Archive for the 'India' Category

Old Delhi

May 28th, 2008

 Red Fort

Hank Kreuzman organized an afternoon trip by several of us to Old Delhi.  We first toured the Red Fort (see above), which was the primary palace of the Mughal emperors until 1857 and a British and Indian administrative center since.  It is a fascinating place, especially considering its long and complex history.

The capitol city of Delhi is under high alert this week because of demonstrations across the region by the Gujjars, a nomadic group of people agitating for a change in their official government status.  They held a protest in Delhi today and have blockaded several railway lines passing from the city to the west and south.  The army and police thus had high visibility at sites of national interest like the Red Fort.  You can see from the photo below that part of the security system involves keeping automatic rifles aimed at the crowd at all times.

Soldier at Red Fort

We also had an adventurous walk through the streets of Old Delhi (see below).

Old Delhi

Our goal was to visit the most famous mosque in India, the Jama Masjid (pictured below).  This mosque was completed in 1656 by Shah Jahan, the same emperor who commissioned the Taj Mahal.  It can hold up to 25,000 worshippers in its courtyard.  We could only go to the northeast steps, but this was close enough to see the huge minarets and see the domes.  We were fortunate to be there to hear a haunting call to prayer.

Jama Masjid

More Photos

May 27th, 2008

We just got back from a very moving visit to Wooster Nagar (lit. Wooster Town), a village destroyed by the 2004 tsunami and rebuilt with the support of the Wooster community. I’m sure someone will be blogging on this soon.

Before we leave Chennai (we fly this afternoon back to Delhi), I just wanted to share a link for some photos. Yes, we’ve heard the cry for more photos loud and clear. Follow the link to a Flickr slideshow that includes selected photos from the trip so far. These include photos up to a couple days ago. You can find it at:

Animals: Real and Cake

May 25th, 2008


Beggars in Delhi

May 20th, 2008

The baby was pressed up against the window glass of the car with his tiny brown face flattened against the surface maybe three inches from my eyes on the other side. He was wearing only a torn strip of a shirt at the top of his chest. On his bare torso below were tightly wrapped long thin fingers. The shock of seeing the dull eyes of the child forced my view down to those fingers, following them to the full hands, wrists, arms and then the startling face of the young woman pushing the baby towards me. Her eyes were bright through a few strands of black hair falling down her forehead, and she looked directly at me. Here we are, she seemed to say in those two seconds of connection. What are you going to do about it?

The car then began to roll again in the Delhi traffic, the baby was pulled back, the woman disappeared behind us. The driver sitting beside me, a wonderfully chatty older Indian woman who was one of our hosts, simply said, “You know to just ignore them, don’t you?”

Of course, I wordlessly responded, I already have two days of experience in this city ignoring the beggars. The night before I was startled during our brief evening shopping trip when on the sidewalk a small child suddenly grasped my hand from below, looking upwards. I pulled back in surprise and watched a security guard push the child off the sidewalk and back to the gutter with, I now noticed, the other beggars. Hank pointed out that a man had sent the little boy up to approach us, no doubt because he could quickly duck below the long sticks of the guards and at least get our attention.

In this group of people kept off the sidewalk at least intermittently was a one-armed man who had his single hand thrust out at the group during our entire visit. As we crossed streets he would quickly approach, staying to the side and out of our paths, but making sure we saw him. He said nothing. I watched him when he was looking elsewhere. I wanted to see that he really had a left arm kept hidden under his long, ripped shirt to increase the effect of distress. That would make me feel better to see deception, I thought. A quick flash of a withered stump, though, demonstrated that the arm really was gone. It then occurred to me that even if he was hiding an existing limb it would still be the same tragedy. There he was, here I am, and I avoided his eyes the whole time.

I’ve encountered many beggars before, of course, from cities as diverse as Los Angeles and Jerusalem. I have lots of practice at ignoring them. Here in Delhi, though, we have seen so many in such a short stay. Along with beggars are the families living in the streets just outside our bus window, often squatting listlessly in the heat, slowly fanning a sleeping child on a thin mat. And then there are the thousands of others on the sidewalks who will sell us fruit, brass trinkets, questionable jewelry. These souls surround us here by the millions. They do not define the “real India”, of course. There seems to be no defining feature of India other than incredible diversity in all things and a certain, as Grant Cornwell would say, “positionality”. They certainly captured our attention, though, as much as any academic lectures or monuments.

Do I feel guilt in the presence of these beggars for having all I can ever want in life? Do I feel that my “white skin privilege” has been a cudgel to beat these people over the generations? No. It is far more mixed than that. For every imperialist atrocity over the centuries there may be a life-saving innovation from the same culture. This is not to balance or excuse the past but only to recognize the complexity of causes, effects and contingency in history. I felt less guilty than profoundly sad. I will gain much from my diverse Indian experience, and this encounter will be woven into so many more, but this woman’s eyes will stay locked to mine.

