A Stranger in a Strange Land

North India is so different from the South. To begin with, Delhi is a very modern city with very modern people. I was immediately struck by how differently people dress and act from the South. The city is relatively clean and has wide orderly streets. Mind you there is a good reason that the capital is New Delhi as Old Delhi is not quite so organized. The metro system is world-class; it’s clean, quiet and is the first place I’ve seen that Indians seem to (somewhat) understand what a cue is for (there is still lots of pushing). To my benefit, the metro is the only place that has both Hindi and English signage and announcements. It does get packed with people (as everything does in India) and takes a long while to travel around as there are so many stops and an enormous distance to cover.

Outside the city however, real India awaits. The contrast of the scenes and atmosphere of Delhi and its surroundings are quite stark. I would suggest reading Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008 Booker prize), which gives a good impression of North India. Adiga characterizes the contrast as the darkness (village, which includes most of the Indian population) and the light (the big cities). Yesterday I journeyed to Mathura, the birthplace of Sri Krishna and Vrindavan, site of Sri Krishna’s childhood. Mathura was a busy little place but Vrindavan was a temple city. This is the most holy site for Krishna devotees and naturally ISKCON  has a big temple there. I could always hear Hare Krishna being chanted and so many Indians and foreigners alike were dressed as traditional Bengali Vaishnavites, with there distinctive dhoti style, tilaka (forehead marking) and top-knot/tonsure. I also saw many sadhus and sanyasis (monks) wandering around the town.

Little did I know it would take so long and I only spent 3 hours there and about 13 hours traveling! I am glad I went as it was a challenging encounter with North India. I have discovered that it is very difficult to manage in the North without Hindi and I only know a handful. I had mistakenly assumed that many would speak English but unlike the South (where I can get by in the local languages anyhow) that is not the case even among young people. Unlike other travelers, I am expected to know Hindi so people carry on full conversations with me despite having understood that I don’t speak Hindi. Most people just think I am some sort of an idiot or a clueless South Indian (I would say more the latter than the former).

My bus rides provided an excellent showcase for the real India. People in the North were preparing for Holi with countless sellers hawking their vivid powdered colours and many who were already smeared and decorated for the liberating holiday. Tonight on the eve of Holi, numerous large fires are burning throughout the city. Holi is a spring festival of great significance in the North that commemorates the burning of the demoness Holika while the pious boy Prahlada (another great story that I may narrate in the future) sat next to her unharmed thanks his devotion to Lord Vishnu (Narayana). The North has offered me many new experiences that were foreign to me as a good South Indian: I saw a snake charmer, camels on the highway, I rode in a cycle rikshaw (which oddly costs less than riding in an auto despite being much more effort for the driver) and there are monkeys all over. It is also cold and dry up here and I say that after spending the past two months in tropical South India. I have been enjoying the different tastes and variety of North Indian cooking. Each state has very distinct flavours, styles and eating habits (I remind you that what is called “Indian food” in North American is mainly Punjabi food). Next I am off to Varanasi (Benares or Kashi), Shiva’s city and one of the most important bathing sites along the Ganga. It is said that if you die in Kashi, you are automatically liberated by Shiva and so for thousands of years Indians have come to the city to leave their bodies. I am grateful that I am going on the invitation of a friend and will be in better company than the dead alone.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. skinnywench
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 04:57:02

    Nice post thanks for sharing 🙂


  2. Trackback: The Devotion of Prahlada « Sri Satchmo

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