India Travelogue, Part I

Monkey about to attack RobertThanks be to God, we are back from India and home in the U.S.A. with family, friends, hamburgers, and the rest. As India is a third-world country, I had limited access to a computer over the past few weeks, so what I’m now posting a brief chronicle of our journey in two posts.  I have my camera equipment back in my possession after my bag was returned to from Chicago yesterday. The same bag, incidentally, was lost by the airline  on the way to India and on the way back!


5/18-19

The first challenge of our expedition came when our flight from KC to Newark did not leave on time. Arriving in Newark, we didn’t know if we could make our connection to Frankfurt. Rushing as best we could through security, we arrived at the gate just a couple minutes after they closed the aircraft door. Thanks be to God, a couple gates away there was a plane leaving directly from Newark to Delhi. Our BC group was able to grab the very last seats on that plane the hour before it departed. For us this meant we now had only one layover instead of two, and it also meant getting to fly on United with its great movie selection. I watched The Life of Pi and the new Bond movie on the flight. When we arrived in blazing-hot Delhi (still around 100 degrees in the late evening), we couldn’t find our bags. It turns out they never made it on the plane. To make a long story short, the next couple days entailed much worrying and effort to recover the bags, and thankfully they were delivered to us the day before we left Delhi. The taxi ride to our hotel was a most interesting taste of what we were about to be seeing throughout India: traffic like we had never seen, smells we did not want to smell, people stuffed in trucks and riding on top of them, horns being honked–literally–every second. We all made it to our hotel safe and sound, little aware how lucky we were that our driver did not get lost or decide to take us to another, “better” hotel of his choice.

5/20

As expected, I woke up with jetlag in the four o’clock hour even though I had barely slept in two days. I went downstairs and had three delightful cups of Indian coffee and then headed down the street to a temple underneath a massive statue of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. Later others from our group came as well. This was our first authentic Hindu experience, and it was quite exotic for us. We enter the temple, and there are icons, statues, incense, priests, and general confusion for us foreigners. A priest comes up to me and (without asking) promptly paints on me a ‘third eye’ (on the brow between the eyes) which symbolizes spiritual or inner spiritual vision. He wants me to drink and eat some food offerings, but I decline for a couple different reasons. We are then led upstairs where a priest bring us close to a goddess statue and then proceeds to start chanting and blessing us (again without us asking!) with a long thing which was possibly made of peacock leaves. Some other interesting things happen which freak out some of our group, and then we’re done. We didn’t actually pray to the goddess, so no harm, no foul. We just realized very quickly that when you enter a Hindu temple you have to be aware of what’s going on and demonstrate you are just observing if that’s all you want to do. Of course, while a Christian can’t pray to the Hindu gods, you can pray to God in your heart while in the Temple. It seems appropriate to join the other worshipers in this way as you can see that many of them are quite devout, holy people who love God. You also have your annoyances. At the end of this little ceremonial puja, for example, the priest demanded we pay 500 rupees (about $10). Not what we expected, and not something I was going to be caught off guard paying for again. Actually, I gave him about half of what he asked for””a good bargaining rate I aimed to achieve for most things I bought in India!

The rest of the morning we spent trying to find taxis to bring us to Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi. If you have not been to India, you simply cannot grasp how hard it is to work with the taxi drivers. They make the Italian drivers who rip you off look like saints. Skipping alot of details, let me just say that we did eventually get to the mosque. We only briefly saw it because our taxis got separated and the drivers brought us to different locations. Then once we arrived, we had to wait the better part of an hour to enter because afternoon prayers were going on. All this in 115+ degree heat. Our group was indescribably exhausted, so we decided to have our taxis bring us to lunch. Sounds simple, right? Bottom line is that the traffic in Old Delhi is so crazy that the taxis could barely move. Then the drivers, instead of taking us to lunch, decided to bring us to their buddy’s rug shop. When we got out of the taxi and entered the shop, we asked, “Where is the restaurant?” They said to just look at the rugs first. We said no, of course. We then learned that there was no restaurant. When we finally did get to eat lunch, it was nearly 4 pm, about 11 hours since I woke up. This was the type of day we later learned to expect in India. It is a developing country with some Western conveniences but a third-world country nonetheless. When it comes to money and practical matters, all bets are off. Needless to say, at the end of this day, we were all beat in a way that defies description. Some people were thinking about calling it quits at the end of tis day. Their perseverance would later pay off, however.

