The Power Of Water

Ending our time in Sri Lanka with three days at the beach in Mirissa was the cherry on top of an already wildly decadent and delicious hot fudge sundae. The beaches are gorgeous, the sand is baby powder soft, the water is that perfect dreamy blue-green and the temperature is warm as toast. There’s none of the gasp as when your toes hit the surf of the North Atlantic.
The view from the balcony of our hotel was divine. And the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep at night.

20140301-231453.jpgThat’s what I thought of as the waves lulled me to sleep.

What I couldn’t quite get out of my head was the fact that on December 26, 2001, a 50 foot wave generated by the epic earthquake off Ache, Indonesia roared in and devastated most of Sri Lanka’s coastline, killing more than 50,000 people. Our driver told us that before that terrible morning no one in Sri Lanka had ever heard the word tsunami.

There’s almost no obvious evidence of the devastation. As I walked around town (frantically dodging homicidal buses) I noticed how many new hotels were going up – right on the beach. People had built new homes and shops to replace those that had been destroyed – in virtually the same place where the old ones had been washed away. I began to look for any remaining evidence of the tidal wave. While I don’t know the real story of what happened to this house, my imagination painted a full-color picture.



Saffron Is the New Black


We were fortunate to be in Sri Lanka and especially in Anuradhapura during a full moon festival (Siuru Pujawa) when many of the temples are decorated with saffron bolts of cloth, wound around the stupa or dagoba, as it’s called here. It makes for a stunning sight against the white bell-shaped structure. It seems that the biggest celebration is held at the enormous Runwanvallysayaa Temple where locals and visitors walk two-by-two in lines stretching more than 100 yards, each dressed in white and carrying a section of the unfurled bolt of cloth above their heads. When the procession reached the dagoba, monks and workers took the material and did the wrapping. The procession and the process made for some good pictures. David captured the essence on video.




Rising to New Heights


After climbing the 3,750-odd steps to see the mountain-top Jain temple complex in Palitana, India, I was hoping that would be the last of the ‘stairway to heaven’ adventures for us. That hope extended to Sigiriya, a place in Sri Lanka’s central “Cultural Triangle” that we had read about in Lonely Planet. It’s a 660 foot granite monolith that rises up from the jungle. A king of Ceylon had made the area his capital in the 5th century and built his palace on the top of the monolith. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

There were all sorts of red flags we saw, as in “Don’t go if you’re afraid of heights! Or if you’re afraid of wasps or crowds or sunstroke.” There was another red flag when we learned we were there during the full moon festival and a 3-day holiday weekend. That meant the place was crawling with hordes of people and most of them would be making the Masada-like ascent in the morning’s shade. In an effort to avoid the mob scene, we reversed the order of our day and planned to visit the site around 4 pm, when we could survey how much of the pillar was still in the sun, and how much of the holiday crowd was still trying to make the climb.

I had just about convinced myself that, at least for me, Sigiriya was too hard, too hot and too dangerous. And I hate wasps. I was worried that if I tried the climb I would end up on someone’s endangered list. “It says in the book that there’s a lovely garden at the base of the rock. How about we just go there for a few hours instead of doing the climb?” I ventured. David agreed so fast that I could tell that without any prompting from me, he had arrived at the same conclusion.

As we entered the site, the monolith towered over us, baking in the scorching afternoon sunlight. The garden, looking cool and green in the dappled shade, was up a short flight of stairs. Ahead were a series of steep, long flights of steps rising to the base of a rickety circular staircase fastened to the side of the sheer rock wall. There was a large sign advising people to keep their voices low so as not to disturb the wasps but no one else paid any attention to the sign. The sign also warned that we should stand still and not run if attacked by a swarm of wasps.

We stood for a few moments in the shade, catching our breath, watching people begin the ascent. People carrying infants walked past us, small children literally skipped past us, and several old women in sarees seemed to float past us. Embarrassed to watch these people do something we were about to back out of, we ventured up several more flights and found ourselves at the base of the rickety spiral staircase. “What’s up there,” we asked the guard who stamped our passes. “Painted caves. Very beautiful.” The crowd around us surged forward and next thing we knew we were trudging up the stairs. “Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Don’t look down,” was my mantra. I did actually look down once. The view was stupendous and terrifying.

The caves were decidedly worth the effort.

We arrived at a wide open area and faced the final stage of the climb, up through the “Lion’s Paw Gate”. “How much farther could it be?” I asked David, adding with great hope, “In fact, I think I see the top.” “I think you see what you wish was the top,” he answered. At least there was a fairly solid hand rail on the next set of stairs. Up we went.

Finally we reached the top. I’m not exactly sure how we went from “We’re not doing this” to “Here we are!” But we did and here we are:


Udaipur: City of Bond, James Bond

David: Rajasthan was on Sam’s itinerary wish list because of everything he had heard of my visit there with Max in 1994 and with Lora in 2010. To give us enough time, he and I left Lora, Jonathan and Max in Varanasi a few days early and flew to Udaipur, a city in the south of the state.

