Divine Dwarka

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I’m cross-posting a recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Dwarka sits on the far western tip of Gujarat, of India itself. In the evenings, the sunset bathes the shore and Arabian Sea along Gomti Ghat in deep orange light. As the home to the ancient kingdom of Krishna, Dwarka is one of the four holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus. Dwarka, along with the island of Beyt Dwarka just offshore, is dotted with temples including the Jagat Mandhir, or Temple of the World, which was supposedly built by Krishna’s grandson more than 2,500 years ago.

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The swastika

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I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Many of the pictures that I’ve posted on my travels to India include an image that might have surprised some of you.

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This photo is of the place where Mahatma Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. The house is now a museum/shrine and my father and I visited it in Gandhi’s hometown of Porbandar last month. My post on our trip prompted a response from my friend K.S. back in Dallas who wrote: “Again I have learned something new and interesting from you. I only knew the Swastika as a Nazi symbol so was surprised to see it in your photos. I now know that it dates back to ancient India and literally means ‘to be good’ and is considered a sacred symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism. What a shame the Natzi Party bastardized it.”

For more than a decade now, India and being Indian has been a little more cool; Westerners are more familiar with our culture(s) and our cultural idiosyncracies. A few years ago, there was even a show on network TV set in an Indian call center. People have heard about Bollywood and there’s “Lie of Pi” and “Slumdog Millionaire.”

But, still, for most people in the West, the swastika is first associated with Nazis, not Hinduism – even though the symbol has been used as a good luck emblem not only by us but by Buddhists and Jains as well. Swastikas have appeared on petroglyphs in Armenia, a gold necklace in ancient Iran and on Greco-Roman coins.

K.S.’s remark reminded me of a story from my childhood. We had just moved to Texas and my Dad’s nurse was visiting our home for the first time. It was our family’s first stand-alone house, brand-new and seemingly huge, with a big backyard and enough bedrooms to give my brother and me our own rooms. It was also the first house that either of my parents could call their own. Neither of their families had the means to own their own homes in India, and eight years after arriving in America with very little money, they had now built and owned their own home. Looking back now, I realize just how, justifiably, proud my parents must have been – proud to show it to visitors, proud to raise their young family in it.

Anyway, the nurse, whose name was Helen, was a kind person and she was a gracious guest. She just had one piece of advice on the house: Get rid of the swastikas.

I’m sure she didn’t say it quite that way. My parents had hung up Indian tapestries on the walls, which pictured pastoral scenes in the classical style. And in various places there were swastikas. This was 1979 or 1980 in Texas City, Texas. And Helen basically said that it would probably be best if we didn’t have these sorts of things displayed.

This was before I had learned anything about World War II or Nazi Germany. I just understood that, for some reason, the swastika was bad and that we shouldn’t have them around or people would think bad of us. Texas City didn’t have a big Indian community where we could find safety in numbers, or with whom we could “expose” our cultural icons without being judged.

The tapestries came off the walls. And, as I’m only beginning to understand lately, with them began a process of “hiding” my Indian-ness. Not deliberately and not out of shame, but as part of a process of wanting to fit in, normal for any new kid-turned-typical teenager. I’m Indian, certainly, just take a look at me. But I didn’t have to emphasize that. Back then, being Indian was definitely not considered cool. It just made you seem weird. And I wanted to fit in. We settled in small-town Texas, my parents raised their children and we focused on being an “American” family.

Journey to Gujarat: Junagadh & Porbandar

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

IMG_2483Porbandar, a port town located on Gujarat’s western coast, is known for being the home of Mahatma Gandhi and his family home is now a shrine/museum to his life. The home’s rooms are quite small. Climbing between flights along claustrophobic staircases reminded me of my visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. A swastik marks the floor in the room where Gandhi’s mother gave birth to him. We also visited Sudama Temple, named after a childhood friend of Krishna, and I walked through a swastika-shaped maze on the temple grounds. Traversing the maze is supposed to wash you of your sins. The day we were there, a Friday, was also the Birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, and a celebratory parade wound through the city streets. Considering Gandhi’s message of religious tolerance, I thought the timing brought a nice addition to our visit.

