Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Already April 3rd – time is flying! It’s been an eventful week and a half or so. Right now, I’ve just started to unpack from a weekend family vacation to the coast and decided to take a break with a blog update.

Last weekend, we visited the Victoria Memorial – one of the most known monuments of Kolkata. It was completed in the 1920s and was a monument more to the British presence and a symbol of their power in Kolkata and served as a museum.It’s an impressive building – best described as cross between the U.S. Capitol building and the Taj Mahal. There are many galleries inside with lots of artwork, but I preferred the exhibit on the history of Kolkata – there is so much to learn! We spent a few hours there and spent the rest of the day relaxing and teaching Arundhati how to make chocolate chip cookies :) Sunday was an eventful day. We all went as a group to a Jain ceremony – 2 of Madhu’s neighbors are in the process of becoming Jain nuns and she was invited to the ceremony, so she brought all of us along to see what it’s like. I had never heard of the Jain religion before coming to India, and I still haven’t had much exposure to it yet. I’ve read about Jain nuns in one of my books for class – Nine Lives – and it’s incredibly fascinating. I’ll share only what I know, but please don’t think of me as the authority on this and keep in mind that these are monastic Jains and the average Jain is not this rigid in their beliefs. These are Jain nuns, devoting their life to their religious beliefs. The Jain religion is isolated to India, and is most known by its belief of non-violence. Jains believe that there is the spirit of God in every living creature, so one of the main beliefs is no violence. They are strict vegetarians, which also excludes eggs, fish, and root vegetables (because harvesting them kills the plant, and also the numerous microorganisms that live on the plant or in the ground). Monastic Jains also wear masks over their mouth so as not to swallow any insects. They also sweep the ground in front of them as they walk so they don’t step on and kill any living things. They are not allowed to take any form of transportation other than their own two feet. They eat only once a day and only in the daylight so they can see what they are eating. If they find a bug or something in their food, they must drop it and wait to eat until the next day. The monastic Jains take 5 vows – no violence, no stealing, no untruth, no sex, no attachment. The no stealing can go as far as one must ask to use a table to set down something, because if they set down something on the table without asking it’s a form of stealing. The no attachment is also intriguing – they have no material possessions and must detach from personal relationships. This doesn’t mean they live as hermits – they do live in communities. They believe that all attachments cause suffering, and the release from suffering is Enlightenment. They also believe in reincarnation. Once one decides to become a Jain monk/nun, they renounce all their possessions and become a stranger to all their friends and family. At the end of their final ceremony, these women will walk of the ceremonial stage and will never see their family again. If they do, they may be friendly to them but still will be a stranger. The ceremony we saw was the second to last ceremony – and I didn’t understand much of it since it wasn’t in English. There were hundreds of people there, and it was a strange mood. To me, it seemed partway between a marriage and funeral – it was happy and celebratory like a marriage but also a bit somber like a funeral since it’s only another month before these women won’t be seen again by their family and friends. There wasn’t much that actually happened – their cousin was speaking, there were slide shows of the women, and the women sat up front looking slightly uncomfortable on display.

After the ceremony, we all came back to our house for an art workshop. Alpona is an art form that is a paste made from rice and water which is applied to floors and walls for celebrations. It was a lot of fun to draw on the floor and I can’t believe some of the detailed drawings. It’s difficult to be precise at the first go – you have to hold the pouch of rice paste carefully so there’s enough pressure that it won’t be too watery or too thick and so that it will drip down your fingers the right way. I went to go see the movie the King’s Speech on Sunday night – and it was a wonderful movie! I loved it. Colin Firth was amazing – I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to adopt a speech impediment when you don’t have one.

