Sunday, December 25, 2011

A New Perspective on Atheism



Can we define a word by what it does not represent, rather than by what it does represent? Is it fair that we assume the general public will responsibly fill in the blanks and develop a coherent definition to describe an abstract and broad concept? The answer is a clear no. No astute person can expect the public to come to a unified, clear consensus over what a word means, unless an authority properly defines it. Therefore, I agree with neuroscientist Sam Harris that “no one ever needs to identify himself as a 'non-astrologer' or a 'non-alchemist'” (Harris). However, in order to shed light on the discrepancies in usage of the word “atheist,” I will employ the word to describe my own subjective views contrary to the objective connotation of “atheism” found in dictionaries – dictionaries that devolve the word to a hollow concept lacking depth or substance. As much of the world encounters atheism only in the form of a word, not in the form of a living, aspiring fellow human, I hope to exemplify the attributes of atheism not commonly exposed to the public. By examining the word from three different lenses: etymological undertones, personal perspective and impact, and greater social implications, one understands that “atheism” is not a cynical, unhappy “doctrine...that there is no god,” but a flexible belief content with different, but equally fulfilling values and ideals (“Atheism”).

One prime reason for the lack of understanding of atheism in modern society originates from the etymological meaning of the word itself. The roots of the word “atheism” infer a void in the belief, rather than define the true ideals of exploration, experimentation, and individualism inherent in the way most atheists view their surrounding. The word “atheism” originally came to English via the Greek “atheos” meaning “to deny the gods, godless.” And furthermore, “atheos” advances from its roots of “a + theos” – meaning “without a god” (“Atheist”). Regardless of the root, since sixteenth century English, those who do not subscribe to a god have been relegated to believing in nothingness, instead of a set of different, but still valuable beliefs. However, Greek is not the only language to lend itself to the dispossession of the godless through the word. Similarly, modern Indian languages deriving from Sanskrit also strip atheists of a word that substantiated their beliefs. The Sanskrit term “naastik” literally translates to “not believing, not pious” – once again highlighting a void, not a different range of appreciated values (Monier-Williams).

Though the dictionary definitions of atheism are not false, they under no circumstance fully represent the means though which atheists represent themselves, the means through which they find satisfaction, or the means through which they fill the vacuums of nothingness described by the dictionaries – or even that means for such fulfillment exist. And therefore, most people who do not association the word with a person that they know struggle to comprehend the legitimacy or substantiation of the belief itself. Perhaps the lack of success on the part of ancient (and modern) languages to bring forth a descriptive, value-oriented definition of the godless lifestyle involves the degree of subjectivity, flexibility, and personal initiative recognized under the broad umbrella of interpretations of atheism.

The personal nature of atheism is one that encourages free-thought, open-mindedness, curiosity, and individualism. And this might have proven both as a boon and a bane to the manner in which society sees and understands (or does not understand) atheists. Firstly, the flexibility of atheism with no supervising priest, rabbi, imam, or guru allows the non-religious to adopt a personal definition of their beliefs that they structure specifically around their lives and families, their goals and aspirations, their careers and education. Although many who identify themselves as atheists will commit to many basic perspectives, most define a set of values important to them. For example, British geneticist and biologist J.B.S. Haldane's definition of his core beliefs distinguishes him as a scientist:
My practise as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not atheistic in the affairs of the world. And I should be a coward if I did not state my theoretical views in public.
Haldane applies his belief of objectivity, curiosity, and individualism to the scientific process while acknowledging the role that this set of values plays in his everyday activities in the lab. As this excerpt emphasizes, just as people's religious values travel with them and immerse into their numerous other identities – the same sense of commitment to a different set of values occurs in the life of the non-religious.

Consequentially, the ways in which I understand atheism and its correlated values to filter into my life differ greatly from Haldane's. As a college student, I see the prevailing theory of fatalism which is present in all religions as pointless and detracting from life. Praying as I prepare for an exam is non-consequential; my own efforts can pull me through. I also refuse to be intoxicated; if I object to surrendering my fate to a god, how can I surrender my judgment to alcohol and drugs? Through rejecting fatalism, I feel responsible for my own actions and am aware that any goals I set may be achieved through my own will and not that of any god's Providence. When I am successful I commend only myself; when I fail, I censure only myself. As an Indian-American atheist, I have always been a pragmatic person, challenging the various superstitions rooted in the Indian and Hindu cultures. I find reciting Sanskrit incantations for protection, consulting priests for a propitious wedding date, or adorning an amulet for good luck to be an unnecessary attempt to leave the real practicalities of the world behind. Rather than escape these practicalities, I prefer to work with them. In all these ways, I define myself as an individual, an individual with an open mind, personal values, and societal responsibilities.

The ambiguous definition of the atheist found in dictionaries also fails to assess the social implications an atheistic population has on its surroundings. A 2006 study from the University of Minnesota manifests this prejudice against atheists. The study concluded that atheists formed the least trusted demographic in the United States. As sociologist Penny Edgell comments on the results of this study, the “findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.” Likewise, society does not award atheists the same degree of tolerance that atheists have been awarding to other diverse minority groups. Edgell continues to note that the American atheist is “a glaring exception to the rule of increasing tolerance over the last 30 years.” (Paulos). Common atheistic values of self-determination, education, political participation, and tolerance not only affect the individual, but also their societies as a whole. Therefore, the definition of atheists as only “godless” commits an injustice to atheists' contributions to society.

Pitzer College sociology professor Phil Zuckerman's analysis of declared atheists and their societies reveals trends that demonstrate against the view of atheists as apathetic, hateful, and depressed individuals alienated from their communities. On the contrary, the fewest murders occur in states with the highest percentage of atheists; only 0.2% of American prisoners are atheists. Societies with high proportions of atheists also benefit from greater tolerance toward homosexual and women's rights groups, as well as low levels of racial prejudice, and high levels of education (Cohen). Zuckerman also suggests that Sweden – arguable the most atheistic country in the world – donates the greatest percentage of its GDP to charity (Zuckerman). All these instances promote examples of greater cooperation, progressivism, and collectivism in societies rather than alienation, anger, and disillusionment stereotypically characterizing a secular, or clearly non-religious population.

These statistics also deny the common misconception that religion is equivalent to morality and that morality is equivalent to religion. This is not the case. One can indeed exist and prosper without the other. But how can we reverse this trend of outcasting atheists to the fringes while atheists themselves are attempting to integrate their societies? The definition and usage of the word “atheist” does not relay to the average man or woman a concrete description of what the godless incorporate into their lifestyle, ethics, or morals. And this ignorance keeps society and atheists distances my misunderstandings, misconceptions, and miscommunication.

