Monday, July 23, 2012

All is Well

Tuesday, July 17, 2012, Udaipur

Today I ended up spending much more cash than I wanted to, but it was a calculated kind of spending. I was looking for an item my friend Kelly had sent me in search of and ended up off course. I bought a couple of "miniature" paintings, and not the wall hanging she requested. They call them miniature not because of their size, but for the fine detail in the painting. The first one I got (I'm not going to describe it because it is a surprise gift for someone) is maybe 20-35 years old and in a style, I guess it's a style, called "old paper." It looks to be done on a page out of an antique book. The paper is fairly brittle and the paint is traditional, made from plant and rock material and mixed with tree gum. I could have been taken for a ride, but it's the thought that counts. At least that's what I'm telling myself. The second painting is a triptych on silk. Again, made with the old style paints. This probably won't be a gift so I'll describe the scene. The three "major" cities of Rajasthan are Jaipur, Jaisalmer, and Udaipur. So each frame of the picture represents a city. One is of a camel, that's Jaisalmer, since it's the most arid former kingdom. Another is a horse, representing bravery, strength, and speed. And the third is the elephant, representing good luck. I'll have to ask someone again which animal goes with which city. I'm so ashamed I can't keep the symbols paired correctly with their cities.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012. Udaipur

No great adventures yesterday or today. Just walking around town making plans for moving on, seeing one or two minor attractions, and picking up souvenirs.

I began the day with a slight struggle getting my arrangements ready for tomorrow. Hostel World had only three listings for Ahmedabad. My hotel owner helped me set up my bus reservation, but didn't have any ideas about hotels. I checked with a travel agent and sat with him for two half hour sessions. The first ended when the power went out. The second I ended--I returned after the power went out--when I couldn't sit any longer as he scrolled through the same ten hotels again and again. He didn't know the layout of the neighborhoods of Ahmedabad and had to call his sister who lives there for help. It wasn't much help though. I told him I'd go get my guide book and see if that would improve things. I just went back to the hotel and asked the owner to call one place listed in the book that looked reasonable. It worked and I let the travel agent know everything was set up. I thanked him and was sorry for taking his time, although, on his agent screen under each listing it mentioned the commission the booking agent would receive. Minimum 7%. I wasn't very sorry.

I went on to see a restored haveli, a residence for the royal court of the city, or kingdom. I was the only visitor. Apparently they do puppet shows nightly and the first thing you pass on the way in is a guy selling puppets and puppetry related items. Usually the gift shop is last, but this isn't home. A solitary man is there in this lonely place in a corner. "Hello, you like to see the puppets? They are very nice, fine quality. I make good price for you," he starts. "I'm just here to see the museum," I reply. He shows me to a room filled with large puppets, or marionettes. Above the door is a sign that says "World of Puppets." They're all royal figures of some sort, staring out from where they sit upright on satiny fabric covered steps lining the entire room. One seated in a raised alcove, obviously a king, is human size. I imagine the thing moving. Not that it is very life like,but it's just that big.

What I've really come to see is not so much the haveli, I've seen tons of royal palaces and forts in India and they're all blending together, but what has been claimed to be the world's largest turban. The majority of the haveli is in the shape of a square and the three levels open inwardly to a central garden or plaza. After covering the first two I came upon what I was looking for. At the end of an empty room, in a four sided glass case that was open at the top, looking like the last animal alive in an abandoned zoo was THE TURBAN. It was about four feet wide and made of red to purple fabric. Shiny gold thread...

Saturday, July 21, 2012. Ahmedabad

Okay, that last entry was taking too long to say anything. It's a few days later and I may as well tell about some amazing things I've seen.

Some of you know that of all the reasons to go to India, my top goal was to see these vavs, or wavs, or vows, or wows, depending on whom you speak to. Well actually, if you pronounce it the way the last person corrected you, the next person will correct that. At any rate, I'd seen pictures of Indian step wells on the Internet that had fascinated me, and after I'd gotten the bug to see them in person, Archaeology Magazine ran an article about the wells.

