Chapter 38 (Part 3) Further travels in India and Nepal

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The waterfront of Mumbai seen from the boat to Elephanta Island with the Gateway of India and, left, the Taj Palace Hotel,

Mumbai (Maharashtra) and Karnataka

We arrived in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, which is the name of the entire region) from Varanasi in October, 2009. I had, once again, been teaching “English without books” in Varanasi to the DEVA staff, using a method which I had begun the previous year, gestures and actions instead of the written word. It had been a lot of fun again, and I had been wearing my first salwar kameez (made in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu, in 2008). I had, however, been very careless with the shawl that was hanging far too low in the front. Indian women are forever adjusting their shawls, but I had obviously not sufficiently learned about that important detail.

We very much wanted to get to know Mumbai, since it is a spectacular city and also the home of Salman Rushdie, who is one of our favorite writers. He lived on Malabar Hill as a young boy and he refers to it at least in “Midnight’s Children”. So, on our first evening in Mumbai we took a cab from our hotel, along the west shore bay called “Back Bay”, to Malabar Hill where we got to see the up-scale high-rise buildings, the kind Rushdie most likely grew up in. He came from a vert well-to-do English speaking family.

We went back to Malabar Hill on our tour of Mumbai with a very good woman guide, and we looked around some more then. That is when we saw the proximity of the poor people’s shacks on the edges of the the Banganga Tank, where dhobis clearly washed laundry for the well-to-do people. There were also more shacks out on the side towards the sea, the west coast now – Mumbai is on a peninsula.

The contrasts between the rich people’s high-rise buildings on Malabar Hill and the shacks below is stark, but there are many places in India where you get to see similar contrasts. The drive from Varanasi Airport into the city has now become somewhat similar, since a numlber of up-scale, high-rise buildings have grown up next to the poor people’s low and downtrodden houses. One day the lower-class houses will probably have  given way to more luxury buildings.

The Elephanta caves and columns

We had actually seen a small city of Dalit slum dwellings against a background of wealthy looking high-rise buildings on our way into the city from the airport. Obscene contrasts are everywhere in India.

We visited with our woman guide the hhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the former Victoria Terminus, possibly the most fashionable railroad station in the world, at least of that era, interior and exterior built in some quasi-Gothic style. It was actually worthg a visit.

We saw the Elphinstone College, another impressive colonial building, quasi-gothic as well, where the rich young Indians most likely got a perfect English education. That may have changed some though after 1947. And our guide took us to the hilariously impressive Mumbai open-air laundry business, the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat. I bet that laundromat has no rivals in the world.

The 6 metres high Trimurti sculpture on Elephanta Island

In all, we spent a few interesting days in Mumbai — the last day on a boat tour to Elephanta Island with its Elephanta Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves were carved out of the rock and the numerous relief sculptures inside the caves are quite impressive. The caves with their statues date back to the 2nd century BC. It is hard to believe that all these caves and relief statues were really carved out of the rock — over 2000 years ago.

Ellora Caves in the Aurangabad section of Maharashtra state

We got to see something a bit similar, but even more unbelievable, in 2012 at the Ellora caves in Maharasthra state.

“Ellora is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, India. It is one of the largest rock-cut monastery-temple cave complexes in the world, featuring Jain, Buddhist and Hindu monuments and artwork, dating from the 600–1000 CE period.”  (Wikipedia)

Towers of the Kailasa Temple of Ellors Caves, seen against the wall of the original rock.

 
How mere human beings 1500 years ago can possibly have achieved this amazing colossus of art, these exquisitely carved towers and statues, seems almost beyond belief. But there you are — and we know that Indians have the most unbelievable patience. For hundreds of years they and their children and grandchildren, and so on, worked on this quite unbelievable artistic-religious project.
 

From Mumbai we went by plane to Bangalore (Karnataka), our starting point where we got a driver to take us to Hampi and Badami, on the worst roads we have ever encountered in India. And that is saying a lot.

However, we were now in Bangalore where my Facebook friend Amina lives there with her “petite falille”, as the French say. — husband and a young son. We spent a very pleasant evening with them and got to see the Indira Gandhi Musical Fountain Park, with elaborate fountains and light effects.

I also met with Amina’s bearded brother the following morning who wanted to talk to me about my political writings. He suggested contacting a publisher in Calcutta who might be interested in my essays. That was a dead end though, since the man in question was an arch conservative and didn’t at all go for my putting down of the United States as the villain in this era and its endless wars of destruction, first of all of the Middle East.

We then set out on our long car ride to Hampi.

Hampi

The ancient city in this region was Vijayanagara which was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire that dated from 1336. It lasted for 200 years and, in the medieval era, Vijayanagara was the second largest city in the world, after Beijing.  In 1565, a coalition of neighboring Muslim kingdoms defeated the armies of the empire, which was mostly Hindu. ”Its capital was conquered, pillaged and destroyed by sultanate armies in 1565, after which Hampi remained in ruins.” (Wikipedia).

We spent a few exciting days in Hampi, making trips all around the town of Hampi to look at all the various temples and mandapas left from the Vijayanagara Empire era. We loved the huge rocks with the ruins of small temples and shrines that looked as if they had grown out of the rocks. I especially adored the enormous flat rock right next to the town that was once the capital of an empire. Hampi-Vijayanagara was the name of the vast city that was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire.

They traded with regions as far away as Persia and the Portuguese colony Goa. You can still see today what was once the cebter of trade, a street still lined with the pillars to house the bazaars, and the Virupaksha Temple at one end. 1 For more pictures of Hampi and surroundings click here.

Badami

From fascinating Hampi we went on to Badami to the north. More bad roads. Well, that’s India for you. These were roads that were more potholes than anything else, so it was slow and tiring traveling. We saw quite a few carts pulled by buffaloes on the road; they were richly decorated and we guessed there was some festivity somewhere along this sad road. There was even a decorated three-wheel truck of sorts with people standing up on the roof in the Indian style. You even see buses anywhere in India that seem to have more passengers outside than inside the bus.

The hardship, mostly for the driver, I admit, was well worth it though. The next day we climbed up several flights of stairs or steps to get to some highly decorated caves, different from any we had seen before or would be seeing later. Also, there was a variety of religions represented in these caves, mostly Hindu but also Buddhist and Jain. The rocks themselves were gorgeous and multi-colored, ranging from orangy red to black to almost white. I had been a bit out of it for a couple of days, and our driver,

Washing women at the lake in BadamiPradeepa, always a gentleman, as John says in our album, was adorable lending me a supporting hand as we walked up the unending steps.

In Hampi the town was not very interesting, but Badami was full of life. There were the markets and, above all, the very picturesque sight of the women washing their laundry. No dhobis here – it seems as if every woman is her own dhobi woman and she carries her laundry back and forth on her head.

Dharamsala

Dharamsala is the district headquarters of Kangra district; in British times it was part of the province of Punjab. It is now widely known as the site of the Dalai Lama, who has his temple and abode in McLeod Ganj, a town situated on the northern hillside above Dharamsala, sometimes referred to as a suburb of.Dharamsala.

We decided in 2012 that we would like to see the Dalai Lama’s temple and the place where he had settled after escaping from his palace in Lhasa in March 1959.2

The famous Golden Temple, a Sikh temple inan overwhelmingly Sikh city

It would be February and we had prepared ourselves for cold weather, lightweight padded jackets and some more warm things, but we had not expected the snow we got on our first evening.

Our driver from Amritsar, though, had prepared for nothing and he did get a bad cold. Someone lent him a blanket and he walked around wrapped in it for this few days’ stay. We went to see how he was doing every day and he kept in good spirits, even though all the drivers slept in a shack that may not even have been heated.

On our first evening we were told that the Buddhist monks were going to have a huge candle procession, passing through the town. We walked down from our high-level hotel and we saw these men, some with naked arms under their deep-red robes, woolen at least. But, actually, quite a few of them were wearing woolen sweaters under their robes. They claim though that they can discipline themselves not to feel cold. It is faith that keeps them from freezing. Oh well…

A mass of dark-red robes, the burning candles in cold hands and the snow; flakes falling in the waning evening light. I will never forget that impressive sight. The next morning everything was covered in snow.

During the couple of days we spent in McLeod Ganj, we went to a neighboring picturesque little town from where we went on a pleasant little hike to a narrow waterfall that fell over cliffs into a pretty valley. After a quick lunch on the worst sandwich I think I have ever tasted, we went to visit the “Tibetan Children’s Village” back to McLeod Ganj. The children who often first of all have to be taught the Tibetan language, were given a good education here, and a home. Health services were of course available, hospital and all.

Since most of the refugee children had lived with Chinese families where they had been forced to live by the authorities, taken away from their parents, they did not even speak their own language. The Chinese politics in Tibet are not pretty.

It was now winter vacation and only some very young children were in the village at this time. We had long talks with the women who ran this Tibetan center, and they of course wanted us to sponsor a child from their village. We said at our hotel that seemed closely connected to this village that we already had two foster children in India. They said “So then you will have three.”But that did not get to be.

