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Friday, December 01, 2006


Everything and Nothing

Everything is sacred and nothing is sacred. This statement pretty much sums up India. A place where people and billboards profess that cleanliness is next to godliness yet they walk barefoot through cow dung to bathe in a 'holy' river filled with sewage, dead animals, and ash from the local crematorium. A place where people speak the Queen's English and drink milk tea yet eat slop (albeit delicious slop) with their hands. The economy is one of that fastest growing in the world, yet the poverty is astounding. The government is praised for being a beacon of freedom and democracy in a hostile sea of enemies, yet is so bureaucratic, ineffectual, and corrupt that roads are barely paved, child labor is frighteningly common and the literacy rate is one of the lowest in the world. Spiritual ascetics are believed to be powerful enough to kill you with just a negative thought, but you'd better watch your belongings at the temples they frequent because pickpocketing and theft is rampant. Varanassi, a city locally famous for the holy Ganges river and widely known as where Hindus go to die and be cremated. is also famous with travelers as a place to watch out for being drugged and having your belongings stolen. Only in India could such paradoxical statements all ring true.

Likewise, our travels in India have involved a heavy dose of the sacred. We started, almost accidentally, at Bodhgaya, the site of the famed Boddhi tree where the Buddha supposedly became the enlightened one. It was almost an accident because although the city of Gaya has less than 100,000 people, it is one of two places that have direct flights from Burma. Our plane was filled with Burmese Buddhist pilgrims on their way to their religions’ most holy place. When we (two whities) got off the plane, the airport staff were perplexed by our presence and had to double check that we were in the right place. The town is filled with temples from Buddhist communities around the world. We even took a class in Japanese Buddhist Zen meditation, but given the fierce mosquitoes and the uncomfortable cross-legged position, I can't imagine how anyone would reach anything more than an itchy and painful state of mind.

From there, we moved on to Varanassi, City of Light, on the Ganges river, and one of holiest cities in the Hindu religion. The river is so polluted from human waste (i.e. excrement) that it is 1000 times dirtier than is the highest allowable safe bathing water. Nonetheless, every morning Hindus 'fortunate' (as goes a famous Hindu proverb) enough to live on the banks of the Ganges go down to pray to Shiva, drop flowers, offerings (and other droppings) in the river, as well as bathe, brush their teeth, and do their laundry. All this with sewage and human excrement pouring in. It is also a city famous for music, and here Jon had a chance to jam with a superb tabla player as well as a motley crew of foreign travelers (Brazil, Israel, the UK) all learning various Indian instruments. He also took his first sitar lesson here.

In most mountain cultures, high peaks are considered to be sacred, and that is definitely the case in the Himalayan hill station of Darjeeling. Although the name connotes an air of British colonialism, in many ways the convergence of Bhutanese, Sikkimese, Tibetan, and Nepali high altitude peoples have had a much stronger impact than the British Raj. We took in views of the sacred peak of Khangchendzonga (third highest in the world) as well as a few faint vistas of Everest, during a four day trek in the hills. With a great guide, a personal chef and a porter, we only had to struggle with the weather. But that was formidable nonetheless, as we had only a half day of clear skies (fortunately at the best viewpoint) to view the snow capped mountains surrounding us. A persistent thick blanket of fog (and occasional rain) made the cold weather that much colder.

Darjeeling proved to be a pleasant respite from the realities of urban India. It is pedestrian, and too hilly for the throng of autorickshaws, pedal rickshaws, cows, chai and produce wallahs (vendors) and bizarre ascetics that fill up every indian city till it overboils. However, as soon as we arrived in Calcutta we realized that we were back in the thick of things. Though once the seat of power for the British Raj, Calcutta is a thoroughly Indian city, The people play cricket of the lawn of Victoria Memorial, but many more fill the streets, and many of those are beggars. It is also famed as a source of Indian and Hindu reform movements (which may be why the British moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi) and known throughout the Subcontinent as a proud place of free thought. We enjoyed the traditional side with a visit to Kali temple, where we witnessed a live goat slaughter and had a Brahmin (top priestly caste Hindu) take us through the motions of an offering. While we at first thought this was an honor, to be personally escorted passed the throngs of Hindus worshippers – the paradoxes of India once again took hold when we were coaxed into making a donation to the temple as they were praying for the health and well being of our families. Then we moved on to the new cultural Calcutta where we went to a short film festival (with topics ranging from love, to globalization, to anthropology). And with that, we ended our tour of North India. Now we are in Tamil Nadu, in South India, and are enjoying many of the differences (and struggling with many of the similarities). We are on our way to Kerala, where we will get a strong taste of Indian culture in a one week cultural education program where we will take classes in yoga, cooking, and tabla (Indian drums).

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