India 2016 Trip Days 17-19: On Patriots and Prayers

Charmunda – Jawarla Muki – Kangra

It’s Day 17, and we’re nearing the end of our North India trip. We depart from the lush, mountaintop resort where we’re staying, and head out to a few more temples in Himachal Pradesh. Personally, I think I could go the rest of the trip without seeing any more temples and be just fine, but I begrudgingly accept the itinerary and trudge along. Charmunda, Jawarla Muki and Kangra: these three sites make up a trinity that forms three of the most holy sites in Himachal Pradesh, and these temples all serve as places of prayer to different avatars (forms) of Matha Di or Parvati.

Charmunda is part circus, part temple. On the side of the temple complex is an artificial river and fountain area, on which sit garish boats and brightly colored statues of different gods and goddesses. While I appreciate the attempt to turn what is an often a humdrum experience of visiting the temple –buying offerings, standing in line, presenting the offerings to the god, pray, rinse and repeat – I’m not sure that turning a temple complex into a mini religious fairground works that well either.
The statue representing Parvati in the temple is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Unlike most other temples, which contain perfectly carved sculptures representing deities with human bodies and appendages, Mata Di is a small mound like stone sculpture, painted with an auspicious orange tint and marked two rudimentary black eyes, almost as if a child painted them on. The legend behind this temple is that Parvati killed two demons that were threatening the world, and the combination of those demons’ names merged into Charmunda.

 

We head to Kangra next, which contains two main tourist attractions: a fort, and of course, a temple. I haven’t really seen any Indian forts since I went to Jaipur in 2012. While this is nowhere near as spectacular as the Rajput forts in Jaipur, ambling around the fort steps makes me feel like a kid again. According to the sign posted at the outset of the fort, ownership of this fort changed hands between so many rajas and invading conquerors that I lost count. It’d be a nice place to spend a few hours trolling around with friends taking fort selfies, but alas, we don’t have time, and it’s way too damn hot as it is to stand out here baking in the open sun. Onward to the temple in Kangra! The temple in Kangra, known as Mata Brajeshwari Devi is one of the Shakti peeth that I mentioned in an earlier blog post. The Shakti peeth derive their significance from Shakti (aka Parvati), who set herself on fire after her father insulted her husband, the almighty god Shiva. Devastated, Shiva went into a celestial rage, which could only be stopped by Vishnu slicing Parvati’s body into pieces. I couldn’t even make this stuff up if I wanted to – the stories are really this violently imaginative. The left breast of Parvati supposedly fell here, and it became one of the many Shakti peet temples.

 

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Image: The many shops selling prayer items near the temple at Kangra.

Last but certainly not least is Jawarla Muki. Of all the temples that we’ve visited so far, this might be my favorite, not because there’s anything special about the temple complex itself, but because of the almost otherworldly phenomenon that takes place here. Within the main temple is a flame that has seemingly burned for years without end. Skeptical, I ask Vijaya Grandma if someone doesn’t surreptitiously come at nightfall when all the temple visitors have gone to bed and add some type of powder to keep the flame alive. But she insists that that’s not the case. Apparently, researchers have studied the geological formations in the area to come up with a logical explanation for this occurrence, but to no avail. Whether divinely caused or naturally formed, it’s impressive to behold. A truly ‘eternal flame.’

Amritsar – Atari Border

We hit the road again and arrive to our hotel in our last city on this North India trip: Amritsar. Amritsar, known worldwide as a holy city for Sikhs in particular, has always been on my to-see list. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the values of honor, strength, equality (lack of the Hindu caste system) and benevolence to the poor that Sikhism prides itself on.

We’re off to a sobering start to our day. Our first stop here is the Jalianwala Bagh, a site of tragic, needless and bloody massacre of countless Indian people during the early 20th century under British colonial rule. Indians were protesting a British-imposed law, which I believe violated free speech and press. They led General Dwyer, in an attempt to send a firm message to people who were involved in these protests to stop, gave the order to his men to fire upon innocent civilians peacefully attending an open lecture regarding the law taking place in the Jalinwala Bagh. The soldiers stormed the only entrance/exit to the Bagh, effectively trapping people inside the walls with no means of escape from the gunfire. Except by death. Many jumped into a well inside the Bagh, choosing to take their own lives rather than be slaughtered by the British. It’s a haunting reminder of what happens when we subjugate one people to another – dehumanization and cruelty is only a tragic and inevitable result. We silently pay our respects to those who lost their lives and move on to the Golden Temple.

I’ve been wanting to visit the Golden Temple ever since I first learned about it in college. It doesn’t disappoint. The temple is located within a dazzling, large white complex with towering minarets. True to its name, the top part of the temple and the minarets at the top are rimmed in gold. As part of the Sikh’s rigorous adherence to cleanliness, after stripping off our sandals and handing them to a Sikh man, we step into a small pool of water at the entrance before heading inside. Many Hindus would turn up their noses in disgust at touching someone else’s worn sandals, so it’s with surprise and pleasure that I see that this a routine procedure here. As part of the Sikh values of modesty, everyone, both men and women, are required to cover their head, usually with small bandanas in the case of the men, and dupattas for the women. But as I’m a novice in the art of headscarf wearing, my dupatta keeps slipping down off my head, and one man even scolds me for my immodesty.

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The Golden Temple is a most holy site for Sikhs all across the nation, and millions flock here every year to worship. The main temple here, which was constructed some centuries ago by one of the first Sikh gurus, contains the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. The line to enter the temple and see the book is enormous, so we skip it and instead walk around the temple complex. It’s also the site where Operation Blue Star took place, in which forces commanded by Indira Gandhi raided the Golden Temple. Many believe that the operation was justified by the need to root out alleged Sikh terrorists who were hiding behind the walls of the temple. Others view it as unjustified raid on a sacred holy place. In the fallout from Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard. Afterward, many Sikhs were slaughtered in riots in retaliation. It was a turbulent time in India to say the least. But on a day as a peaceful as this, it’s hard to imagine such violence taking place here.

However, our enjoyment of the temple is tempered by the scorching heat. It’s definitely hotter here than anywhere else we’ve visited in India, and I wonder how some of the elderly visitors haven’t yet collapsed of heat stroke. In the temple, a high-school boy starts following us around, asking us questions about where we’re from and whether we want to enter the temple. It’s clear that he’s trying to exact money from us in order to perhaps help us bypass the long line and enter the temple, but we’re not interested, despite his pleas that the money will help go toward his school fees. I wonder if we’re being cruel, but when I remember that scores of children outside the temple were hawking their wares under the same line. We unsuccessfully try to lose him as we make our way to the langar hall.

The langar is an important part of Sikh culture. In many Sikh temples – also known as gurdwaras – you’ll find what’s called a langar, or a communal hall where you can receive a delicious, hot meal free of charge. You sit on the floor in front of long vertical place mats, and Sikh volunteers come by with large vats of steaming rice, roti, curry and dal, placing it efficiently on each person’s plate. It’s a sort of communal dining experience that you’d be hard pressed to find in any other community. It’s also an example of the Sikh’s beneficence towards the poor. Anyone, regardless of religious, classe or caste, can come here to find a hot meal, served up volunteers free of charge. The clean-up process is efficient and orderly too, with volunteers quickly rolling up the place mats and a clear delineation for where to put our plates. As we exit, we spot the enormous pots in which the food is cooked in outside the langar.

We head back to the hotel for a quick respite before heading over in the afternoon to the Atari border – the border dividing India and Pakistan. Thanks to some friends’ connections, we’re able to secure passage for our car into the entrance to the border area, thereby bypassing the line stretching for blocks and blocks. If we didn’t have our friend’s connections, we’d have to stand for at least an hour in the burning sun, and when they finally open the gates to the border area, the queue would quickly bust open, with people running in a massive stampede to the public seating area and fighting over the best seats in the shade. While I do appreciate not having to engage in that spectacle, I can’t say I’m not deeply perturbed by the Indian VIP culture. It’s another example of the deep class divisions that pervade this society, and the ‘pay to play’ mentality. If you shell out any amount of money, people will roll out red carpets for you. Rod Blagoevich would approve.

