Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Indian Village Life

Chhatra Sagar is a beautiful 'camp' near the small town of Nimaj. It consists of eleven luxury tents which sit on top of a dam overlooking a reservoir which looks like a lovely natural lake, with wild life galore. The lake was created in 1890 by a powerful noble of the desert kingdom of Marwar, making the area a beautiful green oasis in this dry land. This year, India has enjoyed a particularly good monsoon season, and so we are seeing Rajasthan at its very greenest and all bodies of water totally full.

The site was a favorite place for visiting dignitaries for whom temporary camps were set up. The great grandchildren of the nobleman who built the dam now run it as a permanent camp for tourists. Raj was a cousin whose family was from Udaipur, and he was our gracious, rather shy, host during our visit.

We took a tour through the farm and learned a lot from Raj about the crops and habits of farmers. The hotel here pays people in the village to show their various trades as we take a tour; they contribute to the village in return for the villagers allowing copious pictures (taking pictures here is sometimes chargeable) and not petitioning the visitors for money or gifts. It meant that we saw some real people doing real things, without the begging associated with India.

The fields here grow three crops a year. We saw many different crops in the irrigated fields - millet, henna, anise, sesame. In Shahpura we had seen a large lake that had filled during monsoon. Within a couple of months, that lake would have dried out, and the farmers would grow wheat in that area.

For small farmers who can't justify owning or renting a harvesting machine, millet is laid out on the road, and cars passing over it do the hard work of separating the grain from the stalks.

Fences made of stone separate the fields. Stone quarries are common and we saw many companies cutting the stone for building material and for making fences, especially as we got close to Udaipur.

The fields everywhere seem to be worked mostly by women in their colourful dresses and shawls. When Wayne remarked to Raj that he saw a lot of men sitting around relaxing but no women relaxing, Raj laughingly pointed out that the men did the hard work - supervising the women.

We saw a mix of farming methods from hand farming with wooden tools, r bullocks pulling a plow, to some small harvesting machines. Medium-sized farmers will rent these harvesters from the bigger farmers. Interestingly, many of these harvesters were Massey Ferguson, even some quite new ones. We had not realized this old Canadian company was still manufacturing.

We saw many women walking with water containers, having collected water from a lake or pond or the village pump. Electricity was much more common than running water. Some pretty modest homes boasted TVs, or even the odd dish. There were lots of motorcycles, and of course ubiquitous mobiles.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Indian Cricket

India ia a nation of cricket fanatics. The wound is still raw from India's shellacking at Britain's hand losing all five matches in their recent tour of England. The Indians have won the first three matches of the British tour in India. As we arrived back at our hotel in Mumbai today, the team was just boarding their bus to go out and face England in the fourth of five matches. Opposite us on the square in front of India Gate, there were throngs of excited fans, cheering and waving each time another player came out to the bus. There three army men with machine guns pointing out from an armored vehicle protecting the illustrious coup. (this was the Taj hotel where the attack and siege took place some years ago.). Our Indian friends tell us that India won't be satisfied with anything less than a five-game whitewash to redeem their pride.

We also saw cricket at the local level today at the Oval Maiden. The pictures you see were taken from the walkway midway of the field, which must have measured at least four football fields in length. There were myriad games going on, of varying degrees of formality, some teams with uniforms, some not, some all in white with an official referee. But here's the kicker: the pitches the games were being played on were all overlapping. The fielders from one game might be standing behind the wicket of a game two or threes over from their own game. Deliciously Indian. Just like road traffic. Thank goodness they were playing with a tennis ball, because a regular hard cricket ball could have been perilous, since a ball could arrive from one of many games.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Nagaur

Nagaur is a small city, by Indian standards, of just under 100,000. Dominating the town is the huge fort, with 1.5 kms of walls enclosing 36 acres of land, accounting for half the area of the city. Inside the fort is an enormous palace area, controlled (still today) by the Maharajah of Jodhpur. 12 havelis occupied by 12 queens comprise part of the fort, and these have been restored and made into hotel rooms; we stayed in one of these rooms and had a lovely terrace looking out over the fort. 

