Monday, December 24, 2007
Sunday, December 16, 2007
If you are not an Indian passport holder, and you buy the combined ticket of EUR 12.5 for Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it works out to EUR 6 or so per attraction.
Here's a comparison with other sites, from a mix of developing as well as developed economies:
- Tickets to Machu Pichu in Peru are EUR 18.
- Tickets to Angkor Wat in Cambodia are EUR 10.
- The entrance ticket to the Colosseum in Rome is EUR 16 for non-EU nationals, and there is a discounted price offered to EU Nationals of EUR 11.
- Tickets to the Leaning Tower of Pisa are also EUR 16 at the moment
- Tickets to the Giza Plateau and at least one pyramid - say Khufu - cost EUR 18.
- Entrances to the Forbidden City in China are only EUR 4 (but that may be because the exchange rate is artificially held by the Chinese goverment).
As far as the differential pricing for Indians is concerned - The Government of India subsidises tickets for Indians to promote our heritage and create more interest / awareness / national pride. Additionally, in a poor country, there is no way the man on the street can afford the kind of the prices that these monuments deserve. This is a dent in the Government coffers, but it is a decision in the national interest which the Tourism department has the right to make.
There is obviously a case to be made for levying flat fees for everyone - Indian or foreign - and I've heard that they're considering flat fees of INR 250 or so. But honestly, if you've been to Taj and seen the number of poor people that come there - none of them could afford this.
In any case, until we hear any decisions, all that I think you should ask yourself as a tourist is - am I paying a fair price i.e. did I get my money's worth at these two monuments for EUR 6 per monument?
I think the answer is likely to be a yes.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The touristy parts of the country - Delhi, Agra, Rajasthan - are full of pushy vendors trying to sell them things at downright outrageous prices.
I met an American lady recently who said to me, "Deepa, I feel so much at a loss...I'm the outsider, and I feel like I have to constantly watch out so I'm not cheated."
I thought about what she said - and here's my advice: If you're visiting India, and someone quotes you a silly price at the market, my recommendation is - Just smile and say no.
The thing is, if you look prosperous, vendors will always quote you a higher price. That applies even to Indian buyers. Sometimes when someone quotes me a totally wacky price, I just grin widely and say the Hindi equivalent of "Yeah right, go pull the other one". Then we haggle back and forth a bit, and when the price gets to the point where I think he's making a good margin, then I give in.
It's all part of the game.
To treat this overcharging-bargaining game as a personal insult, or worse, to think of yourself as a victim because this doesn't happen in your country, is just totally missing the point. You have to apply a different yardstick when you are in a totally different land. You have to tell yourself that this is how India's shopping culture works. No one is singling you out for extra-harassment...this is just a bunch of fairly poor people trying to get a few extra dollars off anyone who looks like they can afford it. In my MBA school they had a term for it - it was called "what the market will bear" pricing!
India is a both a destination and a journey. It has woven its magic for millenia now, on travellers from all parts of the world. It is a complex and rich culture, with so much to offer - but the rules are different.
To explore this sort of complexity, you have to step out from the comfort zone of neatly labelled racks and polite checkout greeters. You have to embrace the street shopping and bargaining spirit. It can be fun, actually. There's the crafty assessment of what something is really worth, the starting position, the bantering conversation and the give-and-take, the testing of each other's mettle, and the final agreement on how one particular shawl fits into the overall cosmic scene of things!
Travel wouldn't be half as interesting if the world was one big Walmart, right?
Saturday, November 24, 2007
They say tandoors evolved somewhere in Syria, although I'm not sure. Among the earliest tandoors that archaeologists have discovered are those from the Indus Valley Civilization, dated around 2600 BC. From the New Kingdom period in Egypt (1539 - 1069 BC), here's an interesting painting showing how bread was baked in tandoors.
In the last 5000 years or so, this style of cooking has spread all over the world and is now among the most popular things going. Delhi is a great place to eat some of the best tandoori food in India. Check out Burrp for Delhi restaurant recommendations.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
If you do go there, check out this guy. And let me know if he's just a clever little fox, or someone who really knows his craft!
