Archive for the ‘India’ Category

So Hum

February 24, 2018

The mantra So Hum inspires me to look around, to see my reflection in all that is. It means “I am that”.  “That” refers to all of creation.

We had a rare snowfall in Seattle yesterday. I woke up to a few inches of snow.  Green Lake looked so pretty from my window. SO HUM.

I hastily put on warm clothing (it’s frigid out there), and walked around the lake. As I walked, I was overtaken by a profound sense of awe. SO HUM.



I sometimes share the So Hum mantra with my yoga classes.  I tend to guide the classes in a So Hum meditation when we are in a new environment (like in India or in Sicily on a retreat).  It is when we are on a yoga retreat or when we travel that we tend to really open our eyes and see the world as if for the first time.

Recently, I came across the following handwritten journal entry I wrote while in India last month.  It is a meditation on the mantra So Hum in which I use imagery from Ranthambore National Park, home to 62 elusive Royal Bengal Tigers.

So Hum

I am the jungle cat dashing across the road.

So Hum

I am the sloth bear, with its anteater-like snout, making its way up the mountain side.

So Hum

I am the barking alarm calls of the spotted deer and the sambar.

So Hum

I am the grazing blue-bull antelope.

So Hum

I am the slumbering crocodiles.

So Hum

I am the colorful kingfisher sitting on the branch of a gum tree.

So Hum

I am the Royal Bengal Tiger sleeping in the tall grass, choosing not to be seen.

So Hum

I am the monkeys jumping from branch to branch, holding their human-like babies tightly, wrestling with one another.

So Hum

I am the elusive leopard, making its rare appearance as it climbs to the top of the cliff.

So Hum

I am a dusky eagle-owl, a brown fish owl, a collared scops owl, a spotted owlet living in a gorgeous forest preserve.

So Hum

I am the kindness and enthusiasm of the naturalist guide.

So Hum

I am the rough road leading us deep into Ranthambore National Park.

So Hum

I am dust. I am sunshine.

So Hum

I am the tiger I did not see.

So Hum

I am the pink sunset, warming my heart.

So Hum

I am India.

So Hum

I am.

So Hum


India: Two Slideshows for You!

February 14, 2018

IMG_2984India is right here in my heart.

I arrived in India thinking this would be my last time teaching yoga with Spiritual India Journeys, and I left India with a plan to go back to teach yoga again with Spiritual India Journeys in January of 2020!  What can I say?  I am hooked on India!

I already miss the warmth, the sunshine, the refreshing coolness of the evening air, the generous smiles, the chaos and the jumble of street shops, and the perfect palaces and forts. I miss the temples and seeing people in prayer.  I miss our guides who educate us and keep us safe while proudly showing us their gem of a country.  I miss the forests of the south and the serenity of the hotel rooms with their fresh crisp white bed linens.  I miss my morning bowl of Indian yogurt (curd) and tropical fruit that smells and tastes as delicious as it looks. I miss my roommate Kelley bringing me a morning cup of coffee while I am still in bed.  I miss savoring the piping hot cup of coffee in that air conditioned hotel room, getting deeper under the sheets, knowing that I still had 45 minutes before the morning yoga session.

I miss teaching yoga in India, where you never know what to expect.  Will there be peacocks this time, or a surprise sculptured lion with gaping mouth looking at you?  Will there be a flock of parrots flying overhead or will it be the jungle babblers mocking us?  Or perhaps, while doing our Sun Salutations, will we encounter curious crows cawing at us? Maybe we will have to place our mats over pigeon feathers on a plush strip of grass.  Or will I have to place my mat on a sequined and glitter-covered floor, our studio home to Bollywood dancers by night?  Will the sunset be pink this morning or will it be golden?  Will we hear Hindu chanting or will it be the Muslim call to prayer as we begin our yoga this early morning?

I miss it all. But most of all, I miss the tour participants, the yogis who became my family for four solid weeks, two groups with whom I shared meals, thoughts, laughter, concerns, and deep one-of-a-kind experiences.

Together we touched the pulse of India. Together we touched life and seem to have journeyed to its very center.

Below you will see TWO slideshows from the January 2018 tours with daily yoga in India.  The first one is 5 minutes long and the second one is 6 minutes long. Turn up your volume!

(1) Enjoy the slideshow of South India 2018.

(2) Enjoy the slideshow of North India and Rajasthan 2018.



Nature as Divine Temple

January 31, 2018

The following is a list of excuses for my failure to blog in recent days:

  • WiFi has been very slow
  • I’ve been busy offering yoga daily (except for yesterday because we were at the tiger reserve longer than anticipated) plus we’ve been on the go, busy taking in all the incredible sights of Rajasthan.
  • WiFi has been very slow
  • The trip is winding down and I am needing more sleep to keep my energy levels up so I can keep going strong until departure on February 3.
  • WiFi has been very slow

I’m posting some photos of our time in Ranthambore National Park.  I know it will take a lot of time to download photos so I will do what is possible tonight.

