Monday, March 14, 2011

India Trip Report (Part 1 of 3)

I travelled to India recently, and for the benefit of family members, I'm posting my trip report here on the blog. Because the report is looooong, I'll split it up over three postings.

Today's installment covers days 1 - 3 of the trip (hey, they were busy days!), next Wednesday's post will cover days 4 - 7, and next Monday's post will cover days 8 - 15.

My husband does not like his name appearing on my blog, so I've referred to him as "El Husbando" here. My family members can mentally swap in his real name :-)

Passage to India; February-March, 2011

This trip featured a lot of moments that could be described as culture "shock", although they were mostly just exciting. Regardless, because they weren't hugely noteworthy, I'll list these "Random Moments of Wow" as a bullet list on the appropriate days.

Day 1 - Feb. 19, 2011 - Arriving in Delhi, First Impressions

This was really the day JJ arrived in India; El Husbando had already been there for three weeks meeting with colleagues at institutes in Pune and Chennai.

From the air, Delhi has strings of bright street lights interspersed with large areas of softer light. Presumably, that's from home fires, as the whole city was scented with wood smoke when JJ arrived. The taxis at the airport look like they dropped out of a 1940s movie, and the trucks on the road were all decorated with paintings, strings of pompoms, and welded-on ornaments. They were thoroughly charming.

Delhi has a shortage of hotels, so our travel agency warned us our room would be clean but rudimentary. This turned out to be both accurate and inaccurate. We had a three-room suite with a nice bed and marble walls and floor, but the bathroom had a jury-rigged feel to it. The toilet did not have a tank but was instead attached, via a hose, to a faucet on the wall. The sink was completely modern, but when you looked under it, a hose dangled from it into drain on the floor. The shower was as you'd expect, but if you wanted hot water, you had to go down to the lobby and ask them to turn on the boiler. El Husbando said none of this was surprising based on what he'd seen so far at the institutes. Overall, we rather liked the room; it was functional, pretty, and quirky.

After getting some sleep and then breakfast, we took a cab to the National Museum. And everything we saw on the streets was just SO India! There were zillions of people, and although you saw some young women wearing jeans and t-shirts, most of them wore lovely traditional garb with jewel-bright colours, glittering sequins, and flowing chunnis (scarves worn over the head or around the shoulders and trailing down the back.) It was hard to believe that was their every-day wear.

The traffic was very free-form and flowing, with pedestrians, cars, and motorcycles weaving in and around each other liberally. Yes--you do see cows standing in the middle of the road and people just drive around them, but same goes for dogs and goats too. Drivers used their horns often, and later in the tour, our tour guide Yusef explained why.

Yusef said that when driving in India, there's so much going on in front of your car, it's not a good idea to take your eyes off the road to check your rear-view mirror too often. Thus, you use your eyes to keep track of what's going on in front of you, and your ears to keep track of what's going on behind you. The other drivers tap their horn to let you know they're there, and thus you don't need to shoulder-check very often.

In general, Indians display the common-sense courage that our (I'm speaking as a Canadian here) culture used to have back in the 50s. People ride motorcycles without helmets; they drive without seat belts; their kids go out alone to play with their friends beside busy streets. The over-protectiveness our culture has developed in the past half-century just isn't there--and why should it be when no one is behaving recklessly? We frequently saw families of four all riding on one motorcycle, or cars packed with eight or nine people, but we never saw anyone speeding or driving aggressively. It's generally quite safe.

The city itself showed that this was a developing nation, as everything you looked at either needed some repair or seemed unfinished. El Husbando said Delhi was extremely clean compared to the places he had seen so far. Later, JJ also saw some litter-clogged areas, but she noticed a correlation, too: the villages and towns that had livestock roaming around tended to be nicer places than those that only had people. The more rural a spot, the more pleasant it was. The larger cities, however, were an exception in that they also looked attractive and liveable.

The roads were almost always excellent. When we got out in the desert, we drove on some sketchy stuff, but India generally takes great care of its road system. The people, too, always seemed to be well dressed--even those who were obviously very poor. El Husbando saw more hardship while he was at the institute cities, but at least while on tour, we saw looooots of people and virtually no one looked scruffy.

