Monday, January 16, 2017

Final Report from India: The Taj Mahal

Our visit to India ends in Agra, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Delhi, home of the Taj Mahal. We arose early as our driver and guide were picking us up at 6am to get there as close to sunrise as we could. It was a hazy morning, so all we could see at first was a general outline of the structure.

The building is set on a 42 acre property amid formal gardens. As the minutes passed and we moved closer the magnificent structure came into clearer view. You simply can't take your eyes off of it. It's entirely made of white marble and it actually glistens in the morning sun light.

The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his wife Mumtaz Mahal following her death while giving birth to her fourteenth child. She is entombed there underground as is her husband who died some years later. The Mughals were Muslim conquerors who controlled vast areas of Northern India, Pakistan, Bangaladesh and lands beyond for hundreds of years. Mumtaz was his beloved Persian wife. (Only 6 of her 14 children survived, 4 boys and 2 girls. One son eventually killed his three brothers and imprisons his father in order to assume power himself. It was one of the two surviving daughters who saw to it that her father was buried next to his favorite wife at the Taj Mahal. Such is life at the top.)

To the west of the Taj is a separate building to function as a Mosque (so as to face west to Mecca, with another structure on the other side simply for symmetry.)

The building with beautiful inlaid colored stones took 10 years to build, cost 32,000,000 rupees or in today's money, $827,000,000 employing 20,000 full-time artisans. The marble was undergoing a cleaning as we visited which happens every 4-5 years. Seeing the newly cleaned sections gave us an idea of what it looked like new. Since marble is such a hard stone, the building probably looked almost 400 years ago exactly as it looks today Architect for the original project was a young man named Ustad Ahmad Lahanni, clearly one of the greatest architects of history.

Yes, we have all seen photos. It's even better in person.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Hindu Jerusalem: Veranasi on the Ganges

There is a myth about Jerusalem, namely that beneath its surface there lies a magnet. And this magnet attracts Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious nuts. We flew into the city of Veranasi this week. We were transferred to our hotel which was unlike any of our previous accommodations. One might call it low end, but the location is rather spectacular inasmuch as we are rather high up overlooking the Hindu "holy of holies", the River Ganges.

Our guide explained that centuries ago Maharajas built palaces along the river of rivers. As you look up from the shoreline, the remnants of those palaces remain, stately towers that once commanded the view. However they have deteriorated badly. This area remained prime real estate until a century ago, but since then the elite have moved elsewhere.

The streets just behind the facade are tiny alleyways, in some ways similar to the twisting lanes of Jerusalem's Old City. But in addition to pushing crowds of residents and pilgrims, motor scooters and motorcycles roar in starts and stops and more interestingly if not confounding are the myriad of cows that meander and/or stand or lie wherever they will leaving their fecal deposits along the way. (As you ply the streets and alleys, you want to look up to see the buildings, temples, shrines and fascinating people, but you do so at great risk of tracking on your shoes that better left in the streets.)

But I digress...Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike revere the Ganges, for Hindus the traditional home of the god Shiva, the destroyer of evil, portrayed more often than any of the other gods. If you have ever viewed Hindu art, you will have seen a figure with leg raised in a dancing position with four or more arms often in a ring of fire. What you may not have noticed is that Shiva is simultaneously stepping on a human figure, a representation of evil.

Pilgrims come to Varanasi because they want to bathe in the river at least once in their lifetimes. They come throughout the day, men as well as women in the freezing waters of the early morning to fulfill this religious obligation. They come at the end of their lives or are brought here by next of kin to be cremated on the banks of the River Ganges. Thus there are many elderly who come to live out the end of their days here. Many are extremely poor and find space in a local ashram and rely on free food or begging to live.

