Brooke Goes Global: Jaipur Travel Weekend

September 21, 2018

I have been on my abroad trip for 5 weeks and in India for 3 weeks.  I have told you ample about my classes and experiential learning.  However, I have dropped the ball on providing information about my touristy, free-time experiences.  Last weekend, IHP, our abroad program, gave us the opportunity to have a travel weekend.  A large group of students decided to go to Jaipur, a popular city in Northern India.  

From New Delhi, we headed on a 5 hour train ride to the city.  After many hours of staring at the “touristy Americans” throughout our transportation experience, we finally arrived in the city.  That evening we arrived at our hotel, the Anuraag Villa.  Consider this post to be a Yelp review for the Villa.  Every employee was kind and helpful, allowing their guests to make the most of their visit.  When we stepped inside the hotel, you were transported to a time when India was under British rule.  British colonialism seemed to be the decor theme of the hotel with their light blue bedroom walls, with adorned doors and large sliding locks.  Also, helpful tip: hotels are deemed some of the best places to eat authentic Indian food.  Professional chefs are hired by hotels, and because hotels cater to tourists, the food’s cleaning and cooking process is safe for a foreigner to enjoy.  Anyways, back to my Yelp review.  I certainly got the most bang for my buck at this hotel.  I shared a room with another girl in the program, and for two nights we paid $1,300 rupees.  This in terms of USD comes to about $13 per person for both nights.  It was not the most extravagant hotel I have ever been to, but it certainly contributed to my exciting time in Jaipur.  

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Me eating breakfast at the Anuraag Villa, enjoying the feeling of eating like a queen in India

Unfortunately, our time in Jaipur was too short to see everything the city had to offer, but I certainly saw a lot over the two days.  Our first stop on Saturday, was to an elephant farm in the outskirts of the city.  Our group was very concerned about the well-being of the elephants, but we were assured by the staff and reviews of the farm that the animals were treated humanely.  We had the opportunity to meet six different Asian elephants, each with their own individual handler.  Elephants are some of the smartest creatures in the world.  In the four hours we were with the elephants, we are able to make such a strong impression on them that if we came back three years later, they would remember us.  It was such a fascinating and invigorating moment to spend time with such large, yet gentle animals.  

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Playing with the elephants has been a highlight of my time abroad so far

 

After, we took off to the historical and iconic city of the Pink City.  The rumors are true.  Every structure within the boundaries of the city is pink.  Shops and vendors align the streets with colorful food and clothing.  The rainy weather caused a thin layer of mud to form on every inch of every sidewalk.  The bumper to bumper traffic caused a symphony of car horns.  And on occasion, a camel or an elephant made an appearance as a form of transportation.  We stopped for lunch at a rooftop restaurant.  We were able to eat some amazing food while enjoying some amazing views of the city.  The juxtaposition of the rolling hills against the building structures of the city created a sight that took my breath away.  Is there a better location to build a city than in the valley of a hill? 

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The beautiful view from our rooftop restaurant

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The Hawa Mahal in the Pink City

We spent the evening at the Amber Fort light and sound show.  The hour long performance gave a detailed history of the royal fort through narration, lights, and song.  The Amber Fort sits at the top of a hill, with a view of the city below.  With the mountain breeze sending a chill down your spine, it was a refreshing night to a long, tiresome, and hot week in New Delhi.  

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Amber Fort lit up at night

And to end the weekend, we spent Sunday morning at two historical sites including Jantar Mantar and the City Palace.  Jantar Mantar is a culmination of thousand year old sun dials that are able to tell the accurate calendar day and time of day based on the light from the “universe’s goddesses” — better known as the sun and the moon.  The City Palace constituted incredibly detailed buildings that showcased textiles, a royal and political meeting space, and chandeliers triple my size.  I appreciated the time we were given to experience a different part of India.  

PICTURE 7, 8, 9: The above three pictures depict the City Palace, a structure with exquisite detailing and architecture.


Brooke Goes Global: Globalization

September 13, 2018

Disclaimer: This post is not my attempt to make a blanket, political statement about capitalism.  Instead, this post is an attempt to illustrate the institutional systems role in perpetuating poverty, which is stimulated by globalization.  As a result, there are structures put in place that advance the middle and upper classes while inevitably hindering the lower class. 

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This picture depicts the common life of a child in the rural area of India.  Despite his isolation from the city, globalization contributes heavily to his life.

