Wednesday, February 21, 2007

After the reception

Caitlin, Doyel, Lali, and Shami After the reception things quieted down quite a bit as family and friends returned home. Here is Caitlin sending one last email to her family before leaving for the airport. Shami's nieces (his cousin's little girls) Doyel and Lali, were quite sad to see Caitlin go, and so were we.

Goodbye to Caitlin
A photo with Caitlin before leaving for the airport: Mashimoni, Chumki, Maini, Caitlin, Lalmashi, Kaki, and Mami (Shami's mother's brother's wife).

You will see that Shami's mother is wearing a cast. Unfortunately she broke her arm the day before the reception! She was in quite a lot of pain, and it was especially hard for her to be immobilized when there was so much to do. But she is incredibly strong and stoic, and handled everything very well.

Opening gifts
We spent the next evening opening presents. Although the invitation cards requested no gifts, we were nonetheless inundated! We would like to thank everyone for their generosity.

(Shami is holding up a quilted bag that my mother Barbara made, as a gift to Shami's mom. She uses it and loves it! At the reception it was used to collect cards.)

Soon the house was pretty quiet, with just Shami's parents, us, and Mashimoni left. Mashimoni kindly stayed on for a while to help Maini out around the house. Here we are, sitting down to a quiet dinner at home, with dal, a curry and chapatis.

Dinnertime Coconut milk

Shami's dad brought home a green coconut so that I could try drinking its sweet milk. Here he is opening it up with a big knife. It was quite good!

Leaving Kolkata
And then, it was time to say goodbye to India and head back to Australia. What an amazing two weeks it had been!

The ornamental ear piece below was one of the gifts I received from Shami's parents -- a real family heirloom. There were two of them, one each for me and Uttara. When she got married, Shami's mother received them from her mother-in-law, who had in turn received them from her mother-in-law. They are incredible pieces, made of solid gold with cut emeralds and rubys. Notice the design of the peacock, with its magnificent tail curling around!

Heirloom earpiece Heirloom earpiece

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Reception

Walking to the reception
Shami's parents arranged a big reception for the four of us: the newlyweds, Shouri & Uttara, and not-so-newlyweds, me & Shami. It was an all day affair, with family gatherings for breakfast and lunch, and then the big event that evening. Luckily I was able to sneak away with Shami and Caitlin for some much needed rest time in between the events!

Walking to lunch, photo by Caitlin: Shami, Shouri, Uttara, Meghan, Chumki and Kaki. Kaki helped me out very much by dressing me in all my saris! This silk red sari was given to me by Lalmashi.

Serving payeshServing payesh
Uttara and I, as the new brides, ceremonially served a sweet rice dish to everyone at the lunch, including Shami's parents (left) and Pishis (right).

Below, at lunch with Shami and Maini.

With MainiMeghan and Caitlin

It was such a wonderful thing that my sister Caitlin was able to travel all the way to India and share all these experiences with me. Her amazing husband Jamie took care of their 4 small kids back in Ithaca for the 10 or so days that she was away. Thanks Jamie! It meant the world to me.

For the evening reception I wore an amazing golden sari, chosen by Shami's father, and all sorts of gold jewelry to go with it. It was truly spectacular, and very much fun to wear.

The families
A group photo with Shami's parents, and Uttara's parents.

The reception was an incredible affair. About 300-400 guests were expected, and even more than that showed up!

Reception crowdsMore at the recption

There were countless people to meet, but everyone was extremely nice and generous. There were many welcoming words, and gorgeous flowers, and many gifts as well. All the time and effort Shami's parents put into the planning paid off, as it was a wonderful, if exhausting, evening.
Reception crowds

Leaving with flowers
It was very late at night when we finally wound down. Caitlin and I carried home some of the beautiful flowers at the end of the evening.

Friday, February 16, 2007

At Salt Lake

Arrival at Salt Lake
Shami's parents' apartment is in an area called Salt Lake. It evidently used to be a quiet suburb on the edge of Kolkata, but has now become much busier with the sprawl and growth of the city.