Many of the forts and palaces we've seen have been Mughal and reflected Islamic architecture and painting; this fort is completely Hindu.  But what was most interesting was to have a peek into a historical site in the process of reparation. Because the Maharajah who owned the fort was in Jodhpur, this vast area lay unoccupied for hundreds of year, until the Indian army was stationed here during 60s. The fort took a real beating during their visit, and this has made the job of restoration even bigger.  There was a small museum area within the fort, describing the efforts at restoration, which was particularly handy because of our guide's weakness in English. 

Many rooms and their beautiful paintings have been restored, for example the room shown below.


There are many rooms made of plaster based on crushed sea shells, which resembles marble, some with beautiful original paintings. Pillars are lined up to give symmetrical vistas whichever way you look. There is beautiful painting and other decoration on the walls.  But what blew my mind was the ingenuity of the cooling mechanisms for the middle of a desert.    One kilometer of clay pipe or troughs circulated water throughout the palace and delivered it to countless internal fountains and pools.

The areas of the fort were positioned to maximize air flow during the summer months for natural cooling.  On the roof was a square structure cunningly designed to catch and funnel the wind, from whichever direction it was blowing, down a vent and into the rooms below:

 The roof had rainwater catchment with pipes that directed the water into giant pools - Olympic sized for sure. There were separate pools in restricted areas where the women would bathe. 



For the baths, there were separate hot and cold water cisterns, and you could see the holes in the wall of the bath where the equivalent of faucets must have been (shown in picture) so you could mix the bath water to your taste in temperature.

Water pressure delivered water from cisterns on the roof (shown in picture) to power all the fountains, with oxen working to pump the water up. I couldn't help thinking how much I would have loved living here, but also how much water-starved peasants must have hated the whole idea of all that water being used for bathing, while they struggled for enough for sustinence and agriculture.

Our driver Harnam taught us the expression ABC (Another Bloody Castle) which can be applied to some trips to India.  With the natural cooling and the many pools and baths spread around, and the ecological soundness of this fort, it was far from an ABC.  Nagaur would qualify as an eco-resort in modern times. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jaipur Fort

Our visit to the Jaipur Fort was amazing. There are 12 kms. of walls leading from the hilltop fort - if you didn't know where you were, you might think you were looking at the Great Wall of China. Brightly decorated elephants deliver tourists to the top of the hill. The fort is enormous,making for a very impressive view from the highway below. Once inside, there is a magnificent palace enclosed within the walls.

What impressed me most was the Hall of Mirrors, full of intricate patterns, all involving mirrors. In another courtyard there were beautifully decorated doors, one for each season. There was a lovely formal garden sitting in the watery moat, designed to look like a Persian carpet floating on the water. Very good illusion. The palace had its own sort of air conditioning, generated by the flow of water, and the palace was positioned on the hill, to maximize its access to breezes. Truly lovely.

Government doing some good in India

Everyone here constantly complains about the government and its corruption. To me, it seems as if they are doing some good things despite the complaints.

School support and rules:
Scool used to be mandatory to Grade Five and now it is mandatory to Grade Eight. Moreover, all kids in school get a free meal at lunch, which is important to some. There are also some 'incentives' for parents. Pretty well everyone we talk to seems to support these initiatives.

Government school kids all wear sky blue uniforms and we see them all over the place. We visited a village school with our gentle and quiet-spoken host Raj near our tented resort in Nimaj. The day started with a school assembly where the kids chanted to the goddess of learning, whereafter the kids went to their classrooms. They sat at long desks in dim classrooms. The teachers were all men and there were some posters and maps around the sparse classroom. In the principal's office, there were three Acer computers under covers and a paltry collection of books. For what it's worth, all the kids we see going to and fro to school seem very happy. Like everybody else here they smile at us a lot, and wave and shout.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the cost for university is fairly accessible at $50-100 according to our guide in Varanasi. However business education is more expensive, as explained by Harnam our driver, who says the fees for his daughter in undergrad business administration are $500 and will go to $1000 when she continues to her MBA.

