Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 7: Jaipur/Delhi

Upon awakening from our beauty sleep, we were once again struck with the beauty and comfort of our hotel surroundings.

Not only were Dean Paul and Rachel able to finally stretch their limbs on the hotel running track, but everyone was able to enjoy breakfast while listening to the drum and sitar players. Deepa, with her amazing talent in Indian classical singing, was especially able to appreciate the art.

And did I mention the breakfast? The hotel's beautiful spread gave a whole new meaning to the term "continental breakfast." Not only did it feature traditional Indian dishes such as sambar and thin omelets, but even the more western breakfast-minded individuals among us feasted upon pastries, yogurt (multiple varieties, with a billion toppings), fresh fruit, and fresh-squeezed juices that are definitely not endemic to the United States (cucumber juice, anyone?). Understandably, we didn't exactly leave the hotel as soon as we had planned.

We soon boarded the bus for the Amber Fort, but on the way we stopped to take pictures at the lake palace of Jal Mahal and watch random elephants ramble past.
We were also treated to a sample of Indian magic, courtesy of a very cute, very precocious Indian boy and his nimble fingers.

But it was hard to remember these things once we arrived at the Amber Fort. The late 16th-century citadel is absolutely breathtaking, the Great Wall of Rajasthan. Its bastions and walls climb the surrounding hills like a fortified, spiny backbone, but nothing is lost in terms of artistic decoration. At the complex's center is a beautiful geometrically-based garden, and one room in the palace (both on the interior and exterior) is covered with thousands upon thousands of tiny reflective mirrors.

Of course, this all requires attaining the height of the fort, completely inaccessible to even the most adept of Indian bus drivers. So we abandoned the bus at the bottom of the hill and rode up Indian-style: on elephants!! Separated into groups of two, the RLC contingent featured several notable couples, such as the African brigade (Melekot and Olaf), the Swedes (Rachel and Avital, wearing yellow and blue headscarves, respectively), and the Honeymooners (Deepa and Emmett). Divided into our respective groups, we bounced and jostled our way up to the top of the mountain, careful not to put too much weight on one side of the seat (it's a long way down). It was far from a boring ride, for between admiring the spectacular views, purposefully ignoring those selling native turbans and tiny elephants ("All 10 for 100 rupees!"), and taking pictures of those trying to do the same, we found plenty to occupy our minds. If only we weren't troubled by what we imagined to be the brutal treatment of the elephants we were riding (as Manav said, it is hard to imagine those scars on his elephant's head coming from her intentional boredom-induced head banging).

Once we reached the top, we were able to revel in the remarkable view of the whole Jaipur Rajasthan area. How different from the view atop the minaret in Delhi! The complex was extensive, and we didn't even get to view all of the levels. Like the Agra Fort, it is both an impressive fortress and luxurious palace, featuring both Hindu and Moghul elements situated in Amber, the former capital of the region under the Kachwahas (Jaipur became the capital in the 18th century).

After meandering from ornately decorated room to even more ornately decorated room, the jeep ride down to contemporary civilization seems slightly anachronistic. But, lest we thought we were still in the United States, we were greeted at the bus with the sight of two head-butting goats right across the parking lot (let's hope the lady goat was worth it).

Back in the air conditioning, we headed back to Delhi, for the most high-profile of all our Indian interactions: Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the former president of India, known as Indian's "Missile Man" and the "People's President." We had just enough time to stop at the home of Manav's uncle and aunt to change and freshen up before heading to Dr. Kalam's home. The universal opinion was that he was one of the cutest old men we had ever seen, in addition to one of the most engaging. He required our most acute attention, constantly turning us to ask, "You understand?," as he outlined his plan to bring harmony to India and the world. This will require, he said, not simply early education in principles of respect and the recognition of transcendent virtues present amongst all religions, but widespread economic prosperity as well. He presented his plan in a straightforward, logical manner reflective of his scientific background, using a multi-faceted approach to describe his dream of a developed India by 2020.

As usual, we had lots of questions, and, as usual, not enough time to ask them. All too soon, it was time for us to present the Princeton mug, t-shirt, and pen (though this last item--ostensibly the nicest gift--was deemed unnecessary), take the requisite group picture, and board the bus again.

This time, though, would be the last, for this was our final night all together in Delhi. The following day we would be going our separate ways, some staying in Delhi for a few more days, others headed to other parts of India, and the rest taking flights to other parts of the world. The gifts we presented to Manav, Jahnabi, Shivani, and Nikhil later that night as key coordinators of the trip were mere tokens, completely unable to communicate the richness of the incredible adventure we had just experienced.

But the adventure, after all, did not end in Delhi. As Rahul read us his plans for a future discussion that time had not permitted us to undertake, we were newly awakened to the realization that our mission as ambassadors extends beyond India back to Princeton itself and beyond. As members of the Religious Life Council, we have committed ourselves to exploring disparate, new ideas and inspiring them in others. This should not only happen in India during our time off from academia. We are Princeton students, "in the nation's service, and in the service of all nations."

Day 6: Jaipur

If the day started early on the day visit to Agra, it was nothing compared to the trip to Jaipur. We were up with the sun--or at least, we would have been if we had been able to see the sun from behind the residency walls. As it was, we crowded onto the bus in order to collapse once again prior to breakfast at one of the campuses of Rai University. Here women get advanced degrees very affordably, and one of the administrator's was kind enough to show us quickly around the building. Few of us had seen such an educational setting, complete with a model of an airplane cabin (for training flight attendants) and video studio, but it was wonderful to hear that graduates are receiving placements already with well-respected companies (yay Jet Airways!). Several of us also invested in the careers of the fashion design students with the purchase of their beautiful jewelry.

