Bhutan is unique and special. The flight into Paro Airport is legendary and exciting. Nestled on the southern slope of the Himalayas, this small buddhist country has become famous for it’s “Gross National Happiness” in contrast to gross national product. Indeed it’s main sources of revenue are hydroelectric power and tourism. The people are lovely, their fabrics colorful and the yak tasty.
As with many paces in Asia, the people don’t mind being photographed as long as it is done in a respectful manner. It is not acceptable to photograph inside a shrine or temple or to photograph monks during prayer.
The Bhutanese are master artisans and take pride in preserving their traditional arts and crafts.
They have worked closely with the Japanese in developing their paper industry. Being a paper junky and collector I visited one of their paper making facilities and had a great time watching and photographing them at work. It is very similar to other handcrafted processes I’ve seen in other countries yet they manage to put their own unique stamp on it.
While visiting one of the remote monasteries, a group of nomads arrived with their families to receive blessings from the monks and masters. It was a fortunate time for us to be there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Vienna, Christmas markets and crowds of people filled the town squares and this huge tree stood in the center of the city next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral.