Wednesday, 23 February 2011

From India, Unfiltered

India Unfiltered

Up to the last moment, not knowing whether or not we would leave Cairo to go on a UNC-organized tour of"Mystic India" booked months agoin the States.  At the last minute, we throw a few clothes in a bag and go. I have never gone on such a long trip with so little preparation. At Cairo airpport, the young men at the check-in desk spontaneously solicit our opinion of who should be the next president; it is disconcerting to hear them speak so openly and publicly, with total strangers, unthinkable a few weeks ago. But it's only the beginning. Tahrir Square is cleared for now, some of the demands have been met, but the emergency laws are not lifted.
Stop-over in Doha airport: so pristine and bright and luxurious. "Quiet rooms" to doze in. The flight attendants all Asian, very neat in their retro burgundy uniforms with the caps perched over identical buns. The airport is truly cosmpopolitan: A few Gulf women in black and heavy makeup, Japanese girls in short skirts and boots, Europeans businessmen and American back-packers.
Delhi, in contrast, is startling: the Indian workers and cab drivers are skinny and dark compared to their Egyptian counterparts. The government-regulated, prepaid cab is a great system, but the cab itself is barely holding together and the driver is silently ferocious. A boy bangs on the window and brings his hand to his mouth. A girl of about four is collecting something on the side of the road, but what? On the short route from the airport to the hotel in the diplomatic enclave, the buildings and road are noticeably dilapidated, but it is green, so green after Cairo, trees and gardens lining the road. A couple of graceful women are working on the landscaping of the sidewalk, dressed in colorful saris straight out of an Indian miniature. It is cool and drizzling.
Once through security at the gates, the hotel is a world apart: imposing turbanned Sikh doormen bow along your path and pretty girls in belly-peaking uniforms smile at you behind the reception desk .Petite, far-Asian waitresses in white gloves glide around the tea lounge. Hotel service in India puts the hotel industry of Egypt to shame. In Egypt, hotels are staffed by bustling young men who never seem to have quite the right deferential attitude for their profession.
The next morning we meet up with the rest of the tour group- 20 people with UNC or U Penn affilitations, or none- who flew in directly from the States. We are greeted by an old friend, Gloria, and by the UNC representative, like survivors of a revolution, which we are, of course.
The diplomatic enclave of New Delhi is a gracious succession of wide, tree-lined, quiet  avenues, low, unimpressive colonial architecture. Traffic is so light you wonder how Delhi can be a city of 12 million until you go onto the main thoroughfares and get enmeshed in the cacophony of cars and green and yellow, three-wheel auto-rickshaws, otherwise known as toc-tocs. Traffic drives on the left, as in all British former colonies. The contrasts are as jarring as any I've seen. Beautiful parks everywhere and then a rickshaw ride through the smelliest, nastiest, poorest "souk" alley imaginable, in Old Delhi.
The British Raj imprint on official Delhi: the axis of the great arch of India Gate and the grand Ministerial Buildings and Parliament, linked by wide boulevards and green lawns. The Monsoons in July and August bring the torrential rain that accounts for the lush vegetation, but also for the wear and tear on buildings. The houses in the Diplomatic Enclave belong to the wealthiest citizens, and the number of air conditioning units you can count indicates the wealth of the homeowner, since they are very expensive to run in India.
The Mughal imprint on Delhi is everywhere in the architecture of the monuments: the towering red Qutb Minar next to an old Hindu temple with its elephant engravings on the walls. The Jama Masjid Mosque, built in the 16th C by the same Shah Jihan famous for the Taj Mahal; so vast its courtyard can accommodate 25 thousand worshipers. It is raining in Delhi the day we visit, and we get our feet wet in our socks; shoes are not allowed in a mosque, although women do not have to cover their hair at this mosque. Later we get our feet wet again, this time without even socks, at the Sikh temple; bare feet and covered heads are required of both men and women here. The temple is an imposing, cheerful white structure with gold domes and a good deal of gold decoration inside as well: the Sikhs are a wealthy sect. As we leave we are offered a sort of semolina paste called halwa,served with bare hands, which it is not rude to refuse but is rude to accept and then not consume. All but one of our American group declines. The Hindu temple is a gay riot of color, painted statues and gaudy paintings everywhere,  and children running around boisterously. Our guide makes a point of explaining the benign significance of swastikas in Hindu iconography, no doubt having noticed the preponderance of Jewish names on the group list. But this is such an erudite, academic bunch that I am sure they are already aware of the history of the swastika. There are also stars of David on the walls, but they represent ancient Hindu symbols for male and female energies.
