Sunday, January 6, 2013

I have moved my blog to and will no longer be posting here.  Please follow me at   We're leaving for India again tomorrow and I will be posting shortly.  Thanks for following my blog. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Naggar: Paintings, Mountains and Country Walks

With only four days left, we decided to stop waiting on the weather and just go. Gerard persuaded me that renting a car and driver was within our budget and after a four hour drive through some incredibly beautiful countryside following the Beas river up the Kullu Valley, we pulled into the hillside village of Naggar.  

Old wooden houses, similar to those we saw in Vashsist last year, are spread out over the terraced slopes among apple orchards –the trees still partially in blossom.  

Our guest house sits beside a 300 year old castle built in the traditional earthquake proof Pahari style (layers of stone bonded together with cedar logs). Built by a Raja, the castle’s has had many lives - later a school then a courthouse, now a fancy hotel.   Our first morning we wake up to the noise of a film crew arriving to shoot in the castle.  Fortunately they only came for one day.

We’re so glad we decided to come; it’s not as cold as it has been and the intermittent sunshine is fine with us.  

Naggar is best known as the home of the early 20th C. Russian painter, philosopher, archeologist and mystic, Nicholai Roerich, who had a huge following in US and France.  He came here in 1928 mainly to paint the surrounding mountains, and stayed here with his family the rest of his life. 

Their house is now an art gallery of his work, with the upstairs rooms still furnished as they were when occupied. We were both very taken with his painting and the atmosphere of his house, still vibrating with the family’s presence.  His wife is also known for writing numerous volumes about Agni Yoga  as well as translating Madame Blavatsky’s writings from Russian to English.  

After seeing Roerich’s paintings, we both look at the mountains surrounding us with a little more imagination. The house and gallery were a great place to while away the best part of a day.  

After three days of looking at paintings, mountains and country walks, we try to make ourselves ready for long return to Delhi via overnight bus - and a few days with the family before returning to Boston.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

Celebrating Shiva in Rewalsar

Unsettled weather has deterred us from going further north into the mountains so we’re staying in Rewalsar a few more days until temperatures warm up and the rain stops.  During sunny spells, we walk out of Rewalsar, into the terraced fields below the town - along winding paths literally through farmers’ yards. Quite different from the country walks in Sarahan, but nevertheless, country.  The land seems so old, with its criss cross cow paths on the steep hillside, and every inch of tillable soil utilized.  Only the invasion of plastic wrappers brings us into the 21st century. Just about everybody meets us with a smile and “namaste”.
Just as we thought Rewalsar had settled down from the Dalai Lama’s visit, it became host to a three day long Hindu Shiva festival, celebrated in the Punjab and for some odd reason here as well. Surprisingly, the Sikhs also participate in their own way, providing a free langar at the gurudwara. It is not clear to us why or what they’re celebrating.

The blurred line between sacred and profane is no different at this festival.  In the early morning the dedicated take a dip in the murky cold waters of Lotus Lake. All the while the women are chanting in the temple close by.  Decorated Shiva statues are paraded through the narrow street, accompanied by drums and horns. 

The lake is ringed by hundreds of stalls, targeting women with everything from bed sheets, steel cooking utensils to bras and nail polish.  Mounds of glazed deep fried yellow dough and other sticky sweets keep sugar levels high.  Fortune tellers, orange robed sadhus compete with deformed beggars for rupees.  A young girl walks and pirouettes on a rope tied not so tightly from one tree to another, while her little brother performs cartwheels and backbends.   A transvestite danced on an oriental carpet to drums and cymbals in the entry way of our guest house to an entranced audience of entranced women and children.  As evening descends, the temples and gurudwara light up like Christmas trees, and the drumbeats continue well into the night.

Two days later, everyone leaves and the town returns to its familiar self. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Relaxing in Rewalsar

As we got closer to Rewalsar we noticed bus after bus filled with Tibetans, signaling the departure of the Dalai Lama. He had in fact just left earlier that morning. Although many had already departed,there were still throngs of people crowding the little streets.

