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Sigiriya

Although we enjoyed the statues and paintings of Dambulla, it was Sigiyira that impressed us far more. Sticking out of the jungle by some 200 meters, the lions rock, as it is known, has been an ancient city and fortress for thousands of years.

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Sigiriya is a unique witness to the civilization of Ceylon during the years of the reign of Kassapa I. The site of the 'Lion Mountain' was visited from the 6th century AD, by passionate admirers. The frescoes of Sigiriya inaugurated a pictorial style which endured over many centuries. The poems inscribed on the rock by certain of these admirers, and known as the 'Sigiri graffiti,' are among the most ancient texts in the Sinhalese language, and thus show the considerable influence exerted by the abandoned city of Kassapa I on both literature and thought.
In the heart of Ceylon, the extraordinary site of Sigiriya, a lofty rock of reddish gneiss dominating, from a height of some 180m, the neighbouring plateau, has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC, as attested by the graffiti which proliferate in the grottoes and the shelters of the Buddhist monks. The fame of the 'Lion Mountain' is, however, due to one single factor: during a short period in the 5th century AD, a sovereign established his capital there. King Kassapa I (477-95), son of Dhatusena, only came to power after he had engineered the assassination of his father and had, briefly, dispossessed his brother.
Justly fearing the vengeance of the latter, Kassapa had a fortified palace built on the rock of Sigiriya which was reputed to be impregnable. However, it was there that he was defeated after a short but cruel battle in 495, following which he cut his throat. After the death of Kassapa, Moggallana returned the site of Sigiriya to the monks, thus condemning it to progressive abandonment. During the eleven years that Kassapa resided in Sigiriya, he created a residence of exceptional splendour and founded his capital there, impressive vestiges of which are still extant.
At the summit of the rock is the fortified palace with its ruined buildings, its cisterns and its rock sculptures.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Lions feet at beginning of stairs
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Nuns ascending the rock
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Cistern at the top
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Crumbling building walls
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Shots from the summit looking out
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Looking down toward the bottom of the city
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A few of the nuns finally made it.

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And so did the monks.

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Halfway up the rock, within an inaccessible rocky shelter in the vertical wall of the western face are rock paintings which have brought universal acclaim to the site of Sigiriya - 'The Maidens of the Clouds', 21 non-identified female figures, comparable to the most beautiful creations of Ajanta.
Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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At the foot of the rock are the two quarters of the lower city which are defended by a massive wall: the eastern quarter (perhaps postdating the 5th century), which has not been sufficiently excavated, and the aristocratic quarter of the capital of Kassapa I, noteworthy for its terraced gardens embellished by canals and fountains, as well as for numerous monumental remains which have been disengaged from the forest which had invaded the ruins.Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

Nanette at the base
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Sweaty joint selfie at Sigiriya
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Nearby was this girl
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NB: Much of the history of Sigiriya was initially supplied by our trusted guide and driver, Lalinda, although, full disclosure, he did not climb to the top with us. However it is stated more completely and succinctly on the Unesco web site, so I have simply quoted that here.

Posted by jonshapiro 15:07 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes photography tourist_sites Comments (6)

Dambulla

The next morning we went to the Dambulla Caves with Lalinda, an hour or two drive from Kandy. By the time we got there it was already quite hot, which continued for our entire visit to the cultural triangle. Dambulla has been a Buddhist pilgrimage site for over 22 centuries, but most of the paintings and statues inside the caves were done much later, during the 18th century.

Outside the caves
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Inside
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No, I wasn't smoking anything when I took this shot
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While we enjoyed the caves, sitting on the grounds of our guesthouse, MPS, was certainly more relaxing, and oh so much cooler. The rooms were nothing special, but the landscape. Well, you can see for yourselves.

In front of us was the lake, cattails swaying in the breeze as they caught the late afternoon sun.

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The air is a bit fresher now, and the wind is drying the feathers of a dozen cormorants sitting on a dead branch, sticking straight out of the water.

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A small mountain sits gently beyond the trees lining the lake. Catbirds cry out and swallows flit by trying to catch mosquitos. I wish them luck in their hunt. Immediately behind us is the pool, nobody using it but us.

