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Thursday, January 31, 2013

India - The History

Growing up in Canada I have always felt that we are lacking on the history part. Sure we are all immigrants (apart from the First Nations ) but for the most part Canada's real history is only a couple hundred years old. I think that this may be the reason why I am so amazed to see other countries that have and celebrate vast histories that have spanned not only decades but centuries.

India, of course, did not disappoint. We visited 6 different cities in the course of 15 days and every one of them was filled with so much history that we were barely able to get it all in.

Humayun's Tomb - Delhi

Most of the architecture that we saw was built in the 16th century by two men. Two great Mughal kings.

My husband was most interested on where the building materials came from, how they were designed and how all the elaborate stonework was executed. I, on the other hand, was interested in the people behind the buildings. Why they would build these amazing forts and palaces and wondered what they looked like in their glory days.

Agra Fort

Me at the Taj
You would think that going to India that my favourite monument would be the Taj Mahal, but you would be wrong. I do think that it is a marvel, and a wonderful thing that should be seen if you decide to go to that part of the world. Beautiful white columns, symmetry, inlaid art like you have never seen before, and a serenity that washes over you in a city of millions of people. One thing that I found to surprise me about the Taj is that I always knew that it was a mausoleum dedicated to a kings wife; but i never realized that it was a Muslim monument. I mean, looking at it now, obviously it is. It looks just like the palace from Aladdin! What I learned on this trip is that all that beautiful black scroll work on the face of the Taj are all scriptures from the Quran. This is a significant thing, as Hindus and Muslims do not typically agree on most things - but they tolerate each other. And the fact that a country that is mostly Hindu has a Muslim monument as their #1 visited tourist destination shows you just how proud Indians are of their shared heritage.

The Muslim Wife's Celing
My most favourite historical site that we visited was Fatehpur Sikri which is just outside of Agra. The reason behind this was because the king that built this palace was a very political king. Our guide told us that he had three wives to make the people happy. A Hindu wife from Jaipur (arranged marriage), a "Christian" wife to show how progressive he was to the British (Christian is in quotations as it is believed that she was actually a Muslim) and a Muslim wife. I asked our guide which of the three wives was his favourite (you know, the one who got the most attention). Our guide laughed and said that I was the first one to ask him this, and that many people believed that it was the Hindu wife as she had the biggest palace. (The king and queens all had separate "palaces" within the compound.) The Hindu queen's palace was three stories and had it's own temple. It was twice as big as the Christian wife's and three times as big as the Muslim wife's. However, our guide asked us to look closely at each palace and to notice the differences. All three were very spectacular, but the one room Muslim queens was the MOST spectacularly carved and decorated. It was also the one closest to the King's bedroom...coincidence? I think not!

Ghandi's Cremation Site
If I was to take away one thing from visiting all of these heritage sites it would be that I do not know enough world history. We also visited the house that Mahatma Ghandi lived in, and we saw where he was cremated. But until I went to India this time I had no real understanding of why he was who he was. I mean, I knew that he was an important figure and someone to be admired, but I did not know the whole story. I am going to make sure that I learn more and teach my kids more in years to come.

The most interesting part about seeing the historical side of India was that as a tourist, the history is all that people want you to see. We saw fort after fort, palace after palace and memorial after memorial. We saw "old" India and if we had not visited Delhi we would have thought that India was the same as it was years ago, slowly moving forward...however, we visited a mall on the last day and it was EXACTLY like a North American mall. EXACTLY. Even the same stores.

New Delhi Mall
In another post I am going to touch on the political and social climate that we witnessed which also touches on this phenomena.

I could honestly write four more posts on the history as it is so rich and vibrant, but it really is something that you have to experience for yourself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

India - The Prequel

Hindu Temple
When you tell people that you are going to India they get really excited. I think it's because it is one of those exotic far-away destinations that almost everyone has on their bucket list. Maybe it's because it is so far away, or maybe because there is something for everyone. They have a rich history, amazing food, an incredible culture, nice weather, and spirituality that encompasses the whole country.

While we were travelling we saw tourists that fit in every one of these categories. Families there for the sun, backpackers there to experience the "real" India, older tourists visiting all the heritage sights, and many many people dressed in what I would consider yogi, or simple clothes following a spiritual path that only they and their god(s) knew of.

For many people India is a world that is full of mystery, and wonderings. It is so far removed from our western culture that it gets romanticized in our movies and media. You hear again and again from people who have been there that India is not a destination, but rather an experience. And, it was. However for me, it was not an experience that people would assume - you see it was not my first time to India, and going back coloured my experience in more ways than even I expected.

12 year old me
When I was 12 years old my parents and my three siblings moved to Kota, Rajasthan. My dad was working with the Canadian and Indian governments on a project and so my grade 6 year we moved from Canada into a 6 bedroom house in the outskirts of a little town in north west India. We had many servants, a cook and a nanny. (her name was Shanti) It sounds like it was glamorous or something but my parents are not like that at all. We had to have the servants as it was expected that a western family would have them.  Honestly though, my mom had 4 kids under 12 in a foreign country with no support so I think she enjoyed the help at least a little. We were not the only family that lived in Kota, as the project was quite big. I was lucky enough that there was another girl my age and we made fast friends the first day of "school". All the children on the project were homeschooled, but we also went to school with a teacher who made sure that we kept on track with curriculum.

A Holy Cow
I can't really sum up that year except to say that THIS was the experience that people talk about. I think that it would have been the same had we gone to any third world country. I was an adolescent girl who was  acutely aware of myself. Incredibly self conscious and even more so as I was one of 40 or so families that were white. People noticed me. All the time. They looked, stared, and gestured. People smiled and were curious...and I, who has always been an extrovert, was incredibly shy. This was the one year of my life that I feel I took a backseat and WATCHED instead of jumping right up to the front as I usually do - even to this day.

The reason behind this is because I was a complete outsider. Not only did I not speak the language, but I was also a girl (becoming a woman), and at that time women were expected to act differently than they would be in North America. I had to learn new ways to carry myself, to talk to elders, to men, to my brothers. Having always been the oldest in my family, it surprised me when people would comment on how I must pay so much respect to these two little brats that made my life miserable, how there were celebrations for them, how I was to respect them. I can't really explain what it is like to grow up in a culture with such freedom for women and girls, and then living within another one that marginalizes them.

Experiences are the things that shape you. I credit India for shaping me.

When I came back to Canada I was again the outsider. Of course it was Jr.High, but how can one girl go back into the social pecking order that is adolescence when her whole idea of the world is vastly different than that of all her classmates?

I had felt racism directed at me. I had felt inequality in my soul. I saw true poverty with my own eyes. True desperation, and real suffering. I had witnessed squalor, filth, hopelessness and death. But I had also witnessed understanding, compassion, joy, and a work ethic like no other. This changes you, especially if this happens in those formative years when you are just learning about yourself. My experience made me more compassionate, more empathetic, and more understanding of all people around me. It also made me incredibly grateful for the life that I have been so lucky to be born into - that of a middle class Canadian woman.

Wearing a Sari as an Adult
And yes, India was amazing. I will share what I learned this time around in a series of posts. I am not sure how many I will do as this one wasn't really supposed to go into this direction - but I have a feeling none of them will since it is about a country that has touched my very soul.
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