Wednesday, January 22, 2014

India Adventure: Calcutta

My mom and I returned to Bangalore from Bylakuppe on January 4. She began her journey to the US the following day. As for me, after seeing Thiruvannamalai, Mysore, Bylakuppe, and Bangalore, it was time to bid farewell to south India.

Indian bills. $1 equals approximately 61 Indian rupees.

My stuff, ready to be packed up. The top right corner is a pile of empty reusable, "space saver" style camping bags, rain covers for my pack and day pack, a big bag that i zip over my pack when i check it in at airports, and empty plastic bags - so not as much here, as it originally looks like:)
Sowmya and I headed to the train station at 3am on January 6 to begin our 36 hour train ride to the north India city of Calcutta. It was another sleeper vehicle experience. We travelled one step up from the cheapest ticket, which meant that we were in a train car that was divided up into sections, with three sets of bunk beds per section.

Getting used to my top bunk, curled up on top of my pack to keep it safe.

Looking down towards the train floor from my top bunk. There were 2 bunks below me.

Looking down the aisle of the train from my seat on my top bunk.
A view of our train. I jumped out of the car and took this photo when we were stopped at a train station for a few minutes to drop off and pick up passengers.

Finally reading a September 2013 issue of the Lehigh student newspaper, The Brown & White on the train to Calcutta. 

Also finally reading the Summer 2013 Frost Valley summer camp brochure.

A town we passed on our way to Calcutta.

The family that occupied the bunks below the top bunks Sowmya and I had in the train car.

A view of the crops being grown next to the tracks.

Sowmya in the Calcutta train station. We are finally on solid ground.

Me in the Calcutta train station.
We shared our section with a few families. Everyone on our car seemed to have travelled down south to Bangalore to visit an acclaimed medical clinic … except for us. We were travelling to Calcutta to visit Sowmya’s paternal grandmother who lives in the city and to take classes from Dr. Sukhdev G. Punjabi. He is a Traditional Reiki Grandmaster, Crystal Grandmaster, Pranic Healer, Quantam Touch, Craniosacral & Neuro-muscular Therapist, and Teacher of Alternative Medicine and Mindfulness Meditation. He began treating others with Reiki while living in Tanzania.

Sowmya and I with Dr. Punjabi in his office.
I spent 3 days with Dr. Punjabi, becoming attuned and trained to practice the first level of Reiki. Reiki practitioners channel healing energy from the source of the universal creative cosmic power through their bodies to heal sentient beings’ emotional, spiritual, and physical pain. Anyone can perform Reiki – you have to be given the ability to channel the energy in a ceremony performed by a Reiki Grandmaster who becomes your guru, and teaches you how to use the energy to heal. My intent is to use Reiki to heal and offer compassion to dogs. Sowmya and Maddie learned Reiki and acupressure from Dr. Punjabi so that they can be of greater benefit to their young special needs clients in Bangalore.

When not at Dr. Punjabi’s office, studying Sowmya and I spent a lot of time with her grandmother, known as K. Pati. (“K” for Calcutta, and “Pati” for Grandmother, so in sum “Calcutta Grandmother.” She acquired this nickname from Sowmya’s brother when he was a small child.) We cooked Indian food together, watched soap operas that air in Tamil, which is spoken in the state Sowmya's family is from (Tamil Nadu), visited with extended family, and went to see an Indian music concert at a local hall. Sowmya’s grandfather, now deceased was president of the hall, so we got prime seats. Another guest sitting behind me anxiously asked me if he could see our formal invitation to the concert that I was holding in my hands, so that he could see who we were – celebrities.

Sowmya, K. Pati and family at lunch.

We had lunch at a mall. I popped into a store and found these CDs. It made me so happy. Lady Antebellum is here representing Hunter Hayes and Taylor Swift, which I could not find in my quick search of the CDs. 

The music concert we attended.

Sowmya and K. Pati in K. Pati's kitchen.

