Tag Archives: Hindu

Jammu and Kashmir

After some great machinations in Shimla, we finally agreed on our approach to head further north.

India’s northernmost state ‘Jammu and Kashmir’ extends north from the rest of the country into a volatile region bordered by Pakistan to the West and Tibet (part of China) to the North. This state is composed of three separate regions – Hindu Jammu, Muslim Kashmir, and Buddhist Ladakh. Many people in the Kashmir region are seeking independence from India. The Pakistan government, also Muslim, supports this to free their Muslim brethren from Hindu oppression and presumably so that an independent Kashmir would be free to join Pakistan. The border between India and Pakistan has been in dispute since the two countries received independence from Britain and were partitioned. In fact, it isn’t even referred to as a ‘border’, but a ‘line of control’, based on who currently controls which parts of the disputed territory. There has been constant bickering and battling between the two countries for the past 50 years.

Jammu and Kashmir has pretty much been off limits to travelers for the past 20 years due to open or clandestine (i.e. terrorist) warfare in the region. The border between India and Pakistan is porous due to the nomadic people who traverse the high mountain passes. The quality of relations between India and Pakistan changes like the seasons, and security in the region changes like the weather. As we considered going to Kashmir, we monitored the situation closely, reviewing national and regional newspapers on the Internet.

In the past there have been attacks on the public and tourists including bombing of public places, trains, buses, etc. In the week prior to our departure, there were daily incidents between rebels and Indian police and military. The rebel strategy seems to currently be focused on agencies of the Indian government, rather than the public or tourists, but this can change quickly, and there is always a risk of getting caught in the cross-fire.

Indian newspapers are obsessed with the acrimonious relationship between the two countries. They report the daily events of border ‘skirmishes’ (i.e. battles), terrorist attacks, and body counts. The Canadian government has recommended a total travel ban for this region. Unfortunately, the Great Himalayan Circuit of Northern India circles through Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh. Skipping Kashmir necessitates either retracing difficult mountainous terrain (days of travel on bad buses) or resorting to expensive and difficult-to-book flights.

For this reason and that fact that it contains some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, some travelers choose to brave the Kashmir region. After much debate, we decided to skip the majority of Jammu and Kashmir (the western side of the state), and instead fly from Jammu’s southernmost city (also called Jammu) to the city of Leh, located in the far north of Ladakh, which makes up the eastern side of the state. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, which is relatively untouched by the violence in Jammu and Kashmir. From here, we could travel south by bus, avoiding most of the hot areas.

To get from Shimla to Jammu, we took a five hour bus ride down the twisting mountain roads to the city of Chandigarh, where we’d been for a day the previous week. For some reason, Indian people seem susceptible to car sickness, and the bus stopped frequently when people walked forward with clear plastic bags of vomit to through out the door.

In Chandigarh, we managed to find a night bus to Jammu, that would arrive a few hours before our flight departed, avoiding the need to spend any more time in Jammu than necessary. We booked a sleeper compartment, which is a small box for two people installed above the seats. The sleeper is equipped with two vertical bars at about chest and knee position to prevent us from rolling off as the bus rocks and rolls, a lovely vinyl sleeping surface, and a curtain to provide some limited privacy. The bus was air-conditioned, with small circular ducts like the ones on airplanes, and which dripped water onto Patrick throughout the night.

The bus dropped us off in Jammu just after dawn, at the side of a road nothing like a bus station. We caught an auto-rickshaw to the airport, which looked nothing like an airport. From the road, all that was visible was high cement walls and gates, crash barriers, spike belts, police, and guns. Seated in front of this fortress, were four young women from Israel, who were scheduled to take the same flight, departing at 9:20 AM. It was currently 6:00 AM, and the airport apparently didn’t open until 8:00 AM. So we sat outside like ducks (sitting ducks, get it?) for two hours.

