|International Vegetarian Union (IVU)|
19th World Vegetarian Congress 1967
| TRAVELLING AGAIN: INDIA THIS TIME
HILDA NIXON, B.A.
Air travel is common nowadays, but it never ceases to fascinate me, and cause emotions of delight, awe, wonder, friendship and amazement. In mid-November I again experienced all of these, excitement at the prospect of another as yet unknown land, happiness at meeting, on airports and in 'planes, people from all parts of the globe, talking to them about places I am still itching to visit, thrill tinged with awe when the pilot announced that we were 35,000 feet nearer to heaven, and were covering 150 miles each quarter of an hour, and delight at seeing clouds, sunsets, full moons with no earth in sight.
Well, this paragraph has taken us from London to Delhi in North India. Delhi is a sprawling city, made from at least nine cities founded and, mostly, abandoned, side by side, dating from the twelfth century Moslem invasions. Today the vast area is divided into two different sections; New Delhi which was built on modern lines with high buildings and open spaces during British rule, and. Delhi (never called "old ") which is of the Moslem type of narrow packed streets with a dark breathless air about it. We drove through this, one early morning and saw the tiny shops and shack-like houses, all with sleeping boards outside, for the homeless who were just beginning to throw off their ragged blankets and light a fire to make tea. The cows, many with painted horns, were rousing themselves from the pavement, looking for food from their human friends. Yes, cows do wander in the streets and mingle with the traffic. I did not see any in distress though all were very thin. In Bombay none are allowed in the centre of the city.
A huge Red Fort makes a division between the two Delhis; -red, because, like so many buildings all over India, it is built of the red sandstone which, I presume, made the hymnwriter talk of "India's coral strand ". We saw a beautiful "Son et Lumière" programme within the garden of the Red Fort one evening, which pictured to us in words and lighting effects, the long history of the repeated invasions, constructions and destructions of the cities -of Delhi.
The International Vegetarian Congress held its first session in Delhi, moved then to Madras and finally to Bombay. It should have included a short time in Calcutta, but riots there caused this visit to be cancelled. I attended meetings, therefore, and various luncheons and evening banquets in open-air gardens of lovely homes; this happened in every town and we marvelled at the carefully prepared dishes of mixed vegetables, rice, yoghourt, fruits and breads (thin wafers from flour and water cooked in oil); rarely any cheese (and then from tins); never any eggs; too often, spiced and curried foods, and occasionally salad fare of beetroot, tomatoes, a little lettuce and pimento - but woe to anyone who found, too late, that the piece of green was not pimento but chili which caused unbearable burning of mouth and throat.
Among special sights in Delhi was the Observatory, not a single, domed building such as we expect, but a large campus containing red stone constructions in the shape of arcs, circles, triangles, all erected to enable calculations of world times to be made through the lights and shadows cast on them. This Observatory was built by a Maharajah Jai Singh, a keen mathematician, who, also founded the city of Jaipur (pur meaning city). One magnificent mosque, the Shri Lakshiminarain Temple, is of outstanding interest, situated in vast grounds, with a tower 230 feet high, carvings of life-size elephants, and beautiful arcades made with stones all brought from other ancient temples, and many high walls covered with old calligraphy from base to summit.
The Taj Mahal - yes, we saw this, going by train (a fine, com-fortable one) from Delhi to Agra early one morning. I cannot describe the haunting beauty of this lovely shrine in white marble, its form with delicate minarets of differing heights showing a sense of proportion only paralleled, to my mind, by the unfathomed skill revealed in the Parthenon. From a huge entrance gate, the shrine is seen at the far end of a ribbon of water. The Taj Mahal, meaning Crown of the Palace, was built in the 17th century as a tomb for the beautiful wife of a Prince, inside there is a skilful marble inlay, screens of thick marble in filigree, floral relief panels, all a delight to the eye. I have brought home with me a tiny model which gives me great joy.
On the outskirts of Agra there was a great fort, with a palace enclosed in it, and another magnificent tomb. To reach these, our coach crossed a crowded bridge over the river, and during the delay in the traffic, beggars and sellers of nuts or oranges, thought we were the rich who could give to all who ask. All over india, foreigners are pestered by beggars, mainly children and cripples, and it is difficult to know whether to give or ignore the appeal for "baksheesh ".