We pass through security and take our seats in the VIP seating area, which is basically just closer to the gates of the border than the public seating area. I look over to the border and see two gates, one a reddish color on the Indian side, one a blackish gate opening onto the Pakistan side. The Pakistani side of the border has an arch that soldiers stand on with Jinnah’s (the founder of Pakistan) portrait. The Indian side is not so elegant, nor overstated, in its décor. We wait for a little over an hour, sweat a ton, fan ourselves, munch on butterscotch ice cream, and then the world’s biggest pissing contest commences. Soldiers flank both gates. Indian soldiers in tan military style outfits on one side, Pakistani soldiers in more ornamental black outfits on the other side. As attendees from the Pakistani side of the border start flooding the Pakistani side of the border, people on the Indian side start yelling greetings, waving, and in some cases, outright booing and jeering. Folks on the Pakistani border do the same. The Pakistani side is somewhat less packed than the Indian side, but there’s a still a sizeable crowd. The only difference there is that women and children/families are separated on side of the seating area from the bachelors and young men.

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Once everyone takes their seat, a boisterous Indian emcee emerges on our side, rousing the crowd and encouraging them to shout phrases like ‘Jai Hindustan!’ (long live India!) while corny Indian music plays in the background. Many in the crowd eagerly follow along, wearing “I ❤ India” hats, both to ward off the hot gaze of the sun and to display their beaming national pride in the most garish manner possible. Another emcee does the same on the Pakistani side. I can’t make out the exact words of the music on the other side, but it just seems like they’re chanting ‘Pa-ki-stan, Pa-ki-stan’ over, and over and over again. The repetition and overwhelming, ‘beat-you-over-the-head-patriotism’—from both sides – is an intriguing and embarrassing display of the trumped-up rivalry between India and Pakistan, made all the more apparent in the recent clashes between the two countries via the heightened tension in Kashmir.

While the music is playing, a crowd of individuals – largely either females or children – lines up on the Indian side of the border. One by one, they run down with an Indian flag in hand, and halfway to the gate, they wave the flag with both hands, in what is a not-so-subtle F*** yeah India moment. On the Pakistani side, due to cultural norms, I don’t think women – or any civilians, really – are allowed to participate in the flag waving. Instead, the Pakistani emcee waves the flag around. In between the music, soldiers on both sides perform some of the most outlandish and ridiculous looking moves at the gate, lifting their boots to knees in some type of military strut as they walk around the open pavilion in front of the gate, formally saluting the other soldiers and even opening the gates briefly to mock the Pakistani soldiers on the other side before quickly closing them shut. One Indian soldier even comes out with a fake, drawn-on mustache, for what purpose I cannot imagine, but it just highlights the sheer, comic and almost pathetic absurdity of the situation. I was hoping the soldiers on both sides might as least do the courtesy of saluting one another, but nope, no way in hell that’s going to happen. By the time the elaborate and boorish ‘dance’ between the two countries is over, the heat is gone, but my incredulity at the humiliating, if mildly entertaining, spectacle we’ve been witnessing, is at an all-time high.

For some context: imagine if something similar were staged at the U.S-Mexico border. Imagine how outrageous and ridiculous that would be. Still, it’s an illuminating insight into the way both countries perceive patriotism, one as a Muslim nation and the other as an (avowedly) secular nation, and the bitterness that still persists between the two. We head home and a particularly rickety auto-rickshaw experience through the main market in Amritsar in search of handmade scarves, dine at a local Punjabi restaurant and turn in for the night.

Day 19: And so the North India safar (trip) comes to an end. This last day, we take it easy, and make only stop on our way to the airport: a prominent Sikh museum and gardens in Amritsar dedicated to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. This Sikh ruler exemplified some of the best aspects of Sikhism: valor, strength, and benevolence He was ferocious when confronted by his enemies – chief among his military accomplishments is keeping the invading Afghan warriors at bay numerous times – and undeniably generous to the poor. There are small replicas of various important moments from the ruler’s life, as well as life-sized panorama depicting epic battles and scenes at court during Ranjit Singh’s time. By the time we exit the museum, I’m left with a greater appreciation for the important contributions that Sikh culture and rulers have made to this region. And it’s also pouring cats and dogs. We rush into the car to escape the rain, and head to the airport to head back to our second home in India – my grandparents’ home in Hyderabad.

India 2016 Trip Day 16: The Road to Dharamshala: A Scenic Drive You’ll Never Forget

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With the weather still as foggy as ever in Jammu, we embark the following morning on the seven hour journey to Dharmshala. Before we leave Jammu, our driver stops by a dry fruits and clothing shop, where, presumably, he’ll receive some type of small commission from the store if we end up purchasing a lot of stuff. And we do. We walk out with several Kashmiri silken sarees, silk shirts, some sweaters for dad, and a stole/scarf for me.

The journey may be long, but the road to Dharmshala does not disappoint. After some time, we pass from the state of Jammu into Punjab, where flat, green fields of lush crops await us. Punjab is known to be one of the areas of India with the most fertile agricultural land, and it’s a beauty to take in. The roads are also of superior quality compared to most places in India, perhaps due in part to relative economic progress of Punjab compared to much of the rest of the country. We stop at a roadside dhaba (hole-in the wall restaurant), and while the food is just alright, the lassi and homemade yogurt (known as dahi) is on point. Punjabi-made lassi is a frothy, sweet (or salty, if you choose) concoction that I cannot refuse.

Afterwards, we find ourselves quickly in the state of Himachal Pradesh, which was until a decade or so ago still part of the state of Punjab. Here, the landscape transforms from flat fields into a never-ending series of valleys, mountains and gorges, seemingly scattered from top to brim with dozens of varieties banana, eucalyptus, teak and other kinds of trees that I can’t even fathom. I thought the view in Jammu was breathtaking, but this is on another level. As we near closer to Dharamshala, I notice an almost alarming number of military cantonments and signs glorifying the strength of soldiers – presumably set up for the Dalai Llama’s protection from China. I get that the Dalai is one on of the top public enemies of the Chinese state, but still, the glorification of military culture and violence seems to contradict Buddhist teachings…

We wind up, and up, and UP the mountain until we finally make it to Dharamashala. Among the usual milieu of Indian tourists, I see plenty of Western tourists sporting massive backpacks and Buddhist devotees draped in red and gold robes here as well, some trekking up the mountain by foot instead of going by car. It’s madness in the immediate vicinity, among a chaos of cars, motorcycles, peoples and narrow alleyways, flanked on both side by merchants hawking their touristy souvenirs. There’s a small Hindu temple that we quickly visit, but the main attraction here is, of course, the Dalai Llama’s temple and home.

There’s a lovely open courtyard that looks onto a massive chair draped in gold, where the Dalai Llama presumably sits when he gives public appearances. The entire area is shrouded in fog and with remarkably few tourists in temple, peacefully conducive to meditative thought and prayer. As a human rights activist, being here takes on a double meaning for me when I consider all that the Dalai Llama has done to promote social justice and peace. We take some touristy photos at some Buddhist prayer wheels. On the wheels are enshrined sacred words of the Avolokesvitara, and if you turn the wheel once, it’s supposed to bring you merit and fortune equivalent to the words inscribed on the wheel.

We take off our shoes and enter the temple, wherein lies another more massive golden chair where again, the Dalai Llama likely sits during public prayer. On the sides of the temple are ancient Buddhist texts locked up in a shelf, as well as statues of the Buddhist avatar of compassion – a many-headed female looking deity – and of an Indian leader who helped to spread Buddhism. In the center of the temple lies the magnificent, golden Buddha statue, to which people offer their prayers, and next to which the Buddhist priests managing the temple place offerings of milk, oil and other food items. On the walls are also written various Buddhist teachings, such as the principle of dharma, which is somewhat of a complex subject, but boils down to the importance of doing ones duty and hard work and having merit in strong character, rather than conducting rituals and paying money. We pray and bask in the eminent aura of the temple. As we exit, I see a painting of Tibetan rulers on the wall of the temple and on the priest’s desk at the entrance area a small ‘Free Tibet’ sticker.

