What for me was the draw of the “jewel in the crown of the British Empire,” the second most populous nation and second oldest continuing civilization on the planet? I was aware of the squalor, the over-crowdedness, the pollution of modern-day India. But that’s looking at the cup half-empty. I believed I was still an optimist and wanted to see the cup half-full instead. I wanted to visit the land of the extravagant maharajahs and rahnis, their fabled palaces, the other land of “call centers” and Bollywood (although Mumbai was not on the itinerary). This was going to be my Rudyard Kipling / tandoori-chutney / Indian Summers adventure.
Prepping for the trip was no walk in the park. First, I needed to secure a $100-visa via a persnickety and super-invasive website. Second, I had to get the triple threat set of vaccinations: DTAP; hepatitis B (series of 2); dysentery shots. (Take that, you clueless anti-vaxxers.) Finally, I had to be armed with extra just oral medications: malaria pills; azithromycin for possible bouts of mega-intense diarrhea.
The Philippines and India
The two countries are not unlike each other in many ways. Both were subjugated by foreign powers for many years and were sort of brought into the “family of nations” with a foreign tongue and a European system of governance. One major difference is that the Spaniards imposed a new set of beliefs upon a generally clueless indigenous people for over three hundred years, whereas the British hung on to the subcontinent for trade and tea for under two hundred years, leaving the local religious scene as it was, and maintaining a fragile, peaceful co-existence among the rival, zealously religious factions at best. How could you replace a culture which worshipped some 30 million deities and countless, wandering bovines? (I imagine there must now be a goddess for the best apps and a god for winning the lottery.)
The Indian subcontinent also consisted of some 350 warring kingdoms who were at each other’s throats until a foreign power came in as a referee. It has 22 major languages, written in 13 different scripts, with over 720 dialects. Only la belle France has more cheeses than Indian dialects; thank Vishnu for that. Also, both the Philippines and India are chief exporters of raw talent and professional workers and are the top two rivals in “call centers” of the English-speaking world. Finally, both countries beyond the surface, are matriarchal societies at heart. Monsoon Wedding is not fiction. It’s all those “aunties” who make up the pre-arranged marriages for the 82 percent Hindi population (and even in ex-pat Indian/Pakistani communities abroad). The aunties control the bloodlines of the society.
The Golden Triangle
I signed up for the so-called “Golden Triangle” tour which includes Delhi (both old and New), Jaipur (the “Pink City”), and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. (Doc, I took a fully guided, escorted tour hence I was “encapsulated” in the tour bus-and-hotel membrane 95 percent of the time. Plus, I followed the dictum of drinking only bottled water/liquids and eating no street food whatsoever.)
Delhi has been the capital of India and the administrative seat of power of the Moghul rulers for nearly 500 years before the British. Thus, the three most interesting sights in the Delhi area for me predate the British period: (i) the Gandhi Smriti (or The House/Grounds where he spent the last 144 days of his life); (ii) the main Sikh temple in Delhi; (iii) the Birla Mandir, a rather new (the 1930’s only) Hindi temple opened by no less than Gandhi himself.
The revered Mahatma Gandhi who revolutionized ways to oppose authority and colonial oppression by non-violent, passive-aggressive means, spent the last few days and hours of his remarkable life in this Delhi compound loaned by the industrialist Brila family.
There is this diorama exhibit inside the adjoining mansion which I found fascinating. I am a sucker for diorama exhibits. Here are two of the tableaux:
One bit of Gandhi family trivia: The succeeding politicians who bear the “Gandhi” name aren’t really true blood descendants of old man Gandhi. They are only “Gandhi” in name. The late Indira Gandhi, for example, was actually a daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, but she was betrothed to a Muslim man, Feroze Khan. This was unacceptable to her father, the other shining light in Indian political history. Since Gandhi, Nehru, and the other nationalists were fighting for a non-sectarian, non-caste India, it was unwise to the cause to torpedo this union. Thus, Gandhi “adopted” Khan--but in name only. This then made the marriage acceptable to Nehru. Thus, Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and latter-day “Gandhi’s” are mere Gandhi-come-latelies. Like the eventual break-up of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh later, they are the product of political compromise and expediency.
The fourth religion of India is Sikhism, and its adherents were the bigger losers in the partition of the continent in that they were not granted their own independent state. Nonetheless, they co-exist quite peacefully with the majority Hindus. We were taken to the leading Sikh temple in Delhi, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib.
