Sunday, May 9, 2010


Namaste or ‘Namaskar’ is the standard greeting in India. A pair of folded hands is a sight associated with all things Indian. Whether you saw it when you landed at any of our International airports or met Indians that wouldn’t shake hands, please consider this gesture as polite, inviting and affectionately sincere. Namaste!

What kind of images conjure in your mind when you think ‘India’? Retorts like heat, dust, poverty are commonplace but that has never been the real India. The real India is the smile on the faces of these hot, dusty and poor folk! India is the essence of ‘hope’. For the last 61 years she has based her entire economy, society and international relations on the ‘hope’ of her 8 billion citizens. So the next time you are asked ‘What do you see when you think ‘India?’, derive your answers from here. India is the ‘power’ within the ‘Bindi’, India is the fluid sensuality of the ’sari’, India is vibrancy of henna, India is the crossroads of culture. India is proudly showcased at

Pushkar - Home of 'Brahma' the Creator

Pushkar is a small town in Rajasthan, it is as picturesque as any desert town can be but it has other claims to fame that make it a prominent address on the Indian map. Pushkar, literally meaning ‘a lotus that has bloomed in mud’, and it also home to one of the only two temples dedicated to Lord Brahma. The seat upon which Lord Brahma resides is a blue Lotus also known as ‘Pushkara’ in Sanskrit. Lord Brahma is a part of the Hindu Holy Trinity and he serves as the ‘Creator’ of mankind, the way Lord Shiva is considered the destroyer. Lord Brahma is said to be the son of the Supreme Being. He created the universe and he had several symbols associated with his persona.

Mythology states that Lord Brahma annoyed Lord Shiva during a tryst and the curse bestowed upon him was that no man on earth would worship Lord Brahma the way other deities are worshipped. Another school of thought attributed this curse to a demi God who was ignored by Lord Brahma. But it is the practicalities of modern society that have asked for a more plausible explanation. Like the one stated by Mr. Surin Usgaonkar “The true philosophical reason why Brahma is not worshiped like the other deities is as under: Worship involves faith and faith to certain degree means accepting supremacy of someone without questioning. Brahma, on the other hand, represents true knowledge. The knowledge and faith are philosophically antithetical concepts. Knowledge blooms in self-doubt, constant questioning, criticism and discussions and it lapses in faith.”

Leaving such heavy thinking aside, let’s go back to Pushkar, where this whole dialogue began. Pushkar has one of the two temples dedicated to Lord Brahma and it is here that one of the largest cultural, trading and religious fair takes place every year. ‘Pushkar Mela’ (‘mela’ literally means fair or carnival) is India’s largest cattle fair. It is a spectacular event with Rajasthani men and women in their traditional attire, ash smeared holy men and more than one lakh people, from all over Rajasthan as well as tourists from different parts of India and abroad in attendance. Apart from the people there is bevy of bulls, cows, sheep, goats, horses and camels for sale and barter. It is not just business here, this week long fair also has fabulous events and brilliant shopping stalls. There are hysterical camel races, where photographers are known to get trampled (objects in the lens appear farther than they really are!!!). Rajasthani gypsies in their vibrant colorful skirts perform dance and music recitals through the days and nights. The shopping stalls glitter all the way with handcrafted leather goods to dainty glass bangles and beautiful textiles. Craftsman from all over Rajasthan and neighboring states bring their wares out for the world to see and appreciate. At Pushkar there is something for everyone. The shopper will find his delights, the trader will get a great bargain and the tourist will see the colorful and charismatic India they were hoping to see.

‘Pushkar Fair’ is always held in the month of Kartik. It starts two days before the full moon of the month and ends a day after it. This year the fair is from 18th-24th November 2007, a tad later than usual. It is the Pushkar lake in this city that all devotional activities center around. It has 52 ghats (like cement bleachers/steps) and is the main reason for the confluence of so many people from all parts of the country and abroad. It is considered imperative to take a dip in the Pushkar Lake on the night of a full moon. According to the Puranas (meaning ‘ancient Indian tales’), a pilgrimage to Pushkar destroys all evil and washes away all sins. A person that has had a dip in the lake at Pushkar and worshipped Brahma achieves salvation. For this reason, thousands of people gather here for this great annual pilgrimage and fair. Could there be an easier way??

