Sunday, 19 April 2015

Cave Hopping: Ellora and Ajanta

It's been a while and I'm actually not even in India anymore but I might as well put the rest of my pictures up.
Monkey in the trees surrounding Ajanta
Our next learning expedition (early February) was to the caves of Ajanta and Ellora. They're two cities to the north of Hyderabad. To get there we took the train which was 10.5 hours each way. You sit in compartments with 5 other people and everyone gets their own bed. Then you try and read, watch, listen, or sleep off the many hours of the trip.
    Our first real day was in Ajanta. After going up a very mountainous region you reach the caves. By caves I mean Buddhist temples carved into the mountainsides. Ajanta has a set of 29 cave temples where monks might come to worship but also live on their journeys to wherever.

This might be one of my favorite heritage/cultural/really old places ever. The caves are actually amazing especially when you think of them being built in ~ 2 BCE to 500 CE. Paintings inside illustrate stories. Buddha is everywhere naturally.

Giant sleeping Buddha

Nature is incorporated into the sight and that's been preserved pretty well. A river runs below. Monkeys climb above you, beside you. Apparently during the rainy season nature is just overwhelmingly present because the rain will be so loud as you enter the caves and the river is bursting. Even though it was not raining when we went it was still very beautiful and amazing. I had never heard of this place before coming. So glad we got to go.


Ellora is similarly amazing even though I prefer Ajanta just because of where/how it is located. Ellora is an even bigger complex of temples. The 34 temples are either Buddhist, Jain or Hindu and were built between the 5th and 12th centuries. They are humungous. It is crazy to stand in a double storied cave with multiple chambers that was built centuries ago out of the mountainside. You actually need a car to drive between some of the caves they're pretty far apart. Even still you can get a little hike by walking in between the closer ones.

From the top of one part of the complex

There was actually a river close to one part of this one too. And during rainy season there is a waterfall maybe. I'm sure that's really cool.

So absolutely love Ajanta and Ellora. We took the train back after a short stop at the mini Taj Mahal. Built after the real Taj and obviously inspired by it, this was just a quick sneak peak before our real Taj visit.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Day to Day

A general outline of the school portions of my life.
Everyday breakfast is served from 8am to 9am so I wake up for that. Breakfast is Western. Toast, eggs, fruit, yoghurt, cereal.

11am to 1pm. We have a class called Writing India taught by a Dartmouth professor with only Dartmouth students. We basically read about India's history, culture examining the different perspectives that people have when talking about India. That's located in a special building for foreign students called the Study in India Program building. Its a 5 minute walk to class from the Tagore House where we live.
Break for lunch back in Tagore House.
2 to 4pm: Another class, this one Gender and Film taught by an University of Hyderabad professor. This class includes a few Indian students even though it's Dartmouth specific. Talks on tropes, conventions of film in India especially of women in film. Even though I love film, this was not my favorite class. The format was repetitive lectures and the assignments were always last minute and unclear.

I have Environmental Studies from 2 - 4pm. For our 3rd course in India we are allowed to choose a course to take in the actual university. The other choices were Media Studies and Women's Movements in India. This one aligns more with my Geography studies and the professor is very cool and somewhat well known so I chose to take it. It covers environmental movements, themes with a focus on India. So problems of India's urbanization, climate change within Indian context, ecofeminism within India, etc. etc. It's a great class. This class I take with 3 other Dartmouth students and maybe 5 Indian students. Campus is humungous and this class is located in the social sciences building a good 25 minutes away by foot.

Long roads to class.

Writing India from 9 to 11am
Film screening in the afternoon. Starts at 2 pm goes until the movie finishes which means until 5 sometimes. Indian films are long especially some of the old classical ones we watch sometimes. We've seen Mother India, Lagaan, Paroma, Omkara, Dilwale... and others.

