Monday, 29 October 2018

INDIA ( Delhi, Jaipur, Karauli and Agra)


Hotel Goodtimes in the Karol Bagh area of New Delhi where we stayed.

ARRIVING IN INDIA
Marilyn and I have just returned from ten days in northern India. We toured the,” Golden Triangle,” from Delhi to Jaipur, on to Karauli, Agra and finally back to Delhi. We travelled with a company called, Intrepid. Emily, one of our daughters, has toured with Intrepid in South East Asia and also Cuba. They create tours that provide cultural and social experiences. Marilyn and I both felt that we saw and experienced so much in a short period of time. Our tour gave us a real insight into India.

On the evening of the first day, we met our group in a meeting room of the, Hotel Good Times, situated in the Karol Bagh  area of New Delhi,. Sabyasachi Pathak was our leader for the trip. We called him Sab throughout our ten days. He always had a great smile on his face and was alert to our needs and ready to answer all our questions whatever they might be. He asked us to introduce ourselves and to speak a little about why we wanted to visit India. Chris, who comes from Bristol went first. She talked about India being on her bucket list. Richard, from Australia, went next said something similar and so did Elli from Michigan. I mentioned being inspired by seeing lots of documentaries featuring India. Marilyn said she had always wanted to visit India since she was a child. Rattana, from Thailand, had always wanted to go to India too. And so we went round introducing ourselves. Sab told us a bit about himself and how he had got involved with Intrepid. he has an MBA in tourism management and is a qualified Himalayan guide and mountaineer. A great example of the young educated Indians driving India forward. Sab went through our itinerary for the next eight days.  By connecting with different cultures we begin to see different points of view.  The world becomes a better place.

That first evening Sab took us to a local restaurant where we did some more socialising. We were a    diverse group with different backgrounds and experiences but what was evidently the same for all of us was that we were positive and friendly.  By the end of the night we were all laughing and  joking together and getting on like a, “house on fire.” It couldn’t have been a better start. We all went off to our rooms for the night enthused for the coming adventures.


The streets of Old Delhi.The wiring is a sight to see.

DELHI URBAN WALK
Our first day consisted of an urban walk in the old part of Delhi. This part of Delhi has fading glory. Old buildings, cracked pavements, leaking gutters and crumbling walls, line every street. Masses of cables, like tangled spaghetti along the side of each road, are looped between staggering telegraph poles straining under the weight. Road side vendors, colourfully dressed, squat beside piles of coconuts, some cook food in large steal cauldrons over gas burners. There were varied arrays of fruit, and spices, vegetables and pulses and also stalls selling clothes. One lady was steam ironing shirts by the road side using a hefty ornate iron that was heated with coals inside its capacious bulk. It must have been very heavy to wield. There were shops selling wedding clothes, The wedding market is big business. There were wedding card shops that designed and created personalized cards.All our senses were assaulted. There were the smells, the colourful sights and the incessant sound of car and motor bike horns. Traffic talks to each other in India. 


Rickshaws.

Motor rickshaw drivers were calling out for business as we walked by. Cows, sacred to the Hindus, wandered between the multitude of people. Dented and rusted cars and hundreds of small motorbikes charged here and there, aiming for any space they can see between other moving vehicles. There seemed to be no rules on the road. Pollution is very high in Delhi. We could smell and taste the air. I imagined this seething mass of humanity as a vibrant, living ,"soup," from which anything could emanate. There was something very creative going on. Commerce, begging, crafts, food, all manner of  existence. It seemed a very hopeful place. Seeing the lame, the maimed and the blind beggars was disconcerting though. Seeing families camped by the roadside and some encamped on the grass islands at roundabouts, sometimes babies crawling, partially clothed, along the pavement, grey with the dust off the road was upsetting. 


Children on the street. Heartbreaking.

I talked to Sab about this. The government were offering these people accommodation, food and shelter but very often they were persuaded by local mafias to not take the government offers. The gangs and the local mafias used them for drug running. I did notice that there were no older children on the streets with their families. The thought occurs what has happened to them and how do they fit into this existence of poverty under the influence of local gangs? I asked, “what is the solution?” Sab replied, “education.” I agree to a certain extent. However just being offered education is not enough. Families and communities have to be enthused by the idea of education and what it can do. There has to be a belief in education among those it is offered to. I also wondered, seeing these children and babies crawling on the pavements and in the gutters, some drugged to keep them docile, and families with merely a  tarpaulin for a roof and a few bundles of clothes, why proactive work could not be done by the government? India is becoming and has become a technological powerhouse. It is a wealthy nation. At other times on our trip we saw plenty of examples of the modern India which is growing fast.  We came across this dirt and grime and similar ways of life in the other cities we visited too, Agra and Jaipur.