Oh--the museum. I got a little side-tracked there, didn't I? The museum featured mostly artwork in the form of carved statues, cast statues, intricate "miniature" paintings (comparable in size to a sheet of paper, rather than something that covers a big swathe of wall), and decorative textiles. One thing we noticed for the first time there was that Indians will pay perhaps 20 rupees (40 cents Cdn) to get into a tourist attraction, whereas foreigners will pay perhaps 200 rupees ($4 Cdn). This makes sense, in that even Indians who are poor can enjoy their country's culture, and yet it's still a very cheap as far as the foreigners are concerned to do the same thing.

After the museum, we took an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. Those beasties must be amazing on gas, because it only cost 100 rupees (about $2 Cdn) for a half-hour drive. In shape, the auto-rickshaws look a bit like a VW van from the 1960s, but they're smaller than a compact car, have open sides and only three wheels. JJ loved it; El Husbando was disappointed because he had ridden in much faster auto-rickshaws already.

Day 2 - Feb. 20, 2011 - Tours of Delhi

Random Moments of Wow:
  • We saw a laundry farm--a city block dedicated to washing and drying (on clotheslines) hotel linens.
  • On a bridge, a wool dyer had draped all his washed bundles of raw wool on the railings to dry.
  • We drove by the world's largest market for 2nd hand books. It's 7 km long.
  • We also drove by what has been knick-named the "Thieves Market" because it deals in all kinds of second-hand goods.
  • We saw a weasel! Neither of us had seen one in the wild before.
  • A golf course we passed not only had walls around, but also had razor wire lining the tops of those walls.

Our tour group started out with 14 people, although half of them split off a week later to go on separate tours. It was a good group, with a French family, an Icelandic couple, a Malaysian couple, one New Zealander, and a whole mess o' Australians. We were the only people from the Americas.

Our guide Yusef proved to be amazing. He could answer pretty much any question you asked, from culture to sports to industry to history. When the tour began, he struck me as quite reserved, but when the group got smaller, and it was clear that everyone was good-tempered and getting along well, he loosened up quite a bit and seemed to genuinely enjoy our company.

Our tours that day were to the Red Fort in Old Delhi, to the "Friday Mosque" near the fort, then to the cremation site of Ghandi, and then to lunch at a restaurant reputed to serve the best butter chicken in Delhi. After lunch, we went to a tomb reputed to be the architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal, and the Qutab Minar, which is the world's largest minaret.

Things we learned from Yusef that day:
  • At any given moment, there are 5 million vehicles on the road in Delhi. However, commercial vehicles like taxis and buses run on compressed natural gas, which has helped reduce the pollution. Delhi has the world record for the most cars that run on this fuel.
  • When a city's name ends in "-bahd" or "-bad" (such as Hyderabad), that means it was founded by a Muslim ruler. When it ends in "-pur", that means it was founded by a Hindu ruler. Both words mean the same thing: "place". Thus, Udaipur roughly translates as "Udai's place", where Udai was the city's (Hindu) founder.
  • Recent excavations reveal that Delhi dates back to the 3rd century B.C.
  • Delhi officially has 18 million people, but is probably closer to 20 million. It's India's largest city by area, but Mumbai is larger by population.
  • Up until 1192, Delhi was ruled by Hindu leaders. Then it was invaded by Muslims, and the "Moghul" dynasty--which would last through 650 years, 17 rulers, and become one of India's most important dynasties--was established. The Moghuls were direct descendants of Genghis Khan through the female line and of Turks through the male line.
  • The first six Moghul rulers were the most important. The first four of them ruled in the city of Agra, but the 5th ruler moved the capital to Delhi because Agra reminded him too much of his deceased wife--who is best remembered as the woman the Taj Mahal was built as a tomb for. Yes, that fellow mourned hard.
  • The British moved the capital to Calcutta, then transferred it back to New Delhi. King George and Queen Mary came to lay down a foundation stone in Delhi, but it was laid in an inappropriate location. After they left, some locals quietly moved the stone closer to the river.

At the Red Fort, or Lal Quil'ah, we learned that when Indians call something a "fort", we should not be expecting a Spartan military structure--we should expect a palace! Construction began on the Red Fort in 1648, and the British added a few buildings to it while they were in power. The fort encloses a large garden full of fountains, two pavilions for the king to hold audiences in, and several smaller palace complexes.

The first pavilion we saw is called the "place of the common peoples" because the king would have audiences with the commoners there. The pavilion was carved sandstone with intricate stone screens behind the throne so royal ladies could watch the proceedings without being seen. These types of screens for the royal ladies were a common feature in all the palaces we saw.

