A Cuban Sojourn

Image 1We are staying on Cayo Santa Maria in a quiet little place facing west, away from the massive resorts farther northeast, on this 20km long key in the Bahia de Buenavista. A picturesque 48km causeway connects the key to the north coast of Cuba.Image 4

Yesterday we took a taxi back across the causeway to spend the afternoon in Remedios, a small 16th century Spanish colonial town that has retained its original character.P1070396 P1070400P1070409The absence of motorized traffic is magical and frees us to leisurely stroll the central plaza among locals and admire pastel coloured 18th century mansions and arcades. Martha, an articulate, buoyant parish volunteer showed us around her church, the beautifully restored Inglesia de San Juan Bautista. It’s a gem and an inspiration and its not surprizing that four hundred local people attend mass every Sunday.P1070411P1070390

The wind is calmer this morning, the birds are singing and a few big patches of brilliant blue sky are beginning to peek out from the clouds. Waves wash briskly over a reef that is close to shore and good for snorkelling when the sea is calm and the winds are quiet (which it has not been for the past few days). P1070477A faint perfume of curry in the garden takes me back to what we knew as the “corry grass” along country roads in Jamaica. (Reader: Can you help me here? Do you know what the botanical, or other name that it might be?)

Three inviting half moon shaped beaches on the property, with their resident herons, cormorants, sandpipers, and one small snake, are thrilling to meet as I explorethe shore. Always changing, itinerant travellers with me are sea urchins, conches, giant snails and starfish. Curious fragments among colourful coral have drifted in to tweak my imagination with their hidden stories.P1070156 P1070503In our morning yoga practices in the palapa over the water I make sure to choose a spot for my mat where I can see the fish through the spaces in flooring of the wooden deck.Image 2

 

As the sun goes down a saxophonist plays and champagne is served, heralding the evening. P1070606Dinner is uneventful but the rest of our evening is filled with the traditional Cuban music we have come to this island to listen to. P1070489Sipping a shot of Cuban rum in a small cosy bar with thirty or forty other guests, we can hear Cuba’s history in the music, influences of Spain, west Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the unique development in Cuba of son, Afrocuban Jazz, rhumba, and salsa, that have become a part of our planet’s rich body of music.

P1070302Gracias Cuba.

 

“Desert Coffee” Syria 1965. Repost 2015.

In 1965 Ross and I visited Syria. It was a time when the country was peaceful, the economy was growing, literacy rates were improving, and the people we met were gracious and hospitable. We loved our long drive through the Great Syrian Desert and reflected on it for many years before I wrote “Desert Coffee.” The story became Chapter Five of my 2013 book, “Weaving Threads Travels on the Silk Road.”

Today I think a lot about Syrian children. There are 8.5 million of them living in unspeakable horror and desperate need in Syria and surrounding countries. Some are victims of the worst forms of child labour in armed conflict and sexual exploitation.

Organizations like UNICEF (that I know well and love)  are there, inside Syria and surrounding countries helping children survive. (Go to  www.unicef.ca . Urgent Appeal. Children of Syria Winter Crisis for more information.)

I hope that in 2016 Syrian children will have a safer place to live, be well nourished and healthy, be able to learn to read write and count and grow up to be responsible and caring, like those we met in the desert fifty years ago.

                                                                 Chapter Five

DESERT COFFEE   Syria 1965

The battered old aluminium coffee pot filled with warped wooden gadgets that you see on my kitchen counter is special.

One night we almost used it as a weapon.

“Why are you going there? It’s very dangerous,” they said.“What ever you do don’t travel at night. Bedouin will rob you. After they riddle you with bullets.”

And so we set off anyway.

The Beetle bumps across a furnace of connected deserts and oasis towns. Everything around us is flat. Hard brown sand glistens like diamonds under a fireball sun.Image 2

The heat is unbearable.

I read that Gertrude Bell wore heavy wool to keep the sun out when she crossed this desert on a camel during the First World War. So did Lawrence. We wear bath towels. Heavy, brown, wet ones. Wet towels over our heads, wet towels over our shoulders and wet towels across our laps. And then we jam wet, brown towels into closed car windows to keep the hot blast of desert air out and block the burning sun.

The sun. The heat. The emptiness. There is so much of nothing here.

It is cooler now, the evening is beautiful and still. A massive orange sun seems unreal to us, as it slowly sinks into the sand.

