INTRIGUING INDIA: RELIGION

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Golden Temple at Amritsar

Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians – all are found in Incredible India.

“In religion, all other countries are paupers, India is the only millionaire,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator.

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Bathing in the sacred Ganges.

The majority, 80 percent, are Hindus. In Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges we witnessed the early morning Hindu bathing ritual, hundreds plunging into the non-too clean water which they believe is holy and will wash away all sins. At night, the banks of the river are a smoldering mass, fires and smoke from cremations. Many come to die in Varanasi. Death in the holy city is said to free one from the cycle of birth and death.

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Cremations on the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi.

Khajuraho, a wondrous place with numerous Hindu temples, is a popular site, more for the erotic sculptures on one of its temples than the stunning temple architecture.

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Khajuraho, site of many temples, is one of the “seven wonders” of India.

The Taj Mahal – India’s architectural treasure, the dazzling white marble mausoleum built by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife who died in childbirth in 1631, is a Muslim monument decorated with carefully inlaid Koranic verses.sikh.taj2

And Amritsar, home to the Golden Temple, the spiritual and cultural center for the Sikh religion, is yet another fascinating religious shrine. Sikhs compose only two percent of the Indian population, yet Sikhism is the fifth largest among the world’s major religions.

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Sikhs congregate at the Golden Temple day and night.

The religion was founded in the early 16th century by Guru Nanak and gurus who followed him. Nanak preferred the pool at Amritsar (“Pool of Nectar” in Punjab and Sanskrit) for his meditation and teaching. The site in northern India, today not far from the Pakistan border, became a pilgrimage center where a great temple was built. Perhaps more than the temple, it is the Holy Book, Guru Granth Sahib, the sacred scriptures of the Sikhs, enshrined inside which draws many pilgrims today.

Flowers cover the holy cook.
Flowers cover the holy book.

Twice per day an amazing ceremony focused on the book takes place at the temple. Thanks to guide Alok, we witnessed the lively and curious evening ceremony when the book is carried to its bedroom. Behind golden doors, it spends its night on a bed under an elaborate canopy.

We joined others in a long waiting line to view the book before the evening procession. While waiting, I had the chance to talk to a friendly Sikh who moved from Amritsar to London 17 years ago. London, where the gentleman has a fish and chips shop, has a large community of Sikhs. He was with his son. They, like many others, had a gift to lay near the book where a holy man, surrounded by other holy men sitting cross-legged on the floor, reads sacred verses.

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Evening procession transferring the book to its bedroom for the night.

After viewing the book, worshipers, all singing, line up behind ropes to view the ceremonial procession. The book, much like statues in Christian processions, is carried on a golden platform festooned with garlands of flowers.  A group of holy men follows behind, chanting. A trumpet blower announces the arrival of the book. There are stands where worshippers can take communion. It is a joyous, festive spirituality.

At 4 a.m. the same ceremony is repeated when the book is taken from its bedroom back to the temple.

We returned to the holy site the following day and were free to wander around this mystical place after leaving our shoes near the entrance and covering our heads. Vendors sell souvenir bandanas. Sikh men are not permitted to cut their hair and are easily recognized by their beards and colorful turbans. Sikh women wear either a turban or cover their head with a scarf.

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Heads must be covered at the Golden Temple. Mini scarves can be purchased.

Before entering the sacred grounds, feet are washed by wading through a shallow pool.

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All are welcome to a free meal at the Golden Temple.

The complex is large. It’s a delight to slowly stroll and enjoy the scene, the people, the peaceful ambience, the shimmering golden temple. Selfie photos in front of the temple are popular. Families walk around the lake, taking pictures of one another. Some tired souls just lie down and rest in shady spots. An underground spring feeds the sacred lake where some pilgrims immerse themselves to cleanse their souls. The complex also includes enormous pilgrims’ dormitories and dining halls where all, irrespective of race, religion, gender, are lodged and fed for free.

Feeding the hungry is a tradition among people of many faiths, but Sikhs may get first prize for generosity. The Golden Temple serves 80,000

80,000 free meals are served every day.

simple vegetarian meals every single day of the year – all paid for by donations. Anyone can partake.   Volunteers cook, serve meals and wash the dishes.

Groups sit on the floor rolling dough for naans (Indian flatbread). Nearby other groups smoother naans with a type of butter. Enormous vats of various concoctions simmer on stoves.

