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A Sacred Journey

Exploring the food, traditions and popular as well as little known spiritual sites of India should be on every traveler's to-do list.

Justine Amodeo

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"May I bring you some cucumbers?"

My butler, Samadhan, asks me this after helping me check into my room at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, following a 34-hour flight from multiple destinations. He is brewing tea so I think he is offering me tea sandwiches.

“For your eyes,” he continues, pointing to the black circles that must resemble steeping bags of Earl Grey. “I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you look tired.”

He is dressed in a black tuxedo with pinstriped pants, and is pouring tea from a white china teapot when he says this, with such charming innocence, such genuine concern for my well being, that I cannot be offended.

“I look that bad?’” I ask.

“No ma’am,” he says, and waggles his head in the way only natives to this land can, a jointless maneuver of the neck that means yes, no and everything in between – kind of like my two-week journey to this mysterious land of plenty and poverty: glorious, damned, and bridging the two, the unpredictable, ceremonial, sensorial experience that is India.

A Festive Welcome
I arrive in Mumbai on Ganesh Chaturthi, the 10-day Hindu holiday that celebrates the birthday of the widely revered elephant-headed god of good fortune, Ganesh. And for the extent of my trip, the revelry is everywhere – in the streets, in homes, at makeshift temples – worshipped with dramatic dance performances, devotional songs, films, and flower and sweet offerings. From the glorious Sea Lounge at the Taj, where a sumptuous buffet of Indian delicacies is spread from wall to wall, we learn from our tour director, Mark Sood, CEO of A Classic Tours Collection, that while the holiday is observed nationwide, the most elaborate celebrations are here in the western state of Maharashtra, where most families create life-like clay, mud and straw models of Ganesh (some 25 feet tall) and display them at their homes or in elaborately decorated outdoor tents. Priests across the state invoke life into the idol by chanting mantras, and on the 11th day, they are all paraded through the streets in a procession and are finally immersed in the sea.

After witnessing much of this in the streets of Mumbai, my visit to one of the Taj gift shops takes on special meaning. The hotel, whose restoration was completed just days before our arrival, two years after a terrorist bombing on November 26, 2008 killed 167 guests and employees and caused major damage to this iconic landmark, is glistening in the September heat. The property, which boasts as its guests, maharajas, kings, queens, presidents, musicians, and CEOs, has been restored to its former century-old glory. While some of the antique chandeliers and artwork have been lost forever, palace rooms and suites, all of which enjoy the Taj butler service and overlook either the glorious pool or the Gateway of India and the Arabian Sea, have been restored by world-acclaimed designers. The Palace still displays much of its diverse collection of art, from massive Belgian chandeliers to the finest in Bastar tribal art, from Anglo-Indian inlaid chairs and tables to Goan-Christian artifacts, from Mughal-inspired Jali designs to contemporary sculpture. A marble memorial wall etched with the names of the victims of the November attack stands cordoned off with one teak bench for meditation.

And in the gift shop, the bullet holes.

The shop owner explains to us that when terrorists began randomly shooting and bombing two years ago, bullets went straight into the wall, right behind a green jade Ganesh statue. The small statue, which stands right in front of the hole in the wall, remained intact.

“How much for that one?” I ask.

“It’s not for sale,” he says, waggling his head.

Then he pulls out three beautiful replicas. I buy one and carry it with me for the rest of my trip.

Chaos and Peace in Mumbai
The streets of this city of over 12 million residents are overwhelming; a potpourri of flowers, incense, curry, exhaust, and human waste engulf the nose, particularly during the end of the wet monsoon season. Festive horns, honking cars, and vendors hawking their wares invade the ears. And with the thousands of restaurants, bazaars, churches, mosques, shrines, and temples here, the sights and tastes are many. It is India’s wealthiest city, and also home to an estimated 800,000 residents who live in the second largest slum in Asia. It’s the center of Bollywood, and the place where much of the female population still cover their bodies from head to toe.

After a morning visit to Victoria Terminus, the historic railway station through which some six million people travel daily, we climb the quiet steps to the Mani Bhavan Ghandi Sangrahalaya, a house where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934. The three-story home is now a museum that preserves the spirit of the devoted man who fought for this nation’s poor and disempowered. Inside is a large library of Gandhi-related works as well as displays of photographs, posters, slogans, and other items that document his legendary life.

Our next stop is at one of the most beautiful temples in Mumbai, the Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain Temple, whose members, at least the most devout, do not wear shoes in order to not step on insects and wear masks in order to not breathe them in. The temple is flanked at its entrance by two stone elephants and is adorned with an array of deities and saints, some beingworshipped behind gold gates. Nearby in the elite residential area of Malabar Hill, is a park thick with trees that houses the Parsi Towers of Silence, where this slowly disappearing religious community of about 65,000 bring their dead to be left as carrion for vultures. Outside the towers in the parking lot, I come across a very charming and experienced street salesman, who takes advantage of my wonder and inability to bargain and sells me a fan of peacock feathers. This is the third item I have bought on the street today, the first two from child beggars in ripped dresses who tore my heart out with their huge pleading eyes. I am a sucker for the children here, and they are aggressive, following us on the streets, knocking on the windows of our van, performing tricks with fire, dancing.

