Saturday, April 11, 2009

Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan

One of my most memorable days, thus far, turned out to be in a town I had no intention of visiting, a mere stop-over on my way to Omkareshwar...the name of the town--Kundwa. The train journey introduced me to two new things: the stick toothbrush (you chew and scrape...I watched, but missed the chance to try) and the cheapest bananas ever (12 bananas for 5 rupees...note, I started asking for 2 bananas for 5 rupees before I knew the real price). At one stop, there was a large gathering of people outside the train. It turned out to be the most disturbing traveling incident that I've encountered. A lady was given a cup of "laced" tea on an overnight train. The tea put her to sleep and when she woke up, she had nothing...robbed. I nearly turned this into an April fools email (using myself as the target), but decided that would not be in good taste.

On my journey from train to bus station in Kundwa, I happened across some music (horns, drums, etc) and a procession of people behind the musicians. Primed with heavy backpack, I forged my way into the mix. Nearly immediately people expressed interest in my presence and funneled me into the action. Men were dancing in a small circle, performing a traditional dance involving slow, rhythmic movements. The women would then take over, then the small children. I was quickly requested to join the young men dance and I gave it my all (weighed down by my pack, making it all the more ridiculous). Soon, I was told that the leader of the female dancers wanted to dance with me, so although out-classed by her, we danced for about 20 seconds before she felt somewhat embarrassed. I was able to interact openly with this girl and her friends, but she was shoved mildly by one of her friends upon telling me that I had a "beautiful smile." I mention this fact, not because I want to broadcast this mildly flattering comment, but because I think it illustrates the edge of culturally acceptable interaction between men and women. The truth is that I would have been quite interested in interacting more her, but never had the chance to talk with her alone. Dancing was interspersed with some inspiring speaches, which were often repeated in unison. The main line I understood was "Jai ma devi" which translates to something like "Praise/hail the Devi God." After several hours of dancing under the blistering sun, we reached the termination at a Devi temple. The women were served food first and I was invited to eat with the men. I had another green mango curry and this one was equally tasty, yet completely different from the one I'd had in Kerala. At the end of the meal, a young boy or "Chortu" was squatting just a meter in front of me. And I looked up as I shoved my last bite of food in my mouth to watch him ejecting excrement out of both ends, right on the floor where everyone was eating. His father watched and then scraped up the remnants, like after a dog who's done it's duty in the park. Over the next few days, I noticed that nobody under the age of about 6 wears pants in these parts and that the young ones, in particular, don't stop to think much about when or where they're going to do their business. Having finished my food, I was told to say one last "Jai ma devi" and head off. Everybody seemed to love having me and it was just a truly marvelous experience from first to last. It is worth noting, that there is a white man in town who has lived there all his life. I was told that he is completely Indian in every way except his skin color. I never had a chance to talk with him.

That evening, I made it to Omkareshwar and encountered a lady who was heading up to the Ashram she lives on with Baba ___ and several other peole. She offered me a free stay, including chapati, provided I was willing to do some "Karma Yoga." I accepted the offer and made a journey through town. I happened across a fight--many local residents were ganging up against somebody else, with whom they were very angry. They went so far as to tie him up. A frenchmen who'd been living in the town for 25 years, told me this happens every once in a while, always because of alcohol. That night, my bed appeared as mat which was unfolded on a cement platform encircling a small, but shady tree. The lady slept on the opposite side of the tree. I woke up in the morning and the others were already swung into action. I offered my service to the ashram and soon found myself relocating stones in order to keep the outdoor dirt ground "tidy." The labor was frustrating because I wasn't really sure why I was performing this action and the language barrier prevented me from getting an answer. It seemed that all the sweeping of the floor just exposed more rocks. It was quite interesting to see how they lived here. All waste was burned in small holes. Squat toilets were out in the open and all excrement was burned. I think that the ashram is almost entirely self-contained as they grew food on the premises. Already exhausted after 1.5 hours of work, I commenced my tour of the local sites (many, many temples). At my first temple, I happened upon Jiten and his friends. Jiten has polio, which resulted in his legs being about 1/3 the size of mine. In spite of this fact, we hiked all over town, up and down large hills. With Jiten's guidence, I performed traditional puja at the famous Omkareshwar temple, using all the manditory props (coconut and flowers for Shiva). It should be noted that this is a famous Shiva pilgrimage location. Shiva lingum (denoting reproduction) is worshipped here by men and women alike; these can be found at temples all over town (and at many other temple locations, particularly in north India). Jiten introduced me to Dal Bati, a dish featuring balls of wheat bread, dahl, and in some special cases an amazing lemon sauce. My relationship with Jiten faltered when we encountered a couple from California. His interaction around this girl was embarrassing to me and I let him know this. Unfortunately, we parted with me being somewhat upset because of this.

After a brutal overnight bus ride from Indore to Chittorgarh Rajasthan, I arrived at this uninspiring town, with a grandiose fort (the first of many I would see in the state). I moved onward that afternoon, to meet my friend Sius, in Bundi. Sius is a a Bangladeshi computer-scientist-turned-self-employed-photographer, who's now traveling the world to take photographs for his books. He's written one on photographic composition and another on the environment in Bangladesh. Sius and I met in Kochi a few weeks earlier and decided to meet up in Rajasthan. By the time I met up with Sius, he'd already made some friends in Bundi (a very neat town, by the way, with another inspiring fort, this one completely dominated by red-assed, black-faced monkeys which were in such numbers that sunset views from the fort required the use of metal sticks for protection). Sius and I ended up joining a German girl who'd arranged to meet some friends she'd made on the bus, who lived in a small village. The family was overjoyed to have us, but particularly the German girl. The family completely doted over her, giving her the full girly treatment (henna hand tatoo, scarves, and let her dress up in a sari). Sius and I just kicked back and missed the dramatic good-bye in which the entire family was weeping as this girl left. We ate some wonderful food, including milk fresh from their thick it was separating. We also ate some really wonderful dal. Oddly, the family gave all of us some money as gifts (more for the German girl). Apparently it would have been disrespectful to decline the gift. I wanted to decline it because the family, although not obviously poor, had more need for the 10 rupees than me. That evening, we ended up in the jeep of the Maharaja of Bundi (Maharaja means king--although somewhat obsolete, still respected). He took us to a mean thali joint (great food and golab jamun for $0.60) and then we went to a festival performance in town. The music was coming out of bad loudspeakers and the dancers weren't entirely professional, but the atmosphere was great and we had killer seats because we were with the Maharaja. At the end of the show, there was a crazy display of fireworks (crazy in the sense of impressive, but also completely unregulated...people were within about 10 feet of the action...I kept my distance!).

Sius and I moved onward to Udaipur, a town renowned for its gorgeous Palaces. Udaipur was a nice place to relax, see the sunset, visit the palace museum, watch some more professional versions of the local music and dance culture, and take a motorbike ride into the hills (nothing really memorable here, just generally good times).

After two days in Udaipur, we spent many hours in the bus, on the way to Mt. Abu, stopping at an amazing Jain Temple in Ranakpur. I had fun exploring Mt. Abu on my own (Sius was trying to fix his camera lens) as I hiked through the hills. I witnessed people building a new temple. Two people would carry two rocks attatched to a wooden pole. It was back-breaking work and appeared to be the way rocks have arrived at temples for centuries. The Jain temple at Ranakpur was outdone by the Jain temple at Mt. Abu. Here, the workers were paid the stone dust scrapings equal weight in gold to encourage fine detailed work. The results are incredibe. In some cases the rock is so thin that it is transparent to light.

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