From Delhi, I deserted our Congress party and travelled over-night in a very comfortable sleeping compartment, to the town of Ajmer, 400 miles south west, to visit one of my former pupils who is in charge of a college of Language Studies, attended by adults who are training to teach others how to teach English in schools. The College buildings adjoined the small University of Ajmer. The town was, on a small scale, typical of every town we saw; streets with a cobbled or macadamised centre for vehicles but at each side wide footpaths of dust and sand. On to these faced the shops, small, three walled only, with an open front where the owner sat on the wooden floor raised about three feet from the ground. Inside there might be untidy goods, or tidy rolls of the finest silks, nylons and cottons. On the dust of the sidewalks, children played, street sellers displayed fruit, vegetables, nuts, men lazed, women beat kapok into fluff, and, in wider spaces, gipsies encamped, plying their little trades of making ironware, etc., and having for shelter only the iron carts which were their means of transport when needed. There were always lorries and carts, taxis closed and open (no doors or windows), tongas (a kind of pony cart), bullock carts, herds of goats going to pasture, families of little hairy black piglets running about like dogs, and frequent camels laden, chiefly, with bales of straw which sometimes covered their heads so completely that one could with difficulty distinguish a camelian nose poking out!
In the evening, we drove from Ajmer to Jaipur (city of Jai), lovely indeed with its pink sandstone buildings, open squares brilliant with the flower sellers and their marigolds. We spent the night and next day in a most magnificent hotel, once a Maharajah's palace, set in extensive grounds.
The town of Jaipur has an abandoned predecessor, Amber, which consists now of a huge palace and fortress, on top of a high ridge and overlooking a beautiful valley which had been the entrance road to the town. For the climb to the palace, elephants were provided, elegant with embroidered coverings and painted trunks. Very nervous and excited, I found myself swaying on a magnificent but lumbering animal! The palace had endless carving and relief work, and several mirror rooms whose walls and ceilings were made of thousands of small pieces of mirror, which, under the flare of matches held by the guide, gave rainbow beauty and brilliance.
Then I took an evening 'plane back to Delhi, arriving in time to transfer to the railway station and take the night train towards the Himalayas. By 7 a.m. I was in Kalka, after a good night's sleep and enjoyed the busy station before getting into the front seat (I was lucky) of the Observation Car which climbs, for nearly five hours, up and up through the foothills of the Himalayas, to Simla a former hill station, much used in the hot months by those seeking cooler air. I had some hours for looking round, watching the bus market area (growing and exporting potatoes is a big trade there as the soil is specially suitable) and chatting with the friendly chief ticket collector who allowed me to sit by his office fire - a welcome offer in the cold air against which I had barely sufficient coats!
Some of you may know that I am a student of Esperanto, the universal language which ensures that in every part of the work one can find a friend with whom one can converse. I had written to an Esperantist in Delhi, who proved to be a railway official. He sought me out on the first afternoon I was in Delhi at the Vegetarian Food Fair and Exhibition staged in the Sports Club grounds. At once he put himself at our service. With his help, my various journeys were planned, I was met and seen off from station and air terminal, I found myself a V.I.P. on my journeys, well looked after by the efficient conductors of the long-distance trains, and, in Delhi itself, I and another Esperantist friend, were shown the sights I have described earlier.
So when I got to Delhi at 6.30 a.m. from Simla, an Esperantist friend was there to see me through the intricacies of the huge station and the crowds of homeless sleepers in the station entrance, give me breakfast and bid me a friendly goodbye as I departed for Madras. Zamenhof, who founded Esperanto to be a language of hope that peace would come to the world by its means, would have felt rewarded for his work, by the generosity of spirit shown by these Esperantist friends in India. We who are vegetarians have the same ideals.
Madras has a long " Marina" drive all along the coral sand of its coast; a drive along it, passing the fine University buildings, visiting Adyar, the Theosophical Centre, a place of peace and beautt, where Annie Besant used to live, was a delight. We were taken one day to see the old monolithic temples of Mahabalipuram (five small temples of great charm, not built but carved out of solid rock). and, on the way home the big University of Engineering at Kanchi-puram, and a great temple there where was just being celebrated a special festival of the Hindu God. Vishnu the preserver, with orna-mented altars, ringing of hand-bells, and chanting by priests. Always upon entering temples. we had to leave our shoes at the gateway - a little hard on old folk's feet!
A pleasure to me in Madras was a visit to the home of an Indian headmaster who, six years ago, stayed in my home in Leeds. He used to tell me, sadly, that if ever I went to India, his wife would show me how to cook rice! Well, so she did. At the meal she gave to me and a friend, her husband and his brother (no-one else sat at table), there was rice served in four different ways, also wafers of rice bread; it was all very tasty but, we felt, a little "starchy ".
