Arriving in Delhi a day or two before a flight to the USA is wise. All too often, I’m told, bureaucratic entanglements prevent travelers from boarding. In our case, I had neglected to bring a printed coy of our itinerary. A heavily armed security guard denied us access to the airport, on the grounds that he couldn’t establish that we were actual passengers. Our driver intervened and after intense negotiations, the guard grudgingly admitted us.
While waiting for departure day, we took a look around Delhi although because of the diwali holiday, Hindu businesses and monuments were closed. No matter. India has the world’s second largest Muslim population. They don’t honor Hindu holidays. We visited the Masjid-i-Jahan Numa, Old Delhi’s principal mosque, where diwali is just another day. I shot this view of the mosque through thick smog.
Hindus, Christians, Atheists and Muslims alike crowded the forecourt. The place is a major tourist attraction, and moreover, since on that day there wasn’t much else to do in Delhi, everyone came here.
I thought about all the experiences and sights of this visit, of the things I’m going to miss. Among them, mirrored bedspreads.
Who would have thought to sew mirrors onto fabric?
I’ll miss people wearing exotic dress, like this young Sikh in his “trainer” turban, age-old headwear combined with modern athletic shorts. A study in anachronism.
I missed the chance to learn Power Meditation, so I guess I’m doomed to practice the old-fashioned powerless kind. Om.
Power Meditation apparently doesn’t gurantee improved spelling.
Every neighborhood has a peanut man. They all set wood fires to smolder in pots, shoving them into piles of peanuts. A few rupees gets you a newspaper cone of warm peanuts in their shells, scooped from under the pot.
I’ll miss livestock wandering everywhere, but I won’t miss dancing around piles of dung.
I often wished I could speak Hindi or Urdu, so that, for example, I could have asked shopkeepers to explain their more mysterious wares. This display contains nothing I recognize, much less have any idea how to use.
I’ll miss the hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Jogibara road, where late at night we could get potato parathas smeared with fiery red chilli* sauce and big cokes in heavy returnable bottles. Dinner for two: 40 rupees, about one dollar.
The inside of the place looked like the setting for the drinking contest in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Whenever I was too frustrated or tired or grumpy, the friendly image of Ganesh would appear around the next corner, always accompanied by the tiny mouse he rode to earth on. My main obstacle at those times was my fatigue. Ganesh never failed to remove it.
I’ll miss scenes like the Chicken Man unloading the day’s inventory. That crummy shack is his store.
Not everyone would miss the snake man, but I will. I gave him 20 rupees to let me pet his serpent.
I’ll miss the architecture, the vistas, the mystery, the spirituality, and above all, the people—courteous, helpful, friendly.
If I spent a year here, traveling all over the country, I wouldn’t get to see it all, and I surely wouldn’t understand it. A third the size of the USA, India lacks good air connections and freeways, so in terms of travel times, it’s actually much bigger. I met a family in Dharamsala that had come from Calcutta on holiday. Their train took 40 hours.
Exhausting, dirty, frustrating, I can’t imagine a travel destination any better. Travel expands horizons. India expanded mine farther than any other place I’ve traveled.
* Indians use British spelling. What do the English know from chiles, anyway?
I thought to myself, "Why doesn't the café owner buy the poor man a proper broom. One with a broomstick?"
Well, they don't make brooms like that in India—at least the parts of India I was seeing. Everyone squats to sweep.
Indian brooms consist of bundles of reeds about eighteen inches long, held in a hollow plastic handle. They're in all the markets.
I don't really know why Indian brooms are so short. Of course, Indian people hunker. They sit on their haunches from childhood. When Indian men gather to play cards, they squat in a circle for hours. So Indians are comfortable close to the ground. Might as well sweep, long as you're down there.
Long ago I lost the flexibility to hunker. The best my stiff legs will allow is squatting with my heels raised, my feet bent sharply at the toes. It's painful, and I can only do it for a few minutes. I can't handle that flat-footed squat that Indian people seem to do with such ease.
Because of my lack of flexibility, I find it virtually impossible to use squat toilets. I tend to lose my balance—something that believe me, you don't want to do in that situation. Westerners are so awkward using them, the web is loaded with how-to guides.
But we're not the only ones that need toilet instruction. People accustomed to the old-fashioned approach apparently become baffled when confronted with modern toilets. They need instruction on how to use them.
Image: Lyevkin, Flickr
This shouldn't be surprising. I'm guessing 90% of our six billion people never sat on a toilet in their lives. I read somewhere that more than a billion don't have any kind of toilet facilities. I initially fond the sign an exercise in the obvious. Guess not.
The architecture was unlike anything I'd encountered, seeming to derive from no tradition I knew of. I learned that Jainism is very old, dating from the Fourth Century BCE, so its esthetic heritage probably doesn't have many precursors to draw on.
Ornate roof structures contain a wealth of detail—and deep mysteries. Who are these people?
Hinduism developed out of Jainism. One of the Jain tenets is striking: extreme respect for all life forms. Their concern for living things far outreaches Hinduism or Buddhism. Strict vegetarians, many Jains will not even farm vegetables because farming necessarily kills bugs. Even today, some Jains, like these Svetambara (white-clad) monks, wear mesh over their faces to avoid inhaling insects, and carry soft brooms to sweep their paths clear of any creatures so they won't step on them.
Some put netting over spigots so insects won't crawl into pipes and perish when the water is turned on. Others strain water drawn from wells, returning any bugs found to their environment.
Jains renounce worldly goods. Svetambaras dress in untailored white cloth and own only face masks, brooms, begging bowls, books and writing materials. Digambara (sky-clad) monks go farther: they live out their lives completely naked. They must receive donations in their cupped hands because they don't even have begging bowls. They own absolutely nothing. They have even have renounced any sense of shame, living untroubled by their nakedness in the world of the clothed.
Jains' respect for living things and their asceticism seem admirable, but there's a dark side. "Digambaras believe that women cannot achieve liberation without first being reborn as a man. This is because women cannot live a truly ascetic life, because they have to possess clothes since it is impractical for them to live naked, [and] women are intrinsically harmful." *
Maybe I have it wrong, but what I get from reading this is that they believe that even insects are potentially divine, but women are not. And we all know where that kind of thinking leads.
Is there no religious or political tradition that does not divide people into higher and lower classes?
I saw this sign. Offended, I chose not to enter the temple.
* Source: BBC
Children enhance beggars' supplications. A mother with a baby in one hand, reaching out with the other, touches my heart if not my wallet. I see begging women carrying infants both in Mexico and India.
In Dharamsala these mothers use an approach I haven't run across elsewhere. They tell you they don't want your money; they want milk for their babies. Would you please come into the nearby store and buy them a liter? Who could resist?
I'm told the baby never sees any milk out of the transaction. You buy the milk; later the mother re-sells it to the cooperative shopkeeper for half price. She gets a little cash, the shopkeeper gets some too, and he keeps the milk to sell to someone else.
I don't like being hustled, but then I have to consider that those mothers live in terrible poverty. They are trying to survive as are so many others. So what if they try to find a way to stand out from the crowds of the deformed, the disabled, the lepers? India has too few donors trying to help far too many needy people. Competition among beggars is intense and sometimes may be a matter of life and death.
This little boy walks the streets, beating his drum. His sister carries a shopping bag to receive handouts—a bag that seems rather capacious for the few coins she's likely to garner in a day's work.
There's a reason for the big bag. In cash-poor India, many people give beggars food instead of money. The bag is for carrying the type of donations she's most likely to receive.
These kids are professional beggars-in-training. At least their parents haven't broken their limbs or amputated their fingers to enhance their appeal. (I couldn't bring myself to photograph people so disfigured; not them nor lepers with missing fingers and noses and bleeding bandages). The kids will master their profession and become like this man, squatting in the street, consuming a dinner someone just deposited in his bowl.
Children of better-off parents provide opportunities for unemployed young people. This Tibetan refugee is babysitting, caring for his young charge all day long while mom and dad work. Many young men are so employed. For this teenager, it's stultifying work. He'd rather be in college. Or in a club somewhere in the west. But babysitting is infinitely better than begging, so he stands there all day, stoic, dreaming of what might be. His future too has been mortgaged.