5/21

Woke up at 4:30 for a full day tour of Delhi. When Indians mean full day, they mean full day. We toured until 8 pm at night and hit an astonishing number of sites as we weaved in and out of Delhi traffic. It really was a great tour. Everybody had a different favorite when it comes to sites. We paid homage at Ghandi’s tomb, toured a Baha’I temple, checked out the gods in a Hindu temple to the goddess Lakshami, learned Indian history in a Nehru museum, and beheld the magnificent Qutub Minar, a medieval Muslim royal palace with structures dating back to the second century when it was Hindu-controlled. Now the Qutub Minar is a UNESCO world heritage site, and deservedly so. The minaret-tower is breathtaking. It gave us a first glimpse of how big everything in India is. We think of medieval European palaces as being majestic, and rightly so, but some of the structures we have seen in India give a whole new meaning to the word majestic. The Red Fort gave me the same impression. It reminded me of the sultan’s glamorous Topkapi palace in Istanbul, but I think this was even bigger. I don’t believe I had ever before seen defensive walls of that caliber.

5/22

Day began at 4-something (they all seem to begin this way!) as we headed on the bus from Delhi to Jaipur, a popular site for Indian tourists. The bus ride was long and taxing. Along the way, we got a real taste for the Indian countryside. Literally there were people, buildings, crumbled buildings, or trash lining the whole highway during our 6-7 hour ride. India’s population is well over a billion and growing, and you can see there simply isn’t enough space to fit the people comfortably. The poverty is also astonishing. I had never seen so many slums and so much trash all about. As I will say time and again, you simply can’t describe it. Jaipur was a touristy but interesting town. The coolest part was the Pink City, this fortress built on a mountain with a long wall all around it. It looked like the Great Wall, except obviously smaller. This palace again was bigger than anything else I’ve seen in my travels. Its decorations were also breathtaking. They used natural colors from local stones and vegetation that don’t easily fade, so we were able to see many of the decorative patterns that were originally there when it was constructed several hundred years ago. We also stopped to view the Palace of the Winds, a structure out in the middle of a lake where the raj (king) would spend summers to take in the cool of the water and get away from the heat of the mountain palace. There was nothing particularly religious about this day but rather more cultural as it was part of a guided tour. We got to see monkeys running around town, ate good food, and saw some amazing architectural and natural beauty

5/23

At 3:40 we received a brutal wake-up call and made our way on the bus to Agra. Along the way we stopped at Fatephur Sikri, a site which blew my expectations out of the water. Its entry steps and gate (of which I’ll post a picture when I return to the USA) were one of the very best statement’s of God’s majesty I have ever seen. Looking up at it, one just has to stand in awe. Again, I’ve never seen anything like this before. The royal complex was quite regal. The Muslim ruler Akhbar the Great here had separate palaces built for each of his wives (one Hindu, one Christian, one Muslim). This is an important site in terms of religion because Akhbar held a parliament of religions here and really sought to welcome and understand people of all faiths, not a very common practice hundreds of years ago and not very common today. After this stop we made our way to the Taj Mahal. Being more interested in the religious sites on this trip, this site was not on the top of my list, but when you go to India of course you have to see it. Wow. It well deserves to be praised as one of the 7 Wonders of the World. It was built by the Muslim ruler as a mausoleum for his deceased wife. Good thing my wife wasn’t there to see it, or else I would have to start saving now until eternity to live up to such expectations. [Just joking, Jen;)] One thing I want to say about this day is that the heat was so bad that the hot wind blowing it actually hurt the eyes. It was like being in front of an open oven with a vent on your face. So it was a great day, but tough going.

And the day was far from over. We still had to travel a few hours to Mathura to see the temple dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna. This was the place he is said to have been born on earth, so for Hindus this is roughly the equivalent of visiting Bethlehem. I don’t really know how to describe the experience of entering the temples except to say that there are images all over the place, people all over the place, shoes all off, and prayers and chants in abundance. Like you see when you visit Catholic pilgrimage sites, some people are very devout and knowledgeable, some are ignorant and going through the motions, and some are tourists. On the whole, experiencing this gave me a greater than ever respect for Hinduism and the faith of its people. Especially enlightening and uplifting were the personal explanations given our group by our Indian travel companion, Sriramamurty Bheemarasetti, our dear friend whom I jokingly but affectionately called our “guru.”

