Seeking the Sacred
in Secular India
By Scott S. Smith
If you did not make it to India in the ’60s, now is the time to go — and you will be glad you waited. In the past few decades, India has risen from mass starvation to an econ-omy based on entrepreneurialism and successful small farming, capable of sustaining a billion people. The masses are still very poor, but you would find more beggars and homelessness in downtown Los Angeles than in many Indian cities. All this makes for an easier visit for a Westerner.
India, in fact, has become the hottest destination for high-end travelers. And there is considerable justification for going there with a top tour operator like Abercrombie and Kent www.abercrombiekent.com, as Sandra Wells and I did for our honeymoon. Their “Highlights of Northern India” gives one a great introduction to this complex society and we now feel we are experienced enough that we could go elsewhere in India on our own.
Another good reason to go first class the first time is to be careful about contracting illnesses, since outside of the five-star hotels, food and water can be contaminated (we brought Orange County’s own Organic Food Bars for the 18-hour flight, layovers, and a few times when we were on our own for meals). Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, polio, typhoid, and malaria are still risks there and we used a travel medicine clinic (www.passporthealthla.com) to be sure we were adequately protected.
The weather was mild when we landed in New Delhi on November 1st. It’s a surprisingly lovely, modern, highly-cultured city and staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel enhanced that experience. The one downside: drivers whose only apparent effort to avoid each other is to honk (the one million Hindu gods must be kept very busy, since, miraculously, we did not see any crashes).
We arrived on Monday and realized that all major museums are closed then, but, as press were able to get the help of the hotel to allow us into the National Museum. It is the best place to start a journey into India because it provides an overview of 5000 years of history and culture with 200,000 art objects, including the world’s finest collection of treasures from the legendary Silk Route (it even has some of the ashes of the Buddha). The next best choice would be the Crafts Museum, where you can watch artisans at work.
A&K makes arrangements for special interest expansions of the official itinerary and our focus was religion. Since the Baha’i House of Worship, an internationally-recognized building in the form of a blooming lotus, was also closed, we decided to go to another symbol of tolerance, a Sikh temple in Old Delhi. All services always open to the public, where singers celebrate their vision with the glorious music of a harmonium. Sikhism, best-known in the U.S. through the vegetarian followers of Yogi Bhajan, is the world’s fifth-largest religion, with 20 million followers.
Afterwards, we slowly made our way on a bicycle rickshaw through the crowded lanes to the nearby Jain Bird Hospital and the temple next door, where not only our shoes and camera were not allowed (nor any leather, since Jains strictly practice nonviolence; they are not allowed to farm to avoid having to kill insects on a mass scale, so they are usually merchants and work off their own bad karma by charity and asceticism). What they honor in their temples are images of their gurus, who taught that the material world is evil, not illusion (“gods” are simply spirits who influence events, but cannot help one achieve transcendence, so are not prayed to).
Prepared with no more than a cursory glance through the excellent DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: India, we began the tour Tuesday morning with A&K’s escort Bha-wani Singh (who helped us thru a series of the normal mini-crises), 21 other adventurers, and the local guide, Ruby Bedi (A&K knows how to select guides who know exactly how much history Americans can handle). “One thing that will amaze you about India is that it changes every few miles,” Ruby noted, and she was right, as we went past mindboggling juxtapositions over the next 10 days (the College of Astrology next to the Cyber Café, camels pulling carts past signs for Disney movies, a Homeopathic Hospital near some of the world’s best medical schools).
We spent the day wandering Delhi, much of it built by the Mughals, Mongolian Muslims descended from Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who ruled India from the 16th to 18th centuries. One moving moment was at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in a quiet park on the spot where he was cremated (across the street is a museum with his memorabilia).
Land of the Maharajas
On Wednesday, we flew to Udaipur in Rajasthan, a state formed out of territories that were once ruled by the fabulously wealthy maharajas. We stayed at a former royal residence, the Taj Lake Palace, made of white marble and sitting in the middle of a lake (as our guide, Vik Shaktawat sniffed, when someone asked about a new hotel on the shore, “You can stay in a real palace or one built just to look like one”). We spent the afternoon and next morning touring the City Palace on the shore, a museum filled with the famous miniature paintings depicting the courtly life (some painted with brushes consisting of a single squirrel hair).