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Behind that, another mountain, low, but with a rocky incisor jutting up on one side, catching the softening light.

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Enjoying a cold one
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Dinner about to be served. Overpriced and not that good, but what a spot
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Posted by jonshapiro 08:21 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged postcards photography tourist_sites Comments (3)

Madurai

We left Munnar by private car a day early, and came here to Madurai, a bustling, hot, typical Indian city, with cars honking, buses belching black smoke, and plenty of garbage.

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Our hotel, JC Residency, is a bit of an oasis. Cool, clean, nice room, and nice pool, though also in typical Indian fashion, no place to lounge around in the shade. The only staff person who seemed to know what he was doing was Sam, so we asked for him as often as possible when we needed information about the town.

The Menakshee temple did not disappoint. It is a huge complex,dedicated to Parvati (Menakshee by another name) and Shiva, her consort. Reports about it age vary widely, from the 6th through the 15th century, although at some point it was destroyed by the ruling Muslims and then rebuilt. It has 12 large towers, gopurams, full of Hindu Gods standing on top of each other, painted in bright colors, with an assortment of demons as well. Each tower is different from the next, and the overcrowding of figures is very much like the rest of this crowded and sometimes overwhelming country. Luckily, we got there in the morning when it was relatively cool and uncrowded.

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They did not however, let us bring our camera, though we could use our cell phone to take pics. Something about security. We were also not allowed, as non Hindus, to go into the inner sanctums.

We did manage to get in here
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All in all, we spent about two hours, listening to the recorded chanting, and gazing up at the towers. Pigeons flew around the gopurams in widening circles, perched on the various Gods and demons, and of course, shitting on them. There were also many lingams, yakshis, yoginis, and other statues scattered about, and in the on site museum.

Indian women gazing up at Temple
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We returned to spend most of the rest of the day lazing about the pool. Just too hot to do anything else. The following day we went to see the Gandhi museum, which was somewhat interesting and the palace, which was not. In the afternoon we were back at the pool where Nanette started chatting with an Indian- American family now living in Madison, Wisconsin. Interestingly, Josephine's husband, was a surgical resident, as is our daughter, and made the switch to interventional radiology. She was visiting her mother Rosalyn, with her very cute 3 year old, Annabelle. They have English names because they are Christians, which seems to be the trend here, as they were originally named by the Portuguese when they were converted hundreds of years ago. Now that I reflect on it, they should all have Portuguese names.

It wasn't long before Rosalyn invited us over for dinner the next night, and we promptly said yes.

It was a long tuk-tuk ride to their modest house on the other side of town.

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Stanley, her husband, was there, as well as their youngest son, who is almost finished with his accounting degree. Two other sons, one of which is married to Josephine, are still in the states. Both Stanley and his wife lived in Chicago for a while, but decided they liked the lifestyle in India, and so returned several years ago. Now they are both retired. They made a number of local dishes for us including avial, dosas,chappattis, chicken curry, appum, and several others whose names I can't remember, and although there was one servant helping in the kitchen, Rosalyn, it seemed, did most of the cooking. We ate at a small table, with Stanley, while the women, as well as younger brother served us, much like in the Burmese families in the US, who we tutor in English. Over dinner, we chatted with them about their lives in India as well as the US. Josephine's marriage was arranged, and she really didn't get to meet her husband until shortly before moving to the US. He was accepted into a residency program in Madison after finishing medical school in India. She was 24 at the time. Right now, she appears to enjoy life in the states, especially Madison, although her husband is just about finished, and they will move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this summer, because he has a job there. Prior to her marriage, she had trained as a dentist in India, but has not practiced in the US. Annabelle takes up most of her time, although she did work as a dental technician for a few years in Madison. Everyone was very gracious towards us and it was a highly pleasurable way to end our time in Madurai.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:43 Archived in India Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Kochi

We arrived here after departing Payyanur in the morning for the seven hour train ride. Our Indian friends left later the same morning, and so we are truly on our own for the first time. Kochi is the most touristy place we have been to thus far, and white faces seem to outnumber Indians in this, the old section of town, known as Fort Kochi. On our first evening we ate a recommended place, where they seemed to dumb down and de-spice the food, especially for us westerners. We despaired of finding good food, but that turned out not to be the case.