We walk across the courtyard to the Dalai Llama’s home, a yellowish compound with a green entrance overlooking the gate. It’s not open to the public now, and although we had little chance of seeing the Dalai Llama anyway, it seems we have no chance now. As the friendly Tibetan guards at the entrance tell us, the Dalai Llama went to bed at 5 pm today in preparation for an early departure to Ladakh tomorrow.

We purchase a few small tokens from some of the touristy shops, and while I briefly think the shopkeeper is ripping me off and that I should haggle, it’s quickly becoming darker, and we still have a twenty kilometer ride to our hotel on a narrow road. So I let it slide. Oh, how little did we know.

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Our travel agent did not book the hotel in Dharmshala itself, but twenty kilometers away, and our driver doesn’t know where the hotel is located. In between intermittent GPS; the dark night; narrow, unfamiliar roads; signs leading to the hotel with misleading arrows; and asking random strangers for directions for more than an hour, we finally make our way to a rather unpaved road with no lights. There, we manage the most unpleasant, bumpy ride of our life for ten minutes – thanks to our driver’s skillful maneuvering – and at last, get to the hotel. We’re all tired and grumpy by the time we get there, least of all when we find out that there’s no Wifi. While we eat dinner, it’s evident that many parts of the hotel are in moderate states of disrepair. While the architecture of the hotel is beautiful (the owners are both architects), the rooms are spacious and cozy, and the mountaintop location is gorgeous, the experience of getting there still leaves something to be desired.

In the morning we get off to a late start, but rise in a better mood, spirits buoyed by the mesmerizing views of the green mountaintops enmeshed in fog. We set off for Chamunda, Jawalamukhi and Kangra (more on that in the next blog post).

 

India 2016 Trip Days 14-15: In Jammu, Mind the Monkeys

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With our hustle-and-bustle Varanasi trip over, we make our way over to the next bump in our journey: the northern Indian state of Jammu, specifically the city of Katra. On both legs of the flight, I’m beset by a stomach bug, headaches and nausea, so I spend most of the day forcibly lugging myself and my baggage around airport terminals. Woe is me and my poor immune system. But on the Delhi to Jammu leg of our flight, I somehow score an entire row to myself, so I take full advantage and curl up sleeping like a baby.

We disembark from the plane in Jammu, where we meet up with our driver, Vijay, who will take us to Katra and accompany us on the remainder of our trip. On the way to Katra is highly majestic – and illuminating – car ride, filled in equal measure with army barracks and lush green, mountainous landscapes. I’m at once enthralled by the natural splendor of the area, and also unsettled by the numerous soldiers, gun shops and roadside replicas of tanks that we pass. I’m sure there are reasons for this heavy armory, such as being located close to the border with Pakistan, with whom India has tense relations and also due to the conflicted political situation in Kashmir. Yet it still seems like a uncomfortable bit of a glorification of militarization to me. And oh, how could I forget the monkeys! We spot a few gloriously cute monkey moms and their babes sitting by the side of the road. But they’re not only cute…more on that later.

We make only one stop at a temple (ironically, I’m thanking God that we’re not visiting any more temples today) on the way to Katra. When we get to the hotel, I fall into a blissful, much-needed ten or eleven hour sleep. And then we’re off to Vaishno Devi!

Vaishno Devi, located atop a mountain, is a temple that honors Mata Di, the goddess representing a combination of three other deities: Lakshmi, Paravati and Saraswati. Containing the strength and powers of these three goddesses, Mata Di killed an evil demon, whose name I cannot remember, but I think is Bhairov? Anyway, this place is a sacred pilgrimage site for many Indians who journey from all across the country to make it here. We fly over in stellar style, via helicopter, taking in the awe-inspiring aerial view of tree-lined mountains.

From there, it’s a brisk 45 minute walk, mostly downhill, to the temple. On the way, we soak in the breathtaking scenery, and also attempt to avoid the monkeys. While they’re cute from afar, in places like Vaishno Devi where the monkeys are accustomed to humans, you need to be wary at all times of a monkey snatching your bag or purse in search of sweet treats. Mom has a close call when a monkey frightens her, and she drops a simple paper bag of cloth offerings for the Mata Di. The monkey runs away, but not before ripping the bag open in search of food. Along the way, pilgrims walking to the temple shout ‘Jai Mata Di! Jai!’ a holy call to Mata Di. There’s a wonderful sense of community among those making this ‘yatra’ or pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi, which I’ve never really personally felt in a Hindu temple before. I find it to be refreshing.

The temple itself is a confusing mix of different locker areas where one can store personal belongings (only offerings to Mata Di are permitted inside the inner sanctum of the temple), bathing ghats, minor temples within the larger temple complex, and finally, a narrow tunnel that leads to a teeny-tiny cave where the statue of Mata Di is held. There, where we can make our five-second offerings before the next person in line has their turn. For me and most people, I think most of the experience of visiting Vaishno Devi comes from the journey of getting to and from the temple, rather than the temple itself.

We make our way back to the helipad area, but as we walk there, we grow worried by the increasing fog. By the time we make it there, the area is completely surrounded by fog, and they’ve shut down the helicopter operations for safety purposes. We wait and hope that they resume the rides, but after nearly two hours of waiting, we decide (after some shameful nudging on my part) to make the 3-4 hour trek down the mountain. It’s all downhill, the weather is refreshingly cool for this time of year, and the views are spectacular, so it wouldn’t be that bad. Except for the aforementioned monkey dodging. And did I not mention the horses? No, I guess not. For those unable or unwilling to climb up and/or down the mountain/purchase a helicopter ticket, you can also opt to ride either a horse, pony, or dholi. If you ride a dholi, that means you sit in a cart and are carried by four men up and/or down the mountain. From Western sensibilities, this might seem like a gross form of human labor. And while to some extent that’s true, these dholis also allow elderly and/or disabled individuals who would not otherwise be able to make this pilgrimage to get to the temple. Halfway down, we hire a dholi to carry Vijaya Grandma, as the walking is starting to wear on her feet..all of us are exhausted, really. Going down the constantly steep incline of the mountain is brutal and quickly wears you down.

Back to the horses: you can ride either a pony or horse, depending on your age and size. A horse trainer remains at the back of the horse, guiding it and up and down the steep mountain, and occasionally, whipping the horse if it runs too fast or too quickly. For the record: I do not condone horse whipping. I do, however, despise walking in front of a galloping horse. The horses turn what would otherwise be a fairly pleasant walk into a game of hopscotch, stepping from one side of the road to the other and looking back and forth in order to dodge horses coming from both sides. Not to mention that you also have to manage to look down as well in order to dodge the horse doo-doo.

As we reach the end of the hike, we also find a splendid blend of Hindu religiosity and capitalistic fervor. Here, countless shopkeepers hawk low-quality wares, including photos and model replicas of Mata Di, as well as ceremonial areas replete with cheesy fountains and photo booths, where you can combine your prayer with a family photo opportunity.

With that, we hire a small taxicab or auto-rickshaw (“auto” for short) and head back to the hotel for dinner, some shopping, and rest. What a day!

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India 2016 Trip Days 12-14: Among the Holiest of Indian Cities

Hello! It’s been a few days since I last wrote on here. Suffice to say, the past few days since we started our north India trip have been a whirlwind of adventures, temples, mosquitoes, stomach bugs and more. As a somewhat spry twenty-something, even I find our schedule of going to bed at 11 p.m. and waking up at 5 a.m. each day to be exhausting. Kudos to my parents and Vijaya Grandma (whom I’m traveling with) for bearing with it all!

