Exposures


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What is a God/Goddess in India?

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

Hinduism is complex, colorful and chock full of long complicated tales. For me, the names are unpronounceable… the meanings overwhelming.
So, one day, I simply asked our guide, “How many gods and goddesses are there?”
33 million! What? Did I hear correctly? “Can you actually name them all?”
Our guide laughed and answered, “You see, everything and anything can be a god!”
He went on to say that anyone can put special godlike meaning into a person, place or thing. He tells a story where a family made a shrine on the side of the road to celebrate a moment of good fortune. Another family walked by and saw the shrine. They did not know the original purpose but knew it meant something so they decided to make an offering hoping to double their own good luck. And so it goes on and on!

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Ancestry Papers – Ashes & Bones – Eunuch Blessings

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

One day I found myself standing on a bridge in Haridwar, looking down at little vignette scenes only found in India.
One scene showed men sitting cross legged on a platform writing in long thin ledger books – 500 pages thick – recording and updating genealogical histories of families. This practice (only found in Haridwar) is handed down from family to family and no one knows when it started – could be thousands of years. This info includes those who immigrate abroad.
Another scene showed a husband with marigold garland performing a puja with incense burning just before taking a red bundle of ashes and bones and slowly releasing his loved one back into the sacred Ganges river. He then performed an act of charity by giving the deceased clothes to the poor.
My favorite scene was quite a show. At first it looked like any pilgrim gathering at the Ganges… grandparents, aunts and uncles and little children all dressed up and enjoying themselves. Looking closer, I see two little boys in the laps of loved ones crying while having their hair shaved off by local barbers with straight razors. I held my breath hoping I would not see blood. What was this all about? Our friend Sanjeev explained this is a tradition with all boys before the age of 5 to bring good luck in carrying on their ancestry. Looking even closer, I see a transvestite dressed in a deep pink sari (our guide calls a eunuch), giving their blessing over the child’s bald head. It was explained that people born with both the masculine and feminine have an even higher energy that is respected and sought after. He did say, though this is true, they still have very hard lives.
We walk away thinking – this is just another typical day on the Ganges.


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The Bed

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

Dick and I were very excited to have dinner with Lily, our sons friend, who is now working in Delhi. We asked her how she was settling in. She said she could only afford an apartment that was unfurnished and had no kitchen appliances. She said, so far, she only has a bed because it was an all day affair. She had to go across town to the market and  find a bed builder who custom made her a simple bed. Arranging delivery must have been a sight to behold. Having been to the market myself in all the crazy traffic, I imagined Lily’s bed tied precariously on a bicycle rickshaws dodging in and out between people dogs, the sacred cow, cars, motorcycles and potholes. I wondered how many people were knocked over to get Lily a place to sleep.
Fast forward to a tribal village named Gujarat outside Haridwar, where we visited once nomadic families raising cattle, who are now given land within the national park. The only furniture they possess in their stucco homes is a bed woven in beautiful designs.
Fast forward again in the city where you will find the bed outside merchant stalls for reclining and makeshift tents of the poor.
I came to realize that home is where the “bed” is! One needs nothing else.


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Pondering Beggars

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

I spend a lot of my time in India walking the streets looking at beggars or, I should say, looking at the poor.  I am very interested in learning their stories, just like I do in Boston with the homeless. How does a human being find themselves so destitute?
India is much more complicated than the US because of its own social order, colonial history, religious beliefs and economic problems around huge populations.
But, none the less, I am still trying to understand not only their lives but my responsibility to that life… especially when they ask me for money.
One day I asked our guide about the beggars we were walking by and their answer surprised me. “Begging is a sin. These people are not trying to help themselves. They want something for nothing. And, furthermore, it is a sin to encourage them to keep begging.”
I kept rolling this around in my head as I do in the US. I have learned the matter is much more complicated – poverty, lack of education, mental health and disability, and lack of familial support system. But in India, another issue is “karma” – their faith telling them they were meant to suffer for past life transgressions.
On the flip side, we visited an ashram which feeds over 1000 sadhus a night. Not only do they get good food but new clothes and even cash from wealthy families. Sadhus decide at some point in their life to give up all material things and ties to family. Basically they give up everything, even the right to be cremated. So, they are considered holy and worthy of gifts.
Both these groups are given things. Both these groups are needy but for different reasons. So, who are we to judge? I see these people and my heart just wants to take over and relieve their suffering. My intellect kicks in and reminds me I can’t help everyone but I can still try to help in some small way.