Below we have a large tour group in the center of Jaisalmer Fort. They are the epitome of why I avoid tours: standing around waiting for the last of the group to arrive, spending hours standing in front of some point of interest while a guide yammers on about oldest, biggest, costliest, or the tedious peccadillos of some 14th-Century maharaja.
The people in this group are French.
Nearby, a troupe of child musicians performs for them; singing and dancing, accompanied by a harmonium—a small hand-pumped organ. (You can buy a nice double-reed model on eBay India for about a hundred dollars.)
Having alertly divined the nationality of the crowd, they sing "Frère Jacques."
A common sight: little girls walking tightropes while balancing objects on their heads. Must be a recognized profession.
I'm intrigued by her balancing pole. It looks heavy. The weight is carried by a harness around her neck. That way, her pipestem arms won't tire, while she can still use the inertia of the pole to maintain balance by pushing up or down on one end.
Tightrope girls work at night, too, this one at a celebration at the beginning of the diwali festival, India's most popular holiday. (Diwali can be thought of as an equivalent of Christmas.)
She is crossing the rope without a balancing pole, scooting along while kneeling on a pie tin.
Exploiting children is anathema in the west. While discouraged by the government, child labor isn't condemned in India. To me, their child labor laws seem outrageous. The government bans employment of children below the age of fourteen in factories, mines, abattoirs or slaughterhouses, or in work such as printing, cashewnut descaling, or soldering.
Thank God they're spared cashewnut descaling. I can only wonder what that entails.
Fifty years ago, I was not permitted to work as a checker in a grocery store until I was sixteen, and then only under restrictions aimed at my welfare. Rich countries can afford to protect their young. In India, it's simply not possible.
The fort eventually did fall to siege twice and to a Trojan horse maneuver once. During the sieges, when the food ran out, women sequestered behind the walls committed jauhar—mass suicide—and defenders marched out of the gates to their deaths at the hands of superior invading forces. We think life is tough today...
The fort contains three concentric walls; the second and third are visible here. The first lies below the rubble glacis at the bottom of the image. Two of the fort's 99 bastions shown here underscore the obstacles facing attackers.
Walkways between the second and third walls provided a platform for defenders to fire down on the enemy. Or throw rocks at them. Or pour boiling oil on them. Invaders opted to wait the defenders out.
A view through a crenellation shows how the fort dominates the surrounding countryside. That's the modern city of Jaisalmer in the foreground, with the Great Thar Desert stretching away into the distance.
In peacetime, havelis were built inside the fort. This one has windows piercing the inner wall. Note the maharaja blue trim. Many havelis have been converted into hotels.
Jaisalmer Fort is billed as the world's only living fort, meaning that people reside within its walls and conduct businesses there. The place is a warren of narrow, twisting alleys. Cars are prohibited, but motorcycles keep pedestrians hopping.
Shopkeepers lure potential customers into stores. Most sell goods aimed at tourists, because basically, the locals don't have any money. Block printed cotton fabric is tempting. We bought some.
Like many males, I'm less interested in cloth than in the tools used to make it. Here is an offering of used woodblocks.
For sale here: wooden carvings of dancing maharajas. They've been carefully battered to look antique. Someone should tell the shopkeeper not to line them up like that. They look like they came off an assembly line.
Importuning shopkeepers quickly became tedious. Someone was always plucking my sleeve, promising I'd only need five minutes to look at their stuff, offering me glasses of chai. When I would walk away, they'd hit me with a last come-on: Cheap!
I always told them I was looking for: Expensive!
The place is lively. As a center of commerce, it avoids that drab museum-like quality I find in so many monumental buildings. But every vista was marred by banners strung across streets advertising camel tours into the desert. I suspected these would be ghastly: visits to desert settlements that exist only for tourists. Virtually every man I met offered me a tour.
A few restrictions on signage wouldn't hurt, if you ask me.
A spigot with a defective valve betrays a mortal problem in the fort. The plumbing doesn't have the capacity to handle all the water consumed and spilled by thousands of residents.
The result is that the fort is crumbling. Water erodes sandstone. Walls and floors collapse into piles of rubble.
Citizens of Jaisalmer have a challenge. Travelers' interest in the fort is destroying the place, yet tourism is probably the largest source of the city's income. Looks like some tough decisions ahead.
High Tech Campus, Bangalore. Image: Infosys
Of the Indian population, 99% never get to even see places like this. Baton-wielding guards keep them outside the gates. The less fortunate live and work in tumbledown buildings and houses. Construction often looks makeshift. For example, this building sports siding made of flattened cooking oil cans.
Modern Indian construction typically looks shoddy and under-financed. Surviving buildings erected before the twentieth century look more substantial, although plaster details and wooden fixtures often are rotting. Older structures are built of stone: unreinforced, mortarless. Thankfully, earthquakes are rare, except near the geologically active Himalayas. But the horrific toll of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake—75,000 killed, 100,000 injured—underscores the peril of living in structures built of stone blocks or mud bricks.
Some sort of building codes seem to apply in parts of the country. They still use unreinforced masonry construction in Jodhpur, but in Dharamsala steel-reinforced concrete is being used in new buildings.
Modern ironworking machinery is in short supply. Below we see a low-tech method of cutting rebar. A length of steel is laid over a small anvil, notched to keep the bar from slipping off to the side. A worker places a short length of steel atop the bar being cut. Then the guy in the red sneakers strikes the short bar with a mighty overhead swing of a sledgehammer. It's the crudest shear imaginable, but it works.
Water distribution via plumbing is a recent development in many places. I occasionally see people drawing water from hand pumps at centrally located wells, but these are being phased out.
Here a three-inch (!) water main terminates in a flurry of valves, to which customers attach their own feeds, running their water lines sometimes a hundred meters to reach their homes.
You may have guessed that the pictured freshwater pipes have been laid above (and sometimes in) open sewers. I observed men and children, pants around their ankles, publicly squatting above them. While closed black water sewers are becoming the norm, open ones continue to reek in many places. Fresh water, even if treated, is almost certainly cross-contaminated from the sewers by the time it reaches the faucet.
Many water mains are simply laid on the ground along pathways, where they become damaged by people walking on them. This one, crossing a path to the Tibetan Library, has a leak partially plugged by a rock placed over the hole in the pipe. The epitome of deferred maintenance. Fortunately water pressure is low or someone might have to actually fix it.
Tinacos—rooftop water tanks for maintaining backup water supply when city water gets cut off—are fixtures in Mexico, and they are in India, too. I've rarely experienced interruptions by SAPASMA (Gesundheit!), San Miguel's water company. But at our home in McLeod Ganj, we receive city water for only two hours per day. The rule here is: Get it while you can.
Outside city centers, some people lack plumbed water, so they go to public spigots scattered here and there—inconvenient, but an improvement over the village well system.
The electricity supply is sketchy. In Jaisalmer, power gets cut citywide from about nine to noon. That part of India simply doesn't have enough generating capacity to provide everyone with electricity all of the time, so residents have to take turns.
Distribution looks jury-rigged. This substation has exposed high voltage contacts placed within easy reach of passers-by. At least the wiring is protected by a flimsy fence; I saw substations that weren't. Tough on children, drunks, and sacred cows, I imagine.
Circuit breakers and cartridge fuses seem to be unavailable. These circuits are being protected with twisted lengths of fuse wire. Wires are kept from shorting against each other with a bendy strip of wood. The box shows signs of exciting episodes in the past: note the burn marks, the melted insulation.
No wonder we experience frequent power failures—at home and in restaurants, shops, and most inconveniently, in cybercafés.
When not interrupted by power failures, my uploads get cut off by telecommunication failures. I can see why: check out these junction boxes.
The technology is there. There's nothing wrong with these fixtures. But the wiring has been handled so carelessly, it almost looks like sabotage.
