I recently had the great fortune to travel to India, something I highly recommend for anyone who seeks a better understanding of our country, and of the world.
The wedding of a friend’s daughter was the impetus for my journey, though any reason to go to India is a good one.
Besides having fantastic cuisine, vibrant culture from maharishis to maharajas, and rich history evident everywhere; India is America’s greatest ally in Asia (thanks to our current administration), a counterweight to China, and the world’s largest democracy with a government in the hands of prime minister Narendra Modi, known as India’s Donald Trump.
To that last point, India is in the midst of national elections that will determine if Mr. Modi will be returned to office, a topic that was on everyone’s lips everywhere I went: Kerala, Mumbai, Rajasthan, and Delhi.
India’s editorialists are opining on issues familiar to any American – economy, abortion, church and state, and the homeless.
I learned this from India’s vibrant English language newspapers, which I read while enjoying unforgettable breakfasts at the Sea Lounge in the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, the Leela Palace in Udaipur and Delhi, the Coconut Lagoon resort in Kerala and morning coffee in the Lord Mountbatten Suite at Jaipur’s elegant Sujan Rajmahal Palace.
While American liberals seek to weaken abortion laws, India’s politicians of all stripes seriously consider strengthening them. That’s because the ratio of newborn boys versus girls continues to widen despite a law banning sex selective abortions. Abortion is portrayed as a defense of women’s rights in the U.S. In India, it’s seen as attacking women.
It would be an understatement (as well as a cliché) to say religion is woven into Indian society and culture. It’s the loom.
Another contrast: religion’s role in society. Faith has pretty much surrendered to secularism in the West. Not so in India.
A living encyclopedia of creeds, from the Hindu who worship a kaleidoscope of deities to Buddhists who have no deity at all; fire worshipping Parsis; monotheistic, turbaned Sikhs who revere their holy book; ultra-vegetarian Jain who won’t eat root vegetables lest earthworms be harmed in the production; as well as Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
It would be an understatement (as well as a cliché) to say religion is woven into Indian society and culture. It’s the loom.
You see tapestry everywhere, even on the streets of Mumbai, India’s modern financial capital. Bespoke-suited businessmen stop between appointments in fashionable Colaba to gain blessings by feeding a cow, tended by a toothless man squatting on the sidewalk with a large bundle of grass he helpfully sells by the handful to those seeking favor from the Hindu holy animal.
You find cows wandering the streets in the greatest cities and smallest villages across India. Their owners often abandon aged bovines that can no longer give milk, and politicians dedicate resources to house the homeless cows in order to gain favor from that worldly power, the voter, if not the other gods.
The government will milk foreign companies to help India’s indigent ruminants by imposing a tariff on imported liquor sold at hotels and restaurants. Foreign liquor companies and their bibulous domestic consumers are two constituencies with few local defenders. Though Muslims make up 14 per cent of the population and don’t care about cows, they care even less for alcohol, forbidden by their faith.
We encountered and took part in the quotidian cow-feeding ritual, repeated a hundred million or so times a day across the land, on our way to lunch in a family home, a spacious mahogany-paneled flat in a Victorian apartment building. The family opens their home to friends and a few lucky strangers who can partake in a feast of lamb, chicken, and vegetable dishes prepared by grandma, traditional recipes of a minuscule sect of Shia known as the Bohri, while her grandson and granddaughter provide a running commentary on the food, history, and the genesis of family business, The Bohri Kitchen.
The Bohri family and the Hindu cow tender speak to an entrepreneurial spirit that permeates India’s past, present, and future.
Mumbai’s Sassoon Docks provide a window to India’s past, its historical connection to the United States, and evidence that what we like to think of as “the new global economy” is really nothing new.
Our guide’s presentation, delivered in rapid fire fashion, could be summed up in “all roads lead to and from India.”
The Sassoons, a family of Baghdadi Jews, built the docks, now home to the Mumbai fishing fleet, in 1875 to serve the emerging cotton trade between India and England.
“…all roads lead to and from India.”
The Indian cotton trade took off during the American Civil War, when shipments from the southern slave states fell off. This was a boon for some but bust for others. The Brits wanted their Manchester mills to monopolize the Indian textile trade, and to destroy the domestic competition they broke the thumbs of the Indian village weavers to prevent them from passing on their skills.
We learned our national anthem has an Indian connection. The HMS Minden, that ship that fired on Ft. McHenry in the War of 1812, was built in Bombay. The rockets whose red glare “gave proof through the night…” was technology the Brits acquired when they defeated the French in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka.
As India hurtles into the future, many of its 1.3 billion inhabitants fear its traditional culture is being sacrificed to the gods of globalism.
