Monthly Archives: March 2014

In Awe of India

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As I walked to the temple, the enormity of it looming in the distance made me feel uncontrollably small. Mahogany beams interlocked across the entrance creating an archway of enigma atop a series of stone steps that magnified the structure under a sun obscured by no clouds. They had taken my bag, my camera, my phone and just about everything else after a series of security frisks so thorough, they had made me seriously consider asking the guard for breakfast and a phone number where I could reach him again if he wanted to hang out and watch a Bollywood movie or something.

I took off my shoes, bending low to hand them to an Indian man through a window in what looked like the entrance to a small underground bunker filled with nothing but piles of fading footwear. “Thank you, sir,” he said, bobbing his head from side to side and handing me a small numbered chit.

Inside, people sped up on their naked feet and rushed to fall on their knees before a gigantic golden statue, the shining likeness of a man in a turban, sitting cross legged on a pillow, hands clasped at his knees. Pilgrims touched their foreheads repeatedly in respect and mumbled words I couldn’t understand under their breath. I stood a few metres behind, hands at my back, observing the scene with a mix of confusion and sympathetic serenity to match the air of fabricated sanctity blessed in silent reverence. The cavernous room felt oddly full, echoes aside.

An arrow pointed me down a set of marble steps that led into the basement. I could hear the sound of ritualistic chanting getting louder as the bulbs dimmed to a caramel shade of candlelight. The mantra grew louder and more monotonous, echoing off the narrow walls as my eyes adjusted to a sea of holy relics laid out in pantheon before me.

The Gateway of India, Mumbai

The Gateway of India in Mumbai, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V.

But the story really starts 16 hours earlier on a train leaving Mumbai in the middle of the night. I slumped into my seat just as it began to rumble, having narrowly caught my overnight sleeper to Ahmedabad, a northern Indian city a few hundred kilometres from the Pakistani border, the largest and most populous city in the province of Gujarat. Despite being one of the few places in India where the sale and consumption of alcohol is entirely forbidden, the self-proclaimed food capital of the country boasts famed mosques, winding markets and absolutely no tourists to speak of. But more importantly, I’d found an incredibly cheap flight back to Kenya from the city’s relatively new and desperately underutilized airport.

I sat next to a married couple on the train, traveling home from a vacation with the family in Mumbai. Their two young daughters quickly jumped on the upper bunks to secure them for the eight-hour ride and we settled into the compartment partitioned by thin walls and a few curtains hung on dangling metal rungs. We got to chatting about the usual moving car pleasantries when I finally admitted that I was only staying in Ahmedabad for a day to catch a flight and not planning to see much. They were shocked, they were appalled. They playfully wouldn’t stand for it.

Strangers were kind in India, a sort of uninhibited natural kindness I had long ago forgotten in Nairobi. People exuded immense pride in their country, not just a veiled hustle for tourist cash with anyone that looked out of place. The wayward stink eye stares of street faring Kenyans was gone, replaced by smiling Indian faces who held out no beggar’s hands when they waved and yelled “Hello!” amidst the intense hustle bustle of metropolitan cities like Mumbai that neither cared nor waited for the slow of heart or mind.

A few days earlier, I’d met a young graduate student on a boat heading back to the mainland from Elephanta Island, an ancient archeological site just off the coast of Mumbai. His name was Hashish. No, really. After seeing me sitting by myself on the deck, he approached me to chat politics and proudly boast the immense technological and social advances his city had undergone in the past 10 years. As we got off the boat, he introduced me to seven of his family members, each individually by name, and gave me a private tour of the downtown core, for which he would accept nothing but a streetside cup of tea. “This is Indian hospitality,” he told me. “You are a guest here. This is our home, and you are most welcome.”

Back on the train to Ahmedabad, the friendly couple was surfing the web on their tablets to find the cheapest hotels in town, routes to the famous tourist spots and even instructions on how to take public transit if I didn’t want to pay for taxis or hire a car. They asked me about life in Kenya and were keen to know about what it was like during the terrorist attack in September. I told them about plans to visit a Somali refugee camp and the husband rolled his eyes.

“He’s a racist,” the wife giggled, winking at both of us from across the tight compartment.

“No, no. Ha, ha. I’m not a racist. I’m just not a fan of the Muslims,” he said, unabashedly. “They have Pakistan, we have India. They only cause problems here.”

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the bridge is accessible only during low tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

The Haji Ali Mosque in Mumbai. Built on a islet 500 metres off the coast, the only bridge is completely submerged in water during high tide. Despite the split with Pakistan in 1947, there are still over 138 million Muslims living in India

With 1 billion people in a country no larger than Québec, India was boasting one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This, coupled with a democratic government and a free press that was manifesting itself into an increasingly literate and university educated middle class. India is the ‘I’ in what’s known the BRIC countries, a group of emerging economic superpowers that includes Brazil, Russia and China.

