AMY’S 2017 FULBRIGHT YEAR IN THE FAR EAST
I am spending Spring 2017 in Beijing as a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Renmin University of China. (The university’s name literally translates as The Chinese People’s University.) It is renowned for the Humanities and is ranked a top comprehensive Beijing university.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
RENMIN UNIVERSITY OF CHINA, BEIJING
For the first two weeks I was in Beijing the skies were blue and the Air Quality Index (AQI) stayed well below 100 compared to cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai which had AQI’s above 200. (New York City, by the way, has an average AQI of about 4 !!!)
I was pleasantly surprised and encouraged, but I should have known better… It turned out that the 2017 China Communist Party Congress was being held in Beijing, and when anybody important comes to the city the factories shut down to clear the air. If you look back at the photos I shot out of my apartment window a couple of weeks ago you will see a notable difference from this, which is the current state of the air outside. And you can see from this selfie that I have officially become a Beijiner.
Saturday, March 11, 2017
978 DISTRICT, BEIJING, CHINA
978 is the well-known gallery district in Beijing. In 1995 the China Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) which was located near Tiananmen Square was asked to relocate itself. Looking around for cheap real estate CAFA moved itself to Factory 706 on the east side of Beijing, an area full of abandoned factories that had once manufactured military equipment. In 2001 Time Zone 8 Art Books owned by Robert Bernell moved into Factory 978 and in 2002 a Japanese-owned gallery moved into the same factory complex. Artists had been trickling into the area taking advantage of the large industrial spaces and high ceilings.
Below you can see the swooping arcs of the roofs of Factory 978 which was built in the 1950’s by East German architects and engineers, and you can see the building PACE Beijing occupies.
The District is now pretty commercialized and, predictably, artists have been squeezed out due to high rents; artists are now moving to Yanjiao, a suburb of Beijing. But some artists have managed to get a toehold in the area near 978 and one of them is Prof. Hu Quanchun who teaches sculpture at CAFA and runs his own 3D printing business. Below you can see Prof. Hu and a functional sculpture he fabricated in Yunnan Province by hiring local stone cutters. It is a type of well that accesses village water.
A group of graduate and undergraduate students visiting Prof. Hu’s studio.
Prof. Hu’s studio is housed near 978 and CAFA in an amazing area of newly constructed industrial-looking buildings built with art galleries in mind. Someone, I don’t know who, decided to develop the area with the intention of renting the buildings out to galleries and other art businesses. (You can see in the background emptied wooden painting crates.)
One of the galleries located in this area is Chambers Fine Art which also has a branch located on W. 19th Street in Chelsea. We saw some interesting art there.
Song Hongquan, whose father was a stone carver made this sculpture.
I believe, although I may be wrong, Xie Xiaoze, installed this marvelous “bookcase” in a corner of one of the gallery’s offices.
Wu Jian’an, who is representing China in the 2017 Venice Biennale, bases his work on the Chinese tradition of folk papercut art. This is a detail of a larger metal wall hanging that has the virtue of looking simultaneously ancient and contemporary.
Friday, March 10, 2017
RENMIN UNIVERSITY, HAIDIAN DISTRICT, BEIJING, CHINA
I have been here two weeks and I feel well settled-in. I am teaching a graduate class on Tuesday afternoons that includes an hour-long discussion at the beginning of class on book chapters I am assigning, after which I do one-on-one critiques with individual students. (Interestingly the other students like to hang out and listen. I take it my approach to looking at and talking about their work is novel here.)
I had prepared to teach an undergraduate course but unlike in the U.S. college students here are saddled with as many as 10 or 12 “classes” they attend each week. I admit I don’t understand how this works, but it made it impossible for the Department to schedule an additional undergraduate course. Instead I offered to spend three-hours a week doing studio visits with students who want me to look at their work. So far this is working out.
Faces of some of my students.
My modus operandi is to use a mix of Chinese and English when speaking to them. I speak Chinese until I run up against topics that I don’t have the vocabulary for, then I switch to English. I have also gotten into the habit of carrying my laptop with me so I can pull up Google Translate when necessary. Google Translate is particularly helpful translating full sentences ans paragraphs. The majority of students have a little knowledge of English but I have had studio critiques with students who spoke no English. (They usually take the precaution of inviting a friend or two who can translate for them.)
It has been gratifying to know that what I offer – the readings, discussions, viewpoints, and critiques – are new to them. I feel like a fresh wind who’s blown in for a short stay.
So far I have had dinner with two different groups of graduate students. The first time I was invited by them. The second time I initiated the invitation: I wanted to take these girl students out to dinner because they had done me favors. But I have found that the students will never allow me to pay for dinner. If I can get myself organized I plan to host a party in my apartment later this semester. I may use it as an occasion for a film viewing.
Friday, March 3, 2017
RENMIN UNIVERSITY, HAIDIAN DISTRICT, BEIJING, CHINA
I have been here a week, so there is much to catch up on. I will try to touch on the highlights, first of which is my young colleague, Guo Chunning, whom I met in Lijiang where we had occasion to spend a couple of days together before flying to Beijing. She is an Associate Professor in the Art Department where she has founded an Animation Program.
In China art schools regard animation as a commercial medium used to produce Disney-type films or video games. Chunning is one of a handful of people in China interested in animation as an art medium. Her interests are wide-ranging: after receiving her MFA in Art she earned a PhD in Philosophy. She has traveled quite a bit outside of China and has wide-ranging interests that include writing, research, curating, and film studies. She is at the center of art animation in China and she has the ambition, the ability, and opportunity to realize her aims, which currently include bringing the Society for Animation Studies Annual Conference to Beijing, and co-create a feature-length Chinese art animation film.
Chunning has been my guide, companion, guardian angel and general helpmeet in Beijing. She arranged for a couple of her students to meet me on Saturday, my first full day in Beijing, to tour me around campus. They helped me get my cell phone set up, get drinking water service to my apartment, and buy some immediate household necessities.
I have been assigned a light-filled three bedroom apartment in a girl’s dorm.
The university campus is relatively compact, which is a good thing since I am directionally challenged. I am on the 17th floor and this is the view of the campus out my apartment window.
