This is India, Madam. Anything is possible.

About ten days ago, J and I took a late night flight out of Bombay (Mumbai), on our way to Nairobi, Kenya, wrapping up a two-month stint of travel in India. This leg of our trip saw us trek through the northern states of Madhya and Utter Pradesh and Rajasthan, before we headed south, visiting Maharashtra, Kerala and Goa. We spent more time in India than we had spent in any other single country that we've visited, but such a simple comparison does India a certain injustice. India is vast, diverse and complex. The differences between Rajasthan and Kerala, for instance, seem as great as the differences between Laos and Thailand. India is a big and complicated place.

001 india-flag

01.4india map

On our first day in India, we awoke to read the news reports about an attack on a train in Gujurat, during which nearly eighty people burned to death. This was not an isolated episode of violence. Far from it. For the past 12 years Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims have been fighting, on and off, about a piece of ground in the pilgrimage town of Ayodhya. The recent attack in Gujurat was only a new installment of this ongoing battle. Since the time of Mughal empire (16th, 17th and 18th centuries), a mosque called the Babri Masjid has occupied a piece of land in Ayodhya that some Hindus believe is the birthplace of Lord Rama. (Rama is a warrior from Hindu mythology believed to be one of the 10 incarnations of the Lord Vishnu.) A certain faction of the Indian Hindu community advocated that the mosque be torn down and a Rama temple built in its place. Obviously, this opinion engendered opposition from many Muslims in India. In 1990, riots broke out in Ayodhya and an angry mob tore Babri Masjid down. This precipitated terrible rioting throughout the country, during which many people lost their lives. Obviously, the issue remains unsettled today.

While the attack (and subsequent rioting) in Gujurat did not make us fear for our safety (we were far from Gujurat), it did present us with a quick study in one of the complexities of India. We talked to a number of people, asking them how they thought the issue could be settled peacefully. Many people told us that it couldn't be resolved peacefully and that a Rama temple must be built there. Others believed the conflict would be resolved if the government would choose to build a hospital that would serve everyone. Throughout our travels in India, fighting on this issue continued. The Supreme Court of India got its say on the issue, but didn't say much. Hopefully, India will find an appropriate solution to this conflict, one that will radiate out from Ayodhya, helping to heal the deep religious wound in the body of India.

With the variation in culture, history and landscape, India's 25 states could almost be separate countries unto themselves (some of them want just that). India is home to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsis and others. The landscape ranges from the deserts of Rajasthan, to the high Himalaya of Himichal Pradesh, and the tropical forests and beaches of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There is intense poverty and concentrated wealth. India seems to encompass the heights of the first world and the depths of the third, particularly in its cities. India supports huge, contemporary industries such as software, automobiles and luxury tourism, while millions of its inhabitants continue to do all their work and chores by hand. You can watch a young girl fill her cast-iron clothes iron with actual burning coals to iron the days wash and around the corner purchase the latest computer technology.

The United States faces some of the same problems as does India, such as managing the conflicts inherent in cultural and religious diversity. As the US grows more diverse, Americans might find useful lessons or cautionary tales in the politics of India. The vast divide between India's rich and poor may be a harbinger for our country as our own economic divide grows ever wider. Anyway, India is a complicated place. It has challenged us. We wonder what the United States could learn from the experience of India; it is, after all, the most populous democratic nation in the world.


Our trip in India started out with a funny episode. After our flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Varanassi, India, we shared an Ambassador (a very cute car manufactured in India that looks sort of like a 1950's Packard) with two Finnish guys who were working on a television series for a travel show back home, a Finnish equivalent of "The Lonely Planet" show on cable in the US. On the way into Varanasi our taxi broke down. While the driver and nearby mechanic were huddled under the hood, the Fins leapt into action, pulling their camera equipment from the trunk. The cameraman filmed the show's spokesman as he leaned under the popped hood, uttering an appropriate introduction… "Welcome to India!"