To separate themselves from the range of ambiguity and implicit nature of the word “atheism,” many who do not identify themselves with any religion have chosen a new range of terms to explicitly identify their ideals and values. Terms such as “freethinking,” “humanism,” and “universalism” are all terms under the umbrella of “atheism” which which further substantiate a set of beliefs. For example, as a secular humanist, I believe that my personal decisions, choices, and ethics determine their specific consequences. I believe that power to accomplish is left to humans – and we must proactively make our goals as reality. Humanism advocates activism, not passive hope or faith.

But why a range of identities under an umbrella that believes in nothingness? Because that is a misconception propagated by the word “atheist,” that we believe in nothingness. The assimilation of new, different words each possessing a specific, unique definition – such as “freethinker,” “humanist,” or “universalist” – more clearly identify what atheism is and who atheists are, and not what we are not.

Given the controversial nature of the discussion over religion, words defined by vague or implicit terms such as “atheism” often lead to the spread of preconceived and ignorant notions. When a word itself cannot be defined accurately and concretely in words, how can one expect the public to react when they encounter a person whose identity, aspirations, and approach to life circle around that seemingly nebulous concept? I remember the regular pattern of conversation whenever I reveal to an acquaintance that I am a secular humanist, not a Hindu like my parents and ancestors. They normally look perplexed and crunch together their eyebrows. They sift through the various messages the hostile media and politicians shoot at them. And finally, they ask, “You don't believe in god? But you seem to be nice...”


Friday, December 23, 2011

Hindi, Urdu, and Hindustani: Where Commonalities End and Differences Begin


A student from the United States makes her first trip to Delhi, India after spending four
semesters at the University of Michigan studying Hindi. In desperate need of a guidebook, she steps into a small, Hindu-owned store and asks,“Namaste. Mujhe ek achhii kitaab kii zaruurat hai. Kyaa aap merii madad kar sakte haiN?” (Namaste. I'm in need of a good book. Can you help me?). The storekeeper is stunned and compliments the student on her exceptional HINDI. However, the store does not stock the appropriate book. The student notices another store across the street. As she steps in, she notices the storekeeper is Muslim. Replacing a Namaste with a Salaam, she inquires about the book, employing the same word choice. Again, the storekeeper is surprised, and with a big smile on his face tells her, “Masha'Allah. Your URDU is perfect.” The puzzled student picks up her book and leaves the store.

This student had elected Hindi for the past four semesters, not Urdu! Yet, she is being
complimented for her conversational skills in this language. How is this possible? This episode depicts the nature of the Hindi-Urdu linguistic conflict at its most visible level. While notions of the two languages have diverged since independence, colloquial registers of Hindi and Urdu are almost indistinguishable from one another. This broader basis of vocabulary and syntax from which both Hindi and Urdu have developed is called Hindustani. This language is “the linguistic super family uniting all” across North India and into Pakistan (Khan 2006: 8). Moreover, it is the unifying language of the region, not of a particular race or religion (Singh 2003). Hindustani served as a lingua franca around Delhi to facilitate interaction between speakers of Khariboli and speakers of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish (Sinha 2000: 299). This language developed throughout the medieval ages and received the patronage of many British administrative institutions and various writers through the 13th-17th centuries (Sinha 2000: 300). This paper describes the fluid borders between what speech one considers as Hindi, Urdu, or Hindustani. And moreover, it explores why, in colloquial speech, certain Arabic-Persian features have gained popularity as opposed to their Sanskrit equivalents. And finally, how does the diversity in linguistic influences across North India and Pakistan translate into “linguistic politics?” In a region of the world characterized by volatile borders and fragile religious and social tension – how do linguistic choices matter?

But what are Hindi and Urdu, and more importantly, what do they signify in certain
circumstances? In which cases might a speaker be most definitely speaking Hindi or Urdu? And when might he or she be democratizing his or her speech using Hindustani? K. Gajendra Singh 2003 traces a history of the evolution of distinguished Hindi and Urdu identities post-Independence in the late 1940s. Newly independent India made its Hindi more Sanskritized and Pakistanis made their Urdu more Persianized. The outcome is a diglossia in society. Indians and Pakistanis speak relatively the same lingua franca of Hindustani on the streets – while notions of standard Hindi and standard Urdu have become polarized. Therefore, in an effort to avoid common Hindustani words, their media use a strict, artificial, stilted form of Hindi or Urdu. As Singh puts it most realistically, “the result that it is difficult for a common man to understand either Hindi or Urdu” in the “pure” form (Singh 2003).

In the case of Urdu, Tariq Rahman 2010 describes some of the reformations made to
standardize the language, in essence, to reflect a “pure” Muslim tradition. In what Rahman calls the “Muslimization of Urdu,” words from Sanskrit and local dialects were “purged out” in favor of Persian and Arabic words. In addition, allusions to a common Hindustani culture and land were replaced by references to Persian and Islamic culture and an Iranian landscape. Though the elite embraced this hyper-Persian form of speech, many others were alienated by this new, foreign understanding of Urdu (Rahman 2010: 90). The vast majority of Urdu speakers were a product of the Hindustani culture. India was their home and identity, not Iran.

Meanwhile, the newly-formed Republic of India was engaged in the translation of official
documents from English to Hindi. The outcome of this project was the creation of thousands of neologisms of Sanskrit origin describing administrative terms and practices. Examples of such neologisms which have survived into modern usage include pradhaan mantrii for prime minister, or raashTrapati for president. However, in effect, these “artificial” words lack any practical currency. Yet, these neologisms were still propagated through many spheres of influence including the Indian news media, the Indian government, and in matters of Hindu cultural context (Shackle and Snell 1990: 14). Even India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Aajkal jo bhaashaa nikal rahii hai pachaas percent merii samajh meiN nahiiN aatii.” (Of the language that is employed these days, 50% of it is unintelligible to me.) (Gandhi 2010).

For many reasons, one can accord the desired disparity between Hindi and Hindustani to
notions of “linguistic purity.” The Muslims were not alone in their intention of propagating cultural identity through a linguistic register. Hindu nationalists supported nationalizing a Sanskritized Hindi in hopes of invoking the concept of India as a Hindu-native nation (Shackle and Snell 1990: 43). This divergent behavior at the highest registers of Hindi and Urdu is based on something outside of linguistic factors – cultural and religious identity, nationalism. However, these “pure” registers are highly artificial and ideologically motivated.

With these bases for “pure” Hindi and Urdu in place, where do the people stand in their
daily speech in regards to this Arabic/Persian—Sanskrit spectrum? Prior to independence, the Subcontinent was divided in what Shackle and Snell call “The Urdu—Hindi—Hindustani
Debate.” While religious Hindus argued in favor of Hindi and the Devanagari script as India's national language, Muslims felt reluctant to neglect their own rich literary tradition in Urdu through the Nastaliq script. Gandhi offered Hindustani as a middle path in a compromise between both groups (Shackle and Snell 1990: 13). However, Gandhi received little support from the masses. And furthermore, Hindustani left unanswered the question of which script the nation would choose to adopt. And therefore, Hindustani was forgotten as the most practical, yet least ideologically satisfying of the choices.

