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Celebrating INDIA: Land of Enchantment

Celebrating INDIA: Land of Enchantment

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Since 2015, Houston has become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Nation. Part of this magnificent multicultural landscape is comprised of wonderful people from India.

Houston is home to a vibrant Indian community. Gujaratis, Punjabis, Malayalees, Tamils, Telugus, Kannadigas, Bengalis, and Desis from every nook and corner of India have made Houston their home.

With a population of over 200,000 Indian-Americans, Houston is emerging as a new hub for this community. In fact, with 452,000 residents, Texas is the second-largest Indian state after California at 815,000 and followed by New Jersey with 387,000.

Many Indians in Houston are wealthy entrepreneurs and business owners, doctors at the world-class Texas Medical Center, real estate investors, IT & Software Programmers, and retailers, to name a few of many occupations favored by them.

Indians have brought to Houston a rich cultural influence in many areas. One of the most enjoyable is their gastronomic influence, with some amazing restaurants, such as Kiran’s, Indika, Shiva, The Bombay Pizza Co., Shri Balaji Bhavan, India’s Restaurant, Pondicheri Cafe, Udipi Cafe, and the recent addition to Galleria Mall of Musaafer.

Understanding their country and their roots, we will be able to better appreciate the cultural value they have added to our city.

Magic History

India, an ancient and magic land with a pluralistic, multilingual and multi-ethnic society, is impregnated with a rich history and culture. This extraordinary country has the second largest population in the world, after China, and is the seventh-largest nation by land area.

In just 70 years, India’s population grew from 361 million in 1951 to 1.366 billion at the closing of 2019.

Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west, China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the north, and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

In the early medieval era, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism put down roots on India’s southern and western coasts. Muslim armies from Central Asia intermittently overran India’s northern plains, eventually establishing the Delhi Sultanate, and drawing northern India into the cosmopolitan networks of medieval Islam. In the 15th century, the Vijayanagara Empire created a long-lasting composite Hindu culture in south India. In Punjab, Sikhism emerged, rejecting institutionalized religion. The Mughal Empire, in 1526, ushered in two centuries of relative peace, leaving a legacy of luminous architecture.

Gradually expanding the rule of the British East India Company followed, turning India into a colonial economy, but also consolidating its sovereignty. British Crown rule began in 1858. The rights promised to Indians were granted slowly, but technological changes were introduced, and ideas of education, modernity, and public life took root. A pioneering and influential nationalist movement emerged, which was noted for nonviolent resistance and became the major factor in ending British rule. In 1947 the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two independent dominions, a Hindu-majority Dominion of India and a Muslim-majority Dominion of Pakistan, amid large-scale loss of life and unprecedented migration.

India has been a federal republic since 1950, governed in a democratic parliamentary system, becoming a fast-growing major economy and a hub for information technology services, with an expanding middle class.

India has a space program that includes several planned or completed extraterrestrial missions. Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. It has substantially reduced its rate of poverty.

Cultural Wealth

India’s land is megadiverse, with four biodiversity hotspots. India’s forest covers 21.4% of its area. Its extraordinary and varied wildlife, which has traditionally been viewed with tolerance in India’s culture, is supported among these forests, and elsewhere, in protected habitats.

Indian cultural history spans more than 4,500 years.  During the Vedic period (c. 1700 – c. 500 BCE), the foundations of Hindu philosophy, mythology, theology and literature were laid, and many beliefs and practices which still exist today, such as dhárma, kárma, yóga, and moksa, were established. India is notable for its religious diversity, with Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, and Jainism among the nation’s major religions. The predominant religion is Hinduism.

Much of Indian architecture, including the Taj Mahal, other works of Mughal architecture, and South Indian architecture, blends ancient local traditions with imported styles. Vernacular architecture is also regional in its flavors.

Vastu shastra, literally “science of construction” or “architecture” and ascribed to Mamuni Mayan, explores how the laws of nature affect human dwellings; it employs precise geometry and directional alignments to reflect perceived cosmic constructs. As applied in Hindu temple architecture, it is influenced by the Shilpa Shastras, a series of foundational texts whose basic mythological form is the Vastu-Purusha mandala, a square that embodied the “absolute”.