And in some places, even the technology dates from early in the last century. What we're looking at here is a score of individual phone lines running on bare wires. Is it possible they're still in use?
A hallmark of British engineering a century ago is overdesign. Where stamped sheet steel might do, they used castings. Where castings might hold up, they used forgings. The three ceiling fans in my train compartment looked like they weighed a hundred pounds each and sounded like idling DC-3s. Legacies of the Raj.
A case in point: the machine below is an orange juice squeezer. And a finger amputator. Ask the street vendor for a glass, and he switches on the quarter-horsepower motor and jams oranges into the hopper using a fitted wooden plunger. Juice spills out on the right, passes through the strainer and into the grimy pot. Incredible.
I never thought I'd say something like this, but my Mexican juice squeezer is a model of engineering restraint by comparison. It'll go through a half-dozen oranges in a minute or two, and needs no electricity. Of course, it occupies about twenty percent of the available counter space, but I think it's worth it.
Construction of my Mexican squeezer is shoddy. The castings contain voids. No surface has been polished unless absolutely necessary. The pedestal lists to the left about ten degrees. This product dates from a period when government policy was to manufacture everything using Mexican industry, even if the technology was lacking and the quality poor. NAFTA and the need to curtail Mexico City smog put paid to that nonsense.
In terms of efficient design, the Indian squeezer comes in second. It's like using a howitzer to kill a mouse. Ah, but the workmanship. Those precision castings, the ball bearings in sealed races, the automotive-grade v-belt connecting that beefy capacitor-start motor. I just love that thing: an original brick shithouse.
During my first extended stay in San Miguel at Umaran #17, our landlady provided a cook, a young woman named Juanita who always bought raw milk from the back of a truck, just the way her grandmother had taught her. The practice made me a little nervous: hadn't we eradicated milk-borne disease in the USA with refrigeration and careful processing in spotless stainless steel facilities?
Juanita used all of her milk in cooking. We didn't drink it straight—a bad idea for a heart patient. She pasteurized it herself on the stovetop; then used it to make cream soups and flan. So I guess it was safe, even if milking and transportation went unsupervised by the USDA.
Indian milk consumers may face greater challenges than Mexicans. As I shot the image of the milkman, my gaze drifted 45º to the left, revealing an unsavory scene of a sacred cow eating trash.
I saw cows munching refuse everywhere, and it isn't surprising. After all, it's not like Indian cities have room for pasture. So cows eat handouts of vegetables from kindly neighbors, or whatever people discard in the street. They seem to favor newspaper and corrugated cardboard.
That's the whole point of your ruminants, you know, with those extra stomachs. Their digestive systems break down cellulose, so they can get nutrition from paper products.
This raises a disturbing question: where exactly does the milkman get his milk? More importantly: who buys it? Maybe that restaurant where you just downed a large portion of riata (seasoned yoghurt)?
I frequently saw bearded trees. Hundreds of them. Were they infested by some parasitic plant? I was a little slow to pick up on the answer to the mystery.
Finally I tried a novel approach: I asked someone. Turns out farmers use trees to store fodder. They cut wild grasses that grow during the monsoon and fork it into the branches. There it dries, kept away from the ground (where it would compost) or get eaten by some otherwise garbage-eating sacred cow.
Haystacks roosting in trees demonstrably aren't artifacts of agribusiness. You can't automate the process. Animals feeding on these grasses are not given hormones or antibiotics. Aerial haystacks suggest the work of a steward who cares more for the health of his patch of earth than maximizing how much he can extract from it every season.
I think I would drink unpasteurized milk from those farmers, without hesitation.
But Indian women can go much lower. On construction sites, they're primarily used as beasts of burden. Here a woman carries a basket of escombro (rubble) on her head.
If you have a lot of construction debris to move, forget bulldozers, forget wheelbarrows. Just hire a bunch of sari-clad young women. They'll haul that stuff cheaper than anyone else will and be grateful for the employment. Women with baskets on their heads are one of India's main earth-moving mechanisms.
Macho Mexican society doesn't allow women to be used this way, but Hindus have no such compunctions. In India, women are chattel; at least rural ones are. They have few rights. You can use 'em however you want.
Indian men get called on to move earth, too. But their delicate constitutions excuse them from the really heavy work. Here two men wield a shovel. Working alone, a man could really hurt his back or something.
Some rocks are too heavy even for two men. So moving them is a job better suited for a young mother carrying her child on her back.
The situation in cities is changing. Women are less often made slaves to their mothers-in-law, or subjected to dowry blackmail, or forced to commit sati (ritual suicide on their husbands' funeral pyres), although these atrocities aren't fully eradicated yet.
In the upper castes, women are treated better. Some of them are heads of their families; others work as professionals in emerging India Inc. But overall, few Indian women enjoy any real freedom. Most are oppressed.
No society that exploits one part of its citizenry can live in peace. Mistreatment of one class turns minds away from compassion, desensitizes people to cruelty. Moslems and Hindus alike exploit and mistreat women—as articles of faith, custom and law.
Prejudicially isolating one group engenders violence. That Pakistan and India are at war doesn't surprise me. It's no wonder a hundred young men stoked on cannabis and LSD (to further desensitize them) ran amok in the streets of Bombay, randomly killing hundreds of their countrymen.
Mistreatment of women is not a "women's" issue. Eradicating it is key to world peace.
Mothers groom their babies and carry them everywhere. Babies groom their mothers, too. Males are aloof, avoiding family responsibilities, but hey, they're male. What do you expect?
I didn't have to go out of my way to find monkeys: they're everywhere. Lots of them. Probably too many of them.
Some consider them pests, especially in urban settings. Monkeys rampage through markets, vandalize government offices, damage power lines, and injure residents and tourists alike.
I think these monkeys are rhesus macaques—can anyone confirm this? Their populations continue to grow unchecked because they are considered sacred, manifestations of the monkey god, Hanuman.
In Delhi, monkeys are captured and held in compounds outside the city, awaiting relocation. But so far, no other state will take them, protesting they already have enough of their own. Sterilization has been proposed, but opposition in the lower house of parliament, led by Maneka Gandhi, daughter-in-law of the late Indian leader Indira Gandhi, blocks adoption of this remedy.
In a country where many believe that the cud-chewing cow in the road or the lunch-stealing monkey is a reincarnation of someone's philandering uncle (knocked down a peg on the path to enlightenment for his transgressions), it's tough to take decisive animal control steps. Like with so many things in Indian life, people just muddle along, coexisting with harassment, damage, and scat. They write impotent letters to the Hindustan Times. Nothing gets done.
In the fourth phase of life, I see retirement as freedom to release my inner teen, to become playful, to take myself less seriously. A friend proposed this image: a man wandering around town wearing an earring and a guayabara, playing guitar and carrying a parrot on his shoulder.
I'm too straight for that. While I haven't fully regressed to adolescence, I've seen some major transitions during the last five years. I've stopped working. I've left the USA and become a permanent resident of Mexico. I've transformed myself from a techie to a traveler. I've had a heart attack and have had a defibrillator implanted. I take much better care of myself.
The year 2008 saw one more large transition: Jean and I separated in January after more than twenty-three years of marriage. Our divorce became final this month, setting us on different, independent paths. I wish Jean happiness and fulfillment on hers.
To ease their transitions into non-working lives, Indians can't call on IRAs, Social Security or pensions. They don't play golf or go on cruises or join bridge clubs. Most work for far too long and then rely on their children when they can't work anymore. But there is an Indian retirement plan: Becoming a Sadhu. I photographed a half dozen of them sitting along the railway from Pathankot to Jodhpur.
Sandhus have left worldly life behind, renouncing all material things to pursue their last years attaining Moksha, meaning liberation, by meditating and contemplating God. A Sadhu has entered the fourth phase of a devout male Hindu's life, after being a student, a father and a pilgrim. The fourth phase of their lives is profoundly different from mine.
Sadhus live lives of privation. Some spend years in caves meditating, others live in monasteries, still others walk throughout India blessing all those who intersect their paths, as did this Sadhu when I met him. He was immediately recognizable by the ochre clothing he wore.
