Daily Dispatch 6: The Ganges Guides Us

RISHIKESH – The River Ganges sets the pace for life in this city at the foothills of the Himalayas, just as it set the pace for our day of markets and aartis, puja and performance.

Even though we arrived in Rishikesh after midnight, a few early-risers took to the river with the break of day. Along the banks, local volunteers filled buckets with water to wash out the last brightly colored dregs of Holi from gats along the river. One man sat in the Lotus position and meditated. Two women in pink and turquoise saris cupped their hands around an aarti’s flame and sent it out across the water. As the sun rose higher, we sat on the hotel balcony with chai, watching the light catch on the swells.

We boarded our bus for the ride to the sister city of Hardwar, also along Ganges, where we saw murti – religious figures of deities, persons and icons – smiling out from their watery abode. Hinduism forbids the destruction of murti by burning or disposal, leaving people to dump their broken or “incomplete” figurines in flowing water like the Ganges. Gurus and politicians, noting that the murti add to the fouling of the river, condemn the practice, but, short of a clear alternative, it continues.

Hardwar seemed like part water park and part temple. We watched as hundreds of devotees, many of them with families in tow, bathed playfully in the river, the men in their underwear and the women in their saris. This bathing is one part of the washing away of sins – one step along the path to moksha. Meanwhile on the shore, the poor held out their hands for alms, some of them selling aarti boats of flowers and camphor wax. Young men approached us for selfies along the banks of the holy river.


Daily Dispatch: Day 6
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We made our way through Hardwar’s bustling market, pausing to buy beads or finger textiles. Wooden prayer beads are as they always were – but there were signs of modernizing, too. A teashop sold chai with frothy milk from an automatic machine, while another stall sold key rings in the shape of the Facebook logo. Like Rishikesh, the holy town of Hardwar is “pure vegetarian:” no eggs, meat or fish is allowed. Stalls on the ground sold every vegetable imaginable, but the only animals in the market were alive and well. Monkeys swung from electric cables while cows walked moonily up and down the streets.

From Hardwar, we took a bus, a boat and finally a rickshaw to Parmarth Niketan, an ashram down by the banks of the river. The leader of the ashram is Chidanand Muni and his second-in-command and designated successor is Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswatiji. Bhagawati, who was born to an American Jewish family, stumbled across Rishikesh while traveling in India while pursuing her PhD some 25 years ago. In a talk to our group, Bhagawati recalled first walking into the river and feeling a “deep spiritual awakening.” Through tears of “truth and homecoming,” she said, she knew she needed to stay. Bhagawati spoke to us about the challenges of being one of few women spiritual leaders in her field, and how it motivates her to continue public speaking and attending events.

“At least by being there,” she said, “I’m going to be able to be a model [for other women].” Eighty to ninety percent of those who come to volunteer and live at the ashram are women, most of them from overseas, she added.

As the sun set over the Ganges, we returned to its banks for an aarti among well over 100 devotees. Many were not Hindu – two clutched Dalai Lama bags – and still more had come from far away. A young man with blond dreadlocks shut his eyes and rocked from side to side as the guru, Chidanand Muni, chanted. It was Bhagawati’s spiritual birthday, he said, and the anniversary of her first visit to Rishikesh. As devotees threw flower petals over her, tears pooled on her cheeks and she closed her eyes in joy. The water, which had been calm and still in the morning, rushed past us in full, ecstatic flow.

By the end of the night, at our hotel, it was too dark to see the river – although we could hear it rush along into the dark. Two classical Indian musicians, one on violin and the other on tabla, performed on the balcony of our hotel, their song competing with the far-off vibrations of rickshaw horns and the Ganges, flowing on into the night.


Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Daily Dispatch 5: Waking up to Holi in Vrindavan

VRINDAVAN – There may be no better place on earth to spend the night of Holi than in an ashram in the center of Vrindavan, the city where Hindus believe Lord Krishna was born. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn (where we had stayed in Delhi) but it did have features that few accommodations can match, like the early-morning sound of monks chanting the Bhagavan Ghuran in Sanskrit. Our host for the night was Shrivasta Goswami Maharaj, the head of the ashram known as Caitanya Prem Sansthan.