Kashmir - The Soul of Mother Nature

How I love Kashmir? Words beseech me and that’s a feat because I am rarely ever gobsmacked! My association with Kashmir is roughly 30 years old but if you consider vivid human memory then I would say 27 years to be precise. My first real trip to Kashmir was at the age of 5. We flew to Srinagar and stayed at the Centaur. We drove all over the state for 2 weeks in an Ambassador (for the uninitiated, this is the most sturdy, rural & iconic vehicle of India). Even as a child all my memories centered on a deep sense of awe. I was perpetually smitten. I fell in love with something new every day, sometimes every few hours. I had never seen these many colors before, that’s what I remember thinking so often. I had been to Baramula Army Base as a 2 year old and that’s where we were headed on the first day to meet old friends. I remember meeting one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen over there. We were visiting a Major General if I remember correctly and his orderly had his family over from a village elsewhere in Kashmir.

Her name was Renu and she was exquisite, I asked my mother if she was a film star (she was gardening with a typical Kashmiri head scarf on and it looked so chic). I can still picture mom turning around to tell the General’s wife that the women in Kashmir only get prettier! So it wasn’t just the place, it was the people too. Kashmir invoked feelings of oneness with nature, something city kids never felt and I carried that feeling with me for the dozen trips we took thereafter.

It was at age 13 that I had my ‘real’ Kashmiri food experience. I guess the palate is more honed by that age and I was always a self proclaimed gastronome. We had been invited by a Veterinary doctor friend of my parents. The word ‘wazwan’ floated around the car through the drive. We had to spend almost 3 grueling hours discussing possible tension in the region (how gullible we were, looking back that was probably the most peaceful the valley would ever be) and all I could think of was the food. The layout was fantastic, rich and highly exuberant and the flavors were perfect, way more than I had expected. That’s when Kashmir became the ultimate holiday package for me. Through the teens and early twenties I kept a keen eye on the socio political developments in Kashmir, a part of me was constantly saddened. Kashmir became like a first kiss, lovely but you could never go back and feel it again. I was resolved to that idea for a decade and even adopted Goa as my backup piece of heaven till I heard about a group of friends headed to the real and only heaven on earth, Kashmir. This I had to see.

I stressed about the Chinar’s on the Dal Lake, they had to be there or it wouldn’t be perfect. I thought endlessly about the florists on shikara’s, the sunsets at the lake, the horse ride to Gulmarg, the river rocks that changed color in water, the glowing ‘kangri’s’, the soothing ‘kahva’, the aroma of burning wood, the sweetness of mountain tea, the crispness of the air, the clarity in vision … oh my God! Kashmir was that ultimate piece of heaven and more! So we took the first flight out that Monday and I prayed, I prayed for peace and more selfishly, I prayed for ‘my Kashmir’, the pretty one! My prayers were answered manifold. Everything was perfect. My nose thanked me for the air, my eyes wept at the beauty, my hands wafted on the surface of the Dal lake for like an hour and I bought the largest, most gorgeous, most exotic bunch of flowers I had ever received, or seen for that matter. The people were wonderful and the women were actually prettier, the serenity was so unusual for the turmoil this region had seen, it tugged at my soul. I saw everything I wanted to see and I felt the fulfillment I had felt years ago, the déjà vu was so unique. The river was exactly like I left it, I swear I knew the horses going up to Sonmarg, the gardens were exquisite and I was once again, smitten!

The icing on the cake were definitely the tulips. It was tulip season (which lasts for barely a month according to the hotel manager) and we just had to see it. I can’t help but get nostalgic but my first exposure to a field of tulips was a lovely Hindi movie called ‘Silsila’, were Amitabh Bachchan serenades his heroine in the tulip fields of Holland. I stood here in Kashmir and I could see the whole song unfold in front of me, I was in Holland, I was missing only the clogs. It is inexplicable … you have to go there to see what I mean.