The next day, I followed their directions and made my way to the Swaminarayan temple in Ghandiganar, a nearby town that housed the provincial government buildings and bustling streets filled with horses, cows, camels, elephants and packs of monkeys that weaved their way effortlessly through oncoming traffic. The temple was really a cross between a palace and a playground, complete with an amusement park waterslide and pathway lined with shrubs pruned into elaborately posed baby elephants, trunks all pointing in our wake.

Lord Swaminarayan, who died in 1830, is revered across many parts of the world as the physical incarnation of god on earth. Hindus worship many gods, but they’re all ultimately representations of Brahman, the world soul, the all connecting world energy that flows through everything, vibrating at the frequency of om. Swaminarayan was the incarnation of that supreme being, come in human form to earth in order to show people the way and the truth. It was like a strange Hindu and Christian hybrid religion.

In the basement of the temple, Swminarayan’s relics were displaced in brightly lit glass cases with plaques that explained their significance in Gujarati, Hindi and English. All around, hidden speakers played an almost Gregorian loop of singers continuously repeating the word “Swaaaaaaaaaaaminarayaaaaaaaaan,” in a rhythm that quickly became hypnotic and strangely soothing. I closed my eyes and subconsciously swayed.

Everything from his gloves to his teeth was displayed with the proud dignity of a small group of devoted followers who had taken great pains to keep them in immaculate condition for over 180 years. Life-sized wax dolls illustrated scenes from Swaminarayan’s life, from his seven-year journey across India as a barefoot child to his works and deeds amongst the people of Gujarat.

People kissed their hands before passing them over the glass as they walked onto the next relic. I’d seen the same thing all over Europe; people traveling to see the mummified remains of St-Ambrose or the skull of St-Yves, never too far from a piece of the True Cross. A priest once told me that if you added up all the so-called pieces of the True Cross into a straight line, it would go around the world. Twice.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Here was a religion with 20 million followers across the world that I had never heard of, which, in the age of Wikipedia, is just unacceptable. I was dumbstruck to find out they even had a temple in Toronto.

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Rule #1 of India: Beware of monkeys and proper grammar

The world is so much larger than I’d ever imagined, and just when I think I have a grasp on what’s happening, I come face-to-face with a new reality that shows me how utterly small and clueless I am to the grand scheme of things. The world works in the framework of a ticking, clicking series of interlocking gears that grind together in a way that I don’t feel people were ever meant to fully understand. Humans look different, act different, but in the end, we all seem to feel that inexplicable need to find greatness and power in something outside of ourselves. Something to call great, something to follow. Something larger than life to turn to when things get bad. Something to thank when things are good. Something to praise. Something to worship.

I’d experienced something similar at the Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the oldest and most widely visited Hindu temples in Mumbai. Visitors sometimes wait for hours in a winding metal line to shower bowls of flowers and coconut husks onto three silver statues of goddesses Mahalakshmi, Mahakali and Mahasaraswati. Others simply slip money into a small steel grate below the statues’ feet where two attendants in matching orange togas brush away the fallen offerings and usher more through. Most of the people visiting the shrine aren’t tourists but locals come to pay their respects and pray for peace, prosperity, and maybe even better days.

Above all, India blew my mind in ways I could never describe. They had their own music, their own movies, their own sports, their own religions, their own body language. It was a completely different sub-section of world culture that manifested itself in a people that bore immense pride in being the descendants of a great and ancient civilization that had survived under the duress of Alexander the Great and the British Empire. This was a new world, shockingly different but altogether not entirely different.

Most of all, India introduced me the idea that everything I know could be entirely, and irrevocably wrong. That despite boasting knowledge about the world, I’m still willfully ignorant of even major concepts that shape the globe politically and socially. People here lived completely independently and out of synch from people in Canada, Kenya or wherever, and they would continue to exist without us. But much like the founding principle of the religion that binds so many of them, Indians were connected to the rest of the global village, though these days the Internet seems like a more realistic incarnation of the world soul, but with more naked people.

In India I began to understand that everything I think I know as fact could be complete and utter bullshit, a manifestation of nothing more than the environment I was born into. A surrogate womb of pretentious Western, Eurocentric ideologies and histories I was taught to understand and believe as ultimate truth. Lies caked into lies in order to create for Westerners a history which legitimizes centuries of abuse and destruction of foreign cultures in the name of progress. But they would survive.

India told me I was wrong and, like any good teacher, showed me why.

Meffe - DhobiGhat9

Slums adjacent to the Dhobi Ghat washing facility in Mumbai. Photo originally published in Vocativ, February 2014.

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