Gender and Film from 11am to 1pm
Environmental Studies from 2 to 4pm

No class unless another film screening is needed. Meetings are also scheduled on this day. Sometimes the trips we have planned to visit other places in India use this day to travel.

It seems like there's a lot of free time each day. This is true to some extant. There's still work as in homework to be done. Free time is spent hanging out on campus, going shopping, and then fun weekend excursions.

View from the balcony of Tagore House, where we live

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

South India Trippin Part II

The rest of the trip to South India.
We left Pondicherry's French district to visit villages and self help groups around the area. We started with a fishing village in the morning. By that time they had brought their catches in and were emptying the nets to take to market. Fish were flying through the sky and were all over the sand. Just a walk away fish were prepared for the market. Some of these were humungous. There were even a couple of stingray. Then a little bit down the road was the actual market where women sold the recently caught fish.

Then we went to nearby self-help groups in the villages. All the groups were of 10 - 15 women. One of them manufactured stuffed animals to sell, another packaged tissue paper to be sold in Italy I believe, and the last created bags and other small items out of jute which is a straw-like material. Mats that you might lay outside are often made of jute.

These groups all got help of the government to learn these skills and then were left alone to sell them and continue their trade. The teddy bear group especially had a hard time trying to market their items in the small village. They couldn't get fair prices from vendors. And stuffed animals are a hard item to sell; our group had no one to buy them for. The jute group had switched over to creating bags made of plastic, weaving them out of lanyard type strings. They seemed to be doing ok and had time to manage their families and work. After spending a good amount of time with all the groups we headed to the beach for lunch. The women and children from the groups followed and we played games and had a beautiful outdoors lunch.

Our beach meal

There was a moment where we stopped by another fort. It had been abandoned with not much to see but the sea view was amazing.

This very long day ended with some more temple visits to Mahabalipuram. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has many different sections. We went to visit the temple area where several Hindu temples were built as templates and not for actual use. In another section there are temples carved out from caves. That evening we returned to Chennai.

Monday morning saw a great talk by Swati Tyragarajan. She's an environmental activist and tv host of nature programs in India. She's also actually the relative of our professor. She gave an amazing talk on her own path to creating nature films. She didn't follow the normal narrative of going to school to become a doctor or anything and happened to graduate just as tv opportunities opened up in India. She brought her passion for nature and created films on different animals around India. India is one of the most environmentally diverse places so it's important to preserve that even as India grows. She's an absolutely great speaker and really passionate about her work and the environment.

Cows on the beach not the fauna she was talking about but still.

    This was followed by a visit to urban low cost housing. This is a community in Chennai where the government heavily subsidizes the cost so low income people can afford to live in the city. I was not impressed by this part of the program because it didn't seem educational or informative at all. While our guide Johnson had the best intentions I don't need to go look inside poor people's houses to understand that they can be happy in their communities too. That is something that we all know and it also glosses over some of the realities of poverty. Sure people can be happy in any situation, but what factors created their poverty and how is that system maintained? They did have a community wide money pool run by women but there was nothing informative about the visit. I think of what would be its counterpart in American poor communities and it would be unacceptable. Unacceptable there, unacceptable here. There are better ways to learn about Indian poverty then going inside their houses and looking at their tvs. I think most other classmates would agree.

I had an absolutely wonderful time in the South. The coast was beautiful; it felt nice being back close to the ocean. The weather was great and all the cities we saw were different and interesting and fun.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

South India Trippin

Street art in Pondicherry. Relevant because Women and Gender Studies.
So the way our FSP is planned we have one class that we take with a Dartmouth professor, Professor Beasley, that incorporates excursions into our class structure. We have three trips planned and the 3rd weekend in India was our first. We went to Southern India, visiting Chennai, Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, and Mahabalipuram. I'm splitting this into 2 parts because this was a long 5 day trip with many photos being taken.

We left Thursday morning and arrived in Chennai after a short hour long flight. We got onto our tour bus where we'd be traveling the next couple of days and started immediately visiting special sites.