In the photo you can see he is standing on one leg, one of the forms of privation practiced by Sadhus. He greeted me and I put fifty rupees (about a dollar) in his brass basket. He tied an amulet made from an exotic seed on my arm with red and ochre homespun cotton string. Then he kissed my hand and my forehead and blessed me. I experienced some kind of transformation—a healing spirit entered me.
Some Sadhus practice Hatha Yoga, purifying their bodies to prepare themselves for a higher form of meditation. On the web, I found this image of a Sadhu practicing an extreme form of privation. Is he meditating? Is he practicing yoga? How many hours has he been hanging there?
Image found on the web.
Theirs is a retirement of rigor. A few came to this stage from lives of privilege. Their example causes me to contemplate my less dedicated life. What do they see that I don't?
Some people say that Sadhus use their status to enhance success in begging, practiced by so many in India. Beggars greet travelers everywhere; theirs is a competitive calling. The deformed earn more than the whole, and Sadhus seem to earn more than everyone else. But clearly they're not getting rich.
The man who blessed me was no professional beggar. He had a holy aura such as I've seen only a few times: once a nun whose eyes were peaceful pools reflecting God, another time a Zen master who effortlessly read my discomfort as easily as if he were reading the comics. Through renunciation and asceticism, the Sadhu I met had found a serenity and spirituality most of us cannot even imagine.
We hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the castle gate. He waited for us while we visited.
Jodhpur is sometimes called "the Blue City," and in this image you can see why. The pastel color that the buildings are painted is called "Maharaja Blue."
The fort contains several palaces, most of which are open to the public. We inspected some of them over several hours, but we easily could have spent days here.
Absolute masters of their realms, the Maharajas amassed incredible wealth. They not only ruled what were called the Princely States, they owned them outright. When the British colonized India, they simply co-opted the Maharajas, allowing them relative freedom to rule in exchange for oaths of fealty. This arrangement was good for the British, who didn't have to lay siege to their forts, and it was good for the Maharajas, who were able to continue to grow wealthier without interference. The only group that did not benefit from the relationship was the 99.99% of the population whose labors mainly benefited the rulers.
After independence, the new Indian government stripped the Maharajas of their lands, but kept them happy with generous stipends sufficient to maintain their opulent lifestyles. Indian nobility became a prominent element of jet set society. Indira Ghandi cut off support payments in the mid-seventies, with the result that many of their estates became open to the public.
The Maharajas lived in opulence. This is a living room. I like the umbrella over the sofa, there so that dust doesn't fall on noble heads. I'm considering adding one to my place.
A nineteenth-century Maharaja traveled in splendor in his gilded palanquin. This one required twelve men to carry it.
The fort covered something on the order of five square kilometers, and was actually needed for defense. The walls, six meters thick, bear scars from cannon fire, but the fort never fell to invaders.
Spiked iron gates prevented enemies from battering their way into the redoubt.
Be-turbaned guards once manned the ramparts and protected the nobles. Today they doze in corners of the museums, preventing priceless artifacts from walking off with light-fingered visitors.
The family mausoleum crowns a hilltop a kilometer form the fort. The Taj Mahal is certainly more spectacular, but I am impressed that in India, so many of these palaces were built to hold the remains of local rulers and their families.
Many of India's monumental buildings are crumbling. Not Mehrangarh Fort. Walls look scrubbed and re-gilded. Brasswork gleams. Masonry is being re-pointed.
The scaffold these workers are using is typical of Indian construction sites. Scary.
The scrupulous maintenance is for the benefit not only of western tourists, of which there are quite a few, but to preserve the patrimony of the Indian people. This young woman is one of a growing number of Indian tourists. She's wearing bluejeans.
Mehrangarh Fort and its palaces are reminders of the grossly uneven distribution of wealth in India. I was shocked when I first experienced the economic gap between rich and poor in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. In India, the situation is worse. A short walk from the fort gates, we were confronted with beggars living on the streets of Jodhpur in conditions more squalid than any I have seen in Mexico.
But even here, the First World and its riches are arriving; perhaps lowly, perhaps unevenly, but inexorably. That we ran into so many middle-class Indians touring their country is a sign of progress. They were not here in 1947, at the dawn of independence.
Held at bay by a baton wielding Sikh policeman, the drivers pumped signs up and down, shouting the names of one hotel or another, hotels that would pay them commissions for the guests they snared. The intense competition among hotels had even reached us on the train, where touts plied the corridors, pressing flyers into our hands and haranguing us with promises of luxurious inns at rock-bottom prices. I had been warned that all places so promoted were dumps.
Edging past the surging line of drivers, we made our way to an independent tuk-tuk driver. Ignoring catcalls from the hawkers, we gave him the name of our haveli. He drove us through darkened streets, skirting cows asleep on the pavement. FInally we reached a towering wooden door set in a stone wall. He indicated that this place was our hotel.
No streetlights, no lit windows, no people about: the place was deserted. Our driver went up to the massive door and pounded on it. No response. He pulled out his cell phone and looked at us questioningly. We gave him the hotel number and he phoned. Several minutes later a small wooden window set within the great door opened. A sleepy face looked out. Its owner seemed to have no idea why we were there or what to do with us.
Eventually doorman admitted us, saying that no one was yet awake who could show us our room. Kicking two sleeping men off a pair of low divans, he asked if we'd like to sit and watch television for awhile.
Why not? He brought us some Nescafé, and we settled onto the cushions to watch an incomprehensible Bollywood movie featuring cold war spies, a doomed romance, and endless frantic dancing. Two hours later, someone showed up and led us to our room. Finally we had a place to wash off travel grime and change into clean clothes.
The room was large, constructed of yellow sandstone blocks (as most of Jodhpur would turn out to be). Furniture consisted of an eclectic mix of old pieces. It was interesting, unique and comfortable.
Portraits of long-dead maharajas hung on the walls. Oddly, a large photograph of a very young Queen Elizabeth II also hung there.
Rooms were arranged around a once-elegant courtyard, a peaceful place for reading in the morning before the heat came up. We came to appreciate its tranquility, a retreat from the daytime bedlam just on the other side of the great door.
We were hungry after eating only one meal that day—an execrable dinner on the train. The haveli owner steered us to a restaurant owned by a friend of his, a former cricket champion turned entrepreneur. Named Krishna, there we ate the finest meal served to us in India. The restauranteur joined us for our meal, entertaining us with stories about his life and family.
We ate the foods he recommended. Our meal consisted of tikka masala (chunks of Indian cheese called paneer, in a red sauce loaded with spices), potatoes stuffed with vegetables, zeera rice, and naan, that wonderful flat bread baked by sticking flattened dough to the side of a clay oven called a tandoor.
I always enjoy eating regional cuisine wherever I'm traveling. Local food is usually excellent; foreign foods are iffy. In India, even fine hotels won't serve you steak (cows are sacred), and their attempts at Japanese or Chinese food fall flat. But a lowly roadside stand will cook you an aloo paratha (potato pancake) you'll remember for the rest of your life.
The cost of our meal in this, one of the better restaurants in Jodhpur, was around ten dollars.
Now we were washed, rested, and fed. We were ready to go forth and experience the culture and sights of north-western India, in the state of Rajasthan.
Photo found on the web.
I never saw people riding on top of trains, although I did see a few riding on top of highway buses. Good thing there are no topes (speed bumps) in India.
We had two objectives in taking the fifteen hour overnight train to Jodhpur. We wanted to see the Indian countryside outside of cities and tourist stops. And we wanted contact with ordinary Indian people. To achieve our second goal, we opted for cheap seats: a second class sleeper without air conditioning. The decor in our car was like Alcatraz in the '50s: gray vinyl benches that doubled as bunks, huge industrial-grade fans bolted to the ceiling, heavy steel bars on the windows. The latter protected us from thieves who apparently might try to enter our car during the night.