Our first night here we went out on a small boat where we could view the families bringing their loved ones to the cremation pyre. The body wrapped in sheets is carried down the steps by the closest relatives on a stretcher. The body is put in the Ganges. The oldest son, guided by the family barber, since priests we were told don't like to be involved, purchases the necessary wood. When the fire is aflame the body is put in place. Only men actively participate and there is no expression of emotion. The burning takes three to four hours at the end of which the ashed and remaining bones are put in the Ganges. For each body a separate pyre is arranged. There can be as many as 15 cremations occurring simultaneously and they come 24 hours a day, seven days a week without prior notice or reservations. All this takes place amid the cows and dogs that flow freely through the area. There are two separate areas along the river where this takes place. For a visitor the sight is transfixing. All is done with great devotion. Thus it is believed that the dead gain freedom from the cycle of life and death. (Our guide told us that although a Hindu, he was not a believer, did not engage in Hindu ritual, but when his father died, he fulfilled all of the rituals as prescribed.) Certainly not all cremations take place in Varanasi. There are a few other places along the Ganges where cremations take place as well as cities and towns all over India.

Quite apart from the cremations and bathing, we witnessed public Hindu rituals that involved Brahman priests, ceremoniously blowing on a conch shell (like a shofar), with a ritual of music and other surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims. We saw people who had come in groups to commemorate their ancestors. There are various strange people who are known to have renunciated all connections to all exterior aspects of life, ascetics, those who believe in magic and spirits.

It's all actually not only quite a sight, but in some very profound sense very moving. I have never experienced a place like this before and it is quite difficult to express what the experience is in words.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Jews in India: Cochin and Mumbai

How very ecstatic I have been over the last couple of days to engage Jews and visit synagogues in two ancient Indian communities! These are not the only places of Indian Jewish settlement, but they are certainly among the most illustrious. While the Cochin/Ernakulum Jewish community is in immanent danger of extinction with relatively few and aging remaining members, the Mumbai community with some 3-5000 members continues to conduct regular services in its eight ongoing congregations. The long history of both communities is also evidenced in its cemeteries. Just as we learn that the Jew stranded on a desert island had two synagogues, determining that one of them he would never enter, so in both Cochin/Ernakulum and Mumbai to this day their synagogue communities have experienced and in fact continue to experience competition and even animosity.

The Cochin/Ernakulum community has long been divided between so-called white and black Jews, where for much of their history the white Jews refused to recognize or deal with their "black" brethren. Scholars believe that 3000 years ago King Solomon imported certain items from India, which some claim as evidence of the earliest Jewish settlement. Jews may also have found their way to the Malabar coast as part of the exile following the destruction of the First (586 BCE) and Second Temples (70 CE). This is the origin of the Malabari or Black Jews. They were welcomed and provided land and trade privileges. The "white" Jews are descendants of Jews who arrived as a consequence of the Spanish Inquisition. Reasons for their falling out and distrust is open to dispute. The white Jews claimed that the black Jews were descendants of slaves, perhaps the wives of early Jewish sailors and therefore not halakhically Jewish. Some claim that the division was a carry over of the Hindu caste system in which lighter skinned individuals were considered of a higher, more noble caste than darker skinned Hindus. To this day the white Jews and their synagogue receive more recognition than the Black Jews.

Although the Jews became victim of local skirmishes, they suffered when the Portuguese brought the Inquisition with them. After 1948 after Israel became a state most Cochinis (as well as Jews from other Indian communities)moved to Israel, where several hundred thousand live to this day. However many retain their fond memories of their Indian communities and return periodically for visits.

We began our tour in Cochin/Ernakulam by visiting three of the seven extent synagogues of the Black Jews. They were beautiful, having been newly renovated by the state. Next door to the first we met an elderly couple who return to Cochin for three months every year from Israel. Their 12 grandchildren had joined them for winter break, but had already returned. The husband was a scientist and had received many awards in Israel for his agricultural advancements. It was pointed out to us that with intention, in the immediate area was a Hindu Temple, a Muslim Mosque and a Christian Church. Each respected the rites of the others. At the third synagogue we met Babu. I had read about him and was anxious to meet him. He owns a pet/aquaria shop, at the back of which is the synagogue, which he personally oversees. Years ago recognizing that the future was bleak for continuity, the rabbi of the white synagogue taught Babu the techniques for the kosher slaughter of chickens, because otherwise holiday celebrations would be meatless. Though uncomfortable because he is not personally religious, Babu continues to provide kosher chickens for the holidays to the Jews who remain. Babu is ever conscious of the many slights inflicted on them, by their fellow Jews.