An interesting aside: My two student guides and I passed a group of residential buildings they said were university property, but they had no idea who lived in them. Below is a photo of the nine residential buildings. Later I learned that during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) the campus was overrun by the Red Guard some of whose families moved into the buildings: the present tenants are their descendants. (Apparently some time after 1976 some of the university’s professors managed to take back control of the campus.)
On a lighter culinary note, only yards away from my apartment is a stand where they sell Chinese crepes, a Beijing specialty, filled with shredded lettuce, savory bits of pickled vegetable, scallions, a you tiao, two eggs, and (optional) sausage – all for the grand price of approximately one U.S. dollar.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
THE ANCIENT VILLAGE, LIJIANG, YUNNAN, CHINA
Our posh and luxuriant hotel, The Intercontinental, is strategically located adjacent the Ancient Village, the historical part of Lijiang which has been preserved and renovated. The population is Naxi, Yi and Tibetan; the Ancient Village has been commercialized to cater to the tourist industry. Due in large part to the sandy soil, the City of Lijiang, and the Province of Yunnan, has been historically poor. It is easy to see why the populace do everything they can to draw tourists.
At the edges of the Ancient Village you can see the non-touristic, unglamorous storefronts that cater to the residents.
Lijiang was under the rule of the Mu Family from the Ming to the Qing Dynasties. The Mu Village, a vast mansion compound originally built in the 1300’s still stands, although the building is not original but a reconstruction made in the early 20th century.
I had a flash of recognition when I realized the architectural layout to be what, on a more modest scale, must have been the kind of house my mother grew up in. She described a gated, walled compound, an open courtyard, a central house, followed by a succession of houses. She said her family lived in the first house and relatives lived in the other houses. She talked about how every doorway was barred by a wooden plank at floor level that the kids would clear by getting a running start and hurtling over.
These bars rise a good fifteen inches (the top reaches almost to my knees) and are put in place not as a system of rainwater or flood control but rather to prevent demons from entering the house! (I guess demons can’t jump obstacles??!!?)
Apparently Mu Palace had a quantity of high quality paintings and elaborately carved wooden doors which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
A view overlooking the palace compound to the distant mountains of Lijiang.
A view of Lijiang urban sprawl as seen from a high palace vantage point.
Back at the Ancient Village they’ve done some updating. Notice the LCD advertising screens under a pagoda-style roof. Below are Alyssa of Project PenYou, Lilly Butler and Ava Chin’s daughter, Mei.
Monday, February 20, 2017
LIJIANG, YUNNAN, CHINA
Yunnan is a province in southwest China that shares a border with the more well-known province of Sichuan. The Orientation for the Spring 2017 Fulbright scholars is being held in Lijiang where Fulbright has an office.
The day of the Orientation dinner, those of us who arrived early were taken in a small bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge about an hour and a half from Lijiang. The story is that a tiger was seen leaping across the gorge while escaping hunters. The city of Lijiang is at 8,000 feet. The Tiger Leaping Gorge, which borders the Yantze River, has a depth of 12,500 feet.
Lijiang is home to three groups of Chinese ethnic minorities: the Naxi people, Tibetans, and the Yi people. Our tour guide was a young Naxi woman who told us the gorge is formed by the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain on the left and Shangri-la on the right.
The gorge has a giant boulder at the narrowest part and apparently the tiger used the boulder to jump across the gorge. This is currently the dry season and the water level is low. Apparently after the Monsoon the water rises about 15 feet higher than this, and the boulder becomes a mere outcropping.
The Naxi people were tea merchants who traveled from Lijiang to Tibet to sell tea or to exchange it for other goods; they also traveled from Lijiang to India and from India to the Middle East. Each leg of the journey took six months. In the photo below you can see the narrow path on the side of the mountain on which the mule caravan traveled.
The presence of Tibetans can be felt at the gorge. Among other things they sell tagged bell amulets on which people write their wishes and leave attached to the railing.
The Naxi people who were originally a northern nomadic tribe travelled south at some point in the distant past to settle in Lijiang. This is one of their villages.
Before taking up my teaching duties I am doing some traveling in the Far East.
Saturday, February 18, 2017
YANGMINGSHAN (Yangming Mountain), TAIPEI, TAIWAN
Taipei, much to my surprise, contains a live volcano in the form of Yangmingshan (Yangming Mountain). On a very foggy Saturday morning Ripley, her boyfriend Larry, Ripley’s Aunt, Jìumā, and I took ourselves on a hike up the mountain. The fog was heavy and persistent, the day was drizzly and cold. Yangmingshan used to be called Grassy Mountain because it is covered in an abundance of ornamental grass.
Along the way you can smell the sulfur caused by the volcano and see traces of volcanic ash.
I don’t know how long it took us to get to the top but Larry told me we were as high up as a four story building. (Really? Was that all?) See the bird on the post below? He looked remarkably well-fed and was completely nonplussed by us.
Larry said Taiwan has a biome that goes from sea level to 13,000 feet which makes for a diverse variety of plant life. (The widest variety of moss in the world can be found in Taiwan and Japan.) The island really is beautiful, green with varied terrain. That’s why the Portuguese named it Formosa, which is the word for Lovely in Portuguese. (Below, Ripley and Larry).
You won’t credit it, but when we came down the mountain the sun was shining and the day was warm. (Surely the mountain has to be taller than a four-story building?!)
Friday, February 17, 2017
AS SEEN ON THE STREETS OF TAIPEI, TAIWAN
This is Taipei’s version of New York City’s CitiBikes, but it’s a larger program and seems to be extensively used.
I walked down a street with a row of storefronts selling different types of birds and birdcages.
LUNGSHAN TEMPLE, TAIPEI, TAIWAN
The brochure reads, “Lungshan Temple of today is no longer in the original buildings constructed in 1738. It was rebuilt in 1919 and completed in 1924.”
And “Lungshan Temple always keeps its nature as a Buddhist Temple, but in the course of its development many deities of Taoism were also included. The varieties of deities in this temple shows the tolerant mentality of the Chinese people in their religious life,” which is apparently historical fact; it used to drive the Christian missionaries crazy that their Chinese converts would “accept Christ” and continue to worship their other deities.
