Travels with Lois and Jason

India and Maldives

December 16, 2008 - January 12, 2009

City Highlights

Introduction and recurring themes
Hotels, special events
The Maldives
While many themes re-appeared throughout our travels in the north, west and south of India, each of the seven cities we visited had something unique for us to see.  In each city, we visited some of the major tourist sites, and in every case, we saw very few westerners.  From what we could tell from the clothes that people wore, the overwhelming number of visitors everywhere we went were Indians.


Our tour focused on Old Delhi, taking us to the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, which is now a museum, and his cremation site, which is now a memorial with an eternal flame.  We were so glad we saw the movie Gandhi just before going on the trip.  We were told that it is a fairly accurate depiction of Gandhi’s life, and prepared us well for our visit. 

gnadhi 2
Birla House where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated
on 30 January, 1948.  The footsteps mark his final path.
Raj Ghat is a memorial to Gandhi and marks
 the spot of his cremation on 31 January, 1948.

Old Delhi also introduced us to the Muslim presence in India.  About 13% of the population of India is Muslim. The Muslims invaded India in three waves, the first around 1000 years ago.  The last wave, called the Mughal Empire, ruled northern India from 1526 until defeated by the British in 1858.  We visited the site of the first Muslim minaret in India, the Qutb Minar, built around 1100.  It and the surrounding building were built from the stones of destroyed Hindu temples.  We also visited the tomb of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor (circa 1550).  Later we visited the Red Fort (so called since the outer walls are of red sandstone), built by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal (circa 1650).  As you can see in the picture blow, Shah Jahan liked to build beautiful structures with white marble.  After the fort we visited the surrounding Muslim quarter with its Mosque (the third largest Mosque in the Muslim world). Since the Muslim quarter was centuries old, its narrow twisty streets were best viewed by rickshaw, and what a fun way to explore the area!

Qtub Minar


The holy city of Varanasi is the religious pilgrim destination for Hindus.  The city lies along the Ganges River, which is considered a holy river by Hindus and worshiped as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism.   The city is located where the normally east-west running river goes north-south. The entire city is built on the west bank so that sunrise always illuminates the city.  The east bank is 100% agriculture, with no development of any type visible from the city.  The length of the city along the river is lined with ghats – stairs that provide access to the Ganges.  It is along the ghats that there is so much to see.  Our tour arranged both a sunset boat ride and a sunrise boat ride the next morning.  What an experience.

Boat tourism is a major industry of Varanasi, for both pilgrims and tourists.  Our boat was one of dozens, not counting the hawker boats that constantly came by.  Oar power is used to move the boats up and down stream so that we could observe the events along the various ghats.  The city is book-ended by cremation ghats, one at either end of town.  These go 24/7, and the ashes are put into the river.  For those without sufficient funds for enough wood for a complete cremation, the remains are also put into the Ganges.  Between the two cremation ghats, a distance of maybe a mile, are ceremonial ghats where we witnessed Hindu priests putting the river to sleep at sunset and waking the river at sunrise, washing ghats where laundry is done by beating it on stones in the river and spreading it out on the stairs to dry, and bathing ghats where people come to the river to purify themselves.    

The streets leading down to the river were chocked with traffic, and as we got closer to the river, only pedestrian traffic. For our sunset boat ride, the bus had to stop over a mile from the river, so we rode rickshaws to about a block from the river.  In the morning, for our sunrise cruise, the bus was able to drive to within a block of the river.  Even with our short walks, cows of course were everywhere, and avoiding the cow bombs was an added challenge as we were walking at dusk. 

laundry creamation

Regrettably, bad weather caused our plane flight from Varanasi to our next destination (Khajuraho) to be canceled.  To help fill the day we took a ride to Sarnath about five miles from Varanasi (which took abut 1/2 hour due to traffic). Sarnath is where Buddha preached his first sermon in 500 BC and is a pilgrim destination for Buddhists.  Buddha rejected Hinduism because of its links with the caste system.  Buddha kept many precepts of Hinduism, but rejected the caste system and felt all people were equal.


The Taj Mahal is frequently referred to as a monument to love as it was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as the tomb for his wife Muntaz-i-Mahal (Jewel of the Palace, thus Taj Mahal meaning Crown Palace).  While it was customary for emperors to have many wives, Shah Jahan had only three, and apparently had a special relationship with Muntaz and spent little time with the other two.  Muntaz died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  The Taj was completed around 1653 after 22 years and 20,000 laborers and is considered to be one of the world’s architectural masterpieces.  We visited the white marble edifice twice, mid-day and the following morning for sunrise.  While we had seen the standard pictures of the Taj, what we were not prepared for were the grounds.  The Taj is the centerpiece of an enormous complex of gardens, fountains, mosques, and gathering areas.  There are three entrance gates to the outer courtyard, a walled area with a covered arcade running around the entire perimeter, perhaps 600 yards on a side.  We entered the outer courtyard from the west entrance gate that was nearest our hotel. (There are also north and east gates.)  We walked through this courtyard to reach the main gate, a large and imposing red sandstone structure which in and of itself is an artistic gem.  Our first glimpse of the Taj was through the narrow hallway in the middle of the main gate.  There, on a pedestal of its own, set off by four minarets, with only open sky as the backdrop, is the Taj.  Its white marble gleamed in the mid-day sun.  It was truly beautiful.  And, as we walked through the Taj we saw the inlaid work of precious and semi-precious stones, and carved screens all made from white marble.  The Mughal Emperor demanded perfection and the craftsmanship lived up to his expectations.  To this day, the workmanship is incredibly beautiful.

