India: the People Who Added More Life to It

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Looking back, India is not a hard place to travel to. But, at the same time, it is not the easiest one either. Depending on your traveling attitude and worldview, it can shock you in a good way or the other way around. India is potent in equally giving both impressions. Nevertheless, I like India the way it is, with all its ups and downs.

Definitely, I enjoyed the places I’ve seen, and I can say that it was indeed a successful nearly month-long birthday trip. Not only had I saw all the sites and monuments I listed out to see from the beginning, I also saw other places — and appreciated the journey more! — with the help of the people I met and bumped into along the way. Some of them I have known for years (take for example my good friend Dr. Rahul Rochani, whose friendship I have gained when he was taking up his MA in Manila); some I have known through Instagram, and have been drawn to each other by the sheer shared passion for photography, traveling and culture; and there were some who I just ran into in the places I went to, putting more colours to what should have just been some solo wanderings.

I love the sites I visited in India, as well as its food (those who know me too well can vouch that Indian cuisine is my favourite. So, yes, it was a true gastronomic pilgrimage for me, too!). But, more important to highlight in this post is that I love its people, and the hospitality and goodness they have shown me from my first day in Chennai to the last hour I had in Kolkata.

This post is for the people who have made my India trip memorable and more meaningful. I appreciate the wonderful friendship we all have forged!

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Khaja was my de facto welcoming committee in India. Without him – and his kind friend Venkat – I would not have seen Chennai, the monuments of Mahabalipuram, the former French-occupied Pondicherry, the Big Temple at Thanjavur (which is one of the sites I liked the most, btw), and the other interesting towns in between, as conveniently as the one I had. Thank you for driving a total of 800kms (maybe more?) just so we can cover all the spots I wanted to see in Tamil Nadu. both of you made my first few days in India very smooth, setting the good momentum for the rest of my trip. I certainly miss eating on banana leaves and drinking filter coffee now.

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family's house in not for my tight schedule. Not only did you accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Terminus), but you also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with

Manoj had to travel 2 hours just to meet me up in Mumbai, and I would also have gladly accepted his invitation to spend the night at his family’s house if not for my tight schedule in Maharashtra. Not only did he accompany me in exploring Elephanta Caves (and the hour-long boat ride) and the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus), but he also made my stay in Mumbai more relevant by showing me the other historic facets of the city. When I asked, out of curiosity, where Churchgate was, you quickly responded with “Let’s get a cab and go there first” – you knew well how to piece together what was on my mind.

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In Mumbai, I met another friend who lives in West Bandra. Parul warmly opened his family’s house for me to stay in for a night. He was kind enough to take me around the neighborhood, showing me local landmarks and walking through the Esplanade. While going around, I came to realize that he is a local ‘celebrity’ in his own right – people there seem to know him well! Thanks much for the generosity you have shown me. I wish I had brought my camera with me when we visited those historic sites in the vicinity.

The trip to Matheran was true to the saying,

Akhil and I were still messaging each other at 3am, when we were to meet in Neral at 7am! Initially, ticking off the Matheran mountain railway and hill station was a definite impossibility. I eventually had to cancel (ditch, really) my original bus schedule to Aurangabad to make time for it – thanks to his insistence that I add this to my trip. True enough, I had no regrets.  I would not have appreciated riding on the toy train and enjoyed the natural views offered by the Western Ghats as I did if not for Akhil’s company – not only did I have a good photographer taking great photos of me, I also had the pleasure of knowing someone who reminded me so much of myself 5 years ago. I wish that you follow and chase your dreams and passion. “The journey is the destination” sums up Matheran.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met this photographer and talked with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, Ganesh offered to take me to Ellora caves using his bike.

Inside the train to Aurangabad, I met Ganesh, a photographer, and got hooked into talking with him about cameras. Upon arriving in the city, he offered something I never would have thought: to take me to Ellora Caves — my destination — using his bike. Thanks to him, not only did I see the famous rock cut-out caves much easier than what it would have taken me if I did it on my own (the cave clusters are of huge distances apart!), I also got to enjoy the views of the Deccan plateau in a ‘Che Guevara Motorcycle Diaries’ style.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the stories of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

I ran into Animesh and Vipasha on the way to the rock shelters of Bhimbetka. The three of us rode on a bike, found out the history of the 20,000-year old paintings together, and shared travel stories with each other with so much gusto. Being in the company of this couple seemingly made the harsh heat in Bhopal more tolerable. Your friendship was indeed a birthday gift.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing friendship between us. I appreciated so much that you made time - despite the difficulties of it - to join me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than you. It was my pleasure to have met your family and have been welcomed like I was an extended part of it. BTW, the evening tour around your city was crazy, crazy.

