Category Archives: India

Charm, colour & susegad… the many facets of Goa

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For as long as I can remember, the allure of Goa has intrigued my traveller’s mind. Was it browsing National Geographics’ as a teenager; coveting photos of pristine beaches, glossy palm trees and ‘hippy hide-aways’ in a tropical paradise? Or perhaps that Goa, with its distinct Portuguese culture, architecture and cuisine, is said to feel like you aren’t really in India – so much like Pondicherry with its French history – a destination within a destination.

But of course Goa is part of the rich diversity of India, and its west coast location placed it in easy reach from our southern home in Bangalore. Naturally, Goa beckoned and after two visits, I had most certainly fallen in love!

It wasn’t only the beaches that beguiled me, but the romance of that old Portuguese charm. Clanging church bells in quaint town squares, white spires reaching to palm-fringed skies, tangles of narrow crayon-hued streets and ageing villas, glorious even in decay. And the colour! I was utterly captivated by the embrace of colour; vivid, exuberant, unrelenting colour.

And infusing all of this is that Goan spirit of s u s e g a d. Derived from the Portuguese word sossegado for quiet, it evokes the laid back atmosphere that permeates Goan life.

The legacy of the Portuguese

Fontainhas, the old Latin Quarter within the city of Panjim (or Panaji), was love at first sight for me. During Portuguese rule, each urban resident was obliged to paint their house after the monsoon rains and it’s clear this tradition has continued. Many of the 18th and 19th century homes are still arrayed in pale yellows, ochres, greens and blues, with dashes of reds and whites. On two separate visits I stroll these streets until I’m intimate with the tidy back lanes, the tranquil siesta times, the aged villa from where gentle strains of violin drift, and the best verandah for morning coffee. I also return often to Fontainhas’ lovely whitewashed chapel.

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The pretty Chapel of St Sebastian, built in 1818, is white as mandated – the gaiety of colour was reserved for homes. The small church contains one of only a few relics remaining as testament to the Goan Inquisition, a crucifix that originally stood in the Palace of the Inquisition in Old Goa. It’s believed that Christ’s unusual open eyes struck fear into the hearts of ‘heretical’ suspects brought before the Inquisitors as they awaited their often tragic fate.

Nearby, in the heart of Panjim, the larger St. Mary’s Basilica is also striking, presiding over bustling streets from its hillside perch. A busy tourist spot, I overheard a conversation debating whether, with so many churches in Panjim, it was worth visiting  the UNESCO Heritage site of old Goa. A bystander implored, “Oh yes, so many churches are there, so beautiful.” And so we went. And yes, one must!

We journeyed through small villages on windy roads, arriving in Old Goa to a dizzying collection of vast cathedrals, chapels and convents. Often framed by tall Cook pines, colossal palms and fringed by forest, the effect of so many religious buildings is unexpected and impressive. I understood why it was once referred to as Rome of the East. 

The Portuguese made their headquarters here with the population reaching 200,000 by 1543. The number and scale of churches constructed to serve the settlement is staggering and our eye is drawn from dome, to spire, to bell-tower. Might I be in Rome, Lisbon, perhaps Barcelona? We wandered a few hours marvelling at the architecture, attempting to imagine ourselves in that distant, majestic past. Yet it was also a troubled one.

Malaria and cholera epidemics were especially cruel to this city, and by 1775 a mere 1500 people remained. In 1759, the viceroy had decreed a move to the future capital of Panjim, the once glorious city abandoned with the hope that 10 kilometres separation would make the difference between death and survival. The site became known as Velha Goa, old Goa, and Vasco de Gama who had first arrived to these shores in the late 15th century, surely would have been heartbroken to know that tragedy had struck the settlement he had envisioned. His arrival, and then of Naval commander Albuquerque, to battle and usurp the ancient Hindu kingdom of the Kadamba and Vijayanagara, resulted in control of the regions’s lucrative spice routes. The predominately Catholic empire lived on until 1961 when Goa was annexed by India.

To the beaches

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For many, the draw of Goa is its forty-some kilometre stretch of beaches. Yet deciding which beach to spend time on can be daunting.  Between the north, central, and the south, the beach culture varies widely – lively with vibrant night life, atmospheric fishing beaches preserving something of local life, beaches attracting busloads of tourists, those more soulful and reserved.  For the most part, what were once tranquil fishing villages are now pulsing with tourists; nirvana found (and lost) as seekers commune with the Indian Ocean, each other and the overwhelming array of accommodations from simple huts to five-star grandeur.

For many locals, the quiet charm of Goa will not return.

“The beautiful is gone in Goa,” a taxi driver lamented one afternoon as we inched our way along a main stretch of road clogged with tourist buses, taxis and local traffic. “These roads were to get from village to village, now the world is here.”

Part of the attraction is Goa’s beach shack culture. Not all shacks are created equal – some are fancy and others plain, but seafood, and a drink or two, is the common part of the experience. We learned that the key is finding a shack that you like, spending much of your time in its environs and developing a relationship with the owner. So a swim in the ocean, a beach-combing stroll, some leisure on the loungers, and a ‘cool one’ in your preferred spot in the shade of the shack… not too bad!

For a few days we find a spot that we love, soaking in the vibe, letting the feeling of susegad wash over us. Admittedly we’re not very good at it, sitting still, and we were happy when two of the ‘kids’ happen to be in the area and invite us to spend a day at a secluded beach. We cruise through the countryside on scooters, eventually climbing down a winding, stepped trail to what can only be described as, paradise. We spend the day free and joyful, and admittedly very sunburnt!

Scooting and strolling through the villages offers snapshots of tourism, eager entrepreneurs and iconic glimpses of culture. A cow pokes his head into a bar, children help their moms in the family shop after a day of school, and a bare chested sage offers travelling prayers. I relish in these vignettes of Goan life and perhaps no where more so than in the small village of Majorda.

The charm of a village

During my first visit with a good friend, we find ourselves in the tranquil village of Majorda. We settle into Vivenda dos Palhacos, a restored 100 year old Portuguese manor. The boutique hotel with its lovely communal areas, charming pool and the interesting ‘Lorry-Back Bar’, makes it very easy to while away a few days.

The joy is also its location. Tucked under the shade of tall coconut palms on a lane winding through the quiet village, it’s a place where early morning deliveries are announced with the squawk of a bike horn, chickens and piglets share the narrow byways, and serenity is interrupted only by roosters and bells from the nearby parish church.

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At VdP, we’re greeted by the laconic basset hounds lazing on the welcoming verandah, and by owner Simon Hayward. Simon and his sister, are from a third generation of British who have called India home. Simon stops to chat as Kristin and I enjoy a late afternoon drink on the verandah and I’m soon asking about the photos of the Haywards that decorate the bar area and the many bottles of Hayward’s beer above the bar.

“My grandfather arrived first and lived in Calcutta, where my sister and I were born. It was a great life growing up in England and India. My father owned horse races. There were hunting trips into the forest of Bengal. We were fortunate to have been brought up in that era.”

I learn that Simon’s father, the late Sir Anthony Hayward, was knighted for his commercial acumen, with enterprises including a brewery and distillery. They also held the rights to import and distribute opium across the country – a practice started by the East India Company and passed down to the British Raj. The practice was outlawed in the 1950’s.

Simon relates finding his property and how he knew there was a certain charm to it, the buildings and location. “There was even a ‘piggy loo’ outback,” he laughs. “Yes, an outhouse where pigs cleaned things up.”

IMG_0877He had not expected to return to India after a career in advertising in Hong Kong and New Zealand, yet he seems a natural in these surroundings. Fittingly, he and his sister have been given the honourary status of persons of Indian origin. Goa is most definitely home.

“Sure Goa is a little different to the rest of India I once knew, but we’re part of the local community now. And there are some characters!”