The Jama Masjid Mosque in Old Delhi.
SOME DELHI HIGHLIGHTS
Sab organized  tours of Delhi for us. We visited the Jama Masjid mosque built between 1644 and   1658 built by Sha Jahan, the fifth Mughul Emperor. It is an enormous red sandstone complex of buildings dominating the old part of Delhi. Although the last of Sha Jahan’s great architectural masterpieces it was the first of the buildings by that powerful Mughul ruler that we were to experience on our trip.   We could see in the distance the vast area occupied by Delhi’s Red Fort. We looked down on the surrounding market area seething with life, vibrant colours and noise.




The streets surrounding the Jama Masjid Mosque.

 On that first day we also visited a Sikh Temple.  We had to remove our shoes and cover our heads as we became part of the congregation.One of the temple guards allowed us to pose with him for photographs. Sikh temples provide food for their congregation and for anybody who wishes to eat. The families on the street therefore have a ready access to free food in this way. We were invited into the temple kitchens and helped prepare the food. Richard and I stirred the enormous cauldrons with a sort of vegetable stew in them. Marilyn, Chris, Elli and Rattana sat cross  legged and made nann bread. The usual cooks looked on. I wonder what they thought? 


Stirring the pot.
On our drive around    Delhi we stopped to photograph the enormous India Gate and the government buildings including the   parliament house and the old Viceroys residence. That evening we had a meal on the roof top of a heritage hotel in the Baragh district. It had been the city home of a Marahaja and contained family portraits and much of the interior had retained its wall hangings, furniture and personal items.


A heritage hotel and restaurant in Delhi. 

 Many of these heritage hotels are still owned by the Maharajas and have become income sources   for them.  Sab organized a brightly dressed dance group from an outlying village to entertain us with their dancing accompanied  by rhythmic drumming and a hand pumped organ. We were encouraged to   join in the dancing which turned into a sort of conga. So our first days in India had begun.



The Maharaja and his wife?




TRAVELLING BY ROAD TO JAIPUR
From Delhi we travelled a few hundred kilometers to Jaipur. On the five-hour road trip we had the opportunity to see the countryside and small villages and roadside sellers. The area we travelled into was, Rajastan, an area of India that Sab informed us had never been taken over by the British. The rulers of Rajastan befriended the British and became close allies. We saw camels pulling carts, conical stacks of maize  stalks dotting the landscape, fields bordered by sparsely scattered trees, roadside stalls selling a multitude of colourful fruits and vegetables and cows roaming free by the roadside. Once our driver pointed     out a plume of smoke in a nearby field. A crowd seemed to be gathered around it. He said that a cremation was taking place.



A local cremation.
In the early morning, hundreds of school children, wearing distinctive uniforms and carrying books, stretched long distances, wending their way from outlying settlements to schools in the  larger villages. The idea of education is obviously accepted and a very important acquisition in these outlying areas. Sab told me that the government provided free education along with uniforms and books for these children. 


A girl in her school uniform walking to school.
We witnessed an accident. Two young men had come off a motorbike. Neither were wearing crash helmets. One young man lay there, his head bleeding. We couldn’t help but see it. Many people and a police car were gathered around the two young men who were lying in the road. Elli was worried and upset. I told her that Indian doctors are excellent and Sab said that an ambulance was on its way. This was the only accident, on a relatively quiet country road, we witnessed the whole time we were in India. The mayhem of Delhi and Jaipur traffic produced no accidents. Unbelievable.

We reached Jaipur, the pink city, a bustling ancient city full of life but on a smaller scale to Delhi. We drove by the bright pink coloured ancient city walls and turned down a side street to our hotel, The Arya Niswas. It was an oasis of calm amidst the rubbish strewn pavements , cracked paving stones and street stalls nearby.


Time for tea in Jaipur.