And what is a visit to India without experiencing another of the classic elements that come from its history – yoga? Before we leave for a 185-kilometer drive to Nashik, one of my colleagues and I try the Taj Jiva Spa’s Samattva signature yoga treatment with Tratake (translation: yoga and meditation while staring into a candle). The yoga practice, meant to take you on a contemplative and meditative journey, involves a series of postures, breath work, candle gazing, and stillness. I am so relaxed after visualizing the flame in my third eye that I barely notice the 100 times we almost crash playing chicken in head-on traffic on the chaotic and lawless freeway system on the road to Nashik.

My state of calm, disrupted momentarily by the somewhat terrifying drive, continued at Vippasana International Academy, a stunning property with gilded domes that decorate the roofs of austere meditation cells. Here we learn that 10-day retreats, free to meditators who are willing to sit for over 11 hours a day, remain in “noble silence” and cut off all contact with the outside world “in order to purify their minds of underlying negation,” is being introduced to thousands of children across India because it allegedly increases their capacity for concentration, awareness and understanding. It is open to all religions, because “suffering from greed and hatred is universal,” explains Sughir Pai, a volunteer staff member. It is also used in prisons by the Indian government, where 1,000 prisoners at a time will undergo the 10-day practice with a meditation teacher.

My mind is still open to “see things as they really are” as we pass through villages and farms, where painted and bejeweled sacred cows and oxen roam the bustling streets and vendors sell everything from brilliantly colored spices to flower offerings for temples and shrines.

Eventually, we arrive at the Gateway Hotel in Nashik, where over a sumptuous moonlight dinner, Rajendra Shashtra, a vedic astrologer with a bad head cold, tells me, through a translator, that I’m cursed. Everyone else in the group has a long, happy and successful life in their future, but unless I fork over 435,000 rupees, which is about $700 U.S. dollars for a curse-lifting ceremony, I’ve got trouble ahead. Our fearless leader Mark apparently has a curse too, but his price, maybe because it is not such a bad curse, or maybe because he is Indian-born, is much more reasonable. I soon forgot about the curse, distracted by the coriander-flavored tomato soup, the homestyle chicken with dry coconut gravy, the cauliflower and green peas in curry with fresh coconut, and the stuffed sweet bread served with warm ghee and cardamom that we devour on the outdoor balcony under the full moon. I do not feel cursed as I enjoy this meal; quite the contrary.

A Big Step Back in Time
Two world heritage sites, rich with the carved artwork of Buddhists, Hindu, Jains, and Muslims lie on the outskirts of the Aurangabad district. The volcanic rock shrines and monastaries of Ajanta, excavated between 200 B.C. and the sixth century A.D., are nestled in a horseshoe-shaped gorge in the forest ravines of the Sahyadri Hills. Inside 29 caves, ancient, eroded paintings, carvings and ornate sculptures relate to the life of Buddha and Buddhist divinities and are considered by many to be the beginning of classical Indian art. In the shrines or stupas are huge figures of the Buddha in meditation and teaching poses. Abandoned in 650 A.D., the caves were forgotten until they were accidentally rediscovered by a British army officer on a tiger hunt in 1819.

While Ajanta represents one of the best examples of Indian wall paintings, the Ellora Caves, which lie 106 miles to the southwest, span the period between the 5th and 11th century A.D. and are famous for their architectural Buddhist monasteries and temples of the Hindu and Jain faiths. Tucked into a crescent-shaped hill, the caves, which have attracted pilgrims since early times, were carved in a north-south line looking out across a vast plain. The Buddhist caves consist mainly of monasteries sculpted with the image of the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and the pantheon of Buddhist divinities. Center stage at Ellora is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world, the temple of Kailasa dedicated to Lord Shiva, which was carved out of a massive rock by seven generations of workers. Fragments of paintings depicting celestial beings flying though clouds give visitors a glimpse of the wealth of imagery with which these caves must have once been adorned. But the most mesmerizing of the caves in this area is the infrequently mentioned tantric Hindu caves of Aurangabad, carved into basalt rock with primitive tools during the sixth to eighth centuries A.D. The 10 caves are pitch black and aside from natural light coming in from the sun and an attendant who will shine a flashlight for a small rupee payment on some of the eroding paintings, this is a sadly abandoned site. It smells strongly of bat guano; the droppings, as well as bees, pervade the caves.

Continuing our tour of the area, we visit a marketplace in Aurangabad, where sweets are being boiled in bubbling vats of oil on the streets, elaborate wedding invitations can be designed and the finest saris, shawls and textiles can be bought. In a silk shop, we watch as an elderly weaver works on a traditional hand loom, pulling a rainbow of silk colors into a beautiful sari of rich texture and design that will take him months to complete and sell for thousands of dollars. The owner pulls out shawl after shawl, starting with the most expensive hand-woven pieces, and presents them on a long table like an incredible five-course meal.

