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

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The Return of Travel Musings

Where have you been Nancy?

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Well now, I’ve been weaving between promoting “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” and travelling along other roads.

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This time we drove back roads in a little black sports car, with the top down most of the way. IMG_1456It was an 8,500km loop west from Calgary to Sechelt B.C. (where we went to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts) before heading south toward San Francisco, and then west to Yosemite, Bryce, Zion, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon before going home, north to Alberta.

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IMG_1557IMG_1741IMG_1937image1.jpgIt was an awesome six weeks and I have filled stacks of Moleskine journals with fuel for short stories and maybe even another book.

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When I was writing “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” I could refer to dozens of letters I had written our family. It was fun to read the old letters but there was also a lot I didn’t tell my parents. And my paltry beaten up journal was very boring. I wished I had been more thoughtful about what I wanted to record. It is hard to remember what it was like fifty years later and I’m learning from my “journaling” mistakes. I vowed to record my thoughts differently.

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My journal is my heart these days. I don’t repeat my itinerary and I have thousands of photos for back up descriptions. I use Moleskine notebooks (with the fine top quality paper) that easily fit into a small handbag I carry. I have a good pen (that doesn’t leak) and, for emergency, a supply of freshly sharpened pencils. The pencils are important especially when my paper gets wet in the rain or gets soup spilled on it. I also carry a headlamp with me, to use when it’s dark.

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You see I write (if you can call it that, I make notes) on the spot – in taxis (oh those stories the drivers tell,) in parks (ideal activity for initiating conversation,) in restaurants (to copy out menus and future to do’s in the kitchen.) I ask other people to write in my notebook–directions, names, and addresses, more maps. In other words I store fuel for stories–what I hear, what it tastes like, what’s that smell, what did she say–in my notebooks.

My journals aren’t pretty but I like the mess. They give me a comfy cosy feeling that inspire my travel musings and brings me back to the places we’ve been weaving around.

I’d love to read your thoughts on travel journaling. Please click on leave A Reply to comment and post.

P1010357Best wishes to everyone for a happy holiday season.

The Launch. “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” By Nancy M. Hayes and Drawings by Ross E. Hayes

I’ve been dreaming of today ­­– a party for friends and family to celebrate the launch of “Weaving Threads: Travels On the Silk Road.” In my dream it was to be under warm blue skies in Calgary. But today it is cold and raining. It is June 14. It will be very cosy inside our house.

Silk Road treasures that you will read about in the book are carefully placed around our house. The rough copper bowl we bought in the market in Kermanshah is filled with flowers on the dining room table. The Smiling porcelain Buddha has been freshly dusted and sits proudly in my office.  The old espresso coffee pot that we almost used as a weapon is on the kitchen counter and a blue and red sari from a recent trip to India is wrapped around a wicker love seat on the front porch. Patrick’s  Jazz Collegium, with two guitarists and a vocalist tonight, entertain us with easy listening standards we love and Nicole Gourmet’s lively staff prepares samples of Silk Road flavours in my kitchen and passes them around.

Friends and family from all the different parts of my life, the yoga group, the book club group, the Easy Writers, neighbours, and old friends find their own space to chat… out of the rain on the front porch, in the hall and on the stairs, in the kitchen where they can watch and in the dining room with the jazz group. Ross welcomes everyone and introduces the musicians and “Take Five” that they are playing (and that you will read about in “Yoga, A Giant Pangolin and Jazz” Chapter XlX.) He talks about its significance to my Silk Road story. I read “Desert Coffee”, Chapter V. Three little girls in have made their way to the front of “the audience” and I can see that they are listening keenly. They don’t take their eyes off me and I can’t help but think about all children and the future they hold. When I’m finished reading “Desert Coffee” our granddaughter Ava and her friend Zoé pass around watermelon. So everyone will remember children and the three little Bedouin boys we met that morning on the desert in Syria in the story about “Desert Coffee”.

Thank you everyone.

“Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” is available in all major online bookstores and selected bookstores in Calgary – Owls Nest, Shelf Life Books, Pages, Indigo at Signal Hill, Chapters Chinook, Indigo Cross Iron Mills and in Edmonton Chapters Southpoint. I will be at Indigo Cross Iron Mills to sign July 16 and August 6  and at Indigo Signal Hill July 27.

Five dollars from the sale of each paperback edition of “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” will be donated to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to advance education for Afghan women and their families.

Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road

P1000335They’ve arrived!

My deepest gratitude is to the people I’ve met along the Silk Road who are the subject of this, my first book. Their generous hospitality, friendship and help, when we needed it are my inspiration.

“Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” by Nancy M. Hayes with drawings and photographs by Ross E. Hayes is now available in all major online bookstores and will be in local bookstores soon. Through rugged mountain passes, blast-furnace deserts, crumbling cities, and lush fertile valleys the reader will be captivated by the majestic landscape, the ancient cultures, and the kind hearted people. Halted by war in India and Pakistan and the Iron Curtain in 1965, we continue the Silk Road journey forty years later.

Nancy and her Beetle at the giant buddhas of Bamyian Afghanistan, 1965

Proceeds from the sale of “Weaving Threads: Travels on the Silk Road” will be donated to Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to advance education for women and their families.

Enjoy the journey!

Nancy

Tastes of the Silk Road: Mulligatawny Soup

IMG_0080For 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?IMG_0092

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.

