Wednesday, June 25, 2008


June 23, 2008-(Monday)- Delhi, India
Monday morning I was up early as I have still not fully adjusted to the time change. We had breakfast, eggs with spices, toast, and of course- coffee. (A note on coffee. There is no “real” coffee here. It’s all instant coffee. I’ll DEFINITLY want some fresh brewed coffee when I get home!) Then we packed up our things and got them ready to go to the airport where we would take a plane to Dharmasala, then a car to our placement in the city of Palumpur. Palumpur is divided into villages. The home base where I will be staying is in the village of Lohna.
Before we left for the airport, a retired professor of History from Jawahar Lal Nehru university, Mr. Ray, came to give us a lecture about India and its political and social history. The lecture was wonderful and I would have liked to have been able to stay and ask many, many, questions, but after 1 ½ hours, we had to leave for the airport.
Here is my summary of the lecture:
· Mr. Ray said that we must first begin by giving up our hopes of “understanding” Indian culture. He told us that Indians themselves do not fully understand it. India, is a contradiction. Saying that India is an “under developed country” is both correct and incorrect. While it is true that India is still behind the west as far as technology and wealth, we must remember that culturally, it is far ahead of us in the United States. The U.S. has only been a country for a little over 200 years, while India and its culture have been developing for over 10,000 years. Some of the things done traditionally may seem irrational to us, but they have rational reason from the past. The problem is that the traditions are so deeply ingrained in the culture that they are difficult to change, both in politics and in the hearts of the people. A good example of this is the laws concerning the killing of cows. First of all, Indians do not ‘worship’ cows, they honor them. Centuries ago cows were honored, and for good reason. They represented the survival of the people. From the cow came milk, a source of protein. The cow was also used to plow the fields, the produce of which was their livelihood. If a child was born, and the mother could not nurse, the cow’s milk sustained the child’s life. For these reasons, and more, the cow became an honored animal. While it appears irrational today to ban the butchering of cows that are plentiful and roam the country freely, while Indians die of starvation, it is a tradition that will just not die in the hearts and minds of the people. Another example is the caste system. Originally based on occupation, this system was not meant to debase people, but to help classify their livelihood. Over the centuries it has become a prison for some Indians who will not even try to escape it due to their fear of jeopardizing their prospects for the next life. Recent attempts to elevate the “untouchables”, the lowest caste, have proven mostly unsuccessful because the untouchables themselves are fearful of doing anything that would go against the system.
Another of the contradictions about India is that what we consider Indian culture as so foreign to us when actually; Indian culture is a product of the many European, Mongol, and other conquerors which inhabited the country over the centuries. Also, there is no one Indian culture. India’s regions are very, very, diverse. States are divided up linguistically and culturally, rather than by economics or arbitrary boundary lines. There are 15 different languages spoken in India, and there are over 1,800 different dialects of these tongues ! There are also many different religions in India including Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity, and Islam. Up until recently, all of these religions and cultures have existed together peacefully. Unfortunately, political administrations have put India’s people at odds with each other and intolerance has grown up.
A short political history of India will answer many questions concerning its people. Prior to 1600’s, India was a land of diverse culture and religion, all living together more or less peacefully and independently of each other. There was no central structure. Then Mongols conquered from the north and united the different factions. This brought political and economic unity for 200 years. In 1689, Vasco De Gama, a trader, brought Europeans to the region who eventually colonized different parts of what is now India. The Mongol empire began to crumble from within due to a tyrant king. The British approached the Mongol king in order to ask for trading rights, but the King would not even grant the British audience. The Mongol princess became ill, and the British told the King that they had a doctor who could cure the princess. In the end, the Mongols gave trading rights to the British East India Company in exchange for helping cure the princess. Over time, the Mongol empire crumbled and the East India Company became strong; so strong that they conquered the Mongols in 1757. In 1857, a hundred years later, a rebellion was waged by the Mongols who were still living in India. The rebellion was crushed, and is now known as the 1st war of Independence. In 1858 the British officially took over the country from the East India Company, transferring the capital to Calcutta. In 1911, in an effort to strengthen the central government, the capital was moved back to its original location in Delhi. English became the national language. The British plundered the country, and then slowly pulled out leaving behind “educated Indians” to rule in their place and under their jurisdiction. They created universities, hospitals, etc. Once it was clear that India could not be ruled by one central government overseen by the British, hundreds of miles away, the English formed a feudal system of “Princely States”. These princes could rule as they pleased as long as they submitted final authority and allegiance to England. In the end, these princes created a super rich class, and masses of poor. The poorest areas located in the interior of the country where there was a lack of resources and educational institutions. Most recently, the educated classes began to think for themselves and rebelled against British rule. Mahatma Ghandi encouraged the people’s fight for independence through non-violent rebellion. As a result of this and the pressure the Brits felt as a part of WWII, India was granted its independence on August 15, 1947, but not before a group of Muslims asked for, and received land for a separate country for Islamic Indians and the country of Pakistan was created. Later, India became a Democratic Republic on January 26, 1950 with the induction of its constitution.

After this incredible lecture, we had a snack, Samosa (potatoes and peas in a crispy, deep fried shell) and tea, and then went to the airport and took the plane from Delhi to Dharmasala. The ride was uneventful, but then we loaded our luggage into cars and took an hour ride through the mountains to our placement in the village of Lohna. What a difference from Delhi ! The air was MUCH cooler and thinner. There were mountains all around us and the house that we were to stay in was used at other times as a hotel. The house, the scenery, -- all were picturesque. We settled in, had a short meeting about our volunteer placements, and then sat down for dinner. I ate dinner (6:30pm-ish) and went to lay down for a short nap, but woke up at 2am. I took some medicine for a headache and went back to sleep.

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