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Archive for India

Interpreting India’s Caste System

In Egypt, we were constantly approached by beggars asking for “baksheesh”.  The people would create a situation which would enable them to receive a tip.  For example, one removed Steve’s sunglasses from his daypack, dropped them to the ground, and then offered them back to Steve for money.  Men commented, because he was traveling with 2 sisters “You are a rich man, you have two wives!”  Islam demands that riches be given to the poor in some measure, and he was constantly told this.

We didn’t know how Hindus would behave.  In a greatly simplified synopsis given to us by one of our guides, a caste system has grown up over the centuries.  It was originated as a way to direct kids into the proper job category, and it has now ossified.  It used to be that any bright kid would be directed to the priesthood, etc.,   Now there are many sub-castes.  But there are 4 main ones:

1.  Brahmin – originally priests, teachers, intellectuals
2.  Warrior – military, strong physically, leaders
3.  Merchants
4.  Low caste – cremate dead, clean, serve

In America, all the Indians we have ever known have been of the economist/engineer/computer scientist/doctor caste.  We have been impressed with their high intelligence, warmth, integrity and technical competence.  So, we were interested in seeing if the people here (in India) resemble the Indians we know and love.

They do not.  That is because, for the most part, we are colliding against the merchant/lower beggar class.  It seems to us that 80% of India belongs to this caste!  And we’ve taken to calling this army of touts, beggars, snake charmers, tourist guides, bellhops, maids, musicians, vendors, toilet attendants, tuk-tuk drivers, auto rickshaw cyclists, massage therapists, henna artists, elephant drivers, jeep jockeys, game guides….”The Venal Caste”!

Although we have paid (through the nose) for this tour in advance, in this culture, that is not enough.  Each time that anyone does anything for you, they have their hands out.  These activities appear on our itinerary as included.  But that is just the beginning.

We’ve read about corruption in India.  All peoples suffer greed to one extent or the other; it’s human.  But the ways in which it’s expressed to us tourists is unpleasant.  Some are doing a sullen, half-assed job, and still have their hand out.  A majority are just aggressive, loud and obstinate, refusing to take no for an answer, even when stated clearly and many times over.

Our driver’s wheedling and cajoling gave up the secret of what’s behind this.  The day after we arrived, the guide and driver asked what we did on our free day.  When we told them we’d gone for a walk and bought rugs, they exchanged angry glances.  When I confronted them, they said, you were cheated.  You should have let us take you to a reputable place.  But it had more to do with their having lost a commission on what we bought.

Thereafter, we could see our guides and driver deviate from the schedule and take us to company shopping emporiums, while saying “You buy!”  Every historical commentary was somehow commandeered, instead, into a full-fledged sales campaign describing the merits of Indian products.  The driver was also trying to get us to buy things or services we didn’t want “Whisky, rum, you like drink?”  “No, too strong”.  “Not strong, good for health, I bring you”.  “No, thank you”.  “Yes!”  “What part of NO don’t you understand???”

We had the “A-ha!” moment when the driver told us that he had a poor friend in Jaipur that could apply henna designs.  Gail enthusiastically indicated she would like to have her left hand done.

I said, “no thank you”.  He said, “she’s poor, you do both hands.  Both of you”.  I said, “I already told you no”.  He said, “Why you not like henna?”  I said, “My skin is cracked and peeling, allergic”.  The lady didn’t answer her phone ‘til we were near the next city.  The driver proposed she make a 3 hour train ride to do Gail’s hand.  Now the pressure to give to the poor was really on.

In the end, she came to Ranthambore, did a beautiful job on Gail’s hand, and was given a large tip.

What’s behind this is how India functions.  Each individual behaves as if the only reason to have contact with another is if he can get money or favors out of the interaction.  Thus, there is no human interaction that is not tainted with venality.  You can understand and see desperation in the poorest and the beggars.  But we are not free here to shop on our own.  Our day is being carefully controlled so our guides and drivers get a commission on what we buy and we are being pressured to buy.

Which, paradoxically, is making us unwilling to buy!  We see them exchanging glances of disappointment and hovering and commenting.

Then the joy of looking at the skillful work and receiving a beautiful item is gone.  Everyone is out for himself, or out to force the guest into feeling guilty that they haven’t given away everything they have to the poor.  Our driver has been asking whom we are going to give our savings to after we die (implying that we should give it to India’s poor).  He has been telling us about the dhurrie rug merchants who really needs our money.

