We 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. 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. Then her eyes meet ours. 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. The 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.
“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.
I’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.
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.
Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages. 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.
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.
Now 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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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. The 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.
I 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.
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.”
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. The 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. And 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.
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.”
He 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
For me, travelling the old Silk Roads (between Europe and China) is all about immersion into the local culture–history, festivals, daily life, markets and food. I keep two large, colourful hardcover books on display in my kitchen so I can have their beautiful photographs and delicious recipes by my side. One is Tasting India by Christine Manfield, and the other is Silk Road Cooking: A Vegetarian Journey by Najmieh Batmanglij. I bought them for inspiration and for taking me back to my Silk Road travels, food being one of the greatest joys.
It snowed again last night. Tomorrow will be May 1. Almost summer and a cold icy white blanket covers our lawn. I want to go back to India. What could be a better way to take me there than making a nice Mulligatawny Soup for our supper tonight?
Mulligatawny, translated from Tamil, means pepper water and I can use the succulent savoury spices I brought home from South India a few months ago–red chilli pepper(cayenne,) cumin, turmeric and coriander. I’ve been making this soup for so long I know it by heart and use a dash of this and that. I don’t where the original recipe came from but, as Dr Seuss says, I’ll capture them wild and I’ll capture them scrawny and I’ll capture a scrapple -foot Mulligatawny.
So here we go. Bon appetite and happy Silk Road memories.
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 large onion chopped
2 cloves garlic chopped
2 tsp each dried cumin and coriander
1 tsp turmeric
¼ tsp red chilli pepper (cayenne)
1 pound carrots, sliced (about 4 cups)
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock and 4 cups water
¼ cup cream or milk
Chopped fresh parsley or coriander
In a big pot gently sauté onions and garlic in oil until transparent, then add the spices and cook another 3 minutes. Add carrots, stir and sauté another 3 or 4 minutes. Pour in the stock and water and simmer 40 minutes. Cool. Blend until smooth then stir in the cream and reheat. (Carefully. Do not boil.) Ladle soup into pretty bowls and garnish with coriander or parsley. Serves 6-8.
Do you have any Silk Road recipes you’d like to share with us?
I’m in “no time.” What I mean is that time doesn’t matter much here for me by the beach in Northern Kerela –– today, soon, later, its ready, or tomorrow –– it’s all the same. I like it that way. It gives me time to think and write a little. My time will change and Neeleshwar is a good place to stay before our long flights back to Canada.
I’m sitting on the veranda of our cottage, “Sama.” Like the meaning of its name, equanimity, mental calmness, is all around. In front of me are three bands. The blue Arabian Sea, the golden beach, and the rich green coast. They all depend on each other.
I listen to the quiet crackle of coconut palms swaying. Beyond a small lagoon, waves whoosh and slap up on the beach. A man in a pale orange lungi walks the line between the beach and the sea, dragging a fishing net. A couple of crows come out of their roost in the coconut trees to caw at him and perhaps wait for a treat.
A young white-bellied sea eagle that nests with its family in some large trees a few hundred metres down the coast, soars high, directly into the sun, catching the thermals. The magnificent raptor is careful not to cast its shadow on its prey, the fish below. Earlier this morning a family of dolphins played and feasted on a school of fish while we walked the beach after our morning yoga session.
This is the Malabar Coast, a 845 km strip between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats in South India. From 3000 BC in between long stretches of beach are trading centres for fish and spices. Major cities like Kannur, Calicut and Cochin with a few exceptional villages like Tellicherry, delight both visitors and locals.