Daily Dispatch 11: Farewell India

AHMEDABAD -- Like Christians everywhere, we rolled out of bed on this Sunday morning, hit alarms, stumbled towards the coffee and, seeking inspiration, went to church.

Our eleven days in India has been a series of visits from one house of worship to another. But today, our final day in India, was the first time we attended a Christian Church. Given that only 2 percent of India is Christian, the timing seemed somewhat appropriate.

We attended two Christian services: the high Anglican Dalit Church and the Mar Thoma Syrian Orthodox church, both in the Christian district of Ahmedabad called Behrampura. The Anglican church service was packed, housed in a sanctuary with dusty pink walls. A wooden cross hung high on the wall behind the preacher but the decorations were simple. Most of the color in the room came from the saris of the women in the congregation, with white lace scarves over their hair. On their laps, under folded hands, lay personal bibles in Gujarati.

We arrived as the sermon was underway, removed our shoes and made our way to the balcony. Overhead fans stirred the hot air. The minister was dressed simply, with a white cassock and a red stole around his neck.

From the moment we slip off our shoes and step into the church, we notice similarities between the church and other houses of worship we visited: Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Zoroastrian. Here, as elsewhere, the women wear saris, barefoot children wander around the balcony and the music is Indian in tone if Christian in message. At one point in the service, church members hold their bibles aloft as a physical representation and reminder of the power of Christ in their lives.

A short walk from the Anglican church, down a sunny street lined with bottle brush trees, we find a Syrian Mar Thoma Church. It too is packed with Sunday worshippers. The pews are filled, and so are benches set outside. As children and men stand on steps and outside the windows, a group of young men make lemonade outside.

In front of the congregation, the priest wears full vestments. Many of the church members are from Kerala, and their families came to Ahmedabad “for a better life,” as 25-year-old Jibin Jose puts it.

Jose is one of the young men mixing lemonade in a giant metal pot behind the church. The drink will be served as a refreshment after the service. Jose was born in Ahmedabad and grew up here. He speaks Hindi, Gujarati, Malayalam, and a little English, and says that he comes to church every Sunday because this is his community.

After the church services, most of us returned to the Hyatt for their special Sunday brunch. It was also the last meal for our group in India. As the afternoon wore on, students wrapped up this phase of their reporting and returned to their rooms to pack. About half of class had plans to spend a few more days in India before returning to New York. As evening fell, the other half got on our bus for the ride to the Ahmedabad airport. Professors Goldman and Trivedi saw us off at the airport.

As our trip comes to an end, memories of the previous ten days are starting to blend together like Holi colors washing down the drain. Reflecting back on what we’ve seen -- and the thousands of photos we’ve taken -- Emily says that this has been “one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. Not just for the study of religion and journalism, but also for the study of people, those that I came here with and those that I’ve met in India.”

Elizabeth said that the trip surpassed her expectations. “I knew I was going to see and experience amazing and new things but I didn’t know how much it would change me and the way that I look at the world.” After reporting from India, she’s encouraged to look for a job outside of the U.S. and continue to explore the religious themes that the class investigated. “Religion drives the world and this realization has made me a better reporter,” she said.

From the ashrams to the temples to the churches to the rickshaws, the Indians we’ve met have been so incredibly welcoming and instructive. We only hope that we can tell their stories well.

 

Photo by Ana Singh


Daily Dispatch 10: Lessons Learned on the Sabarmati

AHMEDABAD – To cover religion in India is to come as close to the core of the nation itself.

That much seems evident to us after 10 days of traveling and reporting on religion issues in India. But even with that certainty, ambiguity rules: Lines are often blurry, dualism doesn’t mean two distinct opposites, views are fluid and often changing. Still, journalism is the best tool that we have to solidify and explain these amorphous ideas.

These were among the notions that emerged from a spirited panel discussion that Professor Trivedi convened this morning in our hotel, the Hyatt Regency. One of the panelists, Rohit Bansal, group communications director of the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries, put it this way:

“India operates on multiple levels. The opposite could always be true.”

