Temple Culture of Bali

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Bali: exploring Hinduism outside India while also enjoying pristine beaches, dive sites, all-inclusive resorts, and year-round temperate weather.

bali for Khabar 2014

As seen in Khabar Magazine January 2014 print issue. Words & photography by Sucheta Rawal. 

I arrived on the island of Bali, Indonesia, during an auspicious time. Palm trees adorned homes and businesses, colorful offerings for deities sat on doorsteps, and locals, dressed in traditional white garb, carried baskets laden with fruits and flowers. Children played the gamelan, a traditional musical ensemble, and processions taking Barongs (mystical beasts) paraded the streets. Every home and business had its penjor (palm tree) decorated with fruits, coconut leaves and flowers. It looked like a tropical Christmas.

It was the week of Galungan, the most important festival for Balinese Hindus. It marks an occasion to honor the creator of the universe and the spirits of ancestors. The festival symbolizes the victory of good (dharma) over evil (adharma), and encourages the Balinese to show their gratitude to the creator and the saints from their ancestry. During this holy period, people cook special cakes (known as jaja) in pots of clay, visit family members, and pray at multiple temples.

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It is easy to get lost in the architectural beauty of over fifty thousand temples in a mere 2,232 square miles. I questioned my host, Sri Ekayanti Ni Wayan (who goes by Eka), why Balinese people felt a need for so many temples. “It is mandatory to have a temple at one’s home, a family temple and a village temple. Every village also has three temples, each dedicated to the Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Therefore, a Balinese person prays at least three temples daily,” she informed me. They would also visit some of the larger temples during festivals or special occasions.

Eka invited me to her family temple, in the village of Sukawati. The family members, consisting of about 100 people, gathered in the evening to celebrate the temple’s anniversary, which is held every six months. Women are required to cover their legs before entering the tem¬ple; therefore sarongs (similar to the Indian lungi) are available at most public temples. There is a technique for properly tying a sarong with a sash, which Eka had to demonstrate for me, even though I have draped myself in a sari many times before. I was taken through the common grounds of the temple into an inside chamber, where we sat on the floor. Some of the women blessed me with flowers and incense, sprinkled holy water and dotted my forehead with uncooked rice. It was not clear which God we were praying to, as the Balinese Hindus do not practice idol worship. (Different colors identify each God: red for Brahma, black for Vishnu and white for Shiva.) Then we gathered to watch children from the community perform traditional music and dance.

A procession of temple offerings during Galungan

The Balinese temples (called pura) are different from an Indian Hindu temple. An outdoor complex of small buildings leads into a series of gates to reach the interiors of the temples. The Balinese people are associated to a particular temple by virtue of descent, residence, or some mystical revelation of affiliation. Some temples are associated with the family house compound (also called banjar in Bali), others are associated with rice fields, and still others with key geographic sites.

While visitors cannot enter most family temples, there are some well-known temples in Bali that are also major tourist attractions. During my stay in Ubud, the central region of Bali that is nestled among rice paddies and volcanic hills, I visited Pura Tirta Empul. Dating back to 926 AD, the temple has a pool known to have healing powers. Locals take a dip in the sacred waters hoping to purify themselves.

Taman Ayun (“beautiful garden”) is a family temple belonging to the Raja of Mengwi and built in 1634 AD. This is one of the most beautiful temples in Bali, characterized by towering Balinese pagodas (known as Meru) made of odd-numbered black thatched roofs. The temple complex is surrounded by gardens that are packed with locals picnicking with families over the weekends.

My favorite of all was Tanah Lot, rightfully named one of the most photographed temples in Bali. It is lo¬cated on a cliff jutting out into the sea, surrounded by black sand and surfing waves, and makes for a picturesque view especially during sunset. During high tides, the rock looks like a large boat at sea.

The profusion of temples in Bali is not surprising considering almost 85 percent of Bali’s population fol¬lows Hinduism, which is said to have come to Indonesia from India in the fifth century. By the eleventh century, Java and Sumatra were seeing an increase in the popularity of Buddhism, which was eventually replaced by Islam. However, due to geographical barriers, the island of Bali was the only part of Indonesia that remained Hindu, while the rest of the country experienced Muslim conversions.

There are similarities between Balinese Hinduism and that found in India. It follows the belief of rebirth, karma and nirvana, divides the cosmos into three layers (heaven, human and hell), and is deeply embodied in rituals celebrating birth, marriage, death, and everything in between. Balinese Hinduism is deeply interwo¬ven with art and ritual, which is reflected in the various festivals celebrated throughout the year.

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Hindu mythological characters and scriptures also inspire Balinese music and dance. Traditional dances depict episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and are taught to children early on. At the Sukawati temple celebrations, Eka’s nine-year old daughter and her classmates performed temple dances dressed in one-shoulder gold wrap and peacock-shaped headwear, gesturing with captivating eye and facial expressions. A dance-drama played out the battle between the mythical characters Rangda (a witch representing adharma) and Barong, the protective predator (representing dharma), in which performers fell into a trance and attempt¬ed to stab themselves with sharp knives.

Dance schools around the island run by genera¬tions of artistes hold classes for adults and children who want to practice traditional Balinese dances. For spectators, many local restaurants, temples, and cul¬tural centers offer Balinese folklore performances for a cover charge of about $8-10.