Class was pretty uneventful as usual this week – nothing to report there, except that we’re all feeling a little stressed out with all the deadlines that have seemed to appear out of no where. We knew we would have several assignments to finish before the end of the semester, but the deadlines and expectations weren’t outlined until last week. We’ve all got a lot to do before we head home in another month, and we’re seeing the days count down. The time left is feeling pretty segmented now – we have one full week of class left next week, a few days of class and then Thursday and Friday off, then three days of class before we have a 6-day trip to Kerala. After that will just be another week or so and I’ll be headed home!

Loreto has been okay lately. I’ve kept up on going twice a week for a total of at least 4 hours a week, and I’m getting closer to some of the girls. Durgi has taken to calling me “mama” and many more girls now recognize me and are happy to see me. I’m enjoying spending time playing with them more than tutoring them, since the language barrier is pretty discouraging. I tried teaching one of the girls, Andrea, how to play hangman the other day. It started out okay, but she may not know many words in English or how to spell them yet and she started to get frustrated when she kept guessing letters that weren’t correct. I’ll try again another time with 3-letter words and we’ll see if that’s better.

Drawing with Rosie on my lap

The Cricket World Cup came to a close this week. Wednesday was the semi-final of India vs. Pakistan, and I went to city centre with my friends to watch it. There were so many people there – and their enthusiasm and passion for their team was infectious! India won – and it was great to see everyone celebrating. The final was just last night – India vs. Sri Lanka. It was a tense really close game – and India won!!! It was awesome. And how awesome for us – our first real exposure to cricket is during the world cup and our host country wins :)

The crowd at City Centre for the semi-finals

We left on Thursday night on an overnight train for a weekend family vacation to Puri! Puri is on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, but is an easy train ride away from Kolkata. Our family has been planning this for weeks – and it was hard for Arundhati to contain her excitement. The overnight train was fine – similar to the train we took from Jodhpur to Dehli except it was three-tier sleeper this time and the AC was cranked so high that I had trouble sleeping since I was so cold. Puri was nice – the beach was awesome! It was nice to be out in the fresh air and it was great to swim. There was really nice soft sand, and there were huge waves. Apparently Indians must not have swimsuits or don’t swim very often, because there were very few Indians swimming and the few that were swam in shorts and a t-shirt. We were some of the only women swimming, and of course we were well covered in tank tops and shorts. There were also lifeguards available – in their funny cone-shaped hats – and our family was much less worried if we were swimming with the lifeguard. However, the lifeguard (an older man with just a kind of loin cloth for a swimsuit) hovered so close to us the entire time it felt pretty suffocating. He was never more than 10 feet away, even though we were never in more than chest-deep water. I hate feeling so restricted and feeling like I’m being treated like a child. That was the only downside to the swimming. We also did some sightseeing in the nearby area, to a really famous temple called the Sun Temple (though we didn’t go in since the ticket prices were pretty ridiculous for foreigners) and my favorite stop was in a village. This village was an entire art community – every house was a home and a workshop for whatever craft that family made. I got some great art – some painted coconuts that will become Christmas tree ornaments and an awesome painting/etching on palm leaf. I love buying crafts here! We also just had some great family bonding time – watching the cricket final on TV, hanging out on the beach, dinners out, and teaching Vinayak card games. It was a great weekend, and I’m glad I still have another month to spend with them :)


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Another week in India, another week of adventures.