I discovered this as I hurtled into Jaipur, Rajasthan’s Pink City.
Maharaja Jai Singh II built Jaipur nearly 300 years ago as a home for royal palaces and artisans’ workshops. Streets were laid out on a grid pattern, with different tradesmen occupying different quadrants of the old city, as their descendants still do to this day.
The way to a nation’s culture is through its stomach.
The fate of the traditional arts and artisans was a concern of the social anthropologist and food writer who served as our guides on an early morning street food tour of the old city. The preservation of traditional foods is as important as the preservation of trades. The way to a nation’s culture is through its stomach.
We visited the Bhartiya Bakery, founded in 1950 by a family that left Karachi Pakistan following the partition. The grandchildren bake from the family’s original recipes, and bake-to-order for local households who provide their own recipes and ingredients.
At an open-air vendor on a corner crowded with tuk-tuks and motorcycles, we sampled Dal Pakwan, boiled lentils served over a crispy fried bread and topped with tangy tamarind chutney, a traditional breakfast among the Sindhi, an ethnic group originally from Pakistan.
As we visited the producers/purveyors of local specialties as gajak, a sesame-and-jaggery sweet eaten in the winter, rabdi, a milk and saffron pudding, monthal, a lentil fudge, kacchori samosas and other typical breakfast foods, our guides explained how each of the specialty food crafts have been passed down in the family.
Every profession had its own caste, joining profession/labor to family and to society, a means of social organization. Was this the antidote or precursor to the alienation and commodification of labor we find with today’s corporate industrial arrangements?
In a nation where two thirds of the population lives in villages, the desire to preserve traditional crafts and culture runs deep even as, or especially because, the society and economy are changing rapidly. Gandhi’s uprising against British colonialism idealized homespun weavers over British free-trade textiles, and the Modi government champions small and mid sized businesses with subsidies and credit.
Balancing local businesses and culture against the appetites of global corporations is a challenge for Indian society and our own.
Balancing local businesses and culture against the appetites of global corporations is a challenge for Indian society and our own. It may be the greatest challenge we face, particularly if one understands China as the proxy for “global corporations.”
Family is the traditional foundation of society, and the weakening of family in the West corresponds with the fraying of the social fabric.
But family remains strong in India.
There is the example of the Mewar family of Udaipur in Rajasthan. Theirs is the longest surviving dynasty on earth, unbroken since the 5th century. The Mewar family mastered the art of war and their territory was never conquered, not by the Moguls, the British, or anyone else.
They also mastered the art of the deal. Following India’s independence from British rule in 1947, Delhi set out to enlist the 522 independent princely states in the new national project. The central government offered to pick up the maharajas’ living expenses if they joined the new nation. The Mewar royal family was the first to take up Delhi’s offer, with the stipulation that they would also retain in perpetuity a 2.8 per cent royalty on the zinc, silver, and marble produced from their territory’s mines and quarries. Expense allowances for royal families lapsed under subsequent Delhi administrations, but the family still collects their mining royalties.
They also still own the City Palace (now a museum), perched on a hilltop overlooking the magnificent Lake Pichola in Udaipur. In what is likely the best museum gift shop deal ever, weavers and other artisans who’ve worked for the royal family over the centuries are given space on the palace grounds to fabricate and sell their wares.
The most ostentatious example of the importance of family is the Indian wedding, world famous over-the-top celebrations that last for days with rituals, flowers, food, music, and Bollywood dancing – a one-stop cultural immersion.
The one I traveled halfway around the world to attend did not disappoint. Drummers in pink turbans and gold-fringed kurtas greeted guests at the lavish outdoor venue decorated with flowers galore and lined with palm trees and buffet tables offering every cuisine from India to Italy. The guests wore a dazzling bouquet of red, blue, pink, orange and gold outfits – both men and women.
After guests bestowed their blessings by showering rose petals on the bride and groom who held hands under a veil, the celebration began.
First, friends of the bride, friends of the groom; then the mother of the bride and her friends; the bride’s cousins; and finally the bride and groom themselves came on stage to perform exuberant if not tightly synchronized Bollywood style dance routines to cheers from the crowd. Later everyone got on the dance floor, dancing for hours in a joyous celebration.
The traditional rituals the couple had participated in as a prelude to the ceremony underscore how families not merely individuals were being married. The groom visits the bride’s home where bride’s family tossed flower petals on him as he entered. The bride’s mother then applied vermillion powder in a tika or dot on his forehead and circled him with a tray carrying rice grains, a ghee lamp, a coconut and flowers. The bride then entered, received a similar welcome and exchanged garlands with the groom. A Hindu priest chanted mantras repeated by the couple who walked around a flame in the center of the altar. The two were tied together with a string then the groom washed the bride’s feet in milk, symbolizing how she is now the Lakshmi of his life—the Hindu Goddess of fortune and prosperity.
