Friday, January 1, 2016
A Trip to India
Whether it is discernible to readers or not, I generally edit a bit before posting even in material drawn from my travel journals. Below, though, I have transcribed my notes from a few weeks in India complete with lists of monuments, complaints about hotels, and descriptions of a meal or two with no attempt to shape a coherent essay. In spite of the often casual nature of the blog genre and the frequently discursive quality of travel writing, I don't plan to repeat this practice, which was suggested to me solely by the time pressure of two weeks of travel followed by the holiday season. The observations below were written in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Ranthambore Park, Udaipur, and Mumbai. Six years ago we toured India independently after intentionally devising an itinerary that avoided the touristic Golden Triangle. This time we went with a group -- this explains the relatively plush accommodations, the elephant ride, tiger-spotting (unsuccessful), and the like.
Photograph by Patricia Seaton
Upon disembarking in Delhi the traveler feels the eye-burn of acrid air and smells the faint but pervasive foulness of the Industrial Revolution's decay. Ah Delhi! What promises might this stink of acquisitive desire first make and then frustrate or keep before the return home?
As we were staying at the Holiday Inn, we found ourselves in one of those peculiarly uncongenial locations only money can buy. Such structures are grand and self-sufficient. Guests are meant to venture out only by taxi, But I did have a look around the neighborhood that seems so little like a neighborhood. Homeless people had built a fire right by the road beneath the elevated highway (here called a flyover). A wandering cow stared blankly at a few off-kilter feral dogs. Dusty boys playing cricket in a grass less field paused in their game to watch me pass. Seeking a place for supper I walked to a mall only to find that most of its shops were liquor stores though it did boast a Domino's Pizza and a Chinese restaurant. Street vendors offered momos for 20 rupees and "famous Kolkata egg rolls."
We headed then together across a broad canal on a bridge without a real sidewalk. In the dark a mad maelstrom of traffic rushed by, half the drivers honking repeatedly. The headlights of the cars, many ignoring lanes and passing too close to ignore combined with the noise and what seemed real danger of being struck to create a temporary nightmare. Once over the canal, crossing the next street with continuous traffic but no signals seemed simple. Fortunately almost at once we found a modest place beneath the metro station where we shared a creamy paneer dish, garlic nan, jeera rice, raita, small whole onions that had been marinating in red vinegar (beet juice?), along with the lime and soda water so popular here.
We visited again the Jama Masjid built by Shah Jahan with its huge courtyard and exceedingly shallow interior. They say that 25,000 believers can all salaam at once in this outdoor space with its two auxiliary pulpits for relaying the imam's words to the masses. Somehow, when we entered no other visitors were present, just a dozen of the pious praying, doing ablutions at the central pool, and reading the Koran. A white shrine in one corner is thought by the credulous to hold a hair from the prophet's beard and other relics. The massive domes are top heavy though the minarets in every corner strive to balance the composition.
We rode a cycle rickshaw through the lanes of old Delhi and then turned onto the Chandni Chowk near the Red Fort and the Jain bird hospital. A zebu pulling a cart, its hump slanted rakishly to the side, turned its head my way as though sharing a secret.
A government-sponsored Disability Day was being held near India Gate. Walking through a crowd of people conversing with each other in highly animated sign language felt oddly like flying through viscous air.
We visited the Gandhi Smirti where the leader spent his last days trying to halt the communal violence that followed Partition. Here the skinny old man wrapped in a white cloth was assassinated. His politics and personality contained great contradictions which were then multiplied by those of this vast land. He put his mission before his personal life, yet, unlike Ho, he had a family. His use of the sadhu tradition led him to ascetic practices such as celibacy and fasting. Nonviolent satyagraha may have succeeded in the independence struggle only because the British, who had imprisoned him several times, were ready to abandon their empire due to other historical forces. (Armed struggle was unnecessary in Africa.). Yet in the end Gandhi remains an immensely moving and impressive figure, that rarest of things, a political actor with principle.