What really grabbed me was the direction of the architecture. Over the past couple of years I'd let my inner photographer out, thanks to all the compliments and encouragement friends had given me. I seemed to specialize in architecture around Columbus--generally you don't have to ask permission and the subject isn't going to move. I know nothing about architecture but what I've gleaned from walking around. Many downtown buildings have dated corner stones so I could figure out how we've changed--basically less ornamental and more boxy and functional.

But no matter what innovations people have come up with, everything is built upward. It's the nature of things. The main obstacle to over come in building upwards is gravity. Air really doesn't pose much resistance. To build downwards you've got the earth and rocks in the way. That's obvious. So when I saw photos of these wells, which I barely gave passing reference to when people asked me, "Why India?" I was excited to see something so different, so opposite. And these wells aren't just holes in the ground, many of them are as elaborate as any Hindu temple. Many step wells are larger than their contemporary temples actually.

So, where to start? Obviously I'd seen a couple of step wells by chance in Rajasthan. I happened to come across a disappointing well/landfill in Jaipur in a neighborhood by a set of royal cenotaphs and the five hundred step pathway to the Ganesh temple that I'd gone to see. I'd missed the amazing geometric step well, the Moon Well, outside of Jaipur, but found virtually identical ones in Jodhpur around the corner from my guest house, and north of Jodhpur in a village called Osian. The one in Jodhpur was, if anyone read that post, a Hindu repository of spite (ie: garbage) against the neighborhood's Muslims. The one in Osian, while not an intentional dump, collected a small amount of blowing paper and plastic, and was more of a grove for trees with tiny fernlike leaves and thorns. Both wells were exciting to find as they were surprises, but I knew the best was waiting in Gujarat, the next state over.

I arrived in Ahmedabad, Gujarat's capital city on Thursday, the 19th. I got in early enough from Udaipur to hire an auto rickshaw to take me out to see a couple of vavs within the city. The first was Dada Hari-Ni Vav from 1435. It had an iron fence around it--well, around a couple sides of it--with a turnstile gate, meaning that it was a protected site. A little man popped out of nowhere claiming that the well was his job. He would accompany me through the well telling me what was obvious: this is a carving, this is Arabic, this is Sanskrit, water comes here. He would expect money. If I asked him if a particular carving was Ganesh or Vishnu, he would say, "Yes, stone!" I appreciate the effort, but it's hard to enjoy something completely when someone wants your attention, you can't communicate with them, and they want money from you when you didn't ask for their help.

From a bird's eye view, Dada Hari-Ni looked like a rectangle with an entry point at one of the narrow ends. The previous wells I'd seen were square, and one could enter from any side. For this one, one walks down the steps from the entry point. Down a flight of stairs, twenty or so steps, there is a landing with a set of stone columns and a stone beam running the width of the well. Down the next set of steps there is another set of columns to walk under, but this one is double tiered, one on top of another. Then another set of steps and a third landing and a triple tiered set of columns and crossbeams. I think that's as far down as this well went before it reached the water table. All along the way down, the square columns were carved with geometric bands, and the walls had niches with eroded or defaced gods. Down in the dark of the well, pigeons roosted among the reddish brown stone and shafts of light. At thirty feet down, the air did not move. It may have been cooler down there, but I was sweating through everything I was wearing. The humidity and stagnant air was suffocating, not to mention there was the smell of the pigeons.

As much as I like chancing upon something amazing, like the two geometric step wells, there is something gratifying about making a plan and seeing it through. Many of my big plans thus far in life haven't seemed to materialize, so something like finding a site thousands of miles from home in an Indian neighborhood, as minor as that may seem, stands out.

The second well, Mata Bhavani Vav, was not far from the first. The little man who had appeared out of nowhere got in the rickshaw to show the driver where it was. By the way, I'd hired the driver to just drop me off at the first well for fifty rupees. It was his choice to accompany me in, drive me to the second, and return me to my hotel. It's a whole other story that I'd rather not explain and no one wants to hear anyway.