When we were finally let in, we went through the most rigourous airport security that we’ve experienced. Before boarding the plane, our bags were x-rayed and sealed, we went through three metal detectors, and we were each physically searched four times. No cabin baggage was permitted, and we had to identify our bags immediately before boarding the plane, so that only the bags of those boarding made it onto the plane.

Thankfully, the flight to Leh was uneventful. The landing was exciting as the plane circled close to the mountains to lose the altitude necessary to drop into the airstrip. After a short bus ride to the terminal, we filled out foreigner registration forms (necessary all over India), and received an exception from the Swine Flu screening process due to the fact we’ve been in India for over six weeks.

More on Ladakh in our next installment…

Rishikesh

Rishikesh is a small city in the state of Uttarkhand that is known for its yoga and meditation classes, trekking, and white water rafting down the Ganges River, known in India as the ‘Ganga’. It is also a holy city where Hindu pilgrims come to the site where the Ganga emerges from the Himalayan mountains. The Beatles visited the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yoga in the late 60’s and ever since Rishikesh has been a famous place for people seeking a spiritual retreat. Rishikesh is now considered to be to “Yoga Capital of the World”.


On the day that we arrived it was very busy with lots of people and noise, which did not really match the yoga experience we had in mind. The streets were filled with orange garbed pilgrims who had come to worship at Rishikesh’s temples and to swim in the Ganga.

Apparently we arrived at the peak of the Hindu pilgrimage season, but fortunately within a day lots of people had moved on and it was a lot quieter.

In pursuit of a more spiritual experience, we spent five nights at an Ashram, with the plan to participate in yoga, eat a healthy vegetarian diet, and to relax. Our stay included yoga classes two times a day, our accommodations and meals. Each yoga class was two hours long, with the first at 6:00 a.m. and then again at 4:00 p.m. A bell rang at 5:30 AM for morning wakeup, and again before each meal which consisted of basic vegetarian Indian dishes, including for breakfast. Although we like Indian food, we still haven’t gotten used to eating it for breakfast, and try to find eggs, toast, or cereal whenever we can. We ate sitting on the floor cross-legged with our tin plates on a small stools in front of us. It’s been a long time since either of us has sat cross-legged on a hard floor for any period of time, and we were both surprised how uncomfortable it was. After our first meal Patrick said he felt like he had pulled a muscle and he hadn’t even been to his first yoga class yet. Obviously we could benefit from some yoga.

We went to the afternoon yoga class the day we arrived. The classes were good but a bit challenging. Diane is definitely not as flexible as she once was. Patrick never was, but participated fully and went to three classes within the first twenty-six hours at the ashram. Diane came down with a cold and did not feel well enough for yoga after her first class. Just when she was starting to feel a bit better Patrick got sick. So as it turned out, we didn’t do as much yoga as we’d planned, and we spent a lot of time in bed trying to feel better. However, Patrick really enjoyed the yoga and would definitely do it again.

The Ganga runs right through the middle of Rishikesh. Two suspension bridges called Ram Jhula and Lakshman Jhula connect the two halves of the city. These pedestrian-only bridges have a steady traffic of people, cows, monkeys and motorcycles. So much for pedestrian only.

We spent a lot of time at a restaurant by one of the bridges over the Ganga, which overlooked the 13-storey Hindu temples of Swarg Niwas and Shri Trayanbakshwar. This open air restaurant served great home-made vegetable pasta and brown bread. Very nice if you ignored the flies. Patrick discovered a mango juice fruit drink called ‘Maaza’, bottled by Coca-Cola, which was a life saver as he recovered from the stomach flu. During one of our afternoons of people watching and talking with other travelers, Diane got some great pictures of some baby monkeys in the tree below the restaurant.


We aren’t Yoga gurus yet, but we are definitely developing our skills in sightseeing, people watching and knowing when to kick back and relax.

