A Day in Delhi

I've had a fascinating day in Delhi, India. Let me tell you about it. This morning, I went to the Akshardham, a temple complex dedicated to the Hindu sage Swaminarayan. How can I describe it? It's a cross between a mega-church and a theme park. The central attraction is a huge domed temple; I have never seen anything so extravagantly ornate. Every inch of its surface, inside and out, is decorated with carvings. The exterior is girded, at its base, with several layers of engraved animals - each layer must contain over a thousand individual carvings stretching around the whole perimeter. The entire edifice rests on a plinth decorated with hundreds of metre-tall elephants; this is in turn surrounded by a moat containing "water from 151 holy springs and rivers from around India". The complex around it contains perhaps half a dozen more buildings in the same style. One has the biggest screen I've ever seen, used to play a panegyric movie about Swaminarayan's saintly younger years to the hordes of schoolchildren who make up the majority of visitors. The next contains, theme-park style, a boat ride through the history of India, retold through the eyes of the scriptures (envisage the Hindu version of "Adam and Eve frolicking with dinosaurs", and you'd be close). And so on.


Now, religious excesses are common enough, but there are two things which make the Akshardham stand out. The first is that, as far as I can tell, no actual religious ceremonies take place in it: the Akshardham is entirely purposeless save for being a tourist attraction. You might think that this is standard for historic monuments, but there's another thing to consider: nothing in the complex is more than 20 years old. I can't think of any other monument of such scale which has been erected in this period. Apparently many of the workers who constructed it were volunteers, but it's still a massive endeavor for a religious foundation to undertake - not least because it occupies a sizeable chunk of land only a few minutes from the center of one of the world's largest cities. That's a good indication of how deeply religious people are here.

In the afternoon, I went to another modern religious attraction, the Lotus Temple: reminiscent of the Syndey Opera House, it is apparently the most visited building in the world. But my taxi driver, sensing an opportunity for profit, convinced me to stop at "the best market in Delhi", which turned out to be a well-polished tourist trap which I soon fled. Walking along the side of the motorway towards the Lotus Temple, I stumbled upon a sort of shantytown. Stalls lined both sides of a paved walkway; along the middle huddled beggars. The route seemed entirely incongruous - a paved, covered path leading from the edge of the motorway? - and at first I could not fathom why it existed, or who the intended customers were. Each and every stall was piled high with bracelets, or trinkets, or bright plastic children's toys, but I couldn't see a single transaction taking place. Even the beggars were quiescent. Some had legs that were no more than skin wrapped around bone, and moved around by pulling themselves along with their hands. Others had missing fingers - leprosy? I don't know. A whole row of women sat with babies and toddlers; as I watched, a man came by and gave them each a small piece of bread, which they gratefully fed to their children.

Elsewhere in Delhi I'd received regular second glances, since even at tourist attractions Indians vastly outnumber foreigners. Here I was almost entirely ignored. Nobody seemed to speak English. I saw only one other white person along the entire route, although there were plenty of people striding along in my direction. The walkway went on, and on: nothing changing for perhaps half a kilometer. Pop music blared at occasional intervals. Finally, I saw where everyone was heading: a Hindu temple, or mandir. The entrance was choked with people, chanting in time with drum-beats from inside. Later, I learned that this was the Kalkaji mandir, a particularly old and revered temple. City officials are currently pushing through a plan to clear its "unhygenic surroundings".

I eventually made my way to the Lotus Temple, only to learn that it was closed. I debated taking a taxi immediately, but a feeling of guilt pushed me to return and make some donations. I gave the equivalent of $3 to a woman whose daughter was writing in an exercise book; immediately, two others accosted me, one almost grabbing my hair as I pushed past. (Apart from that one moment, I should say that I felt incredibly safe along the whole route, and indeed throughout my whole stay in Delhi so far). By the time I reached the motorway again I had no small denominations left, but still felt useless. I've been learning about the caste system, a disgusting social institution which has existed for the best part of two millennia and spread across all of India. The beggars were very likely from lower castes, such as the "untouchable" dalit caste of over 150 million people who have historically been at the very bottom of Indian society.

The fact that dalits are still disproportionately represented amongst the poorest in India is not just a historical hangover that can be fixed with capital transfers, but also the result of systemic ongoing discrimination. From a recent article: "37 per cent Dalits live below the poverty line, 54 per cent are undernourished, 83 per 1,000 children born in a Dalit household die before their first birthday, 12 per cent before their fifth birthday, and 45 per cent remain illiterate. The data also shows that Dalits are prevented from entering the police station in 28 per cent of Indian villages. Dalit children have been made to sit separately while eating in 39 per cent government schools. Dalits do not get mail delivered to their homes in 24 per cent of villages. And they are denied access to water sources in 48 per cent of our villages." The last statistic is particularly shocking; water quality in India is often very low anyway, so it is horrific to think that dalits are forced to use even worse sources. And this is all in addition to many, many hate crimes perpetrated against dalits across the country. (To see the human faces of this suffering, I recommend the photojournalism project Being Untouchable.)
The federal government has taken measures to address these atrocities. Technically, caste-based discrimination has been illegal for decades. There are extensive affirmative action programs, as well as substantial cash incentives for marriages between dalits and other castes. In a nation of over 1 billion people, only a few thousand couples have been awarded this money over the last few years. That reflects, amongst other things, the courage required to go through with inter-caste marriages in a country where honour killings are frequently in the news. The mishandling of affirmative action quotas (which, in some areas, require 80% of places to go to underprivileged castes) has also created backlash even amongst the urban elite. There is a long way to go.

At this point it's tempting to make some remark about the contrast in India between wealth and poverty. But I've been surprised that there hasn't been much of a contrast: outside of temples, I've seen little evidence of wealth since I got here. Delhi has no luxury cars (good!) but, more worryingly, no skyscrapers (googling "Delhi skyscrapers" leads only to artists' impressions, and a few apartment blocks), no streets free of rubbish or crumbling concrete, and very few buildings (let alone neighbourhoods!) which feel at all modern. I'm sure that the latter exist, and I've simply missed them - but I've crisscrossed the central city for several days and overall my impressions have been remarkably consistent. This is particularly surprising given that Delhi and Mumbai are the wealthiest areas in India by far. I suppose that I've always thought of India in roughly the same way as China or Brazil: an emerging power whose citizens are lifting themselves out of poverty. This is perhaps not inaccurate, but it should be qualified by the fact that India's GDP per capita is around 40% of China's or Brazil's; it is only narrowly ahead of Vietnam and Nigeria, which means there are many, many more Indians in poverty than Vietnamese and Nigerians combined. (As a side note, Vietnam's poverty rates are remarkably lower than other countries with similar GDP; I wonder whether this is the result of good policies or the government massaging the numbers. As another aside, it seems like many poor people in India - e.g. taxi drivers earning perhaps a dollar an hour - still have very good smartphones; can anyone explain to me the economics of this?).

I'm not sure there's any moral to this story, except the usual one: that we Westerners are much wealthier than we think, and owe a duty to help others who are not. That's something it's always worth being reminded of. I don't mean to portray India in a one-dimensional way, though; I do hope to explore its many other facets over the next few weeks, and in particular learn about its rich history. The current plan is to do so by spending the next week travelling across North India by rail, from West (Jaipur) to East (Kolkata). I'll have a lot more to say after that; see you on the other side.

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