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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Kumbaya

A lot of the bad stories get told over and over again about Hindu-Muslim relations. There are a lot of truths in tales of rioting and murders. No one who has lived in Mumbai – or New York – could possibly try to minimize the devastation that can occur when religions collide.

But oftentimes these stories overshadow the day to day relations that are happening around us.

So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about living here is watching people co-exist in a country that has seen so much turmoil over religion. From partition through the assassination of Indira Ghandi to the Bombay riots of 1992 up to the attacks here two years ago, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Yet I watch day in and day out as everyone seems to somehow make it work in a population where the majority (Hindus) are only 67% of the populace.

This has been most apparent to me in Dharavi, where everyone is literally living on top of each other and where there is incredible religious and cultural diversity. Dharavi was the horrifying epicenter of the Bombay riots 20 years ago but today it seems like there must be some improvement. I go into meetings and see Hindu women teaching Muslim women about their sexuality without any judgment. I see women wearing hijabs lay their heads on the shoulders of women in saris. I can’t explain it and I certainly would never profess to have a deep understanding of this community’s feelings about religion (that would be a bit naive) but I can only report what I see and it’s oddly comforting.

But the best thing to watch is what happens on 90 feet road on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a crowded, dirty, hot and chaotic slum that is populated by a majority Hindu population, one side of the artery road is cleared for prayers. It causes traffic and confusion and adds time to everyone’s travels. But for just a few minutes hundreds of Muslim observers are given time to pray together in a place where there certainly isn’t space for a mosque large enough – or even homes large enough – to accommodate worshipers. It’s a small thing. But it’s not something I can imagine being allowed even in New York, the supposed home of liberalism and tolerance, where an out-of-the-way mosque’s construction was recently protested.

It’s a Pollyanna view. I’ve certainly also been privy to conversations detailing why our Pakistani neighbors on the 5th floor must be horrible or how Muslims don’t shower (no, really) and I’ve had to stand back and wonder whether I’ve been reverted to some bizarre version of the 1950’s in a racist but Indian state. It’s a reality. And there’s certainly a lot of religious turmoil happening outside of India (understatement of the century). But I’m going to keep believing that things are a little bit better than some might make it out to be

And its certainly a view that is reinforced by seeing it. So for now I’ll let some video do the talking for me. It really is a spectacular sight.

 

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In India you always have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of the experience. So I suppose it’s only fitting for my parents that one day after seeing the Taj Mahal they’ve come down with a case of Delhi belly.
 

The 'Great Gate' at sunrise

We woke up yesterday at 5:30am to get ready to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s a strange feeling anticipating seeing a monument that you can picture so well without ever having laid eyes on it. There’s only a few places in the world like that: the Eiffel Tower. The pyramids of Egypt. The Chrysler Building. And of course the Taj Mahal. Part of the joy of India is that you usually don’t even have a concept of what to expect. But this is an entirely different scenario.

 
We arrived at the ticket counter and hurriedly purchased tickets before taking a trolley-like vehicle up to the South Gate (regular cars aren’t allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the pollution). We waited in separate security lines for men and women and my mom and I huddled together to try and minimize the chill from the pre-dawn air. As we stood in line waiting to be searched and prodded I watched as the sun slowly began to rise. I kept expecting to see a glimpse of the Taj every time I stepped forward but it was hiding from the gazes of all the tourists waiting in line.
 

The Taj in the morning fog

When we finally got through the gate we had to go through a magnificent sandstone arch and then… there it was. It wasn’t yet its magnificent white color due to the hazy morning light. It was almost gloomy, towering over us as the sun began to peek out in the distance. And it was beautiful. It seemed almost like a postcard or a mirage – it was so new and yet so incredibly familiar. We took the many requisite photos as we walked closer and closer and as the rising sun made the marble gleam whiter and whiter.

 

All of us in front of the Taj Mahal

Close-up of calligraphy and inlaid stones

When we finally reached the steps the sun was high and we made our way up close. From every angle it was beautiful – immaculate marble everywhere you turned, Arabic carved in delicate black calligraphy four inches deep into the stone, semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble that fanned out into flowers and vines. We looked from the front, from inside, from the back, from inside the neighboring ‘guest-house’. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the actual beauty or maybe it was seeing the legend up close, but I certainly was not longer tired from my early wake-up.

Me and the Taj

One common sight driving in India

We let the memory sink in as we drove the long drive to Delhi. The highways of rural Uttar Pradesh are a stream of different Indias. Farmlands of wheat give way to dusty smoggy towns. Huge goods carriers swerve around camels pulling carts loaded with goods. I haven’t minded the drives because there’s always something to look at.

 
But after settling in to Delhi, eating dinner at our hotel, and going to bed I woke up with some bad news – my mom was sick. She hadn’t eaten anything questionable (no roadside food, no salads, no water from a tap) but she had a case of the notorious Delhi belly. One day after India gave her the gift of marveling at its beautiful architecture it had struck her down with its just as renowned stomach problems. My Dad wasn’t feeling great but he was excited to sightsee, so we let my mom sleep and we decided to venture out into Old Delhi
 
My dad has been reading a book called City of Djinns (thank you to Daniel’s parents for giving it!) which is William Dalrymple’s memoir of his year living in and exploring the history of Delhi while trying to find the  remnants of the Moghul and British culture and architecture. My dad really wanted to find some of the places mentioned in the book (not normally on the tourist trail) and we set out to see if we too could spot the old architecture and charm amidst the chaos of the old city.
 

