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October 2009

 

 

In summary

 

India was amazing. It was just as I had been told, read, seen on TV and so on but quite different to what I expected; a physical experience (noise, reactions of and interactions with people, smells and other sensations) rather than an intellectual appreciation.

 

Photo: Elephant in the Street
In the street in Udaipur

 

I've been all over Europe, N America, the UAE, China, Morocco, Turkey, Malta, NZ, PNG and various pacific islands but of these only Morocco is remotely like India in terms of poverty (over 20%), population growth (largest country in the world within 20 years – and already so by a good margin if you take in pre 1947 India) terrible treatment of women (in some areas and castes) and environmental destruction.

The main differences are that while the environment is even more degraded, Morocco lacks cows and deliberately (uniformly) maimed beggars; and is cleaner, more honest with strangers and better organised - due to Islam? In Rajasthan, where you still hear 'the call to prayer'. India is perceptibly better organised (but not much cleaner).

 

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In the Souk Marrakech Morocco

Unlike Morocco, where the food (even from street stalls) is excellent; the common person India has possibly the worst food in the world - only chicken or 'mutton' or vegetable stew (that all look much the same) and rice - covered by the excessive use of chilli and 'curry' (whatever that contains). As I am quite allergic to chilli I had to be very careful and thus largely avoided the ‘delhi belly’ suffered by others. But there are fresh fruit and vegetables (not bad) for those who can afford them and commercial drinks and confectionery and cigarettes are very cheap.

Most hotels for the higher castes and tourists have a good continental breakfast and a reasonable and relatively inexpensive restaurant serving westernised dishes, so I didn’t starve.

A few international restaurants can be found in Mumbai or New Delhi (eg serving venison, duck, lobster, quail, shellfish, edible fish etc) but then you pay much the same price as here for the food; and a lot more for the wine. These are not for the average Indian. We had my birthday dinner at Indigo (duck, quail and even beef!); very nice but expensive.

There are also a few physical places and districts more or less reserved for the Indian upper classes, business or government (like parts of Mumbai, New Delhi and Shimla) where the public spaces are relatively clean and well run - if a little shabby up close (Katoombaesque) where the Indian food is either less (or more?) authentic; but edible.

Except for recent concrete and glass constructions in business areas (commercial offices and hotels) and infrastructure in economic growth areas (like the Delhi Metro and airports) most substantial structures (public buildings, palaces, forts, monuments etc) are generally left over from the Raj or even the Moguls (like the Taj Mahal) and now sometimes a little worse for wear.

 


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You know where

 

Yet on the whole, and throughout, I found India enormously stimulating.

 

 

 


Religion

 

The most immediately obvious thing about India is its numerous religions in everyday practice. According to the 2001 census, about 81% are Hindu followed by Muslims (13%) then, surprisingly, Christians (just over 2%); Sikhs (2%); Buddhists; Jains (0.4%) and others. Jains are the most literate and Muslims the least (probably because they don’t educate women and wealth is an important factor in Indian education).

Overall, literacy is increasing but this is often in a religious context. It was extraordinary that Indians we talked to often gave a mythical/supernatural explanation for historical and even everyday events.

Indians have thousands - possibly millions of gods and will pray to anything. A tree will do. Failure to pray to something will make this life, and the next, even more lousy and unlucky than it is now.

The most commonly seen god image is Ganesha a boy (sometimes having four arms) with  the head of an elephant.

 

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Ganesha

 

There are various explanations for how he got his elephant head. While some texts say that Ganesha was born with an elephant head, in most stories he acquires the head later. We were told by a guide that Ganesha was made (rather than born) by Parvati  (second wife of Shiva also sometimes having four arms) with a human head and body. But Shiva returned from hunting to find this unknown boy protecting Parvati  while she bathed and beheaded him. Following Parvati’s remonstrations, Shiva replaced Ganesha's original head with that of an elephant (the first animal that came to hand). Ganesha first appears somewhere during the third century CE (AD) and is revered as the remover of obstacles, provider of good luck and patron of the arts.

Our first real exposure to this was on Elephanta an island in Mumbai harbour where Hindu temples were carved out of solid rock between 800 and 1200 CE and are now a great tourist attraction, reached from the Gateway of India (well known terrorists’ landing spot) adjacent to the Taj Hotel.

 

 

PhotoThe Gateway of India

 

Our guide told us the above story as if it were true. The main cave contains a very impressive Shiva as the trinity (his three faces), in addition to other relief sculptures representing stories about him and related deities.

Although defaced by the Portuguese (at the height of the Inquisition); the sculptures were later protected by the British (with some basic engineering to prevent cave collapse) and much of the sculpture remains intact. The big elephant that gives the Island its name was removed by the Portuguese but proved too big for their technology at the time and was abandoned in the harbour; later under the British it was first taken to British Museum; and then returned to Bombay where it now resides (no longer on the Island).

 

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Defaced by the Portuguese

 

 

A notable feature in the inner temple is Shiva’s lingam and here the dispute over its phallic nature is not in question. The male organ is a symbol of lordship or competence in many early religions.