I lit three incense sticks so I could approach and look at Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, which reminded me the last time I was in a Buddhist Temple lighting incense was in 1993 when I traveled to China with Janet Zweig. Janet stood in front of the giant smoking incense pot renouncing all desires, then walked over to the Gift Shop and proceeded to bargain with the Monk for a pair of cloth shoes…
The temple was rebuilt by hiring Wang Yi-Shun, a master temple builder based in southern Fujian, China. According to the brochure, the temple is a masterpiece of traditional Chinese architecture and in 1985 the Taiwanese government designated it a “historical site of second grade,” which sounds about right to me…
I saw a lot of the congregants repeatedly throwing two red crescent-shaped pieces of wood and gathered it had something to do with divination. I heard a young woman explain in Mandarin to a young white guy how to do the ritual, and then heard the guy turn to his friend and explain in fluent Japanese what the young woman said. I was so jealous ! His Chinese was much better than mine ! (In fact, I couldn’t follow the young woman’s explanation.)
According to Wikipedia: Jiaobei blocks or moon blocks (Mandarin 筊杯, jiǎo bēi, lit. “bamboo cups”) are wooden divination tools originating from China, which are used in pairs and thrown to answer a yes or no question. They are made out of wood or bamboo and carved into a crescent shape. Each block is round on one side (known as the yin side) and flat on the other (known as the yang side). It is one of the more commonly used items found in Chinese traditional religion and are used in temples and home shrines along with fortune sticks, both of which are often used together when requesting an answer from the gods.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
NATIONAL HISTORY MUSEUM, TAIPEI, TAIWAN
This is the view from one of the Cafes at the National History Museum which is a nice quiet place to sit. The museum is low key and under-utilized. I think I know why: they’re short on English wall text. They can’t compete with the National Palace Museum which provides excellent English wall text and attracts a slew of tour groups every day of the week.
Pillow in the Shape of a Tiger (1115-1234 CE) Can you believe the Ancient Chinese slept on ceramic pillows like these? The first time I saw ceramic pillows was in a Kurosawa movie; I had no idea it originated in China !
I am sure these pillows were strictly used by the wealthy; no farmer or peasant could afford to sleep so uncomfortably every night; after all they had to get up and work the next day !
As a senior in college I made a series of highly patterned acrylic paintings on paper based on Chinese jar shapes like these from the Neolithic period.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
THE NIGHT MARKETS IN TAIPEI
Night Markets in Taipei (there are many) start at sundown and go until midnight seven-days-a-week. They are hopping, fun and festive. (Picture the San Gennaro Street Festival in New York’s Little Italy, with more variety of street food and fewer games of chance.)
Speaking of Games of Chance, there’s one that’s overwhelmingly popular in Taiwan – the Lottery.
The Taiwanese government did something extremely clever decades ago. (I am surprised more countries that need it, like Brazil and India, haven’t taken up the practice.) To prevent merchants cheating on sales tax the government runs a bi-monthly lottery. The receipt of anything you purchase comes with a lottery number which of course encourages you to demand your receipt from merchants.
It is also popular to buy Scratch Off Lottery Tickets.
This particular lottery seller sold a winning ticket recently.
This is a cotton candy seller’s specialty. I don’t know if this chick relates to the fact that this is the Year of the Rooster in Chinese Astrology.
Lest you forget, there are many reminders of the fact when night falls and the lights come on.
I would be neglectful if I didn’t mention that this particular image seems to have gone viral in China.
The Taiwanese really like their colorful electric lights. This is a temple situated near the Night Market dedicated to the Maritime Goddess. The locale borders a river and at one time was a very busy port.
Monday, February 13, 2017
THE NATIONAL PALACE MUSEUM, TAIPEI, TAIWAN
On my way to the National Palace Museum I saw, beside an office building, a surprising and notable public art sculpture by Yang Mao-Lin, a famous Taiwanese artist, depicting the head of a manga cat on the body of Marilyn Monroe standing atop a giant bug. It’s more kitschy than a Jeff Coons !
At the National Palace Museum I focused on three exhibitions: A historical survey of Chinese calligraphy, a notable book of bird illustrations, and Chinese ceramic fabrication techniques.
An example of handwritten print characters:
An example of Chinese cursive writing:
A collection of bird illustrations (mythical as well as real). It seems to me the artist had more fun when he was making things up…
At the ceramic exhibition I fell in love with a Tang Dynasty (618-917) Pottery Figure of a Standing Lady with Painted Colors:
You might not credit it but she was considered a great beauty in her day. A fat woman (look at how full her cheeks are) was proof of wealth.
In the Tang Dynasty fashionable ladies painted their lips to appear smaller. (Painted rosebud lips were also fashionable in France in the 18th century.)
The foreign shoes she is wearing further testifies to her wealth. (I assume they are Middle Eastern.)
What I love about her is that she has so much presence – so much character! She is not a sweet young thing. To me she looks capable of commanding an army; I know she made her maids scurry with her sternness.
And as you can see, she is still much admired today. Here she is with a group of Japanese tourists.
This is a panoramic view of the scene from the front steps of the National Palace Museum.
Saturday, February 11, 2017
On my first full day in Taipei, Tsai Shinqhuey, a former student and her boyfriend, Roy, came by the AirBnB to take me to Ilan, a village about one-and-one-half hours north of Taipei – which felt quite different – agricultural, with no skyscrapers.
They took me to a theme park type place recreated to look like Taiwan in the 1950’s. Below are photos of Shinqhuey and Roy first seen clearly then engulfed by artificially generated steam.
In the evening Shinqhuey wanted to take me to the observation deck of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the city, but there was a long line and the tickets were too expensive so we skedaddled, but not before I took this photo of people waiting online milling in a room full of multicolored lights . (This is a scene you will never see in India !)
Friday, February 10, 2017
Arrived in Taiwan Friday afternoon and to my delight found that I had booked myself into a wonderful AirBnB in ZhongZheng (Central) District of Taipei run by a young couple, YaTing, who is Taiwanese, and Olivier, her husband who is French, and their six month old daughter Adelie. Their ground floor apartment is large and interestingly configured with four bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a breakfast room, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a downstairs basement (that serves as a TV room). Olivier used to run a small restaurant serving French homestyle cooking but now that YaTing has returned to work, he stays home with Adelie. They occupy one of the bedrooms, rent out two to AirBnB guests, and house a young woman who does light housekeeping for them in the fourth.
