Lewis meets the silk weavers of Varanasi

After catching an overnight train from Jhansi to Varanasi (See the blog ‘Lewis travels on the famous Indian Railways‘), Lewis arrived in the hotel feeling very tired and hungry. Helen ordered some baked beans on toast but they were unlike any baked beans that she had ever tasted – they almost tasted as if they had been curried! She couldn’t eat them so in the end ordered ice-cream and coffee instead!

Not long after, the pair set off again with the rest of the tour group to discover a part of Varanasi’s cultural heritage – that of silk weaving. Here they saw the traditional looms in back alley-ways, saw how the silk is dyed and even saw a ‘flame test’ to check if a scarf is really made of silk. If the threads burn and don’t smell of plastic, then it is real silk. Lewis the Lion thought that the traditional handmade silks were just beautiful and Helen got rather carried away as she bought gifts of silk scarves, pashminas, a table-cloth and even cushion covers! He could now understand why silk was so expensive when he saw the painstaking work of the weavers. A large piece of intrict fabric could take many months to make.

Check out Lewis the Lion’s photo gallery below to see the silk weavers of Varanasi.

If you were to design a pattern for a new silk scarf, what would it look like?

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Lewis visits another UNESCO World Heritage Site: The Khajuraho Temples

Ater another long bus journey of two and a half hours, Lewis the Lion arrived in the town of Madhya Pradesh. This is famous for its UNESCCO World Heritage temples that were built over a millenium ago, between 950 and 1050 AD. At the time they were built there were over 85 temples on the site honouring both Hindu and Jain gods and goddesses. Today, there are only about 20 but of those remaining, generally, they have been very well-preserved.

Lewis the Lion thought that these sandstone Khajuraho Temples were just incredible. Even though these intricate carvings date from more than a thousand years ago, there are many aspects that are still true of human nature and society even in the 21st century. The images reflect all aspects of life, e.g. singing, dancing, music, war and socializing.

Lewis also learnt the significance of the four zones of the Hindu temple here. Roughly, each zone equates to 25 years of a man’s life. By the entrance is the porch which represents a man in his childhood – he needs to work hard here to find his place in the world. The next phase (and canopied section) represents partying and good times as a man enjoys becoming a husband and father. The next section represents the stage in life where a man would enjoy grandchildren and lastly, the fourth section (the section which is now closest to the altar) is the section where man should turn to prayer and dedicate himself to God.

As Lewis the Lion left these incredible temples and the town of Madhya Pradesh behind, he was greeted by a boy who had the biggest smile on his face, as you can see in the photo. Even though Lewis the Lion didn’t speak the boy’s language, he knew that a smile was a sign of welcome in any language. Lewis the Lion was truly humbled by the warmth of the Indian people on his visit here.

The biggest smile in India!

The biggest smile in India!

To find out more about Hinduism, click on this link.

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Lewis takes a stroll around some Indian rural villages and meets a King!

Lewis and Helen meet children in Alipura

Lewis and Helen meet children in Alipura

Lewis the Lion soaked up the ‘real’ India when he was able to walk around some Indian villages, notably those of Orccha and Alipura as you can see in his photo gallery. In truth, even though he was a tourist, he and his friends seemed to be the attraction and at one point, he even felt like the Pied Piper of Hamlin as more and more villagers flocked to meet him as you can see in his favourite photo of his Indian trip above!

Again you can see what an attraction the visitors were when they visited a ‘mela’, a fair, during a jeep safari around the village of Alipura. They were also welcomed unreservedly as it wasn’t long before they were invited to play in a local cricket game in another Indian village. Lewis the Lion felt like the Indian people showed him great hospitality, that’s for sure!

One of the most exciting parts of his Indian adventure was that he got to visit a village school in Alipura. He saw an English class where Helen taught the children Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes and a maths lesson that was taking place outside under the trees. Lewis the Lion liked the thought of being educated outdoors. If only the weather was a bit warmer in England!

Furthermore on his adventure, he even met a former king – King Singh in Alipura. Even though these titles were removed officially many years ago in India, it was clear that the villagers still paid respect to Mr Singh as they bowed before him in his palace (which now serves as a hotel).

Do you know the story of the Pied Piper of Hamlin? What special power did he have? What special power would you like if you could choose one?

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Lewis the Lion and the environmentally-friendly Indian project

Lewis the Lion was lucky enough to learn about a cotton paper-making project that was making a huge difference in the community of Orccha. Not only was it sustainable, creating many jobs for the locals, but it was a way of using up scrap material in a highly innovative way.