In recent years, Bali has become a major attraction for travelers seeking spirituality through yoga, meditation, healing, and vegetarianism. Many yoga schools, retreat centers, and spas offer a chance to develop spiritual and physical being. Styles of yoga and movement taught in Bali include Hatha, Vinyasa Flow, Yin, Laughter, Power, Anusara, Ashtanga, Silat, Capoeira, Poi, Qi Gong, and Juggling. The annual Bali Spirit Festival gathers world-renowned musicians, yogis, and dancers to illustrate the Balinese Hindu concept of Tri Hita Karana: living in harmony with our spiritual, social, and natural environments. Yoga teacher training, cleansing detox, and meditation retreats are offered to international visitors before and after the festival. Balinese Hindus, unlike a large percentage of other Hindus, are not vegetarian. They eat chicken, fish, and pork. However, there are many juice bars, vegan restaurants, and vegetarian restaurants serving international cuisine in Bali. It is common to overhear tourists from different parts of the world discussing afterlife and spirituality over a lunch of tempeh curry and herbal tea at a café in Ubud.

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Coming back to the festival of Galungan, I am lost in the sights and sounds that make up the spectacle of the Dance of the Barong, performed through the streets of Bali during this time. Like in a dragon dance, two people wear a costume as they lead a crowd of followers through the village with much clanging to announce their approach. The Barong, even though frightening to look at because of its fiery eyes and animalistic hair, is meant to restore the balance of good and evil at a Balinese home.

The tenth day, Kuningan, marks the end of Galungan, and is believed to be the day when the spirits ascend back to heaven. On this day, Balinese families get together, make offerings, and pray. Then they have a feast where traditional Balinese dishes such as lawar (a spicy pork and coconut sauce dish) and satay (chicken tenders grilled on bamboo sticks) are served.

While most Western tourists visit Bali for its pristine beaches, dive sites, all-inclusive resorts, and year-round temperate weather, the more unforgettable attractions remain the region’s colorful art, vivid dances, rich culture, and Hindu festivals. Hindu customs in Bali have been preserved over thousands of years and form an integral part of everyday life.

Most popular temples in Bali Pura Besakih – Also known as Mother Temple or the Temple of Spiritual Happiness, this is the most import¬ant temple for Balinese ceremonies.Pura Tanah Lot – The most photographed temple in Bali sits atop a high rock with a backdrop of foamy white waves and black sand.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu – Perched on cliffs against a surf break against the sea, it is spectacular to visit during sunset.

Pura Tirta Empul – Fitted with two holy springs, it is a popular place for the Balinese to bathe for spiritual cleansing.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – Situated in beautiful surround¬ings, the temple juts out onto a lake.

Goa Lawah Temple – The 1,000-year-old-cave temple swarms with bats and is one of the most unique temples in the world.

Taman Ayun Temple in Mengwi – Surrounded by beautiful gardens, it is a good place to see the famous Balinese pagodas.

Pura Goa Giri Putri – Nestled inside a mountain cave, the dwelling place of God symbolizes the power of a woman.

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Teaching and Learning in a Week in Quetzaltenango

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Traveling to Latin America, particularly if you already know Spanish, can be an unforgettable experience, especially if it is your first time there. Just imagine getting a study abroad opportunity, being able to teach English, soaking in the scenery, and that was my week in Quetzaltenango.  After a 3 hour plane ride from Atlanta to Guatemala, a 1 hour taxi ride from the airport to the bus station, and a 3 hour bus ride from Guatemala City to Quetzaltenango, my week officially began.

host family in Guatemala

I start the week with meeting my host family. They are warm, hospitable people that demonstrate a lot of interest in making me feel at home. My mouth was watering as I was treated to my first meal, which consisted of rice, tortillas, and frijoles (beans). It was so delicious, but the excitement didn’t stop there. I had a delicious homemade breakfast, lunch, and dinner waiting for me every day of my trip. It was like a buffet of gourmet goodness, as I chowed down on soup, potatoes, soy, guacamole, and more.

food in Guatemala

This was an ideal week for anybody that wanted to test their ability to speak a foreign language in a setting where you are surrounded by people of limited English proficiency.  From the taxi ride to the bus station, and eventually at my host family’s house, I had to get out of my comfort zone of speaking English, and adjust myself to the new environment that I was in.

The city of Quetzaltenango is filled with breath-taking natural scenery and life. Exploring the hills and trees across the city simply left me speechless. Cows and horses were everywhere.  The rooms, including the Nahual Community Center where I was teaching English, were filled with plants.

Walking through the local markets in the city will make anyone want to stop and check out all the marvelous products being sold.  Guatemala has a large textile industry, and the fresh produce is abundant. Looking at all those fresh from the farm and probably organic juicy strawberries, peaches, and raspberries, left me drooling.

I kept strolling through toy stores, hospitals, car shops, and so much more. There were too many stores I wanted to see that it was difficult to see all of them.

shopping in Guatemala

Teaching English was the most difficult part of the trip.  Imagine being in front of a group of students who know very little English, and having to help them learn the language.  But instead of giving up when things got tough, I endured the rigorous task of working to develop lesson plans for the students.  What made the experience a lot easier was working with a group of other volunteers from all over the world, including Indiana, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland.

