Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Week of Wonders

Hello Dears,

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who has emailed me kind messages and birthday love over the past week. It all has been very heartening and a source of strength during the past week, which will be the topic of this post. Please forgive me if I haven't responded to your email yet. I wanted to post these photos ASAP and then take my time getting back to you, my loved ones.

So, where shall I begin? Oh yes, on the evening of May 7th I hopped a train and started an eight day journey that would take me first to Agra (home of the Taj Mahal), then to Varanasi (previously known as Benares and a spiritual hub located on the Ganges River), and finally to Bodhgaya, where Prince Siddhartha Goutama reached enlightenment.

I'm now sitting in my friends apartment in Busan, South Korea, far from India and all its beauties and horrors.


The Taj Mahal basking in the early morning sun

Self timer was a godsend on this trip. The so called 'guides' would ask for money after taking a photo or even showing you a 'nice view' of the Taj and it's surrounding splendors

A closer view of the Taj

One of the two red brick mosques flanking the main attraction. The amount of attention devoted to symmetry in the design and construction of these buildings was awe inspiring. It really created a sense of harmony and comfort. It relaxed the mind to be in a confined space that was so rational, neat, and geometrically predictable. I can only imagine living in a palace with similar design and construction. I'm sure I could find a bank to loan me enough for a down payment.

WHICH! brings me to a tangent that I must share with you all. In my last night in Bodhgaya, I sat around in a public square with some young guys my age who wanted to practice their English. One of them told me a story about a tourist who fell in love with the Taj Mahal upon his first visit to Agra. After learning as much as he could from all the 'guides' who haunt the Taj, he decided to try one last guide in case there was any last drop of information he hadn't harvested yet. By the end of their time together, not one new fact was present UNTIL the guide mentioned under his breath as he turned to leave that the local government was auctioning it off to the highest bidder - Indian or foreigner - to fund the grandest dam project India had ever seen. The tourist immediately accosted the 'guide' for further information, desperate to find out if it was true. After a thorough explanation of the procedure and constitutional basis for the selling off of historic property vis a vis the further establishment of a fully democratic state, the tourist asked how to get involved in the auction. He was told to meet the 'guide' at the West Gate at 5:45AM the next morning with any information necessary to make a large purchase. He was greeted, even before the guards had set up their inspection tables, by the 'guide' drinking his first cup of cha that day. Immediately, he pressed a thick manuscript to the excited and slightly confused tourist's chest. As the tourist positioned the document in front of himself for a thorough inspection, he immediately saw the assuring emblem of the Indian government, the date, official reference numbers, stars and dashes and hashes that made no sense to him but seemed very official. He saw that the last bid had been made by a man named Hasmen Salidar. The tourist thought that all Indian names sounded the same to him, but this one really sounded genuine. He looked further down the line to see the last bid by Mr. Salidar. I was never told the amount, but did hear that the tourist gave every piece of information necessary, including signing a check from his very own checkbook, to get royally swindled. The young Indians who told me this one absolutely loved it. One of them was almost crying he was laughing so hard. Some of the details I added, but they were pretty adamant that a tourist signed a check to buy the Taj one day, and had his bank account thoroughly liquidated in the aftermath. Anyway, I hope this drawn out tale was at least somewhat entertaining. Moving on...

Agra Fort - A completely separate attraction from the Taj, but in the same city

The Taj was beautiful and elegant with a wonderful and tragic love story that goes along with it, but Agra Fort made me a little giddy. It brought me back to my childhood (...and into adolescence, and into young adulthood, and...) obsession with medieval warfare - building lego castles, playing Warcraft (tisk tisk if you don't know this game), running around the Kilker's forest with bows and machetes imagining great battles and all the rest. But this pile of over sized sandstone and marble bricks, THIS was the real deal

It even has a drawbridge, moat, and slots in the battlements where archers could rain arrows on invaders with impunity. Even though my disgust with and aversion to outright destruction, brutality, and violence grows greater as time goes on, I still find myself strangely fascinated with ancient war and all the instruments man has made in the past to carry it out. Contemporary war and oppression are too real; the suffering too apparent. I feel called to act in some way, usually in some minuscule way, to ease the pain in the here and now. But time places a heavy vale over things - burying the politics and allowing the world to be seen in black and white (well, many colors when looking at old paintings of war scenes) - that makes ancient warfare oddly appealing

The Bengali Mahal - One of several palaces located inside the fort itself

Intricately carved sandstone pillars inside the Bengali Mahal

A view from one of the palaces inside Agra Fort

Emperor Shah Jahan; who had the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, and other splendors of the Mughal Empire created during his reign, was eventually imprisoned by his own son in the rooms beyond these walls for the last eight years of this life. At least he had a view of the Taj