I’ll back up and give a Sparknotes version summarizing the best hits of what we saw over the past three days in the cities of Allahabad and Varanasi (both of which are located in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh). NOTE: as it’s difficult to upload photos to WordPress with the wi-fi quality here, I’m linking to the album on Facebook where I’ll be posting photos shortly of our trip:https://www.facebook.com/tara.yarlagadda/media_set?set=a.10157108443600285.1073741856.513095284&type=3

 

Allahabad (also known in ancient times as Prayog)

We flew from Hyderabad to Allahabad, a city not known for much beyond a) The home of gloried Indian leader and former prime minister Jawarhalal Nehru and b) The mingling of India’s three sacred rivers, the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati. After being picked up at the aiport by our friendly and chatty driver Rakesh, we set off to Allahabad. We stop at a roadside eatery or ‘dhaba’ where the mosquitoes drive me batty, but the food is decent, in spite of the shady appearance of the place. We arrive to Allahabad and visit one or two of the many temples that we will visit on this trip, and head to the hotel.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be too much to distinguish the streets of Allahabad, but upon a closer look, I do notice that the streets are far dirtier than most other Indian cities that I’ve been too, and the streets are narrower and more crowded. This might seem like an unimportant observation, but many of India’s cities have actually become far cleaner over the past few years, and the quality of roads is starting to improve too. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but the poverty seems more stark here too, with more beggars around the tourist sites and ramshackle homes and villages that seem to be stuck in the past, which resemble my dad’s village, Kavuluru, in Andhra Pradesh circa 15-20 years ago.

I’m summoned awake at the crack of dawn to get ready for the bath that we’re about to take (fully clothed for the women, for modesty purposes) in the holy sangam, the place where the three holy rivers meet and where each year, countless individuals come to bath and perform sacred rites. I’ll admit, although I’m game for a lot, the prospect of conducting Hindu rituals (which I find to be tedious on land itself) in a muddy riverbed didn’t seem that appealing. But I was curious to observe such an auspicious ritual in this sacred place, even if it meant being an active participant in it.

We arrive to the riverbank, and hire a boatsman and his crew to take us further out into the river, but where the water is still shallow enough to stand, and there, we jump out of the boat and into the river. In the boat next us to, a priest sits, conducting the puja, or religious ritual. I brace myself as I dunk my head in the river three times, per the priest’s instructions, but the water is pretty refreshing on this summer day. And remarkably clean, despite being the color of dry mud. For the next hour or so, we do several things which involve repeating after the priest many, many words in Sanskrit, placing a paper boat with flowers and a lit candle to float away in the sangam, and performing special rites for my grandmother, who passed away six years ago. After all this is said and done, they place us in a separate boat with a flimsy orange tent covering, where we change out of our wet clothes into spare dry ones.

All in all, it was a uniquely interesting cultural religious experience. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know if I would voluntarily choose to do it again.

Next up: Jawarharlal Nehru’s family home/mini mansion in Allahabad. Jawarharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister post-British colonialism, and is remembered mostly fondly by Indian citizens as the nation’s first leader in the post-colonial world. We visit the home where he grew up, and where he also raised his daughter, Indira Gandhi (who would also later become prime minister). We also stop by the planetarium on the premises, where’s there’s a stars and planets show taking place on the ceiling of a small theater. As my Hindi is sorely lacking after four years of little practice, I can only understand at best about 50% of what they’re saying. I use this as a convenient excuse to fall asleep in an air-conditioned room with comfy chairs and momentarily escape the blistering Indian summer heat.

Varanasi (also known as Benares, and in ancient times as Kashi)

By the time we conclude our sightseeing in Allahabad and make the three-hour journey to Varanasi, it’s quite late. Still, we manage to fit in a few more temples before the day’s end, despite my protests otherwise. One of the temples showcases a puja that I’ve never seen before, complete with drum beating and a hanging altar to Shiva.

This temple is located in Benares Hindu University, one of, if not the foremost university in India (kind of like the Cal of India). It’s also the only explicitly Hindu university in India too (hence the temple on campus), as most universities in India are secular. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed by the campus. With the large temple and spectacularly grand library, I think you’d be pretty lucky to study in a place like this. Varanasi is known as one of India’s oldest cities, as well as one of its most revered for its rich religious history and cultural significance. More on that in just a second.

The following day is jam-packed with nonstop adventures and chaos, starting with a visit to one of the ghats the Ganges riverbed. The ghats are places located along holy rivers in India, particularly the Ganges, where people conduct religious rituals and at certain ghats, cremate and scatter the ashes of the dead. We have to walk quite a bit to get to the ghat, and it’s total madness along the way, with motorcycles whizzing by left and right, and worshippers festooned in orange – an important color for Hinduism, especially as this time of year is an especially sacred time for Hindus. I only notice a few foreigners here and there. I think the heat at this time of year is still too oppressive for many non-Indian tourists to flock here; I’m sweating buckets already. Unlike the millions of others who come to Varanasi every year to bathe in the river, since we’ve already performed this watery ritual in Allahabad, we skip the bathing for now and instead sprinkle some water on our head and place a ceremonial paper boat in the water.

Afterwards, we meet up with our guide for part of the day. We follow him into a series of seemingly never-ending narrow, muddy alleyways flanked on both sides by small tin roof homes and shops filled with sarees and religious offerings for the temples that we’re about to visit. Our guide connects us with a middleman priest of sorts, who can get us into VIP pujas and temples faster than we would be able to do on our own, and we make our way to the most prominent temple in Varanasi, Kashi Vishalakshmi. This temple is one of the shakti peetalu, where one of the eighteen pieces of the goddess Paravati fell to the earth when she was split by Vishnu. Once we arrive there, we’re treated to a VIP puja where a priest performs holy rites for our family, and then we make our way to the statue of the goddess

Then we head to no less than two or three other smaller temples in the same section of the city.

By this time, it’s already well into the afternoon, so we head over to Saranath, an area on the outskirts of Varanasi, which is essentially the birthplace of Buddhism. For many Buddhists, this is a sacred place, and for non-Buddhists, it’s an interesting place to learn about the ancient history of religion. We stop by a Buddhist museum, where we learn about the principles of Buddhism, see a pretty cool replica of an Ashoka lion statue, and several centuries, if not thousands of years old, Buddhist statues. Many of them have chipped noses, or faces and limbs entirely broken off, as outsiders and invaders to India desecrated the statues in an attempt to destroy the religion. It’s a little sad to see these dancing or praying deities without faces. Afterwards, we see an ancient Buddhist stupa, and also a more recently constructed Buddhist temple and garden, complete with a giant Buddha statue, lotus flowers and fountains.

And it wouldn’t be a trip to Varanasi without purchasing one of the famous ‘Benares sarees.’ I personally have no interest in the sarees, but it’s always fun to watch the expert haggler Vija Grandma bargain for prices, engaging in fun banter with the shopkeeper, while Mom indecisively picks at various sarees for an hour or so until we finally walk out of the store with several beautiful pure silk sarees in hand.

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Last, but not least, we return to the Ganges for the ‘Ganga harti’ or rites performed by five priests on a rooftop near the banks of the Ganges, dedicated in prayer to the goddess Ganga. Thanks to the help of our guide from earlier in the day, we manage to score VIP seats right where the harti is being performed, and receive our own special puja. Some part of me feels a little unsettled that we can pay a little more to receive VIP treatment, but I guess money rings true worldwide. We settle in, and around 7 p.m. the harti begins. However, this ritual is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and despite the heat, we’re all awestruck by what’s taking place. I can’t do the ceremony justice with words. Five priests decked in orange stand on top of individual altars, and perform a series of actions that mimic an elaborately coordinated dance including twisting of handheld fans, blowing into shells, loudly chanting prayers, playing into flutelike instruments. We even get to participate a little bit when we light candles onto a multi-tier platform. Each priest carries one of these candle-lit platforms to the altar and waves them in a beautiful sweeping arc into the night sky. All of this is in dedication to Ganga.