I'd read that Mata Bhava-ni was dedicated to a Hindu god, but the book didn't mention it was currently being used as a temple. That meant shoes off. I was getting okay with that. Just as long as I didn't have to walk through a minefield of bird droppings or that I didn't have to burn the soles of my feet on the sun baked stones. The well was much smaller than Dada Hari-Ni, narrow and only going down two flights, but it was all decked out. Along the edges clay pots lined the way, some plain, some painted like the fourth of July. Streamers of colored pennants with tinsel edges were strung everywhere. At the first set of columns there was a statue overhead of a man with what I thought was a large blue and white seashell behind him. When I looked later at a photo I'd taken it turns out it wasn't a shell. It was nine white cobras with blue under bellies. In his arms was a blue baby.

At the bottom of the shallow well was a garden of potted plants and a shrine and more large statues. Much of the well was whitewashed. There were very few carvings, mostly just niches with colorful statues of gods anointed with dabs of paint and strung with garlands of marigolds.


The next day, Friday, July 20, I got up early and headed to the bus station. Other than the two step wells, I didn't find much in the Rough Guide in Ahmedabad that I felt compelled to visit. The city is big and crowded, and crossing the street is taking your life in your hands. Hailing an auto rickshaw is easy, actually they find you, but listening to the driver gripe about the agreed upon price the whole way becomes unpleasant, like the passenger is inconveniencing the driver. I find myself happy to tip a driver who is pleasant, but the ones who complain and grouse the whole time--and then hassle you about making change, wanting to keep the difference, really get under my skin.

Back to Friday's story. I was taking a day trip to a town 140km north called Patan. Patan is supposed to have the grandest of all step wells, Rani Ki Vav. I think that literally translates to "The Queen's Well." At the Ahmedabad bus station I'd met a couple of guys in a storefront who wanted to help me. They had called me over but we had not one word in common. Seeing my difficulty in being understood, one wrote down "Rani Ki Vav" in Gujarati for me to show people.

On the way to Patan I sat next to a young guy who spoke English. He gave me his card, as almost everyone who speaks English gives me a card. His name was Nemaram. He told me he quit school after eighth grade and went to work in selling cotton clothing. He said he spent two or three years in Germany. He couldn't believe how cold it got there. He liked pizza and gyros and schnitzel and drank every night. He seemed happy and proud to have dropped out of school to start making money. I saw him open a small pouch the size of a sugar packet he'd purchased at a kiosk. I've seen strands of these for sale everywhere and men buying them, tearing off an end, and pouring the contents into their mouths. I assumed it could be a form of betel nut. I'd seen fresh betel nut being made on the streets in Delhi. Maybe this was a dry form. What do I know? I asked Nemaram what was in the packet and he told me tobacco. He showed me the brown grainy substance inside the pouch and then showed me on the packet where it said "mixed with lime." That's powdered limestone. He said it's good, you can feel it burning hot. He said he doesn't smoke, this is what people in India do. It explained what all the massive amounts of spitting was about. I motioned to my lower gum line and asked if you put it there. He said yes and showed me on the packet the picture of a cancerous mouth, the government's required warning. That also explained the stains between people's teeth and the rotten looking lower front teeth I've seen on so many people. In a country of a billion people, many of whom live on probably less than a dollar a day, I'd say good for Nemaram for finding a way to survive and flourish. I hope for his and everyone else's sake that they don't all get mouth cancer.

Supposedly Patan used to be the capital of Gujarat a long time ago, but now, other than a constant rodeo of buses trundling in and out of the station, it is a sleepy, dusty town with no paved roads. I don't know, maybe there were paved roads but if there were they'd been covered in the dry, blowing soil a long time ago and I didn't see any of the "untouchable" women with short handled brooms out brushing the dust back to the curb. I showed the paper with the Gujarati script to a few people and they motioned east and indicated that the well was far, maybe five kilometers from the bus station. An auto rickshaw drove me out to the site and dropped me off. This driver, when he said "drop," he really meant drop off, unlike the driver the previous day. I'd begun to think "drop" might mean something else in the English-Indian cross speak given the number of rickshaw drivers who say drop but then insist on hanging around, charging for the time they wait, and then driving one back to where they picked you up, with many suggested side trips to merchants to just look, not buy, of course.