What I really want to say about our safari outing is that, for the second time ever and for the second time in a row, my group did not see a tiger.  We went out on safari twice, but did not see a tiger.  The hotel was filled with other tourists coming from all over the world as well as Indians touring their own country.  Every person I spoke to saw Royal Bengal Tigers that day or the previous day  Our group was the exception.


Our first outing was at the crack of dawn. It was very cold and the vehicles are open air.  As the vehicle bumped and bounced along the terribly-gutted pot-holed roads leading to the tiger terrain, I wrapped the provided wool blanket tightly around my body.  Once the sun started coming up over the trees, the air started to warm up and the sun beamed down on us. The light became golden and spilled out over the forest and I felt myself in a holy place. It dawned on me that the forest, with all its birdsong and beauty, is a temple. As the jeep jostled my bones and attempted to rearrange my organs, I looked out at the forest around me and marveled. Nature, I believe, is a divine temple.


From our jeep, we admired birds, including four kinds of owls, and spotted deer, the blue bull antelope, monkeys galore, and sambar (another type of large deer). Our naturalist guide identified the names of the animals we were seeing.  The morning light was lovely and we saw fresh tiger tracks. …tracks but no tiger.





One of four owlets peaking out from the tree.  Not sure you can see one in the crook of the tree:



When we got back to our hotel after our first safari outing, we met another group from North America staying at the hotel. All 18 members of the group were abuzz with frenetic excitement.  I didn’t even have to ask.  I knew they had seen a tiger on their morning safari.  One of the men, a very cheerful fellow from Toronto, said, with certainty, that we would definitely see a tiger on our second outing.  His optimism was rock solid.

The second outing was in the evening of the same day. This outing was much longer because our guide really wanted us to see a Royal Bengal Tiger.  We drove around and around the bumpy trails, my angry back refusing to keep quiet.  We stoically endured the rough trail knowing that nothing comes easy, especially when it comes to seeing a tiger in the wild

Well, as you already know, we did not see a tiger.  However, we learned all about tigers.  We learned that a female tiger currently ruled this territory we were in and that she had three cubs, two females and a male.  Her cubs were almost two years old.  The mother tiger’s tracks were visible from the jeep, so we knew she was around. Our guide also pointed out leopard tracks near the tiger tracks.

Fresh tracks.

We watched the playful monkeys and the relaxed spotted deer and, when I saw the animals so relaxed, I knew there was no tiger in sight.  There were no forest alarm calls telling us the great predator was in our vicinity.

Relaxed Sambar:


We saw crocodiles. We saw peacocks. We saw parrots and parakeets. We saw countless birds of all colors. And suddenly a jungle cat crossed our path!  Our guide yelled out excitedly, “LOOK, Jungle Cat is crossing road!”  The jungle cat looked a lot like a large domestic house cat.  Our sighting of the cat was so brief that it was impossible to get a photo.  But, wow, was that exciting!

After much looking through grasses and trees for a tiger, it was starting to get dark and cold again, so we started heading out of the park.  As we approached the cliff rock wall area nearing the entrance/exit of the park, our guide heard the ALARM CALL!  The alarm call is when the spotted deer stand still and bark with their tails straight up.  The sambar also made piercing sounds and the fawns were ready to dart. The monkeys scattered in a panic. Then our guide saw the leopard! Wow. Was that exciting or what?  In no time at all, other jeeps filled with tourists hefting enormous binoculars and cameras with ridiculously large lenses arrived and clustered around us.

The leopard was climbing the rock wall up toward the overhang or top of the rock cliff.  He was very large and yes, spotted.  I could make out its muscularity.  He (or she) was moving swiftly, seemingly defeating gravity, making the climb up to the cliff overhang look effortless.  The leopard was by no means close to us, but we could see it.  The whole experience was breathtaking, completely exhilarating, even if the leopard was so far that my camera would never catch it in a photo.  I just took in its body and memorized what I was seeing.

I still can’t believe I saw an ultra-elusive leopard. What a lucky sighting.

But, wait!  There’s more.  Just as our guide said, “Chalo!” (Let’s go! in Hindi), we drove off a few meters and there was, along the same rock wall, a very large sloth bear.  He was even easier to spot than the leopard, who easily blended in with his/her environment.  By contrast, the bear’s shaggy black fur and bulky body stood out from the rock wall.  I couldn’t make out its snout (which looks like an anteater’s snout), but I could clearly see his body.  There was a jeep full of Indian tourists next to us and all I could hear over and over again was the excited, BALOO, BALOO, BALOO!!! (this is the Hindi name for the Sloth Bear.)