Government work in rural areas:
One member of each family is given 100 days of government work a year. According to our driver, this has been transformative for the villagers, lifting them out of poverty. When we toured the village near Shahpura, the houses looked very poor; however, when you peeked inside the courtyard, things looked a lot more prosperous. Our guide had talked with these villagers and they told him that their annual income was about $4,000 dollars. As he put it, this is 'saving income'; i.e. since you grow your own food and barter a few things with other villagers, you have more money than you need for subsistence. One can see that many people spend this disposable income on a motorcycle!
On the other hand, our guide in Chhatra Sagar, from a much richer class, complained that the work was all make-work and not much to India's benefit in the end.

Land Ownership
Land ownership in India is restricted to 18 hectares. So explained Sat Sungh, the Rajah owner of our hotel in Shahpura. On the other hand Harman told us that this guy owned 850 hectares. Hmm. It seems that this rule is an 'Indian rule' (rather like the rule that you have to wear a helmet on a motorcycle in some places - yeah, right). Apparently you can set up a co-operative of family members to own land, because a co-operative can own unlimited amounts of land. Sat had lamented to us that he'd spent a day of looking through dusty old land records, to make sure everything was in order for when his only daughter came to inherit. Methinks he might be searching for ways to dipsy-doodle around that rule for another generation.

Havelis to Hotels
As well as restricting land ownership, the government has put pressure on the rich property owners to repair crumbling palaces and haveli (mansions) and turn them into historic hotels. They have also encouraged this by providing significant loans to support the work. This has saved many gorgeous buildings from disintegration - not to mention providing a pretty cool tourist experience for us!

Affirmative Action
And lastly, there have been efforts to support upward mobility by the lower castes through affirmative action with regards to entrance marks for various university programs and professions. Controversial just as it is at home.
However, in discussions here, it's not long before a reference to caste appears. Despite assurances that the caste system is dying out (and it probably is, though slowly), on my brief brush with Indian culture, I suspect affirmative action would be required to break the spiral of caste lock-in.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A Son of the Circus

John Irving's books can be full of wildly eccentric characters, and A Son of the Circus is no exception.  The book pivots around Bombay-born Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who practices at Sick Kids in Toronto.  A secret screenwriter for the infamous Indian Inspector Dhar films, he retains an apartment in Bombay and returns there periodically to work at the Crippled Children Hospital and to further his research to find the gene responsible for anachondroid dwarfism by testing the blood of dwarfs at the circus.  Inspector Dhar is played by John D., who was adopted by the Daruwalla family when his vapid mother, who had come to India to make a movie, gave birth to twins and only wanted one.  And this is just a taste of the  bizarre cast of characters:  the eccentric but lovable Daruwalla, the inscrutable John D.,  the ambitious dwarf Vinod who owns a limo service, the religious zealot Martin Mills who is John D's twin brother separated at birth, the ambiguous and sinister Rahul/Mrs. Dogar, the crippled boy and young prostitute headed toward the circus and a better life, and the angst-riven American hippie.  It makes one breathless just to lay out some of the characters in this book.  All of them struggle with where they belong and who they are, whether it's the feelings of the immigrant who never feels at home anywhere, the sexual ambivalence of several characters, the quest for religious faith.

Against this backdrop, the dogged Inspector Patel is working to solve a case of serial murders, with the help of this hodge-podge of characters.  The plot flies all over the place with total abandon.  The murderer is clear from the beginning, and the test is in catching the culprit with enough evidence to convict.

An indication of the quirkiness of the plot is the following line:  "Dr. Daruwalla's awareness that the source of his conversion to Christianity was the love bite of a transsexual serial killer had further diminished the doctor's already declining religious zeal".  Now strain to think of the plot development that led to that line occurring in the latter stages of the book!

I found this book quite interesting, because it takes place in India, and I'm traveling in India.  When our guide pointed out that the well-dressed beggar banging on our window at a red light was in fact a eunuch, I was immediately able to identify the person as a hijra, whose male sexual organs had been brutally removed (you don't want to know the details).  Whether I would find this interesting if it weren't for this connection, I'm not really sure.

The Raj Mandir


I felt I couldn't spend five weeks in India without experiencing Bollywood in true Indian style. So I went to see the new movie Rascal in the Raj Mandir theatre in Jaipur, along with 1100 excited Indians filling every seat in the enormous theatre. It has a very impressive sign on the front and a grand foyer.