The Laxmi Narayan Mandir, extremely popular with visitors, was built in the 30s by the Birlas, a wealthy industrialist family, and has the extravagant imagery in which Hinduism is so rich, including a number of representations of Buddha and a baroquely decorated chapel for Krishna. The Birlas had supported the self-rule and self-sufficiency movement and thus Gandhi participated at the temple’s dedication. The garish figure of Laxmi at the altar is associated with money, so it is clear why the Birlas and the general public might adore her, yet more uncertain how the great preacher of the extinguishment of desire would react to his inclusion. The temple was built with modern materials and includes such showy features as artificial waterfalls.
The Qtub Minar complex with its enormous but bulbous and ugly minaret was built at the beginning of the 13th century by Qutb-ud-Din after wrecking some twenty-seven Hindu and Jain temples that once stood on the spot. Should there be any doubt, the mosque beneath was called Quwwat-ul-Islam or "the might of Islam." When one wishes really to conquer a people, it is doubtless good policy to conquer their gods as well. Now, apart from the slightly absurd tower, many of the victor's buildings, the Khalji Madrasa for example, are likewise ruins. Strolling among the remains of once mighty contenders induces an elegiac mood. Ozymandias again!
The Akshardham Mandir is very modern, constructed only a bit over ten years ago, but it is extraordinary in a manner as arrogant as the Qtub minaret with as little true spirituality. While the medieval minaret was meant to awe the defeated with a display of temporal power to which religion was attached almost incidentally, this twenty-first century structure has a pushy sort of vulgar ambition that tastes foully of capitalist conspicuous consumption. Much more than the Birla temple built seventy years earlier, its ambitions toward grandeur are expressed in insistent artificial excess somewhat like Las Vegas or Dubai. It is described by its promoters as though by a real estate sales agent: seventy thousand figures carved during three hundred million man hours, as though such numbers could generate greatness. I did not witness the attractions that have led more than one observer to call it a Disneyland-style temple: the son et lumiere show, the animatronics. I suspect the Hindu nationalists of the BJP were critical to the grant of land for its creation, though its guru Swami Narayan lived what was probably a very holy life two hundred years ago. Yet it does bludgeon its way to the visitors' attention and even to a sort of admiration akin to that one feels for art brut builders or kitschy fifties formica.
We drove then to Agra, first passing through endless miles of high rise apartments and a great many more under construction, the cancer-like growth of the modern metropolis, before emerging to fields including patches of mustard grown more for oil and greens than for the seed, past beehives and small-scale brick kilns.
On the outskirts of Agra, we stopped at the tomb of Jahangir's vizier Mirza Ghiyas Beg, the onetime refugee who managed to be named "the pillar of the nation,’ Itimad-ud-daulah. The so-called Baby Taj struck me as elegant (though not sublime). The two mausoleums have in common the white marble facing and the striking petra dura work with Persian motifs of vases, flowers, and trees.
In Agra we stayed at the Agra Trident.
Though we arrived at the Taj Mahal quite early crowds had come yet earlier. The dreadful smelly smog, only marginally less intense than in Delhi, here made the iconic structure appear as a dream or a vision. What can one say about such a sight? Like the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or the Great Wall it is so familiar from images that it can scarcely be seen in person. Still, it is evidence of the refined aestheticism of the Mughal court, reflecting that of Persia. I suppose it is cheering in a way that this beauty is not confined to a small circle of aristocrats, but is available to the mob daily, including myself. Though popular opinion would like to view the structure as a testament of love, it is doubtless still another statement of arrogant power, eloquent long after its builder was ousted and confined by his own son (who murdered his brothers as well). At least that ruling class valued cultivation of the sensibilities as a sign of their nobility, just as the courtly Elizabethan sonneteers did. In these latter days hustling photographers pose couples in Bollywood postures and the glorious building has been reduced to mere backdrop.
