Showing posts with label Taj Mahal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Taj Mahal. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Your Story Matters, Chapter 29, "Thursday"

Chapter 29


Natalie Goldberg tells of a writing retreat where she read a poem about going for one's dream and asked the class what they thought the title was. "Go for a Dream, To Dream," etc. "No." she said, "Do you want to know the title?"



 They all laughed. 

"The best titles are like that," she said. 

 On a Thursday many years ago, two friends and I visited the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

Florencia, Sherrie, and I traveled with three others who had prepared the trip to see Sathya Sai Baba, a supposed Holy Man. We had seen a film where he produced Vibhuti (holy ash) from an urn, and it just kept flowing, more than you would assume that the container would hold. A trick? I don't know. Sai Baba could produce vibhuti from his hand. I questioned his ability to produce trinkets out of his hand, as they looked like the trinkets being sold at the gate of the area where his audience assembled.

 If you want to impress a devotee, produce a trinket with their image instead of your own.

After visiting Sai Baba in New Deli, as we were having dinner in the courtyard behind our rented house, someone yelled over the fence. Sai Baba was going back to his Ashram in Puttapartti. We shook our heads in wonder at the grapevine—a curious thing in some parts of the world.

We bought thin mattresses and strapped them to the top of our taxi. The driver took us to Puttapartii, where I commented that I wanted to see Sai Baba's elephant. The driver drove us right to it. She was not colored with chalk as I had seen in pictures; she was just an elephant, quietly munching hay.

We slept on our mattresses in a cement room and attended Sai Baba's Darshan. Once, we ate rice with our fingers at the cafeteria, but the rest of the time, we subsisted on Cayenne peppered cashew nuts and lime soda. We also had been drinking water through a straw laced with iodine—it tasted awful. But we didn't get sick.

We left our mattresses behind for others to use and got a train from New Delhi to Agra, across India's countryside, to visit the Taj Mahal.

At one train station stop along the way, we saw a couple washing their baby's bottom from a bottle they had carried for that purpose. 

Toilet paper is in short supply in India. The trip preparers had told us this before the trip, thus, half of our suitcases were filled with toilet paper. The residents use faucets often supplied beside the toilet. If I can be indelicate, taking or giving food with the right hand is customary. People without toilet paper but with water wipe their bottoms with their left hand.

On the train to Agra, we had a compartment to ourselves. It had bare board walls and a flop-down platform for a seat or bed. Sherri and Florencia took the drop-down bench. I took a small bench on one side of the window and stretched my legs to another bench on the other side, hanging between the two. That way, I had a panoramic view as we rattled through the Indian countryside.

I wondered why the dogs I saw had a red clay-colored stain on their hindquarters up to their mid-belly.

I laughed when I got the answer. A dog sat in a large red mud puddle, with the water coming up to his midsection, exactly where the other dogs were ringed. He was a perfect half-dog, half Indian red-clay dog.

 Before the train stopped in Agra, young men jumped on board, offering themselves as guides. That way, those men would beat out the other guides waiting at the station. We had one such man for a time, but he was so tenacious that Florencia finally got tired of his persistence and chased him off. 

 The reflective pool in front of the Taj Mahal was dry. The guide said they only filled it for celebrations, as the water quickly evaporates. The following day, we heard that it was upwards of 120 degrees. Could that be right? It didn't feel that hot.

Our summer before last here in Oregon felt hotter.

My first glimpse of that magnificent Taj Mahal left me completely dazed. I would have sworn that the building was vibrating, about to launch into orbit. The collision of sunlight on that swan-white marble embedded with semi-precious stones caused it to shimmer like Apollo 11 before the rocket ignited.

At the time, I didn't know the Taj Mahal was a mausoleum built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to immortalize his wife, with whom he was inseparable during their 19-year marriage. The Shah was grief-stricken when she died giving birth to their 14th child. To commemorate her life, he built the Taj Mahal, now considered to be one of the 7th wonders of the world. It would have taken billions of dollars to make in today's market. When it was built, 1000 elephants hauled materials, and 20,000 artists crafted the structure.

We removed our shoes and slipped on paper booties before entering the temple. There was a sarcophagus on the entrance room's floor, a dummy of the real one that lay beneath the ground floor. I wonder if that fooled anyone. However, that structure was an architectural marvel with towers on either side designed to look straight when viewed from a distance.

A ghetto surrounded the Taj Mahal, with many vendors producing art pieces using the inlay method, such as the artisans employed in the white marble of the Taj Mahal.

What did I get from viewing Sai Baba? 

