Not Just caste: Muslim Hela’s clean toilets by hand 

A manual scavenger carried a basket of human excrement after cleaning toilets in the northern village of Nekpur, Uttar Pradesh, Aug. 10, 2012. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

A manual scavenger carried a basket of human excrement after cleaning toilets in the northern village of Nekpur, Uttar Pradesh, Aug. 10, 2012. Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


With both hands holding the basket of human excrement on her head, widowed grandmother Kela walks through a stream of sewage, up a mound of waste and then dumps the filth while cursing.

“Nobody even pays us a decent wage!” she spits as she rakes mud and rubbish over her newly deposited pile, one of several she drops in the course of her working day cleaning toilets as a “manual scavenger” in India. She and around 20 other women in the village of Nekpur, 60 kilometres from New Delhi remove the contents of toilets daily using just their hands and a plastic shovel.- AFP

In Madhya Pradesh there are 30,000 Muslim scavengers, discriminated against by their fellow believers even though Islam forbids such discrimination. I first read of it in Syeda Saiyidain Hameed’s 2012 book Beautiful Country: stories from another India.

Syeda Hameed, a member of the former Singh governments Planning Commission wrote of dry toilets been cleaned by Valmiks (Hindus) and Helas (Muslims) in Madhya Pradesh. Because scavenging pollutes even those who leave the profession are still treated as untouchable.

We all know Mahatma Gandhi called it the untouchability the “greatest blot upon Hinduism” but in vilagers the outlawed practice continues.The newly released Human Rights Watch 96-page report, Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India, has again focused on issue. Earlier, Mari Thekekara’s book Endless Filth gives a chilling account of manual scavenging.

According to a 2011 census, there are still around 800,000 Indian households with dry latrines that have to be cleaned manually. Another government survey identified more than 11,000 manual scavengers in 12 states.  Some activists say the number is much higher, particularly if you include those who do the work for the government.

The Human Rights Watch report said people who clean such toilets in villages are often not paid cash salaries but instead paid with leftover food, grain or used clothing. Most of them earn less than $4 a month.

Of course, abuse of people in any religion is abhorrent, so I was surprised to learn it had crept into the lives  of Muslims who officially oppose it. Scavenging is unpaid work which is  convenient for villagers of for members of any religion who seek to  greedily exploiting others.

Some of my Indian friend dismissed the whole issue as exaggerated. After all, in 1997 the Madhya Pradesh government passed the Manual Scavenging Act.

However, in MP if Valmik  or Hela parents give up maila athana their children’s scholarships are rescinded, they are forced from school and some have become child labourers.  “Only if a state official testifies that a woman has been scavenging for one hundred days, does her child become eligible for scholarship” writes Hameed who alleged no officers were prepared to testify the problem still exists.

As an informant told her “It seems as if the schemes are designed to keep people in scavenging because if a woman stops, her children are no loner eligible.”

Some women have been threatened by village and family if they stop.  In one example the Mali and Thakur communities threatened a woman who wanted to stop clearing dry toilets after fifteen years. She was told “We wont allow you to collect wood, draw water, and work anywhere else.”

Since Ninety-eight percent of the MP scavengers are women, leaving the trade would risk the social exclusion and cause financial hardship for the whole family.

“There is choot-chaat (untouchability) at every step. Five hundred to seven hundred of us (Valmiki and Hela women) walk two kilometres and queue for two to four hours to get water, there are several wells in the village but we are not allowed to draw water from them. Our children are not allowed to sit with the swaran jaatis (upper castes) in school. Barbers refuse to shave our men.”

Often villagers threaten them saying “ether you clean or you will be thrown out”. A threat that has been carried out.

Many have started when young and get skin diseases. At times medical personal have refused to touch them Because bribes must be paid to  apply for positions as an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) or Anganwadi Worker, Valmiki and Hela women can take up positions  that could help their fellow caste members.

During a Polio campaign in Jaipur village, the drops were handed to a Valmiki girl to administer to babies because because a woman did not want contamination doing it herself.

Muslim Scavengers

What surprised me was that even Muslims, whose religion claims equality of all, practiced discrimination against the Muslim Hela community in some areas of Madhya Pradesh.

Syeda Hameed is a Muslim and admits “perhaps the biggest shock was to learn of a Muslim community of scavengers. We had never associated such practices with Islam. As a child. Syeda had been strictly told never to demur from drinking water at the hands of a woman who came to clean the toilets of the house.   But in MP as in some other states, caste has become part of the Muslim ethos. The Muslim scavengers here are called Hela. There are 30,000 of them in the region.”