The factory called TARAgram gathered up any cotton rags from the surrounding area and created quality paper from them. So good is the quality of the paper that it is even used by universities for their degree certificates! Lewis the Lion was so impressed that he bought some paper notebooks for his friends back in England as well as a couple of paper lampshades in the shape of stars!

How do you recycle products in your daily life? Do you think it’s important to be environmentally friendly? Why or why not?

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Lewis visits the ‘one night’ palace!

Whilst Lewis was in the medieval town of Orccha in Madhya Pradesh, he was amazed to discover that a palace had been built to host the Mughal Emperor for one night only. The Jehangir Mahal was the ultimate flattery to the 17th Century Mughal Emperor as he only stayed there for one night!

The palace is a grand, four-storey affair with arched entrances and balconies. Lewis the Lion’s particularly loved the entrance with carved elephants greeting you. Elephants symbolise good luck in Indian culture.

He also thought that the pictures painted on the bedroom walls telling the story of Lord Rama (the reincarnation of the God Vishnu) was delightful, especially in the days before the internet! This was visual story telling at its best.

The Hindu epic - the Ramayana

The Hindu epic – the Ramayana

Being the adventurous Lion that he is, he loved just exploring this uninhabited palace, wandering up the steep narrow staircases to wonderful views overlooking Orccha. From here, he could see in the garden, the house of a clever courtesan who managed to persuade the Emperor Akbar to let her return to her home town – something that was unheard of in those days. From the top floor of the palace, blocking his path, Lewis the Lion bumped into a bold monkey who luckily was more engaged in eating nuts!

As he was leaving Orccha, he passed by a holy man, a sādhu, on the street. Sādhus often wear saffron-coloured clothing, symbolising their sanyāsa – giving up their worldly possessions to follow the spiritual life. There is thought to be approximately 4-5 million sādhus in India today so Lewis the Lion wondered if he was likely to encounter any more on his journey through India?

Lewis passes an Indian holy man on the street

Lewis passes an Indian holy man on the street

Lewis thought that the notion of a palace being built for one night to impress someone was opulence at its very best! He thought that it was funny that he then bumped into the holy man who symbolised the exact polar opposite: someone who had given away all his worldly possessions.

Do you think that you could ever live like a sādhu and give away all your possessions? What item would you miss the most and why?

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Indian spices and delights

One of Lewis the Lion’s favourite things about India was definitely the food! Indian food is famous for its spices and every household has its own spice-tray. Lewis the Lion discovered that many Indians don’t eat meat and instead have lots of vegetables, lentils and rice. He was blown away by the rich variety of foods and how the food varied from region to region across India. So much so that when he was in the village of Orchha, he attended a cookery demonstration class. You can see what happened in his photo gallery below. To his surprise the class also involved garlands, chai masala tea and henna hand painting.

One of Lewis the Lion’s favourite spices is ginger.

Which spices do you know? Can you recognise some of them in the spice-wheel? Do you have a favourite spice or Indian food?

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Lewis travels on the famous Indian Railways

It was a very early start the following morning, as Lewis the Lion and his friends had to catch the train to Jhansi. Even though he was feeling extremely tired, (it had taken him ages to fall asleep the night before, probably due to the excitement of seeing the Taj Mahal!) he was happy to be experiencing his first trip on the famous Indian Railways. The Indian Railways is one of the biggest rail networks in the world, comprising 115,000 km of track over a 65,000 mile route with 7,500 stations. It is no wonder then that it the ninth biggest employer in the world, employing more than 1.4 million employees! Lewis the Lion couldn’t quite believe that these railways carry as many as 24 million passengers a day!

As he boarded the train and found his seat reservation, he marvelled at the efficiency of the service. He had barely taken his seat when a waiter had approached handing out trays with breakfast. It was more efficient than any aeroplane he’d ever travelled on, that’s for sure!

Picking up speed the train, Lewis the Lion gazed out of the window, taking in the view. On many occasions they whizzed past fields of children or men playing cricket – this was clearly India’s top sport. However, it wasn’t long before Lewis the Lion was lulled into sleep with the even rocking of the train, his head filled with huge numbers! Two and a half hours later, he disembarked the train at Jhansi station to get on yet another coach, this time on his way to Orccha.