Yesterday, we went to the old Jewish synagogue, dating from the 1500's and were surprised to find that it was Purim. No one was allowed in except Jews. It was one of the few times we did feel like the "chosen people."

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To our astonishment, there was a Lubovitcher Rabbi from Israel, who was in Kochi to help the tiny Jewish community still left celebrate both Purim and Passover. There were two elderly, Jewish ladies, one of which, Sarah, age 79, was, we had been told, the last Jew left. But Miriam was also there, and apparently there are still a handful of others, seven in all. The Rabbi also told us there was another group of 20 or 30 "black Jews" in a nearby community. Black because they look more like Indians. Also in attendance was a young Jewish man from the upper west side of Manhattan, and two young cousins, Zachary and Amy, both Americans from Denver. The Rabbi seemed quite glad to see us, even though I told him about my secular upbringing, he offered to put teffelin on me. How could I refuse? One black box went on my head, and another on my arm, held up by leather straps. Each box contains prayers, and the purpose is apparently to link head and heart together in the worship of God. We then said a few Hebrew prayers together, or rather the Rabbi said them, and I attempted to repeat them. A Bar Mitzvah, he said, after we were finished. I guess I had to come to India to get in touch with my Jewish roots. I did not tell him of my former Bar Mitzvah, which was a series of Yiddish skits written by my father, and performed by my class at the very secular Sholem Alechem Folk Shule.

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While this was going on, Nanette was chatting with Miriam and Sarah in the women's section in the back of the synagogue. They told her that the Jews of Kochi lived in peace for many years, with a cosmopolitan mix of Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus. The only group to persecute them was the Portuguese, not surprisingly, as they arrived during the time of the inquisition. It seems they were also interested in converting the local Hindus, as well as the spice trade, as evidenced by the presence of several Portuguese churches. Although they were kicked out of Kochi relatively early, they remained in the adjoining state of Goa until 1961, at which time the Indian Army finally forced them to leave. They were followed by the Dutch and then the English, who, from the late 1700's, were to rule all of India until the middle 20th century.

After my "Bar Mitzvah," we listened to the story of Purim, in Hebrew, as spoken by the Rabbi. He was accompanied by his nine year old son, who bobbed up and down, davening, while chanting with his father. He also pointed out a word here and there, that his father forgot. It was all quite charming.

Nanette with Rabbi and his family in Kochi park
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We then walked through Jew Town, formerly shops run by Jews, and now mostly owned by Kashmiris who cater to the tourist trade.

Shop in Jew Town
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Nanette with Sarah in her embroidery shop in Jew Town
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We stopped off for ginger ice cream and a cold drink, and I spent most of my time talking to Zachary, who works for the US State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Zachary and cousin Amy
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I was hoping to find out how he landed the job at such a young age, so I could pass it on to the son of our good friends, Bill and Debbie, but it seems he had no special connections, and was just brilliant enough to score in the top two percent of the college grads who take the grueling series of exams and interviews that are offered to anyone. The strange thing is, he was hoping to be posted to Beijing as he speaks fluent Mandarin, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, was sent to Dushanbe because that is where they had an opening. Equally strange, his job is to distribute money for narcotics interdiction, most of which I assume, ends up in the pockets of the very corrupt government officials. Zach told me about the national sport of Buzkashi, a kind of polo, in which a galloping group of men try to pull apart a headless goat, and drag it toward a goal. It is more or less a free for all without teams, and sometimes goes on for days. Although they speak Persian in Tajikistan, as does Zach after a nine month intensive class, Russian is the lingua franca for most of the Stans. It seems like a fascinating place to visit, but Nanette has already informed me that if I am going there, it will be on my own. A bit too macho for her I'm afraid. Perhaps she can hang out in Istanbul, which seems to be the gateway for most of these countries, but first, I have to practice my survival Russian, an uphill battle at best.

As noted, we had given up finding any serious Indian food in Fort kochi, but the number one pick on Trip Advisor, Fusion, did not disappoint. In fact, I would have to say that the fish pappas, a spicy mahi-mahi with Kerala veggies, had to be one of the best meals I have enjoyed in India, and a bargain to boot. I also very much enjoyed the Jewish pepper chicken. With Syrian food on the menu as well, it was indeed, a delightful fusion.

