Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My Spectacular Trip to India Part VIII

Friday night we took the night train from Eluru to Hyderabad. Not smart. We were all exhausted after a week long of heavy construction work and there was no sleeping on that train. The berths were very cramped and uncomfortable and the baby across from me wailed half the way there. Poor kid, I felt sorry for him. Note to self: never bring your young child on public over-night transportation, be it a train, plane, or bus. It`s a strange new place accompanied by strange new sensations and they can`t sleep, of course they`re going to inevitably scream their heads off. The parents ended up making a cradle from him out of a bed sheet and the rocking eventually quieted him down.

Just a note for those who are curious: Indian trains are unreliable, late, slow, uncomfortable, and you can`t see much anyway. I suggest taking a plane when possible.

We arrived in Hyderabad about 5:00 in the morning. I was so groggy and disoriented in that huge, busy station I had no idea what was going on. A man just picked up my bag and took off. I nearly freaked out but Vishal assured me he was just a station employee, doing his job. Then we drove to our hotel and got there about 6:30am. I slept until about 9:30, then went down for breakfast. I wanted to go back to the zoo, but everyone said it would be dangerous to travel by myself, so I just went shopping with everyone else. I bought a really nice but inexpensive pearl necklace (yes, it was real, they showed me the fire test) for my supervisor and some earrings for my mom, but can you believe it? I lost them! I had them on the bus in Japan to take the school and left them there, and when I went back at the end of the day the station employees didn`t know anything about them. I`ve called back several times but no luck. I am soooo dumb. Oh, well, at least I helped the Indian economy…and someone else probably found themselves some really nice jewelry.

Saturday night I caught my flight to Jaipur. I was originally going to Deli with everyone else, but with my tour I would then have to drive six hours to Jaipur the next day, so what`s the point in that? Indigo is a nice airline, by the way. Anyway, I arrived in Jaipur around 11:00 and my driver met me at the airport. His name was also Ravi, interestingly enough. I wasn`t really worried that I would have the same trouble with this company that I had with the one in Hyderabad, because they had been so professional over email, often answering questions in less than ten minutes, very kind and compromising. I was not disappointed. My driver spoke very fluent English and as soon as we arrived at the hotel, I got settled right in, no waits or delays. And as we were driving into the city, I got an added bonus. A famous female politician was also coming that night, so I caught some fireworks and cheering crowds through the window. What a welcome!

The next morning at 8:30am, we left for Amber Ft, an old capital in India from 1592 to the 1727. Here`s a great picture from a distance; can you guess why it`s called “amber” Ft?

Actually, the name has nothing to do with it`s yellow tinge! That was the name of the King`s clan! Notice the huge plain of dirt in front? Normally that`s filled with water. But for the last thirty years, India has been experiencing severe drought. The fort had a really ingenious water lifting system to provide water for the entire castle from that reservoir, but the drought wasn`t why the king relocated. He moved hundred of years ago, to a grander spot.

On the way there, there was a snake charmer along the side of the road, taming a cobra. Honestly, it wasn`t quite as impressive as it was in the movies. The snake didn`t actually dance, and I felt kind of sorry for it. The guy kept hitting it and it would flare it`s head skin for a second, then sort of hunch back down. I think it was drugged or defanged or just really, really tame. But I did get to touch it, and that was fun:

And here`s me trying out the guy`s nasally flute:

On the way up into the Ft, can you believe it, I got to ride an elephant! Here I am!

A warning, though, as you`re standing in line and even riding, EVERYONE will try to sell you something. I ended up buying a hat an umbrella to help with the sun, but if you don`t want something, just walk away. Don`t even ask how much it is! Ignore them! If you ask, they won`t stop following, pestering, or pushing (both verbally and physically). I should have known better; I`ve been to Africa for Pete`s sake! But if you do want to buy something, offer them half their original price and don`t settle for anything more than 2/3 their original. You are not cheating them; they are trying to cheat you. The umbrella I bought broke after two days. That`s all I needed it for, so it doesn’t matter, but just be forewarned.

