On Air Conditioning

A few kilometers from the famous caves of Ajanta (near Aurangabad and the nearly equally famous Ellora caves), we just checked into a (Maharashtra) state-run guesthouse, by the name of MTDC Holiday Resort. We chose this place because it is one of relatively few near the caves and affordable (Rs. 600, or around $15). As it turns out, it’s a terrific value–complete with clean sheets (two per bed, top and bottom), soap *and* toilet paper provided (only the second hotel we’ve stayed in so far that provided toilet paper, and the first was the Marriott in Hyderabad (free certificate I had)), three chairs and a desk, plenty of power outlets…and…air conditioning. [This list gives you a sense of where our standards are about a month into India.]

As a (moderate) budget traveler in India, one is constantly faced with the option: AC or non-AC. There are AC and non-AC hotel rooms, often at the same hotel and sometimes the same room is available as AC or non-AC (you just pay extra to have it powered on), there are AC dining rooms at restaurants and there are AC and non-AC coaches on the train, the AC sleeper classes being First Class, AC 2-Tier and AC 3-Tier and the non-AC sleeper class being “Sleeper.” Other than restaurants, where the AC premium is usually quite small, AC commands a steep premium. I’m not exactly sure how the train formula works, but Sleeper costs well less than half of AC 3-Tier, which is pretty much the same as Sleeper other than the air conditioning and free provided bedding. (We just took a 10 hour ride from Hyderabad’s Secunderabad Station to Aurangabad in Sleeper class for less than Rs. 500, or $12.50–AC, which was not available, would have cost more than twice as much). And for rooms, the AC surcharge can be as much as Rs 400-600, or $10-15, which is sometimes almost as much as the total rent for the non-AC room.

So what do you get for this hefty premium? In the case of the AC hotel and train car, the real benefit is not, surprisingly, climate control. Even though India can be hot, and it’s been fairly hot during the day (the sun has lately been especially scorching), evenings spent in a well-ventilated room with a ceiling fan are fairly comfortable, while AC without proper controls can be unpleasantly cold. [For restaurants, especially at lunchtime, I would have to admit that the cool temperature is a primary plus of AC.] The real benefit is seclusion from the outside. In the case of hotels and train cars, AC means that the room or car has been effectively sealed off from the outside, such that not only hot air, but more importantly noise, dust and bugs don’t come in. Riding in an AC automobile (a rare occurrence for a budget traveler in India) puts you at least three steps away from the city at large, allowing you to breathe cool filtered air in relative quiet and peace, without the fumes and erratic driving of an autorickshaw or the constant panic of being run over or stepping on animal dung as a pedestrian. No beggar can reach through your closed window, and even the sunlight is generally filtered through tinted glass. AC train cars also give you a (perhaps false) sense of security that the car is more secure and your neighbors more trustworthy (less risk of being drugged by your neighbors, as many signs remind you happens).

Promoting railway safety

Back home, of course, climate control isn’t optional–you’re almost always in hermetically sealed environments, where temperature, humidity, particulates, etc., are all controlled by machines. At least purportedly, this is for our comfort, and admittedly in many cases we wouldn’t find it tolerable to spend our time at the outside ambient temperature. Just as AC in India isn’t all about climate control, however, AC back home isn’t all about comfort.

Many places that we spend time in have had their physical environments calibrated to achieve a certain effect on our psychology. Visiting one of the huge spas in Shenzhen, it occurred to me how much like a Las Vegas casino it was. Completely sealed off from external light, there was an eerie timelessness, like time is standing still to enable you to get a continuous series of massage treatments. And people do–the spas are open 24 hours, and busy at all hours of the night and day (just like casinos). Of course, the general aim in both places is to keep you inside longer, unaware of the passage of time, spending money. To a lesser extent, what is true in casinos and Shenzhen spas is true in shopping centers and workplaces. With limited access to natural light, and usually no access to outside air, the focus is on what is happening inside the complex (whether spending money or working), and not outside. In the office, there are free caffeinated beverages, to promote speed and efficiency. I do not mean to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but this is of course true.

I have a curious evolutionary theory of human happiness, and that is that we’re happiest when we’re to a certain extent fulfilling our biological mandates (breeding, spending time with family) and in our natural environment (grassland or forest or whereever, outside). The experience of weather can be evocative and emotional, and few things are more pleasant than being in the shade on a warm day, with breeze on our skin. By no means do I mean to forgo air conditioning for the rest of my life–but applause to those countries that have mandated natural air and light in human environments, and let us all think about the climate spaces that are created for us, and why.

