Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Beijing: Where Food is Heaven*

November 24, 2013 1 comment

Dinner at Middle 8th in Beijing

Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce.  Heaven indeed.

But I get ahead of myself.  Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China.  It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.

Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team.  In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.

First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication).  Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:

Fernando and Charlie at Beijing Olympic Park

Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.

He fed me.

Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by.  One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:

Beijing lunch

Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut.  And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed.  There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.

Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days.  What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email.  This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.

My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck.  This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:

Jiu Huan Shan Roast Dusk RestaurantBeijing duck





The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it.  And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.

Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant.  Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding.  We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.

The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:

Beijing hot-pot

We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right.  I saw other diners using a single type of soup.

While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:

Hot-pot ingredients

From left to right they are:  Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage.  And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.

You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup.  After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot.  The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.

Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles.  I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:

Noodles at Haidilao

In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.

My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.

The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph.  In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:

Steam pot chicken


That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious.  I hope to be back in the spring.  Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.



* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.”  There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.

Categories: Food, Pictures, Travel

At the Taj Mahal: Part 2

November 16, 2013 1 comment

Taj Mahal

Imagine a piece of jewelry, painstakingly crafted, subtle and refined in ornament, and composed of natural materials selected for the richness of their innate beauty.  Imagine this made as a keepsake, a thing such as any of us would present to a wife, or a husband.

Now imagine this work of the jeweler’s art at monumental size, surrounded by gardens that project silence and peace, and  placed on a riverbank where the openness of the floodplain and the slow, steady flow of sacred waters bear continuous testimony to this most singular gift.

Imagine this, and you will have some sense of the Taj Mahal.

I would say most people thinking of the Taj typically envisage images like these:

Taj Mahal from the front gardens Taj Mahal from Agra Fort







Taj Mahal is built entirely of white marble that was brought to the city of Agra from the town of Makrana, in Rajasthan.  This marble has a milky, cloud-like quality to it such that from far-off, or even from a middle distance, the palace seems light and floating.

However one of the more striking things to me was the incredible detail work that can be seen in virtually every surface of the Taj, like these:

Taj Mahal domeFloral border

Inlaid calligraphyFloral carvings Geometric inlay














The floral adornment in the middle bottom is carved in relief on the face of the stone; the surfaces feel extremely smooth.  The main embellishment is inlaid into the marble, using the ancient technique of pietra dura and a variety of different minerals, including: yellow marble, jasper (black marble), jade, turquoise, coral and lapis lazuli.

The other amazing part of the Taj Mahal is the plan of the entire site.  The marble palace stands at the head of a long, rectangular garden:

Mughal architecture makes extensive use of 2- and 4-way symmetry.  The Taj is 4-sided, is surrounded by 4 towers, inside has 4 chambers around the main tomb.  To left and right of the palace are smaller palaces of red sandstone, one of which is  today a functioning mosque:


The minarets, domes and smaller flanking domes all are mirror images.  To our modern way of thinking this symmetry would be dull and boring.  but here, with the great scale, the riverbank setting, and the detailed ornament – which constantly draws the eye – the effect is grand, dignified and serene.

Most visitors to Taj Mahal, it seemed to me, were there to take photos of each other, and to enjoy family or group vacations. Yet the peacefulness of this place can be very affecting, as this fellow Westerner seemed to find:

Meditating at Taj Mahal

For our part, after seeing the palace close up we spent much time strolling the gardens.  These were flanked by trees and were virtually deserted – everyone really wants to just take photos of brother and sister making funny faces in front of the Taj.  For us, we spent our own meditation time looking on these scenes:









At last, it becomes time to leave and one must reflect on the story of Taj Mahal: How the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan had a treasured wife, born Arjumand Banu but that he named Mumtaz Mahal, or “Jewel of the Palace”.  The histories tell us that she was the Emperor’s trusted partner and favorite of his three wives: Jehan and Mumtaz had between them 14 children, including Aurangzeb, who ultimately succeeded his father and became the last Mughal Emperor.  Mumtaz was also Jehan’s most trusted advisor.  Holder of his royal seal, she advised Jehan to sire no more children with his other wives; this of course strengthened her own position, but at the same time Mumtaz hoped to prevent the political unrest that would come from different bloodlines competing for primacy.  Alas, this proved to be a vain hope.

After 19 years of marriage, Mumtaz died in giving birth to her 14th child, a daughter, Gauharara Begum, who lived for 75 years.  After her death, Jehan began construction of the Taj Mahal.  Yet as he himself aged, he fell prey to disease and in his weakness his four sons – all by Mumtaz – began to contest for supremacy.  Aurangzeb, third of the four, emerged as the victor: The second brother Shuja died in obscurity in Bengal after defeat in battle; Aurangzeb assassinated his eldest brother Dara after defeating him in another battle; then finally the youngest brother Murad was executed on trumped-up charges of murder.  Whatever harmony Jehan and Mumtaz might have found in their own family life, it clearly did not extend to the lives of their sons.

