Friday, July 31, 2009
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
It has been quite a while since I've had a spare moment to update this blog. Since the moment I left for Hampi from Bangalore, I have seemed to have had a full schedule. Apologies, thus for the over long, laundry list of traveling experiences. I welcome all comments, even if you don't finish reading the blog. It gets a bit lonely writing into the unknown and hearing nothing back. I had hoped that the mustache would bring out comments en masse, but I think instead it caused readers and viewers to keep their guffaws to themselves. No worries, shame me, critique me, converse with me. I welcome all!
anyways, take your bathroom breaks now, silence your cell phones, cause here is the long awaited blog update!
I arrived in Delhi almost a week and a half back. In Delhi is where I started traveling with Elsa, and where my travels took on a decidedly "Haraka haraka" flair. Elsa has been to India twice before, once living here for a year after her studies, and is entirely aware of how short 10 weeks is compared to the amount that there is to see here. I have been blissfully ignorant of such facts, and have had a rather sedentary approach to my research. Elsa is a fellow Mdiv student at the University of Chicago and is here on the same grant as me studying the christian response to the violence in Orissa. There are some very clear and obvious links between our work, though hers has more practical appeal. My contacts half fell through in Delhi, so I was able to avail myself of this time to do some tourism. My first full day in Delhi took me to "Hindu Disneyland" Unfortunately I can't recall the actual name as this is the only way I have been describing it for the past week! This recently constructed temple was dedicated to a particular swami who as a 12 yr old in the 1800's left his family to wander as a traveling holy man across India I saw the whole thing on a live action imax screen, including special effects like turning a renegade oppressive priest into a clean disciple, by way of magic vines that wrap around him. I missed out on the "hall of values" which has a robotic exploration of values. The third exhibit was a boat ride (reminiscent to its a small world after all) that recreated 4000 years of Indian history. For each discovery, be it democracy, algebra, chemistry, before it was done anywhere else, the Indians did it. Aside from Indian exceptionalism, the ride was surprising in that it ignored any of the Muslim or christian history on the continent. While I am not sure of the political persuasions of the temple, and wouldn't want to cast a shadow on their integrity, this selective telling of history or even actual rewriting of it is typical of the neo-fascist right wing fundamentalist groups, who go as far as renaming originally Muslim cities into hinduized corruptions so as to hide the Muslim influence.
The next day, I took a rather long bus tour. I was a bit concerned as I was supposed to start the tour through the ITDC at 9, and by time 11:30 came about I had already been shuffled off and on to 3 different buses. The tour took us to the Indira gandhi memorial museum, th lotus temple, 1 of 7 bahai temples from around the world, and the Qutb Minar complex, which contains the beautiful ruins of a mosque and a giant minaret, as well as your typical trade emporiums, the "arch of India" dedicated to soldiers who died during world war II, and a view of the house of parliament. The tour ended by dropping us off near jama masjid mosque and the red fort with almost no time to visit them. Most of the tour was in Hindi, with the occasional English word dropped in, so I decided to use the transit time as a way to catch up on my latest book on CD, the Iliad. Were I to do it again, I think I would scrap the whole bus tour, take the metro to the old city, and then selectively find my way to the other sites.
On Sunday, Elsa's friend Cate and I set off in search of religion, first attending a Sikh Guduwara, then a catholic church service. The Sikh service seemed to have a constant stream of individuals coursing through the building, often stopping in devotion in front of their holy texts, or sitting in a state of repose, while musicians and singers provided a meditative background. Never having encountered Sikhism before, I was intrigued by this strictly monotheistic religion who appears to have its roots in a fusion of Hinduism and Islam. The practicing Sikh male is often easily identified by his turban and his long beard. Believing in a chosen people of soldier-saints, the Sikh's also carry around a small symbolic knife for religious self-defense.
The Catholic service had the typical lackluster English hymns (a stark contrast to the vibrant vernacular services I have attended), and the homily would have been lost on me too, had there not been a passionate three minutes where the priest spoke of our christian duty to serve as symbols of Christ's unity, creating harmony between religions, and not allowing our faith or our lifestyle to cause seperation between us and the people of other faiths.
India did it again, however, and I found myself for most of the rest of the day ill in bed with a bad case of Delhi gut.
On Monday, I set off early for Agra, having already once changed my ticket in order to meet with a priest who has done work in Inter-religious dialogue in Delhi.
I met a Canadian girl named Christine who was traveling around the world after most of a year in Australia. We threw our lot together in the face of hecklers, hagglers, faux-tour guides and aggressive taxi drivers, arranging for an all day taxi to take us to Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj!
Fatehpur Sikri, built by the grandfather of the man who built the Taj, contained palaces for each of his wives (all of different faiths) a beautiful mosque, with an ostentatious gateway of victory, and a tomb of shaikh salim Chishti, a saint whose miracle enabled the king akbar to have a child. His tomb is still venerated by pilgrims of all faiths, and bringing a cloth to offer to the poor, we were able to make our own wishes. Don't worry mom and Dad, I didn't ask to be having any kids any time soon.