That’s how India works:  one person uses and exploits the other (while studiously making sure the tourists give to the poor and to them).  In this way, they fulfill the Hindu sense of obligation to the poor, and receive good karma.

While I can fully see what’s going on, I don’t have to like dealing with the Venal Caste.

Claudia and Gail

Udaipur: On the Lake and the Lake Palace Hotel

Udaipur sits astride 3 mirror-like lakes. They are man-made, but are dependent on the monsoon rains to fill the 30 foot basins. Along the east side rises the City Palace, while to the north, women bathe and wash clothes in the (relatively) clean water. In 2004 and early 2010, they were completely dry.

The city was founded in 1568 by Maharajah Udai Singh II following the final sacking of Chittorgarh by the Mughal emperor Akbar. The Maharajah’s descendants continued the fighting until British protection treaties were signed in the 19th century.

The massive City Palace, built on a hill to a height of 100 feet and 800 feet long, glows in the afternoon sun. Above the gate is set a golden disk, to symbolize the Mewar dynasty’s descent from the very sun god himself. This theme of the 1,500 year old dynasty is continued inside the palace, with a large gold face of the sun facing the royal family breakfast room. There is exquisite carving, glass and mirror work, an ornate swing, and ornamental tiles. One interior courtyard is adorned with peacock mosaics. As the royal family lived here til 1973, we saw such technology as a kerosene-powered fan, a toilet that looked like a dentist’s chair, and a wheelchair that resembled an armchair on wheels.

India is home to many religions, but Hindus are the majority. We visited the magnificently carved Jagdish Mandir, built in 1651. Hindus believe that there is not one god, but 330,000,000 of them. One is free to worship Ganesh, the elephant, Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity, the monkey god, or any other. On the temple are carved bas-reliefs representing the 4 levels of life: demons, animals, humans and gods. The gods are carved on the tapering upper reaches of the temples. After ascending the steep steps to the sanctuary, we saw the black statue of the Lord Vishnu and his mythical half bird/man beast of transport, the Garuda. Women sell offerings at the bottom of the steps. One must remove one’s shoes before entering. Veiled women prayed, and men chanted and accepted offerings, while a man with 8 inches of flesh hanging from his right cheek and neck begged for money. Hindus offer coconut for taste, incense for smell, flowers for the eyes, red forehead mark to open the third eye of consciousness, and ring the bell to let the gods know they are there.

Surprisingly, though, all the manifestations of God condense, like Christianity, into a trinity. Lord Brahmah the Creator, Lord Vishnu the Operator/Maintainer and Lord Shiva the Destroyer of Evil are the three. Swastika symbols represent the 4 cardinal directions and 4 manifestations of life. This ancient symbol was thought to have been brought by the Aryans/Iranians and there has been much influence here by Persia on this 5,000 year old civilization and on the Hindu religion.

After a garden lunch of vegetable biryani and chicken muglai, we strolled the Sahelion Ki Bar, Garden of the Maidens. A giant pool with 4 huge elephants spouting water toward the middle lies at the heart of the park.

At sunset, we boarded a boat bound for the 400 year old Palace on the island across from the Lake Palace Hotel. We watched the sun go down and then cruised the still waters as a breeze came up.

Visiting India has been like a dream. We’ve seen sublime marvels, and abject squalor. We can’t say we understand it. It is so complex one lifetime does not suffice to grasp it.

But, thanks to Annie Kolatkar’s suggestion to carry grapefruit seed extract (GSE), our digestion has remained in good shape, and we have enjoyed the trip. Tonight, we fly to Delhi and we’ll be on our way late Monday toward home.

I’ll be kissing the ground when I land!
Claudia and Gail

Destination Taj Mahal: The Drive to Agra

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This is an image of the Taj Mahal as seen from Agra Fort through the miles of air pollution.

Taj Mahal, in the distance, as seen from Agra Fort.

After 3 days in Delhi, we departed at 8 a.m. for a drive south to Agra. It took 6 hours, rather than the 4 hours that were advertised.

The reason is that the road is choked with the most intense and chaotic traffic I’ve seen anywhere other than Cairo. It can’t be compared to a ballet, rather to pinballs nearly ricocheting off one another as drivers of tuk-tuks, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, bicycles, cars, vans, trucks, camel wagons, water buffalo, people, and buses make their way to their destinations. Another driver rear-ended ours, but no damage was done, because traffic crawled.

