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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Rhiannon in India: Classes at the University of Hyderabad

October 22, 2013

Now that I have been taking classes at the University of Hyderabad (or Hyderabad Central University, as it is called here) for about three months now, I have started to reflect a bit more on my academic experience. As I wrote at the beginning of the semester, the University of Hyderabad is a predominantly graduate-level university about 20 minutes outside the center of Hyderabad. Although the university has a small student body of about 5,000 students, the campus is vast, full of greenery, and serves as a nice sanctuary within the bustling city. Much of the campus still lies untouched, so despite the long, hot walks to South Campus every afternoon, it is nice to be in an environment with lakes, trees, and wildlife like peacocks and water buffalo.


It’s like walking through the jungle to get to class, and sometimes I see peacocks on the sidewalks and in the trees


The natural, untouched landscape

I am taking four classes this semester, two that are direct-enrollment with Indian students and two that are only for international students and are held in the Study in India Program building all the way in South Campus (which is quite far from the rest of the academic buildings). My two SIP courses, Basic Hindi and Indo-US Policies, are structured much more like classes at home and cater more to our home school programs and majors. These classes are great because our professors give us tons of opportunities to do things outside of the classroom and experience different aspects of Indian culture. Our Hindi professor, Bhavani, who is also a home stay mom for some girls in my program, holds cooking classes in her home for us. And our Indo-US Policies professor, Ramesh Babu, took us on a trip to Osmania University in another part of Hyderabad, had us over to his sister’s house for dinner, and invited our whole class to his cousin’s wedding. Even though we are just their students, they really embody the Indian culture of welcoming guests and want us to see India in the best way possible.

For the most part, my classes in India are very similar to my classes at Richmond, but there are definitely some differences as well. My workload so far pales in comparison to my usual workload in Richmond, not because the class content is less challenging, but because the grading system here is much different. At home, professors generally decide the number and nature of assignments in each class. Here, however, there is a university-wide policy for assignments and grading. Professors must assign three “internal” assignments, counting only the best two, and one final. This means that you can skip one of the internal assignments because only your best two are counted. Other than these two assignments, no other work is really required, except studying for the final. This system makes it really easy to fall behind with readings because there isn’t much incentive to do them, especially if the class is lecture-style and you aren’t expected to contribute in discussions. What’s worse (or better, depending on your perspective) is that you only need 75% attendance to pass, so generally speaking, it is much easier to get by with much less effort than at Richmond.


The shopping complex (Shop-Com), where all the students hang out, eat, and socialize

I really notice this in my Indian Philosophy class, which has about 15 students, five of which are SIP students like me. We are learning about three schools of Indian philosophy, including Yoga, but the professor is very new to teaching and, according to my Indian classmates, studied art in graduate school – not philosophy. Because of this, her lectures are usually pretty confusing, not only to the international students, but to the Indians too. And to add to that, the Indian style of teaching tends to emphasize repetition, so many of our lectures are about very similar things for days at a time. After the first few weeks, many of the Indian students even stopped coming to class. For the international students, this class gets pretty frustrating, and we usually just read outside material on Indian philosophy to complete our assignments.


It’s pretty common for the campus dogs to go in and out of the academic buildings. This one in particular sits in on our philosophy class every morning.

On the other hand, my Technology and Politics professor is very interesting to listen to and engages the students a lot in class. We talk about a wide range of topics – from philosophy to new technological advances with regards to caste and gender issues – and the students get really excited to contribute in class. The structure is mostly discussion-based, and our professor engages the class by assigning presenters and discussions on each reading assignment. If you don’t speak up during the discussion, she will inevitably call you out and ask if you have anything to add. She can be pretty intimidating, but her way of challenging students seems to work well. For our second internal assignment, we have to research a topic of our choice and present on it, but instead of presenting what we have learned about the topic, we present our research proposal to the class. The class and the professor critique our research and then we have to write a formal research report by the end of the semester. I have never had to do this type of project before, so I’m not sure if this is a difference between U.S. and Indian schools, or if it is because this is a masters-level course and I have only had undergraduate classes so far. Regardless, I am glad that I took this class because I feel like I am learning about Indian culture, not just through the course content but also by hanging out with my classmates.


The outdoor auditorium on campus – the site of many student events and protests

Overall, I am really enjoying my classes in India and they are adding a lot to my experience. Not only do I enjoy learning about ancient Indian philosophy, India’s foreign policy, and caste and poverty issues, but I also think that observing my professors and classmates is a valuable way to learn about Indian culture.

Rhiannon in India: Indian Cuisine

October 2, 2013

If there’s anything that deserves the dedication of an entire blog post, it’s food. So far, I have loved the food here, and making the adjustment at the beginning of my trip was surprisingly easy. Some of the “dangers” that people warned me about still ring true, like drinking tap water or eating too much street food, but my friends and I have been here long enough now that we have adjusted to a lot of the differences. Sometimes I even go to a roadside stand with my host sister, Prerna, to eat a delicious snack called pani puri. When you go to a pani puri stand, the vendor takes a hollow fried ball out of a bag, pokes a hole in it with his thumb, throws in some mashed chickpeas with spices and cilantro, dunks the whole ball in a large vat of spicy broth, and hands it to you. You have to throw the whole thing in your mouth immediately before it disintegrates – and before he throws the next one your way.

As a disclaimer, my experience with food in India could never do justice to Indian food in general. Every state in India has its own trademark dish, and many people say that there is a new signature cuisine every 50 kilometers. This is because regional produce and ingredients almost always dictate the traditional dishes of an area in India because it wasn’t too long ago when India was made up of smaller localities called princely states. For instance, dishes in Kerala (the southern-most state, at the tip of India) always include coconuts – coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk, or dry coconut mixed into curries, chutneys, and sweets. Hyderabad is known for its spicy rice dish called biryani, and everyone here is proud of it. Biryani is typically eaten for special occasions, is made in very large quantities, and can be made “veg” or “non-veg” with mutton or chicken. Biryani is made with a variety of spices, or masala, including cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves.


Nivedita preparing biryani for the Ganesh festival

There are also many religious beliefs that dictate the way people eat in India. The ancient Hindu religious texts say that eating a strict vegetarian diet makes you peaceful, so being “veg” is a religious tradition and is also a symbol of caste identification. However, many people eat “non-veg” too, especially the Muslim and Christian communities, so finding a non-veg meal isn’t difficult. The ayurvedic texts also describe the health benefits of eating with your hands, like that your fingers correspond to the five elements, so using them to eat helps with digestion.

My host family is vegetarian, but Jennie, my friend who is also living at my home stay, is vegan and gluten-free, so now all of us eat that way at home. Unless I am traveling or my friends and I go out to eat, I mostly eat home-cooked meals by our host mom, Nivedita. In the morning, Nivedita makes us breakfast to take to school, usually consisting of fried rice and vegetables or dosas with chutney. Dosas are like super thin pancakes made of rice flour, similar to crepes in French cuisine. Chutneys can be made of virtually any vegetable, peanuts, or even coconut and are pureed with oil and spices. For dinner, we always eat together on the floor in the living room and usually have rice with daal (lentil soup) or a vegetable curry using okra, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, or carrots.


Dosas with carrot chutney


For lunch, I usually eat at one of the student canteens on campus. These canteens are all over campus and range in size from full restaurants to little shacks behind the school buildings. At the campus restaurant, called Gops, you can order tons of different curries, rice, noodles, and breads like naan or roti. The smaller canteens serve chai (tea) and fried snacks like samosas throughout the day and serve meals only around lunchtime. When you order a “meal,” you get a huge pile of rice and unlimited amounts of the curries and chutneys that they have made that day.

Integrated Canteen

My favorite canteen on campus

Another important meal of the day in India is “tiffins,” which is like the Indian version of teatime. This includes chai of course, but also a variety of snacks that are all deep-fried and incredibly delicious. I have been to two cooking classes to learn how to make some of these snacks, and the cooking instructors tried to teach us healthier ways of making them, but that didn’t mean they spared the oil and salt. We learned how to make mirchi bujji, pakora, chickpea sundel, and chiwada. I won’t explain these in detail, but they are all fried in oil and a variety of Indian spices. These are also typical dishes to eat during the rainy season. As my cooking instructor put it, “When Indians smell rain, they also smell pakora.”


