Vacation in India
Paul Lowinger


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 morning.

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 too!

@ Paul Lowinger 1999