Enough excitement for one day.  We left the park feeling satisfied with the jungle cat, leopard, and sloth bear sightings.  But frankly, I still felt more than one twinge of jealously as the other North American tourists voluntarily showed me their video footage of the Royal Bengal Tiger who walked alongside their jeep.  Bas.  Enough.  Silly feelings, I know… but I’m only human.  A leopard is no small thing, right? I repeated this to myself again and again as I went to bed exhausted on safari night.

“Ranthambore Fort lies within the Ranthambore National Park, near the town of Sawai Madhopur, the park was the former hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Jaipur until the time of India’s Independence”

End of a glorious day:


“Ranthambore National Park is a vast wildlife reserve near the town of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan, northern India. It is a former royal hunting ground and home to tigers, leopards and marsh crocodiles. Its landmarks include the imposing 10th-century Ranthambore Fort, on a hilltop, and the Ganesh Mandir temple. Also in the park, Padam Talao Lake is known for its abundance of water lilies.”

Remnants of the 10 century fort within the park.  An antlered sambar sits partially hidden in the left lower corner of the photo:




Colorful Jodhpur

January 23, 2018

The day started with sunrise yoga.  We are in the high desert, so the mornings are cool and the daytime temperatures comfortably warm and sunny with no humidity.  This morning, as we did yoga, a peacock landed nearby, flocks of crows flew overhead, as did parrots.  Last night, we did yoga to the sound of trains in the distance and to the sound of crickets in the nearby grass.


After yoga and breakfast, the first stop of the day was to Jaswant Thada, a mausoleum built by a queen in 1899 in memory of her husband, Maharaja Jaswant Singh.  This marble structure is beautiful and the views of the “Blue City” are impressive from this lofty site:


Gorgeous marble columns on the outside of the mausoleum:


Views of the Blue City of Jodhpur.  Many of the houses are blue and it is thought that the color blue keeps the houses cool.  The coolness is essential as summer temperatures can get into the 100s:

IMG_3273Inside the mausoleum, you can see the light coming through the marble!  The thick marble is transparent and wonderfully luminescent, just like in the Taj Mahal, in some parts of this structure.


A beautiful young Rajasthani family.  This young couple was sitting at a cafe and had just ordered lassi drinks.  Their adorable and happy daughter has her eyes rimmed in kohl, thought to beautify the eyes. She also has a smudge of kohl on her face (forehead) to ward off the evil eye.  The smudge is thought to not look beautiful so the “Evil Eye” would be tricked into thinking this child is unattractive and would then not bother to want to take this child from their parents nor do the child harm.  I really love this photo!


Mehrangarh Fort is set on a high hill overlooking Jodhpur.

The enclosed palaces are intricately adorned with long carved panels and latticed windows exquisitely wrought from red sand stone.  This fort has a huge museum inside, housing a marvelous collection of artifacts owned by the royal family and beautiful Mogul miniature paintings that have toured the world, including the Seattle Art Museum. It was a show called Cosmos and Garden.


The women of the royal court looked out into the courts from behind latticed windows.


The royal bedroom (The floor is painted and looks carpeted.  The room is mirrored so a single oil lamp could light up the room):IMG_3267

The Flower Room where entertainment took place (gold ceilings!):


A vendor in the market. Color, color, color!!!  Beautiful textiles. This place is shopping heaven.IMG_3272

Rajasthani shoes:


And finally a visit to the famous Maharani textile warehouse…wals-to-wall, rooms and rooms filled to the brim with incredible works of art, table runners, table cloths, bed spreads, scarves, etc…You name it, they have it.  Beautifully hand crafted work.  I was without my wallet so have to make a trip back here tomorrow to do some shopping (Linda Teri: this is THE shop I told you about!!):







January 23, 2018

A Palace, a Temple, A Garden, and An Island on Lake Pichola were all part of yesterday’s highlight visits in Udaipur.  The air here is clean. I keep mentioning that because the air was not clean in Delhi.  Never take your clean air for granted. The mornings are crisp. The daytime temperatures warm and comfortable. The dry heat of Rajasthan and the way the sun feels here is very pleasant.  This morning sky is pink and Kelley is already out birding.

This post comes out as we get ready to leave Udaipur.  We experienced many beautiful places in Udaipur so hoping the photos below and short commentary will help you, my readers, to travel with us vicariously.

We spent much of the morning at the opulent Udaipur Palace. It is the largest palace in all of India. It was only when we were out on the boat on Lake Pichola at sunset, that I saw the immensity of the palace.  From a distance, we got perspective. The palace looks like a city within a city.  It is gorgeous.  At one point, while out in the vast courtyard, a golf cart came whizzing by and our guide said, “Look, there is the princess!” I looked and saw a little girl, about 7 years old, looking like any other little child that age, being carted to an area of the palace on the electric golf cart.  She was the youngest member of the family who still lives here in one section of the palace.

