Touring Northern India
It’s Not About the Monuments, It’s About the People
By Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman
The monuments of 13,000-year-old India are stunning. Visitors can see artifacts from 4,000 B.C. in the National Museum in Delhi. They can visit the oldest inhabited city in the world, the holy city of Varanasi, near where Buddha taught during the 6th century B.C., and where ceremonies along the Ganges River continue. They can gawk at the giant Hindu Step Well, a great upside-down pyramid 1,000 years old, and visit the magnificent forts, mausoleums, and palaces built by the Muslim invaders, the most famous and beautiful being the 17th-century Taj Mahal.
But what about the real India, the country of 1.3 billion people who mostly (70 percent) live in rural areas? How can a Westerner understand these cheerful, contented, and unfailingly thoughtful people who live in a state of what seems to be organized chaos? Thanks to our well-informed, and deeply spiritual guide, Garish Bakshi, who led our Harvard Alumni tour, and Harvard professor of environmental law, Jim Salzman, we learned answers to most of these questions.
Bakshi explained that Indians, 80 percent of whom are practicing Hindus, are guided by the concepts of karma and dharma. Karma says every person chooses right or wrong actions during a lifetime. Dharma is the belief that everything in the universe has an inherent duty. The cows and dogs who roam freely on every road are fed daily by people seeking good karma.
The most impressive example of good karma was at Delhi’s Bangla Sikh temple, where a massive dining room seating 1,500 people serves free breakfast, lunch, and dinner to up to 50,000 per day, rich or poor, no questions asked, and a staff made up almost entirely of volunteers.
India has begun to take an interest in conserving its natural resources. We visited Ranthambore National Park, in the state of Rajasthan, a 400-square mile tiger preserve, which is home to tigers, three different deer species, antelope, wild boar, crocodiles, and many different birds. Project Tiger has caused the Bengal tiger population to increase from 1,800 in 1973 to 2,500 and counting. Near the park is a small cooperative organization which provides the Mogya tribe an income from sewing and selling textiles, instead of poaching tigers.
Today, India provides all its own food — although agriculture is still primitive, with flood instead of drip irrigation and weeding done by women in brilliantly-colored saris. The warm weather allows two or three crops each year with production of wheat, mustard, sugar cane, fruits, and rice, along with meat from water buffalo for export and milk from cows.
India is tackling its infrastructure problems. When Arthur visited India 18 years ago, the highway from Delhi to Agra was two-lane and slow, creeping through villages. We whisked along on four- or six-lane limited access highways, at 60 to 100 kilometers an hour.
We stopped at a government-supported healthcare clinic that is representative of those throughout India. They are available to everyone, provide comprehensive outpatient care at zero or low cost (visits cost 7 cents and most blood tests are free) and work closely with the local hospital as needed, though effectiveness can vary.
We saw signs of India’s largest multinational corporation everywhere — the $230 billion Tata Group. In India it makes vehicles of all types, operates a chain of luxury hotels, and manufactures all of India’s steel.
The burning of farm field waste after harvests, coal as fuel, and auto emissions create India’s notoriously poor air quality. But the country has been trying to address its environmental problems and is participating in the Paris accords. Their supreme court, which has special authority to make environmental rules, mandated a reduction in the level of industrial activity in and around Agra, significantly reducing the area’s smog that had blackened the Taj Mahal.
Professor Salsman’s lecture on the British East India Company outlined the good and the bad of India’s 100 years as a colony of Britain. The English gave India democracy, a railway network, education programs, and the English language — an important unifying factor in a country with two dozen official languages — but they also left India’s people starving at times.
We visited the comfortable upper-middle class homes of two women, both of whom had arranged marriages, and both of whom said they were very happy. Ninety-five percent of marriages in India are arranged, yet the divorce rate is only four percent.
Modi, the first non-Brahmin prime minister of India, has put measures in place to improve the lot of rural women. Dowries are outlawed. To stop female infanticide, families are paid money when a girl is born, enters school, and graduates from school. All girls are given a bright orange bicycle.
The literacy rate today is 80 percent for men and 60 percent for women, up 20 percent from a few decades ago.
We left feeling positive about the world’s largest democracy, a friendly, humble, generous, and tolerant country.
Going by camel to a rural hamlet and its school.
It’s not unusual to share a pedestrian path with a cow in Varanasi.
Ceremony greeting the Ganges River in the morning
Feeding 1,500 people at a time in a Sikh temple.
The authors found a good seat from which to view the Taj Mahal.