The Delhi Museum is a fascinating delight of miniature illuminated paintings of the Mughal period, but we are not allowed enough time to take them in; I leave with my curiosity unsatisfied, especially about the many scenes of the Christian Nativity- commissioned for Muslim rulers?
We drive past the Red Fort, and visit Ghandi's memorial garden, appropriately spare, and a mecca for school groups. Then we visit the massive Humayan's Tomb, a Mughal palace built by a man who had a clearly different notion of his legacy.
That evening we are split into smaller groups of eight to go to our first home-hosted dinner.  The group Gloria and I join has for hostess a fortyish widow with an assertive personality who gives culinary tours. In the small sitting room of her New Delhi apartment, she affirms that India is a secular country, that Hindus are a peaceful people, unlike Muslims, apparently: she claims that at partition, which came with independence from the British in 1948, Muslims were given the choice of staying in India whereas Hindus were driven out of Pakistan. I consider reminding her that pre-independence Delhi- according to our own travel brochure- was a city of under 1 million, mostly Muslim, and that within weeks after "independence", it became a city of 2 million, almost all Hindu. How would she explain that? But then I reconsider; I do not want to bring up a subject of contention at a social occasion.
We begin the first of many interminable journeys by coach car, from Delhi to Jaipur, in Rajasthan, where the Hindu Rajas and Maharajas (Kings and Uber-Kings) ruled under Mughal Muslim Emperors. Our guide affirms that India is a secular country with many minorities, Muslims, Sikhs,Budhists, Jains and Christians among them, but she is fond of reminding us , "Hindustan is  the land of the Hindus." She is a charming woman who looks too young to have a son in college in Chicago.
Several people among the group have asked us to tell about our recent experience in Egypt with the revolution, and I promise to do so when we have nothing better to do on a long drive. The early part of the drive to Jaipur provides the opportunity.
On the way to Jipur we stop for lunch at the 15th C Neemrana Palace on top of a hill in the countryside. To get there we have to go through the village at the bottom of the fort, and everyone seems to have great fun  negotiating mud puddles, manure, and near-death encounters with oncoming traffic. At the top of the footpath, the impossibly romantic Neemran palace is every bit worth the short climb, and we are served an elegant al fresco lunch. Gloria remarks that it reminds her of a French countryside setting, and it turns out that in fact the developer who bought the abandoned fort for a pittance and turned it into a hotel is a Frenchman.
The next stop on our drive is a total contrast: we stop at an orphanage in the countryside, Vatsalya's "Children's Village," where street children are picked up- the girls at any age, the boys up to 8 years old, before they are corrupted by the streets- and given a new start in life in an idyllic country setting. It is a clean, cheerful place where the children are round-cheeked and smiling. The older girls are proud to show off the bakery, where they mill the wheat they grow in nearby fields and use the flour to make bread and biscuits twice a week. There are several European girls in temporary residence to help at the Village, and they seem at home there.There is a crafts shop and I buy bed covers and cushions I don't need but am delighted to have bought.
A few hours later, we reach our hotel in Jaipur, a converted 18th century palace set in beautiful grounds, with correspondingly luxurious rooms. We turn on the television set for the latest news from Egypt and the domino-effect uprisings cropping up in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya. The Indian news media eye the uprisings in the Arab Gulf in particular with concern regarding  thefuture of Indian expatriate workers there and their remittances to the Indian economy.
That night there is a wedding on the grounds of our Jaipur hotel; it is a particularly auspicious day for weddings and there are 160 reported in Jaipur alone. Indian brides wear red, but it is not exclusive to the bride; and the bridegroom wears a white tunic suit and a turban. Some of the younger women guests wear their gorgeous saris in creative, modern styles. Garlands of jasmine are strung up everywhere over the pavilions where the wedding vows are exchanged. It seems to be a somewhat deconstructed and relaxed affair.
The food at our 5-star hotels is lavish, and I indulge in the fresh fruit salads, in spite of the skeptical glances of my American companions. The yoghurt too is excellent and available at all meals, and the fresh naan and roti breads are addictive. North Indian cuisine is much milder than south Indian, and is surely toned down even more for a tourist palate, but a little goes a long way with me. Most dishes are vegetarian, but chicken and lamb (or goat disguised as lamb) is also served. Only Jains are totally vegan; Hindus can eat chicken but not beef, obviously, whereas Muslims can eat any kind of meat but pork.
