India-Cremation on The Ganges, A Celebration of Fire

We traveled The Ganges at night in a wooden boat. The sun was setting and the white sky was diminishing into blackness. As usual, I can no expectations, I was just content happy to drift on the water and be able to take it all in.

Direct experience is wonderful but to a modern American it could be a bit uncomfortable. Back home it seems we have to be continuously stimulated and have our senses shocked. Watch a fast paced car commercial and count how many times they change the image or count how many 30 second ads there are during a TV program break. Is the length of our attention span decreasing?

To drift down a river in a foreign country like India, to be stranger in a very unfamiliar context , to be in a reality with no escape or off button is overwhelming. As a captive in a present moment, I tried to get my money’s worth, “I will not pass this way again”. I was on the famous Ganges River, Gandhi was here, people come to be absolved of their sins. It is sacred. I take in as much as I can with all my senses. Will it be enough?

We are told to look to our right, I see piles of wood, flames. and a lot of activity. This is the most sacred place of cremation in the India. If a person’s body is reduced to ashes here they are guaranteed eternal light after death.

The rituals practiced on this site never stop, they go on 24/7. A source fire has been maintained for hundreds of year and provides the flames for all burnings. Bodies wrapped in cloth and sometimes flowers are carried in by mourners, lower in to the The Ganges for purification, and then placed on the burning wood pyres. Later the deceased person’s ashes are returned to the Ganges.

Our journey in the darkness continues and we are told we are going to a ritual that is repeated every night by Hindu priests, The Celebration of Fire.

So much to take in, strange rituals, an unfamiliar religion. I shouldn’t judge. I have my own needs. Like all human beings since the beginning of time I, too, deal with the fear of the unknown. You would think with all our advancements we would have everything figured out and under control by now but it seems that the things that kept us up at night just keep multiplying. Everyone deals with this in their own way; materialism, power, drugs, alcohol, anything that offers escape.

I felt totally out of place in this dark Indian night until I was handed a diya, a floating votive candle surrounded by a ring of flowers. Our guide lit it and instructed me to put in the water to remember a loved one who has died. Tears came to my eyes. I placed the symbol in The Ganges and remembered my mom. More than anyone she is responsible for my trip to India. She prepared me in so many ways, giving me the skills and the strength to set out to unknown places.

Religion, let us live and let live. I will continue to learn and respect the beliefs of all people and hope others will do the same for me. My faith is how I deal with the puzzles of life. It’s so nice to know there are others who do the same.

India-Blown Away by The Ganges River,The World is Not Flat

Visiting The Ganges River in Varanasi, India was not at all what I expected. It is world famous and I have seen pictures of it but to be there, to have direct experience, is a whole other thing. I have had this disconnect between a pictorial presentation and an actual site before, namely The Great Wall of China. It was truly magnificent but somehow appeared different from what I imagined.

Once I talked to an acquaintance as he sat alone in this living room watching the travel channel. The high definition picture on a very large screen was breathtaking but the viewer’s reaction to the program really troubled me. He believed the TV way of seeing the world was adequate enough and made travel irrelevant. I’m afraid in this world of smartphones, his outlook is becoming common.

I am very visual, I look at everything. For me, a snapshot isn’t enough. I want to see the sky, hear the sounds, smell the smells, witness the movement of humans as I try to understand what they feel. I want see in all directions, be totally immersed in three dimensional awareness and feel the energy of all experiences. A flat screen or picture will never do this for me.

And with this attitude I took in the Ganges. It was so much more colorful and vibrant than I had imagined.

This area of The Ganges River is called The Ghat, the steps to the river.

Worshippers put diyas, floating candles, in the river to remember a loved one who has died.

Millions of Hindu pilgrims come to bathe in these waters. They believe it’s an act of purification, the wiping away of sins, and the the facilitation of Moksha, the liberation from the continuous cycle of of life and death.

Through traveling, I have become part of something bigger. I have become part of the sphere of humanity by reaching out with sincerity and accepting different landscapes and people. And I have come to realize that though each one of us is a small part of the whole, we are all significant.

I hope you enjoyed my pictures. You are a traveler on the journey of life. Slow down and take the time to really see what is around you. Start from where you are. And remember, the world is not flat.

Copyright 2019@theautonomoustraveler.com

India-Buddha Didn’t Care What His Hair Looked Like

On my tour, we went to a place called Sarnath. As usual, I had no idea what to expect.

