Posts in 'India 2007'

Siddharth January 21, 2007 at 10:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

          The man's broad, kind face was a welcome sight after my first overnight train ride. He was the manager of the lodge I was to stay at near Bandhavgarh National Park in eastern Madhya Pradesh - far off the beaten travelers' track. 
          "My name is Siddharth."
          "Siddharth?"  I said with surprise. 
          "Yes, very common name in India."
          "I know - Siddhartha Gotama!"
          "Oh, you know!"
          Yes, I knew that he had the same first name as the Buddha. I didn't know yet that I would feel closer to the Buddha here than I ever have.
          It happened a few hours later, when I walked down to the small pond at the lodge. No one was around - most people were on the morning jeep safari, which I had missed because of my late arrival. So it was quiet, blissfully quiet and a far cry from the ceasless honking of cars in the cities. I heard nothing but birds and the distant shouts of the rural animal herders who live around the park. Their land is parched, sandy and red, amazingly similar in texture and tone to the landscape of southeastern Arizona -  although here there are sal trees instead of mesquite.
          A small bit of land jutted out into the pond and there was a single banyan tree growing on it, with a wooden bench placed underneath. I sat down and realized I was in the forests of nothern India, and close to the area where the Buddha walked and taught - ok, maybe 200 or 300 km away, but certainly closer than I've ever been!  And a feeling swept over me - that the Buddha was a human being. I looked down at the dirt. This was the kind of dirt he gazed at. The banyan tree would have been a tree he had known well. He would have passed the sort of animal herders I was hearing, and known the same thirst I was experiencing. 
          The Buddha was human. 
          I went and fetched my copy of the Dhammapada, the first known Buddhist text, full of words thought to be directly spoken by the Buddha. And in the introduction (by Jack McGuire, 2002 edition, amended here) I read this: 
          One day, a Hindu priest found the Buddha sitting under a tree in a deep state of peace. The Buddha reminded the priest of an old male elephant; there was the same sense of great power and being controlled and channeled into a force of gentleness. The Brahman was amazed and asked the Buddha, "Are you a god?" "No," the Buddha answered. "Are you becoming an angel.. or a spirit?" Once again, the Buddha replied that he was not. The priest plucked up his courage once more and asked the Buddha how, then, he should be categorized. "Remember me," the Buddha said quietly, "as someone who has woken up."

           Despite all the statues we see of him, the stories told about him, our bows before him, the Buddha was simply a man, someone who knew what it felt like to drink water, to weep, to touch a bare foot to the ground. And he was courageous beyond measure. Later that evening, a group of local residents from the Gond and Baiga tribes performed a dance around a fire for all of us staying in the lodge. They practice their own local form of Hinduism. Watching them, I realized that the Buddha was raised in a Hindu society and that, by preaching solitary, meditative effort and by abandoning the gods that permeated the society around him, he was completely radical for his time - maybe even more radical in his time than in ours. I felt enormous gratitidue for his life. I felt enormous gratitude for the thousands of other human beings who brought his teachings to me, a Zen practitioner, 2,500 years later.
          And by the way, today I read in another book that the Buddha was enlightened under a ficus tree, and that the banyan, which I sat under while feeling so close to Siddhartha Gotama, is a member of the ficus family.

          I also must write about the tigers. Or should I say, Tiger, as if addressing him formally and by his proper name. The hot sun of this part of India started shining early yesterday morning, and Tiger preferred to get away from it, so he lay down in a patch of grassland inside this national park. An elephant hired by a former minister of Bihar reportedly found Tiger in the grass, which prompted dozens of rangers roaming the park to drive their jeep passengers to this one spot. Here, we jeep passengers climbed up onto a handful of elephants, becoming elephant passengers, and high on top of these peaceful gray beings we swayed toward the spot where Tiger was sleeping. He was not bothered by Elephant or by us. But when my elephant approached, he awoke. He looked sleepy. He was ten feet away from me. I took a few pictures but, more importantly, smiled at him. I did not feel like donning him with the stereotypical (masculine) adjectives: royal, fierce, king. Instead, I sensed how free he was. Not in a zoo. "This is how life should be," I thought. "Nature is working here."  It was a feeling I often felt after volunteering on the New Hampshire farm run by my friends Jim & Lori. There, nature also works and everything makes sense. So, looking at Tiger yesterday morning was breathtaking, not because of his strength or rarity, but because of the strength of nature, and the rarity of seeing it so beautifully expressed in the absence of human dominance.