Did I say study abroad? The Nahual Community Center also provided Spanish classes for me and other volunteers. Imagine taking 4 hours of Spanish every day, for five days,
and compare it to 3 hours a week of Spanish training, and you can have an idea of how much more prepared I needed to be to keep up with the material.  But my Spanish classes focused on more than just learning the language, but also on learning about the local economy of Guatemala.

Guatemala study abroad programs

Did you know that many people in Guatemala enjoy listening to American music, particularly songs from the 80s?  During my taxi ride from the airport to the bus station, I was bopping my head as I listened to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”  Also, at the school I heard the staff listening to “Party All The Time.”  Looking back at the trip, I am glad that I went and I recommend people reading this blog to try it out.  This trip makes me want to visit other countries in Latin America.

~ By Gaurav Bhatia, a philanthropist who wants to advocate for the rights of all people around the world to get a good education.  Check out his website at www.seedsofsharing.org

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Who knew healthy munchies could taste this good?

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When I think of mindless munching, what crosses my mind are chips, crackers, tortillas, and popcorns, along with a can of chilled soda. I am talking about manufactured food products that only do good for the taste buds. No matter how much we like them, somewhere inside of us, we all crave to eat healthy food made with real ingredients, that is also palate pleasing. Somehow in the world of food, tasty and healthy still do not go together, but when I got this carton of a variety of tortilla chips from Food Should Taste Good (FSTG), my thought process changed. Yes it’s very much possible to have food which is not only natural, but also appetizing, and that too in the category of munchies.

I tasted four flavors of  FSTG tortilla chips – Guacamole, Jalapeño, SweetPotato and Multi-grain. The packaging was quiet attractive and the materials used were recyclable. The guacamole flavored chips were absolutely delicious, and a “must-have” for a true chip lover. Made with cilantro, real avocados and spicy serrano peppers, they had a very tasty kick to them. The guacamole coating was decent, and it definitely satisfied my appetite for guacamole and chips. I also tried it with a homemade guacamole dip and it made for a nice treat. Next, to try is sour cream with Food Should Taste Good Guacamole Tortilla Chips.

Food Should Taste Good

Second came a Sweet Potato flavor. Although popular in the south, sweet potato is not something I have been use to eating. These were crunchy and sweet (a hint of cane sugar), with a tad bit of saltiness. I had them with a dollop of mixed fruit jam, and in around 15 minutes I managed to gulp the whole pack of crackers down. Thankfully, there was nothing to feel guilty about as these are organic and without biotechnology (GMOs). The Jalapeños chips had a spicy bite to them. I tried them with with salsa and a pinch of salt.

Multigrain, the word itself is very healthy. Health and I didn’t get together for a very long time, that’s why I opened this bag with a little hesitation. Made with flax, sunflower and sesame seed, the light and crispy treats were highly delectable and super satiating. Even so, I replaced my lunch with FSTG multi-grain crackers and hummus, and still within my daily calorie limit.

SweetPotatochips

The story of restauranteur and founder Pete Lescoe is worth crediting. He created Food Should Taste Good, Inc in 2006 with the goal of making a unique new snack with great taste, real ingredients, and sophisticated flavor – the qualities he is most passionate about in his cooking.

Another noticeable difference between Food Should Taste Good and other brand of chips was that the bag was full all the way to the bottom with very little room for air.

It was interesting to know that all these delicious snack foods I tried were gluten free, cholesterol free, Kosher and trans fat free! FSTG has managed to satisfy my cravings guilt-free. See recipes with FSTG products on Pinterest.

~ By Divya Sarin, a yoga enthusiast who can’t sit idle, and wants to create some magic in each person’s life. Behind the scenes, you will find her tweeting @GoEatGive. Follow her on her blog on happiness and life. 

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Nigeria Has a Lot More to Offer Than What the Media Tells Us

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Last Thursday, I received another lesson in my cultural education, courtesy of Go Eat Give at its August Destination Dinner. The country of focus was Nigeria, a populous African nation that has been plagued by a lot of social issues recently, resulting in an image that isn’t very flattering or inviting. Leading up to this event, I did a lot of research and learned that Nigeria has a lot to boast about.  To find out more, check out my first blog post here. Although the atmosphere of this event was more serious than the previously held Destination Dinners, I think it was one of the most informative and culturally educational one I experienced.

The event started with mingling among the 40 or so guests. Guests had the chance to try a few different kinds of African juices, and samplings from an independent wine company called Spodee. The wine was more of a cocktail mix as it was made with moonshine and served on ice, but was still very enjoyable. Waiters walked around serving a traditional Nigerian appetizer, chicken gizzards. I’m not going to lie, while I am normally open to trying new things, there was no way I was going to try chicken gizzards. However, I have been told by the brave souls who did try the unfamiliar snack that it was actually pretty good. Even though some people didn’t try the dish, it still serves as a great example of the cultural education that took place that evening.

