flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)


Five million people named Patel came together for a six-day festival at the nearby temple and town of Unjha. We joined them in celebrating Patel progress and culture.

Every few decades, the Patidar caste has a huge gathering. The last one was in 1976. Patels are historically businessmen and farmers. In Gujarat, well over half the population are members of the various Patel sub-castes. The festival helps raise money for various educational foundations. But mainly, it's about religion and Patel pride.

Seven of us--Hiren and Chandrika and their kids--piled into Alkesh's car and braved the crazy traffic around the fair. Dozens of jam-packed buses zoomed around us, shuttling people back and forth from the surrunding towns. Many additional people rode on the roofs of the buses, holding on and cheering. The festival-goers needed all the transportation they could get; most people here don't have private cars. Those people who are lucky enough to own their own vehicles usually have motorcycles instead. The parking lots were filled with motorbikes as far as we could see; Michael said the number of motorcycles was more than the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in North Dakota. Alkesh parked in one of the relatively few automobile lots and we joined the throngs of people.
Photo of a huge motorcycle parking lot, lit up with carnival lights

The sheer numbers were daunting, but the festival had good logistical management. Barriers herded people into queues, with artfully decorated solid walls to stop people ducking under. Brightly colored cloth covered the ground everywhere, keeping the dust down. For once, manure was not a problem; guards and fences kept the cows out of the main areas. Litter control was rather lacking, however.  We shuffled our way through mini-snowdrifts of discarded plastic cups around the overflowing dust-bins.

Superficially, the festival is similar to a big state fair. There's a combination of amusement-park rides and educational exhibitions. There's also a lot of shopping; all the various industries are represented. Everyone who is anyone is there. So Toyota and Tata motors showed off their gleaming new cars. Energy companies displayed new CFL light-bulbs. We even saw a vendor selling cotton candy (pure-veg, of course).  I wanted to see the agricultural exhibits, but it was late and most of the exhibits had closed. One of the few open booths was sponsoring a campaign against the worldwide eating of beef. They tried to single us out and ask us to sign a petition. We declined.

Unlike US fairs, this festival had a very strong underlying religious aspect. The temple at the center of the fair is a major part of the devotions. Chandrika, Hiren's wife, had joined the tens of thousands who walked 25 kilometers to the temple at Unjha, leaving at moonrise and arriving in the early morning.

Painting of Krishna coming down from heaven to the farmers below

A series of life-size dioramas and paintings showed how Patels had progressed through the centuries, from small farming villages to modern times. Mixing history with religion, many scenes showed scenes from the Mahabharata and (I think) how Lord Krishna had ridden down from heaven on an elephant and blessed the Patel clan. With the gods' help, the farmers evolved, using better technology, and Patels moved into other industries. The last panel featured the modern, global Patel businessman, standing by the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower to symbolize the worldwide Indian disapora.
 
Several old pictures, showing an elderly woman in tribal dress, and village life

Our favorite part was a display of old black-and-white photographs. They showed historic Gujarati life in villages, with traditional farming methods and ethnic costumes. We couldn't read the dates, but it was nice to see those windows into Gujarat's past. That was a very small part of the festival. The recurring theme showed the past as an afterthought, to contrast with how far they've come and how modern they are now. America is such a young country; we have so little history when compared to India. It's great that Indians are proud of their progress, but they have such a rich heritage, too.
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The ancient Indus Valley "cradle of civilization" is today an island in a dry sea of salt. Hundreds of miles of salt flats stretch across to Pakistan. It's a barren wasteland that looks eerily similar to snow. We saw it, and tasted it too.

We left very late. Kutch is a five hour drive from our home in north Gujarat. We planned to leave at 8 in the morning. Our driver came by 9. However, his jeep was out of town; it didn't arrive until after 10:30. We ended up leaving at 11. We submitted a ShmooCon abstract to fill the time.