Holi may best be known for its use of color – vast quantities of pigment powder is thrown by revelers into the air and at each other – but at its core it is a celebration of the love between deity Lord Krishna and his supreme wife, Radha. It is also marked by bonfires lit along highways and in the front of temples, symbolizing the burning off of hatred or vices.

A small group of students emerged from the Ashram early this morning to document pilgrims bathing in the Yamuna River and welcoming in the day with offerings or “puja,” small boats of orange and yellow carnations centered around a wick, that were pushed out into the river.

A particularly beautiful sight was a group of women with their long hair loose, slowly venturing into the river in saris and submerging under water. “You can tell they are from Bengal by the way they bathe,” Paresh Ji said, nodding to group. The fact that the Yamuna is polluted beyond purity did not seem to bother these devotees. For them this is the river famed as the playground of Krishna and Rhada. Another sight (and Vrindavan is a kaleidoscope of sights and sites) was the line of medicants, easy to discern by their orange dress, seated along the banks of the river with silver prayerful pots in front of them. They wore bright smiles. These men and women are devout Hindus and have chosen to denounce worldly desires and goods and they are as integral to the Vindravan landscape as the colorful boats on the river, the bathers and temples, which number over 1,000.

Daily Dispatch: Day 5
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In atmosphere, Vrindavan feels like a village. It’s mud streets and tiny alleyways cloak a population of approximately 57,000 people, and yet, in the history of Hinduism, its importance is profound. Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, was born here. Radha, his supreme wife was born in a neighboring village. To celebrate their love and, in turn, love in general, Indians of all faiths spend a good part of the day pitching pigment at each other. Those of us who ventured out of the confines of the ashram came back splattered from head to toe in all the colors of the rainbow.

Part of our personal privilege as J-school students was sitting with Guru Goswami, a joyful-looking man with a round face, kind eyes and a choti, or ponytail at the back of his shaved head. While he began with the love story that is behind Holi, the conversation soon turned to something else on his mind: the devastation of the Yamuna River which runs through the town. “It is a stream of sewerage,” Goswami said. Every year, Vindrandan welcomes over 500,000 pilgrims to the town, which has limited septic structures. While some may claim that religion is the cause of the pollution, Goswami rejected that notion. “It is not about religion, it is about awareness,” he said.

And then we were off to Rishikesh! But not before a monkey pinched Nicole’s glasses off her face and scampered up a tree with them in his paws. A crowd gathered and various on-lookers offered solutions. One piece of fruit and then another and then a third was tossed to the monkey in the hope that he would drop the glasses. When that didn’t work, a youth with a stick followed the monkey to the roof of a temple and managed to retrieve the stolen item. The incident gave new meaning to the phrase “it takes a village.” It all happened very quickly and Nicole, glasses in hand, was much relieved.

We finally boarded our bus and headed north to Rishikesh. Some seven hours later we arrived in the village on the banks of another holy river, the Ganges. Hot showers were welcomed.


Photo by Ana Singh

Daily Dispatch 4: A Day of Color in the City of a Thousand Temples

Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

VRINDAVAN -- The Covering Religion team arrived in this “city of a thousand temples” on the banks of the Yamuna River today after an early morning drive from New Delhi. We came to observe Holi celebrations in the city where it all began. Over the course of the day we experienced both the ancient Hindu holiday and one of the enduring symbols of Muslim Moghul rule in India, the Taj Mahal.

Vrindavan's narrow roads were closed to tour buses for the holiday, but we got special permission to enter and had the benefit of a scooter-riding police escort as we entered the city. With his guidance, the bus bumped along dirt roads crammed with locals, rickshaws, cows, dogs, and ever-watchful monkeys.

Holi technically began the next day, but that didn’t stop people from celebrating raucously on the street. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we were showered with colored powders, paint, and water. Cries of “Happy Holi!” and “Holi mubarak!” were interspersed with shrieks and laughter as unsuspecting passers-by—including the CJS team—were caught up in the festival of colors. Our clothes and faces smeared with multicolored powder, we began to embrace the anything-goes spirit of Holi.

By contrast, the quiet, orderly pace of life inside Shrivatsa Goswami’s ashram seemed a world away. We set our bags down and took off our shoes to enjoy a few minutes of sun—and to dry our clothes—in the jasmine-scented courtyard.

