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SVAMA's Special Interest Groups are designed to allow members and friends to network and learn from peers interested in the same marketing specialty. SIGs operate independently and frequently morph into face-to-face, book review, or email sigs depending on the needs of the group.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Journey to the West

In 629CE, a renowned Buddhist monk left the Big Wild Goose
Pagoda in Xi'an (then China's capital) and traveled to India.
Along with the copies of the Buddhist sutras he also brought
back stories about Hanuman, the mischievous monkey god from the
Hindu Ramayana epic. These tales, the hardships of the trip,
and his mission fused in the retellings until they were
eventually written down in the late 1500s as "Journey to the

Tripitaka, as the monk is known in English, probably ventured to
India with the usual traveling companions, but the literary
version has him in the company of three disciples--Monkey,
Pigsy, and Sandy--respectively representing mischief, gluttony,
and duty. They went off India to bring sacred Buddhists
scriptures back to China. The reason for my journey was more
mundane, but the three disciples were all represented in their

Dutiful Sandy was why I went in the first place. After all, I
had promised that I would attend my friends’ weddings 'if ever'
and 'wherever' we all happened to find ourselves. And so, I was

Wedding number one was in the South, in Chennai (aka Madras).
But first I headed off to Kochi, (formerly Cochin) for a couple
of days. Like Shanghai, it's a hub of historic globalization.
Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the old district of
Mattancherry, reachable after a 10 minute ferry ride from the
more modern incarnation of Ernakulam.

One legend has it that Cochin's Myuchasim (black Jews) arrived
in 587 BC, fleeing the occupation of Jerusalem, while another
dates their arrival back even further to the eleventh century BC
as part of King Solomon's fleet. In any case, they had been
there for a long, long time, working in the spice trade, and
converting and intermarrying with locals. Along with the
Myuchasim, were the 'brown' Jews, thought to be converted
slaves, and the Pardesi (white orthodox Jews) who only married
each other and generally looked down on the other groups.

While the Chinese were slowly weaving Tripitaka’s tales into
Journey to the West, the Portuguese Inquisition was ridding Goa
and elsewhere along the coast of all its Jews. The Raja of
Cochin, however, gave the Jews a parcel of land and encouraged
them to stay and trade. They may have built the synagogue there
as a monument to God, but it was also a monument to trade.
First of all, the temple is in India, but its arrangement is
typically orthodox--a raised platform in the center and a
cloistered area for the women. The lamps are Belgian and look
like colored fishbowls and candelabras made from drinking
glasses. But the floor tiles are from Canton, handpainted in
blue and white like a Ming vase.

Just one ferry stop over, in the district of Ft. Kochi, huge
Chinese finishing nets have become part of the classic view of
Kochi. The nets, called 'cheena vala' in Malayalam, are said to
have been introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan
and have to be manned by at least four. The fish caught by
these nets and grilled in sea salt, garlic and lemon at a stall
nearby or made into fish curry were fantastic. Which brings us
to Pigsy.

One early English translation of Tripitaka’s epic journey is
translated as “Monkey” because seven of the 100 chapters are
about him and because, in the rest of it, he generally has the
best lines. However, in my tale, Pigsy dominates. Unable to
speak Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, or Punjabi, I sit, smile, and
swallow the delicious food offered me by mothers, fathers,
aunts, uncles, brothers, and half a dozen other of bride #1's or
groom #2's relatives.

But Monkey did have a good time getting food all over me. Most
Indian restaurants serve Northern food, while food in the South
was mostly about rice and the spiced vegetables and watery and
yogurt-based sauces you can mix into it. I initially struggled
without bread or utensils and eating with only my right hand.
Several waiters, after watching me that first day especially,
offered me a spoon out of pity. But I was determined to get the
hang of it in time for the wedding. The woman who taught the
four-hour cooking course I took one evening revealed the secrets
of how it was done. So by the time I went to the wedding I was,
er, an old hand.

The second wedding was in the Indian Punjab, in Chandigarh and
Ludhiana, and marked the first time I'd ever been inside a
gurudwara (Sikh temple). Again I played hooky and first made a
quick tour of Agra to see the Taj Mahal with an interesting
assortment of travelers. There was a couple from Sikkim (an
Indian state between Nepal and Tibet); a London based
photographer of Indian descent just returned from work in Bhutan
(a small country southeast of Sikkim); a woman from Hyderabad
doing a Northern India tour; a man from Tokyo, Japan; and a
British-Korean couple whose initial remark when we first saw the
Taj from the first gate, was: "It looks so small." Of course,
as the Taj ‘got bigger’ we teased them about that.

At Delhi's Red Fort I sat down next to Yasumi from Fukuoka who
was completing her PhD in anthropology. She was on a break from
field work where she was working with a Japanese NGO to build a
water purification system in some little village. The water
would now have to be drawn from the purification machine, so the
machine had to be located in a culturally-appropriate place.
Too close to a man's house and the women wouldn't be able to go
there, especially the young, unmarried women who traditionally
drew the water.

Yasumi and I headed over to Jama Masjid, a very large Mughal
mosque, to look around during the open period between prayer
times. We were in line to climb the minaret for a great view of
the area when the ticket seller said: "No women alone. Need
man." Within minutes, a man dressed in travellers’ fatigues
complete with bulging backpack approached. I intercepted him in
line and with Yasumi standing beside me said: "We need a man."

To his credit, he kept a straight face, first looking at Yasumi
and then at me, while Yasumi quickly explained just what exactly
we needed him for. Nico turned out to be from Mexico City, but
actually lived in Denmark with his Danish soon-to-be wife. A
filmmaker, he was in Delhi because his documentary about a 1960s
Mexico-US poetry magazine was part of the film exhibition there.
He confirmed my feeling that Delhi, at least, felt a lot like
Mexico City, summing it up by saying that "the forms of the
rituals are different but there's the same sense of magic and

Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy faced 81 ordeals on their
journey, battling demons of all kinds. For their pains, Monkey
and Tripitaka become Buddhas, while Sandy and Pigsy get promoted
to higher posts in the bureaucracy of the heavens. My own
Journey to the West was entirely free of such hassles, but I’m
cursed me all the same. Cursed with the desire to go back.

Beth Epstein


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