Why would an American take a month's vacation
in a country of a billion people whose streets are dirty and
dusty and polluted by diesel fumes? Poverty exceeds any American
definition and tourists are followed by ordinary beggars,
lepers with deformed limbs and women with sick babies.
Shoppers are steered by cab drivers or a tout
on foot to stores which give the tout a two percent commission
on the purchases. There's more: the odor of sewerage from
the streets and the gutters that remains until it's washed
away in the June monsoon k and the traffic cacophony from
the trucks and cars whose rear bumpers read, "Horn please"
as though this will speed a passing vehicle. Finally, a real
threat of domestic terrorism demands a search of all the bags
at the airports while the checked luggage is matched to the
passengers before it is loaded onto a flight.
I went to India for the experiences that can't
be found anywhere else! The Taj Mahal is a statement of perfection,
a tribute to the memory of a dead queen by her husband, a
Mughal Emperor. I saw its white symmetry at dawn when our
visit began and watched the marble change from white to pink.
A travel video of a Taj visit may give a picture but appreciating
the change in size, volume and color on the walk toward it
through the morning light requires an actual presence.
The expectation of the North American traveler
is that the unique qualities of Buddhism will be illuminated
here where the Buddha lived and preached. His attempt to deal
with pain, suffering, old age and death receives a dimension
at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon. This ancient
park has a larger then life contemporary tableau of statues
portraying the life of the Buddha. Cheerful pilgrims come
and go in groups while one motionless monk sits alone as he
has for weeks.
My interest in Gandhi was focused by visiting
his Bombay home, now a museum to his life and philosophy.
The simple beauty of the house, his domestic implements, his
life in pictures and his words were here. The library and
the unbound manuscripts offer scholars a unique opportunity.
While the tours whirled through the small building, there
was silence in the library and its garden.
The surprise of the trip for me was the neither
the world of Gandian nonviolence nor Buddhism both of which
I already knew something about. It was the illumination offered
by Hindu polytheism to a Westerner about our own polytheistic
heritage _. The Gods of our tribes, Angles, Saxons, Franks,
Goths, Celts, Iberians, Romans, Greeks were mostly lost to
the Christian trinity or to Jesus or just to the saints and
angels. Moloch, Baal and Astarte, the idols of the Jewish
tribes in the desert were overcome and forgotten in favor
of Yahweh brought by Moses. Further to the East, Allah deprived
the Arabs and other Islamic people of their earlier Gods after
the arrival of Muhammad. Was monotheism like the automobile
succeeding the horse and buggy? We heard about the Atman or
supreme spirit of the Hindu's religion so maybe it's really
more like the coexistence of painting with the camera.
Hindus have 320 million Gods or maybe 33 million
although I learned about a basic trinity, Brahma the Creator,
Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer. These ideas
mean little until one enters the g qreat Hindu shrines like
Khajuraho also memorable for its cavorting busty women and
well hung men.
Wouldn't you like your own household Goddess
or God with a statue that's different from the neighbors who
also have their own? Or maybe two or three deities? And you
can have Christ and St. Francis there too. Still, I was surprised
by my last trip to the Bombay airport in a cab whose dashboard
had no religious symbols at all.
The guides talked about an India making progress
in overcoming corruption but I heard a dissenter in a village
east of Delhi where we stayed on a farm with real crops. A
college student who was an intern at this farm told me that
he was trying to decide whether his family should buy him
a civil service job for the equivalent of $7000 with the expectation
that he would get bribes in the service that would allow him
to pay back his benefactors. He twas a chocolate colored rail-thin
twenty old with an earring and I agreed to send him what I
would write about India.
Everywhere women in bright saris enliven India's
usual landscapes of drab buildings and men wearing dark faded
clothes. In the countryside both Hindu and Moslem women are
often veiled. On the streets even in the cities, women hardly
ever drove the autos in which they traveled. I saw almost
no women working in the cafes, hotels or stores although women
are university teachers and airline employees.
At nine in the morning our Elderhostel tour
had a concert of ragas in our hotel in New Delhi. The performer,
Chanudi, a golden skinned woman of 70 was wearing a bright
red sari suffused with yellow threads and bordered with gold
bands. She started with a prayer to Vishnu and to her guru
who was her teacher. She sat on the floor while she sang,
playing the c anbuin with one hand and leading her quartet
with the other. The canbuin resembling a sitar is a stringed
instrument about five feet long with a pumpkin shaped chamber
at end of a long shaft. Others played a harmonium, a kind
of keyboard ; a santour like a dulcimer and the tabula, two
drums. Ragas, a musical form requiring improvisation like
jazz are derived from a chanting of the sacred books called
Vedas which began two millennia ago. The bursts of musical
energy often followed unexpected channels electrifying our
Not everything went well. On the farm in Rajasthan
where they had camels, I saw Betsey from New Jersey , fall
off a camel onto her back. She was in shock, achy an d limping
but after X rays and a checkup she was allowed to continue
the tour. Plucky lady! I wondered why there was a pad between
the saddle and her body which reduced her traction and why
her feet were not put in the stirrups and why a camel who
was receiving medication was being used for this ride. No
one explained but I was glad I'd already had my camel ride
on a trip to Egypt. My first elephant ride on this trip was
an uneventful photo op.
Ingrid had her wallet stolen from her zippered
purse while we boarded a train in a crowded station. She reported
the loss of the traveler's checks, canceled the credit cards
and made a police report and in the future will probably never
put her valuables in a purse while traveling.
My overall impression is to tell you about the kindness
of the Indians. A policemen scrutinizing the contents of my suitcase
in a routine airport check suggested that some of the fragile items
should be moved to a different section and he repacked for me. He was
right. I was buying a soft drink on a ferry for ten rupees (25¢) but
when the seller didn't have change for a twenty, he said, "Just give
me a five." Trivial, yes but these incidents made me feel good. The
Buddhist and Hindu sculpture of the ancient cliffside caves at Adjunta
and Ellora came to my attention when I read in E. M. Forster's Passage
to India about an incident in one of these caves leading to an Indian
being accused of a sexual assault. Buddhas, Goddesses and Gods including
Shiva's lingam, a huge sculpted phallus all coexist in cavernous chambers.
Stone ceilings duplicate wooden beams. The caves are temples that were
cut from the rock from the top down and from the front to the rear so
that a two story chambers took 150 years to finish. The deities and
the Buddhas were more personal then the Sphinx and more accessible then
Michelangelo's David and are still being worshipped.
We saw Benares at sunrise from a skiff on the
river along side boats of tourists from India, other Asian
countries and Europe. Benares is also known as Barnaras, Kashi
and Varanesi, the City of Shiva where Hindus consign their
ashes to the Ganga or Ganges River. It is a holy city three
thousand years old for the nine hundred million Hindus comparable
to Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca. We saw men and women who made
the pilgrimage bathing in the river, drinking from it and
carrying away its holy water. Beggars line the nearby streets
and women hawkers sold very low denomination coins so we could
give one to each suppliant and obtain a blessing. By noon
it was eighty degrees on this March day but in summer the
daily temperature is 105. The river was really dirty and although
we saw no floating corpses the vultures were waiting. I want
to go again for these sights, smells and sounds and new ones
@ Paul Lowinger 1999