Also on the panel were the editors of two Gujarati newspapers. They were Ajay Umat, editor of NavGujarat Samay, and Nirmam Shah, publisher of Gujarat Samachar. The panelists explored how religion touches every single aspect of Indian society, and how covering -- and fully understanding

-- the subject is absolutely paramount to helping the public digest the entire story.

With India following the global right-wing shift, who would act as the voice of the people? Who would keep the politicians in check?

The truth is sacrosanct, no matter what continent we’re reporting from.

Mr. Umat shared some wise words he once received from a mentor. He asked the students to always think in terms of “So what and what’s next?”

When it comes to covering religion in India, the so what is clear. But what comes next is anyone’s guess, and this is why understanding the religious landscape of the nation is paving the way forward for future journalists.

Saturday was our last full day in India. After the morning panel, we went our different ways to finish our reporting projects before meeting in the evening for our formal farewell dinner, held at a restaurant called the House of MG. Gathering there was like stepping back in time. The property was built in 1924 for a wealthy textile mogul, Mangaldas Girdhardas, and it retains an element of old world charm that spurs the imagination. Looking around the room, it’s easy to picture a seasoned foreign correspondent sitting with a minister sipping a cup of chai masala discussing the finer points of religious and cultural context in a world vastly different from today.

If these imaginary characters had known a group of 14 students would be doing the exact same thing almost 100 years later, they surely would have smiled and offered encouraging words.

And encouraging words were exactly what Professor Goldman and Professor Trivedi offered the students as the trip drew to a close. We shared our favorite moments of the trip; we laughed, we sympathized, we expressed gratitude.

Then it hit us: None of us will ever be the same after this trip. We’ll look at the world through a lens crafted by our experiences in this incredible nation full of religious diversity. We gained the skills necessary to cover religion with an open mind and an empathetic heart.

And, aside from holi in Vrindavan, that’s why we came to India.

 

Photo by Ana Singh


Daily Dispatch 9: Ahmedabad, City of Diversity

AHMEDABAD - There was evening and there was morning, the ninth day.

For some of us it began very early. The Guru of the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism was set to leave for Africa on Friday and thousands of his followers were there to see him off after his daily Puuja. A few of us left the hotel at 6:45 a.m. to witness the spectacle.

Professor Trivedi, a Swaminarayan Hindu himself, presented the Guru with a necklace of red flowers and was invited by the Guru to display his prowess as a musician, leading a song and playing the harmonium before the crowd.

“The incredible part of it is that this happens every day the guru is in town,” said Cole who accompanied Professor Trivedi. Cole was fascinated by the sheer logistics of getting so many thousands in one place.

For the rest of us our day started at 8:30 when we set out for a walking tour of Ahmedabad’s old city. There, in the twisting alleys and secluded courtyards, we had the opportunity to see a few different threads in India’s religious tapestry.

Though we stepped into a mosque and a Hindu mandir, we also had the opportunity to sit down and interview two Jain nuns about their lifestyle and experiences. They practice a strict interpretation of the concept of ahimsa or compassion, doing everything they can to minimize their footprint on the world and protect life, from the biggest elephant to the smallest micro- organisms.

“I just love the imagery of it, these women walking around in all white in this white marble space,” said Thea. “It such a good place for contemplation and really understanding how ahimsa works in practice.”

After the nuns, we stopped by the state of Gujarat’s only synagogue, the art deco Magen Abraham synagogue in Ahmedabad’s old city. We were greeted there by an elder of the synagogue who told that he was one of the only 140 Jews in Gujarat. The man, whose first name was Benson, told us about the community, how it first came to Gujarat and how it has dwindled in size in recent years.

“We are not sure what the future has in store for us, but we are hoping and trying to keep the torch of Judaism burning in this part of the world.” Benson said.

Our final stop in the old city was the Parsi Agiari, or Zoroastrian fire temple. Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions and was the state religion of ancient Persia. The Zoroastrian community arrived in Gujarat nearly 1,000 years ago, fleeing persecution in what had become Muslim Iran. Being associated with Persia they were called Parsis by the local Gujaratis after Iran’s Fars Province.

