Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, April 2022 - My first trip post-Covid. My first trip in two and a half years. Not the most comfortable time of year to be in India weather-wise, but visas are being issued, flight schedules are returning to normal, and I have been away for much too long. Philadelphia to Doha to New Delhi. Sleep for 13 hours. 6 a.m. Shatabdi Express train from New Delhi Railway Station to Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh...also known as the Sheesham Wood Village, home to some of India's finest wood carvers. The crafts of India persevere.
The forests of India have numerous tree species that lend themselves to superb woodcraft, including teak, sheesham, deodar, ebony, redwood, mango, red cedar and sal. In Saharanpur, a unique style of woodcarving has developed primarily using sheesham wood a.k.a. Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo), an extremely durable wood with a light brown color and a beautiful grain.
The activity takes place in the lanes of Khata Kheri, where we wandered for several hours, the sound of drills, saws and lathes filling the air...workshop after workshop turning out Christmas ornaments, kitchen utensils, dining room sets, elaborate bed frames, multi-tiered home shrines, gigantic mirror frames and more. The practice of woodcraft here dates back 400 years to the Mughal era, when woodcarvers from Kashmir settled in the region. Today, well over 100,000 artisans create handmade wooden objects for domestic and international customers. Piles of sheesham logs clog the streets, and many artisans still forge their own carving tools.
The decorative motifs favored in Saharanpur borrow from the arts of Kashmir and from Mughal art and architecture. Floral and geometric patterns are common, particularly super-fine jaali (fretwork), mehrabs (honeycomb arches), and anguri (grape vines). Some items, like jewelry boxes and storage chests, feature brass, iron, glass or ceramic inlay.
Jaheer Ahmed (pictured left) is a Padma Shri (national award winner) from Saharanpur who produces finely detailed vases, jaali screens and decorative items. He was kind enough to pose with two of his masterpieces. Not a bad discovery on my first day!
The River Ganges, Uttarakhand, April 2022 - The Ganges is India's main spiritual highway. For hundreds of millions of Hindus, bathing in its waters washes away all sin, and being cremated along its banks leads to immediate salvation. I came to Uttarakhand on a pilgrimage...to scatter the ashes of my sister and my father at Devprayag, a sacred river confluence in the foothills of the Himalayas. My sister travelled with me in India several times, and she loved the country and its people. My father got here via a different route. He was the king of Jewish Guilt humour, and he used to evade my end-of-life planning queries with the quip 'Don't do anything special for me....just scatter my ashes on Mount Everest.' This was as close as I could get without renting a helicopter.
The Ganges has its origins at the foot of the Gangotri glacier, 13,600 feet above sea level. It is known here as the Bhagirathi, and it emerges as an icy flow of crystal clear water. In the town of Devprayag, the raging Bhagirathi meets the calm Alaknanda to form what is known thereafter as the Ganges. The confluence point of these two rivers is an important pilgrimage site, replete with a dangerous bathing ghat where devotees can take a ritual dip. Devprayag means Godly Confluence in Sanskrit, and it is believed that the mythical Saraswati river flows underground here, meeting the other two rivers at the confluence point.
An hour downstream sits the town of Rishikesh, famous in the western world as the place where The Beatles 'tuned out' with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Today it is full of ashrams, yoga retreats, cheap cafes and backpacker hostels. The river is punctuated by narrow suspension bridges and country boats that bring pilgrims back and forth between its shores.
Every winter, Rishikesh hosts the International Yoga Festival, which attracts practitioners from all over the world. More adventurous visitors head to the water to enjoy river rafting. Rishikesh is also the starting point for the Char Dham Yatra (Four Abode Journey). This grueling pilgrimage through the Himalayas, at heights above 10,000 feet, stops at the temples of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri.
Every ashram in Rishikeh holds an evening aarti, or worship, where the Ganges is praised through various rituals, such as the lighting of oil lamps, singing and chanting, scripture readings, and interludes of silent devotion. The aarti ends with worshipers floating leaf boats filled with flowers, incense and sweets downstream. The evening aarti at Parmarth Niketan (photos below) is particularly beautiful.