The Great Rann of Kuch looks exactly like a frozen Great Lake in the midwestern USA. But it's *salt*, not snow. This was a great, shallow sea as recently as the time of Alexander the Great. Even now, when it rains in monsoon season, the sea briefly returns and fills with shrimp. Flamingos flock here by the thousands for the shrimp feast, turning pink from the shells. But in the dry winter months, when we visited, the Great Rann is a silent, barren landscape of solid white. Neither plants nor animals nor people live there. We saw only a handful of vehicles - mostly construction equipment. And mostly heading the other way. There aren't any gas stations out there; people mostly use camels or the rare, precious tractor.

If you've ever walked on a snow-covered lake, you have an idea of what Kutch is like. When Lake Michigan freezes over, it's a vast expanse of flat, sparkling white stretching beyond the horizon. Not completely flat; the wind sculpts the snowdrifts into long, horizontal white dunes. With sun or freezing rain, the formations develop a hard, brittle crust that crunches underfoot. Walking on the crust makes footprint craters that break through to the soft snow below. Now imagine that same landscape, but with a 90-degree temperature and absolute still silence. Add a briny ocean smell, and substitute salt for snow. That's Kutch.
View of the Great Rann of Kutch salt flats

We stopped the car and walked on the salt plains. The surface cracked under our feet exactly like frozen snow. We broke off a little bit of the crust and tasted it; natural sea salt. I stayed near the relative stability of the road.
Michael on the Great Rann of Kutch - before he fell in
My husband wandered over to a pretty, open pool of water, with Yellowstone-like colors from the minerals. The salt crust was thin at the water's edge, and Michael fell in!  He didn't go far, but he sank past his ankles in brine. When he extracted himself, his feet and sandals were completely covered in salt.

We needed the jeep. The sturdy, national highway ended 40 kilometers before Dholavira. The Indian Government was actively doing construction on the lengths on over the salt flats, with a strangely solid, single raised bed. On land, it was another story. We took two hours to travel the last 40 kilometers. After an hour of barely-road travel, our driver suddenly realized he'd passed the last gas station for 200 kilometers and we wouldn't have enough to get back. So he stopped at one of the villages and they poured a can of diesel fuel into the jeep. Whew!

We finally pulled into the Harrapan ruins at about 4:30, the only car in the parking lot. A handful of workers were still sifting through the archeological site with drum-shaped screens.  Other workers were coating the ancient bricks with a slurry of cow manure and mud.  There are huge, elaborate systems of reservoirs created to capture the monsoon rains for use in the dry seasons. Photography was prohibited, since it's an active archeological site.

There's a tiny, year-old museum there too. The workers followed around us, switching on and off the displays of the millenia-old artifacts.  They have found many toys, including carved marble chessmen-like figures and toy carts; pottery; stone and shell beads; and beautifully detailed seals for stamping designs into wax. The seals included several intricate, recognizable designs startling in their lifelike quality. Several seals showed a multi-headed water buffalo--like a bovine Cerberus. Their mundane, single-headed buffalo are today outnumbered by camels and goats in this part of India. The climate changed, and the area became deserted.
flora: Stylized Indian national flag (india)
We now have Indian clothing.  We went shopping in our town, Visnagar. We're both much more comfortable in Indian dress.

We first went to a salwar kameez shop. The salwar kameez is a very common outfit worn by South Asian women. It has three parts. The salwar is a loose-fitting gathered pants. The kameez is a short tunic that has a solid shirt-like body to the waist, then the panels divide at the hips to allow free movement. It's normally topped with a dupatta, a long scarf draped around the neck. Salwar Kameez outfits are more common than saris for northern Indian everyday wear, but they're common throughout India and Pakistan. The female faculty at the engineering school wear salwar kameezes, and so do the female students when they're not in jeans and T-shirts. I frequently see girls in salwar kameez school uniforms too.