I related a joke to our guide, Arun, that just came to me. “A man calls into his office: Boss, I can’t come in today, I am Sikh!’” Arun loved it. He said he would add it to his repertoire. I hope the Sikhs have taken no offense.
Strictly from an architectural point of view, where the Gurdwara Sikh temple is as garish as a county carnival, especially at night, the Birla Mandir Hindi temple is as over-the-top as a Holly…, rather Bollywood set designer might have imagined. It’s this crazy pastiche of neo-Mayan, pseudo-Victorian/Disneyland styles with wedding cake-Sumerian ziggurat overtones. Really gnarly as you can see from the mage above.
Then, it was on to Jaipur whose chief attraction was the resplendent Amber Fort.
In the temples and forts we had visited, it was a common sight to see local Indians dressed in their festive best and, like the foreign tourists, posing for selfies. Was there a national holiday in progress? It turned out to be the so-called “wedding season” in Rajahstan (the province where Delhi and Jaipur are located; primarily a desert state), and we did run into some wedding processions on the road—and junior elephants, with eye mascara and all, being transported for such occasions. Per our guide Arun, his countrymen do not indulge in too much domestic tourism but when they do, it becomes an excuse to bring out those national costumes (or some of them might have just come from nearby wedding celebrations) thus, unintentionally providing extra local color for the foreign camera lenses too.
Not the Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahal wasn’t really a paramount attraction for me. I’m truly not impressed by such grandiose monuments for a “loved one.” Big deal. (Mahal, of course, has been absorbed into Filipino/Tagalog, and indeed means beloved or loved one.) It seems to me to be nothing but a pile of finely polished marble. I liken it to the fantastic but equally useless palaces of Mad Ludwig II, who bankrupted Bavaria’s treasury to build those megalomaniacal monuments to his lunacy. I guess, these were their “border walls.” Where the Taj is about as sexy as a cold slab in a morgue, at least Ludwig’s follies have a lot of baroque fantasies you can dis and even photograph.
What I really wanted to see was the Golden Lake Palace in Udaipur, but unless one took the $4,000+ tour, the closest one could get to this enchanted place was via photographs. A stay in the Lake Palace, sitting amid serene Lake Pichola, averages $1,000/night.
Even if you stayed at a cheaper accommodation, you still could not drop by for a meal there as the hotel’s restaurants are only open to their paying guests. They can keep their island; I’ll blow my money at the French Laundry instead.
Meanwhile, back at the Taj . . .
The Taj was built starting around 1630 and completed around 1651. The minarets in the four corners are purposely angled 5o away from the center so that in the event of an earthquake, they will fall away from the main structure, outwards. And I always thought those four towers housed India’s first ICBM missiles, very cleverly disguised as minarets.
But the one saving grace of the visit to Agra was the hotel we stayed in, The Trident. From the moment you stepped into its confines, where they welcomed you with steaming face towels as in Business Class of some airlines to the subtly lit lobby and ever so classy dining room, you felt you had wandered into an exclusive British officers’ club. The place so reeked of understated, old-world elegance that the entire complex is only on two levels with nary a thing as gauche as an elevator. (For Manilans, think extra-chic Army-Navy Club.)
For the first time in my life, I treated myself to paid hotel laundry. I sent in just small pieces of laundry – socks, handkerchiefs, briefs. (I noticed on this trip that the three- and four-star hostelries we were booked in seem to have purposely redesigned their bathrooms to make it harder for guests to hang some small washing, forcing them to avail of paid laundry services.) Well, it was India, after all, where labor was dirt cheap. So, I did avail . . . and look at how my laundry came back.
It turned out the Trident is part of the Oberoi Chain, the Number One hotel luxury brand in India and Egypt. And when I got my laundry back 20 hours later, its reputation came through—for only $7. That, together with the best ginger-lemon tea I have ever tasted, offered to the weary traveler when you checked in at the desk, made The Trident, I think the third most luxurious hotel I had ever stayed in. I finally got a taste of that maharajah-class service I was looking for.
The tour traveler’s washing-drying tip: If by the time you leave the hotel your small, self-washed laundry isn’t dry yet and you have a few hours’ drive in front of you, not to worry. You can hang them in the seat in front of you or in any empty seats on the bus. Socks and shirts are ok; briefs and more personal items are not.