Grime covered the coaches inside and out. Drifts of desert dust coated our bunks. Handrails were encrusted with a sticky layer of gunk deposited by thousands of dirty hands. No porters would be making up our beds; we brought our own blankets and used our backpacks for pillows. Backpacks make serviceable if uncomfortable headrests. More importantly, sleeping with luggage keeps it from disappearing in the night, something that we were told happens all too often.
Our coach was first in line behind the engine, an undesirable location, because the engineer blew the horn almost continuously. Not honk, honk, honking, but uninterrupted blasts that lasted for minutes at a time. I knew better than to think the honking was a cultural quirk. I finally realized the Indian countryside isn't fenced, and sacred cows wander everywhere. The horns warn them away from the track.
Our compartment contained eight bunks. Upper berths were folded up during the day, providing seating not only for the eight legitimate ticket holders, but numerous other passengers who boarded at one stop and got off at another, avoiding the conductor.
We occupied our space with an ever-changing set of companions. They shared food with us—home-cooked delicacies we were advised not to sample, but did anyway. We distributed our granola bars, cashews and mango leather in exchange. The compartment took on the aspect of a temporary home; our companions an ad hoc family.
Whenever we stopped at a station, the stench of the bathrooms would seep into our compartment. Note to self: When choosing seats, go for the middle of the coach, not the end near the latrines.
Four of them occupied the space upwind from our compartment. One was western style with a sit-down stool, although one wouldn't want one's skin to come into contact with it. The other three were squatters. All toilets emptied directly onto the tracks.
The yellow encrustation at the top of the photo is crystallized urea. India Railways toilets aren't often cleaned.
In the western bathroom, a stenciled sign echoed the Raj with a sniffy British-style message.
Vendors ply the corridors, most notably the chai-wallah, with his large thermos of milky sweet tea. I developed a liking for it. A shoeshine boy ran alongside the train as it slowed for a stop. During this trip, I was offered scores of shoeshines—more than any other service.
In Europe and Japan, railway rolling stock looks crisp and shiny. In India, deterioration is everywhere. Equipment looks worn, but sometimes appears picturesque for all the wear.
Rarely did I see places without people. India has more than a billion citizens in a country little more than a third the size of the United States—maybe eight times the population density. Lots of them don't have shoes.
Many live in poverty. Here, a couple of families live in tents constructed on the railroad right-of-way.
They perhaps are more fortunate than this cowherd who lives unsheltered in a field with animals.
Conical structures are common sights. They are covered in thatch made from rice straw. This one shelters cattle feed. Others serve as tiny houses.
Rice is the main staple crop. That so much of the production is done with manual labor is remarkable. The woman at the top of the image is threshing rice by swinging her bundle of stalks over her head and beating it on a blanket.
More rice straw is produced than can be consumed as animal feed, especially in a country of so many vegetarians. So fields are burned to ready them for new crops, just as they are near Sacramento in California. We breathed smoke for hours.
Every so often, we saw rice straw being used as fuel to fire bricks. Indians make bricks the same way Mexicans do—by hand. Women in saris squat in clay pits and force wet clay into molds. After drying, they carry raw bricks to huge kilns like this one. Smokestacks are another common feature of the countryside.
Visitors to our compartment broke the monotony of rice fields and brick factories. At one point, a group of armed soldiers joined us. I tried to ignore the Mauser jabbing me in the ribs. This infantryman insisted I take his picture.
We became tired and sleepy as the day wore on. A man took orders for dinner: an aluminum tray containing dal, rice, vegetables and soggy nan. And a tub of curd. I managed t spread mine all over my lap, the seat and our end of the compartment. But I ate it all. We'd been on the train for nine hours and had long since consumed all of the food we'd brought with us—as well as that of our companions.
Then it was time for sleep. Bunks were lowered, suspended from heavy chains. Seasoned indian travelers broke out blankets and pillows. I wrapped myself in a small, inadequate Etihad Airways microfiber lap blanket and rested my head on my backpack, my laptop digging into my neck. Inches from my face, a huge, grimy fan roared. I stared at a pair of shoes someone had left on top of it. The train rocked. The horn blew. The bathrooms reeked. I fell into a sound sleep, waking up just outside Jodhpur.
Morning brought one last discovery about Indian people. They hawk and spit. Horrible guttural sounds erupted all around me. Phlegm flew out of doorways and windows. Hacking, throat-clearing, snorting, gargling, sniffing, snorting—the din was incredible. It went on for a half hour. It was comical. I had to suppress my laughter. This morning ritual was one of the truly noteworthy aspects of traveling with several hundred Indians.
You had to be there.
We wanted to travel from Dharamsala to Jodhpur, fifteen hours away. We decided to book a sleeper train, saving a night's stay in a hotel, and enjoying a few hours looking out at the Indian countryside. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Our first step was to secure reservations and tickets. We bought ours through a travel agent in Dharamsala who managed to make errors in our tickets. Examining the tickets he gave us, we found we had not been given the seat assignments we had asked for. Would he fix the problem? He told us this was not possible. We would have to present our tickets in person at the railway booking office to straighten things out. For us, this meant an encounter with Indian bureaucracy. Not good.
We arrived at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr and explained out problem. Could the agent help us?
(This is as good a time as any to introduce a precept of Indian public service: The proper response to any request is "no." The task of the supplicant then is to find some way to turn "no into "yes." You must learn how to play this game or you'll get nowhere in India.)
"The computer is down."
"What's the problem? Is the power out?"
"Yes. We don't know when it will resume. Come back later."
(Note how we skillfully managed to get a "yes" out of the ticket agent. This is how to make progress. Now that the agent had been introduced to the idea of saying "yes," there was a chance he would eventually resolve our problem.)
"But it's 1:30. In an hour, your office will be closed."
"Yes. (another score!) You must come back at ten minutes before two. Otherwise the office will be closed."
At 1:50 we returned. Computer screens were glowing. We explained the error in our seat assignments. Could he change them for us?
"What's the problem?"
"You must present proper forms. Three of them. One to cancel your previous tickets with the seat assignments you no longer want, and one for each of you to purchase new tickets with the seat assignments you now want."
"Can't you just move us?"
"This is not possible. Completely new tickets are required. Here. Fill these out."
He provided us with three lengthy and obscure forms. We began to fill them out. Passport number. Indian visa number. Origin address. Destination address. Permanent address. Date of birth. Marital status. Number of convictions for crimes committed in India...
The clock was ticking. At two, we returned to the window with semi-completed forms. At that point, two Korean Buddhist nuns shoved in front of us. The agent addressed their needs. We could see our precious ten-minute window before closing time disappearing.
(Days later, we learned one of the rules of Indian queue discipline: Any unaccompanied woman may push her way into the head of the line with impunity. This rule exists to offset the shabby way Indian women are treated in all other aspects of their lives.)
Mercifully, the ticket agent dealt quickly with the nuns, and, inconveniencing himself, continued to help us after two o'clock, a true mercy. Our forms were painstakingly checked. Computers were consulted. Brows furrowed. The agent discovered that our new tickets would cost marginally less than the old ones. This meant yet another form would be required to make a refund.
Could we skip the refund? "No." More scribbling. More checking. Money grudgingly returned. Finally we were handed our new tickets. We examined them closely. They appeared to be correct.
Turns out they weren't, as we shall see.
The next day, we hired a driver for the three-hour car ride to the railroad station closest to Dharamsala: Pathankot Junction. We arrived on time, only to find that the train was late. Nobody knew why.
Masses of people sat resignedly on benches or on their capacious luggage, waiting. No one seemed surprised or concerned about the delay.
So we had time to look around the station. We saw Sikh soldiers providing security. India is on high alert after extremists burned a train full of religious pilgrims. We had become accustomed to the heavy presence of the Transportation Security Administration at US airports, but the mood in India is much more serious. This is a country that could go to war over a simple misunderstanding.
The stationmaster at Pathankot provided another glimpse into the officious world of Indian bureaucracy.
Among the minimum essential aminities (sic) we found there is a deficiency in latrine seats. Tough on the ladies, but then that's true of most things in India. On a positive note the station boasts one more urinal than required. Of course.