It was not our beloved Rewalsar, normally so pristine and peaceful.  For three days, an estimated 7 to 10,000 people had come here seeking the Dalai Lama’s darshan.  He dedicated two new monasteries (bringing the total in the town to 5), and gave a several hour long initiation down by the lake attended by thousands of devotees sitting, or standing, wherever they could.  Everyone was still high from being in the presence of His Holiness and even though we hadn’t seen him, we felt the spiritual charging.

The restaurant owner, who we befriended last year, happens to be a Hindu, but he was excited that His Holiness acknowledged him as he passed by in his car.  It felt a bit like arriving at a party too late, but there’s nothing we could have done; we’d never have found a hotel room. Devotees slept in the streets, beside the lake, wherever they could find a space. 

Leaving our bags with the restaurant owner, we went to search for a room.  It always surprises us the number of local people who remember us when we return. They see so many tourists in the course of a year, why do they remember us?  “It’s your faces,” the monk said, as he rented us a room in the same monastery as last year.   

It took a couple of days for the town to return to its quiet sleepy self.  They swept the streets, dismantled tents and only a handful of visitors, including us, remained.  The restaurant shut down for a day while it was thoroughly cleaned and the staff took a well earned rest.  It interested us that the local vendors were happy to see the extra business leave town - more concerned about quality of life than making profit.  Three days was enough. Rushing around serving thousands of customers was not why they choose to live in Rewalsar.

Rewalsar has a particularly special feel for us because Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists live side by side in harmony. The town is sacred for all three groups.  Additionally, we’re happy to see signs for ‘Ruhani Satsang, Beas’; with weekly meetings.

The two monasteries we watched during construction last year are now completed. They are huge edifices with lavish decoration – intricate Tonka painting centered around large Buddha statues. While visually impressive, we are bothered that these magnificent spectacles are financed by donations coming predominantly from the refugee community that can barely afford it. But in a way I guess it’s no different from any other organized religion.

We are also not surprised to learn that although the community lives in apparent harmony, that there were some ruffled feathers in the Hindu community over the gigantic size of the statue of the Guru Rimpoche, not the Buddha they expected.  It’s the second largest Buddhist statute in India.  

Beyond finding Rewalsar so appealing, we also wanted to come back here to see someone we met here a year ago. Frederic had emailed when he was going to be here and with great expectation we looked forward to seeing him again. But on our arrival, several people told us that he had fallen ill for more than two weeks and ended up going back to France early. We were very disappointed. Gerard commented that he had been looking forward to seeing Frederic ever since we parted at Heathrow a year ago. (By coincidence we had been on the same plane out of Delhi). 

I’ve noticed that while we’re traveling it’s easier to let the unexpected come into the day than when I am at home.  It doesn’t mean that the same thing couldn’t happen at any time under any circumstance, but in my daily routine, there’s little space for this.  After breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants where a sweet husband and wife team make our stuffed piranhas and chai right in front of us, we watch a Tibetan woman opening her store across the street and go over to inspect the handicrafts.  I spend a long time looking at shawls while she and her cousin, a Buddhist nun, chat to us.  They show us pictures of the village in Tibet they left 22 years ago, walking on foot to Rewalsar.  They make no heavy sales pitch but happily pull out shawl after shawl for my inspection. 

After a while a Swedish man and a Buddhist monk, his spiritual guide, came into the store, and joined the conversation. They invited us to participate at a nearby monastery in a small ceremony to a certain manifestation of one of the ancient lamas.  We were led into a small room that is normally locked and sat in front of a black demon like statue; the monk proceeded to chant while we sat in meditation. With no interruption to his chanting, he picked up a stack of prayer cards and periodically tapped us on the head and back.  Then he pulled out a small camera and photographed the statue -and we did the same.  Like most Buddhist monks he was a jolly old soul!

Life still has a lot of magic if we can just let it in.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sarahan, Sangla and the Jeori Pass

Man proposes and God disposes…we’ve had to change our plans. The Buddhists that we met in Agonda wrote us that the Dalai Lama was dedicating a new monastery in Rewalsar the very time we planned to arrive there.  At first I was excited at the opportunity to see him again, but then we realized that the town would be mobbed with Tibetans and devotees, and there would be nowhere to stay. We had to figure out an alternative for a few days.  Gerard consulted the map…and decided on a remote mountainous route following the Satluj Valley with detours down into the Sangla Valley reaching as close to the Tibetan border as one can go without a special permit.