The Hindu religion is the oldest surviving documented religion in the World; with a clear continuous archaeological record back to the Bronze Age. The nearest contender is Judaism (and therefore Christianity and Islam), that has roots in Egyptian monotheism (around 1300 BCE). Australian Aboriginal animistic beliefs may be the oldest continuous non-documented religions; perhaps twenty times older; possibly as old as humanity itself.

As a result of this great age, combined with environmental diversity and evolution, the Hindu religion has a vast number of branches and incarnations. The more credible (to Westerners) of these are the atheistic/agnostic philosophical strands like Jainism (reliably dating to the 9th century BCE); and later Buddhism (dating from 534 BCE). These deny any specific god but promote the purpose of life as enlightenment. Both have increasing followings in the west and Buddhism is now the second largest religion in Australia after Christianity.

Jainism is a religion that proclaims the partial divinity of all living things (a sophisticated spin on animism - with a mix of Teilhard de Chardin or James Lovelock?). Although adherents in India are relatively tiny in number they have been very influential in commerce and government. We visited a number of Jain Temples of which there are many. These are typically elaborately decorated with the famously rather erotic sculptures of couples and dancers and contain Buddha-like representations of the teachers.

 

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Jain Temple in Udaipur

 

The Buddha (Gautama) is well documented and was born and taught in India. He taught that the goal of life is to reach pure enlightenment by the middle way (between asceticism and sensual indulgence). Failure results in endless reincarnation but once reached, enlightenment is eternal. The Buddha proclaimed, amongst other things, that the pre-enlightened are as aware of the true nature of reality as an un-hatched chic is of the world outside its shell.

Buddhism was suppressed by the Mughals (Islam) as atheism and annihilated in India. But it was allowed to recover and even encouraged under British rule. As it denies caste and regards everyone as potentially enlightened, it has attracted those wishing to escape the caste system; so it is practiced by an odd mix of Western (often aging) hippies seeking enlightenment and often lower cast Indians.

Near Varanasi we visited the site at which Buddha first taught, Sarneth. The ruins of the original temples built on the site were uncovered by British Archaeologists in the 19thcentury and now occupy a pleasant park.

 

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Buddhist Stupa at Sarneth

 

A Buddhist symbol, recovered from Sarneth, is now the central motif in the Indian flag, simultaneously proclaiming the founders’ egalitarian principles and making a religious point (for religious diversity or against Islam?). Modern day Buddhists (Japanese, US and European) have built a temple nearby – together with a very kitsch sculpture of the Buddha teaching under a tree said to be replanted from a cutting of the original.

As actually practiced in India, Jains and Buddhists seem to be in a minority even in their own temples. The common people exercise both of these philosophies like any other strand of the Hindu religion with prayers and offerings, as if the temple images of Parshva, Mahavira and Buddha were representations of gods.

Thus, at street level (for the lower castes), Hindu religion is akin to primitive Catholicism (with many saints and martyrs). Pick your Saint, pick your God. Like primitive Catholicism the religion trades for adherents with bizarre fairytales and superstitions; praying and sacrifice, to a chosen deity, to gain advantage or ward off evil or simply as a habit, or family tradition; from birth.

Varanasi is the Holy city on the Ganges and has a number of Ghats leading down to the river that allow for washing clothes, bathing and disposing of the dead. At a shamshan or burning ghat we watched bodies cremated, prior to the disposal of the ashes in the river (it is downstream from the washing ghats). Tourists are encouraged to go for the sunrise and are rowed up and down the river for a small price. Various performances take place on the riverside but it is hard to determine if these are in a state of religious ecstasy or staged for the tourists (possibly both?).

 

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Varanasi with our rower

 

At the cremations there is no sense of ceremony; it’s very pedestrian; more like a building site. Cremations are administered by the lowest caste (untouchables) and it is said that this is one hold they have over the higher castes. The bodies arrive swathed in fine fabric and apparently shaved and pre-greased with ghee. There are no obvious mourners – presumably cremation is after ceremonies have taken place elsewhere.

Tourists are requested not to take photos of the cremations but there are plenty of postcard sellers offering books of cards with 20 pictures for 100 Rp (about $2.50). They generally start at 500 or so but bargaining or simply ignoring them ‘til they come down (like anywhere in India) might even get you two books for 100.

 

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The Holy Ganges - Varanasi

 

Bargaining for everything, even over a dollar, can be a serious annoyance so you often accept a higher price than someone else might get. It is particularly galling when you are sold something and the seller then offers you a second, or even two more, for half the price you paid for one. One thing we did insist on was getting drinking water at the right price (10 or 15 Rp per L), in a properly sealed bottle. We went through gallons.

As one comes to expect around religious sites (all over the World) there is more than the usual number of beggars around the Ghats, including some with leprosy, and the whole area is particularly filthy, with faeces of all kinds besmearing the walkways.