My room is spacious, quiet, and has all the conveniences including a desk and chair, a two-seater sofa, shelving, closet, night tables, good lighting, and crucially, enough electrical and strip sockets to plug in all my chargeable devices.
The area is convenient to public transport (bus and subway), and has many small, good, inexpensive restaurants nearby. (Olivier marked about half a dozen places on my Google Map, but I have been so busy I have not had time to go to any of them.)
FOOD IN TAIWAN
But while I am on the subject of food, I should perhaps mention that I love Indian food, and had expected India to be a gustatory delight. And it might have been had I had a taste for very, very spicy food. Indian idea of lightly spiced is so hot it sets my taste buds on fire, which prevents me from tasting anything ! To our chagrin Jean, Bernie, and I found ourselves seeking out eateries that cater to tourists (who, like us, come in begging for food with NO spiciness).
Taipei, it turns out, is a Snacker’s Delight. By “snacking” I mean light eating or perhaps eating-on-the-run. There are a gazillion tiny storefronts selling good, inexpensive, ready-made food. Like these light fluffy deep fried you tiao (literal translation – oil strips) that in this photo look a little like french baguettes. But trust me, there’s nothing bready about them: they are delicious, light (if greasy), crisp yet soft, and air-filled.
Scallion pancakes – fried on the spot – greasy yes, but delicious.
I couldn’t tell what he was cooking, my best guess is some kind of soup.
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
THE ELLORA CAVES, AURANGABAD, MAHARASHTRA
The Ellora Caves are a large complex of 34 rock-cut structures that served as monasteries and temples for three different religions: Buddhism (330-650 C.E.), Hinduism (8th to 12th century C.E.), and Jainism (600-1000 C.E.). A rock-cut structure is one that is carved from the top down. They contrast the Ajanta Caves which were chiseled out from rock faces. The Ellora Caves are made of basalt, a rock that is neither too soft nor too hard. Iron chisels and hammers were used to carve the monuments.
I admit that I cannot visualize the process of planning and executing a rock cut structure, and of course, these people did not have paper on which to sketch or make plans. Unlike the Ajanta Caves the Ellora Caves were never covered over. Their existence have always been known and acknowledged. The Ajanta Caves were constructed during the Monsoon Season, but the Ellora caves were constructed only in daylight and in good weather. Apparently they used mirrors or shiny metal surfaces to refract sunlight into the caves.
A group of school children visiting the Ellora Caves.
Elephants symbolize, among other things, great intellect and wisdom. They are sacred animals and are thought to be the living reincarnation of the God Ganesha, the remover of obstacles who represents good beginnings, luck, and possibly wealth.
A ribbed ceiling cave that looks both like a set of animal ribs and the structure of a reinforced wood ceiling.
A Hindu Dancing Deity.
A man with a pot belly is a Jain symbol of wealth.
A Shiva Lingam, found in the sanctum sanctorum of all Shiva Temples, is sometimes described as a merging of the male and female sex organs. It is also known as the Brahmanda, or Cosmic Egg.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
THE AJANTA CAVES, OUTSIDE OF AURANGABAD, MAHARASHTRA
There are two separate sets of caves near Aurangabad designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. We first visited the Ajanta Caves carved into 250 feet of rock in two separate phases, from the 2nd century B.C.E. to about 480 or 650 C.E. The area was overgrown with jungle in 1819 when they were re-discovered by John Smith, a colonial British officer, who was tiger hunting. From a high escarpment looking, I assume, through binoculars, he espied carved architectural arches.
The earliest caves were carved and painted by Buddhists monks who four months of the year took refuge in the caves during the Monsoons. (The remaining eight months they wandered the world, apparently quite far, if evidence is to be believed.)
We didn’t make the climb entirely on our own steam. Bernie hired a palanquin and to her annoyance insisted that Jean do the same.
Although we call them caves I believe the spaces are more correctly designated as monasteries and temples.
The Ajanta caves are said to contain some of the finest extant examples of ancient Indian art, which influenced all subsequent art styles in India.
Portion of a ceiling.
Portion of a ceiling.
Top portion of a stupa.
This depicts a teaching Buddha.The Buddha has five symbolic hand gestures. This one shows one hand held above the other with thumb and index fingers of both hands touching as a gesture of preaching.
A reclining Buddha that I couldn’t capture in a single frame.
I call this the Monk Dormitory.
I actually went in and lay on the bed to see what it felt like. Unsurprisingly it was hard.
Monday, February 6, 2017
WE BID A FOND AND REGRETFUL ADIEU TO RAM, OUR DRIVER, GUIDE, FATHER, MOTHER, AND GENERAL SAVIOR
I have forborne speaking about Ram Kewal Maurya, our driver and guide, but as you might perceive from this photo by the way Bernie and Jean both lean towards him that we rely on him, adore him, and are very grateful to him. Ram was recommended by my friend Ralph Helmick who more than a decade ago traveled in India with his wife Fran. At that time Ram was working for a tour agency. Ralph indicated that they were very happy with Ram so when time came for me to plan a trip to India I asked Ralph for his contact information. Ram, in the past three years, has been independently leading tours mostly getting clients through referrals by former customers.
Because Jean asked him we learned of Ram’s life story. Ram was born and grew up in a small village in Rajasthan not far from Varanasi. His father died when Ram was a child and his mother worked hard but struggled to feed the family which consisted of two older brothers, an older sister and him. Ram said that it was not unusual for them to get by on a single meal a day; to this day he remembers the feeling of hunger.
At the age of 17, without telling their mother, Ram and a brother left their village and traveled to Delhi. They knew no one in Delhi, had no money, and slept on the streets. One day a driver started a conversation with them, and asked Ram if he was hungry, saying, “You look like you’re hungry.” Ram admitted to being hungry and the driver was kind enough to feed them. He asked if they were willing to work, and Ram said he was willing to work at pretty much anything. The driver, who owned a fleet of cars, hired the brothers to help him wash cars, run errands, do laundry. etc. For their labor the boys were fed.
At some point, I don’t know how many years after leaving their village, the brothers were able to return to see their mother and assure her they were okay. At a further point in time their mother told them it was time they married.