Family retains its place at the center of concentric circles of community and society.
I attended another wedding in Delwara, a village adjacent to the Raas Devigarh Palace hotel in the Aravalli Hills outside Udaipur. The entire village was dancing in the street with the two brides who rode through the town on horseback.
And we happened upon another in Jaipur next door to the Sujan Rajmahal Palace. A very wealthy local family was having a gargantuan wedding to which they had invited over a thousand of their closest friends and family. The hotel asked if we could drop in, then impeccably uniformed staff led us to the festivities where professional Bollywood performers joined the bride and groom on stage in a seriously choreographed show as guests feasted on endless buffets.
I can report that in all of the celebrations I witnessed the love marriage has replaced the arranged marriage.
But family retains its place at the center of concentric circles of community and society.
That’s something to remember as American society, like India’s, undergoes seismic changes if not seismic elections.
The immensity and sensory overload of India makes a good trip organizer essential, and no one does India better than Cox & Kings – they took care of Mahatma Gandhi back in the day. I’m no Gandhi, but they provided me VIP, no waiting at the crowded airports, hotel transfers plus top guides and remarkable itineraries in Delhi, Jaipur and Mumbai. Info: www.coxandkings.com.
For Personal Travel Around Mumbai and Delhi It’s key to use a car service with a good reputation and Kalka Travels is excellent. Info: kalkatravelindia.com.
The iconic Taj Mahal Palace overlooking the Gateway of India, is frequented by royalty, heads of state and celebrities. Photos of notable guests such as the Dalai Lama, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, John Lennon and Ravi Shankar line the corridors. An opulent lobby with museum rich art collection and sumptuous suites in the Palace Wing exude the splendor and elegance of India’s colonial era. Acclaimed restaurants include Marsala Kraft with superb Indian cuisine, and a colonnade of fabulous clothing and jewelry shops actually have great deals. Info: tajhotels.com.
Sujan Rajmahal has been transformed by Sujan, the prestigious Indian Company known for luxe safari camps, from a royal palace to a luxury boutique hotel owned by the royal family of Jaipur.
Jacqueline Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II, Lord Mountbatten and other notables were guests when the Maharaja H.H. Sawai Man Singh II and his wife the glamorous Maharani Gayatri resided here; their photos from the period adorn the main salon and suites named after them.
Each of the suites and public spaces is distinct: the pink-on-pink breakfast room, turquoise and violet in the Jaqueline Kennedy Suite, and aquamarine in the stately Lord Mountbatten Suite. Info: http://sujanluxury.com/raj-mahal/
The Leela Palace Udaipur, a stunning modern day palace inspired by the magic and grandeur of Udaipur’s past, is located on the banks of Lake Pichola and offers a spectacular view of the lake, the historic City Palace and mountains beyond. Traditional art and Rajasthani crafts decorate the 72 spacious rooms and 8 suites, all of which have lake views. An eye-popping blend of contemporary décor and traditional architecture makes this a fairy tale setting, with an all-day multi-cuisine restaurant, a royal fine dining rooftop restaurant serving Indian cuisine, an intimate lounge, India’s only lakeside tented luxury spa and a top-of-the-line gym with personal trainers. The hotel’s Inner Courtyard turns into a splendid stage for Rajasthani folk performances after sunset. Info: theleela.com
Raas Devigarh – Delwara
Raas Devigarh is located 28 km north east of Udaipur, a 45 minute drive from the city. Overlooking the village of Delwara, the Raas Devigarh palace was built as a fort in the 18th century. It has been restored as an all suite luxury hotel surrounded by green fields and mountains on three sides. The unique temples of Eklingji and Nagda are close by sightseeing destinations. Info: http://www.raasdevigarh.com/
The Leela Palace Hotel Delhi in the leafy diplomatic enclave is a favorite of diplomats and royalty with its chandeliered lobby striking art objects, posh rooms and suites and a rooftop pool. Several weddings took place in its gardens while I was there. The breakfast buffet with fresh pressed juices is unmatched, as is the exceptional Indian cuisine at Jamavar. If you want a break from curry, dine Italian at an offshoot of New York’s Le Cirque upstairs. Info: theleela.com.
Curtis Ellis is a Senior Policy Advisor with America First Policies. He was a senior policy advisor with the Donald J. Trump campaign.