India: An ancient and rising star on the world stage

“India is a place of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle. It has a hundred tongues, a thousand religions and two million gods. It is the cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition.” -Mark Twain

Most people go to India, I think, to see the Taj Mahal. It is indeed something to see. But in India, you don’t just look. You absorb. An Indian woman told me “India is a place to experience, not just a place to be a tourist.” Just over a week into the trip, we were sitting around one evening with some fellow travelers and someone suggested we name our three top experiences so far on the trip. Not one person mentioned the Taj Mahal, even though we had visited it just a few days before.

The Delhi airport where we landed has a wall of circular copper plates with giant silver hands that have fingers and palms in meditation positions. The hands were comforting to see after leaving Dallas and being in the air for two flights of nine hours each. We broke up the trip with a three-hour layover in Amsterdam.

Delhi, the capital city of India, is full of parks and wide boulevards and looks like other capital cities in Europe or South America. The city is divided into new and old, with the old portion full of narrow streets, rickshaws and modest stalls that sell everything from car parts to haircuts. Old Delhi is populated mostly by Muslims whose lives revolve around work and the local mosque. We toured the country’s largest mosque called Jama Mashid. The emperor used to enter the huge square on an elephant that passed through a giant archway.

We were there on a Sunday, a day of relaxation and visiting. We saw a young couple celebrating their first week as newlyweds. The wife wore a series of bracelets on her arm and her hands were painted in an intricate henna design. Women in India decorate themselves in every way possible from toenails to head, wearing anything that shines or sparkles. Several women had diamonds on their noses.

We rode a bus to the mosque, and had our first glimpse of the city’s commerce. A street bazaar about a mile long had hordes of people shopping. I don’t recall anyone smoking. Goats, dogs, pigs, cows, donkeys and water buffalo wondered around, most of them hungry like many of the people. The street scenes of carts pulled by camels, bicycles carrying dozens of bird houses or baskets, beggars, hawkers, crowds of men in white and women in vibrant colors leave a lasting impression of the country.

We visited the Red Fort, the seat of Mogul (from Mongolia and Turkey) power from 1639 to 1857. It covers an area of a square mile and a half and has gardens, a palace and other buildings that feature imperial architecture, carvings and beautiful inlay. While waiting to enter the Red Fort, ladies were in one line, gents in another. We were inspected at almost every important historical site. Women usually were separated from the men for privacy. We spent some time at the India Gate, a memorial to soldiers lost in World War One.

In Delhi we were fortunate to visit with Sunny Dua, a resident of Jammu in Northern India who stayed in our home 11 years ago on a Rotary exchange. He took off four days of work to be with us and show us his country. Sunny is a Sikh (a faith that actively preaches unity and equality among all religions) and wears a turban. He took us to a Sikh temple, an elegant and imposing structure where volunteers feed thousands of people daily free of charge. Food is prepared and served on the premises. Hungry people eat a lentil stew made with cauliflower, cabbage and onions. Indian flat bread is used to scoop the stew and vegetables. A pool on the grounds is considered to contain holy water and people stick their feet in it for a blessing. Some people completely immerse themselves in the water.

Mahatma Gandhi is celebrated and revered in India. This man of peace was assassinated in Delhi. Although there was a crowd at his monument, most of the people were from India. I get the impression from the number of Indians we saw at all the tourist sites that they are extremely proud of their country and interested in its history.

We were in India at a good time. Flowers were sill in bloom and were everywhere. It is an emerging country, whose residents are full of hope, energy and confidence. India is one-third the size of the United States. The British handed over control to the Indians in 1947 and since then, India has been creating its own republic. The country will become the most populated country in the world within a few years. Right now the population is 1.2 billion, compared to China’s 1.3 billion residents. Like China, most of the population lives in rural areas. The majority of homes in India do not have bathrooms; residents use public facilities.

