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?


  1. Love you, Rachel!!!! Miss you! :-D ~~Love, Faith :)

  2. Hey Rachel,

    Amazing blog, I'm so glad you did this and now I can remember the specifics of our trip!

    A small comment: I disagree with your comments on Dr. Karan Singh and Indian democracy. You say "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."

    I don't remember Karan Singh going on a "rant" at all, and I think he made a very valid point-- that Indian democracy can't be measured along the same scale that American democracy is measured along because it operates in a culturally different setting. Just thought I'd add my two cents!

    Overall, amazing job!
    Take care,