Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Magical Udaipur

January 21, 2018

Here we are in Udaipur!  The last two days have been an eyeful and a complete delight. Neelesh is our guide on this trip and he is doing a great job of taking care of us, keeping us safe, happy, healthy, entertained, and informed.  I have been to India a number of times and I am always learning something new.  India is so diverse, mind-boggling, and fascinating.  I am so excited to be a part of Spiritual India Journeys and to be able to share this journey with the tour participants!

Holy Cow!  The cows in Udaipur roam the busy roads.  Cars whiz by and take all precautions to drive around or past the cows with the utmost care and caution.  Cow is Mother here in India.

Cow is S-A-C-R-E-D

She gives and gives. She nourishes.  She is gentle.  She gives milk, yogurt (curd), ghee (clarified butter), and fuel (in the form of dried dung which becomes fuel chips for cooking or keeping a home warm).

In Hinduism, cows are thought to be sacred, or deeply respected. Hindus do not worship cows, although they are held in high esteem. The reason has to do with cows‘ agricultural uses and gentle nature. Hindus rely heavily on cows for dairy products, for tilling fields, and for dung as a source of fuel and fertilizer.

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The friendliest and kindest people in the world are right here in India. Below is a photo of a child and grandmother in Udaipur.  Adults often draw kohl around the eyes of children, especially in Rajasthan, in order to beautify the child’s eyes and also, along with a large dot drawn on the child’s forehead or cheek, to help protect them against the Evil Eye.

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A delicious South Indian meal in Delhi before we left for Udaipur:

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All the photos in today’s blog are from yesterday. Today we took a ferry boat just like this one below to an island in the middle of Lake Pichola in Udaipur. More photos from today to come later.

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Dancer’s Pose in Udaipur.  As of today, I posted the last of my 56-day Yoga Challenge Photos on Instagram.  It’s hard to end the challenge!  I will probably continue to post a few more while I am in India and post the grand finale when I am at the Taj Mahal!  It’s been a fun challenge!  I will most likely put all the photos together in a collage and post them on this blog, too. A great big thank you to everyone who helped photograph me.

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Our guide Neelesh loves movies! He told us that the national drink of India is chai (tea).  And he said that if you see people drinking chai and talking, laughing, or engaged in an ardent conversation, you can be absolutely sure that the topic being discussed is one of the following:

  • Cricket (the national sport)
  • Politics (of national interest)
  • Bollywood (because Indian movies are in the veins of the people of India!)

So the topic moved from sports to politics to Bollywood movies.  Neelesh had a job in Delhi some years ago as a movie reviewer / movie critic.  He loved that job!  He got to go to many movie screenings and then wrote about the movies.  He said the movie vouchers he received from work had “0 Rupies” written on them and he always found this curious because he found the movies to have such an enormous value.

Why are Bollywood movies so popular in India?

Every Indian person grows up watching movies.  1,340 movies are released every year in India. This surpasses the number of movies produced in the USA.  For three hours or for the duration of the movie, people have the opportunity to live the life of the actor!  Movies are close to the heart of every Indian.  They know certain scripts by heart, they know the lyrics to every song, and use certain lines from movies to greet one another, to joke around, to tease each other, and to get points across to one another.

As Neelesh was telling us about movies, he became extremely animated.  His happiness was contagious.  I asked him who his favorite actor is. Without a moment’s hesitation, he shouted out his impassioned answer, “Akshay Kumar”.  It took Neelesh all of five second to tell us the following: “Kumar is from Delhi.  He is 50 years old and he is the fittest guy in the movie industry.  You know, he is a stuntman!  He’s absolutely amazing.”

At the end of this tour, when we get back to Delhi, before heading to the airport, Neelesh is going to take us to the movie theater to see Akshay Kumar’s newest film, Pad Man. (No, this is not a typo! I thought Neelesh was saying Bad Man, but I looked it up and the movie is called Pad Man.)

Imagine Neelesh’s excitement when we saw Akshay Kumar’s photo on an enormous billboard at the Delhi airport:

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Lastly, I just had to take this photo for my sister Zina. She’s a hair stylist and owner of an organic hair salon in Salisbury, Maryland.  This guy had just finished cutting someone’s hair and was more than happy to pose for me!IMG_3034

http://www.frangallo.com

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My India Reading and Film List

January 18, 2018

One of my readers recently asked me for a list of books I have read that were written by India authors…  And so another blog post is born.

I love to read. I read on the bus when I am back home en route to work and back, I read in the car on the way to our weekend home in Ocean Shores, I read when I have big gaps between classes, I read before going to bed, and I read on flights.  I read a lot, but, in my opinion, I do not enough!  I always have a book list going and the book list on my “later shelf” at the library keeps growing.

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Below is a list of books I have read by Indian authors. Have fun exploring these novels. There is only one book below I have not yet read (and that’s only because the book is so BIG that every time I go to read A Suitable Boy, I am daunted by its sheer volume and end up putting it aside).