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Today they face a harsh demographic reality. There are only about 1,400 Parsis in Ahmedabad and the death rate has far outpaced the birthrate in the community, explained J. P Anklesaria, a retired brigadier and leader among Ahmedabad’s Parsis. Though hopeful that things will change, Anklesaria feared that if the trend continues in 25 or 50 years there will be no more Parsis in Ahmedabad.

“I particularly enjoyed seeing the sharp contrast between how the Jewish leader and the Parsi leader spoke about the size of their communities,” Andrea observed. “Though both are small, at the synagogue Benson spoke about how grounded his community is in this location and their attempts to grow and preserve it, while the Parsi leader spoke frankly about the possibility of his community disappearing in the next 25 years.”

After we left our meeting at the Agiari, we had off until the evening to report, shop or relax by the hotel pool. A few of us joined Professors Trivedi and Goldman for a lunch at place called Swati’s Snacks which is known for its modern take on traditional Gujarati cuisine. Speaking at least for myself, I can say that the Gujarati food, pure vegetarian cuisine known for its sweetness, was a welcome change that the spicy cuisine we had had in Delhi, Vrindavan and Rishikesh.

Intrigued by what we learned in the Agiari, Natasha and I were interested in doing a story on the Parsis and inquired about the “Towers of Silence” where Parsi practice the Zoroastrian tradition of sky burial. In a sky burial, corpses are left out on the top of towers to be consumed by vultures and other birds of prey so that nothing is left behind. Anklesaria offered to take us to the towers on Ahmedabad’s outskirts and told us all about the tradition and how the community is working to maintain it in modern India.

In the Evening the group was split up, and given the opportunity to have dinner with families from the different faiths we have been covering here.

Sylvia, Ellen and Andrea ate by a Jain family which was celebrating the breaking of a yearlong fast by one of its members. “We learned a ton about what is required in the Jain diet and why they have to eat before sundown and not until an hour after the sun rises,” Sylvia explained. “It's because there are organisms you cannot see in darkness that could be in your food, which Jains neither want to hurt nor eat.”

Emily, Thea and Gudrun ate by a Swaminarayan Hindu family. There, 10 members from four generations of the family all lived together. Over local Gujarati dishes, the group had the chance to ask them about the intersection of politics, religion and development.

“We all felt, because all three of us had been at the BAPS temple that morning that it was pretty fabulous opportunity to see religiosity in the home and the differences between the religion as explained by our textbooks, what we heard and the temple and what we experienced in the home,” said Thea.

Cole, Ana and Elizabeth had opportunity to join the Parsis in a community dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the construction of their Temple. “There were 500 people there sitting facing each other like a beer Hall,” said Cole. “It really struck me how open they were about their dwindling numbers. They said they’ve been [around] for 3,000 [years] and this isn’t going to be the end of them.”

Since it was Friday Night, Natasha, Pia and I went to Shabbat Services at the Synagogue. We didn’t end up having dinner with a Jewish family but instead made our own Shabbos dinner back at the Hotel with professor Goldman. Since alcohol is banned in Gujarat, we had to make Kiddush, the ceremonial blessing of the wine, in Goldman’s room. Though it seemed that the kosher wine Professor Goldman had brought with him from New York had soured, the experience was sweet nonetheless.

 

Photo by Ana Singh


Daily Dispatch 8: A Journey to the Thousand-Year-Old Sun Temple

AHMEDABAD – India’s summer heat has finally found us. As we started our day, temperatures soared to 94 degrees in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the Indian state of Gujarat. The heat seemed rather appropriate given that our first stop of the day was the Sun Temple, an elaborately carved 11th Century structure that was built to line up with the sun’s path on the solstice. The temple lies on the Tropic of Cancer, one of the five major circles of latitude that mark maps of the earth.

We arrived in Ahmedabad late Wednesday night, so Yogi-Ji gave us the morning off to report, relax by the pool or explore Gujarat.

