Living soulfully

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May 1, 2008

Dear Julie,

Many Western visitors to India are afflicted with a condition known only half-bemusedly as "Delhi belly." The cocktail of unfamiliar microbes and unremittingly spicy foods can send your stomach into revolt and did mine. Only powerful medicine prescribed beforehand by my doctor just in case helped me recover enough to see the Taj Mahal.

Nearly 400 years ago, the heartbroken Emperor Shah Jahan began building the Taj as a memorial for his wife, who died in childbirth. The emperor's laborers worked day and night for 22 years. In whatever reincarnational form she had taken by then, I expect the wife was pleased. The Taj floats like a white marble ghost in the distance as you walk through the gates and becomes more dramatic with each step.

Everywhere in India, Western tourists are set upon by people hawking trinkets. Many of those people are children. One guide said ignoring them is best because "no" means "maybe." A cute little boy at the Taj Mahal cut to the chase after I said "No thank you" five or six times. "Sir," he appealed, "I have money troubles."

The Hindu temples in Khajuraho aren't among the Seven Wonders of the World, as the Taj Mahal deservedly is, but they wondrously reward the difficulty of getting to Khajuraho.

In Cape Girardeau we get upset if we have to wait at a traffic light a minute or so. Drivers in India wait for nothing. Most of the roads have two lanes with no shoulders. If passing a slower vehicle you honk your horn and go. When the slower vehicle moves over a bit, you and any vehicle coming at you play "chicken." If it's a motorcycle, which are numerous, and you're in a car, you win. If it's a truck, you back off.

From Agra the trip to Khajuraho begins with a three-hour train ride to Jhansi. From there, about half the road to Khajuraho is missing. I mean one side of it. When oncoming vehicles meet, one has to give way. A few hours into this stop-and-go we came upon a work crew of five or six men lifting big rocks by hand and pounding on them to fill in the other side of the road, a project that could take as long as the Taj Mahal to complete.

The village of Khajuraho is as clean and orderly as India's bigger cities are messy and chaotic. The soaring sandstone temples built from the ninth to 11th centuries display many of India's famous erotic carvings. Because they became overgrown with vegetation, these 25 temples were preserved when many more others built at the same time fell apart. An Englishmen traveling through the region uncovered them in the 18th century. The temples are now one of 27 World Heritage Sites in India.

On the street a boy selling palm-sized Kama Sutra tomes grinned and called them "exercise books."

Before going to India I had imagined it to be a place in the world where people live soulfully. By that I mean their spiritual lives and day-to-day existence are enmeshed, inseparable. Indians say Hinduism isn't a religion so much as a way of life.

Just as Muslims journey to Mecca and Christians to Jerusalem, Hindus go to Varanasi to bathe at dawn in the polluted Ganges River. Some Hindus bathe in the river every day before breakfast.

In Jaipur, musicians sang prayers and played tablas as people with garlands of flowers gathered at the beginning of a 6 p.m. service at a temple. The crowd swelled and became almost ecstatic when the priest unveiled a likeness of Krishna behind a curtain. Then everyone walked around the temple clockwise and left. Sham, our guide, goes to some temple most every day.

I struggled to comprehend the central truths of Hinduism with its 300 million deities and a complex mythology even the country's multitudes of illiterates seem to be inspired by. The Upanishads say the primary concern is the reunification of the soul with the ultimate spirit.

Sounds familiar. There are so many ways to pray.



Sam Blackwell is a former reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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