The red sandstone fort in Agra is protected by two and a half kilometers of ramparts. Furnished with high walls, drawbridges, moats, and a zig-zag main entrance to prevent a rapid rush of invaders and the use of battering rams, it looks virtually impregnable. The larger part is still a military base. This is where Shah Jahan served his house arrest. When not killing family members or other foes, this brutal bunch enjoyed such refined pastimes as bathing with concubines in a porphyry tub amid flower petals.
Today's drive was lengthy, broken only by a stop at the Abhanagari step well (or baori), a huge hole dug in the 9th century or so with geometric patterns of rock descending in a sort of dizzy op art pattern. Next to it are the ruins of a large temple where local residents lounge and chat and goats leap, perhaps imagining themselves in the mountains. Today the village of Abhaneri is small and humble, but a thousand years ago it must have been a center of regional power. Some sort of harvest festival was in progress, heralded by a sound truck bearing more passengers than one would have thought possible riding along with the companionable gods and blasting music with a heavy beat. Behind followed a procession of women, many balancing tall terra cotta urns on their heads topped with sprigs of greenery. Some merely walked along while a considerable knot gyrated ecstatically. Patricia joined the dancers, imitating their moves expertly and swinging more rhythmically then many of the Indians. They seemed delighted with her and grins spread all around while small children strove to touch the foreigner who had mysteriously materialized to grace their celebration.
A short time later we encountered a funeral with the somber line headed by pall-bearers carrying a body in a white winding sheet on a board. They were making their way to the crematorium. So life inevitably evokes death and it is surely salutary to avoid lingering too long amid the joys of food and children and love and all the affairs of life lest one deceive oneself and entertain the thought that Yama has been outdistanced.
After nine hours on the road we pulled off onto a one lane dirt track, then a smaller one, bumpier yet and arrived at the Pugmark just past the village of Sawai Madhopur outside the Ranthambore National Park.
As the park is a former maharaja's hunting grounds, there is a large fort on the hilltop in the park with temples and a mosque as well as occasional lodges, tombs, and shrines on the grounds. Pilgrims visiting the temple give food to the local monkeys so they congregate along the road in trees waiting for likely patrons, rather like the vendors that rush to the side of the paused vehicle at the park's entrance offering Chinese-made tee shirts and stocking caps.
We failed to sight a tiger during our morning and afternoon drives through different areas of the park, though we saw tracks and heard the monkey's danger calls when they, with better vantage point than ours, spotted their antagonist sleeping or creeping through the high grasses. They, the jungle cats, leopards, and the hyenas had sense enough to dodge the attention of the visitors though we carried cameras rather than firearms.
We did, however, see plenty of fallow deer, sambar, blue bull antelope, wild boar, black-faced langur, macaque, crocodile, and countless birds including egret, ibis, teal, cormorant, red wattle lapwing, woolly-neck stork, snakebird, whistling duck, tree partridge, parakeet, various herons, jungle crow, weaver bird (with nests), and bulbul. There were a great many wandering peacocks, and the tree pies came begging for handouts.
The ride was a bit rough and dusty, yet glorious as every beast has its virtue, and the alarmed cry of the monkey is no less a marvel than the tiger's roar, and though Blake wrote of the latter, it was only to combat the prejudice born of fear. We were told that the Ranthambore tigers have killed not only livestock but a good half dozen of our own species as well in recent years, so the hostility of villagers who live nearby is judicious and well-founded.
On the way to Jaipur we stopped at a small government school and witnessed the students' routine for opening the day. Lined up in size order and in classes, they executed a few moves reminiscent of military drill and sang the national anthem. Holding their hands in prayer position they then chanted petitions to Sarasvati for educational success. An older girl then read headlines from the newspaper and "thoughts for the day" along the lines of "do not spit or use tobacco" and "mind your parents."
In Jaipur we are told that over half the population of something over four million are employed in the gem trade. The astrologers tell people what stones are beneficial for them, so this metaphysical benefit coincides with the Indian taste for conspicuous consumption and gaudy over-the-top decoration.
