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76% of the population in India lives on less than $2 U.S. dollars a day. While this statistic seems far-fetched, as I once considered it, as I walked the streets of southern India I no longer had doubts. While in India I visited Chennai, Delhi (the capital of India), Agra, and Cochin.
I will admit that my first day in Chennai I was not a fan of India. It is very hard to enter into a country with little to no infrastructure, severe poverty, and malnourished citizens and not be skeptical about what is happening within this nation I had read about India and the poverty which I would see, the smells, the dirt, the unfortunate standard of living, the frequent and common public urination. However, in the case of India, the words in a textbook give little meaning to the reality.
Visitors or tourists are very susceptible to beggars. Beggars will go so far as to touch you and to tug on your sleeve. They are often women carrying babies which are sedated and wrapped in blankets and pointing to their mouth as an indication of hunger.
It is not only beggars who will harass tourists but also auto-rickshaw drivers. Leaving the port and walking down the road, Semester at Sea students would be bombarded by rickshaw drivers trying to take you somewhere. You can say no, but it has little meaning seeing as they will follow you until you agree to get in. It is tiring to constantly be inconvenienced by locals, however, you must keep in mind that this is how they make a living.
Another thing I found interesting is that India outlaws the slaughtering of cows since the cow is revered as a caretaker and maternal figure in Hindu society. Therefore, the likelihood of running across a burger is near impossible in India. The majority of the population is Hindu and does not consume cow due to religious regulations. Hindus encourage the practice of ahisma, an overarching theme of respect, respect for others and for all living beings.
This respect for the living extends to animals and plants and its practice is manifested in a Hindu’s diet. They practice vegetarianism and I found that many food sources (even something as minuscule as a bag of Lay’s Chips) are distinctly labeled as vegetarian and suitable for consumption. Since the greater majority of Indian states legally ban cow-slaughter, this is putting the Indian government in a position of advocating vegetarianism on the grounds of religious beliefs and in effect combining religion and politics.
While in India I went to a cultural performance known as KATHAKALI, it is Kerala’s best known art form and is emotive as well as narrative. The dancers combine dance with dialogue using hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye movements to convey meaning to the audience. Percussion instruments such as cymbals and three types of drums (cena, edakka, and maddalam) are used as a means of producing a variety of sounds. The dancers play a variety of roles such as kings, gods, demons, heroines, animals, and priests. Each role has its own particular style of makeup and costume.
In addition to India’s cultural dance and theater, I also visited one of the SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD. For many years, travelers from around the globe have visited the historical city of Agra in order to gaze upon what many believe is one of the world’s most breathtaking sights—THE TAJ MAHAL. The Taj Mahal took approximately 21 years to build and was built in the name of love.
The story goes like this: The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan married Mumtaz Mahal in 1612, when she was 21-years-old. She bore him 14 children and fell ill shortly after. Her last wish to the Royal Emperor Shah Jahan was that he build a beautiful and incomparable monument over her grave as a token of their worldly inseparable love.
Shah Jahan was grief stricken and vowed to build her a memorial surpassing in beauty anything the world had ever seen. Today, the Taj Mahal brings anywhere from 2 to 4 million visitors annually and has become a great source of revenue for the town of Agra.
The capital of DELHI is a very lively city in India. The night that I arrived, at approximately 12:30 am, my friends and I were driving to our hotel when we see a man riding an elephant down the street. Naturally we get excited and turn into loud Americans who have never seen such an occurrence!
Our taxi drivers was confused over all the commotion and asked if we liked the elephant and if we wished to ride it. Of course the answer was a definite yes! We pull over to the side of the road, get out of our taxi and run after this huge elephant which to us seemed unreal! The elephant owner climbed up its trunk as me and friend climbed up from behind using its large feet and tail to get us onto this nearly 13 feet and 9,000 pound animal!
Needless to say, this was a night I will remember for the rest of my life—riding an elephant with friends at 12:30 in the morning in the streets of Delhi. It was at this moment that I fell in love with India.
I took some very valuable lessons from my stay in India. I learned that when visiting an underdeveloped country such as India, you must look at the world with different lenses. India is not a vacation in the Bahamas, it is not a luxurious getaway, it is the exact opposite.
I would come back to my cabin at the end of the day and be covered it filth, the dirt would somehow penetrate both my shoes and socks and manage to dirty my covered skin. As we disembarked the ship I noticed that the crew had put cardboard down on all the floors and stairways and I did not understand why. When I came back that first day, I understood the purpose of the cardboard—India is dirty. I learned to overcome the fact that I was going to get soiled, sticky, sweaty, and smelly and to enjoy India for what it is. It is a country deeply rooted in history and culture and is filled with experiences waiting to happen.