Saturday, November 22, 2008

Prague - Overview

This is part of a 2 week trip that Saru and I took on our way from the US to India. Our trip routing was

Brugge -- Amsterdam -- Prague -- Cesky Krumlov -- Hallstatt -- Vienna

Halfway through our first day in Prague, Saru commented - ‘What’s wrong? You look a little disappointed”. I immediately replied back that I was not and he was mad to even suggest that. I went on to make fun of how he was so hopeless at reading my mind. Me and disappointed in Europe – what a ridiculous notion!! I would never get tired of Europe….I love Europe…Europe is awesome! How could he even think that I was not happy here?

Well….It took me until the next day to accept the fact. What my subconscious knew in the first hour, the logical side didn’t accept until the next day. I wanted to love Prague. I wanted to come back from the trip and say “Prague is the new Paris”, “Check out the Czech”, so I don’t understand this disappointment at all. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that you should not go to Prague, heck I want to go back and see what I missed. Prague has everything I love - beautiful churches, monasteries, castles, cobble-stone streets, old red roof buildings, superb architecture, beautiful views, tons of coffee shops, and nice local people. If you scroll down and look at the pictures, you will see how beautiful the city it, so it really does not make any sense why I felt the way I did. I can rationalize and come up with reasons like

  • Amsterdam set the bar too high.
  • Nothing really distinguished Eastern from Western Europe
  • I didn’t take time to go to museums and understand the history
  • Food was insipid and I don’t drink beer.

I thought about this long and hard and never came up with an explanation, so let’s leave the topic and move on. We spent 3 days and had a great time. I know it does not make any sense that I had a great time in a city that disappointed me. You see, a vacation is not a place but a state of mind. Don’t roll your eyes, it is true. We go on vacations to get away from the stress of life. The minute we leave home, we leave behind all our worries and the little problems that we love to obsess about. There is no more of the “Why do I have to fold clothes all the time” or “Why is there water on the toilet seat” or “My boss is an asshole” and even if those issues come up, it is more in a “let’s solve that problem or make peace with it” kind of attitude. So yes, we had a great time in Prague.

What did we do to have a great time? We walked. Where? Everywhere! All over the place! Prague is a very beautiful city with beautiful architecture and hundreds of outdoor cafes filled with tourists. On our first day, we went to meet Saru’s friend from graduate school. Magdalena is from the neighboring Slovakia, but she has been living in Prague for a few years. She was a very sweet person. She was leaving town the next day, so gave us a quick half a day tour of the major attractions. We took the train to Prague’s Castle district and hiked up to St.Vitus Cathedral. The Cathedral had very beautiful stained glass windows by Alfons Mucha. There is a chapel with the tomb of St.Wenceslas, the patron saint. Magdalena explained to us that it takes years and sometimes centuries to attain sainthood. An application can be made 5 years after the death of the person, a rule that was set aside for Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II. Paperwork should include at least two miracles and one preferably after the death of the person to show a continuation of relationship with god after death!!

The cathedral was commissioned in the thirteenth century, but was completed only in the nineteenth century, so it includes art and architectural styles from many periods. Magdalena told us that Prague was an architect’s textbook, for there is architecture of every kind – Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nuevo and modern Art. I nodded my head pretending to understand what that means, but the humble husband asked the most obvious question “How do you recognize these types of architectures”. Thanks to Magda’s explanation, we learnt the history of architecture and for the rest of the trip we were both like “That’s a gothic church”, “This is totally baroque” and “That renaissance building is cool”. Don’t worry, I am not going to give a Architecture History 101, but I am most certainly going to show off our newly acquired knowledge.

Gothic Architecture is very distinct and can be easily recognized for it pointed arches. Other features include vaulted ceilings as shown in the picture of St.Vitus Cathedral above. Examples of Gothic architecture are the Notre Dame in Paris and the Milan Cathedral. Here is a picture of Prague's Tyn Church in gothic style architecture.

Renaissance is characterized by classical columns, arches, domes and a triangular section in the façade of the building. Examples of this are The Louvre in France, St. Peters Basilica in Rome and Santa Maria del Fiore of Florence. Here is the national museum in neo-renaissance style.

Tired of the symmetry in Renaissance buildings, baroque architects experimented with shapes. They built Churches with oval domes and those that were more grand and opulent and decorated. Marble and bronze were used in these structures. The most famous example of baroque architecture is the Piazza of St Peters in Vatican City and its trapezoid shape.

Church of St.Nicholas - Old Town Square.

Before she left for the day, she took us to a Czech sweet shop called Cukrana and had some local sweets -Makovy Zavin (poppy seed pastry) and Medovnik. The locals in the shop were very amused and kept staring and pointing at us and finally mustered the courage to ask us how it was. They were very happy when we told them that the sweets were delicious.

We walked some more along the Vltava river appreciating the beautiful architecture and went back to the old town quarter to have dinner.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


Saru and I went birding today morning with members of the NAvi MUmbai NAturalistS (Namunas). We had sightings of some sun birds, kingfishers and drongos and a beautiful black eagle, but the highlight of the walk was butterflies. We used a magnifying lens to look at some the colors and designs and were totally impressed. Julius and Ritesh and Alok helped us identify the names. Here are some cool pictures we took.

