India’s Ancient Magical Observatories

I wanted to climb the steps, but it was not allowed, and a guard stood by to ensure everyone followed the rules. Still, the idea of climbing on the giant edifices tugged at me just as it does a chi…

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India’s Ancient Magical Observatories

I wanted to climb the steps, but it was not allowed, and a guard stood by to ensure everyone followed the rules. Still, the idea of climbing on the giant edifices tugged at me just as it does a child who steps into an enchanting playground. And that’s what this place looked like—a playground filled with odd-shaped structures that begged to be climbed.

Part of the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, India

In reality, though, we were at Jantar Mantar—an astronomical observatory built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, a soldier, scholar and ruler with a lifelong interest in math and astronomy. He founded the city of Jaipur in the 1720s and built five Jantar Mantar observatories in northern India.

Jantar Mantar means “instruments for calculation,” or “magical calculations.” The Jaipur observatory consists of 18 devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, observing planet orbits; calculating the lunar calendar and predicting the start of the monsoon season. It’s main purpose, though, seems to have been casting horoscopes, which require a precise knowledge of the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars at the moment of birth.

The largest instrument (with steps leading to its top) is a sundial 27 meters high, its shadow carefully plotted to tell the time of day to an accuracy of about two seconds. You can see the shadow moving at 1 millimeter per second, or roughly the width of a hand (6mm) every minute.

Influenced by the Islamic school of astronomy, Jai Singh also incorporated elements of early Greek and Persian observatories into his designs. The Jantar Mantars, however, are more complex, on a greater scale, and contain some completely unique designs and functions.

They were made almost entirely of masonry, with some engraved metal rings and plates set into masonry foundations, and they were built large because the larger the scale, the more accurate the measurements. Once finished, they could not be corrected or improved, and observations were limited to those involving the positions and motions of heavenly bodies that are visible to the naked eye.

Over the years, they’ve been restored from time to time—partly because they are tourist attractions, but also to keep them useful and scientifically authentic. Local astronomers still use them to predict the weather for farmers (although the accuracy is questionable), and students of astronomy and Vedic astrology are required to take some of their lessons at the observatories.

Because of their size and inflexibility, the Jantar Mantars were obsolete even before they were constructed and were soon replaced by smaller machined brass instruments and telescopes that proved more useful and accurate. Still, they are amazing reminders of ancient innovation and man’s quest to understand the universe.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, culture, engineering, History, India, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

India: Taj Mahal—Monument to Love

 

In a faraway land called India, a great emperor named Shah Jahan adored his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. When she died giving birth to their 14th child, he built her the most magnificent tomb in the history of the world—the Taj Mahal.

Agra 597 “We’ll meet at the bus at 5:30am,” our India tour guide informed us the night before. “We want to be first in line.”

Ugh! Near the front of the line, we stood in the dark for what seemed like forever, waiting for the gates to open. Luckily we were squeezed between “stand in line” railings, so I had something to lean on in my groggy condition.

When we finally entered at sunrise, all sleepiness disappeared, and we were struck by the ethereal beauty of one of the world’s most beloved edifices. Consistently named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the ivory-white marble tomb takes your breath away when you see it up close for the first time. Its name is Persian for “Crown of Palaces,” and so it is, reigning on a marble base, or plinth, at the far end of a narrow reflecting pool, and guarded by a minaret at each corner.

The tomb was commissioned in 1632 and finished in 1643 using materials from all over Asia (white marble from India, jade and crystal from China, turquoise from Tibet, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, sapphire from Sri Lanka), and it’s thought that more than 1,000 elephants were used to transport building materials. The rest of the 42-acre complex—finished between five and ten years later—includes a mosque, guesthouse and formal gardens. Total cost in 2015 U.S. dollars—$827 million. The project employed some 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects. In 1983 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being “the jewel of Muslim art in India.”

Clever subterfuge: To protect the building during WWII, the Indian government erected scaffolding around it in anticipation of air attacks by the Japanese Air Force. Scaffolding was again used during the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971 to mislead bomber pilots.

