Letter from India, Mystical and Otherwise

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

December 29, 2017

Dear Aunt Janet--


We landed in Delhi, India’s capital, on the third of December. It is foggy/smoggy and there is more traffic than I remembered. Of course, you could probably say that about every major Asian city. And you could say that it sure does take a long frigging time to get here even flying through Vancouver on the way (why?) but we already knew that.

We are on a two week plus India trip, fetchingly labeled “Mystical India” by the travel agency, although so far the only mystical part is why it takes an hour to get the luggage off the plane. All life is suffering? Also, why in a largely Hindu and minority Moslem country there are so many Christmas decorations? I counted four large images of Santa Claus in the airport alone. But since I have not finished my reading program on Buddhism and Hinduism, I will not suggest that he (S. Claus) might be a bodhisattva somewhere in the Buddhist Canon, or some reincarnation of Vishnu or Brahma for those of the Hindu faith. I don’t think he’s an analogue of Shiva the Destroyer, however, as there are sex identification problems and he wasn’t wearing the traditional necklace of skulls. I will stay alert for additional mystical encounters and keep you posted.

We were pretty starved after a 14.5-hour airplane ride, and the hotel provided us with good Chinese food at their restaurant called the Spicy Duck. I always come to Delhi for good Chinese food since we don’t have it in Encinitas. We do have good Indian food, however. Not sure if people come from Delhi to eat at our local restaurant.

World heritage sites--Since I am a bit of an ancient site/archaeology fan, using the world heritage site system as an indicator and a guide to a country is a useful shorthand to more disciplined research. It’s not perfect, and the fact that UNESCO, who manages the system, keeps adding sites means inevitably that the quality will decline over time as more sites receive this status. Or maybe the Taliban will keep blowing up images as they did to the giant standing buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, and things will even out. Let’s hope not.

There are 36 world heritage sites in India, although they count six Rajasthan forts as one site. When I read through the descriptions, I get 41. The USA in comparison has 22 of the 981 sites worldwide. But we are a much younger country than India. The Indian sites can be categorized, roughly as eight forests/parks/reserves, eight temples, eight forts, four tombs/monuments, four rock shelters/caves, and then single examples of cities, observatories, step wells, etc. Of these, our plans are to see only five. Oh well.


We visit four major cities—Delhi, Jaipur in Rajasthan, Agra and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, and the Ranthambore tiger preserve in Rajasthan—all the north central and north west of the country. Mostly we drove between locations in a large bus labeled “TOURIST” across the front, as if anyone who saw us might have thought we were travelling salesman or the national senior lacrosse team. The other give-away was that most of us wore our red “Cornell” hats, which the tour organizers had given us. Not very many people in India wear red Cornell baseball caps, not even Rajan Tata who is the most famous Cornell alum in the country.


Background—Most of us know vaguely that Gandhi stood for non-violence and was important, even instrumental, in getting India its independence from the UK after the second world war. And he dressed in funny white clothes. However, it is hard to overestimate his importance in India, or the reverence in which he is held, even seventy years after his death. For example, his picture is on every piece of Indian paper currency. George Washington only makes it onto the twenty. Gandhi’s persona or his policies are routinely invoked by every major political party, even the Hindu nationalist BJP.

Cremation site—We visit two Gandhi sites in Delhi. The cremation site is along the Yamuna river, except it’s really in a big wide park that follows the river. In fact, it’s not at all clear where the river is, so we take its presence on faith. Many high government officials and PM’s have also been cremated at points in the park, and their ashes put into the river. You may visit them if you take a liking for cremation sites. The site itself is a simple marble slab and an eternal flame in a lantern-like enclosure. And a big expanse of grass, laid out in a square with intersecting gravel pathways and a couple of plumeria trees not blooming. A one-story walkway surrounds the cremation site/garden of maybe two acres. This is said to be the second most visited site in India after the Taj Mahal. The Gandhi story has an interesting parallel with that of Abraham Lincoln, esp. the assassination after the success of an important political achievement—independence for Gandhi, holding the country together for Lincoln. But honestly, I like the Lincoln Memorial better. I may not be a “simple is better” sort of person.

Museum—And there’s the Gandhi museum/assassination site. It was the home of a wealthy patron and Gandhi stayed there when he came to Delhi from Gujarat where he mostly lived. One odd thing—a set of concrete footprints set in the ground, tracing each step Gandhi took the morning of his assassination, from his bedroom to the portico in the garden where he was meditating when his assailant shot him three times. The concrete footsteps look a lot like shoe inserts, but you can’t walk on them, you can just walk beside them. The rest of the building is filled with large blowups of Gandhi comments—mostly along the line of humility and how everyone should love one another, and animals too, and don’t eat either one. Plus twenty some wooden diorama cases looking like old Philco TV sets, but instead they have small doll size figures inside them depicting events in Gandhi’s life. If you read the descriptions of each event you rapidly come to the conclusion that it was way easier to get the country independent than it was to stop the religious and caste and tribal violence. This might be a depressing conclusion for a multi-racial and multi-religious society.

Forts and palaces

There are quite a lot of forts, at least in the north and central part of India where we were. Was there a fear of war and insurrection? Of other guys coming down from the north and throwing out the current rulers, even as they had themselves done? The answer has to be yes. Due north is the Himalayas, not much of an invasion route. Also interesting to note is that of the four original castes in India, the second highest one was the warrior caste, or kshatriya. We could point out that warriors, generally called “knights,” were a pretty big deal in Europe as well, so this is hardly an Indian preoccupation.