A tiffins meal on the train – idly, vada, and chutney

As you can see, there are so many different types of Indian food that it would be impossible to describe them all here. I always enjoyed Indian food before coming here, but I have realized that what I thought of as Indian food at home barely scratched the surface. One of the best parts about traveling to new places in India is experiencing just how different the cuisine is from region to region. It really shows what a diverse and interesting country India is!


Preparing pakora at the cooking class

Rhiannon in India: Ganesh Chaturthi

September 20, 2013

As I mentioned in my last post, the past week was full of celebrations in honor of Ganesh’s birthday, called Ganesh Chaturthi. People in India celebrate by putting up statues of Ganesh in their homes or on the road and do pooja (ritual) around the Ganesh every day for anywhere from 3 to 11 days, depending on different traditions. At the end of the week, they put the Ganesh statues in water for Immersion, symbolizing Ganesh’s journey home to heaven. Because everyone puts the Ganesh statues in natural bodies of water during this holiday, it has been a huge source of pollution that adds to the issue of clean water in India. Recently, people have started using clay statuettes that naturally dissolve in the water, but many plastic and painted statues are still used every year. In Chennai, when we visited the temple to make an offering to Ganesh, we saw men making the clay Ganesh statuettes on the street for people to buy instead.

Clay Ganeshas

Men at the temple making clay Ganeshas

As soon as we got home from our Chennai trip on Monday night, the weeklong celebration began in full swing in our apartment building. While we were in Chennai, our host mom, Nivedita, and some of the other women in the building had put up a pandal, similar to a shrine, that included a large stage, elaborate decorations, and a 4-foot tall Ganesh statue in the car garage beneath our building, colorfully decorated with flowers and other small statuettes. Every night for five nights, all of the families in the apartment building (about 65 people in total) would gather around the pandal for pooja, singing, games, and dinner.

First, around 8 p.m., all the women would sit in a circle in front of Ganesh and chant Vedic mantras together. Then, a pujari would arrive and begin the formal ritual by chanting loudly, apparently instructing us to do certain actions, although I could never understand what he was saying. Instead, I would mimic the actions of the people around me, throwing rice on the Ganesh, drinking coconut water, spinning around three times to the right, and many other things. Although I never fully understood what was going on, burning incense, breaking coconuts, and listing the names of our neighbors were among the usual things done during the pooja. After the pujaris were finished, we would begin playing games and singing. Most of the children – and there were a lot of them – were very interested in Jennie and me and wanted to talk and play with us constantly. During the Friday night pooja, the families wanted to do something special so Jennie, Prerna and I sang a Taylor Swift song and played guitar. It turns out Taylor Swift is just as popular here as she is in the US, if not more!

Finally, around 9 or 10 p.m., we started dinner, which was prepared by some of the women in the apartment. It always included an enormous vat of rice, lots of fried snacks, and a dessert. The dessert was the most important part of the meal because Ganesh is known to love sweets. In fact, all of the statues of Ganesh show him holding a laddu, a sweet ball-shaped dessert, in one hand. The dinner usually went on until 11 or 12, and even after we came upstairs, we would go to the neighbors’ apartments and chat for another hour, so we were always exhausted by the end of the night.


Our apartment’s Ganesh pandal and food for the potluck

The most exciting part of the whole celebration was on Saturday, when we did the Immersion. As soon as we got up on Saturday morning, we started making biryani with Nivedita and Sandia, our neighbor down the hall. Biryani is a spicy rice dish special to Hyderabad – and we made 11 pounds of it for the potluck that day. When we gathered for the feast that afternoon, I was so surprised to see that there was even more rice, curries, snacks, and desserts that other people had made for us to eat. It was like Thanksgiving, but with more food than I could have ever imagined.

After eating, we started the procession of cars to the lake, displaying the large Ganesh statue in the back of the first car, like a parade float. The car had been decorated like the pandal, complete with flowers and all of the small Ganeshas from each apartment. After our neighbors blessed the journey by doing a ritual in front of the car with water, fire, and breaking coconuts, everyone drove their cars and two-wheelers slowly all the way to the lake while banging on pots and yelling “Jai! Jai!” The cheering didn’t stop until the last Ganesh had been thrown into the water.