Love stories January 18, 2007 at 9:00 AM • Filed under India 2007

          The hope was for a glowing red sunrise viewed against the cool marble of the Taj Mahal. But the clouds were stubborn and it was overcast on the morning I visited Shah Jahan's colossal tribute to his dead wife in Agra. I entered the Taj complex through a red sandstone gate and strolled alongside a pool of water that terminated at the mausoleum. I gazed up and expected awe but only felt perplexed as to why I felt so little emotion gazing at one of the seven wonders of the world. It was gorgeous, yes, but sad in its opulence...
          I took comfort in the words of one of my favorite writers, Aldous Huxley, who felt that the Taj suffered from "a poverty of imagination." Confused as to why he was not taken with the building, he wrote, "Am I, or is the world the fool?  Is it the world's taste that is bad, or is it mine?" I say, blame all the photos of the Taj, which rob us of the bliss of seeing such an unusual structure for the first time.
          It is possible to walk inside the Taj and view the tombs of Shah Jahan and his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, for whom the Taj was built. Their love story graces all the guide books. While it was chilling to realize that their bodies were below me, I soon ended up watching the only person allowed behind the gate that encircles the tombs. He was dressed in tattered white cloth and hunched over a broom. He did nothing but sweep the floor around the tombs and then wipe the tombs down with a cloth. His sandals were falling apart and his hands grubby with dirt. Back and forth he swept and swept, and rubbed with the cloth, and picked up the dried bird dung dropped by the pigeons above. When greeted by some youths in either Arabic or Urdu, he snapped something back at them and continued his work - his necessary and important work. 
          Many myths surround Shah Jahan, king of Mughal India in the mid-1600s. His love and power are legendary, but if you read between the lines you learn that his drinking was also legendary, as was his opium-taking, as was the size of his harem. He also enjoyed vicious elephant fights and bloody tiger hunts. His royal hangman was always at his side. His wife, lying dead now inside the Taj Mahal, gave birth to 14 children. She urged her husband to engage in some of the most brutal attacks on Christians ever witnessed in eastern India. What I am trying to say is, when you encounter a myth, peel back its thick skin. The fruit inside may be heavily bruised. 

          In Khajuraho, 150 km to the east, I found a different kind of love story - thousands of them, sculpted onto 1,000 year old temples. The temples  are covered with stone bodies engaged in all sorts of erotic positions - some, sadly, involving animals, others involving servants assisting with the copulation of their masters. These mysterious and evocative temples are why people visit Khajuraho, which would otherwise be a dry, dusty outpost in the middle of the state of Madhya Pradesh. The town is more laid back than Agra and Delhi, a welcome change, although the harrassment of travelers by the shopkeepers and bored teenage boys still challenged my nerves. Trying to outwit one boy, I said "Czechoslovakia - no speak English!" when he asked me where I was from. But to my shock, he replied, "Dobri den!" - the Czech word for "good morning!" I realized that sometimes you can never win in India. 
          I met a lovely 27-year-old woman from Spain at the train station and we shared a room. Cristina was a wonderful traveling companion for the day. We viewed the temples together, but then shared an extraordinary experience.
          Our cycle-rickshaw driver was peddling us to some temples when he stopped at a tent where many people were gathered. Music was playing and women in colorful saris lined the narrow road holding kerosene lamps above their heads. "Prime minister comes here," our driver told us. Manmohan Singh!  I had seen his photo many times and could not believe it. So Cristina and I, the only whites in the crowd, took a seat under the tent, with the men, and waited an hour, sensing the excitement in the crowd. At one point, I realized that this was a village gathering similar to the ones at which Gandhi spoke. Gandhi-ji! I looked at the people surrounding me, decendents of the courageous men and women who followed Gandhi's call and inspired the world with their non-violence. I felt enormous gratitude and deep emotion. I was sitting in a remote and dusty Indian village, waiting for the arrival of an Indian politician, wiping away tears. 
          Eventually the Prime Minister arrived. But he was not wearing the turban that Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, always wears. The band began to play, children danced, and the politician spoke in animated tones to the crowd. Later, I was to learn that the rally was celebrating the train service that will soon start in Khajuraho, and that in one year international flights would come here. Cristina and I wondered how that will affect this sleepy village -- good news, bad news, who knows -- and particularly how it will affect its water supply as more fancy hotels are built. And later, I was to learn that the "prime minister" was only the Prime Minister of Madhya Pradesh, the state!   It did not matter. By participating in the rally I had engaged in yet another love story. I had fallen in love with India. 