K. Pati has an altar in the pantry, off of her kitchen. She does Hindu pujas daily.

Dinner in front of Tamil TV shows at K. Pati's. I will miss this.
Maddie was in Calcutta when we arrived, finishing a course with Dr. Punjabi. The three of us spent a morning at a Hindu temple in Calcutta dedicated to Hindu deity Kali. Kali is a black goddess, one of the main female deities representing the female principle of divinity, Shakti.

Our first stop of the day was the House of Vedas, around the corner from K. Pati’s house that Sowmya’s grandfather ran for 30 years, and K. Pati continues to participate in. We stopped there during Vedas (prayers) to seek Sowmya’s family’s guru’s spiritual blessing, before going on our spiritual journey to the Kali temple.

A view of the House of Vedas from inside of our taxi.

Sowmya in the front seat of our tax.
 Before entering the Kali temple we purchased flowers as offerings to Kali, and to leave our shoes with the shop keeper.

Maddie and Sowmya buying flowers. I bought a strand of yellow carnations.

The flower offering vendors. Each vendor has a numbered stall.

Sowmya making a purchase.
The temple was located inside of a compound, in a tiled square. We entered the temple, passed by Kali, and left our flowers for her there. We then passed by the lingams or various forms of Shiva, each housed in its own small building. Sowmya and Maddie then went down to the water’s edge with the other Hindus to put their feet in the water.

The main temple.

Sowmya and Maddie putting their feet in the water outside of the temple grounds.

The lingams.
We then took a boat back across the river, choosing to meet the taxi we’d hired for the day on the opposite side, instead of riding across the bridge with him.

Boats awaiting passengers.

Passing by a little prayer spot on our way out of the boat.

One of India's many street dogs looking for food. We passed this pup on our way to Ramakrishna temple.
When our boat docked we quickly explored the Ramakrishna temple on the opposite side of the river from the Kali temple, before returning to the center of town in our taxi. Calcutta is the only city in India that still uses the Ambassador cars as taxis. They make me queasy, but are fun to ride in.

Riding through the streets of Delhi in the back of a taxi. This taxi had a red and white sticker on the dashboard that said "Austin" so I snapped this one for Johanna Nuding in particular:)
I visited the Victoria Memorial and Calcutta Gallery before leaving Calcutta for another north India city on Thursday morning, January 16. The beautiful 184 foot high marble memorial building topped by a dome and a 16 foot high bronze statue of the angel of victory, was completed in 1921, 20 years after Queen Victoria’s death. The Rough Guide says “other colonial monuments and statues throughout the city have been renamed or demolished, but the popularity of Queen Victoria seems to endure; attempts to change the name of the “VM” have come to nothing.” The memorial building houses the Calcutta Gallery, a collection of weapons, statues and busts that tell a little bit of the story of British rule and India’s struggle for independence. I saw some portraits of Indians painted by James Wales, a Scot who received permission to travel to India in 1791 to paint portraits. Amazing. The Victoria Memorial sits in the middle of 64 acres of beautifully designed and maintained manmade pools, lakes, gardens, and walking paths. Lovely.

Victoria Monument.

Calcutta traffic.
According to the Rough Guide “as the showpiece capital of the British Raj, it was the greatest colonial city of the orient” and “visitors still experience Calcutta first and foremost as a colonial city”.

It feels like a living, breathing, intentionally designed city. It’s located in the Indian state of West Bengal, which borders Bangladesh. Calcutta was the capital city of India until 1911 when that title was transferred to Delhi. It’s heavily influenced by Bengalis, who renamed the city Kolkata. The new spelling and pronunciation of the city’s name has not been universally accepted. For those who are reading this and know Pia, her family is Bengali.

One striking thing about Calcutta is the more obvious signs of poverty as compared with Bangalore. A family lives on the street around the corner from K. Pati’s house. I’ve seen women and children cooking over an open flame on the sidewalk, with their household goods stacked in piles on the far side of the sidewalk, next to the building. Sowmya recently talked with a 12 year old boy who has a job ironing neighborhood clothing, as part of the family business. He only attends school when he is home, in his village. Many more unneutered/spayed street dogs, and two unbelievably skinny dogs. This is part of life in Calcutta. People smile and play cricket in the streets, and dogs still wag their tails. It's just a different city.

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