After 9 or 10 AM, it gets quite hot here at this time of year, and so we have done things in the morning, and returned to our ac room in mid-day, before venturing out again around 4. As well as a bedroom, we have a large air conditioned living room to hang in, and although no one else is staying in the adjoining rooms, a staff person is almost always around, and it feels somewhat intrusive. The concept of personal space in India, seems to be lacking. As I am writing this, Nanette is trying to paint, and the maid, Bridgett, is constantly peering over her shoulder and asking what she is doing.

We went back to Jew Town on another day to do some jewelry shopping, and when we can stand the heat, have visited a number of tourist sites, including Vasco Da Gama Square, with its famous Chinese fishing nets. They are, "believed to have been introduced in Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, from the court of the Kubla Khan. The fishing net established itself on the Kochi shores between 1350 and 1450." (Kerala Tourism.Org).

Photo by Nanette
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We have also been to the Dutch Palace, so called because it was renovated by the Dutch, although built by the Portuguese. There were beautiful painted murals of the Ramayana on the walls. Yesterday we took the ferry to Vippin Island, which is very close by, and walked there for a bit.

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Not a lot to see, but the view back to Fort Kochi was a good one, and there were more Chinese fishing nets. We saw one being hauled up, but it looked as though there were no more than a handful of fish. Everywhere it seems, the sea is overfished and depleted. There were also nice churches.

Old Portuguese Church on Vippin
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Church detail
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Across the street from our service apartment, is the upscale Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Located in a beautiful, though recreated,19th century building, there is an outdoor bar right on the water, overlooking the ferry dock. It's a nice place to have a Kingfisher in the late afternoon, when there is still a breeze. This has become part of our daily routine, as well as dinner at Fusion, and breakfast at an art cafe, Kashi, where they make a big, filling omelette, excellent coffee, hard to find in India, and they actually serve dark bread.

Back of Brunton
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View from bar
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This being the end of our 4th day in Kochi, we will be more than happy to head out tomorrow for the hills of Munnar. It should be cooler in the Ghats, but how much so, remains to be seen. Pramila continues to call or write on an almost daily basis, and to help with travel arrangements. Although I am aways effusive with my thanks, I sometimes feel that we are imposing. She assures me that she enjoys it, and will not know what to do with all her free time when our trip is over.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:02 Archived in India Tagged train_travel tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (4)

Malacca

Arrived in Kualu Lumpur, or KL as everyone calls it, and then on to Malacca the next day to meet our good friends from home, Bill and Debbie. Malacca was hot and touristy, though mostly with non-western tourists. There were Interesting shop houses among the many narrow streets, and a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, and British architectural influences, in this once thriving port and city state. The city was more or less founded by Parameswara, a Hindu prince from Sumatra in the late 1300's. Now it is a mix of Indians, Straits Chinese, and ethnic Malays. The Chinese have been here some 500 years or so, whereas the majority of Indians did not come until after the British in the early 1800's. The ethnic malays are Austronesian peoples from disparate backgrounds, including south coastal Thailand, Burma, Borneo, and parts of what is now Indonesia.



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In the middle of the day, we went for a boat ride on the Malacca River to cool off. Marginally effective, it was good way to see this former trade route.

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In the evening we took a stroll along the river walk.

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Another view of the river from a bridge downtown
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Though I cut my toe on one of the very uneven sidewalks, we all managed to avoid this place.

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The best part of the experience was eating at Amy's Nyonya Restaurant.




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A very friendly Amy, who spent three weeks cooking at the UN in New York, helped select the dishes, which were a mixture of all the various cultural influences in this polyglot city.




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It was a fabulous meal, though I can't remember the names of what we ate, nor can I adequately describe it. Her cousin, Florence Tan, has a cookbook which which I intend to purchase. It was so good we went back for lunch the next day. We also had a melt in your mouth tandoori chicken and naan in a more modest place, while sitting outside.

Yes, we saw the sites, but the food is what I will remember.


On the other hand, I couldn't resist a shot of this guy.

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Posted by jonshapiro 12:07 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food tourist_sites buildings_postcards Comments (2)

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