At work their boss perceived them to be good workers and began to give them more responsibilities eventually teaching Ram to drive and get a driver’s license. Ram worked a number of years as a driver until his boss decided to switch careers into what Ram called “music recording.” (At first I pictured a sound studio but quickly perceived that Ram was probably referring to music pirating.)
Ram decided the business was not form him so he resigned his position and got himself hired as a driver for a tour company. He worked what I estimate to be 15 to 20 years for two different tour companies until three years ago when he was able, by saving his tip money, to purchase his own car. In the meantime he and his wife had borne a son and a daughter. His son, who is now a teenager, one day asked Ram to buy a computer, which he was learning to use at school. Ram said he would do so if his son would teach him to use the computer.
(A brief but interesting digression: Ram told us his son, who is sixteen years old says he wants to be a pilot and aspires to join the Indian Air Force. Ram said he agreed to support his son’s ambition and promised to buy him a position in the Air Force. Yes ! Apparently to join the Air Force you not only have to qualify, you have to pay to get in ! I assume this is payment under the table and not an official Air Force policy. Humorously one day when we were having breakfast at our hotel, Jean and I noticed a large group of Air Force officers at another table. I raised my eyebrow and said to Jean, “Well, we know they bought their way in…)
We said goodbye to Ram at the Delhi Airport because we were boarding a flight to Arangabad to visit the caves at Ajanta and Ellora. Ram arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport and drive us to our various destinations. Sadly for us we spent the last leg of our journey without Ram.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
CHAND BAORI (Step Well) IN THE VILLAGE OF ABHANERI IN RAJASTHAN
Outside of Jaipur we visit Chand Baori, a step well built in the 8th and 9th century. It is sited within Abhaneri, a small, poor village off the main highway. The step well contains three thousand steps and was built on an aquifer. The aquifer has long gone dry; nowadays the well only fills during the Monsoon Season, but in its day women descended the steps with their pails which they filled with water and carried up balanced on their heads. (We saw many examples of contemporary Indian women still practicing this style of carting.) The Step Well was built simply by stacking stone upon stone; it contains no mortar.
In the 18th century a Summer Palace was built on the unoccupied side of the Step Well that used a systems of constructed wheels to bring water up to the Palace. (We were told that once a year at a dance festival in honor of Hashat Mata, Goddess of Joy and Happiness, for whom the step well was dedicated, oil lamps were placed and lit on each of the three thousand steps.)
At Chand Baori there are remains of 8th century sculptures, such as this, which depicts what a contemporary Indian temple looked like.
Other sculptures, such as this one, were broken or defaced in the 11th century by conquering Moslems.
I will take this occasion to note that India seems to have been continuously occupied for much of its history. Most recently by the British who occupied it for two hundred years from 1757 to 1947. The first hundred years India was ruled by the East India Company, and the second hundred years by the British Raj. Prior to that India was variously overrun by the Portuguese (1434-1633), the French (1769-1954), the Danes (1620-1869), the Dutch (1605-1825) and the Mughals who were a mix of Persians and Mongolians (12th-16th centuries).
The partition of India and Pakistan occurred under the British in 1947. To this day there is tension between the two countries since Kashmir, a predominantly Moslem area of India, is contested by Pakistan.
But here’s the real kicker: The country’s name, India, is not really Indian. It came from the British by way of the Greeks (in Greek and Latin India stood for the area beyond the Indus River, which is now present day Pakistan). Prior to the British India called itself Bharat !
THE TAJ MAHAL IN AGRA, UTTAR PRADESH
The Taj Mahal, it turns out, is a site specific building. All the photographs I have seen do not do justice to the place: you really have to see it in person. Agra, when we saw it, was a little foggy which may have contributed to the Taj Mahal’s mirage-like quality.
I won’t go into the story of the Taj Mahal, which is well known. I will simply say that, except for the Egyptian Pyramids, the Taj must be the largest mausoleum in the world. The whole building is nothing but a tomb. (I had assumed it was a building that the bereaved widower lived in, but no; the interior is almost completely dark due to a scarcity of windows.)
The minarets flanking the mausoleum are built angled away from the main building; a precaution taken by the architect. In an earthquake the minarets will fall away from the building. Wells were dug and filled with stone and rubble to form the footings of the tomb to stabilize the building in an earthquake. Earthquakes are a hazard in Agra, and although the building has been shaken, it has not been toppled.
The building is surrounded on three sides by crenellated walls, each with its own stately gate. The Main gate faces west. The unwalled side is lined by the Yamuna River. Across the River you can see the footprint of what had been intended as a black mausoleum that the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan intended to build as his tomb. (The sad story is that his son imprisoned him to prevent him from constructing it. The son probably decided enough money had already been spent on the Taj Mahal. This same son also managed to kill two brothers in order to be the sole inheritor. Shah Jahal is interred in the Taj Mahal, next to his favorite wife, Muntaz Mahal.)
The Yamuna River and the foundation for the black mausoleum.
Here is the building at my fingertips.
Next to the Taj Mahal is a mosque that is still used by Moslems on Fridays.
The building is surrounded by a lawned garden.
A BRIEF DIGRESSION
On the road to Jaipur we get intrigued by the Indian method of transporting hay. On the theory that a picture is worth a thousand words I won’t attempt to describe it: I’ll just show the photos.
I should add that we saw one of these trucks with its contents spilled on the highway. Fortunately it happened on a rare four-lane stretch of highway, which allowed the traffic to continue to flow as it was going to take a very long time to return the hay to the truck, which they were shoveling with a pitchfork !
COWS, SACRED AND PROFANE
There really are cows wandering the streets and highways of India. Here’s one moseying down a street inside the Jaisalmer Fort. The man on the right was just passing by; he and the cow are ships passing in the night.
And here’s a cow in his proper village yard and home, which modestly enough, is a hut with dried cow chips stacked on its roof.
Dried cow chips I have learned is a wonderful home renovation material. Mixed with mud it can be applied to the floor or walls and smoothed down to make a durable and beautiful reddish brown floor or wall. It lasts three months or until the Monsoon rain arrives.
DON’T STOP THAT HONKING !!
