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Back from London, part II … The British Museum

January 18, 2014 1 comment

GUESS WHERE THIS PICTURE WAS TAKEN

One of our goals in our recent holiday trip to London was to see some of the many museums there.  Wikipedia tells me there are 240 museums in London, including the Sigmund Freud Museum, Michael Faraday Museum, and the Type Museum.  Seeing we only had 4 days to work with, I hope we’re forgiven that we only saw “the big three”, starting with The British Museum, The Victoria & Albert Museum and The Tower of London.  Herewith follows my first whirlwind chronicle of these places.

But before I begin, a challenge: Try to identify where the picture above was taken, and put your guess in a comment, either on FB or on the blog.  It is from one of the 3 visited museums, so extra credit if you can identify a specific exhibit.  I’ll share the answer in my post after this.

The British Museum

Amenemhat IIIAmenhotep IIIAmenhotep III

The British Museum brings together artworks and cultural artifacts from civilizations past and present – but, mostly past.  The three samples above are all from the ancient Egyptian hall, one of the first you will encounter when you enter.  There are many colossal statues here, and their size and demeanor sets a dramatic tone as soon as you enter.  Going from left to right, the first dates from 1850 BC and portrays Amenemhat III; at only 31 inches high, this is one of the smaller works.  The remaining two both portray Amenhotep III (aka Amenhotep the Magnificent) and date from around 1370 BC. The middle statue is 60 inches high, the one on the right 114 inches – think about it, nearly 10 feet! – and weighs 3,600 kg.  The expressiveness of these ancient works is striking, giving us a window into the character of these rulers from over 3,000 years ago.

Next stop was the ancient Greek collection: Incredible.  Every other thing Kim and I saw we felt certain we had seen before – in pictures of course – in art history books, book covers, etc.  Perhaps you have the same feeling looking at these examples:

Sutila showing Athena and PerseusCorinthian bronze helmetBust of Pericles

Just to give you a sense of how much stuff there is here, the helmet shown above – dating from 650-570 BC – is one of 62 bronze helmets in the museum collection.  It was acquired by the museum in 1904 from a Mrs. Hawkins, who also donated a bronze greave and a statuette of Mercury.  Such factoids can easily be found using the museum’s search function, which let’s you look for, for example, “bronze helmet”.  Pretty much, if you have a picture of something from the British Museum, and a basic sense of what it is, you can find out everything you could ever want about that specific piece.

We spent a long time looking over the museum’s most famous exhibit: the Elgin Marbles:

Relief sculpture from the ParthenonRelief sculpture from the ParthenonSelene's Horse

These amazing sculptures adorned the Parthenon, until they were removed by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin in the early 1800s.  There is controversy over whether these priceless artifacts ever should have been removed, or if they should be returned.  All that aside, we should be glad these works have been preserved.  2,400 years old, these statutes show both a realism and intense energy that is instantly affecting.  For example, the horse’s head, above, comes from a section where originally the gods witnessed the birth of Athena.  This horse is one that drew the chariot of Selene, the moon goddess; I daresay not till Da Vinci was the horse so expressively rendered by western artists.

It is easy to spend an hour just looking at the marbles alone, which we did.  They are arrayed along walls in their own very large hall.  At either ends are some monumental free standing sculptures.  The lounging figure of Dionysus, on the right below, would have been eight feet or more had the wine god been standing.

Wall of Elgin marble reliefsDionysus from the East Pediment

 
Alas, we only spent a bit over 4 hours in the British – we had to make an early dinner and then off to Henry V –  and barely saw anything of the Asia, Medieval or Middle Eastern halls.  Those will wait till our next London visit, though no way of knowing when that would be.

Next posts, The Victoria and Albert (I promise) and The Tower of London (I hope).

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Back from London, part I

January 2, 2014 1 comment

Tower ticket Henry V Ticket
Mousetrap ticketUnderground ticket

Myself, Kim and Morgan have returned to Pune – arriving back home around 5 am on Jan 1 – while elder daughter Alex is back in Boston enjoying one of our signature New England weather events.  Herewith some initial report on our revels.

Travel Travails

A minor hitch at the start of our visit, Alex’ Christmas Eve flight from Boston to London after a long delay had to be rescheduled; her connector to Halifax would arrive long after the second leg to London had departed.  She was re-booked for the 26th and was able to reach London first thing Friday morning where, groggy but mobile was able to join us in our rambles about town, and later to see Henry V.