But in reality, what does modern colloquial speech sound like throughout North India and
urban Pakistan? Regardless of whether speakers identify their language as Hindi or Urdu, why do they almost always choose certain synonyms over others? More specifically, why have Persian-Arabic loanwords better pervaded into popular speech? For example, the interaction the Michigan student engaged in with the Hindu storekeeper did not feature a single lexical item of Sanskrit origin. Each of the key nouns (kitaab for book, zaruurat for necessity, and madad for assistance) are loanwords of Arabic origin, yet would seem completely natural and expected as colloquial Hindi. In fact, repeating this sentence in a fully Sanskritized register would seem exceptionally stilted in a colloquial context (“Mujhe ek achhii pustak kii aavashyakataa hai. Kyaa aap merii sahaayataa kar sakte haiN?”).

The artificial nature of Sanskritized language is a result of many historical patterns in
society, government, and religion. Firstly, as Shyam Rao 1999 argues, Sanskrit was always a
dead language. Even in its “Golden Age” during the reign of the Gupta Empire, Sanskrit was not dispersed outside a “closely-knit circle of Brahmins, who jealously hid all knowledge...to themselves” (Rao 1999). The result was an identity centered around Sanskrit, a language far removed from the accessibility of the common Hindu or Indian (Neelakantan 2011). And therefore, many Sanskritized terms were not transmitted to a broader section of society. While Brahmins safeguarded their knowledge over Sanskrit, the common people of the Subcontinent were engaging with Muslim traders, rulers, and invaders since the 11th century. They settled the Subcontinent and brought with them their languages: Turkish, Persian, and Arabic (Singh 2003). And after almost three hundred years of Mughal Rule, Persian was the language of government up until 1837 (Robinson 1974: 31). Moreover, the Muslim community was not the only one educated in Persian. Even in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Persian played a role in the education of middle-class Hindu boys (Shackle and Snell 1990: 10). In fact, many Hindu writers published in Persian, including the Kashmiri Brahmin Tej Bahadur Sapri (Robinson 1974: 31).

The Persian-Arabic tradition maintained its linguistic strength against Sanskrit when the
British replaced Persian with English and introduced Urdu into the education system (Baxter 2004: 172). Under the British, Urdu gained favorable status as it was the language of the ruling Muslim bureaucratic elites (of Persian origin) across the region. Many necessary administrative terms in Persian and Urdu had already existed prior to the arrival of the British. In many ways, the British accepted Urdu as the native lingua franca of the North (Seal 1968: 304). Unlike Sanskritized Hindi, it was already a part of the public sphere for centuries prior to colonization. Urdu had absorbed elements of Hindustani and other foreign languages naturally. Most importantly, Urdu and its Persian-Arabic vocabulary had spread outside of a Muslim base into most communities. However, many see Sanskritized Hindi as an artificial language, a language releasing archaic words from a vault. The result was a dynamic Urdu and a forced Hindi which was far from everyday usage and inaccessible to the common speaker (Kelley 1992). And due to the factors listed above, the Hindustani that most Urdu and Hindi speakers actually use in everyday contexts is more Persian-Arabic influenced.

Finally, what does it mean when the institutions of Hindi and Urdu are remarkable
different from the spoken variety of either languages? How does ideology clash with reality to create a strategic “linguistic politics” in the Subcontinent. How do geopolitical tensions between India and Pakistan and communal tensions between Indian Hindus and Indian Muslims manifest themselves through language? This diglossia found between the government and literary spheres and the colloquial sphere is easily seen through two sorts of media which reflect two separate entities with very different goals. Firstly, the 'Hindi' film industry which represents speech in a quotidian context. And secondly, the news media of either India and Pakistan which represent the high registers of polarized Sanskrit and Persian varieties, respectively (Singh 2003).

The 'Hindi' Film Industry (Bollywood) has contributed in large part to the propagation of
Hindustani as a reflection of the type of colloquial speech used by millions of Indians and
Pakistanis. As a commercial institution, the Industry seeks to become accessible to as broad an audience as it can, and therefore employs Hindustani – “the most common blend of vernaculars throughout North India” (Alter 2007: 70). This decision allows audiences from across India as well as Pakistan to freely understand the films in a manner which Sanskritized Hindi would not have.
Whenever the film language became too Sanskritised, the films have not been very popular. At the same time, when a film on 'Razia' (a Turkish Queen of Delhi) utilised too Persianised Urdu, its lack of popularity could in some ways be attributed to the difficulty of the masses in understanding it. Hindustani with its vast vocabulary, form and literary variety provides the lyric and dialogue writer all the richness, elegance and nuances to express himself. (Singh 2003).
In addition, the Industry owes much of its fame and success to the Urdu tradition. Ghazals,
qawwali, shaa'iri (poetry), Sufism, and Nautch have become recurring themes in Indian cinema with roots from Turkish and Persian literature and culture. And of course these cultural institutions employ allusions and metaphors from their respective languages to describe sentiments such as love, passion, and longing (Kavoori 2008: 46). Thereby, allusions to the Arabic tale of Laila-Majnu or the Persian Shirin-Farhad entered the larger psyche of the Subcontinent as these pieces of cultural capital were propagated by the most influential film industry in the region. This phenomenon further emphasized Hindustani and Arabic-Persian roots in favor of Sanskrit equivalents. For example, millions would hear and want to replicate stars on the big screen using Arabic-Persian loanwords for love (ishq, muhabbat) in place for the Sanskrit synonym (prem). However, if the 'Hindi'' Film Industry retained much of its pre-Independence Hindustani tradition, the broadcast media had very much diverged from its common Hindustani roots. An emphasis on cultural, societal, and linguistic differences were encouraged to form national solidarity and identity. In effect, this divergence demonstrated a manufactured linguistic wall between India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims.

Thus, the broadcast media of India and Pakistan had become polarized with each nation
wanting to completely deny the common linguistic relationship it shares with the other. In the case of India, “Doordarshan Hindi” – “a stylistically Sanskritized form of the language” was named after the state-owned Hindi news outlet. Aside from the practical difficulties of understanding this form of Hindi, it also came with religious and political baggage. Radio and television programming was controlled by the central government which preferred Sanskritized vocabulary in all spoken language.

