Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Faherty’s trip to Delhi. Exercising editorial discretion, I’m skipping Day 3, which recounts a visit to the tourist trap of Agra, where Matt went through the touristy paces of seeing (yawn) the Taj Mahal, Akbar’s Tomb (named after the semi-famous Mughal Emperor of that name, not the “it’s a trap” guy from Star Wars), St. Peter’s University, monkeys, took-tooks, trains and other bits of Indianesque lore. We’re too sophisticated for such Orientalist-touristic banalities here at PoT, so we reconvene with Matt back in Delhi.]

Delhi Day 4 – Charlatans, Iranians, and Mughal Fatigue

An interesting day today, back in Delhi.

My first stop was a spot on my tourist map called Swaminarayan Akshardham, which, to avoid further abusing my keyboard, I will henceforth refer to as SA. It is in kind of a remote part of Delhi, across the Yamuna River which runs east of Delhi’s center. I could see a massive temple as I got off a nearby metro stop which I correctly deduced to be the SA. As I walked towards it, I found two surprising things. First, I couldn’t just walk up to the temple; it was in some kind of walled complex that was about a square mile big, and even had a large parking lot. Second, there was a crowd of about fifty people waiting outside the complex, which was made even more surprising when I discovered the temple didn’t open for another forty minutes.

With time to kill, I walked to a much smaller temple nearby which turned out to be really cool. It was pure white like the Taj Mahal, and every square inch of its walls, ceiling, pillars, and exterior was covered in stone carvings. Some parts had little statues of deities, others just had squiggly lines, but it was a real wonder to behold. Again I was reminded of how odd it was that Europe had nothing comparable in its religious buildings. I guess Christians prefer to build tall rather than complex.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

I walked back to the entrance of SA right as it opened and a followed the crowd inside. At this point we were still about half a kilometer from the temple, and numerous buildings lay in between us and it. Once again I was surprised, this time because the first few buildings were for security. The Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandi (the other major Hindu temple I visited in Delhi) had a small security area and a quick metal detector, which is common for a lot of places in India like the metro and malls. But the SA had a huge storeroom dedicated to bags, at least eight metal detectors, and numerous guards with wands.

Then there was the list of banned items, which I would have taken a picture of except cameras were on it. Some of the items on the list were what you would expect: alcohol, tobacco, food, drinks, shorts, short skirts, etc. But then, running to security-excess, there were ordinary items, like cell phones and all bags, and then there were crazy random items like books, toys, white out, all electronics, and a bunch of others which I unfortunately forgot. Pretty much the only thing I could carry in was my wallet.

Once inside, I finally saw the temple itself. Throughout this travelogue I keep having to describe amazing buildings, and this is one of the most difficult of all. It is truly spectacular. It’s not quite at the level of St. Peter’s Basilica or the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but it is one of the most magnificent religious buildings I’ve ever seen. It has the same level of detail that the smaller temple I just visited has, but it’s on a vastly larger scale. According to Wikipedia, the SA is 141 feet high, 316 feet wide, and 356 feet long, which isn’t as large as the bigger mosques out there, but it more than makes up for it in details.

The temple’s surroundings enhance its beauty. It’s in a walled courtyard made entirely of the same brown stone that the temple itself is made from. Built into the courtyard is a serene artificial pond which zig-zags around the entire temple. Best of all, around the base of the temple are a magnificently detailed and precise series of carvings of scenes of various Hindu stories and parables involving elephants (there are over 100 elephants in total). I really couldn’t get over just how immaculately well carved it all was, and I actually ended up slowly walking around the base and reading all of the stories. Most were harmless religious fluff, but one kind of worried me. The explicit moral of the story was (paraphrasing), “the meek can become great by seeking refuge with the great.”