The popular narrative told by guides and guidebooks is that Shah Jehan never himself experienced the completed Taj – at our hotel one of the stewards told us Aurangzeb was mad his father had spent so much money, so he imprisoned him in Agra Fort before it was done.  But Jehan was actually imprisoned in 1658, 5 years after the palace and gardens were completed – I’m sure the great Emperor walked the very stones we did and looked at this sublime palace from the very same vantages.  Doubtless Aurangzeb was motivated more by fear of his father – he had after all just killed all of his father’s sons excepting himself – than he was by thrift.

Shah Jehan is regarded as the greatest Mughal Emperor.  He not only built Taj Mahal, but numerous other palaces, forts and mosques, all equally resplendent as the tomb of Mumtaz.  Was Taj Mahal truly love’s last gift as the romantic stories profess?  Or was it just another projection of power, a statement to the world and the last excess of an Emperor who had already created for himself the Peacock Throne, composed of over 1,000 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones?

I don’t think we can know the answer to that.  But, from Agra Fort, through the narrow slot of a stone archway, we were able to see the same view that Jehan would have had:

 Taj Mahal from Agra Fort


Today, all is sadly smogged over with pollution.  Yet perhaps Jehan saw through a mist as well, wondering at the end of life what had been vanity, and what had been truly important.

Categories: Pictures, Travel Tags:

At the Taj Mahal: Part 1

November 10, 2013 Comments off

Morgan and Kim at Taj Mahal

The #2 question* my Western friends ask me when they hear I am working in India is “Have you seen the Taj Mahal?”  As one of new 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal is certainly the best known of India’s many historical places.  And I daresay everyone knows the romantic story, how a Moghul emperor built Taj Mahal as a memorial for a beloved wife – in India the Taj is a top honeymoon destination.  So, bowing to the inevitable, just after Diwali we three Salazars made our way to Agra, to see this renowned palace of love.

* The #1 question is, “Are there really cows everywhere?”  Answer: Yes.

The Logistics

In later posts I’ll share both the details and my impressions of the Taj, but today let me give some info on how we went about our visit.  We were not part of a tour, nor did we get any guide, and for us these things were excellent choices.  We saw a great many groups on tours, trooping about soldier-fashion.  The advantage of a tour is there are no surprises and you see what you are supposed to see.  The downside is, you can’t set your own pace, you are locked in to whatever timetable the tour  has set.  Since we are used to getting about here in India, we had little need to join up with a tour.

Which brings me to guides.  If you visit on your own guides will accost you, flashing laminated badges and cards that supposedly are government-issued certifications.  They will enlist you in casual conversation, “Oh, what country are you from?  Are you liking India?” and quickly cut to the chase that for only Rs. 300/400/500/whatever, they will put their encyclopedic knowledge at your disposal and personally show you the deepest secrets of the Taj.  The reality will be they will add numerous other charges – for example to supposedly get ahead in queues – and then relentlessly steer you to souvenir shops run by their relatives.  On top of it all their knowledge is not much more than this:

My advice: Do what we did, read wikiPedia and other references on the Taj before you get here, and you will know as much, if not more, than all the guides.

The actual site of the Taj Mahal is very large, a complex of buildings and gardens over 42 acres in size.  The complex has three accessible gates: West, South and East; the North side of the Taj Mahal is on the banks of the River Yamuna.  We arrived at the East gate.  Our driver waited in the parking area while we made our way to the adjacent ticket and visitors center:

Taj Mahal East Gate Tickets

Inside here you buy your ticket.  If you are a foreigner this will be Rs. 750 per person, somewhat over $10 US.  With your ticket you will get a bottle of water and some booties for your shoes – make sure you keep these!

We reached at about 9 am.  I very much recommend arriving this time or even earlier.  The lines will only get longer and the day will only get hotter the later you arrive.

The actual complex is about a mile from here.  Every 5-10 minutes some electric shuttle vehicles will come by to take you to the real entrance.  Every such vehicle is equipped with these helpful warning signs:

Prohibited items

None of us had brought “nife” nor “helmate”, so off we went.  After 5 mins or so ride, the bus/cart will drop you off just outside the first set of gates:

Outer gates

Just inside is a security check, and here is where the strange “prohibited items” list comes into play.  There are guards there who will pat you down and check all bags, parcels, etc.  Bring with you as little as possible!  You risk getting sent back to the ticket building where you will have to check your contraband in a locker.  This nearly happened to a Canadian tourist who came in near to us.  His offense: He had a large bandana that featured the Canadian flag.

In terms of the crowds and getting around inside the grounds, these scenes show what we encountered:

IMG_1026 IMG_1005







We didn’t find the crowds bad.  The main thing to watch for is everyone jockeying to get un-impeded photo-op locations.  We saw at least 10 cases of someone doing the wildly original pose where they hold their hand in grasping position up and to the side and the shooter frames the shot so it can later be captioned, “Look, I am holding the Taj Mahal!”  But by and large everyone was friendly and happily disposed – the place does radiate a certain peaceful nature.