 "That no man is my master."

I saw how desperate we are to know ourselves. We will tolerate the piercing heat, sleep in cement rooms, and expect someone to give us answers. I think Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz had it right: "Click your heels together three times, and say, there's no place like home. There's no place like home."

 Home is not our physical dwelling but the home we carry inside. And perhaps the home we will go to eventually. 

 Don't ask me how that works. While searching for answers outside us, we discount the answers that lie within. 

The travel itinerary was mysterious in India, for we went to Agra in a cattle car and returned to New Delhi in first class. I don't know why the cattle car was more fun. In first class, I watched an affluent young couple with a baby about one year old. That baby behaved as I would expect of a child that age. He bounced all over both parents. The babies we saw in the ashram and on the streets were subdued.

Florencia and I had been in The World Healing Center together, and we traveled together to see Sai Baba, who had a school at the ashram and said not to give to the beggars as it encourages them. Our other traveling companion, Sherrie missed her husband and went home before us. So, Florencia and I traveled together.

Florencia liked white wine, and as the sun dropped low in the sky, she would give forth her husband's battle cry, "Is the sun over the yard arm yet?" I would answer, "Someplace in the world it is," so we would dive into the in-room refrigerator, for it often contained a bottle of wine, or we would go to the restaurant for a glass. Once in such a hotel, we went to the restaurant for a drink, I didn't order wine, but Florencia did." "White wine," she said, and they brought an entire bottle. She was shocked when she got the bill. Forty dollars. Outside, we had ridden a rickshaw taxi for 10 cents, and inside a hotel, we were drinking a forty-dollar bottle of wine. The contrasts of that land and the guilt of travelers.

On the way home, Florencia and I stopped in Copenhagen because I loved it from Neil’s and my earlier trip. From hot India to cold Copenhagen where we had to buy sweaters. And there, I purchased an Icelandic Porcelain Polar Bear, about a foot and a half high, that I had seen at the Scandia House in San Diego. It cost a quarter of the price of the one I had seen in the States.

The store where I bought it packed it in a three-foot-by-three-foot wooden box and shipped it for me. My daughter, Lisa, used the box as a house for Thumper, her rabbit, for a few years after that.

 We stopped in London on the way home and saw a stage production about a Girl's School. It tickled me how the British can stretch a short word, like a girl, from one syllable to about four.

I told you all that so I could tell you this. Sometimes, the things we ask for and then forget about (or take our energy off) come easily. When I began the six-month training at the World Healing Center, the instructors asked us to list what we wanted to accomplish in the next six months. I don't remember my list, but I remember the afterthought I scratched at the bottom of the page. "Oh, I want that porcelain polar I saw at the Scandia shop in downtown San Diego." 

When I wrote my list, India was the farthest thing from my mind, and I knew nothing of Sai Baba.

I bought the polar bear, and it has moved with us—from California to Oregon, from Oregon to Hawaii, back to California, and back to Oregon. It now sits in our living room, a reminder of the power of asking and receiving.



Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Moon Over India


Once I took a train across a portion of India. The railroad car consisted of a plain wooden box with two platforms attached to the forward and backward wall, with a window between the two. The platforms were hinged and could be folded against the wall or pulled down for seats. With my head and shoulders on one platform and feet on the other across from me, I draped myself beneath the window. My two traveling companions didn’t seem to care that I had commandeered the window. I guess my position didn’t look too comfortable to them. But I loved that train ride, for I had a panoramic view of the Indian countryside played out like a technicolor movie.


At one stop, I watched little boys playing in the railroad’s water supply that was open and spraying like a fire hydrant. On the deck beside the depot, I watched a couple change their toddler’s diaper and use water from a thermos to wash his fanny. Toilet paper is scarce to non-existent in India. Instead, water faucets are installed beside most toilets, even ones that are a simple hole in the ground. You can bet most of our suitcases were filled with toilet paper, as we were forewarned.


As the train rolled along, I occasionally saw a dog with a stained ring around his belly and hind legs. In fact, every dog I saw in that area had the same stained rump. Curious. And then I saw the cause. In the middle of a ginormous mud puddle—more like a shallow pond, sat a dog.


Two friends and I went to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Hey, we were in India. It was a must, right? I was so na├»ve. I didn’t know it was a mausoleum. In the 1600s, the emperor built the Taj Mahal for his favorite wife, to the tune of, in those days, 32 million dollars. (In 2020, that would be one billion.) The love story between the emperor and his wife is heart rendering. She was so beautiful that he instantly fell in love with her, and although she was not his only wife, she was the “Jewell of the Palace.”  When she died of complications in giving birth to her 14th child, he was so heartbroken he grieved for two years. And then he watched over the building of her mausoleum for another 10.