Pia and Gudrun’s post-breakfast stroll took them down to the river and across the Gandhi Bridge during rush hour. All along the riverfront park they saw couples and greenery, and an impressive assortment of colorful fashion. One newlywed couple hid together amid the leaves and giggled as the girl furtively pulled up her sari’s veil to reveal her face to her husband.

We all reconvened on the bus after lunch for our first journey to the Sun Temple. The ride was much smoother than what we remembered from our previous bus rides in New Delhi. It is clear that Gujarat benefited under the leadership of Narendra Modi, once the chief minister of the region and now India’s prime minister. Modi’s complex legacy is still reverberating through the country’s politics today, as demonstrated by the elections earlier during our trip.

Our first awareness that we were passing the Tropic of Cancer came in a big blue and white road sign about a mile from the Sun Temple. “Tropic of Cancer is Passing From Here,” it read. We got off the bus to record the moment in a group photo.

We were lucky to have Girish-ji join us for the Gujarat leg of our trip. When we arrived at the Sun Temple, he recounted its history and architecture. First, we came to the ablution tank, a green pool filled with swimming turtles and surrounded by detailed carvings along the edges. The entire temple structure, a UNESCO heritage site, was built over 27 years with the sun calendar in mind. Girish-ji told us that on the day of the spring solstice, there are no shadows at the Sun Temple. The rays of the sun run right through the elaborate structure.

Ninety-one small, carved elephants appeared to hold up each side of the temple, totaling 364 mini-elephants: the same number as the days in the solar calendar. The structure was carved out of sandstone from a nearby quarry, a material that absorbs heat. When our group stepped inside the temple, everyone gasped. The details which were eroded by the wind and rain on the outside were preserved in sharp images inside and told the story of the Ramayan.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Thea said. “I can imagine how spiritual it used to be. I loved seeing how meaningful the sun is across cultures,” she added, remembering how other societies have built structures lined up with the sun around the world, from Stone Henge to Newgrange.

“I found it interesting that the carvings were all done on-site,” Sylvia added. “It’s clear that location was very important to the architect.”

After a short stop for mango ices to break the heat, we traveled to another structure built of sandstone during the same century as the Sun Temple, but which lay forgotten and buried until its excavation began in 1958.

Rani Ki Vav, the “Queen’s Stepwell” is an underground construction carved seven stories deep, where people gathered and traders could do business out of the heat. Amid the columns, the air stays three to five degrees Celsius below the outside temperature, Girish-ji said, and we appreciated its calming coolness today just as the traders did a thousand years ago.

This monument was dedicated to Vishnu, and his 10 incarnations are shown in along the sides. Just as with the Sun Temple, the structure had no bonding agent and was instead held together with interlocking pieces, all carved with extreme detail.

When we left the Rani Ki Vav to head to our last stop of the day, the sun was starting to slant and bathe us in golden light. The drive took us through rural India at sunset before our arrival at Bahucharaji, a Shakti temple for Bahuchar Mata, the patroness of India’s hijra community.

The chanting, incense and stones beneath our bare feet brought back echoing memories of other Hindu temples we’d visited throughout the country. Couples desiring children make their pilgrimages here to pray to Bahuchar Mata for fertility. When their prayers are answered, the new parents bring back offerings of gratitude. One wall of the temple was a collage of baby photos offered as a testament the goddess.

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A young hijra shares her story

ANA SINGH

 

Some of our group interviewed a hijra seated alongside the temple, a member of India’s third gender. She comes to the temple daily, after the first aarti, and makes her living by giving blessings throughout the day until the last aarti at night. As our group spoke with Chaiyya De about her life, a couple brought their new baby. Chiayya De tucked the rupees into her purple sari, then placed her hands over the baby’s head as the family bowed.

Finally, with the sun now gone, we came back to our hotel for one last meal before it was time to head upstairs and prepare for Friday.

 

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang


Daily Dispatch 7: An Unexpected Road from Rishikesh to Ahmedabad

AHMEDABAD – One of the lessons we’ve learned on this trip is that travel is not about the destination, but the experience. And what an experience we had today! Day Seven started in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganges and ended 700 miles away in Ahmedabad, the largest city in the state of Gujarat.