To this day, the Taj Mahal still stands as a symbol of love. Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore poetically described it as “the tear drop on the cheek of time.” And so it was for Shah Jahan. When he died, he was laid to rest in a sarcophagus next to his beloved Mumtaz.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Touring India—the Road to Ranthambhore

Ranthambore 432

The troop-carrier jeep bounced along a dirt road carpeted with large potholes that looked like they’d been blown out by meteorites. I tightened my grip on side railings and those attached to the back of the seat in front of me, but still, every pothole sent me careening in four different directions. Twice, my mouth connected with the side bar, and once, while I was looking up, the bar behind my head rose up to crash into my skull.

We were in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, on safari, looking for wild tigers. So far, we’d spotted a lot of sika and samboor deer—including two young bucks testing their fighting mettle by locking horns—and several birds. But no tigers. Where the deer were, the tigers weren’t, which makes sense from a deer’s point of view.

To give you some background, the Ranthambhore Reserve covers an area of 1334 square kilometers, was started in 1973, and is home to six species of cats, three species of mongoose and marsh crocodile, an estimated 38 species of other mammals (the deer would fit in here), 315 species of birds and 402 species of plants. Whew!

The road wound up and down, crossing streams and the aforementioned potholes, through a thickly forested underbrush area categorized as tropical dry deciduous. If the tigers had been there, we might not have been able to see them in the tall grass. I was disappointed—and a little banged up. So, to avoid the whiplash affecting my lower back, I opted out of the next morning’s safari. My husband did go, though, and we were both happy about the results. Not only did they spot a tiger, but also a marsh crocodile, monkeys, and different birds.

Tigers are king in Ranthambhore, and tiger images are everywhere, including at a craft shop known as the Village Women Crafts, where sari-clad women (sometimes with a small child nearby) sew and weave beautiful designs into wall hangings, clothing and other fabric items. It may be a woman’s craft center, but men, it seems, are the ones painting tiger images. All the work is exquisite.

Another craft center again offered the vibrantly colored fabrics India is known for, as well as camel-pulled carriage rides. It was here that a group of sassy local barely-teenage boys (the girls are much more reserved) presented themselves to me to have their picture taken, and, wanted to take their picture with me. It was a delightful international exchange, and we all had fun. For me, this is one of the big perks of travel—random exchanges between people. It helps us bond with people of other cultures—and they with us—and reminds us that we are really all the same, despite different skin colors, religions and customs.

To see the slideshow, just click on any photo and use the arrows to move back and forth.

 

 

 

Categories: Animals, Asia, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized, wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Touring India—The Art of the Palace

In my previous post, I took you on a visual tour of Lake Pichola in the India city of Udaipur, district of Rajasthan.

Today we embark on an exploration of Udaipur’s City Palace, which is one of the architectural marvels of Rajasthan.

Udaipur city palace swing 752, 754 copy

Indeed, Udaipur City Palace on the banks of Lake Pichola is the most-visited tourist attraction of Udaipur and the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. It was started in 1559 and not completed until the 18th century because each new ruler kept adding on to it using granite and marble in a surprisingly harmonious blend of Medieval, European and Chinese architecture.

Inside its walls are eleven palaces, including Manak Mahal (Ruby Palace) that features figures of crystal and porcelain, Bhim Vilas and its collection of miniature paintings, and Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors). Other palaces hold Chinese and Dutch ornamental tiles, murals, wall paintings, silver art, inlay, and an amazing amount of colored glass.

There is also an arena where elephant fights were staged, and an area of marble arches where eight times, maharanas were known to weigh themselves and then distribute their weight in gold and silver to lucky locals.

In addition, there are bird cages and carrier-pigeon boxes in tower rooms; glass mosaics of peacocks representing the three seasons of summer, winter and monsoon; ubiquitous Indian scalloped arches, and towers that look out over the city on one side and Lake Pichola on the other.

Check out workers cleaning the palace walls while perched on bamboo scaffolding, which is really amazing when you remember that bamboo is a grass.

My apologies for the blurry photo of the palace gate. It was a grab shot as the bus was driving past, but I did want to show you the gate’s spikes. They were installed to prevent the enemy’s elephants from pushing through the gate.