This is an addendum to the post I made from Delhi where we first encountered the phenomenon of using the car horn as a defensive driving move. It is, apparently, a very welcome method of alerting other drivers. Almost all trucks we saw on the highway encouraged the practice by painting HORN PLEASE or BLOW HORN on its rear end.
THE BASICS OF INDIAN MINIATURE PAINTING
This is what I have learned: In order to make authentic Indian Miniature Paintings you must grind and mix your own paints. The pigments come from minerals, organic inks and dyes, and carbon soot. In ancient times ateliers ground their own pigments with mortar and pestle and filtered the medium for purity. What was demonstrated to me were pieces of soft minerals rubbed against a hard surface like marble or glass and mixed with water and gum arabic or rabbit skin glue.
. Black can be obtained from pure carbon by burning bones or wood then collecting the soot.
. White can be obtained from lead white, zinc white, and chalk.
. Red ochre can be obtained from iron oxide. More brilliant reds can be made from vermillion or mercury sulfide.
. Green can be obtained by mixing copper filings with vinegar, but verdigris is highly caustic to paper and can burn through it, or flake off leaving a brownish stain. Some stable greens can be created by mixing yellow and blue pigment.
. Blue can be obtained from lapis lazuli which is an expensive source. More commonly blue is obtained from indigo blue dye.
. Orange can be obtained by mixing yellow and red, orpiment being the most common source of a bright yellow.
. Yellow. Orpiment an arsenic derivative produces a bright yellow. But yellow ochre can be produced by filtering specific types of soil.
. Purples are usually mixes of red and blue and white.
. Browns can be obtained from brown ochre earth.
. Gold and silver leaf. (Ancient silver leaf tended to rust, leaving a dark color, but contemporary silver leaf will maintain its color.)
There are two types of binders – a glue made from animal hide and gum arabic. Rabbit skin glue which can be mixed with boiling water is a good option, as is gum arabic, both items being easily found in art stores.
Brushes are made from the fur taken from the tail of chipmunks. Many brushes have a single long hair in the center surrounded by shorter hairs. The single hair is useful for making lines to simulate texture.
Saturday, February 4, 2017
AMBER FORT IN JAIPUR, RAJASTHAN
In Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan, we drive through the historic walled, seven-gated Old City, also known as the Pink City, where all buildings are mandated to be a terracotta pink, then head to Amber Fort which can be seen here in the background.
Entry to the fort is reached via a slightly steep circular ascent. I don’t know how the Maharajas did it in their day, but currently a fleet of elephants are available for hire. Jean and Bernie rode the elephant up, and did so in Raj style wearing turbans gifted by our driver, Ram.
This is one of the courtyards within the fort. It’s a little hard to see but I took this photograph because the trees in the courtyard are very typical of the types of trees seen in Indian miniature paintings.
Jaipur is actually surrounded by three forts, but the Amber Fort, built from the 1500’s to the 1700’s, is the largest and most beautiful. It was built after the Rajasthan Maharajas befriended the conquering Moghul Empire, and is designed based on a combination of Indo-Moghul and European styles.
This is the Summer Palace within the fort. Apparently in the hot summer months the royal family moved into this compound. The back wall of the central area is lined with a perforated marble wall on which ran cascading water. The breeze passing through the water created a form of air conditioning. The palace was kept cool in the summer by covering its arched openings with screens woven with the roots of the aromatic grass called Khas, which were occasionally moistened with water. Air passing through the screens was cooled and carried their fragrance into the palace chambers.
And this is how “the other half” lived. These were apparently the servant’s quarters, and the niches were used for storage.
JANTRA MANTRA (Ancient Astronomy Observatory) IN JAIPUR, RAJASTHAN
In the afternoon we visit Jantra Mantra, an astronomy observatory built by Maharaja Raja Man Singh II in the 17th century. (He built a total of five observatories in India, of which this is the last and largest.)
These are two halves of a sundial. The upper-facing disk marks the time in the morning, and the downward-facing disk marks the time in the afternoon.
This sundial points to the North Star. If you place your eye at the bottom of the stairway and follow the slant up to the sky you encounter the North Star.
This is a small model of the above sundial.
And this, the largest sundial in the world is the same model but ten times larger, and measures time to an accuracy of within two seconds (versus twenty seconds for the first version).
We learned from our guide that the Zodiac Signs were created by the Babylonians to represent the constellations. The Indians carefully studied the Zodiac since it was, and still is, very important in Indian culture. Ever child born in India has his/her astrological chart drawn. Within the grounds of Jantra Mantra are constructions designed to track each of the twelve constellations. Results were recorded for use in astrological charting.
Unlike the ancient Romans who used a sun-based calendar, and the Ancient Chinese who used a moon-based calendar, India used a complicated system that merged both calendars. (There were occasions when a day might occur twice, lasting 48 hours.)
This instrument, which comes in two parts, measures latitude and longitude. The spaces in between allow astronomers to enter for close, accurate readings. The second part is identical but complimentary; the empty spaces in this one are filled in and vice-versa.
Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II, was a brilliant man, not just as an astronomer, but practically. India at that time was an agricultural economy. Rajasthan relied on the Monsoon for its water; a dry season could spell disaster. Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II changed Jaipur’s economic base by creating six new markets, each dedicated to a single product – textile, spices, jewels, opium, etc. He even had the foresight to construct the markets with built-in housing for the merchants. Jaipur, to this day, benefits from his far-sightedness.
Friday, February 3, 2017
KARNI MATA TEMPLE (The Rat Temple) IN THE VILLAGE DESHNOKE, RAJASTHAN
WARNING: THIS POST MAY BE DISTURBING FOR THE SQUEAMISH
We left the City of Bikaner to visit the village of Deshnoke’s famous Karni Mata Temple, also known as the Temple of Rats. The legend tells of a young man named Laxman, who, while attempting to drink from a pond, fell in and drowned. Karni Mata implored Yama, the God of Death, to revive him. Yama first refused, then relented, permitting Laxman and all his children to be reincarnated as rats.
The temple is said to contain 25,000 rats and Indians who come to worship make a point of feeding the rats. It is said that if you go to the temple and make a sincere wish your wish will be granted. I want it on the record that Bernie, Jean, and I, while inside the temple, wished for world peace.
The Three Mouseketeers in front of the Temple of Rats.