 A well manicured lawn fronted the hotel surrounded by tall gently waving trees, set out with  comfortable tables and chairs to drink tea or a beer. Early on our first morning, Rattana, Marilyn and myself went for a walk. Rattana was very keen to look around. She wanted her early morning exercise.We obtained a map of the city from the hotel desk and decided to walk into the old town. Our hotel was located at the north east corner of an area of narrow alleyways and ornately designed  shops. Monkeys  scrambled up the telegraph poles and lithely sped along roof tops. Cows scavenged amongst piles of debris and here and there a pig snuffled through the piles of rubbish. 


Cow in a Jaipur side street.
The shops were opening up and we     passed workshops and spice emporiums, shops selling beautiful, brightly coloured lengths of cloth, stalls selling water chestnuts and a multitude of pulses and also coconut stalls. We decided, that to be able to get  back to our hotel we would employ a simple strategy ," keep turning right." After walking down the main street for a while taking in the smells and sights and sounds we turned right down a narrow street that    stretched into the distance, 


Fruit and vegetables.
There were shops selling marble statues of Ganesh, Hanuman and Rama and Sita and we also saw a life size carving of Mahatma Ghandi. Every now and then we came across small    shrines and temples with people wearing orange garlands round their knecks and with bright red bindi marks on their foreheads. The bindi mark represents the third eye often meant to ward off bad luck. They were saying their morning prayers, perhaps on their way to their place of work.


Praying at a street shrine in the early morning
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 Everywhere we went, whether in Delhi or Jaipur or the other places we were to visit we saw devout Indians of whatever cast  or religion attending their temples, shrines and mosques. Walking on we reached the end of this long     street which took us to the edge of the old town. We turned right and I thought I began to recognize buildings and landmarks. Indeed we were on the right track and arrived safely back at our hotel.

VISITING PALACES
Our time in Jaipur was once again an intense experience. We visited The Amber Fort, which comprises a Mughul palace as well as a fort, just outside of Jaipur. On the way we saw the magical Jal Mahal, a palace set in the middle of a large lake. 


The Jal Mahal palace near Jaipur.
 We were jostled in the streets on our way passing through masses of people celebrating a local festival singing and dancing as they went. Elephants carrying passengers added to the traffic congestion. 


Celebrating in the streets on the way to The Amber Fort.

The Amber Fort is a vast city , palace and fort constructed from yellow and pink sandstones. Another enormous fort faces it from an adjacent hilltop nearby and a wall follows the contours of the surrounding hills,  like The Great Wall of China. It encircles both complexes. The Emperor Akbar made it his capital city. It has ornate halls and rooms decorated with beautiful finely detailed designs. 


Marilyn and I with The Amber Fort in the background.

The palaces within these fortresses contain amazing technology. Hollow red sandstone columns had cool running water flowing through them. Vast water tanks hidden on palace roofs were manually filled from nearby rivers and as the water flowed down through channels fountains sprung up in water gardens. Many of the windows in these palaces were made from intricate and finely carved stone lattice work. This enabled cooling breezes to waft through the rooms, giving them the name of, wind palaces. 


Walking in a grand hall at The Amber Fort.

Later on in Agra,the palace within the Red Fort had a bedroom designed for Sha Jahan that contained a double wall with a stone lattice cut into the interior wall. Beautiful maidens would walk through this hidden passage in the morning wearing bangles which they jangled as they walked. This was to waken Sha Jahan. Rich carpets were hung from the walls. The ceilings were covered in intricate coloured geometric patterns. Perfumed air was wafted through the room by sets of bellows and some of Shah Jahans 300 wives and many concubines would be chosen to bathe him in a lotus shaped pool and administer to his every need. Dancing girls would perform before him. It seemed to me that these Palaces were trying create a heaven on earth. However only one person could ever benefit from this and that was the ruler, King or Emperor whose Palace it was. Every other human in the place was there to fulfil his every need. The morality of this concept is thought provoking. It became apparent in the architecture, design and layout of all these different palaces that the Mughul Emperors were treated almost as gods.