However, this wasn’t to be Lewis the Lion’s only experience on the Indian Railways: another adventure still awaited as a few days later on, he had to take an overnight, sleeper train to the Indian holy city of Varanasi.

At first he and his friends waited together in station before it was time to board the train. They had to stick together as it wasn’t altogether safe at the station, late at night. He whiled away the time by playing ‘Pop words,’ a word game app on Helen’s phone – a bit like the board game ‘Boggle’. Do you know it? Helen bought them some snacks for breakfast: a couple of samosas, a mini-pizza and some mango juice.

Step ladders are used to get into your compartment

Step ladders are used to get into your compartment

Boarding the overnight train was certainly an experience. He found himself in a 3-tier AC compartment on the top bunk! That meant that Helen had to climb up some high step ladders to get up to the top-level. It was therefore very tricky to make your bed (as the travellers had been given some sheets and a pillow). Lewis the Lion was therefore very grateful when Dushyant, who is very tall, offered to help the rather vertically challenged, Helen and made their bed for them. Lewis the Lion thought that that was very kind.

Settling in for the night on the 3rd bunk up!

Settling in for the night on the 3rd bunk up!

Lewis the Lion didn’t feel altogether comfortable on the sleeper train – he’d heard bad stories of people having their things stolen on these overnight trains and so Helen made sure that she kept her small rucksack with her valuables close by. They made sure that they pulled the curtain right across to help block out the light so that they could try to sleep. Their sleeping compartment was close to the door of the carriage so there seemed to be constant comings and goings throughout the night. Lewis the Lion’s sleep felt very broken as it was stop, start, stop, start but eventually, it was OK and he did drop off to sleep. And really…in spite of the horror stories, it wasn’t as bad as all that. He arrived in Varanasi the next morning safe and sound, along with his travelling companions.

Lewis the Lion’s mother’s wise words rang around in his head:

‘What’s the point of worrying about something that might never happen to you?”

Honestly, he felt a bit foolish for wasting his energy on worrying about what turned out to be a great train journey across India.

Have you ever worried about something when everything turned out to be OK in the end? What happened? Do you think you would feel the same way the next time around?

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Lewis visits India’s Crown of Palaces: the Taj Mahal

“The Taj Mahal is the greatest architectural achievement of the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture. Apart for its tremendous romantic appeal, it is a masterpiece of architectural style, in conception, treatment and execution, all alike.”

Lewis the Lion was super excited – after lunch he was set to visit one of the most popular tourist destination’s in the world: the Taj Mahal. Of course he had arrived in Agra on the Indian national holiday so the queues to get into the site were crazy. They normally have visitor numbers of approximately 45,000 a day but with the holiday, Dushyant (Lewis the Lion’s travel guide) he figured that it might have been as many as 80,000! Lewis the Lion laughed at the thought. When he’d visited Easter Island, they’d be lucky to get 50,000 visitors over the whole year! What a contrast! He was however grateful that Dushyant had purchased their entrance tickets in advance as it meant that they sped up through the queues a little bit more quickly. (Lewis the Lion thought that it was a bit of a bargain at 750 rupees – approximately £7.50). It was almost like going through an airport as you needed to walk through a scanner and have your bags checked before entering. Lewis the Lion decided that because he didn’t want to offend anybody, (being a religious site as well), it was best that he kept his head down, hidden in Helen’s bag for the duration of the trip but he did take some sneaky photos of Helen and her friends which you can see in the picture gallery below.

The Taj Mahal, a mausoleum, was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (completed in 1663) in memory of his third and favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal who gave him 14 children. She suffered in child-birth with the last one and when her husband came back from battle, she told him three things:

1) that he must love all 14 children equally
2) that he must never marry again
3) that he must show the world how much he loved her. Thus the Taj Mahal was built, meaning ‘Crown of Palaces’.

Lewis the Lion could see that the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical. There are even two mosques positioned to the East and West of the mausoleum but only one is used as it faces Mecca. (The other is just decorative). The four pillars do not stand at 90 degrees but are tilted slightly.

The queen’s coffin lies directly through the centre of the mausoleum and her husband’s coffin is the only thing asymmetrical in the whole place. Originally he was going to be buried in a Black Taj across the river but then he changed his mind and wanted to be buried next to his wife. ‘Perhaps it was gazing out on it from his tower prison in the Agra Fort that did it?’ thought Lewis the Lion.

