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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: South Asia

India's Elephants

Karyn Planett

Man’s Best Friend

Let’s see, now.  The resume reads, “very sociable, smaller than my closest relative, agile for my size, and…has 5,500 years experience.” Wow!  What the applicant for the job of “man’s best friend” does not tell you is that he needs 300 pounds of food each and every day of his life.  But, no matter.  That’s a small price to pay for a worker as loyal and hard working as the Asian elephant.

He gets the job of man’s best friend!

Some Whopping Statistics

Elephants are the largest living land mammals in the world.  The Asian elephant, Elephas Maximum to be exact, can weigh up to four tons.  A mature male stands nine feet tall at the shoulder.  Even so, he is smaller than the African elephants that stand 13 feet at the shoulder and can weigh six tons.  (We mustn’t forget to mention the so-called pygmy elephant of western Africa which lives in the woodlands and is usually not more than eight feet tall.)  Elephants can carry up to 1,200 pounds and are so strong they can fare quite well in a tug-of-war against 50 able-bodied men.

Elephants feed constantly tearing bark off trees, ripping up grass, picking fruit from trees with their trunks.  They also use their trunks to drink, hail each other, squirt water or spray dust across their spanking clean backs right after their bath (much like a 4-year old at Grandma’s on Easter.)

Gestation takes 19 to 21 months.  At birth, a baby can weigh more than 200 pounds.  Elephants grow all through their life, even after becoming mature at about age 15.  At 50, they show signs of old age (who doesn’t?) and there is no record of them living past 100 years.

But, tragically, only one in five elephants lives till the age of 30.  As we all know, part of the reason for their shortened lifespan is that they are killed for their tusks which are sold as ivory.*  An average tusk weighs approximately 150 pounds and is about 10 feet long.  Several have weighed more than 225 pounds.  Today, there are only 50,000 Asian elephants left.

It’s Hard to Catch an Elephant

Elephant handlers have their work cut out for them when they want to catch an elephant.  They can’t simply put salt on his tail and cross their fingers, you know.  Throughout Asia, wild elephants are rounded up and herded into an area which then leads into a smaller area, and so on and so on and so on.  Then, the wild ones are staked down (not easy to do) for three days without anything to eat or drink.  After that time, they’re released and led by tame elephants to food and water.  Within one month, they will be relatively tame.

Once tamed, they will work hauling logs and rocks or transporting people and things.  No longer used in warfare, the elephant remains a religious symbol and is revered, especially by the Hindu people.

Its African Kin

The African elephant is larger than the Asian elephant, as mentioned, and is immediately distinguishable because its ears are also much larger.  In addition, the African elephant’s head is bigger and protruding more in the front.  Some 17 million years ago, give or take, the African elephant migrated to Asia and a separate species evolved as the Asian elephant.  No longer numerous in its former habitat, today the Asian elephant lives mostly in the high mountains of Sri Lanka, southern China, India, Indochina and Indonesia.

Oh, yes…and in zoos around the world.  Some animal fanciers are happy that these elephants have been rescued from the wild where hazards or even death might befall them.  Others argue that zoos are inhumane.  Whatever your position is, learn about these marvelous mammals that move easily through the thick jungle serving their masters and nurturing their young.  They are extraordinary animals, indeed.

Everyone is discouraged from buying ivory so the killing of elephants will come to an end.

India’s Faithful

Karyn Planett

Spirituality and Devotion

Hidden behind a mask of struggle lies the miracle of hope.  A gauzy veil conceals a shy smile and an inner peace.

India’s holy men wander among these souls preaching to the masses about tolerance, and about compassion.  They speak to the throngs of the promise of a better life for those whose burdens are weighted down by today’s unjust world.  These messengers of many gods live with the knowledge that members of their flock endure days that are wrenchingly difficult.  Uncertain.  For many, their future is beyond bleak.

So crowds listen.  And people embrace what they hear.  It is with this peaceful acceptance that India’s multitude can then face each endless and challenging day.

At Peace

The people of India live their faith.  They pray.  They meditate.  They make pilgrimages and set aside holy places in their homes, no matter how humble.  The faithful accept whatever station in life they’ve been designated and carry on with a tranquility unknown to many outsiders.

Over the centuries, many invaders have charged across the Indian landscape.  With them, they brought not only their firepower but also their faiths.  In fact, India is home to four of the world’s greatest religions: Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism.  While more than 80% of India’s 750 million people, give or take, are Hindus, the rest adopt several other faiths.  In descending order, the most popular religions are Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism.

Hinduism

There are two facts that make this religion unique.  First, no individual is acknowledged as the founder of this religion.  And, second, there are no holy scriptures.  While there certainly are sacred words, there is no single body of words that serves as the  source of guidance for Hindus.  The principal gods are the Creator Brahma, the Preserver Vishnu, and Siva the Destroyer.

Hindus celebrate 360 festivals annually.  Their holy men are known as sadhus, which means “wandering hermits.”  These people possess little more than that on their backs, which are usually yellow or ochre-colored robes.  Their foreheads are painted and their bodies covered in a dusting of ash.  They chant or meditate in silence.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu.  Based on his faith, this small but mighty man loved and lived the concept of non-violence.

Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism

By some estimates, one hundred million Indians are Moslems.  People of this land first learned of Islam when Arab ships called in their ports in the 1600s.  Within 500 years, a Muslim kingdom was established in Delhi.  Followers professed a caste-free society and equality for all Indians, and they strongly influenced many Hindus with their philosophies.

Christianity came to India via Saint Thomas, so it is said.  Others claim that Saint Bartholomew is responsible for this deed.  And still others credit Saint Francis Xavier as being the one to smooth the road for the missionaries who followed.  And follow, they did.

Buddha, the Enlightened One, was born in what was then India (today Nepal) to a wealthy and noble family.  He was known as Prince Siddhartha.  This Prince became troubled by the impoverished world he witnessed when he first left the royal grounds, already a young man.  He paused to meditate under a Bodhi (Bo) tree and, while there, he became the “Enlightened One” -- Buddha.  Buddha’s image is seen across India and the position of his hands indicates whether he is “teaching”, “meditating”, or “witnessing.”

Jains, Sikhs, and Parsis

The Jains are completely non-violent and totally tolerant of all other faiths.  Only three million strong, their religion has no Personal God.  The “Three Jewels” of Jainism are: “right faith”, “right knowledge”, and “right conduct.”  Their conviction to non-violence is so overwhelming that Jains are often seen wearing masks and sweeping their path so they do not inadvertently breathe in or step upon an insect and kill it.

Sikhs follow the preaching of Guru Gobind Singh.  Each carries the surname “Singh” and is called only by his first name.  They must never cut their hair but must always wear a turban, a steel bracelet known as a “kara”, a sword, and undergarments.  There are fewer than 15 million Sikhs, by most estimates, and their holy temple is in Armritsar.

The Parsis (also spelled Parsees) originated in Persia.  They worship the “Wise Lord” and restrict outsiders from entering their holy places.  Their people are often in the upper strata of society and business, and are usually fair complected.

The words of many prophets inspire India’s people to love and to accept their lives, especially during troubled times.   Observers can often only envy the Indians’ inner peace and spiritual strength that serve as their unfailing guides.

Mumbai, India

Karyn Planett

Washed by the Arabian Sea

Long ago, a well-heeled gentleman scribbled down his thoughts about this teeming city.  This inveterate globetrotter proclaimed that Bombay (as it was known then) was…“A bewitching place, a bewildering place, an enchanting place--the Arabian nights come again!”

Of course, this quote emanates from the celebrated author Mark Twain in his 1897 work, More Tramps Abroad.  His ability to capture the essence of any destination he visited was uncanny.  Mumbai was no exception.

It is bewitching, almost hypnotic.  Oxcarts lumber down boulevards, wizened garland vendors create floral art, and giggling gaggles of school children march two-by-two.  Graceful women flow past draped in a rainbow of eye-dazzling hues.  All around are silk saris, turbaned Sikhs, and sacred cows with painted red and green horns the length of cricket bats.

Mumbai is bewildering, as well.  The ebb and flow of the human tide as it jostles along busy thoroughfares forms an almost-impenetrable wall.  There’s precious little silence.  Yet the city is all the while enchanting.  This enchantment lives on in its stately landmark structures and pampered parks.   The Mumbai that so captivated Mark Twain more than a century ago remains unchanged.

Tidelands and Titled Royals

From mud flats and marshy swamps, a massive city grew.  And, over time, Mumbai became India’s major cultural center as well as the industrial gateway to the Arabian Sea…and beyond.  Many historic landmarks, remnants from the city’s 19th-century Victorian Golden Period, are clustered around Bombay Fort.  This colorful district, named for the old fortification, extends two miles north from Apollo Pier to the neo-Gothic Victoria Terminus Station.

Apollo Pier is home to the monumental “Gateway of India.”  As the midday heat beats down, visitors gather in its shadow.  When night falls, local people stroll arm-in-arm around the gateway, delighting in its great beauty.  This Moslem/Hindu-style arch was erected to commemorate the 1924 visit to India by England’s King George V and Queen Mary.

Some 26 years later, however, the last British soldier snapped to attention, then marched tall and square shouldered beneath this arch with his head held high.  This gesture signaled that the final chapter of England’s 300-year rule over India had drawn to a close.

Just opposite the “Gateway” stands the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.  Recently modernized, this grand dame of hotels still conjures up the glory of the British Raj.  The upstairs lounge serves as the ideal vantage point from which to sip a refreshing Pimms.  Just outside the windows swirl colorful masses gathered along the jetty in the cool afternoon.  Beyond the crowded harbor is a flotilla of brightly-painted boats bobbing in the Arabian Sea.

North of this hotel is the impressive and important Prince of Wales Museum, noted for its remarkable displays of Asian art and archaeology, both ancient and medieval.  This museum houses one of India’s best natural science exhibits.  The domed building also features exquisite miniatures, porcelain, jade, and fine Buddhist carvings.

A Clock Tower and Hutatma Chowk

Facing a popular park known as Oval Maidan, along Queens Road, is the 260-foot-high Rajabai Clock Tower.  Built in the 1800s, it served as a memorial to a wealthy local banker’s mother.  This intricately ornamental, neo-Gothic tower truly stands out amidst the hodgepodge of other architectural styles nearby.

Hutatma Chowk is another notable landmark in Bombay’s bustling business district.  It is more commonly known by its anglicized name, the Flora Fountain, and adds an almost surreal beauty to the crossroads of Mahatma Gandhi Road and Veer Nariman.

Churchgate Station is one of the oddest yet most compelling of the area’s structures.  Just to the west along Veer Nariman Road toward the Marine Drive, this elaborate complex resembles a neo-Gothic cathedral more than an actual train station.  Its balconies, arches, turrets, and glorious stained glass windows combine to make it one of the area’s most unique buildings, especially when lit at night.

British influence on the architecture and life-style of this cosmopolitan city smacks you between the eyes when viewing the impressive facades of the Victoria Terminus Station and the General Post Office.  Similar to the Anglo-Indian splendor of the Churchgate Station, the Victoria is another example of neo-Gothic architecture from the late 1800s.  This imposing civic structure serves as the hub of downtown railway travel and is a beehive of activity long into the night.  Its Victorian grandeur not only inspires respectful awe, but also provides the backdrop for the frenetic flurry as waves of locals arrive from and depart to all parts of India.

Bombay requires some reflection.  To ponder its former glory and future challenges, its hustle and bustle, hues and blurs, retreat to a polished marble lounge at the Taj Mahal Hotel and let your thoughts gel.  Your head will surely be swimming.