Our Congress meetings were held in the great hall of the Univer-sity, on the Marina. Perhaps the most interesting was a meeting to which young people were invited from schools and colleges, to hear and to ask questions about our movement, it resulted in the forma-tion of a Vegetarian Youth Group in South India, which we hope will flourish. So many people in India are vegetarians, from either religion or poverty, that you may be surprised at the need for a vegetarian movement. But the vegetarian diet is not particularly nutritious, it lacks proteins, uses white rice and sugar which are deficient in essential substances, and it is monotonous, since not sufficient use is made of cereals other than rice, such as wheat, millet, maize. At our Food Exhibitions, held in each town, stress was laid on propaganda about these matters, leaflets were distributed and cooked dishes shown and sampled, and recipes given.
All our meetings and banquets in the different cities gave the opportunity to meet well known, even famous, Indian men and women, including the Dalai Lama, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Desai; an aged ex-President of india, who received us in his lovely home; business men; professional women who included one of the Government Education Officers who is Secretary of the newly formed Soroptomist Club in Delhi, and whose work in education was concerned with radio educational programmes.
We could ask all the questions in our minds, and talked of India's problems of poverty, of plans for setting up industries to give work to those in need, of social welfare schemes to encourage family planning, help unmarried mothers, arrange adoption of children; we heard of language problems - shall Hindi be the national language (yes, says the north) or Tamil (says the South). Univer-sities in the big towns were magnificent modern buildings, with facilities of every kind; colleges and schools are increasing in number but the huge population brings financial difficulty here. Women and men have equal status in every way. We were enter-tained on several occasions by Indian women, highly intelligent and much travelled, and we met representatives of different religious sects, such as Jains, who practise absolute reverence for life and will not injure the tiniest insect. Sikhs with their turbans and white costumes whose chief "His Holiness" spoke with vigour and humour at the opening session in Bombay wearing an orange coloured robe which added to the brilliance of his manner and whose group enter-tained us in Madras to an interesting luncheon in their holy temple, where we sat, shoeless, on long white cloths extended along the floor, and ate from circular metal trays on to which the men servants kept putting spoonfuls of various Concoctions of vegetables. flour and rice, from twin saucepans, two vessels joined together with a tall central handle.
Madras had been warm, rather moist (its rainy season had ended a few weeks earlier) but had a light, refreshing sea-breeze. In Bombay, however, although the city is an all-but-island and open to the western seas, there was greater heat and less freshness. Bombay has two kinds of weather, said an Indian lady, hot and hotter! It is a much more westernised and cosmopolitan town than either Delhi or Madras. The main streets have paved sidewalks. shops have doors and glass frontages, and it is filled with modern high buildings, in many quarters, however, are masses of small cramped shack-like houses, but we could get outside the town the hill gardens, drive along the Marina, banquet in luxurious gardens of such places as the Governor's residence or a tobacco-king's road-house, and go by boat to see the ancient monolithic temples on Elephanta Island. A vast area in the centre of the town known as Crawford Market, is a labyrinth of narrow, dusty lanes, every one lined with little, open-fronted shops, all rather shacklike, but in which were sold all possible goods, food, cheap metal ware, finest silks for saris, beautiful linen for sheets, and gold and jeweller. with precious stones of great value. A friend bought a length of thick silk, a tailor came to measure her, and the next day she called for it to take home; it was lovely and fitted her well. Part of this warren of shops was called "The Thieves' Market" and truly, one would not have relished wandering there alone. Bombay has five million inhabitants - to me Leeds seems large enough with its half million! In every town, we found one or more stores (emporium was their word) selling objects made by hand in rural areas where such occupations are being developed. Ivory, silver, wood, basket cotton, silk, toys. all in endless variety. Of course, we all spent many hours visiting these and other shops, especially the last few days, to bring home interesting necklaces, bracelets, scarves, materials either to keep or give as Christmas presents. Street-sellers sat making garlands from lovely pink hibiscus flowers; we were greeted with these on several occasions and wore them with pride and pleasure.
Leaving India and our many friends was a sad parting, for although three weeks is scarcely sufficient to get to know a new country, yet it had been enough for us to enjoy the friendship not only of Indian hosts and hostesses, but of the members of our Congress party, from Australia, Japan, United States and Canada as well as many European countries, Norway and Sweden, Denmark and Holland, France and Switzerland, the Canary Islands and Spain and our own Great Britain. Many of us suffered digestive upset. and irritation of the nose, throat and chest membranes which in some cases lasted some time after returning home. We had our greatest discomfort from the violent transition to intense cold and bitter winds after weeks of hot sunshine. We had not expected to have to struggle through blizzards and icy air, nor to find our homes so cold. I did not thaw out for days and many of our party tell me they had to have long fasts and long sleeps before they returned to normal. But we have survived, and our memories are of days of laughter, of surprising, lively experiences, of beauty and colour strange to our western eyes. India was fascinating, friendly, and is earnestly hopeful in facing its many urgent problems.