How happy do these dogs look napping in the shade–how often do we humans experience such bliss?

Hyderabad and Iran

As (bad) luck would have it, we still don’t have our Iran visa. Now, I don’t really blame the Iranian government for the slowness in processing our visas (we applied in mid-January), given the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, and we will be grateful for being allowed to visit. But we were really hoping to have our approval prior to leaving Hong Kong, so that we could get the visas themselves at the Iranian consulate in Hong Kong, or by now, so that we could get the visas at the Iranian consulate in Hyderabad. Iranian consulate in Hyderabad??

Yup, as I discovered while trying to figure out at what points on our trip we could pick up Iran visas, I learned that there is an Iranian consulate in Hyderabad. I believe it is the only consulate of any country in Hyderabad, and I’m not even sure that there is an Iranian consulate in Bombay. Why one would be in Hyderabad at all relates back, I believe, to important points about the history of Hyderabad. [Now, it’s possible that the history of the consulate itself, which I have made no effort to research, has nothing to do with historical ties between Hyderabad and Iran–but in any event this is an easy intro for a little history lesson.]

The very first clue comes perhaps from the suffix in its name–why does the city have a Persian suffix? And having read my blog entry on parts of India, you may know that Hyderabad, a Muslim bastion of South India and the Deccan, was ruled by a prince (or more precisely “nizam,” which I believe means “minister” in Farsi) who at points wanted to join Pakistan or be independent, and certainly not join Hindu India. But going back in time…

About ten kilometers to the west of Hyderabad lies Golconda, now a fort but also the remains of a significant medieval city, the seat of the Qutb Shahi kings. This dynasty of kings (1518-1687) was started by a “Turkoman from Persia,” as one reference describes Sultan Quli Qutb Shah, who was named a minister of the Muslim Bahmani Sultanate that ruled the Deccan in this period. Originally a minister, Sultan Quli proclaimed himself independent and the founder of a dynasty (a fairly common occurrence in the history of the Islamic world), with a capital at Golconda. Mohammed Quli (1581-1612), who ruled during the height of Golconda’s power, ordered the construction of the new city of Hyderabad nearby. The reign of the Qutb Shahi kings, whose elegant tombs remain just outside the outer walls of Golconda, ended when they were overwhelmed by a greater Muslim power, the Mughals (led by Emperor Aurangzeb, who spent a great deal of time trying to expand his domains southward and whose fortress at Daulatabad near Aurgangabad in Maharashtra we will visit later in our trip). [The conquest of Golconda could have been motivated in part by its famous diamond mines–many of the world’s most famous diamonds, including the Hope and the Koh-i-Noor, can be traced back to Golconda.]

Qutb Shahi Tomb

This history reminds one of some essential facts about Indian and Islamic history, and the history of the Deccan. For one, when one thinks of Muslim rulers of India, the first thought is to the Mughals, whose reign lasted until ended by the British and who left behind the monumental Islamic and martial architecture that forms so much of what a modern-day traveler to India sees. But the Mughals only arrived in India in the 16th century, while the (Islamic) Sultanate of Delhi was founded in the 12th (when the Qutb Minar, near Delhi, was built). Just as the Mughals came to India from Central Asia, the earlier Islamic invaders had come from the Middle East, and saw themselves as a part of the greater Islamic world, stretching from Spain to now India. There was constant interchange and communication within this world, as seen by the arrival of Sultan Quli Qutb Shah from Persia in the 16th century, and Farsi was its lingua franca, at least in its easternmost regions. While the Qutb Shahi kings eventually became patrons of literature in the local Indian languages as well, Farsi was their primary language. The ties between Golconda and the broader, Persian-influenced Islamic world are plainly visible in the architecture as well, including in the remaining tilework of the tombs.

The Mughals ruled the Deccan by way of ministers, the nizams who later considered themselves independent rulers of the state of Hyderabad. At Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad, their seat of power which is said to be based on the Shah’s palace in Tehran, an exhibit shows that the nizams trace their ancestry to the first caliph Abu Bakr and a 13th century philosopher and “renowned saint.” Their more immediate ancestor came to India from Persia in 1655, to be fatally injured in the successful siege of Golconda in 1687, and it is his grandson who became the first nizam and ruler of Hyderabad. The continuing connection between the nizams and the greater Islamic world is shown in displays on their endowments in Mecca, and an exhibit of school attendance records of their ministers shows that Farsi (in addition to English) was the primary language, into the 19th and 20th centuries. In the early twentieth century, the Nizam family married into the family of the last caliph (the caliphate was abolished in Turkey in its secularization mode, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire).

