Monthly Archives: July 2009

Visiting the Taj Mahal the Special Indian Way

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This passed weekend, my relatives took me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. They gave me the royal treatment! First they hired a professional photographer to take pictures of me (and all of the family members). The got a few cute photos and then even one of me looking as if I were holding he top of the Taj. This is a very popular pose for Indian tourists.

Ekta did not come on this trip, but Sudhaphoi’s four year old granddaughter, Akanksha, came.

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Here is a shot of Anilkaka and a shot of Samta:

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The Taj Mahal is both beautiful and romantic. For those of you who do not know, the Taj is actually a mausoleum for ShahJahan’s wife, Mumtaz Mahal. He was heartbroken when she dies, so he had this beautiful complex built in her honor. It is completely made of marble with inlay of lapis and other precious stones.

This is a shot from inside one of the two mosques in the complex, my favorite shot.

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Then we went to Mathura and visited two temples to Krishna. Mathura is the birthplace of Lord Krishna. The day started to take a turn for me when we got to Mathura. At the first temple, a very beautiful and peaceful temple complex, I fell in the bathroom. It was pretty disgusting, because I fell flat on my back onto the wet bathroom floor. God knows what was on that floor. I hurt my elbow, bruising it and cutting it. It that moment, I was suddenly overcome with how foreign I felt. I felt like everyone was looking at the white girl who can’t even walk. Clearly, I am very odd to Indians — sometimes inspiring curiosity, other times inspiring disdain. Often, I am very aware of how bizarre I am to people around me. Most of the time, I am perfectly fine with it, but in this moment, it completely overwhelmed me. It got better as I went through the temple, but I was getting tired, and my cold seemed to be worsening. We went to another temple to make an offering just in time before they closed the entrance to see Krishna. Then we were in the marketplace.

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We shopped for a bit, and I was getting increasingly tired. After a bit, we got in the car to come home. We stopped for dinner, but I was not hungry because I just wasn’t feeling well. I’d developed a cough and a sore throat. Finally, after being stuck in traffic, we got home at about 1:30AM. It was a very long day.

Again, I had another wonderful time with my relatives. They were so kind and generous to me, and I really appreciated everything they did for me. When I fell, they were very worried I had hurt myself. And they suggested several remedies for my cold.

I had a good long sleep, and I felt a little better the next day. That day, I went with Lesa’s family to have lunch with a Canadian family in Khan Market. We went to a place that serves western food. And today, I went shopping at the state emporiums and got lots of gifts for people back home. Feeling better today, but still on the mend.

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Meeting Relatives

One of my best adventures so far has been meeting my new relatives. I was very nervous about meeting them, because I was filled with a mixture of wanting to impress them, fear or “messing up,” and concern about cultural misunderstandings. I was pleasantly surprised. When I first reached Nikafoi’s house, I was welcomed with this view:

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I believe the intention of this wording is “Welcome to our home” or something along the lines of “Our home is your home.” Clearly, I was immediately part of the family.

Let me explain something about titles for family members. Aunts and uncles are called certain titles based on the relationship to the child. Father’s sister and her husband are foi and fua, respectively. Father’s brother and wife are kaka and kaki. Mother’s brother and wife are mama and mami, and mother’s sister and husband are masa and masi.

At this point, I was visiting Nikafoi. Sudhafoi just happened to be visiting from Mumbai, and Anilkaka flew in special from Amhedabad. So this was an extra warm welcome. When I arrived, Nikafoi was still at work (she works in the income tax dept. for the government), so Sudhafoi did a special blessing for me. It was a crazy little scene as I was trying to do the right things: take off my shoes, tough my relatives’ feet, greet everyone, etc while Sudhafoi was trying to do the blessing. But it all went well, and I felt very welcome.

Then Nikafoi came home, and this is a photo of us.

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She pulled out an old photo album and showed me family pictures, which were lovely to see. I even saw a picture of Sujal from his last visit, 17 years ago. As one can imagine, family would like to see him again. I brought my laptop and we called him on Skype, so he got to practice his Gujarati. This was another level to the visit. Samta and Ekta (Ekta was the first person to welcome me, meeting me at the car) speak good English, as they learned it throughout their schooling. I believe their classes were conducted in English. Anilkaka also speaks good English. Nikaphoi and Sudhaphoi speak some English, though they understand more than they speak. But still, it can make communication tricky. Samta and Ekta translated, yet we still ultimately speak a different dialect, so sometimes there were miscommunications, though nothing egregious.

Finally, they took me to a large mall in Gurgoan and took me to a very nice Punjabi restaurant. Here is a photo of Nikaphoi, Sudhaphoi, and Anilkaka:

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And a photo of me, Ekta, and Samta:

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Samta and Ekta are lovely young women (both in their early 20’s). Ekta is a dentist, and Samta is studying to be an electrical engineer. They were both very friendly and chatty with me.

