10.23.2009 - 10.27.2009 90 °F
Namaste! (We bow to you)
After a fascinating visit to the regions of Chennai (Madras) in the south, and Delhi and Agra in the north, we can now say that we were overwarned about the difficulties of being a traveler in India. Many who had been before spoke of a shock to all the senses, havoc on the digestive system, pollution and crowds, beggars surrounding and grabbing tourists, and terrible scenes of poverty.
There is truth to all of these accounts, especially the last—the scale of the poverty in India is so great that it boggles the mind. In other countries, I, Caroline, found myself obsessively inventing schemes to help the population, based on the particular lacks or injustices we could see in our few days’ visit. But in India, the want is so vast and widespread, one cannot help but realize the meagerness of any and all nifty solutions. It was painful to walk by skinny, barefoot mothers of dirt-smeared babies, living their lives on a filthy curb, and especially hard to heed the many warnings we received not to give to beggars, and thus perpetuate the profession of begging. Before docking, we had decided it would help our kids get through this conundrum if we made a contribution to a charity in advance, so we sent some cash with an SAS group that was visiting an orphanage for the handicapped. Later, when we were given a receipt, the kids felt glad to learn that we had fed the whole patient population for a day and more.
And it was true that the pollution was awful—back in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t know how lucky we are to live in a place with advanced emissions standards. The air in Chennai in particular was black with dust—riding in an open auto-rickshaw, Gabi said, “I feel like I am eating dirt.” All of us got filthy walking in the streets, and I have been on a shoes, clothes, and body-cleaning rampage since we got back. And yes, a couple of us did come down with the dreaded intestinal aftereffects!
Still, all the danger and discomfort warnings did not prepare us for the sense of exhilaration and wonder we felt at the vitality, the openness, the mixedness, above all the beauty one sees in Indian crowds and spaces, cities, towns, and roads. The love of color in India is ravishing. Women, singly and in threes and fours, speckling urban streets, riding on the back of trucks, walking barefoot by the roadside with massive loads of branches on their heads, touring famous monuments, shopping, selling—all are dressed in spectacular, vivid plumage.
What I constantly thought was, why do we dress the way we do? Indian women look so much better!
On our first day, Jahan and I had a planned visit with a small group of students to the home of Professor Meena Ramakrishnan, who hosted and fed us graciously, and introduced us to the author Tulsi Badrinath. Together, they offered an immersion in Indian literary and cultural traditions and a wonderful beginning of our stay.
Tulsi spoke about Hindu beliefs and practices in a way that really struck us as useful: we venerate, she said, not only the truth, but also the delusions in which we are continually ensnared, not only the good, but also the bad and the messy and the ugly; all are a part of life. This way lies peace of mind.
Tulsi also read from her new novel , which entwines the stories of modern mothers and children with those in ancient Indian epics. The professor’s servant stepped in now and again to demonstrate various cultural practices mentioned in the novel: the stripping of coconut branches for basketmaking, the drawing with powder of intricate good luck patterns on the front walkway (known as kola). Classical Indian dance and drama--the two are very much intertwined, we learned--are also key elements of the novel, and Tulsi, who has trained in dance for many years, delighted us with a presentation of the stylized movements that dramatize different emotions (anger, fear, desire) and even animals, such as elephants!
Meanwhile, the boys went off with intrepid teacher Laura in an auto-rickshaw to the mall, of all places, to skype with Eli’s family and to shop.
An autorickshaw in a street in Agra
Much later they returned; it seems their driver really had no idea where the port was, and we, back on ship. tried not to panic!
We had a short night’s sleep before a 3:00 a.m. awakening (!) for our long-awaited trip to Delhi, Agra, and the Taj Mahal. We flew to Delhi with a large SAS group, and met our tour guide, Mr. Singh, a gracious, 81-year-old Sikh. He taught us a lot about the history of the India, the many waves of conquerors who came and went over the centuries, and especially the three centuries of Mughal rule in the north. True, he did tend to dwell disparagingly on the sexual depravity of these Muslim rulers, their many wives and huge harems, as well as on their inventive cruelty to enemies, rather than, for example, their contributions to culture, and this made him not the optimal guide to the Muslim architectural sites we had come to see. But his own history of having been a teenage refugee fleeing Muslims in what is now Pakistan at the time of Partition suggested an explanation. To round out the story of India's modern condition, Mr. Singh told us about his children who are doctors in America; to be with them and his grandchildren, he now spends six months each year in each of the two countries, and holds dual citizenship.
On that first day, he took us to the Red Fort of Delhi, a royal enclosure with many beautiful 17th century pavilions. Together with class after class of cheerful, uniformed Indian schoolchildren on field trips, we strolled the grounds, admiring the intricately carved and decorated spaces, including the impressive public reception hall, where the king once presided over the legislature.