Sunday, November 4, 2007
She was wearing an eye-catching green, but it was the hair that drew my attention.
Glossy, long, black hair, tamed into a single braid, a 'choti'.
It is a peculiarly Indian thing, the single choti. There are folk songs dedicated to it. Poets moon about it; the movies celebrate it. The long choti is so strongly associated with feminine beauty that even today, many Indian women are horrified at the thought of cutting their hair short. Me, I've had short hair for the last 20 years, and I can't see myself in braids.
Still, I have to admit, there's something about this girl's hair, the simplicity and the grace of it, the way it falls on her back, that is truly beautiful.
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Longpi artists make striking pots, mugs and vases. They're all black in colour, simple and almost minimalistic in their design.
At a recent exhibition, I bought a set of 6 beer mugs from A. S. Tamreipam, a Longpi craftsman from Manipur. That gave me the perfect opportunity to ask him about this craft.
"Is this black terracotta?" I asked him. "No", he said, "it is stone." He rapped on it with his knuckles. Yes, it was stone. But stone that looked like clay?
But Longpi craftsmen don't use just any kind of stone. They use serpentinite, a dark black stone that powers the fascinating hydro-thermals of the Lost City in the Atlantic Ocean. When serpentinite is formed, the process releases large quantities of heat. At the Lost City, this has created an eerie undersea world populated by strange invertebrates. (By the way, serpentinite is also the state rock of California.)
When it's taken out of the kiln, it is then polished with a local leaf called Chiron Na. That's what gives it that lustre.
Longpi beer mugs, anyone?
Sunday, October 21, 2007
I've been vegetarian all my life. Anything I write about meat, is therefore totally suspect. Still, these photos speak for themselves, so I should be ok!
This area of Nizamuddin is predominantly Muslim. This is one of the neighbourhood butchers. Check out the wooden chopping block - it's a round tree stump. I wonder what the little boy is trying to buy. Do you know? On second thoughts, don't tell me - I don't *want* to know :)
Here's a closer look at Mehboob's menu, it had both Hindi and English spellings -
- Stew - This is written as e-stew in Hindi alongside
- Chanp - It's written correctly in Hindi, and the English spelling tries valiantly to cope with the nasal "chaap". Here's a recipe.
- Kaleji - Liver
- Qeema - Mince
- Nahari Paaya - Bone marrow and trotters (this is a breakfast dish, originally)
- Sabzi - Vegetables (finally, something vegetarian)
- Daal - Yep. I know that one!
- Bheja - Brain
- Aalu Anda - Potatoes and Eggs (it's a gravy curry)
- Karhi Pakora - Lentil dumplings in yoghurt gravy
- Daal Gosht - Lentils and Mutton
I walked a little further. A goat and kids sat by the edge of the road, cool in the shade. The black kid was shy, but the white one was the inquisitive sort. I said to myself, it's one thing to see meat dangling from a hook, or ladled on a plate. It is something else altogether, to see it look curiously at you!
Walking along this area is difficult for me. I grew up in a family and social circle where almost everyone was vegetarian. Watching these gentle creatures in Nizamuddin, knowing that death awaits them, and knowing I cannot do anything about it, is very disturbing for me.
But I still think it is a good thing for me to see this place - because this way, I learn a very important lesson. I learn that not everyone is the same. Not everyone was brought up with the same beliefs as me. There are other communities and people, with other ways of life, all of which are just as equally valid. The things that seem disturbing to me are perfectly normal to someone else.
Perhaps this is the essence of all travel - it can give us the opportunity to see differences, to acknowledge them, and to accept their validity.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
Friday, October 12, 2007
Saturday, October 6, 2007
Collectors are fond of miniatures - they are small and compact, intricate and colorful, and they allow a rich display even within a limited space.
This original painting of a noble leaning at the feet of a lady is dated 1750, and priced at $15,000. I like the bold use of orange, and the small detailing - notice the fingertips of the lady, her jewellery, her finely arched eyebrows, the pattern on the sash of the nobleman. A replica of this sort of painting, executed by hand, could cost between $35 to $200 depending on the quality of the artist.
