I wondered if the Taj was worth visiting – after all I’d been before. Yes, for me it was well worth visiting – but this remains my favourite photo from my first visit.
Did you know the Taj Mahal gardens are only a tenth of the size they were in the days of Shah Jahan? Designed primarily as Gardens of Paradise, they planted fruit trees for harvesting and which contributed towards the upkeep of the Taj Mahal.
The trees – in the gardens now – are not of Mughal origin but a legacy of the British. During the British Raj, Lord Curzon initiated the restoration of the Taj Mahal after it had fallen into disrepair and made renovations to the lawns and surroundings.
Most tourists are local
Visiting the fifteenth century Taj Mahal for the second time was just is great as the first time. As you know it’s a mausoleum, built on the south bank of the Yamuna River in Agra.
A combination of Indian, Islāmic and Persian styles it was commissioned by the Emperor Shah Jahan and he dedicated the building to the memory of his beautiful queen Mumtaz Mahal. The Emperor died 23 years after the tomb for his wife was competed and he too is buried there.
Some of the facts I heard while there were:
Over 1000 elephants were used to haul the construction materials.
Over thirty different types of gemstones decorate the Taj
Many types of marble were used – from Afghanistan, Sir Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and China.
The marble walls seem to change colour over the day – in the morning it seems pink, white during the day, while in the moonlight, it apparently seems golden.
I saw the Taj from about four different places: from beside, and on, the river; from the fort; from nearby gardens, and inside the walls: my favourite view is from the river.
In India, architectural heritage is often linked to the major religions of the country: Buddhist stupas and monasteries; Hindu and Jain temples in many styles – many share structural characteristics such as stone columns and horizontal blocks carved with sacred imagery or decorative motifs sculptures of the vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are everywhere the various deities have many manifestations which becomes confusing as their names, like many Indian cities, are interchangeable.
Udaipur, Rajasthan, is a fairy-tale city with marble palaces and lakes – and I will blog about them later. In the meantime, here is a slideshow (23 pics) some of the local wildlife.
‘Stir faster’ I’m told – it seems Indian cooking is not for sissies. Jacob, my tutor, said he’s not a good cook which didn’t sound promising, but then went on to say he’s a great teacher which was encouraging.
This hands-on cooking course takes one to ten days and there is no standing back and watching – it is a learn-by-doing course. I’m here for 3 days and a real asset is having Madhu in the kitchen. He is a great cook – he is also an expert in preparing everything we need: chopping, measuring, slicing, dicing, peeling, blitzing, and blending the ingredients. Even better, he cleans up after we’ve done the cooking and taken the glory!
But before the reflected glory, I’m still ‘stirring faster’ and now expect my right bicep to have developed centimetres and strength before I leave Kerala.
Jacob had introduced me to all the ingredients for my first vegetarian curry – and that’s a trick I’m taking home – this way nothing is left out of the dish.
All the ingredients are lined up in order of use – each container with the exact amount needed. This happens every time we cook – we know the name of the recipe, the ingredients, and how to cook it before starting. In keeping with the learn-by-doing method, we’re not given the written recipe until the dish is complete.
A lawyer for some twelve years, Jacob returned to this family land where, as a solo dad, and with his widowed mother, he farmed Haritha Farm for a while and, impressed by Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, Jacob stopped using pesticides. ‘I’m not an ecocentric or big crusader’ he tells me, ‘I’m human first and just thinking about the next generation.’
The 6.5 acres of land had been in rubber for some ten years and he has slowly ‘. . . turned back the clock. I’m recreating the old Kerala – a small holding which is self-sufficient, plus some to sell’. The land is now producing many fruits, vegetable, and spices, including coffee, coconut, ginger, banana, papaya, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, and of course jackfruit, a regional, carbohydrate staple. It’s also growing mahogany and bamboo. The bamboo is good for holding water and land as well as a cash crop for scaffolding. He calls it ‘do nothing farming’ and it seems to be working well.
Part of his self-sufficiency and diversified income stream, are four stand-alone bungalows set on the hill behind the main house which he built as homestay accommodation. Sitting on the patio up among the mature trees, birds and squirrels, I realise this is a different type of Indian tourism, eco-agro-cultural. Most cooking classes are show-and-tell, this is a dive-in-and-do-it course.
Over the three days I’m reminded to ‘cook slowly’, to ‘stir constantly’ and, to ‘always have a smile on your face.’ A pressure cooker is essential in an Indian kitchen and I’m also told, ‘cook for one whistle’, or two, or three, depending on the dish.