Blessing the travel of the Ganesh procession

The best part of this celebration was getting the chance met all of our neighbors. Now that Jennie and I have gotten to know them, especially the kids, we haven’t stopped hanging out with them since. Now, we have started eating meals on the rooftop with some of the other families. When the power goes out (which happens every day), we go to the neighbors’ apartments to pass the time together. A few of the kids come to our apartment every day after school to play games or ask for help with their English homework. Some of the kids have even made it their job to teach me Telugu, the local language, although I am hopeless at pronouncing the words.


In the procession to the lake with the Ganesh statue

I feel so lucky to be surrounded by such a great community of people and that I have been able to form relationships with them over the past week. Not understanding Telugu, spilling the coconut water, or turning left instead of right during pooja didn’t seem to matter at all. Spending time with my host family and neighbors makes our differences melt away, and it has made a world of difference.


Our family and neighbors on the day of Immersion

Rhiannon in India: A Trip to the Beach

September 17, 2013

This weekend was another holiday, so Jennie, Romi, and I took a long overdue vacation south to Pondicherry and Chennai. After traveling north to the bustling capital a few weeks ago, we wanted a more relaxing destination – and we got it!

After we finished classes on Thursday, we boarded another Sleeper train with a 14-hour ride to Chennai ahead of us. Now, if you know anything about Bollywood or Indian pop culture, you are probably wondering if we traveled on the Chennai Express. Chennai Express is a very popular movie in India right now featuring two of Bollywood’s most famous actors – and it takes place on a train to Chennai. Unfortunately, our train was called Charminar Express rather than Chennai Express, but we took a few movie-like photos anyway.

Chennai Express

Before our trip to Chennai, we had a Chennai Express photo shoot

Even though we were in the most budget option of Sleeper compartments once again, the whole trip was very enjoyable. Truthfully, we were delighted to have seats on the train at all because, when we booked our trip online, we received RAC tickets (sort of like waiting list spots) and didn’t get our confirmed seats until two days before our trip! If we had boarded the train with RAC tickets, we would have had to share our bunks for the entire 14-hour ride, and we may have been separated. Luckily, after two weeks of watching our waitlist numbers get closer to zero on the website, we finally received our confirmed tickets and boarded the train to find three full bunks just for us.

One of the best parts of the train ride was the company we had in our compartment. An older Telugu-speaking couple sat across from us and, although we could barely communicate using English, somehow we shared food, laughed, and interacted with each other and had a wonderful time that night. There was also a young man in an RAC seat nearby that spent over an hour giving us suggestions for things to do in Pondicherry and Chennai. He seemed really enthusiastic to share information about temples, beaches, and festivals with us. Even after everyone had gone to sleep in their bunks, the old man and a younger man nearby, although strangers before the trip, sat up and chatted over chai for half the night.

After sleeping through the night in my little bunk on the train, I woke up early, waved good morning to the old lady across from me, then looked out of the little crack of the window visible from my bunk. I could not believe my eyes. The scenery was probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen! We were in the middle of green patty fields and marshlands, and every once in a while we passed through a village of small houses and huts. We passed people in the fields playing an early-morning game of cricket, and others in the villages getting ready for work. The train was following the coast, so in the distance I could see the Bay of Bengal, dotted with colorful sailboats. The best part was that the sunrise was reflected in all of the water collected in the fields and marsh from the monsoon rains.

When we pulled into the Chennai station, we had a quick breakfast and headed straight to the bus station to catch a three-hour bus south to Pondicherry. Pondicherry was a French settlement until the 1950s, so there is still a lot of French influence there (now mostly in terms of tourists), especially in the French quarter, a quaint little neighborhood on the beach. As we drove into Pondicherry, I noticed lots of flags that were a mix of the French and Indian flags. In the French quarter, all of the street names were French, many people spoke French, and people even said “salut” or “bonjour” to us on the street. We also had plenty of French food, coffee, and chocolates in the many French cafes all over the area. It was like we were in a totally different India! Being there reminded us of how many different cultures there are to see in India, and how no two are alike.

