That trip to Greece !

The Guest Post Series on “My Favourite Things” has contributions by those sharing my interests in travel, books, music, and on issues that I am passionate about. These posts are not always by fellow bloggers, and the guest authors are always those who have interesting experiences to share.

Today’s guest post is by Aditi, who writes about a trip she made to Greece last summer. At that time, she was on a year-long stay in Belgium as a Rotary exchange student from India, and the Greece trip was one of the many organised by the Rotary Club for exchange students in Belgium. These days, Aditi is eagerly waiting to turn 18 and travel to see the Taj Mahal. These days she also prefers not to think about her 12th Std. results which will be declared in a month or so.

Flashback to April 2011. Tenth of April 2011 to be precise.

My bags were packed, my passport and Identity Card were safely put away in my purse. I hadn’t slept the previous night, and yet wasn’t the least bit tired as I was so excited. I was waiting in the living room, impatiently shaking my legs for my host mother to get ready. Why? Because she was going to drive me to Trois-Ponts railway station from where I would take the train to Liège station. And why was I going to Leige station? Because that’s where I was meeting all the Rotary exchange students. Why? Because we were all going on a trip to GREECE !

Did you think that we flew to Greece from Belgium? Actually, we didn’t. We took a bus. Yes, a double-decker bus and then a ship. The road part sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? And actually it was to begin with. But in hindsight it was worth it because all the Rotary exchange students got to bond with one other. And by the end of the trip, we had become the best of friends with each other. I was always happy to be with the other exchange students as I saw myself in all of them. I never thought of myself as just “Indian”. I was Indian, American, Canadian, Australian, Mexican, Venezuelan, Taiwanese, Japanese—all at the same time. And of course, Belgian. Even today, I have a bit of all these countries in me.

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The Taj Mahal: An ode to perfection and symmetry

The Taj Mahal is, without doubt, one of the most talked about, photographed, and written about monuments in the world. From academic critiques on its symbolism or its architecture to essays on love using the Taj Mahal as a metaphor to haiku poetry, you have it all.

For Indians, the Taj is a national treasure beyond any other, and for many international tourists the Taj Mahal is India and vice versa. The Taj has inspired countless brands from hotels to tea to inner-wear to tiles to… just about everything. Its enduring legend and its status as one of the 7 modern wonders of the world has ensured that everybody has an opinion on the Taj Mahal, whether they have seen it once, twice, many times, or not at all. :-)

I was in Agra last month and the Taj, not surprisingly, was on my list of sights to see. Though I had never seen the Taj Mahal before, I had an image of what it would be like, and even what it should be like. My mental image of the Taj was also influenced by a lot of unsolicited comments and advice from friends and family members, who had seen the Taj and were keen to share their two bits with me. A sample:

“Taj Mahal is so beautiful and romantic. You’ll love it”

“What? You stay in India and you haven’t seen the Taj? Are you sure you are an Indian?

“Look, Sudha. See the Taj with an open mind. Just empty your mind of all emotions and prejudices of what you think it should be like when you go there. Otherwise, you’ll hate it.

“I didn’t like the place at all. It is over-rated and thanks to excellent marketing it has become what it is today.”

I recall all this as I stand in a queue  with countless others waiting to  enter this modern “wonder of the world”.  Though I tell myself that I should regard this visit to the Taj with an open mind, it is difficult not to be affected by my own prejudices plus the influence of all that I have read about or heard about the Taj.

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Poetry in red sandstone: Fatehpur Sikri

Imagine a city.

A city built entirely out red sandstone and protected by a 11 km wall on 3 sides and a lake on the fourth.

A planned city, perhaps the region’s first, by an Emperor to honour a Sufi saint.

A city whose royal quarters housed the Emperor, his 3 queens, his harem, his favourite minister, and included a mosque, a temple and a giant game board, among many other structures.

A city that was abandoned 14 years after construction began.

A city that is a ghost city today.

A city that was named Fatehabad, but is known today as Fatehpur Sikri.

Imagine that city.

Part of Fatehpur Sikri’s original city wall is visible through the trees

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The ascent of Pavagadh Hill

The town of Champaner is situated at the base of Pavagadh Hill, which is a sudden rise in an otherwise gently undulating landscape. A climb up Pavagadh Hill reveals a heady mix of interesting geology, mythology, religious confluence, history, strategic military brilliance and foresight, clever design and architecture, rainwater harvesting systems, sustainable measures, a hidden valley of flowers, etc.

Geologically, Pavagadh Hill is quite different from Champaner. The Hill is composed of rhyolite, a volcanic rock, while Champaner is almost entirely sandstone, a sedimentary rock. It is this volcanic feature which made Pavagadh an important and strategic location for whoever ruled it. About 830 m high, it descends or ascends (depending on your point of view) in five plateaus, each of which are separated by steep cliffs. This feature enabled fortifications to be built at vantage points around the hill in a circular manner, making it indefensible and non-breachable. And also confusing for the visitor/tourist.

Photo: Rupal Parikh

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The Indo-Islamic mosques of Champaner

Detail from a wall carving on Kevada Masjid

“It has not rained in Champaner for 2 years, and then it rains like this. When it rains…” the guide’s voice trailed off mournfully.

About 20 pairs of suspicious, skeptical  eyes looked at the muddy, slushy path that seemed to worsen as it wound its way to apparently nowhere. But according to Manoj, the guide, the path led to 2 mosques, one of them with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable on its walls.

Maybe Manoj did not sound convincing enough, or maybe it was the mud, but most of the owners of those eyes decided to forego seeing those two mosques. But some did agree to go with the guide and see the mosques. I was one of them.

Our tour group was in Champaner for a 2-day visit. We had arrived that morning from Mumbai to a cloudy, rainy and wet day, in the wettest rainy season that Champaner was experiencing in a long time. We were to see the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner, which included many mosques in various stages of restoration or disrepair, depending on one’s point of view. I wondered how many we would be able to see with the heavy rains having made the access roads paths almost impossible to negotiate. (There are reportedly 18 such mosques, and we managed to see about 5 of them.)

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The forgotten medieval ruins of Champaner

Once upon a time there was a prince. He wasn’t particularly a happy prince or, for that matter, an unhappy prince; but he was an ambitious prince. He wanted to be remembered for posterity for his conquests, and his rule. The prince wanted to be like his grandfather, who had founded a great city and named it after himself. But the prince had to first become the king. And one day, he became the king.

Detail of a window at the Jami Masjid

The prince, now the king, set his eyes on a neighbouring kingdom, which was very well fortified and was known to have an impregnable defence system. The king’s  advisers and soldiers urged him to consider some other kingdom to conquer.

But he declined; it had to be this kingdom. The king’s strategy was not to engage in a battle or a war; he captured the lower fortifications of this hilly kingdom, and then laid siege to it and cut off supplies.

Cloisters of the Jami Masjid

The kingdom’s ruler was amused and offered the king money, women, and jewels, but the king was not enticed. He was firm about his intentions—he wanted the kingdom. Nothing else. To show that he meant business, the king laid the foundations for his palace and a place of worship for his soldiers just outside the fortifications and at the base of this hilly kingdom.

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