Upon walking through an archway, we were struck by a shimmering image of the Taj Mahal so brilliant that it appeared to be vibrating. Not only was it made of white marble, but semi-precious stones were precisely inlaid into the marble. The effect was not only exquisite, but gave the structure an ethereal quality. The two towers beside the building are structurally engineered to tilt. Upon viewing the building from a distance, the towers looked straight.


We were required to wear footies over our shoes when we entered the building, which was surprisingly small, a simple marble room with a tomb in the center. And beneath it, another room with another tomb exactly beneath the first. I learned later on the emperor was also buried there. The reflecting pool in front of the Taj Mahal contained no water. They told us it was only filled for special occasions, and since it was about 120 degrees that day, we understood why it was empty. I am not exaggerating about the temperature. However, we weren’t unduly uncomfortable and only learned the following day that we had endured 120 degrees Fahrenheit. So, you can understand why the dogs cooled their heels.


Six of us, led by a couple who regularly made the trek, journeyed to India to see an Indian guru named Sai Baba. We had viewed a film where he supposedly created verbudi, a sacred ash, from his hands. So, it was a bit troubling when we were there to see trinkets sold outside the ashram that looked exactly like the ones he supposedly explicitly created for a devotee in his audience.


What did I learn? That no person is my master. 


I once wrote about a phenomenon I witnessed in India and again in Hawaii. That was the grapevine. This surprised me that people just appeared and offered information when you needed it. One morning as the six of us were having breakfast in the courtyard of the house where we were staying, someone yelled over the board fence—we couldn’t see them, and they couldn’t see us—but the voice told us that Sai Baba had moved from the little town where we were staying to his ashram in Puttaparthi. So, what did we do? We threw our simple mattresses, that we had purchased, onto the roof of a taxi, climbed aboard, and traveled to Puttaparthi. We did have one meal there, but basically, because we were afraid to drink the water and eat the food, instead, we ate toasted cashews sprinkled with cayenne pepper and drank lime soda from a bottle. (And we left the mattresses for the next visitors.)


From the ashram, Florencia, Sherri, and I went to the Taj Mahal. After Sherri got homesick and went home, Florencia and I traveled a bit more—like Copenhagen, “A wonderful gem of a town,” where it was so cold we donned wool sweaters. Florencia had been married to a military sailor who said you could only drink alcohol when the sun was under the yard arm, so at the end of the day, before we had our customary glass of white wine, one of us would ask the other if the sun was under the yardarm. Florencia would say, “Somewhere in the world, it is.” And that would give us permission. Florencia was a perfect traveling companion. She is gone now, but maybe where she is they serve white wine and don’t care where the yardarm is.


What sent me off on this trail? My honey and I watched a documentary the other night titled “I am Salt,” about an extended family that spends 8 mounts every year on a desolate mudflat in India, farming salt. Fascinating. I did not know salt required such hard work. Everybody worked on sitting up camp, digging the pump and hoses out of the mud where they had buried them last year, made ponds, and ran a pump constantly to bring the saltwater buried in the ground to the surface to fill ponds. As the water evaporated, leaving behind the purest white salt, they had to tend their crop, building berms to hold the water, ditches to move it, tamping down the soil, adding grass, so the crystallizing salt had something to grab hold of. It was laborious work. As I watched the momma’s making flatbread, I wondered what they ate besides bread, and I thought of the babies in India. The babies didn’t fuss or squirm as one would expect of an infant. I had observed that fact until our ride back from the Taj Mahal in a First-Class railroad car. Onboard, a young couple had a young child, less than a year old. They looked affluent, immaculately dressed, and the baby acted as one might expect of an infant that age, jumping on their lap, active, squirming, taking in its surroundings.


I concluded that nutrition had a hand in this.


Why did I call this "Moon Over India?" Well, our travel agent said that a visit to the Taj Mahal during a full moon was exquisite, and that we would be there during a full moon. We don't know what it looked like that night for we were wiped out from the day, and languished in a hotel room that night.

That vibrating image was the picture I have carried away. It was enough.


Don't forget that review you've been meaning to write--you can be honest, and remember, adults like children's books too. They are fun, and who doesn't want to know what they would find if Inner Earth really did exist. Please go to Amazon, click on book, scroll WAY DOWN of left side of page, and viola' there is a place to write a review. A click on the book cover will take you there.

  Two in a series, however, each stands alone.