But then it was back on the bus! We had a few more hours of travel left, plenty of time to soak in the geographic and cultural changes evinced in the changing landscape. Mountains again appeared on the horizon, in contrast to the all-too-flat Delhi, and curious children smiled and waved eagerly at Miriam's camera. Some of us also were at last able to sink our teeth into the heavenly nirvana known as mangoes, though Rachel wouldn't suggest following Manav's advice: spoons do simply not work as a cleaner means of eating mangoes aboard a moving bus.

Jaipur is known as the "Pink City" because of the city's repainting following the Prince of Wales' visit in 1853 (now really, why pink?). It still retains the color, especially in the old part (Indian's first planned city), augmenting the city's already vivid hues. Jaipur feels, at least to a casual visitor, distinctly different from Delhi, lacking the same level of cosmopolitanism and high tourist ratio. Neha assured us that our comparative knowledge of Delhi was based on an incomplete, touristy acquaintance, but Jaipur's cascading spice stalls and riveting colors were utterly fascinating.

Unfortunately, there wasn't time for us to visit the white and pink sandstone palace of Hawa Mahal, but we drove by it on the way to our incredible hotel, the Taj Rambagh Palace. Manav had decided it would be better to spend a little bit of extra money to assure a comfortable stay in the city, but we had no idea exactly how far $60 would go towards assuring us of beautiful, luxurious accommodations. On entrance, our dusty, sweaty bodies adorned with fresh flower garlands and bindi, the red dot traditionally placed on the forehead of Hindu women (though gaining prominence solely as decoration). The clear, smooth lines of the white marble hall sang out elegance, an attribute which certainly applies to our mango-outfitted, veranda-supplied bedrooms.

No time to dawdle, though, for we had places to explore. Our first stop was City Palace, built by a maharajah in a blend of Rajasthani and Moghul styles. We were able to pace the beautiful pink terraces and museums, each of which highlighted an aspect of Rajastani culture, such as clothing or weaponry. There is even a beautiful throne room featuring portraits of local rulers dating back several hundred years.

One of the wonderful things about this trip was the contributions of the many RLC members with connections to India. In this case, the RLC was treated to the company and hospitality of Nikhil's aunt and uncle, who live and operate a free clinic from their home in Jaipur. While eating delicious pakora and mango that Dean Paul declared the best in his life, they told us about the state of medical care in India, which is basically that there is not enough of it. There are free state-run clinics, but they are terrifically overworked and understaffed, resulting in many poor people not receiving the care they need. Nikhil's relatives are working to counter this, devoting the whole lower story of their house to their clinical practice and surgery. It is mainly the project of Nikhil's aunt, but his uncle, who is a respected surgeon at the hospital in Jaipur, also contributes his time and skills to the poor Indians who come in search of care. With so much suffering (and we only saw an insignificant sample of it), it was wonderful for us to see people devoting their lives to the amelioration of it.

In order for us to see more of Rajasthani culture, Nikhil next brought us to Chokhi Dhani, the Indian equivalent to the United States' living history museums. There were no Amish farmers or pious Pilgrims here, though. Chokhi Dhani is a tourist-designed historical village, but completely unlike anything we had ever experienced. Horse and buggy rides? Try riding on the back of an elephant. Blacksmith demonstrations? Try full body massages and henna application. Square dances? Try drum-accompanied, sari-swirling, audience-participating Indian versions. And one can't forget the human hamster wheel--a Ferris wheel powered by the arms and legs of a native operator inside the wheel itself. Other attractions included a human maze, fortune telling, and camel rides.

Once again, the time passed way too quickly before we all congregated at the village's center for a true Rajasthani dining experience. Sitting cross-legged at short tables, we savored local breads, chutneys, and curries on traditional leaf platters and bowls in Manuhaar style.

The village's web site asserts that you won't be able to stop eating, but one thing it doesn't say is that this won't exactly be solely due to the quality of the food: the waiters literally won't let you stop! Hospitality took on a whole new meaning as our servers dodged our outstretched arms and ignored our satiated pleas to put serving after serving of rice, churma, and emarti. Jeff even resorted to throwing his whole body in front of his tray. It didn't work; they gave him emarti anyway.

By this time, it was getting late, and it was finally starting to dawn on us that the trip was coming to a close. In order for us to have our final few hours together be rested and meaningful, we returned to the hotel for a good night's sleep. Of course, this didn't happen right away (what would you expect with talkative, curious college students?), but ensconced in our white comforters and down pillars and dreaming of Indian spices, we eventually drifted off to sleep. Ask Neha who snuggled and who didn't.

Day 5: Delhi

One thing about India: no matter how many sandstone structures one sees, they are still impressive. There is so much ingenuity and beauty in Indian architecture that one’s jaw never tires of dropping in admiration—or at least only after a very long time. Qutab Minar was no exception to this rule. This largest brick minaret in the world was begun in the late twelfth century, but, as often happens with many great architectural projects, was only completed in 1386. The minaret is absolutely huge, and seen as one of the finest examples of pre-Moghul Indian architecture. It is situated among the ruins of Jain temples. Walking among them reminds one of Pompeii or Israel, as the style of buildings are so remarkably different from the Moghul buildings we had seen elsewhere. We also saw the Iron Pillar, but Dean Paul was thwarted in his attempt to get good luck by encircling his arms backwards around it by the fence made to prevent people's sweat from corroding the metal. So much for tangibly profiting from local superstition. Nevertheless, we decided that if Princeton ever constructs a Center for Muslim Life, it should take the form of the Qutab Minar and be situated right in the middle of East Pyne (who says there is no space on Princeton's campus?). It will of course be paid for by the rich Muslim alums that emerge from the RLC.