The other great religious strand is Islam, introduced by the Mughals who invaded India in 1526 and ruled, to a greater then lesser extent, the continent for the next 300 years; finally losing all power after the Indian Mutiny (against the East India Company interests) in 1857. As a result of this uprising Bahadur Shah was tried for treason in Delhi, and exiled to Rangoon (where he died in 1862) bringing the last of the Mughal dynasty to an end.

The Mughals were enormously influential even in Rajasthan where the princes remained Hindu. In the Hindu areas they influenced by treaty, threat of war (and actual punitive wars) and intermarriage. At their height they were great builders and patrons of the arts and science; particularly astronomy. Amusingly, the Hindu Princes took Mughal women for wives but refused to give up theirs to the Mughals, believing that in doing so they were keeping their line free of Mughal blood. This is proudly proclaimed even today.

But there was certainly some kind of selective breeding going on as these warlike Princes were often over six feet tall and some only recruited troops six feet and over, whereas today the great majority of Indians are very short and some make the ‘hobbits of Flores’ look tall.

Great forts and palaces still dot India. The Red Fort in Delhi is comparable to the Forbidden City in Beijing and the fort at Agra is not far behind.

 

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A section ot the fort at Agra

 

These are in turn similar to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Smaller but possibly more impregnable forts dot Hindu Rajasthan. These are generally hill top forts with a single very well protected entrance and effectively unreachable walls. The forts at Jodhpur and Jaisalmer are quite wonderful examples.

 

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Jodhpur

 

These forts could hold out for many years. But if the forts were besieged and the defenders had no hope of winning their penultimate act was to kill all their women before their own death. This happened on three separate occasions at Jaisalmer. In 1294, after an eight year siege and facing certain defeat, the defenders decided there was no alternative but to perform the rite of jauhar. 24,000 women committed suicide, most on a funeral pyre though some were killed by the sword when the pyre proved too small. The remaining 3,800 men then rode out of the gates, swords aloft, to their death. Again in the late 14th century Sultan Ferozshah besieged Jaisalmer this led to the second jauhar and the suicide of 16,000 women and 1,700 warriors.

 

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Jaisalmer

 

 

Finally in the 16thCentury, Amir Ali, an Afghan chieftain, gained permission to let his wives visit the queens of Jaisalmer. Instead of containing women the palanquins contained armed men, who took the fort by surprise. When the Prince thought he was losing the battle he slaughtered his womenfolk by the sword, as there was no time to arrange a funeral pyre. Unfortunately, immediately after killing all the women, reinforcements arrived, sparing the men. This was known as a ‘half jauhar’ or Sako. Apparently much the same tactic had been used infiltrate Chittor Fort 200 years earlier, obviously by a scholar of Homer; so much for accepting women in palanquins (or Greeks bearing gifts).

Jodhpur the fort also boasts a clay tablet set into the wall near the gate with the hand prints of the wives who died in a similar way.

 

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Our hotel set into the wall of the fort at Jaisalmer was perhaps the best of the whole trip. It had a magnificent view spoiled only by the seemingly endless forest of wind turbines on the horizon; and well into the desert.

Many of these had the particularly ugly truss type towers, looking like a jungle of transmission pylons. But unlike many I have seen in Spain and the US, these actually rotated at different times of the day, sometimes quite quickly. We were told that there are 1,500 out there. They are particularly unpopular in Jaisalmer as local perception is that the power goes elsewhere. They also interfere with an important local tourist business, ‘non-tourist’ camel safaris.

 

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Apparently non-tourists like to get out into wilderness and many hundreds of large noisy machines tend to spoil the illusion. A later check on-line told me that this area has an installed capacity of 690 MW and turbines belong to two different companies, so either the online information is out of date or some of them must be quite small, well under 1 MW.

India is the fifth biggest wind power user in the world. Wind represents 7.7% of installed capacity and generates 1.6% of India’s electrical power. About 75% of the electricity consumed in India is generated by thermal power plants, based on India’s massive coal deposits; 20% by hydroelectric power plants; and 4% by some 20 nuclear power plants, one of which can be seen in Bombay harbour. India is presently constructing a dozen new nuclear plants (including a fast breeder) to increase the nuclear contribution to 9% within 25 years. It is presently the ninth biggest nuclear electricity generator in the world.

Electricity is turned off for part of the day throughout India (different times in different regions) to save coal and possibly water. As a result, offices, larger hotels (and anywhere else with a lift) have standby generators that kick-in several times a day. Most use standard diesel engines but some have very sophisticated gas turbine sets (probably burning diesel or aviation fuel). Most of these units are obviously a lot less efficient and more polluting than a large stationary power station. The saving must come from the tens of thousands of small businesses and homes that lose their lighting, fridges, air conditioning and Internet connections for several hours each day.

Street wiring all over India is a mess and illegal hooks onto it can be seen all over the place.

 

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But about one third of Indians still have no electricity at all. Even more have no engine driven vehicle. As prosperity increases the inevitable demand for energy in India will have frightening consequences for World fossil fuel consumption.