I know that I am rather unusual in my bedtime and need for sleep in that I usually am in bed by about 9PM, so getting home after midnight was a very late night for me. I wasn’t at my best, because of this pesky cold I have, but all in all, it was a perfect meeting! I could not have imagined feeling any more welcomed!

A Guest Post from my Nephew Evan

My aunt and I went to the Golden Temple. The Golden Temple is very beautiful, but I did not go inside it. It is made of gold. I actually did not like it. It was very hot, and I was thirsty.

Have a Cold, Will Travel?

I’ve had a really nasty cold all week. I have also spent three solid days (and nights to some degree) with relatives on Sujal’s side. I have been very busy. Yesterday They took me to the Taj Mahal, more on that later (sadly, I forgot my Wyvern Nation t-shirt. Sujal’s aunts and uncles have been very welcoming, which I fully appreciate. Communicating can be a little tricky at times, but we are doing our best. Photos and stories to come…

Wagah Border

While in Amritsar, we went to the Wagah Border, which is the border between Pakistan and India. Each evening, they do a ceremony to close the border. You can see it on You Tube.

Hindu Temples in Amritsar

During our stay in Amritsar, we also visited a memorial of a massacre that occurred in 1919 at Jallianwala Bagh. It was a sad place, as many people were shot and killed, and others jumped into a well in order to avoid being shot, but it was a very deep well, and those people died.

While we were there, we were part of the rare few white people. Many other tourists (Indian) wanted their pictures taken with us. Above is also a photo of my with a recent bride.

We also visited the Durgiana Temple, a Hindu temple to Durga. This is sometimes called the Silver Temple, because its doors are made of silver.

Finally, we went to the Mata Lal Devi Mandir, which honors a female guru. Women who want to become pregnant pray here. It was a very unique temple, filled with lots of ups and downs, passages, tunnels, and “caves.” It felt a bit like a fun house, because of this jumbled set-up, and the kids even loved it. At one point, you have to crawl through a tunnel, and at another point, you go into this cave-like room and then walk through water. I wondered if it symbolized a birthing canal. We could not find out the answer why it was so uniquely designed.

On the train ride home, the AC broke for a bit, and about 10 different men kept going up front to try to “fix” it or at least give their two cents. It’s kind of like how a bunch of men stand around a car that is broken down surmising what must be wrong. “I think it’s the catalytic converter.” “No, it’s gotta be the temperature gauge…” You know what I’m talking about.

Then the AC worked and it got chilly. Men were wearing their wives dupettas, leaving their wives to be cold, though some men shared with their wives.

Although Amritsar was extremely hot, it was a great weekend. Since I have returned, I have come down with a cold. I tried to go to an internet cafe today to no avail. I dropped of an unstitched suit to the tailors and felt like a complete idiot, because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I still have to buy material for a sari blouse. So many things to do! When am I going to see the Taj Mahal?

The Golden Temple

The above photos are of the amazing Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh temple. Here is their official site. It is in Amritsar, which is in the state of Punjab, near the Pakistan border.

They city itself is broken into two main sections, the old city and the newer section. We stayed in the old city at a place called Hotel CJ INternational. It was a great location, but it was only so-so in terms of its amenities. It’s touted Golden Temple view was from a shared hallway balcony. (I guess I’ll save my review for TripAdvisor.)

Anyway, it was one of the most peaceful places I have been. We first went in the evening, and that was when it was particularly peaceful. I don’t mean that there were few people. On the contrary, there were a lot of people (though more and more the two subsequent times I went in), but the whole Temple complex is filled with the music of the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book. In the inner sanctum of the temple, two priests sing from the book twenty-four hours a day. There is light drumming and other accompaniment that makes for a somewhat hypnotic soundtrack as one walks around the temple complex. The temple is surrounded by a pool of sacred water, and pilgrims come to bathe their, a religious ritual. As we walked around the temple (throngs walk around it in a clockwise direction), I said to Lesa that this place makes me want to be Sikh. Then of course I also saw the gender disparity, as with most religions. Women cannot bathe in the pool of sacred water. Instead they may only drink from it and put some on their faces. Men go in and submerge themselves. Women cannot be priests, etc.

Aside from the extremely common form of inequality, the Sikhs seem to be very much about equality. They have a communal kitchen at the Golden Temple that operates twenty-four hours a day and is run solely by volunteers. In fact, all operations are run solely by volunteers, and it is a huge operation. They feed thousands and thousands of people everyday, a simple meal of chapati, dal, and sweet rice. See the pictures above. They cook the dal in giant vats, also pictured above. There is no charge, though donations are accepted. Many people are from Amritsar, and go there often to eat. The two boys in black t-shirts ate next to us, and they were alone, local boys — and very sweet boys.

There were very few white people in Amritsar, so all sorts of people wanted to come up to us, to touch us, to have their picture taken with us. I don’t normally get fawned over like that, so I ate it up. 😉

Simply to sit next to the pool of water and listen to the prayer was heavenly. Amritsar is insanely hot this time of year, but if you can go there some time, I highly recommend it!