This had an all too familiar ring – ever since I’ve been traveling with him, Gerard has always wanted to find the remote and lonely places! This goes back to 1972 on our first trip together to Tunisia. A French doctor in Tunis examined the nasty rash on Gerard’s leg and asked, “Where have you been?” Hearing our reply, he exclaimed, “Gafsa? I’ve lived in Tunisia for 35 years and I’ve never been there!” 

And he’s still at it…now Gerard has come up with this proposal!  For a moment, I lose the spirit of adventure.  My mind focuses on the long bumpy ride, anticipating the discomfort before it happens; forgetting that it is short lived.  Usually in the end it’s well worth any discomfort. Taking into consideration how complicated public transportation would be we decided to hire a car and driver. So I was spared the bus rides!

Before leaving, we had to see a point of interest in Shimla that we’d missed on our previous two visits - the magnificent Viceregal Lodge where the British Viceroys to India conducted business during the summer.  It was also the location of the Shimla Conference in 1945, when Independence was first seriously discussed; now used as an Institute for Advanced Studies, with just a few large formal rooms open for public and with plenty of old Raj photographs. The Lodge looked like somebody had uprooted an Elizabethan style mansion from the English countryside and dropped it into the foothills of the Himalayas, complete with manicured lawns and gardens. For me, it was definitely worth the several km steep uphill hike out of town.  Nursing his sore legs the following day, I’m not sure Gerard shared my enthusiasm!Before leaving, we had to see a point of interest in Shimla that we’d missed on our previous two visits - the magnificent Viceregal Lodge where the British Viceroys to India conducted business during the summer.  It was also the location of the Shimla Conference in 1945, when Independence was first seriously discussed; now used as an Institute for Advanced Studies, with just a few large formal rooms open for public and with plenty of old Raj photographs. The Lodge looked like somebody had uprooted an Elizabethan style mansion from the English countryside and dropped it into the foothills of the Himalayas, complete with manicured lawns and gardens. For me, it was definitely worth the several km steep uphill hike out of town.  Nursing his sore legs the following day, I’m not sure Gerard shared my enthusiasm! 

We met our car and driver at the bus stand the next morning and set off, somewhat disappointed by the state of the car. As we anticipated the road was long and bumpy, but the sheer beauty of the Himalayas compensated.  The further out from Shimla, the more interesting the landscape became. But in some places the road was so deteriorated from the ravages of winter that it was hardly passable, especially in our old beat up Indica.  The fact that the transmission kept popping out of third gear didn’t give us great confidence.  But the driver was slow and cautious. Once I let go of my innate need to get to the destination in the shortest time possible there was plenty of time to take in the scenery – the breathtaking view from the treacherously narrow mountain ledge, looking down into a lush green valley, snow capped mountains towering above us.

Our first overnight stop was Sarahan, an exotic temple complex high above the valley, surrounded by a small village.  Sections of the temple were over 800 years old – courtyards and inner courtyards with intricate wooden carving. It appeared to us a strange combination of Buddhist prayer wheels and Hindu gods. In fact it seems that most of the Tibetan population has converted to Hindusim, while still maintaining some of their Buddhist customs - not unlike the Catholics in Central America.

The other thing I loved in Sarahan was the small country lanes bordered either side by stone walls and flowering fruit trees.  I often say to Gerard, ‘I wish I could go for a nice country walk”  – and here I am, doing just that!

The next morning we continued the bone shaking ride to Sangla.  Not surprisingly, the road got even worse. There seems to be continual minor landslides, probably worse in winter, and the road is barely passable in places.  

Again we turned away from the valley and climbed up to Sangla.  The town itself didn’t amount to much but a thirty minute walk away was a beautiful old village with a temple and fort. The latter is reportedly 800 to 1,000 years old.  Gerard was interested in the wood and stone structures while I was fascinated by the faces of the local women and children peering out of windows and around the sides of buildings – sometimes friendly, sometimes just curious.  837

The hotel manager said there is up to 6 feet of snow in the winter and those who can, leave town. The less fortunate are snow bound for four to five months and have to stock up on provisions.  I imagined them snow shoeing out of the upper floor windows of their houses, while the cattle are sheltered on the ground floor.   As I watch a woman cutting mustard flowers in the early morning sunshine, filling the basket and loading it on to her back, I reflect that the lives of these people seem hard - but simple compared to the clutter I deal with back home. Three women breaking stones into gravel, their pounding beginning at first light, drove home the point – simple, but very hard. 