Click on any photo below to enlarge, and then use the arrows to move back and forth. Likes and comments are always appreciated, and if you’ve been to India, I’d love to hear about your travels there.

Categories: Architecture, Art, India, Photography, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

Touring India—Lake of Palaces

There is a beautiful lake in Udaipur, Rajasthan, India….. Its name is Pichola.map India Udaipur

On one side, its waters lap at the base of ancient homes; boat docks; wide concrete steps called ghats, where women come to wash their saris or string marigold garlands; and the towering fort-like walls of the City Palace. On the other side, hazy mountains seem to float in the sky.

Legend has it that the lake was created in the 15th century when a gypsy Banjara tribesman built a dam so that his livestock could cross a stream. Maharani Udai Singh II built his shining city of Udaipur around the lake in 1560, while strengthening the dam and enlarging the lake. It’s currently 3-miles long, 2-miles wide and 30-feet deep.

Within its waters are two natural islands, each supporting a palace. The white Taj Lake Palace is exclusive to guests staying at its hotel, but you can see its interior in the 1983 James Bond film “Octopussy.”

The Jag Mandir, or Lake Garden Palace, made of marble and yellow sandstone (including 8 white-marble elephants guarding the palace), was built in the 1550s as a hiding place for Prince Khurram, who became Shah Jahan—builder of the Taj Mahal. Later, Maharana Swaroop Singh sheltered several European families here during the revolt of 1867. The hotel caters to weddings and other lavish events, and the palace gardens bloom with roses, jasmine flowers, palms, frangipani and bougainvillea.

From the comfort of a marigold-draped boat, our small tour group cruised the lake and then disembarked for an exploration of Jag Mandir, where we learned that jazz legend Kenny G, who had been on our flight from Delhi to Udaipur the previous day, was scheduled to perform on the palace stage that evening.. Afterwards, we re-boarded our boat and headed back to the city proper.

I hope you enjoy the visual tour of Pichola Lake. As always, click on any photo to begin the slideshow.

Categories: India, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Sampling of Southeast Asian Cultures

Last September, we embarked from Shanghai on a 17-day cruise that made port at Nagasaki, Japan; Busan, South Korea; Taipei, Taiwan; Hong Kong; Vietnam; Bangkok, Thailand; and finally Singapore. My story (with photos) of the journey is featured in the Spring issue of TravelWorld International magazine, starting on page 6.  http://issuu.com/travelworld/docs/_twi_magazine_spring_2015/1. Please enjoy the tour.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, China, cruises, culture, Da Nang, dragons, Photography, Published Work, Thailand, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bangkok’s Grand Palace

 In 1956, actor Yul Brynner, as the king of Siam, sang and danced through a gilded palace in the movie, “The King and I.” The country of Siam has since changed its name to Thailand, but its Grand Palace in Bangkok is still something to sing about.

The older Thai capital at Ayutthaya in the North had been destroyed in 1767 during a war with Burma, and newly proclaimed King Rama I ordered his men to remove bricks and other materials from the forts, walls and palaces (but not the temples) of this ruined city and send them by barge down the Chao Phraya river to the new capital city of Bangkok. Not only was he updating his wooden palace, but to solidify fortifications around his riverside capital, Rama I dug canals along its eastern edge, turning the city into an artificial island.

The Grand Palace is not one large structure in the tradition of most European palaces. It’s divided into four main courts separated by walls and gates and originally housing royal offices, state ministries, the royal chapel, Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ceremonial throne halls, and the king’s harem quarters. After a second expansion during the reign of Rama II, the palace covered an area of 2,351,000 square feet and was Thailand’s administrative and religious center, with thousands of inhabitants including guardsmen, servants, concubines, princesses, ministers and courtiers. And just like Rome’s Vatican City, the Grand Palace was considered a city within a city, subject to its own set of laws.

Gradually the government ministries grew in size and moved to other locations. The King, too, relocated to more modern palaces. In 1932, a student-launched revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII, replacing it with a constitutional monarchy. Today, the Grand Palace still serves as a royal ceremonial venue, as well as a museum and tourist attraction.

