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Beneath the surface

Photographs and reflections by Christina Riches

Beneath the Surface Photographs and reflections by Christina Riches

This book documents my journey exploring urban and rural India in May 2012. While there were many things that I found exciting, and terrifying, it is the triumphant human spirit I witnessed in the people that captured my heart. It is, without a doubt, the most fascinating place I have ever experienced.

BOND BETWEEN MOTHER & CHILD People navigate the land so differently in India. Of note, there are no strollers – it simply wouldn’t work. Many of the sidewalks are several feet above the roads with concrete crumbling away or broken into large pieces – not to mention the sheer volume of people would not allow for such an inconvenient space constraint among the narrow pathways suitable for walking. One may question how this influences the connectedness between mothers and their children. The word “mothers” is used intentionally over the word “parents” because to give birth and raise children is the purpose and role of every woman in India – without this purpose, there is little justification for her existence. Although Western thought would insist that women are human beings capable of more than simply child birth and motherhood, it is from this ideology that many Indian children grow to base their lives on loving one another and their community is strengthened because of their connectedness to other people. In a country where the population is over 1.2 billion people, one can’t stand alone.

SPIRITUAL DEDICATION A holy man, covered in ash, demonstrates his devotion to the gods at the Ganges River, the most sacred river to Hindus. The river serves as a lifeline to many Indians, frighteningly so because of the level of pollutants it hosts. The Hindu religion worships thousands of gods and goddesses, all of which are manifestations or parts of Brahman. Several thousand Hindus crowd alongside the Ganges River every night for a spiritual celebration. Many bathe in the swift moving river to cleanse their souls. Those who can afford it offer leaf boats filled with flowers and lit candles to the gods, which float down the river at dusk.

POINT OF SEGREGATION The young man to the right, along with several guards, separates the few privileged visitors from the thousands of Hindus at the celebration. This segregation is a clear indication that status is still very much garnered by the fairness of one’s skin. Moreover, the caste system defines each person’s social class. It is difficult for Indians to break away from their caste because their last name essentially labels them.

CURIOUS SIBLINGS While walking through the village of Shyampur, two siblings walked bare foot through the streets to their home. Seeing people walk barefoot is not an uncommon thing. This day is a school day, and so the assumption is made that, like many other children, the girl did not have the opportunity for an education. Their bedroom is exposed, with a dingy wall on one side and no walls on the other side. On one hand, these children do not have much, but on the other hand, they have so much. They have a strong family connection, a roof over their heads, a bed that is elevated off the ground, and a water pump just down the way. The children’s mother wove beds for a living, which meant they didn’t have to go begging in the streets and weren’t left hoping that maybe today they might not go hungry.

ROLE REVERSAL As a boy looks to his father for soothing, the strength of family connections is again unveiled. The gender roles are so defined in India, to witness that fathers can and do play an important role in the upbringing of their children was a pleasant surprise and a reminder that all cannot be painted with the same brush stroke.

LOVE LIVES HERE Sri Ram Ashram is a beautiful sanctuary for formerly abandoned children. These children become part of a new family. Sixty-eight children have become brothers and sisters to create the most loving, accepting, and generous family. Here, two children run hand in hand to their next play destination. For the children that arrive as infants, the security of food and shelter is something they will never have to struggle for. This is a stark contrast to many of their brothers and sisters who come to the ashram as older children and vividly remember the difficult life they left behind.

EARTH SUSTAINS LIFE This woman takes a break from helping work the fields. She helps to grow and collect food for the children and workers of the ashram. Many of the workers at the ashram are considered part of the family – this isn’t simply a job. In exchange for their work, they are given food and shelter. Many have just as interesting a story as to how they arrived here as the orphaned children do. Many of the women are widowed or deemed not appropriate for marriage by established social standards.



On the grounds of Sri Ram Ashram resides

This young girl is a true leader, intelligent

a school that hosts all the children from the

and inspirational. By all accounts she has

home and several children from the village

the brightest future, except for the fact that

surrounding them. Children are accepted

she lives in a completely different world

to the school with zero discrimination, they

than the one we are accustomed. She lives

can be boys or girls, come from families that

in a world where, despite her potential, she

can afford the education or be supported

will be defined by the fact that she is just a

by donors to attend. A solid foundation

girl and just an orphan – albeit an educated

of teaching based on core values such as

one. Hopefully her education will help her

love, respect, and discipline is in place. It is

rise above the labels that are placed upon

here that they learn the tools to become

her and her character will define her and be

contributing members of their community.

witnessed by the world surrounding her.



