Alok and Ankita’s Wedding

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They tied the knot in Agra, India, in April. We were invited to the festivities. Indian weddings are legendary, days of interesting, lavish events. This was something not to miss.

Two years ago on a trip to northern India with a German tour group, I met Alok. (see previous posts, Intriguing India and more ) He was our guide – affable, knowledgable and fun. He speaks fluent German, as well as English in addition to his native Hindi. Among the many wedding guests were others from his tours.

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The wedding took place in Agra, Alok’s hometown and site of the Taj Mahal, a symbol of love.
We wanted to follow customs, so we sought the advice of friends who had lived and worked in India. They looked over the invitation, a large elaborate card in bright red with gold lettering. Four events. Four different days. Each, we learned, required special attire. I was lucky. My friend Sigrid, a very talented seamstress, had been invited to an Indian wedding in London several years ago. She made two gorgeous outfits, both of a golden fabric that had been purchased in India. Perfect. I could borrow them.

Bob was not so lucky. When we arrived in Delhi, we showed the invitation to the

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Try on at shop, very classy but he never wore the vest.
guide/driver who would take us to Agra. He agreed. Bob needed to go native and wear Indian clothing for the events.  We were whisked off to a classy shop where the salesman, after checking the invitation, convinced us Bob needed at least two Indian outfits. He tried to sell us three, but we stopped at two.

To make sure that we committed no grave faux pas, at our hotel in Agra I asked a receptionist to come to our room and check out our wedding wardrobe. She looked over the invitation and announced that my golden outfits were OK, but would not do for the main event, the actual wedding. For that, a genuine sari was de rigeur. Bob’s newly purchased Indian garb would do, but his shoes would not. He needed Indian foot attire, a type of slipper.

Determined to do it right, we set off to the bazaar the next morning. Bob refused to go for the slippers, but he did acquiesce and purchase a type of loafer. I bought a sari, sapphire blue, but later leaned that I should have gone for a brighter color.

The salesman skillfully wrapped the sari, nothing but a long piece of cloth (saris are from five to nine yards long), around me. No way I could ever master this. “Just google it,” he advised.

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All decked out for the ring ceremony
Festivities kicked off with the ring ceremony. Swathed in golden cloth, and Bob in his dark green sherwani (?), Indian tunic and his new Indian loafers, we set off to a hotel where the event, attended by several hundred guests, was held. As they paraded in, we began to feel very uncomfortable. The men did not wear traditional Indian garb, just basic western street clothes. Most of the women, however, wore colorful saris with their arms festooned in tiers of sparkling bangles.

The groom arrived wearing a business suit, albeit a very smart, stylish one. Bob was not happy, feeling a bit ridiculous in his Indian costume. (I thought he looked cool). I also felt my golden garb was way over the top. So much for the advice of experts!

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As this was a Hindu wedding, no alcohol. There was an assortment of very tasty hors d’oeuvres. Folks mingled around and kept busy with cell phone cameras. There were plenty of photo ops for all, including several professional photographers.

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Ankita and her parents before the cameras
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After the bride arrived, bejewelled and clad in a glamorous sari, ceremonies got under way. There were numerous different rituals: certain ones for the groom, others for the bride, and lots more photo ops.

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We started to leave when the rituals ended — oops, not so soon. Guests were lining up in an adjacent room for a buffet. We joined in – delicious.

The following day Alok invited us and others from his tours to his home. We enjoyed chatting with the guests, mostly Germans, and savoring tasty delicacies, some prepared by Alok’s father. Alok had plenty of beer for his German friends.

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Hospitality at Alok’s family home.
That night a type of cocktail party and buffet hosted by the groom for his family and friends took place on the rooftop of a hotel/restaurant. Bob wore a sports coat, approved by the hotel receptionist. I ignored her advice and did not wear golden outfit number 2… fortunately. This was not a dressy affair. Not all Hindus are teetotalers, we learned. As this was Alok’s event, beer and Indian whiskey were available.

fullsizeoutput_a4dWhen it came time for the wedding, two days later, again I requested assistance from a hotel receptionist. No way could I google “sari” and conquer the wrap. Another helpful young woman came to the rescue and dressed me.  Bob wore the luscious red tunic (sherwani). He rejected the gorgeous vest and matching pants, but the Indian loafers were on his feet.

The wedding began with the “barat,” a raucous parade from the groom’s house to the party venue.

We first joined others at his home where he was seated at a kitchen table being dressed by his mother and others. They sang as they worked. This time he was in full traditional attire, turban and all.

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The parade was incredible, dancing guests following a “band,” lots of horns and drums. Fireworks along the route added more noise. Traffic had to stop. The groom, seated high up in a horse-drawn carriage under a garland festooned canopy,   brought up the rear.

fullsizeoutput_a55All manner of stands offing a wide range of food ringed the huge, open venue space. The bride and groom sat on a stage at one end. A band played. In addition to numerous photographers, the momentous event was captured by drone cameras.