Varanasi: a sensory overload
Varanasi is a very holy city situated alongside the most holy Ganges River.

002 Banaras India

002.1 India -Varanassi 3

02.1 Ganges Boats

002.5 Ganges Bathing

03 Mir Ghat Varanasi

002.2 Dasaswamedh Ghat Varanasi

Hindus consider it auspicious to die in Varanasi because being cremated on the banks of the Ganges automatically delivers the deceased from the cycle of life and death. Consequently, funerals are an essential and important part of the city's activity. As we pulled into town, we saw a group of men serving as pallbearers. The mourners wrap the bodies of the deceased in fabric - red for young women, yellow for old women, white for old men, etc. They then drape the body with an ornate cloth of red and gold and place the body on a bamboo stretcher of sorts which is carried to the burning ghats (steps along the river). We visited the burning ghats on our first day in India. There were sections for each caste. The section for the Brahmin caste (the highest) was set apart. The type of wood used for the pyres of Brahmins was a different type than for the other castes. Charnal men (who build and tend the funeral pyres) carried armload after armload of wood into the pyre areas and created rectangular shaped pyres that were three sided and hollow. The deceased person's body was placed on top and the interior of the pyre stuffed with grasses and other material to start the fire. Family members looked on and some had roles to play during the cremation. Tourists were allowed to watch from a nearby balcony so we saw the smoke rise to the sky and the scattered ashes drift down the holy Ganges river.

Funerals make up only a small portion of the activity along the river's edge. Men and women stand waist high in the Ganges, bathing, singing or chanting their prayers. Garlands of flowers, offerings to the gods, float downstream along the river's edge. Cows, goats, dogs, children and people wander the ghats. Dhobi wallahs (laundry men and women) stand ankle deep in the river washing clothes by beating them punitively on the stone steps.

We wandered through the old section of Varanasi, where tight alleyways weave amongst old stone and brick buildings. Prayers from a nearby mosque's loudspeaker drift through the air, men wear long white shirts over white pants and small white caps without brims on their heads. There are a number of women dressed in full black burkha's. We hear a strange clackety clacking noise coming from inside a building tucked away in these narrow and winding lanes. We peer inside the window to discover four ancient looking handlooms and four operators sitting on the floor shuttling thread through the looms one strand at a time to produce beautiful patterns of silk brocade. Emerging from the alleyways, we find the streets crowded and jumbled. Cows wander the streets or lay about, snarling the overabundant traffic of taxis, trucks, rickshaws and carts. Some visitors from the west don Indian clothes (many of them in Varanasi to attend yoga courses and search for their spiritual center). Sadhus, dressed in orange dhotis, have wild hair and sandlewood paste streaked across their foreheads. They carry tridents and walk through the streets on their way to worship at the Shiva temples. Tiny sweet shops offer an amazingly huge variety of sweets, none of which we recognize, many of which we sample. They serve them up in bowls made of pressed leaves that everyone simple discards along the roadside, to be swept up later or eaten by the cows.

Northern India: images
After we left Varanasi, we traveled west for a month, weaving our way through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Everywhere, everyday, children greeted us, yelling "Hello One Pen." Often they follow us, uttering the refrain over and over again, expecting us to give them a pen or at least some rupees. Women with matted hair and dirty clothes, held babies and begged us for "baksheesh." Rickshaw drivers tailed us as we walked, imploring us to take a rickshaw ride. In most of the towns and cities we visited, the streets teemed with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tempos, fancy SUVs, ambassadors, a range of buses from dilapidated, dirty local buses to the luxury tourist buses. Huge trucks (with deafeningly loud air horns) plowed through the traffic, hauling their loads of gravel or stone, painted as if for the Mexican Festival of the Dead. Mixed in with the motorized traffic were cows, bulls, oxen and ox-carts, camels pulling carts, dogs, cats, pigs, goats, chickens and all their babies. Fruit vendors stood by their four-wheeled wooden carts, piled high with tangerines or other fruits and vegetables. A camel, wearing a pompon garland and jingle bells, pulled a cart of men and a huge stack of jute sacks. Another cart went by, this one stacked with bricks, pulled by two huge oxen. A man galloped through traffic on a white horse covered in red and gold fabric, tassels and pompons. A line of rickshaws carried brass band members in full band uniform on their way to perform in a wedding parade. As the traffic fought its way down the roads, the animals stood idly by eating the garbage piles along the roadside or laying in them. A mirror was nailed to a tree and in front of it a man sat in a chair getting a haircut and shave from a barber.

