Sufi Baha'i Sikh and Goodbye New Delhi

India 2013

Fri. Feb 15

4:50 a.m.. I wake up feeling rested! What the…? Sleep’s a mystery at the best of times. I do some Yoga, meditation, hand-wash a bit of laundry. At 7:30, I join Darrol, Ben and Bill for yet another round of Yoga and meditation in the common room. Enlightenment is just around the corner.

We have the morning free. It’s really my first large chunk of time ‘off,’ so I head to Alaknanda Market after breakfast to seek out an internet café, do a bit of shopping and check on my cell phone SIM card. I manage to get an email off (internet is about 30 cents/hour) to let all my loved ones know I’m safe and sound. I also successfully complete my shopping list of toilet paper and bottled water, but the SIM card is still not ready. They say tomorrow for sure. I really have my doubts.

Here's a little video of my auto rickshaw ride to Alaknanda Mall with Pam & Heather:

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2:30. We're off to the Baha'i Lotus Temple. I know basically zilch about the Baha'is, and my main question is 'Are there any other religions that have an apostrophe in their name?'

The Lotus Temple is an architectural stunner. It has all the grace and flow of a lotus plus enough geometric symmetry to make Pythagorus salivate, and a wonderful feeling of spiritual lightness and fresh air to boot. Its interior is a huge open dome that somehow feels intimate. Sorry, no pics were allowed inside.

Touring around the Temple’s information centre, I don’t learn anything about the apostrophe, but do learn that the Bab was the prophet who, like John the Baptist was to Jesus, made the way for founder Baha’u'llah (1817 – 1892), who passed the leadership – and presumably at least one of the apostrophes – down. And like the Sikhs, that leadership did not get passed down forever. After a couple of generations, the Baha’i figured out that they preferred to be governed by a council of 9 elected leaders. Another wonderful and surprising religious tradition I had no idea existed. And that kind of radical change is something unfamiliar to me, having been brought up in the Catholic tradition, which prides itself on having been right from the start, and they’re stickin’ to it come hell or high water.

These are words worth a thousand photographs.
Sounds very like something the Buddha might have said. Question everything. Question me. Also noteworthy: It’s written by a guy with two apostrophes PLUS a hyphen, AND an accent over the last á. Woah. But seriously,folks. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the son of founder Baha’u’llah and was appointed head of the Bahai faith upon the death of his dad in 1892.

5:30. We head to the Nizamuddin area of Delhi, named after the 13 century Sufi saint, Nizamuddin Auliya, to hear a little Qwaali music concert. Specifically, we are going to the Dargha (mausoleum) of 19th-20th century mystic and musician, Inayat Kahn.

One can't really get to it easily by car, and certainly not in our van. It's best accessed on foot, or maybe bi- or motor-cycle, so after the van drops us off, we walk 10-15 minutes through a maze of narrow streets alive with old skool neighbourhood activity. Meat shops, beauty parlours, grocery stores selling propane tanks and junk food, little fruit and veggie stores the size of a large bathroom stall, 6-year olds zipping by your ankles, laughing, long-bearded dads with swaddled babes over their shoulders, Fellini-like quick-cut closeup faces old and infant gliding by. Bright colours, pungent smells, a cacophony of voices — sensory overload on top of jet lag, but still ... I just can't get enough.

Inside the Dargah grounds, it is an oasis of quiet and peace.

Dr. Farida Ali, head of the Dargah and friend of Darrol’s, has been called away for some reason, but has set us up to meet with a lovely gentleman in her stead who shows us around and sits us down for a little Q&A on Sufism before the music begins. He is very bright and animated, but I’m afraid we don’t match his enthusiasm. Sitting in the too-warm room brings out our fatigue and a number of us nod off while the poor man is speaking. Oops. Hope he doesn’t take it personally, us drooping one by one then jerking awake, like a bunch of high school sophomores in first period Latin class.

We are then shown into the main room. The music I hear there not only wakes me up but sends me to a place of joy and, dare I say, bliss, like I’ve rarely known. It is played by a band, a family of musicians from at least 2 generations, and the music is called Qwaali. I feel very shy to shoot video in this intimate little room. We have been asked not too, but I see some people with cameras, so I take mine out of my bag and settle it hidden in my lap. That’s why the following video is at such an odd and boring angle. The crappy camera mic picks up the harmonium’s nasal frequencies way too loudly compared to the pure and soaring vocal, which is really the dominant sound in the room. The batteries are dead in my Zoom audio recorder, so that’s not an option. Oh well. Enough excuses.