Guests lined up to offer best wishes to the pair, showering them with rose petals. This went on for several hours, but the real wedding ceremony, more Hindu rituals, took place much later and was attended mainly by close family.

We will long remember Alok and Ankita’s wedding,  like no other.  And, just in case we get invited to another Indian wedding,  our wardrobe is ready.

A Word on Indian Weddings

In India, “When a baby girl is born, the family starts saving for her wedding,” said Sunil Kumar Nair, resident manager of the DoubleTree Hilton in Agra where we stayed. “The bride’s family pays for all. The boy gets everything,” he added.

Average cost: $50,000 to $60,000. That accounts for about 200 guests, but it is not uncommon to have many more, up to 2,000 guests with a corresponding price tag. During our stay, many weddings took place at the hotel, outdoors on the lawn in a football field – sized space.

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Wedding venue at our hotel.
And, many weddings that week in April all over Agra, a popular wedding site with its iconic Taj Mahal considered a symbol of love.

Wedding dates are decided by the Hindu calendar. There are two main wedding seasons, we learned, September to February, and April/May. A priest consults the horoscopes of the couple, the positions of the planets and the stars, and fixes the date. Sunil said one year on February 2, a particularly auspicious day, there were 80,000 weddings in Delhi.

Alok and Ankita’s marriage was arranged, as are about 80 percent of marriages in India. It usually starts with a search in the Sunday Times of India: a full page of “Wanted Grooms” and another of “Wanted Brides.” The ads are divided into categories by caste. India has four main castes, and it is important to marry within one’s caste. Both Alok and Ankita are Brahmins.

When a probable match is found, background info, references etc. , are exchanged. If all looks good, the parents meet. If that goes well, the couple meets with the parents. Alok first met Ankita during a stop at a highway restaurant on one of his tours.

Sunil said traditions are changing, and more and more couples are marrying for love. Yet, the arranged system has its merits. According to one source, the divorce rate in India is the lowest in the world.

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Between wedding events, we walked the Taj Mahal nature trail.
After the wedding,  we toured spectacular Rajasthan.  More in coming posts.  Don’t miss out.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up, upper right.  Your address is kept private and never shared.

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INTRIGUING INDIA: RELIGION

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Golden Temple at Amritsar

Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians – all are found in Incredible India.

“In religion, all other countries are paupers, India is the only millionaire,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator.

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Bathing in the sacred Ganges.

The majority, 80 percent, are Hindus. In Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges we witnessed the early morning Hindu bathing ritual, hundreds plunging into the non-too clean water which they believe is holy and will wash away all sins. At night, the banks of the river are a smoldering mass, fires and smoke from cremations. Many come to die in Varanasi. Death in the holy city is said to free one from the cycle of birth and death.

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Cremations on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

Khajuraho, a wondrous place with numerous Hindu temples, is a popular site, more for the erotic sculptures on one of its temples than the stunning temple architecture.

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Khajuraho, site of many temples, is one of the “seven wonders” of India.

The Taj Mahal – India’s architectural treasure, the dazzling white marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died in childbirth in 1631, is a Muslim monument decorated with carefully inlaid Koranic verses.sikh.taj2

And Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion, is yet another fascinating religious shrine. Sikhs compose only two percent of the Indian population, yet Sikhism is the fifth largest among the world’s major religions.

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Sikhs congregate at the Golden Temple day and night.

The religion was founded in the early 16th century by Guru Nanak and gurus who followed him. Nanak preferred the pool at Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar” in Punjab and Sanskrit) for his meditation and teaching. The site in northern India, today not far from the Pakistan border, became a pilgrimage center where a great temple was built. Perhaps more than the temple, it is the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, enshrined inside which draws many pilgrims today.

Flowers cover the holy cook.
Flowers cover the holy book.

Twice per day an amazing ceremony focused on the book takes place at the temple. Thanks to guide Alok, we witnessed the lively and curious evening ceremony when the book is carried to its bedroom. Behind golden doors, it spends its night on a bed under an elaborate canopy.

We joined others in a long waiting line to view the book before the evening procession. While waiting, I had the chance to talk to a friendly Sikh who moved from Amritsar to London 17 years ago. London, where the gentleman has a fish and chips shop, has a large community of Sikhs. He was with his son. They, like many others, had a gift to lay near the book where a holy man, surrounded by other holy men sitting cross-legged on the floor, reads sacred verses.

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Evening procession transferring the book to its bedroom for the night.

After viewing the book, worshipers, all singing, line up behind ropes to view the ceremonial procession. The book, much like statues in Christian processions, is carried on a golden platform festooned with garlands of flowers.  A group of holy men follows behind, chanting. A trumpet blower announces the arrival of the book. There are stands where worshippers can take communion. It is a joyous, festive spirituality.