Don't count on Jahnabi for any Qutab Minar contribution, though. When the RLC Indians' status were questioned (they have cheaper entrance rates), the indignant, assertive Jahnabi was revealed. Manav was getting nowhere with his Hindi protests, but the guards certainly understood Jahnabi's English: "I am an upstanding Indian citizen!"

From there, it was off to Haldiram's! This confectionery and lunch hotspot has its roots in Delhi, but, as we learned, its goodness could not be contained in one outlet, even spreading to the United States! Locals come in for both snacks and meals, little kids leaving hand prints on the glass mercilessly separating them from the silver-laced almond barfi (a diamond-shaped Indian sweet) and women jabbering to get their orders filled. The atmosphere was hectic but exciting, and always alleviated (or made worse, depending on the circumstances) by the constant smell of the Indian spices going into the restaurant's meals and snacks.

We had the pleasure of being treated to the culinary deliciousness of chaat, savory snacks which are often sold from roadside stands (kind of reminiscent of Indian tapas). Nikhil and Manav disappeared with a menu, and hitherto unknown and intriguing dishes soon started pouring onto our cute mini-tables. One of the most fun was panipuri (also known as gol gappa and gup chup), a small, crisp, fried, hollow "puri" into which you make a hole. You then spoon a potato/pea mixture inside and fill it with tamarind and chili sauces. The whole thing is bite-size, and utterly delicious! We also had (if memory serves--correct me if I'm wrong and feel free to add stuff I'm forgetting) bhelpuri, a sweet/savory crunchy puffed rice dish with pomegranate seeds on top, spicy chick peas with bread, a sweet/savory yogurt-based dish with chips, and a savory tomato-based chutney served with buttered bread. Even the most macho men among us were stuffed to the brim, and even Jeff could join us in the party since Haldiram's was completely vegetarian. By the time the desserts which we had been eying from our entrance into Haldiram's arrived, there was little room in our stomachs even for the edible silver-covered barfi, karachi halva (dry fruit cake), and other sweets.

While our lunch was digested, we headed over to Humayun's tomb, a huge 16th century complex of tombs not just of the Moghul Emperor Humayun, but numerous wives and successors. In addition to forging a new trend in mausoleums in the incorporation of gardens and waterworks, Humayun was notable to us Princetonians for the sober reminder of the hazards of Firestone and too much study: Humayun died falling down the steps of his library. Putting aside his ironic death, not only is his tomb another beautiful example of marble and sandstone work, but it had special meaning for Farah, as its restoration was funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, a group which has ties to Ismaili Muslims.

Even the all-too-visited bathrooms (as discovered by Miriam) were not enough to keep us at the tomb forever, however, and we were soon off to Raj Ghat, the memorial to Mahatma Ghandi. Manav had put a lot of thought and energy into making this a memorable visit for all of us, and he certainly succeeded. Reflecting Ghandi's principles, the memorial itself is quite simple: a black marble slab underneath an eternal flame. But situated apart from the rest of the park, it is an ideal place for quiet reflection of the values Ghandi espoused, which was exactly what we did.

Unfortunately, the guards wouldn't allow us to fulfill Manav's dream of placing ourselves immediately in the vicinity of the memorial, but we were able to go right outside to light our individual candles and reflect on the principles of non-violence and peace Ghandi worked so hard to instill in the world. Deepa led a beautiful Hindi song, people said prayers, and we all joined together in singing one of Ghandi's anthems, taken from the American civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome," in both Hindi and English. Then we processed back into the site, where we placed perfumed flower petals on the memorial and watched while one of the guards laid the RLC's garland on the black marble. As the incense swirled around the orange and pink blossoms, we listened in moved silence to the Indians in our group sing in Ghandi's memory, joined in the Indian national anthem by passers-by. For many of us, it was a profound and deeply moving joy of the trip.

We were rushed back into the grimness of reality, however, immediately upon exiting the memorial. Little boys sounding plastic machine guns were a harsh reminder of the real state of peace in the world, and a challenge to us in the RLC. With such discord present among different cultures and religions, what is our mission as an interfaith dialogue group, and what is our mission as individuals?

While we processed such thoughts, we rushed off on one of our few (abbreviated) shopping excursions. Our knowledgeable RLC guides introduced us to the joys of Fabindia, where Melekot, Emmett, and Jeff discovered in their kurta searches that American sizes have no relation to Indian ones. The most important acquisition for some people, though, was much more digestible: fresh mangoes! Sarah, Dean Paul, and Rachel had asserted early that mangoes were an inarguable necessity on their India trips, a dream that was at last fulfilled (five days into the week).

There was no opportunity to relish the fresh, sweet, orange, juicy flesh, however, as we had to rush off to one of Delhi's premier hotels for what would have been, given more time, a snippet of colonial Indian life. The contrast with the India we had experienced thus far was telling: waiters dressed in safari outfits took our orders from menus divided up by cuisine locale, with the European dishes listed under the heading "Born to Lead" and the Indian dishes under "Indian Safari." There was even a celebrity sighting, as those tuned in to Bollywood squealed at seeing a famous actress (her name, anyone?) grace the gold and marble entrance. Unfortunately, we had little time to soak in the ambiance, as the hotel was a mere jumping off point and changing room prior to dinner with Mr. Rai, our illustrious host, at his beautiful Delhi home.