The reunion of the year! Rahul and I have 5 years of amazing (love/hate) friendship between us. We haven’t seen each other since 2012. I appreciated so much that he made time – despite the difficulties of doing it – in joining me to Sanchi. There would not have been any better person to be with in seeing one place I have long wanted to see than him! It was my pleasure to have finally met his family and to have been welcomed like I was an extended member of it. I would be happy to do the crazy evening tour around the city again. Your family in the Philippines misses you a lot already.

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After being ripped off in Agra, I met Amar, a visiting student from another city who’s just using his spare time to check Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal prior to his train ride back home. When we parted ways after seeing the fort, he gave me a collection of Agra photographs souvenir as remembrance. Thank you, Amar, for clicking the only photos I have of myself inside Agra Fort.

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These guys were a surprise: I knew that they are nice, but I did not expect that they are THAT nice! Sanjiv, Pramod and Jogendra are so much younger than me, but they acted way above their ages. Thank you so much for the warm embrace in Rajasthan, and all your kind gestures in making me experience the real Jaipur – from the stories you have earnestly shared until we fell asleep, to the Rajput sites we have visited, to the food we sampled, and to the gifts you have given me (yes, Sanjiv, they are the most colourful in my collection now :p). I might not have met the ‘Prince of Jaipur’ (name of a former Indian restaurant in Manila), but I have met Jogie, a Bana of Alwar. Indeed, I got a more than royal company with the three of you! 

I have high respect to this family a lot. Despite being Instagram friends, I was still technically a stranger. Yet, they offered me a home in Delhi the moment I told Neeraj I'm heading their way.

I have high respect to Neeraj’s family. Despite being Instagram friends for quite some time already then, I was still technically a stranger; and yet, without thinking twice, he and his wife Deepali offered me a place in their home in Gurgaon the moment I told him I’m heading to Delhi next. Neeraj – thank you for sacrificing a complete night’s rest just to pick me up at the bus stop before sunrise, for showing me how easy it was to explore the city using the metro, and for the beers to cap a great day with. Deepali – I enjoyed my conversations with you, in the same way that I truly cherished the Punjabi dinner you had prepared at home.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just to meet me and be with me for a few hours. That, I appreciate very much. I am happy that we have finally met and gone beyond just social networking friends.

Saundhar had to travel 6 hours just so he can meet me and be with me for some two hours. That, I appreciated very much. I am happy that we have finally met in person, and have transcended beyond just being social networking friends. Without you I would not have known of this historic ancient step well (baoli) in Delhi, which was the first step well I saw in India.

When I saw her in Sarnath, I knew she's Southeast Asian. But, to my surprise, she's also a Filipino!! Helene and Ville put more sense to my trip to Sarnath.

When I saw her, I instantly knew she’s Southeast Asian. Only to find out that she’s also a Filipino! Helene and Ville (from Finland) put more sense to my visit in Sarnath. Being young travelers that the three of us are, we easily connected with each other – in so many levels. Although we no longer saw each other in Gaya the following day as originally planned (communication was hard as I didn’t have a working phone with me), I am certain that we will run into each other again sometime, somewhere. The world is small.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we -- together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple -- started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha. My young friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny's.

Despite having been warned several times not to trust anyone in Bihar, Manish made me feel safe and secure the moment we — together with Naga, a senior resident monk at the Mahabodhi temple — started talking inside the shared auto. Thank you for bringing me closer to the teachings and philosophy of Buddha, as well as sharing me your artworks. My newly-formed friendship with you that day brought about two more new friends: Joe and Jenny. BTW, the young Bodhi sapling is now in the Philippines.

In here, I would also like to thank Ajay Reddy, Glen Dias, and Parul Sharma. Despite not having the chance to meet, they have helped me as well in organizing and planning out the trip since the day I decided to go to India.

To all of you, once again, thank you very much!

Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park

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A complete “mountain to sea” ecosystem, this karst landscape in the Philippines has the sole underground river in the world that flows out directly to the sea. This unique topography subjects the lower part of the underground river to tidal influences – a remarkable natural phenomenon that has no equal elsewhere across the globe.

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The limestone cave passage where the underground river exits from the karst mountain to join the South China Sea

 

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The “candle”, one of the spectacular displays of gigantic stalagmites inside the chamber.

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The underground river has a total length of 8.2 kms. The 1.2kms leg that is open for the public allows visitors on paddled boats to view  rock formations that can be as old as 20 million years (Miocene period).