We traversed the countryside in buses or trains. Out the windows, we saw women in saris shoveling and hauling gravel to repair a road, or a railway bed. The train lines traversed vast green fields of winter wheat, swaying in the breeze. Even as we headed deeper into the deserts of Rajasthan, seemingly arid fields supported healthy crops. Occasionally, we saw women in saris tending goats or the heads of men, wrapped in cotton scarves, poking up through the stalks. When we traveled by bus, we often had to stop at railroad crossings. Finally the train would pass. It was so full of people that the crowd bulged out of the doors, leaving some leaning out, holding on for dear life. Many men and boys opted to ride on the train's roof rather than squeeze themselves into the overstuffed container. While we were stopped, a boy selling fried papadum stopped to say, "Hello one chocolate" to us. He repeated this over and over while we smiled and nodded.

The erotic temples at Khajuraho, India

04.5 Khajuraho India

05 India - Khajuraho 2

05.1 Khajuraho India---1

05.2 Khajuraho India---3

05.3 Khajuraho India---4

05.4 Khajuraho India---2

A dance festival was going on while we were there...

09 India - Khajuraho

Orcha, India

10 India - Orcha 2

11 India - Orcha

12 India - Orcha 1

13 India - Orcha 4

14 India - Orcha 3

The Taj Mahal

View from the Red Fort.

15 Taj view from the fort
More beautiful in person that you can imagine...

16 Taj Mahal Agra India

17 Taj Mahal Agra India---1

18 India - Agra 1

16.5 Taj Mahal

19 India - Agra 2

Jaipur, India

The Palace at Jaipur.

19.5 Jaipur Palace---1

20 India - Jaipur

21 India - Jaipur 3

21.5 Jaipur Palace

22 India - Jaipur 2

Jaipur, The Blue City

23 India - Bundi

Bundi, India

A doorway in Bundi.

27 India - Bundi 3

Another doorway in Bundi.

26 India - Bundi 2

The Fort at Bundi.

25 India - Bundi 1

Street Scene.

23.5 Bundi

Pushkar, India

28 Pushkar India

30 India - Pushkar 2

29 India - Pushkar 3

31 pushkar India 2

Rajesthan, India

The Palace at Jaiselmer, India

33 India - Jaisalmer

34 India - Jaisalmer 2

35 India-Jaisalmer 3

Really hurting my butt in the Great Thar Desert

37 India - Thar Desert

38 India - Thar Desert 2

39 India - Thar Desert 3

40 India - Thar Desert 4

41 Mr[1]. Desert

Udaipur, India

42 India - Udaipur

44 India - Udaipur 3.3

Chittorgarh, India

48 India - Chittorgarh

Mandu, India

49 India - Mandu

50 India - Mandu 3

51 India-Mandu 2

Elora & Ajanta

Therese and I at Elora. This temple is about the size of a football field and was carved from the top down out of a mountain over several generations.

52 India - Elorah

Paintings and sculpture from inside the caves at Elora and Ajanta.