I mention to Simon that the character of VdP seems a perfect mix of colonial and traditional Goan character.

“It’s turned out well. We don’t advertise the property, but rely on word of mouth. And this really does seem to draw in some real characters to stay with us.”

Our time here is shared with expat families on holiday from Dubai and Hong Kong and dinners in the lovely dining room are lively. The next afternoon, a BBC journalist arrives in time for cocktail hour having just finished researching a documentary about the impact IT plays in Indian romance. When I relate that I’m a writer, the journalist’s response reads my mind perfectly.

“I could easily spend a week here writing, couldn’t you?”

Such an understatement and I lament that I hadn’t made Goa more of a getaway from Bangalore. I’ll just have to be thankful for the two visits and yes, give me the charm and the colour of Goa. And a bit of that susegad!

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If you go:

Stay at the heritage hotel, The Panjim Inn, in the heart of Fontanhas. Their restaurant, The Verandah, is also a good spot for coffee, and wine! panjiminn.com

Black Sheep Bistro in Panjim is a great spot.

Ciaran’s in Palolem, is on a busy beach with kayaking, local boat rides and fishing boats and was a great stay.

Local buses can take you cheaply to Old Goa or hire a car for about 1500 rupees return.

From Vivenda dos Palhaços, it’s a peaceful 15 minute walk to Goa’s longest beach  vivendagoa.com

For more, check out Luke and Trixie’s tips on Goa, https://www.howlblog.ca/travel-guide/goa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two suitcases, maybe three… and the gift of lettuce

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Yes, for the next two or three months, those will soon be my possessions at-hand… two suitcases, maybe three. Oh, and my trusty white fedora. I find it interesting that in my writer’s biography I mention that, At the age of 26, I packed my hopes and dreams in a 55 L backpack. It was thrilling, liberating, I was free!

Now, the prospect of living out of suitcases is confining and downright inconvenient. We have a little more than one week in our Indian apartment before we close this door and walk through the next. Naturally I’m emotional and a little overwhelmed. That supposed euphoria of packing those suitcases and flying off to ‘freedom’ is inching closer, but the romance of it all still mostly eludes me. Today feels like a Monday Morning Email kind of morning, so writing becomes my solace.

If I were to write an MME to you, it would convey these thoughts…

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Wednesday, April 18th, Bangalore, India,,

Dear Reader,

As I write on this Wednesday morning, song birds serenade, my potted palms colour and cheer as usual, yet boxes already inhabit my once-serene surroundings. Getting ready for the next chapter is a lengthy process, but then its upon you like a fast moving freight train. Transition started months ago when we learned that my husband’s posting would come to an end here. Even though we were part of this decision, we then started discussing, pondering and planning. But in previous moves, we had known where we would next be living.

This time around, I face the difficulty of packing without a destination firmly set, though it will be somewhere in Europe or Canada. And with this, I chuckle a little. For us that is nicely ‘narrowed down’ in this wide, wide world. Asia has been a meaningful experience, yet it’s time to be closer to home. And though I agree with this, I’ve still managed to have two very emotional days over the past few weeks. But even those are part of the process of detachment, acceptance and transition.

The first difficult day happened to be on Easter Sunday. Ironically, after having ‘kids’ living with us for almost a year, Bruce and I happened to be alone. Luke, Trixie and Matt were off backpacking in Sri Lanka and I’ll admit to enjoying some time on our own. I preface this by saying how much we’ve enjoyed this multi-generational living, this ‘suddenly my nest is no longer empty’ phase. I would not have changed it for the world.

It’s been wonderful having them here – days of working, conversing, dining and traveling together. Matt has been with us almost a year, Luke and Trixie since Christmas and I’m conscious that this particular phase will likely never be repeated – I will miss them tremendously on a day to day basis. And on that Easter Sunday, mostly I worried, I found myself frozen with trepidation, then finally I felt sadness as soon we’ll all go our own way; the reality of it all was suddenly breathtaking.

That leaves me and Bruce. After a holiday in Greece and the UK, we’ve decided to be in The Hague for a month or so – to a place that is home for us and also close to head office for Bruce. Things will transpire from there. In the meantime we’ve gone back and forth… where do we send our furniture?

img_1086“Forget the ‘ball and chain’ of the furniture,” Bruce consoled me that day. “It can stay in storage in Vancouver and we’ll see where and when we’ll need it. We’ll go home for the summer. We’ll write. We’ll kayak. We’ll see Andrew and Ayla, family and friends. Look at it as an opportunity, not a fear. And Ter,” he said with a comforting hug,” everyone will be fine. The kids have their own journey to figure out.” And he’s right. Matt is heading back to university, Luke and Trixie are working virtually. They’ll do a little more travelling, then settle in Europe. They are certainly living their dream and history repeats itself – they’re doing what we did at the same age

So I got on with my ‘lasts’ and my farewells. In Marilyn Gardner’s poignant book, World’s Apart, she mentions that rarely do people ask, ‘What have you left behind… those things that we lose when we transition.’ So true and indeed we must say our farewells, both internally and verbally, conscious of what we’re parting with. The places and people we often won’t see again – ever –and it’s difficult.

A week ago brought me to the next overwhelming day. There I stood in my bedroom, surrounded by clothes, shoes, bags, jewellery and scarves… so many darned scarves. Do I unconsciously collect them? There are a few from Azerbaijan, from Italy, Malaysia, even Kazakhstan. And don’t ask me how many from India! Indeed, how to choose which ones travel with me and which ones circumnavigate the world in a sea container. In reality, the scarves are really a metaphor for it all; for a household that gets picked up and shunted along.

I became even more emotional not knowing where I’ll have the opportunity to reunite with my personal things. Will it be a place I get to ‘dress up’ like I do in India for luncheons and events? It’s far different than what I would wear on a daily basis in our home base in Kimberley, or maybe cycling in The Netherlands. It feels like I’m packing away part of my identity.

On that particular day, my chivalrous soulmate again comes to my rescue. “Honey, I img_1088understand, I’ll carry an extra bag for you so you’ll have what you need. I’m sorry this is difficult for you.” But there’s some light-heartedness that also resonates. “You know my things barely fill one suitcase, more space for you!”

Yes he’s the sensible one, the minimalist when it comes to clothes. And to be honest just the acknowledgement that this was difficult for me, gave me strength. I began sorting and setting aside things to give away – to Priya, to the security guards, to the school we support. Finally packing could begin.

Now a week later the suitcases with carefully chosen clothes and accessories, begin to fill – an intro to minimalism has been good for me. Going forward, I’m determined to be more mindful. And yes, I’m well aware these supposed hardships and challenges pale into comparison to what many face. It’s never far from my thoughts.

As I was about to finish this Wednesday morning musing, my doorbell rang. I opened my door to Raj, my vegetable wallah.

“Madam, good day,” he said with his gentle, but exuberant manner that I have come to adore. “Lettuce for you,” Raj offered delightedly, handing me a tiny bunch of red lettuce. It is not something he normally stocks in his heaped cart of vegetables and he’s pleased to present it to me. It’s a bit of a luxury – indeed it felt like a gift.

“Thank you Raj, so, so nice. Yes thank you,” I accepted gratefully.

“Madam, my brother’s marriage is soon in Mysore. Family come?” Reluctantly I shared with Raj that we’ll be leaving soon. He’s taken aback and I found myself apologising.

“Yes Raj, I’m sorry too. I will miss India very much.”

Even those moments help with parting from a neighbourhood that has embraced us whole-heartedly. But it’s been like that this past week – gifts from the local pub that we love going to, heartfelt goodbyes at the ladies groups I’m involved with, and farewell drinks with our landlord and his family. “You must come back for the wedding in August,” they implored many times throughout the evening.