The Amber fort-- It is a beautiful palace really, not a fort, the defensive fort is on top of the same hill, and when the bad guys attacked the royal residents took a tunnel up the hill to the real fort. The Amber Fort itself is about three quarters of the way up the hill, and to get to it many tourists ride on elephants up the long set of ramps, slowly and ploddingly, and then get offloaded in the courtyard and look either embarrassed or surprised that they have actually done such a thing. The elephants look inscrutable. Our guide said his tour company stopped using the elephants about a year ago after one got spooked and crushed a tourist. I think this was understandable. Also the elephants are occasionally mistreated, get sores, get really bored and have to wear gaudy headdresses. It is not recorded if the Maharajah who built the fort, Shah Jahan, got to his palace on an elephant or more sensibly on a horse. We came up the back way in jeeps.

The fort, really palace, is a lovely, large, many layered, many roomed place. With lots of tourists around looking at the many rooms and wondering who took the furniture. And why they paid for the slow and uncomfortable elephant ride to get there. But the use of mirrors as inlays in the “Public Audience” room is really spectacular. It was good to be the emperor.

Red forts-- The other good thing in Agra besides the Taj Mahal is the red fort, sometimes called the Agra fort. It is subject to the two-fort confusion. There is a “red fort” in Delhi, and there’s one in Agra. They were both built by Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan and Akbar respectively. It does look like they used the same architect. And they are both world heritage sites. We drive past the Red Fort in Delhi but don’t stop, which is too bad as it is one of only three World Heritage sites in the city. We also pass the ruins of a Delhi Sultanate fortress which looks pretty interesting but we don’t stop. And we see bits of the original city walls. From the bus. Next time. The red fort in Agra is another matter.

Here is a quick Indian history refresher, because it is not taught well in American public schools. India (and by this we include Pakistan and Bangladesh) was made of a large number of competing states, pretty much all Buddhist or Hindu, from earliest times until 1050, when the first Muslim tribes began invading from the Turkic area in the central Asian steppes. Although it should be noted that Alexander the Great got as far as deep into the Punjab before inconveniently dying in 328 BC.

This first wave of Muslims, generally known as the Sultans, conquered and ruled most of India for about three hundred years—1250 to 1550, converting many of the conquered Hindus and Buddhists. But this zeal for conversion did not prevent them in turn from being conquered by their brother Muslims in the form of the Mughals from north Asia. There were six “great emperors” in the Mughal dynasty, and they and then others ruled for about 300 more years until 1850, by which time the reign had fragmented into lots of princedoms ruled by Mughal maharajahs. Many of these had been suborned by the wiles of the British East India company who had better guns, better organization, and were happy to just get the Maharajah’s into debt and hire their armies and slowly take over lots of the country, in fact if not in name. The maharajahs had not discovered compound interest, it seems.

The first six guys were pretty effective. The initial emperor was Babar (the warrior not the elephant in the French kid’s books although he may have used elephants) who beat the sultan’s forces decisively in 1526. He was followed by Humayun whose main accomplishment seems to have been making sure he got a great tomb. Then Akbar who was a very effective and terrifying ruler, enlarging the conquered area and building his big fort and palace at Agra in 1573, the first of the two “red forts.” By this point the Mughal empire included all of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangla Desh and all of India but a small bit at the southern tip of the subcontinent.

The Agra fort was both fort and royal palace, covering about 2 km sq. on the Yamuna riverfront. It is largely of dramatic red sandstone, and looks like a fort is supposed to look—tall, sheer ramparts, crenulations, firing ports, drawbridge, armored gates that occur in sets, three major layers of defensive walls and even a moat and drawbridge. The British, recognizing quality when they saw it, occupied if after they took over India and about half of it is still a military base. It is much more impressive in sheer size and grandeur than most European forts/castles—bigger, taller, more elaborate, and with far better “apartments” for the Mughal and his various consorts and children. The Taj Mahal is gorgeous, but this was the first time I had seen the Red Fort. I found it captivating.

So too is the story of Shah Jahan, the fourth Mughal emperor who was no slouch himself, enlarging the empire in southern India after taking over when Akbar died, and eventually finding/wedding (since 3000 wives wasn’t enough) a legendary Persian beauty and bestowing on her the name “Mumtaz Mahal” which means “Precious One of the Palace”. She accompanied him on his military campaigns and bore him 14 children. Whew. At the birth of number 14 she made him promise to build her a big memorial if she died, and then promptly expired.

So he did, and then planned on building an equally grand mausoleum for himself out of black marble. But by then his four remaining sons had narrowed themselves down to one, Aurangzeb, the narrowing being accomplished by Aurangzeb killing the other three. Unless he did it all at once (the accounts are not clear) then the last brother killed must have been either a bit slow or not paying attention. Aurangzeb then informed his dad that no more treasure was going to monuments. He threw his father into house arrest in said red fort—with his apartment having a view of the Taj. Who says there were no romantics in the world?

