Trust me when I tell you that India is not easy on the senses. From the infinite splashes of color, car horn conversations that fill every street, 110 °F humidity, clouds of curry smells (and bodily odors (often from myself…)), a simple walk around town can feel almost violating for an unsuspecting Westerner, like myself.
The most exciting of the Indian sensual experience, though, must be taste. Indian cuisine seems to have the goal of knocking your every taste bud with the greatest impact. I swear, I was not even aware of some earthly flavors until a friend I met at my first hostel brought me to Greater Kailash market for some street food. For a total of about 3 USD, we ate spicy tandoori, salty and creamy Afghani chicken, crunchy and sour pani puri, and the sweet, deep fried jalebis.
We finished our multi-course market meal with a popular dish, aloo tikka, which is a spicy potato patty served with curd, green and red chutney, and pomegranate seeds. My tongue replied: “Whom is she?” With little sleep, no shower, and now full with India, I settled behind the thick curtain of my hostel bed and tried to sleep among the snores of my nine roommates.
The next day, I blossomed out of my hostel bed and bounded down the forty minute walk toward the Lotus Temple. I passed various food markets, Hindu temples, impoverished families sleeping on the road, a cluster of high rises encircled by high-end cars. I felt I had seen everything by the time I reached the temple grounds. And finally, there it was.
This stunning, egg-shell, Sydney Opera House-inspired structure, peaking out above the trees of the surrounding park. I couldn’t keep my eyes on the path, I was so distracted. Maybe it was the jet-lag, but I felt in a daze.
I floated passed the security check, and down what felt to be a three-mile (in actuality it is about 1000 yards) path from the Baha’i Information Center to the Temple doors. Immediately, I spotted an incredibly short man with a familiar face: it was Jafar, who was my main contact for the Lotus Temple during my research proposal process. He was supposedly the choirmaster of the Lotus Temple devotional music, even though I would come to discover that the Lotus Temple does not have a choir…So who was this mysterious short man?
The second he saw my face, he lit up, grabbed my hand and whisked me into the bowels of the temple to the tea room. Before any words, he poured me a steaming cup of chai, and–handing the scalding cup to me–he exclaimed, “You made it!”
He proceeded to explain that he is the choirmaster, which at the Lotus Temple, roughly means the manager of the devotional services. This Baha’i House of Worship functions much differently than the others that I have seen, as with about 10,000-30,000 visitors a day, the Lotus Temple offers a schedule of four daily prayer services, during which six selections of Holy Scripture (Baha’i prayers, Torah, Bible, Quran, Bhagvad Gita, Buddhist writings, etc.) are presented, either by reading or intoned in a chant.
The choirmaster ensures that there is a diversity both in the textual source of the prayer and the language of the prayer. The most common languages used within these services are Hindi, English, and Sanskrit. During the Holy Days or other special occasions, such as the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the birth of the Baha’i prophet, the Bab, the choirmaster will organize an ensemble of chanters that will intone in unison, or add a few lines of harmony to a preexisting chant melody. For this reason, my research on the Lotus Temple’s devotional music will primarily focus on the solo intonations, and I suppose I will have to change the orientation of my research from “choral devotional music within Baha’i Temples” to simply “devotional music within Baha’i Temples.”
The intonation practices within the Lotus Temple are nonetheless full of intrigue and add a great diversity to the global aggregate of Baha’i devotional music.
Fully jet-lagged and crusty eye, I was ushered by Jafar upstairs to the Temple interior where I was asked to present a prayer… How should I enter this world? I concluded to lead the way I had at every other Baha’i House of Worship: by singing my improvised, Van Gilmer-inspired version of “Remover of Difficulties.” After I delivered what I thought to be a well-executed, soulful sound, Jafar arose and sang a Sanskrit prayer from the Buddhist scripture (“Namo Dassa”).
I was stunned; his voice did not have a quiver of vibrato, his range seemed an easy half octave above mine, the melody was so simple, but so effective in the space. Prayers like this seem perfect for the booming acoustic in the Lotus Temple, as the listener can focus on the vibrations of the tone, which becomes meditative in itself. The more lyrical melodies of my Baha’i prayer repertoire are likely less effective in that space, as the characteristic melodic runs get lost in the reverberations. To say the least, I was enchanted by these new sounds and eager to begin learning more about this devotional music.