52.5 Shiva & Shakti

53 Ajanta Caves Artwork

54 Ajanta Caves Artwork---1

55 Ajanta Caves Artwork---2

Gateway to India, Bombay

57 Gateway of India & Taj Hotel

Marine Drive (The Queen's Necklace), Bombay

58 Marine Drive - Bombay

Southern India: images
Ks mother Katie joined us as our second visitor and the three of us set off to explore Southern India, specifically the state of Kerala. Kerala is a tropical paradise on the Southwestern coast of India. We visited a small fishing village/beach resort on a cliff overlooking the Arabian Ocean, and spent a day and a night on a houseboat meandering through the Keralan backwaters. In Periyar National Park, we saw elephants in the wild and stayed in a beautiful lodge in the middle of Periyar lake (the former hunting lodge of the Maharaja.) We visited the tea plantations of Munnar, and the port city of Cochin. In the evenings in Cochin, we strolled along the beach and watched fishermen operate the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets in the sunset. After Katie left us, we whiled away our last five days in India soaking up the atmosphere in the laid back state of Goa. There are 1.6 million residents of the state of Goa, but they receive 1.9 million visitors each year due to their beautiful beaches and hospitality. Goa was a Portuguese colony until 1961 (well past Indian Independence!) Old Goa, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts churches from the sixteenth century including one that houses the desiccated remains of St. Francis Xavier which are on display for all to see.

Varkala Beach, Kerala

59 Varkala India

Jain, our driver.

60 India - Jain & Ambassador

Tea Plantations at Munnar in Kerala

61 Indian Tea Plantation

The Keralan Backwaters

65 Kerala Backwaters India

64 Kerala Backwaters India---1

A Ketuvalum Boat in the Keralan Backwaters

63.5 India - Kerala 2

Ketuvalum Boat, Kerala, India

J and Katie (K's Mom) on our Ketuvalum Tour

Scene from the Keralan Canals

Scene from the Keralan Canals

Scene from the Keralan Canals

Scene from the Keralan Canals

Scene from the Keralan Canals

Fishing Nets in Cochin, India

K & Katie in Cochin, India

Kathkali Dancer, Kerala, India

Boatmen, Kerala, India

Street Scene Ernakulum, India

Ernakulum, India

Beach at Cochin, Kerala, India

India: the challenges

From the erotic temples of Khajuraho, to the ornate buildings of the bygone Mughal empire, Northern India is filled with elaborate palaces, temples and forts that are all worth seeing. Still, we found traveling there to be difficult, sometimes uncomfortable and often emotionally challenging. There are many people living in utter poverty here. You encounter it everywhere, from the markets of Bombay, to the railway stations and bus stops of Rajasthan. While some Indians move about in moderate to high comfort, others seem to exist in a state of near desperation. In some ways, it is not so different from the US, where well-dressed business people skirt by homeless people begging in city streets. It just seems more extreme here, more pressing. With more than three times the population of the US, this difference in intensity makes sense.

We arrived in India believing we were compassionate people, but faced with the insurmountable scale of need and our lack of ability to respond in any meaningful way. We often felt overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering. It wasn’t just the begging. Rickshaw drivers and touts hounded us. Rickshaw ride? Camel safari? You come look in my shop? Hotel? Taxi? Where you go? Postcards? Shoeshine? Change money? Unfortunately, we became instinctively defensive, sometimes dismissive to people just trying to help. We tried to stay "open," and friendly, but we couldn’t always do it. One night in Agra, we walked from our hotel to a restaurant we had read about and wanted to try. It wasn't far and we felt like walking. At the chowk (intersection) where the rickshaws and auto rickshaws wait, we got the usual hale of offerings, but declined. One auto rickshaw driver followed us at a crawl persistently trying to get us to take a ride with him. He crept along dark roads following us, calling to us. When we walked against traffic he yelled at us from across both lanes. He was screaming, "I have no job," and "just give me one chance." "Five rupees to go anywhere." (That's about 12 cents.) It became some strange conflict of wills and principle for us. We just wanted to walk. Finally, about 500 meters from the restaurant, we walked up to his rickshaw and yelled at him to stop following us. He finally turned his vehicle around and drove away without a word. We felt sad. Do we have to yell to be left alone? Though, for 12 cents, we could have taken the ride. It seemed like a no win situation that repeated itself over and over. It's true: we are very rich in comparison to many of the people we met in India. That said, we couldn't buy every souvenir, stay in every hotel, take every rickshaw, or give money to every beggar. We often felt callous and/or useless.