  • A Fine Balance / Rohinton Mistry (fiction, a great read!)
  • Sacred Games / Vikram Chandra (fiction, takes place in modern Mumbai)
  • The Toss of a Lemon / Padma Viswanathan (fiction, South India)
  • A Suitable Boy / Vikram Seth (fiction, huge book packed with social commentary) Family Matters / Rohinton Mistry (takes place in Mumbai)  NOTE: This is one I have not YET read, but it’s on my list. This is the long one.)
  • Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard / Kiran Desai (fiction, fun read)
  • Death of Vishnu / Manil Suri (fiction, sad but well-written, takes place in Mumbai)
  • The City of Devi / Manil Suri
  • The Space Between Us / Thrity Umrigar
  • The Story Hour / Thrity Umrigar
  • The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma / Ratika Kapur
  • The Lowland / Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Interpreter of Maladies / Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Last Mughal / William Dalrymple (history that reads like fiction) Enjoying India / J.D. Viharini (and anything written by Dalrymple!…He isn’t Indian, but he lives in India and his writing is great)
  • Inheritance of Loss / Kiran Desai (fiction)
  • The White Tiger / Aravind Adiga (fiction, Man Booker Prize winner)
  • The God of Small Things / Arundathi Roy

For poetry, I found the following link for the ten best poets from India: Link

And here is a link that Kelley McHenry gave out to our current India Tours with Daily Yoga groups.  It is a great list with lots of books that I have not yet read!

FILMS:

Well, I thought I should also include some films I have watched that take place in India.  I know there are so many films out there taking place in India, produced in India, and my list is only a very small selection (same case for the books mentioned above), but the list below includes the films I have seen.

I should also say that India has a huge film industry.  India’s film industry is larger than that of Hollywood.  For example, in 2014, Hollywood sold 1.36 billion tickets compared to Bollywood’s whopping 2.6 billion.  See what I mean?  We are talking BIG.  Frankly, I have not watched many Bollywood films, but have placed some on my Netflix waiting list and I hope to watch some when I return home.

Movies I have watched:

  • The Apu Trilogy by director Satyajit Ray  (all films by Satyajit Ray are classics)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2000)
  • The Lunchbox
  • Monsoon Wedding
  • Lagaan
  • Mother India
  • Fire (1996)
  • Lion (recent film)
  • Slumdog Millionaire
  • City of Joy (1992)
  • A Passage to India (1984)
  • Bride and Prejudice (2004)
  • Bend it Like Beckham (2002)
  • Marigold Hotel

Namaste from Kochi, South India!

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Spicin’ It in Kerala

January 16, 2018

Written yesterday:

Yesterday we went to the Spice Plantation. Our guide was so informative. We walked around and he showed us the various spice plants. He taught us remedies and recipes to make the most of the spice’s healing properties. He also identified birds, which were flying overhead, hanging out in the trees, and singing boisterously. At one point, an elephant strolled by. The elephant was a working elephant and was giving tourists a ride. Our guide explained that Kerala elephants have working rights. Only female elephants (male elephants go into musk and can be dangerous and aggressive) can be employed for tourism and their work hours are limited. In the past, the elephants were used for logging. Today no hard labor is allowed at all.

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Below is what our knowledgeable guide taught us during the spice plantation tour:

PEPPER grows on a vine and is native to Kerala. The vine can grow up any tree. The tiny clusters of pepper corns are green. I learned that red, black, white, and green pepper corns are all from the same vine. If you leave them on the vine long enough, they turn red and various shades. White pepper has the skin removed and tastes very mild. Most of the spiciness of the pepper corn is in the skin.

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One of the most interesting aspects of the pepper plant is that the pollinating agent is rain drops! Vasco da Gama brought the pepper plant back to Portugal with him and became a rich man! In his day, pepper was knows as Black Gold!

Cold and Sore Throat Remedy: Place 5-6 pepper corns, dry ginger, and basil leaves in a pot of water. Boil. Strain and add powdered coffee.

GINGER is related to cardamom and turmeric. All three are indigenous to Kerala. The Spice Plantation can easily be organic because, in general, insects do not eat spice plants. The only problem the plantation experiences is with the monkeys. Monkeys like to eat cardamom because it is sweet. They do not eat ginger or turmeric.

NUTMEG grows up high on trees. However, there is no need to climb trees to get the nuts because when they are mature, the nuts fall to the ground. The skin of the nut is red, is called mace, and is used in cooking in India. Nutmeg is the actual nut free of the red skin (mace). Many parts of the nut and tree are used. The shell of the nutmeg is pickled and the leaf is boiled in water and is used to reduce cholesterol.

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In order to grow nutmeg, both male and female plants are needed. Males can live within 3 miles of the female tree and pollination still occurs! The pollinating agent is wind.

Sleeping Remedy: 1 or 2 pinches nutmeg powder with milk. You are advised not to drink this more than 2x per week because too much nutmeg hurts memory power.

Reduce Cholesterol: Boil the leaf of nutmeg in water and drink as a tea. The leaf does not affect memory so you can drink as much of this tea as you like.

CLOVES grow on a tree. Our guide warned us that when you buy cloves, they should be brown and not black. Black indicates that they are dried out and have lost their oils. Clove should be oily. Clove is good for toothaches, but can damage enamel. Clove helps rid the smell of mildew. It has a shelf life of 6-7 years if stored properly. Clove powder only has a shelf life of 6 months.

Protect yourself from mosquitoes: Stick three cloves into a lemon or lime sliced in two and place as many of these clove studded lemons in your room or near your body to chase away mosquitoes.

CINNAMON tree has to be 15 years old before its bark can be peeled. After peeling the bark, it takes the cinnamon tree six months for its bark to grow back. The dried leaves of the cinnamon tree are used in biryani rice.

And yes, the tree smells like cinnamon!

cinnamon tree and bark:

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Cinnamon helps reduce high blood pressure and, when used in the winter, it helps keep you warm.

Below is a recipe/ way to use cinnamon to reduce fat. More than once, we asked our guide to repeat the recipe below…just to make sure we got it right.