If we hadn't been already appreciative of Mr. Rai's hospitality, this dinner would have cemented it. We were treated to the best of Indian cuisine (tempered with a few select familiar dishes for the less adventurous) amidst the illuminated fountains and shining Hindu statues of our host's immaculate backyard/garden. He even prepared bowls of freshly cut mangoes, lychees, pineapple, and melon for those keeping kosher (though those who didn't relished the fresh ambrosia as much, if not more). Like any good Indian host, Mr. Rai saw an empty plate as a call for more helpings, and once again our stomachs were fit to burst.

Mr. Rai also provided us with much food for thought, though. Rahul's early discussion with him of the separation (or not) between the physical and spiritual worlds developed by the end of our stay into an impassioned conversation about Truth, religious harmony, and the idea we had already encountered that all religions are the same and reflect aspects of the same Truth. Mr. Rai encouraged us to follow our true natures to find inner enlightenment, but Avital (especially), Rachel, Miriam, Emmett, and others had lots of questions about what that actually meant. By the end of the conversation, Avital might have convinced him that his philosophy and hers were not the same. :)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 4: Agra

There was no leisurely morning mulling over the previous day’s experiences, however, as our fourth day began bright and early with a drive to Agra, a visual and architectural testament to the wealth and grandeur of the Moghul rulers in India. After experiencing breakfast at the Indian equivalent of an interstate roadside stop, we were off to Sikandra to view the glorious tomb of Akbar the Great, a sixteenth-century Moghul emperor who is remembered not just for his military success, but his attempts to reconcile religious differences within his kingdom. Though Akbar belonged to the Muslim Moghuls, his court incorporated great religious diversity of scholars as well as the religious preferences of his wives. His tomb, though not as famous as that of his grandson, is nevertheless a marvel of Moghul architecture, featuring rich marble inlays set in red-orange sandstone. The detailing is absolutely exquisite. Though there is a lack of human figures or animals, the building is completely covered in geometrically based floral and abstract designs as well as carved Arabic calligraphy in relief. For those of us used to western architecture, the level of detail can be overwhelming, but the immaculate beauty is matched by the setting of the tomb itself, sitting amidst antelope-strewn verdure fed by irrigation.

We were adequately awed by the tomb, needless to say. Imagine our reaction, then, when we went to the building constructed by his grandson Shah Jahan: the Taj Mahal. Manav told us that the best way to see it for the first time is to forsake incomplete glimpses on the trek up to the main viewing area, instead keeping your eyes down until you can see the whole building in its entirety. Well, when we finally came through the dark arch and lifted our eyes up to the sun, the view was absolutely dazzling. Pictures cannot adequately convey the profound natural complexity of the swirls in the white marble of the mausoleum's dome. Neither can they show how the perfect symmetry of the building and grounds render the Taj itself more beautiful by removing aesthetic distractions, but without reducing it to formulaic components. Even while facing the battles of the hundreds of Indian and non-Indian tourists all trying to take the same exact picture from the same exact spot (placing one's hand in the air in such a way that it looks like one is pinching the top of the dome is a must), the radiance of the Taj shines through (a slight caveat: some RLC members, after having viewed thousands of pictures of the Taj Mahal throughout their lifetimes, found the Taj slightly underwhelming after all the hype). We did discover, though, why few ever see pictures of the inside of the tomb. In contrast to the outside complex of landscaped pools, tree-covered gardens, delicate white marble exteriors inlaid with semiprecious stones, long patios with clear vistas of the Yamuna river, the inside is rather plain. Plus, cameras are forbidden inside. Shah Jahan built the magnificent complex as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their (count 'em!) fourteenth child. A funny story we learned from the tour guide we hired to take us around the Agra sites: the wife's full name was much, much longer; in fact, the emperor gave her the nickname Mumtaz Mahal because he couldn't say (or couldn't remember) her full name. Of course, this is probably a little exaggerated, especially given Shah Jahan's great devotion to this wife. After completion of the Taj Mahal, he intended to make an identical black version facing it on the other side of the river, but, in keeping with royal drama, his son imprisoned him in the Agra Fort not long after construction started. Shah Jahan's only request was that he be placed in a room granting him a view of his wife's burial site, which he did have until his death eight years later. As a result, we only have one Taj Mahal, but the foundations of the second one can still be seen from the Taj's observation patio facing the cattle-strewn riverbed.

Those responsible for the upkeep of the tomb take great pains to maintain its pristine conditions: parking is around two kilometers away from the tomb itself, presenting innumerable commercial opportunities for those hawking mini "marble" Taj Mahals, bottles of water (much needed!), camel rides to the entrance (watch where you step!), and beaded jewelry. Tourists also are subjected to surprisingly stringent entrance measures, including metal detectors, paddings-down (genders separated, of course), and prohibitions on certain electronic devices, as one RLC-er learned the hard way when the security guard insisted that her telephone earphones were an attempt to bypass the anti-mp3 player restrictions.

Speaking of tourists, it must be noted that the RLC posed for Indians a significant tourist attraction in and of itself. The white skin and fair hair of many of our members was a source of great curiosity for many of the locals, particularly that of Olaf and Rebecca. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Taj. All throughout India there are now scores of photo albums featuring a decreasingly-smiling Olaf standing next to increasingly-delighted Indians. We found it sad that throughout our trip Indians evinced such deference for foreigners, whether the result of colonialism or otherwise. For example, billboards throughout Delhi featured skin lightening creams boasting, "So white, so beautiful," and the treatment we received at the sites we visited was far beyond what was necessary and what was typically given to visitors. Not only are such advertisements ironic given the sale of their antitheses in the United States and the western world, but they betray a lack of pride in their own country which many of us found very saddening.