I took my shoes off and walked up the steps as dozens of other guests did the same. The inside of the temple was even more amazing than the exterior. The detailed stone work climbed the walls and circled a series of domes throughout the temple. I wanted to walk around and study the walls, but a few hundred people were silently sitting on the ground, with monks in orange robes at the front facing a central shrine area, women in the back, and men in the middle. Some guy who worked for the temple but wasn’t a monk motioned for me to take a seat in the back of the men’s area.

I sat down in a cramped space cross legged and quickly remembered why I haven’t sat in that position since elementary school, especially on a marble floor. A few minutes later the monks started chanting and clapping in a pattern, everyone else in the crowd who wasn’t a tourist followed suit. I don’t think the non-monks knew the words or the rhythm, because it sounded more out of sync than the Sunday hymns in my local Epsicopal church.

Five minutes later it ended, so I got up to take a look at the central shrine area. Unlike the grey granite of the rest of the interior and the brown stone exterior, this area was almost entirely gold. It wouldn’t surprise me if they used some real gold either.

As I started looking around, one of the monks approached me and asked where I was from. I would later learn that his name is Sadhu Tyagswarupdas. No, obviously I didn’t remember that polysyllabic mouthful off the top of my head; he gave me a card with his name and contact info, which is apparently something Hindu monks commonly do.

I ended up talking to Sadhu for almost 40 minutes. First he showed me around the temple while explaining who the different deities are and what various statues mean. Then he told me about himself. Sadhu is an ethnic Indian but was born in Uganda where his parents had immigrated for business purposes while it was still a British colony. Sadhu had went to an English college to study mechanical engineering but eventually abandoned his career to become a Hindu monk. He looks to be in his early 60s now, and has been a monk for over thirty years.

Sadhu explained that he belonged to a Hindu sect which was known for being particularly strict and had been thriving over the last few decades. He was not only a vegetarian, but couldn’t even eat foods “sharp” flavors, like onions and some spices. He could not personally buy anything nor even touch money. Sincetaking his vows over thirty years ago, Sadhu had been celibate and had neither touched nor spoken to a woman. He said the penalty for touching a woman in any way was a day of fasting and bathing. They may want to rethink that incentive structure.*

Sandhu spoke to me at lengths about his beliefs. He said the ego was the cause of all unhappiness in man and therefore we should all work to banish it and attain total selflessness. In this sense, selflessness is not just living for the sake of others, but literally banishing any psychological reference to one’s self as an individual in existence.** Thus Sadhu’s name literally means “one who forsakes all.” Sandhu said he had access to modern technology like television and cell phones but he barely used it for fear of exposing himself to the “bad ideas and values” in society. These ideas and values are everywhere and corrupt nearly everyone. To demonstrate just how deeply he understood this point, he explained that before taking his vows, he had travelled throughout the world and had lived fully immersed in the “bad culture” in England. Having experienced that life and this one, he knew the truth path to happiness.

As we parted ways, Sadhu explained that a new Hindu temple was being built in New York which would surpass the SA in size and be the largest Hindu temple in the world. He told me to come to the temple and tell the monks I had met him. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear he was trying to convert me…

Sexism and self-annihilation aside, Sandhu seemed like a guy who was genuinely devoted to what could be considered a holy way of life. That is except for when he totally tried to pitch his temple’s IMAX film to me.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the SA temple complex housed an IMAX theater, a light show, and a “water ride”? There are also concession stands, dozens of maintenance workers, and a gift shop which sells Hindu magnets. And just to make visitors feel like they are getting the fully authentic holy Hindu experience, there are speakers installed throughout the complex which play monk chants nonstop.

I knew something didn’t feel right when I first saw the main temple. It was too new, too nice. Buildings this amazing and elaborate are always built hundreds of years ago by lords with so much ill-gotten wealth that they might as well pour it into an absurd construction project. By now those buildings have crumbled, and if they’re lucky, have been restored. Either way, they look distinctly old and possess a sort of dignity in representing a different era when wasting money in such copious quantities was perfectly acceptable.