I found the Grand Palace to be a photographer’s eye-candy wonderland rife with golden temples; bejeweled pavilions; and giant, elaborately painted warriors. I’d love to return, without having to follow a tour guide, and get lost in the visual magic of it all. Have you been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace? If so, what were your impressions?

Click on any image to see the slideshow.

Categories: Architecture, Art, Asia, culture, History, Photography, Stock Photography, Thailand, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Lovely Hula Girl

My Lovely Hula Girl photo sold to Hawaiian Airlines for their coffee-table book celebrating 85 years of service to Hawaii.

My Lovely Hula Girl photo sold to Hawaiian Airlines for their coffee-table book celebrating 85 years of service to Hawaii.

Categories: Books, culture, Hawaii, History, Photography, Published Work, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cee’s Fun Photo Challenge: Bridges

Dragon Bridge, Da Nang, Vietnam

Dragon Bridge, Da Nang, Vietnam

Rong Gao (Dragon Bridge), Da Nang, Vietnam. Built in 2013 and designed by U.S. engineers, this dragon breathes fire and hissing smoke (water mist) each weekend after sunset. Now that I’ve photographed it during the day, returning at night is on my Bucket List.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, bridges, culture, Da Nang, dragons, engineering, Photography, Travel, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

How to Nickname Your Skyscraper

Pudong and the Huangpu River at night
It’s a tall, tall world in the district of Shanghai known as Pudong.

Boardwalk along the Bund, ShanghaiA mere twenty-one years ago, Pudong—on the eastern shore of the Huangpu River, opposite the city’s celebrated Bund—was a mix of farmland, squatters’ shacks and swamp. Now it has a population of more than five million and is home to some cloud-scrapers even Superman would have to think twice about leaping over in a single bound. As these behemoths neared completion, Shanghai residents gave them nicknames.

Designed by architects in Chicago, the Jin Mao Tower has a pointy top that looks like those needles you stick into eggs that whisk them from inside the shell. Some call it the Egg Beater, others the Marinade Injector or Syringe. As a business center and home to the Grand Hyatt Shanghai hotel, it stands at 1380 feet or 88 stories high. For an entrance fee, you can shoot up at thirty feet per second to the top floor observation deck along with 999 other like-minded people for a stunning view.

Pudong on a clear day in Shanghai

Pudong on a clear day in Shanghai

Once the tallest structure in China from 1994 to 2007, the Oriental Pearl TV Tower at 1,535 feet (387-foot broadcast antenna included) is no longer the tallest, but definitely the most unique. Its eleven spheres, fifteen observation levels, and three gigantic columns host a combination of exhibition facilities, restaurants, shopping mall and hotel. The highest observation deck, at 1148 feet, is known as the Space Module and has an outside area with glass floor. Its architects designed it to resemble two dragons playing with pearls. It’s called, simply, the Pearl Tower.

Next up is the Shanghai World Financial Center. It’s a sleek, modern beauty at 1,614 feet (101 floors), the glass-and-metal façade reflecting sky and clouds. It, too, has a sightseeing top floor and can survive a devastating magnitude-8 earthquake (good to know if you’re sightseeing on that top floor when the earth shakes). With its distinctive trapezoid hole near the top, it’s easy to see why it garnered the nickname, Bottle Opener.

A brightly lit, masted brig sails up and down the Huangpu River in front of the Bund and Pudong.

A brightly lit, masted brig sails up and down the Huangpu River in front of the Bund and Pudong.

And at the top of the heap, so to speak, is the almost-finished Shanghai Tower. When completed in 2015, it will stand 2,073-feet high, with five basement levels, 121 floors above ground and five podium floors, and it will be, not only China’s tallest building, but also the second tallest in the world (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa is taller). Since Shanghai is on a seismic belt, engineers poured a twenty-foot-thick underground baseboard over almost a thousand 282-foot-deep foundation piles to ensure stability. And, since Shanghai is also subject to frequent typhoons, they designed the building to twist about one degree per floor to offset high winds. The building spirals upwards like a snake climbing a tree. Because of its twist, it’s called the Screwdriver. Or sometimes the Egg Whisk.

