One of the most memorable moments during my trip to India was the visit to the Red Fort which serves as an example of the unique Mughal art. The Red Fort was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1638. The construction took approximately 10 years. The fort served as the royal residence within the Emperor's new capital in the old city of Delhi or what it is known today as simply Delhi.
The fort has two principal gates and encompasses several palaces such as the Palace of Distinctions. The palace ceilings with their tiny pieces of encrusted mirrors hinted at the splendor it once had.
The fort also includes various buildings such as the Diwan I Khas or the House of Private Audience which was used by the Emperor for giving private audiences to the courtiers and state guests. The structure contains impressive marble piers with inlay work and painted designs.
Equally distinctive is the Khas Mahal or Private Palace which served as the Emperor's actual residence. This palace basically contains three parts: 1) the chamber of telling beads; 2) the wardrobe; and 3) the sleeping chamber. The Private Palace, with its beautiful carved marble is another example of the Mughal style.
We had been in India already a week, and we had already seen the Taj Mahal. I didn’t think much could top the amazing sites and experiences we had seen so far. But Delhi definitely delivered some incredible attractions of its own! We had our first full day to enjoy the sites of Delhi and first off was Qutub Minar. At 72.5 meters, this tower is the world’s tallest brick minaret. It stands among ruins of ancient Hindu and Jain temples, whose stones were used to build the minaret and surrounding complex. With the combination of styles across the centuries and with various rulers’ and architects’ influences, one can see from the Qutub Minar’s Indo-Islamic architecture why this Indian version of the Tower of Pisa is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Delhi.
Mr. Dhunne was very engaging, smart, and eloquent, answered all of our questions, and raised a lot of new questions for me. I hope to bring him to speak at AJC in the future. I will certainly read his book and very much look forward to the publication of his next book, which is on Islamic fundamentalism in India.
Monday, March 1
The wall immediately across the way should have prepared me for what I would see inside. The bullet-ridden facade with its stark condemnation of the attacks that took place there on November 26th, 2008, was a mirror image to the flimsy white piece of paper that barely hung on the wall across from it in front of the Chabad house informing visitors that Chabad Mumbai was temporarily operating at another location.
With no permanent Chabad rabbis in place in Mumbai since the attacks, a rotating cycle of willing volunteers come to hold down the fort for a couple of weeks or months at a time before a new Rabbi comes to make Mumbai home.
They walked us floor to floor recalling who was hiding where and when, pointing out who was shot where, and recounting how this person managed to escape. They painted a picture for us of who was sleeping where, who was eating in one room, and who was praying in another. At some point the descriptions were too graphic and I peeled away from the group to let my eyes tell me as much as I needed to know.
I felt guilty taking pictures of what seemed to be such hallowed ground. And yet, it seemed from our hosts that they urged us to take in every detail so as not to forget and to pass on to the world what they consider the martyrdom to have occurred there. So I walked from room to room taking note - mostly of how the bullets holes seemed to be everywhere - the floor, the walls, the ceilings. Inescapable.
The cheery, bright blue of baby Moishe’s room mocked the viewer who knew all too well what atrocities took place just feet away.
Next door, my heart skipped a beat as I saw the collection of shoes of Moishe’s parents, the revered Rabbi and his wife, still lined up in a messy arrangement on their shoe tree in the corner of their room. Untouched and now collecting dust. I couldn’t bring myself to snap the shot. As we made our way to the top floor and on to the roof, it was hard to imagine the police snipers exchanging fire with the attackers in what seemed like such a normal, residential neighborhood.
It was remarkable that the Chabad house, up until 26-11, existed so easily and peacefully among its Indian neighbors, much like, as we had been learning, how the larger Jewish Indian community exists throughout India.
As our Chabad volunteers kept reminding us about the sacrifice of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, in addition to the 4 others who perished in the House, I had to remind myself that this was a tragedy for all of India and not just the Jews.
Over 164 were killed throughout Mumbai overall. And yet, as we stood back on the bottom floor being shown pictures of the Chabad victims and lighting candles in their memory, it was hard not to feel the weight and palpable sadness that the attack symbolized for us as Jews.
Our tour guides had dutifully done their job of leaving us with an imprint of the horror that took place there — the image of an empty baby swing, sitting innocently in its place amongst the rubble, had been seared into my memory.