Chowmahalla Palace

The Islamic influence is visible all over Hyderabad, despite the fact that Andhra Pradesh state in which it is located retains an overwhelming Hindu majority. Hyderabad is far more carnivorous than the rest of the Hindu south, its most famous dishes including the meat-oriented biryani, although idlies can still be seen everywhere on the street. [I would like to explore more on the food relationships of the region generally (I was particularly intrigued by an apricot dessert in Hyderabad called qubani ka meetha) but will save it for a later post.] Urdu, written in an Arabic script, is visible in many signs, especially around the old city which remains more Muslim, in addition to the curly swirls of local Telugu.

Tirumala, and on Religion and Abstraction

Today we experienced darshan at Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh. Said to be the religious site that draws the largest number of pilgrims in the world (more than Rome, Mecca or Jerusalem), the temple houses a Vishnu idol for the sight of which tens of thousands of people arrive daily. The waits were so long that the temple, a huge administrative organization given the volume of visitors, has established an offsite nationwide reservations network, complete with capture of biometric data to confirm identity of the pilgrims. Not knowing how to make such advance reservations, which in any event still require lengthy waits at the temple, we opted for an expedited “VIP Cellar” darshan available to foreigners for Rs. 100 ($2.50) (and we think available to Indians as well, although not sure at what price).

The line started in a purpose-built queuing facility, which did not seem anywhere near capacity, but we had no concept of where exactly the temple was in relation to the queuing facility, or what our relatively priority was with respect to the other, non-“VIP” lines for the same shrine. As time went on, it became clear that the line was not going to move quickly, occasionally stopping altogether. Sometime within the first hour, our line left the queuing facility to merge with the other lines in a cage that seemed to snake around the temple compound, including up and down stairs.

Waiting in a line, when you do not fully understand what you are waiting in line for or how long it will take, and there is no-one around to explain things to you, is an experience in itself. Trapped in a narrow space with disorderly Indians shoving forward (in the Indians’ defense most were orderly, but a small minority was extremely pushy and took every opportunity to try to cut ahead), thirst and hunger building and partially quenched only by mango juice and crackers pushed through the bars of the cage by vendors, we were close to giving up more than once, although each time we realized that there was no way to exit but to continue inching forward. We knew, as our line would occasionally stop to let those in other lines go forward, that our “VIP” access even if not truly speedy was cutting our wait into a fraction of what others were experiencing, added to the experience of many that they had hiked for hours uphill to Tirumala, rather than taking a bus up from the town of Tirupathi as we had. [The town of Tirupathi, which really exists only to service pilgrims to Tirumala, itself a pretty fairly large development with lodging and board of its own, has more theaters and liquors stores than any other Indian town I’ve been in, quite a contrast between the sacred and the profane.]

As the line reached the outside wall of the temple, we knew that we were close, and after entering the doorway, we didn’t mind even when our line stopped, since it gave us time to absorb our surroundings. The gateway to the temple was lined with silver, and to the immediate left of the entry lay a giant scale. Many Hindu temples have such balances, so that donors can give commodities in his or her weight (or the weight of a child) to the temple, but this was the first we’d seen. [Royal tradition at some temples was that the local king present his weight in gold on each of his birthdays–we were told that a skinny raja of Travancore was much disliked.] Behind the scale was a list of prices, so that a rupee equivalent could be given instead of kilograms of actual rice, jaggery or five rupee coins.

Once inside, we also had a view of the worshippers leaving the temple. Up to this point, we had been somewhat cynical, thinking that our wait of hours couldn’t possibly have been worthwhile, but the cynicism wore off as we saw the intensity of devotion of some of the worshippers. Before they exited the gateway of the temple, many would turn back in the direction of the shrine one last time, some making a brief prayer, a few prostrate. Of course the idol itself was not visible from the gateway, but they had burned an image of it in their mind, or were trying to recall it as they faced toward the central shrine.