HAVELI LE PRINCE IN THE SHEKHWATI REGION OF RAJASTHAN
En route to Jaipur we intersect with the ancient Silk Road’s Shekhwati Region where we stop at Fatepur,a village called filled with hand-painted Havelis (highly decorated private residences.) We enter a house called Haveli Le Prince built in 1841 for the Devi family, prosperous tradesmen who specialized in Burmese teak. The house was occupied until India’s Independence in 1948 after which it was abandoned for about 50 years.
In 1998 Nadine Le Prince, a French artist, came to the village and fell in the love with the building. She bought it and began the restoration process.
The front door opens onto a courtyard where apparently the goods were viewed. To the right was a sitting room where business was conducted. Once an agreement was reached the men would enter another room where the contracts were signed.
We were guided through the house by a Jake, a 16-year old American high schooler who grew up in Paris. His parents moved from San Francisco to Paris after George W. Bush was elected practically, Jake said, on impulse.
The house is a combination of Indo-Mogul architectural influence. Behind the first courtyard is a second courtyard reserved for the women. (India, in spite of the erotically charged Hindu religion were influenced by Muslim mores when they conquered the Indian subcontinent in the 1200 to 1600’s. Purdah, the social and religious separation and sequestering of women became commonplace in that period.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
JAISALMER FORT IN RAJASTHAN
In Jaisalmer, known as the Golden City for the color of the local stone out of which the entire city is built, is the city fort, which still has 5,000 inhabitants living within it. They are working hard to conserve the fort which is threatened by water damage. When the fort was originally built water was very scarce. It is said that a child could grow to the age of seven without seeing a single drop of rain. Today water is plentiful and endangers the fort.
The fort is famous for its havelis, which are highly ornamented private residences, in this instance, made of stone carved to resemble wood.
Within the Jaisalmer Fort we encountered a hybrid temple that merged the Jain and Hindu religions.
Due to its elaborate layers of constructed walls the Jaisalmer Fort was never overtaken by the enemy.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
THAR DESERT IN RAJASTHAN
In the morning we drive out of Jodhpur to the city of Jaisalmer. After we install ourselves in our hotel we drive west to the sand dunes of the Thar Desert, to an area about 45 kilometers east of the Pakistan-India border where there is a large military presence: the area is heavily guarded by Indian soldiers. They built a wind farm nearby to provide electrical power for the army, and to power the bright lights at the border.
I rode on a pregnant camel trailed by her 4-year old calf (who was being trained to carry a saddle), and Jean rode an old(er) camel. My camel was led by a seven year old boy, son of a camel driver, who was himself being trained in the business. He was quite small (from his size I would have guessed him to be four-years old).
Jean and I rode camels to the dunes where we got a good view of the sunset.
This area of India, which is subject to drought, relies heavily on tourism for its livelihood. India is busy building roads that enable people, including tourists, to reach this area. Jean’s niece, Emily, went on a camel safari for her honeymoon. Participants of camel safaris, which may last up to seven days spend nights in mud huts like this, unless they sleep in tents.
Later in the evening we were entertained by local musicians, a singer, a drummer, a couple of percussionists who clapped two rectangular pieces of wood together in elaborate, coordinated rhythms, a female dancer/contortionist who then invited the guests to join the dance. We ate a vegetarian meal that included a dish of beans (stringy string beans) that grows only in the dessert and is considered an expensive delicacy.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
THE MEHRANGARH FORT IN JODHPUR, RAJASTHAN
In the morning we are taken to see the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur.
This is when we learn that for centuries Indian kingdoms existed within gigantic walled and fortified forts. The fort is one of the largest in India. Built around 1460, a winding road leads up to it. Jodhpur is also known as the Blue City. In these photos you can see why.
To enter the fort you have to pass through seven gates. On one of the gates we could see indentations on the walls caused by cannon shots.
According to Wikipedia, “To build the fort Rao Jodha had to displace the hill’s sole human occupant, a hermit called Cheeria Nathji, the lord of birds. Upset at being forced to move Cheeria Nathji cursed Rao Jodha with “Jodha! May your citadel ever suffer a scarcity of water!” Rao Jodha managed to appease the hermit by building a house and a temple in the fort very near the cave the hermit had used for meditation, though only to the extent that even today the area is plagued by a drought every 3 to 4 years. Jodha then took an extreme measure to ensure that the new site proved propitious; he buried a man called “Raja Ram Meghwal” alive in the foundations. “Raja Ram Meghwal” was promised that in return his family would be looked after by the Rathores. To this day his descendants still live in Raj Bagh, “Raja Ram Meghwal’s” Garden, an estate bequeathed them by Jodha.”
On our way in we passed the place where Raja Ram Weghwal is entombed. Bernie, fortunately, is not entombed, but he does disappear into the walls a bit…
The fort is built with low doorways and narrow hallways to make it hard for invaders to overrun the residences, but other than that the fort interior is quite plush, housing several brilliantly decorated and crafted palaces.
Inside the fort, which is now a museum, is housed a large collection of furniture, costumes, musical instruments, painted miniatures, weapons, and palanquins, of which this is one example.
Monday, January 30, 2017
THE RANAKPUR JAIN TEMPLE IN RAJASTHAN
Leaving Udaipur we stop at the 14th century Ranakpur Jain Temple. Jainism is one of the major religions in India. It was started by Vardhamana Jnatiputra or Nataputta Mahavira (599-527 BC), called Jina (Spiritual Conqueror), who was a contemporary of Buddha. Similar to Buddhism Jainism believes in non-violence, truth, non-stealing, celibacy/chastity, and non-attachment/non-possession. Like Buddhists the Jains do not worship a God.
The Ranakpur Temple, which is covered by obsessive, all over carved patterning contains within it 1,444 similar yet unique pillars. The temple is architecturally built to avoid hierarchy and imbue a sense of non-direction. Walking (or circling around) in it was like no other experience I have ever had; except for the fact that there is an entry portal, the building felt like it had no beginning and no end.
ON THE ROAD FROM UDAIPUR TO JODHPUR
India is a strange amalgam of ancient an modern; the two seem to live side-by-side. As we sped down the highway to Jodhpur we passed a man driving two bulls powering a water mill.
