A traveler without observation is a bird without wings. ~Moslih Eddin Saadi
The excuses were rapidly approaching zero. I had taken a couple of weeks to settle in, taken a few days to explore the little enclave of my neighborhood, allowed my body clock to adjust, prayed my internals had finally adapted to the food. The time had come to set foot into greater Pune. I had been out in Pune on previous trips so what would be different this time? My good friend Inayat would not be there to show me the way.
I picked three locations to see from an online travel guide. Under the direction of my driver, I ended up visiting 7 different places. They are, in order of visitation.
Shaniwar Wada is the remains of an old fort and is located in the city center of Pune. This was not on my list of places but ended up being my 2nd favorite destination this day.
From atop the fort entrance, a large garden is visible. The place was peaceful and had lots of trees for respite from the sun. Someday in the future, I would like to come here alone and soak in the ambience during a few hours of solitude.
As we walked the fortressed wall, I was looking across the garden area when suddenly, a good sized monkey on all fours with a tail held high like a flag post bounded past on the edge of the wall startling me. It had been many years since I had seen a monkey outside a zoo so I was bummed that I was caught unawares and could not get a good picture.
My previous monkey in the wild encounter was also in India. A group of us were walking somewhere away from the city when a monkey in one quick motion, jumped from an overhead tree, grabbed a man’s corn on the cob from his hand and was back up in the tree munching away while his monkey friends seemed to laugh at the startled man.
Instantly, one of my companions (I won’t mention her name for fear of embarrassing Pat Rotman…oops I called her out), grabbed my shirt, jerked me to the side and used me as a human shield between her and the monkey people. It seems, my well being was considerably less than her worth – at least in her eyes.
Remembering those thieving monkeys, I wrapped my camera strap around my arm and gripped the camera extra tightly in the event any more of them appeared out of nowhere.
I continued my walk around the corner of the wall to where a stand of trees from outside the fort hung over the wall for a bit of shade. As it had been every day since my arrival, the temperature was approaching 100 degrees with relatively low humidity compared to my home back in the US. I didn’t much mind the heat being I had left Chicago just a few weeks before and was utterly sick of the cold and rain and snow. Still, I make sure to visit shade on a regular basis to protect my fair skin. And the heart doctor told me to be sure I stayed hydrated because the heart struggles when the body is short on water.
The overhanging trees started shaking violently despite there being no wind. The source, a troop of the monkeys were in the branches, including mothers with their young. A number of them kept onto the wall edge and also walked around the fort.
I was tempted to touch a tail of a monkey while his back was too me but thought that might not be the most brilliant of moves.
I really enjoyed the fort and would like to have had the opportunity to sit under a tree for a couple of hours to read a book and people watch while soaking in the ambience. The one down side of the Shaniwar Wada was that it is being allowed to fall into disrepair which is a shame as it’s one of Pune’s treasures.
Next stop was a famous Ganesh temple. Ganesh is highly revered in these parts so there are quite a few temples honoring this god that looks like an elephant. Today, two were on my agenda.
This temple is located in a very busy section of the city with almost no parking so the driver had to drop me off quick, move the car, and wait for my call to come back for the pickup. The exterior of the temple was quite beautiful and very colorful. Outside of the temple, still on the temple grounds was the mouse on which lord Ganesh rides. I was allowed to take pictures of the temple exterior but this was not the case with the interior where pictures are prohibited. I have learned that there is a taboo on taking pictures of the gods here particularly of the god’s face. I am not sure the rationale behind this prohibition.
The temple was crowded with devotees to lord Ganesh and with me, a simple tourist who happens to be intrigued by the varied religious customs of the world. I have a long running and deep fascination for sacred ground, those houses of worship created by man to honor their gods and for those places in nature which in their natural state are revered as holy ground. The Six Grandfathers mountain (now known as Mt. Rushmore) in the Black Hills of South Dakota revered as the holiest of holy places by the Sioux indians is one such natural place. That such a holy place was desecrated with the faces of four dead presidents still rankles my sensibilities.The only thing worse would have been to put the face of Custer up there as well.
Before getting in the queue to enter the temple, shoes must be removed and left outside. This is a practice I really like and wish was adhered to by all religions. Walking into a shrine or a church or a temple barefooted creates a constant, physical connection with the holy place. It’s a physical connection that supplements the spiritual creating, for me, a more complete connection. During a Promise Keepers campaign in Indiana, I and thousands of other Christian brothers removed our shoes in the great Indoor arena normally devoted to the religion of sport. Instantly, I felt more connect with my brothers and with God. I really need to get a pair of sandals so I can quickly transition to barefooted.
The temple was gorgeous. Intricate silver and gold work completely covered the interior walls and ceiling. I walked past the image of Ganesh where the devotees would make offerings, primarily of coconuts and flowers, before saying a quick (or prolonged) prayer before the temple keepers moved the line along. There was floor seating where more time was allowed for prayer, or in my case, extended time to take in the intricacies of the temple and to people watch.
The third stop on the tour was a lovely park/garden, a wide open expanse of greenery with a temple, another Ganesh temple, near the center. The garden is a peaceful place where I could envision spending a few hours under the shaded tree, reading, writing, observing the ebb and flow of India leisure life.