Finally, the prayers conclude, and when we’re all sheer exhausted, we make our way to our last stop for the night: the Manikanta ghat, or burning ghat. This is the ghat where bodies are burned and cremated, which I mentioned earlier. The bodies are shrouded in layers of clothing and lifted to ghats by several men on wooden planks, where they’re placed on the burning ashes and cremated, while family members watch. It’s a little chilling but awe-inspiring to watch this most sacred end-of-life ritual take place.

Days 8-9: Here Comes the Birthday Boy

Happy birthday Dad! On July 16, my dad became 57 years young, and we celebrated with a massive office party, where my dad’s BPO Systems staff in Vijayawada had assembled quite the treat.

We came into the office, which was bedecked in blue and pink ribbons and balloons. It was as if someone had set off a party store panda and let it loose in the office. We first sat down for a formal puja (Hindu religious ceremony) to mark the auspicious nature of the day. I’ve observed pujas before, but this is my first time participating in one so extensively outside of our own home, so I do my best to follow the instructions of the pujaree (the priest who is leading the puja) and not screw up. I think I do okay.

Afterwards, we were escorted by dad’s employees (really, his Vijayawada family) to the lounge area of the office, where we treated to two hours of speeches, riotous skits, beautiful classic Indian songs, and oftentimes rip-snorting funny dance numbers, performed to the tune of classic and contemporary Telugu film stars like NTR and Mahesh Babu, as well as to modern-day viral YouTube hits, like ‘Gangnam Style.’ My favorite part might be a skit in which the female staff members play-act as men sitting in a crowded space on a train or bus, and mocking sterotypical boorish male behavior by acting it out. All of this is dedicated to Dad on his special day. I’m overwhelmed by the genuine affection that my dad’s employees display toward him, manifesting in this awesome half-day of rehearsed performances. While there have been ups and downs, I’ve watched his company in Vijayawada grow from three employees to more than 40, and it’s all due to his hard work and vision. I’m so proud of you, Dad! Happy birthday.

 

The next day, we rise bright and early again and head off to breakfast at Vija grandma’s house, where we dine on traditional South Indian breakfast fare like idli and oopma with other relatives. After breakfast, we start off on the long journey out of the city and into the towns and villages in the outskirts of Vijayawada.

Our first informal stop is enroute, at a village that is the origin of our branch of the Yarlagadda family. Although our family is originally of the warrior caste, they at some point left those roots behind and picked up new ones as farmers in this area. There’s nothing much, just a few signs labeled with the Yarlagadda name, but it’s still a little exciting to be standing among this site of family history

We then pick up one of Dad’s old school friends and his wife, as they’re accompanying us on this nearly-day long sojourn. On our way to Vija ammama’s house for lunch, we come across another historic Yarlagadda site, and break for a quick stop. It’s pretty cool – a hidden palace surrounded by walls of routine shops. It’s a beautiful, if run-down, house, guarded by some out-of-place looking lion and angel statues. Inside, we see a bust of an Indian ruler from some branch of the Yarlagadda lineage as well as a Yarlagadda family tree of this particular ruling branch (not necessarily ours, but still fascinating nonetheless). These individuals used to rule under this area until the time of British colonialism, and even then, they ruled under the permission of the British crown. And we even spot the most comic green parrot, who sits in place unnervingly still. My mom is convinced that it’s a fake parrot until one of the men who manage the palace waves a stick at the bird, and it flies away.

We finally make it to Vija ammama’s house, where a delicious lunch buffet awaits us. But first we take in the beautiful greenery, replete with coconut and banana trees around their house. I, somehow, manage to be stung by a dozen mosquitoes in two minutes, while my mom and dad emerge unscathed. Boohoo.

Afterwards, it’s at least another two hours – complete with horrifically bumpy roads, which I stave off by summarily falling asleep – to our original destination at the outset of all this: Hamsila Devi. It’s the place where the Krishna River meets the sea, and many consider it to be an auspicious place. The beach is surprisingly empty, free of both trash and tourists (for the most part). It’s not as hot today as it was yesterday, and the air is cooler by the beach, making for a refreshing stop. We pose for photos on the beach, and then hire an auto-rickshaw (a type of Indian vehicle akin to an open air taxi) driver/photographer we find on the beach to drive a few kilometers down the beach to actual site where the river meets the sea. Never before have I seen an auto-rickshaw, or any kind of vehicle, for that matter, on a public beach. It’s almost comical.

Once we get to the beach, we get to get to be models for a minute and pose for a series of photos while frolicking in the water. I never thought I’d see my mom risk soaking her nice saree for a few hours of fun on the beach, but I’ve been proven wrong! Some police officers arrive (there’s a small station of sorts at the end of the beachhead) and start yelling at us intelligibly. We later learn that they’re worried about us wading too far into the water, or something like that. They later steal our photographer/driver for a photo shoot themselves, and wave us away, saying ‘Oh, he’ll just meet up with you later.’ We all shake our heads at this small, but blatant abuse of police power (“Yeh Bharat Hai” or loosely translated in this specific instance to “That’s India for you”), but we ultimately shrug our heads and walk away.

But yet, we start walking back along the beach, taking in the fun of blood-red crabs scurrying around the beach while scouring for shells on the beach. It’s a hoot to see how much my dad enjoys seeing the crabs poke their heads out of their holey homes in the beach. After a while, the driver/photographer gets done with his police photo shoot and drives us back to the main beach entrance.

And yet, the day still isn’t done. I’m flat-out exhausted at this point, not by any great physical exertion, but by all the hours upon hours of driving. We drop off Dad’s friends, aunty and uncle, off at their home, where we have a chance to cleanse our grimy feet and dry off our clothes. Then, it’s another long drive back to Vijayawada, where our relative Lakshmi Aunty has invited us to dine with our family. It wouldn’t be a full Indian day without three different meals at various relatives’ homes. At long last, we make it back home around 10:30 or 11 p.m. and doze off. Sleep has never been more welcome.

P.S. – We’ll be driving back to Hyderabad today and flying out tomorrow for our North India trip! Wi-fi access may be spotty, so I may not post as often.

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Days 6-7: Welcome to Vijayawada, Where Heat Knows No Limit

On Day 5, I wake up, tummy feeling slightly better and no longer feeling the desire to curl up into a fetal position on my bed and whimper like a small child due to stomach pain. It’s a pretty lazy morning, and I have fun playing Carom with our cook Pramila’s children. I’ll probably butcher the rules now, but to my understanding, Carom is a classic Indian board game in which you use your fingers to strike a playing piece toward a series of white and black chips (and one red chip). The aim is to launch the chips into holes at the four corners of the board. One player goes for the white chips, the other for the black chips. First player strike in all of their chips wins, though the red chip must also be scored in order to win te game.  It’s kind of like playing pool, only with your fingers and chips instead of cue sticks and balls. I used to play this game all the time as a kid growing up during summers in my dad’s native village of Kavuluru. It’s a nice trip down memory lane. Per usual, some family friends arrive to see us and say hello to my grandparents.

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My dad and our cook Pramila’s two daughters, with whom I played carom. Notice the carom board at the bottom!

In the afternoon, we depart for the five hour car journey from Hyderabad to the coastal city of Vijayawada. Along the lonely stretch of highway, we pass by countless roadside stalls and restaurants, but also several lush, green fields of rice, palm trees and more. In the U.S., I often jokingly refer to my ability to withstand heat as byproduct of ‘my people being from a tropical country.’ In reality, much of India is not covered in jungle despite the stereotype, but here on the freeway between Hyderabad and Vijayawada, it really feels like the cliche ‘tropical country’ fits.

We arrive to my dad’s apartment, part of which serves as an office for some of his staff in Vijayawada (part of his business runs here in India, so he has an office in Vijayawada). We’re greeted upon exiting our car by no less than seven staff members, along with one of their wives, who has even kindly cooked and brought dinner for us after our long journey. They’re my dad’s senior staff here in Vijayawada, what you might call his “posse” “entourage” or dare I say, “squad?” #SquadGoals (protip: if you don’t get the reference/meme, Google it. I promise that your life will be forever altered). The staff are even so nice they’ve placed signs welcoming me and my mother home to Vijaywada! I’ve never even met half of these people, but I’m already overwhelmed by their kindness and hospitality.