It turns out that construction on the SA was finished in the ancient year of 2005 after five years of work. It offends my architectural sensibilities that these guys spend insane amounts of money to make something that looks like it was built 1000 years ago in a remote jungle, only for it to come out looking just a bit too perfect. Of course all of the craftsmanship is amazing, but why would they build something like this?

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Akshardam dome: photo credit Wikipedia

Have I mentioned the pricing? Entrance to the temple complex is free, but every ride and activity costs at least 100 rupees, usually closer to 200. And then there is the expensive food at the concession stands (which explains the ban on food), the expensive crap at the gift shop (which explains the ban on toys), and you can pay for blessings. No, I am not kidding. And at the end of it all they ask for donations. No, I am not kidding.

A full day at the SA, consisting solely of the main activities, costs more than the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

Of course it’s not that the fact that these guys are making money that offends me. That pretty much never offends me on its own. What I have a problem with is somebody espousing a philosophy which condemns much of modernity and liberalism as evil while profiting off of a fucking theme park. As Sadhu was explaining to me that he is literally not allowed to touch money, there was a guy fifty yards away charging people $5 to get their picture taken in front of the temple (which also explains the ban on cameras).

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No, it’s not in Delhi, but did you really think we were going to omit it altogether? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And this is not some weird situation where some profiteer is piggybacking off of a holy site, Sadhu was pitching me this nonsense. He told me about how the guy who designed the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony directed their IMAX video. He told me the light show was amazing and that I absolutely had to stay at the park another seven hours until it started. He told me all of this mere minutes after telling me how evil money and the modern world is. There was so much hypocrisy I think my brain actually froze and I couldn’t calibrate what I was hearing until a few minutes after he had left.

And this isn’t some stray Hindu sect going against the mainstream, this is a major branch of Hinduism with enough capital to build the largest Hindu temple on earth and an enormous complex in India’s capital. The Catholic Church has done some shady profiteering shit, but it’s not as though they put a light show in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I think someone would get executed just for suggesting putting a “water ride” near the Masjid al-Haram.*** But this is apparently the best Hinduism has to offer.

These guys are charlatans, plain and simple.

I left the SA and took a train to the Lotus Temple in the south of the city. I was concerned that a ride across the Delhi metro would take a long time, since some Chinese metros take 1.5 hours or more to reverse, but it only took about 30 minutes.

Upon exiting the train, two Middle Eastern women in their 30s approached me and asked where the Lotus Temple was. These two did not have a good sense of geography; I could literally see the Lotus Temple from where I stood. I told them I was just walking in that general direction and they asked if they could tag along.

One of their names was something I couldn’t pronounce but translated to Angel****, and the other one was Sarah. They were both on a tour through India. One was an accountant, the other sold furniture or something. They were from Iran. When I told them I was from America, Sarah immediately made a joke about me being dangerous and they laughed.

As we walked to the Lotus Temple, I couldn’t help but ask a few political questions, at least to see if the German traveler’s description of Iranians was true. It was. These two hated the government and wanted to bring the Shah back. They lamented that if it weren’t for the revolution, Iran would be just like any European country today. They also complained that due to the economic sanctions against Iran, nearly all name brands in the country (including Coca Cola) were Chinese knock offs. The only exceptions were on the extremely expensive black market. I asked about what religious activity they were legally required to engage in, but I didn’t really get a straight answer. Both had nothing but praise for America.

Angel and Sarah also asked me about the US. They wanted to know if there was as much racism as they had been led to believe, and if they would personally face discrimination there for having “Asian hair.” I explained that while there are tensions between racial groups in the US, they tend to be overstated and the US population is no more racist than most European countries. Furthermore, Asians rarely face discrimination, though Arabs can.

