Vera Koo traveled to India last fall, and shares her adventures here at The WON.
While much of the Western world was celebrating the holidays with festivity, light, family and gifts, I fulfilled a life-long dream of visiting uncharted regions of the Eastern world last fall. My passport has seen many stamps during the last 65 years, but India has, until now, not been amongst them and between the holidays, I joined friends in our quest to see spectacular Eastern architecture, the remnants of a great trading empire, and maybe, if we were lucky, ride an elephant or two!
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While once the capital of the spice route, today India’s poverty is overwhelming. As the world’s second most populous country with more than 1 billion people, it also is technically the largest democracy in the world, but there are millions living in sheer devastation. This creates a very unique tourist experience as we toured palaces, temples and extraordinary cities filled with lavish opulence. Prior to our visit, the Taj Mahal was, in my mind, massive and somewhat generically beautiful. But the day we visited India’s most iconic destination, it was misty and the white marble mausoleum seemed to rise out of the fog. It was breathlessly stunning, the sort of awe-inspiring size that is beyond any expectation.
As a lifelong student of the arts, the craftsmanship of the entire city was as moving as the story of the builders and their buildings: Artists created a legendary façade fit to honor Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, as the Emperor invested nearly 2 decades and the entire national budget to remember his wife. After completing the construction, the families and artists stayed in Agra. As such, Agra is the only place where they still have the particular style of art, passed from generation to generation much like the skills in our industry.
We arrived before sunrise to wait in line with a few thousand other eager tourists to take hundreds of pictures and explore living history. We took sunrise photos, mid-day photos, afternoon photos, and, of course, sunset photos, where the colors swirled through the skies, creating art as beautiful as the architecture we’d admired all day. Enjoy a few photos from our trip!
In Agra, we visited a marble shop historically run by the descendants of the Taj Mahal craftsmen. Everything in the stores looked like jewelry-chiseled stones, polished until you could see your reflection, inlaid jewels that glittered in the sunlight. While many of our friends filled up their arms with marble trinkets and jeweled pendants, I bought just one item. From across the room, I saw a large box in a corner. It was an octagonal structure with translucent marble inlaid with mother of pearl, coral, agate and malachite — the colors of Indian sunrises and sunsets. It arrived on my doorstep in California 4 weeks after I got home in a massive crate and in perfect condition.
We visited the medieval temples of Khajuraho, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, life in all its aspects — joy, love, divinity, war — is depicted in exquisite detail on every inch of the 85 sandstone Hindu and Jain temples. We saw a total of 6 UNESCO world heritage sites in India and the Tomb of Itmad Ud Daulah, also known as the Baby Taj Mahal, which memorializes a queen’s parents This ornate mausoleum is considered an imminent precursor to the Taj Mahal and has elaborate carvings and inlay work. There were colors unlike anything I’ve ever studied- the brightest turquoises, the most brilliant sapphire blues.
I also saw the biggest laundromat in the world in Mumbai, where 8,000 people have their clothes washed. We stayed in hotels that were formerly royal palaces, and took flat boats on the river to Varanasi. Varanasi, known to westerners as the City of Death, is, in fact, where people go to die. We took a boat to the river to watch the fires and cremation ceremonies of hundreds of believers who are certain that their souls will be released from the eternal Hindu cycle of lives. It was simultaneously amongst the most beautiful and most chilling things I have ever witnessed.
Of the more colorful things I’ve ever seen, Pushkar Fair ranks first! Pushkar, a quiet, secluded desert town for 51 weeks a year, becomes, for just a few days, an absolutely incredible and authentic extravaganza, drawing people from all around the globe. It is also quite the largest camel and cattle-trading fair in the world. Camels are painted, adorned, beautified and race to attract the best buyers. Buddhist devotees throng the ghats around Pushkar Lake in order to bathe, cleanse their sins and obtain places in heaven. Never have I seen so many colorful saris and crowds of hues and decorations. Even though I’m not a foodie but the curry was delicious as was everything else we ate on the tour. The entire adventure was amazing and we even rode elephants and camels!
After a few weeks away from shooting to spend time with friends around the world, it is time to return to my shooting form to prepare myself for the start of my next season!
Editor’s note: Vera Koo is training for the prestigious Bianchi Cup tournament, held at the end of May. This year, she faces the challenge of being the come-back kid, after a skiing accident upon her return from India. We wish her all the best!