“We really shouldn’t camp here,” I snap. “They warned it was dangerous. They said don’t camp in the desert under any circumstances. Bedouin are everywhere. They’re thieves. They’ll kidnap us,”

“There is no one anywhere near here,” Ross says softly. “Why would anyone be here? There’s nothing.”

He’s right. We haven’t seen anyone all day. I take a deep breath, calm myself and confess. “Actually, you know I’ve always wanted to sleep on the desert, under the stars.”

So here we are. This is the Great Syrian Desert and, like Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell, we are on our way to explore Palmyra.

Sand, the colour of nicely ripe peaches, is all around as far as we can see. The heat of the day dissipates as the sun lowers. Dusk begins to settle in. The moon brightens, stars begin to break through day into night, first one, then two, and now a few more.

It reminds me of the Christmas story.

We unfold the little Danish wooden camping table, smooth on the red and white plastic tablecloth, set out our shiny stainless steel cutlery and our brown stoneware coffee cups from Finland. The new Italian coffee pot is popping, sputtering and exploding, gathering pressure on the little diesel-fuelled camp stove set in the sand. Soon we will have a nice cup of coffee. We have not forgotten to bring all the trappings, of what, we think, is civilization.

“Do you see that?” Ross says, pointing to the darkening night in the east.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. An animal? It looks like a camel.”

Black and ghostly, the apparition gathers momentum in a storm of swirling sand. “It’s coming toward us. It’s someone on a horse, ” Ross stammers in disbelief.

“It’s Bedouin,” I screech.

Long, flowing, black robes fly in the wind behind him. He holds a wooden staff in his right fist. He raises his arm high. Like a scene from Lawrence of Arabia he is fierce and relentless in his gallop toward us.

“What are we going to do?”

Ross grabs the hot coffee pot. “This’ll work.”

“What? You’ll throw it? At him?”

Months ago we discussed carrying a weapon. Most people we spoke to, who crossed this desert, carried a gun for protection. We thought about it and decided that if anything bad happened we would be too scared and inept to shoot anyone. They would shoot us. With our gun.

Now here we are. Scared. Inept. But keen to live. The coffee pot will have to do.

In an explosion of sand, the man reins his horse to a high-speed stop beside us. The coffee pot is poised, ready for action.

But wait a minute. The Bedouin’s turban frames a kind, smiling face.

“Salaam Alaikum.” Peace to you, he says softly.

“Well now. Salaam Alaikum. Salaam Alaikum. Yes. Yes.” Ross blurts out, raising the coffee pot in his trembling hands high in the air. “Hey, would you like some coffee?”

The Bedouin smiles broadly again and says something we don’t really understand, shoots his arm high in the air, waves and charges off into the empty, bleak desert.

We are stunned. After a moment we collapse in laughter. At ourselves.

“He’s going somewhere fast. Probably home for supper,” Ross says.

Relief and happiness take over our fear as we lay down in the sand under the stars.

The morning is cold but the sun is beginning to soar and we know we will be in the furnace again soon. We pack up our little home in the desert and get in the car to leave.

But look.

There he is again. Children are with him, three boys, about ten or twelve, laughing and jostling one another, each on his own magnificent horse. They grind to another one of those high-speed horse stops in a cloud of sand, and the man, smiling broadly, gestures that these are his children.

Apparently they have something special for us.

With dad’s coaching, they shyly present us with a present. Three freshly picked watermelons.

Their gift has warmed my heart for a lifetime. And I will never throw out that coffee pot.

This morning I drove from Canmore to the Banff Centre down the Trans-Canada highway. The road was lined with bright yellow aspens. The sun cast a hue of golden magic on Cascade Mountain.

I was thinking about telling you my story about the Silk Road, the little boys, the watermelons and our coffee pot. Neil Young was singing on the car radio. Was it by chance for me?

I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold.

I want to be miner for a heart of gold

These expressions keep me searching for a heart of gold.

Keep me searching. *

 

Salaam Alaikum

* Young, Neil. Greatest Hits. Heart of Gold. Reprise records, 2004.

 

 

Look. There’s a Bengal Tiger in My Cappuccino.

P1060058We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard.   It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun.P1050950 P1050998               But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. P1050991 - Version 2Then her eyes meet ours.P1050989 - Version 3 And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space.   We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. P1060060The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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A Taste of Chettinad

“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.