Indian women love decoration and bling; my tastes are simpler. The salwar kameezes in the shop were all super-fancy by American standards. They were all spangled with sequins and/or heavily embroidered. I asked repeatedly and finally they found a few that weren't too gaudy for my tastes. One is turquoise with embroidered fabric. Another is a light peach-pink with white embroidery all over ("chikan work"). A third is a simple weave, possibly handloom. It has a dark pink over blue, embroidered with gold and blue accents of stylized flowers.

The salwar kameez tailor took my measurements. The end result was disappointing. I bought mine made-to-order instead of ready-made. They were cut too small in the bust, especially after they were washed once and shrank in the hospital laundry's heat. (Laundry here is piled together in a tub and boiled, then hung on a clothesline.) Chandrika and I found another tailor a week later and we got them altered. I wanted some saris too, but it was getting late and Michael also wanted some Indian attire.

Michael first tried a dhoti. My sweetie sweats, and he's had a lot of trouble with restless legs here. He's been literally itching to get out of his standard khaki pants, which are much too hot for him in this heat. He first wanted to try the dhoti, the traditional, wrapped white loincloth/toga-like garment Gandhi made famous. Nowadays in North Gujarat, dhotis are mainly worn by retirement-age people; the younger generation wears jeans or trousers. The tailor, who was our age, called in an expert who was walking down the street in a dhoti. He tried to teach Michael how to wrap it. Turns out it's a complicated wrap, going between the legs. Michael said later the shape made him feel like he was wearing a big diaper. So the dhoti wasn't good.

Michael had much better luck with a lungi. Lungis are long sarongs, like a long, plain wraparound skirt. Unlike a skirt, they're straight tubes of fabric, not shaped. Lungis are extremely common in south India. Despite their non-bifurcated shape, they're a manly garment (much more masculine than a Scottish kilt). They're often just tied, but the faculty member with us thought adding a drawstring would be a good idea--especially for a novice at lungi-tying. In the professor's words, it would help avoid a "wardrobe malfunction." My modest sweetie quickly agreed. He ordered several kurta lungi and kurta pajama sets. Kurtas are a tunic like an extended button-down shirt; they can reach to the knees, or lower for some more traditional styles. Pajamas have more fabric than pants, but they still give his legs the ventilation and "breathing room" he needs for comfort. He still will wear his khaki pants/trousers for teaching, but like me, he prefers to wear Indian clothing.

Now we're wearing Indian clothes every day. It's so much more comfortable and suitable to the hot climate here. I might pack away my Western clothes until we go back.
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There are Jews in India, and they date back centuries. We worshipped on this Yom Kippur with the Bene Israel Jews at the only Jewish temple in Gujarat, Magan Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad. It was an unforgettable experience.

We left Visnagar at 7 AM to try to catch the morning service. Ahmedabad is a two-hour drive away. We didn't know what time they would start or end, nor how long it would take to find it. We arrived at 9, sometime after the Torah reading (it's one of the early parts in their morning service).

It was a little difficult to find the synagogue. The synagogue's website hasn't been updated in several years and the phone numbers on the webpage didn't work for us. What helped us most was another American who had visited two years ago, and his blog entry had enough clues to help us find our way.  You go just beyond the bridges in Ahmedabad to the Khamasa Gate area, and start asking people for the way to the "Yehudi Church." (Most English-speaking Indians know what a church is, but they've never heard of a synagogue.) Our driver first was given directions to the bright magenta Christian church nearby. when we explained that it wasn't the right one, he found someone else who directed us another four or five blocks down the main road going away from the bridges, to the Magen Abraham temple. The temple is on a little side street on the left. We tried to ask passersby the names of the cross streets there, but we couldn't quite communicate well enough.