After an exhausting few days of bus touring, we headed for the Mathura train station for an overnight, non-A/C ride to Varanasi. I knew this was going to be a tough leg of the trip, but none of us know quite how hard. First, when we arrived at the dilapidated station, we couldn’t find any way to verify our seat assignments for the train. Second, there was nowhere to get dinner at the station. Third, it was a blazing hot evening and we had to sit on the dirty ground waiting for our delayed train to arrive (the trains are always delayed in India, it turns out). One redeeming factor here was that we can now say we sat In a run-down train station waiting with the cows right beside us and walking around like they own the place.

5/24

The overnight ride was a beast. Between sweating, uncomfortable short beds, and hoards of dirty and tired people (including ourselves) walking in, out and around our cabin, it was hard to find much peace. Some people did not sleep, others slept well, and I got at least a few hours to get me through the next day. However, the train was 3 hours delayed, so it ended up being a 17-hour non-A/C ride. In the last few afternoon hours, it truly became grueling. This was offset somewhat by conversations with Indian young people who wanted to get to know us. Some of the group even played Uno and exchanged card tricks with them. Throughout India we enjoyed many delightful experiences of this sort. The people were on the whole incredibly welcoming, interested, and hospitable. Some people, however, were just plan creepy. Some Indian guys would stare shamelessly at our American girls, and others would come and stand up next to our group and just stare. You never knew if they were just interested, or lustful, or wanted to steal something, or something else. Throughout the trip we felt like a traveling zoo. We had not quite realized how few Westerners visit India. For some of these people, we may have been the only white people they had ever seen in person, so of course we were interesting! But again, on the whole it was a good thing, and certainly an interesting cultural experience. Personally, I felt so proud and edified when a nice young person or couple wanted to take their picture with me. On one occasion, I was sitting outside on some steps talking on the cell phone to my wife in America, and a couple comes by and (without asking) gives me a smile and places their child on my lap for a photo! When this happened, we all felt like celebrities!

Returning to the issue of sites, when we finally did arrive in Varanasi and got a different taxi after the first taxi driver we waited for showed up drunk, we came to a wonderful hotel right on the Ganges River overlooking its banks. It was like being on a beachfront. As on a few other occasions on the trip, I met some Westerners and was able to have some deep religious conversation with them. The highlight of this stop, and one of the highlights of the trip, came in the evening when the hotel booked us a private boat to take us up and down the Ganges to view the dusk worship aarti or worship ceremonies. The lights, sounds, smells, and bells were truly a spectacle and a testament to the profundity of the Hindu faith. These sacred rites have been performed on this site from time immemorial, and our hotel was only a five-minute paddleboat ride away. We also were taken downstream in the opposite direction to the main cremation ghat. There were at least 6 funeral pyres at that hour, and there is one main fire kep lit day and night all year since only God knows when. This was hallowed ground (or, more accurately, hallowed water). The Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi and being cremated in the Ganges grants one immediate release from the cycle of reincarnation and entry into moksha or their ultimate fulfillment in eternal life. Bodies are burned halfway and then released into the river to return to the source, the mother-river goddess, whence they came forth into this world. This view of death, burial, and the afterlife is of course very different from that of Christianity. In Hinduism, bodies are not buried because it is believed that slowing the process of decomposition only delays one’s entry into his next body, which ultimately means only more suffering and waiting to attain ultimate liberation. Christians, on the other hand, bury our dead as a reminder that our bodies will one day rise from the earth–not as physical bodies as before, but as Paul says, as spiritual bodies (see 1 Corintians 15). The concepts and practices in these two religions could hardly be more different, and it is deeply illuminating to ponder their respective meanings, truth claims, and points of contact.

5/25

Morning train from the Hindu holy city of Varanasi to the Buddhist holy city of Bodh Gaya. This is the place where the Buddha is believed to have attained Enlightenment. Buddhists from around the world come to worship at the Bodhi Tree where Siddharta Gautama sat until he attained that inner awakening by which he earned the title Buddha or “Awakened One.” The tree, if the claim is accurate, is at least 2500 years old. In front of it also is placed a relic of Buddha’s foot. Believing that this is really his foot is quite a stretch, but then again–as throughout this trip–we realized in a new way that we Catholics practice and accept some pretty strange stuff as well if you look at it from the outside!