We were delighted that Alice Guilhamon, CJS ’15, joined us on this leg of the trip. Alice first traveled to India with the Covering Religion class in 2015, and now works for a French film company in Delhi. She fit right in with the group as we eagerly awaited the next element of the Holi celebration.

Soon enough, strains of music issued from the ashram’s main hall. We were right on time for the Holi play. The Rasdeva theatrical performance commemorates the original Holi; it recreates the story of Krishna’s playful interactions with the gopis (milkmaids) and his favorite gopi and consort Radha. An all-male troupe dressed in elaborate gold saris danced onstage; these were the gopis, enjoying their work in the village of Barsana. Krishna and his friends arrived next, decked out in gold pantaloons and bristling mustaches. The two groups engaged in a tit-for-tat exchange, drawing laughter from the large audience. After a tug-of-war and whirling musical numbers, Radha won their game. She sat triumphantly on Krishna’s throne, enjoying her victory as the musicians

The gopis began to toss flower petals over Krishna and Radha, ceremonially binding their love with flowers. The couple sat in a growing pile of gold, yellow and red petals as baskets of petals were poured over their shoulders. Then, in a startling move, Krishna and Radha jumped up from the flower pile. Petals flew everywhere in spirals of gold and red, catching the light before floating down to the stage. The actors playing Krishna and Radha then jumped offstage and into the audience. They scooped more petals into the air, which swooped down to land on the audience’s clothes and hair. The hall filled with the scent of crushed marigold as the performance ended with a joyous flower petal fights.

Shaking flowers out of our hair, we adjourned to the tiled dining hall for a delicious vegetarian meal served on banana-leaf placemats. Monkeys scurried overhead, fruitlessly searching for a chance to snatch our leftover chapatis.

After our late lunch, we hopped on the bus bound for Agra. We arrived at the Taj Mahal just as the sun was setting; the white marble was luminous in the fading light. The nearer we drew to the mausoleum, the more impressed we were by its sheer scale and symmetry. Families in bright holiday clothes strolled along the periphery of the building, small as ants. Looking beyond the monument, a lone boatman punted his colorful rowboat along the river, back toward Vrindavan.


Daily Dispatch: Day 4
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Daily Dispatch 3: Footloose in Delhi: A Mosque, a Purim Celebration and a Bird Sanctuary

NEW DELHI – After two days of being shepherded around Delhi by Professor Trivedi and friends, today we were turned loose to report on our own. Alone or in twos, we left our hotel early this morning to navigate a city most of us had never been to with the challenge of reporting in a language we don’t know, within a culture that we’ve only read about in textbooks. Delhi is an absolutely vibrant city, fast paced and full of unexpected moments on every turn. It is made up of small, unmarked backstreets where sanctuaries hide and large main roads are packed with people, music and impromptu parades. It can be daunting, but our confidence grew with the hour and we met the challenge.

Emily spent her day at the Nizamuddin Dargah. She had a sit down with Syed Bilal where they spoke about the upkeep of the shrine, in particular the “interdenominational nature of visiting devotees.”

“We also discussed the film industry’s impact on the shrine,” Emily said. “It’s a frequent location for shooting.”

Natasha and David started their day early with the intent of covering several different stories. They ventured to the Muslim part of old Delhi on a search for a restaurant serving nihari, a breakfast food made with beef, which is illegal in Dehli.

From there they did an interview with the deputy director of the Delhi Haj committee, who decides which Delhi-ites will be allowed to travel to Mecca each year.

They then met up with the imam of the Jama Masjid again to talk more about the Haj.

“That interview took an interesting turn when we learned, as it came to an end, about his boyhood dreams of playing cricket for the national team,” Natasha said.

The pair ended their day with a late night party in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Purim at the local Chabad House.

“A late night, but a fabulous and rewarding day of work and play,” Natasha said.

Professor Goldman even got in on the fun at the Chabad House. The house, which serves as a synagogue and hostel for visiting Israeli youth and others, is down a narrow alleyway off the main bazaar. A huge photo of the late leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson pointed the way.

“Inside the Chabad House, the local Chabad rabbi, who is from Israel, read the story of Purim in the scroll known as the Book of Esther,” Goldman said. “It tells the ancient drama of a plot against the Jews that is foiled by an unlikely Jewish Queen.”