Reduce Fat: Add half teaspoon cinnamon and half teaspoon ginger powder to one tablespoon of honey. That’s it. Don’t dilute it. Eat this every morning before breakfast for one month and, according to our spice specialist guide, you will see results in one month.

TURMERIC We also saw turmeric bulbs. The guide called them bulbs, but they looked like tubers to me. It is great for killing bacteria, for memory power, and in Ayurveda medicine, it is used medicinally to treat skin cancer.

Turmeric powder mixed with sandalwood and water, made into a paste and applied to the face is great for skin brightening and evening out irregular skin pigmentation and spots. This mixture also helps clear pimples and blackheads. In both cases, apply it as a facial masque, let it dry, the wash it off.

Fresh turmeric is used medicinally and dried is used as a food and spice. We learned that ginger is the complete opposite Fresh ginger is used for food and spice while dried ginger is used medicinally.

Seeing our great interest in weight loss remedies, our guide gave us the following additional ideas:

  • one or two pieces of 70% dark chocolate eaten daily every morning will help you lose weight ( of course we saw the cacao plant on the plantation).
  • Take a cup of warm water and add black pepper powder plus a few drops of lime or lemon juice. This is great for burning fat.
  • Take 2 or 3 tablespoons of cumin seeds and soak overnight. In the morning, discard the water and eat the soaked seeds. Do this daily for 20 days and you will see results.

We also saw allspice ( it comes from a leaf of the allspice tree), henna leaves used for hand design patterns here in India and hair color. Henna is always red in color though the leaves are green. We saw Indian borage, coffee plants, papaya (great for digestion) and banana trees, pineapple plants and jackfruit trees with their enormous fruit.

The list goes on and on. The variety of spice and fruit grown on the plantation was overwhelming.

The most expensive spice in the world is SAFFRON.

Number Two is VANILLA, the fragrant flower of a vine. Vanilla is native to Madagascar and grows beautifully in Kerala. Its pollinator is the hummingbird.

The world’s third most expensive spice is Kerala’s indigenous CARDAMOM. It needs high altitude and is pollinated by bees. Cardamom is used medicinally for diabetes and it reduces high blood pressure and lowers cholesterol.

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FRAN GALLO | YOGA INSTRUCTOR
SEATTLE | OCEAN SHORES
http://www.frangallo.com

Inside Fish Eye

January 13, 2018

Written today about yesterday and posted today from Kerala:

We are in Madura, South India.  Our local guide for today stood up at the front of the bus and introduced himself:

My name is Mudu.

My name means “pearl”.

I have only one wife and two children.

I love my job.

I love people.

I am very happy to be with you today.

I am a very happy man.

And just like that, he won us over.  He led us through the Meenakshi Temple and, later, to the Tirumala Nayak Palace.  The day felt like a hands-on university course because we learned so much from him.

Tirumala Nayak Palace:

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Madurai is 80% Hindu.  The other 20% of the city population is Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist.  Madurai, along with Varanasi, is one of the longest living cities in the world.  Its history goes back to at least 3,600 years. A “living city” is a city that continues to function as a city for 2000 years or longer.  A “living city” maintains its heritage and culture and never loses its identity from ancient times to the present.

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Following are various facts about Madurai:

  • Madurai’s main agricultural products include rice, sugarcane, coffee, tea, and cotton (some of the best cotton in the world is grown here).  The list is extensive and also includes coconut, bananas, mangoes, cashews, chilis, and onions.
  • Madurai is known as the Temple City with Meenaskshi Temple as the most famous.
  • Madurai is known as the “Jasmine City” because it is a major exporter of jasmine.  Jasmine is exported all over the world, always in its raw flower form only.
  • Madurai is known as the “City That Never Sleeps”, sharing the title with Paris.
  • Madurai is known as “The Festival City”.  There are 284 festivals per year. In other words, it is a party town!
  • Madurai is a Trading City. Some 300 villages surround Madurai.  These villagers come to the city to pray at the temple and while they are in town, they make good use of their visit to the city by shopping for their supplies. The streets of the city are lined with ample stores and a variety of markets.  We passed Onion Street, where all the vendors were selling different kinds of onions.  We passed Banana Street where you could see trucks filled with bananas clustered on their stalks.  There are over 2000 shops to satisfy the needs of villagers, pilgrims, tourists, and residents.
  • Madurai has a huge gold market!  People in India consume more gold than anywhere in the world.  South India surpasses North India in gold purchasing and most of that purchasing happens right here in Madurai.
  • Madurai is an up and coming modern city.  There is a new international airport with flight connections to Colombo, Dubai, and Singapore.
  • Madurai is a cultural hub.  The city offers much by way of music, drama, art, and crafts.
  • Madurai is also known as the Soul of Tamil Nadu.

At the heart of the city, is the Meenakshi Temple. It, too, has existed in one form or another in the same location for as long as the “living city” has existed, though the present structure dates back to the 6th and 7th century.  It is referred to as the “Taj Mahal” of South India.  The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum and a major monument, but Meenakshi Temple is neither of the above.  It is an active spiritual center, receiving 35,000 visitors/worshipers daily.

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Meenakshi Temple is dedicated to the goddess Meenakshi, a manifestation of Parvati (Shiva’s wife).  Meenaskshi is also known as Fish Eye because, like a fish, she never closes her eyes. She watches over you. She blesses you.

Hindus pray at Meenakshi Temple to develop a deeper consciousness of the divine.  It is one of the few temples devoted to a woman. Both men and women come here, but this temple is also known as a woman’s worshiping place.  Couples come here to pray for a child.  Pregnant women come here to pray for a safe pregnancy and delivery.