We had only scheduled about an hour for me, expecting that I would not endure more than that of a film in Hindi. In the event, I would have loved to stay for the entire three hour run time.

The film was easy to follow even when you couldn't understand the words. A thief and his girlfriend have come into a briefcase of money. The man goes to a sports bar to watch a soccer match, and ill-advisedly tells someone about his money. This 'friend' is a thief and makes off with the briefcase. Despite the first thief's heroics, he loses the money and is roundly berated by his mother; the macho guy is reduced to slumped-shoulder humility before this raging harridan.

Alas, the second thief spends the money on a Rolex, and a hedonistic holiday in Bangkok, only to be relieved of his watch, money, and reservations by yet another thief, the leader of The Art of Giving charity. I think you get the picture, an easy and hilarious plot to follow. Only I didn't get to see the end, having left just before the intermission.

There was a big Bollywood dance number with scantily clad beautiful woman dancing to a frantic beat and fawning over thief number three quite lasciviously. The jokes were broad and somewhat slapstick. At times, bubbles would apear as overlays over the characters' heads with text in them, whose purpose I could not discern. The production was extravagant and as far from subtle as one could get.

The exuberant audience was totally into it. As the stars of the film appeared they cheered and whistled, and laughed heartily at all the funny parts. It was such a thrill to be part of this crowd.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Indian religious festivals

We have already been here for two festivals.

While in Varanasi, the festival of Durga was taking place. That's why our tour company didn't put us in one of the fancy hotels we've been staying in as they were all booked. (Lucky break for us, because none of them were right on a ghat). We saw many carts with statues of Durga, the goddess who embodies creative feminine force, in glittering dress being pulled along the streets by man, beast and motors. There was much chanting and loud music drifting in the air that we could hear day and night from our hotels.

We went to see the celebrations on the final night of Dussehra in Jaipur. We gathered in a large open area with hundreds of Indian families out for a fun evening. There were extravagantly lit effigies of Ravanna and his brother at the front of the park, and people selling souvenirs for kids and huge poppadams from baskets on their head. The day celebrates e triumph of good over evil, as Rama kills the ten-headed Ravanna with the help of the monkey god Hanuman. There were many beautiful fireworks set off and then finally the lights went out on the effigies and a blazing arrow set fire to the effigies for the grand finale. It was a great evening and we can now go forward feeling that we have been cleansed of evil.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ideas worth spreading

While in Jaipur we met up for a coffee with a delightful young man, Ajit, who had mounted TEDx Jaipur last year and has another conference being planned for this year. Ajit had been introduced by Becca, who works for TED and is a former MBA student of mine, and co-organizer of a TEDx conference in Toronto last year.

Ajit works in the family business making technology equipment for the dairy industry in India and other southeastern Asian countries. What a delightful young man, full of enthusiasm spreading good ideas, and bringing together people who are interested in ideas. He has some great plans for his conference to keep attendees totally engaged, and some fascinating speakers already lined up. He was keen to hear what I'd learned as curator of TEDxIBYork last year, and we had a lively discussion of what makes for a good TEDx and how to wring the best out of speakers. It was great to hear what he'd learned and how he experience differed a bit between Canada and India.

Chris Anderson has truly succeeded in his vision of making TED a global community, when you can walk into a foreign country and have instant rapport with someone who shares a passion for expanding their knowledge and impressions of the world and for ideas worth spreading.

The Second Economy

I've just read a fascinating article in McKinsey Quaretly, describing the Second Economy.  The author considers the 'underground' economy acting underneath the economy we see above ground, an economy that consists of hundreds of machines which go into co-ordinated action when we begin a transaction.   He uses a clever example of checking in at an airport kiosk which sets off a string of interactions with other machines, from those which predict total check-ins and adjust load placement on the airline, to updating frequent flyer programs, to checking security lists - probably numbering in the hundreds. And this computerized neural network is doing tasks that used to be done in the physical world by humans.

What I loved about this article was his analogy of this underground economy to the root system that links aspen trees.  (I hadn't known that a stand of aspens would all share an underground root system.  I will go and look up more about this).  What an elegant analogy.

