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An India Travelogue, Part 12
by Lawrence Bush
INDIA’S MANY BEAUTIFUL PALACES, forts, and temples start to merge into one another after a few weeks of travel here, but this morning, in Udaipur, the “City of Lakes” (seven of them, man-made over the past four centuries), we had an exceptional experience of a Hindu service at the Jagdish Temple, an ornate building that has been in continuous use for worship since 1652.
We arrived only ten minutes after the 10 a.m. opening and climbed the 32-step marble staircase before going barefoot. (From climbing endless stairs in hotels and palaces, and not being interested in ingesting vast quantities of India food, and dodging motorscooters and tuk-tuks, I’m expecting to weigh about ten pounds less when I return home.) Soon we were listening to about twenty-five women chanting and playing finger cymbals as the idol of Vishnu, in a black incarnation known as Jagannath, was being dressed (he gets a new outfit each day). About fifteen minutes later, a woman rang a loud bell for eight straight minutes while men standing by the altar began fanning the idol, then fanning the crowd. Wrapped candies were distributed to children, and little cups of banana and sweet paste were circulated to the crowd (everyone sits on the floor), and a songfest began (men at the front, women behind them), led by a joyous older man in a handsome woven hat who made beautiful, sweeping gestures towards the idol and towards his fellow worshippers and didn’t stop smiling for the next hour.
The chanting was accompanied by drums and cymbals, and everyone sang with great heart — none of that faltering, uncertain, somewhat embarrassed singing that you often hear in liberal synagogues. The feeling of communal happiness was contagious, and Susan and I sat there smiling and keeping the beat and harmonizing beneath our breaths for as long as the service went on. Indians coming and going were very happy to see us looking happy, and when we fetched our shoes, the guardian of the shoes cheerfully commented on how long our shoes had sat there, waiting for our return.
I felt like a hippy again. (In Jaipur two days earlier, we had visited an Ashoka Fabrics museum, and read therein that “Western hippies” had revitalized the block-printing fabric industry in India by discovering India’s fashions.)
The temple has a seventy-foot spire and is garnished lavishly with statuary: gods and goddesses, elephants in combat (and chained by their legs), musicians, voluptuaries, and on and on. The inside is cool and there are lots of shady spots outside, which is a great mercy, as summer has begun in India and yeow, it’s faint-away hot by midday.
WE HAD COME TO UDAIPUR BY TRAIN from Jaipur yesterday. We had been dreading the train ride (India’s bad publicity from yesteryear really frightens you in advance), and we’d been unable to obtain first-class tickets — uh-oh! — but our third-class sleeper car was air-conditioned, shared by a lovely Indian family, and the hours zipped by, and we never had to use the bathroom (squat toilet; we haven’t used one yet in India) over the course of a nine-hour ride. Given how often I usually have to pee, I probably owe an offering or two to Krishna.
En route, I read a bunch of stories from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, which took on new color now that I’m in India, and I finished a book about behavioral economics (Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely), as well as several chapters of My Ghita, by Devdutt Pattanaik, a very interesting exposition of the Bhagavad Gita. With the first night of Passover fast approaching, and the moon swelling to full over India (a zisn peysakh, friends), I was again thinking about the differences between Hindu thought and what Pattanaik calls the “Abrahamic” religions. As he writes:
When you live only once, the value of your life becomes the sum total of your achievements. Hence the need to align or achieve, which are the driving forces of Western thought. In Christianity and Islam it involves conversion to the right way of living. In Greek mythology (or secularism) , it is about being a hero by either winning a race or overthrowing oppressors. In either case, we end up controlling, hence consuming the other. . .
But when you live many lives, alignments and achievements are rendered meaningless. What matters is wisdom: an understanding of why this world exists, why we exist, and why we live, again and again, in a merry-go-round. . .
In fact, I’m feeling happy at the prospect of not observing Passover this year. Although Susan has suggested that we hunt down some Indian Jews and join them for a seder, I’ve said no, assuming that such a seder would be Orthodox and endless and uncomfortable for me. I can sing with the Hindus, sure — they seemed very happy and bonded — but if I can’t have Passover with my own friends and own countercultural ways of celebration, I’d rather not have it at all. Oy, religion. It’s so complicated.
WHILE JAIPUR is dedicated to merchandising — endless jewelry and fabric shops — Udaipur is more of a resort town, crowded with hotels, and a bit European in feel. There are a lot more Indian women dressed Western style, including in shorts or short skirts, which I’ve seen nowhere else in India. And there are more women on their own motor scooters and/or walking around without men.
Udaipur seemed beautiful upon our arrival from the train station at night (in a spanking new tuk-tuk with good shock absorbers!), but the morning, unfortunately, revealed the same yellow haze hanging over the hills, the same intense air pollution that we’ve encountered everywhere. It was appalling to see, and caused me actually to talk with Susan about cutting our trip short. By now I’m clearing my throat and blowing my nose a lot, and when I experience air-conditioning in my hotel or in a car or in a restaurant, it’s like being washed clean, not just cooled. Actually, though, the streets are a lot cleaner in Udaipur than in Delhi or Agra or Jaipur, and the storefronts are a bit classier, and the panhandling is minimal, so I feel less triggered and anxious all the time.
After the temple, we visited the City Palace/museum, former home of the maharanas of Udaipur (don’t ask me about the different between maharajas and maharanas), where I learned that this state of Rajasthan, India’s largest (10 percent of its land mass), did not agree to become part of the Indian nation until nearly a year after independence in 1949, and did not officially join India until the early 1950s — this thanks to the urging of the Maharana Bhopal Singh (1884-1955), who convinced Rajasthan’s many other princes (the state included nineteen territories led by princes) to get with the program. Bhopal Singh was confined to a wheelchair because of tuberculosis and other illnesses; the museum’s hagiographic accounts of his invalid life and his supposed generosity to his people made me think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Today, March 30, in fact, is Rajasthan Day, which celebrates the unification of the royal states of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Jaisalmer and Bikaner into the desert state of Rajasthan in 1949.
In celebration, tonight we saw a wonderful Rajasthani cultural performance of music, dance, and puppetry — all very traditional — at a local museum. The classical marionette characters include a magician who juggles his own head, and a big-bosomed woman dancer who does an amazing hip-shake. The puppeteer was visible through the whole performance, and had some kind of bird-call whistle in his mouth, Harpo Marx-style, that he used to “voice” his characters. Great stuff.
All day and night, however, I was thinking about how India seems to wallow in its royal past — or at least uses it to make a buck off the tourists. I’ve never in my travels been in a place that is so reliant on the glories of yesteryear, most especially military glories — the wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita, after all, is set entirely within the context of war — and so lacking in contemporary culture (although Delhi, as I observed in earlier editions of this travelogue, has a wonderful contemporary art museum, and I just assume that there is more than this traveler just hasn’t seen in the course of visiting the tourist sites). Even Venice, while touting its glories of the Renaissance, offers lots of contemporary art and music — and anyway, it’s Venice, a tourist Disneyland if ever there was one.
In India, moreover, the historical narratives at the museums, forts and palaces, and the words offered by guides, all fawn over the royal rulers, their benevolence, their unbroken dynasties, their courage in battle, their religious tolerance, their many beautiful wives, etc. The narratives might just as well been written in the 1700s, before the concept and reality of democracy shook the world. It really makes me wonder about Indian culture, which seems so hierarchical, so patriarchal, so generally admiring of power and authority. And it really deepens my appreciation of what it truly meant for the American colonies to overthrow monarchy in 1776 — and what it meant for the Hebrews to rise up against the great Pharaoh back in mythic time.
Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.