Stairway To Heaven

David: When I invited our sons to travel with me in India, I sent each a copy of Lonely Planet. Figuring that it would help induce them to accept the invitation, I told them they could set the itinerary. There was only one exception. I insisted on visiting the Jain temple complex at Palitana, in the state of Gujarat. I had seen images of the complex, which consists of many hundreds of temples on a mountaintop, and there was no way I was going to miss seeing it in person.
Palitana Mountaintop
It turned out to be impossible to get to Palitana while the boys were still with me, but Lora and her Gujarat group were ending their tour there. So I slowly wended my way down from Rajasthan to meet them there after the last of the guys finally had to head home.

Jainism is an ancient religion that was a major faith in the Indian subcontinent until the growth of Hinduism and Islam. One of its highest precepts is to do no harm to any living thing. As a result, Jains are strict vegans. Many of them even avoid garlic, onions, potatoes and other root vegetables because small insects in the soil can be harmed when the plant is pulled out, and also because the roots continue to contain life. Many Jains even try to avoid going out at night because there is a greater risk of stepping on insects after dark. Some wear cloths over their mouths to avoid ingesting any flying insects and to keep harmful words from passing their lips.

This ingrained precept against harming living things seems (at least to me) at odds with the Jains having built the Palitana complex, one of their most important pilgrimage sites, on top of a mountain. Can you imagine the pain and suffering from climbing 3,750+ steps to the top of the mountain. By comparison, the Empire State Building has only 1,860 steps. Also, gravity is the law, not just a good idea, so whatever goes up must come down. Therefore, the 3,750+ steps must be descended later the same day because pilgrims and tourists must leave the site before dark.

As I was driving toward Palitana, I began to see many groups of women walking along the roadside in the same direction, all dressed in white. I assumed they were pilgrims, and they came in all ages, sizes, conditions and shapes. How, I wondered, could the elderly, infirm and crippled possibly make a climb to the top?

Two ways, it turns out. For the infirm and crippled pilgrims there were sedan chairs, flimsy plastic lawns chairs lashed to a couple of large bamboo poles shouldered by four strong men. The other way was for daughters and other young women to push their elders up the mountainside from behind.

Lora and I elected to climb, not ride, even knowing that we’d have to do it without the aid of a son (all of whom had already flown home) pushing us up the steps from behind. I began to worry about half way up when four young men carrying an empty sedan chair started walking alongside me. The closest one kept whispering in my ear: “Grandpa, you need to ride.” My concern was that these guys are probably better than me at predicting who won’t be able to make it to the top, and they were circling me like vultures. To convince them that I didn’t need their services, I took over one of the porter positions on a passing sedan chair that was carrying a woman in Lora’s group. “Grandpa” and Lora made to the top.

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Our calves screamed for days, but it was worth it. Photos of the climb, the temples and the descent are in Lora’s next posting.

One suggestion for any of you who might visit Palitana – carry some food or high-energy snacks. After climbing 3,750 steps, it’s easy to get templed-out on an empty stomach and your temple/step ratio will drop precipitously.

There are two other Jain temples I need to mention, both Rajasthan. One is in the village of Dilwara. The other is in Ranakpur.

Ranakpur is on the road from Udaipur to Jodhpur. (More on our experiences in those cities in future postings.) The temple must cover at least 3-4 acres. It is a massive open interior structure varying from one to three levels in which more than 1,400 columns support the roof. The columns are intricately carved, and each is in some detail unique from all the others. Intricate carvings also cover other surfaces, including the interior surfaces of many domes high overhead. The effect was as overwhelming on my third visit, with Sam, as it was with Max in 1994 and Lora in 2010.
Ranakpur Exterior copy
Ranakpur 3-level interior
Ranakpur Interior columns
Dilwara interior dome
Ranakpur interior carving

Ranakpur dome carving
The Dilwara temples are at the Rajasthan hill station Mt. Abu, where I did an overnight on my way to meet up with Lora at Palitana. They are less than a tenth the size of Ranakpur. The carvings are comparable (as shown above), but because of Dilwara’s much smaller size, they feel breathtaking in their intimacy rather than overwhelming as at Ranakpur.

