Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Jaisalmer and Sam

On the "road" to Jaisalmer
The desert swallows some of the roads, if you are not on the highway

Visiting Bahubali in Shravanabelagola

Bahubali in Shravanabelagola: The world's largest stone monolith at 57 feet

Shravanabelagola, India

Approximately one hundred fifty kilometers west of Bangalore, in the Hassan District of the Indian state of Karnataka, stands the world's largest stone monolith. The statue is of the Jain teacher, Bahubali, and he sits atop Chandragiri Hill in Shravanabelagola. Carved in the tenth century, this statue received the most votes in the Times of India newspaper's listing of twenty candidate sites to become the Seven Wonders of India. Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) and Taj Mahal came in second and third place, respectively.

Pooja at Bahubali's feet
You can really get an idea of the size of Bahubali with this picture

Bahubali is revered by Jains because he was the first to attain moksha, or total enlightenment and freedom from death and rebirth. Shravanabelagola is a major Jain pilgrimage, and every twelve years the Mahamastakabhisheka is celebrated, where Bahubali is coated in milk, saffron and powdered sandalwood; and given offerings of food and precious metals. The next celebration will be in 2018, so mark your calendars.

Shravanabelagola roughly translates from Kannada to mean "The beautiful pool in the center of town."

Bahubali ( बाहुबली )

Bahubali, or Gommateshvara, was the second of one hundred brothers. His older brother, Bharat, did not appreciate the fact that the land his younger brother ruled over was more prosperous than his, so he decided to take it by force. Soon into battle, it was decided that war would end in too much suffering for both kingdoms, so Bharat and Bahubali should have a contest of strength to determine the victor. Each would hit the other over the head until one admitted defeat. Since he was older, Bharat delivered the first blow, almost knocking Bahubali unconscious. Bahubali, whose name means "arms of strength", realized in mid-swing that if he landed his fist on his brother's head, Bharat would surely die. Already in an attack position, he could not stop because of the warrior code. If he stayed his hand, he would lose his position of power over his kingdom for breaking the Kshatriya attack protocol. In order to save his brother and to maintain his warrior status, he grabbed his own hair, ripping it from his head and struck the ground. Bahubali then gave over his kingdom to his brother and went off to live an ascetic life.

Bahubali's brother, Bharata
Statue of Bharat on the hill opposite where Bahubali stands

Bharat approached the meditating Bahubali several times, to return the kingdom, and even later to give over both kingdoms. Bahubali was not interested and remained deep in meditation, until he attained moksha. It is said that the statue of Bahubali is really Bahubali. Others say that Bharat fired his bow at the hilltop and the rock split by his arrow took the shape of the statue. The statue atop Vindyagiri Hill in Shravanabelagola won't tell us the true story, neither will the smaller statue of Bahubali's brother on Chandragiri Hill.

Chandragiri Hill

Bahuballi in the background
You can see Bahubali on top of Vindyagiri Hill from Chandragiri Hill

Just opposite Vindyagiri Hill, past the sarovar, is Chandragiri Hill. While it does not have a huge statue of a siddha on it, it does have a dozen or so bastis, or Jain temples. I particularly liked roaming around this hill, as there were very few people around. You could really enjoy the scenery, take your time examining the old writing on the rocks and spend time inside the shrines.

On a temple on Chandragiri Hill
One of the many Jain temples on Chandragiri Hill

A few things to note about this day excursion from Bangalore. First, you cannot wear shoes on either hill, so just leave them in the car for the day. Second, there are a lot of steps; repeat, a lot of steps involved getting to the top of either one of these hills. Third, carry some water with you, as there are no vendors waiting to sell you cold drinks at the top of these hills. Finally, carry more water than what you think you would like to drink, as you should remain hydrated.