We went into museum and Rashid,our guide, explained that statues of Buddha all had three interesting features. The Buddha’s long ears signified the importance of being a good listener and his ever present smile represented joyful peace. What I didn’t know was that his seemly minimalist hairstyle set an example for the unimportance of outward appearances.

We passed through doors into a beautiful place of greens, sandstone and sunshine.

After Buddha meditated for forty-nine days under a Bodhi tree, he came to Sarnath to preach for the first time, speaking about the doctrine of suffering and the eightfold Middle Path to enlightenment.

  • Right understanding
  • Right thought
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

Buddha had actually lived in this place and I was in awe. The sandstone was the remains of the Buddhist monasteries that once existed here. And the large domed building was a stupa, an ancient shrine used for meditation.

Rashid pointed out a Bodhi seedling growing out of a crevice in a tree.

I chose to immerse myself in the experience and I wander through the site alone.

I came upon a group of Buddhists who had come there as part of a pilgrimage.

I noticed the bits of gold leaf that worshipers had left on the stone to pay homage.

Later, Rashid took us a short distance away to the tallest statue of Buddha in world.

I am so glad to have had this experience concerning Buddhism. There is so much to learn about all the different ways of the world. I not only want to know them but also understand them. As Buddha said, I guess I am looking for a “right understanding”.

Copyright 2019@ theautonomoustraveler.com

India-The Hindu Salutation of the Dawn

I am a gatherer, not a hunter. I wander and obtain things randomly. This trait may have been influenced by ancient ancestral memories. I first realized the roots of this when I read Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Aurel. I loved that book because of its informative portrayal of life in caveman days. Back then, primitive males seemed to be focused on the hunt and ultimately stalking and bringing down animals for food. The main character in the book was a prehistoric woman named Ayla who became an observant gatherer and a skillful medicine woman. She was a part of early human culture in which the women of the tribe collected things in their wanderings; berries, feathers for ornamentation, plant fibers for binding, herbs for flavoring and healing, and any found objects that through ingenuity and inventiveness could be put to good use.

Modern shopping may have been influenced by these prehistoric habits. Some people decide on a specific goal and go to the mall just for that one thing (example, a craftsmans saw at Sears). And then there is another group who chooses to wander through shops and stores to see what will show up.

I am in the second group. Wandering, with no set outcome in mind, not only sets the pace and scope of my traveling adventures but also dictates how I acquire things.

I love thrift stores. My short term ancestral memory draws me to them. My parents lived through The Great Depression. In my family, the stretching of dollars was practiced with great enthusiasm. This has become my life approach and causes me to direct funds toward what I really I want, namely traveling. I also love the triumphant feeling of out smarting big corporations when I find an almost new designer blouse for a mere $3.99.

Like Ayla, the attentive and cunning cavewoman, I’m a gathering huntress focused on the moment, confident in my ability to find treasures.

Yesterday, I had a particularly rewarding day. I decided to stop at a thrift store I fondly call “Sal’s”. I came up with this name in my early years of thrift store gathering when I was embarrassed to admit shopping there.

Friend:”I love your blouse. Where did you get it?”

Me: “Sal’s Boutique!” And then I’d quickly change the subject.

Yesterday, I walked into “Sal’s”, a big, bright place filled with color. It smells a particular way, a bit like old things with a faint scent of baby powder. I love the place because I know there is always a good chance I will find something both unexpected and cool.

I first scanned the jewelry case. I have learned to ask the clerk to put things aside for me until I can checkout. I have seen too many male customers carefully examining the pieces and quickly taking away the good stuff. I suspect they are undercover antique dealers.

I passed the long line of purses on the front wall. I have both bought and recycled many there. I pass the shoe racks and the hats ( I feel my nose is too big for a hat!).

And then I move on to the side wall that stretches way, way to the back of the store. Its shelves hold all sort of things grouped by color; mugs, vases, notebooks, candles, frames, etc. etc. etc. I have always loved the blue section where I have been lucky enough to find lovely pieces of Polish pottery.

The book section, because of online shopping and digital reading, is now the only “book store” in town.

I decided not to look at clothes. Real finds take time and involve going through the rack one item at a time. I was content to do the back wall with its electronic gadgets and lamps, miscellaneous stuff sorted into zip lock bags, and piles of framed pictures and prints.

