By Chet Yarbrough
Sojourn to Northern India
Written by: Chet Yarbrough
Sixteen days in Northern India vivified life. This sojourn into the world’s most populated Democracy is at once astonishingly beautiful and terribly disheartening. Northern India is beautiful for its millennial accomplishments and disheartening for its seemingly insurmountable social, economic, and political challenges. (This personal view is supplemented by authors, Arundhati Roy, Katherine Boo, Aravind Adiga, Raghu Karnad, and a smattering of Great Courses’ audio books on ancient cultures.)
India contains some of the greatest monuments of ancient history. Managed by Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, India has prospered, crumbled, and reappeared as one of the most powerful countries in the world. The great challenges of the past occur and recur with a resilient response by India’s people. Their ability to adapt to foreign occupation by disparate cultures is a tribute to their longevity as an independent nation.
One of the main attractions in the so called ‘Pink’ city of Jaipur is the World Heritage Site of Jantar Mantar astronomical observatory. This impressive collection of astronomical instruments were built by Sawai Jai Singh, a Mughal commander, dated 1728.
The Sukh Mandir palace was kept cool in the summer by covering its arched openings with screens woven with the roots of the aromatic grass called khas. The screens were moistened periodically with water, air passing through the screens was thus cooled, and carried also the fragrance of the grass into the palace-chambers.
Vehicle for entrance to the Raja’s fortress.
Like a cobra preparing to strike, India seems over-matched by environmental and societal challenges.
Today, India’s adaptability seems over-matched by environmental and societal challenges. Air and water pollution is ubiquitous in Northern India. India’s primary source of energy comes from fossil fuels, particularly coal. Over 65% of India’s energy is non-renewable while electricity is supplied to only 81% of the population (based on 2013 records). Today’s Covid19 pandemic accelerates India’s environmental and societal challenges.
In a 2011 report, Hindus represent 79 percent of the population. The Ganges river is sacred to Hindus. It is a major source of water for agriculture and life in Northern India. However, the Ganges is highly polluted. In today’s news, (May 11, 2021) scores of bodies are reported to be floating in the Ganges.
In Varanasi, it is reported that fecal coli-form bacteria from human waste is 100 times the Indian government’s official limit.
Hindu religious practices in India compound Ganges’ Pollution. Because of the Ganges religious importance, cremation occurs daily with human remains discharged into the river in Varanasi. This cremation ceremony occurs on the banks of the Ganges. Though cremation removes most organic material, there are circumstances under which un-cremated bodies are placed in the river.
Every night, (7 days a week–Human bodies are prepared for cremation on the Ganges’ bank. Fire in the background obscures a wrapped body that is lain atop a wood fire to reduce a deceased person to ash.
A societal challenge facing India is its history of caste and religious belief. Caste and Modi’s reification and emphasis on Hinduism conflicts with Islamism. Just under 80% of India is Hindu with Muslimism over 14%. Border disputes with the largely Islamic state of Pakistan continue to roil India’s culture.
Despite diligent effort by the government to eliminate caste, it remains a source of underlying societal friction. Arranged marriages are extremely important in India because the joining of husband and wife are a marriage of families, not just individuals. Though there are exceptions, many of the young appreciate their father’s effort to screen potential marriage partners. Not that this may not be a better way of ensuring a long marriage than America’s happenstance conjugality, it diminishes cultural diversity. Cultural diversity opens a world of opportunity to all people, regardless of caste.
Upper classes object to affirmative action for the castes, particularly the untouchables, because of tradition. Indians are often able to determine the caste of residents by just knowing their names. It reminds one of Americans and their recognition of race by color. Discrimination seems as prevalent in India as in America. The arc of justice may be bending toward equality but both countries are far from achievement.
Equally concerning challenges for India are the two faces of democracy. On the one hand democracy offers more freedom than other forms of government. On the other, unregulated freedom leads to abuse of power.
“White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga tells a story of the consequence of unregulated freedom in India. Katherine Boo, in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” tells a story of the consequence of regulated freedom in India that does not work.
India’s effort to regulate freedom faces the same obstacles as America. Knowing where to draw the line on individual freedom is problematic. Too much government denies opportunity to succeed. Too little government leads to the Bernie Madoff’s of the world.
Our personal guide in India proudly noted that his family is from the warrior caste. He wishes to become rich and have his daughter marry into his caste. That is his ideal, but he recognizes his daughter lives in a different world. He is unsure of how his life will evolve. However, he is not optimistic. India has a young population, growing at 1,000,000 people per month. He believes Prime Minister Modi is a good leader but that he will not succeed in modernizing India because of the challenges facing India. He argues that diminishing natural resources and India’s increased population will defeat economic growth and social stability.
A May 2022 “Economist” article on India suggests Prime Minister Modi’s government reforms may substantially improve India’s economy in the 21st century. Our guide in 2018 was quite skeptical.
Our trip to India was astonishingly beautiful but terribly disheartening. One hopes our guide underestimates India’s ability to overcome environmental deterioration and achieves its potential for continued economic growth.