Striped Tiger Butterfly

Peacock Pansy Butterfly

Lemon Pansy Butterfly

Common Leopard Butterfly

Tiger Butterfly

Striped Tiger Butterfly

Eggfly Butterfly

Common Sergeant Butterfly

Chocolate Pansy Butterfly

Yellow-Orange Tipped Butterflies - Mud Puddling

Ajanta & Ellora - 2

Coming soon

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ajanta and Ellora -1

“John Smith -1819”, said the hastily scribbled wording near the entrance of Cave 10.

This speaks volumes about the cultural differences between eighteenth century British and 1st century Asians. I am talking about the fact that Ajanta caves were built by hundreds of monks over the span of 800 years and not one of those monks signed their names or left any literature tracing their name to this masterpiece while the British army general who chanced upon this monument on one of his hunting trips, chose it fit to inscribe his name.

Historians believe that Ajanta caves were built between 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. These were the times when the subject and object of all art was god, Lord Buddha in this case. Ajanta is full of paintings and sculptures describing the life and teachings of Buddha.

This was our first trip in India after we returned back from the US. August is in the middle of the monsoon season in Maharashtra when the entire state wears a carpet of green. It is a beautiful time to travel and I didn’t lose any time convincing Saru.

Vam: Hey, let’s go to Ajanta and Ellora for the August 15th weekend.

Saru (watching TV and paying no attention): Sure

Vam: Really? Great!

Saru: Sure.

Vam(this is too easy): Trains are booked, so we have to fly to Aurangabad. It will be a little expensive.

Saru: Then – No.

Vam: What do you mean No?

Saru: No

Vam: But this is the only long weekend you have till October. Do you really want to stay at home?

Saru (stopped listening to me and was singing): Hai Muscular, Hai Popular, Spectacular, is a bachelor


Saru(totally oblivious): BUTPappu can’t dance Saala! hoye hoye hoye

Saru never watched desi movies in the US and now he knew lyrics of songs. That was thanks to - FM radio. The first few weeks after he started driving to work, he would come home steaming mad and rant – “these idiots drive like crazy”, “freaks! They should go to hell”, “I want to move back”. Then he discovered FM radio. Now he comes home humming tunes and talking about ‘Kamla-ka-Hamla’ and ‘Nukkad-ka-Sukkad’.

Vam: BTW, you get LTC, so that is like a 30% discount.

Saru: That’s right. I completely forgot. Let’s go

Vam: Excellent!

Saru moved on to the next song When I say King…you say Singh….Singh is King…Singh is king… Singh is king

I started planning the trip. We flew into Aurangabad and stayed at Hotel Rama International. I am not the type to spend a lot of money on expensive hotels, but this was our first trip in India and I did not want to take any chances.

We rented a car (comes with a driver) to go to Ajanta, 100 km from Aurangabad. The road was surprisingly good. The driver told us that Japan spends a lot of money maintaining these Buddhist monuments. It took us 2 ½ hours with a couple of stops to admire the scenery. The mountains were green and it was a very beautiful drive to the caves. We drove by beautiful canyons and gorges in the Sahyadris.

Once we reached the site, we had to park the car at a lot and take a bus to the caves. They are trying to reduce pollution at the site. Once we got off the bus, it was a steep climb to the caves. The caves are setup in a horseshoe pattern. There are a total of 30 caves, some finished and some unfinished. The early caves follow the ‘Hinayana’ school of Buddhism which preached simple and rigorous ascetic living and did not believe in idol worship. The latter caves showed the growth of the ‘Mahayana’ school that believed that Buddha was god and worshiped his idol. Early caves had more paintings depicting stories of Bodhisattva and Jatakas.

Ajanta is famous for its paintings and Ellora for its sculptures. People mistake these paintings for frescoes but they are actually murals. The difference is that Frescoes are painted on wet plaster and murals on dry plaster. Minerals were used for colors and it is a miracle that they still exist more than 2000 years after their creation. The Archeological Survey of India is doing a wonderful job preserving these national monuments. The caves are quite dark and have minimal artificial lighting which makes it very hard to take good pictures. That begs the question - How did they paint in these dark caves? Apparently they used mirrors to deflect sunlight into the caves!

We hired a guide who explained the stories (Jataka tales) behind the paintings and sculptures. There were two types of caves – ‘Chaitya’ (prayer hall) and ‘Vihara’ (living quarters). The Viharas were very simple with concrete beds. Chaityas has stupas and sculptures of Lord Buddha. The caves were full of tourists, but we soon noticed that most people were very impatient and would walk in and out very quickly. I am not a "been-there-done-that" kind of a tourist, but more of "been-there-taken-that-perfect-picture" kind. Snobbery aside, we would wait patiently and be rewarded with a minute or two of quiet and empty caves. These are shots taken at those moments.

The sculptures in some of these caves are amazing. Their attention to detail is mind-blowing. If you stare at the pictures below, you will notice details like clothes, jewelry and even expressions. That picture of Buddha with a serene smile just blows me away.

On our way down, I told Saru that I felt this inexplicable sense of pride touring places in India. This spectacular monument is in OUR country, the guide was talking about OUR history and that evoked very special feelings in me. It is one thing to travel other countries and marvel at their art and architecture, but a totally different feeling to find out that your country was producing these artistic masterpieces thousands of years before other civilizations.