Thursday afternoon, we drove into the countryside, noting how obsessively neat and clean Indian farmers keep their properties and villages (traits lost when peasants try to live in cities). After visiting some finely carved 11th century temples, we attended a Hindu service at the living temple in Eklingi, dedicated to Lord Shiva (the destroyer and reproducer, one of the trinity of manifestations of Brahman, the ultimate divine force; the others are Brahma, creator, and Vishnu, preserver). In Travels Through Sacred India, Roger Housden described what worshippers hope to experience: “In the West, the sacred place is usually a haven of quiet...In India, the temple is designed to draw you out of yourself ...The garish images...the flames of the lamps, the smoke, the incense, the drums, the pipes, the Vedic chanting...the whole experience makes for sensory overload, an ecstasy which literally shocks you out of your mind and into the realm of the gods.”
Among devout Hindus, there are even claims that gods manifest themselves to worthy individuals and Richard L. Thompson, in Alien Identities, argues that these entities could be what are behind the UFO phenomenon.
On Friday, we flew to Jaipur and checked into Rambagh Palace, now one of the Taj hotels. One highlight of touring the old city with our suave guide, Dalpat Rathore, was Jantar Mantar, the world’s largest outdoor astronomical device, strange stone and metal objects spread out over many acres, built from 1724 to 1734 to make astrological calculations for state decisions and accurate to within two seconds. Afterwards, we went to a family-owned company to watch handmade wool carpets being created, where weaving is only the first step in a long, labor-intensive process, resulting in a gorgeous product at a bargain price (the average urban Indian earns $2 a day, allowing a level of craftsmanship unimaginable in the U.S.).
With the afternoon free, we decided to attend services at another Jain temple. Their temples are relatively plain on the outside, but rich within, symbolizing the importance of the inner life. But our request to take a photograph inside before the service was at first rejected by the dozen who showed up. However, our taxi driver persuaded them to allow us to photograph and participate in their service, holding candles in front of each image and chanting (there are no Jain priests). It was another experience we will cherish.
That night, we were entertained at a dinner on the lawns of the sprawling estate
by traditional Rajasthani dancers and musicians. While this was going on, we
received a provocative reading of our hands by Professor J.M.L. Dandiya, a
palmist who has served the hotel for 20 years.
Taj Mahal and Sacred Cities
We traveled on Sunday morning by bus to the pristinely-preserved, red sandstone buildings of Fatehpur Sikri, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Agra, where we were met by the young, but very knowledgeable, Bharat Dubey. Fatehpur was the capital of the Mughal empire during 14 years of the reign of Akbar (1556-1095), the dynasty’s most brilliant administrator and enlightened ruler (he not only tolerated non-Muslims, but after a mystical experience in 1557, created his own religion, a synthesis of those he knew).
At the mosque, there is a white marble tomb of the Sufi mystic Salim Chisti. Fatehpur was constructed to honor him after he correctly predicted the end to Akbar’s childlessness. Music is not normally allowed in mosques, but the Sufis’ hypnotic qwaali devotional music is the exception and performers are in front of the tomb (qwaali is hot right now in world music and you can hear this in Delhi on Thursday evenings at the Nizamuddin Complex and elsewhere).
That evening, we checked into the Oberoi Amarvilas, a new luxury hotel with the closest view of the Taj Mahal. We could see it out of the window of The Banyan Tree, the Oberoi spa, where Sandra indulged in a Chakra Head and Shoulder Massage and I received a full-body Ayurvedic Massage, both very effective rejuvenators based on Indian medicine.
At 4:30 the next morning, we were awakened by the call of the muzzein for Moslems to pray. Our group beat the tourist crush at the Taj Mahal by getting there early, but the aggressive hawkers were already waiting (we considered it an honor to reward their work ethic and invest in the grassroots economy). The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum constructed over 22 years by emperor Shah Jahan for his wife, Mumtaz, who died in childbirth.
It is even more impressive up close, where you can see the fine carving of flowers in the white marble and the inlay of semi-precious stones. The entire edifice is designed to create a sense of being in heaven and is covered with verses from the Koran in elegant Arabic script. Afterwards, we rode on elephants up to Agra Fort, which has ceilings decorated with mirrors and edged with gold and silver.