Observations about India

  • Men where pants here, regardless of the temperature. Usually only boys (and tourists) wear shorts. Indian women typically wear a sari (a single piece of cloth that is wrapped without pins or buttons) or a salwar kameez (a long shirt and trouser combination). Younger people prefer jeans, despite the fact they must be baking in the heat.
  • India is a very religious/holy place. 82% of the people are Hindu and 12% Muslim. Christians and Sikhs are about 2% each. Like most of the world, religious has been a major source of conflict in India for over 1000 years.
  • Family is extremely important in India. Marriage and children are almost essential. Most marriages are arranged, but love marriages are becoming more common in urban areas. Divorce is rare, but its incidence is growing in urban areas.
  • Like in Africa, Diet Coke costs more here than regular Coke. Why would someone pay more for less?
  • It is common for men to show their friendship by holding hands. The other day on the train one man was sleeping with his head on his friend’s lap (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
  • About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India struck down the law (inherited from the British) making homosexuality between men illegal. Homosexuality between women was never illegal.
  • Cows are considered holy to Hindus, and so they are allowed to wander the streets aimlessly, causing a major hazard to navigation. Needless to say, it is impossible to get a steak here. The cows tend to hang out near Hindu temples where they get fed. At night, they rummage through garbage piles looking for food. Not a very graceful existence for a holy animal.
  • The caste system, though weakening, still has a major influence in India, especially in rural areas. In Hindu society, the caste you are born into (dictated by your parents’ caste), largely determines both your career and who you can marry. There are four main castes – Brahmin (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (labourers), with thousands of sub-casts. Beneath all of these castes are the Dalits (former known as ‘The Untouchables’) who perform undesirable tasks such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning.
  • Showing affection (e.g. kissing) in public is not acceptable. Men hold hands more commonly than men and women.
  • It is rude to touch a person on the head, or face the soles of one’s feet towards them.
  • The right hand is used for eating, and the left for unclean tasks such as removing one’s shoes, using the toilet, etc. This is a challenge for Diane who is left-handed. It is considered polite to wash ones hands both before and after a meal. Almost all restaurants have sinks outside the restrooms for this purpose.
  • The official currency of India is the Rupee (Rp). There are approximately 40 Rp to one Canadian dollar.
  • Things are generally inexpensive here. Our hotel rooms typically cost $10 – $17 a night. Breakfast is typically $3 and dinner $10 – $12 (including beer), and that’s for both of us. A bus trip of 5-7 hours typically costs $4. This is very welcome given that Africa was more expensive than planned.
  • Our hotel rooms almost always have an attached bathroom. Usually one of the toilet or shower doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the rooms have a TV, which almost certainly has bad reception. If we ask, they will usually include a top sheet and towels (sometimes only one). They’ll only include toilet paper about half of the time. Imagine bargaining for toilet paper!
  • There are about eight different classes on the trains here. Second Class, the cheapest, seems to be a free-for-all, with as many people sitting and standing in the available space as possible. In Sleeper Class we receive a reserved bunk with six bunks to a ‘compartment’ and two more across the passageway (compartment is in parentheses because it’s misleading to call it that given that it has no wall or door separating it from the passageway). For considerably more money, one can travel in an air-conditioned car, with AC1, AC2, and AC3 Classes having two, four, and six bunks per compartment (these ones have doors, but they don’t lock).
  • Child labour, AIDS, and poverty are all major issues here. An estimated 350 million Indians (the population of the United States) live below the poverty line, a division which is so low that it is similar to the Canadian poverty line in name only.
  • Indians love the game of cricket. It seems to be the only sport on television, other than American wrestling (which isn’t really a sport at all). Male cricket players are worshipped, and make big money in advertisements.
  • Environmental issues are very serious in India. Most of the cities and much of the countryside are polluted. Air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and disposable waste are big problems. India’s most famous river, the Ganges, which is holy to Hindus, is toxic, which fecal colliform counts thousands of times the safe limit.
  • Indians do seem to care about environmental issues when it affects their pocketbook. Motorcycle and auto-rickshaw drivers often coast down hill to save fuel. Hotel rooms with air conditioners installed have two different prices – one if you use the AC, and the other without. Most hotel rooms have switches outside the door that allow the staff to turn off all power to the room when you exit it.
  • Indian food is delicious. It can be spicy, but we have found that this has been pretty rare. We’re going to start asking for them to make it hotter.
  • Indian tea (called ‘chai’) is drunk with milk, sugar, and sometimes other spices (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) It often costs a bit more to get just black tea. Coffee, like in Africa, is normally instant. There are no Starbucks, but there is a chain called ‘Café Coffee Day’ in the larger cities.
