By Sylvie Berthiaume
India is striking in many respects. For Westerners, exoticism and disorientation are guaranteed - reality exceeds the fiction - and this, mainly in contact with its inhabitants.
As we know, India’s overcrowding ranks first worldwide. This is confirmed in an hallucinating way in the large urban centers: Proximity, noise and pollution increased even more by the cars and tuk-tuks traffic self-regulated by the horn.
Great poverty afflicts the country, although India is gradually rising to the first ranks of economic powers, which increases the proportion of people in the average class. In addition, poor hygienic conditions are easily observable in the streets and public places, both in cities and small villages.
During a stay of one or two weeks, the inquisitive traveller may feel flabbergasted by these phenomena that beset body, eyes, nose and spirit, with each step. But the attraction and the acclimation take quickly all the space. So much the better if the trip is not yet completed, he or she can fully enjoy the experience. Otherwise, he or she will surely want to return some day to continue the discovery more serenely.
According to the stories heard here and there, it seems that there are three major types of travel in India: Observation, meditation, solidarity in action. Literally opposed in terms of sensations and required energies, but all humanly enriching.
During our brief stay in 2018, here is what we have been able to observe among the inhabitants on two and… four legs.
The castes and tribal populations: Today as yesterday
The social caste system is always respected in India, although now formally prohibited. These castes are:
The brhamanes, priests, teachers and intellectuals
The kshatriyas, king, princes and warriors
The vaishyas, craftsmen, peasants, farmers and shepherds
The shudras, servants
The dalits or untouchables, the poorest and least educated, who are descendants of the pre-Aryans of the country.
The most widely spoken first language in India is Hindi, in a proportion of 40%. In 2nd position is the Bengali, and 3rd the Tamil. In addition, English is taught as a second language, since the English colonial era: In fact, 12% of the Indian population is fluent in English, and travellers can make themselves understood minimally, in English and using their hands..., by everybody with whom they deal in the cities and tourist places.
The tribal populations we can still encounter are:
The kalbeliyas: Nomads of the Thar desert, ancestors of all the gypsies in the world, are recognized for their skills as snake charmers, musicians and dancers, who are credited for the "dance of the Cobra"
The bhopas: Nomadic priests with green eyes, excellent poets and storytellers, who often have entertained the Maharajas
The bishnoïs: Members of the Vishnu religious community, renowned for their love of nature and animals, are identified as the first modern ecologists
The bhils: Connoisseurs of the country’s geography and good hunters, they have been retained as guides by the Rajputs soldiers, and are particularly active during the famous Holi festival of colors.
Marriages: Arranged, but well accepted
In 2018, most of the marriages are still agreed upon in advance by the families, though less are practiced before 18 years old. From there the adage: "If a marriage is not working well, the parents are to blame or to complain to".
There are some marriages agents who make the presentations and match the curriculum not only of the future spouses, but also of their families, because marriage is not only a matter of a couple, but of the entire family.
From what is said and heard publicly, women seem to accommodate: "Love is meant to develop after the wedding". Nevertheless, the love marriages become an aspiration for many young people who live their love in secret.
Men adulterous affairs seem frequent, without being accepted.
Divorce is possible in our days, but not many reasons are accepted by law to grant it. In addition, if a husband beats his wife, he risks to be emprisoned.
Men : Usually hyperactive
On the street, taking care of their day-to-day affairs, working behind their stalls or their shops, at tourist attractions or services, in hotels and transportation, or on construction sites without any protection, it is with a febrile energy that every man earns his living.
In Rajasthan, in cities like Jaipur and Jodhpur, the trading activity is so present that it keeps the crime rate very low, according to what is said by the guides.
In presence of travellers, the men are polite, although they sometimes show perplexity.
Dress side, one could estimate that 30% of men dress in Western style and 70% Indian style. Vibrant colors turbans are sublime, as well as the beautiful pristine white tunic/pants set. Some still wear the trousers very wide at the hips and very narrow at waist and ankles, which are at the origin of the English horseriding breeches.
We see a lot of older men, wearing bright orange hair and beard, simply dyed by henna, to hide their white hair.
In the evening and during the night, the streets are still simmering of activity: Only men, working, strolling or chatting with friends.
Women: Joyful and curious
Stopping to look at some house facades, travellers express their bad or sad feelings in front of bronze plaques featuring hands and finger prints of dead women sacrificed by fire, following the death of their husband, to join him in the next life, since in any way their survival would be possible. This tradition has fortunately been prohibited for a few years, but it is still practiced sometimes, which gives rise to trial.