P1050031I’m lucky. A few weeks ago I received an email from Meenakshi Meyyappan. She wrote, “You probably might remember having stayed at The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region of South India. At that time, you mentioned that you would be interested in a cookbook, if ever we did one. The Bangala Table a compilation of The Bangalas’ recipes has now been published.”

I bought the book that day and it is exquisite.

The Bangala is a small heritage hotel in Karaikudi one of seventy-six Chettinad villages deep in rural South India. And I will never forget it.IMG_7316

Ross and I arrived late for lunch our first day after a long, bumpy, hot drive through rural Tamil Nadu. Nothing prepared me for the feast of senses I was going to experience.

A calm, refined woman, Umma, greeted us warmly and handed us cool wet towels to freshen our hands and faces, served us tall glasses of lemonade and then invited us to follow her to the lunch area on the porch. They had been waiting for us and our places were ready at a long table set with the traditional fresh banana leaf dishes. A gentle water fountain nearby soothed my road weary head and the sweet scent of jasmine and roses from the garden filled the air. Servers, dressed in soft flowing saris, padded by and serenely spooned, one by one, dollops of the most aromatic and delicately spiced culinary creations I have ever tasted onto my banana leaf–fish curry, chicken Chettinad pepper masala, spinach Masiyal, mixed vegetable Kootu, drumstick sambar, yogurt. Then side dishes arrived. Vegetable fritters, coconut rice, mango. I was in paradise or was it home? It’s true. Home is where the heart is and the Bangala captured my heart.Image

Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages.Image 8 We talked about food and values, culture and art, family and traditions. We visited a home where a Chettinar family wove vibrant checked and striped cotton saris. IMG_7298

Image 1We shopped for vegetables and I bought a dozen tiny clay candleholders for Diwali in India or Christmas for us at our home in Canada.Image 4

Chettinad is known not only for its fine master chefs and cuisine, but also for its architecture. I listened to Umma’s stories about the eclectic historic palace homes we had never seen before that were built by Nattukottai Chettinar families. The palaces, ornately decorated with treasures–teak from Burma, coloured glass from Belgium, ceramics from Europe–reflect an exchange of ideas and merchandise that their trader/financier owners brought home from Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon and other parts of the world.IMG_7289

Image 5Now I too have a little piece of Chettinad to savour and treasure. The Bangala Table. Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The recipes, the photographs and writing are glorious. Thank you Meenakshi Meyyappan and all of you who worked hard to write this book and share your home with us.

Lights Temples and Learning Day 2

P1020444Day 2  Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as though you were going to live forever. Mahatma Ghandi

 

A noted politician whose dream was to eradicate poverty and advance the economic development of India founded Benares Hindu University (BHU) in 1917. I can sense excitement at the grand entrance to the campus university that has an international reputation for excellence and is home to twenty thousand students. Bicycles, scooters and motorbikes are clustered outside ornate gates and inside crowds of students stroll along pedestrian-only streets. Some groups are all-girls wearing striking salwar kameez or saris, some are all-boys in jeans and colourful t-shirts, and a few students are in pairs. They’re all carrying books and have their eyes glued to i-pads, i-pods and cell phones, tweeting, texting and whatever while talking to the others in their group at the same time. This is a busy place. (It’s curious. In this ancient City of Light and Temples I feel like the ancient one on the BHU campus. I’m just carrying an old bag and, oh dear, I’m wearing a boring blouse and tatty trousers.)

On the main square is one of nine Hindu temples on campus, New Vishwanath, with a huge sculpture of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and nature. I love the story of Saraswati and the Saraswati mantra, a Hindu holy song that says, “Remove my mental inertia.” The buzz of hope all around is energizing and I see a glimmer of possibility that this generation of students will be able to tackle the environmental issues.

Later our van steels down a small lane that looks impossible to drive. We squeeze by a few water buffalo, dodge scooters and the ever-present garbage (although in this part of town it’s neatly piled at what looks to be a strategic point for pick up.) I’m surprised. “Streets are clean enough in this part of town” I note. “So there’s hope. An auspicious sign.”

Our driver jumps out of the van runs, down the alley and speaks with a pedestrian before beckoning us to follow him by foot. This time I don’t even have to watch where I step. A painted wooden sign, “World Literacy Canada,” hangs on a picturesque white heritage building at the confluence of the River Ganges and the River Assi. Through the windows I can see the Ganges but the Assi alongside it is dry, a victim of a changing environment.

