INDIA

Kanyakumari and the Healing Waters of Cape Cormorin

A Kovalam day trip to the southern tip of India will wash away your sins.

 The restaurants in Varkala, another day trip from Kovalam, put their fresh catches on display

The restaurants in Varkala, another day trip from Kovalam, put their fresh catches on display

Who wouldn’t want the opportunity to spiritually cleanse themselves with a quick dip?

Our friend Kelly visited the beach town of Kovalam in the state of Kerala, India. Her new friends from a yoga retreat kept talking about a day trip to the southern tip of the county and bathing in the spiritually healing waters found there.

I took one look, and said, “I’m going to get like 15 different flesh-eating bacteria if I go into this water.”

Kanyakumari is where three bodies of water meet: the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The spot is also referred as Thriveni Sangamam and amongst English speakers as Cape Comorin. It’s about a two-hour and 45-minute drive down from Kovalam. –Wally

Tell us about the day trips you took from Kovalam.

We went to Varkala, which is an hour and a half north of Kovalam. It has a similar vibe, but it skews much younger. Kovalam seems like a place where older people come to retreat.

 Varkala has a similar beachy, hippie vibe as Kovalam but skews younger

Varkala has a similar beachy, hippie vibe as Kovalam but skews younger

We also went to the southern tip of India, Kanyakumari. We visited Suchindram Temple and a couple other touristy things. The temple was white and had seven windows to symbolize the different stages of enlightenment.

 Include Suchindram Temple on a day trip to Kanyakumari

Include Suchindram Temple on a day trip to Kanyakumari

There’s this idea that if you bathe in the waters of Kanyakumari, you’ll be cleansed of your sins. I was with a bunch of super granola, hardcore yogis, and they were so all about getting in this water. I took one look, and said, “I’m going to get like 15 different flesh-eating bacteria if I go into this water.” There were tons of people there, and the water smelled bad.

 The Thiruvalluvar Statue on a small island off of Kanyakumari depicts a famous Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for  Thirukkural , a collection of couplets on ethics, politics, economics and love. His statue is 133 feet tall — the same number of chapters in his famous tome

The Thiruvalluvar Statue on a small island off of Kanyakumari depicts a famous Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for Thirukkural, a collection of couplets on ethics, politics, economics and love. His statue is 133 feet tall — the same number of chapters in his famous tome

So you didn’t end up getting in the water?

Well…they ended up talking me in. Very reluctantly, I finally got in.

 Three bodies of water converge at Kanyakumari, and local lore has it that you can wash away your sins by swimming here

Three bodies of water converge at Kanyakumari, and local lore has it that you can wash away your sins by swimming here

That’s called hippie peer pressure.

I wouldn’t put my head in. They were like, “No, you have to — otherwise your sins won’t be cleansed!” And I was like, “I’m good.”

We were pretty much the only white tourists there. A large crowd of men gathered around the area where my friends and I were bathing. People were taking videos and photos.

 

Did you find that people were fascinated with you as a white woman?

Everyone wanted to take a selfie with me. I’m on so many random people’s cell phones and Facebook pages.

At one point, I decided that I was sick of everybody looking at us, so I took pictures of them.

Ayurvedic Treatment in Kovalam

Our correspondent undergoes bizarre and intense Ayurveda practices in South India.

 Ayurveda treatments often involve an oil that smells like peanut butter, and they can be quite intense

Ayurveda treatments often involve an oil that smells like peanut butter, and they can be quite intense

The more I heard about Ayurveda, the more intrigued I became. Why the heck isn’t this a major trend here in the United States, like yoga, acupuncture, or heck, even cupping? Could someone please inform Gwyneth Paltrow she needs to start a new fad?

Our friend Kelly went off to India to attend a yoga retreat to break out of a rut in her practice. While in the beach town of Kovalam in the southern state of Kerala, she also investigated Ayurvedic treatments.

“Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences,” Kelly told us. Here she describes her intense Ayurvedic treatment during her stay in India.

You would lay down on a table and have this oil receptacle that was hung by a chain. A woman would slowly drizzle oil over your forehead, back and forth, for 20 minutes at a time.
 The quality of your hair, how oily or dry your skin is, how cold or hot you get — all of these factor into what your dosha is

The quality of your hair, how oily or dry your skin is, how cold or hot you get — all of these factor into what your dosha is

What exactly is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is the practice of balancing your body’s natural constitution, also known as your dosha. Everyone is one of three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. They’re aligned to different elements. I’m a pitta dosha, so I have certain imbalances in my body that Ayurveda tries to correct.

The doctor did an assessment. Your dosha is made up of physical traits as well as personality characteristics. As a pitta dosha, I’m supposed to eat cooling foods. There’s a whole diet I’m supposed to follow.

 The three doshas at the center of the star are aligned with different elements and characteristics

The three doshas at the center of the star are aligned with different elements and characteristics

What was the facility like?

I went to two. The first one was super sketch. I went twice and decided it was maybe violating some child labor practices. The second facility was a proper one. It was beautiful inside — a huge wooden, three- or four-story hospital.

 

Describe the Ayurvedic treatments.

If you want treatment, you have to sign up for a minimum of 10 days. Every day I went for about three hours. The way that it broke down was, they would do a massage for an hour, and then a variety of treatments, depending on where I was in the Ayurveda course.

There was a treatment where they would take cotton cloths filled with herbed powder that they would dip in really hot oil and smack all over my body. Smack, smack, smack, smack!

The Ayurvedic oil they used smelled like peanut butter. The oil is believed to cure basically everything, so they use it in almost all of their treatments.

After that, they would do a powder massage rub. There were three women who would work on you together, in unison.

There were baths with this milk substance, which they’d heat and pour over you again and again. There were herbed water baths. There was this one treatment where there was a wooden pillar with a hanging oil receptacle. You would lay down on the table and you’d have this oil receptacle that was hung by a chain, and the woman would slowly drizzle it over your forehead, creating a line, back and forth, for 20 minutes at a time.

 

What was that like?

It was very relaxing — but a lot of the treatments were actually very stressful, especially after 10 days.

There a bunch of quizzes you can take to determine what dosha you are. I’ve taken a few — and gotten varying answers. I also tend to get dual prakriti, which signifies that I’m influenced by two doshas. From what Kelly has said, that means I’m a big ol’ mess. –Wally

Yoga Escape in Kovalam, India

Experiencing Ashtanga yoga classes in Kerala taught by David Garrigues.

 The Ashtanga yoga studio in the beach town of Kovalam, where Kelly began each day

The Ashtanga yoga studio in the beach town of Kovalam, where Kelly began each day

Our friend Kelly, a delightful, brave young woman, went off to India on a whim to join a yoga retreat run by David Garrigues.

The town of Kovalam charmed Kelly — you can read about its strange walled-in sidewalks and the quirky treehouse-like B&B she stayed in here. –Wally

We do yoga to understand God and prepare ourselves for enlightenment.
 Our fearless adventurer, who had a major breakthrough in her yoga practice during her two-week stay in India

Our fearless adventurer, who had a major breakthrough in her yoga practice during her two-week stay in India

What brought you to Kovalam?

I went to practice yoga. I had been thinking about going to India for a few years, since I started practicing. I was kinda stuck in a rut with my yoga practice. I hadn’t been progressing, and I decided a good way to get out of it would be to go to India.

 

Why India?

That’s the birthplace of yoga. That’s where the Ashtanga tradition is from —  it originated in Mysore, India. Ashtanga yoga is basically a set number of postures in each of the six series. It’s super traditional. You do it every morning.

I didn’t end up going to Mysore, but I did practice with David Garrigues, a prominent Ashtanga teacher, in the South of India, in Kovalam. He’s based in Philadelphia but has been traveling around a lot.

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things — though I don’t know if most people do a spur-of-the-moment thing with India. I made the decision very quickly. I booked the trip after thinking about it for about five minutes.

 Sometimes you need a helping hand to move past a gatekeeper pose

Sometimes you need a helping hand to move past a gatekeeper pose

What was the yoga retreat like?

Every morning, I’d get up at 6 a.m. and do yoga for about two hours. Sometimes there were sutra classes, or we’d go back in the afternoon for an asana [yoga postures] theory class.

What was interesting is I had a lot of challenges with my body over the two weeks I was there. I was in a program that was pretty physically demanding. At the same time, I was getting my body worked on three hours a day at an Ayurvedic clinic. And so the whole time I was there, I was intensely aware of the experience of being in a body. I would feel more frustrated when I couldn’t do a yoga pose. It felt more emotional than it usually does.

But by the second week, I was doing poses that I could never do. That’s a big deal in Ashtanga because in order to move to the next posture in the series, you have to be able to do the one preceding it. People get stuck at what are called gatekeeper poses. I was stuck at Marichyasana D. It’s basically a really deep twist, where you bind behind your knee. I broke through that, with an assist, and I had never come close to doing it before. And I felt like crying — it was really intense emotion.

 Some of the more intense asanas, or yoga postures

Some of the more intense asanas, or yoga postures

What appeals to you about yoga?

There are eight limbs of yoga, and asana is just one of them. It’s this all-encompassing spiritual practice to actually do yoga. There are the breathing practices, meditation and other ones. All of it ladders up to this idea that we do yoga in order to understand God and prepare ourselves for enlightenment.

It isn’t associated with any religion — that’s a common misperception. It pairs really well with Buddhism and with Hinduism, and there are definitely shared influences.

 Not a bad spot for some evening yoga

Not a bad spot for some evening yoga

How did you feel by the end of your trip?

It was the definitely healthiest I’ve ever felt in my life. I was not ready to come back. I wanted to stay.


Kovalam: A Hippie Haven in Kerala

This small beach town in South India isn’t your typical Indian experience — but it has its own intensity.

 A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

A stay in Kovalam isn’t your typical Indian experience. As a beach town, it’s much more laidback

Most people who travel to India don’t do so on a whim. But Kelly was at an impasse in her yoga practice and sought a spiritual kickstart. So when she saw that David Garrigues, a yoga instructor she admires, would be in a small beach town in the South of India, not five minutes had passed before she had booked her ticket.

Here Kelly shares her life-changing Indian spirit journey. –Wally

 Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

Kelly had a magical time on her solo adventure in Kovalam

In Kovalam, all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.
 All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

All sorts of interesting people flock to Kovalam for its beaches and focus on wellness

Tell us about Kovalam.

It’s a small town on the beach, but super touristy. Apparently, Kovalam used to be this hippie haven. I remember on my second day there, I was sitting in this restaurant overlooking the ocean and looking around and being like, What are all these random people doing here at the edge of the world? You have these old ladies from Russia who are decked out in all of this costume jewelry, and you have the beautiful, sleek yogis and the Brazilians who are there backpacking through India, and it just seemed like such a strange group of people who had gathered there.

 Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

Hints of the chaos of India slip into even this idyllic town

The other thing that struck me was the overwhelming sense of anonymity. This was a place I could navigate as my true self versus the self that I have cultivated here with my friends and work.

Most of the locals spoke English, which I didn’t expect. I’ve heard a lot about India, but I think the experience of this town was a lot different. Though I will say there was a certain amount of chaos — leaving the airport in Trivandrum and getting to Kovalam was insane: people on rickshaws and bikes weaving in and out of traffic.

It seemed like everything was in a different stage of being constructed or being torn down. And there were people burning garbage, fires lining the street, and all this new construction, and in front of that, there’d be old men in loincloths selling fruit. It was this bizarre mix of new construction and old tradition.

 Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Johny’s Beach House is like staying in a treehouse

Where did you stay in Kovalam?

I stayed at a place called Johny’s Beach House. It was like stepping into a jungle. It’s only four rooms. But he has this huge garden — there are literally monkeys that will climb through the trees there.

 Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

Johny himself — his warm heart is why his B&B is a top-rated place to stay in Kovalam

 The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

The garden at Johny’s is filled with lush greenery — and the occasional monkey

Johny built Johny’s Beach House, this hilarious, quirky treehouse, four years ago and he’s been running it ever since. He comes from this really small village and worked his way up in the tourism industry in Kovalam and now he’s the highest-rated place to stay. Which all of the other hotels are really baffled by because they don’t understand why this tiny little treehouse four-bedroom B&B is the top-rated place. But the thing is, when people stay there, they aren’t rating the B&B itself — they’re rating Johny, because he is such a personality, with this quirky sense of humor and is super engaging and really creative. That is his space, and it’s completely a representation of him.

 Breakfast at Johny’s

Breakfast at Johny’s

Every morning Johny would make me this porridge with bananas and cardamom and different nuts when I’d get back from yoga. And I’d eat it on my balcony and read my yoga books. It was beautiful.

 

Did you ever feel unsafe in Kovalam?

There was only one time. I was coming home late. In Kovalam, the way that the town is structured — all of the sidewalks have very high walls built up around them. I bet they’re 7-foot walls. If you are passing someone, and they don’t turn their body, you will touch them. That is how tight the space is.

That was the challenge: getting anywhere. Google Maps doesn’t have all those tiny twists and turns, so I would literally allot 40 minutes to get to a place because I was like a mouse in the middle of a maze — even if it was a 5-minute walk away. Because the sidewalks were built around the homes, there would be dead ends; the sidewalk would turn into a dirt path that would go into somebody’s house. I got lost a bunch of times and one time had to be rescued.

It’s actually sad. Johnny told me that as the tourism industry took off in Kovalam, a lot of these hotels and restaurants and visitor homes built up the walls to prevent locals from entering their properties. And so in way, it was this discriminatory measure, to appeal more to the tourists.

It was a problem if you were coming toward a group of men and they didn’t make any sign of moving. That happened a few times, and it’s very intentional — people do that on purpose with women.

 A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

A strange encounter in the walled labyrinthine sidewalks in Kovalam

There was one time I was coming home late. There was a little dog I made friends with while I was there and it hung out outside of Johny’s Beach House and it would follow me around everywhere. I would go find it in the morning and he would follow me to the market or the beach. So he was my little buddy for two weeks.

 This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

This little fella followed Kelly everywhere she went in Kovalam and acted as her guard dog

Did you name the doggie?

He was just little Sweeters. So this one night I was walking home and there was a drunk man who I think was maybe following me. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I was starting to get that danger feeling, and a few moments later, I heard the dog start growling. Sweeters was snapping at the man. So I ran to the gate, opened it really fast and shut it.

 

What was it like being in such a small town?

Everyone watched your every move. The locals would ask, “Where are you from? Where are you staying? What are you doing?” And then they’d track me. They’d say, “Oh, I saw that you were at the blah-blah-blah the other day.” Or I’d meet somebody at a restaurant and they’d say, “You’re studying with David.” Everyone knew everyone’s business, which was really crazy.

People would ask me, “Are you married? Do you have a boyfriend?” It was very intrusive.

 You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

You’ll see offering bowls, like this one at Johny’s Beach House, all over Kerala

What was the most interesting Indian custom you encountered?

I really like the head bob. I had to ask Johny, “What does this mean?” And he was like, “Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.” And I was like, “Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.”

But I also found myself kind of doing it.

Because Johny and I became friends, I was able to do a lot of things I wouldn’t have been able to as a tourist. I spent a lot of time on the back of Johny’s motorbike, clinging on for dear life, struggling to breathe through the pollution. But it was like seeing this area through the eyes of a local.

We went to this really bizarre restaurant in Trivandrum. It seemed like this restaurant was a converted version of a twisty parking garage ramp. There are all these booths along the far wall as the restaurant spirals upward. I guess it’s the place to go in Trivandrum if you want coffee or dosa, which is like a crepe.

 Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

Kelly likes to play with her food, as seen on this houseboat restaurant

What was the food like in Kerala?

I’m obsessed with food. But surprisingly, I was underwhelmed.

The yoga studio that I go to in Chicago, the owner was coincidentally in Kovalam at the same time, doing a completely separate retreat. So I spent a lot of time with his people, and he had a house and has been going there for 20 years. He knows everything about Kovalam. And he had a neighbor friend, this woman, who made all of this food for us for our final meal. It was thali [the Indian version of tapas] served on a banana leaf — it was definitely the best meal that I had.

 Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Thali, presented on this banana leaf, consists of small bites of different dishes, much like tapas

Kelly: What does the head bob mean?

Johny: Sometimes it means yes. Sometimes it means no. Sometimes it means they didn’t understand what you said.

Kelly: Oh, that clears it up. Thanks.

The Indian Caste System Explained

Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, untouchable: How did the caste system get started, what is the difference between castes — and how does this shameful practice persist to this day?

 

Quite a few Asian cultures I’ve experienced think of the head as the holiest of body parts and the feet as the filthiest. Sure, that can be taken literally — but it applies on the spiritual level as well.

In India, they’ve taken this concept to the next level, connecting body parts with actual societal classes. They’ve used that belief to help justify a horrific system of oppression.

The “untouchables” are forced to perform the worst jobs, including cleaning public toilets, raising so-called unclean animals like pigs, curing hides and sweeping streets.

What is the caste system?

Think of it as the opposite of the American Dream. In the caste system, people are born into their situation in life, including the occupations open to them. And because they can only marry people within their caste, it’s a vicious cycle that never ends.

“Rooted in religion and based on a division of labor, the caste system, among other things, dictates the type of occupations a person can pursue” as well as the social interactions he or she is allowed, according to Dummies, the company that brings us those …for Dummies books.

“The most obvious problem with this system was that under its rigidity, the lower castes were prevented from aspiring to climb higher, and, therefore, economic progress was restricted,” the site reports.

Each caste is said to have come from a different part of the body of Brahma, the Hindu creator god

What exactly are the main castes — and how do they relate to the body?

Each caste is affiliated with a part of the body of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.

Brahmins: These are the top dogs. They’re mostly priests, teachers and scholars who supposedly came from Brahma’s heads, or mouths (he had four).

Brahmins are the highest caste in India, composed of priests and those lucky enough to be well educated

Kshatriyas: These are the warriors and rulers, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they originated from Brahma’s arms. Nowadays, they tend to be bureaucrats working in public administration, maintenance of law and order, and defense.

The highest secular class, Kshatriyas include the subcaste Rajputs. Traditionally, they were warriors

Vaishyas: This caste consists of the merchants and traders (e.g., businessmen) as well as farmers, cattle herders and artisans. Hindu myth states that they were created from Brahma’s thighs.

The Vaishya caste includes farmers and those involved in business

Shudras: Also called Sudras, this low caste is comprised of menial laborers and service providers. They derive from Brahma’s feet.

A still from the 2012 Hindi movie Shudra: The Rising?, about the poor treatment of this low caste (I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t this hot)

Avarnas/Dalits: The “untouchables” are forced to perform the worst jobs, including cleaning public toilets, raising so-called unclean animals like pigs, curing hides and sweeping streets. Dalit is the more modern term for this class and translates to “oppressed.”

So low on the totem pole, they’re technically outside of the caste system, Dalits, or untouchables, are relegated to jobs deemed too unclean for the rest of society

These castes get broken down into subsets as well by region.

 

How did the caste system get started?

It was written in the book — the Manusmriti, that is. This tome, dating back to 1000 BCE or more, is widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law, the BBC reports. It “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society.”

This social stratification might go back even further than that, according to The Logical Indian: The site states that the first mention was called “the Varna system” and was in the Rig Veda, an ancient Indian hymnal believed to have been written between 1500 and 800 BCE.

 

How does the caste system work?

“The upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste,” according to the BBC.

If it sounds awful, it was: The caste system trapped people into a social stratification they couldn’t escape from.

The ancient texts helped perpetuate stereotypes about each caste, the Logical Indian reports. “Brahmins were considered to be pure, wise and gentle; Kshatriyas were linked with anger, pleasure and boldness; Vaishyas were deemed to be hard-working people living off the plough; and Shudras were associated with violence and impurity, worthy of contempt.”

 

Isn’t the caste system supposed to have been abolished?

It was, in 1950. Legally, at least. The constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste, and, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for the lowest castes.

By 1990, the quota rose to just under 50%, applying to groups the government classified by such charming names as “Other Backward Classes,” “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes.”

Mahatma Gandhi fought for the rights of the Dalits, calling them Harijans, or the Children of God.

 

What about the deadly protests against the caste system?

Outbreaks of violent protests have raked into an ugly spotlight the views of those people who are dissatisfied with affirmative action,” CNN writes.

In February 2016, the Jats, a well-off group of farmers and traders from Northern India, protested. By the end, 30 people had been killed while clashing with the police, buildings were burned, and canals damaged.

 

Have there been any success stories for those from lower castes?

K.R. Narayanan, the first Dalit president in India — and hopefully not the last

There have been some strides towards equality thanks to the quota system, including the election of a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, in 1997.

Despite this, only one Harijan in 3,000 can read (compared with India’s average of one in six) and Harijans make up 33% of India’s landless, The Guardian writes.

Some of the lower castes have sought refuge in Buddhism, while others have found urban centers to be an easier place to mix with other castes.

Discrimination and prejudice continue to this day, our friend Prakash told us when we visited Vadodara, India. He’s a Dalit, whose parents are both school janitors. He explained that many Indians today judge people by their skin color. The lower castes tend to have darker skin, which is seen as less desirable by many.

If it sounds awful, it was: The caste system trapped people into a social stratification they couldn’t escape from.

These images come from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India. They were all hand-painted portraits of people living in Madura, India. The album dates back to 1837 and was compiled by the Indian writing master at an American missionary school and was given to a Reverend William Twining. –Wally

Secrets of the Hijra: India’s Little-Known Transsexuals

Prostitution, curses and dangerous sex change operations are a way of life for this marginalized community.

A group of hijras, India’s legally recognized third sex, in Bangladesh

With Caitlyn Jenner and bathroom debates making front-page news, trans people are now part of the American consciousness. And yet most of the world doesn’t know about the hijra, India’s transsexuals, who are officially recognized as a third sex in a country where homosexuality is illegal.

For many gay Indian men, they have two choices. They can ignore their homosexuality and live in repression, get married to a woman and try to raise a family. Or they could undergo a castration to live their life as a transsexual woman in the hijra community.

A very tight cord is wrapped around your penis and balls so you cannot pass urine. You become bloated, like you’re pregnant. You’re in a lot of pain.

In India, the latter is often the most appealing option.

“The way it works in this culture is it’s more socially acceptable to dress up in a sari and pretend you’re a woman than it is to be a man who likes other men,” said my friend George, who lived in Vadodara, India for the past couple of years before he fell off his roof and died late last year.

There’s not a lot of information out there about hijras. Their customs are shrouded in mystery. Here are some surprising facts about this little-known subset of Indian society. Granted, this isn’t the most flattering portrait of a trans group, and there are exceptions to every generalization — but it’s a tough life for hijras and their reality doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures.

Many think it’s easier to live life as a trans woman than as a gay man in India

Hijras have the ability to bless — or curse.

If you’re about to be married or have recently given birth to a son, watch out. The hijras in your neighborhood will appear outside your home one day, singing, dancing and doing their signature clap, touching the base of the palms together in a dramatic flourish.

When money doesn’t come quickly enough, hijras lift their dresses to flash their often-mutilated genitalia.This is seen as the ultimate proof of their hijrahood.

Some refer to these actions as begging or bestowing a blessing — but just as many Indians think of it as a curse or, at the very least, a major societal embarrassment, wanting the hijras to leave as quickly as possible.

In this manner, a group of hijras can collect alms that total 2,000 rupees a day, according to George — and that’s a substantial sum. The hijras split the earnings among their group — but it still ends up much more than the typical Indian’s 180-rupee-a-day salary (the equivalent of $2).

“One of the hijra houses we went to had business cards,” said George, who hosted a British student writing her dissertation on this trans community, sitting in on many of her research interviews. “They go to the hospital and bribe the nurses to give them the addresses of homes where there has been a boy born recently.”

The hijra are most commonly found begging on trains, though, George said.



Once revered, hijras are now feared.

“Their communities across Southeast Asia date back more than 4,000 years, and they appear in ancient texts as bearers of luck and fertility,” according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail. There are mentions of hijra in the sexual position guide the Kama Sutra as well as the Hindu epic Mahabharata.

And while Muslims tend to be traditionalists in terms of gender roles as well, they also have a longstanding tradition of holding eunuchs in the highest regard. In ancient times, Mughal rulers had eunuchs guard their most prized and holy objects as well as serve as advisors. Eunuchs were seen as pure, uncorrupted; they had sexual temptation removed from the equation.

Today, though, hijras face discrimination and outright abuse.

“If you were to ask a middle-class or upper-class boy what they think about hijras, they’ll tell you they’re scared of them,” George told us. “Because they remember being that little boy and being exposed. It’s kind of an evil Santa Claus. You see this clown-looking thing in a sari flashing your parents. And they won’t go away until you give them money.”

When George invited hijras to a party he hosted, many of the guests promptly left, asking how he could associate with such “filthy, diseased, lower-class” scum.

 

The sex-change surgeries are barbaric.

Most castrations (known as “nirvan,” which is awfully close to “nirvana”) aren’t performed in hospitals. It’s part of a 40-day ritual of self-emasculation, according to the Daily Mail.

The surgery is, essentially, a rebirth. It happens in the morning, with the rising of the sun.

A very tight cord is wrapped around your penis and balls so you cannot pass urine. You become bloated, like you’re pregnant. You’re in a lot of pain.

The village midwife then comes in with a knife. “She takes a swipe up and a swipe down. No anesthesia,” George said, though there are stories of hijras being dosed with opium first.

As the blood and urine come gushing out, “it’s supposed to be your male essence is leaving your body,” George told us.

The hijra is supposedly presented with her castrated parts, which she buries next to a tree as a sacrifice.

“After the castration, you cannot work for almost one and a half months,” a hijra named Abhina Aher told NPR. “It was not an easy task — it was a journey of pain.”

You can get the operation done in a hospital — if you can bribe a doctor willing to take the risk — though it doesn’t sound much more safe.

“It happens in a dingy room, a 10-by-10 probably,” Aher said, describing her procedure. “Immediately after the castration, two hours, the hijra is asked to leave that place, because it is illegal. The operations are normally done by quacks, and a lot of hijras die because of that.”

 

Hijra prostitutes sell their services for the equivalent of about 50 cents (not that that’s what these two are!)

Many hijras get involved in sex work. Sometimes during traffic jams.

Prostitution “is a given” for hijras, according to George.

Hijra sex workers sell themselves for 300 rupees, which translates to about 50 cents, he told us.

They often take advantage of situations that present themselves. “If you’re in a traffic jam anywhere in India, look out the window and you’ll see all the trucks are stopped and can’t go anywhere,” George said. “The hijras come running onto the freeway. They go inside those cabins — five minutes later they’re leaving and going into another truck. They’re going from cabin to cabin to cabin to get 30 rupees, 30 rupees, 30 rupees. They know these are horny truckers who have been on the road for months without their wives, and a real woman prostitute can cost 200 to 500 rupees. And here’s a hijra for 30 rupees. Which one are you gonna take?” he asked.

 

Becoming a hijra is seen as one of the only options for young, desperate gays.

Hijras live in communal houses, where a mother figure, or guru, runs the show, taking care of her chelas, or daughters.

“First, hijras make a pledge to hand over all earnings to the guru, who in exchange supports them inside what is effectively an alternative home, as most hijras are runaways or evicted by their families,” NPR reports.

For many in this ostracized population, these homes are a haven. But they can also be the only option for young gay boys kicked out of their homes.

“Hijras pick them up off the street and say, ‘Come and live with us,’” George explained. “And they start off by feeding you — recruiting you, basically. Then they start dressing you in a sari and selling you to clients.”

 

The hijra have turf wars — and bizarre ways of insulting each other.

“I can sum up the hijra in three words,” George told us. “Gangs wearing saris.”

Each house has its own territory. And if you intrude on their turf, there are gang wars. Guns aren’t the weapon of choice, though. They’ll flash their genitals, pull hair, and beat each other with sticks or their sandals, which is the ultimate insult since the feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body.

George heard tales of hijras being hanged or doused with gasoline and lit afire.

And those who pretend to be hijras as a means to earn money will be badly beaten by genuine hijras if found out.

 

The patron goddess of hijras, Bahuchara Mata, rides around on a giant rooster and cursed a bandit with impotence

Hijras worship a goddess who cut off her breasts and rides around on a rooster.

Bahuchara Mata was traveling with her sisters in a caravan, when they were raided by a bandit named Bapiya. Part of a warrior caste that promoted suicide over death at the hands of an enemy, Bahuchara decided instead to cut off her breasts. As the source of a mother’s life-sustaining milk, breasts represent womanhood in India.

She then cursed the bandit with impotence — a horrific punishment in a culture that puts so much importance in carrying on the family name. The only way Bapiya could overcome this hex was to pay homage to Bahuchara Mata by dressing and behaving like a woman.

Bahuchara has become the patron goddess of hijras and is depicted as riding atop a rooster, a symbol of innocence.

Keep in mind that not all transgendered people in India are part of the hijra community, and that not all hijras fall under these general attributes. But those that do resort to prostitution, intimidation and crassness do so because they have no other options in a paradoxical society that recognizes their legal status but discriminates against them. –Wally


Abode Hotel: The Epitome of Colonial Chic

 Our cozy, stylish room at Abode Bombay

Our cozy, stylish room at Abode Bombay

We recommend a stay at Abode, One of the best boutique hotels in Mumbai, located in the tourist hot spot, the Colaba district.

In a city that can often feel overwhelming, it’s nice to have a sanctuary away from the chaos.

So Wally and I were thankful for Abode, which I had discovered on the blog An Indian Summer. This hip boutique hotel located in the Colaba district of Mumbai occupies the first two floors of a Colonial building bearing the name Lansdowne House. The building was constructed in 1910 by the opium trader and once treasurer of Baghdad, Iraq, David Sassoon.  

It would have been even lovelier if Wally hadn’t somehow broken the shower knob and flooded our bathroom!

Sian Pascale, the interior designer responsible for Abode's vibe has mixed bold geometric patterned floors and Colonial-era furnishings with modern amenities. We especially appreciated our room’s feather bed-topped mattress and rain showerhead. (It would have been even lovelier if Wally hadn’t somehow broken the shower knob and flooded our bathroom!) The ear plugs enclosed in a simple kraft paper envelope with the Mahatma Gandhi quote, “Peace is its own reward” on the side table were also a nice touch.

 

RELATED: Mumbai Tourism: How to Prepare Yourself for the Chaos


On the way in, there’s an altar in the stairwell. It’s dedicated to the Hindu deity Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and beauty, seated upon a lotus, handpainted by truck artists. 

 An adorable shrine to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, outside the entrance to the Abode hotel in Mumbai, India

An adorable shrine to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth, outside the entrance to the Abode hotel in Mumbai, India

The reception room serves as a communal lounge, library, curated gift shop and dining room. Guests are encouraged to relax here, which we did upon our return after an afternoon exploring the hood. The staff was gracious and attentive. During breakfast, a concierge informed us of an art festival that was nearby, something we probably would not have discovered on our own as we only had one day in Mumbai.

 A lounge area of the common room at the Abode hotel in Mumbai

A lounge area of the common room at the Abode hotel in Mumbai

Upon our return later that afternoon, Lameze, another guest who was staying at Abode, invited us and a couple fellow travelers to join her in celebrating her 50th birthday — and was serenaded by the staff with the Indian version of “Happy Birthday to You.” It was a wonderful experience we'll not soon forget — and not just because of the delicious chocolate ganache cake her friend had bought for her.

 A new friend we met in the Abode common room shared her birthday cake with the hotel staff and guests

A new friend we met in the Abode common room shared her birthday cake with the hotel staff and guests

I booked our stay through i-escape, which made reservations easy. It even provided us with a complimentary bottle of wine, waiting in our room — the perfect way to toast our arrival.

The hotel can also arrange spa treatments and supports the Victoria Memorial School for the Blind. Massage therapy is one of the career choices at this charity for the blind. Wally and I opted for the Ayurvedic massage to release toxins and increase circulation. We left feeling relaxed and reinvigorated, ready for our flight back to Chicago.

If you’re on the taller side, we’d recommend asking to stay on the hotel’s first floor — the hallway upstairs has low (but padded) pipes you have to duck under.

Our sole criticism would be that the pre-arranged transport from the Mumbai Airport to the hotel could have been more pleasant. After a delayed flight from our previous destination, the driver made a comment about us being late and didn’t assist in loading our luggage into the vehicle. We were wholly neglected as she chatted on her phone for the better part of our drive, which took almost two hours due to slow moving traffic. We noticed Victoria Station too late to appreciate it. It would have been nice if she could have pointed out a landmark or two.

Other than that rocky start, though, we had nothing but pleasant things to say about Abode, and met some truly inspiring fellow travelers, including two 70-something Australians, Maggie and Moggy, who were spending six or so weeks in India, touring textile co-ops. They certainly taught us a few tricks. –Duke

Mumbai Tourism: How to Prepare Yourself for the Chaos

 The Gateway to India in the Colaba neighborhood of Mumbai

The Gateway to India in the Colaba neighborhood of Mumbai

The Colaba neighborhood is a great place to station yourself. Just know what to expect navigating India’s largest metropolis.

 

Delhi feels like a small town compared with the bustling metropolis of Mumbai.

After a brief delay at the Aurangabad airport, Wally and I were off to Mumbai. It was our final day and a half, as we would be flying out the following night.

Practically every step we took, street hawkers would call out, “Pashminas!” to us. When we didn’t respond, some would ask if we wanted to purchase hash instead. The truth is, at this point I probably would have welcomed the latter.

I had found us an adorable boutique hotel called Abode in the neighborhood of Colaba. We read an article that described Colaba as Mumbai’s Greenwich Village.

 Looking out upon the Arabian Sea in Colaba, Mumbai, India

Looking out upon the Arabian Sea in Colaba, Mumbai, India

India is intense overall, and Mumbai’s size makes it simultaneously familiar yet foreign. Here are some things to know about the city:

 

Traffic is a bitch.

We arranged airport pickup through our hotel. Abode works with an NGO women-run taxi company, which empowers and employs female drivers in a vocation generally dominated by men.

Our driver, Husna, met us at the airport. Traffic came to a standstill once we left the airport. We were hoping our driver would play tour guide a bit, pointing out the sites as we crawled along. But she didn’t say one word to us. Instead, she just talked on her cell phone and, at one point, had a brief altercation with a traffic cop.

If the rural villages we passed through were about promoting the sales and use of concrete, Mumbai is all about marble. There were massive marble and granite warehouses and shops for as far as the eye could see.

 One of the many impressive buildings in Mumbai, India

One of the many impressive buildings in Mumbai, India

It seemed to take an eternity to reach our hotel, which is located at the southernmost tip of the city in Colaba. In actuality, it took us two hours. Not surprisingly, navigating this booming metropolis of over 16 million people can be a frustrating experience.

We ate lunch at the lively Café Mondegar, not far from our hotel and quite close to the tourist staple, Leopold Café. Our table faced the street and a wall mural by cartoonist Mario de Miranda filled with satirical caricatures depicting the café’s bustling interior and patrons.

 

The street hawkers won’t leave you alone.

Colaba is a touristy area on the waterfront. The famous Taj Mahal hotel is nearby, as is the Gateway to India.

Practically every step we took, street hawkers would call out, “Pashminas!” to us. When we didn’t respond, some would ask if we wanted to purchase hash instead. The truth is, at this point I probably would have welcomed the latter. My synapses had been worn down from processing all the things we had seen and places we had travelled in such a short period of time. You get no break in this frenetic city.

And don't even get me started on all the men selling giant squiggly balloons! How the heck would we get those things home — even if we wanted one?


Go where the locals go.

We decided to venture beyond Colaba and explore the Kala Ghoda district, where we stumbled upon its Arts Festival, not far from the Abode Hotel. The event takes its name from the neighborhood of Kala Ghoda (which translates to Black Horse, a reference to a black stone Colonial-era equestrian statue of King Edward VII that was previously located here. Incidentally, it was commissioned by the Sassoon family, who owned the Lansdowne House, where Abode now resides. The statue has since been relocated to the Byculla Zoo.)

Also of note is the Esplanade Mansion, which was fabricated in 1871 and shipped from England and is India’s oldest surviving cast iron building. Now a crumbling remnant, the structure was once a majestic structure that served as the Watson’s Hotel, the grandest in Mumbai. 

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is a combination of local art installations and includes craftspeople from across India. We purchased a vibrantly colored blue pottery turtle from Jaipur. The name comes from the deep blue glaze, used to color objects, which are fashioned from a unique dough-like mixture of gypsum, powdered quartz, powdered glass and gum.

We also bought a fun tote bag from Lemon Trunk with the message, “HORN OK PLEASE” that we had seen on the decorated backs of goods carrier trucks everywhere we went.

Halfway through the festival, Wally spotted the Alliance Française de Bombay table, which had a photo booth set up with a backdrop image of Mont Saint-Michel. He was delighted to practice his French and I smiled, pretending to understand what they were saying. 

The kids at the booth took our picture, and Wally and I like to think of ourselves as the centerpiece of their new ad campaign.

After we had left the festival and were returning to Abode, we passed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum, which was formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India (which is only slightly less of a mouthful to say). A few street artists were set up outside, one of whom was selling colorful bent wire cycle rickshaws. We purchased one, thanked him and arrived back at the hotel with our souvenirs. 

We had a great time, but the chaos of Colaba left us both fatigued. At times India can be her own worst enemy. –Duke

Is There Any Good Shopping in Aurangabad?

 Piles of colored powder for sale at the Gulmandi Road Bazaar

Piles of colored powder for sale at the Gulmandi Road Bazaar

There aren’t a lot of places to visit in Aurangabad, aside from the Ajanta and Ellora Caves. But the Gulmandi Road Bazaar is worth checking out if you’ve got a little extra time. 

There’s not a lot to do in Aurangabad, India by itself. The city is best known as a jumping-off point for the Ajanta and Ellora Caves.

RELATED: Ajanta Caves Walk-Through

Ellora Caves: A Guide to the Amazing Rock-Cut Temples

But if you’re like Wally and me, you can find your fun anywhere.

Suddenly the seemingly hidden side street, filled with merchant stands, opened up before us as if by magic.

If you’ve got some extra time after visiting the caves, head to Gul Mandi market, located in the center of old Aurangabad. (For the record, it’s #19 of TripAdvisor’s 52 things to do in Aurangabad.)

We hired an auto rickshaw from our hotel and asked to be taken to the Old Quarter.

Aurangabad is known as the City of Gates. The city had 50-some during medieval times, though only 18 remain. These served as surveillance and security and as a means of collecting tolls when caravans passed through.

Our rickshaw driver parked on a side street and we got out to see what sort of shopping was to be found.

We wandered around Rangar Galli, where every store was pretty much selling the same product: clothes. We were disappointed that it was not a handicrafts market. But then we decided to go one block off the major thoroughfare — and suddenly the seemingly hidden side street, Gulmandi Road, filled with merchant stands, opened up before us as if by magic.

 

Marigolds and More

Known as the Gulmandi Road Bazaar, this street was a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of the locals. Merchants set up stalls on the side of the road, selling various items. We were most intrigued by the cart filled with piles of brightly colored powder, wondering if it was for the Hindu holiday Holi. (You’ve probably seen the pictures of people covered in every color imaginable — in fact, the trend has even extended to races here in the States.)

In the middle of the narrow thoroughfare is the Supari Hanuman Temple.

 The Supari Hanuman Temple on Gulmandi Road in Aurangabad, India

The Supari Hanuman Temple on Gulmandi Road in Aurangabad, India

An old mystic spied us and asked where I was from. He had me join him in a mantra chant, calling out, “Krishna! Krishna! Krishna!” right there on the street — much to the amusement of passersby.

We crossed the alley, where a pair of women sat cross-legged, stringing together marigold flower garlands amidst a mountain of the orange blooms.

As we made our way up the opposite side of Gulmandi, we spotted a small shop selling incense and ephemera. Once inside, I spotted something I had been looking to get this whole trip: a small brass trishula, the sacred trident that’s the symbol of Shiva. The three prongs represent the god’s three roles as creator, preserver and destroyer. He’s pretty badass, huh? –Duke

 

6 Historic Images of the Red Fort in Delhi, India

Ghulam Ali Khan's paintings reveal the splendor of This Mughal palace — now a sad shadow of its glorious past.

 

The images in the slideshow are watercolor paintings by Ghulam Ali Khan, the last royal Mughal painter. Thirty-one of his works were published as Sketches of The Delhee Palace & Delhee in 1854.
 

Oh, to have seen it in its glory days — before the Brits got their mitts on it, ransacking and demolishing much of it until it was but a shadow of its former glory.

Originally called Qila-e-Mubarak, or the Blessed Fort, its name was changed by the British. They didn't see it as so blessed, as they tore much of it apart, stripped it of its riches and built barracks within. They called it the relatively unimaginative Red Fort after the crimson sandstone used to construct the ramparts. The name stuck, and the locals started referring to it as Lal Qila in the native tongue.

The diamond is said to be cursed, bringing bad luck to any man who wears it.

Ironically enough, parts of the structure were actually once white, painted with lime plaster, according to IndiaTV and other sources.

Constructed over a decade, beginning in 1638, the Red Fort was designed by the architect Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. He's the man who's also behind a modest mausoleum you might know: the Taj Mahal.

The Red Fort was the Mughal emperors' palace for almost 200 years.

Bahadur Shah Zahar, the last of the line, was tried for treason by the British in the Diwan-i-Khas, the Hall of Private Audience. This is the part of the Red Fort where he'd greet his guests and couriers.

Emperor Zahar, who was 82 at the time, was found guilty, stripped of his title and exiled to Rangoon in what is now Myanmar.

 

A Cursed Diamond

The Diwan-i-Khas was said to have a solid gold frame studded with precious stones, including the world's largest diamond, the Koh-i-Noor (Persian for Mountain of Light). It was pillaged long ago and is currently part of the Crown Jewels in England.

It was the inspiration behind Wilkie Collins' mystery novel The Moonstone.

For, the diamond is said to be cursed, bringing bad luck to any man who wears it. Cleverly exploiting a loophole, only female members of the British royal family will put it on. –Wally

 

RELATED: Tips for Exploring Delhi's Red Fort