The following morning the Dalai Lama was receiving the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African icon fighter against apartheid, and generally a human rights activist who received the Nobel peace prize in 1984. We had been advised by the woman who managed the village to get to the temple early, to get seated at all.

We got there early but not early enough, and we did not get seated. As I came in alone, I caught sight of this woman and it was so very funny. We must have really made friends, and when I caught sight of her, she turned around and said “Where is John?”, just as if we had been in Genas (suburb of Lyon).

What had happened was that John and I arrived happily at the temple, our cameras hanging around our necks. We were immediately told that cameras were on that day strengstens verboten. John had to go down and then up and up to our hotel to get the cameras back safely in our room. From where I was standing in the back I waved and waved to my husband when he got back. He saw me and all was well. We had good standing room places anyway and later on, when people started moving some, I actually got a seat. The surface of the temple had been at least doubled by adding a large area under huge yellow tarpaulins.

The Dalai Lama receiving Archbishop Desmon,d Tutu and his wife, Nomalizo Leah Shenxane, in McLeod Ganj on March 10 2012 “Archbishop Desmond Tutu Visits an Old Friend”

We were waiting for well over an hour for the two great men. They were finally announced by music an dancers on the side where  they entered, across from where we were standing.

We suspected that something had gone wrong with Desmond Tutu’s transportation. Once they were seated in front of the temple, the real dancing got started and the Indian hoopla went on for a very good while.

Then finally the two celebrities began to talk. They even joked a great deal and they laughed a lot. Desmond Tutu joked about the Dalai Lama not being able to speak proper English and still making full-room appearances all over the world.

This was a historic event we had no idea we were going to attend.

Nepal and the Himalayas

In 2008 we went to Nepal and arrived in Varanasi only after we had gotten fierce colds at the Chitwan National Park, which was otherwise a wonderful experience

The high peak in the Annapurna range of the Himalayas, seen from Pokhara (2008)

The travels I have talked about here and Varanasi in the First part of Chapter 38 are just a selection of all our travels in India over eight years 2006-2014. All those long visits made us witness an, to an extent, experience a totally different world and way of life. It was fascinating but also frightening to see, for example, the treatment of the Dalits, and the extreme poverty visible in pockets all over India — some states, such as Uttar Pradesh, suffering more from poverty and its consequences, malnutrition  and the very sad cases of mentally and physically handicapped children that are usually a result of the mother’s malnutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

One could write a book about travels in India alone, with views of living conditions, obscene luxury almost next-door to desperate poverty, such as you don’t ever see in the West, what our dear French friend, Jean-Max calls la misère. DEVA, the organization we are so closely connected to in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, would not exist today if it had not been for dear Jean-Max.

The entirely sunny side of DEVA for us is, however, our foster-daughter,, Sampa Chaoudhury, who is now doing her third year, brilliantly at an institute for design in Hyderabad. She has always been a very talented artist and we are confident that this four-year education will suit her perfectly. 

Continued: Chapter 38 (Part 4) — More travels

  1. In 1520, Domingo Paes, a Portuguese traveller, visited Vijayanagara as a part of trade contingent from Portuguese Goa. He wrote his memoir as Chronica dos reis de Bisnaga, in which he stated Vijayanagara was “as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight … the best provided city in the world”. According to Paes, “there are many groves within it, in the gardens of the houses, many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes.” (Wikipedia.
  2. “How and Why the Dalai Lama Left Tibet”> — After years of guerrilla war between Tibetan rebels and the Chinese soldiers in a land that China considered to be its territory, the friendly overture seemed suspicious enough that, on the day of the performance, thousands of protesters surrounded the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa to keep him from being abducted, arrested or killed. Over the following few days, the protests expanded into declarations of Tibetan independence and the mobilizing of rebel troops to fight the Chinese forces. The State Oracle, the Dalai Lama’s advisor, urged him to flee.

    On this day, March 17, in 1959, Tibet’s spiritual and political leader, then 23, disguised himself as a soldier and slipped through the crowds outside the palace he’d never see again. He embarked on a dangerous journey to asylum, crossing the Himalayas on foot with a retinue of soldiers and cabinet members. They traveled only at night, to avoid detection by Chinese sentries. Rumors later circulated among Tibetans that the Dalai Lama “had been screened from Red planes by mist and low clouds conjured up by the prayers of Buddhist holy men,” according to TIME’s 1959 cover story about the escape. But until he appeared in India, two weeks after taking flight, people around the world feared that he had been killed, according to the BBC. <a href=”https://time.com/3742242/dalai-lama-1959/”>TIME</a>