The Medieval period in India extends well into the 17thCentury. Some of the palaces and forts we visited were still under construction when Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy. All medieval palaces in India have some elements in common. They all contain a palace complex where the majority of the physical area is provided for the Prince’s private household (zenana) and a smaller but usually more impressive part is provided for audiences, administrative functions, public entertainment and events.

 

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A princely zenana

 

As in pre-revolutionary China and Turkey the zenana, hougong, harem, or seraglio was reserved for the Prince and his mother, his wives and his children (boys up to 12 or sometimes 16) and their servants, possibly some courtesans, dancers and/or entertainers.

To protect against possible corruption of the royal line the only other males allowed in to this area were de-sexed (eunuchs). In India and Pakistan this inner household is known as the zenana which is actually a Persian name and suggests that this cultural practice dates back to Alexander the Great or earlier (certainly two or three centuries BCE) and well before Islam was conceived (in China the harem is known as the hougong and dates from a similar time as does the practice in Egypt; the Old Testament mentions some 40 men having multiple wives including: Moses; Abraham; David; and Solomon, who is said to have had 1000 wives).

In India even quite modest (compared to the palaces) Haveli (private mansions), for instance several in Jaisalmer, contain a zenana.

 

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A zenana in a private haveli 

 

 

The word haveli is also derived from Persian meaning "an enclosed place" although we got several different versions involving water and wind from Indian guides who also often have a very bizarre idea of history, how old things are and where things came from.

One self-appointed guide (they simply attach themselves to tourists – and ask for payment after trailing around being annoying or interestingly ill-informed – see Slum Dog Millionaire) got very distressed and somewhat irate when I asked him why Indian women needed so much protection from Indian men (obviously very predatory) and why wealthy Indians needed so many wives for their sexual pleasure. He almost tearfully told me that Indian men keep women separate out of respect and they have only one wife for life – sir. I said it would be nice to see more women in the street mixing with men on a one to one basis as in Australia and Europe: ‘we find we can trust our women’. At that point he walked away.

 

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There are very few women, proportionately, in most Indian streets and Indian women seldom move about alone in public. Trains have women only carriages. Even European women are cautioned to be careful when they go alone to some areas and how they dress, lest they be considered ‘fair game’. This is changing and quite a few young couples can now be seen (typically in western dress) holding hands or arm about in the cosmopolitan cities but they are still very much in the minority.

The newspapers are full of stories of ‘honour killings’; where women are apparently murdered, sometimes not even by their husband, for suspected infidelity, or even some social transgression by a member of their family, and this seems to be seen as some kind of defence by some. The courts are apparently trying to clampdown on these killings and the fact that the papers find this newsworthy, and unacceptable, is encouraging.

Although expressions of heterosexual affection in public are still frowned upon outside the international cities, all over India (as in most Islamic cultures) men can be seen holding hands and quite intimately embracing in public. It’s not necessarily gay but homosexuality or at least transvestism does not seem to be frowned on.

At a folk festival we attended in the desert outside of Jodhpur, with vast numbers of men in attendance, the majority of the performances were by a transvestite group. It was hard to discern the thrust of these acts but they apparently had their roots in traditional performances by palace eunuchs. They bore a striking resemblance to some Monty Python skits like ‘the fish dance’ and the surreal piece in the ‘Meaning of Life’. Although they clearly wanted to entertain, I don’t think they intended to be funny.

To be fair there were also some dancing girls in harem outfits balancing pots of fire on their heads; a traditional music group (with little boys dancing) followed by a couple of popular Bollywood singing stars (most of the crowd had apparently attended to see). 

 

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The latter were hard to take and we needed to get away soon after they began (India’s Kamal and Kylie). It was clearly maudlin with dreadful Bollywood music and indecipherable to us, but our driver loved them and didn't want to leave.

The whole folk experience was wonderful – first a drive out of town and into the desert for about an hour (65 Km); then a place on a sand hill and a traditional snack (obtained by our driver); about five western women to about 4,000 men and boys; a local pre-performance of a traditional game in the sand; reminiscent of ‘cocky-laura’ that we played at Thornleigh  Public School (but now banned in schools), involving two courts with a centre line, marked out in rice or flour, and forays into the other team’s territory without getting caught (teams from the army and police).

 

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Then we received an invitation to the VIP area (about six Europeans – us plus two Spanish girls plus, separately, Indian VIP women and children and in an adjoining section Indian VIP males); a very good view of the stage; then the drive back at night.

Any drive in India, particularly at speed, is exciting, dangerous, frightening exhilarating, interesting. There are things across the road (like a row of rocks deliberately placed by someone); piles of rubbish, rocks or sand; holes in the road; speed humps; unmarked entrances and few road signs; and lots of other road users: cars, trucks, bikes rickshaws, bullock carts, tractors with trailers, horses and buggies, camels, buffalo, elephants, goats, cows, sheep, deer, dogs, cats, rats, squirrels, peacocks and people wandering (to name a few). These can be anywhere on the road going in any direction; often on your side – coming towards you.