Another bureaucrat, one P. Shankar, the Central Vigilance Commissioner, had horned in on the stationmasters turf, asking passengers to tattle on station personnel if they ask for bribes. Yeah, right. Do that. If you never want to go to Jodhpur again.
A yellow kiosk sat on the platform. The lettering on it spelled no words; only abbreviations. Indian bureaucracy seems to have a special affinity for abbreviations. I stared uncomprehending at the kiosk. Finally I noticed a stylized telephone icon at the upper left. The place was a public phone both. A manned one. The Hindu standing in front of it is filling out a form, apparently required if you want to make a phone call.
Several trains were visible when I peered down the track, but none were ours. An hour went by. Then another.
Finally I heard an insistent blare from the horn of a diesel locomotive. (Yes, engineers here drive with their horns, just as motorists do.) Our train had arrived. We found our car and boarded it. We went to our seats and sat in them. Suddenly an Indian man wearing a canary yellow shirt came up and yelled at us. We were in his seat! We had to move!
We showed him our ticket, which matched the seats we were sitting in. "No Good!" he yelled. "These are not your seats!" He showed us his ticket. His printed seat assignments had been crossed out, replaced with new ones written in shaky handwriting. "You have to see the conductor," he shouted. "All seats have been reassigned."
Seeing that we didn't believe him, and that we wouldn't know what to do if we did believe him, and that yelling was getting him nowhere anyway, he calmed down and helped us find the conductor. A half hour of arguing and we were moved to a different compartment that at least had suitable seats. Without help from the yellow shirted man, we would have been assigned separate compartments, if not separate cars.
So much for our efforts at the Computerised Railway Reservation Centre/Center/Centrr.
The delays, bureaucracy and confusion hardly dampened my enthusiasm. The last time I had ridden a long distance train was during the Second World War. My father had somehow obtained a compartment on a Pennslyvania Railroad train from Philadelphia to Minneapolis despite wartime restriction on passenger travel. At only four years of age, I went to visit my grandma halfway across the country. I barely remember red plush bunks and white coated porters making up our sleeper compartment. That was a great adventure, and I expected the overnight train to Jodhpur to be one too.
The drivers we hire blow their horns constantly. So do all the drivers surrounding us, pressing in on all sides. The din is overwhelming and nerve wracking.
Having been here for a while, I realize that horn blowing replaces rear view mirrors, turn signals and right-of-way laws. A blast on the horn establishes precedence. With a honk, a driver serves notice on those around him that he intends to pass or turn or accelerate, and therefore it is the duty of other drivers or pedestrians to avoid him.
Indian drivers wear out horns. I saw a mechanic's sign that advertised: "Horns Re-Cored."
In India they drive on the left. Sort of. Unless they blow their horns, in which case they can drive anywhere they want. When driving in England, I've always found adjusting to left-hand driving difficult. Left turns become easy, right turns are hard because of oncoming traffic. Glancing up to the right to check the mirror before making a quick lane change doesn't work—the mirror's not there. It's over on the left. Trying to make such adjustments in the chaos of Indian traffic would be close to impossible.
My advice to anyone thinking about renting a car in India? Don't.
For one thing, you have the sacred cow problem. Cows wander unmolested anywhere they want to. They're used only for milk, not for meat, so they breed and their numbers increase to the limits of the available food supply. It's considered bad form to run over one. So when Bossie gets in your way, what do you do?
You blow your horn.
But cows have heard horns all their lives. They're unmoved by insistent honking. So drivers mostly wait until cows amble off to the side of the road.
One of our drivers came upon a cow lying across the road, chewing its cud. Honking didn't work. The driver got out and kicked it a couple of times. The cow lay there placidly chewing. Finally the driver grabbed it's tail and gave it a mighty twist, annoying the animal enough to make it clear the road.
Road conditions offer another challenge. Most roads between cities are only two lanes. Or fewer. Most are worn out. Within cities, the infrastructure is crumbling.
Attempts to repair roads create unbelievable traffic jams. Here we see a backhoe and a steamroller blocking the main road through Dharamsala. Three policemen in berets attempt to straighten out the mess—to no avail.
The few good roads are those leading up to the border with Pakistan. Those are maintained by the army as a matter of national defense.
The only reasonable way to get around on is to hire some form of transport. Horrible, overcrowded buses are cheap. Various kinds of taxis—cabs or vans and jeeps that work like Mexico's colectivos—are more common than private cars. Hiring a driver and a comfortable car for long-distance travel is surprisingly inexpensive. We hired one for the nine-hour drive from Delhi to Dharamsala for around $200.
Hailing a cab at the Delhi airport requires wits and caution. Reports of tourists being kidnapped and robbed are common. Even more common, drivers pretend to call your hotel, informing you that that it has no rooms available for you. Then they take you to a shabby, overpriced place operated by a confederate. Overwhelmed (and perhaps conniving) airport police have been unable to rectify the situation.
One of the least expensive private cabs is the auto rickshaw, sometimes called (as in Thailand) the tuk-tuk. Polluting and grossly unsafe, you can get a ride in a town or city for 20 Rupees and up—less than 50¢. They slice through congestion much better than full-sized vehicles.
Tuk-tuks are crude. Some are largely homemade. To start his rickshaw, our driver tilted his seat forward to expose the motor, wound a rope around a pulley, and yanked—like an old-fashioned power mower.
Drivers veer in and out of traffic, exploiting any opening, coming dangerously close to other vehicles. Walking along the narrow roads of Dharamsala, I was twice struck by side-view mirrors.
Last year India surpassed China as the country with the most traffic fatalities: 150,000. Over 85% of those killed were pedestrians. Requiring completion of a drivers course before being given a driver's license is one attempt to reduce the carnage.
Judging from the drivers I observed, I imagine the training course must consist primarily of weaving and horn-blowing.
One contributor to the fatality rate is inferior vehicles. Coming down the mountain in a tuk-tuk one night, I was unnerved to note that ours had no battery, so whenever the engine slowed, the lights dimmed to virtual invisibility.
In fact, vehicles with disk brakes and power steering are considered hazardous when operated by drivers unused to them. I saw many newer cars with warning signs on the dashboards. Caution! This vehicle actually works!
Bumper stickers warn following drivers if the truck ahead has good brakes. Really.
In towns, slow traffic is the norm. Handcarts, bicycle rickshaws, milling pedestrians, stray dogs and sacred cows add up to a lot of congestion. Oxcarts are not uncommon. This water carrier is being drawn by a camel. (A dripping hose trailing behind provides a boy with a drink.)
India is one of the most chaotic and noisy places I have visited. Driving conditions contribute significantly to the confusion. I frequently have to take time out to recover from moments of near-panic or frustration or exhaustion from what should be a simple act of getting from one place to another.
It's hard to imagine how people accept such conditions as a way of life.
Temples are open to the public most of the time. Interiors are ornate and colorful. This one is in the monastery of His Holiness Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader in his early twenties. I find it remarkable that someone so young is regarded as a sage whose wisdom is believed to eclipse that of monks three times his age. He has visited many countries (under tight security) and has dazzled the Buddhist world with his knowledge and erudition.
The temple interior shown below is typical: gilding, statues of the Buddha, relics, benches for meditating monks, a dozen priceless thangkas hanging overhead.
We hike mountain trails, well away from villages. From time to time we come upon simple stupas, no more than rough piles of stones, surrounded by firs festooned with prayer flags.
Prayer flags bear messages of peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom in the belief that these will be blown by the wind throughout the world.
I am taking some classes at the Tibetan Library, on the subject of ancient Tibetan Buddhist texts. I am not a Buddhist, but I am curious. Our teacher is a wizened senior monk named Ghenma who lectures in Tibetan. He is considered to be a great master, and indeed he is one of those rare individuals whose face radiates enlightenment. An Englishwoman named Ruth has been translating for Ghenma for thirty years. They have an easy relationship, sometimes bantering back and forth. Occasionally Ruth scolds Ghenma for being obscure.