Click here for more pictures from our trip to Shravanabelagola.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Jodhpur, The Blue City

Jodhpur ahead
On NH 65 heading to Jodhpur

The Blue City

Jodhpur is known by many names: Sun City, Gateway to Thar and Brahmpuri are only some. Its most well-known moniker is The Blue City. Many of the houses to the north of Mehrangarh Fort are painted blue. The reason for the homes' color varies with the person you ask. Here are some of the reasons I have heard or read:

  • Brahmins are the religious leaders and skin of the gods is usually blue in color
  • The color discourages mosquitoes from entering the city
  • Chemicals to block termites tinted the originally white paint
  • This marked religious homes during the Jaipur-Jodhpur war, keeping inhabitants safe
  • Brahmins marked their homes to show themselves superior to neighbors
  • The color keeps the home cool

Whatever the reason, it was an interesting sight, looking down from Mehrangarh Fort.

The Blue City or the Sun City
View of The Blue City from Mehrangarh Fort

Friday, December 11, 2009

Brahma Temple in Pushkar

"Born from a flower" - that is what Pushkar means. Brahma accidentally dropped a flower down to Earth from the heavens, and Pushkar Lake was instantly created. This was the site of Brahma's first vajna, or sacrificial ritual. When Brahma's wife, Savitri, did not attend this event, Brahma took another consort. Savitri, hurt by this, cursed Brahma never to be worshiped anywhere outside Pushkar. So it was cool to visit the spot where it is cool to have a temple devoted to Brahma.

Pushkar Lake

Ghats surrounding Pushkar Lake
Pushkar Lake

Pushkar Lake is a pilgrimage spot, or dham, for Hindus. During Kartik, in October or November (lunar), devotees come to bathe in the lake water. Surrounding the lake are fifty-two ghats, though many of the steps do not lead to water, as the lake was nearly void of water when we visited.

The Pink City of Jaipur

What time is it? If you are in Jaipur, head over to the Jantar Mantar for the answer.

Jantar Mantar Observatory Zodiac instruments
Jantar (instrument) Mantar (calculation) is a complex of astronomical measuring tools

Jantar Mantar is the largest of five ancient Indian observatories, completed in 1734. These will constructed under orders from Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II. This king accomplished so many things in his thirty-year rule that his title of maharaja, or grand king, was modified by "sawai", which is Hindi for one and one quarter. The massive astronomical devices at Jantar Mantar were used mostly for religious purposes: marking times of the year for Muslim and Hindu festivals. Jai Singh was a religious astronomer himself and strove for accuracy in timing important decisions regarding politics with heavenly events, for the gods' favorable assistance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Goa - Us at Sunset
Enjoying the Goan beach at sunset


Goa borders the Arabian Sea and is India's smallest state. Once a Portuguese colony, you can still sense the cultural and architectural influence. The region is also about one-quarter Christian, so there are about just as many churches to find as Hindu temples. However, our time in Goa was not about taking in culture nor about visiting churches and temples. Relaxation on the beach was what we made the trip to Goa for. So, this post will be void of narrative and just show a couple of photos of decompressing in Goa. Enjoy!

Goa - Taj Exotica
View from our room at Taj Exotica to the beach

Goa - Hammock in the Morning
Anjali enjoyed the hammock while catching up on phone calls and sipping morning tea

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Meet the Family, Episode Three: A Day of Channa

"Where are you from?" is a difficult question for me to answer. My answer now is "Bangalore, India," to which I am just as attached as I am to Berkeley, California or Newport News, Virginia, or just about anywhere else. I was born in California, lived in several states, but I suppose I was raised in South Texas. Even within Texas as a boy, I lived in several places. For Anjali, answering that question is easy. She is from Amritsar, and we were fortunate to be able to visit just after Diwali.

Golden Temple Mail

Heading to NOIDA
Bye Delhi

To get to Amritsar, we took an overnight train out of Delhi. This was the best way to make the trip, because even if we flew we would have had to subtract airport time from our day in Amritsar. Already exhausted from things we had done in the previous days, we slept through the entire ride without any trouble, arriving refreshed. Anjali's dad picked us up at the station, and within fifteen minutes we were at his home.