Technology and Temples
A short flight to Bangalore takes us to southern India, where we check into the very hip Vivanta by Taj –Whitefield, Bangalore, at the entrance to the city’s International Tech Park. Corporate nomads will feel comfortable in any of the 199 rooms and suites of this hotel, which caters to a mostly male business clientele. Vivanta is Taj’s newest brand, and this marquee property won the 2010 building of the year award in Singapore for its Warner Wong design, called a “landscaper” instead of a “skyscraper” because it slopes along the ground. It is a stunning example of the technological advancements taking place in this part of the world.

With Bangalore as our base, we begin a long day of touring, which begins at the Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, a structure made from teak wood over 200 years ago for the Muslim leader Nawab Ali Khan, who ruled Mysore in the late 1700s. We move on to Sathya Sai Baba’s Ashram at Whitefield (this popular guru passed away in April of this year), where devotees circumambulate around a giant and colorful sculpture of Saraswati (the Hindi goddess of knowledge and the arts) and praise Sai Baba’s teachings. The guru’s materializations of holy ash and other small objects have been a source of both fame and controversy; millions of devotees consider them signs of divinity, wearing lockets bearing his photo as a symbol of good fortune, while skeptics view them as simple conjuring tricks. We are told it is not known beforehand if or when Sai Baba will visit the Whitefield Ashram, but we learn he has not been here for three years. Still, his presence is felt.  

A Royal Welcome
“Kissing a man without a moustache is like eating an egg without salt and pepper,” says our guide in Mysore, the cultural capital of the state of Karnataka, explaining that the reason all the men in Mysore have moustaches is because the maharaja once gave them special dispensation for growing one that looked just like his. We are greeted by mustachioed Mysorians playing horns and throwing rose petals when we pull up to the Lalitha Palace Hotel, which was built below Chamundi Hills in 1921 at the orders of the Maharaja of Mysore for the exclusive stay of the British Viceroy, and subsequently used as a guest house for European royal guests. Converted to a heritage hotel in 1974, it is now an elite hotel of the Shok Group of the India Tourism Development Corporation under the Indian government, and though the service is awful, great pains have been made to maintain its opulent exterior, grand winding stairways, and art and antiques. We enjoy an outdoor meal of Mysore thali (a set meal with rice and many regional accompaniments) and mutton nariyal-ka-gosht (lamb cooked with coconut, red chili and curry) on one of the palace balconies while we wait for the 98,000 lights of Mysore Palace to illuminate the Sunday evening view.

The next morning, we visit the pride of the city, the Mysore Palace, a flamboyant three-story building built by British architect Henry Irwin of grey granite and pink marble, with arches, minarets, cupolas, balconies, and other elements drawn from Hindu, Muslim and gothic styles. The paintings, murals, trophies, stained glass windows, and other antiquities adorn the rooms inside.

On Chamundi Hill is the 17th century Chamundeshwari Temple, where the celebration of Ganesh Chaturdi continues, with parades, music and ecstatic dancing in the streets. Women in burqas twirl around on a whirligig, squealing with delight on a children’s playground behind the temple. Cows roam the streets, stealing flower offerings from altars. Roads and a walking track lead to an enormous stone sculpture of a bull – one of six in the country, which worships the monolithic Nandi, the vehicle of Lord Shiva. Then we begin another stop-and-go game of chicken through traffic, this time thankfully distracted by our new driver, Thiru, who plays Bollywood videos as we make our way through the chaotic streets to visit more sacred sites.

The next morning, on our way to the airport, we stop at Shravanabelagola, one of the holiest places of the Digambara sect of Jainsim, an active religious site with prayers offered every day. Here, some of the most well documented early writings in Sanskrit, Kannada and Marathi can be found. A long trek up 700 steps hacked into a rock face takes us to the monolith of Bahubali, a Jain hero of legend, built by the warrior poet Chamundaraya, who claims to have seen Bahubali in a dream on a mountain peak. For a small amount of money, you can be carried up in a chair by four sweating hires, but this feels so inappropriate I step out and walk the daunting stairs. Carved from a single massive boulder, his head rises 60 feet from the ground and vines twist down his sculpted limbs. A priest is here to bless anyone who comes to worship, and despite the heat, the filth, the economic disparity, and the grueling hike, I feel blessed in this ancient place, overlooking this stunning vista.

Because we are in Mysore, the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga, earlier that morning I had asked the manager of the tropical Hoysala Village Resort where we were staying if he could organize a morning yoga class.

“Yes. Ma’am,” he says, waggling his head from side to side. “What time?”

We settled on 6 a.m., when I and three of my fellow travelers were at the yoga studio in our workout clothes ready to experience what Mysore was famous for. But there was no instructor. I wandered amongst the lush foliage, listening to the purple rumped sunbirds and red whiskered bulbuls until I spotted the manager at breakfast at 7 a.m. and asked what happened to the yoga class.

He smiled, that joyous, beautiful Indian smile, raised his eyebrow and said, “It was at five,” waggling his head yes, no and everything in between.

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