While the Black Jews have their synagogues across the bay in Ernakulum, the white Paradesi synagogue on Jew Street is in Cochin. The entire area around all the synagogue originally had Jewish residents, today basically only 94 year old Sarah Cohen remains in Cochin. The street approaching has many stores and gift shops, some carrying Jewish items and shop owners trying to get one's attention by calling out Shalom Aleichem, none of them are Jewish. The Paradesi Synagogue is probably the most beautiful and the Christian caretaker told us to return when the crowds left after 5pm so that we could take photos. Each synagogue contains beautiful chandeliers. All of the Torah scrolls are housed at the Pardesi. The cemetery around the corner is only opened for funerals. They fear that vandals will steal the headstones.

The Mumbai experience was entirely different. Again we visited three of the eight extent synagogues. However here rather than being divided Black and White, the two communities are Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews, each having built and attending their own synagogues. The Bene Israel arrived 2000 years ago, arguably the oldest Jewish community in India and constitutes 90% of the Jewish population. They claim descent from the lost tribes of Israel, landing shipwrecked. They adopted to this day the local Marathi language. These early settlers were bolstered by immigrants in the 18th century. We visited two lovely synagogues and at the second met the shammas' 16 and 12 year old daughters. At the first they took pride in having teens who can read Torah and at the second they have a cantor, celebrated a Brit last month and will celebrate two weddings in the next two months.

The first synagogue we visited in Mumbai was a Baghdadi synagogue with small membership. This was originally built by the famous Sassoon family. However it was very disconcerting that it was in such bad repair. It was once clearly elegant and it looked as if repairs were beginning. It would be a shame if this piece of Jewish history were lost to neglect. It was in this synagogue that they maintained a daily minyan.

I was bowled over by the history and to see Jewish life here in this remote area of the world, remote at least for Jews.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Food and Elephants


We have eaten at Indian restaurants in New York and Portland. A sustaining memory from those visits is hot and spicy. Carol was even convinced that eating veggie was spicier than eating meat. I'm not sure that is the case, but that was her theory. Since she cannot endure spicy food, she was convinced that she would live for our entire trip on a diet of rice and more rice. I on the other hand like moderately spicy food, but not so hot that I feel my mouth on fire. I was also under the apparently false impression that the farther south you go the hotter the food gets. However as we are traveling primarily in the south, everyone tells us that the food is hotter in the north.

Since most people who visit India get sick at one point, we have been scrupulous in observing certain rules. 1. Only drink bottled water, even for brushing teeth and cleaning tooth brushes. Take care not to take in water when showering or swimming. 2. Do not eat vegetables or fruit unless peeled. 3. Do not eat street food, which by the way often looks delicious. Because many though not all Hindus are vegetarians (and Jains refrain from foods grown in the ground such as potatoes) all restaurants indicate whether they are veg or not and those that are not still indicate which foods contain no animal product. That makes life simpler for us. Since kosher meat is not available, we only eat veggie.

Well, we have been eating up a storm. Carol and I both hoped to return home having lost weight. Nice try...Breakfast is included at virtually all hotels. That means eating buffet style. We begin with various things simmering in chaffing dishes, various India wheat products, juice, watermelon and fabulous papaya. Then the kitchen prepares eggs or omelets. Coffee, tea and bottled water always offered. Buffets are never good for loosing weight.