Classes begin when Ghenma enters the room. We all make three prostrations. Then Ruth leads us in ten minutes of chanting in Tibetan. We use phonetic chant books to make it through this ritual. Then Ghenma lectures, his smiling face animated. We are studying the 18th chapter of Nagarjuna's Treatise on the Middle Way. I am pretty much lost, comprehending only snippets of the subject matter.
Class ends with more chanting. Then the subject shifts to something I better understand—lunch. The library offers a healthy vegetarian meal for students, buffet-style. I go into an anteroom of the kitchen and ladle food out of cooking pots onto my plate. The lunch pictured below consists of yellow lentil soup, sauteed vegetables and potatoes, rice with green beans and carrots, and steamed Tibetan bread. (Nomadic people usually don't have ovens so sometimes they steam bread instead of baking it.) The drink is hot: lemon, honey and fresh ginger.
Food in India is inexpensive. This meal is cheap even by Indian standards: All you can eat for 25 Rupees—about 60¢.
In Dharamsala as in Lhasa, China is the great Satan. Bitterness at Chinese occupation of Tibet runs high. So shopkeepers and restaurant owners declare their allegiance to reassure their clientele.
Covering all the bases, the sign is written in English, Hindi and Tibetan.
Although English is widely spoken in India, it remains a second language for most Indians and all Tibetans. Malapropisms abound. From a menu: "babby potatoes, minched fresh vegetables, fresh tomatoes with smashed basil." The sign under the prayer wheels meant to say that "defaulters will be prosecuted under law."
Just as San Miguel de Allende with its large influx of Norteamericanos and tourists is not the real Mexico, Dharamsala is not the real India. This Himalayan town is full of red-robed monks, shopkeepers selling malas (prayer beads), and hip twentysomething Tibetan youths romancing blond girls, hoping to find tickets out of this way station—into the freedom and opportunity of the west.
In Christian denominations, monks are usually cloistered. A monastery near San Miguel de Allende houses perhaps a hundred monks who maintain vows of silence and live spartan lives. I never see their robed figures in town; only when I visit the monastery, and even then I cannot talk with them, except under limited circumstances.
For this reason, I was surprised to run into so many monks out on the streets of McCleod Ganj.
They're out running all kinds of errands, just like lay people do. Here, a nun buys momos: steamed dumplings filled with potato. (Momos are excellent walking-around food. I bought some from the same vendor and developed an instant liking for them.)
Monks wear red robes, usually with yellow scarves. The rest of their dress is highly individual. The old monk above is wearing Teva sandals; below, loafers and Crocs are the choices. They wear digital watches and talk on cell phones. They write their friends in cybercafes. They ride scooters. They shop for boxer shots and batteries. They play basketball. They're just like us, except they have taken vows of celibacy and live in dormitories.
They do their own laundry, here in a mountain stream. You can make out a group on the right playing cards while their clothes dry.
Monks are accessible and friendly. I met this ancient figure while hiking a steep mountain path. He invited me to rest with him and agreed to have his picture taken with me. His three words of English were hello, goodbye, and cold, but his demeanor and smile spoke volumes.
The Indian Government provides security at sites where high Tibetan figures live. I found it unsettling to watched monks engaged in friendly conversation with soldiers carrying assault rifles. This guard is one of the detachment protecting the monastery of the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, an important spiritual leader who some think may ultimately succeed the current Dalai Lama.
The soldiers shield a way of life as well as the lives of certain individuals. They protect an old monk feeding bananas to a mule with deformed legs. Both live peacefully in the confines of a monastery.
Tibetan Buddhist monks live lives with an overriding goal: to end suffering of all beings. Unlike many Christian monastics, they live in intimate contact with the outside world. In fact, for them, there is no outside world. They believe all beings are connected, all beings are one. They sit in contemplation on bus stop benches as readily as if they were in a temple.
Side note: In Lhasa, the capitol of Chinese-occupied Tibet, when important western officials visit, cadres (local Chinese political officials) dress up in red robes in order to give the impression of religious freedom. Real monks avoid wearing robes since by doing so they risk arrest and torture.
I called from a pay phone at the Port of Manzanillo. Turns out Expedia's 800 number, posted on their website, is wrong. Paul helped me complete my call using a Telmex operator, his Spanish being better than mine. I took over as soon as we got an answer and spent five minutes picking my through a labyrinthine call director. Carlos Slim's exorbitant charges were piling up fast. Finally an automated voice told me I had passed the keypad dexterity test and now qualified to speak with an actual human agent.
An accented female voice came on the line. Things had finally come full circle. In order to change my flight to India on an American airline through an American travel agent, I was going to have to speak with someone in—India.
She spoke with the same cadences as Apu, owner of the Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons. I couldn't understand most of what she said. When I finally convinced her I wanted to move my flight dates back a week, she said, "Thank you for sharing your issue. I am most anxious to help you, but I cannot at the present moment. Our computers are down. Please call back in an hour." Click.
Photo and lettering: Paul "El Guapo" Latoures
That exchange having exhausted my phone card balance, I retreated to an Oxxo (Mexico's Kwik-E-Mart) to purchase another. Not believing the computer problem story, I called Expedia right back, swiftly threading my way through the call director. (I am nothing if not a quick learner.) This time I was connected with an agent who spoke intelligible English and had had some actual training. A mere thirty minutes later, she completed the rebooking of my flights.
Bangalore call centers manage to combine Indian hyper-courtesy with Indian hyper-bureaucracy. At every turn I was told most politely, and with the most sympathy, why it was that I couldn't do what I wanted. Indian agents are masters at the art of saying "no." In Suketu Mehta's superb book about Bombay, Maximum City, he describes the place as the City of No. Indians learned obstructive bureaucracy under British rule. After independence, they took all that red tape and multiplied it. Example: A simple court case can take ten years to settle, if it ever gets settled at all.
Before I find myself teeing off on Indians, I have to remind myself: I was dealing with an American company. What were they thinking?
Something good has come from this experience: A new travel tip. Use Expedia to explore flight options. Then go to the airline website and book your flight directly. You'll save a few bucks, and if you need help, the airline has a much larger incentive to help you out than any travel agent ever will. And most of them don't use offshore call centers either.
Much of the metalwork consists of commissioned statuary; usually images of the Buddha, sometimes of other bodhisattvas. These works are large; check out the hammer lying on the floor for scale.
The metal of choice here is copper, beaten into shape by hand. More ornate by far than the copper ash tray I hammered out for my father in seventh-grade shop class.
Repeated hammering causes copper to become work hardened. It'll crack unless it is de-tempered by heating the workpiece to red heat and then plunging it into water—one part of the skill set being learned by the students.
Once assembled into a completed sculpture, the copper is covered with gold leaf, like the fourteen-foot Buddha shown in the first post on Norbulingka.
Delicate filagreed pieces are gilded by electoplating, using an exceptionally crude lash-up. Workers, masked against toxic fumes, hold an enameled tray containing an alkaline solution over a gas fire. A power supply establishes a current from the workpiece and a small gold ingot, both immersed in the solution. Gold ions detach from the ingot. They flow through the solution and attach to the workpiece. The plating is only a few micrometers thick. The tiny ingot, barely visible at the right of the pan, will plate many square yards of copper.
In the wood shops, a few student test pieces hang on a wall. The woodworking students won the Norbulingka basketball tournament this year, celebrating by carving their own trophy.
Woodworkers use no machine tools. They don't need them. Saws, planes and chisels are sharper than surgical scalpels. They glide through wood, permitting exceptionally fine work.
Works created in the wood shops are finished by elaborate painting. These museum-quality pieces are on display in the institute's gift shop.
Norbulingka is a small candle burning in a darkening world. This week, the Dalai Lama announced he is abandoning talks with the Chinese on cultural autonomy for Tibet. A younger generation agitates for more direct action. Will these student craftsmen abandon their chisels and brushes for bombs and guns? What then will become of Tibetan culture?
This was posted from a moving bus with a wifi hot spot. The world is becoming more connected every minute!