The following day, we wake up to the sobering news that someone driving a truck deliberately drove through a crowd of people in Nice, France on Bastille Day, killing more than 70 people. As far as horrific weeks go in terms of international and domestic killings, this is pretty high up there. Like anyone else in the world, I’m terribly saddened and frustrated by the inhumanity in the world, and despite all our efforts to the contrary, oftentimes our inability to change things.

We also realize that the dangerous political situation in the Srinagar area of Kashmir (mentioned in a previous blog post) has become too hostile for us to travel there as originally planned. So instead, we meet with the travel agent to explore other options, and decide to cancel the last leg of our North India trip in Kashmir and instead head to Amritsar and Dharmashala instead.

Afterwards, we head to the outskirts of Vijayawada to have lunch with close relatives, whom I refer to Prasad Tata and Vija Amama (Grandpa and Grandma). Thereafter, we hop in the car for an hour-plus ride to Amaravati, the area that will soon become the new capital of the state of Andhra Pradesh, as well as the historic religious town in the Guntur district of the state that inspired the name for the new capital. I’m not too impressed thus far by the development of the new capital, as it seems that all they’ve done is widen a few roads and lay down concrete, while the majority of roads are still dirt or rubble-ridden. The area where the new capital will be is right now a series of different villages interconnected by lush green farmland. It’s a shame to think that in 10-15 years, much of this agriculture and greenery will be replaced with monochromatic gray office buildings and shopping complexes. Seems like a bad move to turn some of your state’s most fertile farmland into an industrial and cosmopolitan complex, but we’ll see how it plays out.

Our first stop are the ancient Undavalli caves. Engraved into the walls of the caves are statues and portraits of various Hindu deities, but the real treat  is the immensely large reclining Vishnu statue (one of the major Hindu gods in the trinity of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva), the largest that I’ve ever seen of its kind. In addition to a tourist site, the caves serve as a place of prayer, as many come to offer their respects at the feet of the Vishnu statue. We notice several bats nestled in a corner of the cave in sleep. Batman! I think this might be my favorite of all the sites we see in Amaravati today, but my excitement is tempered by the god awful, sweltering heat. We’re all about three notches above socially acceptable sweating at this point. I’m tempted to run back into the air conditioned car after just a second of this madness, but I remain, tempted by the caves’ wonder.

We get to our second destination, which is a recently constructed Buddhist ‘stupa’ with a several stories tall Buddha statue in the center. On the walls at the base of the statue are engraved panels capturing what my dad calls ‘Buddha stories.’ This statue is intended to serve as homage to the original Buddhist stupa in the area (and let’s be real – a blatant tourist money-making attraction), which is now crumbled and decayed. This area historically held great significance as an important center for Buddhism (back when the religion still flourished in India).

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Our third stop is the original Buddhist stupa site, where many a century ago, an actual stupa was erected as a religious symbol and gathering site for Buddhist practitioners. Various rulers changed hands in controlling this area, but the stupa remained intact for some time. Now, however, it lays decrepit and in ruins, with all the nice pieces of the stupa scattered to different museums. Still, it’s nice to soak in the history and imagine the kind of religious discourse and events that must have taken place here. Near the stupa, we encounter some crazy-looking birds that hang upside down in the guise of bats, and based on the white splatters on the ground and stench in the air, poop an inordinate amount.

Our last tourist site before we head home is a historic temple in Amaravati. Legend has it that a piece of an important lingam (a small statue that represents an actual aspect of a Hindu god, essentially) fell here, at the site of this temple, when the lingam was cut from a demon’s belly. The other four or five pieces were reportedly scattered at other temples in the area. Traditionally, you’re supposed to make a pilgrimage to all of the 5-6 temples in other day, but we opt for the tourist-lite version and just visit one. I’m not allowed to take photos inside the temple itself, but inside the temple is where the main ceremonies, rituals and prayers are conducted before statues of the gods. People make offerings of coconut, flowers and money to the gods (the money goes back to the temple). While I find temples like this an important part of the country’s religion and culture, for me, ‘paying before you pray’ in front of indifferent priests isn’t really my cup of tea. I’m not much one for Hindu rituals, but if I do them, I’d prefer to do them at our small local temple in California.

 

To cap off the day, we meet up with my dad’s employee and good friend, Srinivas Uncle, cousin Zinny (who has come from Bangalore to her home in Vijayawada) and her husband, Sanketh, at a restaurant called Barbecue Nation. Here, servers char-broil various kebabs of meat and veggies fresh on your table for endless amounts of grilled delight. At the end, we have an early birthday celebration for my dad, and the servers in true American fashion come out singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in full chorus and bearing a small cake.

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And with that, our first full day in Vijayawada concludes! Next up: dad’s real birthday celebration, replete with dancing, singing and more!

Blog post India Days 4-5: Bangalore Belly

This morning, we depart early to beat the traffic and make it to the airport in time for our 9 am flight from Chennai to Bangalore. Ciao, Chennai!

And hello Bangalore! I last came to Bangalore ten years ago, so my memory of the city is a little shaky. However, the enduring traffic in the city is all too familiar, exactly like what we encountered in Hyderabad and Chennai. We head to a beautiful, big house in Bangalore, which is a house that my dad and my uncle Nani Mama jointly bought and constructed (most of the on site work was done by Nani Mama, as he lives in Bangalore). My dad has christened the home ‘Amaravati’ named for both the historic Indian site of Amaravati and the new riverfront capital city of Andhra Pradesh that’s still under construction). Two of the floors are owned by my dad (they’re mostly finished, but still need to be furnished), another is owned by my uncle, Krishna Mama, in New Jersey, and the ground floor is owned by Nani Mama.

 

[Photos from top to bottom include shots of the interior of the new home in Bangalore, and photos from the rooftop, including one of my mother]

We’re greeted with boisterous aplumb by Zach, my cousin Zinny’s new dog. Zach is a lovely Labrador, but a little wild, having not been fully housebroken yet. Afterwards, we commence a full house tour, remarking on the beautiful finishings like white marble for the floor and shrine, a funny ‘rain shower’ of sorts that sprays water 90 degrees down right on top of your head, a sunlight, rooftop, balconies, and wide teak wooden doors.

I intend to go for a walk around a nearby lake, but I peremptorily pass out before I even have a chance. When I awake in the evening, I check my email to find that another cousin, Pooja, has emailed me videos of the dance number (known as the ‘sangeeth’ or song/dance portion that precedes the wedding) that we’re supposed to perform at my cousin Sandesh’s wedding in two weeks. I open up the video of the first song with my cousin Zinny, and while the steps are fairly routine, neither of us is a professional dancer, to say the least. Even the simplest hip rotation in the video leaves us flustered. Still, practice makes perfect…right? One can hope.

The next morning, I go for a stroll at the nearby lake with my cousin Zinny and my parents. It’s truly gorgeous, with a wide diversity of lush plant life like elm trees and lotus flowers, as well as numerous species of birds. I could get used to daily morning walks like these.

 

Afterwards, my childhood friend, Gowtham, showed up for a quick visit and lunch. Gowtham and I know each other from Kavuluru, the village where my dad grew up, and the village where I spent summers as a kid, often playing cricket and board games on hot summer days with friends like Gowtham and others. Catching up with old friends after such a long time is fun, especially when you get a chance to see where everyone has ended up after all this time.

And with that, our short stay in Bangalore comes to an end. We set off for the 2+ hour journey to the airport (not even kidding…traffic is that bad in this city), and return to my grandparent’s place in Hyderabad for a brief sojourn before the next stop in our trip. But as we head to the airport, I start to feel rather queasy…oh no. Instead of Bombay Belly, I think I’ve developed a case of Bangalore Belly! So long to my hopes of going this entire trip without getting sick.