This pregnant woman was at the temple to pray with her family (and holding her phone).

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Women lighting candles and praying:

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At the temples we see people on religious pilgrimages. Sometimes, they are groups of women wearing red saris. It is a sight to see! They are all dressed similarly and seem to float past you, a red cloud of silk, a stream of white flashing smiles.

At other times, we see groups of men wearing black lungi and some wear black shawls. They are Shiva devotees on pilgrimage. They are bare-chested, their necks flanked with holy beads.

The groups of pilgrims arrive together in large buses. Going on a pilgrimage is optional for a person of Hindu faith. For 48 days before the actual start of the pilgrimage to the temples, the pilgrims have to prepare their bodies and their minds for the sacred experience and journey. They have to undergo a strict discipline to purify their bodies and minds. For 48 days, they have to adhere to the following rules:

  • They refrain from eating meat and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet.
  • They cannot consume any alcohol.
  • They can’t have sexual intercourse.
  • They have to go barefoot at all times. This also means that when they go to work, they are allowed to go to their offices and workplaces in bare feet. Of course everyone at work would know when a given co-worker is preparing to go on pilgrimage. It is an honorable endeavor and every Hindu is familiar with the rules of the 48-day preparation for the holy pilgrimage.
  • In addition to eating a strict vegetarian diet, breakfast is to be skipped entirely. A light lunch is permitted and a lighter dinner is acceptable.
  • For a whole 48 days, men and women must not cut their hair and men are not permitted to shave. Therefore, most pilgrimage men we see at the temples are bearded.
  • For 48 days, while preparing for the pilgrimage, no bed is allowed. The person must sleep on the floor!

Thus they are purified and ready for their incredible pilgrimage! The purification process is intense. When we saw the pilgrims at Meenakshi Temple, there was a festive feeling all around them. Their skin is clear and gorgeous and they look lean and healthy.

Once on pilgrimage, the pilgrims will visit several temples and the group will stay together, pray together, and eat their meals together. The pilgrimage will take place over the next 8-10 days. It is a joyful ecstatic time for people of faith. During the pilgrimage, they will most likely sleep on the bus.

One objective of Hinduism is to raise one’s consciousness, to liberate oneself from the material mode of living, to reach a deep understanding of spirit and God. I am certain that what I have just written is both correct and incorrect, for it is really difficult to describe any aspect of Hinduism in just one sentence. I am trying my best here.

For Hindus there are three ways to become liberated and to reach an understanding of the divine:

  • The first way is through the temple. A worshiper goes to the temple to make simple offerings and to pray to the deities. Our guide explained that there are multiple deities in Hinduism because the nature of the human mind is always wandering and unsatisfied. All deities represent facets of the divine and they represent the many ways to realize God. Everyone’s personal evolution is individual and the paths to evolving are many.
  • The second way to reach an understanding of the divine in Hinduism is through the body via yoga. Yoga creates positive energy. Yoga leads to a sound mind and body. Yoga prepares the body, mind, and spirit for meditation.
  • The third way to reach an understanding of the divine in Hinduism is through meditation. Meditation leads to God consciousness.

Ultimately, every Hindu wishes to be free from the cycle of birth and rebirth. There are several terms to describe the freedom every Hindu is seeking (the terms may differ slightly in meaning but are related): liberation, moksha, Samadhi, enlightenment, salvation.

I am far from being an expert on the subject of Hinduism. My understanding is pretty basic, even after eight trips to India. So below is my humble approach to giving you an elementary description of the deities of Hinduism.

There are many deities in Hinduism. Mainly you have a trinity. As in Catholicism, the Hindu Holy Trinity represents three aspects of one great divine consciousness:

  • Creator: Brahma (His wife is Saraswati and his vehicle or mode of transportation is the Swan.)
  • Protector: Vishnu (He maintains and preserves life and sees to it that everyone is safe and secure. He nourishes the human spirit. His wife is Lakshmi and his vehicle or mode of transportation is the Eagle.)
  • Destroyer or Transformer: Shiva (He is the patron of the yogis. His wife is Parvati and his vehicle or mode of transformation is the Bull whose name in Nandi.)

The deities marry and they have children. Each is associated with countless stories to teach life lessons to humans. They are adored, loved, feared, and honored. Each of the deities above, the trinity and their wives, have many manifestations, also known as avatars. For example Vishnu becomes a fish (known as the deity Matsya). Vishnu also manifests as Rama and Krishna.

And so we are back at Meenakshi Temple.  Fish Eye, she who never turns away from you and watches over you, has a gorgeous temple dedicated to her. Meenakshi is an avatar or manifestation of Shiva’s wife, Parvati.

This may be one of the most beautiful temples I have been to in India.  Inside the temple, there are statues of the deities and they are treated as living gods.  Flowers are placed around the neck of Shiva’s Bull, Nandi, and people whisper their prayers and desires into his ear.

Nandi, Shiva’s Bull:

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Whispering into Nandi’s ear:

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The temple is made of granite. The upper part of the temple is stuccoed and painted with bright colors.  It is repainted every 12 years. Inside there are statues of deities with multiple arms and hundreds of ceiling paintings of colorful lotus flowers (lotus symbolizes enlightenment, or rebirth). 

Lotus Ceiling Paintings:

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The floors are made of granite and there are thousands of sculpted pillars.  The stone pillars are from distant quarries, transported to the temple so many years ago and carved on site. Each stone pillar is enormous and uniquely carved.