2009 is the 75th anniversary year of this particular synagogue, as recently reported in the Times of India.  This is the only Jewish community in Gujarat. The people here trace their religious ancestry back for centuries, and prefer to call themselves "Bene Israel" (Children of Israel) rather than "Jews". For today's service, visitors came from all over india and around the world. A couple weeks ago they had a special commemoration service. They commissioned a special siddur (prayer book) with three columns per page: Hebrew, Marathi (the local language spoken in Mumbai/Bombay), and Hebrew transliterated into Marathi. A majority of the members here in Ahmedabad speak Marathi as their first language, with Hindi a close second. The congregation includes a host of other languages too, like Gujarati and English and modern Israeli Hebrew. Services are conducted in traditional Hebrew, of course.

We were nervous about showing up unannounced and late, but they welcomed us warmly. This is a small outpost of Judiasm, the only one for literally hundreds of kilometers.  They're used to visitors. After the morning service, Michael talked with a couple members, and they were especially pleased to hear that he was a computer science professor teaching in Gujarat.  I tried to talk with the women members, but I didn't find many good English speakers among them except the handful of westerners. One member I did talk with a little later proudly told me her nephew is a computer engineer in Mumbai (Bombay). The Ahmedabad Jews are very active in their city, and have businesses and consulting firms. The members here look and dress and sound and work just like their Hindu neighbors. They're totally Indian and completely Jewish at the same time. It's really neat.

The color of the day was white. The temple was draped in white, with white sheets completely covering the floors and furniture.  It's a stately Art Deco building, with Indian-style marble accents. The white walls and blue trim inside reminded me a little of an Art Deco version of a Masonic lodge hall.  I wore my navy-and-teal salwar kameez, but every other person wore white. The white may be a traditional Orthodox practice; even our Reform rabbi and cantor back home always wear white on Yom Kippur. The men wore white shirts and trousers or white kurtas and pajama pants. The women were mostly in white salwar kameezes, with the rest in saris.  The women sat in the balcony; the men stayed down below. The men wore white tallits (prayer shawls) with blue stripes. Someone even loaned Michael a tallit and a kippah (yarmulkule/skullcap) when he first came in, to cover his head.  Michael (in his off-white kurta) had procured a Muslim cap, and he used that for the afternoon service after several other men used identical head coverings. Just like entering most Indian houses of worship, we took off our shoes on entering the worship area. (We later learned the people normally keep their shoes on for the weekly Friday night shabbat services, but remove shoes for holidays.)

It wasn't crowded. There were about 40 or 50 women and children throughout the day in the upstairs balcony, and 20 or 30 men in the hall below. I counted only eight obviously foreign women over the course of the day, and five non-Indian men.  Later, I chatted with the three female American students who were studying in Ahmedabad. One was from Baltimore; she was doing a fashion internship making corsets at a ladies' garment factory.  Another was an architecture student from RPI. Another was from New York City, and I didn't catch her name or info. It made me feel a little old when they were talking throughout the service about how they were going to go out of Gujarat to get drunk and celebrate on one of the student's 21st birthday next month. I guess my problem is I didn't come to an Indian synagogue to talk with foreigners.

I did come to worship with Michael. Michael is Jewish. I happen to be Christian (Evangelical Lutheran). But nobody asked me, and I did not mention it; not out of deception, but I didn't want to distract anyone. On a personal level, I feel completely comfortable worshiping God in Jewish synagogues with my husband--especially Reform temples with moving spiritual music. We are both members of a Reform Judiasm congregation. Also, Michael and I plan to raise our future children in the Jewish faith, so I'd better be comfortable wtith it.