On the road we learned early on that Indians eat thali for lunch. On an open banana leaf, about a dozen offerings come in small dishes and then a heap of rice is plopped in the middle. Occasionally peanut powder is put on the rice and drowned in ghee (clarified butter). Waiters come around filling up some of the options and adding additional mountains of rice. The offerings are various kinds of mixed cooked vegetables, some spicy, some less so. They always add a yogurt and a sweet concoction. If you are going to do it as an Indian, you wash your hands and then eat with your right hand only mixing the veggies in the rice and stuffing it in your mouth. No left hands allowed. That's reserved for something else...Aliens can request fork and spoon.

Dinner is like breakfast only many more offerings. You can eat from the buffet that includes soup and desert or order a la carte. A la carte offerings are invariably large. We have become fond of vegetable concoctions with paneer, which they translate as cottage cheese, but it's like no cottage cheese I am familiar with. It more resembles tofu. In addition to bottled water I often order a beer with dinner. A friend is convinced that beer kills some of the germs that might be hiding in the food. A good excuse for additional protection. Indians are not good with desserts. Baked things and chocolate are a waste of calories. Fruit is great and ice cream is not bad.


Yesterday we had a great time with elephants. It's a two hour kick. First they give you a ride. You sit on a rubber pad on the elephant, legs stretched as wide as possible. These are broad animals. These is rod for your feet and something to hold on too. As soon as Carol got on, she wanted off. It just didn't feel good. I, on the other hand, went for the ride. You feel really tall sitting up there. I thoughts I was in one of those early fifties movies.

After the ride we headed over to feed one of the elephants. We were given wedges of acorn squash, rind and seeds included. You stick it right in their mouths and discover something strange: they have a tongue that is anchored a the front of their mouths, so the tongue pushes the food back. It's unexpected. And they watch you with that one eye that they can see you with, because you are standing next to them.

Then it's off to a bath. A huge elephant lays down in a large pool of water. We then get in sans shoes and socks and rolling our pants up. We were given brushes and begin to scrub. The elephant is so relaxed she looks almost as if she is falling asleep. Carol and I were scrubbing along with a woman who was there for the 6 hour program. The elephant then sat on its hind legs and as instructed the women climbed up on the elephant's back and then on command lifted its trunk and soaked her. Although unexpected she was a good sport. The elephant soaked her a good four or five times more.

I can only hope these amazing creatures are well treated. We have all read about the elephant poaching threatening their very survival. What a treat.

Next stop Cochin...

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Weddings, Integration and Cashews

With a country that is predominantly Hindu, but home to a sizable Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain minorities, I am fascinated to know whether integration is valued and whether it happens. As an outside visitor one can only get a sense from reportage, anecdotes and inquiring of locals. India certainly wants to give the impression that it all works with Temples, Mosques and Churches predominating in every city, town and village, with the Muezzin's call to Islamic prayer heard over the loudspeaker five times a day in addition to Hindu chants blasting. And yet one wonders especially after learning that Prime Minister Modi represents an openly Hindu-first party, where he stands accused of leading anti-Muslim riots that left hundreds dead when serving in another capacity.

And yet...yesterday morning on our way to breakfast we saw a gorgeous bride in her gown being photographed prior to her church wedding later that morning. (The reception and party later that day took place at our hotel 'til late at night.) Attending the bride that morning was her best friend wearing a chador clearly marking her as an observant Muslim. We learned that they had met in high school and remained close for the intervening ten years. As we spied on the proceedings, we noticed one man straight out of Saudi central casting, dressed in white robes and kaffieh. Inquiring discretely we learned that he was standing in for the groom's Christian parents who were living in Dubai.

Our guide said that Hindu-Christian marriages were quite common in recent years, but Muslim intermarriages less so. These cross-cultural marriages undoubtedly were a result of increasing romantic, rather than arranged marriages, where Hindus rarely married out of their caste, much less out of their faith community.


The splendid resort at which we spent two nights has also some relationship with a local cashew factory here in Kollam. We received special permission to visit only to discover an enormous operation ...sufficiently enormous to produce 27,000 kilos, i.e. 60,000 pounds of cashews daily. The factory we visited was one of three and they alone employed 700 people. The cashews are grown in India and shipped from all over the African and Asian continents. They are then shipped world-wide. Odds are that if you eat a cashew today, it was processed here.