The StairMaster to Heaven or Living Proof that I Will Follow My Husband Anywhere

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Ever since I got to Petra (above) and David, laid low in Israel with a particularly nasty case of the eleventh plague, didn’t, I’ve had a bad case of traveler’s guilt. He was, after all, the one who had the passion to go there.  I was merely along for the ride – of course, until I saw it and felt a hundred times worse that I was there and he wasn’t. After hearing him wax rhapsodic about Palitana,

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I began to view his desire to go there as Petra – India style. Piece of cake, I figured. What’s 3,700+ stairs to someone who race-walked the Boston Marathon route? Our Gujarat group’s guides diplomatically singled out which of us they thought should (strongly) consider the palanquin option. I felt their placing me in the ‘good to climb’ group was all the incentive I needed to pass on the chair lift option. Anyway, there was no way I was going to pay four men to carry both me and a heavy bamboo seating arrangement up to the top of a mountain.

David gallantly rented walking poles, which I assumed could be also used for instruments of prodding lest I flag in my enthusiasm at any point in the ascent. And off we went.

Almost immediately I was encouraged by the sight of 1,000 pound four-legged pilgrims daintily making the journey along with us. If cows could do it how hard could it be? David seemed a little concerned when he realized there was a pair of wide-spread pointed horns about to pass alongside him.

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Apparently truly dedicated devotees make the round trip journey first thing in the morning before they go off to attend to the more secular aspect of their lives. We saw people of all ages flying past us in both directions. The younger members of our group along with those in Olympic fighting form (Patsy Chappell) took off at a quick clip. It didn’t take too long (1,000 steps +/-) for me to see that this wasn’t going to be any old walk in the park. I decided to pace myself to avoid crapping out with Nirvana in sight but not in hand.

There were folks carrying loads much more weighty than chocolate bars and bottles of water.

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“Are we there yet?” I thought, but didn’t ask after the first hour. Segments of every few hundred or so steps were broken by flat, shady ramps lined with benches. David must have been doing secret training for this ascent. Not only was he not winded, he was in ebullient spirits the entire way, in fact getting more energized the closer to the top we got. While I’d like to say it was contagious, I lagged behind, wishing I knew the Hindi for “Are we there yet?” so I could ask people on their way down. Finally the end was in sight.

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I trudged up the final run of stairs to find the others waiting for us. It was nice of them to say they’d only just arrived. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted to take any pictures of the temples. But trust me, it was quite magical. Hundreds of devotees chanting, making offerings, roses, marigolds, drums, and incense, brilliant colored saris and Jains in white robes. The view from the top was stunning in every direction.

Rested and fortified with chocolate we began the long march down. Halfway my calves began to cramp and my kneecaps began to quiver. My hips were grumbling. Any enlightenment I had attained by climbing up was soon replaced by the pain of descent. For days afterward my legs balked at the idea of any movement that involved even the most gentle downward slope. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t alone in my post-Palitana payback. Even Patsy admitted that her legs reminded her of the effort every time she had to walk downstairs.

Now that we’ve recovered I’m thinking that there’s always the Eiffel Tower. If you think to book ahead I understand a fine meal awaits there – and you can take pictures.

More Gujarat images

20140131-230520.jpg First of many geography lessons. Followed by a sign at the Somnath Temple http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somnath
located on the shore of the Arabian Sea that read:
A far light stretching
Without obstruction
Up to the South Pole over
The end of the ocean.

We were treated to viewings of fabulous heirloom and antique textiles in private collections as well as artisan-made treasures waiting to become heirlooms:

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Artist’s hands at work:

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Village scenes and welcoming faces:

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Crazy architecture:

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But in fact we were just some westerners in search of alternative modes of transportation:

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Or interested in local wildlife:

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Or simply color:

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The Gujarat Ten (Plus One Terrific Guy): Dusty, Determined and Dazzled

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Nine other women and I came to India loosely united by the friendship or knowledge of an exceptional woman, Mary Ann Marino. Two of us were Mary Ann’s longtime, dear friends, three of us only got to know her in the last years of her shining life, and one met her at dinner party at which Mary Ann shared her extraordinary story. The other four heard we were going to India to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable person and asked to come along. You can read more about Mary Ann in the February post of last year.