BTW, I think my sister wears a dupetta very well (as in the above photo in the communal kitchen), and I think she looks a little like Benazir Bhutto when she wears it on her head.

My First Indian Train Trip

Over the weekend, we went to Amritsar on the train, which was actually relatively easy. When we got to the station, I was a bit nervous as it was very crowded, but once we more or less figured out what train we were on, it was pretty easy. This website, all about train travel in India, is very valubale, as is this website called India Mike.

We took the Shatabdi Express to Amritsar, which also served lots of good food and was an easy trip.

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When we arrived in Amritsar, I took my first auto rickshaw ride, which was a lot of fun!

It’s Hot!

Have I mentioned how hot it is here in India? I don’t always know how hot it really is, because the temperature is measured in centigrade here. It is safe to say it can continuously been in the upper 90’s at least. We went up to Amritsar this weekend, and it had to be in the hundred teens. I said to Jon that I feel perpetually wet here in India. I am constantly sweating, sweating amounts of perspiration I did not know I was capable of producing. It has not rained much at all since I have been here, and my sister says the rain cools things down a lot.

The air quality is not the best this time of year. Delhi has some smog issues, and the air in Amritsar is dusty. Today I actually have a sore throat, and I am thinking it is due to the air.

Which then brings me to the point of litter and trash. People have asked me if I think India is a dirty place, to which I firmly respond, no. It isn’t dirty, but there is a very different attitude toward trash than in the US. Because we consume so much in the US, we have had to figure out what to do with our trash. They consume much less (though consumerism is growing) in India, so trash often ends up in the street. When we were in Amritsar, Lesa and I bought a bottle of water. I had a previous bottle and asked if they had a “dustbin” (trash can here in India). The guy said yes and took the bottle. Then he threw it on the ground and said, “There is your dustbin. This is India, not America.” I picked it up, of course, but it just shows a different way of thinking about use.

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Welcome?

A bit of culture shock hit me today. I am really enjoying myself here, and yet there are a few cultural aspects that are hard to get used to, particularly what seems to me like rampant sexism.

For example, I smile at people. It is who I am. Yes, I’m sure I look insipid, but that is what I do. Culturally speaking, women should not smile at men here. Yet I smile without thinking, and then I get a disdainful look. I brushed it off, but when I was rejected from a temple today, it all suddenly got to me.

We (Jon and I) began our day out by going to the large temple to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. It is a very beautiful temple. I bought flowers and prasad outside the temple and gave offerings as I went through, and I did pronom to the various gods to which I gave offerings. Priests gave me a third eye with the red powder (they dab a bit of red powder on your forehead). It was a very lovely experience. One of the priests talked to us for awhile, explaining various mandirs. It was a lovely beginning to the day.

Then I wanted to see the nearby temple to Kali, the goddess of destruction. I really like Kali, partly because of the role she plays in Bharati Mukherjee‘s novel, Jasmine, and partly because she is a strong goddess, a female role model to some degree. She is a mother figure in Bengali tradition, though she is also very fearsome. She exudes power. I like this description on Mantra on Net. A devotee of Kali, Ramprasad, writes:

To be Kali’s child, Ramprasad often asserts, is to suffer, to be disappointed in terms of worldly desires and pleasures. Kali does not give what is normally expected. She does allow her devotee/child, however, to glimpse a vision of himself that is not circumscribed by physical and material limitations. As Ramprasad says succinctly: “He who has made Kali . . . his only goal easily forgets worldly pleasures”. Indeed, that person has little choice, for Kali does not indulge her devotees in worldly pleasures. It is her very refusal to do so that enables her devotees to reflect on dimensions of themselves and of reality that go beyond bodily comfort and world security.

So when I went to the Kali temple, Jon and Chauhan came with me. I was wearing a long sleeve kurta, and I had a dupetta on my head. I was also wearing a calf-length skirt. Chauhan went up first, and then Jon. It was I who really wanted to see this temple, and a man came up to Chauhan and said I could not go because I was wearing a skirt, so I turned and left, waiting outside in the sun with some kid asking me for rupees while Jon and Chauhan visited the temple. As I read now what Ramprasad said, I can see more clearly the serious iniquities between men and women here. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some serious iniquities in the US, but when I was rejected from this temple, it made me more acutely aware of the ways I was getting second class treatment. And it made me feel very unwelcome. I realize it is not personally directed at me, but I am an individual, and my experience is my own, so in that sense it is personal.

The disdainful looks (and I have been dressing very culturally sensitively — salwar kameezes, mainly), the direction of all questions, comments, tours, etc at Jon rather than all of the adults and children — they bothered me after that last straw.

I wouldn’t say that it ruins my trip, but it makes me very sad. I am not in the slightest expecting to be treated like a maharani, I just wanted be treated as respectfully as I am treating others. Though I was unable to stay in her temple, Kali taught me a lesson today.

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