The next pavilion was built to receive important guests and was all white marble with flower decorations inlaid directly into it in semi-precious stones. The colours of the inlays were amazing!

The pavilion once housed the famous "Peacock Throne", which was made with 250 kg (no, I did not mis-type that unit) of precious stones--including the famous Koh-i-noor diamond now owned by the British monarchy--and 1250 kg of gold. The throne, however, was said to be cursed as only two rulers sat upon it. The second was actually a Persian invader, and although most of the throne was dismantled and spirited away when he was deposed, some portions of the Peacock Throne still exist in the museum in Tehran, Iran.

It was at the Red Fort that we got our first taste of something that seemed pretty odd at first. The tourist sites are, of course, mostly full of Indians seeing their own country's history. Many of them haven't seen many foreigners except on television or in magazines. Thus, at these sites, the locals would often come up and ask members of our tour group if they could take a photo of themselves standing next to us. It was usually younger people, and they were always very polite and friendly, but it was startling the first time it happened! It's so strange to be thinking that you're in an exotic locale and then suddenly be reminded that no, you're the thing that's exotic here, not the locale!

El Husbando and JJ got their share of "photo ops", but the French family, who had light hair, and these two pretty Australian women, one of whom had very pale blue eyes, were the most popular. Our guide eventually started joking they should charge 10 rupees a photo like the men who walk around with tamed monkeys do.

Our next stop was at the so-called "Friday Mosque". At this point, we got to see how very tolerant of different religions India has always been. Just outside the Red Fort, there is a Jain temple (Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism), followed by a Hindu temple, followed by a church, followed by a Sikh temple, and then the mosque we visited is just off to the side of them all.

We took a bicycle rickshaw through a market to get to the mosque, and that was pretty neat. The small, winding streets and general packed-to-the-gills state of the place certainly reminded us of the medina in Fez, from our last trip.

About 20,000 people come to pray at the mosque on any given day, and about 25,000 show up on Fridays. Thankfully, when we were there, it was just tourists and the plaza was thus empty enough to walk through. The mosque was the last building built by the 5th Moghul emperor, i.e. the one who built the Taj Mahal, before he was imprisoned by his son.

After the mosque, we went to the cremation site of Ghandi, which is a black marble slab in the middle of a lovely open garden. It was kept intentionally simple because that's how Ghandi lived his life.

After the cremation site, we drove to the Humayum Tomb, but on the way we got to see some of the more impressive government buildings and a large stone arch that commemorates the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in WWI. Our guide Yusef also pointed out a field full of cricketers and noted that anywhere you see a bit of open space, you'll see people playing cricket. He jokingly referred to the sport as "India's national religion".

The Humayum Tomb was built by the widow of the 2nd Moghul emperor for her husband. He had an interesting life story, in that he lost his kingdom to an Afgan noble, went to the Shah of Iran for support, won his lands back in 1555, and then died in 1556 when he slipped on the stairs while hurrying to prayer one evening.

The tomb is thought to have been the architectural inspiration for the Taj Mahal, although it does not have the four minarets the Taj does. The building is also smaller (about 40 m, while the Taj is 74 m) and is made of sandstone with white marble trim, unlike the Taj, which is all white marble. There are about 100 graves at the site, all for close relatives of the king.

Decorating the front of the tomb is what looks like a few Stars of David, but these are actually a Hindu symbol depicting the joining of male and female energy. The male Hindu gods can create matter but not energy or life; the female gods do that. Thus, the joining of the two creates something special.

After the tomb, we visited the Qutab Minar, which was mind-blowing. It's the world's largest minaret, and it only gets more impressive as you get closer to it, because you begin to realize how detailed the decorations are. Some of them are huge, carved calligraphy. Also, there's a madrassa (school) behind the minaret that is equally beautiful, albeit in ruins.

The minaret is 800 years old, 732 m high, and was built in stages. The original 4th story was destroyed by lightning and replaced by two more stories, bringing it to its current height. There are 384 steps to the top, but tourists aren't allowed in it anymore after some deaths. Close to the minaret, a later king had begun constructing a minaret intended to be twice as big as the existing one. He died when it was only a few metres in height, and the project was abandoned.

