Delhi. Many people say they have “done” Delhi, but in all honesty they haven’t. They have perhaps done the tourist parts of New Delhi, or maybe spent some time in an Ashram there – which amounts to the same thing: a tourist experience. Delhi is so large to be beyond being “done” should you spend a lifetime there.
For one thing there are 16 million people living in Delhi and 249 thousand in New Delhi (the capital of the capital). This makes Delhi the 8th largest metropolis in the world (we will visit the largest towards the end of these journals), and once something gets that big you know that no two stories of visiting it will be the same. Each will be a “slice of life”, a “moment in time” and a “vision” of the city. Also, like other gigantic cities, it is more than possible to leave with a very un-favourable impression. Walk down the wrong street or pass by the wrong district in any major city and you may not come out the other side alive, but perhaps in Delhi of all these places are you risking coming out a different colour.
That is because coming here during the Hindu festival of Holi, white and vulnerable, must make you a serious paint target as if you are running the gauntlet of 16 million amateur Jackson Pollacks’. That’s what first went through my mind when we arrived on the train, our last train journey in India.
As our tuk tuk wheeled through the city centre traffic towards our hotel I considered Delhi. It has been a city for over 3 thousand years and classical Hindu belief is that it is even older than that (being the capital mentioned in the Mahabharata). Given that huge mountain of history each conqueror had controlled the city for only a relatively brief moment, but they have all left their scars on it. None more so than my own nation, the British, who built buildings and monuments of Victorian scale everywhere you look. The Victorians had a wonderful sense of history and how to make their mark on it before becoming it in the past tense. The British wanted everyone to know that while Gandhi was right when he said, “All empires rise and fall”, that the sun setting on the British Empire was going to be remembered.
Indeed in this the British were right. The passing of the British Empire will forever be held up as exactly how not to do such a thing. Muslims and Hindus, suddenly deprived of their common Christian foe, turned on each other in weeks of violence that led to the murder of Gandhi himself. This was followed by over 2 million dying during marches to found the new nations of Pakistan and India, and an arms race that could go nuclear in the bad way any day now.
The tuk tuk turned into a tourist province, the street narrowed to a more modern district and we were amongst our own people: travellers.
There maybe only two types of traveller who comes to Delhi. Those who entered the country somewhere else, such as Mumbai, and are used to Indian cities. They have a knowing slouching insolence on their faces and in their dress. They have the relaxed look of people who don’t know how dirty they are. The other type is those poor unfortunates for which Delhi is their first port of call in their “Indian adventure”. They have a wide-eyed look, much newer clothing and are all too aware of how dirty they are. Probably dirtier than they have ever been in their lives and their noses wrinkle with the smell of rubbish, shit and dead creatures. Their glances betray that they are not used to painted cows nosing their way through the crowds, to so many cultural groups in one place forming a rainbow blending milkshake of a million colours or to the heat causing sweat to be a constant companion. What they don’t realise is that the looks on their faces marks them out to every ticket tout, con artist, scumbag and tourist shyster in the entire city as if they were draped in brightly flashing fairy lights.
I have always thought that the heat, the smell and the bustle are all things you should work up to slowly or, like a person being taught to swim by being thrown in the deep end, you may well sink.
On the other hand (I said it was all subjective) for some people Delhi represents the chance to disentangle themselves from their “normal” lives. It wakes them up like a cold bucket of water thrown over the face. They realise that much of what was so important back home: cleanliness, Abrahamic morality and reserved sexual mores, to give three examples, are no longer controlling them. They’re free to wallow in it, drink it all in and “go forth young travellers”. These people generally get what they ask for and sometimes what they deserve.
I feel much sorrier for the Britisher who comes here and is so shocked that they turn straight around and head back to the safety blanket of Blighty, never to leave the White Cliffs of Dover again. India has so much to offer, so much to show you and you may well fall in love with her. If only you make it through your first few weeks. If only you can handle Delhi. So, I was glad to have come here at the very end of our Indian adventure. It meant we had already acclimatised and so we could choose what to see and would have some chance of actually seeing something genuine and special.
Indeed we did, very special.
Walking around Delhi can be an exhausting experience. The Victorian architecture is spread out and all the parks and gravel driveways stretch off so far into the distance that making your way across them in this sun is an exercise akin to crossing a desert. Seeming like we were burning alive, Cesca and I were rescued when we found the entrance to the National Museum of India. The largest of its already large brethren, the National Museum houses some of the greatest treasures from Indian history. I liked these places a lot and had come to feel that they provided us some modicum of understanding and context.
