India: The Arc of the Himalayas–Dispatch 1

I suppose it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that if in 2008 I wrote you from Patagonia via the Anti-Rally Bulletin, now in 2009 I am writing via the Anti-Patagonia Bulletin.  That is to say that, just as our trip through Patagonia was the antithesis of the Peking to Paris rally, so far India is the antithesis of Patagonia.  Now, let’s keep in mind that we are only 5 days into our 2-month trip, but I already feel I have stepped into another element..  There’s earth, wind, fire, air, and then there’s India. 

Delhi is a booming city of  12-15 million (who’s counting anyway), packed with people, cars, construction, ambition.  The impressions come at you fast and furious here, every inch a sight, though not always a pleasant sight.  We chose to do a home stay here, rather than a typical hotel.  This put us in a nice neighborhood called Friends Colony, in south Delhi, a good half hour from the main tourist sights.  Our hosts were Pervez and Lubna Hameed, along with Hameed’s mother Padma….and their 3 servants.  We had one of three guest bedrooms, on the 3rd floor of their home, and ate breakfast, dinner and once also lunch at their table.  

Delhi is vast, and public transportation slow, so we chose to hire a driver each day, who took us where we wanted and stayed with us the whole day.  Besides knowing where to go (or being able to ask in Hindi if he didn’t know where to go) the driver also knew how to negotiate Delhi’s extraordinary traffic.    Picture a rodeo with all events happening at once, and you standing in the middle of the arena, and you’ll get an inkling of how Delhi roadways feel.  Masses of motorbikes, scooters, cars, buses, autorickshaws (3-wheelers) and bike rickshaws all moving to their own drummer.  Plus bicycles, handcarts, horse carts.  Plus pedestrians. The ceaseless blaring, bleating, trumpeting, tootling horns is not to be believed.    Everyone honking, everyone moving into whatever few feet of space is available in front of them.  A 3-lane road would easily have 5-6 vehicles across it.  Yet we never saw an accident and everyone understood the rules of engagement, so it was not stressful to be driven through the morass.  But it was noisy!

We have seen some standard Delhi sights and also some very unusual things.  The monuments and structures here are not ornate and gilded anymore (though they must once have been).
But they are often impressively massive.  Many are of Indian red sandstone, which, unlike the sandstone in our American West, is extremely hard.  Despite being many centuries old, therefore, some of the forts and mosques we visited seemed barely eroded in shape.  What has struck us most were not the standard monuments, but some out-of-the-way places we got to by asking to go to out-of-the-way places.  

On Saturday we went to the shores of the Yamuna River, which flows through Delhi to join the Ganges, to the ghats where funeral pyres burn.  Although these are open to the public, not a lot of people know about the one we went to.  The morning we were there, perhaps 15 fires were burning.  Imagine 15 large concrete platforms, each with 4 or 6 depressions carved into it.  As we arrived, we saw a deceased carried in on a stretcher, swathed in plain white cotton, draped in garlands of marigolds.  The tradition is to carry them in to the ghat area head first, so that they are looking at their home when they arrive.  On reaching the ghat, the stretcher is turned 180 degrees and placed on the platform so the deceased’s feet are toward the river.  Thus they can now see where they will be going.  A bonfire of long branches forms a teepee over them and that is then lit.  For some families, instead of using the platforms, they take their deceased down to the river and the bonfire is lit over them right next to the water. The Dalit (untouchables) do the work of building the pyre.  This is their cast work, since touching the dead is unclean, and is handed down from one generation to the next, each with their own section by the river or on the concrete platform.   It was fairly hushed, with birds twittering and sweet smoke wafting through the air.  There was nothing attractive about the place, no special music playing, no particular ceremonies being offered, nothing effusive going on.  It simply was what it was.

