Thursday, June 7, Mumbai, India
We started today at the former Prince of Wales Museum, which is in a beautiful colonial era building and houses a variety of artifacts related to India and some other countries and cultures from antiquity to modern times.
For some reason that I really haven’t figured out, taxi drivers seem to have no clue about where the major sites of interest to a visitor are located, such as the largest and best known museum in Mumbai. Showing a map doesn’t seem to help much. The best I’ve figured out is to find some other important local building such as the Police Headquarters and ask for that. Eventually once enough data has been shared (or the driver has consulted half a dozen of his colleagues) the car takes off and so far, we’ve always ended up in the right place.
Just as yesterday, there was a wide disparity between the entrance fees for foreigners and locals, BUT if you have a student ID (Ben remembered his), you essentially get the local rate. One nice thing about paying more as a foreigner is that they included an excellent free audio guide.
Wandering the collections of art, collectibles, and natural history we were able to learn more about various aspects of Indian culture as well as see some incredible art. Their miniature picture gallery, an art form associated with the Murghals was particularly impressive. Amongst their collection of arms were some frightening looking knives and swords, but perhaps the most interesting to me was what appeared to be a deadly frisbee, called a Chakra, which was a unique Indian weapon that was used by twirling it around your finger before it got flung and its razor sharp outer edge injured your foe. Maybe this was the origin of Odd Job’s hat weapon in the James Bond movies.
Also in the armory was a suit of armor and weapons that had been on display for more than seventy years before they figured out that they were the Emperor Akbar’s personal armor.
In a gallery devoted to new acquisitions I found a game board on cloth for something called Gyana Bazi, which was the forerunner of snakes and ladders (or chutes and ladders depending on what side of the Atlantic you are from!). In an of itself, that did not surprise me, but I found out that this is a game played by the Jains especially during one of their festivals and it is meant to help teach the concept of karma, thus something that in the west is purely a form of entertainment is yet another example of something with deep symbolic meaning here in India.
The Jains are a relatively small but influential religious group in Indian, less than 1% of the population, but very influential in business and other endeavors. Their religion pre dates Hinduism and significantly influenced its concepts and ideas. Jains are totally against violence and strict vegetarians. Ghandi’s approach of peaceful disobedience was heavily influenced by Jain concepts.
The strictest Jains will not even eat any root vegetables such as garlic, onions, carrots or potatoes because it requires destroying the plant in order to harvest the food.
Coincidentally we ended up spending a delightful evening with a Jain family. One of Aaron’s friends from Georgia Tech is from Mumbai and Aaron sent him a message asking if he would like to get together while we are in the city. Very quickly a response came back insisting that we come to dinner at their home on the beach in one of Mumbai’s suburbs. Getting there took about an hour in the taxi and we went over the toll causeway that was the best road we’ve seen so far and the only one comparable to a US or European highway. Even with practically no other cars on the road, our taxi driver still straddled two lanes as he drove.
Until very recently when the great grandmother passed away at age 103, four generations of the family lived under one roof. Right now they are redeveloping one of their homes about 15 minutes away and when finished there will be nine floors of apartments for everyone to be able to live under the same roof. Family is very important here.
While waiting for the parents, we got to visit with Aaron’s friend and his sister who is a rising senior at the University of Southern California. In retrospect, we probably made the mistake of coming at the time we were requested, but should have been fashionably late. Dad is an industrialist and clearly a very successful one at that. We have a marvelous evening of good pure vegetarian food, champagne, and very pleasant company.
I also got to find out at least one theory about the “Horn OK Please” sign on the back of trucks from our host. He believes it dates back to when the British were here and the idea was that when you were caught behind a large truck on the road you would honk to let them know you wanted to pass. During the war the trucks ran on kerosene, so the some say that “OK” stood for “On Kerosene”.
Over time this has morphed into its own little bit of cultural identity and when people get a truck here they sort of tattoo a decorative version of this message on the back of the vehicle. Clearly it has no real purpose within the city – everyone honks their horn at anything anyhow. If you want to see some other interesting theories, the hyperlink above is worth a click.