The Jantar Mantar, Jaipur. It was built by the Rajput King Sawai Jai Singh II and completed in 1734.[

JAIPUR TOURS
In Jaipur we chose different ways to spend our time. Marilyn, Elli and Rattana went shopping in the bazars, pestered and enticed into shops to look at the wares the shop keepers demanded they see. They also visited the city palace. Chris, Richard and myself visited the Jantar Mantar, a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a series of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments. The largest of the sundials can tell the time accurately to two minutes. There are instruments which can also make calculations about the star signs. This was the purpose of the great sundials. Accurate times of birth would provide accurate star sign readings for the elites. An enthusiastic guide showed us around and explained each instrument in detail and showed us how it worked. The mental calculations he made were fast and accurate..Chris was keen to know about her zodiac sign and we found the construction for Taurus. Our guide explained how the machine worked. To be accurate not only the time of birth but geographical location needs to be known. John Harrison, in Britain in the 1730s was producing his accurate portable clocks that mariners used to work out longitude and navigate the world.

The cinema in Jaipur.
BOLLYWOOD
While we were in Jaipur Sab got us tickets to see a Bollywood Movie. The cinema was a like a palace. The interior was all swirls and curves. The film we saw wasn’t a musical, all singing and dancing, the epitome of what we think a Bollywood movie is. It was a social commentary along the lines of,”Cathy Come Home,” but not as austere and brutal. It had a very happy ending. The plot goes: a poor young man has had an arranged marriage.. A sewing machine he has borrowed from a neighbor is taken back by the neighbour. The young man has been using the sewing machine to earn a living. Jealousy intervenes. He keeps   messing and up and he does not impress his bride. You get the impression she  really doesn’t want anything to do with him. Eventually through various ups and downs he obtains a government financed sewing machine to set himself up in business. He then joins a brand clothing manufacturing company. Things are looking good. However, he clashes with the managing director, a woman. He loses his job.  His  wife decides to take things into her own hands. She reclaims his sewing machine and helps him create new clothing designs. The local community pull together to help him produce a range of clothing and he gets accepted for a fashion design competition. Against all the odds and in competition against the company that sacked him, he wins. The future is rosy. You get the drift? It was an aspirational film to give people hope and to create heroes and heroines. We didn’t have the benefit of subtitles  but we could follow the main ideas in the film. By the way, audiences tend to clap and cheer in India.

Bhanwar Villas at Karauli.

ON THE ROAD BETWEEN JAIPUR AND AGRA
Between Jaipur and Agra is a long drive. Sab arranged to break our journey at a small town called Karauli. Our accommodation was in a magnificent heritage hotel called Bhanwar Villas. It is a 1930s art deco mansion built by the local Maharaja who still owns it. He and his wife arrived while we were there but we didn’t get to speak to them. Marilyn and I were given a small apartment at the back of the property passing through two courtyards with beautiful flower beds, shrubs and fountains. Our room had a sitting room annex and a spacious shower and bathroom. The double bed was so vast Marilyn and I lost each other that night. Just above our bed, hanging over our heads, was a small shrine to Rama and Sita.  

Karauli from the roof of the city palace.
KARAULI
 Sab organized motor rickshaws to take us into town to visit the city palace, which is owned by the same family who owned our hotel. Again it was intricate and beautiful and contained many technological surprises. It had the stone lattices which created cool breezes but it also had a 14th century ,”air conditioning,” machine. Cold water flowed down a wide stone chute and warm breezes flowed over the falling water creating cool air in the rooms.Part of our stay in Karauli was a village walk. From the city palace we started walking through the tightly packed streets towards our hotel. It was dark and all the lights came on in the town and then they went out, but after a while they came back on again and then they went off again. Powercuts and shortages   often happen. Young men started to proposition us and I positioned myself behind Marilyn for obvious   reasons. Richard and I followed behind the group as Sab lead at the front. Once when the lights went out Richard was convinced he felt a hand trying to get his wallet from his pocket. People kept badgering us, mostly in a friendly way. A cow we walked past decided to lick my backside. We looked into darkened workshops and every type of skill and creativity was going on, pottery, weaving, jewelry making, stone carving and food cooking. Marilyn thought it must have been how Medieval London was.

Having a go at block printing fabrics in Agra.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RURAL INDUSTRIES
In Jaipur and Agra we visited various workshops. In Jaipur we visited a workshop that cut and polished   gem stones. In the local mountains a whole variety of precious and semi-precious gems are mined, diamonds, rubies, amethyst,amber and agate. The workshop we visited also had a high class shop selling beautifully designed necklaces, earrings and rings. Later in Agra we visited a workshop that used wood blocks and natural local plant dies to create incredible fabrics. Also, in Agra, we visited a shop that sold local   teas and spices.  

Designing a carpet on graph paper.