And yesterday, a handcrafted gift from the school we support was presented to me with a sincere note of thanks. Jagruthi enables disenfranchised children the chance of education and security, and is a poignant reminder of the severe hardships many in India face. I will write more, but our involvement has shown me humility and gratitude – for my loving family, the experience of another country, the calling-card of my new book and my speaking and workshop endeavours.

As I wrote a number of years ago in A Fine Set of Luggage when we live a global life, there is much more in those suitcases then meets the eye, thankfully it’s never been more true then now.
So when those two, maybe three suitcases are waiting and we lock the door for the last time, we’ll do what we’ve done in other countries. We’ll say farewell to the country and people who have hosted us so graciously. I know it will be with tears, and I know I can’t imagine not having lived in my beloved India.

For now, I continue the packing… I’ve narrowed the scarves down to a mere twenty!

Until next time, dear reader…

 

Luke and Trixie blog their adventures at howlblog.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India etched on my global heart… thirty days of ‘lasts’

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Today I have just thirty days… thirty more days of living in India.

A friend was recently asked if she loved this country. “I can only love it a little,” she replied thoughtfully. “I’ve already given my heart to Malaysia.”

And this is how it is when we adopt a country as our home. More often than not, it comes to claim a piece of our being – symbolically etched on our global hearts. Mine is already inscribed with Japan, Scotland, The Netherlands, Qatar, Oman, The US, Norway and Kazakhstan. Now to this, India will add its treasured motif.

I am sentimental and fragile at the moment. How will I say goodbye to so much that I love?  

I’ve done this many times before and I know to say a quiet farewell to all that has been my life here. And I will… with reluctance, but also with much gratitude.

It will be a sad farewell: to the birdsong in the lush canopy outside my windows, to the bats that flutter and flit overhead at sunset as we ‘happy hour’ on the terrace. To the rain tree whose expansive branches reach out like the arms of a fond friend, and to the two lemony yellow villas across the street that backdrop saffrony-orange flowers. Also to a giant-of-a-tree that will soon be plump with juicy mangos, and to the slender palm trees with whale-sized fronds hiding caches of coconuts and pairs of emerald green parakeets. And to my apartment – my beautiful space with its hues of greens, blues and ivories. Where I’ve penned two books, laughed and lived with my family, and stepped out to the terrace to marvel at refreshing, life-giving monsoon rains.

Yes I will bid long, lingering goodbyes: to my narrow street with tall shady trees reaching up to the brilliant blue sky, to the security guards who wave and greet warmly, to the vegetable cart that is trundled down daily with Raj at its helm. And I can’t forget the chai wallah who putters up on his motorbike early afternoon or the the saree-adorned sweepers and the rhythmic s w i s h – s w i s h of their short coconut brooms. I will  also say ‘so long’ to the cry of too many cats and far too many barking dogs – even to the clang-clang of Bishop Cotton’s school gate opening and closing, opening and closing again.

And of course before I leave, I will also give a nod to those things that I have despaired of – the all together too much traffic and having to launch myself into the stream with the now practiced nonchalance of a local. There is the symphony of horns and urban clamour, the potholes and broken sidewalks deep enough to lose oneself, the birds-nests of tangled, dangling wires and the choking air that clogs and catches your breath.

Oh, but there has also been much calm – early morning walks in sheltered parks, outdoor swims in sparkling pools and long lunches in frangipani and bougainvillea dotted courtyards.


At this time, I become conscious of the many
 ‘lasts’. Will this be the last time I walk past faded elegant villas that remind of  what once was, or through a market where vendors sell long coils of garlands as vivid as rainbows? Where the aroma of spices piled high entice and beguile? And I’m sure I’ll gaze at sarees so beautiful, and vibrant, they’ll make my heart leap as they have always done. Or perhaps I’ll engage in the friendly banter of barter with a gentle South Indian soul. 

How I will miss it all. And also my Indian friends; with gifts of sarees, with conversation so rich and stimulating, with sincerity and affection of which I have rarely known.

Inevitably, there will be ‘a last time’ gazing up to grand temples and spendid ruins, boarding a Southern Indian train, or cruising to the market in a rickshaw – wind rustling my hair, smells and sights so close I can touch and embrace them.  

Yes, that litany of ‘lasts’ will mark the cutting of threads that have bound me to this dear place. But in fact, they have already been woven into the tapestry of this global life – India’s richness, etched on my thankful heart.

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A Saree for the Palace…

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“To be honest,” Mr. Prakash says in a lowered tone, “a saree gives a sexy look. Yes, yes, it is a fact,” he nods gently. His small shop is stuffed with the saree’s colourful accompaniment, the cropped blouse or choli. They are stacked in veritable mountains – splashes of colours and stitched for every size. Worn with a saree (or sari) to expose the midriff, Mr. Prakash specialises in these enticing bodices.

Considering the vast array of colours, choosing a choli is proving to be interesting. And as is the custom, a choli can also be stitched from the end piece of the fabric of one’s saree. I ponder it all rather carefully. After all, this choli will be for a grand event… I’ve been invited to a wedding at the Palace!

Having my own choli, and saree, had long been on my wish list; the wedding invitation finally coaxed me into action. And by chance, a few days prior to Mr. Prakash’s affirmation of the garment’s sensuality, a saree draping event had helped convince me – it was time to finally own this iconic garment of India.

The draping event was in the home of a member of the women’s group I belong to in Bangalore. I adore these ladies, a mixture of Indians and foreigners – refined and interesting, welcoming and fun to be with. The morning of the saree event was no exception. While the women shared their techniques of saree draping, there was laughter, humour and, wonderfully, a bit of ‘girl’s only’ talk.

First things first. “Make sure you’re wearing your heels before you begin,” someone pointed out while imparting the method of draping in her home state.

I learned that there are at least eighty different ways to wrap oneself in a saree. “Back and forth, back and forth. Now five pleats here,” expert fingers moved slowly for those of us not so adept at this age-old practice. With the saree in place, a lovely voice called out.

“You’re looking smart, very smart. Yes, it’s draped beautifully.” All were in agreement.

Stories were shared and that ‘sexy’ word was mentioned more than once. There seems to be no question; the saree is a sensual garment to wear and we’re told that regional differences can impact this.

“In the old days in Kerala, the young housemaids weren’t allowed to wear full saree. Oh those girls were so lovely, perfect shoulders, no bras, saree gathered at their chest. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were and such an enticement for the men,” someone recalled from earlier days.

“Yes and to think that originally there were no blouses, no cholis. Just the fabric draped over the breasts,” a friend reminded the group. This is an intriguing fact that I had gleaned in my reading. The usage of the short blouse and a petticoat came during the Mughal and British Raj period. The Victorian age demanded a little more modesty – especially in the Empire’s far flung nations where the local ladies were often a ‘distraction.’

The 5 meters of fabric has always been associated with elegance, grace and a bit of mystery. The word saree derives from the Sanskrit meaning ‘a strip of cloth,’ and not only is it beautiful with its endless fabrics and prints, it is practical; warming in the winter and cooling for the summer months.

I have been bewitched by sarees since I arrived in India and that morning’s talk is not only instructive for me as I soon planned to buy one, I simply loved the stories recounted and the insight into this aspect of Indian culture.

“As is the Bengali way, our keys are pinned to the end of the pallu then flung over the shoulder,” a lady originally from that area demonstrated.

“In Coorg, ours are pinned with a brooch,” a Southerner added. There was then a bit of to and fro in the conversation as to the merit of pricking your precious fabric with a pin and perhaps spoiling it.

We heard about the sarees from Assam in North India, much of their silk a unique golden colour – their silk worms prefer only golden leaves, so the story goes. Another saree was modelled, then one from Orissa, and from Lucknow with its typical chikan fabric. How will I ever decide what type of saree to choose, I mused to myself. Will it be silk, silk crepe, chiffon, georgette, silk twill, organza, even cotton?