In India, if you do not already know the answer, you must not ask the question. You will always get an answer, but it might have nothing to do with the question. The type of English spoken in India is close to the type spoken in the US, but it is not the same. That’s why American movies carry subtitles in (you guessed it) English.

The bus ride from Delhi to Agra is just a few short hours and it was our first glimpse at highway traffic. It’s no different from city traffic. Buses, cars, trucks and other motorized conveyances compete for space on the highway with chickens, pedestrians, rickshaws and carts pulled by a variety of animals. Drivers of motor vehicles in India are some of the bravest people on the planet. They have nerves of steel. There are constant games of chicken with vehicles coming right for them. Traffic in India is like one big video game. There are no straight lines of vehicles. They wander all over the place. They remind me of butterflies, which seem to go in all directions with no advance warning. Indians drive on the left side of the highway, which makes things even more confusing for western visitors.

While I was walking on the outside wall on the way to the Taj Mahal, I looked over the wall and saw some of the structure’s white marble. I think my heart actually skipped a beat and I had chills. It was a thrill to actually stand in front of an architectural masterpiece I had heard of all my life. A Shah built it as an eternal symbol of his love for his favorite wife. It was started in 1641 and took 20,000 laborers 22 years to complete. The marble was hauled in by elephants from a quarry 20 miles away. We spent three hours at the Taj and got to observe the changing colors of the marble at sundown. We left Agra with the memory of the Taj and the image of a large monkey climbing the wall of the hotel where we stayed peering into a fifth-floor window.

We visited Ranthambhore and stayed in a hotel called Nahargarh that looks like a palace. The next day we visited a national park and saw a tiger. We had been in the same spot for sometime and many observers left. But our guide insisted we stay. Suddenly we saw a deer rush up a hill and heard the husky growl of the big cat, which echoed out over the canyons and hills. Then we saw it. The guide yelled out, “Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!” and the cameras clicked. My wife was so overcome with emotion she cried. Later, I made a movie of monkeys jumping into a tree.

At Jaipur, we went to the Palace of the Wind and photographed it in the morning light. Then we went to the Amber Fort, one of the biggest and most interesting things on our trip. It has a wall that looks like the Great Wall of China, palace grounds and a fort.

We rode elephants. It was smoother than I was expecting. We also visited an outdoor observatory that covered a city block. A remarkable astronomer built it in 1590. The observatory is an extremely modern group of structures that tell time according to the sun’s shadow with an accuracy so exact the time is within two seconds of GMT.

We flew from Jaipur to Cochin in the southern part of India. We changed planes in Mumbai and never entered the terminal. We got off one plane and simply walked a few yards to another. Very efficient. Cochin is considered the jewel in the crown of the state of Kerala, which is hailed as “God’s Own Country.” Cochin has some of the oldest European architecture and a number of Christian churches.

In a neighborhood called “Jew Town” we went to a synagogue built in 1568 that has a floor made of thousands of Chinese tiles, each one different. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India. We saw a shady park area near where fishermen dip their nets and market fresh fish. You can pick out a fish and take it to a nearby restaurant and they will prepare it the way you want it.

The most relaxing part of the trip by far was a day and night cruising the backwaters region of Kerala on a houseboat. We were pampered by a cook who prepared some delicious meals, snacks and drinks. Some of the sights along the waterways were spectacular: People in small narrow boats hauling everything from appliances to hay; people washing clothes and bodies; school kids crossing a waterway on a small boat; men and women on foot, bicycle and motorbike traveling on paths beside the water; tall palm trees on the bank and unique birds dipping into the water for food.

Up until this time, we had been with a tour group, which was the recommended way to see India. We were with a bunch of well-traveled folks and had a great time with them.