Nigeria chicken gizzardOnce we took our seats, a variety of dishes were served both family and buffet style. Some of these included Nigerian meat pies, Kpof Kpof (African style donuts), Moin Moin (bean cakes), Dodo (fried plantains), Edikang Ikong (vegetable type soup), fried fish, oven baked chicken, beef and goat stew, Jollof rice, rice and peas, and a few more. For dessert, Nations Café served a variety of dry tea cakes, all of which looked delicious. I didn’t get the chance to try much of the food, but my favorite by far was the Kpof Kpof and the Jollof rice. Although the food was presented differently than what one would normally see in America, it wasn’t that unfamiliar to me. This definitely shattered some of the pre-conceived notions I had about Nigerian culture, and was a lesson in my cultural education for the evening. Nigeria, although seems so completely foreign, and in many ways it is, it wasn’t nearly as un-relatable as I thought it might be.

Nigerian food platter

In addition to copious amounts of good food, there was plenty of entertainment.  The keynote speaker was Nigerian Ambassador Geoffrey I. Teneilabe. He spoke primarily about the economy of Nigeria and emphasized how important education is to Nigerians. According to the ambassador, there are Nigerians in almost every sector of the professional world, and Nigerians are the eighth-most educated minority group in the United States. He also encouraged the audience to visit Nigeria and to bring business to the country, as it is trying to open up its global economy.

 Nigerian Ambassador in Atlanta

After his speech, guests were surprised by a performance of an authentic Nigerian music and dance called Ekpe, which Nigerians actually consider a masquerade.  According to Nigerian folklore, Ekpe is a mysterious spirit who lives in the jungle and presides at various cultural ceremonies. I don’t think any description I could give of this performance would do it justice, so make sure to check out the video below and see it for yourself. It was, by far, one of the most interesting parts of the evening.

For me, the most prominent takeaway from the evening wasn’t necessarily what I learned, but the pride that was evident in its people despite the bad reputation Nigeria has gotten in the news recently. Many native Nigerians attended the event, and they all had something to say about how amazing their country is. It was very interesting to hear what someone who actually knows the country and culture has to say, and enlightened me in a lot of surprising ways. In my opinion, Destination Nigeria gets a ten on the cultural education scale.

~ By Allie Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. Allie explores her passion for food, travel, and learning about different cultures though her internship with Go Eat Give.

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How India’s Most Planned City Came About

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Chandigarh, know as The City Beautiful, a Union Territory, and the capital of Punjab and Haryana in north India is also named as “the best place to live” and the “most planned city” in India.

The city of Chandigarh was conceived immediately after India‘s Independence in 1947. With the partition in the subcontinent, Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab fell within Pakistan, leaving East Punjab without a Capital. It was decided to built a new Capital city called Chandigarh about 240 kilometers north of New Delhi on a gently sloping terrain with foothills of the Himalayas the Shivalik range of the North and two Seasonal rivulets flowing on its two sides approximately 7-8 kms apart.

Nehru’s Vision

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first Prime Minister, laid down the founding principles of the new city when he said “Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past….. an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.

The Perfect Site 

To select a suitable site, the Government of Punjab appointed a Committee in 1948 under the Chairmanship of Sh. P.L Verma, Chief Engineer to assess and evaluate the existing towns in the State for setting up the proposed capital of Punjab. However, none was found suitable on the basis of several reasons, such as military vulnerability, shortage of drinking water, inaccessibility, inability to cope influx of large number of refugees, etc. The present site was selected in 1948, taking into account various attributes such as its central location in the state, proximity to the national capital, availability of sufficient water supply, fertile soil, gradient of land for natural drainage, beautiful site with the panorama of blue hills as backdrop, & moderate climate.

chandigarh map

French, Swiss & American Architects

An American Firm, M/s. Mayer, Whittlessay and Glass was commissioned in 1950 to prepare the Master Plan for the new City. Albert Mayer and Mathew Novicki evolved a fan shaped Master Plan and worked out conceptual sketches of the super block. The super block was designed as a self-sufficient neighborhood units placed along the curvilinear roads and comprised of cluster type housing, markets, and centrally located open spaces. Novicki was tragically killed in an air accident and Mayer decided to discontinue. Thereafter, the work was assigned to a team of architects led by Charles Eduard Jeanneret better known as Le Corbusier in 1951.

le corbousier & nehru

He was assisted by three senior architects, Maxwell Fry, his wife Jane B Drew and Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. These senior architects were supported by a team of young Indian architect and planners. The major buildings designed by these architects are the important landmarks in the city

Chandigarh-The City Beautiful

Picturesquely located at the foothills of Shivalik hills, Chandigarh is known as one of the best experiments in urban planning and modern architecture in the twentieth century in India. Chandigarh derives its name from the temple of “Chandi Mandir” located in the vicinity of the site selected for the city. The deity ‘Chandi’, the goddess of power and a fort of ‘garh’ laying beyond the temple gave the city its name “Chandigarh-The City Beautiful”.

The city has a pre-historic past. The gently sloping plains on which modern Chandigarh exists, was a wide lake ringed by a marsh. The fossil remains found at the site indicate a large variety of aquatic and amphibian life, which was supported by that environment. About 8000 years ago the area was also known to be a home to the Harappans.

The Capital City

Since the medieval through modern era, the area was part of the large and prosperous Punjab Province, which was divided into East & West Punjab during partition of the country in 1947. The city was conceived not only to serve as the capital of East Punjab, but also to resettle thousands of refugees who had been uprooted from West Punjab.