Besides this, the coolest part of Bodh Gaya is the dozens of temples lining its streets, each constructed by faithful from a different country. You can walk into an authentic Tibetan temple and then literally next door there is the Japanese temple and so forth. The only thing you can reasonably compare this to is Vatican City for Catholics or perhaps Mecca for Muslims. As if this was not cool enough, it turns out we providentially came to this city for the birthday anniversary celebration of the Buddha. Hence monks of all stripes were out and about in abundance. It meant longer lines, but it was well worth it.

On this evening, unfortunately, I got my first dose of the stomach bug or “Delhi Belly.” Others in our group did as well. It made the next day’s ride to Calcutta much more interesting than I had hoped. I do not feel the need to share details at this point. All I can say is that the whole situation would probably had been worse if I were the sort of guy who would accept the offer of the street peddler who wanted me to buy some ganga (read: marijuana). When this guy found out was American, he was sure that I would buy. It’s always interesting to learn how people of other nations perceive our own.

5/26

The morning and afternoon we spent on the train and then finally were able to step off and walk in the footsteps of Mother Teresa. Our time in Calcutta (or Kolkata as it is now called) marked a transition point in the trip from focusing almost exclusively on non-Christian Indian religions to a deeper experience of Indian Catholicism. The train station was a mass confusion of people the likes of which I had never seen. When we finally got our taxis, however, it was a relief to observe that Calcutta, while very old, polluted, and poor, retains some positive remnants of its days as the capital of the British Empire. For example, you ride in old-school yellow taxis, people generally stop at stop lights, and for the most part traffic does not come head-on at you at 50 mph. By the time we made it to our hotel, I was feeling to sick to go to dinner, so I stayed in the hostel, a place run by Baptists just down the street from the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity. My group brought me dinner after they returned, but I really couldn’t eat it. This happened to me a few times on the trip. Sometimes you just have to stay home, tough it out, and wait for God’s grace to make the storm pass.

5/27

I was still sick in the morning and stayed at the hostel while the others went shopping. This was a wise decision as a regained the strength necessary to hit the ground running on the second leg of the trip. At the ranch, I had some great conversations about religion and life with foreigners who were also staying there and volunteering with the MCs down the road. Six of us were at lunch, each from a different nation. I was able to talk to one kind woman for a while about Fr. Bede Griffiths, a favorite theologian of mine when it comes to the topic of dialogue between Eastern and Western religions. After lunch, the group came back and we grabbed taxis which brought us to the Hindu temple to the goddess Kali where the famous guru Ramakrisha lived and prayed. Here our friend Sriramamurty was able to provide magnificent explanations of the site as well as the thought of Ramakrishna and his disciple Swami Vivekananda. The centerpiece of the temple complex is a statue to the goddess whom believers wait in line to venerate and make offerings of flowers, food, etc. Then there are some relics of Ramakrishna, including is bedroom. Surprisingly, I learned that there was a tree here marking the spot where Jesus is said to have appeared to Ramakrishna and embraced him, indicating the Hindus can (and many do) worship Jesus alongside the other figures Hindus consider as incarnations of God. There is a nice view of the Ganges from here as well as several interesting small shrines. I went into one with a Shiva lingam and was able to watch and here the people praying before it. It was a very beautiful experience, even though I do not share their belief. The lingam has phallic connotations manifesting the reality that God is the creative power at work in human sexuality. It is also more or less formless, which is meant to express the reality that God is ultimately transcendent and beyond any forms our human minds can grasp or express. Nonetheless, Ramakrishna as well as many Hindus still affirm that one can come to God through forms, that is to say through images or incarnations which help the human mind to bridge the gap between visible, created reality and invisible, uncreated reality. In Christianity it turns out we can say something quite similar. Christians can use images, celebrate sacraments, and venerate the body of Christ, but all of these visible realities are meant to lead us into union with the invisible Triune God. Clearly this is not the precise thing going on in Hinduism, but it is one of many instances in which their theology and praxis converge on a deep and important level.