Something caught my eye, a framed picture with some kind of writing on it. It was a Hindu prayer! Here I was back home in the US at a thrift store 7000 miles from India and I find this mystical piece. It spoke to me of what I had learned in India, to live in the present moment. It confirmed what I now believed, that I must squeeze the life out of everyday with no expectations or fear. And it reminded me to be thankful for all that comes my way, planned or unplanned.

I carried my lovely new treasure to the front of the store and paid for it. I hung it in my bedroom by the eastern window where the new sun always greets me. I will say the prayer every morning and soon I’ll know it by heart. Why did I acquire this beautiful bit of India? Coincidence or blessing? I have always preferred to believe in the latter.

India-Overcoming My Ignorance

As I stated in previous posts, I went to India with little preparation. Sure, I had the required shots including the one for typhoid and also I had prescription pills to ward off malaria. ( I was told this medicine might produce crazy dreams while I was taking it, months later I am still plagued by night dramas with intriguing and intricate plots.) I bought a new pair of shoes carefully broken in before the trip. I wisely carried bottles of hand sanitizer and peppermint oil for odoriferous street smells.

What I didn’t bring was enough historical knowledge. As a person who thinks she knows enough to “wing it”, I found my head spinning when I saw the tremendous Muslim influence in a country I had thought was purely Hindu. This was a pleasant surprise since I always hoped to see Islamic architecture in my travels and in India, of all places, I did.

It’s funny how little I was taught in school about Islam or, maybe being a teenager, I didn’t have the motivation to pay attention. Finally, the Taj Mahal caught my attention.

The Mughals

The Mughals were Sunni Muslims who conquered Delhi, India and ruled northern India from 1526 to 1707. Akbar, the grandson of the first emperor believed in religious tolerance and ruled over the Hindus with diplomacy. He abolished the tax on non-Muslims, banned the slaughtering of cows, and promoted Hindu warriors in his army. He became a vegetarian and married a Hindu princes. He also established a place where religious scholars of all faiths could meet and share common beliefs.

Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, ruled from 1628-1658 and loved to build. He constructed the Tahj Mahal as a mausoleum for his dead wife, the love of his life, Mumta Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is made of ivory white marble and is the most famous example of Islamic architecture with its minarets (spire towers). a dome, and pointed arches. No images of living things are allowed in the Muslim faith but marble and inlayed flower designs are everywhere plus Islamic calligraphy.

Shah Jahan lived in the sandstone and marble Red Fort, which he also built during his reign.

Here I was able to see more Islamic architectural features including Moorish multifoil arches and muqarnas vaulting with its textured detail.

The fort was massive and fascinating.

Unfortunately, the romantic, creative Shah Jahan would have further tragedy in his life. His tyrannical son, Aurangzeb would become the last Mughal emperor. During Aurangzeb’s reign, Hindu temples and images were destroyed and the playing of music was forbidden. He imprisoned his father in the fort where legend says Shah Jahan died of a broken heart in 1660. As a prisoner, he could see the Tag Mahal in far distence but was never allowed to visit his wife at her final resting place again.

I learned both beautiful and tragic lessons in these historic places. We, as human beings, have clear choices in life, either we can create beauty or we can spend our lives destroying things, other people and maybe even ourselves. This sunny day in Agra, India made this lesson extremely clear.

India-Nuclear War?

This map courtesy of indiadefencereview.com

When India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, a plan was made to make Pakistan an Islamic state and divide Kashmir into two, half Pakistani and half Indian. These two areas are separated by The Line Of Control , a heavy militarized unofficial boundary. These divisions brought about a lot hardship and resentment that still exist today.

On February 14 of this year, Islamic militants staged a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killing 40 people. On February 26, 2019, India retaliated by bombing an airstrip in Pakistan used by these militants. The world is calling for restraint since both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons. An Indian pilot was capture by the Pakistanis but was released. Indian national elections will be held in April and May and this appears to be also holding things in limbo.

The bad feelings between Muslims and Hindus have a long history. What are the keys to compromise and cooperation? These conflicts bother me since I see the same themes in my own country. Is violence and destruction the only outcome? I hope not, for the sake of all future generations no matter what part of the world they live in.