This morning we’re off to sea! An hour’s boat ride takes us to the Elephanta Caves, a large group of Hindu caves containing rock cut stone sculptures dedicated to the god Shiva. But before we can get to the caves, we are met with two exciting firsts. One is wild goats, cows and monkeys galore. The second are 200 stone steps to the caves lined with our first real exposure to shopping and bartering; and the prospect of being carried up said 200 steps by four willing and eager Indians on a throne-like contraption. No takers from our group today, fun as it seemed!! At the top, we are in awe. Carved-out columns in the side of the island invite us into the cave where gods have been intricately whittled into the stone some ten to fifteen hundred years earlier. We only make the round of one cave in an hour before we have to get back to the boat, but not before we do a little damage on the way back down the steps.
Far across town, we take a turn off the highway, down an alley and through the tall gate into a Bollywood studio. We are greeted by Ambika Hinduja, a powerhouse of the industry who along with her mother and sister make up the only all-women studio in the Mumbai Film Industry, the preferred moniker of Bollywood insiders. One of their head architects ushers us around the building to six different sets - three empty, three working and filming while we move through – all glorious.
We are working on limited sleep, the adrenaline of being half way across the world from home, and the food-induced coma of our first authentic Indian lunch provided by our amazing hosts at congregation Keneseth Eliyahoo. We pile into our charter bus, our second home in Mumbai, and we take off for the first of many sightseeing tours through the crowded streets!
Our first stop is a beautiful, small Jain temple. Before entering, we are told that the Jains are among the oldest religious minorities in India (where 85% of the population is Hindu) and are currently often compared to the stereotype of American Jews because they tend to be among the wealthiest and most philanthropic in India. We are greeted by swathed fabrics of every color and detailed sculptures of elephants, guards and other figures all fancily outfitted and bejeweled. Moving in further we enter a small sanctuary that contains gilded doors and columns, a domed ceiling depicting the planets and other astrological scenes, and congregants scattered about with random accoutrement including dry rice and step stools acting as miniature tables. Most obvious to all of us are the (inverted) swastikas…everywhere. This is the first time that most of us learn about the symbol’s long history for the Jains, and most of Asia’s religions. In this temple, the swastika is a sign of peace and well-being, and we watch a few women kneeling on the floor slowly crafting swastikas out of the rice on their step stools. Though the symbol has always meant something very different to us as Jews, I slowly start to feel what these congregants are feeling, serenity. The temple is nothing if not a peaceful retreat on a typical chaotic Mumbai road, and that is a real coup in a city like this.
After almost two full days of travel via airplane and bus, our group was certainly in the mood for a comfortable sit-down dinner and fresh air. Fortunately, our dinner reception at the India International Center on the evening of Thursday, March 4th, our first night in Dehli, provided just that. We arrived at the center a little bit past six and were delighted to see a host of beautiful gardens, walkways and pictures of various icons of 20th century Indian history on the way in. The building was multifaceted and provided the feeling of being a combination of a ecumenical religious and cultural center. The reception itself was held on the third floor balcony, which provided a beautiful glimpse of the well-developed neighborhood and a sense of openness which would set the tone for the interchanges to follow. Our hosts were a series of local journalists, managing editors, teachers, diplomatic officers, religious and business leaders.
Three such notables were alumni of previous project Interchange trips. The most familiar face to us was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli embassy, Eli Belotsercorsky, whom we had just spoken to along with the Israeli Ambassador Mark Sofer at our hotel. A delicious buffet style dinner was served and rather than trying to combine all of the expertise and perspectives at one table, we broke up into at least eight tables of six or so guests.
Similarly to our experience at the American Consulate General’s house in Mumbai, we made a concerted effort to speak with as many of our hosts and local guests as possible, gleaning invaluable information about Indian newspapers, the business community, trilateral relations with the US and Israel, and the religious affairs of the day. Dinner and dessert lasted a good three hours and everyone involved shared in a memorable night of delicious food, dialogue, cross cultural learning and friendly exchanges.
As testament to the esteem in which daily newspapers are held, the building we entered looked more like a Parliament house than a media outlet. Aside from the security check, we were led through a labyrinth-like passage around different sectors of the newspaper, culminating in a stop in a small conference room. Here we were treated to coffee and tea and were given the chance to conduct a substantive, free-form Q @ A with two journalists who write for the equivalent of Mumbai’s metro section, focusing on local stories, issues and events.
The main speaker, Nauzer Bharuch was the Assistant Metro Editor and an extremely forthright journalist, chock full of heartfelt comments about the nature of Indian affairs, its local populous and the state of India’s major institutions. It became evident from his remarks that both the local and national governments seem to be failing the country in terms of national security. His position is that the terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008 have been dealt with in a lackluster manner, leaving India, at least Mumbai vulnerable to future threats. Both were adamant that the government must go beyond their present approach of mere lip service to addressing vital security issues.
However, in typical journalist’s fashion, the spotlight was immediately transferred to our group and what ensued was a spirited and unexpected dialogue on both the origins and current perceptions of the Holocaust. Without getting into too many specifics, our speakers were curious as to how we feel about the event now that we are several generations removed from its occurrence as well as how we were taught about that deplorable period in Jewish history. Their comments and questions seemed to be based on their perception that the Holocaust is not really taught as a subject in Indian schools, either historically or philosophically, and was curious how the Shoah is treated in a country where Jews constitute a much greater percentage of the population and the educational world.
We first visited the Jewish cemetery attached to the synagogue, where a Hindu family lives on the grounds to care for the site. Then we were treated to a traditional Sephardic kabbalat Shabbat, but not before several speeches and words of welcome were delivered from various members of the community.
And then shabbat dinner! The whole community stayed for the meal—highlights included being treated to homemade challah from a representative from the Swiss Embassy, and a musical drum interlude from Ezekiel’s son. And my dinner experience also included a conversation with a retired, highly decorated general of the Indian army—a remarkable posting for an Indian Jew! Altogether, it was a Shabbat I will not easily forget—just like Ezekiel’s contagious smile.
I had the opportunity to introduce our group to General V.P. Malik, the President of the Institute of Security Studies at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF). After reading his biography I was unsure how he would take to the group or us to him. To my surprise, this meeting was far and away one of the best we had throughout the week. It is also worth noting that on the final day of the trip, Monday March 8th, our group visited the ORF headquarters in New Delhi where we heard from Ambassador M. Rasgotra and other notable leaders at one of India’s premier think tanks.
General Malik provided a comprehensive timeline detailing the development of the Indian-Israeli military relationship. Previously, other individuals we met with tended to dodge this subject.
But General Malik presented himself in a clear manner and answered our questions directly, rendering himself incredibly informative. It was also interesting to hear about his personal experience in Israel and his relationship with AJC. He made it clear that his decisions to engage Israel have not always been welcome but that they are mutually beneficial. Moreover, he explained that the perception of Israel for the common Indian man on the street has changed for the better due to this military partnership.
What a refreshing statement!
After being delayed for two hours the previous day coupled with a truly indescribable traffic jam, our group was disappointed when we finally arrived at Agra on March 3rd at 6:15 pm. The gates to the Taj Mahal closed at 6!
We resolved to wake up the next morning, (for the second day in a row), at 5 am. We were determined to be part of the first cohort of tourists to view the Taj that day. Our exhaustion and frustration was allayed within one look at the Taj Mahal. Its beauty and splendor is truly staggering.For a typically talkative bunch, we fell silent and listened as our tour guide relayed the story of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The white marble mausoleum is essentially a large tomb that Shan Jahan build to commemorate the life of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal. Arguably, the most beautiful structure in the world, words simply cannot do justice to the Taj Mahal.Therefore, when trip participants think back to their trip to India, the image is indelibly sketched into our memories.
Throughout high school one of my closest friends, Rasika, was Indian but as the years passed we lost touch. When I found out I would be joining the AJC ACEESS trip to India my parents encouraged me to reach out to her. What an excellent idea! We caught up over a three-hour lunch where she not only provided me with practical tips for my visit but also gave me her cousins’, Shrinivas and Ashwinis, contact information. When our group had a free night (our only throughout the entire jam packed ten days) in Mumbai on Monday March 1st, I decided to give them a call!
Ashwini, a 25-year-old teacher and community activist, and Shrinivas a 24-year old analyst at Merryl Lynch, could not have been more accommodating. The pair of siblings came to out hotel to pick Rebecca Solomon and myself up for a night in Mumbai. While this may seem standard, a drive across town in Mumbai can easily take up to 2 hours. The four of us drove to a local Israeli restaurant, called Moshe’s. Of all places they could have chosen it was rather ironic! While Rasika knows that I am Jewish I was unsure if she passed on this information to her cousins. Regardless, Rebecca and I were delighted to eat Hummus and falafel as an alternative to traditional Indian food.
It did not matter that we had just met - our conversation flowed naturally. I was amazed at how similar our lives are. Even more, I had a newfound respect for my Indian friends in America. In a country of approximately 1.3 billion people, to study in the states one must be in the top 1% of their class! After dinner, Shrinivas and Ashwini wanted to take us to a “pub.” Again, their choice to take us to Hard Rock Café left us laughing. At the end of the night they made sure to bring us back to our hotel. The next day Rebecca and I were bubbling - we had experienced true Indian culture. While Indian culture is by no means monolithic, looking back, the experience remains special. We had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the daily life of our Indian contemporaries.