City palace in Jaipur—it’s big and lovely and has many rooms and an associated museum where there are many examples of the clothing worn by the various Shahs. Of special interest is the long tunic worn by the one who weighed 500 lbs. As one might expect, the gown is large and tent like. And there’s a nice café on the grounds of the palace, which might be the best part of the place. Otherwise it’s not so interesting, and all the signage in the museum is in Hindi. The Amber Fort it is not.

Temples and Churches

India is 80% Hindu, 18% Moslem, and the remaining bits are Sikh (1%), Buddhist (0.7%) and minor Jain and Christian populations. As best one can tell, much of Indian life has a higher “religious” content than that found in the West. Maybe. Evidence of religious belief as shown by religious practice is hard to document. But more on that later.

Largest Mosque in Delhi-- To really get in the spirit of India, we are first required to take a death defying bicycle rikshaw ride through the narrow streets of Old Delhi. If we hadn’t been on a budget priced tour I would have thought that it was a movie set put together just for us. Crowded, people on the sidewalks and small storefronts and on the narrow and curving streets, people pushing carts and riding in bicycle rickshaws and in tuk-tuks and even in the occasional intrepid car (fools). Every so often we stopped and sat for a moment or two, not to take pix but because the traffic was so crammed up. And then people in other pedicabs bumped into us from behind. Clearances between vehicles could be a small as an inch. Keep your hands in the vehicle at all times.

Shah Jahan apparently did not care for wide roads and straight lines. On the other hand, he was emperor of almost all of India so he got to do pretty much what he wanted. Hence Old Delhi which he constructed out of whole cloth and mud brick in the 1650’s. The place wasn’t very big when he built it but it even included a city wall, almost completely gone now. You can’t be too careful.

The Brits, when they took over in 1858, had different ideas. The major urban design was laid out and significant buildings were built by two architects in particular—Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, who were keen on grids and low buildings with big yards and parks and roundabouts and broad avenues. This is everything that old Delhi is not. And is far easier to navigate. When you’re a tourist you do a lot of driving around in noxious big busses, so I know. They called it “New Delhi” which at the time it was. There, mystery solved.

After our Old Delhi trial by pedicab, we eventually arrived, slightly dented, at the Jama Masjid mosque built as a part of old Delhi by Shah Jahan. Big open square plaza, people just walking around and hanging out. Not all Muslim people, as judged by the general lack of female head coverings, only a few abayas and only a couple of the full-face concealment on the women. Marble and red sandstone, built in 1656—three gates, three big domes, four towers, two very tall minarets, all constructed by hand—no power tools, no bucket trucks, no cranes, probably a lot of scaffolding, no steel toed shoes. Impressive in an austere way. The absence of human or animal imagery, a Koran requirement, makes the decorative parts somewhat less interesting. Carved lotus leaves surround the base of columns, but that’s about it.

It is said that on special holidays the mosque holds as many as 25 or 30 thousand people. But it is smack dab in the middle of old Delhi with its maze of small streets and two and three story havelis. When I hear this, as I am still an American, I think to myself, “I wonder where they all park.”

Sikh temple-- We visit the largest Sikh worship site in New Delhi, the Bangla Sahib temple. Sikh’s make up only one percent of the Indian population, but they are serious warriors and generally seem to punch above their weight in the trouble-making department. I don’t know why as we never really got a good explanation of the theology. What is clear is that not only do you take off your shoes, you walk through a small trough of water to purify your feet as well as your hands which you have previously washed. Then you walk around with wet feet. Also everyone must cover their heads, and a baseball cap won’t do. A bandana wrapped as a do-rag does work, however.

The interesting thing here is that as a matter of religious commitment they run a large communal feeding program, feeding 20 thousand people a day. You don’t have to be poor or a Sikh, just show up and they’ll feed you. Good works are good works.

The temple itself has lots of gold inside the small worship area. No images. You worship at your own speed—stand, kneel, prostrate yourself, it’s all fine. There is someone reading the holy scripture in an elevated voice but this is not a “service” as Christians think of it. No requirement for daily worship, or weekly, or monthly or whenever. The rest of the orthodoxy or required practice was unclear, except you have to wear a turban if you are male. And never cut your hair.

Hindu temple in Rajasthan—Built by the Birla family, the second richest family in India after the Tatas, it is new and pure shining white, constructed entirely of white marble. Striking if not awe inspiring, it also has a number of statues surrounding it of people you wouldn’t have expected—Plato, Aristotle, St Peter, Jesus, Buddha, Zeus, Zoroaster, Donald Duck. No, I am just kidding about that, but the others and many more are there, perhaps attesting to the remarkable malleability of the Hindu view of religion. Also it has bright stained-glass windows, with images of Shiva and Vishnu and Ganesha. It is clearly an act of devotion by the family and quite elaborate. Not many people are there.

Buddhists? We don’t see any active Buddhist temples or monasteries. The Buddhists seem to have all been driven out, headed for Nepal or Sri Lanka or to Burma where they could in turn drive out the Rohingya. We did see one large Buddha statue in Sarnath but it was built by donations from Thailand.