Well, all happily disposed excerpt for this guy:

Cheekius Illegitimi, the carnivorous chipmunk of Uttar Pradesh

I snapped this while we were resting on a bench; this critter had no fear of us and I assumed it was because of long exposure to people.  15 seconds after I took this pic Kim screamed out, “AAH!  What that – ?”  The cheeky bastard had jumped up on the bench behind us and bit her finger!  Later we saw touts who for a few Rs. provide handsful of meal, which you then can use to attract these pests to come and eat out of your hand.  We did not partake of this service and thereafter took great glee in scaling pebbles and twigs at other chipmunks we saw massing to attack.

One last bit of logistics: With your ticket you receive some “shoe muffs” or booties.  To walk on the actual palace you need either to remove your shoes or to wear the booties.  Like most foreigners, we don’t like walking barefoot so we put on the booties:

Shoe muffs

If you decide to go shoeless, be aware that a) You need to carry them with you since there is no safe place to leave them, and b) You will be walking on bare stone for 100s of meters which, depending on time of year here, can get scaldingly hot.  Use the booties.

Once you are done seeing the Taj you should exit the same gate where you arrived; ideally the same carts/shuttles can take you back.  There are other options, like this:

Camel cart in Agra

The pre-paid shuttle was taking a long time – we waited 15 mins or so – and so we decided to engage a pony trap much like this one:


Like so much here, you bargain for these services.  Do not get into any vehicle until you fix a price!  Whatever they say, you say 1/2 that. If he re-states the original price, walk away – they will follow. If you get to a price you can live with, get in and go.  Our pony driver asked for Rs. 200, we settled on 150.  The difference is less than $1 – but it would not be India if you didn’t bargain.

Also on the walk back from the gate and the drop-off point are some small restaurants and many souvenir shops.  We had no need of souvenirs, which mostly are miniature Tajs.  We did stop for lunch – where we were the only westerners in the place – and had parathas and a dish of paneer korma for a grand total of Rs. 225.

How long did everything take?  We arrived at the ticket place around 9 am, and returned 12:45 or so.  I don’t think you need much more time to see what you want to see at the Taj Mahal.  If you are in a big party, and/or you feel like taking your time, you might spend another hour or so.  We in fact had more than enough time to go from the Taj Mahal to see Agra Fort, and then to get back to hotel in plenty of time for shower and dinner.

Those are the details of how we did our visit.  It may seem odd, but for us we get significant satisfaction when, well, things just go as planned.  Taking a trip like this there’s 100s of things that can go wrong, from missing your driver, to getting swindled or pickpocketed to getting denied entry and more.  Even though we’ve been living here more than a year we still read all the travel sites we could find, especially India Mike – forewarned is forearmed.

The planning is worth it.  After all your travels you finally reach the inner gate to the gardens, which is darkness all around, but through the archway you glimpse the palace, so white and ethereal it seems like a cloud:


Next time, I’ll do my poor best to show the many beauties of this wondrous place.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures, Travel Tags: ,

In Aurangzeb’s Domain

April 20, 2013 2 comments

Bibi Ka MaqbaraHe was a Muslim warrior, both pious himself and utterly unaccepting of impious behavior in others, and a Mughal emperor who ruthlessly consolidated control over all of India but in the end, was unable to stem the erosion of his empire.  His name: Aurangzeb.  Though he died more than 300 years ago, his capital, Aurangabad, still faces assault today, from relentless hordes of tourists who come to look at his works and – while some may despair – mostly just take pictures.

It is nearly a month ago now that Kim, Morgan and I traveled to Aurangabad.  I’ve already posted about Ajanta and Ellora Caves, and on the conditions of drought we saw on our journey.  I wanted to close out the record on that visit with a bit about the city, a bit more about some about a few other visits we made and, of course, pictures.

Aurangabad is called the City of Gates; in our time there we passed by or through 3 or 4.  Here is an example:

Bhadkal gate

These gates in Aurangzeb’s time were all part of a system of walls that protected the city.  Today the walls are mostly gone, but the gates remain.

In a way Aurangabad encapsulates the story of today’s India.  Westerners who come here quickly learn that across the country there are cities with names ending in “-bad”: Aurangabad, Hyderabad, and Ahmedabad are some of the largest, but there are many smaller such named cities.  Almost all of these places were either established or re-named by the Mughals, the Persian/Muslim conquerors of Aryan/Hindu India, who ruled the subcontinent from the early 16th century to the mid 18th.  For nearly two centuries the Mughal Empire was  the richest in the world, but the death of Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707 marked the beginning of a swift decline.

One of the key forces at play in the downfall of the Mughals was the Maratha hero Shivaji.  Born to a warrior clan he was raised into the family trade of being a mercenary.  But Shivaji evolved a vision of freedom for his people and, after his fame and skill as a warrior grew, he began to confront the armies of the Mughals.  In 1674 he established an independent Maratha Kingdom which persisted until 1818 when it became subservient to what would become the British Raj.  Shivaji is a legend in Maharashtra – the Mumbai airport is named after him and school children here learn his life from comics like these (a gift from a work colleague): Shavaji comic

This page relates the story of how Shivaji went in disguise to attack the Mughal ruler of Pune and to reclaim his childhood home, the Lal Mahal.  But in addition to being a fierce and crafty warrior, Shivaji was also apparently an enlightened ruler.  The Marathas of his time were a clan of Hindu warriors, but Shivaji brought many Muslims into his ranks, both as generals and as ministers.