After a lassi served in a disposable pottery cup we entered the Raj Mandir movie house to see a Hindi film with the usual sharply drawn heroes and villains and nonstop alternation of thrilling action, song and dance, romance and comedy. Not knowing the language was no impediment to following the story. The place was not old but was vulgarly opulent with more levels of ticket price than a Broadway theater. Why is it that in this land where arranged marriages are still the rule, all the films are about romance?
We ate perhaps the best Indian meal of the trip ever had at Tulsi, a small vegetarian restaurant located, surprisingly, in the Ramada hotel where we were staying. I had strolled the nearby streets without finding a likelier place, but I am glad that this time I did not follow my preference for a hole-in-the-wall. Sharing a thali we had more than we cared to eat. We particularly enjoyed ker sangria a combination of "desert beans," which look rather like strands of seaweed or long evergreen needles prepared with fresh capers and a good deal of oil.
We engaged in the most touristic of experiences riding a painted and gaily draped elephant to Jai Singh's Amber Fort with its lengthy fortifications snaking over the hills to protect a luxurious palace. The visitor heard flute music and came upon a snake charmer with two cobras. Then the gauntlet of the undiscourageable hawkers begins
The City Palace, one-third of which is still occupied by the family of the last maharaja, had some marvelous gates, each with different decoration. The so-called museums here displayed little more than the remains of royal wardrobes and paintings of some of the men who wore them. One could see as well the huge silver urns in which the ruler in 1901 brought with him when visiting Britain. He had thought it prudent to carry his own water, unsure of the safety of what would be available in the West and probably thinking his own had curative powers.
The complex of eighteen large devices built by Jai Singh for astrological calculations (the Jantar Mantar) is an abstract spectacle apart from its intended use. A very large sundial here (the Samrat Yantra) can indicate the time correct within two seconds while the complementary marble hemispheres in holes in the ground can indicate an individual's horoscope. This meticulous observation and ingenious invention in the service of superstition recalls to me the Chinese invention of the compass which was used not for navigation but for Germany and of gunpowder, the use of which was confined for centuries to fireworks.
We drove to Jodhpur and encountered numerous military convoys coming from the posts along the border with Pakistan.
We visited first the fifteenth century Meherangarh Fort (the Sun Fort), one of the grandest fortified palaces in the world. In order to build here, on the hill called Bhaurcheeria (the mountain of birds), Rao Jodha evicted a sadhu known as Cheeria Nathji (the lord of birds), constructing a dwelling and temple for him on the grounds. He then sought to ensure his security on the spot by burying a man alive in the foundation. The man’s family still occupies a home in Raj Bagh (Raj’s Garden) provided them in compensation four hundred and fifty years ago. Entering the gates one may see the damage left by cannonballs and the handprints of the maharajah's wives made before they committed suttee in 1843. At a temple dedicated to Chamundi, in 2008 249 people were killed in a panicked stampede during the Navratri festival. The goddess is depicted as aged and skeletal, wearing a garland of human skulls (mundamala). Liquor and animal sacrifices are offered (and, in the past, human sacrifices) to this fearsome one-time tribal goddess.
Apart from the associations with class and gender exploitation, war and ferocious religious imagery, the fort as a whole is a magnificent witness to human engineering, aestheticism , and ingenuity. Pleasingly asymmetrical and endlessly various, it offers new marvels around every turn and on every level. At the present time there is also an exhibit of miniatures which mostly feature goddesses, though there is one of a polo game, and several of maharajas. Among the breathtaking rooms are the Flower Palace or Phool Mahal, used by the ruler for his private recreation with its stained glass and gold-decorated ceiling, the Takhat Vilas with its European Christmas tree balls hanging from above, and the Pearl Palace (Moti Mahal) whose walls are covered with some sea-shell preparation. The stone lattices or jali are intricate and elegant, though testifying to the system of purdah which the Rajputs adopted from their Muslim enemies.