Several members of the RLC saw this deference for foreigners manifested in an even clearer way at lunch following our visit to the Taj. Manav had already planned on lunch at a pure vegetarian restaurant which would allow some of our Jewish members to eat Indian food along with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, by the time we got out of the Taj Mahal, it was afternoon and the restaurants had retreated into siesta-mode. Yet Manav and Nikhil were not yet ready to give in to our guide's increasingly resentful and irritating pressure to take us to a restaurant where he would receive a commission. Enter a clash-cultural experience: Indian Pizza Hut. Where else can you get "Kadai Paneer" pizza featuring paneer (similar to cottage cheese), capsicum, and paprika or "Golden Surprise" crust with a mysterious meat collage exploding out of it? We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore. But beyond the food, the Pizza Hut wait staff gave us treatment beyond that of the typical Agra-ite, or so we assume. At least, we don't think it is typical for waiters to suddenly break out into a combination Indian/break-dancing extravaganza. The RLC Naacho members were especially impressed, and those of us who aren't members of that esteemed group increased our insistence on an upcoming RLC Indian dance performance.

In addition to the Taj Mahal, the Agra area is also known for its incredible marblework. Like at the Taj itself, local artisans are expert at inlaying semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper, cornelian, and turquoise into hard marble in delicate, detailed designs that dazzle the eye. Right next to Pizza Hut was a government-sanctioned store selling such wares, so, our stomachs sated, we went over for an all-out shopping diversion. The very accommodating salespeople gave us a quick demonstration of to tell high quality marble from imitation by placing a light bulb within a Taj Mahal miniature and watching the whole building glow from within. Then, we got to work, sifting through exquisite samples of marble plates, coasters, animals, statues, and boxes in order to be able to exit the shop with much lighter wallets and much heavier backpacks.

From there, it was off to the last stop on the day's tour: the Agra Fort. Not only is the site famous for being the place of Shah Jahan's imprisonment, but the fortress is remarkable for being a pristine example of the attainment of the heights of both luxury and security. While the red sandstone walls are double ramparted, seventy feet high, and utterly impermeable (at least to a non-military viewer), the inside is characterized by room upon room of sumptuous decorative inlay, massive pillars, intricately carved walls allowing the viewer to gaze at the Taj Mahal beyond, and vast planned gardens. It was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, and since then has only grown in extent and magnificence. Even the pillars themselves are objects for adornment, as one gets the impression that anything solid enough to be worked on and dead enough to stay still was subject to decoration--not that this is at all a bad thing, though. The detail of the palace is even such that one can tell the religion of the emperor's many wives by the shape of the room in which each lived.

We were at the fort right at sunset, which meant that the photographers among us had a field day playing with the shadows cast by the many-pillared halls, hidden recesses, and colorful visitors. The local monkeys were less willing subjects, though, running off as soon as we approached (evoking empathetic pleas for the animals' privacy from the more faunal-friendly RLC members).

This being the last stop on the Agra excursion, we then exited the fort for the long four-hour bus trek back to Delhi (once again very thankful for the air conditioning). As usual, dinner was late, even by Frist late meal standards, and conducted at the same good ol' Indian rest stop. There we were able to sample the amusing fusion of Indian and international cuisine (who knew Mexico was a big pasta consumer?) before wilting back to the bus for joys and challenges. Once again, another jam-packed day, with the prospect of even more prospects to come!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 3: Delhi

Shopping day! Since the Jews observing shabbat were confined to the residency, the rest of us took the opportunity to do some, ahem, unstructured activities at some non-essential Delhi sites. After meeting with students at the Rai Foundation for breakfast, many of us went to the Indian version of a strip mall, made up of government-approved shops representing all the different Indian states. This was really our first opportunity to goggle over local jewelry, handcrafts, and clothing, and goggle we did. The color and beauty of the items in the stores were amazing, and as we did the mental conversion of around 50 rupees to the dollar, we reveled in the opportunities they presented. We also took advantage of the vendors surrounding the emporium, as Dean Paul fulfilled his long-sought dream of trying Indian potato chips (who would have thought of masala flavor?).

Doing serious shopping can work up an appetite, though, so of course that meant: lunch! One part of the group had gone earlier to the restaurant to ensure the reservation, so those of us who came later found them lounging at a very western-reminiscent Indian café (complete with Ricky Martin, ice cream-blended coffee drinks, cushy leather chairs, and, most importantly, a clean bathroom). We then headed over the crackerjack box of a restaurant where we would have our first experience with South Indian food, as we attempted to answer the question: how many Princeton students does it take to fill up a table? The answer ended up being a lot, but, in our defense, it could have been even more if we hadn’t been eating the delicacy known as dosa. A traditional dosa resembles a large four to six inch diameter rolled crepe, but it is crisp enough that it retains its three dimensions, meaning that our table was, to say the least, heavily laden. Until we were able to get some work done on our dosas and dip portions into the provided sauces (among them such interesting flavors such as coconut and tamarind), we talked and laughed at each other’s variously successful attempts to eat over top of each other’s meals.

