Tuesday, May 3, 2016

India: February in Mumbai and Bangalore

Akihi (n.): listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them: you've gone akihi. (Hawaiian)

These are my highlights from my two months in India and (some of) what I learned there. It was a pretty tumultuous time in my life, with the death of my great-grandmother and a major part of my application to (and rejection from) NYU taking place, and it's hard to put it all into words, which is part of the reason why I've been avoiding it. Another component is that my time in India was changed greatly from what I had proposed in my original Watson project, and I'm still trying to digest how I feel about that. Not that this year is going at all like I had proposedthat stopped way back in Septemberbut I had to rethink how I was going to approach India more deeply than I have with other places I've visited.

This year I've grown more and more to value my independence. I go everywhere on my own, plan everything by myself, carry all my belongings on my back and spend the majority of my time alone. It's sometimes lonely, but more often very liberating. Empowering, even. But due to tensions in the north of India, my solo female status (and obvious foreign-ness), and other concerns, made this style of travel in India inadvisable. So after a lot of thought and scrambling, I decided to scrap my original plans to trek in the north and head for the south.

I started off with a couple of days in Mumbai/Bombay, and if you've never been before, let me just tell you it is HUGE. Like we're talking mondo colossal, massive, immense, and just generally vast. Monumental. Gargantuan. Brobdingnagian, even. But I had places to be, so I swallowed my overstimulated panic and went about my business. I used a tour service for the four days I was in the city, so I had reliable (and air-conditioned!) transportation to and from sites, plus guides. It was a good way to start.

My fist full day in Mumbai was spent out in the ocean, visiting the Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island in Mumbai Harbour. It's reached by taking a small ferry (which, in the heat of the day, was perhaps my favorite part of the trip) and then hiking up the side of the island to the caves. This site (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was a very popular Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese landed in the sixteenth century. The gorgeous statues and bas-relief were used as target practice by the Portuguese, and there are still bullets lodged in some of the sacred stone. The elephants for which the caves were named are almost completely destroyed.

An outlying cave on Elephanta Island, carved into the mountainside

Today, the Elephanta Caves are a place of both tourism and local pilgrimage. One of the most sacred pieces of stonework in the caves, a lingam (which is an abstract representation of Shiva/the universe/the union of male and female/the nonduality of reality/you get the picture it's really complex and hard to explain and I think the meaning changes slightly for each individual lingam) was left untouched and is still used for worship to this day. While I was there it was covered in flowers and many people left oil lamps or other offerings. It's pretty fantastic to realize that a place like this exists both practically and successfullya place that's been through so much change but can still be used for some of its original purposes, while showcasing its complicated history. So often the places I visit have chosen to either represent history or continue being a place of worship. Not gonna lie, I drooled a little.

Next stop, Kanheri Caves! Located a little ways outside of Mumbai, in the depths of a wildlife reserve, these caves are very similar to the Elephanta Cavesbut Buddhist. They were not subjected to the same destruction that the Elephanta Caves were, but are not being used for anything other than as a local sightseeing destination. There are one hundred and nine caves in all, and they are not as artistically developed as the five Elephanta Caves, although this is mainly because many of them were meant to serve as living, studying, and meditating quarters. The main caves that are decorated with sculpture, however, are gorgeous. I especially liked the meditation hall, which was designed specifically so that the repeated om would reverberate strongly through the mountain.

Monolithic Buddha outside the main meditation hall (human for size)

Next, I spent a little while in Bangalore/Bengaluru, which is further south and in the center. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, it has a huge concentration of tech companies and is also delightfully located up on a plateau, making its climate a lot more forgiving than elsewhere in India. What I wouldn't give for a Bangalore breeze right now.

It was in Bangalore that I began to really explore the unique way in which Hindu religion interacts with objects. One of my guides in Mumbai described Hinduism as "a religion of objects" which was naturally devastatingly oversimplified but also helpful to keep in mind. As I have delved more deeply into Hindu practices, it has come to my attention that some principles of “conservation” already exist within Hindu culture. For example, in Bangalore I was able to witness the daily cleansing ceremony at the Bull Temple, a ritual that includes cleaning the temple’s gigantic stone bull statue from top to bottom, bathing it in oils, and decorating it with fresh flowers. The religious ceremonies surrounding this ancient statue already take care of it and emphasize cleanliness and preservation of the statue above all else. If the statue were ever to be severely damaged, it would be given a funeral and buried on temple grounds.

Although institutional conservation is a fairly new field in India, Hinduism has already instilled values that take care of sacred material culture. The art that is important to religious functions, like lingam stones or special statues or even certain temple decorations, are given special attention and care. But more on that later.

My third stop was Chennai/Madras, where I spent a month exploring the uniquely diverse spiritual culture of the city. I'll talk about Chennai and my tour of south India in my next post, coming soon!

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