The sacred cow, our guide explains, is revered as the symbol of motherhood; Hindus also believe that cows, dogs, and cats are common reincarnations, so it is very bad karma to be unkind to any of them.
I am getting addicted to masala tea, spiced with cardamom and ginger, and laced with milk and sugar, accompanied by a sweet biscuit, English-style. Also to the charming Indian custom of answering with an obliging "yes, yes," rather than just yes, when you ask for any service.
In the morning we take a vertigo-inducing elephant ride up the long widing path to the Amber Fort, built over centuries from the 12th on, by the Rajputs. The photographer wallahs run along on top of the ramparts of the wall of the fort, an incredibly death-defying exercise, to snap your picture. The Amber fort itself is vast and stunning, decorated with the mirror mosaic typical of th region. On the way down, inexplicably, everyone rides jeeps and the elephants return without passengers.
Jaipur, the pink city, the city of Rajputs and polo players and a Wind Palace for the harem (the Hawa Mahal, an Arabic name, as so many monuments in North India seem to carry.)  Jaipur is also the city to shop for carpets, textiles, pottery and jewellery, according to our guide, who takes us out of town to particular shops where we get preliminary lessons on the manufacture of carpets, ceramic, and hand-blocked textiles. We are also treated to tea and little fried balls, all part of good salesmanship. Our tour group, who seemed to hesitate over minor purchases, surprisingly fall over themselves to buy carpets and jewellery for thousands of dollars. I refrain from commenting that the salesmen are switching prices at such a dizzying rate that I feel there is no base line. I do appreciate the lessons I get in precious stones: emeralds and saphires are the stones of Rajasthan; a peacock-neck saphire is the most precious, a violet-blue with fire, putting the pale blue-gray saphires to shame.
I get separated from the group for an hour or so at the City Palace, and when I am "found" ( I did not realize I was lost) I am greeted with such reproachful relief from the rest of the group that I realize I must not allow it to happen again.
In Jaipur, we have our second home-hosted dinner, in a traditional rambling home surrounding a central courtyard and housing a multigenerational family, which sits, a tragic relic, in the middle of a noisy, run-down market street. Our host, an "aristocrat" (our guide's term) fallen on hard times, comments disapprovingly, when we ask his opinion of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, that "Muslims are like that, it is in their nature, unlike we Hindus, who are peaceful." Interesting remark coming from a man who is very proud of being of the caste of the warriors. But then he continues with an even more interesting remark: "We will end up with unrest like that in India because of the reservation system- a form of affirmative action- that reserves 30% of the military positions to the lower castes." In his opinion, they are promoted without merit, so the military will progressively become staffed with incompetents.  The daughter of the house is a lovely, dignified young woman who admits readily, almost proudly, to having had an arranged marriage. Our guide tells us, though, that this is increasingly rare among modern young Indians. Caste remains an important criterion in match-making, whether a marriage is arranged or not.
Another long coach ride from Jaipur to Ranthambore Park and Tiger Reserve; our guide does her best to find us acceptable restrooms along the way, a real challenge; but sometimes the only available facility is squat toilets; I prefer to wait. In India, typical toilets, Western style or traditional, have a tap low to the ground and a pitcher, with which to wash. More upscale places have a flexible metal hose attached to the side wall, for the same purpose, familiar also in the Middle East.
We reach the Tiger Reserve at the ed of a six-hour drive; we are lodged in an English style hunting lodge with the perfect wrap-around porch to take afternoon tea. The ride into the tiger reserve is a bone-rattling, bruising couple of hours during which we are not allowed to get out of our noisy vehicle, something like an uncovered armored truck for 16 people; we are followed by other similar vehicles or jeeps full of tourists or Indian tour groups. I have a close encounter with  a monkey, and we see various spotted deer, Sambar deer, antelope, Indian wild pigs, peacocks, pumpkin-and-black treepies, brilliant green parakeets. No tigers.  As elsewhere in India, it is hot in the middle of the day and literally freezing cold in the early morning or late evening. The next day, many of us skip one of the safaris in favor of a healing spa massage, thereby missing a sighting of a splendid male tiger. There are only about 1000 left in the wild in India, and the Ranthambore Reserve has 33 of them.