The huge sacks are emptied into a roaster where they turn black. Then they are cracked open either in a two "man" operation with the first man who could lose a finger or two placing them one at a time in a cracker and the second flicking the cashew out of the shell OR they are individually sledged open by women sitting on the floor. Then the nut is re-roasted to loosen the fiber coating.

In the next three halls sit hundreds of women for 8-10 hours a day scratching off the fiber and sorting the cashews into various quality bowls.. This back breaking work was simply unimaginable...a scene from an earlier century. We were informed that this processing costs about $1/pound, which translates into meager income from this largely female crew. What an eye opening experience.I suspect the management expected us to leave very impressed. We walked away with something else.

I couldn't help but think about Donald Trimp's promise to bring back lost employment. These jobs you couldn't pay Americans enough to do. And when this process is mechanized most of these workers will be unemployed. And so it is with the steel and coal industries. Some have moved overseas, but most thanks to improved technology simply no longer exist.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

On Our Own...sort of

Happy New Year!

Well, our traveling companions have either returned directly home to Portland, or headed in various directions for other adventures. They were an interesting group. There was Ted, the professor from Concordia University, who knows and loves this area of southern India where he grew up. Our scout was JP, a retired Indian native who knows Ted from childhood and loves him like a brother. Dave is a retired art teacher from Concordia who along with Carol adds a lot about architecture and how things are made. Two other participants know Ted, from a committee they sit on in Vancouver dealing with mentally challenged adults. Three of the young women are Concordia students, who will get college credit for the trip if they submit a paper. We traveled together in a small van, our luggage secured each day of travel on the roof by our trusty driver, who negotiated the traffic that I described in prior blogs. It was better not to watch, but if you did, you often held your hands in front of your eyes. Often the other vehicle (or cow or pedestrian) was missed by inches.

On the first night of Hanukah which was also Christmas eve as we gathered for dinner, I wished everyone a Merry Christmas and gave out the Santa hats Carol and I had bought. I explained that this was also the first night of our Jewish festival. I brought out the Hanukiah and candles that I had stuffed in our luggage and gave a brief explanation of the Maccabean revolt and their internal and external battle with Helenism without which Judaism most likely would have assimilated into the dominant culture. Carol and I then sang the brachot and lit the first candle. The rest of the days we lit our Hanukiah in our room at night.

Some other events of note:
1. Arrangements were made for us at one stop for a concert of traditional Indian music. Three drummers, a violinist, a singer and a woman who played a most unusual string instrument called a veena. They played several distinct pieces, but to the untrained ear, they sounded much the same.
2. We spent a day at Auroville, a community of several thousands, determined to live at one with the land and each other. This was the brainchild of a famous Hindu guru and his partner who had been referred to simply as Mother. We learned from a Britisher who re-named himself Krishna about the richness of the soil and how so much of its produce we do not appreciate and waste. We then divided into three groups, prepared small plots of land and planted gardens. We then took of the produce that the land there had provided and chopped and helped to prepare our own dinner.
3. We spent a morning where elephants were cared for. When we arrived the baby and full grown elephants were being scrubbed from trunk to tail in a pool of water. They lay playfully as the young men washed every inch of these enormous animals. We stayed around as they were fed. A big bowl of some mixture awaited each elephant as the "trainer" placed big balls of the stuff in their mouths.
4. The biggest hit clearly was a kathakali demonstration prepared specially for us though several locals came to see as well. Though described as a form of dance, it really is theater. The three actors spent two full hours in preparation, mostly painting and having their faces painted by an meticulous artist and putting on their costumes. Then one of the three demonstrated how through movement of the eyes and face, body and feet that various emotions could be expressed. Then they put on a piece of a classic play in which an arrogant king takes on the Hindu god Shiva, who battles back. The king must learn humility in battling the god and eventually it is Shiva's wife Parvathi who makes peace between Shiva and the humbled king. We then spoke with the actors and took photos with them.