The tower was never intended to be a working minaret (who would hear the imam singing from the top of something that high?) but as a show of power. It marked the eastern boundary of the territory they ruled when it was built. The mosque attached to it was also never a working mosque because some of its pillars were taken from a disused Hindu temple and thus depict gods and animals. Islam forbids the depiction of humans or animals.

Near the minaret is an iron pillar that is 1000 years old. It's a single piece of metal, no machines were used to construct it, and it still hasn't rusted! We scuttled out of the area just as a rainstorm started, so you know it isn't the dry climate that preserves that pillar.

After the tours, we visited a rug emporium and got a little demonstration of how they weave carpets, as well as a nice green tea with saffron and cardamom.

Day 3 - Feb. 21, 2011 - Driving to Agra, Tour of Taj Mahal

Random Moments of Wow:
  • We saw sweepers with twig-brooms cleaning off the sidewalks first thing in the morning.
  • There was a truck carrying women to work, and it was neat to see all their elegant, brightly-coloured head scarves bobbing around in the back of this battered old truck.
  • Everywhere we go, whether rural or urban, has a thick haze in the air. We've decided it must be water vapour. (Later in the desert, the air got clearer, but not completely clear.)
  • MONKEYS!!! Ahem. That is to say, we saw monkeys for the first time this day. They were sitting in the shade under the trees by the side of the highway.
  • We also saw those very sculpted-looking cows with high mounds on their shoulders, dangling neck-wattles, and very shiny, swoopy hipbones. (The locals must think tourists are insane, the way we go nuts over things like a cow.)
  • People mix cowpats with straw and dry the mixture to make a fuel for the rainy season. You see cowpats lined up like ceiling tiles all across people's roofs, particularly in rural areas. Apparently the ‘pats burn blue and without any smell.

This day was spent bussing to Agra with the intention of seeing the Taj Mahal at sunset. On the way, Yusef taught us some things:

What we learned:
  • Indian civilization starts at least as far back as 3,000 B.C. The British discovered red bricks that date back to then. Not much is known about those people, but they had sophisticated water storage and sewage systems.
  • By 1500 B.C., there was a caste system, but it wasn't as harmful as the one that developed. There were four castes, and people could move between them. (Teachers/Priests = Brahmins, Warriors = Shadriyas, Merchants = Vishiyas, and Farmers/Menial Workers = Shubras.) In 1000 B.C., the castes became rigid, and those without caste became the untouchables. The Brahmins became the supreme caste because they were literate, and they made the rules and began to exploit others.
  • Buddism and Jainism both rose in reaction to this exploitation, and in both cases, a member of the warrior caste started this new religion.
  • Buddha lived in the 6th century, and in his lifetime, Buddhism didn't catch on. In fact, because Buddhism challenged the supremacy of the Brahmins (anyone can attain the state of the Buddha), Buddhists were persecuted in the 7th century and the religion spread east. By the 9th century, Buddhism was wiped out in its birthplace of India. In the 12th century, a warrior had a crisis of faith in the wake of a war and converted to Buddhism. He sent out teachers, and Buddhism was re-established in India.
  • Jainism developed at roughly the same time as Buddhism, in the 6th century. Jainism is an extreme religion, but thankfully what they're extreme about is non-violence.
    • They are vegetarian, cover their mouth and nose when they go out to prevent inhaling an insect, and won't work as farmers for fear of killing insects as they till the soil.
    • This led them into gold-smithing, and so Jains, as a group, are very wealthy--they control about 90% of India's jewellery trade. However, they are not allowed to store wealth, i.e. to have savings. What they do not use, they must give to charity, and so there are many hospitals and services that have been built by Jains.
    • They do have some disturbing practices when it comes to death, however. They revere a fire god, so bodies are not cremated. Instead, they are put on high towers for birds of carrion to eat. However, pesticide use has damaged India's vulture population, and sometimes the consumption of the body doesn't proceed quickly enough, creating a smell that is a nuisance. Thus, electric cremations are catching on.
    • It's very rare nowadays, but some Jains, when they decide they are old enough and have done all they want to in life, will take a vow to refuse food and thus slowly starve to death. While still living, they are treated as gods. Suicide is illegal in India, and the government has asked Jains not to do this.
  • Sikhism is a young religion, and they've had a pretty robust start already.
    • Because the religion requires men to carry a dagger or knife, they've made useful warriors in a variety of situations.
    • A Moghul emperor killed a Sikh guru, so the Sikhs resisted the Moghuls.
    • In the 1970s and -80s, they were agitating for a separate Sikh homeland, but given that Punjab is the breadbasket of India, India wasn't willing to let them secede. When Indira Ghandi ordered police into the Sikh's (most holy) Golden Temple--and please note the police in India are forbidden to go into any temple--in order to confiscate the Sikh's weapons, a Sikh assassinated her.
    • Nowadays, Sikhism has been mainstreamed and India's government is having fewer problems with them.
  • The government is working hard to alleviate the oppression of the formerly-known-as-untouchables people. First, it's illegal to call someone an untouchable, and second, half of all jobs are reserved for the lowest castes. Also, education and medical help is free everyone, but books, school uniforms, and medicines are not--except for the poorest people.
  • In India, there are men who walk around with monkeys on leashes, and there are snake charmers, and there are people who sell peacock feather fans. However, Yusef advised us to not give any of them money because all of those practices involve animal cruelty. The monkeys are subdued with beatings, the charmers pull out the cobras' fangs and venom glands despite the snakes needing their venom to help digest food, and people poison the peacocks to get their feathers.
  • 8 of India's 10 prime ministers have come from Agra (the city we drove to on this day.)
We got to the Taj Mahal well before sunset and stayed long enough to see the sun go down. The entrance gate takes you into a garden, and then you turn right in order to pass through another gateway into the Taj Mahal's main garden. That gateway of course features the famous view of the Taj above its own reflection in the pool. No matter how stridently the tour guides instruct their groups to move to the side, everyone jars to a halt at that point, squeals incoherently, and then starts snapping a zillion pictures. It took our group about 10 (very excited) minutes to finally get to the meeting point Yusef specified.