Theater

First of the shows we saw was The Mousetrap, a comic mystery by Agatha Christie which has been playing continuously for over 60 years.  This was tremendously entertaining; if you have read somewhat of Dame Agatha’s works – as have myself, Kim and Morgan – you quickly pick up on her signature characterizations.  As to the ending I can only say if you see this show, you will be guessing up till the conclusion – after which the actors taking their final bows, swear you to secrecy to never reveal the mystery.  Like the rest of the show, this vow is a quaint throwback, quite meaningless in the internet age … still I’ll leave it to others to reveal the identity of the killer.

On Friday it was off for more serious fare with Henry V starring Jude Law.  This is rather a hot ticket, but I was able to snag 4 seats via GetMeIn.com (said seats having been purchased by one Craig C Willers and re-sold to me).

This play is well known to our family, all of us having watched many times both the Olivier and Branagh versions, as well as local productions.  The first thing to say about this show, directed by Michael Grandage, was that it was “raw” Shakespeare.  The sets are spare – nor more than the “wooden O” Shakespeare himself cited – and the actors render their lines with an uptempo pacing that moves the show along.  These things are in line with the goals of the Grandage Company, which are to produce plays accessible to a younger, wider audience; in this season of 5 plays 100,000 tickets were kept at a price of £10.

However, while I enjoy any staging of Shakespeare where a top company of actors comes together under top direction, I feel this show missed its opportunity.  This play is supposed to cap the cycle that begins in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.  In those plays the young Henry searches for his place in the world, looking through the eyes of men both common and noble.  In Henry V, the king must integrate these two views and finally resolve his own character.

Alas, Jude Law did not bring that through to us.  His Henry was never at a loss, never in doubt, even though the play gives him many chances to show this struggle, as in the scene where the traitors are uncovered – Jude was scolding and smug in his treatment of the turncoats, showing not a hint of self-doubt after betrayal by his own best friend – or as in the famous “Harry in the night” scene – rather than discovering the answers to the hard questions posed by the common soldiers, Jude almost berates them in a “how can you be so thick?” tone.  Law’s Henry ends the play as he began, a good and upright king – which is fine, but I was hoping for something more.

Still, this was an excellent show that kept us hanging on every word.  Pistol, Bardolph and Nym were very well done – they were very much the human face of the play – and the final wooing scene with Henry and Princess of France Katherine was the best I have seen – it captured both Henry the soldier bringing a human touch to state courtship, and Katherine the princess as a bargaining chip, but one who is determined to speak truth, as when she says “the tongues of men are full of deceit”.

 

I’ll end my post here … next time I’ll do some show-and-tell on our visits to some of London’s great museums: The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert, and The Tower of London.

Categories: Pictures, Travel

Christmas Trip to the UK

December 24, 2013 4 comments

BBC's Ultimate roast beefThe British MuseumJude Law as Henry V

When it comes to Christmas and Year-end holidays, we Salazars are very much set in our ways: we celebrate at home with an over-large tree decorated with ornaments saved over decades; of course, cookies; Christmas music 24 x 7 that always includes at least one playing of The Waitresses 1981 should-have-been-a-hit Christmas Wrapping; then Christmas Eve dinner at home and Christmas Day dinner with good friends Tom and Meredith.

Alas, this year our traditional celebration is not in the cards.  Rather than open up our home from storage-mode, stock food, etc., we decided to all meet elsewhere for the holiday.  And, where better than London, a place Kim and I have long had on our when-will-we-visit-there list.

The plan is already packed: We all arrive early Christmas Day; then it’s off to afternoon Christmas Dinner at the strangely named Scoff & Banter; then, back to the hotel to watch the debut of the twelfth Doctor on BBC One.  Boxing Day is for some shopping, then a matinee of The Mousetrap.  Friday we see Jude Law in Henry V.  Then its visits to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert, and the Tower of London.  We all depart for our respective homes morning of New Year’s Eve, I’m sure all properly exhausted.

I’m sure we’ll report on our travels during the coming week.  Meanwhile, whether you stay or go, we hope the holiday brings you joy.  Be well.

Categories: Travel

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:

IMG_1044

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:

IMG_1068IMG_1074

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

IMG_1082

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:

IMG_0976

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:

Daulatabad

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:

Daulatabad

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:

Parrot

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?

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