A scavenge named Ali Hussan from Ujjain describes that “As a child, when I went to the Masjid, the maulvi sahib sent me away saying “tumhari Amma latrine saufkarti hai, tum bhaago yahan se.” (Your mother cleans toilets, you run away from here.) Not only do we have separate masjidss and madrassas , our Muslim bretheren do not even sit with us for roza Iftaar. When my eighteen year old cousin died in an accident, for three days no doctor was prepared to do a post mortem.”

Hela and Valmiki are barred from hotels, Temples and mosques. Their children take their own plates for the midday meal, cannot use the hand pumps for water, or drink from taps.   They are not allowed to wear slippers or sit in vehicles and even the Manihars (bangle sellers) refuse to place chooris on their wrists. If they do, it is when all other customers have gone, an their shirts are removed lest they be contaminated, so they can quickly wash themselves of contamination.

Devi Lal, a 43-year-old manual scavenger, cleans drains in New Delhi on July 13, 2012 Sagar Kaul—Barcroft Media/Getty Images

Devi Lal, a 43-year-old manual scavenger, cleans drains in New Delhi on July 13, 2012
Sagar Kaul—Barcroft Media/Getty Images

HRW notes there are throughout India there are laws to curb caste subjugation, but it remains wide spread.

Dalit women typically collect waste from private homes, while the men do the more physically demanding, and hazardous, maintenance of septic tanks and public sewers. Many suffer injuries and serious health problems writes Charlie Campbell in Time magazine.

People are coerced to collect human excrement on a daily basis, carrying it away in nothing more protective than a cane basket.

“The manual carrying of human feces is not a form of employment, but an injustice akin to slavery,” says Ashif Shaikh, founder of Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan, a grassroots campaign to end manual scavenging. “It is one of the most prominent forms of discrimination against Dalits, and it is central to the violation of their human rights.”

“People work as manual scavengers because their caste is expected to fulfill this role, and are typically unable to get any other work,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at HRW. “This practice is considered one of the worst surviving symbols of untouchability because it reinforces the social stigma that these castes are untouchable and perpetuates discrimination and social exclusion.”


But do the Muslim Hela’s indicate that the discrimination transcends caste?

A World Health Organization report in May this year said that more than a half-billion Indian citizens still defecate in the open. Using fields, rivers and abandoned lots as toilets exposes people to diseases such as polio, hepatitis A and diarrhea. One in every 10 deaths in India, the World Bank said, is due to poor sanitation, a total of around 768,000 deaths a year.

India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, highlighted the importance of modernizing India’s sanitation during this years election campaign, stating that building toilets was more important than building temples.

A new law has been proposed that modifies the India’s 1993 law  that criminalized scavengers. The new law would prohibit the building of non-flushing toilets that must be emptied by hand,. Anyone who employs a manual scavenger could face a one-year jail term and/or a fine of up to 50,000 rupees.

Would police enforce the law? Would it be easier to pretend the problem no longer exists?  Unless the law is enforced, greed will drive exploitation.

“Successive Indian government attempts to end caste-based cleaning of excrement have been derailed by discrimination and local complicity,” said Meenakshi Ganguly of HRW. “The government needs to get serious about putting laws banning manual scavenging into practice and assisting the affected caste communities.”

Modernising toilets will help, but as long as employers refuse to recognise that scavengers save people and governments a lot of money, they will be ignored, underpaid and exploited.


A pdf copy of the report is available at: Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste, and Discrimination in India

Bollywood, advertising and the public woman

Bollywood Dance Scenes (Photos)

Women have always been a part of India’s public life busying themselves in the market or the fields. But in 19th century Britain women in the city were seen as sources of pleasure and danger.  Nineteenth  century Britain saw the rise women’s movement when the changing the industrial age believed a woman in public was to be a prostitute.

Now modern Bollywood has thrown that idea on its head. Not only are women again on centre stage, it seems dancing scenes are mini fashion show, a virtual mobile fashion catalogue, to titillate a female customer .

Lets back track to 19th century England again. Britain hungered of visual experiences, in the form of exotica bought from the Empire.  For chromophobe Britain the bustle and colour proof of Eastern barbarity and decadence writes Ranjani Mazumdar in Women and the city: Fashion, Desire and Dance in Bombay Cinema)

This idea carried over to Colonial India and revealed striking difference of viewpoint!

Officers began to fear their men would go ‘native’, lured by seductive Indian girls. This image was perhaps enhanced by men like ‘Hindu George’, who wrote back inviting men to India to catch a wife. (Hindu George waxed lyrically of ladies in wet saris bathing in the river described the ancient equivalent of a wet T-shirt contest.)