Kalakshetra! was the first site. It's a special arts school for traditional Indian arts. They have everything from dance, to music, to sculpture. The campus is beautiful and amazing. Everything is open and tries to incorporate nature. At the very center of the school is a banyan tree where a multi faith prayer begins the day for students every morning. Students range from elementary school age to late twenties. It seems like a place to be really dedicated to your craft. And what a beautiful locale to be taught in. They also have their own silk weaving across the street.

Special performance auditorium that uses temple architecture because that's originally where traditional arts were performed

Part of the old church
Our British Heritage Tour was next. We visited a complex where the British stayed. Its pretty close to the ocean and includes a nice church, several residences, and then a museum. Inside the complex there were a good amount of really old cars kept in working condition almost like they were preserving that old culture. Interesting. We also saw San Thome Basilica where relics of St. Thomas' are said to be. A wedding was actually going on at the time.

Sunset over St. Thomas' Basilica

Day over, we checked into the hotel and slept.

We got up early to drive to Kanchipuram which was about 2.5 hours away. First we visited the Vaikunta Perumal Temple which our tour guide Suresh gave us an amazing amount of information about. The temple is dedicated to the god Vishnu but it also features the very detailed story of the Pallava kings one of who commissioned the temple. This is the stuff of ~700 CE.  We went into the temple where there were a few people chanting and praying and then the rest of the time we circumambulated the center bit to see all the carvings on the wall. There are panels on panels of the Pallavas' story.

Next we visited the Kailasanathar temple which is dedicated to Shiva. Apparently it's the oldest structure in Kanchipuram. You can thank the Pallava kings for that again. Think ~680 CE. 

Later we visited a business of silk loom weavers. These are people that make all the silk scarves and saris that you see around India. They have a huge wooden set up, the pattern is run through by a series of cards and the weaver threads them all together. The whole process to make a sari this way will take several months.

Even later that afternoon, (these trips are packed to the brim) we visited a village to see the town's program to motivate children to succeed. We met with the officials who talked about keeping the kids in school and also giving them fun outlets and basically keeping them engaged in the community. There was a short volleyball game between some of us and some of the boys in the program. It was fun. Also another quick stop at a very large temple. Don't know very much about it. It's just really big.

That night we drove to Pondicherry where we would spend the next day.

Pondicherry is actually a city that was controlled by the French instead of the British. You can really feel that as you head towards the coast. There you have the French heritage district where they have made a concerted effort to restore old buildings and keep intact the French Indian style. Our guide Ashok was an architect who had started a project to preserve the French style of the buildings.

Our guide + students + street art
When building something new businesses or owners will consult with his organization on how best to conform to those old standards. It's resulted in a really beautifully done area. It's quieter as well because large vehicles don't drive down the residential streets. And after a certain hour they close the roads to cars so the entire boardwalk is pedestrian only.

You can go from this...
...To this
Of course many tourists are attracted to the area. We saw more foreigners in a couple hours than we have seen all our weeks in Hyderabad. It's a place where you can get the Western touch with an Indian feel which led to some conflicted feelings on the part of our group. What does it mean to enjoy the French part of India over other "more Indian" parts of the country? It's a very valid query but then you get into questions of what does it mean to feel/be Indian and that's not a question I would try to answer. So Pondicherry is just a great city where Westerners esp. the French might feel more at home. Very beautiful. I would recommend going.


Nearby is Auroville a town dedicated to pursuing a way of life. You have to watch a video before you enter about how Auroville is not a religion or a spirituality, but a way of life to "realize human unity". In the center of this town for all nations is a huge golden sphere where only special people are allowed to go in and "focus, not meditate but just concentrate". The lotus shaped gardens around the dome are also off limits. Their founder was a French lady who they call The Mother which I think says a lot without saying a lot. Maybe I'm a bit cynical but I do admire how they created a lush forest where before there was just desert.

To be continued!