On our first visit to the Taj there were thousands of visitors, and they gave the Taj dimensions.  The people appeared as ants walking around on the pedestal and into the awesome domed building.  On our second visit, at sunrise, we were among the first in, and without the people, the Taj lost its dimensionality.  Regrettably our sunrise visit was shrouded in smog and the Taj lost its luster in the poor light.  But on our first visit, with the sun shining brightly, the intricate floral patterns, the exquisite stone work and screens, were stunning.  The lower right hand picture is the Taj from our hotel room patio.

Taj 2
Taj 3

Taj 4 Taj Garden taj patio


SunDial The Pink City is the nickname for Jaipur. In 1853, when the Prince of Wales visited Jaipur, the whole city was painted pink to welcome him, and has remained pink ever since.  The high point of our town visit was to the Jantar Mantar, a collection of astronomical instruments, built between 1727 and 1734, and used for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars in their orbits, and ascertaining the location of planets.  The instruments are very large and very accurate.   The sun dial at left is 20 feet high and accurate to within 15 seconds of time.


We visited the Amber Palace, built high in the mountains overlooking the city.  On the way we had to wait for an elephant to cross the road.  It seems so funny to have horse drawn wagons, elephants, cows and camel trains compete with our bus and all the cars, rickshaws and motorbikes for the same road space. The Amber Palace was built 400 years ago, and for fortification they built a wall like the Great Wall of China, only shorter.  This one goes 10 miles around the mountain.  The wall is 20 feet high and wide enough for 4 horses.  Incredible.  Oh, and we had an Indiana Jones jeep ride experience to get to the Palace, through dusty narrow lanes, some with awesome views.  In the pre-jeep days, elephants were used to make the trek from the bottom of the mountain to the palace. elephant crossing


Udapuir is built around a lake and is famous for its floating palace, built in 1743 of white marble as a summer palace.  Regrettably with the drought conditions the lake was very low and we never sensed the palace as "floating."   The palace is now a hotel.  We toured the City Palace and visited a Hindu temple, and had a couple afternoons to shop or relax (we chose to walk the grounds of our hotel, which were spectacular and described in the hotel section below).


synagogue Cochin is toward the southern tip of India, a port on the Arabian Sea.  It has been a major trading port for over 2000 years.  We visited Jew Town and its synagogue.  Apparently the first Jews arrived in Cochin 2000 years ago (after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem).  At one point, they estimate 10,000 Jews lived in India. We visited the Synagogue that was built in 1538 next to the local Maharaja’s palace so that he could protect the Jews from the Portuguese – they brought the inquisition with them to India.  We wandered around and found the Jewish Cemetery but the gate was locked so could only see the gravestones from a distance.  There are 14 Jews left in Cochin, all very old; all the young people moved to Israel.  When the last of the Cochin Jews die, the Synagogue will be made into a museum.  It was a fascinating experience.  It is interesting to note that Cochin also has the first Christian church built in India, Saint Francis.  (Note:  the picture at left was a scan of a post card of the Synagogue as photographs were not allowed inside.)

sign emporium

The southern area of India seemed very prosperous compared to the horrific conditions we saw in the north.  As we drove around the area, it didn’t appear as poor and unkempt as so much of the north had been.  And we didn’t see the street people, the fires, nor nearly as many animals.  Our guide said that this area was under communist rule for many years and that the level of corruption was less than other parts of India so roads, housing, schooling and other services got more attention, and thus our observations were more or less correct.


Taj HotelWe visited the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel which the November 2008 terrorists bombed and saw the memorial to the victims.  Our original tour itinerary had us staying at this hotel, but after the attack our tour company changed the plans and had us skipping Mumbai.  But at the first meeting of the group in Delhi at the beginning of the tour, the group we insisted that they rebook Mumbai, which they did.  They had us stay at a hotel outside the city center.  We saw the Taj Hotel about one month after the attacks, and as you can see from our picture, the hotel looked fully restored on the outside.  We were told that they would be re-opening the hotel soon.

laundry Our city tour included driving through the slums of Mumbai, unfortunately among the world's largest, and a stop at the laundry ghat where the city's industrial laundry is done by hand.  Solar power is used to dry the thousands of items each day.  We also passed the massive water pipes which bring water to the downtown area.  But this supply is insufficient for the population and so a water delivery industry has evolved, with water trucks to deliver water to roof top storage tanks. pipes


But the high point of our visit to Mumbai was our visit to the Elephanta Caves, located on an island in Mumbai harbor.  The basalt rock-cut temple complex covers an area of 60,000 square feet and was dug out over a four hundred year period (9th to 13th centuries).  The cave consist of chiseled out columns and statues.    Numerous 20 foot high statues of the Hindu god Shiva in its many forms are represented, and all laid out so that natural light and visual lines make them look striking.  The center piece is a three headed Shiva.  Shiva is one of the main Hindu gods.  The picture below was taken from the internet as our picture didn't come out in the limited natural light.  Tragically in the 17th century, once again the Portuguese’s lack of tolerance for non-Catholic ideas led them to deface or destroy much of the sculptor work.  In spite of this vandalism, the site was overwhelming in terms of man’s ability to create incredible works of art.




Between the recurring themes and the incredible city sites, we had a fantastic taste of India.  But our hotels and the special cultural events showed yet another perspective of this intriguing country. 

Introduction and recurring themes
Hotels, special events
The Maldives

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February 5, 2009