The sight of a group of visitors draw a crowd

In the middle of the hustle and bustle of the

including dozens of curious men and boys,

market, this man takes a reflective break. He

awaiting the visitors’ return to their bus.

sits in the middle of the crowded walkway,

The young boy with the English words on

where nobody takes notice. There are no

his shirt was a walking contradiction to the

chairs or benches to sit on, and so it is

general beliefs of his people, but stirred

common to see people sitting and sleeping

some conversation.

on the ground. There is little privacy, in fact many Indians are uncomfortable at the thought of being alone or in solitude. People often make homes alongside rivers, or at train stations where there is water available from taps (likely not filtered). With the population density comes a major shortage of food and shelter for many of India’s citizens. And with no public sanitation facilities, there is a real concern for basic health needs. Moreover, there is no system for garbage disposal. The ground is the most popular place to dispose of waste, and if it is collected, it is simply relocated down the street or to a less desirable area.

BUILDING BLOCKS Constantly building up the cities, labourers prepare the building blocks for a new complex. A mother brought her children to visit their working father. The work site became the boy’s playground for a while, he excitedly jumped on dirt piles and created clouds of dust with his bare feet, until he finally decided to take a break.

LEADING THE BLIND While walking the city streets, this girl was the eyes for her father. She took a break from begging to watch some visitors to her country get henna applied to their hands. Instead of looking at the visitors as an opportunity, as most beggars did, she looked at them with intrigue. Children are often used to collect money for their families, tapping potentially sympathetic people repeatedly on the arms in the hopes of a hand out. They are often strategically placed at markets or food kiosks just waiting for an exchange of money. Disabled people have little hope – there is almost zero compassion for those who are and there is certainly no infrastructure to support accessibility. Instead of wheelchairs, people can be seen crawling in the streets.

LOVING THE MOMENT Indians are proud people. This is the IndiaPakistan border, where thousands of people gather every night for a ceremonial lowering of the Indian and Pakistan flags at dusk. People travel great distances to unite in their patriotism and fill the streets chanting in a friendly rivalry. There is no such thing as personal space at many events, such as this one, and at some of the temples where people will often line up for hours to engage in a spiritual experience. No shoes are permitted in temples and people must walk barefoot, often for several blocks on the scorching hot pavement, to access them.

AMONG THE CROWD Everyone lives together experiencing the joys and hardships of life. In one city block, one can see everything from people sleeping and bathing in the streets, to children begging for money or flip flops, to businessmen in suits talking on cell phones. Homes built from sticks and tarps share the sidewalk with people passing by, stray and starving dogs, and mounds of litter. The living situation is harsh is many circumstances, and yet there is so much beauty – the people find joy and happiness in what surrounds them.

MYSTERY & INTRIGUE The colours of India are vibrant and beautiful. The clothes are prepared with many adornments and often stitched with much detail. The bindi is mandatory for women who are married, but can also be worn as a decoration for those who are not. Arranged marriage is commonplace, often advertised through the local newspaper where the candidate’s appearance and economic status are described. For a woman to marry a man, her family will pay a dowry.

PERSEVERANCE Even in the heat and while working, people wear layers upon layers of clothing – and they seem not to break a sweat. The common jobs women can be seen doing include: sweeping the floors, gardening, and building cow patties with their hands for energy huts. Among the university professors teaching the visiting students, there was one female – a dance instructor. And among the 10 or so university students who were selected to assist with an Indian cooking class, there was only one female student. She had to leave by 7:00 pm as she did not have permission from her father to stay out of her dorm later.



India is a world of the most extreme of

Traffic is incomprehensible in the city streets.

opposites, poverty and wealth being among

It appears as though there are no rules

the most blatant. This woman rests at her

to the road – drivers make up their own

home across the street from a nice hotel.

rules and for the most part it works. When

She drinks water from the plastic containers

it doesn’t, however, people will often take

on the street below her.

matters into their own hands – violence may erupt at the cost of the driver of the vehicle at fault, resulting in many drivers leaving the scene of an accident. On a busy street, it is common to see small cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, tuk-tuks, pedestrians (some pushing large carts), cows, stray dogs, and perhaps the occasional monkey sharing the roads. Strength, stamina, and a strong work ethic are among the requirements of peddling people around the busy streets of Delhi on a rickshaw. Jobs aren’t plentiful, so many people do what it takes to get any job. It has been said that a typical job will receive over one thousand applicants. Also common is job sharing – an equivalent job that may be held by one North American, may be shared among 10 or more Indians if possible.

ESCAPING THE HEAT This young and modern woman covers her face to avoid the harsh heat. At mid-day, when the heat is at its highest tempurature, many people head indoors, if possible. An operating fan is a luxury, and air conditioning is scarce. With not enough energy to serve the entire population, rolling brown outs can occur every hour for about 10-15 minutes. The weather is incredibly hot in the summer time – on this day, it is 45°C. But because there is a constant thick layer of smog hovering over the country, the heat is not as intense as one might expect. In fact, at any point during daylight hours, one can look to the sky and see the sun as a perfect circle.

As an outsider looking in, India is a place that allows one to reflect – the people challenge you to look beneath the surface, to see the joy in life, in family, in love. There are so many things that are incomprehensible, and so many things that make absolute and complete sense. There is nothing that one can feel neutral about in India. It awakens the soul and motivates the quest for seeking knowledge.

Beneath the surface  
Beneath the surface  

Photographs and reflections from travels through India