Our driver told us trucks must stay left, and keep the fast lane open. Result: when they didn’t, he honked. He honked his horn for 6 hours continuously. Where is that Excedrin Gail gave me?

The drive was revealing, as it took us by massive public works such as the outer limits of the new Metro, factories making shoes, textiles, auto parts, sugar and cement, and a multitude of small shops.

The underlying theme was filth – total and complete squalor and degradation of the human environment. The air was heavy with refinery oil and wood smoke, and diesel exhaust. Garbage stood 10 feet high on certain roofs. Pigs rooted in garbage, as did dogs, cows, and humans. The ravines were filled to the top with garbage.

The monsoon had been unusually good this year, after 10 years of drought. Every storefront had water in front of it, which meant that every area was filled with mud, flies and mosquitoes. If this doesn’t sound too pleasant, you are right!

There is countryside between the cities, but it looked completely unused by agriculture. I don’t know how India feeds its 1 billion people, but I didn’t see any evidence of it on this drive.

There is something very wrong here, but I cannot pin it down yet.

I just know that this place represents a contrast – life thriving but not knowing how debased this life is.

I have never felt this way about a country before.

Tomorrow we’ll tour the Taj Mahal at sunrise. That’s the sublime side of India. Today, we had, instead, the harshness of life here.

Over and out,
Claudia and Gail

Touring Old Delhi: Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Qutab Minar

If I had to remember the names of all the many people who entered into our day today, I wouldn’t be able to do so with any accuracy.  The young man Shakreet was from Bihar, and came to Delhi and became a street orphan.  He was rescued by an organization that helps 3,000 street orphans in Delhi, and now he had gotten an education and a job with Creative, the company that General Tours uses in Delhi.  We were taken through the ugly underbelly of this city, to one of the facilities, and met 30 urchins ranging between 5 and 10 from Uttar Pradesh, Bangladesh, and Bihar.  If they are not helped by organizations, they become prostitutes or street gang members.  The alleyways were reeking of garbage and urine, trash was piled up in corners, buildings were decaying.  But, people were smiling, going about their business, and the narrow places were thick with people, pedicabs, motorcycles, and carts, even donkeys.  We met the head of the agency, and our driver, Rajpaul.  And various other people who shall remain nameless.

Driving past the vast Red Fort, we climbed the steps to Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, and were forced to remove our shoes, and walk around the complex in our stocking/bare feet and a torn gown.  Afterward, a cycle rickshaw driver took us through Chandni Chowk, with its tiny shops selling saris, wedding invitations, and all manner of small manufactures in narrow lanes of old Delhi.  Electrical wires as big as your arm crisscrossed in dangerous fashion overhead.  At street corners were mounds of bean, tomato and cilantro breakfast foods, as well as jalebi fried sweets in giant vats of smoking oil.

Our next guide Vijay, a ponderous Brahman caste man, then bought us passage on the gleaming new Delhi metro and we rode the train from Chawri Bazaar to Central Secretariat.  The fare cost 25 cents.  Trains were crowded.

We drove past India Gate, and the former administrative seat of the British when they ruled India, with gardens and buildings both stately and magnificent.  Lunch was at Pindi, and at this tranquil haven with blue paisley wall decorations, we were served a delicious feast of butter chicken, vegetable pullao and potatoes.  The onion kulcha with its juicy hot onions and cardamom was the best we had ever tasted.

After lunch we resumed sightseeing of Islamic Mughal monuments.  Humayun’s Tomb and Qutub Minar(et).  The emperor’s mausoleum was built in the 16th century by the widow of Mughal Humayun.  It has beautiful gardens reminding one of paradise, and a double white dome, filigree windows, and red sandstone structure.

Qutab Minar is a tapering tower standing 240 feet tall.  It was built at the end of the 12th century but lasted until 1368.  It is the world’s tallest brick minaret.  Absolutely spectacular in its intricate details and graceful proportions.  Tourists in saris thronged its beautiful arches.  In one courtyard stands a column of wrought iron, whose phosphorus content has protected it from rusting.

One cannot see all of Delhi in a day.  But our 8 hours of touring proved one thing:  that Delhi is a city of intense contrasts.  It is filthy and squalid, and it is also magnificent and dignified.  We can already tell that this trip is going to stretch our minds (and our tolerance).  More will be explained about that!