As the Mughal Empire collapsed, artists sought patronage in the princely Hindu states of Rajasthan. From 1750 onwards, there was a great Renaissance in Rajasthan, as artists long used to Muslim emperors adapted their style and content to suit their new patrons.
The themes of the paintings changed - the amorous pursuits of a blue-skinned Krishna, Rajput festivals, processions, animal and bird life all made their appearance in Rajasthani miniatures.
Can you imagine what that period was like? Rajasthan was flooded with artists! In every princely kingdom, a brand new form of painting emerged, showcasing a vibrant intermingling of Hindu and Muslim culture.
Eventually, seven styles or schools of miniature art emerged in Rajasthan - the schools of Mewar, Marwar, Kotah, Bundi, Kishangarh, Amber and Bikaner.
Here is one of my favourite ones - it's called The Sports of Love, and it shows Krishna and the gopis frolicking in a lotus-filled river. His dark skin blends with the river, his gold adornments stand out in contrast. The gopis are bare-breasted, lost in longing. The foliage on the riverbank is lush with detail.
In Kishangarh, an Indian Mona Lisa appeared. Raja Sawant Singh, himself a poet, commissioned the artist Nihalchand to paint his mistress Bani Thani as Krishna's lover Radha. Bani Thani was not her original name - it was a pet-name that meant 'Beautifully Dressed'. Bani Thani's portrait is a highly stylised version of an Indian beauty - the eyebrows are arched, the forehead is high, the eyes are sensuously half open, the lips are thin yet curved. Here is a modern artist's rendition of Bani Thani:
Today, most artists in Rajasthan don't execute original miniatures - they make painstaking copies of older ones. Some of them are worth buying - they show an attention to detail, and a lushness which makes them attractive.
I'm not an expert, but if you're travelling to Rajasthan, and looking to take back one of these paintings as a holiday keepsake, then my advice is - look for a certain lyrical quality and delicacy of line. See if the painting has the rich pleasing effect of the originals, or whether it glistens in tawdry fashion. Check what paints are used. Compare with images of museum originals if you can. Also of course, use your common sense - the better paintings sell at a much higher price range.
P.S. Another painting style I like is Basholi, from the Punjab. Take a look at this painting called Leave your anklets behind, and Go. In what seems to me, a scene erotic with expectation, Radha's maid-in-waiting removes Radha's noisy anklets for a woodland tryst with Krishna. (Check out the green emeralds on Radha and Krishna - they're made of shiny beetle wings).
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Have you seen the opening lines of the Koran? Even in an English translation, without any rhyme to it, I can sense the powerful cadence of the words:
Praise belongs to God, the Lord of the worlds,
He the merciful, the compassionate,
He, the ruler of the day of judgment!
Thee we serve and Thee we ask for aid.
Guide us in the right path.
The path of those Thou art gracious to;
Not of those Thou art wroth with; nor of those who err.
I'm not religious, yet there is something fundamentally appealing in the sound of all prayer.
Friday, September 28, 2007
This is Old Delhi's way of doing it - by giving free water to anyone who asks for it. In a hot country, naturally, this is the quintessential act of hospitality. A boy is employed, to sit there all day long, offering water to anyone who asks. The water is cold - they use big blocks of ice to cool it down. Someone rich sponsors the whole thing, and of course, earns much merit in the process.
Hinduism uses the word athithi-dharma to describe every man's obligations to visitors or guests. It is one of the many dharmas a Hindu has. Others include dharma to your parents, to children, to ancestors, to birds / animals / plants and so on. As part of athithi-dharma, a Hindu is expected to attend to a visitor's needs before attending to his own.
The dharma of hospitality is not peculiar to Hinduism. There are several stories in the Bible, about men who took strangers into their homes. The Middle Eastern ethic of offering hospitality (and protection) to strangers is well known - in fact, there are elaborate and binding rules both on the host and the visitor. The Greeks were big on hospitality too - the god of hospitality is Zeus himself, and he's called Xenios Zeus (xenos means stranger, in case you didn't already know).