After three days we reached the end of the valley at Chitkul, an elevation of 3400 meters.  We were wonderstruck by its natural splendour and beauty.  The town amounted to little – just a few dwellings, including a tea stall – but the snow capped mountains reaching down to the river and the blue green water sparkling in the bright sun was hard to take in. So remote and so peaceful….it was well worth the trek!  Gerard comments that a good friend says “there’s a reason why Vermont is Vermont ”;  similarly, this unspoiled beauty is due to the fact that Chitkul is so remote and difficult to reach.  We both hoped that after Chitkul, the rest of our stay in Himachal Pradesh wouldn’t be an anticlimax. 

The next day we set off for our last destination, Kalpa. It may be hard to believe but the road got even worse, taking a terrible beating on the car – and its passengers.  Traveling along narrow mountain ledges, we pass through “shooting stone zones.”  I saw the twisted frame of a car that had fallen from the road above.  There is no way its occupants could have survived and I wonder how long it was before anyone found their remains.  There are few other cars on the road.   

In the nondescript town of Rekong Peo –13KM short of our destination - our car died!  The driver fetched mechanics while we sat on the roadside, providing entertainment for the passersby as we were entertained by them also.  After several hours the mechanics, shut the hood, and it was clear our car was not going any further.  Instead of scenic Kalpa we’re stuck for now in Rekong Peo – but at least it’s a town, and our hotel room has a great view! 

I didn’t feel good about leaving our driver beside the car sunk into a fog of despondency, pounding his forehead with his cell phone. Unable to communicate, he could no longer help us. In only three days – which felt more like three weeks – I felt emotionally involved with him.  He could speak barely any English, but now and again, he’d ask simple questions, like how many children did we have, and how long we’d been married.  “40 years,” Gerard said, holding up his hand four times.  He didn’t believe it. “No, not your age, how long have you been married…four…five years?”  I worried if he had enough to eat; if he was cold sleeping in the car.  And now we were separating before completing the journey.  But what could we do?

No one in town could speak English; our cell phone had no service... But we borrowed a phone at the hotel and called our agent in Shimla. To our relief the next morning a new driver and car, in considerably better condition, arrived at our hotel to take us down the mountain.  To reach Rewalsar, we had to retrace our footsteps and then turning north, begin the climb up to a 3100 meter pass. On the way we drove through lush green valleys, spring flowers and blossoming fruit trees, then giving way to more of an alpine landscape. At Jeori Pass, we stopped at a chai stall that could have been out of the middle ages, except for the plastic chairs.  

As we began the descent down the northern side, it was clear why the pass had just opened – huge banks of snow and slush lined the roadside.  It was getting dark, so we stopped at a tiny guest house a short distance down - the only guest house in who knows how far so bargaining was limited.  Not a five star room but we had an excellent meal by candlelight – due to a power cut – and went to bed under a heavy quilt. 

1016  The next morning, we stepped out on the balcony and saw below us terraced green fields and brilliant yellow patches of mustard flowers, with a hamlet nestled in the side of the mountain. We took a stroll and descending the stairs into the lanes we both had the sensation we were walking down into someone’s house.  It felt so intimate. 

Like waking from a sweet dream we descended down the mountain into a more familiar reality. Still attractive, but it paled in relation to where we’d been.  For once, enjoying the ride so much, I was in no hurry to reach the destination. If I had given in to my reluctance of brief inconvenience I would never had any of these experiences.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Music in the Park

Our stay in Delhi was just long enough to visit with the family, and exchange clothes for something heavier before into the setting out for Himachal Pradesh.  But Delhi was at its best.  There are perhaps two or three weeks at the end of March when the weather is perfect – not too cold…not too hot – and the air fresh and clear.  