Finally, the staring... Men on buses and trains stared at us without pause. Everywhere we went, people stared. Sometimes we engaged in a stare down. We might win (temporarily) or lose. Either way, we won no respite. Nothing we did seemed to communicate the fact that we didn't like it, or, if we had been successful in transmitting that message, the person staring didn't care at all. We joked with each other that we were movie stars. In our more reflective moments, we mused that we must look so different, out of the ordinary in our western dress, that people found us fascinating. We sought some consolation in our minds, but we never got used to being stared at like that. If that's what it's like to be famous, we pray we never achieve such status.

India: the enchantments

Mr. Desert
In Rajesthan each year, the "Mr. Desert" contest selects a winner and features him on tourist brochures about the state. Rajestani men are big, swarthy guys with brightly colored turbans, chunky, gold earrings, pointy-toed leather slippers, handle bar mustaches and a twinkle in their eye that lets you know that they could just as easily whup you as charm you depending on what the situation demanded. If the Marlboro Man were Indian, he'd be from Rajesthan.

Joined in the lovely city of Udaipur by our first visitor (our friend Therese) we had the unique experience of participating in the annual Holi Festival. Holi is a color festival and a time of forgiveness. The streets are filled with people in their old clothes. They greet each other with hugs and a handful of colored powder (or a water gun filled with colored water.) The ritual fosters forgiveness, allowing everyone to let arguments and feuds of the past year to wither and celebrate friendship. It is a great excuse to have fun. The three of us braved the festival for a short time and ended up looking like clowns from the circus.

Celebrating Holi in Udaipur, India

45 India - Udaipur Holi

46 India - Udaipur Holi 2

47 ox

Hooray for Bollywood
Many of you know that we are avid film lovers and that we see more films than the National Health Association recommends. We can report that our first "Bollywood" feature was a genuine extravaganza. Imagine watching a US-based daytime soap opera, but one that follows only one story line for three solid hours. Now imagine it's a musical and it has more costume changes than a Cher concert. Finally, build in several obligatory trips to Switzerland, which naturally augment the costume change opportunities. The film didn't show the heroine's luggage, but she would've needed several steamer ships to have carried that many different winter coats and matching accessories donned on her trips to the Alps! Finally, while we don't speak any Hindi, we never had a problem following the plot. Now that's good storytelling.

And finally…THE FOOD
Let’s just say, for starters, that EVERYTHING is better with ghee (clarified butter.) Before we got to India, other travelers complained to us that the food in India wasn’t any good. They claimed that their local Indian restaurant (in England, France or wherever) had much better food than India. We have no idea where they were eating because we were in food heaven. From the Northern Punjabi delights like kebabs, tikkas and curries in flavorful sauces, to the Gujerati Thalis, to the coconut laden recipes of the far south, we ate like the epicurean Maharaja and Maharani. We were particularly swept away by the Indian sweets. Our addiction to them got so strong that we would arrive in a new town and immediately poll the local populace on which sweet shop they felt was the best in town. After gathering enough data we would head straight there and sample as many new treats as we could handle. We developed a strong liking for a dessert called “Milk Cake” which, as best we can determine, is made from some kind of curdled milk. While that doesn’t SOUND appealing, we can assure you that it was incredible stuff. We also became believers in Masala Chai (Indian spiced tea.) We are usually coffee drinkers (coffee snobs more accurately.) Nescafe is not, in our opinion, truly coffee. This opinion has forced us to become tea drinkers in many countries. Luckily, the Masala Chai in India made it a worthwhile switch. We will leave you with a few Chai recipes if you want to give it a try.