On my way out, I was introduced to Shobit, Reena, and Kavya who are the other chanters at the Lotus Temple, all of whom are volunteering as temple guides for a few months. Little did I know, I wouldn’t see their shining faces for the next week… (Cue evil, something-bad-is-gonna-happen music)
Flash forward a few hours, another friend from the hostel took me into the center of Delhi, a place called Connaught Place, as in “I simply Connaught with you anymore!” Here, there are various shops, restaurants, and my favorite, an underground market. And no, I don’t mean that it was on the black market or under-the-table type situation. This market (the Palika Bazaar) was genuinely underground, as in you had to descend to find the venders. Guided by my Delhite friend, I bargained for a nice mandarin collared shirt, and wore it as we walked for some more street food.
I don’t know what was going through my mind. Delhi street food… again? After our paneer tikka, my friend acknowledged, “I’m shocked you’re able to stomach this, most foreigners immediately get Delhi belly after eating food like this or drinking non-bottled water.” Delhi Belly, the words I had been warned about for months, now flooded back into my awareness, and seemingly realized themselves within my little, little body.
The next morning, I would wake up, a corpse. My body had completely gone limp. My temperature was reaching heats greater than the Delhi air, and my poor stomach was churning like a Betty Crocker stand mixer. How was I supposed to continue on? And can you imagine my OCD mind in complete conflict with my immobile body? It was–as Hannah Montana would not say–the worst of both worlds.
After three days in the Delhi Belly Underworld, all legends must rise again, and thus after my days of rest behind the heavy curtain of my hostel, I got out of bed with a stabilized temperature and less violent stomach. Some of the kind people I met in my hostel that had taken care of me over the days decided it would be a good time for us to venture to actually see some of Delhi.
By the grace of Rakesh and Bunty, I was shuffled around Old Delhi to see various Sikh Temples, an impressively large mosque, and Red Fort. I had always been aware of the Sikh faith, as there is a substantial population of Sikhs in my hometown, but I had never really investigated the faith. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, many American Sikhs mistakenly faced Islamophobia, due to the turbans that are worn by men. My time at Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, the largest Sikh temple in Delhi, completely opened my eyes to how amazingly hospitable the Sikh community is, which in full honesty shifted many of my own false ideas on these turban-wearing peoples. Similar to the Lotus Temple, the Sikh temple will collect your shoes at a desk, free of charge. As you walk barefoot around the temple grounds, they will shine your shoes, again free of charge. There were plenty of stations of free drinking water, water to wash your hands and face, and (my favorite amenity) a foot pond for feet rinsing before passing the temple threshold. Everything was kept in pristine condition, and the white marble shined beautifully against the multicolored head scarves worn by the temple visitors. Inside the temples, there was a section of musicians playing the tablas and singing in the call-and-response style. I could have stayed and listened for hours, it was enrapturing. The walls were coated in gold and vibrant colors. Passing the main “alter” area, I received a flower that had been blessed by a sage, and I was urged to hold onto this flower by Rakesh, who is Sikh himself. Leaving the temple interior, we descended to a massive pool area, where people will come to be spiritually cleansed. Watching hundreds of Sikhs perform this rite as the sun was setting was an unforgettable image. To top off this unexpected experience, I was brought to the feeding area, where the Sikh kitchen will feed anyone that walks in, again free of charge. I ate some delicious chapatti, rice, lentils, and tasty sauces. I was given a full cup of chai that brilliantly washed down the well prepared food. Rakesh informed me that the Gurudwara kitchen is one of the largest kitchens in the world, and Sikhs of all socioeconomic backgrounds will volunteer there to feed the temple visitors.
This experience rocked my world and gave me a beautiful, new perspective on the Sikh community. I anticipate my return home to central Massachusetts to visit a recently-erected Sikh House of Worship, just a 15 minute drive from my house. Nothing better than the destruction of cultural walls and misconceptions!
We also spent some time walking through Red Fort, which is an impressively large grounds surrounded by a tall-standing red wall. Passing the Red Fort markets, mosques, canals, and Arab-inspired architecture, Rakesh and Bunty were eager to capture a picture with me at every Red Fort corner, which gave me some well-needed time to exercise my camera skills.
The day finished up moving southward and making a quick stop in central Delhi. Here we passed by India Gate and the Parliment and the President’s House.
During my survey of Delhi, I became to truly understand the lasting impacts of India’s history with English colonization. Where Delhi is now, most all things seems like some functional, messed up meshing of the western and eastern worlds. The British political system of Prime Ministers and such are housed within stunning Indian architecture. The fully-air conditioned, pristine metro, so characteristic of Western metropolises, has a majority of stops with Hindi names. The McDonald’s do not serve beef! This is proof of the clashing of the worlds. And it works seamlessly. Well perhaps not as the food of Indian entered my American body, but all such conflicts will settle eventually, or so I am told.