The Rani Ki Vav is the mother of all wells. If I had to guess I'd say at the surface it is as long as a football field and maybe half as wide. The book and signs at the site say that the well was built in 1050. When it was rediscovered it had been filled in by dirt from lack of use. Now it is the centerpiece in a well manicured garden.

First I walked around the outside to marvel at the scale of the structure. Far down I could see people, custodians, sitting in what little shade there was at noon. It looked as though every inch of the walls and columns were decorated with geometric and figure carvings. At the deep end where buckets could be lowered, I looked down over the railing. It may have been five storeys down, every inch covered in figure carvings. I went around to the opposite side of the well where the steps began. Looking down the length of Rani Ki Vav, it looked like something out of Indiana Jones. The path was straight forward, but the levels of columns and cross stones and carvings confused the eye, making the structure, taken as a whole, look like a labyrinth. I was the only Anglo there, but there were a lot of domestic tourists. This is perhaps a destination second only to the Taj Mahal and religious pilgrimage sites. I may be exaggerating that. Okay, fine, I am totally exaggerating that. The number of visitors in no way begins to compare with the Taj, but for being so remote, I felt there were a lot of visitors. And the place was cool as hell.

Going down the stairs I was amazed at the stone gods. There were figures I'd never seen. Looking like the Lord of the Flies, there was one figure with the head of a swine striking a pose like Neptune casting his trident and surrounded by maidens. There were lines of elephants in both portrait and profile, each one with its head tilted or trunk twisted at a different angle than the previous animal. The golden brown color of the stones and the flights of columns reminded me of Karnak and Luxor in Egypt. At the bottom of the well I talked with a group of young guys about America, the Indian heat, my job, and learned that they were engineering students. I've had the conversation a hundred times but it's always nice. I took too many photos and then excused myself to go back to the surface. The air was so heavy I felt a little dizzy.

Topside I was invited to sit in the grass with a young couple. He was in college, she was in high school. We had almost the same conversation with an added component. In the past week I've been getting lots of compliments on my wrist watch. Men want to know how much it cost, could they buy it, and gee, they just really like anything from outside of their own country. I'm starting to think I need to keep a very close eye on it.

I took another walk around the outside of the well before wandering through the garden. Past the iron fencing around the park I could see the spire of a Hindu temple. It was different than others. Rather than plain stone or white plaster it was painted like a rainbow. I heard later from someone that the temple was a thousand years old. I'm assuming it gets a fresh coat of paint every so often.

I got a cold drink from a roadside stand and caught an auto rickshaw back into town. Before leaving Patan I took a seat in a little place, not really a restaurant as far as I could tell, but not anything else, and had a bottle of water. As I sat some young guys came to talk to me. I told them I had been out to see the well and was going back to Ahmedabad. One insisted that instead of going straight back I stop in Modhera to see the Sun Temple. I said I would but wasn't 100% on it. I opened up the Rough Guide and read about the temple. This may not be just another temple, it seemed. I was a little concerned about bus connections, but Ahmedabad is the capital, so all buses go there until late, and the book said that if there is only one thing you see in northern Gujarart, make it the Sun Temple in Modhera. It was still early, maybe two o'clock, so I figured I should try. I didn't really see fun in store back in my windowless cell of a hotel room in Ahmedabad.

For less than a dollar the bus dropped me off at a deserted bus stop in Modhera. The few people that were out pointed in the direction of the temple and indicated that it was close enough to walk to. Following the main road I went up and then down the one hill of the city. Men in the store front shops, not selling things, but grinding metal or working with pliers all smiled and waved. And I was passed by numerous uniformed children on their way home from school who were so friendly, waving, smiling, and saying hello. I'm not used to children smiling and saying hello to strangers, at least not sarcastically. That doesn't happen in the US, partly because of culture, partly because school children generally don't walk anywhere.