Another 45 minutes downstream comes the city of Haridwar, where the Ganges first enters the dry plains of India. It is filled with bathing ghats, water tanks and Hindu temples, and the evening aarti here is tremendous. Haridwar's bazaars are filled with ritual items, such as coconuts, incense, vermillion powder, red and gold cloth, brass and wooden idols, and brass jars to collect water from the river. South of the city one can find Gurukil Kangri University, a major center of Vedic knowledge.
On my last morning in Rishikesh, I joined some of the other guests at my hotel for a ritual dunk in the river. Hotel Ganga Kinare, a popular spot with locals and tourists alike, has its own private bathing ghat, and is in walking distance of Triveni Ghat, the main ghat of Rishikesh. It was cold getting in, and the current was strong, but the experience was thrilling...a nice respite from the 100 degree heat!
Jaipur, Rajasthan, May 2022 - India is a major center for hand-knotted and hand-woven carpets. The Jaipur region, in particular, contains dozens of carpet showrooms selling silk, cotton and wool carpets in a range of sizes, styles and colors. Over the years, I have been inside many of these showrooms with my clients (yes, they ship to the U.S.). What was fascinating to see on this trip, however, was how carpet design trends have evolved in recent years.
The carpet on the left is a fine, hand-knotted wool carpet with traditional Persian motifs, the kind you might find in your grandmother's house. It is a stunning carpet, but more formal than many people prefer these days. The carpet on the right is a modern take on the Persian rug...the colors are Easter-egg bright, the design is a little blurry, and the cream background was created via a burn-out process wherein certain threads are removed to reveal the color of the carpet binding and to create a textured surface.
The brilliant colors are achieved through a process called overdying, in which dye is poured on a finished carpet and allowed to penetrate the silk or wool fibers. The irregular color patterns that develop give the rugs a worn or sun-bleached look, as if they had been in use for decades. The effect on a burn-out carpet with a black background is quite stunning and unusual.
Another trend in carpet design, pioneered by Jaipur Rugs (the largest manufacturer of handmade rugs in India) is asymmetry. Jaipur Rugs found that by allowing its weavers to work in tandem and create their own designs, they ended up with highly compelling patterns with an organic feel that resonate with today's consumers. These rugs also highlight the skill and imagination of the weavers themselves...a first in an industry that typically views these artisans as merely hired labour.
POST-COVID, EVERYONE NEEDS A LITTLE MORE WELLNESS IN THEIR LIVES. I thus made it a point to visit two of India's new spa resorts, as well as two of its pioneering wellness retreats.
Ananda in the Himalayas (photos below) is probably India's best known wellness destination, and a luxurious favorite of celebrities from the U.S. (Oprah's Chai anyone?). It is located 45 minutes north of Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, and is situated on the grounds of a Maharaja's palace. It offers multi-day wellness programs that feature yoga, meditation and spiritual discourse. You can also incorporate fitness training, emotional healing, Ayurveda, physiotherapy, detoxification and other healing modalities.
Six Senses Fort Barwara (photos below) is the first Six Senses spa resort in India (it was featured on the cover of the May 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure). It is located two and a half hours by car from Jaipur, and offers luxurious rooms, great food and a comprehensive spa experience in a regal fort-palace complex. My favorite part was the landscaping - a real oasis in dry, hot Rajasthan.
Taj Rishikesh Resort and Spa (photos below) is located one hour north of Rishikesh on the road to Devprayag. It was built using local stone and wood, and has its own white sand beach right on the Ganges (the current is very strong, so swimming in the river is prohibited). The views of the valley from the resort's hillside villas are breathtaking. As in all Taj resorts, it features a Jiva Spa, as well as a fitness room and an outdoor yoga pavillion.
Vana (photos below) is an exclusive wellness retreat in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. The common spaces and the residential rooms are designed with light woods and pale-colored textiles, creating a tranquil environment for guests and an ideal setting for over 800 original artworks. Customized wellness programs include yoga, Ayurvedic and Tibetan healing modalities, acupuncture, reflexology, physiotherapy, Indian classical music, spiritual teachings and meditation. The retreat's visiting scholars and healing practitioners are top-notch.