 

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As a site for globally important biodiversity conservation, the park boasts eight forest types that are homes to various endemic species of plants and animals.

 

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World Wildlife Fund reported that the park is largest and most valuable limestone forest in Asia, which also boasts a beach forest and a mangrove forest.

The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is part of the bigger UNESCO-led Palawan Biosphere Reserve that was established in 1990. The park was also declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, and, in 2012, it was also proclaimed as one of the Seven New Wonders of Nature though a global popular poll.

These, my friends, are the real bragging rights of this natural gem in Palawan, the Philippines. 

Tri Hita Karana: A Study in Photos

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The cultural landscape of Bali in Indonesia is largely shaped by its locals’ traditional belief systems. Tri Hita Karana — roughly translated into English as “the three causes of prosperity” — is a philosophy that governs and guides the daily lives and attitudes of the Balinese. This unique concept puts premium to the universal respect of and observance to the three domains of the world: the divine (gods), the universe (nature), and the domain of the people (human beings). This doctrine is said to be best illustrated during many special ceremonies, the most common of which would be acts of worship.

In here, I am sharing what I believe is the easiest demonstration and most obvious material cultural manifestation of the practice of Tri Hita Karana:

The realm of the divine. Worships and offerings made inside public temples (major temples such as the sea temples, water temples, the directional temples, and village temples) are dedicated to the gods who created life, and nature and all of its gifts.

Balinese Hindu attending a ceremony in the monastery of Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Balinese Hindu villagers attending a ceremony in the monastery of Candi Gunung Kawi in the subak landscape of the Pakerisan watershed.

Locals and some converts  are making their pilgrimage in Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampak Siring area.

Locals and some converts are making their pilgrimage in the sacred Pura Tirta Empul, the source of holy water that flows out to the waterways and irrigation systems in Tampaksiring.

The realm of universe. Offerings made outdoors (streets, parks, rice fields and the like) are exponents of worships to nature, the domain that sustains and supports the needs and activities of humans.

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Bantens, the traditional offerings in Bali, scattered on the walkways in Ubud. This one was seen on the way to Sari Organik, a restaurant in the middle of the rice paddies in Central Bali.

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These offerings were made in an irrigation canal of one of the subak systems in Gianyar, a regency northeast of Ubud.

The realm of human beings. Worships and offerings made inside clan temples, home temples and shrines, or even inside cars and houses are dedicated to the people who have the moral duties to establish traditional communities,  erect temples in which to worship and hold ceremonies such as daily offerings, and preserve nature and all its contents.

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A Balinese Hindu casually making an evening offering before a family temple inside his home compound in Kuta.

Tri Hita Karana is also the single most important backbone of Bali’s inclusion to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Several keys sites in the island were collectively inscribed  in 2012 as the “Cultural Landscape of Bali Province: the Subak System as a Manifestation of the Tri Hita Karana Philososphy”.

Acknowledgement. My appreciation to Dewa Gugun for taking the time in explaining to me the doctrine of Tri Hita Karana while I was trying to understand the equally difficult concept of subak.

Guling-guling 2014

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In the Philippines, it is only my hometown Paoay that celebrates Fat Tuesday, the last day of merry-making before entering the Lenten season. Guling-guling, a four-century old tradition, involves street dancing, cooking dodol (a Malay deli), and smearing the sign of the cross (using ash or rice flour mixtures) on the foreheads of devote Christians – which is interesting as, in this town, this religious practice is done prior to Ash Wednesday. Modern-day celebrations now culminate in a dance showdown in front of the UNESCO World Heritage listed San Agustin church, the crowning glory of the earthquake baroque architecture.

The dancers sport the loom-woven textile called abel Iloco, one of the products that my humble town is known for.

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Prambanan Temple Compounds: In Humble Defense to Hinduism

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Prambanan temple compounds came in as one of the first world heritage sites of Indonesia in 1991. This site was inscribed under two criteria: as a masterpiece of human creative genius, and as an outstanding example of an architectural ensemble that represents a significant stage in human history (i.e., spread of Hinduism in the East). It happens to be the biggest and most extensive Hindu religious site in the predominantly Islamic country.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

The first glimpse of Prambanan. I enjoyed the fact that it has a wide open yard.

How is Prambanan assessed?