  • Key sources of national pride are: India’s cricket team, the fact that India has atomic weapons, the fact that India is on track to become the world’s most populous nation by 2035, India’s outsourcing and IT industries, India’s size, and India’s rich history (probably in that order).
  • Most people in Indian cities have a mobile phone. In addition to the nice feature of a small light (handy when unlocking hotel room doors at night), a new annoying innovation seems to be the inclusion of a speaker, so that people can play their music out loud rather than using earplugs.
  • People (mainly women and children) ask to have their pictures taken with us, sometimes using their camera or mobile phone, but with ours if they don’t have one.
  • In cities with more tourists (like Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi), we are constantly being bombarded with calls and requests like “Hello, where are you going”, “Hello, rickshaw”, “Hello, come look my shop”. It can become frustrating and draining.
  • Young boys sell food and drinks on the buses. When we stop in smaller towns they seem fascinated by us, and appear confident that we’ll buy their stuff if they just stare at us for another 5 minutes, ask one more time, or rest the bottle on Patrick’s shoulder.
  • It is common to see people begging here. In addition to those with obvious physical challenges (the blind, amputees, etc.), there are also old women and young children. Some are quite insistent. A man got down on his knees and touched both of Patrick’s feet. Another boy was crawling through the train cars wiping the floor with his shirt and then requested that we give him money. Usually the people who are begging target tourists; we have only seen them request money from local people occasionally.
  • People seem to adhere to the concept of a line up (a queue) only loosely. Although they do line up, it is common for people to cut in front, especially at train stations (or anywhere there are a lot of people gathering). Many Indians seem to tolerate this. In a country with over a billion people, the various strategies to get to the head of the line are numerous (e.g. sending one’s wife in, or ‘I just have a question’ or ‘I just need a form’). We’re sure there are many techniques that we don’t realize because we don’t speak Hindi.
  • People seem concerned about cleanliness, but only in the very near vicinity of their home or shop. It is common to sweep one’s stoop, and even the dirt immediately beyond it, but only sufficiently to push the garbage into the street where it falls into line with everyone else’s. There are lovely tourist shops and hotels surrounded by piles of garbage. A common solution to this seems to be to build a wall around the property so the garbage isn’t visible from inside.
  • Most Indians carry a cloth to wipe the sweat off their faces.
  • The streets are filled with all manner of vehicles – trucks and buses, motorcycles and scooters (everywhere you look), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled vehicles with a one-cylinder engine and room for two passengers, or eight if you want to squeeze in), ox and horse carts, camel carts (in Rajasthan), and wheeled carts and trolleys pulled or pushed by hand. It is treacherous for pedestrians (in our experience, second only to Cairo).
  • Indians love their sweets. There are sweet shops containing all manner of delicious looking sweets, most of which are not that delicious. Like Chinese sweets, they are an acquired taste.
  • There are advertisements everywhere for higher education. Indians place a high value on education for cultural and practical reasons. Our auto-rickshaw driver was proud to tell us the other day that his nineteen year old daughter was studying science.
  • Men often wear bandanas to protect them from the pollution while riding their motorcycles. They fold them into a triangle and wear them in the style of outlaws from the old west. Sometimes they wear them walking the streets, and it seems like they’re gonna to rob the stage.
  • In most places (except Delhi) only the motorcycle driver needs to wear a helmet. Why is the driver’s head more valuable than the passenger’s?
  • Women ride scooters, never motorcycles, because it isn’t possible to wear a dress on a motorcycle. They often wear long gloves, like in the 1950’s. We’re not sure why, but perhaps to protect their skin from the pollution or the sun.
  • Light skin is preferred over dark skin. Most of the Bollywood movie stars look almost white. Many moisturizers contain skin whiteners like citrus, Vitamin C, etc.
  • The alcoholic drink of choice here is scotch (they call it whiskey). Other than in the fancy hotels, you can choose from cheap local varieties or cheap imported brands.
  • People seem quite superstitious here. Part of this is likely due to the many complicated rituals of the Hindu religion, but it shows up in other ways. Astrology is very popular here. A horoscope is done at all major occasions like the birth of the child. An astrologer is consulted before weddings are arranged.
  • Indians frequently exhibit a head wobble. Although it may seem to the untrained eye to be a ‘no’, it often means ‘perhaps’, ‘okay’, or even ‘yes’.
  • India has had difficult relations with Pakistan since they both received independence from the British in 1947. The two countries were partitioned (by the British) along religious lines to create the primarily Muslim Pakistan and the primarily Hindu India. Of course, many people ended up on the side of the border they didn’t want, and even the boundary itself was disputed by the parties. This resulted in years of ethnic violence and mass migrations of people, and set the stage for the ongoing strained relationship and ongoing violence between the countries, both of which are now nuclear powers.