Following a trip back to agra in which my cell phone mysteriously disappeared at a restaurant, we visited the famous Taj Mahal. It was a free day at the Taj, so Indian men, women and children from the region all came to see the great site (normally 20 rupees for an Indian citizen) and to commemorate the great love that this king had for his wife that led to such a momentous construction. The story goes that when the emperor Shah Jahan's wife was pregnant, she told him that if she were to die, that he must build some sort of structure in memory of her. She died giving birth, and the king was so heartbroken that he commanded that the taj be built. The king was later imprisoned by his own son, and only saw the taj from his prison cell. The structure was unreal, and I felt as if I was seeing it as a movie, not really present. We joined the mass of pilgrims who wrapped around the taj one and a half times. They had the most intimidating line guards one can imagine, police with giant rifles, who even still were unable to suppress the Indian habit of cutting in line. The terminus of the line was the tomb of the emperor and his wife, where Indians young and old would touch the hem of the fabric covering the tomb and touch it to their face. When I later asked a friend intimate with the Muslim community why there is such a high veneration of the king, he said it is not the king they are venerating, but the great love that he had for his wife which allowed him to build something magnificent.
That same night found me on a train once more, heading to Jaipur, where I stayed at the Jaipur rose after meeting the hotel owner by chance in Delhi Exhausted though I was, I graciously accepted his offer to try Indian scotch, a surprisingly smooth whiskey. Seems everything can be found in India!
I once more hired a private car, though this time a rickshaw driver named saddik, to spend the day visiting the city and its environs. I imagine that for you, as for me, all this tourism eventually blends together, so on a matter of highlights, I can tell you that I fed monkeys peanuts by hand as I walked up to the sun god temple overlooking the city of Jaipur. On the top, I had a great conversation with a french traveler as I shared some of my thoughts on the complex religious situation in India. I also met a new age guru who read my shakra. He gave me sound advice, saying that I need to meditate more so as to calm my restless spirit. While some of his surprisingly accurate proofs seemed a bit gimmicky, overall the man seemed well intentioned, even if I find the whole framework of shakras and birth stones, etc more than a bit suspicious. On the whole, I find the whole desire to have other people define who we are by giving cursory insight into our person to be rather dubious, be it in psychology or in mystics. What harm can it do, I've been asked. I think it can become pretty self-centered, particularly as people seek out some sort of personal magic or gimmick to deal with their problems. I was told I'm not destined for the US because I'm suited for warmer climates. Well, to such things, I say, "let thy will" not my will be done.
I also got constant comments on my mustache, which is of no surprise as the curly q mustache was the style of the maharaja for at least a few centuries. Now only traffic cops and middle aged Indians seem to sport this facial feature.
I had such good long day in Jaipur that I didn't think to check my train ticket. Blast, the 24 hr clock beat me again as I confused 20:40 with 10:40pm. Both rickshaw driver and hotel owner joined forces to get me on a late night sleeper bus to Ahmadabad. It was a miracle that it came through, as most of the buses in that direction stop running at 7, and we only just caught this bus minutes before it was leaving. The mattress of the bus was of the cloth variety, and I could feel the grime and sweat of the hundreds of individuals who slept there before me.
In Ahmadabadd, I rejoined Elsa at Prashant, a center for human rights and social justice where sheinternedd for 3 months the year prior. There we were taken by the hospitality of Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ, the director of the institute and an outspoken advocate against the local government on behalf of human rights. The situation in Gujaret has been rather grisly, with a long history of sporadic violence against Muslims and Christians, many of which were orchestrated by the Right wing Hindu fundamentalist movement, culminating in riots in 2002 which left over 2000 Muslims killed. There are still many small ways in which the BJP (right wing) govt and society at large perpetuate violence particularly against Muslims, who have been ghettoized to select regions of towns. Aside from a few prophetic voices, fr. Cedric included, there has been little solidaristic responses by the christian churches here.
Fr. Cedric is also the chaplain for the Missionaries of Charity (mother Teresa's congregation) in Gujaret, so we have had a chance to see their work. It, along with many of the other social services of the Catholic church who are indiscriminate in whom they serve, are important ways in which the catholic church participates in the constant dialogue of religions which makes up the dialogue of life. Even this, however, finds its obstacles, and recently the right wing govt in Mumbai has taken over a leporasarium and a hospital which were being administered by the Catholic church.
In Ahmadabad, I also got a chance to see Nandita, a friend who I met at the Watson conference in california after we both spent a year around the world, then again in Rwanda, now here in her native India. It is wonderful to have intercontinental friends! Next stop, South America.
There is always so much more to tell, and when I reserve it till the last moment, 2 weeks later like this, I can only imagine that it begins to look like a laundry list of travels.
Here are some of the directions that my thoughts have gone.
After recently reading the pope's new encyclical, and becoming more immersed in situations of conflict between "religious" groups, the question of justice and dialogue is pulsing in my mind. I think that the framework of love in truth as presented in the encyclical provides a strong framework for rethinking the fundamentals of dialogue. Dialogue, coming from dia-logos, is at its base communication. Through love, not only is communion possible, but dialogue can be purified so as to prevents its instrumentalization for even the best of purposes. Instead, while the growing in knowledge of the other and even the appropriation of what is good in the other traditions can be an outgrowth of loving in truth, as benedict writes, justice is the base minimum for love, not an addendum, and it will be out of love in dialogue that justice can be sought, and demanded. It also provides the criterion for when dialogue can occur, for in a state of injustice there can never be true dialogue.
Other short thoughts:
When someone rudely encroaches on your physical space, say your train bed, by sitting in the free left by your legs, do something culturally insensitive, like spreading eagle your legs, to shame them into moving somewhere else.
Want to convert your cohort member, just stay with a priest and go with him to all his morning masses every day.
Did I say this already? The new papal encyclical rocks.
Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago
Michael Le Chevallier
MDiv candidate 2011
University of Chicago