In addition, this variety was not only seen as Hindi, but as Hindu. This hyper-Sanskrit
variety highlighted differences in Hindu and Muslim identity and past (Ludden 1996: 100). The nationalistic rhetoric behind this variety also plays on the notion of Urdu and Islam as foreign institutions brought to the Subcontinent through violent invasion. In this way, a dichotomy was created between “virtuous” Hindi and “vicious” Urdu. In the press, Urdu was seen as a cultural force capable of turning Hindus away from their faith. Also featured was the strict concept of Urdu being Muslim and Hindi being Hindu (Jones 1992: 144). In essence, this was an either/or debate; Hindustani was a moot choice as no one could be part Hindu, part Muslim (Jones 1992:145). Dr. Imtiaz Hasnain refutes these conceptions of Urdu as a foreign, Muslim-only, even Pakistani entity. And moreover, he outlines the marginalization Indian speakers of Urdu face as a result of this religious connection. As many Indians feel Pakistani identity was created through Urdu and Islam (Hasnain 2007: 16), Hasnain cites the status of Muslims in India as hardly better off than most Dalits (Hasnain 2007: 3). This divisive “linguistic politics” plays on language as a tool of cultural, national, and religious identity.

Perhaps the best metaphor to describe the relationship between Hindi and Urdu is that of
Siamese twins destined to coexist, but the surgery of Partition ensured that each would develop its own path (Shackle and Snell 1990: 13). This history exhibits the volatile nature of language as an indicator of identity. Hindi and Urdu had existed together for centuries, but when presented with the fork in the road, each was able to dress itself differently. Most importantly, though the universal colloquial speech – Hindustani – has not changed since before Independence, it will be interesting to see whether the polarized nature of Hindi and Urdu will affect colloquial speech into the future. Already, as a result of economic liberalization, satellite TV channels have become popular in comparison to state-owned media. These new channels do not necessarily adhere to the government prescribed hyper-Sanskritized or hyper-Persianized speech. They target the urban youth. Therefore, perhaps it will not be Persian or Sanskrit which characterize tomorrow's Hindustani – but English.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Evolution of Caste and its Modern Meaning

The West remains obsessed by the caste system,” commented French writer François Gautier. But what provokes such intense interest in the Indian caste system? Surely other cultures are the subjects of their own hierarchical systems, yet the caste system is seen differently. Perhaps the ancient scriptural roots peak the interest of some, or the manner in which caste still affects daily ritual and interaction entices others. Either way, it is important to demystify caste of the exoticism which it has suffered – exoticism primarily by the West. Therefore, this third module studies caste through concrete anthropological, historical, and political scopes. Thereby, the impact of caste as individuals proceed through various stages of their lives becomes apparent. From ritual rites such as birth and marriage, to perfunctory actions of eating, to the democratic process of elections and alliance-building, caste rests in the back of everyone's minds. Furthermore, the salience of caste in such diverse facets of life and society leads to gaps in equality and opportunity. How do the discriminated reposition themselves to gain equality? How do they form an identity and demand opportunity? All of the above questions narrate a story of ancient notions of identity within a society in conflict with modern notions of individual freedom and equality.

The content of this module focuses on two separate themes. The first theme is of the definition of caste itself and its evolution throughout the Subcontinent's era of colonization into the modern period. In understanding the definition of caste, one can imagine caste relations as a pairing of interactions between the 'pure' and the 'polluted'. Furthermore, society propagates caste through notions of food possessing the same characteristics, such that consumption of meat and alcohol is frowned upon by “the pure.” Other interactions such as the ritual relationships between a king and a priest demonstrate the complementary roles which different castes play (Fuller 482). This anthropological view is one of inter-caste interdependence for the smooth function of society. The four varnas of Hindu scripture then underwent a change under British colonialism as caste was chosen by the British bureaucracy as the main means for categorizing the people (Bhatia “Understanding”). As Fuller confirms, “The traditional Indian village with its traditional caste system was, in large part, a project of the British Raj” (Fuller 480). Another important term in discourse over caste is the term jati – a term more prevalent in the vernacular, quotidian references to caste as kinship and community. Through jati is how most Hindus experience the caste system – be it at times of marriage or any other auspicious event based on kinship networks. Many jatis are also regionally based and therefore tie people into an even closely knit network. Jati, based on a more specific qualification than varna, may indicate one's profession, and thus the conditions in which one will spend his or her life (Fuller 477). Therefore, one may interpret caste as distantly or intimately as one desires. And in today's Republic, although casteism is illegal, it most definitely is not ignored; neither the people nor the politicians are caste-blind.

This discussion then transitions into the modern response to the caste system by low-caste Dalits who seek to effect change. Do they see themselves as part of the system or as outliers? What accommodations do they ask as citizens of the Republic? And in what ways do caste status and class status overlap – are they interchangeable? As Mridu Rai explains, “The State in India does not recognize caste, and yet the history of India shows that caste, far from fading away, has returned to the fold of politics today.” This statement further enforces the idea of caste as a network, a means to connecting with individuals of a similar background. And in the case of politics, one elects into office individuals with similar lineage, experiences, goals, and ideals. As Indian politician V.N. Gadgil remarked, “In India you do not cast your vote, you vote your caste.” And thus, this caste politics gives birth to jargon such as “Scheduled Castes,” “Scheduled Tribes,” and “Other Backwards Classes.” Each are groups of traditionally underprivileged communities which are now awarded a form of affirmative action – reservations in public education and employment – to lessen the gap created by centuries of discrimination (Guha 600). By 1995, two million Dalits were admitted into work, though they remained economically “impoverished” (Guha 606). Along with admittance into public employment and education, many Dalits also found themselves in the highest rungs of the political sphere. Mayawati, serving her fourth term as Chief Minister of India's most populous state, is also head of the Bahujan Samaj Party – representing a Dalit constituency (Guha 607). Despite the success of a few from underprivileged communities, the vast majority of lower caste individuals face many hurdles in finding success or even an opportunity to prove themselves.

Although I was aware of caste before this module, my understanding was mostly restricted to my own caste and the caste of my family friends. My understanding of caste sincerely lacked exposure to the lifestyles and practices of lower caste individuals, especially the Dalits. Reading the two poems and the short story “Untold Hitlers” provided me with insight into this section of society. Firstly, Omprakash Valmiki's poetry reveals a frustrated, angry attitude toward being outcast for centuries – left with only “leavings to eat” and “hand-me-downs to wear” (Valmiki). Secondly, the short story “Untold Hitlers” exposed me to the fact of transient castes which are not fixed. These classes move up or down the hierarchy as they acquire wealth, popularity, or land. “Untold Hitlers” is a story of land-workers from the village who have succeeded a land-owning zamindar in post-Independence India. They travel to the city where they wish to purchase a tractor. The business owner offers with a hint of nostalgia, “There used to be just one thakur who ruled over the area, but now you big peasants have become the new thakurs” (Detha). This concept of post-Independence mobility suggests change for some newly lang-owning castes, yet the system remained in place. And as the story suggests, even the most underprivileged person can find someone beneath him to violate.