We then checked into the Ranbanka Palace Hotel, a "heritage" hotel in what had been the palace of Maharajadhiraj Sir Ajit Singh ji, a prince in 1927 when the structure went up. Apart from the Ottoman Legacy in Istanbul this is surely the grandest place in which I have ever stayed. Our accommodations consisted of a sitting room with marble floor and fine carpet separated from the spacious bedroom by columns and drapes, again with fine carpets, then another room holding two large wardrobes and little else, and an unnecessarily spacious bathroom. Excess, but a pleasant surprise for a single night.
The Jaswant Thada is an early twentieth century marble memorial to Jaswant Singhi II and subsequent maharajas by the Dev Kund used for ritual bathing after cremations. As it was only just opening time, the only shoes outside were the pointed ones from the attendant who lit incense before the altar which had no deity but only a photograph of the big man. He then assumed a stylized posture and began playing a flute, though I am not sure whether his aim was to offer the melody as he had done the incense or to elicit a tip. Perhaps both.
On the way to Udaipur we stopped at the fourteenth century Ranakpur Jain temple and meet the weirdly fascinating gaze of Adinath and the other tirthankaras. Though many describe Jainism as a religion without a god, the temple designers were not inhibited from including numerous Hindu deities as well as worshiping the fully realized beings, the last of whom lived over two and a half centuries ago. Not only did the visitor have to shed all leather including wallets; in addition drinking water and menstruating women were forbidden. We were most interested in the reliefs on the way in illustrating a variety of sexual practices. Like many other moralistic works, these conveniently managed to titillate while condemning.
We arrived at the so-called Royal Retreat outside Udaipur. Though the scenery was fine, the place was a four-star prison in that it lacked even gardens or walking paths. Above, on a high cliff a resort made to resemble a fort was under construction. We were a half hour outside of town and the nearest village seemed to lack a restaurant. As it turned out the place (about which we had already complained -- the original hotel was on the shore of Lake Pichola) was disastrous. I can scarcely begin to enumerate the complaints which every traveler there seemed to have. Among them though was service in the overpriced restaurant so very slow that one was advised to order at least forty-five minutes in advance (though this led to cold plates being brought to the table), lack of hot water or, in some cases, of water at all, failure to clean the rooms or replace towels during the day, exile to the chilly verandah restaurant for breakfast while Indians there for a wedding party and an anniversary celebration ate in comfort indoors. We were stuck, our only compensation being accommodation in a separate cottage-like room off by itself near an imposing Jaganath cart, though to reach it we had to pass the swimming pool area by the side of which many men seemed to have a habit of peeing. We grumped over a shared dish of grisly mutton bones in a tepid sauce of cashew and rosewater. So close to one of the most picturesque cities of India and yet be confined to this sorry place.
Udaipur is certainly beautiful at least on the lake or on its shores. Pichola and the smaller lakes, all joined by canals, were created in the fourteenth century by a gypsy Banjara tribal chief and expanded by generations of maharanas. The view includes three royal mansions as well as numerous somewhat less lavish havelis once occupied by aristocrats. One grand residence, the Jag Niwas, was built on an island as a summer palace though unfortunately today it is a hotel, while on another island is the Jag Mandir, likewise today a private hotel. Thus the Rajput warrior aristocrats of the past have yielded to the plutocrats of today.
Even today in hot weather the visitor can appreciate the luxury of the eighteenth century "garden of the maids of honor," the Sahellion-ki-Bari with its shady lanes, its flowers and palms, and its later fountains,one of which features four monolithic elephants in marble. With an almost Heian refinement, these fountains are designed to generate different sounds, a powerful monsoon or a gentle forest rain.
We took a boat around the lake from which none of the funky cluttered streets were visible, but only the grand homes of the nobility and the equally grand landscape beyond. We paused on the island of the Lake Garden Palace, the Jag Mandir where the reigning Maharana had sheltered Europeans during the Mutiny of 1857 and admired the frescoes in the Gol Mahal.