At 4 a.m. the same ceremony is repeated when the book is taken from its bedroom back to the temple.

We returned to the holy site the following day and were free to wander around this mystical place after leaving our shoes near the entrance and covering our heads. Vendors sell souvenir bandanas. Sikh men are not permitted to cut their hair and are easily recognized by their beards and colorful turbans. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.

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Heads must be covered at the Golden Temple. Mini scarves can be purchased.

Before entering the sacred grounds, feet are washed by wading through a shallow pool.

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All are welcome to a free meal at the Golden Temple.

The complex is large. It’s a delight to slowly stroll and enjoy the scene, the people, the peaceful ambience, the shimmering golden temple. Selfie photos in front of the temple are popular. Families walk around the lake, taking pictures of one another. Some tired souls just lie down and rest in shady spots. An underground spring feeds the sacred lake where some pilgrims immerse themselves to cleanse their souls. The complex also includes enormous pilgrims’ dormitories and dining halls where all, irrespective of race, religion, gender, are lodged and fed for free.

Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths, but Sikhs may get first prize for generosity. The Golden Temple serves 80,000

80,000 free meals are served every day.

simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year – all paid for by donations. Anyone can partake.   Volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes.

Groups sit on the floor rolling dough for naans (Indian flatbread). Nearby other groups smoother naans with a type of butter. Enormous vats of various concoctions simmer on stoves.

Some who eat at the temple volunteer to help out to “pay” for the food and assist the permanent volunteers. Sikhs who live in other countries often come and stay at the temple for several months to help in the kitchen.

Volunteers do all the food prep.

The Golden Temple’s past is not all peace and love. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on armed Sikh militants holed up there. Over 500 people were killed in the ensuing firefight. Sikhs around the world were outraged at the desecration of their holiest site. Four months after the attack, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, leading to a massacre in which thousands of Sikhs lost their lives.

Most of the damage has been repaired by the Sikhs themselves who refused to allow the central government to take on the task.sikh.14

More on India soon—Dharamshala and the Tibetan refugees.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss this and future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

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Foreground:  Ganges bather. Background:  Yoga session.

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Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.

It’s summer and melon season – perfect time for a light, refreshing dessert. I brought Chilled Melon with Lime and Ginger to a recent pot luck. All loved it. Click HERE for recipe and scroll down for more of my tried and true recipes.

 

 

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High on Bali

Bali Ha’i *  may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away…Come away.”

Bali Ha’i will whisper
On the wind of the sea:
“Here am I, your special island!
Come to me, come to me!”

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you’ll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
“Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.”

My parents loved Broadway musicals.  They often played sound track records.  South Pacific was a favorite. My favorite song: “Bali Ha’i.” (*Bali Ha’i in the above song, according to Wikipedia, was not Bali, but based on the  island of Ambae, part of what was formerly known as New Hebrides, now Vanuatu.  Never mind, for me, it was Bali.)

I was mesmerized, both by the words and the melody of this song .  I knew I had to see this “special island” someday.

It took almost a lifetime, but I made it last October. The Indonesian island  was all I had hoped – and more.  A British friend, Jenny, recommended we stay in Ubud, a town in the hills, rather than at a popular tourist beach resort.  Thank you, Jenny.

In the book and movie, “Eat, Pray and Love,” Ubud was the focus of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for spirituality and healing.  Tourism is the chief industry in Bali, and Ubud, the island’s artistic hub,  has seen a surge in visitors thanks to both the book and movie.

Our home (husband Bob was with me)  for six days was the Tanah Merah resort and gallery about a 20-minute drive outside of the funky town in a verdant, tropical setting.  I found the resort on the Web.  It was reasonable, beautiful, serene, fascinating – a bit of paradise.  The fascinating part was the Danish dentist, Peter Bloch, owner and creator of this magical place which has just 14 rooms, including many individual cottages, and an incredible art and artifact galley with Peter’s extensive collection.  For more about Peter and Tanah Merah, see my next blog post.

Our night arrival at the chaotic airport in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, was a horror story, (also more about that in a future blog on Travel Mishaps).  But all turned out well thanks to a friendly Australian airline steward, Peter, whom we met on our Qantas flight to Singapore.  He recommended a friend and driver in Bali, Wayan Sukada.  He sent Wayan an email and arranged for him to meet us at the airport and take us to Ubud – about an hour and a half drive through a crazy, congested city into the peaceful countryside.

Wayan became our guide and mentor.  He drove us on an excursion to temples and sites.  He recommended restaurants.  He invited us to a ceremony at his temple.  He taught us much about Bali and its religion.