A ride down the street

We haggled a price with a bicycle rickshaw driver and made our way up Chandni Chowk and then turned down a narrow road. It was like stepping back in time- on this road bicycle rickshaws, men pushing large hand-carts, vegetable-wallahs, cows, people carrying goods on horses and pedestrians made their way slowly along the road, past crumbling old shops with dirty retro signs. Monkeys climbed along the balconies. The electricity and telephone wires were a jumbled mess above and even motorcycles were few and far between. It was odd to watch the street-life pass by as we sat in our rickshaw, slowly meandering through the very dense traffic. And it was so different to the India I know in Mumbai.

 

A monkey making his way in Old Delhi

When we came to the end of the road we found what we’d been looking for: Turkman Gate, one of the old major gates to the city walls. It was like crashing out of an old city into a new one- once you stepped past the gate the narrow ancient lane morphed into a modern highway. Next to the gate was the Delhi Stock Exchange. You couldn’t come out of time travel faster if you tried. It was a shock.
 

Where we bought some extra medicine...

But the more difficult shock was that my dad had slowly started to feel bad as well. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that Delhi belly had claimed another victim.

 
They’re resting now and my fingers are crossed that their illness is the food poisoning it appears to be – usually these things don’t last more than 24 hours. It would be a shame to miss seeing the highlights of Delhi, even is some would argue that the illness might also be an ‘Indian highlight’. We’ll see tomorrow!

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“Excuse me sir… sir… SIR!”

The car swerved out of the way, just narrowly missing a group of cows lying casually in the middle of the highway. The driver looked back at me in his rearview mirror as though I was completely insane for being perturbed at his proximity to the animals. This was just everyday life here – cows lie with abandon and drivers go around them at the last moment possible. This was Udaipur, Rajasthan.

Daniel had suggested we do something to get out of Bombay and relax while it was still the low season throughout India. He had found a great monsoon deal at the Lake Palace, which is one of the most famous and unique hotels in India- he had rightfully convinced me that despite still having a bit of jetlag, it would be worth the trip.

India for me had only been Maharastra (the state where Mumbai is located). It was Mumbai and a bit of its environs. I was curious to see my new adopted country in a different light (For a sense of the streets of Udaipur, I’ve attached this video of my ride in a rickshaw, below).


And Rajasthan brings to light the classic India that many imagine. The cow element was something I had come to believe was a myth – while Mumbai has cows tethered to the side of the road I had certainly never experienced the famed cows wandering through the streets. Here it is inescapable – on the side of the road, in the road, crossing paths with trucks and motorbikes, cows just stare at the people who regard them with such awe and piety.

Lake Palace entrance (from a boat)

But beyond that curious Indian stereotype, Udaipur itself is a dream. It is said to be one of the most romantic cities in the world and it’s easy to see why. It’s as though Venice and India from the Raj times collided to create a city on water surrounded by hills and beautiful architecture.

And the Lake Palace is the epicenter – built in the early 18th century for Rajasthan’s King (the Maharana), it is only accessible by boat and once inside it is breathtakingly beautiful. Ceilings and columns with glass mosaics lead down to marble floors. A lily pond and views of the lake come at you from every direction. It is a true testament to the beauty of Indian design and skill.

We spent today wandering the city and its sights. The most notable is the Maharana’s other home – The City Palace. In present times the Royal Family rents out the Lake Palace to the Taj Hotel Chain and they have turned the majority of their City Palace into a museum. They still live in one (very, very large) section of the palace. They have also turned another lake structure, Jagmandir, into a place for dinners and weddings. It must be good to be Rajasthani royalty.

Jagmandir lit up at night

In the City Palace

The City Palace is also incredible – Indian marble columns are intricately carved and walls are inlaid with Venetian glass mosaics or Chinese tiles, all from the 18th century. The Palace is so large it was completed over 400 years, beginning in the 16th century and only completed in the 20th century. Elephant fights used to take place in the courtyards, and this practice was only discontinued in the 1950’s.

Lake Palace courtyard

Being in Udaipur is like getting to experience another world in another time. Unlike Mumbai, which is struggling to keep pace and prove its modernity, Udaipur seems to be happily frozen in its glory days (and profiting handsomely from them). It is romantic and tranquil and calming, as though each moment we’ve sat on the boat coming out to our hotel on a lake is something you can capture in time.

This feeling, of course, is a far cry from the moment of terror where we almost hit the cow. It’s almost incongruous. But maybe it all fits – while we were rushing to enter the city perhaps the cow was laying there thinking, “slow down, relax, take in the sights. No one will hit you. Just enjoy Udaipur.”
And we will take that advice – after all, we’re not leaving ‘till Tuesday!

Daniel and Ali with the Lake Palace behind

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