It was hard to tell what was going on. The service did have the standard Jewish components, but it was still utterly foreign to me. The entire service was in Hebrew with an Indian accent. I had never been to an Orthodox Jewish service before, so it was difficult to follow; I did recognize and participate in several of the responses. Also, most US services are Ashkenazic (based on the eastern-European liturgical tradition).  This service was Sephardic. The bima (raised altar area) was in the middle of the synagogue, with twinkling miniature Christmas lights and seven fluorescent-bulb candles.  Michael was lucky for the afternoon service; he had a guide (from Australia) who had experience in Reform and Orthodox services and explained him what was going on.  Turns out they follow the siddur exactly, with all the standard components but with some additional emphasis.  For instance, the cantor was standing at the bima reading and swaying and muttering silently to himself except for a spoken word here and there. Turns out they say the Avuot twice; the first silently as individuals, then responsively as a congregation. The responsive prayers are neat, with the cantor's baritone belting out below, and the women and girls in the balcony echoing in Indian-accented chants.

They use handkerchiefs in interesting ways. The most unusual and different part of the service was during the morning, for the Shema, when Indian Jews literally prostrate themselves before God. They take out a white hankerchief, bowing down on their knees with their heads on the floor on the handkerchief.  This happens multiple times during the morning service.  I'd read about this and given Michael a white pillowcase. He didn't end up needing it, since the floors were covered in white sheets anyway. For myself I had a pure white... dishtowel. Not the most elegant way to worship, but I saw at least one other woman with a dishtowel too (and hers even had flowers on it). It's the spirit of the gesture. Later, during the break, we did buy several handkerchiefs at a mall. We each had our own for the borech-hu; though they didn't do it again in the afternoon service. Because I'm female, I took an extra handkerchief, folded it into quarters and put it over my hair in my barette like most of the women there do. It's completely accepted there and much cooler than a full veil; I'd been using my dupatta, and that had been way too hot.

I struggled with the heat all day. The synagogue is not air conditioned, and I was overheated up in the women's balcony. It supposedly started at three; only us foreigners showed up on time. At three-thirty the service was moving along, and by four-thirty the members had started arriving in substantial numbers.  My blood sugar also dropped. It's traditional to fast on Yom Kippur from sundown the night before to the end of the service the next evening.  Michael fasted, but my body just wasn't up to it. I gulped down a liter of mango juice and a handful of snack food that morning, and that was my food for the day.  I also drank plenty of water. The synagogue has a modern, safe drinking water system in the back, with chilled water. I visited it hourly, drinking water and also wetting down my dupatta (cotton scarf) to help keep me cool as it evaporated in the heat.

The service was led by three men: an older rabbi, another assistant who speed-read Hebrew (he may have been another rabbi). There was also a young teenage boy who read out clear Hebrew. At the very end of the service, he also blew the shofar - a magnificent ram's horn a yard long.  Like in Hindu temples, everyone removes their sandals on entering the sanctuary and sits on the floor or the benches. The bimah was decorated with multicolor christmas lights and flower garlands.  Two ten commandments were on the wall, one in Hebrew and one in Hindi, and the siddur was in Hebrew with Marathi translations.  The services, Michael learned, were standard orthodox, with a hazzan speed-chanting in Hebrew, and the members alternatively taking part in the services and chatting with their friends.

At around eight o'clock we all broke the fast with an unfamiliar but tasty, probably hand-pressed grape juice that tasted like raisins. They also passed out raisins that were sweet, but not seedless.  It's traditional there to break the fast with two glasses of grape juice, given the heat.  Many people there refrain from food, but still drink water to avoid dehydration. As one of the members told Michael, "Life and Health come first."

Michael chatted a bit with several of the Indian Jews present about the experience of being Jewish in India.  Although the worship was strictly Orthodox, the congregants he spoke with are not as strictly observant outside of the synagogue as American Orthodox jews.  Most Hindu Indians know of Judaism as a type of Christianity, and Ahmedabadis refer to the synagogue as a "Yhoodi Church".  In a country with over one million different deities, Judaism is just one more local religion.  One of the congregants told Michael that he likes to explain his religion to the Gentiles, but the only ones that are really interested in listening are Christians.  On the other hand, Indians tend to be strongly pro-Israel because they see Israel as anti-Pakistan.