Our group!  I asked them to act a little wild:

IMG_3092The Palace of Udaipur (largest palace in India!):


ceiling art:


Room of mirrors:


Pink Glass looks out over the court:


A visit to the ancient Shri Jagadish Temple (built in 1651).  Beautiful ornate columns throughout the temple:



Kathy and Lisa taking the three wheeler over to the Garden of the Maidens.


Below is a photo of Sahelion-ki-bari, “the garden of maidens”.  This garden was built by Rana Sangram Singh for his wife the queen, her 48 attendants (which were part of her dowry) , and her royal female friends. The garden is walled in and a green refuge filled with pools, gardens, marble pavilions, lotus ponds, sculpted marble elephants, and fountains. 

As per the legends, the garden was designed by the king himself, built from 1710 to 1734, and he presented this garden to his queen. Actually, the Queen was accompanied by 48 maids in her marriage. To offer all of them pleasurable moments away from the political intrigues of the court, this garden was made. This patterned garden used to be the popular relaxing spot of the royal ladies. The queen with her maids and female companions used to come here for a stroll and spend their time in leisure.


Waiting for the late afternoon ferry to take us to the island in the middle of Lake Pichola.  These two young Sikh men are checking their iPhones before boarding.  Not sure if you can see their traditional shoes.   IMG_3165
Neelesh, our wonderful guide:
The most amazing facts I learned about the island on Lake Pichola:
  • The island was built first and then the man-made Lake Pichola was filled in.
  • Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal as a tribute of love for his wife, sought refuge here. He hid here for a while in order to save his life from his blood-thirsty and warring family members.
  • While hiding out on this island, he fell in love with the unique Indo-Islamic architecture found on this island. It was from this island that he drew his inspiration for the architectural design used for the Taj Mahal!



A couple were there celebrating their first wedding anniversary.  I photographed her henna hands:

Another view looking towards the palace from the island:


And a note on yoga!  Yoga every day has been so inspirational: this environment, this group, the sunrises, the brisk mornings all add to the power of our daily yoga practice.  The yoga practice grounds us and keeps us healthy and present.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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:


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

Wrapping Up The South India Tour

January 19, 2018

Already, we have parted ways with our first tour group and yesterday we left South India.  We are now back in smog-filled Delhi.  Most of the members of the North India and Rajasthan Tour arrived yesterday and we met up with most members of the group last night.  It takes a lot of energy to shift gears, but I know how incredible North India and Rajasthan are so I am also excited about these next two weeks.  We will all meet shortly for our first yoga session.  Theme of the first yoga session will be Post-Travel Openings and Grounding.

So before I fully enter this new phase of the overall trip, here are some photos and short comments on the photos to wrap up the South India trip.

We stayed on a houseboat in Aleppi on the backwaters of Kerala. The houseboat overnight stay was a very soothing experience.  It was so relaxing to float on the water and do yoga on the boat.  I had to be very creative with our space for our yoga sessions.  The first yoga session we had on the boat was Yin Yoga and we used the benches to do a form of Legs Up the Wall pose.  And, yes, at one point tea was served, along with banana fritters!  I mean, who does that?  Yin Yoga, Tea, and Banana Fritters on a houseboat in Kerala! We laughed so hard at the very reality of our experience!



I’ve been eating papaya, watermelon, pineapple, and delicious mini-bananas daily. The fruit is delicious in India!


Sunset on the backwaters of Kerala:


Arvind, relaxing on the houseboat:


We ended our South India tour in Kochi. Kochi (Cochin) is a wonderful city filled with much history. We visited “Jew Town”, an ancient Jewish settlement.  Sephardic Jews seeking refuge from Europe in 1492 were invited to settle here.  The community thrived, but in the late 40s, many left India and went back to live in the homeland in Israel.  Today, only 5 members of the Jewish community exist.  We visited the lovely synagogue, but were not allowed to take photos.


Kelley with our local Kochi guide, Mary:


We had an evening at Maria’s cooking school.  We cooked in the late afternoon and then we all had dinner together.  Later her husband, George, sang some Hindi songs for us.  It was lovely to experience their home and Maria’s wealth of knowledge about South Indian cooking. They live in a house that was built by the Portuguese 350 years ago!


Maria’s hand ground spices and preparations for the many dishes we made together.


Meal magic done on this one humble shining stove!  Amazing.  Maria offers cooking courses to many groups.  She is truly amazing and we had a wonderful last evening in South India together with her. She’s the real deal.  The Indian experience, whether South or North IS the real deal.


Onward to North India!

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.


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!


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!



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.


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.


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.



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:


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.



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:


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.


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.


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).


Women lighting candles and praying:


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:


Whispering into Nandi’s ear:


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:


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:


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


Sweet family we met at the temple:





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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