After lunch we split up again. Dean Paul went the National Gallery of Modern Art, one group went back to the state emporium, another went to Southex, an area more known for its higher quality clothing, and still others went to a local market. No matter your bargaining skills, Olaf discovered, blond hair and western features are a serious handicap. Even his “I may be white but I’m not stupid” fell flat in the face of the Indian vendors, as the starting price he encountered for an object was double and even triple that quoted to Shivani for the same item. Thankfully, others were more successful in their shopping, as we were to be treated throughout the week with the visual delights of Farah’s purchases: several gorgeous salwar kameez traditional Indian outfit composed of a long shirt, pants, and a scarf known as a dupatta.

Regardless of shopping success, though, by the evening most of us headed over to the Sacred Heart Cathedral for mass (I say most of us because several people of the Southex contingent had, ahem, transportation issues related to the Rai Foundation transportation; it’s still puzzling how it can take one hour to get gas). Several of the Christians in the group had expressed great alacrity at finally getting to see their faith represented in India, but by the time we walked out of the cathedral, we were wondering if this really was the same Catholic Church we have in the United States.

As in all the denomination’s churches, the structure of the mass was the same in terms of reading biblical passages, participating in congregational prayer, singing hymns, and listening to a homily given by the priest. The specific content within this structure, though, was markedly different. First of all, the music was unknown to our Catholic members, though Rachel actually recognized one song from her very un-Catholic Baptist upbringing. These songs were not accompanied by the requisite-in-all-but-fact organ, but by electronic backup covered by chanters who, well, could have used a little help (as Emmett said, nowhere is it written that good song leaders are necessary for worship, but it certainly does make it easier to get into a holy mindset when they are not so horribly off-key it is distracting). The more serious difference in the service, though, was the homily itself, which echoed the “all paths are one” concept we had been hearing throughout the week (so much for John 14:6 in the Bible).

For this reason, our meeting with the priest afterward was even more confusing—and even upsetting. While in his homily he had mitigated distinctions between faiths, in our discussion he condemned Hindus unilaterally for their attacks against Christians in India. When Jahnabi challenged his assertion that all Hindus are to be held accountable for the work of a few extremists, the priest responded: “Look at my shirt. If I get a spot on it, is it not all completely dirty? If one spot is black, it is all black.” We responded with a stunned silence.

This lack of nuanced thinking was not the only issue that arose, however. Apparently, Rachel has been wrong all these years for thinking that Protestants believe that Mary was the mother of God. And who knew that much of the Reformation was due to Martin Luther King and his churches in Africa? It must be acknowledged that a clear language barrier may have contributed to our perceptions of the priest’s lack of tact and that some clarifying questions may have resolved the historical and theological misstatements, but, needless to say, the RLC Christians are not planning of becoming members of Sacred Heart anytime soon.

We were still having some transportation issues, but several of us were more than happy to return to the Meadows campus from the cathedral via rickshaw. Our drivers gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “racing home” as the Sarah, Deepa, and Nikhil car were far out-performed by the Shivani, Olaf, and Rachel car (ahem, no authorial bias). Delhi does still have old-fashioned rickshaws powered by bicycle-riding drivers, but the open-doored versions in which we rode combine modern innovation with old-school Delhi traffic habits. Result: total Indian coolness. Plus, there is the added bonus of watching Deepa jump two feet in the air when poked by an outside finger. Not to mention that, as Olaf pointed out, the whole experience was so surreal that it sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A Buddhist, a Catholic, and a Protestant all from Princeton University were sitting in a Delhi rickshaw discussing Catholicism….” Add to that the component of one rickshaw driver pulling over to the side of the road refusing to go on when he lost sight of the other driver and you have one inimitable RLC experience.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 2: Delhi

The Guinness Book of World Records should include a new category: the most temple visits in one day. If such a category existed, I think the RLC would win, hands down. Yesterday was an absolute flurry of travel activity, yet not so much that the significance of each sacred site was diminished by overstimulation or fatigue. On the contrary, last night's joys and challenges were deeply heartfelt and varied, with everyone commenting on or responding to the new perspectives and places we had been shown.

With an even earlier wake-up bang of 7:00, we began yesterday's adventures early, hopping on the bus at 8:30 to go to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi's Sikh temple. Sikhs, we learned, share a lot of commonality with Hindus, even worshipping at each other's temples, for example. Yet their characteristic turbans (in either black, white, orange, or a deep blue) also mark their independence from their Indian brethren. Like at other temples, we were asked to remove our shoes, after which we waded through a shallow dip and proceeded to the temple itself (exceedingly thankful that the sun hadn't reached its zenith yet--the ground burns!). The temple itself was, of course, beautiful, and we were allowed to sit on the plush carpet and watch people pay homage to the enshrined scriptures. While musicians played and sang sacred passages, pilgrims—Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs—came and bowed before the altar, often dropping money and orange flowers with their devotion (orange is a sacred color). Then we processed outside to view the kitchens where, we were informed, 12,000 people are served daily (25,000 on weekends). Some of us also tried parsadam for the first time, a substance reminiscent of a cross between peanut butter and a cornmeal mush.

After completing a slow file through the single-person bathroom, we rushed off to Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple, a Hindu place of worship. Neha, thrilled at having been taken for a native Indian (if they only knew...), Deepa, Manav, and the other representative Hinduish RLCers helped to explain the various deities figuring inside the red sandstone temple; Dean Paul swears he will have them memorized by the end of the trip. The spot was also memorable for its incarnation of non-Indians’ quintessential India: a man charming a very persnickety king cobra, though it didn’t look all that charmed, to be honest.