These buildings and many others in Pudong draw attention to themselves in the evening by switching on an incredible, constantly changing and colorful LED lightshow. I admit to sitting by my Bund hotel-room window after dark and watching, fascinated, as the lighting display created a mesmerizing backdrop for the barges, ferries and sightseeing boats plying the river.

The Bund (older city) at night
One night, a flash storm added lightening to the mix. It was much better than tv.

Lightening splits the sky over Pudong during a brief evening rain storm.

Lightening splits the sky over Pudong during a brief evening rain storm.

The Pearl Tower with its bulbous spheres is easy to spot, but can you pick out the Egg Beater, Bottle Opener and Screwdriver? Hint: at night, the unfinished and lightless Screwdriver disappears in the blackness.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, Photography, Reflections, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunflowers in Hawaii

 

a lovely bunch of sunflowers It used to be a secret. Each year around October / November I’d hear through the grapevine about sunflower fields popping up on Oahu’s North Shore and camera-toting enthusiasts venturing illegally onto private property to capture the beautiful blooms.

“So we decided, since people were determined to visit the fields, we’d open them up to the public,” says Derek, one of several DuPont employees minding the fields on Saturday, November 22, when I arrived toting my camera.

Actually, I had tried in years past but could never find the fields. “We moved them around from year to year,” says Derek, pointing to a brown patch of earth, which had once been a sunflower field further down the valley, “so they were in different places.”

Derek also mentioned that DuPont grew the fields for scientific purposes, testing growth rates of different seeds. Now, he says, computers can take over that job, so this might be the sunflower fields’ last year.

That is, unless DuPont decides to keep planting the fields as a community service. “We’re giving back to the community,” says Derek. “Your parking fee ($5) and profits from anything you buy here (t-shirts, souvenirs, food) go to support our local high school’s activities. By the way,” he adds, “the pineapple/guava lemonade is really good.”

Indeed it was.
amid the sunflowers

sunflower 2

sunflower backlit

Categories: flowers, gardens, Hawaii, nature, Photography | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Shanghai, China: Garden of Dragons

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

Yu Gardens bridge, pavilion and lake.

The most delightful maze in the world is not a maze—it’s a 5-acre plot of tranquility in Shanghai’s Old Town. But once you pay your entrance fee and step inside Yu Gardens, it’s easy to get hopelessly turned around amid the tapestry of winding walkways, caves, red pavilions, carp-filled lakes, stone bridges, whimsical doorways and myriad artful rock formations (which I suspect are feng shui inspired). “Haven’t we been to this spot before,” I asked my husband more than once as we wandered around gawking at the aforementioned sights, and peering through different-shaped openings that framed the garden’s treasures.

The largest and most prestigious of its era in Shanghai, Yu Gardens was built in fits and starts during the Ming Dynasty between 1559 and 1577 by Pan Yunduan as a peaceful place for his aged father. It was first opened to the general public in 1780. Despite damage during the First Opium War, Taiping Rebellion, and in 1942 by the Japanese, it was repaired by the Shanghai government and declared a national monument in 1982.

Don’t expect orchids and other floral arrays here, but if you’re ever in Shanghai, Yu Gardens is a must-see. Be sure to go when it first opens to get ahead of the tour busses.

If you’d like to wander with me through this enchanting garden. just click on any photo to start the visual tour. But, as the sign says, “Be Careful,” because here there be dragons.

Categories: Architecture, Asia, China, culture, gardens, Photography, Stock Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Moonlight Over Waikiki

From Ala Moana Beach's Magic Island, the moon illuminates a rich tapestry of clouds over Waikiki.

From Ala Moana Beach’s Magic Island, the moon illuminates a rich tapestry of clouds over Waikiki.

Categories: Hawaii, Photography, Reflections, Stock Photography | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Photo of the Day: Iguazu Falls—a Natural Wonder

Iguazu Falls, the Iguazu River and San Martin Island I’ll never forget the jolt of amazement when I rounded a bend on the elevated walkway and saw this view. To capture the breadth and the feeling of power emanating from such close proximity to the rushing water and billowing spray, I took four images, from side to side, and later stitched them together in Photoshop, creating this stunning panorama, which includes the Iguazu River and San Martin island.

Categories: Argentina, environment, nature, Photography, Photoshop, South America, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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