Day 3: The National Museum and … this is NOT a Western Toilet

Good morning everyone,

So our last visit in Delhi (at least for a little while), is to the National Museum.  This is a beautiful building in the uptown part of Delhi.  It costs 300 rupees to enter and another 300 rupees (less than $12 in total) to bring a camera.  It was worth every penny even though many of the exhibits were closed.  Entering in the main hall, I felt like I was the only person in the building but that did not last long – a group of school children, a tour bus and a group of Tibetan monks soon followed and the museum became very, very busy.

Much of what was on display was behind glass which made it tough to photograph but nonetheless… in the main exhibit hall there are a series of carvings that will really give you a feel for the ancient history of this place and for the people who occupied the Indus Valley a thousand years ago.

The carvings are really quite amazing.  I don’t know why I say that given that we have examples of equally intricate carvings from ancient Greece, Rome, China… no reason the people of the Indus Valley couldn’t have developed similar skill with rudimentary tools, right?  Right.  It’s just that in the West, we’re not really shown this sort of thing.  I don’t know about you all but my history lessons in school were very focused on the history of Western Civilization.  I feel like we really missed out.

There is no way that I could remember everything in the museum, so I hope that I capture at least the essence of the place in photographs.

With few exceptions, the displays focus on pre-Mughal history.  I think this is great, given that the great monuments (Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, the Taj Muhal, etc) are primarily from the Mughal era.  What’s missing (and maybe it is in the exhibit halls that were sealed off), was the other history – the history of the Sikhs, the Jains, the Buddhists, who have also occupied this nation for a very long time.  Wandering through the exhibits, I began to wonder where that history might be and why it isn’t equally on display here.

As I was nearing the end of the main exhibit hall, pondering that very question, a group of Tibetan monks walked past me in their saffron robes.  One, busy chatting with a second man, walked right into me.  I’m short and India is crowded so… it happens.  I looked up though to see a very familiar face.  A very, very familiar face given that I was once and for a very long time, a Buddhist.  The Dalai Lama apologized though, as he strode through with his group of people.  Where they were going, I don’t know, I didn’t see them again throughout my wanderings.  They weren’t browsing the area either, they all looked like they had somewhere they were bound to get to.  I wish I’d had the nerve to stop him even momentarily to speak to him more than the “I’m so sorry.”,  “No, it’s no problem.” exchange.  I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see him though I guess, Dharmsala, where he lives with a number of other Tibetans who have fled from Chinese rule, is not really that far away.  Also, the history of India includes obviously the early history of Buddhism.

Anyhow.  Continuing with the carvings in the main entry hall, there are examples of every sort of carving imaginable – door frames, carvings for above a door, statues, bas reliefs for walls… the Indus Valley was a very decorated place.  Most of the carvings represent gods and goddesses from the Hindu Pantheon – primarily Krishna, Vishnu and Ganesh.

You then move into the first of the exhibit rooms, which contains pottery, small carvings and weights and measures used by an early civilization in the Indus Valley.  The restoration work on some of these pieces is incredible!  In this room, everything but posters on the walls is behind glass.  While I was there, there was also a very alert, kind of overly-suspicious guard present.  What can you possible steal, touch, destroy, alter or lick when everything is behind plexiglass?  Nothing that people wouldn’t be noticing, I think.  That guy needed less coffee or maybe a good massage.

You’ll see an example, as good as I could do for a piece of pottery behind plexiglass, of the restoration work in one of the pics below.  My estimate is that the vase in that pic is maybe 70% vase fragments pieced together and 30% new pottery to fill it in and make a complete piece.  You wouldn’t know it until you’re right up on it though, so good job.

While I was wandering about the National Museum, Shiv waited outside in a parking area some distance from the building.  Or at least I thought he did.  Turns out he actually waited right at the entry gate.  I don’t know if he was worried that I would get lost or whether he was concerned with all the attention I drew from men in the parking area… again.  Women in India – doesn’t seem to matter how old you are, what you are wearing, whether you blend in or stand out, or whether you’re strutting naked down the side walk with three figs leave for a little coverage – get leered at a lot.  A lot, a lot.  It’s really quite annoying at best.  At worst… well, we won’t speculate on that.

What else… what else?  Okay, there’s a separate security screening area at the entrance for ladies.  It’s like this everywhere you might have to get a wand passed over you.  Not only that, but you have to exit through that same special area for ladies when you are leaving (and submit to another security scan).  I find this incredibly amusing but also I felt that if I’m going to get touched (even ever so lightly) in a nation where many of the men leer, I would rather do that with the dignity and privacy of a curtain thanks.