We arrived at the Lotus Temple twenty minutes later. It was a nice change in scenery from the beautiful but repetitious Mughal architecture. The temple looks like a flower turned upside down, with the bases of a series of white petals converging hundreds of feet in the air. The Lotus Temple is technically a Hindu temple, but there is pretty much nothing to signify that. We went in with a group of twenty or so people who were told to sit down and pray for two minutes. We filed into a room which looked sort of like a flat evangelical church and sat silently while looking around the room. Two minutes later, we left.

Next stop was a nearby temple which I had never heard of but the Iranian women wanted to see. It looked interesting from afar so I accompanied them.

I have to admit this was one of those culturally enlightening interactions. It turned out that I could relate more to these Iranian women than to 95% of the foreigners I’ve talked to, especially in India. They were the first people I’ve spoken to who agree that Indian food is bad and vegetarianism is awful. They complained that India was chaotic, crowded, and dirty, and had the worst vehicle traffic they had ever seen. They raged at the scammers who took advantage of foreigners.

When we arrived at the temple, it was closed, but Angel pleaded with a guard to let us in and somehow it worked. It was another standard temple and not particularly worth writing about aside from some interesting paintings on the ceiling of Hindu myths. Sarah went over to one of the statues, made a faux-serious face, and solemnly intoned, “Look, it’s a god” while nodding.

I traveled with Angel and Sarah for another hour or so to yet another tourist spot which I didn’t know about. But this one was actually really good. It’s called Humayun’s Tomb and it was the basis for the Taj Mahal. Given what the Taj Mahal has become, it basically makes Humayun’s tomb a small, brown, poor man’s Taj Mahal, but at one quarter the price.

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 Humayun’s tomb (photocredit: Wikipedia)

While walking from the metro station to the tomb, the Iranians let me have some snacks they brought from home. Of course they spoke at lengths about how amazing Iranian food is, literally, “the best in the world.” Ugh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a country on Earth that doesn’t supposedly have amazing food. Seriously, every local and traveler says that every country has great food that I absolutely must try. Even countries with notoriously bad food like England or Germany have promoters who claim that the food there is “underappreciated.” I think these people just lack standards.*****

Anyway, first they gave me an Iranian cracker which tasted like an ok Graham cracker. Next they passed me some weird nut-like thing which they told me was a fruit which I should just bite into. It did not look appealing. I eventually deduced that it was a fig, which I had never tried before. It was surprisingly good–I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. After that they gave me a bunch of normal nuts like pistachios and almonds which just tasted like stronger versions of the ones I’m used to. Finally they gave me what I think was solidified yogurt. It was awful and I hope nobody ever has to eat anything like that ever.******

OK, so I tried a bunch of newish things from a foreign country and they were fine. Obviously I’m not sold on Iranian food, but I’m open to it. The women ended up giving me the rest of their bag of nuts and figs against my protests.

As I said, Humayun’s tomb was pretty good. There was a pretty court yard, a central tomb building, flanking mosques, etc. But by this point I’m hitting serious Mughal fatigue. These endless tombs and mosques are blurring together. I’m sure if I saw this particular tomb early on, it would have been fantastic, but now I can’t muster that much energy to describe it in detail. This same phenomenon hit me harder in China, but that was temple-fatigue. I really don’t care to see another Buddhist temple for the rest of my life.

The only problem with traveling with the Iranians was that they walked slowly. It was getting late and I still wanted to hit the government district so I left when they sat down near the tomb for an afternoon snack. They said that if I could make it into Iran without getting arrested, I would have a place to stay. Sounds great.

Finally I found the Indian Gate, which looks almost exactly like a smaller, less interesting version of Paris’s Arc de Triumphe. It is at one end of a kilometerish long avenue which is an obvious rip off of the National Mall in Washington DC. On one end is the gate and one the other end is a cluster of major government buildings. I intended to walk the whole thing.

Despite being prominently featured on all of the tourist guides, I had been warned by the Iranians and the Dutch yoga enthusiast that the Indian Gate wasn’t much to see. They were right, though my expectations were already lowered accordingly. It’s a tan arc with an inscription on top about all of the Indian soldiers lost in World War II. The park around it was packed to the brim with Indians lounging about and purchasing street food from portable stalls. I liked the relaxed, but somewhat festive atmosphere.