Kovalam was our last stop together. It is a beach community where Indians come to lay out, eat, play and buy scarves, saris, or jewelry. Emily, a young Concordia staffer, put a video together of our trip, which gave prime space to our Hanukah candle lighting. We took photos together, joked about funny moments and spoke of a reunion.

We have now commenced the last section of our journey, a guided tour just for the two of us. We are beginning that experience in the city of Kollam, a bit further north on the south west coast of India in the state of Kerala. The differences between Tamil-Nadu and Kerala are immediately obvious. The roads are better, the streets cleaner, the entire area wealthier. To some degree that has to do with the west coast getting more rain and the land being more fertile. No cows or goats on the road. We can see the ripe coconuts, mangoes and papayas as well as all kind of other produce hanging from the trees ready for harvest. Our driver told us that Kerala produces 12 distinct varieties of mangoes and 19 kinds of bananas! We've been eating red ones which are especially delicious.

Additionally each state elects its own government. Kerala presently elected a Communist government. As an American it is strange seeing posters and banners with a hammer and sickle. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in all of India. Interestingly our driver said that Tamil-Nadu by contrast has extensive social safety net for the poor and elderly.

Tonight we are in a truly gorgeous spa/resort on the banks of Lake Ashtamudi. I swam in the pool which we can see from our room, ate lunch and dinner and took a sunset tour on the lake. It's kind of dream-like. The cranes hang in the trees and ravens fly overhead. It's picturesque and gorgeous. It's not what I imagined when I thought about coming to India. The guests are predominantly Indians, though I would imagine of the more economically successful sort. They come here with extended families, three perhaps even four generations together. They are Hindu, Muslim (with women in chador) and Christian.

Catching Up

(This email I wrote a few days ago, but never completed. Even though we have moved on into the next Indian state of Kerala, I add this for a sense of completeness.)

Having come South through the SE Indian state of Tamil Nadu, today we arrived in Kanyakumari, the southern-most tip of India. When I stepped into the water here, I was standing at the very nexus of three major bodies of water: the Bay of Bengal along the east coast of India, the Arabian Sea running along the west coast of India and the great Indian Ocean. Here pilgrims and revelers gathered over this holiday end-of-year vacation enjoying themselves, playing in the water, waiting patiently in a very long line to board a ferry that would take them short distance to an outcropping not far off shore, and/or shop for trinkets and souvenirs. It was a sweaty 91 degrees.

Our congenial group of ten, students as well as non-students such as ourselves gathered by Ted Engelbrecht, professor at Concordia University have been traveling now for over a week. We began on Mahabalapuram, a beach town just south of the Chennai, state capital of Tamil Nadu state. This 2000 year old port city ruled for centuries by the Pallavas was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 11 temples have been excavated, in addition to 2 open air bas reliefs, and 5 rathas, monolith Indian rock cut architectures dating to the 7th century.

From there we visited Ginge, a historic capital on our way to a resort in Ponducherry, a port conquered successively by the Portuguese, Dutch, Danes, English and retaining a touch of French architecture and flavor. Walking through the old large market Carol and I saw Santa hats for 30 cents a piece. With Christmas eve approaching and it coinciding with the first night of Hanukah, we invested the $3 for Santa hats for everyone.

Heading inland our next stop was the amazing Hindu Temple at Chidambaram. For context the Temple complex is spread over 50 acres in the heart of the city. Two early competing Hindu traditions of Shiva and Vishnu worship are combined here demonstrating the effort to make peace by inclusion.

By contrast the religious structure/ rock fort at Trichy stands atop the only outcropping in an otherwise flat plain. To get there on climbs the 83 meters up approximately 400 steps barefoot, since the top is considered a holy spot for Hindus.

We made several other stops along the way south, visiting primarily historic temples, but also forts and palaces. It's sometimes hard to keep them all distinct, because of the many conquests over the centuries of various peoples.