And so it is with India today.  Hindu and Muslim work together in numberless ways without any thought of religion, but the difference and the tension is always there, just beneath the surface – or sometimes above the surface, as seen in the terrorist attacks that have plagued India over the past decades, or the extreme nationalist rhetoric of politicians like Bal Thackeray.

A place that brought us closer to the conflicts of those long-ago times was Daulatabad Fort:


Kim posted about Daulatabad a few weeks ago.  Side-note: See how almost all the people shown above visiting the fort are non-Indian?  How can you tell?  Hats.   Indians never wear hats.  Americans, Germans, Koreans, Russians, French: We all wear hats.  On the day of our visit we encountered two large parties: one of Germans, and another of (we think) Koreans.  The hawkers at these sites who sell fake ancient coins and other spurious artifacts should just switch to hats.

The northern half of India is very rocky and mountainous.  For all of recorded history here military rulers have created forts on the many hilltops that define the terrain, and Daulatabad is a typical example.  From the foot of the hill to the palace at the summit is several hundred meters; in many places are sheer walls with the only path a single meter wide.  The entire way up is guarded by places where defending soldiers could fire projectiles or attack unexpectedly.   Finally, there are two moats which make the ascent even more unlikely.  This picture was taken about half way up:


To us a very interesting view was the remaining fortress walls that can be seen once you reach the top:

Daulatabad view

Aurangzeb, like overlords of the Deccan for centuries before, possessed Daulatabad.  In his time the walls shown here encompassed a fortress town of soldiers, artisans and peasants.  These are humbler versions of the kind of walls that must have girdled Aurangabad itself.

While Daulatabad was not built by Aurangzeb, on the last day of our trip we went to see something he had built: the Bibi Ka Maqbara, known hereabouts as the “mini Taj Mahal” – shown in the lead photo of this post.  Aurangzeb built this as a memorial to his first wife, Dilras Banu.  Here is an example of the massive marble carvings you find on this monument:

Bibi Ka Maqbara entryway

This carving above the main entranceway was easily 40 feet high by 40 feet wide. This pierced screen is also of marble:

Marble screen

While there are many and impressive ornaments here, we found particular interest in this:


This green parrot living atop one of the towers was like a tiny emerald set in a giant tablet of alabaster.


We westerners often think of India through simple images: Gandhi, Mountbatten, Slumdog Millionaire, Raj from BBT.  Now in my list of images I have Aurangzeb   He was an emperor, for his time arguably the richest and most powerful in all the world.  His works and achievements were some austere, some beautiful, and some grim, and in the end what was important to him was swept away by an irresistible tide.  He himself seemed to perceive this, for he is reputed to have said on his deathbed:

"I came alone and I go as a stranger. I do not know who I am, nor what I have been doing."


Such was our visit to Aurangzeb’s domain, where the remnants of old India’s wars and grandeur stay side by side, while the new India ponders the old emperor’s last words … were they lament, warning, or both?

Categories: Expat life, Pictures, Travel Tags:

Dry Times in Maharashtra

April 6, 2013 4 comments

Aurangabad trip map

It’s a few weeks ago now that Kim, Morgan and myself journeyed to see the sights near to Aurangabad.  I’ve already posted about Ajanta Caves and Ellora Caves; now I want to share a few more things we saw, especially about the climate and lives of average folks here in Maharashtra.  It is a sad fact that times here for a great many people are very bad indeed.

The first place we came to, still part of Pune proper, was Wagholi, a very fast growing area to the north-west of town.  This picture from the web is typical of the many in-progress developments we saw:

Wagholi development

Whether it will ever finish or not, there’s no way of knowing; it seems everywhere we go here there are big buildings in perpetual 1/4-finished state.

One reason this area is growing so fast is simply because it is close in, only 13 kms or so from center of Pune, but still fairly empty.  Another is because of the increase in manufacturing in this region.  There is a lot of heavy industry here, including Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen plants to the north of town.  As we continued on the road going north-east we passed facilities of many global companies – P&G, LG, Whirlpool, Haier – as well as many Indian companies making, for example, auto-parts, stone & tiles, and plumbing fixtures.  Chatting with Rupesh we asked what type of people were the workers at these plants.  He said a great many came from outside Maharashtra, from Uttar Pradesh mostly.  Entry-level laborers at these factories will earn around Rs. 9 – 10,000 per month – about $190.

Soon we came to the first of several toll gates we would pass on the way to Aurangabad:

India toll plaza sign

We did not stop to see what difference there might be between accessing the First Aid Box and the Complaint Book.