Great Detour on the Last Day
On the return day to Delhi from Agra, our prescheduled route was upset because shepherds had taken out the major connecting highway in protest of, if I got the story right, not being included in quotas for new civil service jobs. It seems that since their cause was legitimate, they were allowed to disrupt the highway traffic, and everyone else just had to find alternate routes. Hence, we had to divert to uncharted, underdeveloped roads in order to bypass the blockage-protest. India, after all, still prides itself a functioning democracy.
The alternate route was so rural and undeveloped that at one point our huge tourist bus snagged some low-slung, overhead power lines; and oh boy, did that almost turn out to be a Sandra Bullock-Crash moment! The townspeople watching on the sidelines were roused by the reality that their source of electricity was suddenly cut off; but were we inside the bus going to fry on account of the loose, live electric wires? Our luck held out when the locals didn’t stone the bus.
A little farther on, we sat for some 45 minutes on the narrow, dusty road because somehow the GPS wasn’t giving a good read of what lay ahead. The tour operator sent an advance party to scope out the next two or three miles before we could get back on the main highway. Could our huge 28’ bus, if for any reason not proceed farther, turn around 360 degrees on the road up ahead? The answer came back, “No go.” So, better safe than sorry, we turned around on the spot and took another route. These were the last things our guide wanted to show visitors about his country. But we finally arrived back in Delhi only two hours late.
An Ailurophobic Society
Here was another Hindu custom which I found quite strange: cows are sacred; lazy dogs are omnipresent; sheep and goats aplenty; monkeys abound in temples but cats are absent. In my eight days there, I only saw two stray cats. The Indians, like the Chinese, are not great fans of the independent-minded felines because they are, well, very independent creatures—unlike in Turkey and Japan where they are favored and revered as individualistic creatures and, another bit of trivia, are the only land animals welcome in mosques. The prophet Mohammed apparently was a cat lover. Like Hemingway; like Freddie Mercury.
Perfectly Timed Exit
I got out of India just in time. The day before the scheduled departure, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Kashmir, taking the lives of 40 Indian soldiers with him. So, at the humongous Delhi International Airport, heightened security measures were in place. First, you needed documents to even get to the check-in gates. Luckily, my tour company had such a point person onsite who helped me through that hurdle. But once I got past the first security gate, I was on my own. I stood in line for 35 minutes until I was allowed past the metal detectors. It was the temper of the times. I couldn’t wait to get into my Singapore Airlines seat and out of there.
India is not for everyone; it is an acquired ‘taste.’ It’s full of history, colors, chaos and natural smells. It’s both surreal and real. You shouldn’t visit if your expectations are unrealistic and wildly unreal. Just save your money. But I’m glad I got India out of my system.
So, India was probably my last big, exotic action-adventure flick. No, I did not bathe in the Ganges, or visit the Temple of Doom or the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I never did find that Best Deli(catessen) in Delhi—but I came back in one piece, which my oncologist was quite relieved about, as was I. If there is one more fantasy I can still have in this lifetime, it’s to be a groom at a grand monsoon Bollywood wedding. After all, the bride’s family pays for about 60 percent of the extravagant wedding costs plus dowry. Such a deal.
Myles A. Garcia is a Correspondent and regular contributor to www.positivelyfilipino.com. His newest book, “Of Adobe, Apple Pie, and Schnitzel With Noodles – An Anthology of Essays on the Filipino-American Experience and Some. . .”, features the best and brightest of the articles Myles has written thus far for this publication. The book is presently available on amazon.com (Australia, USA, Canada, Europe, and the UK).
Myles’ two other books are: Secrets of the Olympic Ceremonies (latest edition, 2016); and Thirty Years Later. . . Catching Up with the Marcos-Era Crimes published last year, also available from amazon.com.
Myles is also a member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH) for whose Journal he has had two articles published; a third one on the story of the Rio 2016 cauldrons, will appear in this month’s issue -- not available on amazon.
Finally, Myles has also completed his first full-length stage play, “23 Renoirs, 12 Picassos, . . . one Domenica”, which was given its first successful fully Staged Reading by the Playwright Center of San Francisco. The play is now available for professional production, and hopefully, a world premiere on the SF Bay Area stages.
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