Another afternoon, we visited various non-touristy temples:  Jain, Muslim, Sikh.  To get to the mosque, we walked through a park where an avid game of neighborhood cricket was going on.  We passed a homeless woman dozing on the dusty close-cropped grass while her little kids played with bricks from a nearby rubble pile, as their clothing dried on scrubby bushes.  We clambered through a break in the iron fence ringing the park and braved the traffic across 6 lanes, to the start of a Muslim neighborhood, within which was the mosque.  The mosque itself was not visible from the street, but rather protected from view. To get to it, we wended our way through a long, winding tunnel of tile and marble, twisting and turning past a hundred tiny stalls selling paper cones of marigold and rose petals (for offerings).  Every stall urged us to deposit our shoes with them (you go into a mosque barefoot), a privilege one pays for.  After leaving our shoes at a stall close to the mosque, buying head scarves (both men and women must cover their heads going into a mosque) and a cone of petals, we got to the mosque itself, which actually was a small structure, ringed with marble tiles, protected by its own mosque guardians (there must be a name for this, but i don’t know it).  

There were 30-40 people in and around the mosque, chatting or praying.  I was separated from the men and sat cross legged behind a carved screen through which I could see very little except the back of someone’s knees. I felt relieved that my knee would bend enough to accomplish this. It was awkward though, what with a mustard-colored cloth the size of a handkerchief on my head, and no graceful sari to wrap around me.   Bernard (looking like a pirate with his headscarf) got to go into the inner sanctum, where he tossed our petals on a draped thing (he doesn’t know what it was), imitating what others were doing.  We explored further into the recesses of the mosque area, where there was a still smaller structure, also for prayer. Women weren’t even allowed into this one.  There were many abjectly poor beggars around both mosques, which made me think that the area also might be both a sanctuary and a provider to the poor.
    Rather than stay in Delhi for 4 1/2 days, we took a private car and driver for a quick tour of Agra and Jaipur.  Agra is the site of the Taj Mahal.  It took us 4 hours to get there, partially on good highways, but also beating our way through a cacophony of vehicles and obstructions in villages along the way.  The countryside was not pretty.  There were some stretches with fields planted in wheat or mustard, a scruffy tree by the roadside now and then, and sometimes a stretch of low hills in the hazy distance.
I was concerned before arriving that, having seen so many photos of the Taj, I would be disappointed.  Not so.  The Taj is the most ethereal, exquisitely beautiful structure I’ve seen.  Yes, there were many people there, but nothing bothersome. And it’s interesting to note that we are seeing very few Anglo tourists around.  Have they been frightened away by the Mumbai attacks?  Anyway, two things of note about the Taj Mahal.  
1:  it is built of white marble from Rajasthan, which is extraordinarily hard, and not porous.  It is the opposite of Carrera marble in these respects.  Thus, the Taj is as white and glittering today as it was when first built.  Under the great dome is the tomb of Mumtaz and her husband (who built the mausoleum) Shah Jihan.  The intricate decorative inlay on every surface inside the mausoleum, using semi-precious stones such as jasper, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, carnelian, tiger eye, malachite is stunning, 
2.  The Taj Mahal is flanked by two identical sandstone and marble buildings, which don’t appear in most photos.  These also were built by Shah Jahan, one being a mosque and the other a house for one of his daughters.  Rather than detracting from the Taj, these two structures to its left and its right serve to emphasize the striking delicacy and form of the Taj itself.
     After a quick tour around the Agra Red Fort, just up river from the Taj Mahal, we hightailed it for Jaipur, which took another 5.5 hours!  That night we stayed at a guest house in Jaipur, which was actually the home of the Nawab of Loharu.  Here’s an interesting bit:  Nawab and Begum are the Muslim term for Maharaja and Maharani, which are Hindi.  Our Nawab is now the Health Minister of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan.  He wasn’t home, but the Begum was and joined us briefly for dinner.  A very gracious lady.  In Jaipur, we had time to see a mindboggling outdoor observatory built by Maharaja Jai Singh II around 1725.  This Maharaja built sandstone and marble instruments to measure time, the location of the planets, and more.  One sundial, nearly 35-feet high, is accurate to within 2 seconds!  The whole garden looked like an installation at a museum of modern art and it was flabbergasting to think that these calculations and investigations were going on so long ago and at such a degree of precision and understanding.  
     Jaipur also has a fortress citadel, Amber Fort, which has walls radiating from it very much like the Great Wall of China.  At Amber Fort, a movie set was being constructed, as it’s quite a popular film site.  Look for Bir (Brave) a Bollywood movie probably never coming to a theatre near you!!! As we walked up the steep cobblestone lane leading to the fort entrance, I noticed an Indian family clustering together for a group photo.  The photographer raised his hand to get everyone’s attention.  As I passed by, instead of telling the group to say “Cheese!!” for a smile,  I heard him yell “Krishna!!”
Here are two indelible impressions I have so far.

