A summit on climate change in the Himalaya is emphasizing food security, energy and water security as well as biodiversity here in Thimphu, Bhutan's capitol. Representatives from India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan are working on a 10-year plan that will hopefully mitigate dramatic changes now affecting them.
Glacial lakes are forming rapidly, and threaten to burst at any time as glaciers melt rapidly. In 2008, a major river here flooded, causing severe infrastructure damage in Paro, including a bridge that has yet to be replaced.
This morning, however, we finally reached a mountain pass that gave us a view of the Himalaya. We also visited a Bhutan National Botanic Garden, which has all 46 species of rhododendron collected and labeled. A lycopodium has fertile fronds sprouting profusely next to the wild strawberries that line the trails. The park is huge, and serves as a wildlife corridor connecting vast protected areas.
By the way, a forestry employee gave me the latest percentage of forest cover in this country: 80.8 percent.
We have come to the tiny landlocked kingdom of Bhutan, with a total population of 700,000, after spending three weeks in the world's second most populous nation. The country's single airport is here in Paro, pop. 10,000. What a refreshing change.
It is the land of the thunder dragon, where the Dzong is both monastery and city administration center, where larch and spruce and pines reach through the clouds at 13,000 feet, but so do the prayer flags. The national tree is a cypress and the national flower is the blue poppy.
Temples are as numerous here as stupas in Burma, and the stupas here are square, not round. Men do not spend weeks or months as monks, but years, the first of which is spent reciting mantras memorized from Sanskrit. Oddly, the young men do not know the meanings of the mantras until they go on for more Buddhist education.
We visited a 7th Century temple where nuns, lay people and a lama chanted beautiful Buddhist songs in a special ceremony held for 21 straight days once every year. Two men played horns, as bells were rung and holy water was given out--poured into one palm of each person and held until a particular prayer was completed. Then the herb-laced water was tasted and quickly applied to the hair. It was a lovely and solemn ceremony.
Traditional architecture was begun in the 7th Century and most houses are square with three stories. Once the first floor housed cattle; the second was for storage and the third was for living. Today, it is forbidden to bring cattle into the house for sanitary reasons. Wheat and other grains are stored on the third floor, which is open on all sides, and the family lives on the second floor. Every home has a small temple, complete with a Buddha and altar. Seven bowls of water are placed on the altar every morning as an offering, and emptied every evening.
Here in Paro, red rice has been harvested for the winter, and some threshing continues. Often, families help each other with this chore in a cooperative effort. Wheat, cabbage, radishes and broccoli are the winter crops that soon will be planted. Old stems from the rice are stacked for the cattle.
|Chilis drying on a roof.|
Chili-cheese is the national dish, made from fiery hot peppers that are dried on the shed tops. Rice and butter tea are traditionally eaten for breakfast, and we tasted the tea which is made with tea leaves, salt and cow or yak butter. We also sipped the local liquor called ara, which can be made from wheat or another grain. It tastes like saki. The longer it is kept, the stronger it becomes.
While we saw the famous Tiger's Nest monastery, we opted to drive over a 13,000-foot pass instead. The hike to reach it takes 3 hours and the last leg involves 600 steps down then 600 steps up. Afterwards, you have to return by the same route. There are 94 steps up to this room, and that's quite enough.
In central India, the Mogul influence is seen in all the palaces and forts of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, as well as the the Taj Mahal in Agraand Akbar's magnificent tomb there. What I have loved most about these splendidly decorated places is the flower motif found again and again.
At first, I tried to identify them. Lilies and lotus are pretty easy, and I managed to see a daffodil-like flower, but it turns out that most are imaginative interpretations by Persian-influenced artists.
Here are some that I hope you like.
Darjeeling,India--Tea gardens climb the hills beneath trees with delicate bipinnate leaves. Leaves gently fall among the tea plants acting as fertilizer while the trees provide just the right amount of shade for the shrubs that can live 50 years.
Women are the tea workers, wearing cloth bags that quickly fill with leaves. These are hung from their heads, while their index and middle fingers are bound with strips of rags to protect them. This is the autumn or third and last picking of the year, and these leaves will yield the strongest tea. The first flush of spring leaves is picked in March and April when leaves are young and without the byproducts of photosynthesis. Such tender leaves are dried in the air and produce delicate white or green tea. June-July leaves are oven dried for a few moments for luscious teas. Final flush leaves are oven dried the longest.
The British settled Darjeeling in the 1870s, finding the 7,000-foot altitude a respite from summer heat. They built a fairy story hotel in1875, which remains charming. They also built a reservoir for a population of 10,000 that today ill serves the 300,000 people who crowd the houses clinging to the steep hillsides. Streets, too, remain one-lane and traffic is a nightmare.
However, the 40-acre Lloyd Botanic Garden is intact, and has three contemporary additions that bespeak a nature-minded staff: a medicinal garden, where signs spell out not only plant names but their uses; an evolution garden tracing the development of ferns, conifers and flowering plants, and a students’ garden.