“I bought my first saree while on a college trip,” one lady recounted nostalgically, taking me away from my impending decision. “I had empty pockets and had to borrow 200 rupees. The agent got 6 of that. Oh it was a special one!”

That reminded one of the foreigners in our group of her own treasured saree. “I’ve been wearing one for some 60 years, since I married my Indian husband,” Mary related, showing off her wedding saree of the finest green and golden Benares silk.

“Ah Mary it’s still looking lovely, very lovely,” she’s assured. When Mary then revealed that she had just celebrated her 55th wedding anniversary, a chorus of congratulations rang through the room.

I then saw an opportunity to pose that nagging question. “How many sarees do you ladies have in your wardrobe?”

“Oh at least 100.” – “Not less than 200.” – “Ah, it would be difficult to count.”

It had been a wonderful morning and I felt more prepared for the endeavour of a saree purchase.

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So here I am a few days later chatting with Mr. Prakash and pondering which choli to buy. Along with a simple set of Indian jewellery, my saree had been chosen – and of this rich and visual event, I’m pleased to share it in a video below.

With Mr. Prakash’s help, I’ve finally decided upon on a brushed-golden choli with tiny capped sleeves. The transaction complete, Mr. Prakash guides me through a lane to his tailor for on-the-spot-adjustment.

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Vinod is a young tailor whose father was in the newspaper business, “But I started stitching at 12 years old,” he tells me. His shop is no larger than a triple-wide broom closet, yet Vinod is the proud owner and he clearly takes pride in his profession.

There’s just enough room for an apprentice tailor who sits at an old Singer sewing machine behind him.  As Vinod adds another hook-and-eye to my little blouse, I announce excitedly that in fact, I’ll be going to my first Indian wedding. When I ask Vinod if he’s married, he laments that these days, it isn’t always suitable to marry a tailor.

“Now everyone wants to marry an IT person,” he says ruefully. Bangalore is of course the IT capital of India, yet Vinod doesn’t dwell on it.

Flashing a smile, he asks, “Have saree already Ma’am?”

“Yes indeed. It’s a soft navy blue, with golden highlights,”

“Ah Ma’am will be looking tip-top,” Vinod reassures me.

“Thank you Vinod, let’s hope for the best,” I say, promising that I’ll be back soon for some tailoring.

“Very good Ma’am. Welcome, welcome anytime.”

And so just like that, I had a ‘wedding ready’ choli and jewellery waiting to don, yet the choice of a saree had been much more involved. It was just how I had envisioned it – a wonderful experience full of colour and fabrics, a confusion of choices enriched by kind advice from strangers and from experts. It is normally the kind of experience that I would revel in relating to you but just for once, I decided to share the experience in a short video. I hope you’ll enjoy accompanying me on my saree adventure…

Filmed at Mysore Saree Udyoy in Bangalore

Mr. Prakash is close by at Attraction in Commercial Plaza B-3

Video by Trixie Pacis – So It Goes Production

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‘India 101’… The Taj Mahal and to Dehli, part two

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It is a haunting image, Shah Jahan the great Mughul Emperor, peering out over the Yamuna River towards the Taj Mahal, year after lonely year. Imprisoned for eight long years by his own son in nearby Agra Fort, Shah Jahan gazed out to his own ethereal creation, a soaring mausoleum to immortalise his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. In helpless captivity, it is believed the Emperor’s last breath was taken while looking out to his exquisite monument.
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It was Valentine’s Day, 1989, when Bruce and I first ventured to the Taj Mahal. We had driven past the monument the day before. Young romantics that we were, we averted our eyes to save the first glimpse for that special occasion. Alighting from our cycle rickshaw, we paid a few rupees and quietly strolled into the grounds, walking directly into heart of the great edifice. It was so casual yet magical, breathtaking and yes, incredibly romantic.

Fast forward to the day of our second visit, we now join many thousands of people. Walking through the grand portal, we behold the luminous marble icon, a collective gasp issuing from onlookers, thrilled at this first glimpse, murmurs and exclamations of delight rippling the air; one of the seven wonders of the world is before us! There is no doubt, it is still as breathtakingly stunning as on our first visit.

Long lines of visitors patiently wind themselves around the perimeter and yet more stroll the grounds, serenity and solitude now firmly of the past – this time the experience is a shared one. Shared too with our family – and we’re all unanimous in our surprise at the sheer magnificence of the monument. As the visit turns into two hours maybe three, I realise that I’m surrounded by a sense of communal joy. We all wait patiently for a spot that affords that perfect backdrop for a photo. Cameras exchange and we take each other’s pictures. Snatches of many languages can be heard. Our ‘kids’ are asked to join group selfies… simply, there is a collective exuberance in the air.

“Are you happy to be back sweetheart,” my husband asks, squeezing my hand. I feel as if every pore of me is smiling – the answer is most definitely yes.

A mixture of Indian, Persian and Islamic influences, the Taj seems to have been transported from the heavens themselves and placed ever so gently on earth. Its construction however was indeed by mortal men – all 22,000 of them, aided by 1000 elephants. Masons, stonecutters, inlayers, carvers, painters, calligraphers, dome-builders and other artisans were requisitioned from the across the Mughal empire, Central Asia and Iran. The Taj Mahal was completed in 1653, after 22 years of construction.

IMG_2770Mumtaz had been Shah Jahan’s third wife and by all accounts his closest confidant. She died giving birth to their fourteenth child and during two years of mourning, the king shunned the court’s previously lavish lifestyle – of dancing girls and harems, of rich furnishings, jewels and grand processions.

His sons would battle for the empire they soon hoped to claim from their father, and, when Shah Jahan did not fully recover from an illness, he was declared incompetent to rule and placed under house arrest by his son Aurangzeb.

The house of his arrest was in fact Shah Jahan’s stately home, Agra Fort. We make our way there early the next morning. It’s a cold and misty start, two pashmina scarves attempt to keep me warm. And similar to the previous day, rickshaw drivers almost come to blows over who gets our fare. Tension levels in Agra can become a little elevated and, save for its spectacular monuments, it is not an attractive city – you visit the Taj, the fort, perhaps Fatehpur Sikri, and you leave. Many tourists choose to day-trip from Dehli.

Yet I feel the fort is an integral part of Shah Jahan’s story and a must-see. Once a red sandstone edifice from which the Mughul’s ruled from 1558, it was rebuilt to Shah Jahan’s own specifications after ascending to the throne in 1628 as the fifth Mughul Emperor. As with the Taj Mahal, his penchant for white marble is evident and the misty morning renders it even more ethereal, more translucent, more serene than I remember. It’s as if he commanded, ‘Let there be columns by the score, exquisite arches in abundance, vast quarters for my harem!” The effect is beautiful, almost mirage-like. So too is the ‘magic imagery’ that our tour guide encourages us to have fun with. Yet he becomes somber when relating Shah Jahan’s ‘fort arrest’.

On this morning, it is impossible to view the Taj just across the river from where the deposed Emperor languished. But I know it is out there hiding in the mist, and I envision the ruler on his fort balcony – counting his prayer beads, meditating, hoping and waiting for release, for the chance to visit Mumtaz Mahal’s grave just once more. He was laid to rest beside her at his death in 1666.

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Back on the streets, Agra has come alive as shopkeepers and vendors hope to entice the thousands upon thousands of tourists – with street food and tiny Taj replicas, with marble this and marble that. Or in my case, with a chess set. “We’re on the train today, let’s buy one!” I declare, this experienced traveller unknowingly about to encounter a classic North Indian scam.

It takes place in front of a shop and a fellow has interested me in a small chess set. I negotiate and we agree on 500 rupees (about 10 dollars), I only have a Rs. 2000 note and hand it to him. I watch him go into the shop with my money. He comes out followed by two other men with 1500 rupees in his hand.

“Give me the 2000, here’s your change,” the shopkeeper demands.

“No, I already gave you a 2000 note,” I protest.