Tigers! Tigers!--We are in southern Rajasthan and the Ranthambore tiger reserve for three game drives. Our team is put in big open trucks with room for 20 people—five rows of four seats, not elevated. And thus not really good sight lines for people in the middle seats. Except they won’t be eaten first. It doesn’t matter as there’s nothing to see except lovely birds, nice small spotted deer, nice big dark sambal deer, occasional ugly wild pigs, and the odd crocodile in one of the three lakes. This could be a wild life paradise for the predators as there is lots of prey around and no one these days like humans to kill the predators or take over their land and build forts, palaces, houses, factories and shopping malls. According to our “naturalist” guide who has worked here for seventeen years but has only a high school education, there are 65 tigers on this reserve, 90 leopards, and 25 sloth bears who we don’t see as they are hiding out somewhere being, well, slothful. There are no smaller animals with teeth and claws so the deer have a good time and the few predators have a great time.

It is a more rugged place than the game reserves in Africa—a series of steep hills, canyons and flat lands, three modest size lakes, a bit of a cross between high desert and second growth deciduous forest and grass land. Right now all the grass is gold to yellow because it has been three months since the rains stopped. Great cover for tigers. There is a large ninth century fortress on top of one of the hills and it is quite impressive. But not on our list of things to see. The reserve covers 150 square miles, and it is but one of 48 tiger preserves in India. Tigers numbered 32,000 in 1900, and were down to about 2000 in 1971 before Indira Gandhi stepped in and created the reserves. We were also told that she made all hunting illegal in India at the same time. Yes, all hunting, not just hunting tigers. Maybe true, maybe not, but true for the tigers who have since then slowly built their strength up to 4000.

At the same time as the hunting ban she made owning guns illegal throughout the country. Our guide is legitimately proud of this fact without pointing out the US problems with private firearms. Since he is being polite, we are as well, and do not point out that Indira Gandhi was killed by a gun, several guns, and may have been wary of armed insurrections.

Tiger facts that may or may not be true:

1. Male tigers need a range of 40 square kilometers, females 16 to 20. Males weigh in at 600 lbs., females 400 lbs., neither one of whom you want to meet on a dark night when they’re hungry.

2. Tigers are solitary and do not hunt in packs, unlike lions. They mark their territory and do not like to see other tigers except for dates. They hunt at night and sleep in the day, or maybe sit around smoking and playing cards and rewinding their turbans.

3. When mating, male tigers “do it” fifty times a day, presumably with female tigers. We are not sure who first counted this phenomenon.

4. Tigers can run really fast for about 100 yards, after which they have to sit down and rest for 30 minutes. Most Americans have the same problem except for the fast part. Deer can run pretty fast and for longer periods of time/distances, although mathematically all they have to do is run fast for 110 yards. Deer may not be good at math, however. They appear at least to be good at multiplication.

5. Tigers like to catch and eat Sambal deer—the largest deer in Asia--as these deer for some reason cannot see past 15 feet, and their flesh is salty and spicy. A tiger lying in tall yellow grass cannot be seen by anyone, even a deer wearing glasses, because remember he’s camouflaged—all that yellow fur and stripes. So vision or lack thereof is not so strong a capacity or weakness. And as for tigers liking salt and ordering extra hot peppers on their pizza, this cannot be determined.

Off we go, fully briefed. To see a solitary nocturnal camouflaged beast somewhere in its forty square Km area while driving around in a noisy truck in the early afternoon, accompanied by equally noisy occupants and all, seems unlikely. We carefully test this hypothesis and find that it is true—we see bupkis as to tigers. We return to the lodge and have a talk by another naturalist who assures us that there are tigers. Somewhere. He has a picture of one.

Before we came here, we had several friends who said, in essence, “Oh, yeah, Indian tiger preserve. Your guide will drive around and then look at the ground and say ‘pug prints’ and drive around some more and stop the vehicle, and demand that you all be quiet while he listens for warning cries of the deer [Deer make noise? Who knew?] and then drive slowly around and finally decide that you just missed the tiger. Bit of a con, you know.”

Our second “game drive” starts in the morning at sunrise and proceeds almost exactly as above for two hours of very bumpy and somewhat cold tooling around on rocky dirt roads. And then, mirabile dictu, we get the word from other vehicles (no one seems to have discovered radios yet, even though they all have cell phones) that we’re close. And then, further mirabile dictu, after some more jouncing around and getting beaten up by overhanging branches, we actually have two large tigers about 25 feet away, graciously gamboling alongside the vehicles for about twenty minutes and not eating any of us. They really were tigers, not dwarfs in tiger suits, a mother and her 20-month-old cub who looked every bit as large as she did. Fun and impressive and beautiful in a “don’t come over here, you’re fine, we can see great, really, from right where we are, thanks for asking” sort of way. It is clear that they realize they haven’t really any enemies in the area, even though I used to be a capitalist developer. So I am a potential enemy but I am disguised as a wildlife tourist—binoculars, pants that morph into three pieces if you zip off the legs or become a double amputee, floppy dork hat, travelsmith 100% polyester shirt, the works. The odds of actually seeing tigers in this or any tiger reserve are probably ten percent, and we hit the jackpot. I am glad that the Brits didn’t kill them all off, and it’s disappointing that the Chinese keep paying for dead tiger and dead rhino medicine, largely to promote sexual potency. Can’t they just use the internet or Viagra like the rest of us? It's way cheaper.