Glass houses protect familiar tropical plants as well as temperate flowers, and an orchid house brims with Cymbidiums, Dendrobiums and Paphiopedilum species. An Alpine garden planted among rocks is sighing its last before going dormant.
Metasequoia glyptostroboides, the dawn redwood, discovered in China in 1941 after being known only as a fossil, made its way here in 1948. Other trees that have reached enormous proportions include Ficus hookeri, Cedrus libani and Acer campbellii.
Alas, the morning we arose at three to view the sunrise reflected on the Himalaya, the fog obscured everything but the sun and the full moon.
Village life in India remains as difficult as it was centuries ago. As we have driven through Central India, where the IT, steel and coal tycoons do not tread, we have watched grain being threshed and water being lifted from a Persian well by oxen. We have seen the same oxen pulling carts through village streets and women pumping water from roadside wells.
Cattle, sheep and goats are herded on the roads as trucks, tut-tuts and ancient buses vie for the same narrow and rutted pavement. Donkeys are beasts of burden.
Yesterday we saw a village funeral procession. Somber men bore the body on a pallet and were followed by neighbors, each bearing a tree limb for the funeral pyre.
Women tote bundles of sticks on their heads to use as cooking fuel and the roadside trees are stubbed as high as a person can reach.
The Pushkar Camel Fair
The camels used in this part of the world are dromedary camels, each with a single hump. A camel develops one tooth a year (which is how you can age them) and can pull 2000 kilograms of weight. That's 4,400 pounds. A camel holds water in three sacks in its throat; the hump is fat.
Pushkar, which is the site of a shrine to Brahma and has a holy lake in which pilgrims immerse themselves, is the scene of the annual camel fair.
Located on the eastern edge of the Thar desert, Pushkar is a town famous for growing roses when it's not hosting thousands of camels, cattle and horses and traders for 10 days of bartering and bantering each year. Farmers from nearby villages bring their animals here, to trade or sell them, and purchase household goods from the hundreds of sellers who line the streets. Many set up tents beside their tethered animals and cook outdoors, filling the air with a smoky aroma that drifts over the area.
The women are dressed in brilliantly colored saris-- mustard, cerise, scarlet, and blue for widows -- because the desert is so devoid of color. The men wear red, yellow, orange and multi-colored turbans. The whole place swims in color and people and decorated camel carts toting tourists. Even the camels have geometric designs either shaved into their coats or drawn on their rumps.
Not every one loves the fair. The camels, in particular, may be treated badly, and at night the pitiable cries of mother camels ring out in the dark as baby camels are sold and taken from them.
However, Sunday was an auspicious time for bathing in the holy lake, and early in the morning a parade of various saints and sects, gods and goddesses, school kids and pilgrims moved as a single organism through the narrow streets to the bleating of brass bands. All along the way, people in the parade carts tossed red, orange and yellow marigolds in the air, millions of them, so the streets -- if you could see them-- were blanketed with flower blossoms as were the dancing people.
Candies, breads cooked in open fire pits, sugar cane syrup, chai in tall tureens, all kinds of foods were being made and eaten in the streets, while everything from shoes to saris, toys, balloons, ankle bracelets and plastic necklaces, turbans, elaborate swords to plain kitchen knives and metal pots, camel harnesses and decorations...the color and commotion, the noise and the dust, the incessant honking of horns by people on motorbikes pushing through the crowds...Never have I been caught up in such a torrent of humanity.
Tired and nearly numbed by the intensity, we returned to our tent set up in the desert, where the doors sip shut and the carpet is laid on sand.
Things I've learned along the way.
* Pietre dure is the inlay of semi-precious stone into marble. The Taj Mahal's pietre dure is one of the most beautiful examples of this kind of work anywhere. You can, of course, watch the traditional cutting of stone and marble in a shop not far away, and the owners will mail your table or vase to your home, all included in the price.
* Maharaja means bigger king. Maha is bigger and raja is king. It's better to be bigger.
* In Jaipur (pur means city), there's a hotel called the Raj Palace. Its presidential suite is 4 stories high and has golden fixtures, private sauna and just about everything else you could want for $15,000 a night.
* The Amber Fort sits above the city of Jaipurand was begun in the 11th Century. The kings who lived here built walls around the surrounding mountains, palaces and artificial lakes and gardens. In 1727, so many people lived in the fort that the king of that time created the city of Jaipurin what used to be a jungle.
* On the ceilings of some royal bedrooms in the Amber Fort there are flowers made of mica, which is mined nearby, to resemble the sparkle of water.
* To make stucco that shines brilliantly (even in dark corridors) combine limestone and marble powder, a little oil, egg yolks and burned sand. (Burning sand removes impurities.) Add molasses and spread on the wall or columns of your choice. Then polish with agate. The stucco will last at least 450 years and still feel smooth to the touch.