Our restaurant lunch was the first of several sumptuous Indian meals that were to follow in the next three days, all buffets with multiple varieties of chicken dishes, vegetable curries, lentil dals, rice, flat breads, and so on. In one restaurant, we saw the bread being cooked in outdoor ovens.
In the afternoon we were given an hour or so to shop, and for me, this was one of the most astonishing parts of our stay in India. There was a particular market street in Delhi, a little lane really, where we seemed to have arrived at the very mother of all textile markets—I could have stayed three days, walking the length of it again and again, absorbing the gorgeous colors and patterns of saris, tunics, scarves, wall hangings, pillow covers, and so on, hanging above and spread out before us, while dozens of women beckoned us to see and try. Unfortunately, my companions were all male, and I know my shopping desires tried their patience mightily. But as my mother would have said (had she only been there!) I could have eaten those colors.
At the end of the day we arrived by bus at the thronged environs of the Delhi train station, where our group of sixty or so SASers worked hard to stay together in the hectic midst of Indian travelers, hawkers, and beggars. After we found our platform--dirty, but strewn with colorfully dressed family groups, waiting on the floor--news of a two-hour train delay sent us all marching back to a restaurant to kill time and use the bathrooms, rather than the horrid station or train ones, and to buy junk food to tide us over till what would be a very late night dinner at our hotel in Agra. That train ride was something of a trial, both because a 2 ½ hour ride somehow became 5 hours, ending near midnight, but also because some of the SAS students simply would not stop carrying on loudly when the rest of us, including our kids, having been up since 3 a.m., wanted to sleep. Cyrus tried and tried but could not sleep until we forced him to lie on top of his father, where he slept for 2 hours. A memorable episode occurred when we arrived and had trouble waking Gabi up out of the one hour’s sleep he had finally fallen into—he was stuck in between waking and sleeping for some minutes and had reactions we can all laugh at now!
Walking through trash-strewn streets to our bus in darkness, we passed people wrapped up head to toe and sleeping on the sidewalks. Transported to a lovely hotel in Agra, we were each garlanded with flowers at the door, and upon entering, found they had kept a sumptuous dinner waiting for us—at 12:30 a.m.! We forced something down quickly before crashing for the few brief hours until our 5:00 a.m. wake-up call. All exhaustion and processing of the wild contrasts of India must be put aside, for we were to see the Taj Mahal at dawn.
Perhaps we worried that the Taj would disappoint—after so many travel photos seen, how could it possibly be startling and new? But the Taj, we found, cannot disappoint.
We found it a breathtaking spectacle, a sculpture floating in air, unadorned, balanced, serene. Jahan took many lovely photos.
I had never before noticed the flower inlay.
We left reluctantly after a magical hour there,
and we walked away feeling elated by having witnessed a triumph of art—Shah Jahan's architect (why isn't he the renowned one!) actually found a way to build perfection.
Our visit to the Taj Mahal had been enhanced by our guide’s retelling of the astonishing family saga of Shah Jahan, including the death of his wife, the treachery of his horrible son Aurangzeb, who killed off his other brothers and imprisoned his father in his last years, and the loyalty of the daughter who went with him to prison. We were also captivated by the story of the other Mughal emperors, visiting many of their palaces and monuments.
Especially moving was the story of Shah Jahan's grandfather, the great Akhbar, the tolerant and humane king who invented a new, universalist religion, combining Islam with Hinduism, Christianity, and other faiths. An afternoon visit to the city of Fatehpur Sikri, a new capital city Akbar built but abandoned after thirteen years, showed a fascinating attempt to integrate elements of Hindu and even Jewish iconography--the star of David was much in evidence in his buildings and on others.
We loved the wonderful use of twisted elephant trunk design in this Hindu-inspired building.
We then visited the Agra Fort, site of the intricately decorated royal palace of many of these kings.
It was also, sadly, the place where Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the dungeon by his son for many years. The guide showed us the spot where, allowed out in his last weeks, he died looking across the river at the beautiful monument he had built.
We were lucky that our trip took us back to the Taj at day’s end, for a much different experience—seeing the majestic monument together with thousands of Indians.
We told Gabi he could not take it home with us, but we couldn't stop him trying!
That evening we returned to the train station, and after some distressing time spent surrounded by begging children, had a great train experience—an express, on which we were fed an amazingly good box dinner by turbaned waiters. Arriving around midnight, again, we arrived at the Lalit Hotel in Delhi, the poshest hotel any of us had ever set foot into, much less slept in. In the towering lobby, amidst gorgeous floral displays, we were each greeted by an attendant who smeared an auspicious red mark between our eyes. But we were too exhausted to enjoy all the glamor and attention, and as soon as we could get a cot in the kids’ room and a new key to replace the one I had meanwhile accidentally locked in our own, we crashed (1:30 a.m.). The next morning in the hotel restaurant a sumptuous East and West buffet breakfast was spread for us. We were able to eat outdoors on a terrace, to the sounds of birds and lovely Indian music.