Ajanta & Ellora - Ancient India Rocks

Excuse that pun, I was referring to some images we produced a couple of months back of Ajanta & Ellora. I had vague memories of visiting these cave shrines as a kid and it saddened me that I didn’t remember their magnificence. I was viewing the images in high resolution and the detail left me flabbergasted.

Ajanta & Ellora are the definition of the term ‘cave shrines’. Located near the city of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, India, these caves have been hand carved and built as far back as 200 B.C. These caves comprise of two sets, Ajanta caves and Ellora caves. Both are equally significant due to their history, architecture and message. The caves were discovered as early as the 19th century during a hunting expedition. All these centuries they lay hidden under the rocky landscape of the Sahyadri hills. They are called ‘cave shrines’ because they are essentially temples. Hand carved temples in man made caves, the sheer task seems enormous and near impossible for the era of their supposed construction. The granite these hills constitute of are still considered a construction nightmare but the faith involved in the Ajanta & Ellora caves seems to be the driving force behind this Herculean task. The rock is considered ‘living rock’ because the formations are a still in a process of development. The structures are prayers halls and monasteries where monks could meditate and pray in complete seclusion. These structures are also a symbol of religious tolerance and harmony. Here Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism co-exist and share their teachings. All three religions were founded in India and this is the only place in the world where their history conjoins. The Jain and Buddhist caves are places of peace and quiet while the Hindu caves exude more energy and divinity. The three construction styles found here are stupas, chaityas and viharas. ‘Stupas’ are generally built of stones or bricks to commemorate important events or mark important places associated with Buddhism or to house important relics of Buddha. ‘Chaitya’s’ are meditation or prayer halls built out of rock and brick and ‘Vihara’s’ are monasteries usually made in excavated rocks to provide a haven away from the rest of the world.

The Ajanta caves are a set of 29 caves, hand carved tediously by Buddhist monks. Presumably the only tools available to these hermetic people had to have been hammers and chisels. The figurines depict the tales of ‘Jataka’, ancient text of Buddhists which tell stories about the various incarnations of the Buddha. The craft is definitely impressive but the physical effort involved enhances the beauty of the carvings. It is no wonder that the Ajanta is chosen as a ‘World Heritage Site.

The Ellora caves are 34 in number. They are more ornately carved and the structures are more adorned. There are magnificent facades and examples of Indian temple architecture. These caves are carved in the basaltic sides of the hills. The most amazing feat in these caves is the ancient ‘Kailasa temple’, devoted to Mount Kailash which is the seat of Lord Shiva. This temple is carved out of solid rock and is a free standing structure comprising of pillars, podiums and spires, all intricately carved by hand. A website about World Mysteries has listed this temple under ‘mystic places’ because “it is the largest monolithic structure in the world, carved top-down from a single rock. It contains the largest cantilevered rock ceiling in the world.”

The best time to visit Ajanta & Ellora caves is from October to March, although the monsoon months of July-August are also highly recommended for the heightened scenic beauty of the area. Indian tourism offer a lot of excursion trips and tourists can engage tour guides locally at Ajanta and Ellora as well as from Mumbai, the closest metro to the caves.