Alongside my new knowledge of the conditions of Dalits as well as the mobility which some castes enjoyed, some interesting questions were discussed in class. First, were non-Hindus (namely Muslims and Christians) outside the influence of the caste system? And second, how do caste and class reflect on one another? Both these questions reflect the nature of caste as a pervasive culture phenomenon, not one isolated within the Hindu community. Although both Christianity and Islam in theory professed equality, there existed Dalit-like groups in both communities (Fuller 490-491). This widespread presence of societal hierarchy and a clear out-group suggests that scripture is not the only force pushing for caste, but that caste differences often inherently result in class differences.

Returning to Gautier's comment, the West might in fact be obsessed about caste when dealing with India – and perhaps even rightly so. At each point of India's history, factors seem to increase collective consciousness of caste rather than debilitate it. Be it in scripture, colonialism, or modern politics, people desperately seek a way to identify themselves and organize themselves. They try to build a story of lineage. Unfortunately, the caste system only accords this power to those at the top. Yet, the underprivileged also seek to build their narrative, too. As the Dalit protagonist of the 2011movie Aarakshan sings to his country, “Ek chance to de de merii jaan / tum phir uRaan dekhnaa” (Give me one chance, my love / And watch me take flight).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Freedom Park, Bangalore

This is a slideshow of photos documenting the afternoon I spent at Freedom Park in Gandhi Nagar, Bangalore. This ongoing rally is one of many taking place around India and abroad in accordance with the India Again Corruption movement -- with its neo-Gandhian figurehead, Anna Hazare. These photos are from Friday, August 19th.

The music is the official anthem of the movement and was playing on loud speakers at the Park. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hyderabad - "Heart of the Indian Peninsula" Part 2

The second part of my trip to Hyderabad continues right where the first installment left off. The insightful experiences and anecdotes are pretty much through...and we're faced with some more routine obstacles over the course of the next two days...

July 29

The morning of the 29th, I got a call from Shareef as I was in the middle of catching up on taking notes from the previous day's travels. Apparently the car wasn't running. Not exactly what you want to hear when you have a day's worth of sightseeing scheduled ahead of you. Turns out there was a problem with the car's battery charge. The car was left outside as heavy rains poured down on the city overnight. Shareef called me down to help push the car, and after much effort, we failed to get the car to start once again. We realized we needed to disconnect the battery and take it somewhere for charging. The guesthouse attendant suggested we head to nearby Erragedda for the repair. 

Neither of us knowing the area very well, Shareef and I hailed an auto rickshaw driver who took us to a repair shop and stayed with us to make sure the shop would open. While waiting, we had some chai and Kiran arrived. Kiran took our place and waited outside the store so that Shareef and I could leave to find some breakfast. 

Though the sign outside the store said the store would open at 9:30am...in actuality, the owner arrived around 10:30am (the ubiquity of 'desi time' is REALLY irritating in some situations). The owner provided us with a spare as the original battery would be charged by the next day. Once back at the guesthouse, Shareef and Kiran re-installed the battery...and we headed to Golconda Fort. 

From The Archaeological Survey of India:

Lying to the west of Hyderabad city at a distance of 11 km, the historic Golkonda Fort derives its name from a Telugu word ‘Golla Konda’ which means Shepherd’s Hill. With its extensive and elevated fortifications it was a landmark that governed the destiny of the south. The fort originally belonged to the Kakatiyas of Warangal. This is testified by the over-door carvings and relief work in stucco consisting of lions, peacocks, griffins and lotus at the entrance of Balahisar. In AD1363 it was ceded to the Baihmanis. After their downfall in AD1518 it became the capital of the Qutb Shahi kings (AD 1518-1687). The fort was extended and substantially strengthened by these kings with massive fortification walls having bastions and battlements. Subsequently Aurangazeb annexed it to the Moghal Empire (AD 1687) during the reign of Abul Hasan Tana Shan, the last ruler of the Qutb Shahi dynasty and appointed Asaf Jah as the Subedar of the Deccan province. Asaf Jah declared independence in AD1713 as Nizam-ul-Mulk and the Nizams held sway over Hyderabad until AD 1948.




After climbing to the top of the Fort, we drive through a series of narrow streets to the nearby Qutb Shahi Tombs. 

From the World Heritage Convention: 

The Qutb Shahi tombs complex consists of 30 tombs, mosques and a mortuary bath. The tombs belong to the rulers of the Qutb Shahi Dynasty, their queens and children and the nobles who faithfully served them. It contains the epigraphically documented tombs of five of the dynasty's seven sultans, as well as those of another four members of the royal family, spanning the 130-year period from 1543 to 1672. The Qutb Shahi tombs collectively constitute an outstanding example of an Indo-Muslim dynastic necropolis and is the most extensive and best epigraphically documented in all of India.
One of many tombs in the Qutb Shahi Complex

Detail on a Mosque in the Complex
After touring the Qutb Shahi Tombs, we chose to eat lunch in the city rather than at the APTDC-furnished restaurant the the Tombs. We made our way through rough traffic to Ameerpet for lunch at Swagath where we were served a traditional South Indian thali-style meal with several courses of breads and rice/curry dishes. After lunch, we headed across the busy street to the RS Brothers department store before taking a drive through one of Hyderabad's most affluent neighborhoods: Banjara Hills. The drive to our final destination also took us through an area of town aptly named "Hitec City" for the campus-like arrangement of IT companies clustered in neighborhood.

Our last attraction in Hyderabad, Shilparamam, is an "arts and crafts village" to preserve the traditional crafts and folk cultures of the area. In essence, the park indulged in a variety of replications of village life and traditional artisanal lifestyles in such villages. The park was a welcomed experience different from the noise, pollution, and tacky commercialism of the city itself. I imagine Shilparamam as a museum or resort of sorts for natives who themselves want to connect with a nostalgic model of the life lived by their ancestors. As India becomes an urban majority, it provides an escape from the stress of city life...a glimpse into an alternative, forgotten lifestyle.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Hyderabad - "Heart of the Indian Peninsula" Part 1

 "It is the sixth most popular city and the sixth-most populous urban agglomeration in India. It is known with the sobriquet 'City of Pearls', and referred as 'Heart of the Indian Peninsula' by the Time Magazine US. In 2011, The New York Times has featured Hyderabad in the list of must-see places of world."

July 27

By 10am the morning of the 27th, four of us left the hills of Sri Sailam. Shareef (our driver) and I sat in the front while my grandma and one of my aunt's friends - Lavanya - occupied the back. We got onto the one road running outside the compound which heads straight to Hyderabad - the capital city of Andhra Pradesh (a fact which is being hotly contested at the moment). The drive consisted of a descent through the jungle hills with scatterings of monkeys, birds, pigs, and other animals on the road attracted by food. The initial drive to Hyderabad was quick and simple, however it took just as much time traveling within the city limits to our destination. Hyderabad traffic puts Bangalore traffic to shame, plus the distances in the city seem greater.