Starbucks — a franchise recognized across the world.  It’s a caffeine boost.  It’s a free wifi hotspot.  It’s a familiar logo of home.  Because Starbucks is such a recognizable part of many people’s lives across the world, it is an ideal artifact to study in relation to globalization.  The local is the global and the global is the local, and the Starbucks franchise fits into both the interdependent categories perfectly.  

According to a news report by CNN, the first Starbucks cafe in India opened in 2012.  This change to the environment and culture of India has its foundation in globalization, utilizing the ever connectedness of countries, corporations, and markets.  India’s new economic plan in the 1990s — encompassing liberalization, privatization, and globalization — paved the way for the multi-billion dollar company to open its doors within India’s borders.  Studying the key fundamentals of the larger corporation and its individual cafes will help understand the structural oppression that is shaped to advance the health of only a portion of India. 

In order to analyze the effect of this artifact further, Starbucks industry’s source must be identified.  The headquarters are located in the United States, in the state of Washington.  There are over 27,000 Starbucks locations across the globe; more than half of these locations are in the United States.  Comparatively, there are around 100 Starbucks cafe locations in India.  The chain store began in the western hemisphere and migrated to India 41 years later.  Nonetheless, this flow of business, capital, and frankly, Starbucks coffee is relatively new to the area — considering its first store opened only 6 years ago.  The chain, however, quickly spread.  For each year since the opening of the first Starbucks in India, another 17 stores were opened annually.  

Additionally, the business’ motivation for spreading is a key element to its global flow.  This motivation is fundamental to understanding its health effect on the overall population of India.  For example, the first Indian Starbucks was opened in Mumbai, a location specifically and strategically chosen by the corporation.  Mumbai was discussed in class as a relatively wealthy area.  It is a movie producing hotspot.  It is a tourist destination.  These aspects of the city point to a particular lifestyle — a lifestyle of luxury and expense.  The citizens of Mumbai have a disposable income that can be spent on breakfast sandwiches and overpriced coffee.  Starbucks chose Mumbai as a location that would bring in revenue.  Mumbai chose Starbucks as a business that would benefit the city.  The global is interacting with the local and vice versa, each contributing to the worldwide spread of people, goods, and services.

In addition, the meticulous placement of Starbucks is emphasized by my personal experience in India.  Our homestay is in the wealthy neighborhood of Greater Kailash; and down the street is a Starbucks.  People come to reap the benefits of clean water, free wifi, a sewage system, and nutritious food at the cafe.  These are basic elements of the Starbucks franchise.  Therefore, wherever a Starbucks is built, these factors of wellbeing are built into the neighborhood as well.  

However, this strategic and revenue maximizing business plan further stretches the gap of social capital between the rich and the poor.  The rich live in areas like Greater Kailesh and Mumbai which have stores like Starbucks.  The poor live in areas where Starbucks and similar businesses would refuse to open a location.  To demonstrate the contrast, two illustrations must be drawn. 

Example one: A local of Greater Kailesh decides to go to a nearby Starbucks cafe for a cup of coffee.  There, they have the opportunity for free wifi, aiding them in their studies.  They have the opportunity to get a cashier job, benefiting their finances.  They have the opportunity for a hygienic social environment, benefiting their mental health.  Therefore, it is fair to say Starbucks indirectly provides resources that advance life for only a portion of the Indian population, its customer base.  

Example two: This information is gathered from our class’ recent visit to a New Delhi “slum”.  Within the group of small and connected houses, I noticed two places the families of the particular neighborhood could purchase food.  Both places were small snack stands.  The vendors provided bagged food — processed and high caloric.  No kitchen for fresh meals.  No bathroom with running water.  No wifi to help complete homework.  No hiring opportunities.  The food “cafe” of this neighborhood is merely a provider of unhealthy junk food.  It provides no additional advancements to the community.  

With this stark contrast in mind, Starbucks in India — a product of globalization — provides resources that advance life for only middle to upper class individuals.  Therefore, the artifact of Starbucks demonstrates a motif of the larger problem of systemic oppression.  For those living in low-income neighborhoods are not able to reap the benefits of a Starbucks cafe because they don’t have access to one.  Outsiders seem to be ignorant of the institutional oppression that creates this perpetuation of poverty.  It’s a cycle with outside influences, influences that flow from the home country and the entire world. 