Sunday, 8 February 2015


Inside Charminar
One weekend, I've forgotten which by now, a group of us went to Charminar in Old City. It's a pretty famous monument + mosque; if you want a picturesque structure to define Hyderabad this is probably it. It was built in the 1500s during Muslim Mogul rule of Hyderabad.

Traffic going into Old City is horrible. I enjoyed driving down the small streets for sightseeing purposes but they definitely were not built to handle the traffic of today. Even after the street widens out into a roundabout around Charminar, it is still packed with auto rickshaws and cars and pedestrians and vendors of all sorts. That being said the actually monument is very pretty. At the bottom it's an open square with pillars that you should climb up to get the full effect. The staircase is a really tight spiral that goes up pretty high. Dizzying. After going up and taking pictures we went to vendors along the street. Charminar is famous for the lakh/lac bangles they sell. Apparently people come from all over to buy bangles for weddings and special occasions. They're just glass bangles with designs and stones set into them. Incredibly pretty and colorful.

View from the top of Charminar
Next we visited the Nizam's museum which was located in an old palace. No pictures were allowed but think of the usual museum ware. My favorite pieces were a model of the palace done in silver and an elaborate gold baby crib for some royal child. And they said they had one of the oldest working elevators! Even though the items in the museum might've been cool the palace was not kept up very well. In the picture below you can see how old the building is. Inside it's dark and I saw water marks and even a little puddle by the window. I could tell the palace had been absolutely beautiful but I think it'll be so much better when it's repaired to its original glory. I understand architectural restoration might not have been a priority for the city as it tried to develop economically and such but now I think the city could definitely turn its eye towards its historical monuments. They're really beautiful and shouldn't be forgotten and left to rot. 

Friday, 30 January 2015

Forts, Tombs, Temples, Statues

Busy first weekend.
Saturday we visited Golconda Forts along with the Quih Shab Tombs. These were tombs from the Muslim Mughal Empire so they often have mosques attached. The mosques are not in use anymore even though it would be super cool if they were. Though there are 100s of structures within the park we only saw a few at the front. Pretty typical Islamic architecture Persian influenced I believe our guide was saying. All white even though this was not always true. In one small square portion of a column you can see all that remains of what used to be the brightly mosaic-ed exterior. Time, and theft turned them white.
The 'tomb' - actual body many feet below the ground

Tomb with the small corner of colorful mosaic left

Next we went to the actual fort a drive away. It is massive and allegedly impregnable. The only way the enemy got inside was by bribing a guard. We saw a canon on one edge of the wall before heading up to the main part of the fort.

View from edge of the wall near the canon. You can see the tombs on the right.
More of the wall and the moat

It's amazing, built on top of the rocks of the Deccan Plateau with the stones of the wall fitted together without cement or other mortar. So many stairs. I would say going in late afternoon is the way to go. It'll be cooler as you walk up and then you can watch the sunset over the city. It was absolutely beautiful and you can see the whole city. High rise apartments and hi tech city alongside ancient forts, temples, rivers, and lakes.
View of the main portion of the fort

Me + top of fort + sunset

The next day was a city tour which was our first real chance to use public transportation. Otherwise we've just been calling taxis to come pick us up within campus. We got up early and took a bus to reach the train station about 10 minutes away. We then took the train for about half an hour to reach a temple on a far side of the city. I don't have any pictures from the temple but it was entirely in white. This Hindu temple was built in either the 70s or 80s fairly recent. It was upon a hill overlooking the city; you could even see where the forts we'd seen the previous day were located.

Huge Buddha

We just sat there for a while then we headed out to have lunch. Then we went to the man made lake Hussain Sagar which features a huge Buddha statue in the center. We took a boat to the little island with the statue on it, took a few pictures then left. The lake is located within like a mini adventure park so there are other activities and places to eat there. The multiple buses, an auto and a train we arrived back at the University.
View from the island in Hussain Sagar Lake