Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hi from Rishikesh

We're in the thick of "new age on sale" here in Rishikesh, a town the Beatles put on the map of the Western world back in 1968. Store after store is filled with Tibetan prayer bowls, sandlewood, incense and then offerings of yoga classes and Auryuvedic massage. We did wander into a river-side Ashram which was all in Hindi...peaceful and contained. Mostly the commoditization of spirituality for the Western pocketbook is an uncomfortable sight to behold.

So different from our Delhi visit to the Swaminarayan Akshardham where throngs of Indians (as well as a smattering of Westerners) took in the huge and amazing complex. The temple is so new (just completed in 2005) that its listed in very few guide books.

Yesterday (our second day in India) was another amazing day. One of my favorite moments was riding on a bicycle rickshaw through Old Delhi. Our bicylist/driver barely spoke English, so when we wanted him to slow down I just poked his back. It was like New York's lower east side X 50. Tons of shops selling both wholesale and retail of everything from sarees to beads to fried breads to spices, jewelry, etc. I'd focus my camera on one thing and within seconds something else would pop into my frame and I'd still have an amazing picture. I can't remember the last time my eyes popped so much!

We also visited Delhi's Natural History Museum--amazing artifacts from the earliest cultures of India (Harappan culture which existed between 2000 and 2700 years ago). Many renditions of the Hindu gods followed...some just amazing to behold. Makes one so appreciate the beauty of polytheism (and feel sad over the global impact of monotheism).

A favorite moment in the museum which witnessing a group of visiting Buddhist monks circling and chanting around an exhibit that contained the remains of Buddha. Whoever said museums should just be for tourists and scholars? Nothing like being witness to believers in action!

Our guide also took us to more monuments--Ghandhi's tomb (beautiful site with flowers, an eternal flame and beautifully appointed gardens), the Red Fort (very red and still in use) and a huge Muslim Mosque. I photographed moments of worshippers absorbed in prayer and then some tourists from Philly wanted me to photograph them with the largest parapet behind them...and so to play along, I had them photograph me!

We spent the evening with Rosalyn, a literature grad student and Gotham who works at a Delhi social policy think tank. We had fabulous conversations about changing mores in Indian arranged marriages are no longer the norm for all Indians...that dating is increasingly practiced amongst young Indian professionals, that key exchange type swinging occurs amongst sophisticated couples in places like Bombay and Goa and that living with a lover is also being practiced here and there. And then just to add to my sexological data base, one of our drivers asked us an infection-related question that seemed to reveal the possibility that he'd been having sex with someone other than his wife. Suddenly floodgates of curiousity opened and I began to pump him. Was he having an affair? With whom? Was this common amongst people in arranged marriages? I felt the challenges of love and marriage in India crumbling into my finger tips. Yes waiting until ones' mid-20s to marry a virtual stranger is often a recipe for sexual misinformation and incompatibility. While the Western world's practice of love marriage hardly ensures the durability of marriage (divorce is still low in India), India today is an especially hard place to be happily married. Young couples are provoked from all sides--there are the sexy movies from Bollywood, and we must not forget that India is also the birthplace of the Kama Sutra. What a lot of historical and cultural baggage to carry!