When we left them at the airport in Mumbai (the British called it Bombay) we were met by Vidya Srinivas, a former student of mine at UTPB who had a career as a newspaper and television journalist. Her husband Sri is a surgeon and he and Vidya are well-respected citizens in Mumbai and have lots of friends and a full social calendar. We spent four nights with them and went to four parties. Sri practiced in Midland from 1992 until 1999. Vidya and Sri live in a two-story penthouse on the 19th floor of a high-rise building. They have a fantastic 180-degree view of the Arabian Sea and the skyline of Mumbai. Vidya took us to places most tourists don’t get to see.

Mumbai is a like a whole other country. It is a combination of New York and Hollywood. Making movies is big business in Mumbai and attracts young people from all over the country who have seen “Slumdog Millionaire” and want to be movie stars. They will live in hovels and do any kind of work to get the chance to try out for a movie.

As soon as we got to Vidya’s flat, she gave us a detailed itinerary of activities for the next three days. She had scheduled me to speak to graduate students in communications at St. Xavier University, one of the leading journalism schools in India. The teacher asked me to listen to some documentaries the radio students had produced and to critique them. They were quite good (especially one of the three I heard) and I bragged on the students’ work. The equipment the students use is leased out to ad agencies, production houses and such. A portion of the studio time is allocated to the students, who have a certain amount to get their work done. If they don’t finish their work in the allotted time, they have to pay for the studio time. Also, they cannot touch the equipment. An engineer has to sit with them and the students tell the engineer where to edit, add music, sound or voice.

Mumbai is the most populous city in India and the second most populous city in the world. Nearly 14 million people live there and nearly that many live in its suburbs. It is the financial capital of India and the country’s richest city. Mumbai is built on what were seven islands of fishing communities. By 1845 the seven islands were joined by landfills and bridges and became a single land mass.

We took an hour-long ferry ride to the island of Elephanta and visited caves dug into stone. Giant pillars and statues were carved into the basalt rock by hand in the sixth century. There are two groups of caves; five are Hindu and two are Buddhist. It became a World Heritage Site in 1987 and is maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. The ferry left from the port area of Mumbai near the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which is just across the square from the Gateway to India archway. The hotel was heavily damaged by terrorists in 2008 but has since been repaired. One hundred and sixty-six people from the US, UK, India, Israel and other countries were killed in the attack. Indians refer to that date (November 26, 2008) the way we refer to 9/11. They call it 26/11, since they put the day’s date before the month.

After a walking tour with an architectural student to see some of the important buildings in Mumbai, we went to the Bombay Gymkhana, a sports arena originally built as a British-only club. It is one of the most exclusive clubs in the country. The waiting period for membership extends into years and the fees to join are in the millions of rupees. A cricket match was in progress while we were there. In fact, we were in India during the World Cup of Cricket, which India won.

India is the world’s largest, oldest, continuous civilization. India never invaded any country in its last 10,000 years of history. It is the world’s largest democracy. India invented the number system and had the world’s first university.

Sanskrit, the ancient and sacred language of the Hindus in India, is the mother of all the European languages. India was the richest country on earth until the time of British invasion in the early 17th century. The art of navigation was started in India. Algebra, trigonometry and calculus came from India. So did the game of chess. India is the largest English-speaking nation in the world.

The co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the creator of the Pentium chip, the creator of hotmail, the GM of Hewlett-Packard and the CEOs of Citibank and Pepsi are Indians. In 2005, India’s $575 billion economy grew by 8.2 percent. In 2009, India had the largest election turnout in human history. The Congress party was given the go-ahead to continue its programs of reforms. The day after the election, India’s stock exchange became the best performing in the world.

We had a magnificent time in India. People all over the US go there for vacations, including some college students we saw who were on spring break.

None of our close traveling friends ever have been to India, even though they go to destinations more distant. Why? Is it fear of seeing too much poverty? There was no sign of poverty at the parties we attended. Do they think it’s just too different? Is it the fact the British left? Like any good traveler, they should put away all their concerns and go there with an open mind and realize they are going to see something unusual and have unique experiences. Isn’t that why we travel in the first place?