30
Jan 17

Exploring Varanasi India

As we traveled deeper into India, it felt as if we were traveling back in time.

Varanasi Snake Charmer

Varanasi Snake Charmer

Our guide Rohit told us to expect this felling and it was true. Nowhere did this seem truer than in Varanasi, one of the oldest and most sacred human settlements in the world. The streets are ancient and lined with shopkeepers and holy men, the spaces in between filled by unfortunates begging for alms.

Smokes. Varanasi, India.

Smokes. Varanasi, India.

Hindu Devotees. Varanasi, India.

Hindu Devotees. Varanasi, India.

Cows and pigs wandered the streets eating garbage and fertilizing the ground. Keep following the streets and they will take you to the shore of Mother Ganges. Mother Ganges, the river that provides the water of life, washes, blesses, purifies, and accepts the ashes of the dead.

Varanasi Cremation on the Ganges River

Varanasi Cremation on the Ganges River

All day every day Hindu families bring the bodies of their loved ones to the Temple of Shiva on the shore of the Mother Ganges for cremation. The fires burn constantly and the bank of the river is blackened with their ashes. This has been taking places since the beginning of time.

Musicians. Ganges River, Varanasi, India.

Musicians. Ganges River, Varanasi, India.

We sat in a small boat just off shore, transfixed by this ritual, watching eleven cremation fires burning in front of us. Under these conditions your mind goes to places tucked away deep in primordial consciousness. Varanasi is the bottom of the rabbit hole that is at the bottom of the rabbit hole.


21
Dec 16

The Tigress of Ranthambhore

We traveled half way around the world to photograph tigers at Ranthambhore National Park. This fantastic location in Northwest India offers some of the best tiger viewing in the wild. Even so they can be elusive, we had heard stories of photographers coming here and not having a single tiger sighting for several days. We were with one of the best guides in the park so we felt good about our chances. A good guide and a positive attitude make all the difference.

Spotted Deer. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

Spotted Deer. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

On our first outing it was really quite beautiful to see a large buck, standing up to it’s shoulders in a lake munching aquatic plants and herds of spotted deer. Beautiful but not why we were here. We also saw monkeys, wild pigs and the occasional crocodile. As the afternoon wore on, the light became magical. In combination with the animals and 10th century ruins that dotted the landscape, the light helped created a fairytale landscape. Darkness began to fall and we’d had no signs of the elusive tigers.

The next morning we were up before dawn. Our jeep was the first through the ancient stone gates and into the park. Almost immediately we were greeted with fresh tiger paw prints and the alarming howls of monkeys. Monkeys are the first to see these predators due to their high vantage points in the trees and excellent vision.  Our guide was very methodical in tracking the big cat. Judging by the prints, it was a female, a tigress. Stopping every few minutes to examine the ground and listen to sounds, he narrowed the search to a section of jungle that was inaccessible to our jeep. Maybe she’ll continue to move or maybe she had already had her morning kill and was bedding down for a nap. For the time being we set off in another direction to explore other known tiger territory and discussing our options.

Borrowing a little from William Blake and a little from Hindu religion, Christy came up with a mantra in an attempt to induce a tiger to reveal itself.

“Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, Carry Durga Day and Night”

Stalking Tigress. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

Stalking Tigress. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

We all joined in the chanting. Within a few minutes we came across another guide stopped in his jeep. A tiger had been spotted about a kilometer up the road. We kicked up a big cloud of dust as we took off toward the sighting. Slowing to a crawl we pulled along side two other jeeps. Their camera shutters were clicking away, lenses pointed across a gulley through the jungle undergrowth. I didn’t immediately see her but with some effort I spotted her head at least 50 yards away half hidden in the tall grass. She was intently watching a heard of spotted deer. Several minutes passed, then she stood and began to stalk, like lighting she was gone into the trees.

Christy, myself, the guides and the driver all looked at each other and chanted.

“Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, Carry Durga Day and Night”

Tigress with fresh Spotted Deer kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

Tigress with fresh Spotted Deer kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

A minute later she reappeared, carrying a small spotted deer in her mouth and she was walking right toward us!

“Tiger Tiger Burning Bright, Carry Durga Day and Night”

Tigress cleaning her kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

Tigress cleaning her kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

We all held our breath, pressed our shutter releases and marveled as she walked past our jeep and continued down the road. She settled under a tree a little further along and began licking her kill. She stayed there for about five minutes before moving further away into denser cover. It was the most marvelous experience we had ever had. Our guides agreed and told us this was only the second time in 10 years they had seen this happen. Jai Durga.

Tigress with fresh kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016

Tigress with fresh kill. Ranthambhore, India. 2016


14
Dec 16

Visiting the Taj Mahal

We spent the afternoon in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I didn’t realize it until I got to the Taj, that it is part of a huge complex of grounds and buildings. Photographs have a difficult time conveying the sheer scope of the place. What sets it apart from other sacred Islamic sites I’ve visited isn’t the size, it is the quality of the workmanship and materials, the craftsmanship, and the carving and ornamentation of the luminous white marble. The Taj Mahal really has to be seen to be believed, it is exquisite.