INDIAN (and not so Indian) CHAI RECIPES

A Traditional India Recipe:

What you need--
Brooke Bond Red label, Mamri, or Tajmahal Black tea [DO NOT USE GREEN OR LEAF TEA, IT WILL RUIN THE TASTE].
Cloves, cinnamon stick (good quality), fresh ginger (powder or prepackaged cannot be substituted), whole black pepper, cardamom pods.
Optional items: White khas-khas (Indian name of a spice, which is round dried seeds); and soanph (green dried, not roasted)
Half-and-half milk. No other milk can be substituted (if you really want the taste of real chai)
In a clean deep dish container, put 3/4 cup water, 1/2 cup milk (half-and-half), 1 full teaspoon black tea and spices as follows.
· 1 pod cardamom
· 2 pea size fresh ginger (mulched)
· 1-2 big size whole black pepper
· 1/8 to 1/6 cinnamon stick
On a hard piece of paper, crush all of them together. Immediately put this mix in dish with water and milk. Keep them on heater plate or gas range for about 15 minutes, keep stirring continuously. Add sugar to your taste. Drain on strainer and serve in a cup. The idea is to burn water from the tea while mixing the spices into the leftover tea. You may have to experiment with the quantity of water and milk to the final quantity of tea. In my experience, 2:1 ratio works better, i.e. I use 2 cups of (milk + water) for making one cup of chai. 1 cup of water is burned in the process. This provides smooth taste of chai.

The Americanized Version of Chai:
(4) 1 1/2 in. slices fresh ginger (use vegetable peeler)(1) 2 in. cinnamon stick(4) whole cloves(1) heaping demitasse spoon powdered cardamom(1) 6 in. vanilla bean (cut up into 1 in. pieces)(1) dash nutmeg(1) heaping Tbsp. sugar(1/4) cup honey(3) Bigelow Darjeeling Blend tea bags(2) cups H2O(2) cups milk
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and toss in teabags then all other ingredients in order above. Reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Add milk and bring to boil, then take off heat. Strain through strainer or coffee filters and serve hot or in a tall glass filled with ice. Refrigerate unused portion. To reheat, you may either heat any conventional way, or froth with cappuccino maker!

Combo Recipe:
Boil 5 minutes, then steep 10 minutes:
1 Tbsp fennel or anise seed6 green cardamom pods12 cloves1 cinnamon stick1/4" ginger root, sliced thin1/4 tsp black pepper corns2 bay leaves7 Cups water
Add, bring to a boil, and simmer 5 minutes:
2 Tbsp Darjeeling tea
6 Tbsp honey or brown sugar1 Cup milk


Dan said...

Another wonderful trip! Like my wife and I, you guys are world travelers. We spent nearly three weeks in India, visiting many of the very same places, though I believe that your trip was more extensive. We were mainly in the Rajasthan area, but we did the camel safari and so many other similar things! You asked about photos? :)

I even took a shot of the Taj through that beautiful archway, exactly like one of your photos! :)

neil said...

Hi. I came across your blog as I'm planning a trip to Kerala. Thanks for the info. However, just one correction- you've mentioned that the Se Cathedral houses the 'dessicated' remains of St Francis Xavier. These remains are not dessicated and in fact, the miracle is that even after almost 500 years, they are relatively intact and whole! These remains are classified as relicts and people from all walks of life go to Old Goa to venerate them. One every four years, and 'Exposition' takes place and the coffin of SFX is brought down for the public to view.

Bungi said...

Oh wow! You've been here!! May God bless me with a wonderful husband who loves to travel as well... Otherwise, its best i stay single, eh?

kalil said...

Hi my friend,

i read ur blog entry about indian tour. Really its very xcellent . I thing ur not visited tamilnadu in south india. Its a excellent place for foreign people s to know about ancient lots of places u must see ,like ponicherry,kanchipuram,kanyakumari,tanjavur like that.