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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 Wonders of Sri Lanka

 

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Mihinthale

The treacherous climb to the top of Sigiriya, Lion Rock, is a tourist must.  We had told Nimal, our first-rate Sri Lankan driver and mentor, that we were reasonably fit and up for moderate hiking.  That was before I viewed this massive monolith of stone with steep vertiginous metal staircases attached to its walls: definitely more than moderate. I wanted to wimp out. My courage and determination dissolved.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was hot, very hot. There were no trees to provide shade en route to the top.  It was crowded, a single file of slowly moving bodies inching upwards on those dreadful stairs. This did not look like fun.  Was it worth it?  Could I make it?  After the Chinese disaster (See previous post:  “China II:  The Fall”) I could not risk another crash.

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Nimal

“You can do it,” Nimal assured us.  He arranged a local guide.   I let him carry my camera and water and concentrated carefully on every step. Fortunately a landing with a gallery of remarkable frescoes provided a welcome break en route up.  The reward, stunning vistas atop, was well deserved.  It is generally believed that Sigiriya was a royal citadel during the fifth century, although another theory maintains that it was a monastery and religious site.   Our guide adhered to the citadel theory and told us that King Kassapa had 500 concubines, for whom he built swimming pools with diving boards.

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Superb views atop Sigiriya

There are many more astonishing sights in Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of India.  Although not much bigger than Wales, Sri Lanka packs a lot into a small area: glorious beaches, ancient temples, hillside tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries, rain forested peaks, more challenging climbs.

The country’s 30-year civil war, which ended in 2009, kept visitors away. That has changed dramatically. At Sigiriya, and just about everywhere we went during our two week tour of the country in late February, we encountered lots of tourists.

We visited many other sites, temples and ruins.  The city of Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka’s ancient capital, is a complex of archaeological and architectural treasures.  We followed a parade of worshipers walking along a giant piece of orange cloth, 300 meters long according to Nimal.  It symbolizes Buddha’s skin, he told us, and was to be wrapped around Ruvanvelisaya, a magnificent white dagoba or shrine for sacred relics.

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Devotees help carry  the orange cloth which will be wrapped around Ruvanvelisaya (below).

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The climb at Mihinthale, another temple complex, was beyond us:  1,843 granite slab steps with the sun blazing down on them. No shoes allowed –you had to ascend barefoot.  No way.

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Tough feet, as well as stamina, required for this climb.

Polonnaruwa was Sri Lanka’s medieval capital from the 11th to the 13th centuries before it was abandoned to invaders from South India.  We – and many others — toured the area by bike with stops to admire and photograph.  The major attraction is the site with colossal Buddhas carved out of rock.

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Reclining Buddha at Polonnaruwa

At Dambulla Royal Rock Temple, some 150 different Buddhas are enshrined in five  caves.  The Disney-like entrance to the site, with a monstrous Golden Temple and

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Cave Buddhas

mammoth concrete Buddha, seems out of place, but the gentle climb along a wooded path to this hilltop temple complex is easy and pleasant.  Entrance to the caves is controlled with a certain number admitted for each visit. It is well worth the wait to see these remarkable statues in this dimly lit, mystical ambience.

srpart1.nBoth tourists and worshipers flock to Kandy, a lovely hill town whose magnet is the Sacred Tooth Temple where one of Buddha’s teeth is said to be hidden inside a golden shrine or casket which in turn contains six more caskets, much like a Russian box.   We joined a large crowd and patiently waited in line for a night time opening of the heavily guarded room containing the tooth shrine, and our turn to file by the relic casket.   Although there was little to see, the holy ritual and huge temple complex are intriguing.   According to Lonely Planet, Sri Lankan Buddhists believe they must complete at least one pilgrimage to the tooth temple.

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Worshiping at the Sacred Tooth Temple

Nimal De Silva, (ndsilva67@yahoo.com and dsltours.com)  chauffeured us around his country, made hotel arrangements, arranged local guides at many places — and taught us much about this fabulous country.  He is a delight, very patient and accommodating. We were happy with all.

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Gaudy entrance to Dambulla complex

More on Sri Lanka in coming posts:  flora and fauna;  food, markets and produce, beaches and hilltop retreats.  Don’t miss it.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared. 

Please feel free to comment – just scroll down, below following photos,  click, scroll down again and add your thoughts.  

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Ruins at Polonnaruwa
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Cave Buddha at Dambulla
The concrete Buddha surveys the landscape
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Polonnaruwa

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Adventure Abu Dhabi

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I was wooed by those classy commercials on CNN.  Stunning desert landscapes.  Futuristic, fantastic architecture. Glamorous hotels.