In spite of the huge number of visitors that day, it still felt like such a sanctuary of calm: quite bewildering really, Lewis thought to himself! It was wonderful to contemplate all of the world VIPs that had visited this site over the years, including Princess Diana. Lewis the Lion couldn’t quite believe that she’d managed to clear the site for her iconic photo sat alone on a bench?!

The time seemed to rush by in a haze, the whole time, Lewis the Lion’s eyes transfixed on the beauty of the Taj. The changing light of the evening cast a different, and another magical glow on the building and back at the gate-house, Lewis loved to see the brightly coloured parakeets swooping around in the warm evening.

But the awe and wonder did not stop there, as Dushyant had another surprise for the travellers. He took them to a rooftop terrace to see the Taj at sunset. Lewis the Lion slowly sipped on his new favourite Indian drink: a chai masala and felt a deep contentment as he watched over the magnificent Taj Mahal.

Lewis the Lion thought that the building of the Taj Mahal is an enormous gesture of love which has stood the test of time – perhaps the greatest example of romance that he’d ever seen in his little life. However, he also knows that true love is not in the grand gestures but in the little things that we do for each other to show that we care. How can you show love to those around you on a daily basis? Your parents? Your family? Your friends?

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Agra Fort and its secrets

Perfect timing to celebrate India's National Day!

Perfect timing to celebrate India’s National Day!

Talk about perfect timing as Lewis the Lion had arrived in Agra on India’s Republic Day! He couldn’t believe his little luck! He was now in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (about 200 kilometres from the capital, New Delhi). He was now in one of the most major tourist destinations in the world as he had come to visit the iconic Taj Mahal. The route he had travelled also formed part of a popular tourist trek: the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ which takes people from New Delhi, through Jaipur and eventually arriving in Agra.

Agra is famous for its splendid Mughal-era buildings, most notably the Tāj Mahal, Agra Fort and Fatehpūr Sikrī – all three of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Lewis the Lion’s first stop was to visit the Agra Fort and what a place! It was more like a city than a fort it was so huge! Lewis the Lion let his imagination run loose as he thought about how it would have been at the height of the Mughal’s power. (There was originally a fort there from the 11th Century but the one we see today was started in 1565 under Akbar the Great’s rule and completed 8 years later). With its high, red-sandstone walls, surrounded by a crocodile moat, the opulence would have been magnificent with gem stones encrusted into the palace walls and decorations. However, he thought that the Mughals seemed like a nasty lot with one son, Aurangzeb (the great-grandson of Akbar the Great) putting his father, Shah Jahan (the one that build the Taj Mahal for his wife) under house arrest, whilst killing two of his brothers! Apparently Shah Jahan was locked up in the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with a view of the Taj Mahal. It was here that Lewis the Lion got very excited as this is where he got his very first glimpse of the Taj Mahal himself!

Like in the Amer Fort in Jaipur, there were many chambers for different wives and concubines who would live (almost as prisoners) at the fort and entertain these rulers. No wonder this fort was so enormous!

Akbar the Great, the 3rd Mughal Emperor (and son of Humayun – whose tomb Lewis the Lion had visited in New Delhi), let his wife practise Hinduism and she had a temple within the fortress. He was tolerant of many religions and perhaps wanted to bring religious unity across his kingdom so created his own religion Din-i-Ilahi which encompassed elements of the Islamic, Hindu, Christian and Zoroastrianism religions – some of which is still evident in the fort today. He was also a great advocate of art, culture and reading and there was a library with over 24,000 volumes in the fort written in a range of languages. In his court were scholars, translators, artists, calligraphers, scribes, bookbinders, readers, holy men of many faiths, poets, architects and artisans from all over the world for study and discussion. Lewis the Lion thought that if he had been alive back then, he would have loved to have been a part of Akbar the Great’s court! That would have definitely intrigued his curious mind to have been surrounded by such erudite people!

From learning some of the impressive secrets from the Agra Fort, Lewis the Lion and his travelling friends then went on to visit somewhere called the ‘Baby Taj Mahal.’ At first he was expecting to see a miniature version of the Taj Mahal but that was not the case. Instead it was another beautiful mausoleum built in the Indo-Islamic style, as you can see in the pictures below. Its other nickname is the ‘Jewel Box’ but its real name is the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah! Some say that this mausoleum shows the transition in style of Mughal architecture from red sandstone with marble decoration to pure marble as seen in the Taj Mahal. It was commissioned by the daughter of a rich family, Nūr Jahān, for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg (who was also the grandfather of one of the wives of Shāh Jahān – the emperor who built the Taj Mahal). Lewis the Lion was very impressed by this peaceful haven in the middle of a chaotic city, with its beautiful design and gardens. Yet again, he delighted in the cheeky squirrels running past him and smiled to himself as he watched children wading in the waters below along with water buffaloes.