One evening we went to an open air classical Indian concert in Nehru Park. Gerard happened to see the free event advertised in the Sunday paper. The concert was dedicated to the famous shenai player from Varanasi, Bisimillah Khan, who transformed the shenai to the solo classical music instrument it is today. His death in 2006 at the age of 90 was marked with a national day of mourning; he played for both the Independent celebrations at the Red Fort in 1947 and again at the Golden Jubilee in 1997.  During the interlude was an excellent documentary of his life and music.  The featured artist was flute player Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasi who we’ve seen a number of times in Boston. Even at his advanced age, he could still produce magic out of a bamboo flute.  It was very pleasant to be sitting in the park in the cool evening air, listening to one of India’s top classical musicians. 

We never know when illness is going to strike and our Indian family has been hit hard this year.  The grandmother passed away just days before we arrived and now the mother has been diagnosed with some strange auto immune condition that’s attacking her liver. The doctors want to put her on steroids to weaken her immune system, setting off a controversy among the family about what the best treatment would be – steroids or holistic. The daughter, who was here from Bangalore, was also herself suffering from two angry looking boils on her arm.. Meanwhile, the other side of the family, who we often stay with, was having their own problem – their younger son is suffering from an undiagnosed condition producing fever and loss of weight.

Gerard and I were sorry to leave the family dealing with all these issues, and hope that when we return in three weeks things will be a little better for them all. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Varanasi: City of Death and Liberation

After our experience in general seating, a night train in 2AC was blissfully comfortable!  But the “weather disturbance” followed us.  Gerard watched a lightening storm from the window beside his bunk, while I slept soundly above.  Arriving just before 5 am, the now familiar Varanasi train station was easy to navigate in the dark. Too early to go to our hotel, we waited until light. Gerard adeptly handled the hustling rickshaw drivers and they left us alone.

Standing beside a toothbrush seller, I watched the deaf mute sitting cross legged on a mat, a bundle of branches from the neem tree beside him. His handicap didn’t seem to impair his ability to do his job with great efficiency and ease.  He’d select a branch and with precision chop it into equal lengths and add them to the rapidly growing pile in front of him.  He seemed optimistic…and early morning business was good.  Positioned at the station exit, a steady flow of travelers stopped for a “toothbrush”.  Holding up one finger to indicate the price, he patiently let the discerning customer disrupt his pile of sticks, rifling through to pick exactly the right one.  Women wanted a skinny stick, men a more substantial one.  An old man with softening teeth wanted the edge of the stick shaved.  For an hour I watched in fascination.  The pile of rupees he kept under a piece of newspaper in front of him grew rapidly and became 5R….10R notes as he made change.

A boy with a pile of newspapers came by and gave him several.  He stuffed them away in a bag beside him.  Later another boy dropped off the Times of India in English.  He put that away too…when business slowed down later in the day, I presumed he’d read them When he went off for a few minutes to relieve himself, he put a stone on top of the newspaper covering his rupees, confident no one would take them.  It was now lighter,   and time for us to snap out of our trance and get going…

Entry into our beloved city was rougher than usual. We had never been here during rain nor had we been here when it was cold - and on our arrival it was both. Walking through the muddy lanes at six in the morning to our guesthouse was not the welcome mat that we were hoping for.  Surprisingly even though they refused to take reservations on the phone, we had the “best room” on the fifth floor overlooking the River Ghanges.

My trusty guide/maintenance man set up a washing line, and rewashed the floor…and the “clean” towels …and we settled in. When I think about it, it’s amazing that Gerard can travel in India at all, he’s such a neatnik! Then he proceeded to wash his sneakers...Later in the day as the sun came out, and the sweepers had done their job, the city we remembered began to reappear.

Longing for live classical Indian music we finally had the opportunity our first evening here. It was the last day of a prolonged Holi celebration which included four performing groups on a boat facing the ghat. First the solo instrumentalist played a shenai, and then came a violinist, followed by a young energetic sitar player. The last performer was delayed by another freak thunderstorm. We hustled back to our guesthouse and when it stopped raining we could hear a female vocalist through our open window.  Of course we hope to hear more, but it looks doubtful.

