I’ve just returned from India, where Pam and I had the opportunity to host a Dartmouth Alumni Travel group for a two-week tour of the history, architecture, culture, and arts of northern India. We joined a wonderful group of 12 interesting individuals, and an outstanding tour guide from Odysseys Unlimited, for a bustling tour of Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, and Varanasi. I think what struck me most about the agenda was its fascinating mix of the sights (palaces, temples, mosques, etc.) with the culture (villages, markets, families. religion) and arts (dance, music, weaving, pottery, jewelry, stonework, carpets, and even paper). Read on for a summary of our journey, and for a sampling of the many photos!
Last week I returned to Bangalore for my annual visit to the NetHealth workshop, which is always a fascinating combination of academic research and real-world insights from Indian health-care and public-health experts. Unfortunately my visit was constrained by other commitments so I was in India for 72 hours (at the cost of 54 hours to get there and back).
I’ve just returned from a quick six-day trip in India, visiting Delhi, Hyderabad, and Bangalore (each for two days) in support of our research on the use of mHealth technologies in India. I met collaborators at IIT Delhi, explored new research collaborations at MediCiti near Hyderabad, and presented a paper at the NetHealth workshop in Bangalore.
But I also had some time to get out and explore, by poking around the streets of New Delhi on Sunday afternoon, exploring the historic sites of Hyderabad, and visiting my favorite places in Bangalore. Although I enjoy snapping photos of the monuments and historic sites, I have to admit that it’s the people that I enjoy so much. I’ve collected about a hundred good shots in one slideshow, and (with great difficulty) whittled it down to a top-20 slideshow for those who just want a quick peek.
Here’s a quick link to all of the photos from our trip to India (mid-December 2012 through mid-January 2013). There are galleries for Mumbai, Madurai (and Aravind Eye Hospital), and Bangalore.
At right is a photo of us visiting the main temple in Madurai, showing only one of the many gopurams (towers) at this huge temple.
When Rima invited me to attend her father’s 75th birthday celebration, at a temple in southern Bangalore, I was more than happy to accept. A 75th birthday is a special event for anyone, anywhere, and I was honored to be asked to share such an event. Even more honored to be invited to a family event, in a culture where family is so important — and families are so welcoming.
So I put on my finest kurta and pyjamas, and set out to find an auto driver who could understand where I wanted to go. (I’ve written about autos, and auto drivers, before – and this day was pretty typical. They quote overly high prices, I get out of the auto and walk a few blocks ’til I find another auto; this is the routine.) Finally I found a willing driver, but we had to duck into a nearby shop so the shopkeeper could read the address and help the driver figure out where it was. After a bit more price negotiation, we headed south.
Eventually, I found the temple. I spotted an entrance with a huge collection of shoes and sandals outside, and rightly guessed that was the way to go. I was unprepared for the size of the gathering! There were easily a hundred people seated behind Rima and her father and her mother. I arrived just as the puja was finished – apparently this part lasts three hours – and we all moved to a larger hall for the final blessings and a meal. A fascinating ceremony, and fun to photograph. (I felt awkward using my camera, but Rima assured me it was fine, and anyway there was a professional photographer and videographer using their bright lights so I was more like a fly on the wall.)
Ceremonies were finished, the floor was swept clean, and lunch prepared. The staff laid out about a hundred banana leaves, in rows, on the marble floor. Each guest chose a place to sit. Next to each leaf was placed a metal cup with water. Then the staff came along with buckets of food, rapidly scooping out chutneys, curries, dals, rice, curd, sweets, and more, using their hand (or sometimes a spoon). Sitting on a marble floor eating food served by hand from a bucket onto a leaf — this is not everyone’s idea of fine dining — but the food was wonderful and plentiful and the mood festive. I marveled at how quickly the food was served to so many – really, it took them about 3 seconds per person as they came by with each dish. I ate so much it was hard to stand up! As we all prepared to leave, a group of cleaning women came along stacking the leaves and their leftovers; it occurred to me that, other than the reusable metal cups, everything left was compostable.
[Why are so many of my blog entries about food? Why do I have a Smugmug tag specifically for photos of food? Can you tell I love Indian food?]
I really enjoyed my time at the celebration. Many of Rima’s cousins introduced themselves and were very kind in welcoming me to the event. Thank you all for inviting me, for allowing me to join your family for the day. And thanks for the two photos of me, above.
I posted a dozen more photos. My very best wishes to Rima’s father on his 75th birthday!
Having spent time in Mumbai and Madurai on this trip, I can again state that Bangalore has the worst traffic. Still, it somehow seems better than last year, at least in the places I’ve been.
Bangalore is building a new metro rail system, and the first segment opened this year. I saw the trains gliding above M.G. Road last week. This line only serves a particular area, however, so it will take time before the metro system has a broad impact. People tell me that the Delhi metro has made a big difference since it was fully open a few years ago.
New flyovers are there, as well as subways. A “flyover” is a bridge or elevated roadway; a “subway” is a tunnel. They are both used to ease congestion at an intersection by avoiding the need for stoplights or avoiding cross-traffic.
[I just caught myself writing like an Indian would speak. We might say “There are new flyovers”; they would say “Flyovers are there.”]
As a pedestrian, I’ve seen some new “skywalks”, that is, pedestrian bridges over particularly busy streets or intersections. Still, in most places, to cross the street is means weaving through moving traffic and hope that the traffic goes around you instead of over you. But the biggest novelty is the advent of pedestrian crossing signs — those green and red lights that tell you when it’s time to walk. They seem to work whenever there is a traffic cop present – all the traffic stops and the pedestrians can safely cross. But at other times, I’ve noticed that the traffic ignores the walk sign and just proceeds into the intersection!
After three weeks walking the sidewalks of India I notice myself becoming more aggressive. I push my way through crowds, I bat away the touts who want to sell me trinkets, I step out into traffic as if I own the street. That’s just the way it’s done. Maybe it’s a city thing. Maybe it’s an India thing. But if I defer to either courtesy or safety, I’d never get across the street.
“So is the US a country or a continent?” the auto-driver asked me as we puttered up Residency Road on our way to IISc.
Normally, I don’t have much of a conversation with the driver of an autorickshaw, the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis that ply the streets of Bangalore and most other Indian cities. The conversation usually is limited to my attempt to describe where I want to go and their attempt to convince me that their meter is broken and that I should therefore pay triple the appropriate price for the trip :-). One of the things I like about autos, however, is that their open-air construction and the frequent lengthy stalls in traffic encourage chatter between the auto driver and nearby auto drivers. It’s not uncommon to have one auto driver ask another for directions, or for motorcycle riders to chat with an auto driver, all while stopped for a light.
On this sunny Saturday morning, this particular fellow was very conversational and his English was good; certainly far better than my Kannada. His geography was a little challenged. “US is a country,” I said. “North America is a continent, with three countries – US, Canada, Mexico.” This was good enough until he stopped to jam us into the crowd at the next traffic light. “Is Washington a city or a country?” he asked. “Is Obama the president of the US or of the continent?” “So, Washington is the capital of the US?” So far, I know the answers. Then, it gets more complicated: “why is the US dollar the most popular currency?” I should have taken global economics. “why is English the most popular language?”
We talked on like this. He noted that the US had just had elections; Obama had won again? yes, I confirmed. “Indian democracy is not good,” he said, “ninety percent of politicians are corrupt.” I decided not to pursue the topic of politics too far, so I switched to a safer topic. I noted that there are many new autos on the road, all green on the bottom instead of black, and labeled “LPG”. He confirmed that all new autos must be LPG, which is cleaner than the stinky diesel units of the past. He lamented that the newer machines were much harder (and more expensive) to service, however.
Nice fellow. I asked him where he was from – was he from Bangalore itself? “Ninety percent of auto drivers are from Bangalore,” he told me. Interesting; the city has many migrants from all over the country so I assumed otherwise. I wished him well and we went our separate ways.