We knew we were going, but could not have anticipated how we would get there. The plan was to leave Rishikesh at noon and arrive in New Delhi in time for our 8:10 p.m. Air India flight to Ahmedabad. But in India, traffic is painstakingly slow, the roads badly maintained, the honking horns loud and people often late. Our bus driver tried his best to speed through the traffic. Yogi-ji made countless phone calls to Air India staff at Indira Gandhi International Airport. But, as our bus finally approached the gate, and with our flight scheduled to take off around 15 minutes later, we knew our odds were thin.

If only we knew this in advance, we would have left Rishikesh earlier in the day. But Rishikesh is a hard place to leave. The city offers an interesting contradiction in Indian culture. A beautiful town on the foot of the Himalayas, it is surrounded by natural beauty. The turquoise hues of the River Ganges flow below colorful bridges and alongside scattered buildings and shops. This morning, a few of us leisurely explored that world for a couple of hours. We wandered, we shopped and we questioned this enigma of a place — a place of countless yoga practices, ashrams, Ayurvedic cafes selling vegan foods and scones to people who have come here from across the world, clad in baggy pants and with yoga mats under their arms, to embrace their spirituality in India.

After our free hours in the morning, we hopped on the bus to begin the journey to the airport. On board, I immediately questioned Yogi Ji about this place which, at least from my point of view, seemed like an almost inauthentic version of India; a place designed solely for international folks to find themselves, while also shielded from the country’s innate poverty and established as a Western construct of Indian spirituality. But, his response surprised me: “How is this not the real India?”

Yes, Rishikesh is international. It acts as a spiritual haven for the thousands who travel across the world in search of meaning, of purpose from the stresses of life and all its’ complexities. Yes, it lacks Delhi’s smog or slums. The stray dogs are plump and trash on the ground is almost non-existent. But, those are also blatant stereotypes of India propagated by the media. Rishikesh is India — it’s a clear example of eastern spirituality and Hinduism. India is a place of so many stories. Rishikesh is simply one narrative of many.

Looking out the windows on the bus from Rishikesh to Delhi, I am enveloped by a safety net. We pass small huts made of sheet metal, cows grazing on the side of the road, a woman washing her clothes in a stream as her naked toddler runs around behind her. I notice Coca-Cola signs attached to small huts — globalization at its finest — and a small child in a bright red dress skipping through the dirt and grinning from ear to ear. Our air-conditioned bus of foreigners whisks by fruit stands — oranges and bananas and papayas — and motor bikes honking horns and tea stalls and so much trash. We are in India, enmeshed in the country’s culture and rich history and ways of life. But, we will also always be at a distance, looking out the window as the country passes us by.

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Around lunchtime, we stop off at a Domino’s Pizza in a town called Roorke. At first glance, it looks like any Domino’s Pizza found in the states. But, it is also distinctly Indian, from serving a “pizza burger,” which Andrea described as two buns of pizza dough and spices with cheese and sauce in the middle, to the various vegetarian offerings. According to Natasha, it was “the best pizza I’ve ever had on the road from Rishikesh to Delhi.”

When we finally arrived at the airport and realized that we missed our flight, the mood was tense. We sipped our coffees and wondered if we would make it to Ahmedabad that night or if we would have to stay overnight in an airport lounge or, if we were lucky, in an airport hotel.

It was at this moment that our time together on the bus and our many conversations paid off. We found comfort in our group, our second family. We made jokes, checked in on each other and rejoiced when Yogi-ji was able to find seats for all 17 of us on an 11 p.m. Jet Air flight. We may have missed our flight, but we solidified friendships. We demonstrated that we could be there for each other; we reaffirmed our conversation on the bus from only a few hours prior – even though it felt like a lifetime – that we are a team.

That night, or possibly morning since it was around 2 a.m., our group feasted on pizza, pasta, soup and sandwiches at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Ahmedabad. The staff of the hotel kept the dining service open late for us. The day was long, but we made it to our destination. We made it to Ahmedabad.

 

Photo by Ana Singh