Monday, September 26, 2011

The Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The Taj Mahal: One of the Eight Wonders of the World (February 2000)

In the spring of 2000, when I went to India for an author visit at a school in New Delhi, my hosts arranged to take me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I knew it was a famous tomb memorializing the love between a great emperor and his wife, but I was unprepared for its stunning beauty. As I stepped through the gate and saw the shining white domes framed against the sky, I was amazed by the elegance of the design and the perfect placement of the building in its surroundings. I stayed until sunset and returned again at dawn.
Gardens around the Taj Mahal are filled with flowers and birds
As I walked through the gardens, I tried to imagine what it had been like more than 300 years ago when the emperor of India walked these same paths. Did they bring back memories of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal? Was is what he had imagined in his dreams? (According to legend the inspiration for building the Taj Mahal came to Emperor Shah Jahan in a dream.) I knew that the Taj Mahal would be the perfect subject for a book because of the love story that inspired it, the artistic and technical achievement of its architecture, and for what it tells us about Mughal culture in India.
Inlaid stones decorate every surface of this column
Craftsmen today continue the tradition of stone-inlay work
The Taj Mahal is the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal, beloved wife of Shah Jahan, who had the Taj built as a memorial to their love. White marble quarried in  Jodhpur was transported to Agra and cut into blocks to build the tomb.  The walls were inlaid with jewels and precious stones.  Gardens and reflecting pools were built on the grounds surrounding the tomb. Construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1632 and was virtually complete by 1643.  After the Shah's death, he was entombed there as well.
View of the Taj Mahal from the Mosque
Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal first met when he was fifteen and still a prince and she was the daughter of one of his father's advisors. My favorite part of their story is their encounter of at the New Year's festival. Despite the difference in time of more than 300 years and a culture unlike our own, it is easy to imagine how a handsome prince could fall in love with a beautiful girl. It is a timeless story that could happen anywhere, anytime.
The love story of the Taj Mahal is based largely on legend, for little has been recorded of the personal lives of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal together, as this would have been a sensitive topic, especially in an Islamic culture and society. 
The Taj Mahal is one of the supreme accomplishments of the Mughal Empire.  It has become a symbol to the rest of the world of the craftsmanship and artistic achievements of all of India. It is also a symbol of universal love.
My book, Taj Mahal, which chronicles the love story and the building of the Taj Mahal, is a collaboration with Madeleine Comora and illustrated by her husband Rahul Bhushan with beautiful paintings in the style of Mughal miniatures of the time. It was published by Carolrhoda Books in 2007.  You can read about our collaborative process at my September 2l, 2011 Art and Books blog

Monday, September 19, 2011

London: Highgate Cemetery, Victorian Splendor for the Departed

Final Resting Place for the Famous
(Excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in London in the fall of 1998.)

Entrance to Highgate Cemetery
On Sunday afternoon, we visited Highgate Cemetery, the burial site of Karl Marx and many other famous people.  We got there in time to see both sides (east and west) and take the tour. The cemetery, which covers 800 acres of hillside and has something like 80,000 graves, had its heydey in the Victorian era.  The average age of death at the time was 35!  The cemetery was opened in 1839 and was operated by a private company until the 1970’s, by which time all the plots had been sold and they were no longer able to make any money.  The company then abandoned the cemetery, and it became derelict. Highgate Cemetery is now operated by a the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust and it is the ladies of this charity that run the tours. The west side, which contains the oldest section and most elaborate tombs, can only be visited on a tour.  The east side is still a functional cemetery.

Angels and Obelisks

Gravestones Amidst Undergrowth
   We started on the east side where we wandered about on our own.  Graves are topped by stone crosses, urns, broken columns (symbolizing a life cut short),  but my favorites are those with angels on top.  A forest and tangle of ivy and bushes has grown up around the graves over the last hundred years, so the angels often look like they might take off into the trees.  Egyptian themes were also popular in Victorian times, so we saw obelisks of various sizes, some of them tilted rakishly as if they were drunk, and even a sizeable  pyramid.  We were surprised at the length and variety of inscriptions on the tombs which often told the occupation of the person as well as when the deceased had “gone to sleep”, a Victorian euphemism for death.

The Notable Dead

Karl Marx's Grave
     To us the cemetery seemed parklike and peaceful, but I can imagine that on a rainy or foggy day, it would have a suitably creepy atmosphere.  Apparently, before it was locked up in the 1970’s, several horror films were shot there.  On our tour of the west side, we saw the grave of a stage coach driver carved with the whip and bugle of his trade and two upsidedown horseshoes to show that his luck had turned.   Other graves that we saw included one of the man who invented of the toothbrush; of George Williams, the founder of the YMCA, (significant to me because my father went to George Williams College in Chicago); and the crypt of a general in the Crimean War, built to look like the Crimean peninsula. 