A couple of people in the group have developed what they call "Delhi belly", and a doctor is called in to see them. I have thrown my back out on the agonizingly bumpy ride in the Reserve, so I take a walk to try to limber up. I am joined by Linda, one of the most fun members of our group, a petite blonde with a delightful Georgia drawl and that charmingly arch Southern way of remarking, a propos of our indisposed travel companions: "My dear, we are dropping like flies."
At night we hear horns blowing for hours; it turns out there are trains passing not far and the horns are the equivalent of warning bells. There is a small mosque on the grounds of the lodge park, presumably for some of the workers, and the call to prayer can be heard as well, as it can all over India; I am impressed by this sign of tolerance.
On the road again, out of Rajasthan and into the countryside: lush green, the women in the fields a bright flash of color like parakeets. Their saffron, crimson, canary, fuschia saris are a grace, a gesture of defiance in the face of poverty, a gift to the onlooker, in a world where so many poor women wear black. Cows, buffaloes, boar-like pigs, floppy-eared black goats, the occasional humped Brahmin bull, share the road in biblical profusion. When we get to the higher elevations of Kalakho, the valleys are lush between the mountain ranges; the villages are prosperous, the vegetable stands packed with black aubergines, white cauliflowers, long red carrots, green guavas, black grapes, green papayas, splotchy bananas. Some of the houses are painted green, denoting Muslim occupants. Here and there a house has grown much grander and larger than its neighbors, boasting three storeys and balconies and ceramic decoration. Almost all the houses are covered in large cow dung patties neatly arranged to dry over the roofs. A few peaked, turban-shaped straw huts like those in Star Wars are used to store the dung patty fuel.
At the end of a long jeep ride, the retreat, or ashram, a "hill station" up in the mountains of Kalakho, is a delight of pure air and fierce sunshine; instead of being inspired to meditation, though, our group seems to be inspired to general silliness as everyone tries their hand at cricket, croquet or badminton. We take a camel ride to the village down the road, where the villagers celebrate the marriage of basil (the plant) to the god Vishnu, then dance for us and pull us into the dance. I am personally uncomfortable with the clearly  contrived exercise. These are prosperous villagers though, with many motorcycles among them, and most of the children go to school. The most common  color for school uniforms seems to be pale blue.
At night, around a fire on the lawn, a stunning dancer in a scarlet sari performs miracles of grace and balance, followd by a fire-throwing boy, whom I refuse to applaud while he pours  kerosene in his mouth and then blows flames out of it. If we are told not to encourage beggars in their pofession, why should we encourage a boy to risk his life playing with fire?
The cabins at the retreat are predictably Spartan, and the hot water supply limited. Linda comes to breakfast this morning perfectly coiffed but a little pale: she had just sudsed up her hair with shampoo when the water turned icy cold on her and she had to complete her shower anyway.
On the road again, to Agra, the great city of the Mughals, and the home of the  TAJ MAHAL! Our guide claims that the original Mughals came from Samarkand, close to Mongolia, which would explain why some Indian and Persian miniatures depict slant-eyed warriors.
On the way, we stop at Fatehpur Sikri, the abandoned city of the great emperor Akbar, who united all the five faiths of his kingdom in his royal court there, and not only married the Hindu princess Jhoda but built her a Hindu temple in which to worship her gods. When we approach the palace we have to get out of our bus to ride gas-powered vans, a laudable measure the Indian government takes to protect its monuments from pollution. We are packed on the van, standing room only, with French tourists; we have seen French tourists everywhere we've been so far. The palace itself is a vast series of open courtyards surrounded by redstone walls, interspersed with pools and beautifully manicured gardens. It must have been stunning when its walls were still covered in beautiful paintings; only traces remain of painted warriors and maidens, horses and elephants.
This afternoon in Agra, we visit Agra Fort, or the Red Fort, an astounding, massive red sandstone fort enclosing a vast palace, gardens and mosques; here and there a few decorations survive, in  marble mosaics and pietra dura embellished with semi-precious stones. The sheer scale of the complex is overwhelming. From the top of the audience hall terrace the Taj Mahal looms in the distance like a fairy-tale white palace.
Tomorrow morning at dawn, the moment we have all been waiting for: the visit to the Taj Mahal!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Such vivid detail--I feel like I'm there. Thanks for sharing.


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