Varanasi (aka Benares)

My first walk along the Ganga (Ganges is anglicized version). The object in the foreground is a small ceramic statue of Lord Krishna that I spotted half buried in the sand during my wanders. After a thorough cleansing, it became part of my loot collection

This scale (black triangular structure on the left) is used to measure wood for cremation ceremonies. Like anything else, there's money in providing the resources required to make the ceremonies happen. In addition, there's even a science to the amount of wood that is necessary to fully burn a body, and a selection of various wood types are available; sandalwood being the most expensive and sought after. As you can guess, this practice is quite exclusive of those who are less financially secure. In the Hindu mind, however, they are in that position because of failings in the past life. In that line of thought, it's possible to conclude that they deserve to not be able to be cremated on the Ganga, right? Going a step further, they deserve ALL the problems they've faced during the life of poverty, right? Does this seem a bit fatalistic? Well, what does that say about India? And, as an American, what does your personal reaction to reading this say about the USA? I don't know, you tell me.

All these huge sets of stairs leading to the Ganga are called Ghats. Each section, about the size you see in the photo above, has a name attributed to it; likely the donor who payed for it to be built. Some are more well known than others, some have ornate evening pujas (literally 'respect', but also meaning religious ceremony), some are crowded every morning with bathers, some are empty, and some are haunted with men offering to sell hashish or demanding that you buy the post cards they are hawking.

Varanasi - A destination for the sick, dying, and dead of India. It lies on the Ganga River, which Hindus belief to be deeply holy and the most auspicious place to be cremated. Some elderly people travel long distances to die here, hoping they will be in a higher position in the next life, or that it will altogether release them from the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth

Although polluted with deadly levels of fecal-coliform bacteria, people still take the plunge to wash and even sip the Ganga. I would equate it to being baptized in Christianity.


Dungeshwari Cave Temples - Where Buddha did penance for two years after becoming aware of the suffering outside his palace walls. Here he came to the conclusion that ultimate knowledge cannot be attained the mortification of the flesh.

The small door to the left was enclosed by a gate, but turned out to be unlocked and awaiting my arrival

The very cave where he took refuge from the rain during his mortification around 550BC

Mahabodhi Temple - Where Buddha reached enlightenment. Located in Bodhgaya, it dates to the 5th-6th ct. AD. Restorations have been undertaken over the years and it would be unrecognizable if you traveled back in time fifteen-hundred years (oh man, I've always wanted a time machine)

Behind the temple is the Bodhi Tree under which Siddartha Goutama was sitting in contemplation when he reached enlightenment. It turns out I lied in the previous sentence, because this is not the very same tree. Emperor Ashoke, who adopted Buddhism during the 3rd ct. BC and spread it throughout the great Mauryan Empire, had the temple built. His wife become so jealous with the amount of attention he paid to the tree, that she destroyed it. Thankfully, Askoke's daughter saved a sapling from the original tree, brought it to Sri Lanka and planted it. This tree in the photos is a direct descendant of the one in Sri Lanka; making it a direct descendant of the original.

At the foot of the tree - the very spot where Buddha reached enlightenment - Emperor Ashoke placed a heavy sandstone slab, calling it the Diamond Throne. Twenty-three hundred years later it is still there, underneath the colored fabric and awning

Kang, a Buddhist nun who offered me some of her lunch and a nice conversation. She is from Vietnam

A view of the backside of the temple and the Bodhi (known as Banyan Tree in India) Tree


Dhamekh Stupa - Where Buddha preached his first sermon. This landmark is located in Sarnath, which lies about 10km outside of Varanasi. The large blocks on the bottom half were built in the 17th century, but the red brick structure is almost 2000 years old. The little person is me. Would you believe me if I told you this was done with the 'self timer' mode on my camera?

Chaukhandi Stupa - Where Buddha met his first disciples. Also located in Sarnath. The top structure was made by conquering Mughals, but the base and midsection is very old and part of the original structure. The white thing near the base is my shirt

There's a lot more to say about the trip, but I hope you enjoyed the highlights!




  1. Wow, Jeff, you have no idea how much joy your posts bring me... you have a real knack at telling stories! And your pictures are breath-taking.

  2. I agree with the above commentor. I'm always so excited when I see you've updated your blog.

    Pretty sure you return state side in the coming week - wishing you well with the transition back. Breathe deeply.

  3. Thanks Hillary and Jessica! It's great to receive such encouragement. Yes, I'll be back on Thursday. Thanks for your kind wishes; I hope to take it slow.