We may go back there for other festivals or Shabbat services in the future.
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Visiting Vadnagar

The old city of Vadnagar, Gujarat, is nearby and has several historic attractions.  One of the professors, Jagat, grew up there, so on Saturday he showed us around his hometown.  We took an auto-rickshaw there, since the streets of Vadnagar are too small to navigate by car.

Our first stop was an 800-year-old temple. There were carved oxen and a turtle, guarding the god. 
Cow sculptures gaze in awe at the idols of the gods.

The temple's stonework was reminiscent of the Notre Dame cathedral, with chimeras and carved dancing girls.
Exterior view of the temple, showing stonework

The actual city of Vadnagar is pretty neat. The current structurdates at least from the medieval era, and has walls all around it. There are five impressive gates.  When we were taking pictures of one of the gates, one of the nearby citizens invited us over to pet his baby goats and take our picture with them and his family. They were adorable goats. We wouldn't mind having a pet goat or two.
Vadnagar people

Vadnagar family with their goats

We visited a lake Sfiartha(sp?). Legend has it that the lake went dry, and to get the water back, a local girl had to give up her life. In honor of her sacrifice, the lake is named for her.  They also fly a white flag from the center of the lake, symbolizing her innocence and virtue.  There is now a park there, built just in the last two years.  The chief minister of Gujarat is from Vadnagar, so he has an interest in promoting tourism there.

There was a massive Well - a huge, incredibly deep well.  It's so deep we couldn't see the bottom.  We dropped in a stone, and took about six seconds to hit the bottom.  It's dry. It gives new meaning to the term, "when the well runs dry."  At the driveway back to the well, there's a little farm with a camel (who let us pet it, then spit) and water buffalo (who snuffed at Michael and also spit at him).
Me petting a camel

Michael's favorite was a large open-roof bath, with water, with columns stretching down from ground level. We'd seen similar structures to Fatapur Sikri, but this one had water.  Looking from the steps at one end had a gorgeous effect, a hallway of water.  With the carved stonework and the greenery hanging down, it felt like something from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. 
View down the well
As part of the malaria-control program of the Gujarati government, the bath was stocked with tiny mosquito fish - little fish that eat mosquito larvae.  They were schooling about.  Michael also spotted a tiny little frog, the size of a fingernail.  We snapped its picture with the cell phone.

The local people in Vadnagar don't see foreigners often - maybe once every month or two. They're very friendly and everybody wants us to take our picture with them.  Michael was interested in knowing how one of the men tied his dhoti and turban, and when Jagat asked (in Gujarati), he was happy to demonstrate. 
Tying a dhoti on Michael
All day, Jagat was walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation, and people were happy to talk with us.

There were some more remote sites.  We saw two 500-year-old arches, like Indian versions of the Arc de Triomphe.  Apparently they were excavated a few years ago, and erected for tourists to see.
Ancient carved stone arches in Vadnagar, Gujarat, India

There was also a garden with the graves of two sisters; I didn't catch the full story. It had a beautiful flower garden and some peacock topiaries.  It was out in the middle of nowhere but quite beautiful to see.
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SPCE issued a press release and held a press conference for their visiting American scholar. The local Visnagar newspapers attended.  Several people made speeches or statements, apparently including Michael (though I wasn't around to see that one). The story will be printed sometime in the next few days.  The article will be in the vernacular Gujarati, so Professor Hiren has offered to provide a translation.  The reporters called Hiren on Saturday during lunch, asking him for more information on the Fulbright-Nehru exchange program.

Today (Monday) there was a TV news crew for the Gujarat state news.  They interviewed Michael briefly on videotape, along with the SPCE principal (Dr. L.N. Patel).  They also asked to tape Michael teaching a class. He'd already delivered two lectures that day, so he pretended to teach a class--he preempted an operating systems lab, and taught the students how to remove all the files on a disk recursively.  They'll have the segments on the Gujarati news channel tomorrow morning at 11.

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