Amritsar Visit: Overnight Train to Delhi
The Golden Temple Mail train

Morning Arrival in Amritsar
Good morning, Amritsar

Breakfast and Lassi

Our first stop was to enjoy breakfast, some delicious channa puri. A bowl of greasy, spiced potatoes came out and we poured from that right into the beans. My taste buds were having a great time, but my heart was sweating just thinking about the arterial clogging.

Breakfast in Amritsar
My first Punjabi breakfast

After breakfast, Anjali's dad took me to a roadside spot to have me try lassi. Friends at work had been telling me that the best lassi is found in this area of India because of the high quality milk. The preparation has a dollop of butter on top of some heavy cream. I am not the biggest fan of yogurt, so the drink was something I am happy to say I tried, drank the entire serving and would not likely order one again.

Lassi in Amritsar
Check out the butter on top of each cup of lassi

Harmandir Sahib

Amritsar Visit: Harmandir Sahib
Harmandir Sahib: The Golden Temple

The city of Amritsar gets its name from Amrit Sar, the body of water surrounding the Golden Temple. Amrita is what the gods drink, a nectar which grants them immortality. Sarovar is a body of water surrounding a temple. Translated, Amritsar means The Pool of the Nectar of Immortality. The Golden Temple, properly known as Harmandir Sahib, is the central temple, or gurudwara, for Sikhs. Each year, more people visit Harmandir Sahib than Taj Mahal! Though, I suspect a fair percentage of visitors to the Golden Temple are Sikh pilgrims, not all just tourists.

Amritsar Visit: Harmandir Sahib
A Sikh bathes in the sarovar

Amritsar Visit: Harmandir Sahib
Anjali and her dad before the Golden Temple

Jallianwala Bagh

A short stroll from the Golden Temple, we visited the site of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre. In 1919, soldiers fired on unarmed civilians, which had assembled to protest high taxation. The orders came from Reginald Dyer, who coldly reported later, "I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself." News of the incident, hundreds killed and more than one thousand wounded, spread throughout India and served as a catalyst to end British rule.

Kesar Da Dhaba

Amritsar Visit: Kesar Da Dhaba
Kesar Da Dhaba has been serving Punjabi food since 1916

Anjali figured since I tried and enjoyed sarson ka saag te makki ki roti (mustard greens with corn flat bread), I had become Punjabi. Qualifications started pouring in on what it would take for me to be a Punjabi munda:

  • Must drink Amritsar lassi
  • Have lunch at Kesar Da Dhaba
  • Try galub jamon or fried fish from Lawrence Road
  • Have kulcha channa
  • Visit Southall in England

Note: I drank lassi. Lunch was delicious at Kesar Da Dhaba. I did eat something from Lawrence Road, but it was aam papar called "dead man's skin". Kulcha channa was homemade and was the last food I ate in Amritsar. Rajeev has certified me as a Punjabi munda, a Southall visit revoked as a necessity. Though, watch out Sanjeev and Monisha, we just might have to make a visit in early February!

So, we were at Muni Lal Moti Lal Jaini, Anjali's dad's wholesale shop, and Sushil dropped by, inviting us to lunch. Now it was Anjali, me and two Sushil's (her dad's name too), on our way to Kesar Da Dhaba. From the shop, we walked down a narrow gali or two and we were there. Kesar Da Dhaba was great! The lacha paratha was dripping with ghee and the masala channa was spiced enough for me to enjoy it.

Amritsar Visit: Kesar Da Dhaba
Delicious Punjabi food from Kesar Da Dhaba

After thanking Sushil for lunch, I peeked into the kitchen. I was beckoned when they saw me taking a photo. Every time I took a picture, I was called farther into the kitchen to take another. I wonder how long I would have been there until I was asked to help cook and clean?

