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Jonathan: Discovering India’s relationship to Israel

February 12, 2011

Our lungs filled with the oppressive pollution that seems to hang over large parts of urban India, and our minds exhausted from the constant interactions with rickshaw drivers and shopkeepers, a small group of us decided to venture out into more serene surroundings.  Pushkar, a town of about 15,000 lies in the foothills of the Aravelli mountain range surrounded by sand, shrubs, and goat herders.  Housing the only temple in all of India to the Hindu Lord Brahm, considered to be the supreme god/creator, it is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus.  But before I can begin telling of the visit, we must travel first to a different corner of Asia: Israel.  How Jaipur, Pushkar, and Israel are intimately related is a fascinating investigation into the economics of tourism and trendiness, globalization, and Israeli society.

Nearly every Friday, our group is taken on a local field trip where we can observe, in action, a little slice of another India (for there are many India’s in this vast, densely populated, and culturally diverse land).  This past week we traveled to a paper-making factory (whose fancy envelopes and pretty boxes are sold in TJ Maxx and Walmart) and a block printing/stoneware factory.  It was here that one could truly understand the scope of globalization in the twenty first century.

In Israel, artisan markets and tourist centers are literally filled to the brim with stoneware and glass Hamsot (plural of Hamsa, the familiar hand hung to ward off the evil eye).  It is a staple gift to take back for friends and family eager to own a piece of the Holy Land.  It is, in many senses, the quintessential part of Israeli tourism.  And yet, these are not produced by Israeli artisans, Jewish or otherwise.  Rather, they are molded, fired, and painted in factories across India but especially Jaipur, a city known for its beautiful blue stoneware.  And thus, in the middle of a showroom for a well known ceramics studio sits scores of Hamsot and other home decorations with hebrew letters.  One can only imagine my great surprise at such unexpected sights, and when I learned that Israel was one of the major international trading partners for the industry.  You can view images here and here.

But my immersion into Israeli–Indian connections did not end there.  Pushkar, amongst many other things, is a hot spot for Israeli tourism amongst the young adult set who have just completed their military service.  For those who are unaware, Israel maintains a mandatory co-ed draft in which young people are given no choice but to enter and participate in the armed forces.  For some, this aligns neatly with their politics, but for others they are asked to take actions they may be hesitant or unsure about.  Israeli young people literally come of age while holding AK-47’s.  After completing their service, many in the middle class choose to travel in either South America or India, a phenomenon which many Israeli’s claim is a direct manifestation of their challenging experiences and thus ‘spiritual dysphoria.’  Pushkar, being an important place of spiritualism, is thus a popular spot.  This has come to mean that shop keepers can speak in Hindi, English, and Hebrew; that signs are written in Hebrew; that it is easier to find Falafel than it is to find a good Dal (I had some of my best hummus there); and that Hebrew is spoken widely.  Even Doar Yisrael, the Israeli postal service, maintained an office in town.  I never thought my hebrew skills would be of use in India.  That’s globalization!

But Israel aside, Pushkar, and neighboring Ajmer, offered a spectacular experience.  After our luxurious accommodations in Agra, we were ready to experience travel as Indians do, and bought tickets on the government run intercity bus system.  Sitting near the breezy door, we experienced our first, and certainly not last, bumpy, hilarious, and surprisingly comfortable bus trip.  Near the end of the ride, two elderly women and a man entered the bus.  With a scarcity of seats, I offered to stand, and thus, according to one of my fellow passengers, road the bus as true Indian’s do: holding on for your life as the bus takes sharp turns and the open road lies precariously close through the open bus door.  We arrived just in time for a beautiful sunset atop our hotel, and quickly went to dinner where we had a delicious meal of falafel, hummus, and sweet chai.

The first thing that hits the visitor to Pushkar is the quiet.  The narrow walkways make driving impossible, and motor bikes take great care when riding down the packed streets.  A city built on the reputation of spiritualism, the shop keepers were firm but not pushy, and we recieved more friendly “Namaste’s” and “Hello’s” than we had ever expected.  For the first time in India, we did not feel (constantly) harassed.  Sure, every interaction was laced with undertones of either economic or romantic intentions, but on the whole we were left alone.  After watching the sun rise, we enjoyed a long breakfast, and then rented rickety and heavy bikes for a trip to the desert.  Unfortunately, the terrain was too hilly, the sun too hot, and the bikes too bad for us to complete our 16K goal, but we did see some beautiful desert scenery, witnessed stone mining that so delicately threatens the local ecosystem, and saw a number of women herding goats and sheep in search for greener pastures.  After lunch, and the obligatory shopping, we visited the Brahma Temple, Puskar’s most important holy site.  Made of white marble, it was filled with Hindu’s on pilgrimage, and had the well worn feel of an operating temple.

Pushkar is too known for its hawkers of spiritualism, a ruse which my travel companions unfortunatley fell into (while I avoided only after great effort and some thorny remarks to the hawkers).  In a country dizzy with the onslaught of global capitalism, even inner peace has been commodified into a disgusting extortion process.  Young men offer flower petals to tourists, enticing them to walk down to the ghat (a ritual bathing area).  Once there, they are treated to a long speech about ‘the soul,’ and are offered blessings (for the steep cost of 100 rupee).  Don’t have the cash on hand?  Don’t worry, the ‘priest’ allows you to promise that your friend will pay for you instead.  They then bless you for a whole host of things: your grandparents happiness in heaven, a future husband/wife, and a whole host of other wonderment.  I, characteristically, refused to participate in such an activity, and was thus harassed for ten minutes and berated with thinly veiled threats (“how will your grandparents experience happiness?” he asked).  Soon, however, he and the other hawkers lost their false veneer, and we began to chat.  They, of course, were primarily interested in my relationship with my three female companions, about whom they inquired relentlessly.  When I eventually convinced them that I was neither married, nor dating, any of them, they (by this time a small crowd had gathered) became conviced that I was sexually interested in them.  How wrong they were.  It was a uncomfortable, testosterone laden, heteronormative, and otherwise unpleasant interaction that I was all to happy to leave.

The next day we awoke very early and took a short hike up to a mountain top temple with spectacular sunrise views.  Listening in silence as the city awoke, we saw the sun crest the mountains and the city become awash in the first rays.  It was a beautiful and tranquil sight.  Back in town we had a delicious breakfast, followed by an hour hike up to another mountain temple with sweeping views of the city and desert.  Along the way we met a number friends, including a band of monkeys who had dangerously placed themselves in the middle of the path.  Finally, we hopped over to neighboring Ajmer where we visited the famed Dargah (shrine) to a Sufi Muslim saint.  It is said to be the second most important Muslim site after Mecca.  The Dargah is a dizzying and delightful crush of people, bazaars, prayer, food, and color that seems to collect itself into a oddly peaceful and relaxing scene.  Our first true encounter with Muslim India, it was an interesting and inspiring location.

And now, I sit back in Jaipur ready to plan the next adventure.

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