After hanging out with family in Madras for about a week, my mom, brother and I took a trip north to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Both of these states present a radical contrast to Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the south, in more ways than I can count. People in these two northern states speak Hindi, one of the Indo-Aryan languages that form part of the same broad language family as English and most European languages. People in the south speak languages in the Dravidian language family, with *completely* different phonology, grammar, history and roots. Compare one through ten, in Sanskrit (the root of Hindi and other North Indian languages) and Tamil:
(Hindi): eka, dva, tri, chatur, pancha, shash, sapta, ashta, nava, dasa
(Tamil): onnu, randu, mooNu, nalu, anji, aru, eRu, ettu, ompathu, pathu, where the N and R represent retroflex sounds that English doesn’t have an equivalent for.
Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have much larger Muslim and Brahmin populations than the South, and many fewer Christians; they were ruled by Maratha kings for a good portion of the 17th-19th centuries, while most of the South never was; they were colonized by the British later than the South, and they’re in general substantially drier than Kerala, at least, as well as colder in the winter and warmer in the summer. And most prominently, they’re much poorer and less developed than the south, as well as socially less progressive. Educational levels, health standards, and the status of women are abysmal, on par with the less developed parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. If going from Madras to Kerala was like going from the third world to the second, going from Madras to Madhya Pradesh was like going from the third world to the fourth. The signs of underdevelopment were everywhere: the tiny plots of land (mostly rice fields with cracked mud and mustard fields with bright yellow flowers), the dried out and parched terrain, the overall disrepair of the houses, and the overall number of beggars and miserable looking people around. This is the part of India where development efforts are most direly and sorely needed.
We spent about four days at a national park in Madhya Pradesh, where we saw a ton of wildlife (jungle cats, a leopard, muntjac deer, the large sambar deer and smaller spotted deer). And tons of birds, of course. Then we traveled north to the town of Khajuraho, with its famous erotic temple carvings which the guide was anxious to assure us were *not* pornography. And finally to the holy city of Benares, one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites for Hindus. A great many Hindus have the dream to die in Benares so that they can be cremated at the fires that burn day and night by the riverside, and their ashes thrown into the sacred river, so that their souls can ascend to paradise without reincarnation.
Benares was in many ways a depressing city, and the quality of sanitation and infrastructure was abysmal. I would hate to live there, and I think it’s a terrible scandal that the government has not done more to clean up the city. Beyond just the piles of cow droppings everywhere (including on the sacred riverside steps, believe it or not) the air pollution and traffic are terrible. It was, in many ways, one of the most chaotic and least well maintained cities I’d ever seen.
And yet, there was something quite fascinating about sitting at dusk on a boat on the river, and watching a religious ceremony take place on the steps that lead down to the river. To the east of us were the funeral pyres that burn 24/7, speeding the souls of the dead on their way to paradise, and culminating the dreams of many millions of people about how they want to leave this world. To the west were a line of seven priests, clothed in splendid red and white regalia with gold trimmings, holding dishes full of camphor-fueled fire and making offerings to the gods. Recorded Hindu devotional music was playing over big speakers so that everyone could hear and sing along. And over it all, the night was settling over a cityscape hazy with smog. In spite of the smog and the terrible infrastructure problems of the city, it was in some ways a beautiful scene. It was a fascinating scene, too, because you knew that in the minds of huge groups of people, both there in Benares and devout Hindus all over India, what was happening then and there was more important than all of the earthly problems that Benares and India faced: what was happening was a direct encounter between Man and God.
I don’t share the Hindu faith, of course, and I strongly disagree that beauty and the worship of God are more important or greater in any way than clean streets, functioning sewage systems, food for the hungry and jobs for the jobless. I believe that old India was characterized by an unhealthy focus on the hereafter at the expense of the here-and-now, and that the amounts of money that the kings of Nepal and Punjab spent on ammassing hundreds of pounds of gold to decorate Benares temples, could have been more usefully spent distributing bread to the peasantry. I’m glad that modern India chose the path of Nehru rather than Gandhi (though I wish it could have hewed more to the path desired by the Indian Marxists), and I think that the future of India lies, and should lie, with the clean streets and houses of Kerala, with every child in school and a plate of fish and rice on every table, rather than with the gold domes and haunting spectacles of Benares. As a Christian, I believe we are called to address and conquer the problems of this earth, not to transcend them. Looking at the history of India, I wonder how much the beauty of the scene by the riverbank and the misery of Benares and the surrounding area are connected: was one, historically, the necessary price of the other?
And yet. In spite of all the moral and social criticisms I’d make of the spectacle at Benares, and as much as I think it was symptomatic of something very deep and problematic at the heart of Hindu civilization, it was impossible to deny that it was beautiful. I want India to industrialize, and to become more like a modern European (or at least second world country): there’s no denying, however, that in doing so it will lose something. Progress is necessary, but it probably has costs too, and we should be clear-eyed about what those costs are.