As we passed through the gateway to the central shrine and reached around its side, I could see that the entire interior was lined with gold, far more ornate than at any other temple we had seen. The queue became a crush as excitement grew in the crowd. As we entered the front door and reached sight of the idol itself, I could feel the intensity climax, and it became contagious, everyone stretching their neck for a view of the god. Approaching the idol itself, pushers employed by the temple kept the line moving through a horseshoe shaped path, first pushing us toward the idol (though not very close), and then away, to let others through. What of the actual idol? As you may have noticed, we do not have any pictures of the interior of the temple or idol, because cameras are not allowed, but you should be able to find depictions by googling “venkateswara” or “balaji”–the image is also on signs and window decals all over South India.

On my way out, I couldn’t help but repeatedly turn back to get another look, like everyone else, not only because I had waited hours for this moment but because I was trying to see what they were seeing–why this small idol, draped in flowers, caused such an ecstasy among the hundreds of people in that room, the millions of people who come each year. Facing the entrance of the shrine on the way out I saw the most dramatic sight–far more impressive than that of the idol–the worshippers heading in, eyes afire and enchanted by the image of the god.

Back out of the central shrine, and out of the pressure of the line, we returned to reality. After eating some (untasty to me) prasad and taking a look at the outside of the central shrine and the vimana, we headed out of the temple. Before we exited the temple, however, really in the space right behind the central shrine, we saw a huge room full of people counting temple revenues, mostly small rupee bills but including some dollars and pounds. Having a somewhat (Christian?) distaste for money in places of worship, I found it unappealing, but the location and visibility were clearly intentional (perhaps to show worshippers the wealth and prestige of the temple). Admittedly, Tirumala is a huge operation, the holy city having all the material necessities–hotels, restaurants, banking, medical care, etc.–sufficient for the millions of pilgrims each year, much of it provided by the temple authorities for free or at subsidized rates to pilgrims.

Darkness, not from sunset but from a passing storm, set in, and from a distance I could see the lights of the temple start to glow, the compound shining from inside as if from a holy fire, the gold of the vimana, visible above the walls of the temple, reflecting an orange luster. And I thought about what I had experienced.

Though familiar with similar excesses of the Catholic Church, with its bleeding statues and worship of relics, I had not personally seen this level of pure idol worship, either in its quantity or its ferocity. How can people believe that an all powerful god could be embodied in an object that gets “woken” and dressed up by priests and resides in a physical place, vulnerable to physical destruction or desecration? How is it that people see the eternal and infinite, the answers to those metaphysical questions that we cannot solve, in such an earthly, material form? Why the worship of objects such as the idol at Tirumala, or the true cross or Buddha’s tooth? What is the role of such objects?

Swami Vivekananda answered a question on idols posed by a Muslim prince (Islam prohibiting representations of God (and humans, for that matter)) by asking a servant of the prince to spit on a portrait of the prince, in the prince’s presence. Even though the servant knew the image not to be the prince himself, Vivekananda explained, the servant cannot do it because the image represents the prince. But of course it’s not just representation–a facsimile copy of the Venkateswara shrine would not be the same. People believe that these specific objects themselves have power.

In the premodern era, having tangible objects must have made a religion easier to grasp, easier to understand and hold onto, for the average person. Claims of miracles performed by sacred objects buttressed a religion’s force. Today, however, with the realm of science taking over nearly the entire material world, tangibility does not aid a religion but detracts from it. The identification of material manifestations of a religion, in the form of miracles, merely tempt scientific debunking, and religions that make such claims in the current age (as opposed to claims of miracles in the mythical past) seem harder to believe. [For example, to me, one of the oddest thoughts of the Mormon church (well, at least I read somewhere that this is what they believe) is that heaven and the creator reside at an identified location in our three-dimensional world. What about space travel? And no doubt that some of the resistance that the Mormon church faces is that it recounts miracles that are said to have happened relatively recently in time, even if the miracles are no less ambitious than those of other faiths.]

Modern Western Christianity, to a large extent, has learned to cede the material world to withdraw to a spiritual realm. [I am reminded of one prayer in the Anglican prayer book that has explicit astronomical references, giving place of honor to a science that has so often run into conflict with religion.] In this retreat, religion becomes more and more abstract and the spiritual world a realm totally separate from the physical one. To a modern audience accustomed to dealing in abstractions, this is not so hard to conceive. The premodern physical claims of the religions become allegorical and God becomes something of a concept, a theoretical solution to theoretical questions.

