India: Signs and Wonders

India: Signs and Wonders

 “May you be blessed with five sons,” says the tiny, elderly woman sitting on the curb with her hand out, as I give her 10 rupees. Well, I am blessed with two – not sure I could have managed five – but that is a pretty good indication of gender priorities, and the eternal struggle (as told in endless jokes) about mothers-and daughters-in-law. It seems that if you yourself lived through the evidently harrowing experience of being a daughter-in-law, you have to hope for sons so that you can eventually recoup your own suffering, and continue the miserable chain.  And if India is to outpace China in population – as is expected within the next 20 years, it will be fascinating to see how traditional roles change – gender, rural, caste, religion as the world’s largest democracy lurches, pushes and pulls its way into the mid-century. A model for multi-ethnic peaceable growth or an explosion waiting to happen?
At Merrangarh fort in Jodhpur, these hands represent widows who dutifully followed their husbands to death on the funeral pyre.
This little munchkin face peers out from a doorway in the village of Narlai. Written on the wall is a sign informing the world that this house receives 500 rupees per month from the government to meet subsistence income. Most houses in this village had such a sign – the amounts varying from 500 to 750 rupee. (about $7.50-$10/month)

Devi – goddess: These are tough ladies as you can see from their multiple arms, fearsome blue faces, devouring ways and ability to dispense with demons and then wear their heads as trophies. The chasm between monotheism and Hinduism looms large, especially in the goddess role. Q. Do people actually believe this stuff?  Maybe it’s sensible to have a God for every occasion (good god, bad god, silly god, ferocious god, ineffectual god, meditating navel-gazing god) so you don’t have to spend your life wondering why only one God makes bad things happen to good people. 
Even trees get in the act. They’re alive and an important part of the chain of life; why not? I ask why people ring a bell when they enter a temple. It’s to announce to the god that you are there and he/she/it should wake up from their nap.  Talk about bringing god down to earth! Love it…


My personal favorite — Ganesh – the elephant boy. I made the mistake of referring to him as Mr. Ganesh. The guide I was with corrected me soberly “you mean Lord Ganesh.” He may look like a roll-poly created by kindergarteners, but I am reminded that behind the  colorful silliness, this is serious business.  And he is everywhere.  Elaborately painted and surrounded by flowers and offerings of coconut and fruit, his effigy is on every street corner.  You just can’t get farther from the sober suffering of Christian saints. 


A mound of marigolds ready to purchase as an offering for whatever gods are within. The intensity of the yellows, golds, orange and sienna is non-stop. There’s quite an industry in the growing, preparation, assembly, transport and sale of flower garlands everywhere.
Footprints representing Lakshmi – wife of Vishnu, and goddess of wealth and good fortune, often found on the threshold of a house and bring the occupants good luck.
The exquisite carvings of the Jain Temple of Ranakpur, built in 1439 and one of the 5 most important pilgrimage sites of Jainism – an ancient religion practiced by a remnant 5 million in India – once much more prevalent. A religion of non-violence and meditation in which the nuns wear mouth coverings so that they do not inadvertently swallow even a bug. But for reasons that no one can explain, the carvings often include sex acts between multiple partners and animals. They certainly show off hundreds of voluptuous Aspara — celestial dancers — present in all Hindu origin myths. Ah, to be a celestial dancer! Modern Jains are evidently extremely successful businessmen and money lenders. Many villages in Rajasthan have one or two extravagant houses among the shacks as country houses for city Jains so they can retreat to their humble origins a few times a year.
Cows. Yes, they really are everywhere. Gives new meaning to free-range, as they are often standing in front of you as you walk or drive. Riots are started over rumors that Muslims are slaughtering cows. I ask what happens if a car inadvertently hits one  – it’s amazing that they aren’t struck more often – and the answer is that you just have to pay it forward (in addition to paying the owner) by being nicer to cows, or any living creature.  This cow has had her horns gaily painted. I saw a cow with bright red spots painted for some ceremony, or just because someone felt like making that cow feel special.  In the same village, I also saw a dead cow, just lying in the street, a small child checking it out. Looked like it had been there for some time…

 Following are “signs” that got my attention:


Jain temple doorpost
How many refugees?  A poster advertising the movie “Airlift.” 
IMG_6198PC invades. Any differently abled guests would have had a very hard time negotiating the many stairs at Devi Garh. 
Even Indian dogs get their day. And their coat. Not that they need it.
Because of the heavy winter smog/fog in Delhi – the airport was closed several times daily- wrecking havoc on air travel. We descended on an Air India office in Jodhpur to change flights (internet changes were impossible). This was like trying to do business in a low-cost funeral parlor. The two employees glowered at us in a mix of annoyance and despair – how dare we ruin their day? – as they shook their heads gloomily while staring over each other’s shoulders at a computer screen from 1995.  My American “get it done”  genes step right up: “What’s the problem gentlemen?” No answer.  Our guide, Yogendra, explains that when two westerners show up at an out of the way government office, the first reaction is: trouble ahead – defenses up. So we make nice and be very appreciative in the 45 minutes it will take for them to s-l-o-w-l-y change air tickets. I  take note of the many signs announcing no offering or taking of bribes. (There goes that option.)  India’s legendary bureaucracy and corruption and their official reaction to it – on display.
And that’s the upside of being a civil servant. A huge poster in Victoria Terminus where millions of daily commuters pas through.
Good to know, as treatment of Indian women is much in the news.
 Kumbhalagarh Fort near Narlai in the Aravalli Hills is the second largest fort in Rajasthan with fortified walls that span 30 kilometers. These huge doors are fortified with iron spikes starting at a height of 8 feet. Why? At about the height of an elephant’s neck and head, elephants — trained to smash down doors with their heads — would rear up and shy away — smart enough to know that the spikes were aimed right at their eyes.
Much restoration of the Kumbhalagahr walls, evidently the second longest after the Great Wall of China.
IMG_6733View of the “blue” city of Jodhpur from the heights of the Mehrangarh Fort, founded in 1460 and one of the largest forts in India. It sits at 410 feet above the city, is entered through one of seven gates, and consists of many palaces and an excellent museum of armory, palanquins, elephant howdahs, and delicately carved, mirrored and decorated rooms.  It is packed with local tourists on a Sunday afternoon.  We are about the only gringos in a crowd of several thousand.
IMG_6466Narlai: Village life at sunset. Monkeys jump in the trees, kids fly kites from rooftops in preparation for the annual kite-flying festival, and green parrots squawk and swoop. Temple bells ring and a muezzin calls the faithful (about 20% of most villages) to prayer. Pigs root in the garbage – undeterred by the prospect of becoming bacon as neither Hindu nor Muslim will eat them.
IMG_6481Family history captured in portraits on the walls of Rawla Narlai, still owned by the royal family of Jodhpur.
IMG_6796The botanical gardens on the outskirts of Jodhpur have seen better days; garbage floats in the canals and the plants are not kept up. But the temples and architecture are exquisite.  Close your eyes and go back centuries. Here in the 21st century, families stroll, peddlers sell, the occasional beggar begs, temple bells ring, kids hang out, funeral pyres occasionally burn.  Funerals need the four elements: water, wind, fire and earth. Ashes are taken to the holy Ganges. The service is over when the eldest son takes a club and cracks open the skull of the parent to release the soul. I wonder what Freud would have to say…
En route back to Oman, we spend most of the day in the Mumbai airport in no man’s land. Because of heightened security post 2008 attacks you can’t (a) leave the terminus; (b) go through security and immigration more than 2 hours before your flight. So you are doomed to hang out at the check-in counters watching long lines of black-robed women, faces covered, gloved, shepherded by the occasional man in white.  Their faces can only be seen by a female to confirm their passport, and then they lift their veil for about 2 seconds.  For a country obsessed with security this seems bizarre.  We  watch large groups check in to flights to cities in Africa that I couldn’t find on a map – sad to admit.  We also see many groups of elderly women (they’re totally covered, so you can only tell by how they move) wearing shawls over their Niqabs announcing that they are going on Umrah – pilgrimage to Mecca outside of the month of Hajj.  We are told that the Indian government will pay for pensioners to go on Umrah, and this has caused resentment among the Hindu population as there is no quid pro quo.  Sash reports that so many travel agencies run rip off operations for Umrah, (take the money and disappear) that the government probably does this to protect pensioners who have saved for years to make the pilgrimage before they die.  There’s just always two sides… at least.  Our flight leaves, finally, at 1:00 AM and consists entirely of single men – migrant workers, leaving home for months or years to work abroad. I have a lengthy charade exchange with one who wants to know what he can do to get a visa to the US – his biggest dream.  Sadly, not much. I have no gestures of encouragement, and especially not in the midst of this US electoral season.    
 Putting a garland on my husband. Now we’re married. 
It’s about time…