30 kms or so outward from our flat the road became a 4-lane road – 2-lanes in each direction – of good condition, our speed reached 100 kph many times.  It was here for the first time I think we were seeing the “real” Maharashtra.  Pune is a big place and fairly modern.  Yes, cows, goats, dogs and other animals abound, but any place with a Hard Rock Café has an immense amount in common with a Western city.  Away from the city proper we fell into a rhythm of passing 10 kms or so of farms, then coming to a tiny village of tea-stalls and shops, then going on through another 10 kms of farms.

This pic from Google shows part of the way we took:

Satellite photo

You can see a center of buildings down in the south-west of the picture, then as you go along the road an empty area of multi-colored fields, then another small nexus of buildings at the upper north-east of the picture.  From Pune to Aurangabad we must have passed through 20 or so such small villages, and some larger towns as well.

Notice the many striped areas of differing colors?  These are the different crops being cultivated in small plots.  Probably the most prevalent crop is sugar-cane:

Sugar cane field

but we also saw corn, onions, cauliflower, cotton and more.

While people in India are moving to cities at an increasing rate, 70% of people still live outside cities, and that means they are mostly farmers.  The vast majority of farms here are tiny by USA standards – 95% of farms are 5 acres or less in size.  On average these small-plot farms earn less than Rs. 2,500 per month – about $50.

But you don’t really need a satellite picture to tell you that farms are small in India – little goods-carrier trucks with sacks of produce, usually with sandal-footed laborers riding on top – are ubiquitous here.  These all carry the output of small farms to markets and depots in cities and towns.  Because refrigerated transport is virtually unknown this produce is consumed typically within days of harvest.  If you are eating in India, chances are good everything on your plate came from with a few 100 kms of where you are.  This is a gigantic contrast with a state like Massachusetts in the US, which produces a lot of dairy, apples and cranberries, but gets virtually all other produce from Florida, Texas or California.

Another thing we saw on the road was the intense dryness of the land, like these fields:

Dry landscape in Maharashtra

or this dry river-bed:

Dry riverbed in Maharashtra

Note the distant pools of water?  In monsoon time this whole area will be a flowing river.

The monsoon is the arbiter of life here – it fills lakes (most artificially created by dams) and the water table that cities, villages and farms draw water from all through the year.  The rains of June-Aug last year were especially sparse, and Maharashtra is now enduring the worst drought in decades.  While many farmers are fleeing to cities, seeking work as laborers, some see no option but suicide – and there are stories of farm women and girls becoming sex-workers in cities like Mumbai.

A poor monsoon is only part of the reason for the drought.  Clearly a great contributor is all the manufacturing I talked about at the start of this post.  All factories use a lot of water.  In addition to auto- and electrical-manufacturing, we passed paper mills and sugar refineries – two extremely water intensive operations.  There does seem to be some local response happening, as I read here.  The main technique is rainwater harvesting, where rain in monsoon time, through gutters and other catch methods is directed to cisterns, local ponds, or even straight to the water table.  Another technique is the guli plug.  The idea here is to create simple soil and rock dams in gullies to force more rainfall into the local water table:

Gully plugs

This picture comes from the Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR).  WOTR is an NGO active in 5 Indian states.  One of the funding partners of WOTR is Blue Planet Network, which works to improve water quality and availability throughout the developing world.  BPN fund raises for many projects, including several in Maharashtra.

I am intrigued.  Apparently a mere $6,000 will provide drinking water for a hamlet of 140 people.  This looks to be a space where small donations can have profound impact.

I will post more when I know more.  On our trip we saw many women working with water or carrying water, like this lady rinsing clothes in a trickle of water by the side of the road:

Lady washes clothes

Maharashtra needs more scenes like this:

Water carriers

Ellora: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 2

March 29, 2013 Comments off

Ellora cave 29, Shiva and Parvati

In the Aurangabad district we recently visited there are two world-heritage cave temple sites.  One is the Ajanta Caves, which I wrote about a few days ago.  Ajanta is a Buddhist site, constructed in the period from about 100 BCE to 450 CE.  The second is the Ellora Caves, located about 30 kms from Aurangabad.  Ellora was built between the 5th and 10th centuries CE, and its caves depict and celebrate Hindu, Jain and Buddhist beliefs.  Wikipedia has an excellent writeup on ElloraAnother excellent site on the caves was created by ArtStor and the Indian Government; in this site is an interactive map that allows you to map photos to the layouts of the various caves.

So, since through the magic of the interwebs readers can find more and better facts than I could present, herewith then are my quick impressions of this incredible place.  (For those who just want to page through our Ellora photos, they are available here on Dropbox.)

Ellora is spread out more than Ajanta, there are multiple clusters of caves and most people go from cluster-to-cluster by car.  Seen from above the map of all the caves is like so:


We began our viewing with the far left cluster, then proceeded to the middle two, and finally ended on cave 16, which is a major complex in itself.  (After cave 16, having spent the first half of the day climbing Daulatabad Fort, we were climbed- and caved-out.)