Unsurprisingly, gender became a flash point of nationalism and colonialism. Western materiality contrasted Eastern spirituality: Outer versus inner. The fluid Bazaars were contrasted with the stable forms of western displays of wealth.

Now fast forward to Independent India:  Scholars have often mapped Indian women’s sexuality, and especially her imagined purity, against the Westernised licentious  and public women of say Hollywood.. Of course there are many examples of characters in affairs. For example, In Dev Anand’s The Guide, a dancer loves the hero but will not marry him, and in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak the hero discovers the budding actress he is with is married.

From the 1950’s, Bombay films contrasted the chaste homely heroine with the dancing hyper sexualised vamp. The vamp of unrestrained westernised license is found in night clubs and cabarets and given to vices unknown to the Indian woman.

Of course, no homely heroine ever provocatively dance at a night club with its gangsters, gambling and sex! Then in the 1990’s with the imperative of global fashion and commerce the dichotomy disappears. The heroine begins to dance with public displays of desire.

Dances are no longer performed in morally coded spaces of night clubs, observes Ranjani Mazumdar. They are relocated throughout the cities of a globalised world. Romantic desire is no longer coded to places of ill repute.

Mazumdar’s example is the the drunken heroine from DivaleDulhania Le Jayenge ( We Will take the bride away), who transitions from fantasizing of a red dress in a Swiss shop , then to different locations and counties.

It seems that the introduction of cable TV, hollywood soap operas and their Indian equivalents have turned movies into window shopping gestures of performance that eroticise women’s fashion.

Film sequences seem to mimic the music video, as the new display windows of a consumerist society. They are the video equivalent of the turn century America catalogues from Sears, Roebuck and company that movie markets from shop to home embedded a world of entertainment and fantasy  (Alexandra Keller , Disseminations of Modernity: Representation and consumer desire in early mail order catalogue in Leo Carney, Vanessa Schwartz (eds) Cinema and the inventor of modern life, Berkley, London., 1995).

They were designed to sustain desire of female audience. Now Indian song routines do the same, combining travel, fashion photography and the rhythm of a mini fashion show.

With the monuments of other cities offer markers in a global backdrop different changes of clothes of the heroine in the dance routine, Bollywood creates a utopian world that glide across different landscapes.

Globalisation and technology have changed Indian cinema. Formerly  the audience travelled the narrative interspersed with dance sequences ,  but now the speed of change throw a character from Indian village to the Eiffel Tower with no explanation of how the characters arrived there.  We are thrown under the spell of a visually fluid unmeasured experience,  drifting through a world of consumption.

A jumble of images in the dance sequences go beyond the possible and bring the world to the Indian audience.

Bollywood Dance Scenes (Photos) `

The researcher Anne Friedberg (Window shopping: Cinema and the post modern, 1993) compares the cinematic experience to the 19th century British fascination with exotica. Just as Britain was fascinated by its empire, Bollywood brings the world to  India.

But most directors are men, occasionally blamed in the press for Bollywood’s incredibly shrinking sari. Have we bought women under the panoramic gaze and gendered control of public space? The village market is more free than the expectations of a director who brings his heroine, flittering from one outfit to another the ‘phantasmagoria of Indian modernity,’ as Ranjani Mazumdar called it, fills India with the same hunger for visual experience as 19th century Britain.

Commodity and fashion, are juxtaposed with globalisation and spectacular travel. Sexualised dancing, once, coded for the vamp, now  appeals to youth. It seems  Indian cinema becoming a mini fashion show, a virtual mobile fashion catalogue, to titillate a female customer.

The speed of sweeping contradictory generalisations, gives a false and glamorous view of the outside world seems to target many different women at once. It reinforce the hierarchy of the middle class family while challenging India’s patriarchal assumptions.

Is the unleashed frenetic energy  of Mumbai’s  cinema sustainable? Capitalism does not want you to remain satisfied for long lest you don’t buy the latest model gadget.

I realise people want to escape. But, could the production of a life style myth do more harm than good in a country of vast inequalities?

How can rural people who were once stratifies by tranquillity of the village remain unaffected by the glossy consumerism advertised on the Bollywood screen?

What of India, Caste and Tantra?


According to AL Basham in The wonder that was India belittling darker skin natives by Aryan’s began by the time of the poems now in the Rig Veda.  Basham stressed purity of blood led to a lowering of the darker skinned aboriginal populations social status. Even today southern Dravidian movie starts are lighter skinned. Black is not beautiful.

According to Basham the four great social classes of the Rig Veda period means colour and not caste as is commonly translated.

So did the caste stem develop from a form of racism? Not all agree of course. There were four castes, and the untouchables, not just two for people of light and dark skin. However, in every society you will find the rebellion of strictures.

Hathayoga is what is known to the West, and I nthis form it perhaps does not truly live up to its names as a yug or yoke/union of spirit and body.

Over millennia ago Patanjai placed more emphasis on the bodt when formerly Brahmin concepts were to still physical consciousness, metal activity and enhance meditation.

According to Mircea Eliade, (Patanjali and yoga)  Hatha yoga links to the 12th century aesthetic Gorakhanath. While, tantra may have opposed Brahmin control of  all things sensual, but claimed in sexual union it is possible to experience the souls union with the divine, developing its own elaborate ritual.

“With liquors, meats, fish, (and aphrodisiac) mudra (beans), and copulation with women, the great Sadhu should worship the Mother of the universe” (from The Tantric Tradition  by Agehananda Bharati).

“The Tantric male sees his partner as a living goddess. During copulation he repeats mantras and maintains his thought on spiritual concepts, finally abandoning his sperm ‘lovingly into the fire of self.”

The Ardhanarishavara at Elephanta

The Ardhanarishavara at Elephanta

Shiva, the god of procreation and life, is symbolized by a phallus or linga rising from a circular stone base symbolizing the vagina or yoni representing the qualities of his consort Parvati, united from of the shakhti or life force.


The Devadasis , well bred, beautiful and skilled in conversation, dress, makeup, garland weaving and preparing the betel nut based pan enjoyed property rights, as a distinct class that later was viewed as a sacred prostitution.

“The dance that evolved to be performed before temple deities became a highly refined a complex art, embracing elements of folk dance but becoming stylized in gait, and also mime that incorporated symbolic gestures both sensual and spiritual” writes John Murray in Reflections of an Indian Diary.

“A devadasi offered both herself and her art to the gods and expressed the yearning of all devotees for absorbtion into the absolute, omnipresent reality. She became Radha as she pined for union with Krishnu, depicting in song and dance the longing of a devotee for a glimpse, a touch from him, for the translucent rapture to felt in the embrace of the divine lover.”

Murray describes the the serene faces of the Konoraks sensual sculptures  “that could also indicate detachment, a contemplation of spiritual concepts that is maintained and not overcome by the indulgence of the senses.”

In Hindu metaphysics of sensuality as a path to realization and sexual union is a symbol of the union of the female and male aspects of Brahmin.

“Could three factors – the stress on the physical and the mystic as well as the natural enjoyment of sex – have led the mind to pursue sexual pleasure as the ultimate harmony of physical or worldly existence?”

Sexuality is part of life. But was the Kama sutra a degeneration of thought that mirrored the period but had lost the purity of thought by simply showing cold hard sex?  I prefer to believe in the metaphysic purity of union with the divine lover, but to the puritan British it seemed Konorak and Khajuraho were viewed as harc core sex.


India’s Confident femininity


Discrimination against women has always existed in all cultures. It is wrong to assume the stereotype that women in Eastern countries are always oppressed.

For example, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism made more comment in the USA that Fatima Jinnahs run for the Presidency of Pakistan. It was not considered unusual. Before Independance two women had been President of India’s Congress Party: 50 years before Margaret Thatcher led the British Conservatives. Women have led both India and Pakistan.

Yes, there are double standards. Originally that did not imply superior and inferior  but rather a woman’s role included enactment of dark mysteries. The politics of history and tribalism has since  distorted it. It seems that discrimination may be even hardest in the village where traditions are seen as the lifeblood of survival.

 Ideally, men may arrange the exterior world but in the Asian world where home is the most fundamental institution she is creator and mistress. The woman is all that is beautiful and graceful.

 In Islam male and female approach Allah equally. In Hinduism the role of woman has changed with the rise of Brahman power during feudal times after the decline of Buddhism, and again under Britain.    Add to this the layers of caste and sub-caste.  The Hindu laws of Manu a woman must obey her husband as a god even if he is a cruel tyrant, In contrast, Vatsayayana a writer of the Kama sutra said if a woman does not experience pleasure with her husband she could leave. She is an active participant in love making.

 Young men sent to courtesans, not for sex, but to be taught music, poetry. good manners and the cultivated manners of gentleman.  Trained in the 64 sciences and arts, including the arts of love. They were more like in Japans greatest periods, but just as the US invasion stripped to whoredom, so did Britian to India’s nayikas. They were not common whores.

Indeed the confident pride of many Indian and Pakistani women in their femininity makes many feel that Western liberationists are gratuitous slogan wavers of self indulgence that is too far removed from the harshness of life Asian men and women.