Colorful Pondicherry

All of the streets in the French Quarter were lined with colorful houses and hotels

Without a doubt, my favorite part of Pondicherry was the beach. In the French quarter, the coastline is mostly rocky, but still has a few sandy spots as well. We spent our first afternoon walking along the waterfront watching kids play in the water, although it is technically not allowed because of the strong current and pollution. We didn’t swim there, but our hotel owner told us about a cleaner beach seven kilometers south of the French quarter called Paradise Beach, so on Saturday we hopped in an auto and went there for the afternoon. We were a bit unsure about what we would be doing because it is uncommon in India to swim at the beach, but we left the hotel with open minds and lots of food for a picnic. But to our surprise, Paradise Beach was almost completely deserted, so we jumped in the water for a swim! We picnicked and played Frisbee for a while, but all of a sudden black cloud started rolling in from over the ocean. Within 15 minutes, the wind picked up, the sky got dark, and it began to rain so hard we thought it was hailing. We ran back to our auto and got back to our hotel safe and sound, so now we can say that we survived a monsoon on the beach at the Bay of Bengal!

Rocks in Pondicherry

The rocky coastline of the French Quarter

On Sunday, we went back to the bus station and caught a bus back to Chennai. The next day was Ganesha Chaturthi, the beginning of a long festival to celebrate Lord Ganesha’s birthday. Ganesha is the Hindu god whose head resembles an elephant, and he is the god whom Hindus pray to first because he takes away obstacles in life. The story of Ganesha (as told by my host mom) is that his mother, Parvati, wanted a son so she made Ganesha out of sandalwood while her husband Shiva, the destroyer god and Ganesha’s father, was out of the house. Parvati put life into Ganesha and put him in front of the door to protect the house from intruders. When Shiva came back from hunting, Ganesha wouldn’t let him in, and not knowing that Ganesha was his son, Shiva cut off his head, which flew into the jungle. When Parvati realized what had happened, she explained to Shiva that he had killed their son and ordered that he go into the jungle to find Ganesha’s head. Shiva went out and returned with an elephant head instead and brought Ganesha back to life.

To celebrate on Monday, we went to a temple in Chennai and offered some flowers to Ganesha. During the festival, statues of Ganesha are put up in neighborhoods all over India, and people put small statues in their houses as well. There were six- to ten-foot tall Ganesha statues on all the roads and vendors were selling small clay statuettes in all the market areas. While we were in an auto on our way to the temple, a parade of people passed by with a mobile Ganesha shrine, so our auto driver parked the auto and ran over to receive prasadam (offered food and coconut water). When we returned to Hyderabad that night, we were surprised to find our neighborhood transformed with large, colorful Ganesha shrines on all the street corners complete with floodlights and loud music.

Mobile Ganesha Chennai

The mobile Ganesha passing our auto in Chennai

The trip this weekend was so relaxing and beautiful, but now I have a busy week ahead of me. Our apartment building will be celebrating for the Ganesha festival every night this week with poojahs (devotions) and lots of food. I will post soon about all of the festivities going on right here in Hyderabad!

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi!

Rhiannon in India: Connecting with People

August 27, 2013

Namaste mere dost! [Hello friends!]

My trip to Delhi this past weekend was a blast, but I am glad to be back in Hyderabad. In Delhi, the weather was a sticky mixture of monsoon rains followed by hot, sunny afternoons. But back in Hyderabad, the weather is generally cool and only gets up to the mid-80s. It’s nice to be back in a smaller city, too, where we aren’t treated as much like tourists, and people just seem nicer in general. Delhi was a wonderful place to visit, but being in one of the largest cities in the world made me really appreciate the great things about Hyderabad! This week, I have learned a lot about culture, not necessarily through visiting more places, but through engaging with more people in Hyderabad – my host family, my classmates and professors, and my community. Connecting with people here has proved to be a rewarding way to experience India that goes far beyond shopping at markets and seeing historical sites.

Family Poojah

Prerna celebrating Raksha Bandhan (Sibling Day) with her aunt and uncle

This weekend, Nivedita and Prerna (my host mom and sister) invited us to an event at Oakridge International School, where Prerna goes to school and Nivedita teaches art. The event was called Treasure Fest, which is a vibrant two-day arts competition for many of the schools in Hyderabad. Check out the video for some of the performances!