Many Tibetan paintings present images of bodhisattvas (beings that compassionately refrain from entering nirvana in order to save others). Conventionally their portraits are framed inside circles. Here, two apprentices find the center of a canvas by snapping a pair of diagonal chalk lines. Next, they'll use a compass to mark a circle centered on the intersection of the chalk lines.
Euclid found his way even to Tibet. Or perhaps, Tibet reached him.
Images are first rendered in exquisite line drawings. The unfinished sketches are worthy of framing and hanging.
The artists' skills are remarkable. Moreover, they are permitted to make creative variations within limits of the art form, so no two drawings are alike.
The cartoons are then colored with brilliant paints. The very finest paintings use natural pigments derived from minerals: coral, lapis lazuli, ground gold. Most of the work here uses less expensive paints, no less beautiful for their common origins.
The same images that the painters create are realized by others using a different, unlikely process: appliqué. It begins with a pattern inked onto a piece of silk.
The many regions demarked by inking are made in different colors—sort of paint-by-numbers—using fabric. Each shape is traced, then individual pieces of colored cloth are cut to match.
The edges of each shape are bound with horsehair wrapped in colored silk. Horsehair is used to prevent shrinkage of the edging that otherwise might distort the appliqué.
The horsehair on the right has been wound with red silk thread.
Edging is hand-sewn to each piece. Although the workers shown here happen all to be women, men do this work as well.
Finished pieces are collected into sets for final assembly into finished artwork.
The completed work shown below is a thangka (THAN-kah), a painting or appliquéd artwork that can be hung for display, or rolled up and carried, appropriate for a nomadic people. Thangkas serve as prayer media or as meditation tools. Sometimes people bring theirs to the Dalai Lama or another high Lama for blessing.
This appliquéd thangka bears the image of seven-eyed White Tara, bodhisattva of compassion, longevity, healing and serenity.
Without the efforts being made at Norbulingka, Tibetan art and culture will become lost to the world. The Chinese government pursues a policy of eradicating Tibetan culture. Thousands of temples have been razed, ancient texts have been burned, people have been tortured and killed for demonstrating or promoting their Tibetan-ness. For now at least, we are still able to learn and enjoy their culture.
A government in exile deals with Tibetan affairs from McCleod Ganj. One principal aim of the government there is preservation of Tibetan culture. Refugee children are taught in their native language. A library preserves important works of literature, religion and history. Institutes train young people in traditional arts and crafts: an important one is Norbulingka, located a few miles south of Dharamsala.
A large compound there houses workshops, a temple, gardens, a tea shop and a gift store. A residence, Chonor House, offers overnight accommodations for $40-$70.
The architecture is what you might find in old Lhasa. Buildings look antique, but the institute was built in 1988.
Peaceful gardens separate buildings within the complex. Prayer flags spread good will and compassion to all living beings with each breeze.
A small stupa anchors the center of the gardens. It houses Buddhist relics, among them paintings of deities. Also present are flat rocks bearing painted carvings of prayers. The rocks are called manis—jewels.
Fine details abound. Elephant motifs enliven roof drains—canales to those of us who live in colonial Mexico. Ours seem prosaic by comparison.
A museum offers hundreds of dolls dressed in traditional Tibetan costumes. Admission: 5 Rupees for locals, 20 Rs for foreigners—50¢.
Above, a doll dressed like a holy man receives homage from a spiritual seeker and from a number of woodland creatures as well. He appears to have meditated in his cave for many years.
The museum host, a young Tibetan woman, asked if I knew about California. Then she wanted to know if I had been in Santa Barbara. I explained that my daughter lives there. She tasked me with contacting a realtor the next time I visited there, a man who had sponsored her sister during her flight from Tibet. I am to tell him tashi delek (hello) from her.
A Buddhist temple heads the garden; the gilded roof draws the eye. Wide stone steps flank a stepped cascade fed by snowmelt flowing out of the Himalayas. On a clear day, those great mountains frame the temple roof.
Mindful of being respectful, I put away my camera before removing my shoes and entering the temple. I came upon an Indian family posing on the altar for souvenir photos. Others visitors wandered about photographing the temple's treasures, flashes going off everywhere. Everyone wanted pictures of the 15-foot high gilded Buddha, handcrafted in Norbulingka's own shops.
So much for reverent silence. I pulled out my camera and shot a single flash-free image of the father as he photographed his brood, feeling absolved of any blasphemy. I mean, it's not like the place is the Sistine Chapel or anything.
Buddhists are so easygoing.
Note: For more information, you can visit www.norbulingka.org. The website is exquisite and informative, if a little flash heavy.
I'm visiting a friend in nearby McCleod Ganj, an old British hill station that now serves as the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile and the home of the Dalai Lama.
A friend of hers loaned her a beautiful house perched on a hill halfway between the two towns. I wake up to the songs of birds and cicadas. During the day, I watch the sun play along the rugged mountains.
The landscape is not what one visualizes when thinking about India. We live among fir forests and rushing streams, in weather sometimes sunny, sometimes misty. McCleod Ganj abuts a wilderness. Snow leopards roam here. The other night a man was mauled by a bear.
No road reaches the house. Every day I must climb a steep path for a few hundred yards to reach Jogibara Road, a narrow track of crumbling pavement that constantly slides into the ravine. The walk into McLeod Ganj makes an elevation gain of hundreds of meters, a situation sure to improve my conditioning.
Others use the path leading upward, which runs through our garden. It works like trespass rights in rural England. People walk within yards of the windows, so I have to wear street dress when I'm at home. Modesty may be more important in India than in Mexico.
Entry to our house is gained by unlocking a primitive padlock, one that could be picked with a hair pin. Yet the place is secure. Neighbors watch out for one another. Strangers are carefully tracked. Residents know everything that goes on in this little settlement.
The interior is pleasant. Locally made furniture and carpets lend a warm and slightly exotic atmosphere. There's no central heating, just like homes in Mexico, but we're situated at the latitude of Pensacola, Florida, and our elevation is a thousand feet less than in San Miguel. Nights are cool, days are warm, even in October.
A two-burner gas hob serves for cooking. We make coffee in a Bailetti espresso maker. We have to boil water before drinking; hence the large pot.
Kitchen cabinets are made from galvanized steel with mesh windows, to keep critters out of the food. In Mexico, we'd set mousetraps. But Dharamsala is Buddhist country. We don't kill animals or insects here.
When traveling abroad, I carry power adaptors, but it's virtually impossible to buy the type that fits Indian sockets. Massive contacts can handle loads of five thousand watts. The things look like they were designed by hyper-conservative British engineers during the Raj—and they probably were.
Gas for our tiny stove comes in small bottles that must be carried down the long, steep path to the house. Thankfully, strong men do this. I probably wouldn't have the strength.
The water heater is electric and holds only a few gallons. We turn it on twenty minutes before showering. It's enough.
It's a Zen brand water heater, "The dependable one." I'm learning to be completely satisfied living more modestly than I did in the States. Here in India, my carbon footprint is very small.
Dharamsala uses buried drain pipes for black water sewage, but they're too small to handle gray water as well. A channel from the house leads to a settling pond and then on to the municipal open sewer system.
Compared with the tumult of Indian towns, we live in a peaceful oasis. A window seat looks out over the garden and onward to the mountains.
Last night we walked home just after sunset. Our valley was in darkness, but the sun was still shining on the Himalayas.
I look at them through my bedroom window. They shine in morning sunlight, peek through ragged mists and clouds in the afternoons, glow in moonlight: a constantly changing scene. Down the road in Dharamsala, the view is more spectacular, not blocked by foothills. But this view is my view. I never imagined I'd ever be lying in bed with these great mountains looming over me.
We're in India, but we're not. Many Tibetan refugees live here. Monasteries and Tibetan Buddhist temples dot the hills.
McCleod Ganj is a refugee town. Indians are here to be sure, as are people from all corners of the world who are interested in the Tibetan issue or in pursuing spiritual growth. But so many faces are Tibetan. Many signs are lettered in the Tibetan language. When I greet an Indian, I say "namaste;" for Tibetans, I say "tashi delek."
Indian? Tibetan? It's a little disorienting.