 

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Things are happening beside or actually on the road: animals asleep, people relieving themselves or simply sleeping, vehicles being repaired loads being added, removed, fallen over, and reloaded. At night and at speed this can be particularly exciting as Indian drivers like to save their headlights until needed (if they have any).

 

 


The Raj

 

In the 18th century the British East India Company established enormously profitable trade with India and other countries in the region, like China, Ceylon and the East Indies (Indonesia) but the princes of India (particularly in the West) were historically warlike and carried on debilitating military campaigns against each other based on ancient antagonisms and religious antipathy.

The Company founded an army to protect its commercial interests and various battles between 1757 and 1818 gained commercial control of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and territories around its bases in Bombay and Madras, encompassing most of India south of the Narmada River.

The first two decades of the 19thCentury saw accelerated expansion of Company territories. This was achieved either by subsidiary alliances between the Company and local rulers or by direct military annexation; creating the Princely States of the Hindu maharajahs and the Muslim nawabs. Punjab, Northwest Frontier Province, and Kashmir were annexed after the Anglo-Sikh Wars in 1849 and Kashmir became a princely state under the Dogra Dynasty of Jammu. Five years later Berar was annexed, and the state of Oudh was added two years after that.

India continued to be ruled by these Princes and nawabs but overall law and order was imposed by the Company and its Indian armies. This is universally reported, in the forts and palaces we visited, as a time of unusual prosperity and relative peace.

Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the Company’s armies compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Unlike the other two armies the Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as Rajputs and Brahmins and this is partly blamed for the trouble.

The ostensive  reason (trigger) for the mutiny was the kind of grease used on new cartridges issued to Indian troops. This was said to be lard, either pork or beef fat. To activate the cartridge they had to be bitten and this was said to potentially pollute the soldier’s caste. Of course there were also underlying religious and cultural issues that immediately came to the fore and the grease issue (offensive to both main religions) may have been fabricated by those fermenting trouble.

When troops rebelled, the local English community together with Company employees took fright and abandoned their posts. Civilian populations took advantage of the lack of authority to riot and loot. Local rulers took the opportunity to revive old hostilities and settle differences amongst themselves. Many regiments simply disbanded and went home. Initially chaos ruled. But sufficient Indian troops remained loyal to restore order.

In Delhi the East India Company set up its guns in the Great Mosque to bombard rebel strongholds, including the Red Fort.  Considerable damage was done to valuable property.

 

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The Red Fort seen from the Mosque

 

The insurrection was put down, with excessive force and brutality, with the help of soldiers drawn from the Madras Army, the Bombay Army and the Sikh regiments as well as British soldiers from the Crimea. The vast majority of the forces on the East India Company side were Indian but from other areas and cultures to the local rebels and rioters.

The brutality against civilian populations that resulted appalled many in Britain and in 1858 the Government of India Act was proclaimed dissolving the East India Company and transferring its resources to the British Crown. Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1876 and a Viceroy was appointed assuming responsibility for Indian government, at the head of a Council of Indian Princes.

In the fort palace at Jaisalmer  there is a very interesting display of Indian stamps and other documents. These are split into the various kingdoms; and with each is a one page typewritten summary of each Kingdom, clearly written by English bureaucrats, probably in the 1930s. Each sheet begins by identifying the geographical position of the kingdom and then identifies the ruler; a brief history and his claim to the crown; usually describing the line of succession and any seizure by force or usurpation that took place. It was very interesting reading as several claimed a direct decadency from Shiva or another god and some had murdered a previous ruler. In one case the British commentator had added in brackets ‘(nothing new in that)’.

Elsewhere when we visited previous royal palaces (Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaipur) there were invariably contemporary photographs from the Raj. These recorded things like the Council of Princes meeting on different dates and locations (posed as in a school photo) with the British Viceroy front and centre.

 

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The Chamber of Princes 1939 - equivalent to the British House of Lords - Governor General front row centre

 

The arrival of a royal personage from England at an Indian state was obviously an occasion for vast hospitality, together with feasts and hunting expeditions or elephant fights.

Some Viceroys (in their exalted status) clearly cast themselves as the chief amongst the princes. One photograph poses the Viceroy and his consort on what appear to be thrones in gowns, with his consort actually wearing a crown (not just a tiara) – quite extraordinary.

 

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His Excellency the Viceroy of India, the Earl of Willingdon and Her Excellency the Countess of Willingdon with their pages in 1935
(from left to right), Maharaj Kumar Yeshwant Singh of Datia, Maharaj Kumar Hukam Singh of Jaisalmer,
Sahibzada Mohd Mobarak Abbasi of Bahawalpur and the Maharaj Kumar of Benares  

 

This uber-royal status was further accentuated by the construction in 1930 of a vice regal palace (Viceroy’s House) in New Delhi (now the Presidential Palace) that puts Buckingham Palace to shame. It is the largest residence of any Head of the State in the world and sits at the head of the grand 4 kilometre long avenue that forms the east- west axis around which New Delhi was designed. This same avenue contains the largest war memorial in India (India Gate) and an eternal flame.