          Next I go to Bandhavgarh National Park, one of India's best tiger parks. It's in the middle of the jungle, so I may not be able to find a computer. And from there I go to a farm in central India, near Chandrapur, where Internet facilities may be scarce. So it may be a while before I post again - or maybe not. I have received some beautiful e-mails from many of you out there. Please know that I have read every one of them, and though I don't have time to respond, I can only press my hands together in prayer position and bow in gratitidue, in gassho, for your messages. I hope you know what they mean to me. 

Traveling mercies January 15, 2007 at 12:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          My friend Rene, before I left for India, wished me "traveling mercies." I'd never heard the phrase before. So far, though, I have met many mercies.
          Outside the National Museum in Delhi, waiting for it to open, I was approached by a young Indian woman from London and her mother. After we visited the downtrodden museum, in which I was followed like the Pied Piper by a stream of adorable schoolchildren ("Hello!  Madam, hello!  How are you?"), the two Londoners and I decided to visit an open-air market called Dilli Haat, where the mother took her arm in mine and demonstrated how
bargaining works.
          It is a game with a very pre-determined outcome. First, you ask their price. You roll your eyes at what they say and offer half. They protest. You stall a bit, then they offer something just below their original price. You roll your eyes again and walk away - but before you are out of earshot they call you back. The whole scene is repeated. It might even be repeated a third time. Then you leave with just over your half-price offer.
          "Don't let them cheat you," my Indian mother said as the three of us shared a Gujarati snack that involved chickpea flour soaked in a sweet sauce.
          Next day I met Tim from London, outside the Red Fort. Bored with his job as a film sound engineer, he was traveling Asia for a year. I couldn't keep track of everywhere he was planning to go. Although it was wonderful to speak English with him, it was also wonderful to walk the haunted Moghul palace grounds in silence with him, and in Old Delhi I was even more fortunate to be in the presence of a man, walking those cramped alleyways both putrid and pungent, from where thousands of curious eyes peer with wonder.
          At one point we were followed for 10 minutes by a tenacious, barefoot boy, skin black as dirt, begging us, begging us. I gave him a piece of chocolate and then shoved him, a shove of love, because in following us he may have gotten lost from his home, if he even had one, and I didn't want him to follow us more. "Go!" I shouted at him, not sure if he knew what chocolate was. He melted into the chaos of Old Delhi. Soon Tim melted into the chaos, too, after we wished each other well and told each other about our respective blogs. (I will post his here soon.)
          I met a third traveling mercy on my first train ride yesterday, from Delhi to Agra, where I am now. I had just gotten on the train, flustered from my experience in the station and bewildered by the train car, when I saw a white face - oh, I hope her seat is next to mine! - and it was. Wisia, from British Columbia and on her way to Kerala to see her guru, had been to India before and instructed me on the ways of an Indian train car. And then we discovered that both of us had recently given up traditional career paths, and had both recently discovered the importance of being patient while waiting for the universe to provide you with direction, and were both in the process of realizing that who you are is more important than what you do. We shook our heads and smiled at the commonalities, and when not talking peered out through the open train window at the flat, fertile farmland that links Delhi with Agra. 
          Wisia, Tim, mother & daughter from London - thank you for your company in this exhausting, exhilarating, noisy, filthy, fascinating, kind, infuriating and stunning place - and traveling mercies to you.