At a carpet making factory, we saw the carpets from the design stage, drawn on large   sheets of graph paper, to the dyeing of long shanks of wool, to the painstaking weaving of a carpet on a loom. Each tiny thread was tied by hand. A single carpet can take three or four months to complete. The final stage was washing the carpet and trimming it with scissors to make sure every thread was an even  length. Many of these products we saw being made are sold in shops and stores here in Britain. Often    designers from some of the international companies will provide designs to be made up. The whole process starts with the villagers and reaches high class stores around the world and everybody gets fair pay. The Indian Government are sponsoring and encouraging these sorts of local craft based industries. It is a way of bringing wealth to the villages.

Fatehpar Sikri.

FATEHPAR SIKRI,THE RED FORT AND THE TAJ MAHAL
 Later, when we visited the Fatehpur Sikri, a town founded by the Mughal Emperor Akbar and used as his capital near Agra, we also had an enthusiastic guide who reminded me of the guide at the Jantar Mantar. This gentleman was sharp witted and able to answer all our questions. We were able to discuss concepts and ideas with him. I don’t know what made me, but I asked him if he had ever been to Britain. He looked at me and just said, “ I am a poor man from a local village. I have no education. All my education I have received is in training to be a guide here.” I felt humbled and silenced. This intelligent, quick witted man was, in his words ,”uneducated.” It reminded me of something Elli spoke to me about. She said that we were lucky to have been born into a western country. I agreed. Life is down to chance in many ways. I think India makes you realise that. But something the people of India have got that we have lost to a great extent is the extended family. There is great community spirit in India and there is a lot of love amongst people. We, in Britain,  have become nuclear and often isolated. Those who love us are not always readily at hand.   Gaining wealth is  not everything it’s cracked up to be. An important aspect of Fatepar Sikri is that Akbar, the Emperor, invented his own religion. He decided to combine, Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Zoroastrian concepts and beliefs into one religion. It only lasted his lifetime but within the walls of his palace are symbols carved on the walls and roofs combing imagery from all the religions. I couldn't help thinking what an amazing idea he had.

The Taj Mahal.

At last, in Agra,we visited one of the highlights of our whole tour, The Taj Mahal situated beside the Yamuna River. The Taj was built by Sha Jahan, the fifth Mughul Emperor in 1632 for his most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Out of his three hundred wives and many concubines she was his favourite because she had born him seven children including four sons.
We took a bicycle rickshaw along the long approach to the Taj Mahal. I must admit I was almost expecting that when I saw the Taj I would be underwhelmed. Everybody knows what the Taj Mahal looks like.   We have all seen it a thousand times in so many formats. I thought it held no surprises. However when we entered the gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal and I caught site of the mausoleum for the first time, it   took my breath away. It is perfect in symmetry and its shape is elegant and simple. The white marble it   is constructed from almost glows. I felt transfixed by the sight of it.
 Sha Jahan was later imprisoned in the Red Fort himself, just down river from the Taj, when one of his sons Aurangzeb usurped him and killed off his older brothers to take the throne. Aurangzeb spared his father from death.  Sha Jahan was able to view  the Taj Mahal from the  palace windows from within the Red Fort. He longed to be buried next to his favourite wife which eventually came about.
The entrance to the precinct around the Taj Mahal.

We as tourists felt humbled when we were put into a fast track queue to go inside. Many Indians queued for hours in a long snaking line. When we came out Marilyn and I were surprised to be approached,  first of by two teenage sisters. They wanted their photograph with us. Their brother took the picture.     Then a family approached us and wanted their photographs taken with us. I was bemused. After that a mother and little girl approached. The mother wanted her daughters photograph taken with me. We sat on stone steps and this little tot just beamed at me. The mother asked where I came from. I told her I came from London. As we walked away I overheard her saying to her daughter. “Remember. He comes from London.” What was going on? I asked Sab later about this. He said that many people visited the Taj from all  over India, many coming from small villages. They have never seen a white person from Europe in the flesh before. They are amazed to see us. I felt very strange about that. We obviously made their day.

MODERN INDIA
On our drive from Agra, as we returned to Delhi from the south, we travelled along a new motorway just like we have in Britain and Europe. We passed the Budhh International formual 1 circuit , a triumph of modern architecture and then we began passing one high rise after the other. Some of them headquarters of multinational companies. Others were modern apartment blocks for the young Indians working in the new high tech industries. This is the new modern India. The contrast with what we had experienced was immense.