Sidenote: security checkpoints at Indian airports are now segregated by sex. I’m not sure if this intended to be for ‘the protection of women (and if so, as a woman, I feel more offended than protected),’ but if the goal is to make airport processing quicker, then it has sorely failed. It takes bar none twice as long for the women to pass through their designated security checkpoint line than the men. In my opinion, this is a BS move, but eh, what can you do?

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India 2016 Trip – Day 3: Much Ado About Weddings

Today was a whirlwind of a day! We woke up at the crack of dawn to get ready to attend the wedding of our family friend’s daughter, Apoorva, mainly because the ceremony rituals are starting early and we don’t want to miss out on a second.

Painstakingly, I put on the outfit that my grandmother and mother have chosen for me to attend the main wedding ceremony, which resembles something akin to vomit of neon pink and green. Still, my grandmother insists this is an example of the latest fashion in Hyderabad, so I grin and bear it. I wave off my grandmother’s numerous attempts to get me to put on powder so that I’ll appear more ‘fair’ or light-skinned, as the Indian bias goes. I’m tan and I like it that way.

After much fuss and delayed vans, we head off to the wedding.  The wedding ceremony takes places in a large reception hall with a giant statue of Ganesh greeting visitors out front. Much to our dismay, we find that we’ve already missed some of the traditional wedding rituals, so we hurriedly take a seat to take in the rest.

Note: the bride, Apoorva, is from Andhra Pradesh, so her family is of Telugu origin. However, the groom’s family is from Tamil Nadu (hence why the wedding is in Chennai, Tamil Nadu), so they’re of Tamil origin. Apparently, there are significant differences between Tamil and Telugu weddings. Having been to only a handful of Telugu weddings in my life, many of which I slept through as a child, I’m not sure I know enough about Telugu weddings to tell the difference, but nonetheless, my parents and their family friends try to enlighten me.

  • The bride and groom sit on red, white and green swing adorned with flowers, swinging (symbolically into marriage??) before they stand up and pose for photos before the many iPhone carrying aunties desperately trying to figure out how to use their iPhone’s zoom feature.
  • Much of the ceremony consists of the bridge and groom just walking all over the complex, and half of the audience rushing after them to snap photos. It’s like a game that everyone is trying to win – “Follow the Bride.”
  • Finally, the bride and the groom take center stage on the main platform in the hall. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going on, but there are a lot of flower garlands, and the bride and groom are placing multiple flower garlands on one another.
  • Finally, the bride and groom stand up to accept gifts from and take photos with the wedding guests. They stand for at least two hours, and we wait our turn in line. When we arrive, my parents lightly throw yellow rice upon the heads of the bride and groom to bless them on their wedding day, pass our gifts to the bride’s family, and we smile and take photos before we’re summarily rushed off stage so the next guests can take their turn.
  • We eat breakfast and lunch at the wedding, and both meals are served in traditional South Indian style on large banana leaves (each banana leaf serves as a large individual plate), and servers come by to drop spoonfulls of different curries and assorted items on our plates. Much of the cuisine is Tamil, and it contains a lot of coconut. Needless to say, coconut is NOT my favorite fruit. So I’m not sure I enjoyed the meals so much, but I’m glad I got a chance to sample Tamil cuisine before I leave Chennai.

Some photos of the wedding ceremony for your viewing pleasure:

And with that, the first part of the wedding concludes. We break for a brief siesta back at the hotel and decide to be cheesy tourists by taking a trip to the beach. Our family friend, Ramana Uncle, kindly offers to act as a tour guide. Marina Bay is apparently the largest beach in India, and I can see why, as the beach seems to stretch on for a mile or more. However, before we get to the beach, we’re met by two memorials to previous chief ministers (the equivalent of state governors in the U.S), both of whom were highly regarding in their time for their work to improve the state and society of Tamil Nadu. One of them received the highest national honor that the Indian government can bestow on an individual, and the other is honored by an eternal flame. We also see a double-leaf statue that represents the major Tamil political party. Tamil cultural and state pride is on fully display at the memorial.

Finally, we get to a series of dozens of beachside stalls. The space between these stalls forms a long, sandy entryway to the beach.  There’s trash strewn about everywhere and the sand is piled high, so it’s tough to walk on in flip-flops and sandals. Still, the shops carry fun wares like shell necklaces. We pick up a few souvenirs in the form of wooden keychains that have our names hand-painted on the back.

We make a stop at a relative’s house for tea and chatting before heading back to the hotel to change into Wedding Outfit #2 for the evening wedding reception. This outfit is a little less garish, but very orange. Is it too much to ask for a simple blue or black dress?

The wedding reception takes place in the banquet hall of the very fancy Taj Coromandel Hotel in Chennai. Flowers adorn the entryways and a live piano player sits in the foyer of the hotel. I enter the wedding reception hall and grimace, for I see the poor bride and groom standing up on stage again, accepting gifts from guests who did not attend the morning wedding ceremony. I think to myself that their feet much be aching, and they must tire of forcing smiles for the live-stream cameras all day long. I wonder if they’ve had a bite to eat all day. Still, the bride and groom look beautiful. A band plays different classic Indian and Western ditties in the background. The wedding reception is a veritable display in the latest fashions, as my grandmother points out a thousand different dresses and laments that she did not buy me this or out that outfit the wedding. I mainly focus on the dinner buffet and pray that I can get the free hotel Wi-fi to work. Alas, I was unsuccessful.

While I’m sitting at the table, my mind wanders to the excessive costs of Indian weddings. For more than a down payment on a new home, people lavish that much money on just one day. It’s a beautiful day, to be sure, but it’s just one day. And also, there’s enough food to feed an army, most of which goes to waste when the day is said and done. Sorry guys – I know that I’m being a killjoy here. I’ll stop.

All in all, it was an interesting day to reflect on culture of wedding traditions, but like the bride and the groom, I think I could be satisfied with participating in one Indian wedding in my lifetime!

 

India 2016 Day 2 (July 10): Chennai Ahoy!

Day 2 in India begins! We have a surprise visitor for my grandpa in the morning, an old friend and relative from a town called Madanapalle. While he’s here, we engage in a brief but thought-provoking discussion about the recent police shootings and the way many in India perceive race, violence and politics in the U.S. It’s often a very somber, simplistic, discussion that challenges me to think further about the way that I talk about these issues, both to foreigners outside of the U.S and to U.S residents.

For example, one question that was asked by our guest (I’m paraphrasing here): “Whites and blacks – they don’t get along very well in the U.S, do they?”

A very simple, somewhat offensive (to our U.S perspective) and almost childlike question, but actually one that begs acknowledgment, as the answer is quite complex, and I struggle to answer honestly say “No, of course they do!” At the same time, I can’t answer “Yes, they get along very well.” Both are simplistic reductions of the actual truth – which is that race relations in the U.S are fraught with both coexistence and great tension, which is no more apparent than now in the wake of recent police shootings of two black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the murder of five police officers in Dallas.

Another query: “If Trump becomes president, will he send everyone away?”

In reality, Trump’s plan to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and ban all Muslims from entering the country is both morally inhumane and logistically impossible), so the likelihood of him accomplishing any of this is next to zero. Still, I cannot dispute the fact that Donald Trump has said these things, that these things have garnered him nationwide support, and that he is our nation’s Republican presidential candidate.