All day Tuesday was taken up with a difficult train and bus ride to get to Khajuraho, where we stayed at a Radisson. The remoteness protected the village in ancient times from having its 8th and 9th century temples defaced by Moslem invaders. They are covered with very lifelike sculptures celebrating daily life, famously with an erotic emphasis based on the Hindu theory of kundalini energy as a way of using sex to reach divine ecstasy, especially developed in the system known as Tantra. Our local guide, Brijendra Singh, declared that the temples were “the only place where there is a perfect fusion of architecture and sculpture.”
Singh (which means lion, an especially common name in Rajas-than and among Sikhs) is a seeker who has created his own religious path, but is seeking a guru to guide him. I had conversations with him and others comparing Buddhism and Hinduism (very different concepts of self and reincarnation) and the various schools of Hindusim (most Americans only know Advaita Vedanta, which rejects the notion of the individual soul, while most people in India believe souls were created by Brahma and embrace a personal deity, the bhakti worship exemplified by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness).
On Wednesday afternoon, we flew to Varanasi, the 4,800-year-old holiest of Indian cities, and official home to Lord Shiva. Every Hindu hopes to go to this Mecca once in life to bathe in the sacred Ganges River, or at least to be cremated on its shores. The city receives 30,000 new visitors a day, making it the biggest pilgrimage center in the world.
All of three million residents seemed to have turned out during the crazed rush hour, exacerbated by shopping for the Diwalli Festival of Lights, which was starting on Friday. We barely made it to the evening ceremony at the river by bicycle rickshaws. Just before the ghats, or bathing steps, where this took place, there were more aggressive hawkers and a lot more beggars than we had experienced anywhere else, some saffron-robed holy men.
It was a good time for getting rid of our rupees before going home, taking some good karma with us. To the accompaniment of harmonium and tabla, a singer sounded the prayer, as five young headshaven priests rang bells and waved torches, as incense wafted through the air.
At our hotel, the Taj Ganges, we checked into Room 310 — our area code — and found that the woman next door, a photojournalist, lived near us in West Hollywood. By this time, synchronicities, seemingly meaningful coincidences, had been occurring with amusing frequency (something I always found happens when I meditate consistently, so perhaps India supercharged that).
Down in the lobby on our way to dinner, we met Pandit Sharma, who has been doing astrology charts for hotel guests since 1972 and were impressed with both the amount of time he took to write up our reports and the insights.
On Thursday, November 11, our last full day in India, we awoke before sunrise to take a boat out on the Ganges. As we passed along the many ghats, each with a history of miracles that attracted people, many were already bathing in the river (women in saris and men in loincloths). They did not mind our watching, even waved to us. There is only one prohibition on photography and that is at the two ghats where cremation takes place, the bodies completely covered in white cloth and religious ornaments. In the dawn light, we followed the time-honored ritual of lighting a candle placed in a cup of flowers, sending it down the river as we asked for blessings. Over the water came the sound of a morning song being played on a sitar.
After breakfast, we got on a bus and went to the suburb of Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon (about how suffering is caused by desire, which can be extinguished by right action, right belief, etc.). Our guide, Dr. Arvind Singh, asserted that the decline of Buddhism and Jainism in India was because they were too austere for Indians (there are 6.5 million Buddhists, almost all of them refugees from Tibet or the result of mass conversions by so-called Untouchables since the 1950s, protesting the Hindu caste system). He and Sandra had a passionate discussion about their shared admiration for the late Rajneesh, an advocate of Tantra, and he recommended Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, teacher of the internationally-popular “The Art of Living.”
At the monument marking the place of the sermon, built in the 5th century A.D., half a dozen monks in red robes were seated, chanting. The grounds contain remains of an ancient monastery and the museum has some of the world’s best-recognized sculptures of the Buddha and other artifacts, including the four stone lions which serve as the official emblem of India, commissioned by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who reigned 269-232 B.C.
And so ended the perfect honeymoon, in the deepest sense, and we returned to the City of Angels to live a new life.
Scott S. Smith is the author of “The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death.”
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