Professor Goldman compared the festivities to Holi and explained there was plenty of liquor, confetti and lots of dancing. He did say that the men and women danced in separate part of the Synagogue. “It seemed like a good way to usher in Holi.”

Gudrun met with Molinder Singh at the Bhai Vir Sing Marg Institute. The Pari spoke about the politics behind the turban. She learned that “turbans are six meters long and a sign of religious affiliation and commitment (or a reminder) to dharma.”

Ellen and Andrea met up with Syed Hammadi Nizami at the Nizamuddin Sufi Shrine to talk about the effects demonetization has made on charitable giving in different faiths.

The team of Pia and Thea traveled over Dehli state lines to Noida to visit the Immanuel Mar Thoma Chruch.

“We interviewed senior citizen congregants, who were gathered there for a lunchtime conversation about gender dynamics in the Bible,” Pia said. “We chatted with them about preserving their Keralan roots in Delhi and beyond, and shared delicious Keralan food with the reverend and his family."

The Pia/Thea team is also working on a story about the pollution of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. They were able to secure a sit down with Dr. Syamel Sarkar, the Director of Water Resources and Forestry research.

As for me, I ventured to the Digambar Jain Lal Mandir Bird Sanctuary in old Dehli. I had to dash across a highway that separates the Red Fort and the bustling shops of Old Dehli. There are no signs to indicate when the safe time to walk is, so I just took a deep breath, sucked in my stomach and weaved in and out of cars, mopeds and rickshaws that appear to be trying to do the same thing. But once across, it was right there.

Walking up the stairs to the bird sanctuary I was greeted with signs, including one that read, “Birds are our friends. Do not hurt them for your food, amusement, pleasure, safety. Security of our living creatures and environment is our topmost religion.” Jains put an importance on leaving a life free of harm and violence. Jains believe that all creatures deserve to live without harm. They are famously known for not even killing bugs.

Everyone returned back to the hotel safe and full of stories about navigating the big and confusing city. It was incredible to finally be able to use our skills that we’ve been developing over our seven weeks of class and use them in a practical setting.


Photo by Elizabeth VanMetre

Daily Dispatch 2: A Day for the Senses

NEW DELHI – Our second day in Delhi was a day for the senses. We washed our feet at the entrance of a Sikh temple, rang a hanging bell in Jain mandir, heard a song about a lonesome bride, sampled Indian fragrances in the main bazaar and ate Punjabi food at a market stall that has been in the same family for six generations.

We did all this while navigating the narrow alleyways of Delhi where we dodged cars, motorbikes, cycle rickshaws, dogs, cows and even a monkey or two.

Professor Trivedi had warned us that it would be the most demanding and in many ways the most memorable day of the trip. He assembled a great cast of characters to make it all come alive. These included Dalai Lama’s personal interpreter, Prime Minister Modi’s minister of Information, the leader of Delhi’s main mosque and a celebrity author, William Dalrymple, the author of The Last Mughal.

We started the day at Delhi’s Jama Masjid, the religious epicenter for most of the city’s Sunni Muslim population since the 17th century. The pink sandstone mosque waited solidly and silently for the thousands of Muslims who would come to for the Friday jummah, or noon prayer. Dalrymple and several of his colleagues walked us through the mosque before we headed to the old city’s religious landscape.

He took us back to the 17th century and described for us a shining city on the beautiful Yamuna River, the second holiest river after the Ganges. The Delhi of the 1600s had the largest economy in the world, based on its famed textiles. The masjid, built by emperor Shah Jahan, sits at the top of a hill and was once surrounded by lush gardens and elegant mansions.

Now, one can still feel the cool breeze that made Shah Jahan choose the location in the first place, and imagine what the mosque must have been like in its heyday. Dalrymple and his friend Bruce Warnell helped us imagine the courtyard as it once was: shaded in royal gold and scarlet covers with cooling fountains and pools, making it an ideal place for gathering with friends.

We followed Dalrymple through the side streets of Old Delhi, through the courtesan’s bazaar and the bridal bazaar, where one can purchase bright, festive decorations, saris and perfumes.