Mughal (Islamic) Architecture in India

India-The Value of Education and Stubbornness

Education is of very great importance to me, followed by the quality of stubbornness. Like many families, my relatives don’t like to talk much about feelings. Dark secrets are buried and many tales are hidden away. As Yuval Noah Harari, writes in his book, Sapien, all cultures are based on stories and those in power decide which stories will dominate. But I have another viewpoint, that eventually the truth comes out. It leaks through holes of forgotten revelations and suddenly remembered events. These conjure up “ah-ha” moments, bursts of clarity when the mind declares “so that’s why things are the way they are”. One brain scientist stated the mind “remembers patterns not rules”. Thank goodness or we would all be living in a state of bewilderment. If we really listen and observe , we can finally see the inconsistencies in fantasies accepted as true. And if we look deeper yet, we can see the lasting influence that our past and heritage have on our lives.

I remember my grandfather, sitting in the kitchen of his house on Welch Avenue in Niagara Falls, NY. I was about four but I can still see the brown radio on a little wooden shelf way above his head and mine. It was always on when he was present, squawking Polish, his native lauguage, or playing happy Polkas He was always reading a newspaper, coming from who know where, written in the language of the “old country”.

It was years later that my cousin told me the legend of my grandfather and my grandmother. A story that has impacted me and will influence future generations in my family forever.

Before coming to this country before World War I, my grandfather was part of a prosperous family of doctors who expected him to pursue a career in medicine. My grandfather had other ideas, he wanted to marry my grandmother and be a duck farmer. His family was livid and ridiculed his decision by making fun of my grandmother who was illiterate. But she was extremely stubborn and would not allow herself to be shamed. She secretly slipped two duck eggs into her apron, sold them at the market in town, bought chalk and a small slate, and taught herself to read and write.

This spirit of perseverance and the belief that education was the key to a better life and a sense of pride was passed down to my mother who was unfortunately a victim of history. She never went passed the eighth grade because she worked during The Great Depression cleaning houses for a dollar a day. She later worked as a cafeteria lady and a cook but she had learned how important education was. By working hard and saving , my mom put aside enough money so my two sisters and I were able to go to college. She stubbornly rejected the advise of some family members who said education wasn’t important for girls. I owe so much to the strength and persistence of my grandmother and mother. Education was my golden ticket to a professional career as a teacher and now has provided me with the resources to travel. My education has also made me a curious lifelong learner, something I enjoy everyday

Of course, when I visited India I was interested in their education system. School attendance is compulsory for children ages six to fourteen. But I learned there are glaring discrepancies. Private school have more resources.

Public School

What is even more disturbing is the fact that about 60% of the Indian population lives in rural areas and according to a study in 2008, the absentee rate for teachers in rural schools was on average 48% each day.

And to make matters worse, as of 2018, 28% of schools (19% public schools) have internet, 9% have computers (4 % for public schools) and only 68% of all school have usable toilets.

Those who have enough money for a good education, mainly those who go to private schools and /or have additional funds for the services of tutors are more likely to get into one of India’s 900 universities or 40,000 colleges. This privileged group does very well as professionals in the fields of technology, information, medicine, engineering, management, and economics. They have great social mobility and are sought by corporations and businesses in the US.

There is hope. Progressive companies in India like Tata Consulting Services (TCS) runs the largest private digital education school for potential employees. 400,000 employable students are coached in data analytics, cloud computing, and the “internet of things.” The company also rotates 200,000 employees at a time in a program to continuously update their techs in 600,000 competencies. “Based on market demand or project specifics, education for workers is always immediately relevant”.

Aravind Eye Care System also trains its workers and is able to provide eye care for poor Indian citizens. They have gone a step further and opened a plant that manufactures intraocular lenses that cost one fourth of those imported from the US.

It’s heartbreaking to see the woundedness of India. The country needs a better education system but also upgrades in security, protection of property rights, health services, and infrastructure. Change is slow because of governmental corruption. Bribery and patronage are very common and widespread.

India needs a strong dose of stubbornness. The people have power in their numbers. Those who are poor and rural must rise from the shame of their situation. The light of justice must be focused on corruption so the government is more effect in serving all Indians. Also, the leaders in employee training need to be encouraged and recognized so their reforms can spread across all of India.