Rhiannon in India: From Home

January 3, 2014

I have been back home for about a few weeks now, and I have to say it is a little strange to be back. I feel like after landing at the Raleigh airport, I haven’t had the chance to look back, swept away instantly by the happenings of everyday life back home. However, I’m excited to see how my experience abroad impacts my life going forward.

Back when I said I was going to India for 5 months, many people asked, ‘Why don’t you just study in Europe? India is the kind of place you want to spend two weeks, not five months.’ If I had visited for two weeks, I think I would have come home totally overwhelmed, having seen many things but understood very little. Even now, after spending five months in the wonderful country, I still find myself questioning what I truly understand from my experience, but I’m glad I spent a semester there so that I could integrate and meet many people.

When we first arrived in Hyderabad, our advisors asked us to write down five goals that we hoped to achieve during the semester. Some of mine were practical, like learning a few phrases in Hindi, and learning a few Indian recipes, but others were more theoretical. One of them was to live like a typical Indian in India by the end of the semester. I think that I really achieved that, and by the end of my stay, was able to blend in relatively well – despite the blonde hair. Living with Nivedita and Prerna, surrounded by friendly neighbors who took us in like family, was the best choice I could have made to begin living a more ‘normal’ lifestyle in Hyderabad. Spending time with them will remain some of my favorite memories for a lifetime

I want to thank my host family, my neighbors, and my friends in India who helped me acclimate to life in India. I also want to thank everyone who followed my blog, read about my experiences, and gave me tips or comments. I am so glad I decided to keep a blog about my trip, because sitting down to write it gave me some of the best time to reflect on my experiences abroad

Thanks for reading!

Namaskar.

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The sun setting over Hyderabad from our apartment


Rhiannon in India: A South Indian Adventure

December 12, 2013

As I wrote in my last post, I have been traveling around South India for the past two weeks on a lightening-speed tour of Kerala and Karnataka. Kerala, one of the southern-most states in India, is often considered a country apart from the rest of India, and better yet, “God’s Own Country.” In Kerala, my friend and I visited Kochi, the seaside state capital; Munnar, a chilly hill station among the Western Ghats; and Alleppey, the go-to town for boat rides on the backwaters. After two overnight bus rides north to Karnataka, we visited Udupi, home to many Hindu temples and the birth place of the dosa; Hampi, a tourist haven surrounded by beautiful landscapes and ancient ruins; Bangalore, the bustling business hub of the south; and Mysore, a smaller city known for its palace and yoga ashrams. The whole experience has been a whirlwind of historical sites, markets, beaches, and mountains, and I am already having trouble keeping everything straight in my memory. However, there are a few exceptional experiences that I am confident will stand out in my mind for years to come, and those are the ones I would like to share here.

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The tea plantations in Munnar

One of our first stops in Kerala was Munnar, a bumpy, nauseous five-hour bus ride from Kochi, tucked within the Western Ghats. As we approached Munnar on the summit of a hill, the air quickly got cooler, the scenery got greener, and I was immediately happier. Tata, a multibillion-dollar Indian corporation, owns most of the land surrounding Munnar and has turned it into profit by covering the land with tea plantations. From the road, the tea fields look like a rolling, rippling, sea of perfectly manicured green hills, occasionally peaked by a rocky summit. We spent two days touring the beautiful tea plantations and other areas around Munnar, including waterfalls and a wildlife sanctuary where we saw the rare grizzled giant squirrel, but sadly missed out on the rumored mountain goats and wild elephants. The whole time we were in the mountains, I was in awe at how many different foods are grown there – tea, coffee, bananas, sugar cane, black pepper, papaya, coconuts, and many more.

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A village near Munnar

We left Munnar in the hopes of catching a once-daily direct bus to Alleppey, but when we got to the bus station, we were informed that the bus had been cancelled that day. Instead, we took three separate buses, zigzagging our way in the general direction of our destination, finally giving up in a small town and sharing a taxi with a nice Canadian couple for the last hour. When we finally got to our hotel late in the evening, the hotel owner told us that the cheaper room that we had reserved was actually taken, but graciously gave us a more expensive room for the same price. Little did we know at the time that it was an off-site cabin in the middle of a rice field that took 30 minutes in an auto and a boat ride to get to! Despite our confusion getting to our “room” after a long day of bus riding, staying in the cabin was an awesome experience. We were right on the edge of a backwater canal in a long row of village houses, right across the water from a man named Babu who had a canoe and would take us on canoe rides for 200 rupees an hour. We spent a lazy morning canoeing through the village with Babu, who knew everyone and had to stop every 15 minutes to talk to his friends along the water. That afternoon, we rented kayaks and toured some of the most beautiful areas of the Alleppey backwaters.

