Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Amritsar II

After I returned from Amritsar in January, I got some good advice from Jasvir: "Travel, but just wait for a month for the weather to improve". I decided to heed this advice. I spent the rest of January nursing myself back to health. After my successful Golden Triangle and Chandigarh trips, however, I decided it was time to make my triumphant return to Amritsar. At that point, the score was 'Amritsar-1, Ravi-0'. It was time to even the score. On my first trip to Amritsar, I succeeded only in seeing the Wagha border ceremony and the inside of Shri Muni Lal Chopra hosptial. This time, however, I succeeded in seeing the Golden Temple (twice), Jallianawalla Bagh, the inside of Shri Muni Lal Chopra hosptial (but only to thank my doctors/nurses/cleaning staff and to pitch them on a HealthCare Volunteer partnership), and Brothers Daba (for some traditional Punjabi food).

My travel partners this time were Vignesh and a new member of the SAP Labs India team, Seher. As usual, we departed on the Saturday early morning Amritsar Shitabdi to Amritsar. On the train we met a writer for the Indian Express and her great uncle. The writer focuses on India - Pakistan relations. And those of you who know me know that this is my favorite conversation topic. After we arrived in Amritsar, Vignesh and Seher went to the Wagha border and I relaxed in the hotel room. At night, all of us went to the Golden Temple. We were even lucky enough to be there for the 10pm prayer service. The Golden Temple is a beautiful structure with three levels. Surrounding the Golden Temple is an artificial lake with large fish. Outside the lake is a rectangular pathway where you can relax by the lake and get a great view of the Golden Temple. After our temple visit, we got Karas (iron bangles that Sikhs wear). The next morning I visted the hospital where I received treatment and said hello to all of my caretakers. I was happy that they remembered me. Later, we returned to the Golden Temple to view the Temple during day time. Afterwards, we visited Jallianawalla Bagh, the site of a massacre of Indians at the hands of the British in 1917. This was followed by lunch at Brothers Daba and then the train back to Delhi.

It's like the old saying goes: "If at once you fail, try, try again". This time, I can say Mission Accomplished!

Monday, March 10, 2008

6 months in India

Time flies when you're having fun. I've now been in India for 6 months and I can feel the 'reprogramming' of my brain taking place. Seeing an American or a European, which used to be a common sight for me, is now a strange sight. And some familiar Hindi words, like 'khanna', 'bus', 'jaldi', come to my mind before the equivalent English or Tamil words do. I do feel that now is the point when my Hindi vocabulary can grow the fastest because I have built a vocabulary foundation. Most importantly, though, I'm thinking more like an Indian, but it would take me many thousands of words to explain what I mean by that.

I'm also somewhat out of touch with what's happening in the US, and it's a strange and not-so-good feeling. I'm following the election, so no problems there. But this was the first year where I didn't watch a single NFL game and where I completely missed the Oscars (and most movies in the Oscars). The US economy isn't so good, from what I hear, but I can't really feel it.

Then again, I wonder if I'm really missing all that much in the US. 6 months is not really that long. I'm sure a lot more would have changed in 2 years, which is why the Peace Corps gives its volunteers 'readjustment' money and help after they're done with their service abroad. I'm sure the same goes for the military folks.

The second three months were no doubt harder than the first 3 because of the harsh winter. Now, however, it is spring, and it's time to enjoy the weather and travel as much as possible before it becomes too hot to travel in the summer. There's still a lot left to see.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Chandigarh

Well, it certainly has been a long time since I wrote. A few weeks ago, I visited Chandigarh (capital of Punjab and Haryana) with my friend, Vignesh (who will be featured in several more blogs). Throughout my stay in India, I've been hearing all about Chandigarh, the cleanest city in India. So I decided to check it out on Saturday, February 23 so that I could see the annual Chandigarh Rose Festival. We rode on the early morning Shitabdi to Chandigarh, which was just a comfortable 3 hour train journey away. Once in Chandigarh, I could immediately feel the difference between that city and Gurgaon or Delhi. The roads were nicer and there was more greenery and space. Our first stop was the Rose Festival. We wandered about the park for a few hours and saw the specialty roses. Afterwards, we went to the Sector 17 market for lunch. Then, we wandered around the Rock Garden, an attraction which has numerous rock sculptures and waterfalls. Finally, we spent some time relaxing besides the man-made Chandigarh lake. We returned to Delhi by the 6:20pm Shitabdi after the late night Volvo bus was cancelled.