But many of the Hindus at Tirumala clearly still believe in a physical god who operates in the physical world. Most of this has to do I think with basic things like the level of education, with scientific education wiping out superstition as it has for centuries, but it also occurred to me, in comparing with the worship of Christian saints, that it also reveals something about the nature of Hindu deities. First, Hindu gods have specific shapes that define them. The forms also define their attributes, such that when they take on different forms they take on different identities (consider the various incarnations of Vishnu). The representation/presentation of the god is of the essence, and a physical model of the god essential to its worship. It seems to me that forms become necessary in any polytheistic religion (or worship of multiple sacred personae, such as the Christian saints). [The Shiva lingam, the history of which I do not know, is obviously something of an exception to this.] Second, gods with forms are implicitly limited. Hindu gods (and perhaps by logical necessity all polytheistic gods) are not all powerful, not the universal, infinite being that is the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God. Taking on a shape imposes a limit to a god’s power, as it suggests that a change in forms may be necessary for exercise of a particular power, or that specific forms have certain weaknesses. Anthropomorphic forms, regardless of number of limbs, also imply human weaknesses and limitations. Third, it is easier for deities/demi-deities with shapes, such as the Hindu gods and Jesus, Mary and the Christian saints, to maintain roles in the physical world. Although the god of the Old Testament was of course responsible for many physical acts, most Christian miracles today (I believe) are ascribed to Jesus, Mary or a saint, and not God the Father. Quite often, a miracle is ascribed to a particular artist’s rendition of Mary, in the form of a particular painting or statue. Being physical already, it becomes easier to imagine that such objects performed a physical act (a miracle).

St. Thomas in Madras

As I mentioned in my post on the Syrian Christians of Kerala, the apochryphal Acts of Judas Thomas and local tradition here in South India say that St. (Doubting) Thomas, one of Jesus’s disciples, came to India to preach after Jesus’s death. After founding a community of Christians along the now Keralan coast (a community which still exists today), he is by legend said to have come to the town of Mylapore, now southern Madras, where he was persecuted and killed.

We started with the first of the sites, referred to as the “Little Mount.” Located near the wretchedly poor dhobi ghat dwellers along the Adyar River in southwestern central Madras, the very gradual and low hill called the Little Mount is a legendary site of St. Thomas’s persecution. Under a small Portuguese church, founded in 1551, lies a cave where it is said that St. Thomas fled from his persecutors and prayed.

A few kilometers to the west of the Little Mount is the “Great Mount,” or “St. Thomas’s Mount.” A significant bigger hill, not far from Madras’s airport, the Great Mount is the legendary site of St. Thomas’s martyrdom. It is said that the altar of the Portuguese church (Our Lady of Expectations, dating from 1547) lies above the site of St. Thomas’s death, and an ancient rock cross of miraculous legends located in the church is said to have been carved by St. Thomas himself. A painting to the right of the altar, of Mary, is (implausibly) said to have been painted by another of the apostles and brought to India by St. Thomas.

Finally, to the east along the coast in the upscale neighborhood of Mylapore lies the great San Thome Basilica. Rebuilt in 1896, the impressive basilica lies on top of the legendary site of St. Thomas’s burial. A newly built, air-conditioned passageway takes you to a small chapel, where you can see the gravesite as well as some relics (most of the remains, we were told, were removed to Italy in the 13th century).

Local women praying before an effigy of St. Thomas located in the main church, directly above the tomb itself.

Our Lady of Mylapore, a very old carving of Mary before which no less than St. Francis Xavier prayed, when he was in now Madras.

The tomb itself. The area the worshipper is touching is exposed dirt (under glass).

So is all this for real? That is, did St. Thomas make it all the way to India, found a community of Christians in now Kerala and die in now Madras? I am inclined to believe the stories, if only because in many ways they seem to have been held, relatively consistently, for hundreds and hundreds of years. Multiple sources, some of them ancient, believed that St. Thomas came to India, and existing trade routes (in the Pondicherry museum are a great number of remains from an ancient trading port that received merchandise from Rome) made such a visit easy to conceive. The world was quite connected in ancient classical times.

But what matters in the end is not what actually happened, but what worshippers believe. As acknowledged by a visit from Pope John Paul II, these sites are venerated by millions of Christians, including especially those located in India, and, as far as religion goes, faith is the most important thing.

A Great Photo

Once in a while everything comes together and a great photo results. I pride myself on being able to take good photos. Great photos don’t come so easily.

A great photo is a good photo but with a lot of luck thrown in.

This is a great photo.