Mankind's long traditions of hospitality are still alive and kicking - for a modern international rendering of athithi-dharma, you really don't have to look beyond the CouchSurfers. Couchsurfing amazes me. What would make someone share their home with a complete stranger? I can understand this sort of thing if you live in a mansion with 20 rooms, with enough hired help to manage guests. But imagine living in a tiny apartment in New York! And waking up to find a guy snoring in your living room - or worse, messing up your one small bathroom. Gross.
Yes, there's the charm of meeting people from all over the world. There's the offchance that you'll meet someone warm and friendly (and clean), who'll tell you funny stories, help cook dinner, and - maybe they'll even like the same authors that you do. But personally, I think you should never get into Couchsurfing with any expectations. Just do your atithi-dharma. Make that leap of faith. And let events play themselves out.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
"She's very young", said my guest. "Do you think this was an arranged marriage?".
"Probably", I said, giving her my stock answer.
"I don't know any official statistics, but I think over 90% of marriages are arranged."
"Does everyone marry this young?"
" No, the national average age is 19-20 for women."
"Nineteen? That's young as well!"
"Yes, but at the time the British left India, the average age of marriage was 14. We've come quite a way from there, especially if you look at the size of our population, and what it takes to change a whole nation's average in 50 years. It's nothing short of a revolution."
She looked at the young bride again. I could see her thinking, how does this girl feel about this? A stranger in her bed, chosen by her parents? What is this relationship really like?
And, seeing the couple again through my guest's eyes, I thought yes, how does this girl put up with this stranger in her bed?
My guest turned to me.
"Can I ask you something personal?"
I could see it coming.
"Did you have an arranged marriage?" she asked me.
"No", I said.
Her relief was palpable.
"I cannot understand this arranged marriage business! How do you put up with it!!", she said.
I could see that for her, being told who to marry was about as medieval as it gets.
I launched into an explanation of expectations and conditioning, and how marriage in India is not between individuals, you marry into a family, so the more similar your backgrounds and religion, the easier it is to fit in. We spoke of East versus West, Hollywood's romantic brainwashing, divorce rates, the caste system, the obsession with fair skin, matrimonials, the shaadi.com revolution, and so on. She was a highly intelligent lady, a pleasure to talk to.
At the end of the conversation, she had heard it all, and it didn't change her mind a bit. The bottomline was - sometimes East is East and West is West, and there ain't no middle ground!
Thursday, September 13, 2007
It's not the first time this sort of cleaning has been tried. The last time they did it was in 2001, and it was very successful.
Apparently, the Ain-e-Akbari, a 16th century manuscript already contains a reference to this simple method of cleaning marble. Apply multani mitti, layer upon layer, let it dry. Keep doing it until you have a layer of mud that is about an inch thick. Wait for 24 hours. Wash off with water. Voila! All the impurities come off, and the marble is a gleaming white!
Very cool, huh? They're trying this out in Italy now, I hear.
Monday, September 10, 2007
This is St Stephens Church. It is all of 140 years old, but wears its years lightly.
The inside of the church has surprisingly high ceilings - the decoration is baroque, and the stained glass circular Rose Window is beautiful. The interior is still in good shape. If you want to take a look, go on a Sunday morning, when the church is open.
Here is what St Stephen's looked like in 1872: see what I mean by having to look at it from the side? The arches are elegant - they're made of yellow sandstone and are beautifully carved. I also like the pleasing proportion of the really tall bell-tower.
The Mutiny - also called The First Indian War of Independence - was the first wide-spread uprising against the British East India Company. The rebel forces gathered under the banner of the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Fighting was concentrated primarily in North India.
Delhi saw a great deal of violent bloodshed, and indeed, marked the turning point in the war. When the rebels lost the Siege of Delhi, it brought about the end of the Mughal empire. Bahadur Shah's sons and grandsons were killed, and he was exiled. In 1858, control over India was transferred from the East India Company to Queen Victoria, thus marking the beginning of the British Raj.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
Ever try counting leaves?