“No, no note. Now you give me 2000,” he insists.

I check my wallet. Yes, I have already given him the 2000. Unbelieveably, the two men who followed the shopkeeper out, are also now insisting that I had not yet handed over the 2000, despite not being witness to the initial transaction.

“I absolutely gave you 2000 rupees. Come on, I live in India. I know what you’re trying to do here,” I say furiously.

One of my sons confirms that I’ve already given the money, but by this time a crowd has gathered. We argue but he doesn’t back down. Finally, grabbing the 1500 rupees from his hand, I practically throw his chess set back at him.

“You’re a thief! I don’t want your goods and you should feel ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of people.” The crowd looks on bemused and the man has made another easy 500 rupees. It is not a lot of money, it’s the principle, but it isn’t worth causing a scene. Besides, it is life in India… always a contrast of the beautiful and the wanting, the gentle soul and the manipulative, of reconciling our privilege against those working so hard to feed their families. I’m upset with myself, but the nearby street food wallahs soon help me forget my wounded pride. They are endlessly pleasant and when their hard work and long days are rewarded with compliments about their food, they are pleased and proud. Our middle son has become a bit of a street-food connoisseur and brings smiles to their faces as he partakes in the local offerings.

Making our way to the train station the next morning, the busy platform is welcoming as we’re greeted repeatedly by local travellers. We’re anxious to board the train and make the four and a half-hour trip to Delhi. We’re on the ‘slow train’ and due to fog it’s seven hours late, yes seven! We’ve been tracking its arrival into Agra since the morning. No, surely not ideal on New Year’s Eve.

The train pulls into New Dehli just in time for us to check into our hotel and to then celebrate. We reminisce about the trip’s experiences, the highs and lows, the laughs and the precious moments we’ll always cherish. But then the night isn’t only about India, it’s about family and the adventure that seven of us were able to experience together. It was magical all those years ago but to retrace those footsteps with our family… well, I’m so pleased I broke that ‘rule’ and returned!

Delhi is still to be explored, but with Andrew and Ayla having returned back to university in Canada, and one of us in bed with a serious bout of ‘Dehli belly’, the last fews days of our India 101 feels like a gentle footnote.

We briefly visit the Red Fort, yet the crowds on New Year’s day prevent us from entering its expansive grounds and even though it’s currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding, its early 17th Century walls are impressive. Shah Jahan, feeling that the streets of Agra were not wide enough for grand processions, had sent his royal engineers to find a suitable site for a new city. Long a capital of empires, Dehli was chosen and with its strong Hindu traditions, the muslim Mughals felt they could reinforce their legitimacy to rule in the eyes of the people. In 1639 the vast plan for the Red Fort was begun, its extensive palace buildings were a small city within itself, where the emperor’s court lived in great luxury. A vibrant culture and commerce rejuvenated the ancient city, and with a population of 600,000, (greater than Paris at the time), its grand intellectual and cultural history is well recounted.

We find ourselves in the renowned bazaar area of Chandni Chowk, just outside the walls of the great fort. Designed by Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, Jahanara, it once boasted precisely 1560 shops. It radiates along a broad street and in that time, a central canal led to the square and reflected the moonlight, the chandni. Prominent residents enjoyed the evening air on caparisoned elephants passing through the bustling bazaars stuffed with spices, rich textiles, jewels, gold and silver.

Today the narrow streets are choked and hectic, noisy and alive – old Dehli in the truest sense. The air is pungent as mounds of spice sacks are laboriously hauled through the streets or piled precariously on bikes. We pass through the silver souk, the saree souk, the book and the stationary street, the spice and dried fruit bazaar, the ironmongers row, the purveyors of brass pots and cauldrons. Nothing seems changed since our visit in 1989, in fact if anything, it looks more aged as the buildings stand in various stages of decay and faded glory.

At Lodhi gardens however, the 15th Century monuments are still resplendent and echo the once great Lodhi empire. Perhaps their demise at the hands of the Mughals encapsulates our India 101 trip. Empires have come and gone, those before the Lodhis and those after the Mughals. Even as the East India Company morphed into the British Raj, ousting the Mughals, it too was destined to ultimately fall. From Varanasi, to Agra, to Dehli, the rich storied past is still here to embrace. On more trying days you must draw upon your resilience, but mostly, you are simply humbled and exhilarated to behold it all.

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‘India 101’… Spirituality and the conflicted in timeless Varanasi, part one

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I had hoped it would be as magical, as compelling as it had been that first time. During the two-month Indian leg of our backpacking trip in 1989, we had saved Varanasi for last. Positioned on the sacred Ganges River and considered to be one of India’s holiest sites, it was now the first destination of our ‘India 101′ trip with our sons and their girlfriends. It had been a difficult decision. Though we live in Southern India, should we venture north to travel this iconic route – Varanasi, Agra, and Dehli – or stay in the more gentle South. We decided on the former.

You want to get it right when your loved ones have traveled from afar, when you only have six days together ‘on the road.’ And I had been reluctant to revisit some of these treasured sites from our young traveller’s days. I wanted to remember them in that somewhat magical hue of days gone by, of simpler times. We had revisited Jaipur this past July and were pleased that we had. I had broken my ‘rule’ then of not revisiting… maybe it was alright to do so again?

After a brilliant Christmas at home in Bangalore, we strapped on our packs and flew north. Of the holy site of the Ganges, a quote from my old journal reads, “How fitting that this city of the faithful and holy should be our last stop. For to have experienced it early in the trip would have been too difficult to appreciate. Instead, it was the missing piece to completing the puzzle of India.”

Now, on reflection, had this visit been my first I might have been less convinced. Varanasi, or Benares, is said to be older than time itself. Ever wry, in 1897 Mark Twain wrote, “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

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And indeed, it is. Several thousand years old, Benares is the holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism claim all, or part of their origin here. At nearby Sarnath, Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have founded Buddhism in 528 BC. In the 8th Century, the worship of Shiva was established as an official sect of Varanasi and further, Hindus believe that cremation along the sacred Ganges River will bring moksha – liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. It still feels as if one is stepping into a vintage National Geographic article. Holy men – sages and swamis, babas and sadhus – meditate, pray and wander in vivid shades of orange, tangerine and saffron. The more temporal – barbers, hawkers, soothsayers and snake charmers – also fill their days along the ghats. All eighty-eight of them.

These stone stepped embankments, some dating from the 1700’s, lead down to the edge of the Ganges providing access for pilgrims and locals to perform ritual ablutions. “My mother has bathed daily in these holy waters. Maybe for thirty years,” our guide imparted. For most Westerners this is mostly unfathomable. The sacred Ganges is full – of human and toxic waste, of dead cows, human ash and bodies, of bone remnants that defied cremation – the ribs of men, the hips of women.

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The Aarti, before sunrise, is how Benares comes to life on the ghats. The air is chilled, the Ganges still swaddled in a misty shroud as we make our way to Assi Ghat. Brahmin students are lined in a row on a raised platform facing east to the river, where the sun will soon rise. The chanting of mantras ring through the air – the slow, steady beat of a gong accompanies the Sanskrit verses. The scent of camphor and sandalwood drifts around us. The young priests in training are precise, in perfect sync with their prayerful motions – the Aarti awakens the holy Ganges. Each day, each year, century upon century.

A separate prayer circle is close by, arms stretched out over a small fire. Not for warmth, but for the blessing of one’s body and soul. A priest sprinkles the devotees with petals. Ghee and grain are offered. Shanti, for peace is chanted. “It’s a bright example of reverence and living with less,” our guide offers solemnly. It is now 6:30 am.

We walk a few ghats upriver where a boatman is waiting. We seven huddle for warmth in his wide rowboat, one of hundreds that will soon float gently along the murky water. As his oars slice, soft and rhythmic through the water, seagulls call and circle. Boat wallahs beckon, piercing the calm morning air. Their wares are arranged prettily: prayer items, lacquerware, incense and Hindu prayer beads.