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Canoeing in the backwaters near Alleppey

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Sunset over the Arabian Sea at Alleppey Beach

Traveling through South India these past two weeks has been one of the most exciting and interesting times of my life, and I am amazed at how much I have learned in such a short time. As my return home quickly approaches, I hope that I will be able to make the most of my experiences here – especially what I have learned about how different cultures can be, but at the same time how similar we are as people. It continually surprises me that, although the details of daily life may be different from country to country or even region to region in India, we have much more in common than what may be seen on the surface. Now that these two weeks are over, I can’t wait to see my friends and family once more in Hyderabad, then head back to Raleigh, North Carolina!


Rhiannon in India: Missing Life in Hyderabad

November 22, 2013

Right now, I am on a plane on my way to Kochi, Kerala. As I wrote in my last post, I am spending the next two weeks travelling through the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka, known for their coastlines, mountains, and coconuts. As soon as my Hindi exam ended today, I rushed home to pack my things and headed to the airport, eager to finally escape school life and being an amazing adventure. But this excitement came at a price. I have been so engulfed by exams and planning for this trip, I had not realized that I would be seeing many of my friends for the last time today. When we left the exam room this afternoon, many of my friends and I realized that our end-of-semester travels would be separating us until it was time to go home in December. We said our goodbyes, but it seemed so rushed and unexpected that it left me feeling strange about leaving for my trip. I know I’ll see many of my American friends again, whether it be in India before we leave or once we are back home, but these goodbyes made me realize something even worse. Even though I’ll be in India for a few more weeks, I will never be in the daily routine that I developed earlier this semester. I may never get to experience the little things that became so normal and part of my everyday life, like being greeted by the familiar auto-wallahs in our neighborhood, riding my bike to class with two flat tires, or eating a pound of rice at my favorite canteen on campus. So although I am thrilled to start my two-week trip, it is a bittersweet excitement.

I know I’ll miss every experience, every interaction, and every person at some point when I get home, because it is often the little things that come to mind first when I am reflecting on my stay in India. Nevertheless, there are a few people that I will really miss having as a part of my everyday life once I am home.

The first is my host family – Nivedita, my host mom, and Prerna, my host sister. Looking back on the semester, I feel so lucky to have been placed with this host family. Nivedita and Prerna were always so kind and patient with us when we would ask endless questions about Indian culture. Nivedita would always let us crowd around her in the small kitchen while she was cooking dinner to watch and write down recipes. She would also spend hours after dinner telling us the religious stories about different gods behind all of the holidays we were celebrating, and was the primary source behind many of my blog posts this semester. Prerna was also a very good source of information when it came to understanding the ins and outs of Indian culture. We really got to bond with Prerna when she came with us on a long weekend trip to Mumbai. She had never been to Mumbai before, so we all went together to explore the big city, see some sites, and go shopping for “western” clothes. My favorite part about hanging out with Nivedita and Prerna was when we go on trips with them. Last weekend, Nivedita’s sister and her two kids, Sanskar (12) and Isha (5), were visiting us from Pune to pick up Nivedita’s mom, who we called Aji (grandma in Marathi). While they were all staying with us, we went for a day trip to a town to the north of Hyderabad called Warangal, known for its farmland and historic temples. We spent the whole day hopping from site to site in the taxi while we had the best time hanging out with the family, especially the two kids, Sanskar and Isha. Everyone welcomed us into the family and treated us like we were one of them, especially Isha, who attached herself to Jennie and me the whole day.

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Our host family at a temple in Warangal

Jennie Sanskar Isha rice field jumping

Jennie, Sanskar, Isha, and I jumping in a rice field near Warangal

I am also fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet the neighbors in our apartment building. One of the first people we met when we moved into the apartment was Moulali, the watchman. A middle-aged Telugu man, he knew very little English (and I knew even less Telugu), but somehow we always managed to communicate about where our host family was, what he was having for dinner that night, where we were going, and when we’d be back. Every time we came into the carport, where he and his family lived in a small room, he would yell, “Namaste!” and fold his hands dramatically. He was always extremely energetic, and my best memory of Moulali was when Jennie and I gave him a flower for him to give it to his wife, Narasimha. He took the flower, then sang and skipped all the way across the carport to his wife to give it to her.