Our first cave was cave 32:

Ellora cave 32 outside

This cave is typical of Ellora in that it is mostly not roofed-over, but is a courtyard delved into the rock of the hillside.  Inside is a sizeable elephant:

Morgan and Kim with Ellora elephant

Cave 32 is one of the Jain caves.  This and the other Jain caves feature many figures in seated meditation, just as in the most common depiction of Buddha; but these figures are not Buddha, they reflect the Jain discipline of meditation that in fact pre-dates Buddhism.  Although Jainism is an austere faith, you quickly see these caves are more ambitious than most at Ajanta, making greater use of ornament, and combining Hindu symbols with symbols unique to Jainism.  For example these two statues, at opposite sides of the cave 33 entrance, depict Sarvanubhuti (for Hindus, Kubera) and Ambika, god and goddess respectively of material prosperity:


From here we went to our next cluster, starting with cave 29:

Ellora cave 29 entrance

This is a Hindu cave, one of the largest at Ellora.  Close inside the entrance you find this wall-carving:


This is Andhakasuravadha, the demon-killing incarnation of Lord Shiva.  In cave 22 we saw many examples of Ganga, the River Goddess:

Ganga, outside Ellora cave 22

Finally we reached cave 16, otherwise known as the Kailashnath Temple:

Ellora cave 16 entrance

“Cave” is a tremendous understatement.  Wikipedia says this excavation is twice the size of the Parthenon in Athens.  The inner courtyard is easily 100 meters deep, plus that courtyard is ringed by multi-story galleries each 30 or more meters deep.  Here’s a view from inside:

Ellora cave 16 inner court

There’s many more photos I could post, and that in itself is a major message – all the Ellora caves are filled with detail and ornament, so much we could spend hours in any single one, let alone the whole complex of more than 30 caves.

How to contrast Ajanta and Ellora?  Ajanta to me was intensely reverent – even with its many paintings and many carvings, it was a place clearly dedicated to the Way of Buddha, with every one of it’s halls proclaiming this function.  The word I have for Ellora is exuberant.  Being there, seeing the hundreds of silent stories proclaimed by its carvings of gods, goddesses, monks, elephants, demons and more, you feel the intensity of the 1,000-year-ago artisans and patrons who created this place.  How else to explain just how tremendously overflowing the place is with detail and  content?  Another impression … When I see the easy familiarity the Indian visitors have with the overflowing iconography of the place I realize how much I don’t know the culture here.  I look at a statue and I see an elephant, a woman, a multi-armed warrior, and that’s it.  Indians by and large see much more, of this I am sure.

Since I concluded my Ajanta post with words of the Buddha, it seems fitting to close here by invoking one of the teachings of Jainism:

In truthfulness do reside self-restraint and all other virtues.

Just as the fish can live only in the sea, so can all other virtues reside in Truthfulness alone.

Mahavira (Bhagavati Aradhana, 842)


I am not sure if I will again visit Ajanta and Ellora – there is much to see in India and I only have two years, after all.  However, for my USA friends and family, if you visit we could all do worse than a repeat trip to Aurangabad to see these unique works of the ancient world.

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Ajanta: Rock-cut Temples of India, part 1

March 27, 2013 1 comment

Reclining Buddha

2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a Hindu Prince, was born in Nepal.  Dismayed to discover suffering, he tried to make sense of the world.  After many excesses, and deprivations, and trials of character, he achieved the insight of the middle way whereby he freed himself from extremes and was able to see and be with clarity.  Many followers sought his teachings and the one who was Siddhartha came to be called Gautama Buddha.

400 years after the time of Gautama his teaching has spread across the northern half of India.  Then, as today, monks who follow this way practice meditation and reverent prayer as a discipline.  At the northern edge of the Deccan Plateau, in the state that is today called Maharashtra, some followers of the Buddha came to rocky cliffs high up in isolated hills.  There, in the solid basalt and granite of the cliff faces, they envision great halls where the distractions of the world cannot enter and prayers echo off of cool rock.  With only the meanest of implements, they begin work, knowing it will fall to successor generations of monks to fully complete this vision.  Local kings and princes sent many workmen, but the monks themselves – or so I believe – must have aided the construction.  Surely this must have been another kind of meditation for them, as they wielded tools in silence, a single monk perhaps removing only a few feet of stone in an entire lifetime.  Caves would be built here for five centuries to come, only to be forgotten for a 1,000 years or more …

Standing here in the 21st century, this is how the story of the Ajanta Caves seems to me.  There are many examples of rock-cut or cave temples in India; back in January, our family visited the Karla Caves.  Ajanta and Ellora (to be described in a separate post), in the district of Aurangabad, about 250 kms from Pune, are the preeminent examples of this rock-cut architecture.  When Morgan had a 1-week school break we decided to use some of that time to view these ancient places.  (The trip itself I shall have to post about as well.)

At the main compound of Ajanta there is a ticket booth, restaurant, a few shops, basic facilities.  To reach the actual caves, there is a bit of a trek up stairs:

Ajanta stairs

In addition to the many hawkers and supposed guides offering their goods and services, you can hire a sedan chair and bearers to carry you up.  It is probably best for all involved that I declined to engage such a chair.