The Menagerist

Grave of George Wombwell "Menagerist"
My favorite tomb, topped by a huge lion, was the final resting place of George Wombwell, a man described as a “menagerist.”  He started life as a shoemaker.  One day, he went down to the London docks, where he bought two large boa constrictors.  His plan was to turn them into shoes, but he found that people were so fascinated by the living snakes that he started touring the country and showing them off.  He gradually acquired more animals (including the lion--named Nero--depicted on the top of his grave) and launched a new career as a “menagerist.” 

Mussels at the End of the Day
    After leaving Highgate, we took the tube to Camden Town and emerged onto the street into a seething mob of teenagers.  This is apparently THE spot to be if you are under eighteen.  Music was blaring and  I’ve never seen so many shoe shops with those giant sneakers with oversize soles.  Our goal was Belgo, a restaurant that features mussels, french fries, and 100 different kinds of Belgian beer.  Luckily, by the time we reached Belgo, we had left the teenagers behind.  Art ordered a kilo of mussels, which came in a big tin bucket, and I got a platter of mussels cooked in butter and garlic.  They were great!  The waiter wanted to know if we wanted an order of rockets on the side.  We had no idea what rockets were.  A salad, he explained, and drew a picture of something that looked like dandelion greens.  It turns out that rockets are what the British call arugula.  The salad was excellent.  Belgo also gets my vote for the world’s best cappucino.

A few of the famous people buried at Highgate Cemetery:
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Karl Marx
Sir Ralph Richardson
Jacob Bronowski
Christina Rossetti
John Galsworthy

Where is Highgate Cemetery?
The cemetery is located on both sides of Swain's Lane in Highgate, N6, next to Waterlow Park. The Main Gate is located just north of Oakshott Avenue. To get there by tube from London, take the Northern Line (High Barnet branch) to Archway (not Highgate). On leaving the station, you can take a short bus ride up to Highgate village or turn left and walk up Highgate Hill (which is very steep), past the Whittington Hospital until you get to St Joseph’s Church (obvious by its large green copper dome). Enter Waterlow Park on your left and go downhill across the park (past the duck ponds) to the Swain's Lane exit (below the tennis courts).  The walk can take up to 40 minutes depending on your speed.
Highgate Cemetery

Monday, September 12, 2011

London: Day Trip to Greenwich

Boat Trip on the Thames
(Excerpt from my diary of our three month stay in London in the fall of 1998.)

Tower Bridge, London
Our excursion on Saturday was a trip to Greenwich to see the Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory.  The most scenic way to get there is by boat, which is what we did, leaving from the Charing Cross pier, and traveling past the Tower of London, London Bridge, the new Globe theater, and the Docklands development to Greenwich. 

The Prime Meridian, Where Time Begins and East Meets West

Caroline Straddling the Prime Meridian
    Our interest in going to Greenwich was to see for ourselves the Prime Meridian, the exact division between the eastern and western hemispheres, and to take a photo of ourselves astride the line.  (This is be a companion piece to our photo of us on the Equator that we took in Africa in 1971!)  The location of the line is at the Royal Observatory, on top of a hill overlooking the river.  The Observatory is no longer used to look at the stars because the sky in London is too smoggy, so it has been turned into a museum detailing its history as an observatory and its involvement in the search for longitude. 

Finding Longitude

The Royal Observatory, Now a Museum
The problem of longitude became acute in the age of sea exploration.  Although ships at sea could fairly easily calculate their latitude, by measuring the angle to the north star or southern cross, they had no way of measuring how far they were to the east or west.  As a result, countless ships were wrecked because they weren’t where they thought they were.  The solution to the problem involved both accurate measurements of the stars and the development of a clock that would keep accurate time even on a boat rolling and pitching in heavy seas.  If you knew the time and your position under the stars, you could figure your distance east or west from a predetermined line.  And where should that line be?  Of course, in England!  For over a hundred years the rest of the world has used this as the standard as well. 

The Millennium Dome
    Greenwich is advertising itself as the place where the Millennium begins and is building a giant dome, called the Millennium Dome, that will be a sort of world’s fair celebrating the year 2000.  It’s true that the world’s time zones are all based on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which is calculated from the Prime Meridian, and to that extent the Millennium starts here, but it seems to me that when the year 2000 arrives, it’s actually going to be at the international date line.  This doesn’t seem to bother the people building the dome though.

Atlas of the Stars

Royal Observatory, Greenwich
   Among the more interesting historical tidbits at the museum was the account of the first Royal Astronomer, Sir John Flamsteed, who worked for years to compile an atlas of the stars.  It was a tedious job and people got tired of waiting for him to finish.  So, Sir Isaac Newton, without getting Flamsteed’s permission, published his incomplete results.  Flamsteed was so infuriated that when the book was published he bought 300 of the 400 copies and burned them!  I wonder how many other authors have wished they could do that when they weren’t happy with the way their book was published?

Ruler of the Seas

The Cutty Sark, Docked in Greenwich. The world's last tea clipper ship.  Currently closed for conservation, it will reopen to the public in the Spring of 2012
   The town of Greenwich is devoted to boats and maritime themes and has shops displaying ships in bottles and tea towels printed with the explanation of why ships are called “she.”  And if you didn’t think the Lord Nelson was an important figure in British history, then a trip to the Maritime Museum will convince you otherwise.  A whole floor is devoted to Nelson and features a giant painting of the battle of Trafalgar by William Turner.   Nelson’s death is treated with religious reverence.

