I spent a month in India, a country that I variously described as fascinating, bewildering, enchanting, engaging, chaotic and amazing. The tourist posters call it Incredible !ndia, and it certainly was that, in every sense of the term. For me, the month was a travelling and learning opportunity, but also a Jewish experience.
I travelled to India in December 2011 as part of the JDC Australian Young Professionals Services and Leadership Trip to India. The trip was aimed at increasing our understanding of India and its Jewish communities, experiencing some of the JDC’s work in India, as well as forming personal and professional connections.
The Young Professionals Services and Leadership Trip started in Mumbai, where we spent ten days visiting synagogues and Jewish communities. After Mumbai, we visited the Konkan villages about a three-hour drive out of Mumbai, and Kochi, which is a two-hour flight south of Mumbai. Many of the buildings we saw in these places were synagogues that serve as focal points for their communities. From small ones tucked away down alleyways, to large sometimes brightly coloured ones in the middle of main roads.
We saw a nominally Jewish school that these days has a predominantly Muslim student population; a former synagogue that is now the warehouse for a retail outlet; a Jewish old age home that only has seven residents entirely paid for by the community in a country with minimal social welfare; a Jewish community centre that is the only one in the country and is a hub for the youth of the community; a synagogue that is one of the oldest in the world dating back to the 15th century; and an otherwise unremarkable house in the middle of a forest that has been there for many years, which is infused inside and out with brightly coloured Jewish imagery.
We met many of the people in the Jewish communities that we visited, and were struck by how proud and stoic the Jews of India are. Jews have been in the country for more than 2,000 years with no anti-Semitism and with freedoms that many in Eastern Europe could only dream about. But, while India’s population and economy are growing rapidly, Jewish community numbers are dwindling. The 5,000 or so Jews know that their time is now to ensure that Jews remain part of the rich tapestry of Indian society. Seeing their commitment, determination, passion and pride was inspiring for all of us.
After our group tour ended I began the second part of my trip travelling the north of India. First stop was the town of Pushkar. Set around a spiritual lake with healing powers and wild animals, the colourful town has become a destination of choice for those trying to find themselves in India. I’m not sure I was looking for myself, but after spending a couple of days in Pushkar, I definitely felt spiritually, or at least meditationally elevated.
Our next destination was Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. For me India was not the spiritual or stirring destination that it is for so many. I found Agra a chaotic town, with some of the most forthright rickshaw drivers in the country. But the one thing that moved me more than any other was the Taj Mahal bathed in mist at dawn. It was mystical, magical and absolutely glorious despite the cold and the crowds. I happened to visit the Taj Mahal on Christmas day, in the midst of the Jewish festival of Chanukah; the mesh of cultures made it even more of a special experience.
Our penultimate stop was the northern hub of Jaipur, which is known as the Pink City because of the colour of the outer walls of the old city, and is home to some of the country’s greatest historical sites. Amongst them are the spectacular Hawa Mahal (Winter Palace); the serene King’s Tombs; the magnificent and beguiling Amber Fort and Palace; and the majestic Water Palace.
We ended in Delhi, where we visited some of the North’s most exquisite sites. From the beautiful Akshardham Temple, to the historic and extraordinary Red Fort; the famously striking Lotus Temple of the Bahai faith; the intriguing Juntar Mantar ancient meteorological park; and the Qutab Minar – one of the oldest and tallest towers of its era. Delhi was the perfect sweetener to a memorable trip, in a country where nothing is as it seems, but where everything has a strange way of working itself out.
My first visit to India as part of the Young Professionals Services and Leadership Trip was an experience that impacted my work in government and with the community. Shortly after I returned, I helped coordinate the then Premier of Victoria’s first state visit to India in 2012. More recently, I participated in the 2015 Australia India Youth Dialogue in Melbourne.
Even after a few years, I continue to miss the chaos and colour of India, and despite the harshness of some of the things I saw and experienced, I look back on that time positively and with a great sense of longing.