Agra - the land of Love and Loss

Almost every Indian kid remembers when they first saw the Taj Mahal. They were still kids, the whole family was there and only the adults were awed by a building that looked like a cross between a temple and a mosque. Most kids were happiest about the hotel stay and the ice cream, the Taj was incidental. The real bonus came when we revisited Agra as adults and I think I can speak for a lot of Indian adults when I say this - it was mesmerizing. Not like the Grand Canyon or the beaches of Bali, those feelings are nature driven; the Taj seemed a more real kind of ‘awesome’. It was manmade and more than that it was love made. The history of the Taj precedes it and I am glad it does because that’s what makes hundreds of thousands visit from all over the world. People fall in love at the Taj, some fall in love all over again, a lot want to get married there and I believe a few have even tried to buy it, most definitely for a lady love. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned it as a mausoleum for his favorite Persian wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In 1631 Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal’s period of greatest prosperity, was grief-stricken when his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their daughter Gauhara Begum, their fourteenth child. Contemporary court chronicles concerning Shah Jahan’s grief form the basis of the love story traditionally held as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Construction of the Taj Mahal was begun soon after Mumtaz’s death. The principal mausoleum was completed in 1648, and the surrounding buildings and garden were finished five years later. The complex is set in and around a large charbagh (a formal Mughal garden divided into four parts). Measuring 300 meters × 300 meters, the garden uses raised pathways which divide each quarter of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds. A raised marble water tank at the center of the garden, halfway between the tomb and the gateway, and a linear reflecting pool on the North-South axis reflect the Taj Mahal. Elsewhere the garden is laid out with avenues of trees and fountains.

The charbagh garden was introduced to India by the first Mughal emperor Babur, a design inspired by Persian gardens. The charbagh is meant to reflect the gardens of Paradise (from the Persian paridaeza - a walled garden). In mystic Islamic texts of the Mughal period, paradise is described as an ideal garden, filled with abundance. Water plays a key role in these descriptions: In Paradise, these text say, four rivers source at a central spring or mountain, and separate the garden into north, west, south and east.

The Taj Mahal is generally considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Islamic architectural styles. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar part of the monument, the Taj Mahal is actually an integrated complex of structures. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 when it was described as a “universally admired masterpiece of the world’s heritage.

For the last shoot at the Taj was most memorable because we were traveling with a lovely group of teenagers from all over the world for a ‘Tourists at the Taj’ shoot. We made good friends with this one model we worked with last year. Very lovely young lady, she was nice enough to keep in touch way after she received her images shot by us. We got a call from her a while back saying she has a bunch of friends in town and they were all very keen to be professionally photographed. We were already riding high on our 6,000 sq. ft. studio so we asked the whole load of them to come in for auditions. So here we were sitting around waiting for everyone’s headshots to be assessed, when Manav suggested they all make a trip and shoot that. The motley mix of post-teens started discussing every possible drivable location from Delhi. They were all foreigners and each from a different country. This discussion didn’t take long to finalize into an overnight trip to Agra. The home of the Taj, the land of love and loss, the haven of a lovesick king’s biggest accomplishment. Some had seen it with their parents on a day trip, some hadn’t at all. The excitement was electric. The final list read, an Indian girl from LA, a Persian girl from Florida, an all American girl, a Scottish boy, an Estonian boy and finally a Zimbabwean boy. What an awesome bunch they made. So many nationalities and cultures of the world in this group of six. The only thing they shared in common was the age and the generation and that was glue enough to start this trip off very well.

The story I am about to tell you only goes to reinforce my crazy obsession with Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’. In my Utopian fairyland I believe that we can live without religion, without possessions and without countries, we can live like brothers and like thinking human beings. Ultimately we are all the same. I read an article by the photographer who shot the famous portrait of ‘the Afghan girl’, Steve McCurry he said to the effect that a farmer in Afghanistan is no different from a farmer in the US. I guess he meant that as people they are the same, their environments and scenarios are different but they share the same worries, the same ambitions and the same dependency on nature. Anyway, back to the story. These guys were on the road with our Art Director (part Portuguese, part Iranian), Photographer (All from the state of Bengal), Make-up Assistant (state of Punjab) and Studio Hand (I would assume Bihar).

They stopped at a harmless looking vegetarian ‘dhaba’ (typical Indian roadside diner, usually very rustic). They ordered heartily and sat back and waited. Suddenly the girls started noticing dragon flies, not one, more like one million. So one of the girls got up from the table and crouched on the floor screaming for one of the knights to save her. The lovely Scottish boy got up, swatted away the dragon flies and stepped over her head to get back to the table. She shot up and said “step back over me”! That’s all she said. One by one each person on the table said “ya, my mom says you have to step back over the person if you stepped over them once.” The tempo got louder and everyone, every different person there knew that they had all heard and participated in one of the oldest ‘old wives tales’ ever. Across the cultures and borders they all grew up hearing this one ‘superstition’. The biggest deal wasn’t that they had all been told the same tale by their Scottish, Estonian, Indian, Persian, Zimbabwean mothers; it was how they all suddenly related on another level. This highly infused gene pool of people sat there, ages 19 - 35 years and said in unison - “coz then you won’t grow tall”. Across most of the globe, covering 4 continents, all these people were told the same reason too! When I heard this story, it stirred me in many ways. Are we all essentially the same? Just people. People with stories, lives, joys, pains, fun, work, family, passions, traditions, and the list goes on and it goes on for all of us. The answer is yes!