In March, 1948, the Government of Punjab, in consultation with the Government of India, approved the area of the foothills of the Shivaliks as the site for the new capital. The location of the city site was a part of the erstwhile Ambala district as per the 1892- 93 gazetteer of District Ambala. The foundation stone of the city was laid in 1952. Subsequently, at the time of reorganization of the state on 01.11.1966 into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pardesh, the city assumed the unique distinction of being the capital city of both, Punjab and Haryana while it itself was declared as a Union Territory and under the direct control of the Central Government.

The Open Hand

Le Corbusier conceived the master plan of Chandigarh as analogous to human body, with a clearly defined head (the Capitol Complex, Sector 1), heart (the City Centre Sector-17), lungs ( the leisure valley, innumerable open spaces and sector greens), the intellect (the cultural and educational institutions), the circulatory system (the network of roads, the 7Vs) and the viscera (the Industrial Area). The concept of the city is based on four major functions: living, working, care of the body, and spirit and circulation. Residential sectors constitute the living part whereas the Capitol Complex, City Centre, Educational Zone (Post Graduate Institute, Punjab Engineering College, Panjab University) and the Industrial Area constitute the working part. The Leisure Valley, Gardens, Sector Greens and Open Courtyards are for the care of body and spirit. The circulation system comprises of 7 different types of roads known as 7Vs. Later on, a pathway for cyclists called V8 were added to this circulation system.

The Capital complex comprises three architectural masterpieces: the “Secretariat”, the “High Court” and the “Legislative Assembly”, separated by large piazzas. In the heart of the Capital Complex stands the giant metallic sculpture of The Open Hand, the official emblem of Chandigarh, signifying the city’s credo of “open to given, open to receive”.

Chandigarh open hand

The city centre (Sector 17) is the heart of Chandigarh’s activities. It comprises the Inter-State Bus Terminus, Parade Ground, District Courts, etc. on one hand, and vast business and shopping center on the other. The 4-storey concrete buildings house banks and offices above and showrooms/shops at the ground level with wide pedestrian concourses. The Neelam piazza in the center has fountains with light and water features. Proposal to set up an eleven storey building in Sector 17 is in the offing. Sector 34 is another newly developed commercial sector.

Parks and Sectors

Ample areas have been provided in the master plan of the Capital for parks. Out of a total area of 20,000 acres acquired for the first phase, about 2,000 acres are meant for development of parks. Leisure Valley, Rajendra park, Bougainvillea Park, Zakir Rose Garden, Shanti Kunj, Hibiscus Garden, Garden of Fragrance, Botanical Garden, Smriti Upavan, Topiary garden and Terraced Garden are some of the famous parks of Chandigarh. Sukhna Lake, Rock Garden, Government Museum and Art Gallery are major tourist attractions of Chandigarh.

chandigarh gardens

One unique feature in the layout of Chandigarh is its roads, classified in accordance with their functions. An integrated system of seven roads was designed to ensure efficient traffic circulation. Corbusier referred to these as the 7′Vs. the city’s vertical roads run northeast/southwest (the ‘Paths’). The horizontal roads run northwest/southwest (‘The Margs’). The intersect at right angles, forming a grid or network for movement.

This arrangement of road-use leads to a remarkable hierarchy of movement, which also ensures that the residential areas are segregated from the noise and pollution of traffic.

Each ‘Sector’ or the neighboured unit, is quite similar to the traditional Indian compound. Typically, each sectors measures 800 metres by 1200 metres, covering 250 acres of area. Each Sector is surrounded by V-2 or V-3 roads, with no buildings opening on to them. Each Sector is meant to be self-sufficient, with shopping and community facilities within reasonable walking distance.

Though educational, cultural and medical facilities are spread all over city, however, major institutions are located in Sectors 10, 11, 12, 14 and 26.

The industrial area comprises 2.35 sq kms, set-aside in the Master Plan for non- polluting, light industry on the extreme southeastern side of the city near the railway line, as far away from the Educational Sectors and Capitol Complex as possible.

Tree plantation and landscaping has been an integral part of the city’s Master Plan. Twenty six different types of flowering and 22 species of evergreen trees have been planted along the roads, in parking areas, shopping complexes, residential areas and in the city parks, to ameliorate the harsh climate of the region, especially the hot and scorching summers.

~ Published by Chandigarh government

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Dinner with the Yavuz family in Konya

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One of my favorite experiences when visiting new places is dining with the locals at their homes. Thanks to The Atlantic Institute and Hizmat or the Gulan movement, the Yavuz family invite me and my fellow travelers from Atlanta for a traditional Turkish dinner. They lived in a modern flat in a posh residential area of Konya. Located in the central Anatolia region of Turkey, Konya attracts visitors to Dervish school and tomb of the famous poet, Rumi.

We were greeted by Ahmet (father), Munire (mother), Seyma (daughter) and Neskihan (daughter). Ahmet has a grain business and spends most of his time overseeing his farms outside the city. His wife, Munire is a homemaker and an amazing cook (as we were to find out that evening), and his daughters are educated and ambitious young women.

Turkish host family in Konya

As we walked into the small but comfortable living room, neatly decorated with crystals and leather furniture, we couldn’t help but notice a grand setup prepared for us. On the floor of the living area was a round table with cushions spread around. Carefully set china and silverware were laid out, suggesting a multiple-course feast about to unfold.