 

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One kilometre long north south and west avenues also radiate from the palace and the other major roads form a series of radiating triangles and curves around this (rather Christian) cross. New Delhi was designed as a capital like Canberra but on a much grander scale. It has numerous grand avenues flanked by quite well maintained parks and is reminiscent of Washington DC. Old Delhi and anywhere much distant from the parliamentary area quickly becomes much like the rest of India.

In the first half of the 20th Century, the Viceroy began to use the less regal title ‘Governor General’ and the Council of Indian Princes became the basis of the Imperial Legislative Council. This was subsequently converted to an upper house by the Government of India Act 1919 and a new, elected, Legislative Assembly became the lower house of a bicameral parliament.

As the independence movement grew, after the return of Gandhi from South Africa in 1915, the Mutiny became a rallying point and was redefined as the First War of Indian Independence.

The Princes remained as local rulers until after partition (into India and Pakistan) and Indian independence in 1947. There was no constitutional place for them in the New India and they have been taxed to the point of needing to take in borders. Most palaces and forts are now either abandoned to the State (and the tourists) or are substantially upmarket hotels, usually with a tourist area, in which the Prince maintains a private apartment.

 

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The palace of the Maharaja of Jodhpur - now mostly hotel

 

But none of these private areas (that we were aware of) is still maintained as a zenana (monogamy is now enforced by law).

In general renting out the excess rooms allows the Princes to maintain a lifestyle as a wealthy private citizen. Many of the Hindu princes continue to represent their particular god on earth and still carry out the duties of this position, with many subjects loyal to them on this basis as before. In these cases they preside over festivals, events and parades and attend polo tournaments (just like, HRH you know who – did someone say chukka?). Most are British educated so they are at home with the other Eaton and Harrow boys.

 

 


Mahatma Gandhi

 

Another most interesting site is the Bombay (now Mumbai) home of Mahatma Gandhi between 1917 and 1934. It is now a museum to his life. The most interesting thing about it is how a man who may have simply lived a comfortable upper-class life became instead the ‘Father of Modern India’.

Mohandas Karamch  and Gandhi was born into an upper caste Indian family in 1869. His father, Karamch  and Gandhi (1822-1885), belonged to the Hindu Modh community and was the diwan (Prime Minister) of Porbander state, a small princely state in the Kathiawar that had come under British influence only 50 years before. His Mother was devout and his father political. Mohandas was educated in England; reading law in at University College London. But he was radicalised in South Africa when as a young lawyer he was excluded from a first class carriage on a train.

Observing the operation of the caste system even today it is easy to understand the depth of this insult to one who had been used to high social status. This and his London experiences may also account for his lifelong struggle to mobilise India against the remnants of the Raj. As the story of his life (as set out in the Museum) suggests, the train incident was his epiphany and led to a passionate distaste for discrimination; his struggle for civil rights on behalf of the expatriate Indian community's and the evolution of his methods non-violent civil disobedience. This eventually achieved Indians becoming re-classed as coloured, rather than black, and their gaining similar rights to whites in South Africa.

After his return to India in 1915, he set up as a lawyer in Bombay and began to organise protests by peasants, farmers, and urban labourers against the foreigners, focusing on excessive land-taxes, exploitation and discrimination.

His home in Bombay is a very substantial four storey mansion in a good street, as would befit a well-to-do lawyer with a wife and four children.

 

 

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Gandhi's other house

 

Simultaneously Ghandi established a rural property, Sabarmati Ashram, on the bank of River Sabarmati in Ahmedabad. This farm became the focus for his interactions with the rural community, protests and marches: ‘This is the right place for our activities to carry on the search for truth and develop fearlessness, for on one side are the iron bolts of the foreigners, and on the other the thunderbolts of Mother Nature.’ It was abandoned in 1933 but has since been restored as a monument.

By 1921 his activism had gained him the title Mahatma (great soul) and leadership of the Indian National Congress. From this power-base Gandhi led a number of campaigns; to stop importing foreign textiles and other goods (with public burnings of imported goods); against various taxes (eg on salt); for women's rights; against religious and ethnic intolerance; to end untouchability and ease poverty; and foremost, against the British presence in India.

He was jailed on several occasions and responded with fasts or hunger strikes; refining these to a successful form of social protest. Towards the end of his time in Bombay and at the Ashram (now in his sixties and his children adults) he began to accentuate his acetic lifestyle and adopted as a motif, a traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, made from fabric hand-spun on a charkha (spinning wheel); clothes he thenceforth wore in public (and overseas).

 

photo
Gandhi - stepping it out in Shimla

 

 

This style, and his emaciated frame became his persona and the spinning wheel his symbol. He even designed a prototype Indian National Flag now on display at his house, with the spinning wheel as the central icon. This is now replaced by the Ashoka Chakraa wheel with 24 spokes symbolising the teachings of the Buddha.

By this time Ghandihad amassed considerable power and had already been named Time Magazine ‘Man of the Year’. With his now guru like appearance, manner and penchant for parables, he soon acquired an almost godlike status and was widely admired, and even revered, throughout the world. His intimate followers, such as Englishwoman Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn), like a self-styled Mary Magdalene (and dressing the part), are described in contemporary media as disciples.