Speaking of honesty, we could have perhaps have had a little less of it at our next visit, which took place with Dr. Karan Singh at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Dr. Singh, in addition to being the heir to the traditional royal throne of the Kashmiri maharajas, is also [one] of the founders of the Temple of Understanding, an interfaith group of which two members joined us and Dr. Singh. Dr. Singh seemed extremely articulate, judicious, and hospitable, but as the meeting wore on, his comrades—and even Dr. Singh himself—made some remarks that were at best less than tactful and at worst downright xenophobic. When Melekot asked, for example, asked about Indian democracy within the context of liberal democratic theory, Dr. Singh went off on a rant about the paternalistic attitude that implied, asserting that Indian democracy was a distinctly different species from its American counterpart—itself defective.

The big moment came, though, after Dr. Singh departed for another engagement and his Muslim colleague tried to explain the root of religious and political conflict. There are no problems, he said, between Buddhism and Christianity or Judaism and Christianity. Islam, however, and the Wahabi sect in particular, is the wrench in global harmony that disrupts the peace that would otherwise exist between other compatible religions. Following an hour and a half in which the theme of all religions being the same at their core was reiterated several times, this speech was especially piercing. From our end of the table, it is safe to say that this comment was followed by looks of stunned amazement mixed with varying amounts of indignation and outrage. As Miriam later said, “I don’t know who should be most offended.” Should it be the Muslims, who were blamed for the war and brutality being perpetrated throughout the world? Or should it be the other religions, which were essentially “all the same”? As expressed at our Joys and Challenges later that evening, RLC members on both sides were upset at the assertion.

Our stomachs at least were calmed, though, immediately afterward at the Chor Bizarre, a restaurant specializing in Kashmiri fare. Though Manav was disappointed that we were not seated to be served in family-style dining, the thali dishes coming out on shining brassware left few complainants—though the afore-mentioned meeting was certainly a topic of conversation.

After lunch, we left the sanitized world of Coke and dry martinis for a different view of Delhi as Manav introduced us to the sights and sounds of Chandni Chowk. Fumes of spices, sweat, fruit, and exhaust mingled in cacophonic refrain as masses of people pressed their bodies together en route to their various destinations within the market. Originally established by the daughter of Shahajahan (the Moghul emperor responsible for the Taj Mahal), Chandni Chowk is now a bustling center populated largely by low-income citizens and poor industries that nevertheless maintains a native vibrancy.

Our meandering path through bicycle rickshaws and past jewelry hawkers to Jamma Majid, a great mosque dominating the area, was difficult, though—both literally and figuratively. The contrast between the deathly poor and the opulent treatment we received at the hands of our generous Muslim guides was stark. It was difficult to reconcile sitting in a sparkling, air-conditioned room sipping glasses of water, Coke, and Fanta with the abject misery only a few hundred yards away on the other side of the wall.

The mosque itself was quite a sight, though. Having arrived right at prayer time, we were able to witness the masculine procession into the main building, as the men bowed towards Mecca in perfect synchronization (the women, we were told, prayed elsewhere in the side wings of the mosque).

Our guides even held back the public to allow us an unencumbered trek up to the top of the minaret. The winding stone staircase was for many of us the first cardio we had experienced in a while, and it was coupled with steep steps suddenly descending into temporary darkness—an interesting climb, to say the least. The view from the top, however, was spectacular. Delhi is a very flat city. To people used to huge skyscrapers marking the center of a city it offers few visual cues. One cannot drive around and suddenly come upon a sprawling city vista, and it is difficult even to ascertain when one is in the city or not. The minaret, therefore, was our first glimpse of Delhi as a whole, and it was a gorgeous one at that. On one side we could see the alleyways of Chandni Chowk leading off into oblivion; on another we could glimpse the distant blue of a river in the same water system that runs past the Taj Mahal in Agra (a later stop on our trip). As we struggled to not push each other down the dark hole marking the stone staircase, we were treated to a panorama of the city that utterly invalidated any inconvenience in climbing the steps.

After coming down (and, for those of us who were deemed inappropriately dressed, returning our borrowed robes), we were very hospitably escorted to the area right outside the Red Fort, a Moghul structure built for the city’s fortification. We had some time before the bus came, however, so we popped into the Jain temple right across the street (note: “popped in” with a group of this size is a relative term). Jains, Nikhil informed us, are firm believers in the sanctity of nature, and therefore make the utmost effort to refrain from killing any living being. This belief was manifested in the temple itself, which incorporated plants, trees, and other living things into the area surrounding and even inside the temple. More than the other temples we had visited so far, this one had a very quotidian feel, as worshippers deftly moved in and out of the richly decorated rooms. The painting and inlay was even more elaborate here than in the Hindu or Sikh temples we had visited earlier. The small rooms housing shrines and statues of various deities were rendered overwhelming by the sheer richness of their colorful, golden ornamentation. For several people in the group, though, this temple was especially meaningful, as its people and architecture created an ambience distinctly different from the other spiritual sites we had seen.

Since the sun was closing in on Friday evening, the Jews in the group were not able to accompany us to the mosque or the temple. They had their own adventure, though, as they barreled through the Delhi streets to the Chabad house to pick up challah for Shabbat. They ended up making it back to the Residency with only 10 minutes to spare. When the Gentile section of the group arrived, they led us in some of their traditional blessings as we broke bread together and learned the significance of the sabbath as a day of remembrance and refocusing. This was a great lead-in to our first discussion of the trip, as Miriam led us in considering prayer. What exactly is its purpose, we pondered, and what does it do for us?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Day 1: Delhi

Our first full day in India! After coming from our respective homes and destination vacations, we have all safely arrived at the Meadows Campus of the Rai Foundation. We are extremely fortunate: far from a dumpy, rat-infested nightmare of a shanty, our rooms come complete with ensuite bathrooms, mini-fridges, pillow-laden cushy couches, home-cooked native meals, and (rather awkwardly, for some of us) maid service that includes laundry and bed-making.