As the sun rises on the eastern horizon, ghat after ghat reveals itself. Each one serves a different purpose with distinct origins. A late King of Nepal built a temple on Lalita Ghat. Jain temples can be seen on the Bachraj Gat. The Maharajah of Jaipur claimed a ghat in 1770. The Dashashwameth ghat celebrates the Agni each evening – a worship to fire. It is also where dutiful prayers ease the Ganges to rest at the end of the day.

Perhaps the two most intriguing are the cremation ghats. Smoke is rising from the Harishchandra ghat as we row past in a respectful hush, a number of cremations in progress. Women are nowhere to be seen; it is believed their tears may prevent the soul from departing. The larger, busier Manikarnika ghat is further up river. Roughly one-hundred and twenty bodies are cremated daily. Wrapped in simple cloth, the face is left exposed, the body infused with ghee (clarified butter) so the body will burn as expected – usually up to three hours. The eldest son traditionally lights the funeral pyre, circling once for each of the five elements. He ignites by touching a taper, kindled from the eternal flame watched over by its guardians in a temple above the ghat, “Here, longer than anyone knows,” we’re told. Eventually the remaining bones will be laid to rest in the water by the cremation keepers. From the lowest caste, the untouchables, theirs is a job passed on through the centuries.

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Those who are not cremated – children of a young age, priests, pregnant woman, and others who are already considered holy – will be rowed out into the water. Weighted and given over to it, they too will have have attained moskha, fortunate to have died in Benares or to have been transported here. What may your beliefs be, to witness the Benares ghats at sunrise is a poetry of daily rituals – the first bathe of the day, the slap of laundry against aged stones, the suns first rays on chiseled temples, the rainbow array of boats, the first kite zigzagging the sky, the hues of vivid oranges glinting in the sun, ashen sadhus re-dabbing their spindly bodies, the murmurs of first prayers – the circle of life in raw, intriguing motion.

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As the morning unfolded we meandered through the back streets that radiate from the ghats. Needling our way through crowded narrow lanes, again I felt the weight of Varanasi’s history. A story told in trade – of fine muslin cloth and silk, of ivory works and sculpture – punctuated by cultural revival under Akbar, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th century. The enlightened Akbar built two large temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, just a few of the thousands that dot Varanasi. We squeeze past worshipers waiting to visit one of the most sacred, barefoot and prayer items in hand, hundreds upon hundreds wait in line. Shopkeepers have sold the devotees prayer items, provided storage for their footwear, and served up morning dosas. We are forced to step aside a number of times. Pressing our backs against aged walls, we watch silently as families pass, their deceased loved ones hoisted high on stretchers as they manoeuve to the ghats.

IMG_2683We see few foreigners in these narrow passages despite tourism playing a significant part in today’s Varanasi. Yet I know that many come to this city to bathe in its spirituality, to elevate and open their consciousness. They follow in the steps of many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians who have also sought enlightenment in this holy place… some do not leave.

We make our way back to the five kilometre long ghats, along a street of many outstretched, imploring hands. Begging is a reality in India and sadly, syndicates operate here openly. Time and time again we are besieged by young women, listless babies in their arms, some reportedly opium sedated. A little digging will tell you these precious children have either been kidnapped or rented out by their mothers for a small sum. With a filthy baby bottle in hand, the mothers plead for milk for their child. Should you yield to their pleas, know that it will be sold back to the shopkeeper, some of your rupees then lining the pockets of the syndicate. Even with this knowledge, it is wrenching to walk away, time and again. Also heartbreaking is knowing that some of the beggars are limbless or deformed, perhaps purposely maimed.

Our youngest son, on his first trip to India, has a difficult time reconciling it and accepting that this is an aspect of India – even that it occupies a place in humanity. He wonders how we manage to live in a country with such injustices, such crushing poverty. Our inadequate answer is that one has to find a way to rationalise, to mentally detach and perhaps find joy in other aspects of India. Should that joy prove elusive or the culture shock too intense, it can be difficult to manage. We find solace and purpose in our active support of an independent school, making a difference in young children’s lives… it has helped us reconcile the many inequities of this society.

Moved and impacted by the scenes of the morning, we try in the afternoon to appreciate other facets of life on the Ganges edge as we wander back to our ‘home’ ghat. Up close, we witness the deep reverence of those bathing in their sacred river and even the holy cows taking their turn. We speak to artists and babas. We delight in Andrew joining a cricket game on one of the less busy ghats. He hits a ‘home run’, a moment with local kids, a common thread, a semblance of normality. Yet so much of our time is spent deflecting the begging and the predictable scams. Eventually we retreat to a roof top restaurant for a long relaxing, yet animated brunch. From this viewpoint, the temples reach up to the clear blue sky and children dart their kites above Benares’ ancient vista. Here all is peaceful and serene. But that evening our curiosity exposes us again to conflicting emotions.

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Five of us make our way to the large cremation ghat. Twenty or so bodies are in various stages of cremation, sparks leaping through the smokey sky, up to the heavens. The air is thick, filled with the scented smoke of mango, sandalwood and banyan. It is a scene that challenges description and I struggle to recapture the spiritual experience of that first time. It is so busy, so many bodies, so overwhelming. We are immediately approached by a personable young man. He encourages us to follow him for a tour. “I’ll explain everything,” he tells us, “but no pictures, no photos. And just give what you want at the end.” A few of us are skeptical, a few of us more trusting. We go along.

We hear and see more. We meet a mourner, head shaved, as is the eldest son’s duty. We are taken up to the sacred flame. After about twenty minutes, my eyes are burning, breathing is difficult and as if on cue, the tour is pronounced to be over. The young man then leads us further behind the ghats where the light of the pyres doesn’t penetrate, to the dark mounds of stacked wood. We’re told in mournful detail how much wood is needed to cremate one body, many cannot afford it, but we can help and contribute. How many kilos would we like to buy to donate? Now we’re led further to a small shrine. An older lady is perched on a platform beside it, dark kohled eyes peering from her sari wrapped body. “You’ll be blessed by this sister. How much wood will you pay for?” The tone and manner of the guide has changed. A few of us go along with the ‘blessing’. One of our sons refuses. We nod to each other knowingly – yes surely it’s a scam – but are there more accomplices waiting in the shadows in case we don’t comply. It feels ominous. We venture a modest payment.

Eagerly making our way in the dark through a zigzag of lanes to the direction of a main street, we ignore propositions to buy drugs, dodge cows blocking our path, notice glances that feel less friendly. We find our way out to the main street, just as our ‘guide’ from the ghat cruises past on a motorbike – yes, his job is finished for the day. No doubt he has paid off the ‘sister’ who ‘blessed’ us and perhaps the ‘mourner’ who repeatedly shook our hands – maybe a little too profusely. Their day of ‘work’ is finished for them all.

We ride back to Assi ghat debating what we had witnessed, incredulous that death, especially in this city, could be a way to deceive, to devalue sacred rituals. At a rooftop bar with the soothing sounds of an Indian ensemble in the background, we talk and process the experiences of the day, rationalising it as part of traveling, part of the experience, part of India. I mention that not once in my almost two years of living in South India have I felt compromised in the same way I’ve felt here – I missed ‘home’.

I notice that I’m still wearing my shanti beads. Bought earlier that day on the ghats, they are considered divine, tears of Lord Shiva. Their rudra seeds go through blessings – washed in a mixture of holy cow’s dung and urine, milk and ghee. “For enlightenment and self-empowerment,” the baba had told me as he draped them around my neck. How I wish that for the many millions of women and children in India who are in need of this and the release of poverty.