And a couple of monkeys, which we make the mistake of stopping to photograph. I gave the monkey outside my window a banana which caused a slew of other monkeys to appear out of nowhere and swarm our car: one powerful monkey managed to pull the left side mirror off the car with his hind legs. (We assured Ram, our driver, that we would pay for the repair.)
In the village of Kukani, known for its handicrafts, we meet Usman, the weaver and proprietor of Salawas Durry Udhyog (durry is the Hindu word for rug), who demonstrated his deftness at working a handloom.
On the highway we pass a Motorcycle Temple. Ram, our driver tells us that after a man was killed riding a motorcycle on the highway his motorcycle was moved to the Police Station. The next day the motorcycle is gone, and is found back at the scene of the accident. The police move the motorcycle again but the same thing occurs. The third time the police take the precaution of chaining and locking the motorcycle. Again in the morning the motorcycle seems to have returned itself to the scene of the accident.
People in India are notoriously superstitious. As the tale spreads people begin to visit the motorcycle at the site. Soon a temple begins to be built, and stores and hotels begin to pop up around it. The temple is still under construction (even as we pass it.) I tell Ram my guess is that whoever owns that stretch of land is at the root of the mystery !
We finally arrive in Jodhpur and discover to our delight that we have been booked into the Ranbanka Palace Hotel (a Heritage Hotel) which was once one-half of a wealthy man’s residence. The property was split in two by inheriting brothers. We were told the property next door is still a private residence.
Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017
We come to Udaipur (also known as the City of Romance, the City of Lakes) in Rajasthan, the most touristed city in India. We stay at the Hotel Hilltop Palace, built atop of one of three hilltops in the city.
A wall design in our hotel lobby copied from the City Palace of Udaipur.
Udaipur, has an interconnected lake system that supports the ground water recharge that sustains the city. The lake system has three large man-made lakes and many smaller lakes that are fed by rainwater in the Monsoon Season as well as water from the Ganges River and its tributaries.
A view from our hotel’s dining room.
Udaipur, like the majority of India, has no organized sewage system or water treatment center which is causing solid waste to pollute the lakes, causing an ecological degradation. (Swimming is no longer allowed in the lakes.)
The City Palace of Udaipur is a palace complex founded in 1597 by Maharana Udai Singh II, an inheritor of the Mewar Kingdom who founded the City of Udaipur. The Palace Complex which sits atop a hill is a combination of Rajasthani and Mughal architectural styles and was expanded successively for 400 years by descendants of Maharana Udai Singh II.
Some facts I learned about Indian history and culture:
. Unlike the majority of India which was colonized by the British for two hundred years, Rajasthan, part of the Mewar Kingdom established in the 10th century, considered a British Raj, was an uncolonized Muslim princely state within British India.
. Rajasthan, was at one time predominantly Muslim, and a part of the Mughal (or Mogol) Empire. The Mughals were Persian-Mongolians who claimed direct descent from Genghis Kahn.
. A Maharaja is a king, but a Marahana is a war lord king.
. I thought all Indians named Singh (from the Sanskrit word for Lion) were Sihks, but Maharana Udai Singh II founder of Udaipur, was not a Sihk.
. Sihkism, which rejects the Caste system is a monotheistic religion. It was founded in the Punjab region of India in the 15th Century by Guru Nanak Dev, and is the 5th largest religion in the world. Sihks do not cut their hair, and all Sihk men wear turbans, although their style of wear is different from those worn by Hindu men.
SAHASTRA BAHU TEMPLE IN NAGDA, RAJASTHAN
In the afternoon we visited Sahastra Bahu, a historic Hindu temple complex at Nagda, outside of Udaipur. This was my first time seeing a Hindu temple and it resembled nothing I have ever seen before. It sits atop a stupa and consists of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law temple surrounded by smaller temple structures.
Friday, Jan. 27, 2017
My friends, Jean Greenberg and Bernie Rogoff, and I are traveling in the Rajasthan region of India for two weeks.
We started in Delhi, the Capital of India. The Jama Mosque, the largest in India with a capacity for 25,000 was the first site we visited in Old Delhi.
We then got lost wandering on foot around the area surrounding the mosque where wholesalers have tiny storefronts selling things like gift wrapping paper, wallpaper, stationery, and textbooks. Here a building advertising its business occupants:
Full disclosure: Being pampered and spoiled Americans we opted for hiring a guide and driver recommended by Ralph Helmick who, with his wife Fran, traveled in Rajasthan about ten years ago.
Our intrepid guide and protector, Ram, owner and operator of Kewal Tours:
In the streets where people, cars, motorbikes, and bicycle-powered rickshaws compete for passage the roads are pocked by the sound of car horns. This is a phenomena I experienced when traveling in Egypt, and only now understand, with Ram’s explanation, that most vehicles do not have side mirrors (many cars that do, travel with them folded in) and honking is considered good defensive driving. Apparently if you get into a wreck and are found to not have honked to alert the other driver of your presence, you will be found to be at fault !
Last but not least, remember the old Glenn Campbell song, I Am a Lineman for the County? I wonder what he’d make of this…
On the way to China I stopped off in TAIPEI, TAIWAN.
Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017
This is Ripley Lin, our MFA alum, sitting in her kitchen spearing a slice of wax apple, a fruit native to Taiwan which has the crunchiness of an apple, but is less dense and surprisingly moist. What makes it special is not the taste, which is unexceptional, but how refreshing it is. This is what a wax apple looks like
Ripley took me to an outdoor New Year’s Market in an old part of Downtown Taipei. The market happens once a year before the Chinese New Year (which this year falls on Jan. 28 and heralds the Year of the Rooster). Unfortunately I wasn’t thinking straight and didn’t take good photos of the street fair. Let us just say that we bought a lot of Chinese snacks – sweet beef jerky, sweet and spicy beef jerky, toasted seaweed chips, fried and baked dough balls made with seaweed, sesame seeds, sweet potatoes, among other ingredients, and a dark brown baked concoction made with fresh ginger, ripe lychees, brown sugar and spices that can be hydrated into a hot toddy-like drink that I would describe as a spicy Chinese version of apple cider.
Ripley getting ready to dive into a bowl of Taiwanese fish soup made with vermicelli, bok choy, fried and breaded fish in a slightly gelatinous broth.
A couple enjoying their bowls of fish soup.