This first day in Hyderabad, we reached our relative's home for refreshments and I headed out with our guide (Kiran) and Shareef to the Necklace Road/Hussain Sagar area for the evening. This area is home to one of the most iconic figures in Hyderabad - a monolithic statue of Buddha in the middle of the lake. To reach the statue, we walked through Lumbini Park - a fair with attractions, games, and green spaces in the city. Kiran told me that Hyderabadis consider this area as a beach to enjoy during the evening-time. Finally, we took a ferry ride to the middle of the lake and walked around the platform upon which the statue rested. There were tourists from around India, Asia, the Middle East, and the West. Hyderabad, like Bangalore, is another city that can boast of a modern, International urban reputation.

After arriving back at Lumbini Park, the three of us drove back to Secunderabad for dinner at my relatives'. The evening traffic was immense and we reached the home much later than expected. By the time I prepared for dinner, the electricity had gone out. Our hosts prepared a dinner of chicken biriyani, fried fish, and shrimp. After being served so many of these protein-heavy meals in homes. I've come up with a certain theory to explain this. For some reason, non-vegetarian dishes are considered a sort of "premium" in India. And therefore, our hosts want to provide us with the best to show that they are not cutting any corners. However, when you are dining at a different house every day, a meal of biriyani every night is genuinely tiring.

By 9:00pm, my grandma and I departed from Secunderabad for the guesthouse where we would spend the next few nights. Shareef took the passenger seat and Kiran took over the wheel - an efficient decision as Kiran knows the roads and can drive. To end the day, the four of us arrived at the guesthouse around 10:15pm. The room was large, air-conditioned, with two twin beds. I settled down, took a shower, and the lights were off by 11pm.

July 28

The night was extremely cold with the air conditioning set at 16 degrees Celsius and blowing straight at my bed. Shareef came by the room around 7am and we ordered a breakfast of idlis with chutney from a nearby outdoor eatery. After eating, the three of us wait in the room for Kiran and the car. Apparently Kiran is delayed in traffic, so Shareef and I leave the guesthouse for a brief walk around the neighborhood and end up sitting on the roof of the guesthouse. The roof hosts a spectacular view of the city -- and numerous temples and mosques. We spoke in Urdu about the places we would visit and the ubiquity of cell phones in India. At first, I had to strain my ears a bit and concentrate in order to understand his dialect, but with each day and each conversation, our discussions became more fluid.

We returned back to the room and Kiran arrived. We drive to Salar Jung Museum which hosts a variety of artifacts from around the world -- akin to a Smithsonian museum. There's one thing you need to keep in mind about Indian sightseeing -- Indians and foreigners are charged different entrance fees. For example Rs 10 for domestic visitors and Rs 250 for international visitors. I always buy the domestic ticket without a problem, however at Salar Jung, the guard seemed to have a reason to doubt me. The guard asked Kiran, "Indian hai yaa foreigner?" (Is he Indian or a foreigner?). The guard, still not convinced, had a test for me, "Us ko Hindi aati hai?" (Does he know Hindi?). Thankfully, I was able to respond in Hindi as if it was my mother language. WIN! After that, the guard let me go. :)

Outside Salar Jung Museum
We toured a few rooms of the museum and stopped by the food court for dosas and coffee for lunch. After lunch, we toured the upstairs before leaving the museum.

 Our next destination was the Charminar, another immensely iconic landmark of Hyderabad. The monument is located in the crowded, Muslim majority Old City -- full of mosques and bazaars. Shareef's family resides in the neighborhood and his cousin, Sameer, joined us after we descended from visiting the Charminar. With Shareef and Sameer, I walked to Mecca Masjid -- the largest mosque in South India. Sameer told me of how every Friday the entire area is full of people attending jummah prayer. On our walk through the mosque grounds, I learned that Sameer is sixteen years old and works at a family clothing showroom. His English was also rather non-existent, so the three of us spoke in Urdu as a common language. Leaving Mecca Masjid, we crossed the street to visit Shareef's aunt and uncle. His uncle owned a swimming pool -- which was surprisingly closed...surprising given the heat of the afternoon. I said my salaams...and we proceeded home to meet Shareef's aunt.
Charminar

I had to duck my head a little to enter through the door of the  small house. Shareef's aunt was laying on a cot watching Telugu serials. We said our salaams and sat down to spend a few minutes chatting. She first insisted that we eat or drink something. She brought cold water for everyone, and as tempted as I was to accept, I had to refuse: "Yahaan ka paani mere liye bahut khatarnaak hai." (The water here is very dangerous for me). After Shareef also confirmed that I've only been drinking bottled water, she continued: "Theek hai. Thanda mangwaaenge." (That's fine. We'll order a soda drink). I again firmly refused not wanting to give them any trouble. We continued talking for a few minutes about where I'm staying and what I'm doing in India. We then got up, thanked her, and left to head back to the car.

On the walk back, Shareef suggested that Sameer take me to a nice place for real local tea. We headed to a crowded cafe just a footfall away from the Charminar. The place had excellent, sweet chai served with fresh cookies that literally melted in my mouth.





View from atop Charminar
Of all the experiences I had in India so far, the time I spent with Shareef and Sameer that afternoon was surely the most rewarding and insightful. For the first time, I used Urdu to break a language barrier with people whom I otherwise would not be able to converse with -- or spend time with. I had the opportunity to see the Charminar neighborhood with locals who knew the stories and rich history of the landmarks since childhood. Sameer was surely a great guide and it was personally enriching to interact with others my own age, but from a greatly different background -- with a different past and future. Moreover, the remarkable hospitality Sameer's family showed me was not surprising, but definitely appreciated. They seemed poor, yet so willing to accomodate me in any way to make me feel comfortable. They treated me like their own.
Shareef and Sameer outside Mecca Masjid with Charminar in the background
From the Charminar area, we stopped at Sultan Bazaar where Shareef and I browsed around for a while. Then, on the way back to the guesthouse, I picked up McDonald's for everyone. I was definitely looking forward to the chicken sandwich after my long stay in isolated Sri Sailam.  Back at the guesthouse, Shareef and I spent a long evening together while my grandma rested. On the roof of the guesthouse, overlooking the lights of the city, we discussed topics such as society in India, the lack of unity in Indian society, and the role of religion in India. I was shocked at how much we agreed on and how much our observations had in common. He confirmed a lot of my observations and I listened to his drama-filled stories about life in his town. We stayed up together until 10:30pm like this -- when the mosquitos began annoying me. By this time, I could understand his dialect much better and he told me my Urdu had become more fluent as well. Today was a GREAT day!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Sri Sailam

Boarded the APSRTC bus to Sri Sailam, on July 22, at 5:07pm

With each passing week of my stay in India, I feel like I'm witnessing something closer and closer to "real" India -- farther and farther away from the malls and amenities of the upper crust and closer to what the average Indian witnesses in the course of his or her life. At the moment, I'm far from the swanky new Bengaluru International Airport and seated in a bus parked at Kempegowda (aka Majestic) Bus Stand. 