In the home of a lovely lady in Delhi who showed us how to cook.

MORE DELHI ADVENTURES
Delhi has many types of urban adventures to offer. In our first two days in Delhi we went on an urban     cooking experience organised by Aman. We visited a family in Old Delhi. The six of us were warmly welcomed into the family's home by the grandmother who hugged each one of us as we entered and placed a bindi mark on our foreheads. We dressed in traditional clothing and the lady of the house invited us into her kitchen    and demonstrated the preparation and cooking of various dishes. We were invited to sit at the family     table and were presented with dish after dish of delicious food. After I had eaten two lots of everything my stomach couldn’t take anymore. The food kept coming. It was difficult to politely say, “enough.” We took photographs of the food preparation and asked lots of questions about ingredients and preparation techniques. Since we have returned home we have been e-mailed all the recipes. Marilyn and I will be    trying out our new culinary skills sometime.

The mosque in the centre of Lodi Park.

At the end of our time in India Marilyn and we added two  extra days onto our trip. We asked Sab to give us suggestions for urban tours. We spent a day with a young man called Ahmid who took us to Lodi Park, a beautiful city park with an ancient mosque and tomb situated in the centre of the city. In the 1930s,  Lady Willington, the wife of the then British Viceroy, had two villages demolished and  the park created on the site to remind her of England. We visited the Qutub Minar, India’s tallest minaret set within the  ruins of one of the seven Delhis that have been built  over the centuries. It comprised the remains of     mosques and various town buildings. Ahmid also took us to the 14century Agrasen Ki Baoli, an area of   temples, including an enormous water reservoir that supplied water to old  Delhi. The highlight of the    day was visiting the house where Mahatma Ghandi lived towards the end of his life.


Ghandi's sleeping and working couch.

 We walked in         Ghandis footsteps to the spot where he prayed daily and where people would gather to pray with him. It was here that a Hindu nationalist shot and killed him. We spent time in the Ghandi museum discovering information about his life, and his philosophy, and his views about men and women. We saw his sandals and the stick he used when on the salt march. There were many photographs and memorabilia of Ghandi throughout his life here. Ahmin then got our driver to take us to the large park in Delhi where Mahatma Ghandi was cremated . We walked barefoot and payed our respects. These urban adventures took us to the heart of Delhi and India.


The site of Ghandi's assassination.
THE PENULTIMATE DAY
The day before we were to leave we had nothing organized, Marilyn and I decided to walk through the area near our hotel. It is a bustling shopping area with many side streets . Much of Delhi is built on a grid system. We once more made our way through the noise and vibrancy of an energetic Delhi. One street   comprised of shops that sold past exam papers. Great piles of yellow books of exam papers for every      sort of subject. There were private educational establishments all up and down this street.  Another        street focused on jewelry and another on clothing. Each commodity had its own street or part of a street. We decided to have a cup of tea and found a cafe up some stairs over some shops situated on a  busy junction. The cafĂ© was modern and had an industrial design to it. Artistic graffiti adorned the walls and loud techno music with a heavy beat blared out over speakers. In amongst the traditional  India you often find the modern, young India mixed in. It is often a surprise to stumble across it. Sab told me that he loved loud techno music. This type of music seems to be very popular amongst young educated Indians.


On our penultimate day we wandered the busy streets not far from our hotel.

FINAL THOUGHTS
On our last day we had to get an early morning taxi to the airport. The taxi arrived in plenty of time and was waiting for us outside the hotel. We said goodbye to the hotel staff and off we drove. It was early and the streets were relatively quiet. As we approached the modern Indira Ghandi airport, it has been open eight years, I noticed a solitary old lady crouching on a nearby grass verge in the middle of the road. I asked the driver what she was doing there. He said she is weeding the verge. I asked, “Is that her job?” He said it was. I asked what she would get paid for doing the weeding. He said, “Oh about 7000 rupees a month.” That is equivalent to nearly £70. “Can she live on that?” I asked. “Oh yes. She only has to buy food.” I wondered where she lived. The taxi driver pointed out a well-manicured hedge running along the side of this pristine modern road with the vast modern airport complex looming ahead of us and suggested we look through the hedge. There I caught a glimpse of tents and shacks. Apparently there is no cost to living there. This is the India of today.