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Moulali and Narasimha, the watchman and maid for our apartment building

Throughout the semester, we formed a close relationship with the other family on our hall, spending many afternoons or weekends hanging out in their apartment watching TV, or eating lots of snacks, and playing with their two kids Binnu (9) and Quiny (5). Madhu and Sandiya, the parents, were so kind and welcoming to us, and now seem like an integral part of our host family. We also became really close with the family living in the “penthouse” apartment on the roof. They also had two kids, Lalith (14) and Spandana (9), who we also spent a lot of time with. Lalith, a super smart rubix cube master, would always hang out in our apartment and tell us about the things he was learning in school. Spandana loved to come over to color or learn English songs from YouTube on our laptops. As the semester went on, our three families spent more and more time together, sharing meals, going to the park, and even doing sunrise yoga on the roof.

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Binnu and Quiny in their Diwali outfits

There are many other people I will miss as well. I will miss spending evenings with Jennie doing homework, making cookies, and watching old episodes of Disney channel shows. I will miss traveling to new, exciting places with my friends from CIEE. I will miss meeting with my peer tutor Rajini twice a week to attempt at speaking Hindi. I will miss going to dinner and concerts with my friends from Hyderabad. And the list goes on.

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My peer tutor Rajini and me at our normal meeting spot in front of the library

Of course, I could list just as many, or more, things that I miss from home right now too, and I’m excited to go back to my family and friends in America. But now that my time in India is coming to a close, I wish that I could stay here for a little longer and prolong the end to these wonderful experiences I have had this semester.


Rhiannon in India: Ending the semester on a great note

November 19, 2013

I starting to dawn on me that I only have few weeks left in India, and what’s worse, only a few more days left in Hyderabad! All of a sudden, I am scrambling to spend as much time as possible with my friends in Hyderabad, the other students in my program, and my home stay family and neighbors. To add to this busy schedule, I am hurrying to find gifts for my family and friends at home, plus attempting to study for finals and plan for my end-of-semester travelling. Because of all this craziness, it has been hard to find time to blog about my recent experiences, not to mention stopping to reflect on my semester and going back home. Nevertheless, I am happy that, in the past few weeks, I have been able to spend time doing the things that I will miss most once I am back home.

It may sound strange, but one thing I will miss most about this semester is sitar practice. Twice a week, five of my friends and I spent at least an hour in the evenings learning sitar from our wonderful teacher Vinoj, who only knew a few words in English. We learned mostly by watching and repeating what he played, but he would always say, “very good, very good” accompanied by a pat on the head, if we played something correctly, or “WRONG” if we messed up. Although we couldn’t communicate much through language, our teacher was always enthusiastic and supportive of us, and it provided a lot of hilarious moments during practice. Last week, we finally performed in the SIP Cultural Show, playing two songs on sitar that we have been practicing for three or four months now. It was really nerve-wracking to perform in front of a large auditorium full of UoH students and professors, but we were all proud of ourselves for performing only a few months after starting to learn sitar from scratch. As soon as we started playing our second piece, a popular Bollywood song, the whole crowd erupted in applause, and afterward, some of my Indian friends said we stole the show!

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Sitar class with our teacher and tabla player

Here’s a video of our performance:

Another thing I will miss a lot is hanging out with the little kids in my apartment building. A few weekends ago, Jennie and I were missing home, so we threw a Halloween party and invited all the families in our building. We decorated the rooftop patio with orange balloons, paper pumpkins and bats, and tissue paper ghosts. We bought tons of candy, a pumpkin, and some art supplies and planned some activities so that all the kids could participate. When the kids showed up that night, they were all decked out in full costumes, masks, capes, and face paint! We wore costumes, turned on some music, and played Halloween-themed bingo, pin the spider on the web, and musical chairs. The biggest hit among the kids was the “brain bowl,” a pumpkin full of noodles with prizes in the bottom that kids had to find by reaching their hands in the “brains.” Usually, we are constantly asking questions about Indian traditions, so it was nice to share a little bit about our culture in return, while getting to spend time with our neighbors too.