The India of the bus station (and of public transport in general) is unlike that of the more privileged private establishments. At these bus and train stations, people are forced to come together. Regardless of how they live their lives -- which stores they shop at, which neighborhoods they live in, where they work -- people come assemble to stand on the same platform at the rail station or outside the same door to board a bus. Sure, some might disappear into a comfortable AC rail car or a posh Volvo bus, but the fact that they must all resort to the same institution with a common purpose of traveling from the same Point A to the same Point B is what matters. It is really a pity that the United States does not maintain a similar institution when it comes to public transport accessible to the masses. 

The mood as passengers settle into their seats for the over 12 hour drive is actually rather festive. Unlike the ambience on airplanes or on the Volvo AC buses that I had previously traveled on, everyone was socializing and talking to each other. People were passing their babies around. Everyone was giddy and smiling as the bus departed. 

Still on the bus, at 8:11pm

I must admit that this non-AC bus has been much more comfortable and enjoyable than a Volvo Bus. The cool breeze from the open air is perfect compared to the freezing, stale air available on AC buses. For dinner, the bus stopped at a roadside dhaba. The place is dark and I can hear old Kannada songs playing on a set of speakers somewhere outside. Sitting in the bus, everyone is addressing each other by "akka" and "anna," it's become really difficult to tell who is actually family and who is just using that form of address with fellow passengers.


July 24

Sri Sailam, a very small town in the middle of the Nallamala Forest, is known mainly as a popular pilgrimage spot and, more recently, for the hydropower project established along the Krishna River. As engineering nor religion are of any particular interest to me, practically the only reason why this town is on my itinerary is because my aunt's family lives here where my uncle serves as Superintending Engineer for the project. This is one of the few places where I do not mind staying at home for the day. I feel at home in Sri Sailam, very relaxed and at ease away from the noise and pollution of the city. I passed a few days in just that manner -- at home with family, with our dog Preeti, and observing the activities of monkeys that visit daily.

On the 24th, we drove from the residential colony to the town of Sri Sailam to board a ferry ride that took us in a circular course through the gorge area and toward the dam. The amount of passion and pride my uncle can demonstrate toward the dam project is amazing. On the ferry he repeatedly urges me and my cousin to take photos and videos of the project. By the time the ferry ride ended and we climbed the stairs from the banks of the river to the city, we were drenched in sweat. In living in the hills, one doesn't realize how hot the weather truly is at ground level. On the way back home, we stopped at a new Biodiversity Park where research is being done on a variety of species of snakes, insects, etc found in the Nallamala Forest.


A strong theme during my stay in Sri Sailam is the amount of "perks" people of high positions in government circles receive in India. In previous trips to the area and on today's outing to the ferry, a man named Damodar (sp?) accompanied us and escorted us past lines, past ticket counters, etc. In the larger scheme of government, if people of such small positions are awarded special treatment as I and my family were, is it really surprising that the big fishes (the Chief Ministers and members of Parliament) are swallowing billions of rupees from public funds? Corruption starts small...and I have a lot more to say about this. Keep reading!

July 25

Today was a quieter day. We were supposed to visit the main Mallikarjuna temple in Sri Sailam today, but my uncle's calendar dictated that this day was not auspicious enough, so that plan was delayed. My response: "Isn't going to take a darshan from god ALWAYS supposed to be a good thing? I can't imagine that the deity shows varying levels of benevolence on different days. But then again it's religion...it's not supposed to make any sense." -_-

However, the day did consist of a visit to the Sai Baba temple within the residential colony. I visited this same temple and met the temple care-takers last summer along with an intelligent debate about the logical existence of god and the purpose/reason behind worship. The same debate continued this year when I went to the temple in the morning with my grandmother.


The discussion in Hindi led to a few questions on my part:

  • If god is benevolent, why are there so many innocent, good people suffering from war, poverty, natural crises, etc
  • If god is benevolent, why must we perform so many rituals and decorations of deities? Shouldn't internal prayer be enough? The money people drop into Hundis and use to adorn murtis with garlands, silk, and jewelry can be used for more purposeful humanitarian causes.
The answers I received were the same that any religious individual will tell you - just leave it to Baba (substitute Jesus/Allah/Krishna) and think about Him and everything will be alright. Needless to say, I was not satisfied. Nonetheless, I look forward to meeting this family and having these discussions. They and I come from such drastically different backgrounds and with such different perspectives that it's amazing we can come together and have a conversation together without any animosity. Sometimes the poorest people are the most open-minded and genuine; they hold their core beliefs close, but without the damaging ego and assuming nature that the rich possess. 


Today, I also got a chance to meet and talk to Shareef, our driver in Sri Sailam who would also accompany us to Hyderabad for a few days. It's rare that I get to meet people my age in India who are outside my family, and if I do, I face a language barrier. However, with Shareef, I was able to speak Urdu today and make conversation with him during a few hours in Sundipenta.

July 26


This afternoon, my uncle, grandmother, and I drove to Sri Sailam to visit the Mallikarjuna Temple. Apparently crowds were high in the afternoon and we even proposed shifting the visit to the evening. I visited the temple last year, and it's one of those places (like Tirupati) that doesn't offer much to non-believers. You need some level of belief to get super excited and wait for hours to see a black stone, which might also be hidden behind a curtain.

Once again we were accompanied by the Damodar character, he took us straight passed the lines, opened up direct pathways to the deities, held the crowds away from us so that we could spend time in front of the deities. Apparently a chief priest also recognized my uncle, and the result was a "superb" darshan and abhishekham.

Now, I have a problem with this, and I made it clear on the drive back home. There were perhaps thousands of devotees packed tightly, waiting in line, and herded like cattle, passed the deities. What is so special about our group that we should be permitted to walk right past these people? Isn't the satisfaction from the pilgrimage supposed to be earned from waiting in line and suffering in order to receive the darshan? Isn't everyone supposed to be equal in front of god? Does god really want a longer, more thorough audience with us just because we might have more money or status? The only reason our abhishekham was "superb" and the thousands of other dedicated devotees probably only walked past a curtained deity -- is money.

The response I got was that we have things to do and cannot afford to wait in those lines. I can guarantee that this isn't true. So many people are taking time out of their lives, sacrificing potential earnings to show their devotion. To those people without the status, a single rupee earned must definitely possess more value than it does to us. I didn't receive any other reason. My grandmother brushed it off with a "You don't understand..." I'm rather sure that is not the case either.

I get rather intense when it comes to the conduct I've been noticing inside temples. So much of the experience seems to revolve around financial capacity -- unlike what I've witnessed in churches or mosques. This theme will surely resurface later on.

