Sunday, June 17, 2012

Indian By Design: Buildings and Monuments of India

India has some impressive ancient buildings, forts and churches.  During our five weeks in India, we visited a sampling of these buildings, including the Taj Mahal, which is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful buildings ever built.
We began our visit to India in the south of the country (in Kerala and Goa), where Christianity has a strong presence, thanks in large part to Portuguese colonizers.

The first church pictured above, St. Francis Church, contains the tomb of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama.  The second, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, houses the remains of St. Francis Xavier.  The third, Se Cathedral, is the largest church in Asia.  The fourth, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, dominates the center of town in Goa's capital, Panjim.  Each of these churches were built in the 1500's or 1600's.

India is a colorful country.  This is evident in the clothing of the women, and in the interiors and the exteriors of the churches.  The statue of Jesus covered in blood pictured above might be graphic enough to make even Mel Gibson cringe.

The most widely practised religions in modern India are Hinduism and Islam.  We visited Hindu temples, such as the white tower pictured above (no photos allowed inside, alas), as well as the largest mosque in India, the Jama Masjid in Delhi.  Notice the fellow walking on the strip of cloth in the courtyard of the Jama Masjid.  This was necessary because shoes are not allowed in the mosque grounds, and the outside temperature was 117 degrees, making the ground hot enough to burn the soles of people's feet if they stood on the uncovered stone floor for long.

India is the birthplace of Buddhism, yoga, and more recently, a large number of spiritual gurus, swamis and saints who attract large followings.  We visited the ashram of one well-known spiritual figure, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, who is known as the "hugging mother," or the "hugging saint."  Amma (which means "mother"), as she is called by devotees, is said to have hugged over 30 million people.  On some days, she has been known to hug people, one at a time, nonstop througout the day, without taking a break to eat, sleep or use the restroom.  Five thousand people live in her home, which is an ashram in southern India, and hundreds of thousands visit the ashram each year.  Life at her ashram is simple: people follow a vegetarian diet; residents are asked to provide at least two hours of volunteer work, known as "seva," everyday; and during free time, activities such as yoga, meditation and chanting are popular.  Amma subscribes to no particular religion: her small living quarters feature a photo of Jesus Christ, a menorah, and a verse from the Koran.  Most food is provided to residents, visitors and locals free of charge; there is no entry fee for the ashram; and during our visit, Beth and I were never asked to donate any money.  Despite this, Amma's foundation is famous for raising huge amounts of money.  In 2008 alone, the foundation raised $78 million.  Prior to that time, Amma's foundation gave $46 million to victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, among other charitable giving.  Beth and I allotted too short a time to fully immerse ourselves in the ashram, but we enjoyed our one-day visit, and we were moved by the many of our experiences there.  (Sadly--at least for the purposes of this blog--photography is strictly prohibited; the stated reason is that it interferes with the spiritual practice of the residents and visitors.) 

We visited Gandhi Smriti, which was the final home of the "Father of India," Mohandas (or "Mahatma," which means "great soul") Gandhi.  Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for nonviolence, civil rights and freedom across the world.  Among the famous people who cited Gandhi as a source of inspiration were Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Albert Einstein.  Time magazine ranked Gandhi as the second most influential person of the 20th Century, after Einstein.  Dr. King once said: "Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics."  When asked what message he would give to the Indian people, Gandhi responded, "My life is my message."  Judging by Gandhi's possessions at the end of his life, which are pictured above, part of Gandhi's message is simplicity.  In 1948, as Gandhi walked to his daily prayer meeting, a Hindu nationalist who thought Gandhi was too sympathetic to India's Muslims, shot and killed Gandhi.  The photo above shows the final steps Gandhi took before his death.

We visited a number of monuments, palaces and tombs, including the following pictured above: India Gate and Jaipur Gate in Delhi, the Lake Palace in Jaipur, and the 16th-century Humayun's Tomb in Delhi.

India is littered with impressive forts, dating from as early as the 11th century.  Ranthambore Fort was pictured in my previous blog post.  Pictured above are the following forts which we visited: Red Fort in Delhi, Amber Fort near Jaipur, and the Agra Fort in Agra.  The last picture, from the Agra Fort, features the scales of justice, where the Mughal emperor would adjudicate disputes among his subjects.

Lest you think that our visits to the above buildings consisted of nothing but dry history lessons (such as found in this blog post so far), check out the above videos of what we were actually doing when we visited these forts.  The first video shows the Nick and Beth in a fort imitating my posture when I try to take surreptitious photos, known to them as "T-Rex photo arms."  The second video begins with Shane listing how he would have outfitted his fort if he were a Mughal emperor.  The final video features my bumbling attempt in Agra Fort to recreate the scene where Princess Leia professes her love for Han Solo just before he is frozen at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.  According to Nick, this masterclass in ineptitude is his favorite video from the trip so far.

Agra Fort is located across the river from one of the most famous buildings in the world, the Taj Mahal.  Just after he completed construction of the Taj Mahal in 1653, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was deposed by his son and imprisoned for eight years in Agra Fort until his death.  Shah Jahan's son gave his father a prison cell in the fort with the above view of the Taj Mahal as a way of taunting his father.  I recount this story because it is Father's Day as I type this, and, notwithstanding my failure to buy a Father's Day gift, I hope my father will agree that I am not the absolute worst son in history!

The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum built by Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife.  It is regarded by many to be the most beautiful building in the world, although I doubt Shah Jahan's first and second wives shared that opinion.
The beauty and grandeur of the Taj Mahal and India's other architectural treasures will linger in my memory as highlights of this journey.

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