“Welcome to World Literacy. Welcome to Varanasi,” a hearty voice calls out. “Come in, come we’re expecting you.”

A vivacious young Canadian volunteer bounds toward us and we shake hands before she leads us through an atrium brightly painted with children’s drawings and stories in Hindi script. I like this place already. Stacks of tin trunks line the wall. “Those boxes you’re looking at are filled with special books for our mobile libraries,” our volunteer tells us in a proud voice. “We send them out to communities when they request them.”P1020429

Around the atrium are small classrooms bursting with cheerful four and five year old children drawing, reading out loud, and singing. One group sings a special song they have learned for us–the ABC’s in English. Painted on the wall outside their classroom I read the words of one of the most enlightened politicians of all time. “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Ghandi.”

My eyes are tearing now. This is the place I needed to see. It radiates energy and hope.

The mood of optimism carries on in a lively meeting we have with four local staff persons, three volunteers who are graduates of the World Literacy functional literacy program and three other volunteers, Canahttps://nancymhayes.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/img_2880.jpgdian students on an exchange program. We talk about new initiatives and plans for the future. We visit workshops training women to be more self-sufficient. One group of women is learning to sew and market their work, and another is learning the work of beauticians.IMG_2880

“Literacy is more than reading and writing,” the director says with excitement as he walks us around rooms filled with sun, laughter and women chatting over the whir of sewing machines. “You can see what’s happening here. Learning to read gives women belief in the process of learning. It helps them believe in themselves, that they can make changes in their own lives and the lives of others.” He pauses before he adds emphatically. “These women send their children to school now. Before they didn’t understand why they should. Now they know. They’re confident and proud.” Then he pauses. “Even their husbands are proud now. When we first started the program here the men objected. They thought women should stay home even though their children didn’t have enough to eat. Now that their wives can bring home money they see the whole family is better off.”

The World Literacy programs in Varanasi are so successful that they are on the cusp of being self-sustaining. Other communities are asking for programs so plans are being made to move the classrooms and workshops to another area.P1020460

In Varanasi, the City of Light, City of Temples and City of Learning, statistics may tell me one story but the story of thriving self-confidence and enthusiasm is more exciting. I can’t wait to see what happens in the next twenty years.

 

Please  share your experiences with education programs, and in particular literacy programs … we  learn from each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lights Temples and Learning

IMG_2771Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and it looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain 1897.

Day 1

Shrouded by the dim light of early evening I buck up my courage and walk down a crammed passageway to get to Dasaswamedth, Varanasi’s main ghat. It’s an important place on the Hindu divine cosmic road, and I’m trying to walk with purpose, to look as though I know where I’m going and what’s going on here. ( Although I don’t.)

I’ve lost Ross somewhere in the crowd but I’m determined to press my way alone through throngs of pilgrims, alms seekers, stretcher-bearers carrying covered corpses sadhus (holy men, most fake, some real,) locals and a few other stunned foreign travellers. IMG_2822The touts are aggressive and close. Too close. I turn my eyes away from them and whatever they shove in my face.

A putrid stench rakes over me.

IMG_2826I trip and slide around the garbage, some organic but mostly plastic. Plastic Bags. I do my best to dodge cattle dung, goat turd, dog poop and other unsavouries, including the plastic bags and what may be in them.

Will it ever end? Damn. I nearly stepped in it again.

There are too many tacky trinket stalls, too many people, too many piles of wood, too much smoke, too much of everything. I want to get out of here even though I’ve just arrived. So I ask myself. Why are you here, Nancy? What made you come? Where is the light in this City of Light you’ve finally come to visit?

For thousands of years literary masters have written about Varanasi (called Benares or Kashi by locals.) The city has inspired composers and musicians; been painted and photographed by famed artists; explained by philosophers; and spoken about in mysterious tones by my friends who have visited.

Varanasi is the zenith of the Hindu faith and is revered by Jains and Buddhists.

So here I am. But nothing I have seen, read, heard or imagined has prepared me for it.

Then, unexpectedly, the dark passageway opens up. There it is at the bottom of the steps. The River Ganges. It is wide and beautiful and shining in the low western sun.

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Along the broad stone steps, called Dasaswamedth Ghat, the Goddess River Ganga spreads out holding thousands of twinkling floating candles, rose petals and flowers. Eerie sounds of horns droning and symbols clanging resonate through the spaces. Smoke and the smell of sandalwood and incense drifts around everything.