I also write about our visit to Junagadh, at the base of Mount Girnar, another pilgrimage site. The city has a 15th-century “upper town,” Uparkot, which is only open during the day and shuts down at 7 p.m. I also enjoyed exploring the Mahabat Maqbara. Built by Bahadur Kanji as a tomb for his predecessor, Mahabat Khan, it is a surprisingly well-kept example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

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A day in Diu

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9445Out of the rural marshes of southern Gujarat sits a national police checkpoint. This marks the entry to the island city of Diu, a former Portugese colony that like, Daman and Goa, were acquired by the Indian government in 1961. The three are union territories and are not governed by the states’ governments in which they lie.

Today, Diu is a popular beach resort and, along with Daman, the only place to buy alcohol in Gujarat, which is a dry state. The Portugese mark can still be seen in the city at Diu Fort, St. Paul’s Church and Makata Lane, where many Portugese merchants had built their mansions.

For more about Diu and photos from our visit, please click here.

Off the grid in Gopnath

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”Image

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

For more about our stay in Gopnath, please click here.

Ferris wheel mania

How did the Ferris wheel become the must-have municipal toy? I was amused to read in the Times of India over the weekend that apparently Ahmedabad is the latest city to be infected with this mania: “It was during one of the Vibrant Gujarat summits that the company Saloria Chartered Architects of London, one of the top 100 architect firms of UK and right holders of equipment technology, had proposed a viewing wheel and recreation zone modeled on London Eye, or Millennium Wheel. The finer details of the agreement between the construction company and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) are taking shape with talks on revenue model, space sharing and ticketing. The site for the project will be the Sabarmati riverfront, claimed a senior AMC official.”

To be sure, converting talk out of Vibrant Gujarat into action has been somewhat shy of 100 percent. So perhaps birds-eye views of Ahmedabad from the banks of the Sabramati are not imminent.

The timing is interesting as Dubai also unveiled plans last week to build the Dubai Eye. Unlike Ahmedabad’s still-unnamed ride which would just be a replica of the 135-meter London Eye, Dubai developers plan to construct the world’s largest ferris wheel at 210 meters. Natch.

The proposal as unveiled is to build – you guessed it – a luxury mixed-use shopping/entertainment/hotel complex on what was the only open beachfront in New Dubai. (Because, really, there’s no need for a public park in Dubai. We must remedy the dearth Dior and Jimmy Choo boutiques. More sheisha cafes and Cinnabon outlets for everyone!)

We all know how I feel about Dubai’s addiction to the shiny-object economic development model, so I leave the last word on this to Alexander McNabb over at Fake Plastic Souks, who has already written a great post of Dubai’s Ferris-wheel courtship.

Gujarat’s princely states

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Raja of old

Raja of old

British rule over Gujarat was not whole. They only controlled about a fifth of the state, largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas such as Ahmedabad and Surat. The remainder of Gujarat was Saurashtra, and its “100 kingdoms” – it was actually about 200 – was ruled by individual royal families, albeit in cooperation with their Raj neighbors. In fact, these kingdoms were generally supportive of the British; they had signed pacts of cooperation with the British East India Co. in the early 1800s. Indian independence leaders’ activities excluded Saurashtra and the Congress party did not decide to formally include the region in its struggle until 1938, just nine years before the British quit.

Click here for photos and more about our visit to Bhavnagar, Palitana and Jamnagar. 

Saurashtra road trip

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or 1,000 kingdoms, which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

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The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel (see map above) but it was the sight-seeing in between was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter,chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

Click here for more about our road trip and pictures of the people and sites along the way.

 

A divine walk with Dad

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9334The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

Click here for pictures and more about my visit to Palitana. At a place for Jain pilgrims, Dad and I have a chance to connect.

‘The Walk Home’

A travel story about my trip to Tanzania last October was published in Gulf Business in December. For more pictures and a video of the wildebeest migration, click here.  

Maria the lionness takes down a wildebeest

Maria, the lionness, takes down a wildebeest

The annual migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the world’s most wondrous spectacles.

By ANGELA SHAH

Leonard Kivuyo’s smile is enigmatic. “There is definitely, maybe, possibly a chance to see a lion,” he says.