The Taj Mahal, built in Agra between 1631 and 1648 by orders of Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, has been described in the UNESCO World Heritage List as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage”. Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture, developed by the British in the late 19th century, drew on Indo-Islamic architecture.

Clash of Contrasts

India offers the most extraordinary contrasts in all imaginable areas. From extreme poverty to the great richness, from country life or ancient cities to modern metropolises, you can expect to be amazed at the beauty that comes from variety.  Music, languages, arts, religions, foods, fashion, everything is extremely diverse.

Let’s take as an example Mumbai. This modern city, also known as Bombay, is the capital city of the state of Maharashtra. It’s the second-most populous city in the country after Delhi and the seventh-most populous city in the world with a population of roughly 20 million. It is the country’s financial and commercial center and its principal port on the Arabian Sea.

Taj Mahal at sunset, back view from the Yamuna river, Agra, India

Mumbai also happens to be -among many other things- home to the most luxurious and expensive private home in the world (see details in the next page), while only blocks away from this exuberant building you will find some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country.

Mumbai is the financial and commercial capital of the country as it generates 6.16% of the total GDP. It serves as an economic hub of India, contributing 40% of India’s foreign trade. Along with the rest of India, Mumbai has witnessed an economic boom since the liberalization of 1991, the finance boom in the mid-nineties, and the IT, export, services, and outsourcing boom in the 2000s.

Perfumes, Scents and Aromas

India has a rich history of perfume and aromatic scents. With a land of over 3 million squarer kilometers, and a plethora of fragrant trees and flowers – from lilies in the north to champa in the south, and jasmine growing almost everywhere, India has always placed social and cultural importance upon scents and aromas.

Ancient writings from over two thousand years ago record how aromas were extracted from plants and given as offerings in religious ceremonies. Further historical writings from over a century ago refer to India’s exotic, aromatic abundance, with frankincense trees anointed with their own resin, and which are perfumed with the fragrance of nalika forests. Items such as sandalwood, saffron, and camphor were considered, from early medieval times, as a sign of wealth, prestige, and luxury.

A successful, cosmopolitan merchant traded, during that long-ago time, in aromatics –their houses were infused by the scents of oils and incense. They connect us to places, reminding us of where we smelt them first, or from where they are sourced. The warm smell of sandalwood was linked in ancient writing to the south of India, with sweet saffron linked to the north. They were of those places and of immense value in India’s past, seen as treasures and symbols of wealth as well as identifiers of place and culture. Their symbolism was recorded in ancient verses and subhasitas, their meaning transmitted down the ages. The significance of aromatics continues in India to this day.

“Perfume” comes from the Latin “through smoke”, and it is scent through smoke –incense– that has been in common use in India for generations. Yes, a sign of wealth and prestige, but also a sign of faith –aromatics and scents have long connected the faithful with their gods. Take, for example, the camphor flame, symbolizing the connection between man and divinity –it is through perfume, through smoke, that links are forged.

Throughout history, Indian fragrances have been a vibrant component of trade. Perfumes, spices, and other valuable goods were traded along the “Silk Road” – a busy network of trade routes that brought the scents of India to the West. Agarwood was moved along this route and became valued as wood with a long-lasting scent. It has deep religious and historical meaning, in both Hindu and Buddhist writing, and was regarded as a hugely luxurious item –indeed, a royal gift, for a piece of agarwood was sent as a tribute to the Persian king in the fifth century.

Agarwood, sandalwood, musk, and other Indian aromatics were traded across the world, from ships taking luxury items to Rome at the height of the Roman Empire, to trade with Europe and the Middle East in the nineteenth century. India has been a key player on the international stage, the scents of its huge, expansive land taken into homes across the globe.

