Lakhs of Crores

[I’ve recently been on vacation/holiday in India and so this blog is temporarily moving rather farther to the East than it usually sits. I had planned to put the India posts on a separate page but can’t work out how to do that; please bear with me.]

The Taj Mahal in the mist just after dawn.

Nothing in India is small. With a population of almost 1.2 billion, one out of every six people in the world is an Indian. The Mumbai metropolitan area is the largest city in the world, home to almost 21.5 million. From the air, it looks like a super-city made up of districts the size of whole cities themselves, dozens of far-flung areas each with a clutch of skyscrapers many American cities could envy, and all of it connected by a vast spread of low buildings into one enormous conurbation. I’m glad I started my visit in Hyderabad, a comparatively small town of only six and a quarter million.

Indians speak over 1600 mother tongues, of which 16 or so are official in at least some part of the country. They worship more than 33 million gods. Their forts—really medieval castles, Indian style—are huge compared to their European counterparts, and built to withstand attack by enemy war elephants. India produces tons of gemstones, some gigantic; Hyderabad was the home of the Kohinoor (“mountain of light”) diamond.

World's largest sundial, part of the Jantar Mantar at Jaipur

India is the world’s largest democracy. It boasts some of the world’s tallest mountains (in the Himalayas) and the world’s largest gathering of people (the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that drew 70 million participants in 2007). We visited the worlds largest sundial (97 feet tall) and, at the other end of the scale, saw lots of large paintings, measuring up to four feet long and three feet tall, called miniatures. To be fair, the designation miniature has to do not with the size of the canvas, but with the incredible detail: a 3×4 foot painting may depict a battle with two entire armies, including dozens of elephants and scores of horses, but if you look at the painted individuals under a magnifying glass, each face is different and you can count the individual eyelashes on each soldier. A single squirrel hair forms the brush, and a miniature of that size can take years to complete. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Having spent a decade getting used to the size of the UK—which is small, despite the textbook for the British citizenship test claiming that the UK is “a medium-sized country”—I find India huge; it’s maybe one-third to one-half the size of the US (depending upon what you include). Despite the crowding in the cities, driving between those cities you see plenty of wide open spaces. Years ago I read a piece by actress and chef Madhur Jaffrey in which she remembered the older boys at her school passing around a forbidden cartoon showing the relative sizes of the UK and India; they were amazed that you could fit the home country of the British ruling class into India several times with room to spare, a comparison that sparked a change in their thinking about the Raj.

Udaipur, from the City Palace--a small town of not even three-quarters of a million

With the vastness of the Indian subcontinent and the masses of people living there, it makes sense that Indians have more words to designate large numbers than we do. We talk about thousands, millions, or billions, changing the word we use once for every three digits further to the left of the decimal point; they change the word every two digits. They count not in thousands, but in hundreds of thousands, not in millions, but in tens of millions.

I first ran into this when trying to read English-language Indian newspapers on the plane. I couldn’t understand much because—as I should have expected—the English was sprinkled with words from local languages. Then there were all of the acronyms and government titles I had no way of deciphering. “The SC…tossed out a plea for urgent hearing on a PIL”—I gather this had something to do with bus fares, but I couldn’t tell you what. The Times of India reported on a couple hounded from their home region by a khap panchayat, which I would guess is some kind of tribunal, their crime being that they were planning to marry, but since they came from neighboring villages considered to have a “brotherly relationship”, the marriage was prohibited. A cobra wandered into the home of a government minister and scared the gaddy. A politician warned against underestimating the Naxals.

An image of Ganesh at Birla Temple, Jaipur

One article said that “almost five lakh pilgrims” attended a particular festival, bathing in a holy river. Not knowing what lakh could be, I assumed it was a type of pilgrim—those belonging to a particular sect, maybe, or those who make a certain type of sacrifice. But how could there be “almost five” of them? Surely that would mean there were exactly four? And wouldn’t it be a slow news day if the papers had room to report on the activities of any group of four celebrants?

Turns out that a lakh is one hundred thousand, so the article reported an attendance of close to half a million people. Not just a slow news day, then. Another article reported accusations against a public official of “illegal transactions worth over Rs 2,000 crore”. Rs stands for rupees, but what’s a crore? Turns out it’s 10 million. Not a trivial accusation, then. (2000 crore is 20 arawb, by the way. I thought you’d want to know.)

Elephant and mahout at the Amber Fort, Jaipur

Later I ran across an advertisement for an investment company that used, as an illustration of how your money can grow even if you have only a small amount to invest, the old story about the king so impressed with a poet that he asked the poet to name his own reward. The poet asked only for some rice, the amount to be calculated using a chess board, beginning with one grain on the first square, then two on the second, four on the third square, and so on. When half the chessboard’s squares had been included, he had “over 214 crores”, or “214,73,83,640 grains of rice.” I thought the punctuation there was a mistake, which just shows more of my ignorance; Indians may put the commas in a large number in such a way as to mark the digits into groupings such as lakhs. In the end, the poet had lakhs of crores grains of rice and the king, to make good his part of the bargain, had to hand the poet his entire kingdom. Great story. If anybody knows of an investment that doubles and redoubles quickly, please let me know.

Laundered saris drying in Agra

There are almost 120 crores people living in India. It was tremendously exciting to be their guest for a while. Guidebooks and old India hands in the west all seem to advise travellers to start slow in India, to give themselves time to adjust to the overwhelming assault on all the senses—we could smell the spices before we were even out of the jetway—but I never felt overwhelmed. Maybe it’s because we started in Hyderabad, which is not on the main tourist route, or because some colleagues in my husband’s industry welcomed us as if we were royalty and took the time to show us around their city.

Street scene, Jaipur

But it’s true: everything about India is superlative. The carvings are more intricate, the traffic louder, the colours brighter, the food more flavorful, the people more varied in their clothing, their religions, their lifestyles, everything. I should really have been writing posts while I was there, but there was too much to see, to taste, to hear. I hope to write several posts in the next couple of weeks about my impressions of India, and I hope you’ll come back and read them.



Filed under India, Travel

2 responses to “Lakhs of Crores

  1. Rod Cuff

    Lovely atmospheric and informative writing, Mary Ellen. As you know, Brenda and I were in India at much the same time as you were, but in a quite different area — mostly Madhya Pradesh tiger reserves (5 tigers and a leopard!), with a few days in then-foggy Delhi. I wish I could stretch to as good a coverage as you’ve done; but we too also inevitably had to deal with lakhs and crores, though we’d sussed them out in earlier holidays in Sri Lanka!

  2. Pingback: Hindu Worship: The Smoke Above the Fire « M E Foley's Anglo-American Experience Blog

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