There is a pervasive spirituality in Bali is that is both intriguing and soothing. Most Balinese are Hindu, but they practice a form of the religion somewhat different than Hinduism in India.  It governs their daily life.  Every town, no matter what the size, must have three temples, Wayan told us, each dedicated to one of the three elements: air, water and fire.  All homes have a main temple, and often an additional one in each room. Ceremonies are profuse – not just the usual ones for weddings, births and cremations, but celebrations for the rice harvest, in honor of animals, to bless machinery…During our brief  Ubud visit, Wayan attended three ceremonies.  He said he must give 10 percent of his earnings to the temple.

Statues of gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere, and often draped from the head down in sarongs. The latter is to protect the spirit inside the statue. The sarongs are in various colors, but each color has significance. White, for example, is for prosperity. Trees, which also have spirits, are also sometimes covered with sarongs. Offerings to the statues are made twice each day – tiny baskets made with coconut leaves and filled with blossoms.  Every morning we watched employees at Tanah Merah put fresh offerings of flowers at the base of the numerous statues on the property.

Besakih is the Mother Temple in Bali.  We passed hills of rice paddies and drove through poor villages, past numerous temples,  en route to the holy site, a huge complex of structures on seven levels.  Before visiting the site, we both had to “rent” sarongs to wear in respect at the temple.  A government guide led us through the complex, first up the steps on the left side, the negative side, then down on the right side, the positive side. At each level there are terraces, altars, statues, and ceremonies were underway at some.

Our excursion that day also included a stop at Klungkung Palace which was erected at the end of the 17th century, but largely destroyed during the Dutch colonial conquest in 1908. Among the remaining portions is a lovely floating pavilion which was added in the 1940s.  While visiting the palace, we heard the beat of drums and commotion in the adjacent street.  It was a funeral procession, with groups of mourners following the wrapped body.  Wayan explained that the body would be interred first, then unearthed at a future date for a cremation ceremony during which the remains of many would be burned.

As we (especially Bicycle Bob) love cycling, we signed up for an all-day bike excursion.  Unfortunately the supposedly spectacular view of Mount Batur, near where the trip originated, was hidden by clouds; it rained most of the day, and Bob had a crash in the mud on a skinny route through a rice paddy.  But, it was an enlightening trip nonetheless. Our group stopped in a village where we toured a home — several rooms, virtually no furnishings, a temple in the yard, — all very basic and poor. Bali may be the home of numerous luxurious resorts, but life for the average citizen is at the other end of the spectrum.

While he (Bob) is passionate about bicycles, food and cooking are among my hobbies.  So, we also signed up for a Balinese cooking class at the Bambu Bali restaurant. It started out with a visit to the colorful market where our teacher explained some of the indigenous produce.   The dishes we prepared, seven different ones,  were all delicious, many on the hot and spicy side. We also received a souvenir cook booklet with recipes.  Unfortunately all seem to require ingredients which I’ll never find here.

Bicycles, food – and animals.  We love them, too, and  our visit to the Monkey Forest in Ubud was enchanting.  Thousands of monkeys: mothers with babies, teenagers wrestling with one another, couples diligently picking bugs off each other’s backs… All roaming freely in a vast tropical forest complete with temples, statues and a picturesque stream strewn with rocks.

The visit to an elephant sanctuary was somewhat disappointing.  Just to view the elephants, we had to pay $15; an elephant safari ride cost an extra $45. We passed on the costly ride, but one of the guides, who agreed the charge was ridiculous, offered us a brief ride as his boss was not around.  It was fun, and his commentary on the elephants was informative.

On our last night, Wayan took us to a ceremony to inaugurate a new temple in his village.  He was a member of the all male band: drums, bamboo flutes, hammers, cymbals, and a xylophone.  The sounds, lots of clinging and clanging, all sounded much the same.  The men in the band all wear white with a bandana around their heads.  The latter, Wayan explained, is to keep them focused on god and prayer.

Villagers arrived with enormous creations of fruit, flowers and food, all placed on an altar as offerings.  The women,  wearing their finest, sat together, while the men were off in another section – some gathered in an adjacent room smoking and gambling, according to Wayan.  Children, dogs and chickens wandered freely around the festive scene.

Even if it’s not Bali Ha’i, for me Bali is indeed a “special island.”

Bali is reasonable. Wayan charged us about $28 for the transportation from the airport to Ubud; about $36 for an all-day excursion. Our spacious room with full English breakfast at Tanah Merah was $100 per night. Cycling tour with bike rental, breakfast, lunch and van transportation to and from the start of the ride, about $36 per person.  Cooking class, about $22 per person, including eating the food you prepare.

www.tanahmerahbali.com

Email: wayan_sukada70@yahoo.com  (underscore between wayan and sukada)

For a fantastic soup, see recipe in column at right for Baked Garlic and Onion Cream Soup.  Watch the slideshow below.

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