On one hand, Prambanan may look quite similar to Angkor Wat. True enough, they are both intended as Hindu temples, and that both follow the pointed South Indian Dravidian styles. In closer inspection, however, Prambanan reveals itself as a totally different architectural masterpiece that is unique in their own ways. In fact, Prambanan was built over 300 years earlier (9th century vs. 12th century).  On the other hand, Prambanan still faces yet another challenge as it is often overshadowed nowadays by the more famous Borobudur given their close proximity to each other. Nevertheless, in ancient times, the former might have looked far more impressive in terms of lay-out, scale of construction, and even its setting as the construction of Prambanan is to be seen as a response of the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty to the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty‘s Borobudur.

the obligatory SELFIE! :D Thanks to Nils Mosbach for this photo.

Thanks to Nils Mosbach for my representative photo of this site.

Often really crowded throughout the day, I visited Prambanan late in the afternoon instead so as to have better chance in appreciating more the place  (it turned out later on to be an uncalculated risk as it rained some few minutes after!). One thing that I noticed immediately upon entering the gate is its vast, well-manicured yard. Not far from there, and I started seeing the magnitude of the damages this site had to endure: endless — and now meaningless — piles of rubble scattered everywhere.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

View of the smaller temples housing the vessels of the Trimurti. Shot taken just before it started raining.

The Prambanan temple complex — or what remains of it — is pretty small and easy explore. It has to be understood that temples currently standing in the compound hardly make up 15% of what used to be there. Originally, more than 240 temples comprise the compound, yet only a handful remains today. Below is a photo showing the model of the compound’s original composition – thanks to Wiki!. Throughout many centuries, earthquakes (the last strong one being the May 2006 shake) and several bouts of volcanic eruptions of the Merapi volcano further added damages to the already abandoned and neglected royal religious site since the early 10th century – yes, it was relatively short lived as an active place of worship.

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

A model of the Prambanan Temple Compounds (photo courtesy: Wikipedia)

Its central main towers are almost total reconstructions via anastylosis, and Indonesia is proud that it was all her efforts (together with the Brits!) to pull this up without any help coming from UNESCO. Nevertheless, strict measures are still being observed such as prohibiting public access to the temples’ interiors. The management body no longer plans to reconstruct all of the temples – the tons of rubble are there to act as a reminder of the site’s painful history in confronting the destructive forces of nature. Moreover, some stones are already missing as locals used them in building their houses nearby, rendering massive rehabilitation a definite impossibility.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

Ruins of the peripheral temples. There were about 220 of these minor shrines before.

It being a Trimurti site, Prambanan is dedicated to the highest three Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The commanding 47-metre high Shiva temple (or Loro Jonggrang), the largest in the area, lies at the center. Here, a local myth is also highly intertwined with Prambanan: Loro Jonggrang is a legendary Javanese princess, and it is believed that she is depicted in a statue inside the Shiva temple; hence, the Shiva temple is often referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang temple as well. This legend is worth knowing when visiting this temple.

The carvings and reliefs in the temples are quite different from those that I have seen in Angkor, though both depict Hindu characters,icons, and stories. I can say that the images and artworks there are more “pure” in the Hindu sense of the word; in contrast, Angkorian art is made in the image of the Khmers.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Carvings depicting Hindu celestial nymphs in the exteriors of Loro Jonggrang, the central temple in Prambanan.

Prambanan never failed to enchant me. Despite only having a little less than an hour for this site (thanks to the rain!), it definitely left a lasting impression on me: the temple compound is really simple — and it may not even boast much given the state it is in right now — but it never fails to assert its right as a ‘classic’ monument the world will forever be proud of.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

Last man out. Guards patiently waited for us before they called it a day. I think they understood I was on a mission.

On a separate day, I also went to  the nearby ruins of the 8th-century Ratu Boko palace. Actually, it happens to be on the tentative list of Indonesia for a possible inclusion to the WHS list, too! Ratu Boko palace — oh, I’ll be writing a separate note for this site as it deserves one of its own — is nestled in the Boko Hills, some 3km from Prambanan temple compounds. Given its altitude of 196 metres, the site offers a commanding view of the Prambanan plains and townscape with the Merapi as the background. In the evening, the beautifully glittering Prambanan temple dominates the skyline, subtly suggesting that it is there to stay and that it will never be forgotten again.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

Prambanan fields as seen from Ratu Boko Palace ruins. Prambanan temple compounds shine like gold, dominating the view.

PS. Oh, lastly, one thing that can really surprise a bit is how Indonesians usually ask to take photos of/with foreigners, and I was not an exception even in Borobudur. As a traveler, this is but a part of the local charm of the place.

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol

Out of the blue: some locals would poke and ask to have a photo taken with any foreigner. Case in point, Nils! lol