Oh and the best part of this whole story… While inside the museum, I had the need to relieve myself.  This was the first time outside the hotel room that I needed to go.  So I do what all normal people do in the circumstances and look for a bathroom.  (Well really if I were a guy apparently I would be able to whip it out anywhere and just pee in public because I’ve been seeing that many times a day and no-one seems to bat an eye but I wasn’t going to do it myself.  You know, because … well, gross.)

The ladies’ bathroom was up on a little landing on your way to the museum shop (the only public area that occupies the second floor).  It had two little tiny stalls in there.  I don’t know how big Indian ladies were when this place was designed and built but I’m pretty sure it was taller than the 4’2″ that these stalls seems to suggest.  Inside the stalls was a system of pipes and faucets near the floor and another system halfway up the back wall, a small bucket, and a hole in the ground which had two anti-slip sort of areas on each side of the hole… a squat toilet.

Did I want to have this experience?  Not really, no.  Could I avoid having this experience?  Nope on that account too.  So nature was going to win that little battle.  I looked around, praying that there would be some toilet paper or something to make the experience a little more familiar.  Ummm… nope.  Not even paper towels.  This very Indian bathroom had air blowers for drying your hands, which makes perfect sense when you think it through but didn’t help with my comfort level.  Okay, so I’m gearing up to have this experience when I notice the double system of pipes and faucets again.  Why two?  What are you people trying to do to me?  Is this a game you play on all tourists?  What is this hell?  Oh right, the one on the back wall is for flushing (though why there was a faucet on it …) and the one near the floor on the right is for… well washing up.  Okay, with that part figured out, I can totally do this.  Right?  No.  Wait.  How do you balance over that thing?  And then realizing that the hole in the ground actually has a directional design – which way do I face?  Why God why?  Obviously local people don’t need instructions to deal with this.  They’re used to it and it’s all obvious to them but seriously – someone needs to print out instructions for westerners using this system for the first time.  They can just go ahead and hand those bad boys out at the airport.  Or better yet, on the plane.  I would have been grateful for a little “Heads up.  It’s a little more complicated that you would think.”

Eventually and before any major accident happened, I did figure it out.  You remain facing the way you came in (at least in this stall), balance in whatever precarious position you need to to avoid a) falling onto the hole in the ground, b) falling backward and potentially crashing through the stall door, and c) getting anything on you.  That position is going to feel a little like some new, hellish form of yoga but you’ll find it.  Use the tap on your left to put some water in the little bucket or in your hand and clean up.  The water, as I discovered early on, is room temperature so have no fear.  There’s no reasonable method of drying in these stalls so you know… air dry the best you can and then one little tap on the button (with an elbow was my choice) to “flush” and it’s all good, you may now exit hell and head straight for the nearest tap with soap and hot water.

I had been told about the squat toilets before I came to India but not with any sort of instructional detail.  So … there you go, you’re welcome.  Hopefully with the above information, you will spend less time having to figure it out.

I’ll also just let you know right now that since my visit to the National Museum I have discovered that there are many other varieties of squat toilet.  Some have the ability to ‘flush’, others don’t.  Some have the little tap in the stall for cleaning, in others you will need to bring a little bucket of water in with you or in others avail yourself of a little nearby sink.  You may or may not want to consider bringing toilet paper of your own.  Trust me, toilet paper will work in any version of the squat toilet.  Any version at all – TP is sort of awesome that way.  Some squat toilets will not have any water at all available so a little stash of TP in your purse or a pocket… not a bad plan frankly.  Then there are hybrids.  These are western type, sit down toilets with faucets (still near the floor for some reason) or little mini bidets built right into them.  You’re going to want to be careful with these.  The first one I used had an unbelievably excessive water pressure that could cause some serious damage to the unwary.  Seriously – why?  Why does the water pressure ever need to be that high?  If it were a shower, it would have taken off several layers of skin or maybe cut diamonds… wow.

Anyhow, on that lovely, lovely note, let’s return to the museum.  There was a group of school children being brought through the museum while I was there.  My guess would be grade 3 or 4.  The museum is well planned out for this… not.  Most of the exhibit rooms are kind of small to have a guide telling a group of children or even a tour buss full of people about what they are seeing.  But some are better, with space for people to sit an listen to the presentations.  You can also take a self-guided tour with a little audio set you can rent.  Or this museum also has free, private guides who will walk around with you and give you a tour.  The audio sets seem to work for one or two items in each of the exhibit rooms.  These are marked with a “Museum in 90 minutes” placard.  I sort of wondered what was on the audio given that it covered so few pieces but… not so curious as to pay the rental on the headset.

Some of the exhibits that were closed off included areas where metalwork was displayed as far as I could tell.  Others really didn’t give you much indication of what you were missing – just a big old padlock on a door with a little ‘sealed’ sticker over the keyhole.

So that’s the National Museum and that’s toilets… hopefully I won’t have to mention toilets again unless something really funny happens to me.  Stay tuned and enjoy the rest of the pictures.

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