* Ganesha is the god of good luck, the remover of all obstacles, a god who repels evil. So his image is often painted or carved over the main door to a home, a palace or a fort.
* Devara is a special planter for holy basil. Queens in ages past used to bathe and then offer water to the sun god and to the holy basil, which is used as an antiseptic, tonic, rubbed on the temples for headaches, and used to ease childbirth. The fragrance of the flowers keeps away flies.
A vast plain of temples some 800 to 1,000 years old lies down the Irrawaddy River south of Mandalay. The plain covers 16 square miles and includes more than 2,000 temples. This is Bagan, the most important archeological site in the country of Myanmar (Burma).
In 1287, Kublai Khan and his Moguls invaded and broke up the Burmese kingdom, which had one stretched from India to the Mekong River, and for several hundred years, the jungle grew and reclaimed the stupas and temples. In 1975, an earthquake toppled half of the 4,400 temples that had remained, leaving them in a sorry state of disrepair.
Then, discovering that the site was important archeologically, the military government began to clear farmers from the area in 1993, and today tourists are pilgrims to the once important center of Buddhist studies.
Some of the temples are massive in size, rising 50, 60 or more feet. The interior and exterior stairs are steep and narrow, but the views from the tops of these structures are spectacular -- even in rain, as we mostly saw them. Many of the stupas, with various spindle shapes, once were covered with gold.
Some temples still shelter giant figures of Buddha, others have traces of frescoes that decorated the walls and ceilings. Precisely located windows provide cross ventilation to keep the cave-like interiors cool. On the exteriors, there are some remnants of stucco that once gave the red brick buildings a glorious skin of religious significance.
Very few of the temples look as they once did. Instead, this setting resembles a chess game with the rooks and bishops, knights and pawns abandoned by players who went out for tea. Because the restoration efforts have been less than delicate, and because a golf course and tower-like hotel have been built on the site with the government's blessing, Bagan does not have UNESCO's designation as a World Heritage Site. But it is in its way a mystical place, full of haunting images.
In another setting, this time in Khajuraho, India, is a group of temples that are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. These tall and stylized temples are beautifully restored to its 10th Century grandeur of northern Indian architecture, carved of sandstone rich in minerals that allow them to endure through time.
Famous for their depiction of the Kamasutra or manual of erotic love that show 84 sexual positions, the temples are among the most famous inIndia. All of the parts were constructed on the ground and fitted together without mortar. Each temple sits on a platform and each follows a pattern of entry way, vestibule, hall and inner sanctum. Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi are the gods honored here, and their images are found in the innermost and dark interior rooms.
Built by Chandella family of kings, whose symbol is the lion, the temples and the kingdom were abandoned when the Moguls invaded. A British engineer rediscovered the tree-covered edifices in 1858. While few in number, these temples are wonderfully imposing with soaring spires and fabulous carvings, surrounded by well-kept gardens and lawns that set off their intricacies.
Agra, India―Seeing the Taj Mahal at sunrise strains one's vocabulary: stunning, elegant, magical, unworldly, transporting, lyrical and even poetic perfection of proportion in stone.
Built by the Mugahl ruler Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife Mamtaz Mahal, who died at age 37 after delivering her 14th child, the perfectly proportioned monument was begun in 1633 and completed 22 years later by some 20,000 workers and artisans working around the clock. The ultimate expression of Mughal architecture, the incredible building changes color as the sun rises, glowing peach to yellow to white, and is so beautifully hand decorated that it seems more sublime dream than stony reality.
We arose at 4:30 to be in line and allowed inside by 6:30. Women in one que, men in another, according to Hindu custom, we were searched before being allowed inside. This World Heritage Site requires that everyone submit to inspection.
The Mughals (Moguls) ruledIndiafrom 1526 to 1707, beginning with the ruler Babur. Shah Jahan was the 4th generation to succeed Babur. Shah Jahan ruled from 1627 to 1658, and wanted to honor his 3rd and favorite wife with the most stunning memorial in the world. Indeed, it cost him 14 million rupees to build -- the equivalent of $12 billion today.
Built on white marble, the Taj is as exquisitely decorated as it is proportioned. Flowers of semi-precious stones (lapis lazuli, malachite, and mother-of-pearl) were so delicately inlaid into the marble that the surface of the stone is smooth to the touch. Iris, tulips, lilies, narcissi and jasmine sparkle in the morning sun.
Screens of geometric designs were hand-carved in single slabs of marble, and if a mistake was made, the entire slab was discarded and another begun again.
Geometry was the rule of Mughal architecture, adapted from Persia, and the minarets perfectly balance the onion dome and the octagonal structure. Four gardens of equal size are situated around the Taj, and four gates of exceptional design lead to the main building.
There are other wonderful palaces and tombs here inAgra, and we have seen many of them today. Each is a marvelous expression of Mogul power and unlimited resources for rulers of this fabled time. One of the 7 Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal satisfies intellectually, emotionally and aesthetically, a serene poem for the ages.