Sunday, February 15

Paula: We awoke to the sounds of many birds and after showers decided to take a walk around the gardens of our small 6-room resort in Saiwar. Our host had explained last night that the fragrance from the many fruit trees has healing properties that make the brain stronger and memories vivid. The memories of today are guaranteed to be remembered for a lifetime.

We enjoyed the walk and especially the fresh air, clear blue sky and sounds of the birds. We tried to sneak up on several peacocks but found them a bit shy and quite quick on their feet. This is a common bird in India and we have seen many. After breakfast, Utpal and a local guide accompanied us into the village of Saiwar to visit a school. As we entered the village, we could hear chanting and music. Utpal explained that the residents take turns maintaining a chant to "Rama" (meaning God in Hindi) continuously - literally 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The group gathered this morning included 8-10 people of all ages including women and children. They seemed to delight in our interest and allowed us to photograph and video tape their chanting. We also entered the small temple in the village where people were making prayers to a Hindu God. We are slowly learning about Hinduism and its many Gods and rituals. As we made our way to the school, several men and women stopped to talk to us and seemed interested in who we were. The women frequently would come quite close to Katie and me, often touching us and speaking in Hindi. Their genuine warmth was evident and I never felt uncomfortable during these encounters. They seem to be interested in our fair skin, clothing and height. At 5 feet 5 inches, I have never felt tall until now!

When we reached the school, we found the children filing into a small open air porch preparing to greet us. They sat on the floor in rows wearing bright orange and yellow shirts. Their foreheads were marked with white and red lines (made from sandalwood paste) and have learned that the markings individuals in India are an indication of blessings. The Vedic School has about 100 children who live in the ashram run by the Holy Highness Maharaj Narain Dass Ji. The children are educated in Vedic studies (the Hindu scriptures), Indian cultural heritage and Hindi. We learned that these children (almost all boys) are ages 10-16 and are being trained to become priests. The children performed several of the 2,000 chants that they are expected to learn during the course of their 6 years of studies here.

Afterwards, we had fun question and answer session with the students. First, David and Katie asked how long they study each day and we were amazed to find out that their school day goes from 4:00AM until 6:00PM. Although shy at first, one of the young men asked us where we were from and what the most important city in America was. We also asked how many Americans they had met and were surprised to find that we were the first Americans any of them had ever spoken to. As we spent more time with the boys, they clearly became more comfortable with us and were smiling and laughing to themselves, especially as we started trying to communicate with each other.

We then had a brief photo session where we took pictures of the group, and were surprised to also find that the school had arranged for a local photographer to come and take a picture of us all. Apparently, we're going to be in their magazine! This was a very unique experience, and the fact that we were the first Americans to come here made us feel very special. The boys continued to smile, laugh and wave to us from the roof of the school until we were out of sight.

We continued our tour of the village by visiting a local home. Utpal explained that in India families always welcome unexpected guests because the Hindu religion teaches that brings them good karma. In nearly 20 years, Utpal can only remember one time when a family did not welcome him and his guests into their home (never in America!). We experienced this openness first hand as Utpal picked a modest-looking home, walked to the front door, and quickly motioned for us to join him. We couldn't believe the hospitality shown to us from this obviously poor family. They immediately gathered around us, found us chairs and brought us each a drink (which we had to politely refuse). Utpal quickly got to know the family and explained where we were from. This very simple open structure was home for an extended family that included a grandmother, grandfather and their 4 sons, their wives and children. There was no electricity or running water, and the bare ground served as the floor. The family owns a plot of barren land near the home where they maintain a herd of 100 goats and sheep. The 15 year-old grandson spoke some English and acted as the spokesperson. As we met with the family, several curious neighbors stopped by to join our conversation - everyone was genuinely warm and friendly. The weathered hands and faces of the grandparents and the sparkling eyes and bright smiles of the beautiful young women will be something we will never forget.

Although the home's living conditions were very poor (by Western standards), we were struck by the genuine sense of joy conveyed by the family. The laughter, smiles and warmth we felt from these people taught us all something about what's really required in life for happiness.

