Thursday, November 18, 2010

TRAVEL: Toronto showcases art and culture of India

1. Sunset over Toronto
2. Master Chef Susur Lee and Dwight The Wine Doctor
3. Star of India Rolls Royce
4. Putting the last touches on Asian Shrimp Salad at Lee's, Toronto
5. Shopping at Gerrard Street open-air market
6. Satisfied diners at Siddhartha restaurant
7. A "Bollywood" sendup for the new AGO art exhibit
8. Reception area at BAPS Temple, Toronto
9. BAPS Temple dome
10. Dwight The Wine Doctor and His Royal Highness Y.S. Mandhatasinhji of Rajkot in front of the Star of India

Story and photos by Dwight Casimere

“You have come this far, to this place, only to find the truth within yourself.” spoken by a Fellow Traveler

Toronto—After a less than two-hour flight on Air Canada from Chicago to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, I arrived in a world that is steeped in multi-culturalism. From the moment I stepped through customs and made my way to a waiting car and driver, I was aware that I was no longer in the U.S. Announcements over the airport loudspeaker were made in both French and English and the majority of people I saw bustling in and out of the airport appeared to be from every place else but North America.

That first impression may have not been far from the truth. The fastest growing population in Toronto is among those of South Asian descent. As of the current census, there are nearly a half million people from India living in Toronto. In the whole of Canada, there are more than a million and the number is growing.

In the coming months, Toronto will play host to the Bollywood Film Awards, the Indian equivalent of the Oscars, for the first time in the award’s history. Currently, Toronto’s largest art museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario is hosting a massive show, the North American premiere of Maharaja: The Splendors of India’s Royal Courts, now through April 3, 2011.

In exploring the vital contributions of South Asian culture to the arts, cuisine and the general social milieu of the region, I would come to both a professional and personal watershed.

A little-known fact about me, which I have shared with only my closest friends, is that my biological father is from India. Although he did not raise me, I find that, in my advancing years, I am increasingly informed and influenced by his specter. So it was that my trip to Toronto became a real “connect the dots” experience for me. It provided a revealing window into my cultural and ancestral past.

The first stop on my tour was to the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (temple), the spiritual repository for the Hindu faith, serving the Indian population of Toronto. There is a similar BAPS temple in west suburban Bartlett on Route 59, but it is not nearly as large, or as visible as the one in Toronto, which is the largest temple of its type in North America.

Standing in the center court beneath the first of two ornate, hand-carved domes, made of alabaster stone, I was overwhelmed. There was a sense of awe and the eerie sensation that I had somehow been there before. It was truly a mind-boggling experience.

“Each of these stone panels is hand-carved in a village in India,” our friendly and informative volunteer guide explained. “There are no stationary pillars or screws or glue used to hold anything together here. All of the pieces are designed to interlock, like pieces of a puzzle. The thousands of pieces were all shipped over here from India and then put together by thousands of volunteers. The whole project, start to finish, took fifteen months to complete.” I can’t imagine the U.S. Government Services Administration or the Military accomplishing a similar feat!

The Mandir, or Temple, acts as a sort of community center as well as a spiritual home for the area’s Indian population. “We’ve just completed the Diwali—the festival of lights, which symbolizes the victory of good over evil. We are now in the midst of distributing the Prasad (sanctified food), a selection of candied and spiced fruits that represent the fruits of the harvest. They will be hand delivered to each and every family here in the area,” our guide said.

Diwali marks the end of the harvest season and the festival of lights is a way if giving thanks for the bounty of the year and to pray for the success of the next harvest. In Toronto, Diwali has become one of the biggest celebrations in the region.

The next day brought a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, the AGO and the North American premiere of the art exhibit, Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts. The show is a major attraction and a reason to put Toronto on your must-visit list in the coming months. The show runs through April 3,2011 and there are excellent tour packages available through Air Canada and the Ontario Office of Tourism.

The show explores the culture of princely India, from its rise in the early 18th Century to its accession in 1947, at the end of British rule, when the Indian princes acceded their territories into the modern states of India and Pakistan. The paintings, jewelry, metalwork and furnishings of the period are dazzling to behold. The most spectacular possession on display is the Star of India Rolls Royce, valued at more than a million dollars, American. His Royal Highness Yuvraj Saheb (Y.S.) Mandhatasinhji of Rajkot, the great grandson of the Maharaja, greeted me in front of the Star and gave me a brief rundown of its history and significance.

“Every detail of the Star was mandated by my great grandfather,” he recounted. “From the symbols of the royal crest you see on the backs of the seats to the orange lights that were specially made for the front of the vehicle. These symbolize the royal colors. You’ll also see on each of the rear windows the royal seal. Every inch of the car is hand made and steeped in symbolism. Mohandas Gandhi himself, who was a great friend to the Royal Family, graced this car with his presence.” You can’t get a much better endorsement than that!

Lunch at the nearby Siddhartha Restaurant on Gerrard Street East, in Toronto’s unofficial Asian district, was an opportunity to taste authentic cuisine from both North and South India, as well as food from Sri Lanka. The buffet lunch included

Curried lamb and tandoori chicken (my favorites) and the waiter was generous with heaping plates of warm Nan, a soft Indian flatbread used to sop up the fragrant sauces and delicate, crunchy Papadum, a thin, deep fried, almost cracker-like bread made from rice flour, that was thoroughly addicting.

There are a ton of things to see and do in Toronto. The city is quite cosmopolitan, with a European flair. It has just a half million fewer people than Chicago, with signs of growth and development everywhere. There’s an active arts scene and the restaurants, with their Indian and Pan-Asian influence, are terrific. There’s even a celebrity chef, Susur Lee of Lee’s restaurant, who tied with Bobby Flay on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. He was also a finalist on season two of Bravo TV’s show, Top Chef: Masters.

The cuisine at Lee’s was spectacular and ran the gamut from Japanese sushi to Korean bar b que and a stupendous seafood and vegetable salad that was dazzling to behold and among the most delicious I have ever eaten. The parade of house-made desserts at the end of the meal was a testament to the imaginative powers of Chef Lee and his brilliant staff. I dined there on a Tuesday night and the restaurant was packed as if it were on the weekend.

I stayed at the brand-spanking new Thompson Hotel, a completely modern, upscale boutique hotel with locations around the world, including the Thompson in SoHo, New York City and the Sax in downtown Chicago at Marina Towers. The Counter restaurant located on the main floor appeared to be the hot spot for the in crowd in Toronto. Open 24 hours, it was the gathering place for visiting celebs, musicians and their groupies on an after-hours crawl and various looky-loo’s and wannabe’s.

I flew Porter Airlines out of downtown Toronto to Newark in the New York City area. It was an absolutely delightful experience, reminiscent of what air travel used to be like in the days when stewardesses wore white gloves.

The airport is in the heart of downtown Toronto, out on the lake, much as Meigs field used to be in Chicago before its demise. You take a ferry out to the actual terminal from land and that’s where the airline sets itself a world apart. The general lounge and waiting area is like the VIP lounge at any other airline, with free cappuccino, water, soft drinks and snacks.

Porter’s propjet planes are the most fuel-efficient and the quietest in the industry. In-flight service includes complimentary beverages, including beer and wine, served in REAL glasses, as well as complimentary snacks and gourmet sandwiches. Hot meals are offered, free of charge, on long-distance flights. The seats are made of Swiss leather and there’s plenty of legroom on board. I’d fly this airline again in a heartbeat and go out of my way to make arrangements to do so!

I don’t have to tell you that I’m already planning my return trip to Toronto to visit the area’s many wineries, including one that makes premium Ice-wine.

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