I also went with four friends this weekend to meet with the founders of Sankalp, the NGO that I talked about in an earlier post. Founders Anita and Sara never fail to inspire me with their dedication to helping Indian women and preventing sexual violence. They explained to us that, because they just started the organization, they are still in a research and development stage. Making connections with other NGOs, the police department, and law firms in the Hyderabad area is the most important task right now because these other organizations will help advertise Sankalp as a contact for victims of sexual violence. As volunteers, we will be researching different areas of this issue in India so that they can use the information for presentations, grants, and education. They gave us research topics on human trafficking, the effect of caste and religion on sexual violence issues, the psychology of a sexual offender, and many more. Because I am interested in law, my assignment is to research and compile the recent movements in the Indian legal system pertaining to crimes against women. Anita and Sara also mentioned that they will be doing advocacy and prevention programs in local slums and encouraged us to tag along when we can! This may not be your stereotypical semester abroad, but I am so excited that I will have the chance to meet tons of people from a variety of backgrounds and, if I’m lucky, do something to give back while I’m here.

Girls in Manikonda

Meeting some friends in the neighborhood

It is also nice to be back home because the “study” in study abroad has started to kick in. Classes at the University of Hyderabad have been one of the most interesting cultural experiences yet on my trip. I am taking four classes for credit — Indian Philosophy, Technology and Politics, Indo-US Policies, and Basic Hindi — two that are direct-enrollment into the university and two that are classes for international students. I have noticed that Indian students are much more engaged in classroom debate than I am used to at home. Issues of caste, politics, education, Marxism, Indian philosophy, and Western lifestyle are topics that seem to come up in every class discussion, like the students really are thinking about these things all the time. One of my CIEE advisors mentioned at the beginning of the semester that some aspects of India remind her of what the 1960s must have been like in the US. It seems like there is a lot of passion among Indians, especially younger generations like the students at University of Hyderabad, to impact social norms and traditions, whether it be in a positive or negative way. Every week, it seems like there is another forum, rally, or protest on campus that gets students talking about their freedoms. By talking to students in my class, I have heard many different opinions of how students should act while at the university, most of which are compared to their view of “the Western way.”

Oakridge Art

A student’s painting in the art competition at Oakridge Treasure Fest

Although my academic classes are interesting, my favorite class that I am here taking is Sitar! I take lessons two times a week with a few of my friends in the CIEE program. I thought it might be similar to playing guitar, but so far it has been totally different. To make it even more interesting, our teacher speaks very little English, so we have to follow along by listening and watching him play. So far we have learned one melody and Happy Birthday, but soon we will start working on playing a piece for the Cultural Show at the end of the semester!


Me practicing the sitar

Rhiannon in India: A Weekend in Delhi and Agra

August 19, 2013

After a month in India, I finally had a weekend free to do some traveling outside Hyderabad with my friends! Until now, our weekends here have been occupied by activities in Hyderabad – seeing historical sites, hiking through rocky terrain, shopping in the old markets, watching Bollywood movies, cooking Indian food… But because Thursday was Independence Day here in India, my friends and I took advantage of the long weekend and flew to Delhi! Our program directors were going to take our entire group to Hampi, a historical city in a nearby state, but because of the recent Telangana decision that I talked about in my last post, they decided to postpone our trip to a later date. Although we were disappointed, they assured us that it would be fine to travel anywhere independently as long as we didn’t take roads through the areas of agitation. What resulted from their announcement Monday afternoon was a mad rush to decide what we would be doing to take advantage of this rare opportunity: a long weekend. Within hours of the announcement on Monday, my friends Kate, Romi, Jennie and I had booked our flight to Delhi and were already reading our guidebooks for ideas!

It took hours of last-minute planning, but before we left Hyderabad, we had our travel plans intact and a list of all the interesting things to do in Delhi. We even booked an early 3-hour train from Delhi to Agra so that we could spend Independence Day visiting the Taj Mahal! We left Hyderabad early Wednesday morning and arrived in Delhi with a whole afternoon open to explore. With Lonely Planet as our roadmap for the weekend, we explored the area around our hotel and found a great restaurant that served all-you-can-eat North Indian thali, a to-die-for meal that anyone visiting India must try. For four days straight, we did one thing after another and tried to fit in as many activities as possible. But instead of listing all of them here, I’ll just give the highlights.