One week ago was Vinayak’s (our host brother) birthday! He turned 13 – big day. We had a family dinner on Friday, and got to meet his aunt and uncle. We had tons of food – and we had made a birthday card for him (just construction paper and crayon) and he hung it up on his wall! So cute. He got the presents he wanted too – new cricket clothes, a new stamp book, and some valuable stamps (he’s really into stamp collecting! If anyone sends me mail, I’m obligated to give the stamps to him). On Saturday, we went to his favorite restaurant for lunch, Bar-B-Q, and had some of the most amazing Chinese food I’ve ever had! We had soup, wontons, some vegetable and pork heavenly mixtures. I even tried eating with chopsticks, and didn’t do too bad. It was nice to have a family lunch. Afterward, Brynn and I went out to meet some Indian friends afterward, and we just went to a shopping center (seems like some of the friends we made just really like to shop in their free time). It’s nearby our house and has lots of crafts – I think I’ll go back and pick up a few things that caught my eye. On Saturday night, we went to the only place we’ve heard of that serves beef! It’s a bar called Olympia, but it’s called OlyBar for short. Everyone really wanted to try it to see what it would be like – and I quickly changed my mind about getting it once we got there. This bar was really gross. It was a grimy¬† dingy hole-in-the-wall place with a funky smell that will make you lose your appetite. Plastic chairs for seating, and a cat hanging out on the second floor…which is fairly typical for some places in India, but combined with the gross smell and the wripped up carpet and water served in old whiskey bottles…I was not inclined to eat anything. I just had a beer and some French fries – and I was really glad I didn’t order the “steak.” I had a bite of someone else’s and it was gross – definitely not the right texture and not tasting good. Some people thought it was okay…but I’m glad I didn’t order it. UGH.

We went to this big music festival on Sunday, the Sufi music festival. There were artists from all over India and other countries. It was nice that there were big screens out in the field, which meant I could sit farther away (with my very sensitive hearing…if I sit too close, I will get sick with an awful migraine) and still see the singers. Nearly everyone in our group went, which was a lot of fun – and we all ended up staying over at Danny and Michael’s house! Since the music festival was in Salt Lake (about an hour or more away with traffic), we were not so inclined to have to leave the festival early to get home. I think the original idea was for it to be a Super Bowl sleepover, but that idea faded as soon as we realized it would be at 3am for us and we didn’t have a reliable way to watch it. Instead, we had a little rooftop party and it was a lot of fun!

Monday was a low-key day. We were tired from our sleepover, so we were glad we just had 2 periods of class. Class was not very interesting. The lecture style is just not engaging. And Elizabeth got called out by the teacher in class for eating a little bit of her sandwich. The teacher was surprised to learn we are able to have snacks at CSB/SJU, but just wanted to inform us it’s not acceptable here. The students are really not treated like adults here, and it’s very hard to get used to. After class, we relaxed by watching Mulan – which was great! I spent the rest of the night filling out applications for on-campus jobs for next year (what?? how am I already applying for stuff for next year, my SENIOR year??).

Tuesday was a Hindu festival called Saraswati Puja, so we didn’t have school. It’s a festival that celebrates learning and the arts, though you are not allowed to study and classes are cancelled (oh, India…). There are huge celebrations with worship of an idol of the goddess Saraswati. This day also marks the beginning of spring, and yellow is a very auspicious color. Arundhati brought us to a family friend’s house, and we got to wear a sari!! :) It’s really fun to wear one – but they are so complicated to wrap and wear! I definitely wouldn’t know how to put one on by myself. I uploaded a video onto Facebook to show everyone how it’s done! You wear a short lightweight skirt underneath, called a petticoat, and the fabric is folded, tucked, and pleated into this petticoat and arond the body. One of the servants, Bijoli (we love her!) helped us, and she pinned it in a few spots, which helped a LOT. I would like to buy a sari at some point, but I would need to practice a LOT before I would be able to put it on without help. Brynn went to a ceremony with a friend, and Elizabeth, Ashley and I went with Arundhati and Vinayak to their friend’s house. The house is unique – they have converted the whole first floor to a big studio that can be used for music and dance and other arts (the family is really into the arts). There was an idol of Saraswati made out of paper (atypical of idols) and we were able to watch/participate in the puja. I didn’t understand a lot of it, but Arundhati explained some of it to us. There was a lot of chanting and offering flowers (marigolds are always used in religious ceremonies here). They also burned incense and used the smoke to bless themselves. We ate food afterward, and drank some of the holy water. It was very interesting to see, and I really don’t have anything to compare it to in my religious background. After that, it was a bit boring but I chatted with Vinayak. We didn’t do much after we came home, just relaxing and reading – and I am really loving The Omnivore’s Dilemma!