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Another morning jolt before we’ve even had a chance to sip our tea: domestic terrorist attacks occurred yesterday in Srinagar, the capital of the state of Kashmir (a territory whose ownership is severely disputed by India and Pakistan). Selfishly, my first thought is whether or not the situation is unsafe enough to prevent us from traveling to Kashmir later this month to visit (despite the political situation, Kashmir is known for its beautiful landscapes, scenery and rich culture). I realize this, and ashamed, I turn back to the newspaper, to read more about situation. My knowledge of Telugu (the language in which the newspaper is written, and the native tongue of my parents) vocabulary is limited to more colloquial and common-use phrases, not high-level newspaper or literary speak. Still, I’m able to make out a few words, including “11 dead” “mujaheddin” “encounter” “protests” and “stone throwing.” Not good. I take it as a given, shamefully, that there is always turmoil in Kashmir. Yesterday was a peak in the violence, but daily tensions persist in this border area between India and Pakistan, not always rising to the violence that they did yesterday, but the political situation remains grim to say the least. Speaking as a human rights advocate and optimist, I hope for a better future for Kashmir. Speaking as a realist, I don’t know if I can expect anything to change in the near-term.  (Sidenote: for those who want to learn more about the political situation in Kashmir, definitely use Google as a resource. I wish I had more time now to dive into this complex situation).

After a light lunch, my parents, grandparents and I depart for the airport to head to Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu bordering Andhra Pradesh on the right. People in Tamil Nadu are known for being very proud of their language (Tamil) and disdain for English, something which my mom points out at first glance in the airport, when she notices that the arrivals/departures screen is primarily in Tamil, with hardly a word of English. Granted, we are in the domestic terminal, not the international terminal, and there are plenty of restaurants and shops on the streets of Chennai with English signs, but it’s still a surprising thing, especially coming from Hyderabad, where English (alongside Hindi and Telugu) is widely spoken and written.

We’re picked up by our family friend and driver at the airport. (Sidenote: I’m still not sure that I’ll ever get used to being driven around and served food in my home – it’s something so commonplace for the middle-class Indians to have a driver and servant that a native Indian would hardly bat an eye, but it’s still jarring to me each time I come to India ). Driving around, the city seems not to be too different from Hyderabad in terms of the number and types of shops and restaurants, though there is definitely more greenery in this area, where the climate is more humid. I do notice there seem to be fewer women walking on the streets than in Hyderabad, something which my mother attributes to Hyderabad being a more cosmopolitan city, and Chennai being more traditionally conservative as it relates to women and social norms. I’m also told by our family friend that India’s biggest beach is also in Chennai…sadly we have no time for sunbathing while we’re here.

I’m also shocked and impressed by the number of buses I see passing by us on the street – far more than I’ve seen in any other Indian city, and probably more than I would see in downtown DC. And it seems like there’s a subway system that’s just starting to get underway too. Public transit in Chennai would put many cities in the U.S to shame.

In the spirit of full disclosure: I spend half of the time making these observations in between periods of semi-lucid awakeness and falling asleep in the backseat, so I would take my observations with a grain of salt. Jetlag: 1. Tara: 0.

We spend some time at a friend’s home, in what seems to be a nice, family-centric but quiet suburb of Chennai. In full Indian tradition, our hosts stuff us to the brim with hospitality in the form of appetizers, snacks and fruit, despite our protestations that we couldn’t possibly eat another bite. I mostly abstain from the conversation except when the real estate developer in the room brings up the topic of green/LEED-certified buidlings in Bangalore, and the environmental geek inside me bursts forth into discussion.

We finally make our way to the hotel, where we’re greeted by another family friend who is attending the same wedding, and find ourselves in the hotel restaurant. There, we gorge ourselves on delicacies like fried rice, noodles, gobi manchurian (cauliflower deep-fried in a delicious sauce), and chili chicken. Food-wise, I’d give this day a solid A.

And with this, I sign off, as I look forward to waking up bright and early to head off to the wedding. Talk more tomorrow!

 

 

 

 

 

India 2016, Day 1 (July 9): On Dresses and Children’s Meals

Hello friends and denizens of the vague, empty ether that is the World Wide Web!

In the spirit of trying to get back into a daily writing routine before I embark on my next adventure – graduate school to study journalism at NYU – I’ve decided to blog about my experiences on my trip to India with my family. This my first trip to India in four years; I last came to India (alone) on a Hindi language immersion program in 2012 in Rajasthan. This time, I’m spending much of my time at weddings in my parents’ native state of Andhra Pradesh and the city of Madras/Chennai, as well as visiting family across Andhra Pradesh. But I’ll also be spending some time being a quintessential tourist in northern India, as opposed to just visiting the home of relative after relative and aunty upon aunty, which is often how previous trips to India with my family went.

Each time that I come back to India every few years, I witness a significant change in the city structures, fashions, technology, restaurants, and more. I expect this trip to reflect more change, but apart from that, I have no expectations (well, aside from the constant itch of mosquitoes, smothering and affectionate love of extended family and friends, and humidity).

My trip to India was a long one, going from SFO -> LAX -> ABU DHABI -> HYD (Hyderabad) on Etihad Airlines, which is supposed to be know for its rave reviews of the on-flight food. Did the cuisine live up to its reputation? Well…not exactly. Still, it was passable, and they pass out a nice Haagen-Daaz ice cream to redeem the airline.

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The flight menu for Etihad Airlines. Fancy!

On the subject of food, airlines and more: on all legs of my fight to India, I was surrounded by families with children. Which really wouldn’t be noteworthy, except for the fact that not once, but twice, a stewardess approached the row where I was sitting, looked confusedly at the older couple sitting next to me, before turning to me, smiling and asking ‘Children’s meal?’ while bearing Happy Meal-like trays. Mortified that I could still pass for a pre-pubescent youth at the ripe age of 24, I found myself unable to do anything except stammer out “I-I’m not a child.” Embarrassed, the flight attendants were at a loss for words until the parents explained that the meals were actually for their children seated in the row in front of us. Whoops.

While lost in the terminal at LAX, I ran into an equally confused-looking mother and daughter duo, who happened to be on my same flight and were going to Hyderabad, like me. Turns out that the daughter was also a recent Cal alumnus from the Bay Area like me, as well as of Telugu origin, like me. I’ll refrain from using the much-used truism that people say in these cases, and instead just say that it was a pleasant surprise to come across a friendly face on my long flights to India.

(FYI: Telugu refers to the language sp Ken by the majority of people in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. Many people immigrated from Andhra Pradesh to the U.S in the past three decades – including my parents – and formed tight-knit Telugu communities across the country.)

After countless delayed flights, nearly-missed connections and more than 24 hours, I arrived to Hyderabad, the capital of the new Indian state of Telengana (Hyderabad was formerly the capital of Andhra Pradesh, until the state split into two, and the new state, Telengana, took Hyderabad with it in the split). This is the vast, sprawling city where my grandparents live. I exited the baggage claim area to the sea of family members pressed together, waiting for their loved ones to emerge from the terminal. I saw my grandma and other uncle of mine waiting for me, and rushed my luggage over to greet them. However, the fun didn’t end there. My uncle’s car was almost towed, and we got there in just the nick of time as they were loading the car up on the gangway. Luckily, he got off with just a small fine, but I was worried for about a minute about the real possibility of being stranded at the airport at 5 am with my boatload of luggage.

After much ado, I finally arrived at my grandparents’ home. My parents arrived on another flight a few hours later. The rest of my day was relatively unremarkable, marked mainly by the trying on of outfit after outfit and visiting tailors to ensure my dresses were in all in tip-top shape before I jet off to an Indian wedding tomorrow. Personally, I have no inkling for fashion in general, let alone the latest Indian styles, so I pretty much stare blank-eyed whenever a shopkeeper asks me about things like my bangle-wearing preferences while I let my mom and grandma handle the rest of the talking.

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My dad relaxing at my grandparents’ house in Hyderabad after a long flight.

I also had fun playing with the children of my grandparents’ servant staff, and also meeting up with some relatives that I hadn’t seen in a while.

And so that concludes my first day in India. Stay tuned for the next update! I may not have time to post on a daily basis, but I’ll do my best. Until then…

EDIT: with the insane incidents spanning the gamut from police brutality, police killings, racial bias, and ultimately, gun violence and lives cut short this week, my heart is heavy as I write these words. Human rights at home are far from being secured, as I wrote this from abroad. Be safe, friends. Be vigilant. Take peaceful action to ensure that we don’t have another week like this in the future.