Abu Dhabi.  We had to change planes there en route to  Sri Lanka.  Let’s break up the long journey and check out the capital, the largest and wealthiest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

It is indeed intriguing, interesting.  Bob and I had visited Dubai many years ago, long before most people had even heard of it. Like Dubai back then, and now, construction and progress are everywhere in Abu Dhabi.

“For a time, both emirates seemed locked in a battle to build the most glittering skyline,” notes an article in Global Traveler.  “But lately, Abu Dhabi has deliberately repositioned itself as New York to Dubai’s Los Angeles.  Abu Dhabi serves as the commercial and cultural heart of the U.A.E., while Dubai remains more populist, with an economy centered on tourism and real estate.”ad,4

Nonetheless Abu Dhabi has its share of tourist attractions. The Emirates Palace, billed as a “7* luxury hotel,” is high on the  list. We wandered through the cavernous public areas of the $3 billion hotel, looking up and around at an abundance of  gold leaf and marble.  We had an expensive coffee amidst the posh surroundings. I asked where the gold bar vending machine ad.3was (mentioned in an NYT article), only to be told it had been removed.  Pity – that was my souvenir choice!

Fortunately taxis are reasonable in Abu Dhabi. There was nothing of interest within walking distance of our hotel, supposedly in a central location, and distances are vast.   Taxi driver Mohammed, an Indian from Kerala, took us to the sights.

He is one of 65 percent of Abu Dhabi residents who are foreigners, he told us. Fifty percent of the foreigners are Indians, and most, like Mohammed, are from Kerala in the southern part of the country.

Markets are my passion.  I asked him to show us the fish market. This was not the collection of stalls with fishermen selling their catches as I had envisioned, but  a huge warehouse with aisle after aisle of all sizes, shapes and varieties of sea creatures.  Mohammed knew many of the workers, all from Kerala.  We continued to the date market – another vast structure with nothing but dates – numerous different kinds. There too he had chums from Kerala.  One gave us a sample of chocolate covered dates – exquisite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We continued to Heritage Village, an old fortress where the Abu Dhabi of bygone days with Bedouin tents and old stone houses has been recreated.  Artisans are at work in many enclosures.  I zeroed in on a purse in the leather workshop and tried to bargain with the shopkeeper, attired in the long traditional Muslim robe. I assumed he was a native.  No, he too was from India.

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Admiring glass creativity at Heritage Village

Foreign workers come to Abu Dhabi where earnings are good, work for several years, save and then return home, a Nigerian taxi driver explained.  He has a degree, but no jobs in Nigeria.

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Foreign workers on break at the fish market.

Abu Dhabi’s piece de resistance is the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a dazzling edifice of domes, minarets, reflecting pools, crystal, marble…. materials from all corners of the globe. Elements of Moroccan, Persian and Arab styles blend in this monumental beauty.  Non-Muslim visitors are welcome. Like all female visitors, I was given a blue abaya to wear.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We wandered around with numerous other visitors all taking photos while Mohammed took time out to pray.ad.8

Other Abu Dhabi attractions include the Galleira, a luxury shopping mall, and Yas Waterworld, an amusement park with watery rides. We passed on both, but did ask to see the Yas Marina Circuit that hosts the Abu Dhabi Formula I Grand Prix. I had read that when races were not taking place you could experience the circuit at high speed as a race car passenger.  Yes, but arrangements must be made far in advance. I failed.

ad.15Instead Mohammed took us to nearby Ferrari World. We were content to amble around the mall and admire cars, although had we paid the expensive entrance fee we could have experienced high speed simulation drives.

Future Abu Dhabi visitors will enjoy major attractions on Saadiyat Island,  a $27 billion project that will include the first outpost of the Louvre outside of France, scheduled to open at the end of this year, a Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum, and much more.

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Family visit to Grand Mosque

The fall in the price of oil has delayed completion of these showpieces. Abu Dhabi has about a tenth of the world’s oil reserves which accounts for its wealth.   But, the reserves will decline and the emirate is preparing for life without oil.   Masdar City, a $22 billion project currently under construction, aims to create the world’s first carbon-neutral city powered almost entirely by solar and other renewable energy sources.ad.9

Abu Dhabi is worth a short visit, especially if you want to break up a long flight to Asia.  We found the people, namely foreign workers, all very friendly and helpful. Most speak English.  Because it is a Muslim country, alcoholic beverages are only served in international hotels.  All manner of ethnic restaurants abound.  We tried Thai, Italian, French , a British pub, but the favorite was Café Arabia with Lebanese, Syrian, Moroccan specialties and more.  I relished Palestinian Shakshuka, a spicy tomato, egg and feta combo.  See Today’s Taste, column upper right, for a recipe.

Please feel free to comment – just scroll down and add your thoughts.   Don’t miss future posts. If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right). Your address is kept private and never shared.  makeread2

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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