Traditional Turkish dinner

We went around the room introducing ourselves to our host, Mr Ahmet, who was a little conscious about his English, but always smiled in agreement. It was nice to have a few bilingual diners with us, including his daughters who spoke English fluently. When he found out that I was a food critic, he alerted his wife and told her to “up her game.” Then he started addressing me as “Miss gourmand.”

It wasn’t long before we were served a variety of freshly baked breads, stuffed with meat and cheese, and topped with black cumin seeds. Munire had painstakingly prepared, Gozleme, a speciality layered flatbread of this region. This giant pizza shaped platter was devoured within a matter of seconds.

Turkish stuffed bread

Next came Ezogelin Çorbası (aka bride’s soup), the famous red lentil soup served at every Turkish dinner. Light and flavorful, the staple soup has a delicate lemon and mint flavors.

red lentil soup

The family outdid themselves when they brought out a whole roasted lamb in our honor. It was served with bulgar rice pilaf, stuffed bell peppers, green beans, fruits and more.

Turkish lamb & rice

When there was no more room in our bellies, we had to get a bite of the honey dipped shredded wheat called Kunefe (Künefe) along with Turkish tea. And as if the lavish dinner prepared for complete strangers was not enough, the family gifted each of us a goody bag to take home. I received a wall hanging with Rumi’s sayings and a box of sweets. We also gave them some tokens of appreciation we had brought from the US.

I was extremely moved by the generosity of our Turkish host family and the amount of effort they put to give us a dinner experience. They did it solely out of their good heart, to be good citizen diplomats, and keep on living the mission of Hizmat.

host family5Click here to read more about my travels to Turkey.

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How to Pray for a Husband in India

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Traveling, for me, is not only beautiful and enriching because of the deep histories, architecture, gastronomical culture, languages, and myriad of landscapes and climates; it is beautiful as you are exposed to so many people in the country, while you are journeying to the destination.  Through the people is how we are able to break down barriers, share stories and ideas, identify commonalities and transcendence, and find a sense of openness, excitement and inspiration yet accompanied with a sweet humility and peace. The people are where the real “heartbeat” of travel, and for me, where the real enchantment lies.

My journey and encounter with India was no different. The moment when I stepped on my connecting flight from Qatar to India, the aroma of curry and spice, the long grey beards, the traditional Indian dress, bindis, and more importantly the abundance of turbans, made it crystal clear that I was on my way to India. I was traveling solo and on my way to meet Sucheta and Dipak who were coming from USA. I was one of very few non-Indians on the Qatar Airways flight and curiosity quickly overcame me. At the time, I had been living in Spain, and certainly was no novice to travel, yet, for me India brought such an array of thoughts and feelings, as it was my first voyage into the eastern world, one perceived to be exotic, mystical, and very complex. I felt like little Ms. America in the midst of the unknown.

gina shopping for sari

On my flight, I came across a jolly old Indian man with bright pearly whites, a turban and a beard who just kept smiling at me.  I felt welcome as he started to communicate with me in Hindi (he quickly realized I was clueless) and even more grateful as he began attempting to teach me some of the local language.  He did it with such enthusiasm and such support as I stumbled across the words and the pronunciation so much so that three rows of seats in the airplane were laughing.  The passengers would all nod with encouragement as they saw me desperately trying to connect with them.  We shared snacks and smiles and it was then that my angst turned to comfort.

Arriving in New Delhi was fascinating and overly stimulating especially at 3:00 am in the morning.  My senses were on overload because of the entire aroma, the taxi company ripped me off, and I felt like an actress walking on the red carpet as I exited the airport.  My hair was blonde at the time and well the Indian’s didn’t see people like me very often so they looked at me in complete fascination and wonder.

Gina & Sucheta at a wedding in New Delhi

Upon awakening on the first morning, I was greeted by a serene and kind Indian grandmother who had prepared an authentic meal and later she and her friend took me to purchase my first Salwar Kameez and for my first ricksaw adventure.  We followed the afternoon sharing our ideas of love and they shared with me their love stories and the Indian culture and arranged marriage over chai.  Seriously, I thought, someone please pinch me.  I am halfway across the world speaking to two lovely older women about love and life.

And the Indian hospitality continued to unfold throughout my stay.  The people that I encountered along the way not only opened their homes, they opened their hearts.

The majority of the rest of my stay was with Sucheta’s grandmother, an absolute beauty, in Chandigarh.  She shared authentic meals, chai and conversations, and more importantly she integrated me into her morning routine where we feed the roses and the birds.  She persistently encouraged me to pray to god for a husband and assured me that god would listen.   Not sure where they came from, but I wasn’t going to argue, I rolled with it.

Gina with Sucheta's grandmother

My experience also included being invited to an authentic Indian wedding and to prepare, I received the full induction of the sari and accessory shopping experience.  The vibrant colors and array of textiles, patterns, beautiful bling, and intricate details to the parties and the weddings, the Hindu ceremony and the feeding of the fire, the food, the family, and the friends were certainly all elements to make ones spirit soar.   The Bollywood dancing and actually wearing a sari, a sleeve of bling bangles, was purely icing on the cake.