I often use another forest analogy to explain seemingly sudden explosions in innovation adoption.  When a forest fire is raging through a forest, it will sometimes appear to have faltered, only to have trees a short distance away burst into flame.  The fire had been carried forward through the underground root system of the trees.  (At least that's what somebody told me ages ago).  I think of innovation like that sometimes.  You may have heard of the novelist Gibson's remark "The future is here; it's just unevenly distributed".   So an innovative technology may pop up in one place and seem to lie dormant for a long time, only to flare up slightly differently.  For those who haven't been watching closely, this new flare-up looks like the start date for the technology, but really the innovation has been incubating underground for a long time.

CHeck out the full article at I've just read a fascinating article in McKinsey Quaretly, describing the Second Economy.  The author considers the 'underground' economy acting underneath the economy we see above ground, an economy that consists of hundreds of machines which go into co-ordinated action when we begin a transaction.   He uses a clever example of checking in at an airport kiosk which sets off a string of interactions with other machines, from those which predict total check-ins and adjust load placement on the airline, to updating frequent flyer programs, to checking security lists - probably numbering in the hundreds.

What I loved about this article was his analogy of this underground economy to the root system that links aspen trees.  (I hadn't known that a stand of aspens would all share an underground root system.  I will go and look up more about this).  What an elegant analogy.

I often use another forest analogy to explain seemingly sudden explosions in innovation adoption.  When a forest fire is raging through a forest, it will sometimes appear to have faltered, only to have trees a short distance away burst into flame.  The fire had been carried forward through the underground root system of the trees.  (At least that's what somebody told me ages ago).  I think of innovation like that sometimes.  You may have heard of the novelist Gibson's remark "The future is here; it's just unevenly distributed".   So an innovative technology may pop up in one place and seem to lie dormant for a long time, only to flare up slightly differently.  For those who haven't been watching closely, this new flare-up looks like the start date for the technology, but really the innovation has been incubating underground for a long time.

In this article, Brian Arthur argues that by 2025, this digital second economy could be as big as the physical one.

Check out the full article at the McKinsey Quarterly site.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Khajuraho

Khajuraho was a late addition to our trip, and we had few expectations, other than knowing it was a World Heritage site. It's nice to start with light expectations and then get a surprise. We arrived on the continuation of the flight we had taken from Delhi to Varanasi. Khajuraho is a small town in the countryside, 'only' about 25,000 people. As we arrived at the airport, women were working the plot of land between the building and the parking lot with hand tools, their bright saris gently lifting in the wind.

We stayed at a lovely new hotel, with a room looking out over a pretty pool and the distant temples. We quickly set off for the Western Group of temples.

The site contains 25 of the original 85 red sandstone temples in phenomenal shape. During the Chandela dynasty, who rules in the 10-12th century, this was their religious centre, but the rich and varied temples lapsed into obscurity until rediscovered by a British explorer in 1838.

The tall temples point to the sky, said to be resembling the peaks of the Himalayas, the red sandstone in stunning contrast to the blue sky. I was mesmerized by the beauty. When you get up close, you see rich and detailed carving. Very beautiful and realistic work covering every surface of the temple. Many carvings of daily life, military life, and what makes them so famous, erotic sculptures of various positions of the Kama Sutra. Amazing. That's what I'd read about and I thought this might be a place to have a few giggles, but I came away instead with a sense of awe with the beauty and majesty of this vast site.

Jobs headlines in Indian papers

Indian papers, like everywhere I guess, had full front pages of Jobs info. These papers love their puns! Here's a sample from The Times of India and The Economic Time:

iQuit, Jobs Well Done

Jobs Takes iWay to Heaven

An iCon Who Revolutionized .....

I find Indian papers much more colourful than ours. They may start with 'such and such a ministry has got all their facts wrong'. No pussyfooting around with starting with official version and then gradually showing some factual weaknesses. And, as shown above, a marvelous inclusion of puns!

Bahai Temple in Delhi

One of the treats in Delhi was going to see the Baha'i Temple. It's not listed as one of the main sites to see but the architecture was truly gorgeous. The architect was Iranian-born Canadian, Fariborz Sahba, and he designed a fabulous building, with nine doors and 27 petals of a lotus flower. The temple is intended to welcome people of all faiths, as Baha'i faith sees Abraham, Jesus and Mohammed as prophets who follow an evolutionary path of humankind. It was very peaceful to gaze at this temple.