But he was first and foremost a politician, with very well developed self-esteem, and the real politic of Indian life was tumultuous. As World War Two broke out he was equivocal on India’s proper response; initially supporting the allies but then opposing them, as an opportunity to end British influence. This led to the wartime suppression of the Congress and a further stint in jail for Gandhi. The Muslim League on the other hand supported the British war effort.

At the end of the War Ghandi became the final decision maker in settling the terms of the Indian Independence Act 1947. This Act was for ‘the dissolution of the British Indian Empire’ and its partition into India and Pakistan.

A British Parliamentary Mission had visited India in 1946, to negotiate British withdrawal, and in May reported that: ‘the Congress party under Gandhi-Nehru’ wanted to obtain absolute power for their party, having the discretion to: ‘deal with Muslim League and Muslims in general at their discretion after the British departed’. The All India Muslim League under Mohammed Ali Jinnah (another British educated lawyer), is said to have wanted to keep India united but with political safeguards provided to Muslims such as guarantee of 'parity' in the legislatures. This was said to reflect ‘the wide belief of Muslims that the British Raj was simply going to be turned in to a 'Hindu Raj' once the British departed’’.

The position of Jinnah in this is still hotly debated. His early position was that Muslim leaning states should continue to be governed locally, as a federation, within greater India. But Gandhi and the Congress were adamantly opposed to this and Jinnah (apparently reluctantly) came around to support partition.

Jinnah continued to command sympathy in London and was adamant that ‘parity’ (with separate statehood) was essential. He lost a good deal of this support when in August 1946 he organised Direct Action Day in support of partition. This quickly descended into mass Muslim/Hindu rioting and inter-religious murder in Calcutta and surrounding regions that became known as ‘The Week of the Long Knives’. Many thousands died and hundreds of thousands lost their homes.

It was into this politically charged, internecine environment, that Navel Officer, Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma and uncle to the Duke of Edinburgh had sailed as the 24th Viceroy.

 

picture
Mountbatten

 

Gandhi’s chosen successor, Congress leader Jawaharlal (Pandit) Nehru was a man of extraordinary charisma and quickly became very close to Mountbatten (and his wife). Mountbatten’s specific instructions when appointed were to preserve a united India but he soon determined, under Nehru’s and to a lesser extent Jinnah’s influence, that this was politically impossible and instead negotiated a partition solution with the Council of Princes; to their ultimate demise.

Ghandi’s role in this was complex and is interestingly treated in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi  that is dedicated to both Nehru and Mountbatten as its progenitors. Gandhi  is represented as leading the Hindu opposition to partition but ultimately had to make a decision between delaying indefinitely ‘the dissolution of the British Indian Empire’ and partition. He chose partition. The alternative, of a federation with the Muslim States, is not given any credence. Indeed, it may have prevented India becoming a secular State; and was not attractive to Nehru, a British educated Fabian Socialist lawyer.

Upon proclamation of the Independence Act, widespread violence immediately erupted, with  many killed, and hundreds of thousands of refugees moved across the new borders in both directions (sometimes forcibly). Within months the first the Indo-Pakistani War broke out over the disputed status of Jammu  and Kashmir. The partition displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million.

In an attempt to stem the violence Ghandi announced yet another hunger strike ‘unto death’. But he was persuaded not to continue and soon after he was assassinated (in January 1948 at the age of 79) by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist who held him responsible for weakening India by partition and for paying the newly created Pakistan 550 million rupees as part of the agreement, which it was alleged had funded arms, used against Hindus and India.

Partition is now generally seen as an evil in India and blamed on the British. Mountbatten was subsequently murdered by the IRA so the focus of this blame was lost. But looking at Gandhi’s house and the photos displayed there it is interesting to speculate just how accidental and contingent world history is. What might have been if Gandhi had not been thrown off that train; if he did not so easily take offence; if he had not come to dislike the British as much as he clearly did; and/or if he had not been so keen to see the back of the British Indian Empire before he died? Might partition have been avoided?

After all, India already had much the same style of government as Australia but Australians felt no need to expel the British – good Queen Bess rules to this day. And while those West Australians can be a bit odd, we feel no desire to murder them en masse.

Might India’s economy have been stronger without Gandhi’s  protectionism, agrarianism and implicit religiosity, leading to subsequent militarism (against both its major neighbours) and (largely failed) socialism?

There is no doubt that Gandhi  to a greater extent than Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler and even Mao, has been a direct influence on the course hundreds of millions of lives. The British Indian Empire, if it still existed, with the pre1947 borders, would now be far the largest country in the world and if kept stable very likely would have surpassed China economically. Indeed India seems to work best in those areas where Muslims and Hindus work side by side. Instead, India still has an appalling literacy rate, endemic crushing poverty and a life expectancy a full ten years below China’s.