Cows! Cows!—Do cows really wander around the streets unmolested, even occasionally fed? We see a lot of them, so I decide to count, when we leave the city of Drakenbur, the medium sized city next to the tiger reserve. From our hotel in the center of the town to the outskirts I count 138 cows, most along the road side, some in vacant lots, none fenced in. I also count nine camels just for the heck of it, all of them pulling carts. I did not count the many dogs and the many pigs roaming around. Yes, the cow is still a sacred cow in India. I only saw one cat in 20 days.

Birds—Given that the total cat population in India is approximately 15, there are a whole lot of birds. Large ones like kites, vulture equivalents soaring above every city we were in. Medium sized ones like pigeons, everywhere because it is worshipful to feed them. Good looking ones like the common Mynah (wonderful yellow eyes) and the red legged lapwing—a dramatic black and white bird related to African lapwings but a bit more classy. No one eats any of these because many, many people are vegetarians. We do get served chicken a lot at our meals, but never beef or pork. And dal three times a day which is a bit much even for a dal fancier like me. There is an entire Hindu temple in Deshoke near Bikaner in Rajasthan where rats are worshipped. We did not go there and no one complained. Maybe next trip.

Monuments and Mausoleums

In the US you don’t see a lot of mausoleums, where people are actually buried under the floor of big public buildings. But creating such things has a long history. One of the original seven wonders that no one can ever remember is the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, near what is modern Bodrum, Turkey. It was erected in 350 BC by Queen Artemisia in honor of her husband King Masoleus. It was such a big deal that all such buildings henceforth took his name. The crusaders destroyed it in 1534, probably looting it first. The queen eventually had a nice perennial flower named after her (artemisia, no less). Probably not by the crusaders who were not generally gardeners.

The best place we saw in Delhi--The Qutab Minar tower is one of three world heritage sites in Delhi, the other being Humayun’s tomb (below) and the aforementioned Red Fort. As befitting a tower, it is very large and round and beautiful, faced with brick and then with marble. It is tall, 238 feet tall, the highest tower in India. That is half the height of the Washington Monument, and built way earlier—1368, before anyone but the original owners were living along the Potomac. It was built as a triumphal monument, a tribute the Sultan Qutab-ud-din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi, when he conquered the last Hindu state in what was then the large (Hindu) kingdom of Delhi.

The site includes the remains of a large mosque and a whole park full of remnants of earlier mosques and gateways and the like—well maintained and somewhat restored. Over to the side is a large round twenty-foot tall platform twice as big as the base of the Qutab, built using the standard “rubble and mortar” construction precedent, with the plan to face the final structure in brick and marble. It was started by the Sultan’s successor with the plan being to build something twice as tall—hence the base that was twice as big. But he died, so it was never finished. And then his son had other things to do with the money. Tempus fugit and so on. Oh, yes, you used to be able to go up to the top of the Qutab, a bit like the Washington monument but with no elevator. In 1981 the internal lighting failed and in the stampede to get out 45 mostly school children were killed. So now it’s closed. Not repaired, just closed. Too bad.

Humayun’s Tomb—Now skip ahead five centuries from the Sultans to the Moghuls. Note to morticians: Muslims bury their dead, and if they are rich they build big memorials. Hindus engage in cremation and then disposal of the ashes in the nearest sacred river. Not clear if anyone in India holds wakes, or the currently popular “celebration of life.”

This tomb, one of the Delhi World Heritage sites, is a starter kit for the Taj Mahal. Humayun was a great Mughal emperor two before Shah Jahan, the founder of Delhi and builder of the Taj. The tomb site is quite large with lots of grass squares defined by hedges surrounding the large marble building. This grass, generally mischaracterized as a “garden,” was supposed to represent paradise. Paradise also has a water feature divided into four parts—water, milk, honey and wine. Why wine gets a place is unclear given the religion’s fairly uncompromising stance on alcohol. The building itself is impressive and you can go inside and see a relatively small marble crypt. Which is not actually that interesting.

We ran into lots of lines of school girls being taken on a fun outing to visit the tomb of some dead ruler of hundreds of years ago. They trooped past us in a more or less orderly file, all in blue pinafore uniforms. Most of them called out “hello” and most of us said “hello” back, thus establishing a meaningful dialogue with India’s younger generation. The girls giggled. We grinned. Humayun’s reaction was not clear.

The Chand Baori--On the way to Agra we were told we would stop and see a step well. I thought this was filler. And besides it didn’t fit into any of my categories. And besides I had never heard of it. I figured that some guy a long time ago dug a big well with steps inside it so women in saris could walk down some dirt steps, fill a pot with water, put it on their heads, and then, using the remarkable feat of balance that many Indian women seem to master, hike back up to the top and go home and make chapatis. How interesting can this be, although it’s nice to break up the long bus ride. A drive-through McDonalds might be ok as well, but that’s not in the cards.

Wrong, very wrong. This was a remarkable place. Abhaneri in Jaipur where we stopped is a crumby rural village, but it’s famous for having the deepest step well in the world.

The step well is a very large set of excavated squares, the topmost one 35 by 35 meters, and each subsequent one probably 2 meters less in dimension. Finally, you get down thirteen stories to the well part which is not a hole in the ground exactly but a backyard swimming pool size body of water. The entire thing is not dirt, the walls are covered with careful stone work. Around three sides of the levels are built ziggurat stone steps, every five meters or so, which serve not only as descent utilities but as dramatic decorations.