As we left the village to return back to our resort for lunch, we were followed by many of the villagers and it was clear that they were as curious about us as we were about them. We spoke with Utpal at lunch about the condition of this family. He classified them as a poor family, with only minimal income from their herd of sheep and goat. We wondered about the opportunities for the young people of a family like this. Utpal indicated that he was pleased to see that the children were going to school and indicated that one of the top students at the Indian Institute of Technology is from a village in Rajasthan. While the opportunity exists, the reality is that only a small percentage of these young people will ever leave their villages.

After lunch, we drove about 60 km to Jaipur. Before leaving the resort of Saiwar Bagh, we were asked to sign their guest book. We had to laugh as Steve signed the book with at least 15 Indian guests at the resort (attending a wedding there) looked on. We teased that he looked like an honorary official signing an important document. It seems we will just have to get used to being a spectacle at least while we are here in India.

The drive to Jaipur seemed easy after the much longer drive yesterday. We checked into our hotel which was a haveli (mansion) built in 1728 to administer the security of the Raj (king) that time. It will be interesting to stay in the old mansion over the next several days as we explore this beautiful city. Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan and the first planned city in India. For the first time, we began seeing traffic lights that were functioning, sidewalks and more modern shops and apartments. The city is called the "pink city" because all the walls are a terra cotta color. This brings uniformity and warmth to the town.

In the evening we visited the Birla Temple, a beautiful Hindu structure built in 1985. This white marble structure sits atop a small hill and was clearly a meeting spot for the community. We joined many finely dressed Indian families visiting to say prayers to the Hindu Gods of life. Utpal explained some the Hindu mythological stories that were displayed in the marble of the temple's panels.

On our way back to the hotel for dinner, we noticed a wedding party gathered along the road. Utpal stopped our driver and before we knew it, we had an invitation to join in the party. We saw the groom arriving on a white horse with a band playing to announce his entry. There were hundreds of guests all being feed a wonderful dinner. One well-dressed man saw us watching from the rear and quickly came to greet us and invite us to eat. Again, we were amazed at this hospitality - here were these foreigners who walked into a wedding party and were now being invited to join in the food and festivities! The man wanted to know where we were from and indicated he had visited many American cities on business. The children at the wedding were also curious and several small boys finally came up to David and asked where we were from. They even managed to ask in English if we had coins to exchange - American for Indian. As left the wedding, we couldn't help but think that this would never happen in America.

We are looking forward to exploring more of Jaipur tomorrow including the city observatory, fort, palace and colorful market.








Katie's Kwick Kwacks: The Taj Mahal. This week we visited the world famous Taj Mahal, regarded as one of the most beautiful buildings on earth. This amazing mausoleum located in Agra, was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife who died in childbirth in the year 1631. The construction of the Taj Mahal began the same year and ended in 1653. A total of 20,000 people worked on the project (including those who brought marble, etc.) The construction of this monumental love building was so important, that many of the workers' hands and fingers were amputated to ensure the architectural skill of the Taj could not be repeated.

Because of the emperor's dear love and affection for his wife, the architecture of the Taj Mahal is very romantic and dreamy, the design simple and peaceful. The complex is made up of the main building, two buildings on either side of the main structure, and some beautiful gardens in front. The main building is coated in white marble and made up of three domes, along with two large minarets beside them. It is coated in many decorations, including Arabic verses of the Koran. The two buildings beside this one serve as a museum and mosque. The gardens in front of these three structures are positively beautiful, with a small river lined by lovely cypress trees and flowers, representing love and death. As you move closer to the main mausoleum, you begin to realize just how large the Taj Mahal really is. Inside of the Taj Mahal are the tombs of the emperor's wife and the emperor himself. The internal decorations and carvings are those of flowers and hearts, and the simplicity of it gives the structure a warm and peaceful atmosphere.

The beauty of the Taj Mahal simply cannot be put into words. Although I have seen many pictures of the Taj Mahal, nothing could really prepare for seeing it in person. The overall scene of getting a first glimpse of it through the gate, and being in the midst of its peaceful atmosphere is unexplainable. In short, to the only way to fully understand the Taj Mahal's beauty and significance is by not only seeing it, but more importantly being a part of it.












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