Evidently Kerala cooking is very much like the state – a fusion state he called it. Over thousands of years trading and the mixing of diverse cultures – Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, and Chinese – all who bought their religions and food. Coconut, originally from the Pacific, is an absolute staple in Kerala, while rice, another primary food was rarely grown here. Of course, the various churches, mosques and synagogues alongside Hindu temples also show its chequered past as a spice trader.
Pimenta Homestay is about 1 ½ hours inland from Cochin but a thousand miles away in atmosphere. Starting the day with freshly ground coffee, grown and roasted there, Jacob ensures his guests have an authentic experience of the culture and flavours of Kerala.
In between eating and cooking guests are taken to various places and saw activities in the area: this of course changes with the seasons. As well visiting farms and food markets, I also saw rubber bands being made in the middle of a rubber plantation; clay pots being made by hand; and the dying art of cotton-weaving. I especially loved watching men decorate trucks with a riot of bright floral motifs, miniature landscapes and messages such as, Save Oil Save India; Prayer is Power; and the common, noise inviting, Horn Okay or Horn Please.
Unlike many tourists’ tours around the world these day trips are personal with nothing for tourists to buy – just great interaction with locals who are rightly proud of their crafts. Well done Jacob, you exude generosity and warm hospitality along with the mouth-watering food lessons.
Had a short ride with a ferryman yesterday. We picked up a couple of women and on my return to the landing spot saw an elephant leave the river side Hindu Temple. Here’s a photos – sorry I didn’t take any on my phone and the internet is too slow for uploading so once again you’ll need t wait until I’m back in NZ and can blog about birds and elephant and potters and weavers all near The Pimenta here in Kerala.
If you have followed me you will know I take city hikes in Wellington – my monday morning walk, and often post photos about that day’s walk. Here is today’s #mondaymorningwalk – my last in Wellington for six weeks, the next one will be in #India.
we took the #20 bus to the top and wandered down. Enjoy the slideshow of our morning.
At the beginning of 2018 I’m taking a cooking class in the foothills of the Western Ghats, Kerala, India. I’m really interested in the growing of spices and herbs in the region, and it seems by staying at the PimentaI will be able to see that, and learn to cook authentic dishes!
Many years ago, I attended one of the very first cooking classes in Thailand – of course now they’re everywhere there, and it seems that the Pimenta (the name for allspice) was also the leader in homestay and cooking classes.
I’d not really considered a cooking class, but a response from them on one of my social media posts about going to Kerala had put me in touch with them and, as they say, ‘everything else is history.’
So, watch my blogs, and of course Facebook and Instagram to see my photos, and find out more about my stay at one of the four bungalows at the farm.
In the meantime, check out their website and feel excited for me! 🙂
About ten years ago, the author Christopher Kremer, who, at a book festival I helped organise in Christchurch, New Zealand, signed his book (Inhaling the Mahatma) by saying ‘To Heather, with best wishes on your yatra!’ Christopher, September 06′.
That was just before my first trip to India, and now with my fourth starting soon, I wondered what is it that attracts me to the country – after all, I have family members who find India too intense, too difficult. Why do people love it or loathe it? Why am I different? And why do people always ask : is it safe to travel alone?’
Yatra means journey and, as a travel writer, for me a journey is not just the places I go – it is also the trip my emotions take – and India takes you on many journeys of the emotions – the highs and the lows.
I loved it, I hated it, I laughed at it, I laughed with it, and I cried about it – confused and sad but ultimately optimistic about this huge country, an intensely vivid country – the colours, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the sights (and sites) – which assaults all your senses for good and for bad: and that’s just in the first hour of course.
It continues the whole time you are there. When you are travelling on your own, such as I usually do, you get 100% of the pain, and of course, a hundred percent of the pleasure. What you don’t get, is bored.
Of course, there is also pollution, and rubbish, nearly everywhere, as well as people desperate to sell you something. Poverty and richness live side-by-side and it’s devastating to see and hear the beggars.
While I usually don’t give to beggars, I travel sustainably and support small businesses and responsible tourism – instead of waiting for money to ‘trickle down’, wherever possible I spend with small traders – and certainly not with international companies.
On my first trip I travelled from Haridwar, Uttarakhand, in the north then south to Ernakulam in Kerala and of course, Maheshwar on the banks of wonderful Narmada River. My other Indian yatra have been in Gujarat, home of Gandhi, and which has few tourists – I recommend you go there. Search on any of these names in my blog and find stories and photos about each of those places.
Let me make a list of just some of the reasons I’m returning on yet another yatra:
the people, the food, and the feast of colours, sights and sounds
2000 years of sacred buildings; Buddhist, Hindu, Islāmic, to name just a few
Interesting festivals throughout the year
There are nine or ten religions in India, and about 33 million gods – I’m bound to stumble over at least one!