A text from the 1470s – Ni’matnama, or the Book Of Delights – records just how important fragrances and sensory pleasure were to India’s elite. The author, Ghiyath Shahi, ruled over an area encompassing central India, and he noted down pages of recipes for rosewater essences and a variety of oils. Precious parchment and bark were used to set down how infusions were created, for scents enhanced luxurious living; the Book of Delights described all manner of sensual pleasures, with the ruler’s fascination with perfumery a continued theme. His written record eventually made its way along the trade routes to the British Library, London; the very heart of the establishment.

The Flavors of India

The history of Indian cuisine is rich and diverse, with a climate ranging from deep tropical to alpine, which has also helped considerably broaden the set of ingredients readily available to the many schools of cookery in India.

In many cases, food has become a marker of religious and social identity, with varying taboos and preferences; for instance, a segment of the Jain population doesn’t consume roots nor subterranean vegetable, which have also driven these groups to innovate extensively with the food sources that are deemed acceptable.

One strong influence over Indian foods is the longstanding vegetarianism within sections of India’s Hindu and Jain communities: Almost one third (31%) are vegetarians.

From 4500 to 1900 BC the rulers of Lower Mesopotamia were Sumerians who spoke a non-Indo-European and non-Semitic language, may have initially come from India and may have been related to the original Dravidian population of India. This appeared to historian Henry Hall as the most probable conclusion, particularly based on the portrayal of Sumerians in their own art and “how very Indian the Sumerians were in type”.

By 3000 BCE, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper and mustard were harvested in India. From Around 2350 BC the evidence for imports from the Indus to Ur in Mesopotamia have been found, as well as Clove heads which are thought to originate from the Moluccas in Maritime Southeast Asia were found in a 2nd millennium BC site in Terqa. Akkadian Empire records mention timber, carnelian and ivory as being imported from Meluhha by Meluhhan ships, Meluhha being generally considered as the Mesopotamian name for the Indus Valley Civilization.

Here, tasty curries and smooth gravy dishes are all made with fresh ingredients and a balance of aromatic earthy spices. It is difficult to describe the flavor of Indian food because it varies substantially from dish to dish, and from region to region. In general, Indian food has strong flavors and is often spicy, sweet, smokey, and savory.

While many Indian dishes are considered hot by western standards, there are also plenty of dishes that are quite mild. If you aren’t a spice lover, you can also order the non-spicy versions of typically hot dishes. There is much more to the flavor of Indian food than just the spices.

When visiting India, you can expect to be intrigued by the complexity of spices and flavor profiles that exist within one dish. Some dishes may use spicy, tangy, sour, and sweet all together to make a beautiful and complicated final product.

The first important aspect of Indian flavors is the use of fresh ingredients. Most Indian dishes are gravy-based, and that gravy is typically made from a mixture of fresh vegetables that have been cooked down into a sauce.

Palak paneer is a common spinach gravy dish with a delicious green sauce made of spinach, tomato, and onion. The base of most curry dishes is just tomatoes and onions mixed with a different combination of spices. To add an extra punch of flavor, many dishes also include ginger, garlic, and coriander (cilantro).

When first tasting Indian cuisine, many find that the flavor and tenderness of the meats are quite impressive. This is because a popular way to prepare meat in India is to marinate it in yogurt and spices overnight, then grill it over an open flame. Chicken tikka is made using this method.

The most important components of Indian food are the spices. One Indian dish may use around 20 to 30 different spices and it’s the specific amounts of each spice that change the overall flavor from dish to dish. Every dish should attain a balance in flavor and it is important that the spices do not overpower each other or the other ingredients.

More than just condiments, spices are a way of life in India, and there are very few dishes served there that don’t include at least a few spices or herbs. Even mangos are eaten dipped in red chili and salt and yogurt is often served as raita with a little chili powder, cilantro, and a few veggies.

If you are curious to enjoy the amazing flavors of India at its best, Houston is now home to a brand new restaurant that offers the most luxurious dining experience of all cuisines in Southern Texas, in Galleria: “Musaafer” (see the editorial in this issue).