I take a deep breath and inhale the moment. The noise, the garbage and even the touts are obliterated.

Ross comes out of the crowd and we stand at the top of the ghat.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” I whisper.

“Amazing. Listen,” says Ross in hushed tones. “The sound is supernatural.”

Our guide, Babalu, leads Ross and I down the steps. We work our way around small groups of musicians sitting crossed-legged around fires, chanting mantras as they play sitars and tablas. The sun will set in a few minutes and the Aarti Puja will begin, an offering to five great elements in the Hindu faith–fire, water, air, earth and the ether that is also known as space.

“For thousands of years this is happening everyday.” Babalu expounds. “We recite the Om loudly and pray for all people, for the well being of all.” And then he lifts his head toward the sky, clasps his palms together and shouts in a loud musical bass voice.

“Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva.”

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I shiver, memorized by the mystical hold of Mother Goddess Ganga.

Ashish, our oarsman, holds our hands and helps Ross and me into his low-slung wooden boat so we can watch the Puja from the river. The ghats (there are eighty-seven in Varanasi) are busy tonight after days of rain and cold temperatures.

Peacocks, oxen, goats, and dogs stroll along. “Look at those animals.” Ross laughs quietly. “They have attitude. They know they belong, they’re looked after.”

Thousands of people sit on the steps waiting for the Puja to begin; others, women in colourful saris and men in white dhotis, are bathing in the river, believing the Mother Goddess Ganga purifies the soul. I wonder what it would be like to be in the river beside them, but even though I want to hear their stories I hold myself back. P1020334The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world. Environmental efforts to clean it up have been a complete failure. So far.

Through the smoke and fires I see crumbling palaces in gaudy colours scrunched in between hundreds of temples. “We have 120,000 temples in Benares,” Babalu says, stopping his prayers. “We call it the City of Temples. It’s the spiritual capital of India, founded in 1200 BC. Three thousand years ago. Imagine. Many important people in India own palaces here. It is the city of the great Hindu god, Lord Shiva, the destroyer of evil.” He looks up to the sky. “We come to Benares to be healed, to be purified, to die. To be at peace.”

 

The jet-black boat we’re in slithers through floating grime and slowly moves down the Ganges. It has lost its glow now and is black like the night sky. The intimate rituals of life are close and very public. Death is especially close. We pause at a burning patch of land surrounded by temples and huge piles of firewood. This is the burning ghat, Manikarnika.

Babalu points to five or six sombre-looking men carrying a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders. “Look there’s a dead body,” he shouts, and Ashish enthusiastically joins in, directing us to look at a corpse shrouded in white. It seems as though they think that’s what tourists like me come here to see. “This is the place Hindus come for liberation from the cycle of life. The cremation ghat are busy 24/7,” Babalu says in a savvy tone.

I turn my head away. The magic of the Ganges loses its hold, the intimacy of life and death is too raw.

“I rather like the matter of fact-ness of it all,” Ross surprises me by saying.

But I have to work hard to try to set aside the ever-present death, poverty and filth in Varanasi and hold onto the beauty of spirituality felt here.

The river is crammed with boats like ours; there is no more room for people to sit (or stand) on the massive ghat. The Aarti Puja ceremony we have come to see seems to me like a big glitzy commercial show. IMG_2709And maybe it is, although our trusted new friend Babalu tells us it is his duty as a lay Hindu priest in Varanasi to take his turn officiating at the Aarti ceremony four or five times a year. The young priests performing the Aarti tonight are dressed in matching cream coloured dhoti-kurta (skirts and scarves) with flashy deep red shirts and they are swirling giant rings of fire in a cloud of incense and smoke. Some bang cymbals and drums, the volume of their chanting rising to a crescendo. The noise is deafening.IMG_2708

Babalu rises above it all and chants Hindu prayers in a loud and fearless voice.

I feel “out of sorts.” In the City of Light I’m in a time machine of some kind, zinging from one century to another. In twenty minutes I’ve come from the bedlam of an ancient world with timeworn rituals to a quiet, pristine place. There is nothing out of place in the one hundred and seventy-five year old Nadesar Palace where we are staying but I’m still reeling from the hullabaloo at the ghat.

“Varanasi is being buried by poverty and filth,” I had choked out when we left the bedlam.