Amritsar Visit: Kesar Da Dhaba
Kesar Da Dhaba's kitchen

Border Show

Let's see, a full morning of walking about coupled with a huge lunch made for a great excuse for a siesta. So, Anjali's dad and I chatted for a bit one-on-one while Anjali slept and after a bit, everyone was snoozing. Now it was time to head to the Pakistan border for the daily ceremony, called Lowering of the Flags. The military border guards from each country put on quite a show. It starts with music, people dancing and cheering. The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers "battle": who has the flashiest turban, highest kick, loudest marching stomp, etc. All this is performed in mirrored fashion and then the border gates are opened. The flags of the neighboring countries are then lowered in unison.

Neha's father works for the Indian government's Ministry of Transportation, and he arranged a treat for us. We were to be escorted by a government vehicle and given special seating close to the border gates. When the jeep arrived, I said, "I want to ride in that!" After getting some nod/permission, I was skipping off toward the vehicle. It was only after I had jumped in that I realized Anjali was planning to ride with me and not in the trailing car with her dad. This was not a bummer moment, but I was just too excited to even notice and be a gentlemen, helping her in or even letting her get in first. When traffic would get in our way, the siren would wail and we would cut through obstacles with ease. This was so much fun!

Amritsar Visit: Pakistan Border
Our ride to the Pakistan border town of Wagah

Amritsar Visit: Pakistan Border
Anjali with a border guard

Amritsar Visit: Pakistan Border
Some kids race to the border gate with Indian flags

No matter what I did, I could not get a photo of the Pakistani and Indian flags being lowered to come out. And, with the sun behind them, none of my shots of the Pakistanis in their grandstands came out either. You'll just have to take my word for it, this was an amazing event. Photos would not have done it justice regardless.

Border: India and Pakistan
Here you can see soldiers from both countries with open gates

Dead Man's Skin

The sun had set by the time we returned to Amritsar from the border. It was time to try some chaat from Lawrence Road. Sudev said that I had to try aam papar, which is dried mango paste, dried to the point where it has turned black or gray with the same appearance as dried skin. This is when it is called dead man's skin, and sheets of it are cut into strips, rolled in spices and eaten. I actually liked it and purchased some which I brought back to Bangalore for people at the office.

Amritsar Visit: Dead Man's Skin
Dead man's skin in the display case of a roadside cart

Channa, Channa, Channa

My quest to become fully Punjabi required kulcha channa. Kulcha channa is a bread, much like a hamburger bun, topped with spiced beans. This would be the third and final helping of channa for the day: started with channa puri for breakfast, lunch was lacha paratha with masala channa, now an evening course of kulcha channa. Mein re bhet kharab ho gaya! Well, more proper to say bhet bhar gaya, since I was full but everything was still in working order. It had to be, we still had some bhindi sabut to eat on the train ride. Some people stopped by to say hello, but our conversations were cut short in order for us to catch the train. A round of good byes and we were leaving Amritsar, headed back to Delhi.

Amritsar Visit: Channa Kulcha
Rajeev offers some onion pakoda to Anjali

Friday, November 6, 2009

Meet the Family, Episode Two: Tea and Tikkas

We decided to have a small get-together, time for Anjali's family to meet me and me them. We decided to do this the day after Diwali, not too late and not too early; and not a meal so people could mill about, allowing for more fluid conversations. The Claridges out the outskirts of Delhi, in Surajkund, was a perfect hosting spot. Staying there, we also ended up not having to travel, which was nice.

Meeting Dad

The first person to meet was Anjali's dad. Like a deer in headlights, I froze and completely forgot to respectfully reach down to touch his feet. I had read up on this, asked people at work about it, practiced it and was ready to go. Overriding my intentions, all the years of Western programming kicked in and I extended my arm for a firm handshake. I felt a bit self-conscious about it, but Anjali put me at ease, telling me that I would get another opportunity, after receiving a tikka.