Geological Holy Land

May 20th, 2008

Confluence at Devprayag

Our trip to Devprayag, where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda Rivers combine to produce the Ganges, began in Haridwar on the bank of the Ganges. This was the day that I could see India through the disciplinary eyes of a geologist. The rocks and landscapes we saw on our northward journey transcended the extraordinary human culture developed on them. Will Durant once wrote, “Civilization exists by geological consent”. This was a theme as we entered one of the most fascinating regions for any geologist.

Haridwar is in the foreland basin south of the Himalayas. This was the first place in India I saw rocks exposed in low hills and mountains. These sedimentary rocks are folded in broad anticlines and synclines similar to a sheet of paper wrinkled on a table top by holding one side and sliding the other towards it. These folds pushed the rocks upwards, meaning they remained exposed above the thick alluvial plain deposits from the Ganges and other rivers.

The boundary between the southern plains and northern mountains just beyond Rishikesh is dramatic. There is not the usual slow climb up a broad alluvial fan complex as is common when a major mountain range is approached. Instead here the alluvial fans here are very steep and short in width. The alluvial sediments of poorly sorted sands and boulders appeared as cliffs on the sides of the roads, and it wasn’t long before we were driving through the almost vertically-tilted metamorphosed rocks of the mountains themselves. These are the Siwalik Himalayas, the southernmost of the three Himalayan ranges.

Steep mountainsides and short alluvial fans mean that this mountain range is very young, geologically speaking. This region continues to rise in elevation as the Indian plate to the south forces its way north into the larger Eurasian plate. The mountains begin at a faulted boundary, the most profound in the world, as a series of rock sheets thrust on top of each other. This is similar to a shelf of books, each pushed in one direction so they lie imbricated at a steep angle.

We drove up the Ganges River Valley with the canyon (and very steep cliffs, I might add) off to our right. The river is large and quickly moving, but throughout its course we see evidence that at times it is much deeper and faster. Large boulders are motionless in its channel today, but could only have arrive there with a much more energetic and deeper flow. There are many extensive gray sand beaches perched high on the river banks far above the present river, and the rocks around them are scoured of vegetation. This river has a flood stage which is many times higher than the river we see.

Our first view of Devprayag is from the road above (positionality = 30°8’42” N, 78°36’0″ E). Buildings cluster on the steep rocks of a point where the two rivers converge to make the Ganges.
View of Devprayag

One river, the Bhagirathi, is clear and blue. The Alaknanda River which meets it is muddy. The resulting Ganges is muddy because the Alaknanda is larger and faster and thus carries much more sediment. The mixture of blue and brown waters at the confluence is fascinating. The sediment-rich waters swirl in a spiral which forces some of it up into the clear waters, allowing us to plot the converging currents.

Sediment mixing
We walked down from the road to a suspension footbridge over the Bhagirathi River. In the middle of the bridge, standing motionless, was a beautiful brown cow who paid us no attention, even when we stroked its sides. We walked through the town of Devprayag to reach the point on the bank where the three rivers converged. Feeling the strength of the water current on our bare feet was exhilarating, especially as we could look into three canyons from the same point. Huge standing waves of the Alaknada were just a few feet from us. Around our feet was a gray sand full of mica flakes, a bag of which will soon be part of a Wooster geology lab.

I wish I could say I fully enjoyed our brief stay in Devprayag at the confluence, but there were several Hindu priests present the whole time who were anxious to pray for us, paint our foreheads, and, of course, relieve us of some of our rupees. They were so insistent that they would stand between us and the view, irritated that we were not participating in their rituals. There is a metaphor here for the relationship of science and religion, but it is too obvious to describe!

As a geologist, this day was a pilgrimage for me. The Himalayas are one of the most active geological regions in the world, and they are the result of a plate tectonic process which still amazes us all. To touch the rocks and feel the waters was a kind of secular epiphany which brought together observations and concepts developed over my scientific career. It is a holy place in far more ways than the religious.

Discovery of India (Redux)

May 16th, 2008

The history of colonialism is replete with examples of discoveries of people and places who were already there…and doing quite well, thank you very much.  Most often when Europeans went on their voyages of discovery it meant very bad things for a very long time for those who were “discovered”.

I have found it to be challenging – ethically, politically, culturally – to be a privileged, white, American male traveling and working in parts of the world where people are disadvantaged by the very same dyamnics of global-historical political economy that have produced the privilege I inherited but did not earn.

One of the reasons I think it so important for our students to live and learn in and from other cultures is the awareness of positionality that can – but does not always – come as a result of being seen as others see you.

I would love to read reflections on positionality and the complexities of global postcoloniality as you make your way through India.