The next morning, we bid farewell to Varanasi, I know it will be my last visit. I dig out my old diary where many happy memories are recorded of upcoming Agra and Dehli. This ‘India 101‘ journey continues for our family and we anticipate more compelling sites and, without doubt, more thought-provoking experiences. We’ll experience it together…  to be continued

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A calm moment in Varanasi, with Shanti beads

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At Sarnath, home of Buddhism

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serendipity in Mysore… friendship in the seventh country

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My third journey to Mysore and I return to these charming, soulful streets. It is an ancient royal city that seems to encapsulate the romance of India. Yet on this visit, I forego the pleasure of the beloved Maharajah’s palace and storied battle fields. Instead I just soak it up, wandering and indulging my love of serendipity.

For two days we engage Shiva, a trusty auto rickshaw driver. First, we bless our ‘carriage’ with a string of marigolds – a vendor unwinds a meter from his impossibly long floral coil. We then allow ourselves to yield to Shiva’s insightful and skillful guiding; to the undiscovered through narrow streets and tucked-away neighbourhoods. It is my dear friend’s first visit to India and she is delightfully overwhelmed – the noise and the seemingly choreographed chaos, the riots of colour, the abundance of holy cows. The warmth of the people and smiles, hands pressed together in greeting, namaste.’

We halt Shiva excitedly, time and again.”Let’s stop here,”– for bustling bazaars and their friendly vendors, many perplexed as to why we are so curious. But of course it is the panoply of fruits and vegetables, colour coded and geometric, lush and bountiful, artful and creative. 

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We engage with sellers of all sorts: fruit and sugar cane juice, garlands and greens, spices and sandalwood-scented fans. And purveyors of enormous aluminum pots, pans of all sizes, thali dishes and tiny tiffins.

We chance upon a street of busy tinkering repairmen, and some not so busy. Then shopkeepers who pause to chitchat outside their over-brimming, narrow shops. Perhap a customer’s arrival cuts into the neighbourhood gossip, newspaper perusing and an animated discourse of the day’s happenings. The rhythm of the lively back lanes and streets is their daily soundtrack, and heartbeat – a small town feel, despite a large city.

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Once-glorious buildings hint to the days of the British, and to the skilled craftsmanship of refined Indian architecture. They make a striking backdrop. “The door there, you must see,” we’re told. We appreciate its ornate solidity and we conjecture what secrets it holds beyond its beautifully carved facade. 

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Mysore is also dotted with stately government buildings and once lovely gems – some restored, others barely holding-on in their precarious, faded glory. We come upon sprawling gardens, now tangled and overgrown. We creep into courtyards once brimming with life, now the cows munch idly in the afternoon sun. 

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But we’re pleased to also meet some dear, friendly women. Under a canopy of rosy-pink bougainvillea, a group awaits at the local temple. “Open at four,” they tell us, nodding towards its massive, carved door.

 Striking up a conversation, one of the ladies takes my hands as she speaks. She is diminutive in her later years and her warm eyes are suddenly faraway when she hears I live in Bangalore. “I was there many years, shifted here now,” she says wistfully. “Still busy there?” she wonders. “Oh yes, very hectic,” I assure her and then add, “I like it here in Mysore.” She nods knowingly and I sense she is torn between two cities, even two lives. Our conversation is short, but nonetheless, still heartwarming and tender.  

The afternoon is fading to ‘happy hour’, but when in Mysore one really must treat oneself to a fine pashmina scarf – perhaps even two. We alight from Shiva’s rickshaw one last time to peruse an array of delicate, colourful scarves. It can take time to choose, but Kristin and I have thrown away the clock – all the better to treasure these hours together.

Ensconced back in the homely elegance of the Metropole, we luxuriate in the shade of long verandahs. We reminisce countries by the numbers and tally that India is the seventh we’ve had the pleasure of sharing. We cheer with our wine glasses and ponder… where next? 

 

If you go, allow me to mention my preferred:

Always stay at the Metropole Hotel.

Visit Ajaaz at The Heritage for scarves, collectibles and perhaps a carpet.

Royal Mysore Walks offers brilliant tours.

My tuk-tuk driver on the ground is Shiva. He’s usually parked close to the Metropole or call at: 988 682 2409

The Shatabdi Express leaves Bangalore at 11:00 am. and arrives just a few hours later. Stop for lunch at the A 2 B for a delicious southern thali as you walk the two blocks to the Metropole. A perfect weekend getaway, enjoy!

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A flourish of marigolds… the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration

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The marigolds were the last touch. Shanti smiled graciously and handed the delicate blossoms to me, “Madam can help now.” I was pleased. The intricate rangoli was spread joyously on the driveway of our apartment building. Shanti and Kajul had been planning, chalking and decorating the welcoming design since sunrise.

The occasion was Navratri and from first light, our small apartment complex had been exuberant with the spirit that only a festival can rouse.

IMG_0044“First cleaning, then decoration,” I’m told as I venture downstairs to see the preparations firsthand. Boran is busy cleaning the gate and the doorways. By this time, Kajul and Shanti are applying colour to the rangoli at the front gate.

Our apartment manager Anand, and a friend, are just cruising into the driveway, back early from the market. Anand’s motorbike is barely visible. It is seemingly sprouting…with marigolds and banana leaves, with tulsi and sprigs of ashoka leaves. And of course there’s a bundle of food for the blessing, the puja.

Soon a stalk of banana leaf is attached to each side of the gate, garlands and greens are strung in place. Then it’s time to apply the tripundras. The three-striped motifs are streaked across the wooden slats of the gate and on doorways, even the elevators. They are decorative and spiritual, and the mark doesn’t disappear quickly. A tripundra had only just faded into an outer apartment wall from last year’s celebration. Now all is renewed, re-blessed.

Over the next few hours a more intimate glimpse of Kajul, our security guard, is revealed. I am fond of him and it’s a pleasure to see his creative side and his commitment to tradition. He is happily engaged in helping Shanti decorate the rangoli.

“Kajul have you done this before?” I ask, noting one of his fingernails seems purposely longer than the others. It is painted a reddish hue and I watch him wield it like a paintbrush; guiding different shades of kumkum into each petal, into each leaf-like pattern.

“Oh yes Madam. In my village, helping my mother and sister.” There’s a nostalgic look in his eyes and we take photos for him to send home.

Small parcels of vibrant kumkum await on snatches of newspapers. Shanti and Kajul converse in Hindi. There’s artistic planning and some laughter, but also a seriousness to their endeavour. I watch them for an hour or so, enjoying a coffee in the morning sun, savouring the activity of the neighbourhood.

A neighbour from the next-door apartment strolls through the gate to borrow a dash of the white kumkum. Their gardener passes by with lengthy stalks of banana leafs and a hatchet. It seems he avoided the market and fetched his from somewhere in the neighbourhood.

A few people peer-in to admire the evolving work of art. Oh we definitely have the prettiest and most elaborate decorations, I think to myself. If I might be forgiven the comparison, it feels a a little like I’m back home admiring the Christmas lights on our street. This festival does evoke that Christmas feeling: school holidays, time for family, best to do some ‘spring-cleaning’, perhaps a new outfit or two. It’s also time for veneration to the Hindu gods.

Finally, I can’t resist the temptation – that childlike instinct to paint-by-number, to colour. The enfolding array of designs beckon like a colouring book and a newly-sharpened box of pencil crayons.

“Would you like some help, may I help?” I ask Shanti. She looks over to Kajul, both of them are on their knees, delicately positioned between a flower that’s slowly coming to life.

“Oh no, no thank you,” they say shyly. I’m a little surprised. Is it maybe because I’m not Hindu, or perhaps they’re worried I’m not quite as fastidious as they are and will spoil their creation. I chuckle to myself remembering school days when I preferred that classmates did not work on book projects with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone ‘messing it up’. Yes I understand.