The stories are endless, the prayers of the tour guides, the countless picture taking with the locals, family meals, shopping and learning about the countries trends and natural resources and most importantly what makes India go round.

gina with mehndi

It was indeed a vivid country, with a plethora of religious and economic contrast, world-renowned tourist destinations, rich traditions, customs, and history. My writing could certainly go on for days about my humorous and embarrassing culture shock moments, the perplexity of seeing the stark and heartbreaking divide between the rich and the poor, to describing the elaborate details of the Golden Temple, going solo to the Taj Mahal and getting prayed over, (again for a husband), to a “How to dance Bollywood guide” as all of those created an amazing experience for me, yet, I do believe what is everlasting, was the hospitality and care of my local friends, and whom I would refer to as teachers.  I am eternally grateful for having gone to the land of enchantment with a native, as the insights and authenticity were invaluable. We shared perceptions. I was able to challenge ideas and opinions with those with deep cultural awareness and insights, which proved to be very thought provoking and at times, quite enlightening.

For the intellectually curious and spiritual seekers looking to experience India, I would recommend really integrating yourself into the culture via a local as the experience will be richer and more rewarding than you can imagine.

 ~ By guest blogger, Gina Cooper. Gina traveled with Go Eat Give to India in November 2012. 

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Nigeria’s place on the world scene: Interesting facts about the “Giant of Africa”

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Nigeria, also referred to as the “Giant of Africa,” is located in West Africa between the Republics of Benin, Chad, Cameroon, and Niger. With over 174 million inhabitants, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, and the seventh most populous in the world. It is made up of over 300 ethnic groups speaking more than 521 languages, the fourth largest grouping of languages in the world, yet it is only about twice the size of California. Nigeria gets its name from the Niger river that flows through its landscape, and is home to one of the oldest known locations of human existence. Thanks to its size and abundance of natural resources, Nigeria is the most important player in Africa and one of the biggest in the world scene, and is slated to become even bigger in the next half a century.

As of 2014, Nigeria’s economy is the largest in Africa, worth more than $500 billion, and is the 32nd largest economy in the world. It is expected to become one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2050. Much of this economic power is due to its crude oil production industry. Nigeria is the 12th largest producer of petroleum and the 8th largest exporter, brining in billions of dollars annually. This level of wealth is evident in many aspects of its culture. Nigeria is home to 5 of the 10 wealthiest pastors in the world according to Forbes, worth between $10 and $150 million. It is also home to the world’s third largest film industry, Nollywood.

But with the good also comes the bad. Due to its economic wealth and various military dictatorships that have ruled the country since its independence in 1960, Nigeria is arguably one of the most corrupt nations in the world. Its legislators are among the highest paid worldwide, while its people are among the poorest, with more than 100 million Nigerians living in destitution and for less than one dollar a day. In 2013 Nigeria was rated the worst country in the world to be born in based on welfare and prosperity projection. Based on an income of $81 billion per year and the amount of that squandered annually, Nigeria has been deemed the most corrupt nation in the world, due to its government’s tendency of stealing hundreds of billions of dollars from the public.

So how is this contradiction possible, and what is there to do about it? To learn this and more about the “Giant of Africa,” come to our next event Destination Nigeria on August 14, and hear Nigerian Ambassador Geoffrey I. Teneilabe and Dr. Omoh T. Ojior of the Onima Institute, speak about current issues plaguing Nigeria, its economy and its people.

Destination Nigeria flyer

~ By Allie Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. Allie explores her passion for food, travel, and learning about different cultures though her internship with Go Eat Give.

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Palio Obsession in Siena, Italy

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Siena, Italy is known for its landmark, Piazza del Campo, a famous town square and a UNESCO world heritage site. I take a behind-the-scenes tour of Bruco Contrada, or the Caterpillar District, which is one of the 17 Siena wards that takes part in the Palio (race).

Up until now, I am unfamiliar with the contrada culture and how dynamic it is. A contrada is basically like a district, often made up of nothing but a few streets. Established in the Middle Ages for military reasons, now the contrade are simply areas of localised patriotism, celebrations of every important event including baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories at the Palio, even wine or food festivals.

caterpillar contrada siena

One has to be born in a contrada to be a member of it. Someone who buys a house, gets married or moves, does not get a membership into the contrada. This can be confusing because, say if you were born in the caterpillar contrada, your wife was born in the giraffe contrada, and your child is born in dragon contrada, then all three of you have membership to different communities. The members of the contrade meet weekly, so each person has to celebrate important events (like deaths, births, etc) only within one’s own contrada.

Each contrada is named after an animal or symbol and has a long history, and complicated set of heraldic and semi-mythological associations. We enter the home of caterpillar contrada, which looks like another home from the outside. A newly renovated establishment with modern decor, looks nothing like ancient culture to me. However, there is a chapel, museum, garden, kitchen and hall.