On Wednesday, we also didn’t have class. I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it was part of Saraswati celebrations. We got up early for a small excursion Madhu had planned – a boat cruise down the Hooghly river. It was pretty nice – the river wasn’t as polluted as I was expecting, as it’s a tributary of the Ganges, but it’s still incredibly polluted. It was pretty relaxing – I even dozed off a little bit. We pulled over after a few hours and got off at Belur Math, the headquarter of the Ramakrishna Mission. It was founded by Swami Vivekananda, who practiced a number of religions and came to the conclusion that all religions are true and there is no one path to get to God. We saw a few temples before getting back on the boat. There was nothing planned after the boat ride, so a few of us walked to the nearby Eden Gardens and played cards for a little while before heading home.

Yesterday, we decided to take advantage of our free morning before our classes at 1pm, and went to Loreto. We were told we can just go to Loreto whenever now, but the staff was not expecting us to come. We were told we could go upstairs to the Rainbow room where the Rainbows were being tutored – and so far I have not enjoyed that experience so much. Some of the older students come and tutor the Rainbows, who don’t speak very much English. I only know a couple words in Bangla, so I can’t participate in the tutoring so much…so I end up sitting there and watching. It’s not very fulfilling to me – I would prefer to do something that would actually help. I ended up sitting next to 3 little girls who didn’t have a tutor – and they were being pretty rowdy. They were okay at first, but got rowdy to the point of hitting each other. I know no Bangla to tell them to stop and behave, so all I could do was say “nah” (no) in a stern voice with stern looks. It was not all that effective, and the time passed very slowly and I was getting frustrated, but I knew these children really needed attention. Soon after, they were all asked to assemble and went off to other classes, and we were left with nothing to do. We finally found Sangeeta, our coordinator, who was flustered as always but finaly found a job for us – to watch a class of 6-yr-olds. Apparently the teacher (and others) was not there, for whatever reason, so several classrooms were there unsupervised. When we came in, they were all working more or less quietly on a worksheet about numbers. They all called us “Miss” – “Miss, may I use the toilet?” “Miss, may I drink water?” It was going well, up until break time, when they had a 20-minute break to eat and play and they came back very rowdy. They wouldn’t sit down, it was difficult to get their attention, and they knew we didn’t know what we were supposed to do with them anyway. We tried teaching them “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with some success before we had to leave. I hope they don’t have many days very often that teachers are missing.

After Loreto, we had another unengaging sociology class and Madhu’s class was more asking questions about logistical things. After class, we had to go renew our internet data card, and it was an ordeal. We had gone the day before, but the man didn’t really understand and told us to come back the next day. When we came back the second day, they said we couldn’t recharge our card there but had to go to another store nearby, and once we arrived there he said he could only recharge one! It’s always something here. After a bit of confusion, we finally got them recharged. Hopefully next month will be easier. Today was just a bit of our society and history class – talking about the ideology of “the West” versus “the Rest,” and how India made modern Britain. It was very interesting to hear “the West” from the other side – the perspective we are not taught or exposed to. It makes for some very interesting discussion, and I’m glad to be challenged in my views of the world. I’m starting to learn how much of an impact India’s history of colonization still has today.

This weekend, we are going to Shantinikaten! It’s a village community outside of Kolkata, and our family is coming along with us. It’s a huge cultural center, and is known for being the place of Rabindranath Tagore – India’s most quoted author. This man was incredible – a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, composer, and painter – who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. He wrote the national anthem, and also Bangladesh’s national anthem. I honestly think I hear someone quote him or talk about him every day – they are very proud of him. I haven’t read any of his works yet, but it’s only a short matter of time.

And, my newest piece for the Lost Girls is up! Check it out: What to Wear in India: 5 Tips for Travelers.

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