To welcome us, Shami's cousin Chumki had decorated the stairs and landing of the apartment with "alpona," designs painted with rice flour. We were greeted at the door by Shami's mother, aunts and cousins, where they ritually welcomed me to the family home for the first time.

FamilyChumki, Meghan, Kaki
Pictures: Us with Shami's parents, and me with Chumki and her mother (our Kaki, see below). Chumki gave me a pretty silver necklace.

Uttara and Tuku arrive
Later that day Kaki helped me get dressed in beautiful red sari that she had given me, along with some lovely silver jewelry from Mashimoni. When Shouri arrived with Uttara, it was my turn to help welcome the new bride to the family home.

With Shami's mother Sumitra (Maini), and her three sisters. No, I'm not wearing heels!

Four sisters and Bouma
From left to right: Lalmashi, Maini, Mashimoni, Meghan, Bhalomashi.

In Bengali, your mother's sister is your "Mashi". Your father's sister is your "Pishi". Your father's brother's wife is your "Kaki" or your "Jethi", depending on whether it is an older or younger brother... it goes on and on, and can be very confusing to a newcomer!

The train to Kolkata

At the train station in New Delhi
After a great couple of days in Agra and Jaipur, we headed back to Delhi to catch a 4:00 pm train to Kolkata (Calcutta). Our driver negotiated the roads well, but traffic was bad as we came in to Delhi, delaying us quite a bit. We got to the station just on time, and rushed about trying to get to the right platform. The station was noisy, crowded, and the signage was poor. We also had to carry our many bags up and down several long sets of stairs over the tracks. Although we were a bit harried, we made it in just fine.

We traveled on the Rajdhani Express, a fast overnight train from Delhi to Kolkata, which takes about 16 hours. We booked tickets for an AC2 car, which meant that the car was air conditioned, and there were only two bunks, stacked, instead of three. This was a luxurious way to travel in India!

Dinner on the train

We were served a snack and dinner, as well as breakfast in the morning. Shami says the food was good, although I had a bit of a hard time with it. After dinner, Caitlin settled in on a top bunk, while my bed was formed by the backs of the two single seats folded down. The bunk was narrow and a bit uneven, but it had a window, which I liked. It was cozy once I pulled the curtains for privacy, and I actually slept fairly well, enjoying the motion and sound of the moving train.

In the morning we again enjoyed looking out the window. The landscape had turned lush and green. It was fascinating to see the villages go by, as well as the many rice paddies. We saw fields in all stages, from the planting to the harvesting, with men, women, children and oxen all doing their part.

View out the windowView out the windowView out the window

Stepping off the train
When we finally arrived at Sealdah station, we were graciously met by Shami's cousin Sanjay, and his aunt Lalmashi. They had a car waiting, and soon we were off battling Kolkata traffic on our way to Shami's parents' apartment, where the next chapter of our adventure was about to start!

Leaving Sealdah station

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Jaipur, briefly

Camel on the road
Camels pulling carts were on every street corner as we entered the desert state of Rajasthan, on our way to Jaipur, the next stop on our tour. We had far too little time to spend there, and when we arrived at our hotel in the early afternoon, our guide was waiting to whisk us away to see the sights.

Hawa Mahal
Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds, is one of the most iconic images of Jaipur. Part of the City Palace, it has a facade with almost a thousand windows from where the royal women could observe life on the street from behind intricately carved screens.

Inside Jaipur's City Palace
The City Palace is now a museum and gallery, housing collections of royal clothes, art and artifacts from an earlier era. It also has some beautiful architecture, including some gorgeously decorated doors.
Inside Jaipur's City Palace

Notice the silver urn in the picture: Sawai Madho Singh used a set of these massive containers to carry water from the Ganges with him on his voyage to England to attend King Edward VII's coronation in 1902. Each jar is over 5 feet tall, and they are supposedly the most massive silver objects in the world!

On the King's Sundial at Jantar MantarJantar Mantar was a special treat for us. Maharaja Jai Singh II had this collection of astronomical instruments built in the early 1700s, and it is unparalleled in scale and complexity. The instruments track the stars, predict eclipses, and still tell the local time to an accuracy of seconds!