Yet for most of us, who only arrived yesterday (or even early this morning), we have not had time to get familiar with the rooms. After a 7:40 am wakeup bang, we were treated to our first Indian breakfast of fresh papaya, omelets, vermicelli, vegetable rolls, and a savory sort of wheat pancake before meeting with Rishi Jaitly ’04, an American expatriate who now works for Google here in Delhi and the man behind He talked to us about the awakening of his Indian identity and the importance of cultural identity to Indian society.

From there, it was off to the furnished board room of the Rai Foundation for a meeting with our host Mr. Rai himself, who has dedicated his life (and enormous amassed fortune) to bringing equal access education to Indian students. While we sipped our creamy Indian coffee, he hailed India as a place of perfect harmony in religious diversity, with all its various sects and communities united in vedantic philosophy and the pursuit of peace and happiness. By virtue of the fact that the same energy makes up all parts of the world, Mr. Rai said, Indians have found a commonality that replaces religious wars with a “loud democracy,” albeit fully susceptible to other issues. The economy booms, yet the poor starve, women are mistreated, and water is depleted. “Every issue from any part of the world exists in India,” Mr. Rai said—a testament to the incredible challenges the country faces. We were already running a bit late, so the Q and A was shortened, but lightened by the prospect of a meal at Mr. Rai’s home on Monday evening. We left heavily laden (each!) with a box of gourmet Finnish chocolate; Dean Paul’s box will last until the next RLC adventure.

Then we were off to the Bahá’í temple, or as it is more commonly called, the Lotus Temple, based on its shape reminiscent of the sacred flower representative of purity. It is a stunning piece of architecture completed only in 1986: a nine-sided circle (figure that one out), the sides of which curve out in graceful arcs and culminate in a nine-pointed star penetrated by the dazzling Indian sunlight to the marble floor below. No one is allowed to talk inside the temple itself, but the hubbub of hundreds of pilgrims, resembling vividly colored flowers in their bright saris, fills the air above the nine pools outside the prayer hall. The hall is an ideal place for reflection, which is further facilitated by portions of the writings of Bahá’í founders displayed inside the temple. Several members of the group commented on the familiar tenor of the passages, which resembled portions of the Bible.

After uncovering the mysteries of the Indian ATM system and what exactly goes into an Indian boxed lunch, we came face to face with a vastly different temple: Akshardham. Whereas the Lotus Temple architecturally was an example of elegant simplicity, the gigantic Hindu temple complex is incredibly ornate, the central building supported by a herd of hand-carved stone elephants, each unique and weighing up to several tons. As Manav said, it is indeed a marvel that the complex took only five years to complete, for the rich pink stone of the porticos, altars, sanctuaries, pools, and sacred rooms was painstakingly carved in exquisite detail.
In addition to the requisite 7,000 artisans, 3,000 volunteer Hindu devotees of Swaminarayan helped complete the beautiful Akshardham. Like the Lotus Temple, it is a relatively new construction (2005), yet it contains one of India’s two IMAX theatres, large landscaped gardens, and a musical fountain.

Unfortunately, the temple itself is closed for renovations, but there was still plenty for us to do, including a 12-minute Indian rendition of the “It’s a Small World” boat tour! The short float-through history of Indian religious and cultural history was not only informative, including the fact that EVERYTHING—including spaceships—was invented by Indians, but had a short drop into the water at the beginning that became Jeff’s joy for the day: we raised our arms and cheered in proud Disney fashion.

There was also an animatronic show about the life of Swaminarayan, whose miracle of bringing fish miraculously to life as a four-year-old was the commencement of a life of devoted to nonviolence, vegetarianism, and self-searching. The show sparked a lot of conversation within the council: is the presentation of a religious philosophy via animatronics a reduction of the philosophy’s significance? Granted, the animatronics were high-quality (they even stood up!), but much was lost in the English translation of the guru’s words. There was also much discussion of the open encouragement of vegetarianism, including animals bearing signs such as, in the lion’s case, “I kill animals for food, but humans kill me for sport.” As Dean Paul noticed, the religiously and ethically based justification for such a lifestyle choice was unique to those of us who had only previously been exposed to the ecological arguments so pervasive in the United States.

Several RLC members also participated in abhishekam, or the ritual bathing of a small statue of Neelkanth (an older name for Swaminarayan). After removing their shoes, we watched as Jahnabi, Nikhil, Deepa, Rahul, Shivani, and Manav poured small flasks of water over the figure and received the red mark of dilak on their foreheads. Don’t worry, though: we discovered that even in India a gift shop and paid cheesy photo op is a requisite part of a visit to a national monument. From there, it was back to the hostel for a delicious dinner. We were delighted to learn that Farah's assertion that Paneer Tikka Masala would not be served in India was dead wrong.

The conversation prompted by Akshardham was not the beginning of the beloved RLC conversations, however. As so many people noted in their joys and challenges at the end of the day, the spontaneous and profound conversations randomly begun between individuals are a key and deeply meaningful part of life at the Religious Life Council. We are happy to report that these conversations have begun—and even elicited a warning by Dean Paul of the hazards of conducting them while crossing the street. We talk on, however (despite jet lag), and I am sure that the upcoming visits with people and to sites will gird our tongues with fodder for further conversation.