Shanti Emerson: Guess where I am |

Shanti Emerson: Guess where I am

As I look out of the window of the bus, I see homes painted vivid colors (often in three or more hues) — lavender, orange, chartreuse, turquoise, dusty pink, crimson.

San Francisco’s painted ladies? No, guess again.

People say Tata with regularity. London, you ask? No, guess again.

High-tech people walking around with iPhones and ear buds. Silicon Valley? No, guess again.

OK, I’ll make it easy … there are cows roaming the streets as well as mellow dogs with no homes. Women in brightly colored saris shop for food from outdoor vegetable vendors, and chai shops open early in the morning to serve the many workers starting their day.

You guessed it. I am in India again, probably my 15th trip. It’s my second home, and yet one so difficult to explain to Americans. We are leading our ninth tour, each one being different from previous trips.

India is called the “land of contrasts” — the old and the new side by side. You can see some men wearing tailored suits (although the typical male attire is a white cotton shirt with khaki pants) as well as other men wearing the old-fashioned dhotis (which Gandhi wore). Ladies in saris walk with their daughters clad in tight jeans. There are the very, very rich and the very, very poor. One thing Indians share is their deep spirituality. Temples small and large are everywhere.

Tata (mentioned in paragraph two) is the name of a Parsi family of philanthropic billionaires who have been highly influential in India for over a hundred years. Jamshedji Tata in the mid-1800s entered an English hotel but was refused a room because of his brown skin. So he built his own line of luxury hotels, the Taj group, for anyone who is willing to pay the high prices. His company, founded in 1868, also makes large trucks and small cars, provides teleservices, power, chemicals, communications, beverages and coffee. So Tata!

India, with 1.3 billion people, is one-third the land size of America, whose population is just 325.7 million. The country is 80 percent Hindu, 14.2 percent Islam and 6 percent other religions (Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and various indigenous ethnically-bound faiths). Christianity is the third-largest religion in India.

Uniformed students walk to school in their blazers, neckties, white button down shirts … the only difference being that the boys wear pants and the girls, skirts. There is a dignity in this school clothing that T-shirts and jeans sadly lack.


We go high in the Himalayas to Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, the home of the exiled 14th Dalai Lama, the 1989 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, who is teaching classes mainly to thousands of Tibetan monks. He fills the room with his love and joy. It is in stark contrast to the ugly insulting tweeting that goes on back home.

The Dalai Lama has been protected by the Indian government since he escaped the vengeance of the Chinese government in 1959 after the People’s Republic of China’s incorporation of Tibet. I have often thought of the Dalai Lama as being the most respected person in the world today. Others agree. He has written dozens of best-selling books and particularly enjoys speaking with young people inspiring them to act in peace over violence. His religion is love, and he believes the way to true happiness is through helping others.

A few days later, we travel to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha received his enlightenment after 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi tree over 2,500 years ago. It is evening, and we go to the main temple which was uncovered by English archaeologists. It is beautiful and ornate, looking like a giant sand castle. Over a hundred pilgrims from all over the world, especially Asia, have gathered there to meditate and quietly walk around the great building. Although we don’t speak to the others, there is a deep feeling of unity as we gather there for a common purpose … to bring about peace within ourselves and then to our communities. In a small room, there is a large gold Buddha over which a priest drapes beautiful shiny pieces of cloth brought by the pilgrims to show their faith. The draping and removing of the fabrics goes on for hours.

There is a large tree at one side of the building where everyone stops to meditate under its huge limbs. This is the progeny of the original Bodhi tree, saved by the Sri Lankan monks hundreds of years ago and replanted as a sapling in Bodh Gaya. Each of the Buddhist counties has been granted a few acres to build its own temple and statue. Each statue is a bit different mirroring the facial characteristics of its home country.


After that we go to Kolkata (Calcutta), population 15 million, and stay at the extremely luxurious Oberoi Hotel, a quiet retreat amid thousands of vendors selling underwear, accessories, clothes, shoes, costume jewelry and everything else you can think of. As we wander along the bustling sidewalks, shop owners size us up and bring out the T-shirt or shoes he thinks most appropriate for us. A visit to Mother Teresa’s convent brings again that sense of peace and inspiration that one can find in even the busiest places in India.

Finally we visit the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling and ride their storied toy steam train. A two foot gauge train, it was built between 879-1881 by the occupying British.

Although the British rule (the Raj) is known for its cruelty, its influence has enormously helped India in the long run. The Brits established English as one of the two national languages, installed the Parliamentary system, the educational system, the railroad system, and brought disparate kingdoms together to form today’s India. However, the partition between India and Pakistan remains an international unhealed scar.

Things that we take for granted here in the U.S. aren’t available on the subcontinent. The many laws and regulations which we resent are absent there, and we become a bit more grateful for our advanced safety and cleanliness standards. Child labor is rampant, and safety nets such as unemployment payments and social security are unheard of, and yet there is an acceptance of one’s life that we Americans would be happier if we could emulate.

I am fortunate that I have seen five continents. With international travel comes international understanding. To experience the people, the commerce, the religions of those far away is a spiritual journey. The more we know about the others who share our amazing planet, the more open minded and better off we all are.

Shanti Emerson is a Nevada County resident and a member of The Union Editorial Board. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the board or its members. She can be reached at

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