In the beginning of this video, the main singer is hitting a jubilant high note. I am totally charmed by the little kid, a miniature clone of his dad (uncle?). His clapping toward the end is strikingly precise.

People in the audience of about 40 get up when the music – or just the muse – inspires them, and drop a donation alongside the tomb of Inayat Kahn, which occupies the centre of the room. Sometimes the kid keeps his eye out for someone reaching into purse or pocket, gets up quickly and takes the donation over to the tomb for them.

Inayat Khan's tomb in the middle of the room.
Note how the building was constructed around the tree on the right.

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Sat. Feb 16

I sleep in til 8:05. A full 7 hours. This is my first really good sleep and I’m sure there’s still a lot of catching up to do. No scheduled events this morning, so I’m heading back to Alaknanda Market again, but this time on my own. I feel I can now handle negotiating a good auto rickshaw fare, and if I need to walk, I know the way. I need some time on my own anyway.

I visit the cell store. This is day 4. Still no go. The word is that my application has been turned down! Seems the young guys in this particular store didn’t know the ropes. I doubt if this little mall gets many tourists coming through. What I’m told – and I’m not saying it’s gospel – is that you can’t get a SIM card with a 6 month tourist visa. I choose to believe it because I can’t be bothered with the hassle. My plan back home has a long distance deal for $99 for the month, so I’ll just use my Canadian SIM when I need it, and Skype the rest of the time. With internet cafés charging 30 cents/hour, I can talk for days.

At 11:30 we take our Rahoul bus to hear some more Sufi music, but this time it’s at a Sikh venue called the Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan & Punjabi Academy (http://www.bvsss.org). Barkat Sidhu, from Patalia, a town a couple hundred km north of here, is an excellent singer, harmonium player and storyteller. I say “storyteller” despite the fact I can’t understand a word he’s saying. But I can tell by his marvelous facial and hand gestures, the lilt in his voice and the visceral reaction of the crowd, that he’s great at getting the tale told.

His band consists of tabla, percussion, esraj (kind of a small bowed sitar. Or maybe it’s a vina. I’m not sure.), an amazing synth player and a female singer who seems to be a star in her own right.

Barkat Sidhu at Punjabi Academy

The female Indian vocal has a high nasal quality that's whining and haunting at the same time.

Just a little video more on this effortless keyboard virtuoso...

3 little paparazzi all in a row. Ben, Darrol and Tamara.

After the concert, there are speeches. Darrol is called up to the front and presented with more than a dozen beautiful red roses as a "promoter of Punjabi language and culture" in Toronto. I suppose it's true in the very general sense that Darrol promotes religious tolerance and dialogue, but we share a smile about the accuracy of the statement afterwards.

Darrol receives roses for his work in promotion of Punjabi culture.

Tamara minds the roses for Dr. D.

Shea listens patiently to a man promoting his latest book - a translation of a rare text. He wants to send us home with a few copies each. Hmmm. Maybe one or two. Total.

And now for the encore. Lunch. Man, the Sikhs are champions at feeding people. Homeless and homed. Homies, too, probably.

The shallow fryer seems to let in the deliciousness of frying in oil without giving food a greasy feel. Perhaps it's just an illusion, but it feels a bit healthier. The mouth watering taste is no illusion.

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After lunch, accompanied by the tall, graceful, elegant, generous and beautiful Mona, we head off to the Gurdwara (Temple) Bangla Sahib. Mona is the wife of Darrol’s contact, Mohinder Singh, Director of the Bhai Vir Singh Sahitya Sadan & Punjabi Academy. Besides being stately, she is also extremely humble. These two shots are as close as she would let me get to photographing her.

Mona at the Gurdwara

Mona getting into her Ambassador Classic.

The Ambassador Classis is just that. They are also used as cabs in Kolkata, painted NYC taxi yellow.

The Gurdwara has three musicians, playing 2 tiny drums and a fiddle-like thing. Pergaps it’s a vina? If you know, please send a comment (at bottom of page). They’re singing the Guru Granth Sahib. (Yes, this is a test. Were you paying attention back there at Gobind Sadan? Right, the 11th Guru that is a book.)