Five of us had traveled in India previous to this trip and thought we knew what to expect. Three were seasoned travelers in other parts of the third world, one had been to Africa and mainland China, and the bravest (and, as it turned out, the pluckiest) of all was jumping off a virtual travel cliff, without the benefit of any travel experience beyond Europe’s most civilized countries.

We traveled in two vans that dodged water buffaloes, cows, camels, the occasional elephant, and frequent pot holes the size of jacuzzis. The roads, sometimes paved and often not, were always dusty. We were dusty. Conveniences that until now we took totally for granted, like hot water and the Internet, were unreliable or non-existent. ‘Bathrooms’ between hotel stops were, for the most part, typical third-world squat toilets. You don’t come to India for gourmet cuisine – although we did have a few delicious meals – and we ate with care and crossed fingers that all would be well the next day. For a group that mostly didn’t know each other before we began our trip I must say the chemistry was excellent. We all seemed to enjoy each others’ company. There was never any whining or complaining, everyone was a very good sport and most important everyone was on time – to a fault. Our excellent teamwork made for a really terrific trip. Our rewards were many, including the new friends we made thanks to this most excellent adventure.

In addition to two calm, cool, collected and occasionally daring drivers, we had the fortunate company of two very personable guides, each with his own area of expertise. As our schedule was jam-packed we benefitted from their gentle shepherding off and on the vans, in and out of villages, temples and other stops along the way. As we bumped and swerved over the primarily tabletop flat land, Vikram (our principal guide) supplied us with facts and background information while Chandrajee (his sidekick) charmed us with tidbits of local customs, including his upcoming wedding to which, he says, we will all be invited. I don’t think there was one of us who could wrap her head around the fact, in keeping with the tradition of parent-arranged matches, he wasn’t going to see his bride until they were married.

I picked Gujarat a bit by accident. When we were in Hyderabad last year we met a woman at a dinner party who suggested with great enthusiasm that we spend the final month of our four month trip touring the famous weaving and handicraft villages of this western state that bumps out into the Indian Ocean directly south of Pakistan. I like looking at textiles and David lit up at the plan when he discovered that Palitana, a complex of Jain temple that he was determined to visit, was included on our itinerary. Then we checked the weather. We couldn’t get to Gujarat until March, when average temperatures were a scorching 110-115 degrees F. It seemed we had missed the ideal season to go there last year. So, instead, we headed north to the Himalayas.

However, I kept the extremely comprehensive and detailed itinerary our friend had provided last year. When Santha proposed the reunion of Mary Ann’s friends on the anniversary of her death I wondered if a tour of weaving centers might appeal to the group coming from the States. It did and, as our tour ended at Palitana, David signed on to join us for the final few days.

We assembled in Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. Some of our group had spent the previous week traveling to other places in India, and some had just stepped off the plane onto Indian soil for the very first time. Ahmedabad is not the ideal gateway city for an India virgin visitor. There’s not a lot of charm here. Traffic chaos reigns and the result is deadly gridlock at every intersection. There doesn’t seem to be a real center of the city – just endlessly truck, car, tuk-tuk and cow-clogged streets clouded in a jarring cacophony of honking horns. It took such a long time to get anywhere it was almost time to leave as soon as we arrived.

We all looked forward to visiting the famous Calico Museum of Textiles which, for many of us, was going to be a highlight of the trip. It turns out that tickets must be booked well in advance for the two daily tours that each accommodate only 20 people. Our tour operator who had made all the arrangements hadn’t done this, so we were basically out of luck. Every string that could be pulled was pulled, but to no avail. Starting out with this major disappointment made me anxious about what lay ahead as I was the one who had talked everyone else into joining me on this great adventure.

One salve for our disappointment was that our arrival coincided with an annual kite festival that is celebrated all over India.