 Men and women are equal but masculine and feminine energies see the world from different perspectives.

Vive Le Difference!

An Improbable Country called India



Indian Diversity

Said I one night to a pristine seer
(Who knew the secrets of whittling Time),
Sir, you well perceive, that goodness and faith,
Fidelity and love
Have all departed from this sorry land.
Father and son are at each other’s throat;
Brother fights brother. Unity
and Federation are undermined.
Despite these ominous signs
Why has not the Doomsday come?
Why does not the Last Trumpet sound?
Who holds the reins of Final Catastrophe?


Mirta Asadullah Khan Ghalib penned his poem in 1827 after a six month trip from Delhi to Banares. The Mughal Empire was declining and it seemed India was tearing itself apart. Britain was claiming large stretches of the north.

Ghalibs question seemed answered when in 1857. What the British called it the Sepoy Mutiny quickly spread to be what Indians call The First War of Independence.

Ghalib was in Delhi then, where the most violent fighting decimated the city. A cultured Muslim bought up with Mughal  refinement, he also received a stipend from the British.

“He saw more clearly than the British colonist did then or the Hindu nationalist does now, that it was impossible here to distinguish right from wrong, that horrible atrocities were being committed by both sides. Marooned in his home, he wrote a melancholy account of how ‘Hindustan has become the arena of the mighty whirlwind and the blazing fire.’ ‘To what new order can the Indian look with joy?’” (Guha: 11).

Britain won and Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. The previous ad hoc administration was now run by the elite Indian Civil Service. The building of a massive rail network moved soldiers efficiently to quell trouble and sped up communication. This was also enhanced by active attempts to cause discord between India’s diverse communities.

It seems to me that India’s ancient polytheistic expression of the one God allowed a soft and fluid acceptance of diversity. India’s polytheism of the soul allowed for the shadow sides of our personality to be expressed openly, in symbolic form of odd and bad. I suggest that the rise of nationalism, which in the modern form developed from the French Revolution, has narrowed a terser view.

Ghalib’s question is for me personal since, although I now view India as home, my ancestors arrived from Australia in 1829 as part of the Britain’s 40th regiment. At first many British so loved India’s exotica that ‘to stop soldiers going ‘Native’ government attitudes hardened.

British India Hindoostan

By 1888 Britain was so entrenched few ever envisaged Independence in 60 years. That year, Sir John Strachey who became a member of the Governor Generals council l pointed out India was more diverse than the competing nations within Europe.

India was “a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries’ he said. The differences were hard for Europeans to grasp. “”Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.” However, by the definition at the time, these were not nations. They lacked a group with a distinct political or social identity.

“There is not and never was in India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious” he said in lectures delivered at Cambridge.

While it was “conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian counties” but “that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab Bengal, the North-Western Provinces, and Madras, should eve feel that they belong to one nation, is impossible. You might with as much reason and probability look forward to a time when a single nation will have taken the place of the various nations of Europe.”

That Independent India does exist extends from the vision of an elite debating club of Gokhali, Tilak and later Gandhi who sought to bridge divisions of culture, territory, religion and language in pursuit of a greater say for native Indians in their affairs.

British opinions divided. A prime mover of Congress was Scottish born O. A Hume. In contrast, when author Rudyard Kipling was asked in Australia of Indian Independence in 1891,  he replied “Oh No! They are 4,000 years old out there, much too old to learn that business. Law and order is what they want and we are there and give it to them and we will give it them straight.”

The idea of an Independent India was “not only fantastical in itself but criminally mischevious in its effects” claimed Winston Churchill in the 1930’s. Churchill was a lone voice warning against the rise of Germany, and thought Congress dominated by Brahmins. If Britain left “an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany,  will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu’ he said. “To abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence.” (Guha: XV)

There were many who feared disaster.

As one tea planter explained “chaos would result if we were to ever be foolish to leave the natives to run their own show. Ye gods! What a salad of confusion, of bungle, of mismanagement, and far worse, would be an instant result.”

The barbarism of Partition seemed to show him to be right. Deprivation did ensue. But Germans did not come even though a few Indians thought Japan may help India gain Independence in World War II.

That “India could sustain democratic institutions seems, on the face of it, highly improbable wrote political commentator Robert Dahl. “It lacks all the favourable conditions.” “India has a well-established reputation for violating social scientific generalizations” wrote another American noting ‘grounds for scepticism of the viability of Democracy in India” (Guhu: xvi).

Perhaps this is where the naysayers were seeing only the surface appearance of things.