A mosque outside my window January 13, 2007 at 3:30 PM • Filed under India 2007

          Adela Quested, who quite possibly posseses the best name in all of English literature, traveled to India in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India" to meet up with her fiance, a British administrator, in the 1920s.
          "I want to see the real India!" she exclaimed breathlessley upon arrival. Her desire was motivated by the fact that she and all the Brits around her were holed up in various English clubs and complexes of some sort or another, cordoned off from anyone remotely Indian. (Adela eventually got her share of Indian experiences, both good and bad, and rightly learned from Aziz, her nemesis of sorts in the novel, that "no one is India.")
          Today's equivalent of those stuffy English clubs are the four- and five- star hotels that are peppered throughout the country, primarily in the cities. They keep the "real" India -- the cluttered, crumbling, heart-breaking and life-affirming India -- outside their glass doors. I certainly do not begrude any Westerner their desire to stay in a clean, quiet, familiar place during their journey  -- in fact, I am staying in one such upmarket place myself next week. But I realize now, after staying at the low-budget Hotel Broadway, that expensive places offer much less than their residents are paying for.
          I threw open the window of my spartan room at the Broadway and below me was Old Delhi - the Muslim section of the city and the poorest one. I was four flights above the street but the stench made its way up with no problem. On the narrow lane below, children yelled and played with bats and balls next to sheep that "baaa-ed" as they wandered aimlessly along the pavement near a water spigot at which old men were brushing their teeth next to constuction workers in sandals loading concrete onto the backs of donkeys. Men in fake leather jackets made deals with each other next to frowning women yelling at their children to get out of the way of the cycle rickshaws being driven by very thin men who were trying to avoid bewildered beggars. There was no let up in the noise, and northern Delhi stretched out beyond them, shrouded in the mists of pollution.
            As soon as I lay down on the bed to rest after a day of sightseeing, I heard someone breathing, very loudly.  At the window I drew back the curtain and saw the mosque across the street. It was a small mosque, no tourist would visit it, and up top I glimpsed the loudspeakers. And then the wailing begain, the chanting. I don't know what to call it except chilling, the most evocative sound I have ever heard. It was a muezzin, I believe, one who calls neighborhood Muslims to prayer over the loudspeakers with his voice. (Pardon me if it's not called a muezzin - such is the drawback of a travel blog, where you have little time to write and no resources to check your facts like a good ex-newspaper reporter.) I sat on the bed, incredulous.
          Islam, to this Westerner, has always been "the news." It has never been outside my window. It has never been inside my ears. Never under my skin. And as the haunting chant drowned out the myriad of noises on the street, as I watched a slow trickle of men file into the mosque, it hit me that I was in a part of the world where religion matters.  Here, unlike the places of my daily life at home, religion is a social force, and for the utter poor, I instantly recognized, it could be everything. Clearly there are millions of people back in the States for whom religion is deeply important, myself as a Zen practitioner included, and I felt a similar depth and chill in the spine when I heard beautiful chanting at my friend Alicia's synagogue recently. But at home, few people live in neighborhoods were everyone is knit together by the same devotion, where you walk out the doors of your place of worship and your religion continues among everyone around you. I smiled to myself as I realized that the evening news and my news websites back home have been utterly worthless. Call me naive, call me sheltered, but I will gladly admit that I needed to come here to this open window to realize the reality of religion in the workings of the world.  
          It was a deeply evocative moment for me -- nothing earth-shattering, nothing necessarily enlightening -- and who knows what effect it may have on me down the road, if any. I went back to the bed to rest. The chanting woke me the next morning at 6, and repeated at 7:30, guaranteeing that I would not forget the notes. I could chant it for you if you were sitting here next to me in this cyber cafe.  

Walking like an old woman January 11, 2007 at 1:00 PM • Filed under India 2007

          You don't arrive in New Delhi. You are thrown into it.
          The tranquility of the arrivals lounge at the airport is deceptive, calm and placid. You could be in Canada, or California, and you feel pleased that you'll be able to handle India - fine, no problem!  But then you walk out of the lounge and into air that looks  like mist but smells like fire, and you are met by a roiling crowd of brown faces. Yours being the only white face, you feel singled out, like a celebrity might on Oscar night, greeted by throngs of eager eyes. You find your pre-paid taxi, somehow, in the mass of people looking for their relatives or a just tourist to sell something to.
          What you are then thrown into is the traffic, and you have only a minute or two to hand over your life to the driver and breathe deep and trust. It's similar to when you're biking behind another cyclist, and your front tire gets dangerously close to the back tire of the bike in front of you. That's how close the Delhi taxis get to the taxi next to it - and to the moped driver and the beggar and yes! the cow that it passes. You wince and brace yourself but soon realize that everyone knows what they're doing and you don't so just look outside the window and realize you're in India.
          The woman who runs my bed and breakfast is cool and sophisticated, lives on her own and speaks great English. She helped me hail an auto-rickshaw yesterday (more on those some other time) and figure out how to buy train tickets at the New Delhi railway station. The station was daunting but I followed two other white faces to the foreign tourist ticket counter and watched as the man behind the counter reserved my seats on an utterly ancient computer, printed them out on an utterly ancient word processor, and then transcribed all my info onto a carbon copy paper. British bureaucracy lives!  I spent the evening unpacking and sharing a pancake of some sort with the woman at the b&b.
          I had sworn to myself, before arriving, that I would make sure to walk slowly, like an old woman, so as not to get flustered and to be mindful of all I was doing. I forgot to do that a few times, and indeed soon got flustered.  So I will make every attempt to take it slow today, my first full day in India.