The sculpted pillars are below. There are thousands of them, each is unique and each one is made from a single slab of granite:

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Having fun interactions with these young Tamil women at the temple:

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Sweet family we met at the temple:

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Yoga:

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And an incredible cup of tea made from cardamom, saffron, and cinnamon.  The tea is great for colds.  Even if you don’t have a cold, try making yourself a cup of this tea.  It is so good!

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Inside a Hindu Temple

January 11, 2018

Between yesterday and today, we visited three Hindu temples. We are lucky enough to have two excellent guides, Arvind and Raja, to usher us into the temples, to lead us up to the Brahman priests who bless us and mark our foreheads with white ash or mark our brow center with yellow or red powder. Raja teaches us to offer the Brahman priests money with our right hands, to circumambulate the temples in the direction of a clock.  Raja leads us in mantra and meditation and he interprets the many symbols chiseled into a sculpture.  When we stand before a sculpture of a deity, he guides our hands to touch the exquisite and ancient work of art. Together Arvind and Raja tell us stories of Hanuman, Shiva, Shakti, Garudha, Brahman, Nandi, and Vishnu.

Arvind and Raja are windows to this intricate spiritual world we have entered.  They gently guide us into a realm that is so different from anything else we have ever experienced.  Meanwhile, flocks of people are all around us.  They are praying, laughing, meditating, hoping, sitting in circles, standing, walking.  Some are sharing a meal, using banana leaves as plates placed on the stone of the temple floors.  The Indian temple is simultaneously overwhelming, fascinating, mysterious, festive, colorful, frenzied, chaotic, noisy, and calming.  It is a spiritual and cultural hub.  It is the heartbeat and fire of the Hindu spirit.

Inside the temple I hear bells ringing and clanging, people praying and chanting and talking.  And everywhere, friendly people in colorful clothing want to shake our hands and take photos with us.  They want to know where we are from, how long we are staying, what site and which temples we are visiting.  The women, the men, the children are charming, playful, cheerful, and so beautiful.

To enter a Hindu temple, you must remove your shoes.  Arvind paid someone to guard our shoes.  Can you imagine being a guardian of shoes?  It’s a very serious job.  There are thousands of shoes and the person must make sure the shoes get returned to the correct person.  Two years ago, Arvind lost his shoes in the mountain of shoes.  Needless to say, it was a very unpleasant experience. This time around, our shoe guardian was just outside of the temple and her shoe-load was small and manageable.

Last night we went to the Bull Temple in Tamil Nadu.  It is a temple dedicated to Shiva.  It is enormous and very beautiful, another UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Our very lively, funny, engaging, and toothy guide Raja took us around the temple at dusk.  He had us chanting and took us into the heart and soul of the Bull Temple.  It sprinkled lightly all day so we were walking in our bare feet through puddles and over ancient stones.  After a while, you just have to let go of thinking about your feet being wet and dirty.  After all, I kept reminding myself, feet can always be washed thoroughly and scrubbed with the help of a pumice stone back at the hotel.

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Today we climbed the 454 steps to the top of the Uchi Pillayar Rockfort Temple. When we climbed the steps to this temple two years ago, we were in the thick of a heat wave and the stone steps were like hot coals under our feet.  But today, we had wet stones from last night’s rain.  One of the most touching scenes were the many people lined up along the sides of the steps, sitting, waiting.  They were lean and looked poorly.  I did not photograph them.  The time was about 11:40am and Arvind explained that they were waiting for 12:30pm to come around because, at that time, a free meal is served daily at the temple. Temples serve free meals daily to the poor.

The climb to the Rock Temple was not difficult because the temperature was comfortable and not too hot.  We had some nice views from the top.

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I took the most photos at our second temple visit today: Ranganathaswamy Temple in Srirangam.  How can I explain the experience?  It had just finished raining, so we walked barefoot over wet stones again.  We were surrounded by devotees, fervent in faith and prayer, walking among the statues of the deities.  Hands in prayer, eyes closed, they prayed and left offerings of flowers and garlands.  Inside the temple there are statues and paintings, sculptures and altars, incense burning, lit candles, and paintings depicting stories of love, justice, compassion, honor, and miracles of life.

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Umbrella Man:

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Holy Cow!

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And now I am writing from our very comfortable 5-Star historical hotel in Madurai. When we got here, I wanted to open the doors looking out over a vast balcony, but I was afraid of letting the mosquitoes in.  It’s been raining and so the dread mosquitoes are around.  I have worked myself into a tizzy over their presence.  Mosquito repellent is my best friend.  On the bright side of things, if I turn up the air conditioning and have the fans going (yes, both fans and AC), the mosquitoes don’t stand a chance and become inactive!

And there are wild peacocks and peahens everywhere on the hotel property, which sits up on hill overlooking a colorful town below.  One peacock perched on our balcony and I got this shot from inside the room:

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Chiseled Town

January 10, 2018

We have been in Mamallapuram, also known as Mahaballipuram, for the past two heavenly days. With much reluctance we have to move on today. This going to another city brings a slight amount of dread (why must we leave the comfortable known, this elegant seaside hotel, the gentle breeze, the happy flocks of friendly South Indians?). However, moving on also invites an element of excitement because the India experience is one grand surprise after another. Just when we think nothing can surpass a given meal or a given temple or a given historical site, we are served up another unimaginable delight!