1.  Saris:  this is a highly recommended mode of dress. A woman in a sari, or two or three together, each a different color and pattern, is an alluring vision.  The colors are infinite.  Women in Rajasthan prefer a sari style that is bright and sparkly.  You see neon colors of pink, turquoise, lemon, lime, violet, with swirls of sequins and mirrors.  In Delhi or course there are all sorts of preferences, and the saris fill the drab landscape with colors of fuchsia, magenta, peach, bubblegum, skyblue, charcoal, vanilla, emerald, each with eyecatching decorations and patterns. I’ve noticed two different general styles: one is a length of cloth–anywhere from 5 to 18 meters long-, artfully draped over and around the woman’s body, with a tight short-sleeved blouse of the same color as the sari worn underneath.  The other, called a kurta, which I’ve heard is the preferred mode for Muslim women (but of this I’m not certain), combines narrow trousers with a tunic hanging down to the knees, and a 5-meter length of fabric draped around the neck with its long patterned ends flowing behind. I find it breathtaking, but wrapping a sari is a learned skill, and not one I expect to gain while here.

2.  Vehicles and scenes;  My goodness, there are so many things that tug at your eyes.  As we drove to Agra, Jaipur and back to Delhi, I realized that anything that serves to move materiel and people is used here.   Bullocks, donkeys and horses are used everywhere.   A 10-foot high stack of chairs is strapped to the back of a rickety, rusted bicycle.  A load of building bricks is hauled by a tiny white donkey.  The biggest loads are in 20-foot wood cars pulled by camels who clomp sedately along the side of the road.    Then there are homemade engines, strapped onto any chassis that’ll hold them, pulling goods or people or both, burping and clattering along.  There also are regular tractors (Massey Ferguson seems the preferred brand) chugging along with carts behind, at about twice the pace of the homemade jobs.  Of course there’s the ubiquitous auto-rickshaw, built for 2 people plus driver, usually holding 15 people including 3 sitting on top.  You might be thinking these are transport options using the village lanes.  But no, they’re all on the highway!

     Some other scenes that come to mind:  scooters with the lady sitting side-saddle behind the driver, colorful sari billowing in the breeze.  The glossy bulk of water buffalos, some gaunt, many sleek, in front of huts, in fields, by the roadside.  Carts piled high with bananas and oranges for sale.  Sacred cows lounging wherever they please. Rickshaw drivers splayed out on their rigs wherever they can pull out of traffic, sound asleep.  Market stalls frying balls of dough or stirring milk in big woks for sweet desserts. Utter, miserable poverty with nothing to eat and not even a crutch to hobble on.  A family sitting on the floor of a sari shop in the bazaar, offerings arrayed in front, fingering fabric and holding it up to the light for review, approval or rejection.  So the pile of colors next to them grows, the sequins and brocades glitter, the serious business continues. 

     We’re now in Cochin, from where we will start our drive toward the North.  For those of you learning the geography of India as I am on this trip, Cochin is in the southern state of Kerala, on the West coast very near the tip of India.

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