The Taj's dome actually rests on a second dome, which is unusual but effective for bearing the weight of the upper structure. At the top of the upper dome is a carving of an inverted lotus blossom, and the gold spire above this represents a pot of ambrosia. The entire building is symmetric when viewed from the four directions. There is a mosque to the Taj's right, and an identical building to its left (which was used as a guesthouse because it faced the wrong direction to be a mosque too.) The fountains all spritz water to the same height, which was quite tricky to manage given the technology of the time.

The inner tomb is decorated with inlays of 27 different types of semi-precious stones in the shape of flowers and vines. The orange stone is carnelian, which is translucent, so Yusef pressed a flashlight up to it and showed us how the orange flowers could be made to light up like neon in the dark.

It is not true that the emperor cut off the architect's hands when the Taj Mahal was finished; he didn't want any negative associations with his wife's tomb. Instead, everyone was paid fairly according to their contribution, and the emperor even bought the land the Taj sits on from a sub-king in Jaipur despite the fact the emperor could have annexed it. He even gave that sub-king twice as much land in Agra to make up for the land the Taj sits on.

The building rests on a foundation of wells filled with bamboo and gravel. It's estimated the building could withstand an 8.0 Richter scale earthquake. The building's four minarets lean very slightly outward from the structure so that, if an earthquake knocks them over, they will fall away from the domes.

The Taj was built as a tomb for the 5th Moghul emperor's third wife, who was adored by the people as well as her husband, and who was given real power in her lifetime despite being a woman. When she married, her name was changed to Mumtaz Mahel, which means "chosen crown of the palace". She and the emperor were married for 17 years and she died giving birth to their 14th child.

It took the emperor 22 years to build the Taj, and he originally planned to build an identical, second Taj in black marble on the opposite side of the river, then join the two Tajs with a bridge. The foundations were laid for this, and you can still see them, but before any more work was completed, the emperor's third son killed his two older brothers, plus an accomplice younger brother, and then imprisoned his father and seized the empire.

The emperor spent his remaining 8 years of life in Agra Fort, where he was able to see Taj but not visit it. He was imprisoned with his remaining wives and concubines, but it's said he never touched another woman after Mumtaz Mahel passed away. After his death, he was entombed beside his wife, and the placement of his body is the only asymmetry that exists in the Taj Mahal.

The gardens of the Taj are large and serene, and when you get up to the building itself, you can take your shoes off (or put on little booties over them) and walk up to and into the Taj Mahal. It's a zoo in there; approximately 45,000 people visit the Taj every day.

After viewing the Taj, JJ took a quick look through the guest-house building on the Taj's left, and then she and El Husbando enjoyed the garden as the sunset changed the colour of the dome.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

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