Karni Mata Temple

Today we visited one of the most bizarre temples in India. It is located in the village of Deshnok, 30 kilometers outside of the city of Bikaner in Rajasthan.

According to Hindu legend (as retold in the Lonely Planet guidebook), Karni Mata, a 14th-century reincarnation of Durga, asked the god of death, Yama, to restore the life of the son of a grieving storyteller. When Yama refused, Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rodents, depriving Yama of human souls. Perhaps this is the fate that awaits your humble bloggers?

The temple is swarming with holy rodents, in other words, rats! We went during the heat of the afternoon, and were informed when we arrived that many of the rats return to their dens at this time, much to Diane’s relief. There were still hundreds for us to see – drinking from large platters of water and milk,

eating in a room full of grain, climbing all over the shrine, and hanging from anything they could find to escape the heat at floor level.

Like at all Hindu temples, one must remove his or her shoes. Unfortunately we didn’t bring socks, so we had to contend with the rat feces underfoot, the many ants, the bird droppings, and the hot marble floors.

We tried to avoid stepping on any rats, for fear of what we might catch from a bite, and to avoid leaning on anything (as rats were hanging everywhere). It is considered auspicious if a rat runs across your foot, but fortunately none did. We also did not see a rare white rat, which is also considered lucky.

This temple is a holy pilgrimage site for Hindus, so it is important not to show any distaste. Diane did very well.

It was not what Diane expected. Afterwards she said that she had anticipated a clean white temple with rats like pet rats at home — clean, dry, and sleeping in little nests of wood shavings. Instead, we found rats that were dirty, sweating, living in pipes, and sleeping in piles covered by their own feces. One Hindu woman, who obviously hadn’t been there before, wasn’t handling things as well, and started to cry at the entrance to the temple.

As we walked out of the temple, Diane said, ‘That was the most amazing and disgusting thing I’ve ever seen’.

Welcome to India

We arrived in Mumbai a few days ago at 4AM local time. We had previously decided to wait in the airport until sunrise. After wandering around the airport to find an ATM that didn’t work, we needed to change some US dollars into Rupees in order to get a taxi. Unfortunately, once you leave the Arrivals area, where the money changers are located, they won’t let you back in (for security reasons). So after being turned away once, we found a security guard that would let Patrick in only if Diane stayed outside with our backpacks.