India - A Backpackers Paradise

India has been a backpacker’s delight for decades, maybe even centuries; invaders certainly loved traipsing past the sub continent. Travelers from as far back as the 60’s vouched for the ‘Indian experience’. For some it involved the wholesomeness of an ethnic journey and for others it was more chemically induced, either way they loved it. India never promised just the pristine and the bountiful because it had an innate raw, animal side that was an experience almost as enriching as the mountains of Kashmir and the oceans and seas. The streets had a smell, sometimes a fragrance but it was always unique to that one town, deep inside the heart of India. Travelers found a surprise at every corner. Yes, India was hot but visit anywhere between October and February and you were sure to have pleasant weather for a companion. Yes, India was dusty but so is the whole of the Gulf and Texas!!! Yes, India was poor but she was also always smiling, always giving and always a story. They gathered memories, snippets of Indian-ness and headed back home. Only to return again with friends that wouldn’t believe half the stuff they heard. has traveled far and wide in the last 3 years and seen every nook and cranny of this magnificent land. Met some amazing people, saw some amazing sites, ate some amazing food and most of all realized how amazing India really is. We had the privilege of traveling in the all Indian, all terrain, all weather vehicle, the Ambassador, some of us got into one after 20 years. Bumped our way across villages and forests, reserves we didn’t know we had. Let’s take a moment here to share a valuable link with you - Go there and you will be flabbergasted at the number of forest reserves we have and how accessible they really are. Good time to change from the artificial luminosity of shopping paradises and cloned concrete mall structure’s; take the kids to a piece of nature.

Few of the strange things we learnt about India weren’t from the years of school and college; it was all from being on the road, on the road in India:

1. We aren’t entirely clear on this but there is a law about RV’s (Recreational Vehicles) and not being allowed to lie down on the bunk when the car is on the road???!!! That’s was one main reason we needed one and we thought the whole idea behind a bed in a car was so people could chill while someone drove! We had a 2 month road schedule, so we settled for a minibus with a loo.

2. Smoking pot is NOT legal in Pushkar but if you are ash covered, dreadlocked, semi naked and emanating suspiciously thick smoke from your suspiciously bong like pipe, no one will notice!

3. Street food is delicious, wholesome and hearty. It is also extremely picky because not everyone in a traveling team gets sick from the same place.

4. People absolutely love giving directions regardless of their sense for it. People naturally draw to a car that has slowed down in the hope of learning exactly where it is and where it is headed.

5. Bargaining is one of India’s seven wonders. Stay out of the boutique shops, the high end stores and the malls, street shop in India and enjoy discounts all year round. Street shops are abundant all over small town India, selling everything from souvenirs to local arts and crafts. Each state has indigenous crafts that look wild in western homes. So half everything quoted at you and move from there. Please remember the guy isn’t trying to fleece you, he is doing what Donald Trump does best – giving it a shot, if it works well and good, if not at least something will come his way!

6. Yes, cows are holy and they are everywhere. They roam the land like lions and unlike lions they can be messed with but shouldn’t be messed with. They hold up traffic all the time and occasionally have been known to loiter on to air strips and graze on railway lines. Ditto for dogs. Stray dogs and cows are some of the friendliest creatures in urban cities. Feed them!!

Please don’t let this humor deter you, the journey is fabulous no doubt, why worry about the destination. So come on over and feel India, sense India, smell India, let her get under your skin, it will only make your soul richer.