And maybe, just maybe, when they know I’ve been an extra in the Bollywood movie The Italian Job they may make me a star – or, knowing what happened, they may not!
“Come with us” the Prince said, and with a royal invitation I feel compelled to follow him and three other men.
Down the ancient steps, past Ahilya temple, past widows, their hands out for alms, past stones identifying extreme monsoon levels, and further down, we reach the 300-year old ghats where women are washing clothes. Others proffer water, in cupped hands or in a container, towards the sun, and as the water runs through their fingers they are reciting sacred verses.
Beside Nandi the bull and Shiva lings that mark the cremation sites of various nobles, we climb onto a flat-bottomed, traditional boat on which white plastic chairs sit. The prince is taking us upstream to another temple that belonged to his ancestor.
Twenty–two generations ago, Maharani Prince Shivaji Rao Holkari Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, the celebrated Indian Queen (died 1795) renowned for her piety, charity, and statecraft, built Ahilya Fort at Maheshwar on the banks of the holy Narmada River. Now her direct descendant, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, allows a few guests in his fabulously restored palace. After weeks of backpacking, I value the luxury.
Another guest in this boutique, royal-homestay, is Sam Adams Green who, incidentally, introduced Andy Warhol to his muse – society girl Edie Sedgwick – and also gave him his first exhibition when he was director of the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Now founder and director of Landmarks Foundation, which works at protecting global sacred sites: our destination is one of those sites.
Two young men, standing at the rear of the boat, move us upstream with large paddles; we have tea and biscuits that the prince produces from a picnic basket, watch life on the riverbank and cattle cooling in the water, as we glide towards Kaleshwar Temple, a 12-century temple complex. “It has been a site of Hindu pilgrimage destination since the beginning of time and memory,” Sam tells me.
There are 7 holy rivers in India, including the Ganga in the north and this one, the Narmada, in the south – it divides the north from the southern peninsula of India.
The southern bank is ancient Gondwanaland, which, as it moved north collided with the Central Asian landmass. Between the two, a rift valley was created and through which the Narmada flows over some of the oldest rocks in the world. The north – where the palace and temple are – is made of hilly sedimentary sandstone while the southern bank, peninsular India, is flat igneous basalts.
Parikramavasis, a thousand-mile circumambulation of the holy Narmada traditionally takes 3 years, 3 months, and three days to walk. Starting 3000 feet above sea level and finishing some 1300 miles later at the Arabian Sea this is the only Indian river where a parikrama of the entire course is performed. (the top photo is of a young pilgrim)
In ‘Sacred Virgin Travels along the Narmada’ by Royina Grewal (whose own sacred journey began in 1993) says: ‘depending on where you meet her and how, the Narmada can mean different things to different people. For the many turbulent stretches, she is called Rewa, derived from the Sanskrit ‘rev’, to leap. Of her many names, this is my favourite. But she is also called Manananda, who brings eternal bliss, Rajani, the spirited one, and Kamada who fulfils desire, Vibhatsathe the terrifying one, and Manasuardhini who craves the lifeblood that she has nurtured. Ferocious, insouciant, benevolent.’
Prince Richard tells me that where the holy Narmada flows only Shiva is worshiped for he is the only god who has the tranquillity to calm her
Approaching Kaleshwar, we see two sackcloth clad, and orange wrapped devotees standing on stone fortifications that have tumbled down from the temple to the waters edge after a high monsoon.Prince Richard of Indore has ambitious plans for the rejuvenation of this ancient temple and dharmasala – a pilgrim’s rest house – and those who make donations over $US5000 towards its restoration are invited to tour the princely state of Indore and stay as his guest in his 18th century palace home.
Currently a bogus guru is holding up the process, effectively denying a free place to stay for some 50,000 pilgrims annually.
A couple of years ago this ex-army man asked the prince if he could stay at the temple for a few months. Soon he had set up a health clinic and was giving fake injections to cure many ills. Eventually chased out of town, he came back, ran up many bills, was run out of town again and when he next appeared was wearing the saffron robes of a holy man. Moving back into the temple, he has gathered a few devotees around him and intends to stay: it seems squatters have rights here and he cannot be evicted. Money has been offered for him to go but even this honey has not sweetened a move.
Prince Richard and the Landmark Foundation must be feeling like Henry 2nd when he said of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ as they too wonder what to do with this man who happily poses for my photos – an incongruous guru with a mobile phone hanging from his neck.
Back at the rivers edge the holy men who are walking the length of both banks of the river have washed and re-covered their bodies with ash.
India is vivid and varied, a melting pot of religions and people from central Asia, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions and here, with a, prince, a fake guru, and genuine devotees” it’s just as Sam said: ‘these guys could have walked straight out of central casting for a Bollywood movie.”