Some who eat at the temple volunteer to help out to “pay” for the food and assist the permanent volunteers. Sikhs who live in other countries often come and stay at the temple for several months to help in the kitchen.

Volunteers do all the food prep.

The Golden Temple’s past is not all peace and love. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered an attack on armed Sikh militants holed up there. Over 500 people were killed in the ensuing firefight. Sikhs around the world were outraged at the desecration of their holiest site. Four months after the attack, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, leading to a massacre in which thousands of Sikhs lost their lives.

Most of the damage has been repaired by the Sikhs themselves who refused to allow the central government to take on the task.sikh.14

More on India soon—Dharamshala and the Tibetan refugees.  If not already a Tales and Travel follower, sign up (upper right) so you will not miss this and future posts. Your address is kept private and never shared.

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Foreground:  Ganges bather. Background:  Yoga session.

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Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.
Erotic sculptures at Khajuraho.

It’s summer and melon season – perfect time for a light, refreshing dessert. I brought Chilled Melon with Lime and Ginger to a recent pot luck. All loved it. Click HERE for recipe and scroll down for more of my tried and true recipes.

 

 

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Intriguing India

 

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In April I joined my friend Wilma and 11 other German tourists for a 15-day tour of northern India and Kashmir. The advertising campaign touts the country as “Incredible India.” It is – as well as intriguing. Following are some aspects I found incredibly intriguing during my travels.cow.2

PEOPLE: My favorite part of India. They are the friendliest, kindest, gentlest, most open and talkative folk. Indians often approach and start a conversation. Where are you from? Do you like India? They ask to have their photo taken with you, and they eagerly pose for photos.   On a train, they share their food. In Kashmir, I was invited to join a picnic. When I had a nasty crash during one of my solitary escapades in the boondocks of Kashmir (details in future post) two young men came to my aid, offered comfort and a ride.

My seat mates on our train ride to Agra were delightful: A retired gentleman and a recently-married young woman, Shruti. We chatted non-stop.   I learned a lot about India.

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Train companions

Poverty in the country is overwhelming. There are beggars. At the tourist sites, the souvenir sales crew do pester. But, if you reply with a firm NO, they usually back off. Many have mastered salesmanship. “You look like a movie star,” a crafty fellow at the

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Khajuraho temple known for its erotic sculptures told me. My hair was a disaster. I was hot, sweaty, tired and felt like an ancient hag. He won. I bought the bronze bowl with the sexy etchings which I really did not want, but now I am glad I have this bizarre treasure which brings back fun memories.

Despite the body-to-body throngs in many places, I felt safe in India. I was careful and cautious with my purse and camera, but never felt that someone would accost me and grab my valuables.

Many of my German travel companions were on their fourth or fifth trip to India. “People” is one of the major reasons they keep returning to India, they said. “The people are so friendly. They have so little but they seem satisfied. They have lebensfreude (joie de vivre, zest for life). It fascinates me,” observed Sepp.

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Celebrants at a country wedding.

MARRIAGE: Some seventy percent of marriages in India are arranged. Shruti, 27, showed me pictures on her phone of her December wedding with 1,000 guests in attendance. She had spent a mere 10-minutes with her husband-to-be before the wedding. They asked each other questions about what kind of life they wanted, what they wanted in a mate. His answers matched her desires. She is obviously happy with her new life and man, and glowed when talking about him.   She said some of her friends had married for “love,” but she preferred to honor her parents’ wishes and let them find her a husband. For India, she married late, but “I told my father not to find me a husband until I finished school,” she explained.

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The bridal couple

As is the custom in India, she now lives with her husband and his mother. Once married, daughters live with their husband and in-laws. This is old age insurance for the parents, assuring that they will always be taken care of. However, problems between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are legendary and the brunt of numerous jokes.

Shruti has no problems with her mother-in-law, but, unlike most married women in India, she is not in the kitchen cooking with her mother-in-law all day. She has a career and works in a bank. According to guide Rajesh, 70 percent of Indian women are housewives who spend six hours per day in food preparation. Indian cuisine is labor intensive.

My other train companion has two daughters, both married. He had a hard time finding a husband for one of the two as she is overweight, he said. She found a husband on her own.