Udaipur is the city made famous by the Lake Palace Hotel, where Max and I stayed in the flush days of 1994. (A story from our 1994 stay in the Lake Palace is later in this posting.) In the not-quite-so-flush days of 2014, Sam and I had to content ourselves with a distant view of the Lake Palace from a not-quite-as-plush palace on the ghat alongside the lake.

Lake Palace

Lake Palace Hotel & David

Movie buffs among you will remember the Lake Palace as the site of many scenes in the 1983 James Bond movie Octopussy. For those of you without that memory, every restaurant in town will remind you.
One of the high points for us in Udaipur was the Jagdish Temple, built in 1651 and devoted to Vishnu, the supreme Hindu god. The temple was just a couple of hundred yards from our hotel and Sam and I rushed over when we heard a ceremony in progress. A Sadhu holy man sitting at the temple’s entrance acknowledged us as we snapped his picture. The following video captures one man’s total commitment to the ceremony.
Udaipur Sadhu at Vishnu Temple

Udaipur Temple Video

One of the “medium” points in Udaipur, at least for me, was our search for a small jewel of a room that Max and I had discovered in 1994. It was in the Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel, which is part of the beautiful and vast City Palace complex. We had dinner one night alongside a reflecting pool in one of the hotel’s interior courtyards. While we ate, a sitar player performed on steps leading to the room on the opposite side of the courtyard. After dinner we explored the room, which was a beautiful two-story library room.

Sam and I found the courtyard and library. The courtyard’s reflecting pool is now a swimming pool, surrounded by chaise lounge chairs rather than by an elegant dining area. And the room is now a bar/cocktail lounge, not a library. It’s still very beautiful, but not quite what it had become in my memory.
Shiv Niwas Library
The Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel “library” (above) and the City Palace at night.
Udaipur City Palace at night
Now about Max’s and my stay at the Lake Palace in 1994. Since Max was showing me “his India” on that visit, we were staying in $1 a night hotels. On at least one occasion, the bathroom was simply a hole in the floor in a corner of the room with a dripping spigot above it. Udaipur was the exception since I had heard of the Lake Palace. I reserved a room to make sure we could get in.

For some forgotten reason, we decided to arrive in Udaipur a day early and I wanted to make sure the Lake Palace would have a room for us. We were then in Agra and, in 1994, the only practical option was a telephone booth in the street where an attendant was on duty to place calls. Try as he might, he could not make a connection. Inspired after 20 minutes of frustration watching cows, pigs, goats, monkeys, water buffalo, sheep, etc. meandering past the phone booth, I asked the attendant to call my office in Massachusetts. Thanks to its being a satellite connection, the call went through effortlessly. I asked my assistant to call Udaipur to let the hotel know I would be arriving early, and her satellite call also went through effortlessly. All the while the attendant was still not able to make a landline connection.

When we arrived in Udaipur, we found the hotel almost empty. It seemed that the day after I had flown out of Boston there was an outbreak of bubonic plague in nearby Gujarat, and the world’s elite had cancelled their travel plans in droves. It was a lesson in “You never know…”

Hindi, by Jessie Eisenberg


Please note that I am eating authentic biryani in Hyderabad, the home of this most delectable rice concoction. Also please note that, according to local custom, I am eating it with my hand. My right hand to be specific, so as not to offend – or more accurately to repulse – any Indians who still use their left hands for other functions (in lieu of toilet paper, for example). Not visible in this picture is David, happily using a fork to convey this tasty meal into his mouth in a far more practical and expedient manner.

As Max has noted, paper napkins in India are wax coated, so they simply spread grease from one place to another. Thus, until you have access to hot water and soap, your biryani meal sticks to more than your ribs.

In Waltham, Massachusetts, where we live when we are not in India trying to escape the winter weather, I mean, in India seeking spiritual enlightenment, there are many people from India and for each one, it seems, an Indian restaurant. I would love to be able to enjoy a good dish of biryani close to home in any one of these Indian restaurants. But that’s not happening. Not because they don’t offer biryani. People say to us, “Oh, you live in Waltham. There are many Indian restaurants there. Why are they all so terrible?” I have no idea, but I can tell you, I’ve tried them all and gotten sick in each one.

Jessie Eisenberg (whom I will forever confuse with Mark Zuckerburg) is not only a talented actor, he is a funny writer. And a successful one as well, as witnessed by his piece in last week’s The New Yorker magazine (thankfully available on line here in India).

If I Was Fluent in Hindi, by Jessie Eisenburg

WAITER AT INDIAN RESTAURANT: Hello, sir, welcome to an authentic Indian restaurant. Do you have any questions about the menu?
ME: Yes. Why does your food always make me sick?
WAITER: Because we serve our American customers the kind with the weird spices that irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Oh.
WAITER: Yes, it’s official policy at all Indian restaurants.
ME: Well, what do you serve your Indian patrons?
WAITER: We give them a better kind of Indian food, which does not irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Can you give me the better kind?
WAITER: Yes, of course. Since you asked in my language, I feel more comfortable accommodating you.
ME: Thank you.
WAITER: Please don’t tell your American friends about the option to get Indian food that won’t make them sick.
ME: Of course I won’t tell them. It’ll be our little secret.

I’m starting those Hindi lessons tomorrow.

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.

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.