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The Cure for Grey Hair

Text by Patty Simon

Haridwar, India

At home in Boston, I distinguish myself apart from most of my friends because of my grey hair. I have been called my daughters grandmother several times and one my husbands mother (Dick, my husband, is my age with no grey hair!). In a culture where most women dye their hair, I stand out. I stand out also in India surrounded by all the beautiful women with their coal black hair.
On this trip, I began noticing many older people with grey hair… partially grey because they use red henna  to “dye” their hair. Why that particular color? Are they trying to go punk? Is it a fashion trend? Is it a sacred marker?
I got many answers. One person said it caused a cooling effect (useful in hot unairconditioned summers). One said it was simply fashion.
I guess we are all the same in the end!


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The Golden Rule

Text by Patty Simon

Delhi, India

India has many religions – Hinduism with  33 million gods and goddesses, Buddhism with the teachings of Buddha and Christianity brought in from the western world.
As we were driving around Delhi, our guide quickly mentioned we were passing a Sikh temple – all in white marble. I knew nothing about Sikhism so we asked for a tour.
Before I describe what I saw and learned, I want to say that religion in this country is a spectacle and quite spectacular!!! Outside I see what looks like overpopulation on the streets with many poor, homeless, disabled or barely getting by folks who are hauling, hawking, or begging to stay alive. Inside the temple is white marble, crystal chandeliers and at the center is a solid gold shrine draped in marigolds and roses holding the holy book. There is no god, just a book filled with many teachings.
Now, we were graciously given a tour and told many interesting facts about the history and nature of this belief system but I am not an expert so will refrain from becoming a teacher.
What I want to tell you is this. Next to the main prayer hall are several rooms for feeding the poor. Volunteers of every socio-economic group (even the very rich) come to make 3 daily meals to feed over 20,000 every day. Everyone is welcome no matter what the belief. Our guide said you can’t be expected to pray if you are hungry. There is a kitchen with pots big enough to cook me, an automatic naan maker spitting out 800 kg. of bread a day and a sweet made of wheat, caramel, sugar and oil. There is a room where other volunteers shine everyone’s shoes. There is a bar outside where men are continuously pouring glasses of water for the crowds (not quite to our hygienic standards!).
I don’t know that much about Sikhism and I’m not all that religious but the amount of good they do for the needy each day was so heartwarming that I ended up giving our guide a big hug.


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The Women’s Car

Text by Patty Simon

Delhi, India

India is one of those cultures where so much happens on the street. I see everyone mixed up from all walks of life – from the rich and poor, young and old, secular and religious, laborer and educated, to the tiny shop owner and corporate executive. They all live together and fuel this enormous machine of a country.
So in the Metro, it was a surprise when our guide suggested I segregate myself and join women in the first car of the train designated as “The Women’s Car”. I almost blew him off. I thought to myself it can’t be that interesting!
But it was! Imagine being thrown into an instant sisterhood – a sorority of sorts. I told Dick it was like going to a fashion show. I was certainly the most underdressed. I literally could feel the “beauty”, the feminine energy and a subtle air of self-confidence all around me. Lots of shocking pink, ruby red and pungent orange in patterns and paisleys mixed with brocades and jewels in rainbow colors filled the train. Of course there were jeans, sandals and high heels with handbags and nose rings and lots of bracelets… Indian fashion mixed with American fashion but probably all made in China!
Magical moments happen when you least expect them. I exited the train with a big smile on my face. I may have been a foreigner in this country but I was one of THEM for fifteen minutes!