COWS: Yes, they are sacred. They are everywhere — and perhaps not too bright. Now I understand the German expression: blöde Kuh (stupid cow). Hindus, 80 percent of the Indian population, are vegetarians. Cows are never slaughtered. Thanks to their milk, they are viewed as maternal figures, and are raised for dairy products, as well as plowing the fields. Cow manure is used as fertilizer and fuel.cow.1

So, what happens when a cow is too old to give milk or work the fields? The beasts are turned loose and wander freely everywhere, often in the thick of roads clogged with cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorcycles, tuk-tuks . Horns blast. Drivers shout. The gentle beasts are oblivious to all. Traffic comes to a standstill. No one wants to hit a cow. There are other places to roam, but India’s cows seem to prefer to be in the midst of the melee.

They thrive on garbage, and there is plenty in India. In Varanasi where we witnessed numerous cremations on the banks of the Ganges, cows – and dogs — munched on the debris around the places where bodies had been burned.

Some lucky cows end up in cow retirement centers, Gaushalas.   India has 3,000 of these, but, according to animal husbandry statistics: 45,150,000 cows. Most meander ubiquitously throughout the cities and countryside.cows.4

Being an animal lover, I wanted to pet the poor fellows. The guide warned: Don’t touch. If hungry, they might be mean, buck with their horns, he said. I doubt the ones I saw would have had the energy. I obeyed nonetheless. I think these crazy cows add a puzzling, calming charm to India’s  chaotic ambience.

TRAFFIC: Cows do complicate the snarling masses of all sorts of vehicles as named above, plus pedestrians often in the midst. How could anyone even think of driving in this madness? The noise is more than incredible. Every driver seems to have his hand plastered on his horn. Who is honking at whom?   No way to know. Who has the right of way, other than the bovines? Survival of the fittest. Just plunge ahead and hope for the best.

Hats off to the drivers. We each had a rickshaw for our ride from the hotel to the riverbank in Varanasi. The traffic was abominable, but my skillful rickshaw driver kept his cool, pedaled his vehicle with aplomb, weaving around cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc. There were many close calls, making the ride more thrilling than the wildest of roller coasters.cows.5

We had frequent long journeys on a comfortable, roomy bus. In India, the bus driver is in a separate glassed in compartment with his assistant sitting next to him. The assistant is de rigueur. Four eyes are needed to watch ahead and to the sides for all-too-frequent obstacles. Our bus assistant also served bottled water, and, in our case, often stopped to purchase bananas for his passengers.

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Bus driver assistant purchases bananas for passengers.

We rode on rutted roads through the countryside and small villages, and on super highways as good as any in the developed world.

Alok told us there are 2,000 traffic deaths per day in India. Many drive without a driver’s license, but a license can be purchased – no test required.dogs.2

DOGS: There may be as many homeless dogs as there are cows. These canines are not pets, never were. They all are similar in appearance: medium size, short, beige/ tan fur. They wander freely everywhere, but most seem to have enough sense to stay away from auto traffic. They, too, thrive on garbage. None I saw looked malnourished, and they were not vicious. Yet I resisted the urge to pet. Unlike the docile cows, I feared one could bite. After experiencing India’s stray dogs, I came across this article, “The World is Full of Dogs without Collars”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/19/science/the-world-is-full-of-dogswithout-collars.html?_r=0   It’s an interesting read for animal people.

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I wanted to rescue this poor baby.

What about cats? I only saw two during the entire trip. No wonder. With all those hungry dogs, they would end up as dog food.

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Alok enjoying dinner in Kashmir.

CONTRASTS: The poverty, filth, garbage, noise and pollution are all mind-boggling. On our last day, Alok wanted us to see the new state-of-the art metro in Delhi. It, too, was mind-boggling: futuristic, spotless, sleek, quiet, fast.

Intriguing. Incredible. That’s India. More to come in future posts: Amritsar and the Sikhs, Dharamshala and Tibetan refugees, Kashmir.

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Weddings merit big celebrations. We came upon one in a small town during our travels. The groom was in costume  on horseback.

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No Indian recipe this time, but how about tasty Thai – sort of in the same neighborhood? See recipe column at right for Thai-Style Asparagus Beef Curry. Add some spice to spring asparagus. Click on above photo for recipe.people.4Holy Man.  Religion is another most intriguing aspect in India.  These “holy men” often pose near tourist sites, hoping for a donation.

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