I saw this man in Old Delhi, his fingers were flying from one paan leaf to the next.
What arrested my attention, actually, was how gentle he was with the leaves.
The photos can't capture that...the finesse and care with which he handled them.
When the counting was done, the leaves went into little baskets.
They were covered with damp cloth, to protect them from the sun.
And from this wholesale market, they went to little retail outlets all over the city.
If you're wondering what a retail outlet for paan is like, look no further.
I found this paan-wallah opposite Red Fort. See the leaves, hidden in damp red folds of cloth?
Next to the paan-wallah is a chai-wallah - with his trademark aluminum kettle.
These two guys are cultural icons of sorts, so this photo is almost a Delhi cliche.
Me, I'm a firm hater. I don't like the sharp raw taste of the leaves. The lime irritates my mouth. And if that's not enough, here's the final decider - I'm so not into bright red lips. If you peer into my purse, all you'll find is a sensible brown lipstick for day time wear, and a sultry purple for the evening. I'll leave the bright paan-red lips to the Noor Jehans of the world.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
As for architecture, the Birla Temple does have a sort of beauty of its own, mainly because its blends Orissan temple style with the Mughal style. Its peculiar fascination with red-and-white is definitely Mughal. And perhaps you've already noticed the semi-Mughal arches at the entrance and on some windows.
Oh, and there's another interesting thing about the temple: although it is dedicated to Vishnu (one of the central gods in the Hindu Trinity), it also has a large Buddhist shrine.
What? You didn't know the Buddha was a Hindu god?
Here's a popular folk toy representation of the ten incarnations of Vishnu, starting with the fish-incarnation on the left. See the orange guy on the right? Surely half a billion people can't be wrong? :)
Friday, August 24, 2007
Saturday, August 18, 2007
She turned, saw the camera and smiled. It completely transformed her.
Quiet stubborn face at Bangla Sahib Gurudwara
Sunday, August 12, 2007
But did you know that before the Portuguese brought it to India, no one in India ever used chillies?
Seems unbelievable - but apparently, before Vasco da Gama came along and changed everything, we used pippali, long pepper - and not chillies.
Long pepper is a strange looking thing (reminds me of a rattlesnake's tail, actually). It is native to Bengal, and in the sixteenth century, it also grew wild on the Malabar coast. According to the French trader Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, long pepper used to be thrown into Muslim pulaos 'by the handful'. It was used not just in cooking, but also in ayurveda as a cure for impotency (I'm not surprised).
So how did long pepper lose the battle to the chilli? Chillies had several advantages - they tasted similar to long pepper, but were easier to grow, and they weren't subject to mould. What's more, they were really cheap. For the vast majority of peasants, that made the chilli a really attractive proposition. So it was a price war, and at the end of it, long pepper went the way of the dodo. Even ayurvedic physicians supplanted it with chillies in their concoctions.
The spice markets, instead, are full of different varieties of red chillies. Try walking into Khari Baoli, and you'll see what I mean. At the spicy end of the spectrum there's Birds Eye from the eastern parts of India, and the cleverly named Jwala (Flame) from Gujarat. There's the Kashmiri Mirchi, which is prized for the red colour it gives to food, and the small fat Gundu from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. In general, the rule is, if the chilli is small and sharp and wicked looking, then it's probably hot as hell. Bigger, fatter chillies are less spicy, for example, the Tomato Chilly from Warangal.
The other pepper that was widely used in Indian cuisine - and which didn't lose the battle to Vasco da Gama's chilli - is black pepper, kali mirch.
Black pepper is still a traditional ingredient in several dishes. For breakfast today, I had South Indian rice pongal - rice flavoured with cumin and whole black pepper. If ever you go into a South Indian restaurant, ask for pongal. Remember that it's one of the few 'authentic' Indian dishes that you'll find!
Anyway – authentic or otherwise - Indian food is now booby-trapped with green and red chillies. So here’s a survival tip just in case you bite into one of them. What you've always suspected is right - water doesn't help. You're better off sipping cold milk, or eating an ice-cream, because they contain casein, a protein that breaks down the capsaicin in the chilli.