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Sunday, 7 October 2018

OCEANIA at The Royal Academy (29th September - 10th December)


The entrance to the OCEANIA exhibition at the Royal Academy.
Monday the 1st October. Marilyn and I bought tickets to see the OCEANIA exhibition to commemorate the exploration of the South Seas by Captain James Cook in the ship, Endeavour, two hundred and fifty years ago. The exhibition is about the cultures and artefacts of the people of the Pacific Island groups.
 James Cook arrived at Matavai Bay, on Tahiti, on the 13th April 1769. He discovered a new world.Walking around this exhibition the evidence shows that these pacific Island people had formed a rich and complex way of life and sets of beliefs completely unconnected to European belief systems. We are all human beings and share a common humanity. What do human beings do to engage with the world and make sense of life?

A beautiful insect like fishing canoe.
In the 18th century Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. With a lack of direct experience on the part of Defoe and relying on Christian and Europe colonial beliefs and systems he created a character who is the embodiment of colonial dominance. The 1950s novel,” Lord of The Flies,” by William Golding doesn’t do much better with his bunch of schoolboys who only show aggressive destructive traits. When separated from an adult world they create their own destructive social system. In the 18th century Europeans couldn’t imagine other rich and meaningful ways of living. We find it hard enough to empathise and interact to any great depth nowadays with other cultures. There is an enormous amount of distrust and misunderstanding. The world is full of problems. This exhibition holds a mirror up to help us reflect what we are as much as it shows the richness and value of the systems of living found in Oceania in the 18th century.

The ornate prow of a war canoe.
The Oceania exhibition is divided into themes, voyaging, settlement and encounters with others. Within these three themes there are navigation, the establishment of communities, that includes politics, Gods and religion, the role of ancestors and the construction of hierarchies. The Polynesian development of a sophisticated culture of giving gifts which aided the creating and maintaining of relations was an important aspect of their inter island relationships. The catastrophic contact with Europeans is explored. Finally, the role of memory and  how the past, including ancestors, were important to life among the islanders.

Some stick charts in the background.

One of the most amazing artefacts that depicted the life of the islanders was a stick chart. When James Cook arrived on Tahiti he befriended an islander called Tupaia. Tupaia was an expert navigator and also a priest. Cook was the supreme European navigator,self taught in mathematics, cartography and surveying, who created precise, exact, charts and used sextants which enabled him to navigate by the sun and the stars. Tupaia was just as gifted though he had none of the European navigational instruments. He knew the trade winds and the ocean currents and studied wave patterns. Tupaia constructed stick charts before he took a voyage. A stick chart was a series of sticks in the pattern waves from the prevailing currents and winds made when they reached an island. The island mass would divert the waves in different directions and Tupaia was able to set sail for specific islands by knowing the wave patterns each island created. The Polynesians observed things very closely.

A fishing canoe.
The islanders constructed different types of canoe. Some were for inter-island expeditions,  others were war canoes, some were for fishing and some canoes were designed to travel up and down rivers.  They made them very precisely and covered them in ornaments. One of the prows designed for the front of a war canoe shows a figure, arms outstretched and a long white haunting face staring straight forward. A ,"spirit," coming to get you.

The aggressive prow of a war canoe.
One item that I thought was amazing was a large ceremonial headdress created for a religious festival. It is made of wood, shells, feathers and fish skin and woven with strips of bark and human hair. A triangular head piece, designed to sit on the wearers head, was patterned with flower like roundels made of feathers. From this elaborately patterned head piece long rays, made of sticks and feathers. emanate. It looks like the head and brain of the wearer is sending out  rays of thought and imagination into the space around.

A ceremonial headdress.

Throughout the exhibition  the idea that the islanders view of life and the world was a personal experience is evident. Each person saw themselves individually attached to the world and they each observed and interacted with the world. 



Tatooed faces. Tatooing expressed their personality, status and maturity. The various islanders had no written languages.

In another display two, tall wooden figures of a man and woman stand next to each other. Their sexual organs are prominent. The idea of sexual intercourse and procreation was seen as a vital part of existence. Sexuality had none of the taboos Western cultures and particularly Christianity places on sex.  There was a natural respect for each other. 