Not far from the City Palace, the Jagdish temple, built in 1652, enshrines the black stone image of Jagannath an irregular deity considered by some an avatar of Vishnu (replacing Buddha) though not included in the standard Dashavatara. The primary association of this deity for nonbelievers is the Ratha yatra or chariot festival in which high carts bearing his image are pulled through the streets be devotees with speed and force that are implied by the word juggernaut. He is often depicted in idols carved of tree stumps, featuring huge eyes and no legs and looking archaic indeed flanked by similar figures of his brother and sister Balabhadra and Subhadra.
In the evening we were not inclined to make the hour-long round trip to town, leaving us no option other than to eat in the restaurant. At first we were told that we could not enter the restaurant which had been reserved for the parties but when we objected we were then allowed a table. Looking for something modest and bland, she ordered a lamb burger which arrived looking quite nice with tomato, lettuce, and egg, but which proved to lack lamb. When she questioned the waiter, he shook his head enigmatically, saying, "Yes, no lamb, ma'am, correct." After another fifteen minutes, she received a separate plate with pieces of lamb.
We sought sleep as the parties continued into the night, culminating with midnight fireworks.
We arose at 3:45 for the flight to Mumbai about which we had been reading in Suketi Mehta's overpraised book Maximum City. In spite of its prizes, I consider it indifferently written and poorly edited. Many specific ideas are repeated again and again and anecdotes illustrating them are piled up till they become tiresome indeed. When the author strives for rhetorical drama, the result is almost always second-rate. Still, it provides information on the underside of the city unavailable elsewhere. Mehta may be unique in his acquaintance with the metropolis' gangsters, bar dancers, and general corruption.
The Mahalakshmi dhobi ghats are visible from a bridge above. This slum in the middle of expensive real estate includes a large number of concrete sinks into which water is diverted, this had been the center of the city's dhobi-wallahs, but, since the advent of the washing machine, it is less essential to many whose parents sent their laundry. To compensate, some of the neighborhood's residents have solicited "first wash" work, especially for makers of school uniforms. The collection of discarded clothing for resale is another means of livelihood. Still, those who live here tenaciously hold on to their rights -- the land is not privately owned but rather city property --and have sued to provide their ouster. Given what Mehta says about the interminable unfolding of court cases, reminiscent of Bleak House, they may have a good while yet before being moved. In spite of the miserable shanty-town construction, every hovel had something I do not, a satellite dish.
In the Maru Bhavan Gandhi Museum, once the home of a friend and supporter who offered Gandhi a room when he was in Mumbai, one can see odd little dioramas depicting critical moments in the leader's life. His room is preserved complete with spinning wheels, bed, and bookstand and nothing else. There is a small balcony where he spoke to visitors. The photographs on display include scenes with Tagore, several with British Quakers, and a delightful one with Charlie Chaplin in which both are grinning widely. Among the letters displayed are notes to both Adolf Hitler and FDR seeking to forestall war.
The Oval Maidan was filled with white-clad cricketers and lined with British buildings reminding me again of Malcolm Muggeridge’s comment that the last true Englishman would be an Indian.
From our twenty-first floor room at the Trident one could see the water and the cityscape, including the Rajabhai clock tower, while wheeling birds circled and dived. At one point a wedding party below drummed and danced and marched.
The Chhatrapatra Shivaji Museum, once the Prince of Wales Museum before its rechristening by the reactionary Shiv Sena party, is fronted by a handsome garden and crowned with a fine dome. It was designed by George Wittet (who also did the Gateway of India) in a mixture of Gujarati, Islamic, and British styles. Though the building lacks air conditioning, the collection is excellent, including a fine sculpture hall which includes a good share of Gandharan Buddhist work and first-rate Hindu sculptures. I particularly liked the dramatic representations of Durga killing the bull, a motif called mahisasuramardini. On the next floor are examples of many schools of miniature painting and a hall of works featuring Krishna. The cafe in a shady courtyard full of plants had a full "special lunch" for 90 rupees, but the hour was too late, and we made do with hearty a pair of samosas for 35.
On the way back to the hotel we got peanuts from a street vendor while another whacked at a coconut and inserted a straw. As evening fell, we drove out to the airport to begin the thirty-some hour trip back home.