That land of colour, chaos and contradictions.
I’ve only just returned to my quiet little corner of the NSW southcoast after three weeks of travelling in magical, manic, northern India. My suitcases are full of trinkets bought from street children and beggars, my shoes are full of desert sand, and my external drives are full of pictures. It will be months before I can fully sort out my thoughts and impressions. So, I thought I’d prepare a short post in the mean time.
“Short” turned out not to be so simple! I love what little I have seen of India – but I can’t claim to begin to understand it. To a Western-raised mind, it truly is a land of contradictions.
The caste system is a case in point. Codified almost 2000 years ago in Brahminical texts, four broad castes were defined, based on their functions – their roles – in society:
- Brahmana (or Brahmin), to look after the ‘head’; the religious and spiritual endeavours, and education;
- Kshatriya, the ‘arms’, to take care of public service, law and order, and defence;
- Vaishya, the ‘stomach’, to deal with the commerce and business; and
- Shudra, the ‘feet’, to perform semi-skilled and unskilled labour.
Castes were determined by birth and could not be altered. While this system may have ensured stability, it didn’t allow movement or intermarriage between classes. Worse, it created an underclass and excluded and ostracised whole groups of peoples as Harijan or “children of God” – more commonly known as Dalits or achuta: “Untouchables”.
While I was in India, I was told that the caste system itself was outlawed, but I can find no evidence supporting this. Since 1950, it has been against the law to actively discriminate against someone based on their caste, or to practice “untouchability”, but in practice, prejudice and even violence against India’s lower orders is still commonplace (e.g. Untouchable @ National Geographic Magazine; Human Rights Correspondence School).
Rajasthan’s desert nomadic peoples are a prime example of India’s contradictions. Even though they were “Untouchables”, gypsies were hired in the old days by kings and maharajas to provide exotic entertainment – “the Bopa are talented musicians and singers and the Kalbeliya are dancers and snake charmers” – and today they still subsist as semi-nomadic street performers. They are, however, still outsiders, and are seen by other Indians as “squatters and hustlers” and “dirty and aggressive beggars”. I was told, sotto voce, that many of the women are “entertainers”. Indeed, in some areas of Rajasthan, in the absence of educational and employment opportunities, prostitution has become their main source of income.
The two gypsy women I met, Anita and Moria, might be outside the Indian caste system, but they are proud, self-possessed, and sure of their own value. Even if Karl Grobl, our photo-tour guide had not warned tour participants of their toughness before he negotiated a contract with the sisters to pose for us, I would have felt no inclination to cross them. These young women, aged 18 and 25, with four small children between them, may be dressed in beads, fancy embroidery, and sequins, but they are as hardy as tempered steel!
It is hard to imagine what these bright, industrious women would have made of the their lives if they had had the kinds of opportunities we take for granted.
Perhaps they would change nothing –
The apparent contentment of many of India’s people is, for me, one of the most perplexing contradictions.