As the group of travellers left to head now towards the famous Taj Mahal, Lewis the Lion delighted in the sights from the roadside, including a colourful patchwork of laundry drying on the banks of the river, locals carrying bracken and hundreds of monkeys scampering along the city rooftops. India surely was full of surprises! He gasped in amazement as he saw the Taj Mahal – this time from across the Yamuna River. It really was an architectural beauty. He just couldn’t wait to visit now after lunch!

Lewis imagined what it would have been like to have been in the court of Akbar the Great, the Mughal Emperor in the 16th Century. Imagine that you had a time capsule and could be transported back in time to any point in history. What time period would you like to go back to and why? Who would you like to meet and why? What questions would you want to ask them?

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Lewis bikes around a bird sanctuary

Leaving Tordi, the group were on the road for another three and a half hours. They were certainly ready for their Indian picnic lunch as they stopped off at Abhaneri – a place with a step-well and famous Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Harshat Mata. (She is believed to be the goddess of joy and happiness, sharing this with the whole village). Even though this city is now in ruins, it attracts people to it because of its famous step-wells which were invented to harvest rain water, and also its temple which still has ancient Indian architecture and sculptures.

Lewis the Lion then had a quick wander around the village. It was obvious that this Rajasthani town was used to more visitors than Tordi as the children seemed more switched on (or cheekier, Lewis the Lion thought!) as they boldly asked the tourists for pens and money. In this village too, Lewis the Lion saw that people led very humble existences as nothing was wasted. Even the cow dung was used to insulate the roofs as you can see in Lewis the Lion’s photo gallery above. Clothes were left on rooftops to dry in the sun. Lewis the Lion noticed that in shops, there were many strings of sachets of toiletries, e.g. shampoo. It seemed that people would just buy what they needed at any given time.

Helen really wasn’t feeling well today as she had a very bad sore throat and almost wanted just to stay on the bus for the next activity. However, Lewis the Lion persuaded her to come along with him as she sucked on her throat lozenges. He was a bit disappointed then when arriving at the bird sanctuary they said that they didn’t have a bike for her but they were in luck: just at the last-minute they found one for her and off they went on their next adventure.

Keoladeo wasn’t just your average bird sanctuary but it was given the status of a Unesco World Heritage site in 1986 due to its vast variety of wildlife. In spite of herself, as Helen cycled down the wide tree-lined avenues of the park, she found that she had a truly magical afternoon and she was glad that Lewis the Lion had twisted her arm!

The pair saw a whole plethora of different animals and birds: storks, parroquets, egrets (white herons), pelicans, swans, pintail ducks, cormorants, snake-ducks, darters, jackals, spotted deer, blue bulls, peacocks macaque monkeys, buffaloes, painted storks and eagles.

At the top of the park, they came to a temple where their guide offered them a welcomed cup of chai masala tea, whilst helping them to spot a kingfisher in the shrubbery by the lake! An Indian superstition believes that if you spot a kingfisher that you will live a long-life. Lewis the Lion was therefore very excited to see one and for rather a long time! Lewis the Lion was even more delighted when above his head he saw some double-barrel geese. These had migrated and flown right over the Himalayas: the tallest mountain range in the world. What incredible birds he thought to himself!

What a very pleasant afternoon indeed, contemplated Lewis the Lion. Yet again he was in awe of the natural world and the wonderful animals which he shared this world with. As he looked very closely through the grassy shrubland, he was lucky to have caught his eye on a spotted-deer. He might have missed it, it was so well camouflaged. Can you see it?

For now, the group were bound for one of the most famous tourist sites in India: Agra. Naturally, there was therefore the expected crazy traffic on the roads as Lewis the Lion and his friends arrived at the Hotel Royal Residency late that evening. Can you guess what monument he would see the next day? Lewis the Lion was very excited indeed. It had been something on his bucket-list for a long time.

As you know Lewis the Lion is a big dreamer of a cat with his crazy idea of travelling all around the world! What experiences would you definitely like to have at some point in your life and why? Are there any places in the world that you would really like to visit? Why?

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