Our fourth time in Varanasi, we find it an easy place to be in.  There’s so much activity on the street that just going to and from wherever we need to go is fascinating. And even in our hotel room, the monkeys entertain us, hanging on the bars in front of the window, sitting with their feet dangling in, talking to us. Even though there are many places to visit, it’s not a necessity. Gerard says that staying in Varanasi reminds him of the three months he spent in Marrakech one winter.  It wasn’t so much about what to do; it was much more about just being there.    On the other hand, I feel I should be doing something; still learning that you don’t have to make things happen….sometimes they happen of their own accord.

It’s easy to be social here – most of the shopkeepers are more than happy to enter into conversation with the tourists. Both of us are amazed that merchants remember us - even from several years ago.  “Hello, I remember you from two years ago, you bought the blue bedspread!” The CD shopkeeper smiles and says, “And when did you return?”   

But as in any city the exploiters are lurking, looking for an opportunity. I’m well aware that you’re not supposed to take pictures at the Burning Ghat, where the cremations take place, but I go ahead and do it anyway.  And this time I got caught! Three men pounced on us. They ranted and raved about how illegal it was to take pictures at the cremation site and what a big mistake we’d made.  “The police will demand a large fine and destroy your camera. But….we all can a big hassle with the police if you make a donation to the hospice or buy kilos of firewood.”  “How much?” Gerard asked.  “3000 rupees!”  Greed had once again foiled their plot!  If they’d asked for 300 R they might have gotten it.  But 3,000?!  Gerard said, “Forget it, we’re going to the police,” and started to walk off.  Two of the three saw the futility of their ploy, and didn’t follow.  The third, with breath smelling of alcohol, persisted. “But sir, we can avoid big problems with the police if you make a donation.”   Again, Gerard says, “How much?”  And now it’s 500 rupees!  He confronted the man, “Have you been drinking?”  Denying it, the drunkard shrank away.  Once again the tour guide comes through; he’s good at deflecting difficult people and situations.

Our friend from Agonda, Johnny, showed up for a couple of days and one of the things he really wanted to do was see the cremation site at the Burning Ghat.  Making our way through the back alleys, we came on to the back side through the mountains of wood.  Young boys approached us wanting to guide us through the ritual - but of course for a “donation” for the hospice. For the most part, we managed to avoid all of that and stood quite close to a funeral pyre. This isn't something morbid but for the western eyes it’s very sobering to see bodies slowly melt away in the flames. Even if it’s only for a moment, the inevitability of death cannot be denied.  When the skull finally explodes in the heat, the Hindus believe it’s the final release of the soul from its physical entrapment.  All three of us were moved and silent. We left feeling a little more in touch with reality…although I’m sure what we witnessed affected each one of us differently.

People come to Varanasi to die; they believe that if they die here their soul will be liberated.  Therefore, one could say that this is a city of death – or liberation!  No matter where you are there’s funeral processions making their way to the cremation ground. Somewhat similar to the funeral processions in New Orleans, there is a joyous character to it all.  We even met an English father and son, who had brought the grandfather’s ashes to put in the Ganges at his wish.   So other than all of the other fascinating aspects of this city, it really is renowned for death and liberation, making it necessary to go and see the Burning Ghat at least once.

Both of us have had a long standing interest in the Muslim saint, Kabir, who lived in Varanasi.  So with that in mind we thought we would go out to visit his birthplace.  As it turned out it was a long dusty rickshaw ride and the very large memorial/meeting hall was more about the person who did the fundraising than it was about Kabir. Close by we stopped in at a Kabir Sahib Ashram where a young man spoke good English and tried to explain to us the lineage of which they follow. All in all interesting, but not really worth the hike out there.

50154  Coincidentally, there’s a temple immediately next door to our guest house and we noticed over the door the name, Shibendu Lahiri.  Curious we went inside in the evening and there was a mass of pictures of the swami order of Kriya Yoga, of whom the most famous in the west is Paramahansa Yogananda (Autobiograhpy of a Yogi).  His Master’s Master was Lahiri Mahasaya. Here it was a strange blend of Hindu lingam, marble statues and pictures of several past yogis…and Einstein!  But their devotion still seemed very Hindu based, including waving incense, conch blowing and bell ringing.  Not exactly, what I understand the practice of Kriya Yoga to be!  But we still like to sit there and experience the intensity of the sound for a moment overwhelming the oscillations of our busy minds.