Here`s some really pretty paintings on a gate to the inner fort:

And here`s a nice view from the top:

Note that all those little black things on the roof are bats. There were lots of wild baboons too. They even jumped right at me once while I was watching them! But they never actually attack tourists. They`re too shy. Also notice the lattice work. There were lots of places throughout the castle with this, so the women of the court could look down and see what was going on in various places of the palace without being seen. I suspect they were also used for espionage purposes too and places where archers could shoot out at an invading enemy, but my guide insisted this wasn`t so. No conspiracies or attempted take-overs in this palace. Really? Come on, the king had thirteen separate royal chambers for his wives; there must have been some sort of intrigue going on. The guide’s insistence of a perfect, boring royal home was slightly disappointing.

That`s the thing I wish my guides on Sunday and Monday talked more of. Stories. I like to know the tales of a place, the legends, myths, whatever. I don`t care it they make them up. Most of what my guides talked about was architecture. Sorry, that`s my older brother`s department, I really couldn`t care less that this arch is of the Moglian school and supports the main building by centering the majority of its weight…yada, yada, yada. What happened under this arch? A love affair, a struggle between the king and his crown-snatching son, was an enemy intruder shot through the heart by a poisoned arrow, did the princess look upon her one true love, did an elephant trample its corrupt royal rider as was prophesied by some ancient mystic? So when they don`t tell me stories, it leads me to imagine my own which, as you can see, may or may not be kind to the people involved.

By the way, here are some lounging baboons Don`t the look funny?:

Here`s where the king lived, in the Palace of Mirrors:

Why is it called the Palace of Mirrors? Take a close look. You can see the reflection of a guy`s hand in one of the panels:

Pretty cool, huh? I could use that in a story as some type of defense mechanism of a desert castle. Why not blind the enemy? Ambassadors have to be given special glasses in advance and slowly acclimated or approach backwards or something. Or maybe they just don`t want ambassadors? India was a closed nation only recently.

On the way out of Amber Ft, there was a little performance you could pay extra to see to get a glimpse of traditional Indian music and dance. I paid the money, and it was pretty good, but I was a little disapointed since it was supposed to be 15 minutes but it was only 10 minutes, since one of the dancers had already gone home. But I figured I`d get a chance to see a longer show that evening as was planned in the schedule. Unfortunately I was further disapointed, but more on that later.

After we left Amber Ft., we stopped along the side of the road to see the Lake Palace. Here it is:

It was originally a summer palace and the royal family got there by boat. Now it`s a luxury hotel. We didn`t go there; there wasn`t a boat running and the water smelt awful anyway.

Next we went to a museum/art store to look at some handicrafts. So beautiful! Here`s a peacock tapestry:

An embroidered rug:

A hand-carved marble chest of drawers:

I ended up buying a marble chess set for my friend Li. He used to be a chess champion as a child. It`s a really beautiful set.

If you want to buy something nice in India, I definitely recommend one of these emporiums. You don`t have to hackle, barter, they don`t push you, there isn`t a big crowd, it`s air-conditioned inside, they`re really nice, they serve you tea, if you don`t want to buy something they don`t insist, and they show you exactly what you want to see.

For lunch I had a lamb curry and nan lunch at a nice little restaurant. Lassies are great. There`re a sweet or salty yogurt drink that really help an upset stomach. That and lemon drinks.

Next we visited the observatory where all kinds of astrological and astronomic measurements were taken. The instruments were huge; there was a sundial so big it could tell time with an accuracy of two seconds. Here`s one for telling the alignment of the planets:

Turns out astronomers have most of their information about the universe hundreds of years ago from the records of observatories like these. It`s kind of amazing to think that this one was built back in 1727. But mostly they were used for astrology, not science, to figure out the future path of some noble child, who he should marry, what he should do etc. based on when they were born, what the planets looked like, silly stuff like that.

Then we went to the City Palace museum where the current Sultan lives. I wasn`t interested in paying extra to see his personal residence. I just hung around the outside, looking at the art work. He patronizes a lot of really good artists and they have workshops just outside his home. One of them drew me a little sketch for free. I also bought a pair of sandals to go with my sari.