Holes in the ground, even deep ones, are not as notable as pyramids. But if you took this well and inverted it, you would have a hundred-foot pyramid, half the height of one of the pyramids at Giza. And decorated on each level with these stone steps, now arrayed as blocky shapes. Sitting in the middle of the green fields of Rajasthan. And built before 900 AD. I found this remarkable—who wouldn’t?

But there’s more--it was also decorated around the top gallery with a series of stone carvings of exquisite detail, bearing a close resemblance to the best carvings at Angkor Wat. Wall panels with deep (5 or 6 inches) bas reliefs of gods and demons and Apsaras and buddhas and all other sorts of Asian iconography. Much of it has been looted over time, but much remains. The Indian government has only recently decided that this site needs protection, and now it has guards and a guy taking tickets, and they have restored a lot of the ground level structure as well. This was a major resting place, a “caravanserai” during earlier time. It is beautiful and not very crowded and remarkable. It needs a better publicist. And a better parking lot. The bathrooms are OK.

The Taj Mahal -- There are only two things worth seeing in Agra. And to contradict that statement immediately, we should add a garden called the Mehtab Bagh. It is directly across the Yamuna river from the Taj and was designed to be an ideal viewing point, with a large pool that would exactly reflect the monument. But there was a problem--the pool was destroyed by a flood in 1987. Fixing it would have cost maybe $100K of civil work, but it has never been done. Really. Mystical India.

It is difficult to think of anything to say about the TM that hasn’t already been said. Except if your companion says, “Do you love me as much as Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz? Will you build me a TM if I die before you?” You could say, “Sure, if you’ll change your name to Mumtaz.” But that is a tiny bit flippant. There is no adequate answer. The mauselum took 22 years to build, is composed entirely of white marble, exquisitely decorated with inlaid precious and semi-precious stones and is very big, a fact that does not really come through in the pictures. It is the most visited site in all of India. It’s also on the new “7 wonders of the world” list. So you say, “Of course, darling, I would be made bereft by your untimely passing” or you say “Shoot no, where would I get that kind of money?” or you say, “Uh huh,” which is probably the only honest answer. But never mind this foolery, the Taj is a gorgeous building, a remarkable engineering and construction and decoration achievement, and a truly moving tribute to the power of love. Might even be that we need more of that these days and less of contentiousness and rancor. But what do I know?

Observing the observatory—We visit the popular site that gets my award for the dumbest tourist attraction in Rajasthan or possibly all of India—the “observatory” in Jaipur. This is a bunch of big cast masonry stuff—some two-story triangles, some one-story circles placed at an angle from the vertical, some half sphere holes in the ground sprinkled around a sort of grungy park. The creator was a mid-level maharajah named Singh and what this is not, first of all, is an observatory in any understandable definition of the word. It is instead a bunch of sun dials and calendars, all hugely larger than they need to be, and created in 1736 after visits to other “observatories” including allegedly the Greenwich meridian. He apparently did not pick up on the fact that measuring time by sun dials had been invented by the Babylonians way before Christ, roughly two thousand five hundred years previous. If he wanted to know what month it was or what day it was he could have asked the Maya or other pre-Columbian cultures any time after 500 BCE. I hope we didn’t pay a lot to get in. We did have six tour busses there, counting ours—four Chinese and two westerners. Not a lot of stuff to see in Jaipur one surmises.

Villages and shopping

Shopping!--We have small business day in Jaipur—actually two days, with a total of four visits to, in order, a jewelry factory, a blue pottery factory, a paper making factory and a rug and fabrics factory. The paper making uses people instead of machines and makes nice rag paper gift bags and boxes and little five by eight journals with Buddha on the cover that you buy intending on suddenly becoming a gifted essayist but then realize how much easier it is just to write on your computer. The journals do not have spellcheck nor do the gift bags.

Seeing all the workers submerge their arms past the elbow into vats of chemical dyes to pull out the packs of rags turning into paper was pretty disquieting. And doing it once every 45 seconds for eight hours does not look like a wonderful job. Maybe the dyes are organic…

The pottery is pretty but made of quartz sand held together with some sort of “natural glue” and only fired once. Every bit of it is done by hand by the 15 to 20 employees in the small factory. It looks like it as no two pieces are the same and the straight lines are raggedy. Because of the basic material and the absence of two firings, most of it breaks soon after you unwrap it, there is no internet presence, you can’t buy a ‘set’ of anything, and porcelain and ceramic goods are so inexpensive that it is not hard to figure out that this “tradition” will soon bite the (quartz) dust. I skip the rugs/fabrics tour as I do not need a pashmina unless this is a genie who grants wishes suitable for general audiences.

Welcome back, Liberal Guilt, where have you been?--On to the White Man’s Burden part of the tour, which seems to be an obligation of all these tours. For this we drive into the more rural part of Rajasthan which is easy as 70% of all Indians still live in villages and work in the fields. We leave the sanctuary of the bus and get jammed into the back of military style jeeps where we cannot see and keep bumping our heads on the metal ceilings. We uncomfortably go down a very bumpy road and finally come to our destination. It is a one room school house with no books, 44 kids in eight grades, two teachers one of whom never shows up, and not enough desks or chairs for everyone so they mostly sit on the floor. The kids are requisitely cute and we coo at them and to prove our empathy distribute erasers and socks. Socks for kids who wear flip flops. I do not care for this and it certainly doesn’t make any sense philanthropically.