Mumbai is a huge city of over 16 million people, with a good mix of Indian culture, colonial history, and modern development. It is also the home of the Indian film industry known as ‘Bollywood’. We had heard that India was overwhelming, an invasion of the senses, and that it would be difficult. Many people had said that if you can survive the first couple of weeks that you’ll grow to love it, but it can be hard at first. Our experience has been exactly the opposite. Mumbai has been easy by comparison to a lot of other places we’ve already been. We’re really enjoying it and it feels safe here (which may surprise you after you read on below).

Here are some of the interesting things that we’ve experienced…

There are international stores here, probably because Mumbai is the wealthiest city in India. Nearby to where we are staying there are Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Benetton stores. There are also coffee shops, much to Diane’s delight. And McDonald’s! All these things were virtually nonexistent in most of Africa. Because most Indians are Hindus for whom the cow is sacred, there is no beef sold at McDonald’s here. They do have chicken and veggie burgers, and Patrick had a ‘McAloo Tikka’, which is a spiced potato patty burger. We suspect that many of these things won’t be widely available beyond the large cities and tourist areas.

There are a lot of beggars here. They follow us on the street. Late at night there are people sleeping in doorways. Unlike in Vancouver, the beggars and homeless people are not just adults – there are a whole families begging and sleeping on the streets are night. When our taxi stops at a light, children come out to beg. They press their little faces up against the glass and shield their eyes with their hands so they can see in. If the window is open, they reach in to try to touch us. Patrick tried to close the window, but they hung on the glass, and he didn’t have the heart to pry their little fingers off the window.

We’ve spent a lot of time at a restaurant and bar called Leopold’s. It is one of the few nearby that serves alcohol. The beer comes in large towers with a spout at the bottom, and we’ve shared more than a few with some nice young guys we met from Holland.

Leopold’s is one of the places where a lot of foreigners go, and it was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks here. In addition to bombings at two large hotels, which are currently being repaired, gunmen fired many bullets into Leopold’s from the street. Eight people were killed, including six tourists and two staff. Many of the staff who work there now were working on the night of the attack. Whether to maintain the history of the event or perhaps due to lack of funds, Leopold’s hasn’t repaired some of the damage. There are still many bullet holes in the glass, wood, and cement, some of which have been covered by pictures on the walls.

Our hotel room has television, something which was rare in Africa. There are three English channels, two for news and one playing mostly old movies. The Indian channels seem to be a lot like we have at home – news, music videos, and a shopping channel.

We went to see a Hindi movie the other night called ‘New York’. It was not your typical Bollywood movie, as there was no singing and dancing, and it was actually filmed in America. It was a thriller about some Indian people living in America who got involved in a terrorist plot. There was a sprinkling of English words throughout, just enough that we could follow the plot, and the production quality was actually very good. Unlike in Canada, people stood to sing the national anthem before the movie, there was an intermission half way through, and the concession served sandwiches, ice cream, caramel corn, and tea. Also unlike Canada, there were metal detectors upon entering the theatre, and messages on the screen that said you could not leave the theatre once the movie started (not even at intermission), and in the event of an explosion, that you should try to help your fellow theatre goers.

July 3rd was a Hindu festival day here, and it was also a ‘dry day’, which means that shops, restaurants, and bars cannot serve alcohol. Leopold’s was still serving, but only upstairs (which is not visible from the street), and only to foreigners who provided their passport. It felt discriminatory that only foreigners and not local people could enter, but is also seemed a bit like an elite club from colonial times.

India is currently experiencing the monsoon, the rains which just began and will continue for the next three months, coinciding perfectly with our time here. It has rained at bit every day that we’ve been here. Yesterday it rained so hard that we got wet to the skin on a ten minute walk, while we were using our umbrellas! The weather is likely to have some impact on our travel plans, but we’ll have to see.

So far, India has been great. The Indian food is terrific and cheap. We can both eat a good dinner for under $4 Canadian. Taxis are also cheap enough, usually under a dollar, that we can use them more frequently. We’ve started to figure out the train system, and are taking our first trains later today. We’ll let you know how it goes.