Education in India

There's an obvious thirst for education in India. There are billboards everywhere for schools, convents, universities, and educational institutions of all kinds.

We saw ads for play group to 8th, for civil, electrical and chemical engineering, for hotel management, maritime, nursing, MBAs, fashion, beauty and of course IT and English. One puzzling ad mentioned teaching Math by the abacus method. There were many more, basically anything you could think of.

Schools advertising play group to 8th tend to have names like Sunshine, Rainbow, Sunlight or Sunrise. As you reach higher grades, the names change to more aspirational ones, like Brilliant, Perfect, or Ambition.

While in Varanasi, we were taken on a tour of Benares Hindu University. I thought this would be a yawn, after all the things we'd already seen along the Ganges. But it was actually very interesting. The University has 25,000 students, most of them living in huge hostels on campus. It is spread over immense grounds, with huge impressive buildings housing different faculties. Despite the word Hindu in its name, it houses 'regular' faculties, including the second best medical school in India, according to our guide. There were a couple of departments that we wouldn't see in a Canadian university, like Yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. We were told tuition runs about $50-$100 a year, including books, but the students have to fund their own accommodation and food expenses.

Our driver has three daughters. One is doing a BBA intending to go on to an MBA, another taking CA. He shared with us that they were given a choice between a dowrie and an education. He's confident the third will take the same route.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Varanasi

Think of the quietest, most serene place you know. For me, it would be early morning at our cottage (yes, I do sometimes get up early).  The mist hovers over the water, smudging all the colours and softening the rugged landscape of the Canadian shield.  The water reflects the shoreline, and not a ripple disturbs the surface.  Ah, peace at Six Mile Lake.

Now think of the exact opposite.   You've just imagined Varanasi.  There's nothing muted about Varanasi. There's so much activity, your senses can go into overload.  This will be a long post, trying to describe the variety of experiences we squeezed into a mere 2 days.

Varanasi is the most holy city of the Hindus, situated on the banks of the Mother Ganges river, brown with silt and swollen by the best monsoon for many years.  Broad steps, called ghats, descend from the town on the embankment down to the river.  On our two boat trips on the river, I came to think of the ghats as stages for the performance of life.

We had a car bring us from the airport, but we had to walk the last part of the way to the hotel, because the streets were too narrow for the car. We reached it through a narrow lane past one of Mother Teresa's hospitals, dodging big cow plops.That was the first time - but not the last - that we would see cows in the street.


Our hotel was right on the Ganges at the Shivali Ghat.  There were street repairs at the main entrance, so we walked down onto the ghat, and then climbed a narrow unlit staircase where even I had to duck to the lovely central courtyard.  It looked pretty unprepossessing from that perspective, but when we got into the hotel itself, it was quite lovely.


We had dots painted on our forehead for luck, flowers sprinkled over us and served tea as we registered in the small office. The hosts were delightful and accommodating, moving us to a room with a great view, and repositioning the Internet router for best reception in our room. We had a lovely Thale there, our first such dinner in India.

Our window looked out on the ghat, and we could go out on the long balcony and see life unfold.  Men coming to wash and worship and to - shudder - drink the water, water buffalo coming for their morning or evening swims, barbers shaving customers sitting on the step above them, people doing washing in the river and laying it out on the mud banks to dry, boats docking and leaving, Hindu holy men facing the river and chanting, young nuns in some sort of initiation ceremony, escorted by drums and cymbals and tinkling bells, a group of women in colourful saris who wash themselves, then their saris, and then build a lingam of mud left from when the Ganges dropped silt on the ghat in monsoon, cover it with flowers, light candles and perform some kind of ceremony.  And that was just one morning at dawn on the ghat outside our window.

We took one boat ride at sunset, to see the evening aarti ceremonies along the ghats.  There were Hindu holy men in bright orange robes, worshipping with water, sandalwood, incense and fire.  In fact, from our vantage point on the water by the main ghat, there were several ceremonies, with competing music and chants.  Smoke drifted over us from the cremations taking place on the ghats, some newly set with flames dancing to the sky, others with embers gently glowing.  A body drifted by - those who can't afford cremation sometimes sneak bodies into the river so their relative can participate in the holiness of the site.