By Indian standards Mahaballipuram is a small town with a population of 8000 people. Back in 2001, my first visit here, the town was a quiet gem and, as I walked around, all I could hear was the consistent pleasant clink-clink-clink of stone masons and sculptors chiseling and chipping away at slabs of local granite. The sculptors’s hut-studios lined the streets and the artists magically rendered rock into statues of Ganesha and Shiva. Clearly, it seemed the chiseling artist’s job is to release the trapped bulls, monkeys, tortoises, and deities from the stones.

Today the town is bustling with masses of pilgrims visiting the temples and other holy sites of this town, but it is still charming as ever. Below are photos and descriptions of this wonderful town with its UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Monolithic Stone Temples carved from the existing granite. These 1,400 year old stone-sculpted temples are on the shore and vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels.

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The temple is surrounded by many bulls. The sculpted bulls were all found in the sea and you can see how eroded they are. The details of the faces are missing in these bulls. No one knows how old they are ( they pre-date this 1,400 year-old temple), exactly how many temples have been washed out or taken over by the sea, or what other treasures remain buried at sea.

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Our lively guide for the day, Stalin. Presumably, his parents were communists and gave him this name.

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Arjuna’s Penance below. Here, my fellow Catholic- raised readers, penance refers to “meditation”, a profound meditation Arjuna took on to seek wisdom and answers to difficult questions ( perhaps I can write more in this later). This incredible bas relief is carved into the immense live stone wall.

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Beautiful little girl

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My yoga Challenge continues I’m on day 46! Only 10 more days to go.

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And, always a delight to lead my fellow yogis in yoga practice  yesterday, we had “International Yoga Day”. The lifeguard joined us, as did a French woman and a very lovely Irani-British woman.

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Krishna’s Butterball. Krishna loves butter so this extraordinary rock, sitting seemingly precariously on the side of a steep hill, is named with Krishna in mind. Scientists cannot explain how the boulder got there.

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Ajanta’s Buddhist Caves

January 6, 2018

The day started with sunrise yoga.  Yoga in India!! The sunrise, the grounds, the yoga was all very dreamlike.  The sun rose as the moon set.  We practiced Salutations to the Moon.

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Imagine hiking along a ridge and spotting an unusual formation in the far distance. This strange rock formation is peaking out at you, within an enormous horseshoe rock-face wall across the valley.  You are not quite sure what you are looking at, but you are pretty sure you see a man-made vaulted entrance, almost entirely covered by vines and forest.  Your curiosity is enough to make slide your way down the treacherous cliff, ford the Waghora River, and bushwhack your way up a steep ravine until you reach that spot you saw from so far away.  You machete your way through the dense greenery to an incredible find: the Ajanata Buddhist Caves.

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More thrilling than any Indiana Jones film ever made, this scenerio really happened. The year was 1819, the place is outside of Aurangabad in India, and the discoverer of the immense and beautifully preserved caves that had been hidden for centuries was a British official named Jon Smith. However, Smith wasn’t hiking.  He was tiger hunting up on the ridge when he saw the vaulted arch above one of the caves hidden openings. He was soon to discover 30 significant hidden caves within the area.

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The Ajanta caves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The man made caves were carved directly out of the stone, monolithic and impressive.  It took 700 years to carve out the caves between the 2nd century BC and the 6th century AD. The walls of the caves are covered in frescoes, which contain some of India’s most precious and valued art.

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  • Buddhist monks lived in these caves
  • The rock was chiseled out by humans along. No animals were used in carving out the caves.  The rocks were small fragments and they were dumped into the river where they would quickly erode by force of the river.
  • Once the caves were abandoned, dense forests covered them and they were forgotten
  • The wall frescoes depict various years and events in the life of Buddha.
  • The frescoes depict scenes from the royal court (patrons of the cave building and art work)IMG_2149Above, a lotus flower painted on a ceiling

I used to think this (below) was a reclining Buddha (it is enormous), but learned today the statue shows Buddha as having just died.  I couldn’t capture the whole statue with my camera…. Below his peaceful corpse are depictions of the humans who wail, grieve, and appear to be inconsolable.  Above the Buddha are depictions of the happy heavenly creatures who eagerly await his spirit’s arrival. Above his body are images of angels and cherubs laughing and dancing in anticipation of a heavenly celebration.

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Our group:IMG_2145

Posing with the school children:

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Jack poses with the shoe man. You have to remove your shoes before entering temples in India.  This man is paid to guard our shoes! Arvind paid him for the important task and later tipped him. Even so, at one point, this man raised his pant leg and showed me an ace band wrapped around his presumed injured knee and he promptly asked me for an additional tip.

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Arvind on his iPhone, tending to details.IMG_2183 2

Giving Thanks

November 27, 2017

Last week, my classes were focused on gratitude.  And I have been especially filled with gratitude these past few days.  Thanksgiving and my birthday invite me to be thankful for the life I have, and for the people in my life: family, friends, students.  I have immense gratitude to be living in one of the most beautiful places in the continental USA, one filled with pristine forests, rivers, wildlife (we saw a herd of elk today!!), hiking and ski trails, and all the bounty that nature provides.  I am grateful for my own effort I put into maintaining my relatively good health.  Embracing yoga and making the yoga practice a part of my life, keeping stress levels low, eating a healthy, organic diet, keeping cardio-active, doing weight training, and getting enough sleep are disciplines woven into the fabric of my being.

I also have tremendous gratitude for my parents, who not only gave me life, but also gave me the best in education.  My parents grew up very poor in Sicily.  They both had to stop school in the 8th grade because of poverty and the need to work to help their parents make ends meet.  Instead of continuing on to the 9th grade, my father left school and did hard manual labor in the fields (no tractors or plows used) and my mother became a seamstress.  They worked hard their entire lives.  As far back as I can remember, they always told me that I’d go to college and, no matter how much my university tuition would cost them, they would cover it and give me the educational opportunities they never had.  And they held true to their dream.  They started this dream by sending me to private Catholic school from early on and supported me throughout my university years.

