Cows, Caste and Curry

India, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Spiritual Travel, Tours & Attractions — By on September 28, 2006 at 6:23 am

“There’s too much traffic in Delhi,” says our driver, Sunil, who we hired for a four-day tour of northern India-just before jerking the wheel to narrowly miss a cow wandering the crowded city streets. “Everything is too much in Delhi.”

With over one billion people (and about 200 million cows), it’s easy to experience sensory overload. The air smells of both incense and body odor; monkeys and dogs mark their territory atop piles of trash; women adorn themselves with ruby and topaz-colored saris; horns honk incessantly and the moist heat makes staying dry an almost impossible feat. Despite all the commotion, The Lost Girls noticed three common threads tying the vast subcontinent together: faith, family and food.

It Takes All Kinds
For those thirsty for spirituality, India is a holy mecca. Proof that religion infuses daily life is revealed by the plethora of household shrines, street stalls selling flower garlands for prayer offerings and a hodgepodge of temples, mosques, ashrams and churches.

Although over 80 percent of people are Hindu, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains and Jews also make up the spiritual landscape. When I asked our driver Sunil about his religion, he responded, “I am Hindi, Muslim and Buddhist – God is found in all beliefs.”

As if to prove his point, he insisted on driving us to the lotus-shaped sanctuary called the Baha’i House of Worship where all religions are celebrated. When Sunil let us off to explore, I was instructed by a guard to remove my shoes before entering the enormous prayer hall. The silence inside was thick and peaceful as I joined the crowd to sit on a cool marble bench and offered up a little gratitude.

Pay it Forward
Old school Hinduism meant you were born into a social class, or caste. Though outlawed today, the class categories still form the foundation of Indian society. It’s believed that the way to graduate to a higher caste is to keep your morals in check and do lots of good deeds. Eventually you’ll build up enough good karma to be born into a higher caste in your next lifetime.

The fact that most Indians still have arranged marriages is proof the caste system lives on. After all, an important consideration of parents looking for a mate for their child is equal caste. Sunil’s parents, for example, arranged his marriage by finding a woman who, like him, was a member of the highest caste known as Brahmin.

When Sunil, 28, ties the knot with his 25-year-old bride this March, he says the elaborate wedding celebration will last four days and he’ll have over two dozen costume changes. This is when he’ll meet his wife-to-be in person for the very first time.

I asked Sunil whether arranged or love marriages are better and he replied, “Both are good, but an arranged marriage is much more successful.” His reasoning? “If you defy your parents and marry for love, they’ll cut you off from the family’s funds, leaving you with nothing.” He explains the pressure this puts on relationships makes it likelier to end in divorce. He admitted to having a love relationship in college, but said his parents made him break it off. “If I stayed with her, I would inherit nothing.”

Some Like it Hot
It’s not just India’s humid climate that’ll make you sweat: Spices are a cooking staple. Tumeric, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom are a few popular flavor boosters. Sunil tells us most people eat meals in their homes, and often grab snacks from street carts and stalls selling goodies such as bhaja (vegetable fritters) and vadai (spicy doughnuts).

When eating in Indian restaurants, touching food with your left hand is a dining faux pas (that’s the hand reserved for certain bathroom duties). However, it’s perfectly OK to skip the utensils and eat with your right hand.

The subcontinent is a haven for vegetarians, since we’re told Hindu’s peaceful practices don’t make for a lot of meat eaters. Though restaurants displaying “nonveg” often serve chicken and eggs, hamburger-lovers will be hard up for beef because cows are considered sacred. Eating local Indian cuisine is a fast way to get a taste of the culture: Intense, spicy and truly unique.

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  • Rasee says:

    It was so hard for me to live in the States because so much beef is eaten and I, being Indian, do not eat beef. I used to go around saying, “No cow, please” and I think I ended up losing so much weight because there was a lot I couldn’t eat. (I worked at camp so beef was the main ingredient in most foods served.) I loved reading this particular entry because it just made me a little homesick. (I adore Delhi and the Taj Mahal left me in awe the first time I saw it.)

  • Krish says:

    This was a fun read. It’s awesome that you decided to spend a year exploring the world. I’ve always wanted to go backpacking in Europe.

  • pulsar says:

    Great blog girls! Me being a travel freak myself like the way you girls live life and travel intelligently. I just want to mention one small problem in this particular post.. “hindi” is a language and not a religion.. I’m sure you meant “hindu”. Not that its a big deal.. Just mentioning it to you.. Keep working!

  • christina says:

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


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