All in all, Chandigarh is a very relaxing city and one of the best cities in India to raise kids. Chandigarh has the lowest levels of air / water pollution in India. Also, Chandigarh takes traffic law compliance seriously and enforces helmet laws. India definitely needs more cities like Chandigarh. Like the song goes, 'Chandigarh kare ashique'...

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Udaipur

And the last stop on the 4-pointed triangle was Udaipur. The weather was noticeably warmer than chilly Agra / Delhi. We stayed in the very beautiful Shiv Nevas palace located right next to the City Palace. On our tour of City Palace, we learned that Udaipur was a fiercely independent city. They were never conquered by the Mughals nor did they work with them.

One of the highlights of Udaipur is the famed Lake Palace. Interestingly, this isn't even the best hotel in Udaipur, according to Travel and Leisure magazine. That honor goes to Oberoi Udaivilas, #1 hotel in India and one of the top hotels in Asia. http://www.travelandleisure.com/tl500/2007/hotel/oberoi-udaivilas

In the afternoon, before my family left for Bombay and I for Delhi, we visited the Saheliyon-ki-Bari. This is the 'garden of maidens'. It was very peaceful in the already peaceful city of Udaipur.

Sunset on Lake Pichola. And so ended our 7 day trip across the major sites in Northern India. It was a nice break from the roughness of Gurgaon and great way to learn Indian history. And I didn't mind the clean, warm air of Rajasthan either! Next time, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur...

Jaipur

Finally, Rajasthan. The state that won the 'where do you want to go' poll. First stop, Jaipur. The main attraction in Jaipur was the Amber Fort. We took elephant rides up to the top. The fort displayed traditional Rajasthani architecture.

One of the main features of the Amber Fort is the beautiful inlay work . Click on the picture to see more details. Unfortunately, over the years, thieves have stolen many of the gems. Only recently has India started protecting these sites more carefully.


After the Amber Fort, we went to Jantar Mantra. This elaborate complex contained several structures which are used to tell time (sun dials, etc.).

Agra

Agra was the next step on our Golden Triangle trip. We reached Agra in the evening after a long and traffic-filled drive from Delhi (note to future travellers: take the train to Agra if you can). The first sight in Agra was Sikandra, or the place of Akbar's tomb. After the hustle and bustle of Delhi, Sikandra was like a breath of fresh air. It's a mauseleoum which contains Akbar's tomb. However, the beauty of Sikandra lies in its gardens where you can see deer, peacocks, and monkeys.


The next day, we visited the Agra Fort. The Agra Fort housed many of the Mughal rulers of India. It took a couple of hours to walk around the grounds, but the highlight for me was edge of the Fort that faces the Taj Mahal. Here, we heard the story about how Shah Jehan, the Mughal ruler who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son, Aurangzeb and how he spent his days gazing up on the Taj Mahal. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agra_Fort


We saw Agra Fort in the morning and Taj Mahal in the afternoon. It was good that we did it in this order because by the time we visited the Taj the fog had lifted and we had the proper historical context to appreciate the Taj.


This is Musamman Burj, the tower from which one can view the Taj Mahal.






The Taj Mahal lived up to its promise. This is the one thing that I could not leave India without seeing. My mom was telling us how the Taj Mahal was more of a park 40 years ago when she visited it. Visitors could go to the basement of the Taj and see the actual tombs of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz Mahal. Now, you can only see replicas of the tombs in the ground floor. Also, our guide was explaining how people used to play cricket in the fields of the Taj Mahal years ago before India became stricter on maintaining the monument. Can you imagine that? Playing cricket with the Taj in the background?

Last but not least, we saw Fatehpur Sikri on the way from Agra to Jaipur. This was also the capital of the Mughal empire for some time. Fatehpur Sikri is unique because it has Hindu, Muslim, and Christian architecture. Akbar founded a new religion which combined all three previously mentioned religions. He even had Hindu, Muslim, and Christian wives and built each of them palaces in Fatehpur Sikri. The Hindu wife got the best palace because she was able bear Akbar sons. Who says that food is the way to a man's heart? Ladies, bear him a son, and you'll get the best palace (a better palace than his mistresses will get).