We look at each other quizzically, wondering about the maybe-yes, maybe-no response of our Tanzanian tour guide. Kivuyo has just picked us up at a gravelly airstrip, a scar in the serengeti landscape at Kogatende. He wants to know what animals we want to see.

We respond with an all-star list of the Serengeti: black rhino, lion, elephant. And, of course, we want to witness the main attraction of a northern safari this time of year, a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River. He nods in agreement at our wildlife wish list. There have been regular crossings, just one this morning, Kivuyo tells us. But whether one would happen today, he can’t say. As he unlatches the roof of our jeep so that we have nearly unobstructed views of the grasslands around us, my friend Angel and I exchange bemused looks at our guide’s Yoda-like responses.

Shortly into our journey along a dirt track, we come across a pair of giraffes. About 20 feet high, the male nuzzles the female’s neck as it creeps closer to her. Realising we have stumbled upon the pair mid-romance, we giggle like school children. A few more nuzzles later and the male giraffe has accomplished his mission, walking off towards a tree for a snack.

“Part of the circle of life,” Kivuyo deadpans and we laugh heartily. We continue our drive and Kivuyo keeps an eye out on the horizon. The hum from the jeep’s walkie-talkie is on low; the guides at the various camps chatter amongst themselves, exchanging information on locations of nocturnal cats, rare rhinos or the anticipatory swarm of wildebeest gathered on the banks of the mara.

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A lion’s life: lazing in the sun

Within an hour, the serengeti’s abundance of wildlife emerge. We spot impalas and elephants silently grazing, and hippos submerged to their ears in the river to ward off the late afternoon heat. Skittish zebras dart in and out of clusters of their fellow prey animals.

By evening, however, a crossing hasn’t formed and we have to reach camp before sundown. From July to October, about two million animals follow the rains, migrating from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in neighbouring Kenya. One of the highlights of the annual migration is the crossing of the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk underwater and lionesses prowl on the banks alongside.

At dinner that evening, our fellow campers rave about the raw power they witnessed as thousands of wildebeest stampeded through the Mara River. A baby zebra walked into the open yaw of a hippo, which then crunched down on it! We watched a wildebeest taken down, mid-river, by a crocodile!

We have no such stories to contribute to the fireside gathering. I am not worried; we still have a few days left for our safari.

The next day, the walkie-talkies are ablaze with chatter of migration-style critical masses forming along the Mara at several crossing points. We travel from site to site, eventually staking out the one nearest to our camp. The hours tick by but by late afternoon, the first of the wildebeests slide down the steep bank and into the river. And just like that, the migration begins. The zebras’ shrieking bark seems to offer directional guidance to the wildebeest, who in two and then three single-file lines half-swim, half-gallop through the water to the greener pastures on the other side. Zebras, we discover, are the bouncers of the wildlife world.

After that first crossing, we begin stumbling on crossings on a regular basis. The next morning we watch a particularly large group of wildebeest for 20 minutes when suddenly a lioness bounds in from the left. We watch, dumbfounded, as she charges the unlucky wildebeest directly in her path. As she wrestles her prey to the ground, the zebras’ shriek grow even more shrill and the tide of wildebeests reverses course.

ESSENTIALS

Olakira Camp

DSCN0978This luxury tented mobile camp sits just off the banks of the Mara River during the migration season in the summer and fall. Olakira has only eight tents and guests enjoy meals in the common dining/living tents. Dinner is preceded by drinks and snacks around a campfire. http://www.asiliaafrica.com/olakira

Zanzibar

The island, known as Unguja in Swahili to Zanzibarians in order to distinguish itself from Zanzibar city, is dotted with beach resorts. We stayed at Shooting Star Lodge, located on the northwest part of the island. The inn, which features cozy villas on a perch above the beach, was the perfect setting to unwind after our day-long drives in the dusty Serengeti. http://www.shootingstarlodge.com

Stone Town

DSCN1370The House of Wonders and the Palace museums’ exhibitions are few but give visitors a sense of the island’s place along trading routes between India, the Gulf and Africa. The palace museum served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until he was overthrown in 1964 and it includes pictures and history of Princess Salme, the Tanzanian royal whose affair with a non-Muslim German businessman caused her to flee to Europe, where she lived until she died at age 80 in 1924.