Onward Friday to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Claudia and Gail

Agra: Visions of the Taj Mahal

This is a photo of the Taj Mahal located in Agra, India.

Taj Mahal

Arriving in Agra after a long journey by car, we realized that we could see the Taj Mahal from our room.  Even better was the view from the rooftop terrace.  The weather had cleared of haze, and we sat in a swing and enjoyed its beauty from afar.  We had always dreamed of seeing this beautiful building, and now we were here!

The Taj itself was closed on Friday, so we toured the imposing Red Fort, a World Heritage site.  Its fortress walls extend for more than 1.5 miles, and were built in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Our guide was the impish Gurudehal, a PhD in History of Northern India.  He showed us the beautiful gardens, mosques, and palaces overlooking the river.  Across the river was a complete view of the Taj Mahal.  The Red Fort is largely intact, constructed of red sandstone, with delicate inlays of jasper and cornelian stones into the crystalline marble that the region is famous for.

Every tour ends in a shopping expedition, as the Indians believe that no opportunity to sell and receive commissions should go unanswered.  We were taken to a marble cutting and inlay shop, and, we admit, when the room was darkened, the sight of intricate gemstone inlays shining through the white marble took our breath away.

The next morning, we stormed the breakfast room to pound down our first meal of the day in time to be ready to greet the Taj Mahal at sunrise.  Men and women waited in separate (long) lines, and there was elaborate searching of everyone’s bags.  No food, drink, or gum were allowed to pass.

The outer protective walls of the Taj are actually red sandstone, but once one crosses through the gate, a perfect view of the symmetrical mausoleum shimmers into view.  The tomb was built in the mid 1600’s by the Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.  Nearly 22,000 workmen were required to build it, and it took 20 years.  He is also buried with her.  At the outer edges of the raised platform containing the Taj Mahal stand 4 tall white minarets.  Carved naturalistic screens of solid slabs of whole marble frame the tomb area itself, and the building has many details of geometric patterns.  Seen in the early morning light, the side of the structure sparkles and also glows.  There is a mosque flanking it on one side, and a “guest house” on the other.  The reflecting pools, unfortunately, had been drained for whitewashing.  But the “paradise” gardens were beautiful too.

We checked out of our hotel after the morning visit, and proceeded to the mysterious “Royal Ghost City”, built by Emperor Akbar as a new capital to replace his palaces in Agra, which were considered too dangerous.    It is a vast complex of red sandstone in perfect condition after 500 years.  Palaces of the Winds, schools for the emperor’s girls, houses for his Christian wife, his Hindu wife, pleasure palaces, administrative buildings, all were absolutely perfectly placed and very beautifully decorated with carvings and inlays.

It is said that after 12 years the complex was abandoned, perhaps due to lack of a water supply (it’s located on the top of a big hill and required a ride in a motorized “tuk-tuk” to reach it.

In this photo, an Indian man sits outside Fatehpur Sikri's red sandstone wall.

Fatehpur Sikri Outer Wall

We said goodbye at Fatehpur Sikri to “Del” our guide and drove on through countryside fertile and green.  The farmers are growing potatoes, mustard, wheat, millet and vegetables for everyday use.  Monkeys begged for bananas and peanuts by the side of the road, and the usual panoply of water buffalo, camels, dogs, sheep, goats, cows, pigs and other animals intruded regularly into the road.  We finally reached Jaipur, only to be brought to the main shopping bazaar.  Our driver wanted his commission, too.  But he actually wanted to buy some bedspreads for his 3 kids, and we enjoyed this well-lit, clean and organized opportunity to buy silk scarves, shop for men’s pajamas, and Indian fennel candies.

Tomorrow we’ll tour Jaipur.  But today was a special day – the day we saw the Taj Mahal.

Claudia and Gail

India: Camel Fair and Lake Town of Pushkar

It was a bone-crunching 6-hour drive from the tiger reserve to the camel fair and lake town of Pushkar.  New wheat, mustard and castor bean plants stood in inches of water along the way.  India’s monsoon should be over, but there is mud everywhere.