Emancipation or exploitation? On construction sites, women in saris, accompanied by their babies and children, shovel earth, rock and sand.
Encountering Western women, Indian ladies are polite, playful, take selfies, want to invite them to eat at home, exchange Facebook or WhatsApp addresses to keep contact.
Dress side, in Jaipur and Jodhpur, almost all women of all ages wear the sari, contrary to New Delhi where young women dress more and more Western style.
Hands and feet tattoo with henna is still very widespread among women of all ages.
Children: Daring and smiling
By purchasing extravagant embroidered fabrics or any other luxury product, which require months of work and sell for small prices, one can only wonder if they come from children exploitation.
We wonder whether we should buy or not, from an economic and social perspective, although the guides tell us that the exploitation of children is not longer a reality, or that it has greatly decreased. Since 1989, local and international laws prohibit yet the work of children. Who should we believe?
One thing is for sure, the children are resourceful very early in life, to ensure their own survival and to contribute to the family life. Their education is also now mandatory under Indian law.
And they burst laughing when they see horrified screaming tourists, while demonstrating their love for pet snakes…
Let’s catch a glimpse
On education: Indians devote an immense respect for teachers, they even raise in the first rank of society.
On mental and physical activity: Hatha-yoga takes the entire place, for a better control of body and mind, up to the release of a higher consciousness.
On sports: The Kabaddi, which exists since 4 000 years, is a race during which we must tag the most players as possible, without being itself touched, and this, while keeping our breath. Also, the legacies of the English colonial era, such as field hockey and cricket, are very popular.
On people living with a disability: On the trains, wagons are clearly identified by a nice expression: "For differently abled".
On telecommunications: India’s industry is globally recognized and 80% of the population owns a cell phone.
On economic resourcefulness: On the street, in markets, railway stations and other public places, there is a multitude of initiatives that enable everyone to survive, by relying on oneself. Many offers unusual services or products, for example: a cart containing a mountain of rubber caps used to cover furniture feet to protect floors, or tens of young people wandering around in train stations with a heavy ring of screws, straps, fasteners, zippers, locks and casters to repair travellers suitcases.
Other members of the family: Stray animals
We encounter a lot of animals on the street and on the roads of Rajasthan. They are not to fear, but it is better if we do not attempt to make friends with them. We must do as the Indians do: the animals have priority of passage, therefore whether we are by foot, on a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle or in a car, it is up to us to go around.
Cows : They are sacred, under the Hindu religion, because the milk they give and serves to maintain life of human beings, does not contain cholesterol. In the middle of the streets or highways, they wander alone, feasting the head buried in the flowering shrubs, and know for themselves resume the path to their stable for the night. The Indians buy fresh grass to give to the cows in the morning, as a religious offering. Anyone who kills a cow must undergo a trial: if it is by accident, car, for example, it is not so bad; if it is voluntary, for meat for example, this is the path to prison.
Peacocks: One of the national emblems of India, peacocks are also protected as the sacred cows. Difficult consequences appear if one injures or kills a peacock, by accident or voluntarily.
Dogs: Streets are also full. Peaceful for the most part, they are not very much interested in humans, who feed them also. The Indian mother cooks every morning at least one piece of bread to give to a stray dog.
Monkeys: Places of worship are literally full - that is to say, sometimes hundreds. There are mainly two types of macaque monkeys, one is brown with a pink face and a red butt, the other one is grey with a black face and a very long thin tail. We can feed them nuts or bananas, but even if they are not really wicked, there is a risk of ending up with dozens of specimens on the shoulders and hanging to our body as they will be fighting for the food…
Elephants and camels: They do not serve only as entertainment for tourists. We see them regularly on the streets, wearing nice painted colors, luxury fabrics and jewels, traveling to participate in a marriage, or carrying goods. There are regular fairs to purchase, exchange, participate in competitions or beauty contest, or to please residents and tourists. Festival of Elephant Fair: Jaipur, in March. Camel Fair, the largest in the world: Pushkar, in November.
Snakes: Cobra, cobra royal and vipers are the main indian snakes among a hundred species. The Indians sometimes take off their venom gland and adopt them as pets. The snake occupies a key place in the Hindu religion and many festivals of the snake are held each year, where some of the believers are voluntary bitten to obtain the gods’ favors.
Goats, donkeys, wild boars and rats: Also stray, among all the others, on the street, in train stations, temples, etc.
No glance, no encounter, leaves us indifferent.