It takes perhaps 10 mins walk to reach the first cave. Here is the view when you reach the top:

Ajanta caves

There are 26 caves in all at Ajanta.  The cliff describes a horseshoe shape with the oldest caves being at the middle of the horseshoe and newer caves to the right and left. The caves are of two types.  The first type is a vihara prayer hall, where monks lived and prayed daily:

Ajanta prayer hall

These halls are 30 or more meters across, 8 meters or more high, and surrounded by pillars; cut into the the walls are cells where monks would sleep.  At the end of the hall is a shrine to Buddha:

Ajanta shrine

These photos are so dark because flash photography is forbid in many of the caves.  This is because these caves are painted, either to adorn the carvings or to present scenes important to Buddhist lore:

Ajanta cave painting

The second type of cave is the chaitya hall, a place purely for prayer with a stupa or shrine at the far end:

Ajanta cave 10 stupa

As Morgan in the foreground helpfully illustrates, the stupa is about 15-20 feet high.

This photo is cave 10, one of the oldest caves at Ajanta.  Comparing older and newer caves you can see how stupas became more elaborate:

Ajanta stupas

These are from, going left to right, cave 9, cave 10, cave 19 and cave 26.  9 and 10 were constructed approx. 100 BCE to 100 CE; 19 and 26 date from the 5th century CE.

All the open space you see here was created by human activity; these are not natural caves that were somehow enlarged, but bodies of solid rock where these large chambers were created.  Cave 24 is an unfinished cave where you can see the process:

Ajanta cave 24

The workers would start the excavation at the ceiling, working down.  Pillars were left in rough outline to be finished later.  The actual removal of stone was accomplished by a combination of hammer/chisel, drill and a method of forcing dry wood fibers into cracks which were then wetted – the expansion of the fibers would crack the stone.

For me, Ajanta was a very affecting place.  The early caves have a simplicity – even with their rich paintings – that is very humbling to contemplate.  The later caves display more ornamentation, but still all is in devotion to Buddha:

Ajanta cave 19


Ajanta medallion


Ajanta cave 26


Ajanta Buddha, cave 26


Buddha said:

We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.

To visit these caves is to perceive at one time the suffering of their creation, but also the profound devotion of their achievement.  The thoughts of those long-ago people and, as Buddha taught, what those people must have been, are there to be seen and touched at Ajanta.

UPDATE: All our Ajanta photos are on Flickr, here:

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Lord Balaji’s Finances

March 26, 2013 Comments off


This weekend past Kim, Morgan and myself visited the famous rock-cut temples of Ajanta and Ellora; a great experience on which I will post more fully soon.  Meanwhile, having returned home I was paging though the many photos taken and came to this one. and I thought I’d say a quick word about it.

This photo is at the Ellora caves.  It shows the sacred bull, Nandi, mount of Lord Shiva; this is at the entrance of cave 21.  I was glad to get these Hindu ladies in the frame; we smiled and said our hellos after.  When they were gone, our driver Rupesh – in his first visit to these caves – said, "Sir, did you see that lady with shaved head?”  I told him, yes, and that I wondered about it – Indian women are very particular  about their hair and take great pains to grow it long.  Rupesh told me his guess that this lady was a devotee of Lord Balaji, an avatar of Vishnu sometimes known as Venkateswara.  There are two stories of Lord Balaji that explain how ladies who worship him cut their hair.

The first is that Balaji was once wounded on his head.  A devoted princess saw him and offered some of her hair to repair the wound in his scalp; even today followers will offer hair in the same spirit.

A more interesting story (to me, at least) is how Lord Balaji got married.  For various reasons Balaji wished to marry Lady Padmavathi.  Balaji however lacked funds for a wedding celebration of suitable luxury.  So he went  to Lord Kubera, god of wealth,  and asked for a loan.  The terms of the load were so usurious, that today Lord Balaji’s followers are still paying interest.  For this reason his temples are among the richest in India, as many devotees donate money and gold, and hair – a valuable donation –  to defray payments in this ancient debt.

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Update on Tigers

March 5, 2013 1 comment

Here’s a follow on to my recent post, about Jim Corbett, hunter of man-eating tigers and leopards; what happened in Corbett’s time still happens today.  This comes from The Times of India, dated this last Jan. 8:

NAGPUR: The problem tiger, who killed five women in 20 days in the Navegaon National Park landscape, narrowly escaped AK-47 assault on Monday afternoon.

"On receiving information from locals, the C-60 commandos, equipped with Insas and AK-47 assault rifles, rushed to the spot near Salebardi forest and fired 25 rounds from their AK-47 weapons. But the ‘man-eater’ vanished within a fraction of seconds into the bushes after someone shouted," official sources said.

Nagpur is about 600-700 kms north-east of Pune.  Read more about it here:

Note to self: If you do feel compelled to wander the isolated jungles, don’t bother bringing your AK-47 … won’t make any difference where tigers are concerned.

