Rolls Royce, extradited from the US for tax evasion who found a place back in his country and developed even after his death an amazing following. Like in the case of Sai Baba, the hunger for spirituality drive people from all over the world to come to Osho ashram to look for guidance. And exactly like Sai Baba, Osho was able to create a gigantic institution with large swats of land on both side of the street guarded by police posts and multiple guard rails to prevent any attacks.

Osho Ashram, Pune, India

But the question that remains is if all cities tend to become more of the same why bother to visit them? Because as clean as it is, except the drooping banyan trees that cover the streets, the lanes in Koregon Park look so similar with posh areas around Europe or the US. You take a pleasant walk but is not to much to discover and after that you go and have your nicely prepared dinner that would not even taste different than the one in NY, walk a little bit around sizing the crowds and go to sleep with the only impression that “the world is flat”, to quote Thomas Freedman’s idea. For me at least, as cool and nice Pune looks I would veer away after one night and go explore more of the medieval tableau of life happening in the Indian temples in remote villages or in Khumb Mela, and give a miss for the moment to the cool “lattes”.

In a different part of Pune is tlocated he luxurious palace built by Aga Khan, the head of the Nizari Ismaili sect, a Shia sect that involved in charities.¬† The palace was built in order to be able the help the poor people of Pune and give them some some work at reasonable wages. The Palace was used by the Brits to jail Mahatma Ghandi in 1942 while he started the campaign “Quit India”. The following Aga Khan donated the palace to the Indian state that converted it in a memorial for Ghandi’s relentless effort for independence.

Aga Khan Palace, Pune, India

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2018 in Blog, India

 

The Mughals

Bibi-Al-Makan Mausoleum, Aurangabad, India

If you walk in Aurangabad, an old and powerful capital of the Mughals, you can see how glories fade in history. The fame and power gone left behind dirt, disrepair and an unkempt town. However the town still preserves a number of interesting places to visit, like “the poor man Taj Mahal”, an almost identical copy of the famous tomb from Agra. The monument is dedicated by a young price to his mother and was meant to be built entirely from marble. But to the advice of his father not to empty the state coffers, the prince decided to scale down and only parts of the monument are built with marble while many others are covered in decorated plaster.

Bibi-Al-Makan tomb, Aurangabad, India

Daulatabad Fort, India

Outside the city is located the famous citadel of Daulatabad. The fortress was built on top of the mountain and the access to its interior was done exclusively through a bat infested pitch dark tunnel, with deceiving openings and niches and a spiral staircase with uneven steps. All this civil engineering feat made the citadel practically unconquerable if it were not to take in consideration the human factor. The citadel fell by simply bribing the guards. A little bit of bakshesh goes a long way.

Courtship in Daulatabad Fort, India

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Blog, India

 

The caves

Buddhist cave with chamber music, Ellora, India

Even if I walked into the Ajanta caves the previous day the remarkable workmanship that I found in the Ellora caves surpassed any imagination. Built later than the Ajanta caves, between 600-1000 AD, the Ellora is a collection of caves lined along 2km of cliff that belong to three religious, Buddhism, Hindu and Jain.

Rows of Buddhas, Ellora, India

While the Buddhist caves occupies the right side of the mountain they are also from the period of Buddhist decline in India, 7th to 8th century. Some of them are impressive like the one that is built on two floors with chamber music on top that has a phenomenal acoustic. Others are built on three floors looking like a parking place from outside but extremely embellished inside.

Kailash Monastery, Ellora, India

The most spectacular cave is Kailash Monastery, located right in the middle of the complex, a dugout monastery where the builders had to remove 220000 tons of rocks but carefully leaving on site the rock needed for construction. Its dimension are impressive compared with any other monastery, its size being better grasped if watched from the top of the mountain. The monastery has in its middle a large temple, decorated with lions on its roof, that a representation of Kailash mountain, the holiest of the Himalaya peaks, revered in four religions, Buddhism, Shaivism, Jain and Bon.

Kailash Monastery, Ellora, India

Just a walk away from Ellora is Grishneshwar, one of the 12 Jyotirlinga shrines mentioned in the Shiva Purana.The temple is an important pilgrimage place in Shaivism, the tradition that revers Lord Shiva. Like all the pilgrimage temples, the place is holy and no electronics are allowed inside. So, no pictures… The knack of the temple is in order to enter the sacred area you have to take your shirt off. Inside the atmosphere is ecstatic and you could hear from afar the screams and chants address to the God. In the middle of the sacred area is a shiva-linga on which water is dripping from a top vessel. Bare chested pilgrims place their offer and touching with their heads the Linga, the symbol of Shiva, to be blessed by the holy dripping water. All is happening in the loud singing of the surrounding members, all bare-chested and dressed in white pants. An almost wall size mirror placed to show what is going on at the Shiva Linga presents a fabulous medieval tableau that you would expect to see only as an old painting hanging in a museum.

 
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Posted by on February 12, 2018 in Blog, India

 

The Holyman

Shirdi, India

Shirdi is the home town of Sai Baba, an ascetic who came here as a young teenager and lived under a tree. Nobody knew his name, or where he came from but he left such a powerful mark on the town and the people who knew him that more than a hundred years since his death the town is one of the main pilgrimage places in India, people coming from all over to bask in the presence of his spirit, a thing that is named darshan. 40000 people daily come to the temple that was built and expanded around the tree that cover the saint’s head. It is now a large compound accessed by numerous gates, with high security so no electronics are allowed. In the middle of the compound is the Sheer Samadhi building where Sai Baba was buried in 1912 and where people stay in line for hours to be able to get inside and walk in front of the marble statue. As a result the town is crowded and hotel room rates are always high in spite of their questionable quality.