5/28

Today I was still sick so it was basically a relax day for me. I made it to and through the 6 a.m. mass at the MC mother house, but I felt like fainting the whole time so decided not to go out volunteering with the others at one of the Homes for the Dying. The others had a great experience doing this, but I was more likely to end up in a sick bed there rather than helping the sick! Throughout this day my health gradually recovered, and so by 6 p.m. I was up for going to pray at Mother Teresa’s tomb and do Eucharistic adoration at the mother house. This was quite the experience. The traffic outside was so loud that you could hardly hear yourself think, let alone hear the sisters recite their prayers. Then there was the tram that would go by, at which point nothing could be heard. Add onto this the most annoying fact that some preacher was on a megaphone (possibly from a nearby mosque minaret) preaching fire and brimstone at a whirlwind pace the whole time, and what you get is a recipe for complete chaos. And yet through it all there somehow remained a certain peace through the presence of Christ, the sisters, and Mother’s tomb. I was struck in recalling Mother’s words concerning the necessity of silence. Those sisters probably never get silence. What Mother of course meant above all was interior silence, and to be sure no sister would survive a week in this place without steadfast dedication to cultivating this virtue.

Tonight we had to prepare for a short night and a 3 a.m. wake-up so we could make it to the airport for a 6:15 flight. We ordered Pizza Hut and had it delivered to the hostel to give us some comfort, calories, and mental strength to embark upon our impending journey to South India.

5/29

We made it to the airport way early and in about the most stress-free way possible in India. Once the plane took off, a plane which was slated to land in Trivandrum at 10:15 a.m., I heard the pilot announce that it would be landing in Bangalore at 8:45. What?! Did I hear that right?? Well, it turns out the plane made a pit stop in Bangalore to let some people off and pick others up before continuing onto Trivandrum. No big deal, but it was just funny that no one, nor that ticket, thought to tell us this. I think the Indians get a kick out of seeing how close they can get travelers to the point of having a heart attack.

When we arrived at sunny, balmy Trivandrum we met our priest-guide for the next two days, Fr. Matthew of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church. To say that Fr. Matthew was a sight for sore eyes would be a tremendous understatement. His presence was our welcome to the South India state of Kerala, a portion of India which is about 1/3 Catholic, 1/3 Hindu, and 1/3 Muslim. In contrast with the earlier part of the trip, here we were dealing with a fellow Christian who spoke excellent English, intimately knew the lay of the land, and had prepared for us a series of incredibly hospitable experiences.

I asked Fr. Matthew to teach the group about the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, as experiencing the diversity of Indian Catholicism was one of the main objectives I had set for this trip. He began by showing us the basilica formerly presided over by the bishop responsible for the reunification of this church with Rome in the 1930s. His name escapes me at this brief moment which I can spare to be writing, but he is a Servant of God, which means he is on the road to beatification. The Syro-Malankara Church is now in communion with Rome but preserves distinctive liturgical and canonical features of which most Roman Catholics are utterly unaware (more on this later). They had split with the Catholic Church after the arrival of the Portugese arrived in India in the early 1500s and attempted to forcibly Latinize the native St. Thomas Christians. Thanks be to God, they are back with us today, but regrettably other ancient Churches have yet to enter into full communion with the Church of Rome. I wish they would, but I can’t say I blame them after the Westerners basically came in and told them they had been doing everything wrong even though their ecclesiastical traditions dated back to the early Church and their foundation to the Apostles St. Thomas himself.

After a spectacular buffet lunch at a nice hotel, we saw some other churches, the local Catholic schools and college, and the Syro-Malankara seminary. Here we met with the seminary’s rector, had a nice tour of the campus, enjoyed a rooftop overview of the city, and finally were brought fresh coconuts with their tops cut off and straws inserted within. We had our “glass” of coconut milk, then spooned out some coconut to eat, and made our way in a private van across town to our seaside hotel to enjoy the view of coconut trees along the beach. Truly the region of Kerala merits its name, which basically translates to “Coconut Land.” After splashing in the waves and getting beat around by the pre-monsoon tide, at sunset the lifeguard kicked us out from the beach and I at least retired to the hotel for the evening.

I will finish the chronicle of our India journey within a couple days. I need to lie back down and try to get some more sleep!

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