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The kids in their costumes for the Halloween party

Halloween weekend also happened to be Prerna’s birthday and Diwali, so the whole weekend was full of celebration. On Saturday, Prerna decided to celebrate her 15th birthday at an orphanage in Hyderabad that she had visited before with her school. We loaded up the car with toys and headed to the orphanage with our host family and some of our “extended host family” as well. Going to the orphanage was one of the many eye-opening experiences I have had while being in India. When we arrived, I thought it was a girl’s orphanage because almost all of the children I saw were girls, ranging from infants to pre-teens. However, I realized that it is only because many families in India can’t afford having daughters that the orphanage was so overwhelmingly female. It is illegal in India to determine the sex of a child before birth, so many baby girls are abandoned after they are born. To add to this problem, the social stigma around having children out of wedlock and the discrimination of children with divorced parents causes many mothers to abandon children regardless of their gender. This was a sad reality to witness firsthand at the orphanage, but while we were there we met a few of the children that had been adopted, including one girl who would be leaving the orphanage with her new family to live in London in just a few weeks.

The next day, we celebrated Diwali, one of the biggest and most widely celebrated holidays in India,with our host family and neighbors. We feasted all day on white rice, lemon rice, curries, daal, roti, vada, peanut chutney, and tons of sweets like laddus, gulab jamin, and kheer. Then we spent the evening setting off fireworks and playing with sparklers. There aren’t many regulations on fireworks here, so it was actually quite frightening how many explosions were going off in the small alleyways and streets between the apartments in our neighborhood. Apparently Diwali is one of the most dangerous days of the year in India, and we even saw an apartment building on fire in the distance. We went up on the roof to watch the 360-degree view firework show going on for miles around us, but as the night went on, we all got headaches from the booming noises and smoke inhalation. Overall, my first Diwali experience seemed like a mixture of Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and Blitzkrieg.

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Our Diwali feast

In just a few days, after I finish exams, I’ll be heading to South India with my friends to explore the backwaters of Kerala, tea plantations in the Western Ghats, and the luxurious palaces of old kings in Karnataka. I’m anxious to start these adventures, but the excitement is bittersweet. When I leave for this trip, I’ll be saying goodbye to Hyderabad, the wonderful city that I’ve called home for the last five months.

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Diwali decorations – rangoli and diyas


Rhiannon in India: Observing the many religions of India

November 6, 2013

A lot has been changing here recently. Finals are quickly approaching, the end of our program is almost a month away, and believe it or not, it is getting a little cooler here in Hyderabad. Right now, we are busy reviewing for finals in our classes, making travel plans for our last trips around India, and preparing for the Cultural Show, a performance that the Study in India program puts on at the end of every semester for the entire university. SIP students will perform things they know from home or something that they have learned here, like sitar or traditional dance. According to our advisors, it’s a huge hit among the university community and the auditorium is always packed. My sitar class will be performing two songs in the show, one traditional raga and one popular Bollywood song from the movie Aashiqui II. Together, the songs total 15 minutes of straight playing time, so it’s safe to say my fingers will be totally numb by the end.

Because I am leaving India in only one month, I have been spending more time reflecting on what I have learned in my time here – what has fascinated me, what has confused me, and what I am still interested to learn more about. A few weeks ago, CIEE took us to Varanasi (formerly called Banaras) for a long weekend trip, and although I have been interested in the many religions of India since I arrived in July, being in Varanasi made me even more fascinated by the complexity of the subject. Just as in any other part of the world, religion is a complex part of Indian culture that is impossible to boil down to one blog post, but somehow India strikes me as even more complicated than many other places in its religious culture. It seems impossible for an outsider like me to understand the innumerable traditions, values, festivals, and rituals of each of the religious groups present in India, especially because each part of the country has created its own unique version over the centuries. What’s more, religion or spirituality is much more present in everyday life here than it is in the US, so I am surrounded by constant reminders of its importance and complexity.

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The Bahai Lotus Temple in Delhi

Of course, religion is different for every person in India, and there is no way I have seen even a small part of all there is to see. I have met Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists, and I’m sure many others. Instead of attempting to make sense of it all, I would just like to share the experiences I have had over the past few months that show just how integral religion is to Indian culture.

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A small shrine on the side of the road in Pondicherry

As Hinduism is the dominant religion in India, there are references to Hindu gods everywhere you turn. There are Hindu temples along the roadsides, tucked away between houses in neighborhoods, and among the rocks on the hillsides. There are shrines to one god or another in almost every store and restaurant, puja rooms in almost every Hindu household, and pictures or statuettes of deities in many taxis and autos. As I said before, each region of India has molded their own religious traditions, so people always joke that if we celebrated every religious holiday in India, we would never have to go to school or work. Adding to this is the shear number of gods recognized in Hinduism. There are millions of Hindu deities, but most Hindus will say that this is because there are just many names for each of the main gods.