                                    Nancy’s Carrot Mulligatawny Soup

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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

P1000302In 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?

P1060308Just click on “comments” at the right, below and let us know.

Northern Kerala. Shifting Sands

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.

IMG_0867I’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.IMG_0852

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.IMG_0857

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.IMG_0799

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I’m in awe of the timelessness of nature and history. We’ll need to work hard to keep it. For our children.IMG_0817

India: A Masala of Culture and Architecture. Guest Post by Ross E Hayes. Architect (retired) Urban Planner

IMG_0745The landscape of India bursts with energy. Travel tends to pull my mind in diverse directions so I like to look for patterns in the masala of architecture and culture I’m seeing here.

We have an assortment of elastic bands littering the area around the telephone in our kitchen at home in Calgary. The delivery person uses them to tie around the floppy morning newspapers transforming them into manageable projectiles that land with a thud on our front porch everyday. Perhaps an image of India as an elastic band that pulls pieces together will help me manage what I’m seeing.

Last week we attended an evening performance of Kodavas traditional tribal dance. The sky was black except for bright stars and a brilliant full moon. The dark skinned male performers danced by a blazing bon fire. With long sticks and metal swords they clacked and clanged while dancing in a big circle to the haunting nasal sound of a lone vocalist. The tribe is said to descend from Alexander the Great’s army that invaded India in 327 BC. They migrated down the Malabar Coast (the southwest coast of India) and settled in the fertile hills of the Western Ghats. Now, a hundred or more generations later, they are almost fully integrated into Indian society but they still bring something different, something Greek, into the spicy Indian mix.

In Mumbai, we visited the newly renovated Magen David Synagogue. IMG_0029A friend of mine helped with the renovation, and I wanted to see it first hand. It is an open, brightly lit beacon in a crowded neighbourhood. We could hear the sounds of school children singing in the adjacent Muslim school and the children played in the courtyard in front of the synagogue. Chairs and carpets, the aftermath of a major social event, were being removed from the rear of the building.

In the middle of the 19th century Jews escaped persecution in Iraq (which was their home at the time) and came to Mumbai to settle. The congregation of 20,000 persons was reduced substantially after the chaos resulting from partition of India in 1947. Families dispersed to the far corners of the globe where they flourished. However the Jews left a legacy in India and the renovated synagogue is a good example of continued investment.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs are set in a peaceful landscape in Hyderabad that, in the late 17th century, was overrun by the Mughals, creating a dynasty that lasted until India’s independence. IMG_0379The traditions of Islam flourished and the city became a focus for the arts, culture and learning.

Toward the back of one of the tombs, a small patch of brilliant turquoise mosaic reflects the intense sunlight. Persian, we are told. From Isfahan. (Isfahan is several deserts and a few mountain passes away from south India. And as dedicated as the artisans may be, I wondered how they ended up in India.)

IMG_0375The story is a sub-plot of a bigger cultural flood, that of the invasion of India by the Mughals in the 15th century, adding one more piece to their vast empire part of which included Persia. While less kind to other prisoners, the Mughals recognized the importance of artists and craftsmen in the embellishment of their capital, Samarkand, then one of the most beautiful cities in the world and Persians artists were brought to that city to contribute their talents to its magnificence. As the Mughal influence spread across the sub-continent, the work of Indian stonemasons was combined with the talents of the Persians. And what a legacy they left; elegant expansive palaces, impenetrable and ingenious fortresses, delicate domes silhouetted against the blue sky and elegant details. Mughal architecture has today become the icon of Indian design.IMG_0833

The English also left no less of a legacy. An English architect designed the Wodeyar dynasty Palace at Mysore in 1915, replacing an earlier structure that had burned down. IMG_0837I am told that it is in the Indo-Sarcenic style. Perhaps. But I cannot help but feel that the term itself cages the enthusiasm and spirit of the design that probably should be left untamed. It is an exuberant collage of fortress-like corners, broad arches, light domes (I counted 10). Colonnades defy gravity, resting on pillows and lotus leaves with arches that spring like the ruffle of a peacock’s tail. Cast iron columns, fabricated in Scotland, rise to support a delicate glass roof. To remind the viewer that this is not frivolous business, the walls a lined with a brilliant display of paintings with troupes on foot, horseback and elephants.

The architecture of the English colonial period is seen across India and like the Mughals before them, they have made a lasting contribution.

Is the elastic band I’m looking for to wrap up my understanding of architecture and culture into a pattern in India a broad one, like the masala of Greeks, Mughals, British and the Iraqi Jews, all of whom came and injected their vitality into the heart of the sub-continent?

Wait a minute. I’m in a small village outside Tellicherry in Kerala and a Theyyan Dance is in full swing. IMG_0735The whole village is in attendance to witness the spirit descend into the bodies of the five dancers. Their enormous red headdresses gyrate in the hot sun to the erratic beat of drummers and a short, and very odd sounding trumpet.

A group of elders comes out to push back the crowd. The wild erratic movements of the dancers need space as they leap into the air and run clockwise, then counter-clockwise around a small temple.

As quickly as the dance takes hold, it comes to a stop. Villages seek advice from the dancers, and judging from the expression of their faces, receive sage counsel. They have been blessed. The spirits have returned to their village once again.

I think about my elastic band analogy. It would not fit this one. No band would stretch that far.P1060092