Taj Mahal. Agra, India. 2016

Taj Mahal. Agra, India. 2016

The light was soft and beautiful and I wanted to photograph the classic view. Three of the minarets had been cleaned and were gleaming white. The fourth minaret was in it’s scaffolding waiting it’s turn. I don’t think it detracts from the photograph, rather it shows that the Taj, no matter how seemingly perfect, is imperfect.


12
Dec 16

Exploring Delhi India

It’s taken me a few days to wrap my head around India so I’m going to take a deep breath and begin. We flew into New Delhi from Rome. Our takeoff had been delayed for 3 hours due to Delhi’s “fog” and as our plane descended, visibility was really poor with a veil of yellow hanging over the city. Clearing passport control, we greeted our guide, grabbed our luggage and headed outside.

India Arch. New Delhi, India. 2016

India Arch. New Delhi, India. 2016

I expected it to be humid but it was cool and pleasant, however that doesn’t begin to describe the air quality which was chokingly thick smog flavored with exhaust and wood fire smoke. Leaving the airport, the traffic stopped almost immediately and it was bumper to bumper, blaring horns all the way to the hotel. Rawboned women in ragged sari’s stood at our car windows, tapping on them and begging for food or money. This was a tough introduction to what is perhaps the most beautiful, spiritual and friendly country in the world.

Street. Delhi, India. 2016

Street. Delhi, India. 2016

The next morning we saw the sights of New Delhi. It was built by the British over a twenty year span from 1911 to 1931. It is the location where India gained it’s independence in 1947 and where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. It now serves as the nation’s capital. We visited the India Arch, government buildings and universities. We went to where Gandhi spent the last days of his life, fasting and spinning thread in his little room. Around New Delhi monkeys were everywhere, large ferocious monkeys and we were told not to make eye contact or they might cause us serious injuries.

Gandhi's Path. New Delhi, India. 2016

Gandhi’s Path. New Delhi, India. 2016

As the day wore on we moved to the older section of town simply called Delhi. Delhi has a rich history with the narrow streets, stalls, shops, and deep stacked buildings you’d expect to find in an old city. In many ways Delhi is reminiscent of Fes in Morocco, but Delhi is so much more lively. The people are friendly and this is where I learned my first lesson. I began to understand that the Indian soul is a joyous soul.

Barefoot. Delhi, India. 2016

Barefoot. Delhi, India. 2016

We traveled through the old market in bicycle rickshaws which was a great time and allowed us to see much more of the district than we could have on foot. We stopped at the spice market and it was bristling with activity. Spices hung heavily in the air, some people had cloth masks covering their nose and mouth, probably a good idea. We climbed, explored, chatted and photographed. We’ve been to so many city markets, spice markets and bazars that we’ve lost count. None of them have left so remarkable an impression on us as the one in Delhi.

Vegetables. Delhi, India. 2016

Vegetables. Delhi, India. 2016


06
Dec 16

A Day at the Vatican

Vatican Mass. Vatican City, Rome, Italy. 2016

Vatican Mass. Vatican City, Rome, Italy. 2016

We spent the day at the Vatican and as a history nerd, I was in heaven. It wasn’t just the art but the architecture and context. It was overwhelming, beautiful, gorgeous, magnificent. I loved the work by Raphael and Michelangelo particularly the Last judgement in the Sistine Chapel. St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world but it’s difficult to appreciate just how big until you’re standing in the middle of it. Also, it was a little weird to see real pope mummies in some of the side chapels but I understand that these are holy christian relics. I’ve seen body parts in reliquaries before, most notable at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

I couldn’t help but compare Rome and the Vatican with Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) and Hagia Sophia. After the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople in 330 A.D., his new city surpassed the glory of Rome becoming the wealthiest and most powerful city in the western world.

Hagia Sophia was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 after rioting in the city led to the deaths of thousands of citizens and the destruction of a significant part of the city. It remained the largest and most important church in the christian world for centuries until Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Byzantine Mosaic. Hagia Sophia. Istanbul. 2012

Byzantine Mosaic. Hagia Sophia. Istanbul. 2012

In St. Peter’s, there is a circle on the floor of porphyry marble just inside the entrance that was reused from an earlier church which was demolished to make way for the current Basilica. It was on this exact deep purple circle that Charlemagne knelt and was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the pope during Christmas mass in 800 A.D. Thus the rivalry was established between the Byzantine Romans and the newly created Holy Roman Empire. Ironically the porphyry marble sarcophagi that once held St. Helena, the mother of Constantine as well as that of their daughter are both on display in the Vatican Museum.


03
Dec 16

Spectacular Venetian Sunset

Sunset over Lagoon. Venice, Italy. 2016

Sunset over Lagoon. Venice, Italy. 2016

Our friends in Venice told us this was a once in a lifetime sunset and we were fortunate enough to be on a boat in the lagoon when it happened. For me Venice is like a dream, an ancient city floating on the sea, beautiful and unique.