I hadn’t eaten in six hours so I looked through the food stalls. I saw a treat familiar to me from my travels in Turkey; roasted corn on the cob. I have no idea how this idea hasn’t gotten to America yet, but it’s delicious. The first vendor I approached asked for 50 rupees, which was outrageous, so I walked to another vendor 30 feet away. The kindly little old lady there asked for 20 rupees and I agreed. Unexpectedly, she rubbed lime juice all over my corn which I thought might ruin it. I was wrong: it was the best corn on the cob I’d ever eaten in my entire life. The lime, salt, butter, and corn mixed together to create an extremely powerful taste of overwhelming goodness. I should have gotten another one.

I walked the length of the avenue to the government buildings on the other side. The Parliament building was behind the other buildings and some trees so I didn’t get a good luck at it. But I did see the Department of Defense and some other major government office buildings. Again I got the feeling that a lot of the architectural style here was heavily cribbed from Washington, with a heavy emphasis on marble and Greek pillars (though I don’t think brown marble was a good choice). I asked a guard if I could go in one of the buildings and he explained for a minute that I would have to walk around the buildings to get to the other side, before quickly adding that I wasn’t qualified to enter.

One thing that this place does have that Washington doesn’t is monkeys. I saw dozens of them climbing all over the Department of Defense. Again, this probably does not bode well for the Indian military.

At the end of the avenue is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the equivalent of the White House, and the current home of Indian’s controversial new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Unfortunately a big gate and a large front lawn made it even more visually inaccessible than the light house so I didn’t get much from it.

[With this, Matt sets off for Kathmandu, Nepal.]

*Irfan: Thus speaks the 22-year-old. Wait a few decades, Matt, and you’ll discover that middle age and monk-hood bear alarming similarities to one another.

**Irfan: A psychological propensity also commonly exhibited by those of us at small liberal arts teaching institutions in the United States.

***Irfan: I’m reminded here of my father’s suggestion that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina be privatized and turned over to the Disney Corporation, since Disney “obviously has better expertise at crowd control than the Saudis.”

****Irfan: Probably “Farishta,” Persian for “Angel.” I’m surprised that Matt doesn’t ask his Iranian traveling companions any pointed questions about Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, here in the States, the call for bombing Iran has started up again in earnest.

*****Irfan: Reader, for God’s sake just ignore this paragraph. This is a guy who can’t eat even the most modestly spiced dish–who regularly orders a salad when we go to the local pizza parlor–passing judgment on the cuisines of the world. Come on.

******Irfan: I really hope he’s not referring to mast o khiar, which is one of the most delectable dishes on the planet. Did I mention that Pakistani food is the best in the world?

Postscript, March 29, 2015: Matt sends along this BBC item on monkey problems in Indian politics. Perhaps the situation might be improved by enfranchising the monkeys and allowing them to run for Parliament?

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Matt,

    I ran across an interesting explanation for “Mughal fatigue” while prepping for my aesthetics class:

    In fact too much attention to beauty might defeat its own object…..Were we to aim in every case at the kind of supreme beauty exemplified by Santa Maria della Salute [in Venice], we should end with aesthetic overload. The clamorous masterpieces, jostling for attention side by side, would lose their distinctiveness, and the beauty of each of them would be at war with the beauty of the rest. (Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, p. 11).

    That sounds like a good description of your situation–intense concentration on architectural masterpieces followed by sustained immersion in commonplace but aesthetically uninteresting-to-ugly surroundings. There’s also the fact that you’re experiencing four fundamentally different, clashing aesthetics–Buddhist, Hindu, Mughal Islamic, and Victorian British Raj. That puts the “beauty of each at war with the beauty of the rest.”