That morning took us on a tour of several sights in Delhi, including Humayun’s Tomb, a forerunner of the Mughal style later perfected in the Taj Mahal.
We then saw the amazing Qutub Minar, a 72-meter high minaret begun in the 12th century, and one of the first Muslim monuments in India, at the heart of a complex including the ruins of ancient Hindu temples destroyed and recycled in Muslim buildings.
We ate lunch at a restaurant called Paradise, and when we tasted the food, we understood why. The group then voted for a shopping expedition to a place where “real Indians” shop, and we enjoyed the daily ordinariness of an outdoor market where socks, t-shirts, and electronics were on display. An evening flight took us back to Chennai, and all were delighted by a thrilling SAS bus race, in which our bus defeated the other, so that we avoided a long wait in line to pass through ship security. This epic trip ended very late at night once again, and left us tired but full of wonder.
The dark travel god punched me, Jahan, hard in the tummy in the middle of the night of our return from Delhi. "Delhi belly," as our cheerful ship doctor calls it. After hours with chills and sweats and cramps and nausea, I was faced with a tough choice between sensibly staying home, in bed and in the bathroom, or insanely taking an organized SAS bus trip to two ancient temple towns in South India. You guessed it: I took the mad road and got on the bus. True, I nearly passed out in a couple of temples. But since in North India we'd had the Mughal tour of India, I was intent on seeing at least some of the great ancient sites of South Indian architecture.
After a couple of hours on a bus, we passed under the massive entrance tower or gopura into the first of the temples in Kanchipuram, a temple to the god Shiva.
It's still very actively in use, the priests performing blessings for small "offerings."
Even I bowed under the second priest's silver bowl; it was a day when I needed some good wishes.
The next temple we visited is one of the most ancient in the area, the 1200-year-old Kailasanatha Temple, and the carvings of Shiva were expressive, flowing, delightful.
Spending 6 hours on a bus when you're sick may not be delightful, but when you can look out and see bullock carts like this, you find yourself unable to doze (despite 9 hours of sleep in 3 days).
Passing through charming villages, we caught beautiful sights like these rows of drying cotton yarn.
Once we arrived in the ancient temple town of Mamallapuram, maybe the most remarkable sight was an ancient bas relief carving of Arjuna's Penance to Siva, a story from the Mahabarata. It's cut into a vast granite boulder and writhes with animal, human, and divine figures.
The right side is dominated by the massive elephants, standing about two stories high.
Nearby, also from the 7th century, are the Five Rathas. Beautifully preserved from the very birth of South Indian temple architecture, these temples, elephants, and other figures, are cut on site from a single piece of granite.
I ate nothing all day, but the next day consumed an entire bowl of rice. For the wonders of these sights, I'd gladly suffer the agonies of traveler's tummy all over again.
While Jahan endured his day’s ordeal for the sake of culture, the boys and I went on a most interesting jaunt in Chennai itself. We rode through the blackish air by rickshaw to a wondrous temple called Kapalishwarar, a temple to Shiva, originally built 2000 years ago, and rebuilt after destruction by the Portuguese just 300 years ago. Emerging from the rickshaw into an ordinary market street, we were nearly bowled over by the vivid colors of the tower looming over our heads (temple photo credits: Eli!).
We were fascinated by the multitude of sculptures of gods and their companions, enacting various legends and aspects of the divine. Some had multiple faces and arms; some were accompanied by bulls, peacocks, mice. Shiva was often pictured stamping out the demon of ignorance. Cyrus wondered, how can they memorize all these gods?
It was a very actively used temple, and while the boys felt conscious of intruding, they watched with intense attention as worshipers walked from one small shrine to the next, within the square, walled compound, bowing in prayer to each god located in a niche behind a flame, deep within. None of us had ever witnessed the worship of idols before, and we were all moved by what we could see of Hindu devotion. Later I downloaded some information about Hinduism in kid-friendly form, and Eli and Gabi both read it avidly and pronounced Hinduism a very cool religion. They like the idea of joining one's soul with the god of one's choice.
Descending from the sublime, that afternoon we hit the city’s biggest mall, and enjoyed the fusion of familiar features of the indoor mall--air conditioning, large central spaces--to the winding, market-like mall alleys in which most of the traditional craft stores were located. Many of the kids’ college student friends were there too, happily taking in the melding of the familiar and the foreign, and buying lots of both.
We departed India that evening feeling that five days had been entirely too few. Even as we scrubbed the dirt from our shoes and bodies, and even as we looked forward to several days of eating only bread and rice, while our insides recovered, we felt that amazing India--more than any country we've yet visited--is a place to which we must return.