I owe so much to my grandmother who would not allow herself to be shamed. She had the strenghth and ingenuity to do something to better herself and I’m very proud of her stubborn determination. As she lived her story, she planted the seeds of power into the heart of her daughter, my mother. Because of my mom, my sisters and I were able to go to college. Now the grandchildren, and great grandchildren in my family believe in the importance of education also and this light will go on and on. We will all be stubborn and resilient in our resolve. Thank you so much, Mom. Thank you so much, Babci (the Polish word for grandmother)!

India-A Travel Hangover

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I haven’t written in a few weeks, I have been caught up in American culture. I went to a college sorority reunion and spent a few days at an ocean resort. I reside now in a sort of purgatory. I’m a student of Eastern practices (mindfulness and meditation) living in the Western world. I’m a typical American striving to become rather than just be. With baby boomer enthusiasm, I flit from activity to activity hoping in retirement to make up for lost time.

A typical day starts with my morning weigh in. As I squint to see if the numbers have gone down, I remember to put on my glasses. On a recent morning, I didn’t have time to feed the coffee maker and press its buttons. I wasn’t able to watch the news to find out if our country was stable or at least kind once more. I knew in my heart nothing has changed. Maybe I watch every morning because I am mesmerized by how many different ways the same old stuff is presented over and over again. I had to be at the car dealership on this particular morning to have repairs done to my rack and pinion steering. Being an independent woman, I knew what that meant, it was expensive. $500? $1000? No, $1500. I cursed silently in my mind. I have an emergency fund. It will come out of there but my mom taught me to be a saver so the money will have to to be replaced.

My car was repaired, the bill paid, I was agitated. I had courtesy coffee at the dealership but I decide to break one of my rules and have a midday coffee. Under the circumstances, I felt I deserved it. I knew just where to go. I put on a gentle jazz CD in the car player and headed down the highway. I slowed down a bit as I passed some trucks and heavy construction equipment along the side of the road. A group of workers watched as a yellow machine attacked a tree and like an angry dinosaur munched it to pieces.

My destination was a quick stop that boasts of the best coffee in the world. The beans are ground on the spot for each cup. I approached the computerized wall of robot coffee servers and programed one of the screens on their bellies. “Columbian, small”, and then I chose the prompt “leave space” rather than ” fill to the top”.

I decided to stay instead of running home. I sat at the very last table at the end of a shaft separated from the rest of the quick stop by a glass wall. Alone in the corner of this “temple” of capitalism I searched for a little peace. I became mindful, awakening all my senses. Since the entrance was at the far end of my secluded tunnel, I could hear and watch customers come and go. I concentrated on the taste of my premium coffee, felt the temperature of air around me, and smelled the hot dogs perpetually traveling on a revolving grill. My mind took over as I looked ahead. I became uncomfortably aware of the manufactured symmetry, the labels and branding on everything. All objects were priced and ready to be bought. I moved my attention away from my breaths to my traveler’s mind which always seems to contemplate oddities and the lessons they bring.

My eyes settled on a sign over the lottery dispensing machine, “find real riches”. Real riches. What are real riches? Are they all the things that money can buy? Do they bring real happiness?

My mind went back to India, to a Hindu temple with a holy man on duty who was sitting peacefully as if he was waiting for me.


I approached him, bowing and saying “Namaste”. He asked if he could bless me. I had left my purse on our tour bus and I told I had no money with me. He said it didn’t matter and when he was done he tied an orange string around my wrist.

After three and a half months, the token from this kind and gentle man still remains on my wrist.

And I think his blessing still remains, also.

By chance, I happened to be listening to a morning news program when a young Indian man, Parag Khanna, was being interviewed about his latest book, The Future is Asia. I searched out a copy and discovered it was about international opportunities in business. It was extremely interesting because it contrasted Western business models with those influenced by Eastern thought. Asian philosophy encourages unity of self with others, an alliance of man and nature, and an open ended approach to knowledge as something that can change according to circumstances. In Western cultures, we don’t always respect nature and the environment and we are more interest in the advancement of individuals over groups or community. We are more interested in wealth maximization than the welfare of people. Mr. Khanna presented two different business approaches. First, he talked about our current Western approach, “global rules based on order”. And then he quoted a Chinese saying. In it is a vision for our rapidly changing diverse global society, namely that we should strive for “a community of common destiny.” Since I strongly believe, and will always believe, that we are all in this together, I will chose to live this second path.