Indian politics is like its traffic. It looks chaotic and incomprehensible, but once you know the rules (and yes they are there, in a pecking order descending down from buses, then trucks down to pedestrians) you get around. It can be chokingly slow, but once the Indian juggernaut picked up speed it became a largely successful, as the world’s largest democracy.

Few realise that India cannot be characterised on her religious history alone.  As extensive as her religious literature is, her heterodox dialectic extends back millennia facing the difficult questions with religious, agnostic, and atheistic debate. Do not assume India is a land of unquestioned practices and  uncritical faiths.  Indian science and mathematics flowered in the 5th century BCE.

While tribalism does at times flare up, even the Hindatva call for a Hindu India for ‘sons of the soil’ has had limited success. What is chaos to others is India’s vibrant argument with life.

True, after 1857 Britain realised that to keep the subcontinent it had to turn Hindu and Muslim against each other. Exploiting division made Partition a reality and left distrust that can surface even today.

Here is the problem as I see it: With almost erotic intensity nationalism promotes ”my tribe ahead of yours”. The media, and its incessant argument add to this of course. Fear easily grips the heart, sends us into a short term spin, without little time to calmly consider the facts. With the fast changing news scape even experienced reporters have little time for  reflection. It is now harder for India, balancing a rapidly changing economy with her vast inequalities.  Yet call a return to traditional values will only become oppressive if forced from without. The spiritual dimension, that the subcontinent once cherished, included deep meditative reflection of our polytheistic’ psyches. The many truly beautiful spiritual people were not driven by social pressure to perform a ritual,  but were more like the poet Ghalib. Hardship and service taught them to know the hardship of others and to learn there humanity. However, enforced national, caste or religious prejudices divide. They tell us to condemn first, so we will not look into the yes of the other.

Yet, with all its potential for division India survives.



Will India survive?

After monitoring decades of elections British journalist Don Taylor wrote in the Evening Standard of 1969 that while India had stayed united “the hey question remains can India remain in one piece-or will it fragment?”

With all her diverse languages, cultures and religions “it seems incredible that one nation could emerge.”

“It is difficult to even encompass in the mind – the great Himalaya, the wide Indo-Gangetic plain burnt by the sun and savaged by the fierce monsoon rains, and green flooded delta of the east, the great cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It does not, often, seem like anyone country. And yet there is a resilience about India, which seems an assurance of survival. There is something which can only be described as an Indian spirit.”

The future of the region depends on it.

I agree with Taylor’s  conclusion “I believe it no exaggeration to say that the fate of Asia hangs on its survival.”

Let us hope that the legacy engendered by Britain’s post 1857 policy of ‘divide and rule’ will not be allowed to slash apart the good nature of India’s diverse family .

When murderous anti Sikh rioters pillaged after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, few imagined the non aligned but Socialist India would have outlasted the Soviet Union.

India survives because it defies Western definitions of unity. India will survive if it retains its polytheism of the soul.


Anyone interested in Indian modern history will find Ramachandra Guhu’s India after Gandhi (2007, Macmillan, London) a magisterial reference.

A great resource of Indian issues is also Amartya Sen The Argumentative Indian- writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity (2005, Penguin Books, London).

The Evening  Standard article by Don Taylor was published 21 August 1969 ‘The New  Surprising Strength of Mrs Gandhi’ from Guhu p xvi, xvii.

Bringing India’s ancient dream to a modern world

When visiting Delhi for the first time, I was immediately impressed by the gleaming clean stone temple ahead. Ancient in style, but I was too tired to realise the obvious. It had been 48 degrees centigrade, and as the sun was setting, I asked the young ladies with us how old the structure was but they did not know.

After reading of a young guru who traversed India in the entrance, it suddenly hit me. The stones gleamed because they had no patina, they were new. The Swaminarayan Akshardham transformed barren land by the Yamuna river in only five years from laying of its first stone November 8, 2000 until the 6th of November 2005.

For someone who studies archaeology I laughed at my own stupidity (and exhaustion).

In pink sandstone and white marble, the monument is  the centre piece of a  40.5 hectare  cultural showcase of indian art, architecture, wisdom  and spirituality. It stands  43 metre high and  96 metre long  with 234 intricately carved pillars, nine magnificent domes 20 pinnacles and 20,000 sculpted figures. At its centre of the inner sanctum stands a serene 3.3 metre golden  murti of Bhagwan Swaminarayan.

The whole monument is surrounded by  a water body called the Narayan Sarovar and is garlanded by a 2.2 kilometre double story parikrama.