Many tens of thousands have died in inter-religious feuding in disputed territories and actual wars and conflicts between India and Pakistan. Pakistan is now clearly unstable, with internal terrorist attacks happening while we watched live on Indian TV. Bangladesh is in the grip of runaway population explosion.

Again Jaisalmer  is interesting in this context. It was once a step on the route through the desert to the Northwest Frontier (now Pakistan) and then to Afghanistan, Europe and China (the Silk Road). It is now instead a centre of military activity with a major Army and Air Force base. Fighter jets (Russian made) regularly roar overhead and leave vapour trails high above.

 

Photo
Jaisalmer Fort - from our room - fighter jets regularly roared overhead leaving vapour trails high above

 

And of course in Mumbai The Gateway to India (across the plaza from the Taj Hotel) was a further reminder to us of recent attacks by paramilitary terrorists from Pakistan as it is now guarded at all points by soldiers behind sandbags armed with fully loaded 7.62 mm self loading rifles and flak jackets.

 

Photo
The Taj Hotel

 

Indeed all major public buildings (like the law courts) in Mumbai and many elsewhere in India are similarly guarded.

 

 

 

 


The Indian Caste System

 

One of Ghandi’s positive contributions was to realise that the great majority of India’s population was endemically poor and undereducated as a result of the caste system. To realise its potential India needed to abolish Caste and educate its masses. The Indian Constitution specifically outlaws caste-based discrimination, ‘in keeping with the socialist, secular, democratic principles that founded the nation’.

Again the British are often blamed as the Raj was generally comfortable with social class distinctions and did little to aid class mobility in India. For such a small number to maintain control over so many they needed to support the existing social hierarchy (of princes and nawabs) and to place themselves above it. ‘Keeping up appearances’ was the principal survival strategy and a social necessity. Yet by 1946 it was clear that the British considered the removal of the caste system a priority in post-war India.

In 1948 both  my parents’ and my uncle’s family came to Australia from England. So did a number of British refugees from the Raj. During the War, Uncle Jim had been a British Army Officer (Engineer) based in India. As a result we had some passing social interactions with the British expatriates; mainly cocktail parties (Haw-Haw, Pims, ‘another G&T’, Noël Coward on the ‘gramophone’, ‘so hard to get a good gardener’). It is easy to see how they pissed off the Indians. They certainly managed it with the Australians.

Caste discrimination is illegal in India in all areas of government and business.  It is claimed to be more or less eradicated in large cities. But people are obviously still very much aware of their social status and class. Indian politics is riddled with caste references and social status (as everywhere) is reinforced by wealth and education. In rural areas of the country, it is admitted, three quarters of India's population is largely illiterate and still applies the traditional caste distinctions.

 

 

photo

 

We were more than once told that our interlocutor was Brahmin; generally as they directed others to look after us in some way.

In the Hindu scriptures, there are four varnas (castes): the Brahmins (teachers, scholars and priests), the Kshatriyas (kings and warriors), the Vaishyas (agriculturists and traders), and Shudras (service providers and artisans). Within each there are many subdivisions. A subgroup of the latter (or outside the caste system altogether) are Mlechhas (contagious and/or untouchable) – also known as dalits. The Indian census still identifies a full quarter of the population as falling into the lowest castes and ‘scheduled tribes’ and special measures are in place to eliminate discrimination against this group. These lower orders are not restricted to Hindus and the caste system has seeped into all tribes and religions including Christianity.

Unfortunately Ghandi was something of a religious zealot and while actively promoting egalitarian principles failed to decouple class from religion or to suppress religious bigotry. Nehru might have managed it and indeed some steps were taken in this direction, by him and his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

A more effective solution might have been a Chinese style Cultural Revolution to diminish the negative impacts of religion and superstition but this got seriously out of hand in China and I doubt that this would, or could, ever be attempted again.

The Indian population after partition was about 345 million it is now over 1.17 billion.  A concerted and sustained campaign to limit population and provide a basic secular education for everyone ‘in keeping with the socialist, secular, democratic principles that founded the nation’, might well have assisted in containing this growth and in doing so changed the face of more than a sixth of humanity. But although some attempts were made, this has proven to be a task well beyond the capability of any subsequent Indian government.

I consider a modern enlightened State to be one in which individuals can enjoy, as they choose, long, productive, healthy and egalitarian lives; having full and equal (preferably State provided) access to education that allows them to partake equally in the intellectual and material benefits of human knowledge and experience; free from the imposition of outdated or supernatural beliefs and fears or appeals to ancient (and in the light of modern knowledge, concocted) authority; free from predefined societal roles (based on family background or race, rather than personal merit); and free from violence or condemnation from others (physical, emotional, social or judgmental).

Despite the noble intentions along these lines, set forth in 1947 by Gandhi and Nehru, it seems to me that for the majority of its citizens, India has a long journey ahead in its progress towards such an enlightened State.

 

Richard

 

 


 

 

Slide Show: Selected India photos

 

The sequence is: Mumbai; Udaipur; Jodphur; Jaisalmer; Jaipur; Varanasi; Agra; Delhi; and  Shimla
(Google Earth maps separate locations)

 

 

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