Dizzying Array of Sights and Colors

With 7,500 miles of coastline, India’s land varies magnificently. The north is home to both the wettest place and the highest mountain range in the world, the west boasts beautiful beaches and tropical rainforests. The much revered River Ganges snakes through the east and the southern-most tip slopes down into the Indian Ocean.

The richness of its culture and the diversity of its people are only matched by the vibrancy of India’s traditions. It is a country steeped in religious belief, where the powers and mythical lives of its gods tell the story of the importance of color. The colors of India are ingrained in its consciousness and each color holds important cultural, religious, and traditional meaning. India is a land whose story can best be told through color.

India is largely an agricultural country, and the green of the harvest signifies happiness and new beginnings. The color is considered a manifestation of god himself, as it epitomizes nature. One of India’s traditional folk tales tells of how the all-knowing blue of the sky came together with the golden yellow energy of the sun to create the emerald hue. Central to life and growth, after the dry summer, rain comes and brings new life in the color green.

It is also the revered color of Islam, a large religious presence in India. The prophet Muhammad named green as the color of nature. It holds important significance in the faith and is widely used in the Koran in reference to paradise.

Lord Krishna taught mankind the correct way to live, and he is famous for his blue-toned skin. Blue represents power and life, it is also the color of water. Water is a vital resource for an agricultural nation as it sustains all life on earth. Anything infinite is represented by blue, such as the ocean and sky, this is also why Krishna is depicted in blue.

Ringed by a high stone wall, Jodhpur rises out of the Thar Desert in Northern India and is the second-largest city in Rajasthan. Known as the ‘Blue City’, Jodhpur stands in vibrant contrast to the surrounding scorched earth of the desert.

Yellow is sacred and symbolizes the balance of life, it is the center color between the shades of red and blue. The color yellow shares the same healing qualities as the sun, emanating warmth, optimism, and light. It’s also the color of spring and is worn to celebrate the Hindu festival Vasant Panchami. During this festival, celebrants wear yellow; the goddess Saraswati wears a yellow dress and yellow sweets and saffron rice are eaten.

The Harmandir Sahib, known as the Golden Temple, can be found in the city of Amritsar. It is the holiest Sikh Gurdwara, and welcomes people of all religions. Called India’s Shining Star, the dome is gilded with 750kg of pure gold. This is a popular pilgrimage site rather than a tourist attraction and everyone is welcome to enjoy the serenity of the glistening temple.

In Bengal, the color red is symbolic of the Goddess Durga who is often seen draped in a red sari. The color red can incite fear, but also stands for life-giving purity; Indian brides often wear red on their wedding day. The color also represents fertility and opulence.

The red tilak, a red mark placed on the forehead, is used universally across India as a ritual mark of welcome. The tilak symbolizes the third eye of Lord Shiva and is believed to protect the inner wisdom of those it is placed upon. The red bindi, a form of tilak, was traditionally a simple mark worn by married women. Believed to protect wives and their husbands, it is more common today as a decorative accessory.

Located in New Delhi, the Red Fort gets its name from its red sandstone walls. Built in 1638, it is surrounded by moats fed by the Yamuna River. Residence of the emperor of India for almost two hundred years, today visitors can get a taste for the splendor of the lives of the Maharajas.

White is a calm color that represents serenity and spreads the message of peace. It is the color from which all other colors emerge, and so stands for purity. The five main shades of white are represented in nature by the August moon, the conch shell, clouds when the rain is spent, the white surf of the sea, and the fragrant white of Jasmine flowers. The color softens the summer heat, reflects light, and keeps the wearer cool.

Widows traditionally used to wear white, it is the color worn at cremation ceremonies to say a peaceful farewell to the deceased. The color marks the end of the human journey on earth and symbolizes complete disconnection with the material world. The world’s most iconic mausoleum, The Taj Mahal is crafted out of white marble as a memorial to Emperor Shah Jahan’s beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Written by Martin Gondra, Publisher and Carlos Castroparedes, Senior Editor Architecture & Design
Edition by Ash Shah

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