Getting from place to place may be the most mundane part of traveling for most people, but as I have explained in earlier posts, transportation in India often brings new and exciting experiences. During our last dinner in Delhi, we thought back over our 4-day trip and counted at least ten modes of transportation that we had used: planes, taxis, walking, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, city buses, sleeper buses, metros, sleeper trains, and we added, jokingly, swimming, because the monsoon was so bad in Delhi that the streets were covered in water half way to our knees. Every time we walked to and from our hotel, we had to wade through a “puddle” the size of a football field that poured into some of the shops near the road!

Flooding in Delhi

Flooding in Delhi

The sleeper train was definitely a new experience for me this weekend. When booking a long-distance train in India, there are so many options that choosing can be really overwhelming! You can choose between General (the cheapest option), Sleeper, 3 A/C, 2 A/C, and 1 A/C (the most expensive). You don’t need to book a General ticket ahead of time, but for this reason, you never know what will happen and you may have to stand for the entire trip. Because we booked our train so last-minute, the only option for us (besides the General compartment, which we were advised not to take) was the Sleeper. The benefits of the A/C compartments are that they have air conditioning and that they provide increasing levels of space, comfort, and privacy. When we entered the Sleeper compartment early Thursday morning, we found our “seats,” which actually resembled 3-level bunk beds. We slept the whole way and the trip was over in a snap! I wonder now why all transportation isn’t like this.

Sleeper Compartment

Sleeper Compartment

The main highlight of our trip was obviously seeing the Taj Mahal. I was a little skeptical before hand, but the Taj is even more magnificent than I could have ever imagined! Not only is it huge and glowing, but every inch is beautifully decorated with such ornate stone inlay that it is impossible to capture in a photo. We spent a whole morning at the Taj walking around the grounds and taking in the experience of being at one of the Wonders of the World! Our entire trip was a lesson on the history, culture, and religions of Delhi and Agra. We also visited many other magnificent structures in Delhi and Agra – the “Baby Taj,” two Red Forts, the Lotus Temple, numerous tombs of kings and emperors, and many shrines of religious leaders. It is difficult to count all of the sites we visited because many of them were tucked away among residential and market areas.

Taj Mahal

Our group at the Taj Mahal

Rooftop view of the Tah

Rooftop view of the Taj Mahal

Taj Inlay and Ornamentation

Taj Mahal inlay and ornamentation

Baby Taj

Baby Taj

Another highlight of the trip, and the best part in my opinion, was exploring through the markets. On Wednesday, we went to a craft market in Delhi and spent the whole evening wandering through the handmade art and jewelry. On Friday, we went to a vast market called Chandi Chowk in Delhi that is supposedly the oldest running market in all of India. It is called Chandi Chowk, or Moonlight Square, because the Mughal emperor could see the moon’s reflection in a channel running through the market from the Red Fort at night. When we arrived we stayed on the main road, but we soon realized that there were small alleyways branching off in all directions that were packed with a maze of shops and vendors. The best part about the market was that it was divided into sections based on the merchandise being sold. There was one section lined with at least 20 shops selling tea and spices, and another alleyway that had nothing but shoes as far as you could see. We were in heaven!

Spice Market

Spice Market

Shoe Street

Shoe Street

We also visited a market in a Tibetan neighborhood just outside New Delhi. It was so interesting to see the immediate contrast when we arrived in the Tibetan area because it really felt like we were in a different area of the world. The vendors were selling winter clothes and Buddhist items, and the people were even dressed differently. We went to a restaurant and ate a Tibetan dumpling soup called Thenthuk, which was a refreshing change from the Indian meals we had been eating the whole trip.

Tibetan Market

At the Tibetan Market

I am so glad that we made the spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Delhi because the whole weekend was packed with exciting activities, new places, and a ton of good food. Just when I thought I was getting to know India pretty well, I found that North India is a completely different place from Hyderabad. This trip put an image into my mind of India as a patchwork of different cultures. They are all sewn together into one nation, yet each one remains distinct – from north to south, east to west, and even down to the very neighborhood. I know now that it would take a lifetime to experience all of the cultures, places, and people of India, and I am only here for one semester!

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