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 Indianvoices.com. 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.

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