Shirdi, India

What is puzzling is to see how such a religious fervor started by one person is transformed in a major industry in various locations around the world. The darshan place In Shirdi is surround by tons of stalls selling anything related to Sai, his portraits, his only original image, tons of plastic statues, red hanging to be used in the temple, flowers of different types to be brought to the darshan, and more important an entire industry of prasad, holly food that is sold all over town, people queuing in snaking line in many place,¬† while being discouraged to buy it from anybody else other than the Sai Samadhi organization. All this is happening while bajan is played and is broadcasted through speakers and people are all rushing to get inside the compound where they line up in devotion outside the window where is the saint’s statue or roam the numerous other temples and places of the large compound that occupies a large swat of land in the middle of the town.

Ajanta Caves, India

About 4 hours away are the Buddhist caves of Ajanta, 29 caves dug in the mountain dating between the 2nd BC-6th century AD. Their calling as caves is actually somehow incorrect because they were completely carved into the side of mountain, in a tradition that is spread in many parts of Asia. Inside they were built like fully blown monasteries, with the walls painted in tempera that on some of them resisted the ages showing a beautiful. and detailed work. Others had carved on them detailed scenes of Buddhist life. In Ajanta case many of the caves are dedicated to the Hinayana Buddhism  school, the original form of Buddhism that spread from Sri Lanka to the continent. Most of the caves are built as large vihara, monasteries wher monks would congregate, and few of them were built as chaitya, places of worship.

Ajanta Caves, India

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Blog, India

 

Nasik

Since twenty years ago when I first came to India things changed dramatically. At the time I was shown a high rise building somewhere in Rajasthan and it was presented like a novelty and a very expensive place for the rich. Now the entire Mumbai is covered by a forest of tall buildings that encroach in the slum territory trying to eliminate it. The roads improved a lot and the old Ambassador cars went almost extinct being replaced by fleet of Toyotas. However the only thing that seems not to have changed is that in spite of the better roads and better cars, the average speed when you calculate a distance is till around 40km/hour. And no matter what you do you cannot beat it. And of course the rentals are still car and driver, looking suicidal still for you to drive. If you tend to forget this, reality settle in the moment you hit the road. The road to Nasik was timed on GPS somewhere around 3 hours but no matter that we left in the morning we reached Nasik around 4PM.

Dhammagiri Vipassana International Academy, Igatpuri, India

We stopped on the way in Igatpur, the place that has the Dhammagiri, the world headquarters of Vipassana meditation, a technique preserved in Burma since the time of the Enlightened One and returned to India. Its compound is home for hundred of Indian and foreign students that come here to study beginner and advance courses. Vipassana meditation has compounds all over the world. One note: the entire instruction, the food and the board is free, the entire expenses being covered by various trusts all over the world. One drawback: they take away your phones while you are studying in the compound. So no Facebook with Buddha.

Ramkund, Nasik, India

Nasik(Nashik) is one of the four places on the Ganga, the mother river of India, that were blessed by drops of God’s nectar following a celestial battle between Gods and demons. All these places celebrate the famous Khumb Mela, the largest religious festival where you may see 20 million people descend in this town every 12 years. But what it means 20 million or more in India? And because the Indian God who was instrumental in this blessing is Shiva most of the temples are dedicated to Him.

Ramkund in Nasik, India

The place of gathering in Nasik is this reservoir built on Ganga named Ramkund. It is crisscrossed by bridges and platformed ghats from where the pilgrims come to bath in the river that the belief pretends that it cleanse their sins.

Ritual ablution in Nasik

For Hindus Ganga’s water is holly and according to tradition is does not get stale if preserved in a bottle so the pilgrims come here year around and use that water for ritual ablutions making offers to the river in flowers and candles that float on the river.

Ramkund seen from Victoria Bridge, Nasik, India

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2018 in Blog, India

 

Mumbai

Gateway of India. Mumbai

When landing in Mumbai in the evening you start right away to feel in your nose the fragrance of India. It’s in the air, a warm and tired whiff reminiscent of a hot day kind of forgotten under the canopy of trees that cover the Fort area streets. Mumbai’s traffic is hell looking like a game where each and every tiny spot on the stalled road would be filled up by something, be it a car, motorbike, bike, person, animal, anything. The cars are so close together that you easily would be able from the front seat to touch the other driver if you want. The puzzle is always complete and it snakes like one body dividing in multiple rivers that later unite in a cascade of tiny lights.

Even the monkeys drink Coca Cola

The Gateway of India is the place from where boats leave for Elephanta Island that has on it a collection of caves, the specialty of this part of India, full of Hindu statues from around the 7th century, an UNESCO heritage site. The temples dug in rock inside the caves are decorated with carvings dedicated to Lord Shiva, whose multiple manifestations are summed up in the middle magnificent and enormous sculpture that contains the Lord’s three main forms: Mahadeva in the middle, representing the cosmic source also represented by the lingam that is present in each Shiva temple, Bhaivara, representing the wrathful manifestation of the destroyer and Uma, the feminine and the beautiful for the destruction that would trigger the rebirth.

Mahesh Murti in Elephanta Caves

 
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Posted by on February 9, 2018 in Blog, India