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Men performing morning puja at Assi Ghat in Varanasi

As I said, our trip to Varanasi last month really solidified my interest in religion in India. Varanasi, nestled on the edge of the Ganges River, is the “Mecca of Hinduism” and full of religious temples, stupas, and shrines to various Hindu gods and the Buddha. It is one of the only places in India that is famous for its sacred rituals concerning all parts of the life cycle. The Ganges River, named after the Hindu goddess Ganga, is the holiest river in India, although all rivers are considered to be auspicious because of their cleansing and purifying qualities. All Hindus aspire to visit Varanasi and bathe in the Ganges at least once in their lifetime to be cleansed of their sins. Unfortunately, the Ganges has now become one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Families unable to afford cremation often put the bodies of the deceased in the river anyway, and you can see trash lining the water’s edge as you walk along the riverbank. However, this doesn’t deter many followers of Hinduism and other religions that worship the Ganges from bathing in the water, or even drinking it to cure diseases.

There are over one hundred “ghats,” or long, steep steps leading down to the water’s edge, along the riverside in Varanasi. These ghats are used for bathing, daily puja, and death rituals. At many of the ghats, there are cremation pyres, where the bodies of the dead are burned and their ashes spread into the water of the Ganges, allowing that person to reach Moksha, or the liberation from the reincarnation cycle of life and death. As we explored the city that weekend, it seemed like every 20 minutes we saw a funeral procession moving through the narrow, crowded alleyways toward the river, with covered bodies laid out on stretchers carried by two men. At first all the talk about death was a bit depressing, and I wondered if this process of pushing through the crowds of people was disrespectful to the deceased. However, I came to realize as I watched this happen many times that the procession through the holy city to the river is a very sacred part of the death ritual.

Because of these rituals, many Hindus and people from other religions move from all over the world to the holy city in order to die and be cremated by the Ganges. As a result, Varanasi has become a microcosm of India, comprised of small neighborhoods for people from each region of the country. Even the way each of these groups practices Hinduism – the gods they worship, the types of temples they build, and the rituals they conduct – are very different, so moving around the city quickly becomes a lesson in the cultural plurality of India.

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Men having their heads shaved on the street for Pitru Paksha, a 16-day period when Hindus pay homage to their ancestors

We also went to Sarnath, the sister city of Varanasi where the Buddha gave his first sermon and now home to a Buddhist stupa and a sapling from the Bhodi tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. A stupa is a solid mound of earth, stone, or brick of any size, usually containing relics from the Buddha himself, that is used as a meditation site for Buddhists. We have seen many stupas while we have been in India, and most of them contain relics (usually ashes) from the Buddha. At first, I thought it was very curious that, although Buddhism originated in India, there are very few Buddhists in the country, and instead it is practiced mainly in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, and other Asian countries. But I learned from a few friends here that in India, Buddhism is not considered a religion separate from Hinduism. Rather, the Buddha is considered a Hindu sage, and his followers in India consider themselves Buddhist Hindus. It was not until the ideology spread to other countries that it became a religion in itself.

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The Buddhist stupa in Sarnath

Although Hinduism is the main religion in India, Hyderabad is actually one of the largest Muslim centers in the country. As you go towards the Old City in the center of Hyderabad, you will see more mosques, men wearing taquiyas (head coverings), and women wearing hijabs or burkas. Even from our apartment, we can hear music from the Hindu temple and the call to worship in Arabic from the Mosque in our neighborhood. The Old City has a large Muslim population because Hyderabad used to be ruled by the Nizams, an Islamic monarchy, from 1724 until 1948. This mixture of Islamic and Hindu culture makes Hyderabad an especially interesting place to live.

I didn’t intend for this blog post to be a boring lecture on religion, but I hope that it shows just how important religion is to the vast majority of people in India. Because we are surrounded by it every day as we are studying here, it has become something we must learn about – whether we like it or not. I know I am not alone in my frustration over which Hindu god did what, what religious holidays we are celebrating practically every week, or the reasoning behind the rituals that we witness everyday. But becoming a part of these things has been a wonderful opportunity that I could have never had at home.


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