Saturday, March 07, 2009

Mumbai and Gujarat

Mumbai (Bombay) was supposed to be a stopover to take care of some practicalities and get a brief sense of the economic capital of India (Mumbai is to India as New York City is to the U.S.), but it turned out to be much more interesting than I would have thought. It is a big city like any other, although unique in the number of cows roaming the streets amidst the crazy traffic, and the most interesting sights, I thought, included Dhobi Ghat, the "largest human-powered washing machine in the world" - essentially it's a huge compound where thousands of people hand wash laundry for Mumbai's inhabitants - and Haji Ali's mosque, built on an island that is only accessible at low tide.

Most interesting was a visit to Dharavi slum, now made famous by the movie Slumdog Millionaire, but to be honest I felt like I visited it despite having seen the movie, rather than because of it. Dharavi is home to more than a million people, and from what I can tell, it's not a typical slum. It is defined as a slum because people are squatting there in makeshift housing in tiny alleys, but they mostly earn a living, they have free education and hospitals in the slum, and there are more than 100 NGOs working to improve conditions there. So I didn't get the impression it was entirely representative of Indian slums. Most remarkable is the amount of industry in Dharavi. People say nothing ever gets wasted in Mumbai. If you throw out a plastic bottle, someone will come along and pick it up and take it to Dharavi, where someone will melt it down into little plastic pellets and sell those to manufacturers, who make other goods out of it and sell it back to you. They recycle not only their own plastic, glass and paper waste, but tons of ours that is shipped to India. The working conditions are of course unsafe and unsanitary, but the people have jobs and don't have to beg. It's an amazingly efficient system that has grown up there.

I left Mumbai on a 16 hour train ride to Ahmedabad, followed by 9 more hours to Somnath, on the little-visited southern Gujarati coast. My train rides were plagued by cockroaches, crawling over the walls and on my bunk (and on me), which made them two of the most horrific train rides I've ever taken. However, when I arrived, it was worth it.

Somnath is home to one of India's major Hindu pilgrimage sites, the most sacred of the 12 Shiva shrines. Upon arrival I was treated to a beautiful pink and orange sunset behind the temple, and as the sun went down I was able to enter the temple and take part in the prayer ceremony. As you walk in you are overwhelmed by the loud beating of drums and the crush of people inside clapping, and you feel you've walked into an ancient ceremony. You immediately walk past a large, painted sculpture of a cow, and then up to the front, where a priest is waving a candelabra and another is fanning incense around. Then you join the throng while the ceremony continues, and afterwards they pass a flame around on a plate and everyone tries to touch it. I don't pretend to understand the meaning behind it all, but it was quite fascinating to see and to feel like I had stepped thousands of years back in time. However, being the only foreigner around, I sometimes seemed to be more of a spectacle to those around me than the service.

The next day I made my way to Diu, a former Portuguese settlement that is now a cute beach town with a huge fort. After a harrowing overnight bus trip and a strange conversation with a guy who worked in a call center for US National Bank, I arrived at 5:30 am the following day in Palitana, the most sacred of Jain pilgrimage sites.

Palitana is the home of Shatrunjaya, a complex of almost 900 Jain temples built on the top of a hill. There are 3200 steps to reach the temple complex, and as the heat builds, you feel each one of them. If you are lazy or ill, you can be carried up the hill in a dholi, but I chose to walk. With views over the surrounding desert for miles and miles, it wasn't a bad walk. At the top you first come across a Muslim shrine, where women deposit small cradles if they want to have a baby and inhalers if they want to cure their asthma (I was tempted). The caretaker showed me around and anointed me with some strong-smelling oil that he said was for "protection by God" but I had to wonder if it was because I had spent the night on a bus without showering and then walked up a big hill in the blistering sun. Anyway, you then walk through some of the hundreds of small Jain shrines, trying not to burn your bare feet on the hot ground and admiring the intricate carvings and ceiling artwork.

Jains believe that constructing temples earns them some kind of merit, and as a community they tend to be very well-off, usually businessmen, so whenever someone has money enough they construct a new temple at Shatrunjaya. Actually, Jains have a serious policy of ahimsa, or nonviolence, and that extends to killing animals or even insects, which means they are strict vegetarians, avoiding even onions, garlic and potatoes, which grow under the ground and might, therefore, kill an insect if you harvest them. They time what they are allowed to eat with what is growing well at the time, so it's a very environmentally friendly philosophy. And Jains are some of the nicest people I've met here in India. One adopted me when I arrived fresh off the bus and exhausted, treated me to breakfast at the place where Jain pilgrims eat, and then made sure I had all I needed before he sent me on my way.

From Palitana I headed north to Rajasthan, where I have been for the last three days. Unfortunately I am back on the tourist circuit, which means it is much less pleasant than Gujarat, but it's interesting in its own way. However, I've already written so much that I will save Rajasthan for next time.

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Adventure map for 2009...