Holy Baths

May 20th, 2008

This video (“In Devprayag”), placed here for continuity in the blog but completed well after our return to the U.S., adds illustration to Mark Wilson’s fine description below of our visit to the beginning of the Ganges in Devprayag. His text explains what the video shows: the three rivers, the suspension bridge, the mountains. The video runs about 3 minutes, and so it may take a minute to come up on your computer.

In mild disagreement with the comment on religion with which Mark ends his post, I’d point out that the ghat we used to climb down into the birth of the Ganges was constructed for sacred purposes, like the little rooms for pilgrims pictured in the video — though there are no signs warning off visitors with secular curiosities. Our position seemed to me analogous to that of one walking into a European cathedral while a service was in progress. If one wanted to examine Christopher Wren’s work on the rood screen, one would wait until the service was over, deferring to the building’s purpose.

Hinduism seems not to have services in the European sense; the Ganges is holy 24/7. So when the ghat on the Ganges is the church, and there are only individual acts of worship, it is a natural practice for priests to approach potential worshipers. And playing by Indian rules, it’s their ghat.

In Devprayag

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

May 20th, 2008

I sat next to Mrs. Sukhwar on the train from New Delhi to Haridwar, and we spoke together in English. She has lived in Delhi for 50 years, though she was born in Lucknow, and she was on her way to Haridwar for the same reason we were: to join the Aarti ceremony in honor of Mother Ganga (see Immersion in Ritual, below). She explained to me that “Haridwar” means “door to God,” and that the holy sites and famous temples multiply as one travels north from Haridwar into the Himalayas.
“I cannot remember how many times I have bathed in Ganga,” she said, making the word “Ganga” a mother’s caress. Indeed, she has been to temples all over India in the past several years: as far south as Chennai, and to Benares and Allahabad and Amritsar, among other cities in the North.
“So you have been discovering India,” I said.
“Yes I have,” she said.
“That’s what we are doing,” I said.

Discovery of India – and Positionality

May 17th, 2008

Trailer for sale or rent / Rooms to rent fifty cents

I’m reminded of one of my undergraduate professors of poetry, Richard Tillinghast, who advised us to only read one book at a time. He said he couldn’t think of Huck and Jim without hearing the tremor of far-off drums and feeling the heat of a tropical sun, the fault of reading Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness at the same time. (Do I have the image right, Professor? It has been a long time.) It’s a funny thing. I’ve been immersed in the sights and sounds of Delhi for a couple days now, but I can’t get the sounds of Tuesday night’s karaoke party out of my head. It looks like Roger Miller will be accompanying me on my discovery of India. (If we are going to take a hard look at our positionality, we are sure to stir up some strange debris.)

It strikes me that there are two fundamental ways to encounter a culture that is new to you. The first is to try to assimilate it to previous experiences and knowledge. So, passing the barbers on the side of the highway in Delhi, I couldn’t help thinking of photographs from early twentieth-century Paris of the street barbers I know from my studies of France. Not so strange, after all, one wants to say… The other tendency is to revel in the different and unfamiliar. So, it wasn’t long before I was gawking at the sidewalk shrines to Hindu gods and goddesses. Something very different is going on here, methinks. Either tendency has its problems. The first can lead to the casual dismissal of difference, to a flat vision of the world; the second can lead to exoticization. For my part, I’d rather aim for something more like open-minded inquiry. Is “discovery” too strong a word for this?

I started writing because I wanted to say a word on the title of our blog. Why Discovery of India? The title comes from Jawaharlal Nehru’s classic account of Indian history, which he wrote during the Second World War and just after while imprisoned by the British. Nehru, leader of the independence movement (with Gandhi), went on to become the first prime minister of India and the driving force behind Indian development. He’s somewhat out of fashion these days. It’s hard to see the shadow of his socialist dreams for India in the bright billboards advertising the latest Bollywood release. But Nehru makes for good reading and good thinking. What he set out in Discovery of India was an inquiry into India’s past and the identity of India. Subtle, open-minded, complex, Discovery has little space for anti-colonial diatribe or nationalist mythmaking. I always read a piece of it with students when we study European decolonization.

This morning we went out to visit the Mehrauli archaeological complex, site of the magnificent Qutab Minar, the enormous stone tower built to celebrate the triumphs of the Muslim Sultans of the twelfth century and following. (Perhaps someone else will say a word more about it our visit?) Among the archaeological marvels, we enjoyed observing the dress and manners of the many Indian tourists visiting there. And they took long looks at us, to be sure. There, under the beautiful dome of the Alai Darwaza, “one of the gems of early Islamic architecture” (say the guidebooks), we began talking with an older gentleman who was there with his children and grandchildren. He asked Lee to take a picture of his family for him. And then he asked where we were from. “America? I have a brother in New York,” he told us. And I have a brother in New York, as well. The Indian man told us he came from Gujarat. I was immediately reminded of Nussbaum’s indelible account of the communal violence in that city in 2002 that starts her book. I couldn’t help wondering whether those events touched this man. Was he Muslim? Or Hindu? Caught up in the violence one way or another? And how else would be place himself, anyway? By caste or language or regional background? Or as a man, a husband, a father, a grandfather? Or as a brother? These are questions to ponder, but not the kinds one can easily ask of a fellow tourist who has asked you to take his picture. Instead, we exchanged a pleasant conversation about the wonders of Qutab Minar. It was his fourth visit here and he always enjoyed it. He was happy to show it to his children. And happy to meet an American. We smiled, shook hands, and set out for further discoveries.

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.