So thank you, mom and dad.  I am eternally grateful.

To celebrate my birthday and Thanksgiving, two great days of gratitude, Rick and I went to La Push on the Olympic Peninsula.  Rick’s Grandma Glenda went to La Push regularly and she always told us how very special it is.  It is remote, a long way from Seattle. The ocean is wild, and the beaches strewn with much enormous driftwood. We have been there four consecutive years in a row and we now understand why Grandma Glenda went there year after year!

Below you will see many photos from the weekend, along with descriptions of the place and of my experience there.

In gratitude, Fran

Below: Lake Crescent, the third deepest lake in the USA.  Our long drive to La Push passes this lake:

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Arrival at La Push: stormy skies, wind, frothy sea, sun setting early

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My new rain boots. Every year, I have seen these boots for sale at the resort reception.  I leave, later wondering with much regret why I didn’t buy them. This year, they were on clearance and I was lucky enough to get the last pair in my size!  They were meant to be mine:

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La Push is on the Quileute tribal lands and these boots are decorated with the tribe’s hummingbird design:

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I was obsessed by both my new boots and this RED driftwood that looks like red-hot burning coals:

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IMG_0857And had to include the photo below..a friendly dog jumped into my photo as I was taking yet another shot of the RED driftwood:

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Most of the time we were there, it was storming.  At some point, the sky opened up…briefly. IMG_0862

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We cooked most of our own meals, but went out for breakfast twice.  There is one place to get a meal and we found it on our first trip to La Push.  Every time we go, we see a charming Quileute elder named Bev.  She always sits in the same seat in the restaurant. This time, as soon as she saw me, she held her arms wide open and gave me the warmest hug! She did the same for Rick. When she found out it was my birthday, she promptly disappeared for a while. I thought she left without saying goodbye, but she came back with a gift for me.  She gave me this precious woven basket, a miniature with a rose motif on one side and a duck on the other side, woven from cedar and local grasses:

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I had my heart set on buying fresh crab while out there, but we found out it is not quite yet the season. We saw crab pots everywhere..the crabbers are ready and waiting for the right time set out their pots.

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Salmon! The quote below comes from a board educating people about the importance of saving the salmon as they dwindle in population:

Generation upon Generation, the salmon have returned to our waters offering of themselves so that the Quileute People might live. There was a time, not long ago, salmon were many. Now they are few.  Generation upon Generation the salmon have helped the Quileute People.  Now the Quileute People must help the salmon.

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You can see the small island offshore, beyond the boats. It is called James Island, but in ancient times, the island was called Aka’lat, Top of the Rock, in the language of the Quileute People.  Aka’lat was the burial ground for chiefs. It was also a fortress in times of defense.  The steep walls protected the Quileute People.  The island is unoccupied, but the Quileute People believe the spirit of their ancestors live there.

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Quileute Tribal Art: Salmon

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Rialto Beach is a nearby gem in the Olympic National Park:

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Dancer’s Pose on slick/wet driftwood:

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The sea brings in a sofa!

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Part II: Lured by Rajasthan and Taj Mahal

August 20, 2017

Part II brings you dreamy images of Rajasthan, India.  This tour with daily yoga includes visiting the Taj Mahal in Agra.  Please enjoy the photos.  The photos below were all taken by me except for the first two (the tiger photos).

Journey to Rajasthan, Delhi, and Agra takes place from January 17 — February 3, 2018

This tour is led by Arvind Singh, organized by Kelley McHenry, and offers daily Hatha yoga, which I will be teaching.  In today’s second post, I am sharing a few of my favorite photos from travels in Rajasthan, Delhi, and Agra.  We will be revisiting the places below in the January 2018 travels. These trips to India will be the last I will be offering in India, only because I hope to offer yoga retreats to various areas.

Registration is open through the end of August 2017.  There is plenty of space for you.  View Full itinerary

One of the most exciting places we visit is Ranthambore National Park.  The park is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger.  If we are lucky, we will see a tiger.  The photos below are from a few years back.  These two photos were taken by a tour participant on one of our trips with her lovely Olympus camera (so I call these two photos “Rebecca’s Tiger”).

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Ranthambore National Park and Keoladeo National Park are two of my favorite nature visits on this tour. As of the last count, Ranthambore is home to 34 adult tigers and 14 cubs.  Both Ranthambore and Keoladeo are World Heritage Sites.  Keoladeo is considered to be the richest bird sanctuary in the world.  It is located in Bharatpur and is home to 366 species of birds.  Below are a blend of photos from both national parks:

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And a bundled up Arvind-with-bird-upon-head on an early morning chilly tiger safari outing to Ranthambore:

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Another highlight of the trip is the visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra, the Taj Mahal.  It is massive and one of the most beautiful buildings on earth.  Arvind tells the love story behind the Taj Mahal and explains the vision behind the construction of this mausoleum so perfectly.  The first time I saw it, I was so moved by the sheer force of the site before me that I thought my legs would buckle to the ground.  I believe one must see and experience the grandeur of the Taj Mahal at least once in a lifetime!

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When I think of Rajasthan, I see colorful saris, turbans, and the warm faces of the desert people.  It is an otherworldly and welcoming part of India. L1280618

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Where else do you find a “Blue City”, vast palaces that stand out like glistening jewels in a desert landscape, and immense astrological palace observatories?