I skip the afternoon which is an uncomfortable camel cart ride to a local village where we can see “how villagers live” and converse about their lives with them. What? Why? What is it we’d like to know—how do you like raising large plots of mustard? We have already taught their children that the rich white people come and give them gifts for nothing, what more wisdom do we have to convey—when to harvest the wheat fields? Ugh, ugh, and ugh.

In the evening we have entertainment—native touristic dancers who put pots of fire on their heads and whirl around. The dancers have been brought from Jaipur to perform for us in this pastoral rural area.

Hinduism and its holy place

To use up some of our copious bus time, our guide gives us a long discourse on Hinduism, well done and pretty clear. Except where Hanuman the monkey god came from was skipped over. Not to be confused with Humayun the Moghul ruler with the big tomb. Everyone makes that mistake.

This is one confusing religion. Even my “A Very Short Introduction to Hinduism” book spends the first chapter trying to explain whether it is a religion or a way of life, and where it came from. No founder, no bible, no ten commandments handed down on a mountain top. You can’t be a convert, you have to be born Hindu. While there are a number of well-known and popular gods, including Rama, Krishna, and Shiva, they all have manifestations, nine for Rama so far, about the same for the others. And they each have wives, and their wives have incarnations. You can worship any one of the big three or any one of their manifestations. But since the high being, although nameless as well as somewhat removed and disinterested, is found in all things, then anything you worship is part of that god and can be a god site. I think about the rat temple. Is each rat a god, or is it simply the class of rats? If the information we have been given is correct, then Hinduism is like pan-theism without the structure. 330 million gods, for example. Why not 325,417? Who gets to decide? Who keeps track? The guide says, “you westerners name things, we worship them.” These are analytical, “we like everything neat,” sorts of questions that don’t seem to work in Hinduism.

Is it important? Example one: Hinduism decrees a caste system that Gandhi got outlawed. However, every Sunday in the Times of India, there is a whole section devoted to ads for potential spouses, placed by the parents who are arranging the marriages. Every ad carries a notation of the caste of the sponsor and requests that any response have this same information, as well as the birth date of the respondent so that horoscopes can be compared. Hindu horoscopes.

Example two: Padmavati, queen of Chittor, is a figure of legend. Her existence, any record of her life and death, is not supported by anything in the historic record. Here’s the accurate part: The second Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji, was a pretty good warrior as these things go. He fought off several Mongol invasions, and conquered nearby territories, including Gujarat, Ranthambore and Chittor. He thus ended a number of Hindu dynasties.

Here is the legend part: what he really wanted was Queen Padmavati of Chittor, a Hindu. He conquered the territory and killed her husband. She, rather than submitting to an Islamic ruler, decided to burn herself to death, along with 3000 of her ladies in waiting, thus preserving her honor.

Here is the modern part: A Bollywood director named Sanjay Bansal has made a movie about the legendary queen. In it there is a dream sequence where she appears to accept the advances of the conqueror Alauddin. This has outraged Hindu nationalists who accuse it of “distorting history.” The Chief Minister of Madya Pradesh has declared that he will ban it in his state. More radical groups have threatened to burn down any cinema that shows the film, and to cut the nose off of Deepika Padukone, the actress who plays the queen. A reward has also been offered for anyone who beheads the director. The national censorship board is reviewing the film to make sure that it is historically authentic. The unpleasant part of this is that the threats seem real. It’s a legend, guys.

Varanasi— Varanasi is the holiest city in India, a combo of Jerusalem, the Vatican, and Mecca. And it sits on the River Ganges, the most sacred river in India. We ask ourselves unanswerable questions: How does a river become a god? Or in this case goddess? The river isn’t mentioned in early Hindu texts (the Rigveda or the Ramayana) and it is quite polluted near Varanasi—fecal coliform bacteria levels more than 100 times the official India limit. But it is India’s largest river by length and by volume of discharge, and the third largest in the world by discharge, although no one would have known this 2500 years ago. It plays an important economic role in the lives of millions who live on the Indo-Gangetic plain and make a living from agriculture. And if you are cremated on its shores you immediately achieve nirvana. And every Hindu is expected to come to Varanasi and bathe in it at least once in his or her life.

While water is important in Christianity (think baptism and holy water) and water is featured in Islam for its purifying abilities, there is no analogue to the powers attributed to the Ganges in any other major religion. There’s the river Styx but it is imaginary. And while we’re into epistemology, why is only the west side of the river sacred, and not the east side? The west has literally miles of houses/guest houses/hotels/temples/former palaces built along the banks, all called “ghats.” They are slightly set back from the continuous sets of stairs that go down to and into the river. Every so often there is a gap and a narrow road intrudes so one can get down to the river as this western side is very thickly built out. On the other side, nothing but a plain and the river bank. I even see a guy galloping on a horse along this other bank, by himself. In this very crowded city, there are no structures on the east bank and only a very few people. Strange. Perhaps even mystical.

One interesting side note: among the ghats fronting the river is a large and impressive mosque, built by Akbar, the third Moghul emperor. Islam has nothing to do with the Ganges, and Muslims are buried, not cremated. It’s kind of an “in your face” gesture by the emperor, and there it stands, still big and functioning. It is a little surprising that the radical Hindus haven’t made a big deal out of it. The analogue would be building a mosque on the edge of St Peter’s square.

