A Passage to India

Jan. 22 – Feb. 8, 2014

India was fantastic! This trip was by far the most interesting and diversified I have taken. The contrasts between old and new, urban and rural, bright colors (women’s saris) and drab villages, and wealth and poverty were striking. India is a culture of depth and rich in tradition.

I found that my American accent was as hard for most Indians to understand as their accent * was for me. About 30% of Indians speak English; along with Hindi, it is a national language, the only one used officially by the government (a heritage of British rule). Classes in “public” (i.e. private) schools are taught in English, with the local language as secondary, while the opposite is true for “government” schools. The government schools are free of charge, with textbooks provided, while the public schools charge hefty tuition. Needless to say, attending public schools is the premier way to advancement in society. You see many billboards advertising “English” schools. We visited a government school out in the country. It was very poor, with no artificial lighting and few amenities, though the children did get a hot lunch. Yet the children seemed happy and the teachers dedicated.

In the same village we visited a typical home. There were four or five members of the family; they lived in a single room and used the outdoors for many household functions. By local standards, they were not poor: they owned a couple of cows, and the 18-year-old daughter had a good education, which is unusual for girls of such backgrounds. As many as 39% of Indians are illiterate. In Agra, we enjoyed tea in the home of a middle class family. Both their children are in, or planning for, university. They have a very nice home, which they showed us around.

This husband said he spent about five minutes with his bride-to-be before they were married. Arranged marriages are based on the idea that marriage is far more than an affair of boy meets girl (“marriage for love”). After engaging a matchmaker or placing an ad in the paper touting the virtues of their son or daughter, the families negotiate over the suitability of the match. They might each investigate a hundred candidates, narrowing down to the ten or so in which the girl or boy will actually meet. No one is forced to marry someone they don’t like. The ages are usually 18-21, although nowadays, with more and more women working, they may be older. In particular, older men working overseas may come home to claim a bride.

We were lucky enough to see parts of several weddings going on. One was on the grounds of our hotel in Varanasi, and we were able to see some of it up close. They had hundreds of guests with much music, dancing, and fireworks. The bride’s father was an industrialist, and the wedding must been very expensive; the bride’s family is entirely responsible, and the family starts saving for the affair from the daughter’s birth.

In another case, we saw the groom on his traditional white horse. Elsewhere from the bus we saw preparations taking place on the large grounds used for Indian weddings.

The inevitable “culture shock” started in Varanasi, the holy city of the Hindus. The city is in one of the poorest states in India. Crazy traffic, cows, dogs, goats and other animals run around free and signs of poverty and chaos are all around. You see predominantly small, unprosperous looking shops selling all sorts of things, like used truck tires, and men sitting in open-air cafes drinking coffee, schoolchildren in uniforms, and women carrying loads on their heads.

Vehicles officially drive on the left, but they are as likely to be in the center or even the right as they negotiate the narrow roads. Half-jokingly, we were told that the priority in traffic was, first, to cows, then heavy trucks and buses down through all the many powered and non-powered vehicles and various animals and finally to dogs, and then, last of all, to pedestrians. In other words, pedestrians need to watch out, though the natives didn’t seem too concerned. WE were, on the few occasions we had to cross the street!

That cows are first on the road is not so much due to their holy status among Hindus; rather, it is that they are too dumb and spoiled to yield, and you certainly wouldn’t want to crash into one of them. They walk down the middle of the street or wherever they want. On one pedestrian-crowded street I saw a cow plow her way right into and through the mass of people. That was so funny! She did no harm. We also saw a cow wandering through a train station. Non-productive cows are often let loose by their owners and live on their own. Cows sometimes die from eating plastic in the trash.

Dogs are everywhere, and most are strays. No one pays them any attention. They live on what they can find, mostly among the piles of trash which are everywhere. If there is no garbage pickup, so what do you do?

In Varanasi, we took boat rides in the evening and again in the morning to see the ghats, the embankments with steps of stone slabs leading down to the river where pilgrims perform ritual dippings, and where cremations are performed around the clock. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges remits sins and that dying in Varanasi ensures release of a person's soul from the cycle of its transmigrations. Thus, many Hindus come to Varanasi to die. I hadn’t known much about Hinduism before, and I must say I came away with increased respect for it and two other religions which sprang from Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism.

We visited many temples and tombs, mosques, forts and other monuments, including the Sikh temple Bangla Sahib and the medieval Jain and Hindu temple clusters in Khajuraho. Built between 950 and 1150 AD, the most famous of the temples are those adorned with erotic sculptures.

The Qutub Minar, far larger than a minaret, was built between 1192 and 1368 and stands 237 ft. tall. The Jama Masjid open-air mosque, in Old Delhi, can accommodate 25,000 people.

The tomb of Humayun, a 16th-century ruler of Northern India, is magnificent, though of course it does not compare, nor does anything, with the incredible, beautiful, sublime, extraordinary Taj Mahal in Agra. The Tomb of I'timd-ud-Daulah, often called the Baby Taj because its style is similar to the Taj, was another interesting site in Agra.

We also visited Agra Fort in Agra as well as Jaigarh Fort, the huge fortification in Jaipur which looks down upon the magnificent Amber Fort, where we experienced an elephant ride!

The Jantar Mantar Observatory, a collection of architectural astronomical instruments, was an unexpected surprise. One sundial stands ninety feet tall.

In Ranthambore National Park we drove through the forest looking for tigers but saw none, although we saw many other animals, including a bold bird which landed in the safari vehicle and jumped from one (hatted) head to another. Such a laugh.

Fatepur Sikri has an interesting history. It was built by one of the Moghul emperors as his capital, but after only 13 years was abandoned for lack of water. So it is a ghost city.

For me, the most fun thing was hopping aboard a rickshaw for a ride through the narrow alleys and markets of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi.

* Click on the links for more information.