Jodhpur the Blue City

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Imagine doing early morning sun salutations on the terrace of your hotel as a pink sun rises, awakening and lifting your spirit:

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I love the photo below with cow, auto rickshaw, and outdoor pots and pans.  India is, at times, wonderfully mind boggling.

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I had to do a little climbing to be in this photo.  India is all at once complex and simple, ancient and new.

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While in the desert, the camels await you.  They make a most humorous sound.  The first time I heard a camel, I asked aloud, “What’s that sound?”  A nearby woman answered me in a matter-of-fact tone, “That is camel, madam.”  Look at how the camel is watching me do Ustrasana, Camel Pose.

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India is 1,344,664,943 beating human hearts! 

There is an India population site where the numbers keep augmenting before your very eyes.

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Part I: Lured by Images of South India

August 19, 2017

I have two back-to-back tours in India taking place January 2018.  Both of the tours are led by Arvind Singh, organized by Kelley McHenry, and both tours offer daily Hatha yoga, which I will be teaching.  In today’s post, I am sharing my favorite photos from my last trip to South India.  We will be revisiting the places below in the January 2018 travels. These trips to India will be the last I will be offering in India, only because I hope to offer yoga retreats to various areas.

I can’t capture the entire trip with these few photos, but hope to give you an idea of the beauty that is INDIA (in this case, South India).  I hope the photos will be of interest and lure you into considering joining me in January.  Or perhaps the photos will offer you an opportunity to do some armchair travel!

South India Tour with Daily Hatha Yoga takes place January 2-January 18, 2018. I am happy to announce that this trip is definitely happening.  Registered participants are already purchasing their flights.  Registration is open through the end of August 2017 View Full itinerary

Periyar Park is a reserve for the Asian elephant.  How I love this park and the elephants living there!  In the evening, the elephants in the park gather at the edge of the lake to get their fill of fresh water.  We watched them from our boat, from the middle of the lake.  In this photo, a baby is coddled and protected by two females.  The next day, we visited the park again in the early morning.  Three naturalists from the park guided us on a walking tour.  I never imagined I would walk in elephant territory, but my group and I did just that.  We got pretty close (at least I think we were close!) to these massive and lovely wild creatures.  Seeing them was thrilling!

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The photos in this blog are not in chronological order of the tour.  The photo below was taken in Mumbai, at the start of the trip.  Mumbai is not considered South India, but it is where we fly into and is a short flight to two of our destinations: the UNESCO World Heritage historical caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

Mumbai is vast.  It felt like a cultural center to me, lively and thriving. I loved visiting the Taj Hotel and the house where Gandhi lived for a while.  I was fascinated by his personal library, which still sits intact in his home.

IMG_0428The people of India are bighearted, friendly, beautiful inside-and-out, welcoming, and the children, in particular, are adorable.  Seeing the children and their proud, loving families is a great joy to experience in India:  L1340459

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L1340599Below: School kids enjoying Shiva’s Butterball (as this boulder is called).  You can see a path worn on the stone surface where the kids are playing.  The worn path is most likely created from thousands of years of kids sliding down, as two of the school girls are about to do.

L1340576When I think of South India, I think of the numerous ancient stone carvings of the temples.  Mahaballipuram has impressive stone carvings, as do the caves of Ellora and Ajanta.  It is a singular and unforgettable experience to walk among such massive carvings!

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L1340313During the journey, we stayed in some wonderful places.  The most unique overnight stay is on the houseboat in Kerala.  We relaxed and enjoyed being rocked by the waters.  The rooms are deliciously cool thanks to the air-conditioning (I don’t really like AC, but so appreciated the comfortably cool boats!).  In the afternoon, we got into smaller canoe-like boats and floated along smaller river ways to see the many houses and people living along the banks of the river.

L1350299L1350279We attended Kerala’s signature performance and classical form of dance, drama, and music called Kathakali.  It is an art form that is more than 400 years old.  Below you can see one of the Kathakali performers.  We had our own intimate and private performance. On this day, we all wore our new colorful Indian clothing.  In the second photo below, you can see our festively dressed group gathered around one of the actors from the Kathakali performance.

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12933011_1348191141863221_6997846868358269616_n-1And lastly is a photo of Maria.  We did a South Indian cooking course with Maria in her home kitchen.  I discovered Maria on line and asked Arvind to please include a cooking course with her.  After a little hesitation (Arvind had never met Maria and didn’t have much of an idea of what the experience would be like until he further researched), Arvind agreed to include Maria’s cooking course in the itinerary.  The food was some of the best we had ever eaten in South India!  She appeared to be a magician, an alchemist of sorts, as she blended her spices and demonstrated how to put the various dishes together. To top off the experience, her husband sang Hindi love songs from various movies for us as we ate our delicious dinner.  As we ate, serenaded by Maria’s husband George, Arvind’s head swayed to the live music.  Between bites of food, Arvind sported the satisfied smile of a Cheshire cat.

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  • Click here for a link to see incredible on line images of the Ajanta and Ellora caves.
  • It is so difficult to fathom how the stone sculptures and caves were carved, that some people have theories of an advanced civilization being involved in making them. Though I do not subscribe to this theory, it is fascinating to watch the following video clip to see how intricate the temples are at Ajanta and Ellora. View video
  • View one of my most popular blog posts on India: 10 Reasons Why I Love India
  • This trip is organized by Spiritual India Journeys.

PART II is coming your way next: Rajasthan!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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