“Divinity has been glorified by the beautiful artistic carvings par excellence. It enriches the serenity of devotion and faith which is sublime. In addition, this is an artistic wonder with human imagination which gives a fantastic experience made melodious with water and music. My pranam to Swamiji and all the devotees” said the President of India Smt. Pratibha Patil in 2012.

“Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides” says the Rig Veda. The message of Unity in Diversity is  symbolised in the welcome pathway of ten gates each for the ten directions symbolizing freedom of thought in Sanatan Dharma. The Visitor Centre is built in a traditional design. Small shrines of bhakti lead to the ornate Bhakti Dwar or Gate of Devotion and two Bhakti Dwar (Peacock gates) pay tribute to India’s national bird.

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However, it is the sense natural harmony that I most enjoyed. The 100 metre Gajenda Peeth with its 148 stone elephants bedecked for a spiritual ceremony portray harmony of elephant, man, nature and God in harmony, faith, love and service.

Designed by architect Satish Gujural, it  was inspired by Pramukh Smanmi Maharaj to fulfil his gurus wish and is considered the eternal abode of Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830).

its 11,000 sadhus, volunteers and artisans took  300 million man hours to carve 300,000 stones and assemble the structure. The stones were quarried 400 km away at Bansipahadpur were carved at Pindvada (600 km), Sikandra (250 km), and other Rajasthan workshops then assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

SwaminarayanFilm, light and sound shows present the story of India’s cultural heritage within two exhibition halls, that include cultural gardens, ornate gate, a film theatre, musical fountain  and food court.

The Hall of Values presents the values taught by Bhagwan Swaminarayan: ahimsa, courage, endeavour, honesty, harmony, and faith.

In the second hall, a 14 minute boat ride shows 10,000 years of Indian culture. Past 800 statues, you visit an ancient Vedic village, the worlds first university, or Takshashila, and learn some of ancient India’s scientific discoveries.

The life of the 11 year old guru who traversed India from the Himalayas to south of the continent, is shown in a well presented 40 minute film on a 25 metre screen.  Shot in 108 locations across the continent, I  recommend buying the film.
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It is a delight to see a sacred site so beautifully presented in a garden setting. The whole complex is beautifully presented in a 22 acres of lawns and over 900,000 saplings. Sadly, many Indian temples are not well cared for or their heritage respected.

Yet, I must admit an initial disquiet. It reminded me of my first reaction to Bhopal’s Tribal Museum which at I first felt Disneyfied  the Tribal experience, then realised that this very modernity allowed  new generation to be educated. I came to appreciate that Indigenous art has never stood still and has always mediated with the present. The same is true of modern Hinduism.

Just as we should not expect Indigenous artists to strip down to their dhoti to be accepted as legitimate, why should I expect a temple to conform to my expectations? The Taj Mahal was once a modern architectural marvel, as was Khajuraho. Perhaps future generations will look back at the Akshardham similarly.

I remembered the concept of parampara, a nearly self -sufficient partial modality of human manifestation ruled by dharma (order).The word is often synonymous with tradition, but need not just imply a static set of ideas as the english word implies. Parampara is a dynamic flow with room for change, like a  majestic river – perennial, colourful and soul sustaining and forever in new forms, yet built from the past..

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I have also have a personal dislike for the commercialisation of religion. How ever, it is not forced on you by vendors, the boat ride and theatre are charged for those who want them, and a food court and souvenir shop have offerings. In honest reflection, all organisations have costs and religious commercialism is just more blatant elsewhere.

In a sense, the Swaminarayan Akshardham is a movie set. It does not pretend to be a 1000 year old temple, although built in the style of one.  In a setting that is peaceful and serene, were are reminded to reflect, and pray for a greater faith, discipline and service to humanity. It portrays for the world, the beauty of freedom believed be taught in the Vedas with a modern, theatrical experience.

It is an invitation to a view of how the world might be.


Are India’s fewer women singles happier than American unmarrieds?



There are fewer single Indian women but they are happier?

We often express our values through symbols. Perhaps a US feminist may equate her freedom with the monetary choice to buy a car, of to wear, love, marry even sleep with whoever she wants.   An arranged marriage would seem barbaric.

Yet many in India are bewildered why the Western girls have their self esteem tied to being the super sexy home coming queen who lures the football star.

Instead, the majority of India’s educated women request an arranged marriage. In India finding your soul mate and marriage is not he royal road to happiness.

“Oddly enough, the first time I really became conscious of my singleness was in, of all places, England” wrote feminist intellectual, Urvashi Butalia, founder of the feminist press Kali for Women. “[I found myself] in a culture that so privileges relationships, especially heterosexual one, that if you are not in one (and even if you have been in one that may have broken up you are expected to jump into another almost immediately), there has to be something wrong with you. So I was always the odd one out, the one without the man, the one to be felt sorry for. And it always bewildered me, because I did not feel sorry for myself, so why did they? It wasn’t a nice feeling.”