Sun and Rain
Geese in Regent's Park, London
 The day of our trip to Greenwich was sunny and nice and we picnicked on sausage rolls and ginger beer in the park, but when we woke up back in London on Sunday morning, our nice weather had disappeared.  It has been rainy and cool the last two days.  It stopped for a while yesterday morning, so we walked through Regents Park (not far from our flat in St. John's Wood) and fed the ducks and geese.  Thousands of waterbirds live in the park, both wild birds and some exotic species that are bred there, and they are all well trained to beg for food.  It’s a good demonstration of the pecking order in nature. There is also a nest of blue herons in the park, and even they will come quite close.

 Recommended Reading:  After I returned from Greenwich, I read Dava Sobel's book, Longitude:  The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, a fascinating account of John Harrison, a clockmaker, who solved the problem of finding longitude but reaped only part of the reward for his work.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Tasmania, Part II: Cradle Mountain

Cradle Mountain Lodge (March 1999)
{Continuation of my August 22nd post.}

Cradle Mountain gets its name from the distinctive "cradle" between its peaks.
    [Excerpt from my diary of our three month trip to Australia in 1999.] The next morning we drove north from Queenstown to Cradle Mountain National Park, where we stayed for two nights in a pencil pine cabin at the edge of the park.  The cabin was part of the Cradle Mountain Lodge complex, which has activities and places to eat.  Most people come to Cradle Mountain to hike and the track that goes across the park is one of the world’s most famous backpacking trails.  We did day walks which included portions along rushing rainforest streams, as well as stretches across open heathlands and up mountain trails.  We are slow walkers because we are always stopping to take pictures, but my calves still ache from the climb we did on Monday.

A Haven for Wildlife

Silversword, a spiky plant, is unique to Cradle Mountain
    Cradle Mountain is a World Heritage site and has plants and animals that are found no where else in the world.  Most of the large animal life is nocturnal so one night we went on a night spotting tour where we drove slowly along the road with a spotlight looking for animals.  We saw lots of possums, wallabies, wombats, and even a little Tasmanian devil.

A Paradise for Hikers

Our picnic spot beside the trail provided a spectacular view.
    Cradle Mountain is a wonderful place to go walking.  There are a variety of trails--some level, some steep--and all with interesting scenery.  The park people are very eco conscious and concerned about minimizing the damage to the environment so all the trails (at least all the day walk trails) are constructed of wooden planks or stone steps.  This keeps people from straying from the path and it also helps keep your feet dry as you walk across marshy areas.
Day Life and Night Life

Pademelons, a medium sized member of the kangaroo family, are common in the park.
    On one day that we were there we heard that someone saw three tiger snakes on one trail.  Apparently they are common but I'm glad I never saw one. (They are deadly poisonous.)  The vast majority of the wildlife only comes out at night although some of the possums and wallabies hang around the lodge and cabins--hoping for a handout.  We were sitting on our porch one afternoon having tea and, as we unwrapped a cookie, a wallaby hopped out of the bush.  I think it has learned to listen for the crinkle of cookie wrapping!  Instead we gave it some apple.
Local Food
    Several times while in Australia we've tried what is billed on the menu as scones with Devonshire cream but they have never been quite the same as we had in England--neither the scones nor the cream.  But when we were in Cradle Mountain I had a delicious apple crumble (made from fresh Tasmanian apples) with what they call King Island Cream.  The cream was thick and delicious and the closest we've come to Cornish clotted cream in Australia.

Honey and Glow Worms

Inside the wildlife park, we saw real Tasmanian devils racing around their enclosure.
    On Tuesday we took a somewhat leisurely drive back to Hobart stopping at a wild animal park, a honey factory to see leatherwood honey being processed (it is whirled in a giant centrifuge) and at a cave where we saw amazing rock formations and glow worms.  The glow worms, which are actually the larva of a kind of fly, attach themselves to the ceiling of a large chamber in the cave and then wait to catch insects that are attracted to their lights.  When the guide turned off her light it was like being in a planetarium except that instead of looking at constellations, the ceiling was dotted with the lights of hundreds of glow worms.

Back to Melbourne

Waterfall at Cradle Mountain
    I decided that I needed to read something by an Australian author on the plane trip to Tasmania so I bought a book called Mallawindy by Joy Dettman.  It's a page turner and is the same kind of sweeping family saga as The Thornbirds.  I predict that we'll see it soon as a miniseries.   One of the interesting things about the book is that the main character has a double personality.
    Everyone told us after we came back that our trip to Tasmania was too short, and we agreed.  We could easily have spent much more time at Cradle Mountain and we never had time to explore the coast along the east side of the island.  Someday, we’ll have to go back.
Making Reservations:  For this trip I made all our reservations through the travel service at the RAC (Royal Auto Club) in Melbourne, which has a reciprocal arrangement with the AAA, of which we are members.