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It was a joyous celebration where almost everyone from the smallest child to the oldest grandfather held onto the control end of a soaring kite, pulling the string to make the kite dive and soar. Many kites had glass or razors impregnated into the string and a facile operator could cut the string of any kite that his crossed paths with.

We spent a few peaceful hours at the Gandhi Ashram which housed an extensive collection of memorabilia and photographs documenting this remarkable man’s life. Quotes along with portraits of notable pacifists and people who challenged the system in non-violent ways were posted on the walls. The panel dedicated to Henry David Thoreau demonstrated how very far Ahmedabad is from Concord when I tried to explain to one or our guides that I often walk for exercise around the pond where Thoreau lived while he wrote his famous book. “What is your destination?” he asked. “Just around the pond,” I told him. This didn’t compute. It was clear that walking around a pond for exercise was an indulgence right up there with car seats and designer dogs. I felt, not for the first or last time, like the wildly pampered westerner that I am.

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In our way out of town we stopped at the Rani Ki Vav stepwell, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Rani-ki-Vav is situated about 2 km to the northwest of Patan district of Gujarat. It is the most magnificent stepwell in Gujarat, built during 11-12th centuries. The structure was constructed around a stepped corridor that was compartmented at regular intervals with pillared multi-storyed pavilions. Each of the four pavilions, which demarcate the stages along the descent, have multiple storys – two, four, six and seven respectively. Sculptures of deities and other images adorn the walls flanking the staircase. Nearly four hundred niches on the walls display images.

The sight, and the light were especially wonderful.

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While Gujarat is one of India’s poorer states, it is by far the richest in terms of exquisite handcrafted things, made following traditions that have been passed down for generations. Villages are remote, far from each other and often located at the end of narrow tracts that look more like alleys than streets. Most of the places we visited appeared dramatically poor, especially as viewed by western eyes. Water is carried from communal wells in metal containers balanced on the heads of women who somehow manage to walk gracefully and quickly from well to home.

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While there are some children obviously well cared far (clean, wearing school uniforms and shoes), others are barefoot, tassel haired, street-wise kids who don’t appear to go to school. Instead they sit alongside a family member hawking bangles, earrings, beads and the like.

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One result of this tour is that I will never again look at a piece of fabric or article of clothing without thinking about whose hands have worked to turn it from a silk worm thread or tuft of sheep’s wool or seedy cotton puff into what I am now holding. Humbling and mind-boggling are words that come to mind as I watched women sewing tiny, precise stitches into purses and shawls. Unbelievable is the only word that can describe the seven stage process in which workers apply intricate stamps of hand carved teak to lengths of silk and cotton to create panels of complicated tie dye and dazzling batik.

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An entire family of weavers can work on a sari of gold, blue and red silk, all colored with natural dyes, made in a traditional design. The sari will spend the better part of six months on a loom, growing just inches a day, before being shipped off to a wealthy woman to wear to her daughter’s wedding, and then to pack away as a family heirloom for her daughter to wear for her child’s wedding. And then it will be passed along to the next generation.

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In many of these village we were told that the knowledge and skills used to create these masterpieces are in danger of disappearing. “People don’t value the work of artists,” was something we heard over and over. Young women who in the past would spend years hand embroidering a wedding trousseau that would became part of their dowry were now limited by the elders to a much shorter time so they could, instead, do work that would bring in more money for the family. Some people had begun using synthetic dyes instead of the natural ones that were traditional. Some weavers and silk screeners now use mechanized looms and presses instead of the hand looms and hand presses. It was jarring to hear at a cotton weaving factory the harsh clack of mechanical looms in one in room after just leaving a room, at the same facility, where the looms were operated by hand (actually by foot) and make a sound like flannel wrapped castanets.

What struck each of us at every stop were the incredibly low prices attached to these treasures. We were seeing first hand what happens to the price of a stunning hand woven silk scarf when it leaves the village and ends up at Neiman Marcus. It wasn’t budget, I am guessing, that reined in our desire to buy everything, but the serious charges for overweight on our flights that would have made anything we bought four times more expensive than what we would have paid.

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