Stories from India

I didn’t update much when I was in India because I was going through my own issues and simply trying to get through every day. But I had so many adventures there that I must share some of them with you all. India is a dream for photographers and those who are willing to experience something paranormal.

In Rishikesh, a holy town situated at the foot of the Himalayas and carved around the Ganga River, the Hindus living and studying at the temples there perform a ganga aarti every night. They light candles, dance with them making motions through the air, chant, and then release small lit candles into the river.

The demographic in Rishikesh is interesting because it’s half a special pilgrammage for Hindus and half a gathering spot for every New Age hippie traveler seeking to twist their bodies into a new yoga pose or live in an ashram for a week. I must admit that I’m closer to the latter. I went to Rishikesh because I had just decided to leave my program and I needed to cleanse my mind, body, and spirit. As it was, I was actually disappointed by the yoga, which I found to be very slow and unchallenging compared to the types of yoga that I am used to in New York, and I hung out with too many pot-smoking long term travelers to feel all that inspired. What I would recommend Rishikesh for is the nature. Here the river Ganga is fresh and uncontaminated, which is not the case in Varanasi (Hinduism says that the Ganga is sacred so dead bodies released there may have more blessed re-births… so not only are there corpses floating around the Ganga there but there are also several chemical factories upstream that release toxic waste into the river. Do. Not. Bathe. Yourself. In. The. Ganga. In. Varanasi) and the Himalaya mountains are a fantastic backdrop. There are many waterfalls near Rishikesh as well as small towns further up the mountains, and you can go for lovely runs into the mountains during the mornings.

I arrived in Mumbai at 5 in the morning from an overnight (general class… an interesting experience to say the least) train from Goa. I had plenty of time to explore the Colaba Causeway district, Mumbai’s chicest and most tourist-friendly neighborhood, and still catch the sunrise. Directly in front of the India Gate, workers were still packing away what looked like the remnants of a fancy wedding or expensive ceremony. Tens of completely covered figures were huddled on or between the benches, taking advantage of the event’s completion to take refuge and sleep. Mumbai is India’s most overcrowded city, as poor migrants from all over the country poor into the city to find jobs. It’s not for anything that they come. Mumbai’s GDP is almost 1/3 of the country’s GDP, and is home to the world’s largest film industry. The sheer contrast between these huddled figures and the Taj Hotel’s inhabitants (directly behind India Gate) would astonish anybody walking around Colaba; however, it likely doesn’t, as it is simply a long recognized defining characteristic of the city.

The homeless and destitute are a major problem in all of India, and here is a picture of another sleeping site in New Delhi. In ND, the danger is that the city becomes very cold during winter, around 20 degrees Celsius, which doesn’t sound very cold to people from Continental areas, but the poor often don’t have enough clothing nor blankets. Walking through the streets of New Delhi, one can see people burning anything and everything that they can find in order to stay temporarily warm – at any hour of the day. Not shown in this picture is the enormous pile of ash nearby, evidence of such a fire.

I went to Amritsar for a class trip. It wasn’t even my class – it was Geographies of Faith – but I wanted to go and learn about the Sikhs, who are a minority religion in India and face much prejudice. People know about the Sikhs because they are very militarily active in India – they comprise a good percentage of India’s army – and they are very outspoken about politics. Indeed, the Sikh religion and history is a testament to the discrimination that they have faced that has pushed them to try to be active in politics and also be militarily capable of defending themselves. I remember walking around the Golden Temple, which is like Mecca for Sikh believers, and my holey-cape (the things that you can buy in New York that are never practical in any other place of the world) got caught on a man’s knife. Yes, all Sikhs are required to carry curved knifes, and never cut their hair, and wear these sharp steel bracelets that back in the day were used to shield themselves from swords and also inflict damage when used over the knuckles. It all sounds intimidating. Yet the Sikhs also have an unflinching set of morals and principles that, in my opinion, are more impressive than those of Hinduism (the majority religion in India). For one, Sikhs do not believe in any caste system nor social discrimination of any kind. That may be because they have been discriminated against so much in the best, and to this day are still believed to be a part of Hinduism. So at the Golden Temple, there is a langar, or a community dining hall, where anyone of any ethnicity, caste, or sex can eat a delicious meal all throughout the day for free. Volunteers prepare thousands of meals a day. We passed by hundreds of people cutting vegetables and baking fresh roti (unleavened Indian bread). It was an inspiring and awesome sight, and I must say that I have still never eaten such delicious roti.

jI attended the inauguration of a new branch of my friend’s mother’s NGO (Adharshila) at Kalka Ji Mandir. Their mission to build foundations for strong and self-reliant communities at the grassroots level with dedication and sincerity. They strive to empower and enable societyโ€™s weaker sections through vocational training programs, counseling and awareness workshops. At this particular location, they had a women’s health care center. A gynecologist inaugurated the new center, and these girls from the neighborhood performed a special dance to thank the NGO. They were lovely and giggly, like all young girls around the world. It was amazing to see the turnout for the inauguration; the entire neighborhood (mostly mothers and their children) came to the community center and filled up the 300 sq foot main room. There must have been hundreds of people. Adharshila has 3 locations in New Delhi, and each one provides different services. Look at their website; they accept volunteers!

I switched host families in New Delhi after two months. My first host family wasn’t very communicative nor affectionate with me, and I wanted a family that felt more like.. a family. So I moved in with the Ahlawats in March. I had three host brothers as well as Auntie and Uncle (what people normally call older people that they respect). Almost as soon as I moved in, there was a whirlwind of activity because the eldest host brother was getting married. He had been living in Canada and met his wife at York University there, and they came back to India to marry in the presence of their families and friends. It was a gigantic, huge, resplendent, obstentatious affair. You haven’t been to India until you’ve attended an Indian wedding. For starters, there were four social functions not including the wedding itself. Both their families are Hindu, so each function had a specific religious purpose and was either hosted by the bride’s side or the groom’s side. Then, at the very wedding itself, there were about 700 people and it lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning. It was the first wedding that I had ever attended, and I hope that it will not be the last Indian one. I will always look back fondly on the experience, and remember the generosity and care of all those involved in the wedding’s preparation and consummation.

A few stories from India. It’s definitely a country to experience. Immerse yourself in the culture, and learn more from the people than you could ever imagine.

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