Bruco (Caterpillar)

600px Giallo e Verde listati di Azzurro con quadrato Rosso.PNG Bruco is situated to the north of the Piazza del Campo. Traditionally, its residents worked in the silk trade.
Bruco’s symbol is a crowned caterpillar crawling on a rose. Its colours are green and yellow, trimmed with blue.
Bruco is one of only four nobile (noble) contrade; its title was earned in 1369 by its people’s bravery in helping to defeat Charles IV, and consolidated in 1371 when they led the revolt to replace the Sienese council with a people’s government.
Its Sede is at Via del Comune, 44.
Its patron Saint is Madonna (Visitation of the Saintest Mary) and the Titulary feast is on 2 July.
Its motto is “Come rivoluzion suona il mio nome” (As revolution sounds my name).
It is allied to the Istrice, Nicchio and Torre contrade and not officially opposed to any other contrade since its animosity with neighbouring Giraffa (giraffe) ended, formally, in 1996.
Last victory- 16 August 2008. It has 37 official victories.

palio costume

One of the members, Dario, gives me a tour of the community center which houses the Bruco’s Palio trophies and costumes. He gives me a brief history of how the Palio came about and why the Italians are still so passionate about it. We touch upon every detail about the horse racing culture: horses are assigned by lottery; jockeys are hired based on their desire to win; each new costume designed is worth 5,000 euros; money is raised by the residents of the contrada; transactions are made offline; and parties are thrown all week. It is incredible to realize that there are millions of euros and years of planning that go into a 90-second race.

siena palio

The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is not just a horse race, it is an annual event which involves the entire community’s hearts, minds and preoccupations for years. The race is actually held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, located in the heart of Tuscany. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, who has a church in Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary. 

palio of siena italy

Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The race itself, circles the Piazza del Campo, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. Crowds cheer and emotions run high. From children to seniors, everyone in the contrada is rooting for his jockey to win.

palio silk painting

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade. More than the palio, the bragging rights against the economy contrade, calls for weeklong celebrations. The winning ward hosts a nonstop party with free wine, food, and music.

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Celebrating the good things in life at Destination Trinidad and Tobago

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On Saturday July 19, Go Eat Give hosted its monthly Destination Dinner at Tassa Roti in Alpharetta, showcasing the culture and cuisine of Trinidad and Tobago. This event is a part of Go Eat Give’s monthly programming that aims to promote cross cultural understanding between different communities in the Atlanta area.

The menu for the evening consisted of 18 authentic Trinidadian dishes prepared by Caribbean restaurant Tassa. Trinidad native Radhika (Ria) Edoo, a fourth generation restauranteur Tassa opened the first location in 2006. For appetizers, we tried traditional jerk chicken wings, pholourie (fried batter) served with mango chutney, and doubles (a sandwich made of two pieces of flat bread and stuffed with chick peas) with tamarind sauce.

trinidad doubles

Fourteen dishes were laid out buffet style for main course, allowing those in attendance to eat to their heart’s content. These included coconut fish, spicy coconut jerk pasta, a brown stew made with boneless pork, jerk chicken, Bodi (a bean favored in Trinidad), jerk chicken (Trinidad style, not Jamaican), fried plantains, lentils, Chow Mein, oil down ( a stew made from breadfruit, salted meat, coconut milk, and spices), and Roti (shredded flatbread). In addition, two curry dishes were served – curry potatoes and chickpeas as well as boneless chicken curry, showcasing the large Indian influence found in Trinidad culture. The country’s most popular dish, callaloo (creamed spinach) was also served, as well as, rice and peas to go with the many stew and curry dishes. For dessert, we enjoyed a moist pineapple cake, paired with complimentary Champagne.

goeatgive destination Trinidad

As party goers arrived at the event, they were greeted by the sounds of steel pan player Sheldon Webster. The steel pan is a drum made out of 50 gallon oil drums that is popular throughout the Caribbean, although nowhere more so than in its native country of Trinidad.

trinidad steel drums

The music of Trinidad was further showcased by DJ Mackie, who took attendees on a journey through the history of Trinidadian music. Some of the Trinidadian music played consisted of traditional calypso and soca music, both of which are native to Trinidad. Once they were finished eating, event attendees danced to the lively music, creating an atmosphere of festivity that is typical of life in Trinidad.

Guests enjoyed the comedic commentary of Nigel Fabien, a stand up comedian who performs here in Atlanta, as well as in his native Trinidad. Fabien entertained the guests with a series of jokes, showcasing the lively humor of Trinidad’s people.

Nigel Fabien

Keynote speaker and former president of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Georgia, Allan Notingham gave an informative speech on the history of Trinidadian cuisine. He spoke of the many cultural influences that make up Trinidadian cuisine, such as Indian, Asian, and African, and asserted that Trinidad culture is proof that different races can come together in peace. He also emphasized the importance of Roti, which is cooked on an iron flat plate, and doubles, which he called the fast food of Trinidad. According to Notingham, these are the two most important dishes in Trinidadian cuisine.

To further showcase Trinidad culture, costume designer Charles Baker displayed his designs used for the Carnival celebration. Carnival is a street festival that takes place every year immediately before Lent, and typically consists of a parade, elaborate costumes, and lots of music. Baker’s designs were grand, covered with glitter and feathers in all different colors. He stated that these costumes are an art form, a way for the person wearing them to express themselves and free their spirit, an assessment that I agree with when looking at the elaborate, multicolored designs.

trinidad carnival costumes

Destination Trinidad was by far the liveliest and most fun Go Eat Give event that I have ever attended. There was dancing, comedy, and amazing food. The native Trinidadians at the event were all humorous, upbeat, and good-natured. All of this combined to create an impression of a culture, that to me seems focused on celebrating the good things in life. That is definitely a country I would love to visit, and I imagine everyone at the event left feeling the same.

~ By Allie Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. Allie explores her passion for food, travel, and learning about different cultures though her internship with Go Eat Give.

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