Wednesday, July 1, 2009

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. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment