India Oct 2009
In India, one of the easiest ways to locate the city slum is to start out early in the morning, scan the streets for hordes of young women bearing big alumiium jars filled with water, then follow them home . Most of the slums have no water supply, and it's the daily duty of the women to fetch the necessary household water from the public pump.
That's how I came upon a slum in Bhopal, the second day I was in Madhya Pradesh State.
The residents welcomed me with the open-hearted hospitality typical of the Indian race, and very quickly we were exchanging addresses. The few English speakers among them undertook a heated discussion and finally came up with : " House 31, behind the Rotary Club, Nagar Banganga , Bhopal ". I was dubious ." That's kind of vague, and the Rotary Club's a couple of blocks away ! I'm sending you all the photos I took of you , are you sure you'll get them if I use that address?" They shook their heads in unison which I took to mean Yes, except on further questioning it transpired none of them had ever received anything through the post before.
That's how I found out a slum of almost a hundred houses had no name.
After bidding my new friends goodbye I hastened back to the hotel to join my other friends for breakfast. I was pleasantly surprised by the buddy-buddy cheeriness that seemed to pervade the whole city. Everyone I met en-route smiled, waved and shouted something, presumbly a greeting - the car drivers, the motorcyclists, the men on way to work..... and the friendliness escalated even more when I reached the hotel . Not until the kitchen staff piled up to grin at me through the partition window that I sensed something was wrong .The gleeful waiter placed a newspaper over my scrambled eggs, I looked down and the fog lifted . In the centre page of the morning paper was a picture of me !
I plunked myself in front of Kok Yong who was sitting at the next table and bellowed " It's all your fault !", startling him out of his post-prandial stupor. The day before, as we were coming out of the Bhopal Tribal Museum, Kok Yong called at me and pointed : "Hey Memie, look at the guy on the motorbike with the big camera !" I turned to look and that became this .
The same evening we met with Princess Sonia, wife of the Maharajah of Bhopal, for tea. " Your newspaper called me a Japanese !" I complained. " Well, it's an understandable mistake, for the past 20 years most of the visitors to Bhopal are from Japan " She explained . When I calmed down I had to admit the Japanese had more cause to take offence at the mix-up : no self-respecting Japanese lady would be seen dead in what I was wearing, the whole emsemble costed less than $10 US ! " The people of Bhopal beware," I warned solemnly " the Chinese are coming !"
After independence, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, based his vision of " resurgent Asia" on partnership with China, and the catch phrase of diplomacy between the 2 countries was " Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai" ( Indians and Chinese are brothers ), unfortunately the friendship was cut short by border disputes. Princess Sonia, though an Indian citizen, was of Pakistani descent, another country India has on-going territorial disputes . I was curious. " Are you treated differently here in India ? And do you visit your family in Pakistan often ? " " I'm both Indian and Pakistani though I hold an Indian passport, I'm treated well in both countries. I go to Pakistan all the time, there's no problem at all at the level of ordinary people " This assertion is almost born out by the spectacular display we witnessed at the Attari-Wagah Border, where retreat ( flag lowering) ceremony takes place daily at sunset with the Border Security Force on the Indian side and Sutlej Rangers on the Pakistani side . It's instantly obvious the guards on both sides are selected based on their height and foot stomping abilities. At the sound of the bugle, the Indian and Pakistani crowds gathered on opposite sides of the gate erupt into loud cheers and try to out-shout each other, and though the competition is real and intense, the atmosphere is festive . I noted atop a small monument on the Indian side two severed hands clasped in a firm hold , and all the Indians I talked to in the crowd assured me " Paksitani are like our brothers "
Madhya Pradesh , often called the Heart of India, is a state in central India and where we spend most of our time in this trip . We visited all 3 sites in Madhya Pradesh which have been declared World Heritage Sites By UNESCO : the Bhimbetka Caves (2003) , Sanchi (1989) and the Khajuraho Group of Monuments (1986) .
The Bhimbetka Caves ,an hour's drive from Bhopal , has one of the oldest prehistoric cave paintings in the world, some believed to be 12,000 years old . The majority of the paintings depict the vignettes of daily life, hunting scenes and a range of animals.
46 km north east of Bhopal is Sanchi ( Moulds of Stones ), a small village where 8 stupas surrounded by Toranas ( gateways ) are located. The 'Great Stupa' was originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great in the third century BC . Its nucleus is a simple hemispherical brick structure built over the relics of the Buddha , crowned by the chatra , a parasol-like structure symbolising high rank, which honours and shelters the relics . The Torana each represent love, peace, trust, and courage , and all are covered with narrative sculptures, showing scenes from the various lives of the Buddha integrated with everyday events, ostensibly to make it easier for the worshippers to understand the Buddhist creed as relevant to their lives . Though Sanch is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimages in India, some scholars believe Ashoka's original intention was to create a culture of unity in his kingdom which was home to many faiths, as his imperial edicts, carved on rocks and sandstone pillars, urged respect for all spiritual beliefs and practices. One of these, the richly carved Ashoka Pillar is the most significant structure in Sanchi, the crown of which ( 4 lions standing back to back ) has been adopted as the official seal of the modern Indian state.
Khajuraho ( meaning date palm) Group of Monuments are the largest group of medieval sandstone Hindu and Jain temples, and considered to be one of the " seven wonders" of India .The whole area is enclosed by a wall with 8 gates, each flanked by 2 golden palm trees. There were originally over 80 temples, of which only 25 now stand in a reasonable state of preservation. They're one of the most popular tourist destinations in India, not lest because they're an outstanding example of Indo-Aryan architecture but also because of the explicit erotic carvings on the temple walls.
The local guide was effusive with titillating sexual innuendoes, puns and jokes as he pointed out to us the more extravagant amorously engaged figures, but when the anticipated snickerings and off-colour banterings did not come forth he turned to us in exasperation " Come on guys ! Haven't you heard of Kama Sutra ? You know, sex ?" " There're 1.3 billion Chinese on earth," I gave him a withering look, " it's safe to assume we know a little something about sex."
In actual fact only 10% of the carvings contain sexual themes, the rest depict the various activities of the deities ( Khajuraho is also called "the city of the gods "), as well as the everyday life of the Indian people during medieval times. There's no erotic art inside the temple or near the deities, the reason is as divinity is pure like the atman ( soul ), so one must leave his or her sexual desires outside the temple before coming into the presence of the gods .The erotic friezes have also been ascribed to be yantras ( symbols ) strategically placed to subdue malevolent spirits, as sexual images imply a virile powerful presence.
I wondered if the guide had ever read the Kama Sutra in its entirety, or he'd know the carvings in no way illustrate the meticulously described positions, 64 in all, as recorded in the Kama Sutra , and neither do they express the Vatsyayana philosophy, which the most popular version of Kama Sutra is attributed to. While sexual love was accorded a respected place within human life, the sexual theme in fact constituted just 1/5 of the overall content of Kama Sutra, the majority of the text were advices on the proper social behaviour and relationships between upper-class men and women from the first century BC. Men were required to cultivate themselves in poetry, music, clothing and even personal hygiene ; likewise the women were educated on the codes of conduct as wives or concubines. Kama Sutra endorsed marriage as the ideal relationship, in which physical pleasure was a wholesome presence . It preached social responsibility and dharma ( ethical conduct ), but did not outright condemn transgression of the moral codes, wisely leaving it to those who followed to decide the relative importance of pleasure and ethics within their own lives.
I asked Princess Sonia " How do you, as a Maharanee, fit in in democratic India ?" " We don't," she answered graciously, " we're no different from any other people, the title doesn't mean anything nowadays ." She was not entirely truthful ; in India the feudal past is in many ways the present, and probably the future . On the grounds of Khajuraho were low caste old ladies plucking the lawn with their bare hands, squatting in rows on their hauches, they kept their bodies at all times lower than ours in a posture of time-honoured submission . In front of the Jain temple the local guide extolled the virtues of Jainism, a strictly vegetarian offshoot of Hinduism . Jains prescribe a path of non-violence towards all living things, even take to wearing white cotton facemask to prevent the possibility of swallowing an insect .Yet the Gods are weeping : the Jains who will not harm a fly or a microbe, are the very people who advocate mass selective abortiion and kill off about fifteen % of their daughters, the worst of any religious groups in India.
The high light of the tour for me was the Golden Temple, the supreme symbol and central place of worship of the Sikh faith at Amritsar, in the Punjab. We were required to remove our shoes before entering the temple as a sign of respect, which was a problem for some but fortunately not for me ; I love walking bare foot . All ladies came prepared with the requisite head scarf while most men didn't, but for a few rupees they could buy a piece of orange coloured headcover at the temple gate , resulting in a sea of orange heads bobbing at the temple site .
I seldom get sick, but I was quite sick with chills and nausea just before we got to Amritsar . At the Golden Temple Hemesh the guide said to me " Why don't you take some Holy Water ? It might make you feel better ." I took a long look at the Holy Water stand and the ladies cleaning the utensils ." I hope you don't take this the wrong way," I said carefully, " but all things considered, I'd rather have a whisky."
The Sikhs' one and a half century association with Hong Kong is a legacy of the British Empire when most of the Indian subcontinent was under Britsh colonial rule. Sikhs soldiers , brought over as part of the British Armed Forces from Punjab, were at the flag raising ceremony at Possession Point in 1841 when Captain Charles Elliot declared Hong Kong a British possession . When the Hong Kong Police was formed by the colonial government on 1 May, 1844, the Sikhs were the first police constables. Later they were joined by policemen of Chinese and other races, but they constituted a large segment of the Hong Kong Police Force until World War II . Each ethnicity was assigned an alphabetical letter : "A" for Caucasians, "B" for Indians, "C" for Cantonese, "D" for Chinese recruited from Shandong Province , "E" for White Russians and so on. The headdress also varied according to ethnicity: the Caucasians wore kepis, the Sikhs wore uniform turbans, and the Chinese a sort of conical straw hat. All of them, however, wore the same green uniform , nicknamed " luk yee" ( green coat ) . This was how a well-known Cantonese ditty came about : " ABCD, 大頭綠衣, 捉人唔到, 猛吹 BB !" which means : "ABCD (the ethnic designation), Big Head (the turban) Green Coat , Not catching the thief, Keeps blowing the whistle !"
As of today, some 7,500 Sikhs still live in HK, and are engaged in a variety of occupations. The centre of their religious and cultural activities is the Khalsa Diwan Sikh Temple at 371 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong Island . A special feature of the temple, which was built by Sikh soldiers in 1901, is the provision of free meals and short-term accommodation for overseas visitors of any faith. Needless to say one of the first things I did in the Golden Temple was to check out the free food kitchen !
The last night we were at Amritsar we decided to go back to the Golden Temple to see the Palki Sahib Ceremony . As we were leaving the hotel I noticed music coming from a secluded area next door . " What's going on over there ?" I asked Hemesh. " That's a wedding party." he said. " How wonderful ! I've always wanted to go to an Indian wedding ! " I enthused. "After we get back from the Golden Temple I'm going to crash the party ." I announced to the horror of my law-abidding companions, who had never crashed anything in their lives ." It's OK ," I assured them " I do it all the time " True to my word, an hour later I marched into the party, wearing my most guileless smile. After a brief hesitancy, several of the braver ladies joined me. Indian weddings are joyous, colourful , might seem over-the-top at times but always all emcompassing, and we were made welcome right away . The happy couple were distant relations, and the marriage was semi-arranged .The bride was specially flown in for the wedding banquet from Canada where she worked as a dentist . I was lucky to have the uncle of the bridegroom, Mr iqbal singh, to look after me, and had a marvellous time dancing and drinking till the wee hours of the night .
India and China are two of the world's oldest civilizations and have extensive and close trade and culture exchanges for millennia . However, from the 1950's to the early 1990's, there was a hiatus in Sino-Indian relationship because of territorial disputes, until cordial diplomacy resumed in 2000 after Indian President K.R. Narayanan's visit to China. India is now China's fastest growing trading partner, and vice versa. As the aphorism goes : " when countries start trading goods, they stop trading blows" ; in 2005 India recognised China's sovereignty over Tibet, and in exchange, China recognised India's sovereignty over the Himalayan State of Sikkim, annexed in the 1970's by New Dehli .The economic of India and China are complementary . Because of its impressive university system India's scientific and technical capacity is ranked third in the world . In a speech to push Sino-Indian cooperation in high-tech industries in Bangalore in April 2005 , Chinese Premier Wen Jiaboa said " Cooperation between China and India is just like two pagodas, one hardware and one software. Combined, we can take the leadership position in the world ." If India and China would indeed join forces it'd lead to a multipolar world, imposing stronger limit on America's scope to impose its will on other . US, in a bid to prolong its power in the world , explicitely desires the rise of India as a counteractive to China . This is further complicated by the fact that almost 2 million people of Indian origin are at this point in time based in the United States, moreover, Indian-Americans are the richest ethnic group in the US, and has become a strong new voice in US politics . India is thus the key global " swing state" of the 21st century and there's no telling how the game will unfold .