I arrived here near midday and was beginning to feel the effects of the heat silently sucking water from my pores and my growing hunger so my observations lacked those of my previous stops. As I climbed the steps to the Ganesh temple I felt a need to just sit and relax in the shade so as to recoup some energy. Thankfully, the temple had benches for my rest.
One of the rituals here is to walk around the temple three times and pray. There were a number of believers engaged in this activity. Some prayed, others chatted to friends, still others talked on mobile phones while circumnavigating the inner sanctum of the temple. I guess it’s the same with all religions. Some are devotees attempting to get the most out of the steps toward god while others go half heartedly through the motions hoping to get out much more than they are willing to give.
After a Pizza Hut lunch of Arriabatta Pene (sometimes one needs the comfort of homestyle cooking), a liter of cold water but no Tira Misu because they were sold out, this museum was the destination. I had been to this small museum twice previously. I went again because, for my traveling companion, a south Indian, this would be her first visit. We are both new to living in Pune so we take in the sites together. I still get the sense of adventure of going out somewhat on my own with the added benefit of a traveling partner that can translate as the need arises. She is young, close in age to my children, so I also get the feeling of being a dad guiding his young ones, a feeling I miss with my own kids so far, far away.
This was the first pay to enter location on the days tour. In the US, entry fees are the same for everyone but the very young and the very old. In India, payment is predicated on whether or not one is a citizen of India. There was a token entrance fee for my companion of 20 rupees, a fee just high enough to keep out the penniless, and a fee of 200 rupees for me. I guess they figure foreign travelers have more money than locals so they extricate from us a higher amount. Typically, I have found this to be an order of magnitude higher than the locals.
As with the temples, photos were not allowed in the museum.
The approach to Parvati Temple is via 103 steps climbing roughly 260 feet. These are not one step steps. Rather, they are stone slap steps at a significant angle and require 3 to 4 steps each to cover. In the Pune heat, they are a challenge and I recommend toting along some water.
Along the way, I noticed a tree with three distinct colored flowers. I needed an excuse to stop on the way up the hill and this was as good as any. The tree had red flowers, yellow flowers, and orange flowers. I had not previously seen one tree bearing 3 distinct colors of flowers anywhere on my travels. Closer examination showed this to be three different trees intertwined creating the illusion of one tree with multiple colored flowers.
Once in the temple, there is an upper walkway which carries a token fee. From the upper walkway, which is one of the highest points in the city, the greater Pune area is pretty much an unobstructed view (aside from the ever present haze over the city).
6. Rajiv Gandhi Zoological Park also known as the Katraj Snake Park
The Katraj Snake Park intrigued me by it’s name and at the same time instilled fear in my touring companion who is afraid of snakes (and a lot of other things but that’s a topic for a different blog.) Since my youth, I have had a fascination with snakes and the snake house at Brookfield zoo was one of my favorite zoo attractions.
Aside from watching a few of the snakes swimming in the water, my favorite attraction here was the 3 gharials with their long, narrow, heavily teethed mouths. They didn’t move. In fact,they looked like petrified remnants of a long gone era.
A bridge was crossed before entering the lower temple, main temple. I am sure the bridge holds some significance but I have no clue as to what the significance may be.
The temple itself is a relatively modest affair, hardly 10 by 10 foot square on the inside. Mural paintings of believers looking at the god covered parts of the walls and looked very fresh. The exterior is constructed completely of marble with some exquisite detail by highly skilled artisans.
The upper temple was a work of beauty to behold. I was greatly saddened that cameras were not allowed because the entire structure was build with beauty and a close attention to detail. They are really strict about pictures. I was raising my empty hand pointing out a detail to my traveling companion and I was chastised by the guard and told no pictures. I showed him my empty hand but still he kept a watchful eye on us the entire time we toured the temple.
The Jain holy writings consist of 45 sections. At this temple, they are etched into gold colored metal plates and are posted within the interior of the temple behind glass. They needed hundreds of these plates to hold the entire text of their scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in the original script so I was not able to get a feel for the meaning of their text.
I did learn that Jainism is founded on a belief of ahimsa, non-violence both verbal and physical, a core principle of Gandhi’s fight for independence. Practitioners of Jainism believe that non-violence and self-control are the means by which devotees can obtain liberation from the cycle of reincarnations. In a similar vein, Gandhi helped liberate India from continued British tyranny.
The temple held many shrines to a god or gods. I really did not have the knowledge to tell them apart nor was there anyone present to explain the intricacies. Within the structure is another house type structure which seemed to be the home of the primary deity in the Jain belief. It was here that I saw a few people bowed in worship before an idol. I am not certain but it may have been a statue of Rishabha, the first Jain tirthankara or propagator of the faith.
The floors of outer temple were all of marble, unfinished marble. A worker was busy polishing these during my visit. I will likely come back in 6 months time or so when the temple is complete so I can experience in all it’s planned glory.
This was the end of the touring apart from the long ride back to my flat. The traffic was heavy and I was very glad I was not the one behind the steering wheel. Overall, it was an excellent day of touring Pune.