Pushkar is a hill town of 20,000 people, 52 bathing ghats and 550 temples. and one synagogue.  Many buildings are painted a faded periwinkle blue, very restful in such an agitated place.  This is the site of the annual camel trading fair which is held for several days before and after the November full moon.  Up to 25,000 camels and horses change hands.  At the full moon, thousands of pilgrims arrive to visit the only temple in all India to Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe according to Hindu mythology.

We studiously avoided coming at this time, to avoid crowding, noise, flies, dust and pickpockets.  But a stroll through the muddy lanes and slippery steps to the lake revealed that there had been a big crush of humanity and they hadn’t cleaned up yet.

Men selling red powder to married women for adorning their hair and orange powder for holy men were interspersed with hippie cafes and stalls where bubbling vats of butter were waiting to fry sweets.  Cows munched on cardboard, and garbage.  If cows are revered as gods, why are they not fed clean food?  They are allowed to feed exactly as the pigs do.

At lunch and breakfast, we asked for eggs or meat, but were told that within a 7 km zone, no animal products are served or used.

We busted out of there as soon as we could!

Claudia and Gail

Claudia’s Introduction to India

This is an image of the Gate of India in Delhi.It took 30 hours to arrive in New Delhi from San Diego, California, on American Airlines. I met Gail’s incoming flight from Washington DC and we shared a meal at the Macaroni Grill before boarding the 777 for a flight which was to last 14 hours. To celebrate the 5th anniversary of flights from Chicago to New Delhi, AA was offering the passengers cake and souvenirs in the waiting lounge. When we landed at the gleaming new airport, we laughed when we saw the set-up after immigration: in order to retrieve our bags, we would first have to buy something at duty free shops! Such is the importance of commerce to India.

Smoky air greeted us, and a guide with a General Tours sign was smiling to welcome us. Flower necklaces made of tied marigolds were given to us. The traffic was dense, chaotic, noisy with horns, but it flowed. Security here is more intense than at El Al airlines in Israel! We pulled up to the Meridien Hotel, and our car was searched, trunk and under the hood. We had to pass through security to get into the hotel. Our bags were put through a scanner, we were patted down, and then handed back our stuff. So it is every time we come back to the hotel.

The Meridien Hotel, although constructed 25 years ago, has the feel of a 1960’s disco, with vast marble spaces, candles, mirrors, bizarre structural pillars, lots of retro chairs, and patterned rugs in burgundy and black. Our room is large and clean, with beige comforters, hardwood floors, modern lighting, and gorgeous gold and charcoal tiles in the beautiful bathroom.

After a short night’s sleep, we explored the excellent neighborhood around the “hub” of Delhi, the circle known as Connaught Place. As we had been told that the government emporium north on Janpath was closed down for celebration of the end of Ramadan, Eid, and that there were demonstrations in the area, instead, we walked to another recommended shopping center. Monkeys roamed the broken sidewalks, and traffic was, simply, incredible. We drove through the diplomatic quarter, by the governmental ministries, and were surprised at Delhi’s wide avenues and gorgeous trees.

At the emporium, we were lucky to be treated to real Indian hospitality and skilled salesmanship, including the drinking of cardamom tea, and carpet shopping. The young law student, Omar, explained that the complex brought in wares from 288 families from the Kashmir Valley, out of the 3,000 families working there. The quality and range of goods was excellent, and there was no pressure (!) We negotiated on one small, glowing red carpet made of soft yak wool, and another of a subtle blue. The deal was clinched at 50% off original price, plus their arranging taxi fare to the Meridien. Another low-key salesperson, Dinesh, showed us pashmina shawls, a sari for Gail, and assorted scarves at reasonable prices. We couldn’t have made it home without the tuk-tuk wildly (but safely) delivering us to the hotel. We met the owner of the complex, a medical doctor, and told him how happy we were with the experience.

Suddenly, our jet lag began to set in. We spent the afternoon snacking on peanut butter, with cool gel packs on our heads, trying to rest. Thursday we will tour the Red Fort, Delhi’s monuments and the Old City. It started to sprinkle outside. Down below our window, we could see what looked like a factory. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the hotel was using 11 giant open boilers to purify the hotel’s water supply.

But it was a good day, and we got a good measure of how it is to interact with the Indian people. Today, we made it successfully on our own. But we notice how unfriendly the city is for walking, and we are eager to have a driver and guide. Touts are everywhere, and we booked a tour so that we wouldn’t have to constantly fend them off. We’ll be the only ones on this tour!

Claudia and Gail