A couple displaying their sexual prowess.
When James Cook and his sailors arrived, the Polynesian women were very friendly towards them and sexual intercourse with the sailors was a common occurrence. The island women saw it as a part of life, creating new life and to have sex with the sailors was an honour for them and a way of interacting with the Europeans on a  personal level. The sailors of course were just fulfilling their lusts. A long feeding trough, that we might liken to a banqueting table, had pictures drawn along the side telling the story of a woman who had heard about a man in a neighbouring village who was endowed with a very long penis. She sent her husband on a quest to befriend this man with the long penis so she could get to know him. All along the side of the feeding trough are men depicted with erect penises trying to show that their penis was the longest. They obviously had a sense of humour about sex.

A feeding trough very like a canoe.
A tall drum was displayed in one glass case. Polynesian drums have deep base notes and were used in celebrations and religious ceremonies. The sounds the drums made, set the mood and a rhythm for the event. When Europeans started to arrive, often Christian missionaries arrived too, to bring Christianity to the islanders. The islanders were always open to new ideas and were willing to listen to the missionaries. However, the missionaries insisted they get rid of their tribal practices including their musical instruments, their drums and other artifacts. 


 This is a detailed drawing made by,Tupaia, the great navigator and friend of James Cook.

The essence of Christianity is love and one of the greatest commandments that Jesus gave was to love your neighbor as yourself.  I am sure, the islanders already had love of their neighbour as part of their way of life. The missionaries could so easily have focused on this part of their message and helped the islanders include other aspects of ,"loving your neighbour," into their way of life. In return Europeans could have learned from the Polynesians about respecting and having a deep connection with the physical world and the spiritual elements of  water, sea, earth, plants and animals. We might have a different attitude to the natural world nowadays. The missionaries wanted to destroy what they found not learn from it and add to it.

A ceremonial head.

The Polynesians had a gift culture which was part of connecting with other islanders and other peoples. Gifts were a way to forge and develop new relationships. The Europeans were good at taking the gifts and having sex with their women in a greedy avaricious way. European goods were exchanged and the islanders integrated European items into their culture too. The Europeans  brought diseases, including syphilis, and bacterial infections. These were diseases the islanders had not experienced before. The Polynesians were decimated in numbers and many islands were depopulated.

A suit of armour made from bark, wood and fish skins. It could protect against wooden clubs. The helmet is made from fish skin.

It is interesting to find that the islanders who formed cultures separate from European influence regarded war as an important aspect. For a civilisation bound up with good will and friendship, war must have been a last resort. It is interesting to think that islands, many hundreds of miles apart, isolated from each other  and only able to contact each other by their navigational abilities would want to go to war. At what point could war occur? Each set of islanders, Samoans, Marquesans, Tongans, Hawaiians, Tahitians, Maoris, Marshallese and others, had their own fishing grounds. They explored and settled on new islands that had nobody on them. They traded goods between each other. Maybe disputes over land rights, fishing grounds and trading alliances, if they could not be settled amicably, lead to war?
Shields and clubs.
There is the question of cannibalism.  They dismembered enemies taken in war and displayed the parts in various villages and chieftain’s houses. It is interesting to consider what belief system could lead to cannibalism. It gives an insight into how they regarded a human adversary. On his final voyage to the Pacific aboard the Resolution, James Cook was killed and dismembered. Parts of him were probably eaten. Although parts of his body were eventually returned to the British sailors on Resolution after some bargaining.
More shields and clubs.

The exhibition starts with a video of Kathy Jetnil Kijner, a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands saying her poem, TELL THEM. The thoughts and ideas and statements Kathy speaks in the poem are relevant at the end of the exhibition too. In the poem she relates how she gives friends, living in the States, a basket with gifts from the Marshall Islands. She describes her people, using imagery and memories, many of which can be traced in the artifacts in the exhibition.  In her poem she tells about the pollution on the beaches and in the sea. She speaks about rising sea levels and drowned villages.


Modern artwork representing the Polynesian islanders viewpoint.

 She finishes the poem with:


and after all this
tell them about the water
how we have seen it rising
flooding across our cemeteries
gushing over the sea walls
and crashing against our homes
tell them what it’s like
to see the entire ocean__level___with the land
tell them
we are afraid
tell them we don’t know
of the politics
or the science
but tell them we see
what is in our own backyard
tell them that some of us
are old fishermen who believe that God
made us a promise
some of us
are more sceptical of God
but most importantly tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we
are nothing without our islands.


 A ceremonial character.