“Change is happening.” Babalu intoned, and then his voice quietened and trailed off. “But it is very slow in Varanasi. People from everywhere come here now. A few years ago we didn’t even have plastic bags. Now we have to deal with more garbage. It’s hard to make change here. The same things have been happening for thousands of years.”IMG_2776

IMG_2784He hesitated. I’m thinking is he hopeful? “My little grandchildren learn about the environment in school and the youngest one is working on a project to clean up the school yard.” Then he smiled and barked out in that deep strong voice of his, “But when you live here you don’t notice the garbage.”IMG_2748

 

I find myself thinking about my own home and how I reduce, reuse, and recycle. I’m no saint. My own private Puja is hope for the future.

I scrub, wash my clothes (including my leather walking shoes) and try to calm down with a glass of Sula, Indian white wine.

As the night sky slowly comes to life with stars and planets, the mystical hold of India grabs me again. A curry dinner, prepared especially for us with produce from the palace garden, is delicious and full of fresh herbs, aromatic cumin, turmeric and red pepper.

Illiteracy is the main reason for poverty and the statistics are daunting in this area of India. But they also tell a story of improvements in literacy since we visited twenty years ago. I need to take a closer look at Benares to see what’s been happening.

Day 2 of Lights Temples and Learning is coming soon.

What has been your experience in Benares? Let us know.

The Taj Mahal: A Tear Drop on the Face of Eternity

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It takes my breath away.

I’m totally unprepared even though I’ve been here before and have seen it thousands of times in photos.

It’s true. Described by an Indian poet as a “Teardrop on the Face of Eternity”  the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building in the world. The pure white marble domes, arches, and minarets, the lattice screens and bas-relief carvings of flowers and the massive, welcoming and comfortable proportions startle me.

I’m taken aback; it is so perfect I hardly notice all the others here although, like every other day of the year (except Fridays,) there are thousands of visitors. Do they all feel like I do?IMG_2480

The Taj Mahal mausoleum houses the remains of a much-loved woman, Arjumand Bann Begum, who died when she was thirty-nine years old after the birth of her fourteenth child in 1631. She’s best known by her palace title of Mumtaz Mahal that means “Chosen One of the Palace”; her husband was Shah Jahan, the Emperor of India.

It is said that Mumtaz Mahal was one of the most beautiful woman in the Mughal world and I think she must have also been beautiful inside her heart. Unlike most marriages at the time hers was a love marriage. The Shah was twenty-one when he first met her in a jewellery market. She was pretty, friendly, talkative and smart but she was not a member of the royal family so the Shah’s family forbid him to marry her until he won a couple of wars. Which he did. Promptly.

The Shah was devastated when she died twenty years later and to her memory he set out to construct the most beautiful monument in history. He hired 22,000 craftsmen and other workers who travelled to Agra from all over Central Asia to work on it. Twenty years later it was complete.

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I don’t know Mumtaz but I feel her presence here at the Taj Mahal. Did she love her gardens and nature? Yes, I’m sure she did; I can see it in the beautiful design and flowers carved into this pure white marble that is the hardest, most non-porous marble in the world. Iris are inlaid with lapis lazuli, orchids with amethyst, daffodils with jasper, tulips with coral and leaves with jade. Are they examples of the flowers Mumtaz loved from the palace homes of her ancestors in Persia?

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Her tomb, the Taj Mahal was built to last. Now it’s simply washed with soap and water every few years. There are 5-6 million visitors a year (it’s one of the seven wonders of the world) and to get into the Taj complex we’ve all been through a serious security check (after being told not to bring in any food, electronic devices, knives, weapons, or pencils.) We walk through a bomb checker thing-a-ma-jig and then guards with big guns search every bag; other security people (one line for men and one for ladies) pat us down. (Ross had the glue he carries for his journal project taken away yesterday and today they wouldn’t let him in with his sketch book and pencils.) Then we put special covers on our shoes.

I’m glad the Taj is being taken care of. Pollution from traffic and thousands of tourists is threatening it. Several factories in the city of Agra have been moved to help curb pollution and only electric carts are allowed near the entrance to the Taj. (We went by the hotel golf cart!)

Strangely the magnificence of the Taj for me is not diminished by all of this. In fact I feel as though I’m all-alone here … it’s just me immersed in the beauty of the Taj so that I can enjoy my imagination and the stories of history it holds inside.

IMG_2456     Namaste

Coming soon to Travel Musings: Benares (the City of Light)cropped-p1020350.jpg