Since we don’t plan on bathing in the Ganges or cremating anyone, why are we here? Largely as spectators—do they really burn corpses on its banks? Do pilgrims really bathe in it and thus cleanse themselves of all sins? Is there really a daily worship service to make sure the water continues its functions?

Yes, to all of the above. We ride in a large wooden boat resembling the African Queen without the wheelhouse. The diesel engine sounds exactly like Katherine Hepburn should be along any minute and help Bogart get the damn thing started. We go out in the evening and float around and watch eight pyres burning in the open along the bank at the cremation ghat, and then see what appears to be a Las Vegas guy act of seven men in bright shiny cream-colored jumpsuits, dancing, ringing bells, singing and whirling fire around in unison. In fact, it is Brahmins preforming the daily Aarti ritual. This is necessary to keep the river going, and has been performed every day for 5000 years. So we are told.

Until several years ago there was only one set of Brahmins doing this, but now a competing group has gone into business just down the river, with its own bells and loudspeakers, so it’s a noisy set of dueling scriptures taking place under lights designed to look like umbrellas. It is interesting as showmanship, but since we don’t know the language we cannot understand what is being said/chanted, and since we aren’t Hindus we don’t really understand the ceremony and the symbolism. And it is cold out on the river. The good news is that the ceremony works, because the river continues to flow.

We return in the morning, in another open boat, to watch people bathing. One would worry that this might be judged intrusive were it not for the fact that there are lots and lots of other boats floating around, filled with people doing same, as well as many people on the shore who are not bathers. There are more watchers than bathers. And besides, the women go in fully clothed, and the men at least wear their underwear. Titillation factor: zero. Watching people jump into a dirty river is not so interesting, it turns out.

You cannot park very close to the river, due to the constricted nature of the area. On the long walk back to the bus from the river we try and avoid stepping in the numerous cow patties. We try not to get run over by the numerous people on bikes and motorcycles. Fortunately, large trucks and busses are not allowed in the area around the ghats. We pass by what seems an endless chain of people begging—misshapen men, elderly widows, young girls with babies, you name it. And we attract an equally large cloud of street vendors selling post cards, toy camels, brass bells, necklaces and whatever. They are very persistent. It is not a wholly pleasant experience. And it’s still cold.

A Questionable Fact from our guide--There is a special bacteriophage in the Ganges that makes the water clean and keeps it from spoiling [sic]. Despite the fact that it receives raw sewage from a number of sources, and untreated runoff, and the ashes of 500 to 600 corpses a day and plain old dead (uncremated) bodies of women, babies, sick people and holy men, none of whom for reasons unknown are allowed to be cremated. Unless you’re Indira Gandhi who was in fact cremated and her ashes placed into the Yamuna, a major tributary of the Ganges. Despite this assurance, we did not take a bottle of Ganges water home with us.

Closing Observations

Ease of travel-- Overall travelling in India has become far more comfortable than when I first started going there for business in 1992. Food, hotels, bathrooms, bottled water availability, airports, roads are all better. It used to be that when I got out of the airplane on a trip to India, the minute my feet hit the tarmac I had diarrhea. Not so any more. It is still challenging but it is also fascinating.

Tour groups—We had 26 people on our tour, which was too many. We ended up with several parties who were at best thoughtless or at worst addled. On a daily basis, one of this group was sure to be late to the bus every time, to touch the monuments when they are not to be touched, to fail to tip the Sadhu when you have just taken an intrusive photo even though you have been told to do so (fifteen cents in rupees, not a big number), to lean over or push aside others to get the best picture, and to have to be taught each time how to turn on the listening devises that we all carry (it’s the switch on top designated “on” and “off’) thus delaying the rest of us who can actually tell time and read schedules. They also ask questions like:

Is that mountain natural?

Do rivers have tides?

Was there a movie about Gandhi?

This is the curse of large tour groups. Yes, it is easy to avoid, we just didn’t.

Industry-- After our visit to the paper making factory there was a big discussion about how wonderful it was that the owner used lots of people and they did most of the work by hand, even ignoring machines already on the site. Preserving lousy and low paid and dead end and probably dangerous “manufacturing” jobs instead of using machines which are available just means that the Chinese will make all the paper. And the jobs will go away anyway. Ditto making pottery by hand.

If employment is such an important thing, then it should be possible to hire some more people to pick up the trash at the Taj Mahal. Lots of plastic wrappers, bits of tickets, cellophane, empty chip packets and the like. This is India’s most visited tourist attraction and undoubtedly a big revenue earner, and it’s trashy. What a sad thing.

But we had a great time, we saw lots of interesting stuff, and we stayed healthy. We are already plotting our next trip.

Love and kisses,

Your favorite nephew

Mr. Hemphill is the Chairman and CEO of Sunshine Soldiers, a non-profit focused on education activities happening in energy, especially with regard to the adoption of renewable energy technology by utilities, commercial customers and homeowners, and strategies to benefit from it. Hemphill is also the author for two business travel books, Stories From the Middle Seat: The Four-Million-Mile Journey to Building a Billion Dollar International Business and Dust Tea, Dingoes & Dragons: Adventure in Culture Cuisine & Commerce from a Globe-Trekking Executive.