Starting in the early-recorded history section we walked around, looked and took it all in. Eventually, however, exhaustion set in and we started moving through the exhibits a little faster. History moved forwards to a large collection of Hindu paintings showing some of the famous stories being played out. Showing the childhood of Krishna, which is quite funny, and the adulthood of same, in which he is quite the hero.
Then we came across a section of Buddhist art, which were both enjoying by taking photos of all the statues, many of them being of Maitreya and the Bodhisattvas. Then I remember looking to my right, while leaning forwards to examine one particular statue in detail, and catching a glimpse of gold.
Straightening up to see fully I was interested by a large golden case in one corner. It was holding a glass display cabinet in the centre about head height. As I drew closer I could see that this was in the Thai style of design and amazingly intricate. Hundreds of what looked like Deva sat at the foot of the case, wrapped around the sides and carved into respectful attitudes. Atop them, flanked by four golden pillars, was a simple, and not particularly clean, display cabinet. Inside were some bone looking relics sat on a red cushion stand. Separating us from the case was a simple plastic wall, but I remember feeling that I was really close to it and leaned in to see as close as possible. Hmm, I thought, what’s this? I leaned back and looked at the plaque.
“Holy Relics of Lord Buddha”
I have thought long and hard about how to describe what went through my mind at that moment, but in the end I think the above ellipses are the only thing I can say.
To give some context:
In Thailand there are temples of enormous size, prodigious aspect and mightily special prominence that house a single statue of this man.
In Singapore there is a temple 6 stories high built to house 3000 golden carved likenesses of this man.
In Laos there are thousands of people who dedicate their life so much to studying this man’s way that they have no time to feed themselves and have to beg food off the towns-people, who dutifully line up every day to hand out the provisions.
In China, a particular carving of this man is forty-foot high.
In Japan, wooden temples to this man’s way are so large that you would need serious rock climbing gear to scale them.
In Sri Lanka a tooth from this man is so holy that thousands congregate daily at the temple housing it in a continuous ever-moving horde.
However, in India – the home of his birth – they just plonk his remains in a glass case.
My brain unfroze.
“Cesca!” I shouted waving her over urgently.
She wandered over, looked and stood for a moment.
“Wow,” she said.
“I…I just can’t believe this is here,” I said.
Another plaque on the wall explained that these relics had been dug up from under an ancient stupa in Piprehwa, Distt and date from the time of the Great King Ashoka around 300BC. It explained that the Thailand government, concerned that the relics were not being properly looked after, built this case in gold to house them with a modicum of respect.
I have written before of the strange phenomena that the Indians care little of the religion founded by one their countrymen, in complete discord with how the rest of the East (if not the world) treats his memory, but nowhere could it be better expressed than this little case standing in a quiet corner of this enormous museum. Forgotten and ignored almost entirely by the Indian nationals walking past. It really brought it home.
I didn’t quite know how I felt about it.
On one hand, my rational side knew that the Buddha needs no temples, no relics and no statues. He needs none of the trappings that have come to envelope Buddhism, none of the “magical” aspects of the religion that have sprung up around him as his legacy. None of that stuff is the Buddha. He was very much a man and not a God. The way he died and his own words make that clear. You are not supposed to worship the Buddha, but people do as I had seen first-hand all over Asia. All that stuff is a turn-off to me and I had found myself like a ship fighting against a storm. With always an eye for the winds of my journey threatening to blow me into the rocks of “faith”.
Truly the Buddha said that enlightenment was everyone’s responsibility and that his teachings were a boat across a river; once on the other bank, you no longer needed the boat. Therefore, my rational mind said that these bones meant nothing. The Buddha had no magical power, no special perfections; he had just reached a stage in his existence that was the final blowing out of the candle. The massive number of lives he had lived before were his preparation for what came next: a time outside time, a sublimation of reality into nirvana.
Also worth considering in this context is the nature of relics in the first place and their prominence. Was I to take it on faith that these were the remains of the Buddha? The historical methods of the Indians are coloured by their beliefs (as indeed are every nations, even if that belief is in the scientific method) so why should I simply trust that these are the remains of a ma