It may seem hard for a westerner to understand,  but the positive image attached to celibacy and the arranged marriage system in India serves to liberate unmarried women from the self esteem trap.

The negative, asexual connotations of the English word spinster have no Indian equivalent. Of India, activist  Madhu Kishwar,  “We are still heavily steeped in the old Indian tradition which holds that voluntary sexual abstinence bestows extraordinary power on human beings.”  The English word spinster almost implies a person is defective.

We forget that dating, is a recent phenomenon, beginning around 1900 in the USA. Perhaps the much needed coverage highlighting rape and violence.    Yes there is discrimination yet in other ways, India leads by example.

“Single women in India face more overt discrimination, but culturally they are more accepted” explained author E. Kay Trimberger in an interview in Psychology Today. “Single people – men as well as women – face discrimination in rental housing, and single women in India are seen as objects of sexual prey, especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and violence.

“The first Indian self help book for single women, Single in the City (2000) by Sunny Singh, gives much more attention to issues of safety than such books in the U.S. But psychologically it is easier to be single in India, because of cultural factors” she said.

Marriage in India is more highly valued, but its purpose is family ties, not coupled happiness. Compatibility between spouses is not linked to finding a soul mate, but is seen as the result of patient work, along with family support. As a result, single women in India are not pitied because they are not coupled.

Contrast that with a upcoming MTV program Virgin Territory with trailers of young people wanting to lose their chastity because “its hard being a virgin, sometimes.”

“A never-married woman in India is never assumed to be unattractive because arranging the marriage is generally a family enterprise” wrote author Sunny Singh in a private communication to  Ms Trimberger published in in Psychology Today,”So people assume that there wasn’t enough dowry, not the right match, irresponsible parents (my favorite), a wrong astrological chart and so forth.”

“Perhaps this is one reason that polls show that most Indians, even the educated, urban elite, still favor arranged marriage, although perhaps in modified form with some personal choice involved” added Trimberger.

For those who marry, expensive childcare, the bain of western working women, is not a problem in the extended family, or in a village where children belong to everyone. However, the cost is measured in difficult and meddling inlaws.

Comparing the 2000 USA, and 2001 Indian census reveals there are fewer single women in India.  Between the ages of 25-59, 89.5% of Indian women are married, as compared with 65% of American women in the same age group.

The “never married” account for 2.5% in India versus 16% in the U.S., while the percentage of divorced women in that population is 17% in the U.S. as opposed to a mere 1% in India.

India’s Feminism

Indian feminists speak more strongly for single women than in the USA. Both womens move,ent began in the 19th century. Where World War II opened opportunities for western woman to work, India’s Independence movement won women opportunity.

“Most of us menfolk were in prison” wrote Nehru in The Discovery of India. “And then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle.”

The traditionalist Gandhi is an unlikely (but incomplete) emancipator. The Mahatma called women to no longer be “dolls and objects of indulgence” but “comrades in common service”, nominating Sarojini Naidu as Congress first female president in 1931.

Both countries had a seconhd wave of feminism in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today India’s few women’s organizations create a nationwide constituency in contast the US has many groups focusing on distinct issues.

The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) has nine million members and is the counties largest independent woman’s organization founded in 1981.

The issues of single women are within its top seven priorities. AIDWA’s Commission on Single Women includes discrimination of  “single, deserted and divorced women” articulating similarities between all single women, cutting across class and caste distinctions.

From the 198’s and 1990’s India has leds the USA in mobilizing single women. In 2008 5000 single women  marched in Himachal Pradesh demanding reform including free healthcare, land for poor single women, and pensions for older single women. It was led by the ENSS that represents single women’s interests.

In contrast many of the US feminists best known American feminists such as  Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem    distanced themselves from distanced themselves from spinsters without providing an alternative model for life as a mature, single woman said Ms Trimberger.  In the USA negative stereotypes of single life over age forty – especially for women – are still strong.

When moving to India I became acutely aware that many values  I thought made me happy seemed irrelevant in my new society.  None of this denies  the historic atrocities of sati or the recently publicized rape cases. Elsewhere, I will write of foeticide, and cruel discrimination of young girls in a society favouring boys.

Societies have always pressured conformity, yet simultaneously those who successfully challenge tradition are celebrated.   Just as nature hates  vacuum, social values do not sit on one extreme without being balanced by their social opposite, especially in such a diverse culture as India.