Like others along the river, we floated little lights along the water.  A beautiful young girl joined us on the boat with a wide shallow basket in which there were shallow saucers filled with beautiful flowers.  One by one she lit little lamps (like tiny candles in paper muffin holders), handed them to us and we gently placed them on the water.

Everywhere we walked in the narrow twisting lanes, there was action and noise.  The main reason I said Varanasi was the opposite of serenity was because of the traffic.  Varanasi traffic is to Toronto traffic as a gentle hum is to a cymbal clash.  And it assaults both your eyes  and your ears,  not to mention your equanimity.  Here's a list of what you see on the streets of Varanasi:

  • Motorcycles and motor scooters: nobody wears a helmet, and there can be many people sharing a vehicle
  • Auto-rickshaws:  an auto-rickshaw is a three wheeled vehicle built on a motorcycle frame, with a solid floor, front end including the windshield, and a body halfway up the back, with canvas on top.  The driver sits in the middle at front with handlebars.  There is a backseat that might fit two Canadians cozily.  There's about a six inch shelf facing the back seat and either a shallow seat facing backwards at the back or just a running board.  This vehicle is green on the bottom and golden yellow on top and they are ubiquitous.  So far, the maximum number od passengers I've observed is fifteen.
  • Bicycle rickshaws, with a single seat and a small canvas awning, usually restricted to two passengers
  • Bicycles of all shapes and ages, with varying numbers of passengers 
  • Carts, simple flatbeds, powered by men, bullocks, bicycles, horses (rarely)and sometimes with a cart trailing behind loaded with astonishing loads
  • Small three-wheeled  trucks of all sorts
  • Some big trucks and buses, all highly decorated
  • A few cars, jeeps and mini-vans
  • A strange low vehicle, sort of like a recumbent bike, powered by a woman in a sari with her arms


However those are just the styles of transport on the road.  Stalls spill onto the road. Pedestrians walk on the road, all the sidewalks being filled with vendors, terrifyingly young unaccompanied children. Old men sleep at the curbside.  Sacred  white cows wander at will down the middle of the road, mostly impervious to the beeps of horns.  Herds of water buffalo amble by.  Dogs sleep peacefully on the pavement.  Goats are plentiful.

Chaos rules.  In Delhi I noticed drivers might wander across a lane.  In Varanasi, people don't respect even the direction of the street!  At one place there was a boulevard with cement divider about 3 feet high and 2 feet wide.  Still, many rickshaws (auto and bicycle) would drive down the wrong side of the boulevard (we notice this even on the main highway).  And roundabouts!  Well, it would really be too inefficient to go round three sides of a roundabout.  Better to just drive around it the wrong way.

The horns in India are more a road-runner cartoon style beep beep than a full-throated honk.  And they're  used more for informational purposes, announcing one's presence to all these vehicles, most of whom have no rear mirrors, than to express irritation - sort of like "Fore" on a golf  course.  In fact many vehicles have "blow horn" painted on the back, requesting such a warning since they can't see behind.

At one point, we were trapped in a jam at a round-about in a mess that really redefined gridlock for me.  Vehicles interwoven so tightly that even bicycles could not squeeze through.  Vehicles pointing in all directions all mixed up as they had chosen random routes around the circle.  20 minutes sitting stock still, soaking in the atmosphere.

We saw the Golden Temple.  One can't take cameras in, so we stopped at a small shop which stored things in small locked boxes 'for free'. Of course, we're becoming accustomed to the obligations for purchase that such services attract.  We visited the area of the main ghat, saw cremations up close and met a procession carrying a body in a bright sari down to be cremated.