I found the Sun Temple and realized I was smart to listen to the kid who suggested it. This too looked like something out of Egypt. There were two temples, one behind the other, lined up so as to be penetrated by a dagger of sunlight on the mornings of the equinoxes. In front of the first temple was a man made lake or rectangular step well. It had both the geometric steps in ziggurat form and small peeked shrines at corners and midpoints. The well structure was perhaps as large as three tennis courts and thirty or forty feet deep. The complexity was staggering. And this was another park like complex so there was very little litter in the lake. I stood and gazed for a long while and saw not fish, but turtles breaching the surface.

I took more pictures than I knew my computer back in the hotel room had memory to hold. Before the entrance to the first temple were two tapered pillars. Every inch was carved with dancers. Another visitor pointed out to me a place where an erotic scene from the Kama Sutra was taking place. It was pretty vivid and involved quite a few people. At the second temple a man sitting on the steps smoking something even showed me where a four legged animal was mounting a human. He said, "India!" I asked, "Today? Okay today?" with mock shock. He laughed like Santa Claus and made a hand gesture that indicated the past, you know the one where you wave over your shoulder.

I circled each temple before entering either, taking photos of everything. I knew some would be good and some would be mediocre, but this may not be a place I make it back to ever again. Make the most of it. You can delete what you have, but you can't do anything if you never take the photo in the first place. Ha, wisdom I wish I could apply to other areas of my life.

I met a young father as I was walking around. I liked this guy. He seemed as excited as I was about the Sun Temple. We shared an enthusiasm. And he seemed pleased that a foreigner had come to see such remote sites as Patan and Modhera. He told me that if I came back to India I needed to visit a place called Khajuraho for its temples. At first I thought, "Yah, yah, another temple," not having learned a thing from the current experience. But then he pulled up a picture on his phone and I realized I knew the place he was talking about. I had my book out and asked if it was the place the British officer had found and was embarrassed by for all its erotic art work. He said, "Yes! Yes! That one!" We laughed heartily and commented how the Americans are very much like the British in our prudery. India is funny. They've got a similar sheepishness about sexuality, but it's much older than British colonialism. I've learned from several audio tours that when the Muslim Mughals invaded and settled in India they brought with them their rules for separating men and women. The Hindus perfected the "jali," the carved stone lattice screens that women could stay behind to watch courtly activities while remaining hidden from men's eyes.

In the second temple a guide, who did understand that I wasn't going to pay for a guide to a one room temple, pointed upwards to the ceiling. He wasn't showing me another carving, but bats. Each dome had clusters of flying mice twittering and swinging by what looked like one toe each. The smell of ammonia has never seemed so unclean.

What's really nice about the carvings that decorate these temples and vavs is that all the figures are dancing or embracing each other. In all the churches and cathedrals I've visited in the US and in Eastern Europe, all the people depicted are either about to be killed or have just been killed. Christianity seems so morose, and come to think of it, self pitying by comparison.

I don't think I can adequately describe the complexity of the temple adornments, so I'll just suggest that if you have my FB link to go there to see photos of the red sandstone arches and columns and walls--when I have an Internet connection again to upload them.

It was getting on to be four o'clock so I decided I needed to get a move on it. I wanted to get back home before dark, which comes around eight pm here, and the bus ride would be about three hours. Given wait time and the connection I would have to make in Meshana, I really needed to be mindful of the time. Plus, the guy at the soft drink and bottled water stand outside of the temple park who insisted the bus came right by his place was rather drunk, odd for the only dry state in the entire country, so I was worried I might not be getting the best intelligence on transportation.

Needless to say I made it to Ahmedabad safely. I even met a young man on his way home from work who told me about the joys of living with extended family-he lives with sixteen people in all--and I tried to convince him that my 73 year old mother is happier than she's ever been living alone, not cooking for anyone but herself, and going out with her friends and traveling on her own schedule.

The entire day cost me probably six dollars. I don't know if it's my looks or if I really am a naive Midwesterner or what, but even on the eve of turning forty years old, when I travel and need help most people, bus conductors, kids at bus stops, and even drunkards, seem to bend over backwards to help me out and treat me like a lost little kid. And it's always the people who don't want or expect money who are the best. Well, I guess all of that is pretty obvious and universal. I think I really am a naive Midwesterner to think that's some profound revelation.

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