Future Father-In-Law
Me and Anjali's dad


After a while, two chairs were placed away from the grouping of tables. Anjali and I were seated and a few people stepped over to give me a tikka. As far as I know, this a smudge of saffron placed on my forehead. At the same time, I am given a gift. Everyone was extremely generous. I think many people had a fun time with it, since it was a whole new experience for me.

Touching Feet
Here I am going down to touch Anjali's dad's feet

Family Tea in Delhi - Tikka
Having a laugh because I don't want so many sweets

Family Tea in Delhi
So many sweets!

Family Tea in Delhi
Huge smiles at the end of the tikka

Monday Means More Tikka

After the tikka, it was time to eat a bite, then see people off. It was nice to talk some more with people. Conversations could be about business and working in India, like I had with Shekar, or about travel and full of laughs, like I had with JK Uncle. No one was closed up; everyone I approached was happy to chat with me, welcoming me to the family. After clearing out, a small group of us met for a drink, then it was time to get some rest. The next day was going to mean more tikkas, in different parts of Delhi.

That next morning, we headed over to Alka and Sudev's home. Anjali tried some pancakes made by Neha and then it was time for more tikkas. This time, women would give their brothers or male cousins a tikka. We visited different homes in Delhi and at each place sampled delicious food. I do not know everywhere we went, but I do remember NOIDA being one spot we drove out to.

Parakh giving Vitesh a tikka

Alka finding the largest sweet on the tray to give me

Anjali receives a gift

Avika wanted to give tikkas as well

Off to Amritsar

Toward the end of the day, it was time to catch the train to Amritsar. This would be an exciting leg of our journey for many reasons. First, we would be spending the day with Anjali's dad, a great chance for us to get to know each other a bit. Second, we would be visiting Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple, which is the main gurudwara for Sikhs worldwide. At the end of the day, we would witness the flags of Pakistan and India being lowered in unison at the border. And to top it all off, we would be taking two overnight train rides. You'll have to read about these events in Meet the Family, Episode Three.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Meet the Family, Episode One: Diwali in Faridabad

What is Diwali?

In Sanskrit, it translates to "row of lamps", and it is a festival which lasts for a number of days, usually in October (depending on a lunar calendar). It is called the Festival of Lights, and to the Hindus the lights are put out to guide and welcome Rama back to town from his victory over the Demon of Lanka. To other groups it means something completely different: Jains, Sikhs and others have their own reasons, but almost all religious groups use the date to celebrate a victory of good over evil. Lamps, or small pots with oil and a wick, and/or candles are arranged and lit.

My understanding of Diwali was that was when you meet up with as much family as can fit in a house, perform a group prayer, eat way too much food and pop firecrackers. For you in the States, imagine the Holiday Season, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July happening simultaneously, in one night.

Diwali Puja
Preparing for the prayer

Meeting Family

The first night of Diwali 2009, was indeed special for me. I was invited by Anjali to meet family and to enjoy the festivities and traditions associated with Diwali. I was warned by Sudev (Anjali's brother-in-law) to pace myself on eating, as we would basically have the equivalence of a complete meal after each puja, and we were going to have three that evening! The first food given at the end of each puja is a sweet, or barfi, which is milk and sugar cooked down until it is solid. At the final puja, I accepted my offered block of concentrated sweetness, then witnessed Anjali break off a tiny corner of one. My immediate exclamation of, "You can do that?", gave us a bit of a laugh.

Diwali in Faridabad
Anjali and me sitting on the front step

You can see that I wore a kurta pajama for the occasion. Note the lights. Let me tell you, it is difficult to light candles with a candle while trying not to set yourself ablaze in a kurta with a scarf!

Lighting Diwali Candles
Thinking "Don't catch on fire. Don't catch on fire."


After each puja, it was time to grab a plate and enjoy some food.