Sis Ganj Gurudwara. By Sangsuk Sylvia Kang
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Dalrymple was at home in the Old City. We stopped at a small family-owned perfume shop, where he described India’s rich ittar, or scent, tradition, which goes back to the first millennium. Of course, Indian plants like holy basil, tuberose and jasmine are some of the most sought-after scents in the world, but the perfume tradition has diminished over the centuries. Luckily, we were able to take a bit of the history home with us. The favorite? Oud rose, a deep, moody floral scent.

Next on our walk was the Jain Shwetambara temple, its splendor unassuming behind a plain lavender exterior. We removed our shoes and headed inside to the lower level, where there were devotees ringing silver bells that were hanging overhead. I walked under and clanged the bell as loudly as I could, then headed upstairs to the third floor. There, we sat among murals of the life of Mahavira, the man who revealed Jainism to the world, and other Jain saints. Jains believe in reincarnation, which the murals depict, and which Dalrymple described as “the conveyor belt of life.”

At our next stop, the Sikh Gurudwara, a lovely older gentleman brought us sweet limes as we stood in line to remove our shoes. I accepted the fruit and said, “Shukria,” or “thank you” in Hindi, to which he replied, “Good girl!” After washing our feet, we headed inside, where devotees were listening to three musicians--a singer, and a tabla and harmonium player--performed a song about a lonesome bride, perhaps an allegory for the soul. The Gurudwara sits on what Sikhs believe is the execution site of the sixth Guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded by the emperor Aurangzeb. The Gurudwara contains a shrine to the guru, where adherents stop to pray, as well as a bedchamber of sorts, where the Adi Granth, or Sikh holy book, is put to bed each night. The book is considered the living Guru and is revered as such by practitioners.

We rushed to reach the Jama Masjid; we were late for an interview with Sayid Taariq Bukhari, the brother of the mosque’s Grand Imam. The leadership of the masjid has been in his family for over 300 years. It’s become particularly important since Partition, when many Indian Muslims moved to the newly created state of Pakistan, and his family was left responsible for the political and religious leadership of India’s Sunni Muslims. But, he said, “I’m Indian by choice not by chance,” affirming his commitment to his community.

Bukhari answered our questions about politics, practice, and the history of the masjid, and gave us valuable insight about how others in the world see American politics and policies under Trump. He struck most of us as rather moderate until Emily asked him about the Islamic State. “ISIS is a creation of Israel to defame Islam,” he answered.

After a brief pit stop for lunch (paneer paratha and sweet lassi at a stall six generations old), we headed to the Tibet House for the only Buddhist experience we will have on the trip. There, we met Geshe Dorji Damdul, the director of the Tibet House, who works closely with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Geshe Damdul is the Dalai Lama’s official translator and granted us an interview. He spoke to us about the nature of happiness and suffering, and how one must find peace within oneself to limit the influence of external factors on one’s state of being. And he had the following advice for being better journalists: “First be yourself happy,” he said.

Our trip took a sharp turn, from a community in exile to the seat of government power, where we met Col. Rajyavardhan Rathore, the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting. Several cameras and videographers were present to capture the moment, briefly making us the subjects instead of the observers.

A retired Army colonel and former Olympic athlete, Rathore greeted us with a curious question given that he is an official of the BJP: “I thought religion was a private affair; why write about it so much?” Despite having no background in journalism or media, Rathore has certainly developed a strong idea of what he considers newsworthy. He spoke to us about the decline in the quality of journalism, stating that journalists need better training and to keep emotions out of their reporting—”less views and more news,” he said.

Our last stop was a visit to India TV, a 600-plus-person, 24-hour newsroom situated on three acres of land. There, we got to walk onto the set of one of India’s most popular programs, Aap Ki Adalat, or The People’s Court. On each episode, a celebrity or politician is grilled by host Rajat Sharma in front of a studio audience. Narendra Modi came on before he was elected Prime Minister, and recently a Digambara Jain monk was the guest. It was a challenge for the production team to facilitate the interview of the naked monk in an appropriate manner, but they pulled it off.

After our visit to the TV station, we headed back to the hotel--or so we thought. After a brief detour going the wrong way on a one-way street, we got stuck in that infamous Delhi traffic, for which every hour seems to be rush hour. Eager to send my dispatch out into the world, I joined our fixer, Paresh-ji, and three of my classmates in a mad dash through the streets and to the peace and quiet of the Holiday Inn.


Photo by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang