No place so thoroughly stimulates your senses as India. In fact, there are those who would replace “stimulates” with “assails,” “invades” or even, “assaults.” Colors and smells and sounds crowd around your ears and eyes and nostrils, vying desperately for entry, clogging up your eyes, ears, nose and pores and sending you into a kind of sensorial overdose as you try to process it all and figure out what it means. I’m torn as to whether it means anything at all or whether it means everything, and the metaphysical conundrum can cause your eyes to glaze and your stomach to hurt … as can poorly-chosen restaurants.
Even traffic jams are a metaphysical experience. I was recently caught in a traffic jam in the central intersection of a village near Agra. I was with my family in a 4×4 surrounded by a throbbing mass of automobiles, mopeds, pedestrians, pushcarts, livestock, and other life forms that were more or less identifiable; none of which was moving. Really, movement was restricted to gesticulations and a certain degree of throbbing. Everything was locked so closely together that even the pedestrians had no way out. The centerpiece of it all seemed to be an oxcart piled to improbable heights with bags full of straw, upon which was perched a placid-looking old man gazing down on the proceedings like Shiva observing humankind from afar. In most countries, a traffic jam such as this would have led to shouting and recrimination if not outright violence, but in India it became a communal project as just about everyone involved discussed possible solutions with just about everyone else, the sole exception being the old man on the oxcart who simply waited until it all got sorted out and everyone got out of the way of his buffalo. From our perspective, the solution involved a number of merchants moving their wares farther from the side of the road and a young man picking up his bicycle and carrying it over his head. This was achieved without threats, payment or the intercession of the law (which was nowhere to be found) and we eventually freed ourselves, the great snarling traffic jam spitting us out like a hedgehog flicks away a flea with its hind foot, leaving me to wonder how so many people all squished together like that could possibly get along without ripping each other to shreds.
Which is, of course, the central mystery of India. There is no denying the fact that often they do rip each other to shreds, generally along religious lines, but it is also religion that allows the overall balance of things to remain pretty stable (when all is said and done). One hears about Hindus and Muslims in India and the strife between them, but there are many other smaller religions that dot the spiritual landscape; some are as old or even older than the two main religions, others have just appeared in the last hundred years or so, but each has its part to play in the complicated tapestry of Indian spirituality.
One Indian religion that has always fascinated me is Jainism. I won’t go into the details here, particularly since a simple click can shine a light on the most obscure subject, I’ll simply say that the Jain religion is old enough that no one really knows when it started and that it strikes me as the least hypocritical of religions.
Why? Most religions have some kind of stricture about the sanctity of life (except in times of holy war) and the need to avoid killing (except in the case of infidels). The three religions of the book limit this to the sanctity of human life, handily teaching that God gave Adam dominion over all the animals, allowing him to slaughter them as he saw fit. Many Eastern religions, though, encourage if not dictate vegetarianism and many Buddhists and Hindus are vegetarian. As I often point out to my vegetarian wife, though, there is a line that must be drawn, and it is difficult to know where to draw it. She would kill a mosquito, but not a lamb … well why not? The Jain avoid all this: they don’t kill anything; all life is sacred. This means that on top of being vegetarian, they don’t eat any plants that must die to be eaten (such as root plants like carrots or onions), subsisting only on fruits and vegetables, nuts and berries that the plants give without making the ultimate sacrifice. Note that they are not vegans: giving milk doesn’t kill a cow—but on the other hand, extremely devout Jains sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so as to avoid stepping on any little bugs and inadvertently terminating their little buggy lives. The Jain do their best to preserve life, and in the Digambar Jain temple in Delhi they run a bird hospital for any wounded birds that people would like to save.
The temple itself is like many Indian temples, whatever religion they may represent … lively and colorful, with people sitting around learning stuff and generally being devoted. It has ceiling fans slowly swirling in the Delhi heat (although the fans have cages around them so that any birds that happen to be in the area don’t hurt themselves by flying into a fan blade), and various annexes surrounding it that hand out food, information, advice.
The temple is entered via Chandni Chowk, which is a street you really must see at least once in your life. Everything I’ve already described about India is all concentrated in Chandni Chowk. One example: near the temple we saw a tiny cart, all closed in like some kind of toy-sized prison wagon, being pulled by a donkey. It was stuffed full of toddlers in blue uniforms and on the side was written “school bus.” All of this, of course, takes place in the context of a dense, endlessly flowing river of people: some are clad in scant rags and are barefoot, others wear brilliant saris and are dripping with jewelry that jingles as they walk. Stepping into the temple grounds buys you immediate respite from the press of the crowd. The temple seems to generate peace like a power plant hums with electricity.
The bird hospital is a small building adjacent to the main temple building. It too requires that you remove your shoes (note that it can take a while to get used to removing your shoes in Indian temples. Unlike mosques, which tend to have rugs on the floor, Indian temples are usually floored with stone, or at least partially so, and if you have to take off your shoes outside, not only will you find the street very hot, but you may also hesitate taking even a few steps to get to the marble of the temple floor, since streets like the Chandni Chowk have a patina of ancient filth as their topmost level of pavement. This is not so much a problem at the Jain temple, where you can go through the gate before taking off your shoes, but it can be daunting at places like the Sikh temple just up the road (which must be visited as well, we had a fascinating hour long conversation about life with one of the elders there)). Once barefoot, you can climb the steps to the little office and then freely wander around the bird cages.
There is a whole floor devoted to pigeons. This is not surprising, since Delhi, like most cities, is home to many pigeons, and these often run (fly) into trouble. On each floor there is a narrow passage between two rows of cages, some big enough for dozens of birds in various stages of disrepair. The more serious cases have little cages of their own where they wear their little casts or slings while the more ambulatory birds share large aviaries.
It is not only pigeons, though—there are cages for doves, parrots, sparrows, even peacocks … just about any bird common in the area (it should be said, though, that the hospital is reluctant to accept birds of prey, since they have considerable moral strictures against feeding them anything they’d want to eat). The corridors are always full of visitors. These are usually people who have brought in a stricken bird. I ran across a young couple feeding the parrots.
“Did you bring in one of these parrots?” I asked the man, who looked vaguely like an Indian movie star.
“Are you a Jain?”
“No,” he replied again. “I just like feeding the parrots.”
I found this strangely encouraging and imminently Indian. “Part of it is because of my grandfather,” he continued. “He used to feed pigeons in his yard and then they built a road in front of his house and one day a bird was killed. He decided it was too dangerous for the pigeons, then, but he used to come here and feed the birds. He was a good man.”
I’m sure he was.
Another good man is indicated in the painting on the wall of the small office in the bird hospital. The painting itself is pretty gruesome, it portrays a man cutting off his limbs in order to save a pigeon from a hawk, but don’t worry, the hawk turns out to be a god, who is so impressed with the man’s respect for life that he restores his limbs and grants him all kinds of spiritual brownie points.
The most interesting part of the bird hospital is the roof, which is covered with a thick layer of guano and upon which sits a large chicken wire sculpture of a pigeon, upon which birds can sit. The roof is covered with birds, and it is here that the healthy birds are released every Saturday. I went to the roof with my son (one of the workers in the temple very kindly lent me a pair of rubber sandals, as the no-shoes rule doesn’t apply on the roof and I had left mine at the temple entrance. Needless to say, given the guano carpet, I was very glad for the shoes), we were accompanied by one of the young veterinarians who works at the hospital.
“We release them, but many of the birds hang around … some indefinitely.” He made a broad sweeping gesture to point out the cloud of pigeons that surrounded us. “Would you like to release one?” He asked my son, who nodded enthusiastically. The young veterinarian then lunged suddenly into the air and caught one of the many passing pigeons in flight. I have never seen anything so graceful (and remember that I married a ballerina) nor so disquieting. Anyway, the pigeon was, of course, unharmed, and he proffered it to my son, who took it in his hands. “Just let it free,” said the veterinarian. My son threw the pigeon into the air, and it flew away toward the top of the temple, some fifty meters distant, then turned and flew back, perching on the top of the chicken wire sculpture.
“You see,” said the veterinarian, “some birds just don’t want to leave.”
I understand. If I were a bird and a group of kind, non-violent, highly-educated (the Jains have the highest level of literacy in India) and generous temple-goers dedicated their time and money to saving feathered creatures then I would undoubtedly shun the hectic, dangerous streets of Delhi to hang out on the chicken wire sculpture of my own patron god at the end of Chandni Chowk, where peace and benevolence both emanate from the quiet chanting of the Jain temple.