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Book Review: The Jim Corbett Omnibus

March 2, 2013 1 comment

Jim Corbett Omnibus

I like old things.  Old swords, old houses, old places … I prefer them all over present day fashion.  Yes, I need my cellphone, but, consider a hundred year old chair:  Someone made that, put their skill and attention into it, and then someone brought it home and used it.  And it persisted, decades longer than any “big box” store chair will last.  What’s important in thinking about the future is not the present, which by definition is impermanent, but the past, which holds real, enduring lessons.

I especially like old stories, which brings me to my subject for today, a book entitled The Jim Corbett Omnibus.  This was a gift from my friend and colleague here in Pune, Bhavuk.  The book presents a series of stories, all written from roughly 1945 to 1955 and that speak to experiences form the 1920s and 1930s.  The subject of the stories: Hunting for man-eating tigers and leopards.

I know, I know, sounds like Ripping Yarns and Argosy kind of stuff, right?  But as I said, I like old stories and I really liked this.  A sample:

As the old priest got up to leave me that evening I asked him if it would be possible for me to get some shooting in the locality, for my men had been without meat for many days and there was none to be purchased at Dabidhura. ‘Yes’, he answered, ‘there is the temple tiger.’  On my assuring him I had no desire to shoot his tiger he rejoined with a laugh, ‘I have no objection, Sahib, to your trying to shoot this tiger, but neither you nor anyone else will ever succeed in killing it.’ And that is how I came to hear of the Dabidhura temple tiger, which provided me with one of the most interesting shikar experiences I have ever had.

I love the tone of this writing: Simple, almost reporter-like, but with the understated building of tension that typifies the best pulp stories.

The India that Westerners see today is, for the most part, urban and modern.  Yes, you see massive poverty and bizarre forms of infrastructure as the country grows at double-digit rates every year, but the main elements of the cities here would not be out of place in Florida, for example.

Not so in Corbett’s time.  The population of India then was 200-350 millions (as compared to 1.2 billion today), and all overwhelmingly rural – today 31% of India’s population lives in cities, while in the 20s-30s the figure was on the order of 13%.  People then lived in villages scattered across a challenging terrain – especially in the north – of rocky hills and mountains.  The region Corbett writes about is in Uttarakhand, adjacent to Nepal and practically the foothills of the Himalayas.  The land then was essentially in its natural state and fish, birds and game – like  chital, a small spotted deer, sambhar, a larger long-horned deer, or arna, the wild water buffalo – were abundant.  Where you have game, you will have carnivores.  In India at the top of the food chain you have leopards, and tigers.

If we are speaking of a time 80 years ago, to the classification of “game” I’m afraid we have to add, well, people.  All across the sparsely populated landscape men, women and children of all ages eked out their livings performing the tasks of close-to-medieval farming: cutting fodder, gathering firewood, herding goats, carrying water.  These things were done on the edges of, or in the midst of, utter wilderness.  For a tiger or leopard that has been diminished by age or wounded – many that Corbett killed carried 20 or more long porcupine quills embedded in their flesh – a 90 pound Indian woman is far easier game than a 500 pound, long-horned sambhar.  Here Corbett describes one victim of a man-eater from the district of Thak:

The  victim on this occasion was an elderly woman, the mother of the Headman of Sem.  This unfortunate woman had been killed while cutting brushwood on a steep bank between two terraced fields.  She had started work at the further end of the fifty-yard long bank, and had cut brushwood to within a yard of her hut when the tiger sprang on her from the field above.  So sudden and unexpected was the attack that the woman had only had time to scream once before the tiger killed her, and taking her up the twelve-foot-high bank crossed the upper field and disappeared …

Tigers and leopards in those days were responsible for 1,000s of deaths; among the animals Corbett dispatched were a tigress and cub that were thought between them to have killed 525 people.  There are over 20 separate stories in this compendium, including the accounts of over 10 man-eating tigers dispatched, and the 2-years long story of Corbett’s pursuit and killing of the man-eating leopard of Rudraprayag, a single animal responsible for no less than 125 deaths between 1918 and 1926.

These animals are powerful; Corbett relates how a tiger had carried a full-grown cow over 4 miles.  They are also, as you might imagine, wily hunters who naturally stalk anything that tries to stalk them; several times in these stories Corbett makes his way home in darkness only to discover next day the tracks of a tiger or leopard right atop of his own.

I have to say Corbett’s writing is not for everyone.  By today’s standards it is by no means exciting.  There is a volume of details on hunting procedures, and most of the stories expend significant time on the failures and setbacks Corbett encountered before finally bagging each man-eater.  But I greatly enjoyed Corbett’s voice as he related each tale, all of them vibrant and evocative of an India that now only exists in parks, preserves, a few remaining villages, and the memories of the elderly.

Jim Corbett was a conservationist as well as a hunter, and became an adept wildlife photographer.  India’s first national park is dedicated to him, the Jim Corbett National Park.  My list of places to visit here in India has now gone up.  Thanks, Bhavuk, for a wonderful book.

In closing, I can only wonder, what was it like for Corbett, making his way through jungles and over hills, seeking the man-eater but wondering if the man-eater might not be close behind?  Perhaps something like this:

Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park

If you missed it:

Sleeping, not crouching, tiger

Categories: Books, Expat life, Travel