Jantar Mantar

At Amber Fort At Amber Fort

Until the arrival of the British, invading armies traditionally swept into India through the north-west corridor, and the Rajput inhabitants of this region gained a reputation as great warriors. Amber fort was begun by the Rajput ruler Man Singh, whom Emperor Akbar appointed as his general. The fort walls sprawl over the surrounding hills, while inside, there are intricate hallways and corridors, gardens and fountains, halls of mirrors and beautiful views. That morning, we were the first visitors to Amber fort, and as the mist cleared and the sun came out, we were treated to the sight of a long line of elephants bringing tourists up the hillside...
Elephants arriving at Amber Fort

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri

Agra fort

After our visit to the Taj Mahal, it was on to Agra fort. Advertised as "the most important fort in India", Agra fort was home to each of the great Mughals, from Babur to Aurangzeb, and their vast Indian empire was ruled from here. The fort is a huge complex of buildings, with a variety of architectural and decorative styles that reflects the additions by each subsequent emperor.

Inside Agra FortPhotographing details

One of the most poignant sights at Agra fort is Shah Jahan's balcony. After Shah Jahan built the Taj mahal, his son Aurangzeb fought a series of bloody fratricidal battles and placed him under house arrest in the fort. The forlorn Shah Jahan spent his days on his balcony, from where he could gaze out across the Yamuna river and see the Taj mahal shimmering in the distance.

The Taj from Shah Jahan's balcony

The next day, we continued our whirlwind tour by driving to Fatehpur Sikri.
At Fatehpur Sikri
Emperor Akbar, the greatest of the Mughals, established Fathepur Sikri as his new capital in honor of a Sufi saint whose blessings he had sought. An architectural jewel and another world heritage site, Fathepur Sikri thrived for 14 years until Akbar moved his court back to Agra, possibly because of a persistent water shortage.

What remains at Fathepur Sikri is a spectacular melding of architectural styles. Akbar established a tradition of religious tolerance, and as well as a Muslim queen, he married a Hindu princess and a Christian from Goa to set an example. Each of his queens had their own quarters, whose architecture reflected their own heritage. The painted and carved walls and roofs remain fresh and vibrant even today.

PaInted ceilingCarved ceiling

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Taj Mahal

It's just a building, right? And it looks just like it does in the postcards. So why is it a wonder of the world, and why does it take your breath away when you stand in front of it?
The Taj Mahal

Perfectly framed

It was raining when we arrived in Agra, raining when we had lunch, and still raining when we set out to see the Taj Mahal. We were rather concerned, since it was our only day in Agra, and it looked pretty gray and bleak. But as we got to the site, the rain stopped, the sky cleared up, and the sun came out to light up the white marble of the Taj. It was simply magical...

Taj Mahal, the classic view
The Taj Mahal was commissioned by Shah Jahan, son (correction: grandson) of the emperor Akbar, as a monument to his love for his wife Mumtaz, who died in childbirth. The inconsolable emperor directed vast resources to the construction of the monument, which blends Hindu, Islamic, Turkish and Persian influences in a uniquely Indian fashion. It is probably the finest example of Mughal architecture, and certainly the best known.

The first thing one notices is the symmetry: an octagonal base, perfectively framed in perspective by four towers, lined up perfectly with the reflecting pool and the ornamental gardens. When you get closer, you realize that the scale of the building is huge. It is hard to reconcile how delicate it looks with the massive size of the structure.

Crowds at the Taj
Up close, for scale

Examining fine details
The other astonishing aspect is the detail in the work. Almost every surface and corner at eye level is painstakingly embellished with carvings, calligraphy, inscriptions, and inlay work in precious materials. It is easy to get caught up in admiring a tiny section of inlay, glittering on the softly luminous white marble. And then you step back and realize that sections are covered in similar detail all over the huge structure. It takes the breath away.

At the Taj
Last year, apparently, upwards of three million people visited the Taj Mahal, making it one of the most visited sites anywhere on Earth. And even with the crowds, even after all the pictures and photographs, it is still an amazing thing to behold. Worth the trip? Most certainly!