Now a new day... on to Hyderabad!!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Day Trip to Shravanabelagola, Halebid, and Belur

On Saturday, I took a day trip from Bangalore to the towns of Shravanabelagola, Halebid, and Belur. The tour was with the government-run KSTDC (Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation). The tour departed from Badami House in Bangalore at 6:30 am and the group was a mix of local South Indians, Indian tourists from other parts of India (I met a woman visiting from Mumbai), and international tourists (there were some Chinese, Swedes, and a few NRIs too).

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so with this post, I will let my photographs direct the narrative and raise some of my observances with the detail of each photograph. Enjoy!
Once on the highway, around 9:00am, our bus stopped at a small roadside dhaba eatery for breakfast. We bought tickets for a certain meal and walked up to the counter where people were dishing out plates and plates of idlis and vadas and cups of coffee -- surprisingly quickly and efficiently. The place and its itself wasn't inspiring; it was dark and crowded, but the food was excellent. Probably best of all. This meal cost around Rs. 25 or 50 cents!
Our first stop was the town of Shravanabelagola around 158 kilometers from Bangalore. The name of the town translates to "the white pond of the monk" and this pond can be seen on the left side of the photo of the town (posted above). This town is one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Jainism -- a religious tradition founded on the principles of renunciation and minimalism.

The journey to the top consisted of around 600 stone-carved steps to the top of the hill. We thought the ascent would be difficult and stopped every few minutes for a deserved "photo break." However, by the time we had toured the top, the rains had begun and the descent on the slippery, wet stone steps took longer than expected. A few times we saw women being carried in straw carriages by a group of four or five men to the top. The excess of labor in India leads to so many creative possibilities to make lives easier for the rich. 
After about another hour of travel, we reached Halebid. On the drive from Shravanabelagola to Halebid, we passed through many small towns and cities. Driving through these smaller cities in a large luxury Volvo coach bus really makes one aware of the privilege one has. While these buses might be ubiquitous in the metropolises, in these small towns, people take a good 5-10 seconds just to stare at the bus. You get the same feeling one might get when wearing large, gaudy jewelry only to dine at a fast food restaurant. You really realize that the vast majority of Indians could never fathom spending almost Rs. 1000 or $20 in one day just to tour temples -- people have more pressing concerns.
Of the three places sites I toured that day, Halebid was definitely the most impressive. In addition to the site itself, we had an excellent guide whose ability to exaggerate the splendor of the monuments was very applaudable. And his desperate insistance on connecting stories of Hindu mythology to situations in modern life were hilariously charming in his broken, yet confident English.
After touring the palaces and monuments of the great Islamic dynasties in Delhi last summer, this trip provided me with exposure to a totally different style of construction, design, and purpose desired by dynasties in the South.

It seems to me that the empires of the North (namely Mughal and Rajput) were both established by conquest and battlefield victories. Therefore, they constructed immense forts and palaces which were both opulent, yet easy to defend. They also were built to showcase power; the sites are large and towering, built on a large scale.
However, the design of the temples at Halebid and Belur were very different. It's as if the Hoysalas claimed divine authority; that is, they claimed they were a continuation of the gods and thus deserved such respect. The architecture on the the walls of the temple chronicle stories of Hindu mythology with each detail so carefully thought out. This attention to detail in each intricacy is spectacular. To truly appreciate these complexes, one must take a macro, close-up view of these panels.
Finally, after stoping at the KSTDC Velapuri Restaurant for lunch, we toured Belur for a little less than an hour. By the time we reached Belur, the weather was the worst it had been all day and the rains were unrelenting. We hurried to the inside of the active temple and our guide explained the meaning behind a few of the 48 pillars -- each different -- inside the temple. After that brief tour inside the dark, crowded temple, our guide basically abandoned us and the group was free to wander around the complex. But the rain kept most of us under a covered roof to take a few pictures before making the dash across the complex, under the gopuram (above left), and back into our bus for a departure back to Bangalore.

To see the photos featured in this post (and more from the trip) in original resolution, check out my Flickr set BEST OF INDIA 2011.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Russell Market

After so many trips to the various malls around the city, I've realized a a few days ago, that I'm immensely bored of them. I did not travel around the world to India to see this nation outdo the American concept of a mall. Furthermore, all the people I meet are convinced that there is not anything to do in Bangalore but to shop at these malls. The first things native Bangaloreans want to show me are these gigantic, modern, expensive shopping areas; I had to proactively tell them that I wanted to see something and experience a surroundings that I could only witness in India. I came here for India, isn't it?

So we went to Russell Market and the Shivaji Nagar area of town. We arrived and strolled down the streets. The roads weren't unusually narrow, but the traffic and amount of people on the streets were definitely noticeable. We took a stroll down a street which I later learned is called Jamma Masjid Road.

On our walk, we stopped by the 19th century Lakshmi Narasimhaswami Temple. The priest was a young boy, a few years younger than me. He took my grandmother and I into their house which is attached to the temple by a few stairs and served us prasaad.
Just down the street from the temple, was a large, ornate mosque – the Jamma Masjid. An article from the Bangalore Mirror provides this profile of the Masjid:
"The foundation for this architectural marvel on the Jamia Masjid Road (earlier called the OPH Road), with its impressively carved 90-feet minarets, Mughal-era domes and golden inscriptions in Persian, is said to have been laid by Emperor Aurangzeb."
"The legacy of communal harmony is, meanwhile, something that the Masjid is proud of. “Isn't it wonderful that it’s situated between two temples? And till date, neither the Masjid nor the temples have had any issues. In the history of Jamia Masjid there has not been a single religious clash on this street,” says manager Sayed Abdul Ali."
As we walked by the mosque, my grandmother mentioned that she always wanted to see this mosque, but never felt at the liberty to go inside. So I thought that given the number of temples I've already seen in India, my visits to mosques have been lacking. At the entrance, different people were telling us different things. One said we weren't dressed appropriately (neither of us covered our heads, and I was wearing shorts) and one said that only Muslims could enter. Finally, one man wearing a black taqiah walked up and happily welcomed us inside, “Koi baat nahin. Bhagwaan ek hi hai! Koi farq nahin parta. Andar aaiye!” – “It's no big deal. God is one. It makes no difference. Please come inside.”
After a few minutes at the mosque, we continued down the street, occasionally stopping at some small shops before finally reaching the actual Russell Market. The market itself was covered by an interesting exterior, but the inside was dark, with winding aisles of vendors classified by merchandise. Flowers. Fruits. Vegetables. Toys.
This was exactly like something one would see in an India guidebook. Once I pulled out my camera and asked – “Main tasveer khinch saktaa hoon?” – the vendors would smile and graciously make space for me to take the pictures I wanted.
Overall, I had an excellent experience visiting this small market. The experience was more interesting and satisfying than another stroll around the mall. Different people, different prices, and different atmosphere – isn't that why I'm in India?!