Diwali in Faridabad - Aloo Dum

And, of course, more sweets.

Diwali in Faridabad

Where is the DMZ?

I mentioned there would be firecrackers. I failed to mention that it would sound like a war was going on outside!

Diwali Warzone
You can see lights and smoke from fireworks

Taash, or Card Game

So, now what do we do? We have full stomachs and all the candles and lamps are lit, pujas are finished. Ah, let's play cards! A coworker told me the name of the card game was Tin Patti. I asked, "Three Husbands?" Korak then said, "No, not pati, patti." We finally got it figured out once he informed me on the number of t's: pati means husband, patti means cards. You could call it three card stud, as you are dealt three cards and there are no community cards, nor a draw. Several rounds of betting ensue and the people left in show their hands. I won the first hand and lost just about everything else past that point. Anjali joined the game after an hour or so, and the losses were now doubled. At least the stakes were low. It was fun to play and we had a great time.

Playing Tin Patti
A group of card players

Taash: Tin Patti
The pots were never very big

Engagement Get-Together / Afternoon Tea

It was technically the next day when we headed back to the hotel. We needed some rest to prepare for Meet the Family, Episode Two.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Rajyostava

Karnataka, the state in India where I am living, celebrates turning fifty-three today. Today is Karnataka Rajyostava, loosely meaning "celebrating the kingdom of Karnataka." Festivals will occur throughout the month, but it was November 1, 1956, when Karnataka became a state. Well, technically it was the State of Mysore until the name changed in 1973.

Happy birthday, Karnataka!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Au Bon Pain

Au Bon Pain in ITPL, originally uploaded by s_w_ellis.

I remember walking into the latest eatery in the complex where I work, excited about seeing wraps displayed on the visual menu above the ordering counter. Where I live in India, just about every meal has a bread component: paratha, roti, papad or something. There is a Subway down the hall, but they do not have wraps, and just to watch the bread intake a bit, I was ready to try the wrap pictured. I got to the counter and found they had no wraps. But, the sandwich I had was delicious and I decided to give this place another try.

When I came back, I found out they now had wraps. So, I quickly ordered the sandwich I had the other day as a wrap, only to find out they have set menu items as wraps and what I wanted only came as a sandwich. I was ready to walk away when a gentleman came over and asked what I was trying to do. Once he realized how easy it would be for them to make my sandwich as a wrap, the order was made. A few bites into my wrap, the same guy, Prasanna, came by to check if my choice of meal was satisfactory. I told him it was and thanked him for accommodating my special request. Upon his exit, an Au Bon Pain corporate woman asked about my experience and we chatted a bit about customer service.

Customer service in India, at least where I reside in Bangalore and by only speaking to my experience, is fairly non-existent. A horrible time as a customer is what you expect, so you certainly recognize a good consumer moment. This is not just related to food services, as you might sense from my photo of frustration with other stores in this area (like in the photo below). Or, don't even get me started on the police commissioner's office for foreign registration (one more photo down)!

Reliance Digital Service Center
Does it really take this many people to get nothing done?

The Bangalore FRO, Slower Than the DMV
Molecules at zero Kelvin move as fast as these guys

From Florida, Elizabeth, explained to me how this is a major training point for Au Bon Pain's entry into India. I applauded her company's commitment to service and mentioned that I hope that training will continue with new hires.

Oh, and I found out why they did not have wraps on my first visit. Bernard, also corporate, from Boston, informed me that there were quality issues with the first batches of tortillas. It turns out that Au Bon Pain sets up their menus in other countries to only use ingredients that can be sourced within that country. In other words, they support the local economy and cut down on shipping at the same time. This was good to hear.

Subsequent visits have left me happy to be a continued customer. Prasanna remembers me and now asks if I will have the usual. This morning, I became a breakfast patron and when Prasanna arrived for work, he came by to shake my hand and say good morning. It does not take much to feel valued, and I appreciate the effort.