We visited the area where they make the silk that Varanasi is famous for.  The male weavers sit cross-legged in dark low rooms lit by a single light bulb.   The loom is powered by a treadle worked by the weaver's feet and the loom is directed by loops of cardboard on which are punched out the pattern (like a player piano) which raise and lower the appropriate threads.  The weaver must know the order of thread to send through with the shuttle.  The weaving is almost all done by Muslim men, while the trade of silk is almost all done by Hindus, including the beaming store owner who enticed us into parting with a chunk of change for a variety of beautiful silks.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Social and political observations

One of the things that surprised me the first morning here in Delhi was a full page ad in The Times of India extolling the virtues of daughters and featuring a (presumably famous) man in a smiling portrait with his daughter. India is really struggling with unbalance between male and female birthrates, especially with the spread of in vitro testing which leads to abortions of female foetuses. Legal prohibitions against such infanticide haven't worked, so the  government is taking an active role through the media.   Later we saw a couple of different billboards inveighing against female foeticide and against dowries. The crippling cost of dowries is considered a factor in the, shall we say, lack of enthusiasm for daughters.

Our guide, Sanjiv, seemed to have an enlightened view of women. He had eschewed an arranged marriage, and married 'for love' someone of a lower caste (he is a Brahmin), not popular with either family, although they were accepted. He went on to point out that he'd not only received no dowry but had invested in his wife's education as an accountant. Though she now works at Ernst & Young, she does love her electronic toys and he sees little prospect of earning back a (financial) return on that investment, let alone the value of a dowry, he said tongue in cheek.

Another common topic with our guides has been the prevalence of corruption and the venality of politicians. Whenever we see a piece of crumbling infrastructure, the guide will explain the area is prosperous enough but that work is poorly done because of politicians lining their pockets. As we drive past parliament and the enormous impressive buildings left from the days of the British, someone might suggest we look out for monkeys - the ones who work there.

Our Delhi guide Sanjiv had been among the thousands who had protested corruption at the inspiration of a man who went on a hunger strike (name escapes me). He attributed the protest and its peaceful nature to the influence of Gandhi, which he says is still deeply felt here. We've seen several statues of Gandhi as we've been driving, all hung with garlands, since the national holiday celebrating his birthday has just passed.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Touring Delhi

Our guide met us early in the morning and we headed straight off to old Delhi, so called because it was the part of Delhi that was there before the British moved their capital there.

We started with a visit to the Jama Masjid, a huge mosque built by Shah Jahan, who was concurrently building the Taj Mahal. Shah Jahan was clearly massively wealthy. The mosque was a dramatic building in red sandstone. The huge open courtyard can seat 20,000 people. It was blazing hot, even under the tarps that had been erected in the courtyard. Early arrivals would get under the canopy, next people might get some of the carpets, but late-comers would end up right on the superheated stones of the huge courtyard. Ouch.

A great start to our trip to India

This blog will contain posts about our trip to India for the next few weeks. Hold your seat belts for what I hope will be some interesting write-ups.

We left Toronto on 28 September on our Jet Airways flight - a little taste of India right from the start. Wonderful service, full length beds, and attentive service "Would you like some pajamas for your sleep?"

We arrived at the modern Delhi airport where we travelled seemingly endless moving walkways and were picked up by our driver - we're to be pampered by our tour company, who will drive us everywhere and accompany us with guides. We drove down Embassy Row on a wide boulevard with, amazingly, virtually no traffic. Of course, it was 10:30 at night! We first noticed that the lane separation lines were mostly used as a guide for where the middle of the car should be!

At the famous Imperial Hotel, we were greeted by a tall turbaned doorman and escorted into the beautiful lobby, and seated in the lobby sitting room to 'complete the formalities'. There were carnations everywhere in densely packed arrangements and little pots burning scented oil, including in our room, although we had to put that in the hall to enable Wayne to keep breathing!

The Imperial Hotel could well be an art museum, as the walls of restaurants, corridors and guest rooms are hung with hundreds of paintings, mostly by British artists during the Raj. We had been to an exhibit in Toronto about India which featured several of these paintings. The display in the hotel was stunning in its volume. It made walking down the hallways quite a slow process because we kept stopping to gaze.

The Imperial made me feel as if I was some high-ranking Brit from the days the Raj. I had but to look at the elevator and start moving toward it, and someone would rush over to push the button. At the sumptuous buffet breakfast in the 1911 Restaurant (named for the year the British moved the capital from Calcutta to Delhi), waiters whisked away plates faster than you could blink an eye. And when we ate in the restaurant in the evening, service was actually over the top - simply too many waiters and too many people stopping by to ask how everything was. It was a very interesting experience and one which gave some insight into the period of the British Raj.