Then it was time to go to a little theme park for dinner and a show. I was expecting to see an actual dance performance, a nice, sit-down affair that would introduce me to traditional Indian performing arts. That`s what I had asked for, anyway. But it was really, really lame. There were a bunch of stages set up, but they were just filled with tourists swinging their hips with some local girls. A good place to go if you want to dance yourself, but I was so exhausted by the end of the day I couldn`t manage it. I just wanted to see a nice relaxing show, you know? It was loud and noisy and dirty and I wouldn`t recommend it. Rajistan folk village, or something like that. A good place for kids, I guess, with camel rides and kiddy shows. It was definitely “family oriented.” When I told this to my guide, he said I should have asked to see a “performance” not a “cultural show.” I`m pretty sure I was plain about what I wanted to see, but I didn`t argue with him. At least the dinner was good. And I had a nice chat with an Italian tourist who filled me in on a little local history and culture.

Anyway, here`s two of the dancing girls, in the rare moments they were alone on stage:

The guide was surprised I didn`t like it. He said it was to give tourists “a glimpse of traditional Indian village life.” I laughed. “I spent a week in an Indian village working beside the people. That was anything but traditional Indian village life.” One thing I noticed was a huge contrast between the India the tour guides wanted to portray, and the “real India.” They were always trying to shield me from the beggars, from the poor areas, the dirt, the smell, anything like that. I asked them what they thought of the Movie Slum Dog Millionaire which I found to be a very true depiction of India, and many other Indian volunteer workers I`ve known did too. Hands down, every Indian I asked hated that movie. “Not the real India,” they said. “Only showed the bad things.” It showed a lot more than the bad things. It showed the rich side of life too, but it was from the perspective of a slum dog, and that still bugs them. You can`t have a story from the point of view of a Dalit (untouchable). What they have to say isn`t important.

The thing is, the side of India they want to portray is the movie paradise side. Glamour, glitz, beautiful jungles, pristine palaces, sexy, sultry, yet innocent, fresh. Maybe a better way of putting it is a cross between Richard Kipling`s India (author of The Jungle Book) and Bollywood. If something bad does happen, no big deal, let`s jump up and sing and dance about it! Of course, that`s what most people want, and it is nice to see. But it`s a lie, or at best, a half-truth. But then, America did the same thing during the Great Depression. All nations do it. They don`t want to really address the issues of poverty and pain to their own people, and they certainly don’t want outsiders to know about it.

So I also asked them another question. Everyone I met who spoke English, I asked them if they thought the cast system still existed in India. Guess what? Every single person with lighter skin wearing a suit or nice clothes said no. Everyone with darker skin wearing rags said yes. Guess who were the Dalits?

A little history for you. The original inhabitants of India were called the Dravidians. They were of African decent. They had a very rich culture, the oldest known written language in the world, the oldest form of musical notation, beautiful art, and thriving trade. Then along came the Arian Muslims out of Persia and they pushed the Dravidians down into the South. Now they weren`t all bad, of course, they brought science, mathematics, infrastructure, and a lot of beautiful art themselves. The cast system itself already existed, but the Arians intensified it, canonized it, made it a part of every day life and utterly, hopelessly inescapable. It was formally banned by the Indian government when they became independent of Britain after World War II, but do you think something that ancient, thousands of years old, reinforced by race and religion is going to go away in just two generations? How long did it take African Americans to gain rights after the Civil War, after less than two hundred years of enslavement? Let`s not kid ourselves here.

And that`s all I have to say for Sunday. Monday will have a more positive note, I promise. That`s when I saw the Taj Mahal!


Mockingbird said...

You write "The original inhabitants of India were called the Dravidians. They were of African decent. They had a very rich culture, the oldest known written language in the world, the oldest form of musical notation, beautiful art, and thriving trade. Then along came the Arian Muslims out of Persia and they pushed the Dravidians down into the South."

This seems a bit twisted. Indo-European speaking peoples began the conquest of India long before the rise of Islam.

I suspect it is also wrong to say that the conquerers "pushed the Dravidians down into the south." It would be like saying that the English conquerers of Britain pushed the Britons into what is now Wales and Cornwall, simply because those were the places that British languages survived the longest. Facts are more complex: in many parts of what is now England, the English installed themselves as overlords of the established British population, rather than pushing their predecessors out. Most of the English today are probably as much descended from the Britons as from the 5th-6th century arrivals from Germany. My guess would be that India is the same, with the conquest resembling more a folk-migration in some places and more an aristocratic takeover in others, and that there has been plenty of genetic mixing since.

In addition a classification of India's languages as either Dravidian or Indo-European is too crude, since it ignores several languages that are neither.

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