I sit there feeling joyful. How much transporting music can a person take in a 36 hour period? It's the kind of joy that, the more you try to be equanimous about it, the more it swells up in the heart.

(Note the bird flying through frame at around 1:10.)

The Gurdwara itself is glimmering, gold and gilded as alliteration. Despite the throngs of worshippers and grand high ceilings, it maintains a calming and peaceful air.

I won't get to see the legendary Golden Temple in Amritsar on this trip. This will just have to do.

Darrol and Pam at one of the small - I guess they're shrine rooms - at the Gurdwara. Everyone's head has to be covered. They'll give you something if you didn't bring your own. You don't think Darrol would have actually purchased something like that, do you?

As is the case in many temples, no shoes are allowed, so there is a room to store shoes. There are literally hundreds of pairs to be looked after, and the people doing so are volunteers. As we are leaving, one of our people discovers she has lost a sock. There’s a long lineup and things are getting a little tense. Mona explains to me that the shoekeepers are doing Seva (labour as an offering to God) so they never get angry. What would be the point if you are doing Seva? If a sock is lost, they will take as much time as is needed in order to find it. They will take the dust from your shoe and put it on their forehead as a sign of humility and service, she explains..

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Sun. Feb 17

Our last day in Delhi. There is a morning service within walking distance of Jamia Hamdard. It's at a Syrian Orthodox Church. I'm feeling kind of full, religion-wise, and besides, I can stand to just hang out on my own. I decide to stay home, chill and take a few photos.

A little video tour of Scholars House.

Nice to see they're sprucing the place up a little.

Bill has decided to skip the Sunday morning service, too. Is it the jet lag that has him napping at 10:45 a.m., or the weighty Vikram Seth novel?

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When Darrol first came to India with his family, it was in 1986. The kids were young and they spent a good portion of their trip here at Jamia Hamdard, hosted by the generous Dr. Ali, a founding member of the university, and his wife, Naheed. This afternoon, we have all been invited to lunch at their home.

Dr. Ali was born in Allahabad and came to New Delhi after Partition as a journalist. He became involved with Hakeem Abdul Majeed, a practiioner of unani medicine and prescriptions, who devoted all his monies to Muslim education, including founding Hamdard U. Hamdard means: "sympathy for all and sharing of pain."

Darrol with Dr. S.A. Ali and his wife, Naheed, in their dining room. Gracious hosts.

Dr. Ali also founded, along with Hakeem Abdul Majeed, the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies, which is housed in this large beautiful circular library building on the Hamdard campus.

Dome at the Hamdard Library.

We all fit cozily into their living/dining area. Dr. Ali (the S.A. stands for Syyed Ausaf) has been ill recently, but is recovering well, and there is a bright sparkle in his intelligent and compassionate eyes. He seems to know something about everything that comes up for discussion and expresses himself so clearly and humbly, one is gently compelled to listen. The food is delicious and plentiful. Darrol tells us that he and his family ate 3 meals a day here for nearly 3 months back in the 80's. But Naheed is not your ordinary Indian woman of the house and mother. She is an ex-school principal, and the 3rd generation of female university graduates. Her two daughters are the 4th.

I sincerely wish the good Dr. Ali and his wife many healthy and happy years to come.

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We take our leave of the Alis, and head out to catch our all-night train to Varanasi. On the way, we stop off at the Gandhi Memorial, which is basically a little shrine in the middle of a very, very large garden area. It’s nothing to write home (or a blog) about, but I try to make a nice moment of it by remembering who this amazing man was. I focus on the flame, silently thanking him for his work and praying that we may continue it. If it hadn’t been for Gandhi, we might not know the idea of civil disobedience, which played so prominently in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Nor would we have such a shining example of ahimsa, the philosophy of total non-violence. And we never would have heard these quotes:

  • "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."
  • "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind."
  • "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
From http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/m/mahatma_gandhi.html#WKc4lELHGT322ZX0.99

Gandhi Memorial flame

On the way to the train station, it’s one last drive through the streets of New Delhi.

Masked Biker with Rickshaw

Downloading Veggies

Still Life with Junk Food Wrapper

Farewell, New Delhi. See you in 5 weeks on my way back to Canada.

Now it's time for the Night Train to Varanasi. Hit it, maestro!

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OW!

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