    All of that suggests to me that your aesthetic response to what you’re seeing in India will probably be intensified by time and distance. In other words, six months after you leave, you’ll mentally be looking at the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb etc. through rose-tinted glasses, so that they’ll come to seem more beautiful than when you were actually in India. I’m betting that Mughal fatigue will then turn into Mughal nostalgia.

    Of course, the opposite might happen as well. A friend of mine went to the Grand Canyon. I asked him about it, and he shrugged and said, “I don’t see the big deal. It’s just a big hole in the ground.” He’s never wavered from the view, and it’s been twenty-five years since he went.

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  2. Irfan,

    The quote is absolutely correct, and your speculation that the effects will intensify over time is more correct than you know. I have found that it happens after every trip I’ve taken.

    The most vivid example I recall was the British Museum in London. Imagine if every history museum on earth sent all of their artifacts to one location, and you can get a decent picture of what the museum is like. Every single room has jaw dropping ancient statues, golden thrones, or massive jewels, which are worthy of your attention. But there is just so much goddamn stuff that I found myself just power walking through the whole thing. At that pace, it still takes well over an hour to “see” the whole museum, but I can barely remember a single thing in it.

    On WaitbutWhy, Tim Urban has written about the difference between “vacation” and “travel.” The former is primarily concerned with relaxing, while the later is primarily concerned with exploration. Not only is travelling not relaxing, it’s actually extremely tiring. The first thing every traveler needs when he returns home is a vacation.

    However, there is a crucial difference between the good parts and bad parts of travelling. The good parts are long term, the bad parts are usually short term. When I am travelling, there are always a million little annoyances and hassles like the language barrier, confusing navigation, and a lack of familiarity. But chances are that I won’t vividly remember nor care about the taxi driver who charged me $2 more than the local rate to drive me across the city. However, I will almost certainly remember seeing a magnificent mosque or beautiful monument which exemplifies the best a foreign land has to offer.

    As a result, the good parts of travelling tend to stand out and intensify over time while the bad parts fade away.

    This phenomenon is always greatest at the end of long trips. After months of dealing of immersion in an alien location where I understand maybe 50% of what is going on around me, there is nothing more appealing in the world than going home to sit on the couch for a week and watch tv. But I’m in Tokyo or Vietnam, and I really need to see all of these places too. So while I’m spending 90% of every day thinking about catching up on Netflix, I’m also dragging my weary body to another great temple or to the top of some skyscraper to take pictures. Looking back on Tokyo and Vietnam, they are both amazing places which everyone should visit. But while I was there, I was miserable.

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  3. In the cow story it mentions that most beef in India is low quality buffalo meat, and I think I can confirm that. Beef burgers are very common in Nepal, though I’ve only seen them in a handful of decent quality restaurants in India. I had them a few times in Nepal and they tasted… kind of weird. I just assumed it was because Hindus don’t know anything about cooking cows, but the buffalo theory makes more sense. On the other hand, I just had an excellent hamburger for dinner tonight in Delhi at a restaurant called “Fork You.”

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    • So now you’re insulting India’s cattle. Rather ethnocentric of you. As my students would say, “Who’s to say what’s ‘low quality buffalo meat’? What’s low quality to you may be high quality somewhere else.” I’ll let you chew on that high quality argument a bit.

      Anyway, it’s good to know that it’s now legal to insult India’s cattle, since it wasn’t legal prior to March 24 of this year. It occurs to me that all of your posts before March 24–all of the ones on Calcutta and Lucknow–were illegal and could have gotten you arrested. Which I suppose is better than being hacked to death in Dhaka. But danger for you means traffic for my blog, so keep it coming, legality be damned.

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  4. Pingback: Scruton on Beauty: Six Platitudes (Part 1 of 3) | Policy of Truth

    • Thanks! The images within Matt’s post are all from Wikipedia, but the header photos are on a randomized carousel, so I’m not sure which one you were referring to. There are dozens of them at this point. I try to identify some of them here. As I say there, they’re not all mine.

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