IMG_0063I go upstairs to refresh my coffee and see that our front door is not being forgotten. Boran is stringing a garland of marigolds then dotting each side of the door with a tilak and also blessing it with the swastika symbol. This ancient religious mark is a symbol of auspiciousness and good luck, it remains that today in India. Boran then proffers the melon and I contribute a rupee or two into its dyed, square ‘collection box’.  Before long, I’ll learn its destiny. IMG_0067
I’m soon called back down to the driveway where Shanti and Kajul are gazing proudly at their expansive creation. It’s a rainbow of colours. A feast of home-spun geometry. A happy mural – childlike, yet intricate and abloom. “Full complete,” Kajul says with a beaming smile.

“Madam can finish,” Shanti says kindly, handing a passel of marigolds to me. I get the honour of the last touches…a flourish of marigolds.

 

Meanwhile there has been a flurry of activity in the underground garage. “Time for puja,” Anand says inviting us down the sloping driveway, into a garage as pristine as a surgeon’s operating room. Cars and motorbikes have been washed. Machines tuned and cleaned. This day is Ayudha Puja, the occasion when traditionally weapons are worshipped, when tools are cleaned and revered, when specific attention to one’s profession and its tools is important. A divine force is summoned for all of them to perform well; here in Southern India it is highly adhered to.

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Babu, one of the drivers, has set things up in immaculate fashion. The cars are festooned with garlands, an altar of sorts offers fruit and sweets. The tires have been marked with the customary three stripes and a lime has been positioned under each front tire. Motorbikes have also been decorated, but I notice a bicycle on its lonesome in the corner of the garage. The guys laugh when I note it has no colourful embellishments and before you know it, they are at its side decorating to match the other conveyances. After all, the apartment’s back-up generator and even the piping has received some attention.

With everything in place, Babu lights small flames and incense. Invoking the god Krishna, Babu holds the sacrificial melon with two hands and slowly circles each vehicle, then the motorbikes. He then smashes the ‘sacrificial melon’ on the floor. It crashes open, coins tumble out and a cheer of some sort erupts. Now its time to offer the sweets to us all. And for the final observance, the time has come to move each car and bike just slightly forward. Pop, pop, popeach tiny lime, now sacrificed under the front wheels…the puja is complete.

It’s known that the most traditional and colourful place to celebrate is in Mysore with its parades and carprisoned elephants. Yet I’m pleased we were part of our apartment’s celebration, here to acknowledge the hard work these people perform throughout the year to make our lives more comfortable. It was special to have seen them in a more personal light and share in their enthusiasm. Yes, it felt like the very best, exotic neighbourhood celebration.

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We thought we’d venture out into the streets and decided upon the older neighbourhood of Malleshwaram. It is a quaint lively area, built in the 19th century to accommodate people fleeing the city centre from the plague. Today there’s an excited atmosphere as families celebrate. Ladies are beautifully wrapped in lavish saris. Children delight in a festival treat, maybe an ice cream or a shiny new pinwheel from a passing wallah. 

The streets are alive with marigolds and roses, with limes and banana leaves, and yet more of those melons. We come upon an orange-robed priest blessing a row of motorbikes. We stroll along lovely, well-lived streets. I adore the vivid colour, the whafting of incense and the easy smiles of vendors. Everywhere is verdant, alive and joyful. Here, still more banana leaves are just now being fixed to the corner point of shops, but so many more await to be be part of the festivities. The streets are awash in them. It occurs to us that most of Navratri decorations are natural, organic, connected to the earth.

And there’s more around every corner. More garlands of marigold, more lovingly designed rangolis, and more flamboyantly adorned buses, trucks, tuks – even a cement mixer has received some reverence today.

It is known that India, with its more than 30,000 gods, is a nation of festivals and cultural traditions. To experience these in an intimate fashion, away from the masses of crowds and feeling the spirit of a neighbourhood, is decidedly my preference.

“Madam, please take photo?” I’m asked yet again. The locals are keen to have the day captured.

“Alright, smile everyone,” I say happily. Serendipity has once again rewarded us with a feast of colour and with the gentle warmth of people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Monkey Temple… good karma and a mantra

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“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”

Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’

We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it… this is also a Monkey Temple.

A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.

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“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”

I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’

“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”

“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.

Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.

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Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.

Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore… I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.

After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.

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“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.

In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.

“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.

“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”

“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”

“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.

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The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.

“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.

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Saba

“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.

I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.

Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India… “If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.” 

‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.

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Mohan

A  young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.

I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.

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The mark of Hanuman

“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.

“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.

“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!

“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.

The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.

“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”

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After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.

I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.

“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.

Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”

Well now that’s an understatement…

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But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.

Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.

Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’

Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”

The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”

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They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.

It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.

The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.

So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.

For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.

But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to romance… to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur

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Dear Jaipur,

You welcomed us twenty-eight years ago and we return nostalgically to you. There has always been a fondness for the ‘pink city.’ As young travellers you offered us colour and mystery… the romance of a storied destination.

You are much busier now. Your Maharaja-designed 18th century streets are in constant motion; a stream of life and noise, of endeavour and exuberance.

Tuks, camels, cycles and bullocks, strain both people and cargo through lively streets. Monkeys scamper on ledges and peer through stamp-sized shutters. A procession; a swirl of a wedding marches past as a band trumpets, an elegant groom on his festooned horse – to the bride’s house he gallantly goes.

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You still beguile and please with your facades, lattice work windows, your streets washed in soft shades of pinks, roses and salmons.

   The signature Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, is still your calling card. Evoking the richness of Maharajahs and Maharanis, it is a fine blend of Rajasthani and Mughal styles with miniature domes and delicate screens, all nine hundred and fifty-three –  modest viewing galleries – for the ladies.

 

 Moghul inspired archways, peacock doors and splashes of frescoes fascinate the eye. They are tributes to your past; of proud Rajput warriors, fairy-tale palaces and flourishing bazaars.

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But your beauty is also in the finer details – bangles upon sparkly bangles, slipper-shoes of soft camel leather, bejewelled textiles and intricate block prints.

And perhaps just the simple – golden pomegranates on laden trees, toys of old newly discovered and heavenly corners to luxuriate within. We find divine comfort in the Samode Haveili…it becomes our haven.

 

It all feels like a past remembered – familiar yet newly captivating. We are entreated from all corners: to ride, to purchase, to visit, to partake, to view the beautiful.

Lemony and saffron turbans wrapped atop weathered faces hint at untold stories. Ladies primp and pose, tradition captured in cautious smiles. Young entrepreneurs bargain a good price and Mr. Chand’s outdoor photo studio recaptures us in monochrome memory. We still have the photo from years ago, we believe it was taken here. “Maybe me or my father,” Tikam Chand contemplates. “Yes still here, isn’t it?”

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 I am coaxed to an astrologer’s chair – this city is known for its mystic vibe of bespoke gems and stones, sage-like astrologers and stargazers. And for me a first. I don’t believe, but still…

“Sunrise and meditation is good for you. Maybe you think too much and please madam, you must wear white on Mondays. But good life, good marriage.

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He doesn’t know that twenty-seven years of marriage has just been marked. Perhaps fittingly, on a postcard of the Hawa Mahal, my beloved wrote… 

We would never have imagined that our journey together would have taken us this far and into so many corners of the globe. Thank you for being my travel partner of nearly twenty-nine years – my past, my present, my future.”

And so dear Jaipur, the monsoon rains cooled as we traipsed barefoot on your ancient stone, welcome respite from your desert climate. We soaked up your enduring sites, luxuriated by candlelight and dined on fine Rajasthani cuisine. We weaved through your scented bazaars, climbed the heights of formidable forts and spied peacocks under the shade of ashokas.

Indeed more luxurious this visit – the backpacks have long been put away. Yet it was here those years ago, that our travels sparked a romance and now beckoned us to return. So with a fond farewell Jaipur, you will always be a jewel in our traveller’s souls…

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