Jain Libraries Enter the 21st Century, with Some Road Block

By Ellen Ioanes

AHMEDABAD – With its intricately carved marble walls, a Jain library known as the Gitarthganga Institute possesses an air of timelessness. It is tucked on a leafy side-street, far from the shriek of car horns and auto-rickshaws that dominate the streets of this busy city in the western state of Gujarat.

But there is something decidedly 21st-century going on behind those walls. Gitarthganga is undertaking a massive enterprise -- to digitize all of its books and texts, some of which date back 150 years.

The library is, however, stepping gingerly into the new technological era since Jain monks and nuns, the guardians of the tradition, are not permitted to use cellphones and computers. What makes it all possible is cooperation and coordination between the ascetics and a cadre of lay Jain employees and volunteers.

“They’re the ones typing in this information.” says Dr. Peter Flugel, a scholar of Jainism at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The digitization project has been underway since 1992, according to Gitarthganga spokesman Shrenik Zaveri. But one can still visit the material texts, which are housed in glass cabinets on the upper floor of the temple. Under the glare of fluorescent lights, monks, nuns and temple staff pull and re-shelve the books, all of which still have the old hand-printed Dewey decimal system labels.

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Kushalkirti Maharaj Saheb, dressed in the white robes typical of Svetambara Jain monks, oversees the library and the digitization project. He’s a young monk, in his thirties, and a disciple of the guru Aacharya Shree Yugbushansuri. Before taking his vows, or diksha, he worked as an IT professional.

“We established this institution for subject-wise analysis,” he says, explaining that all of the books and manuscripts in the library have been divided into 108 main subject matter areas (for example, meditation, or nonviolence) with 10,008 subheadings under the main topics.

“It is the first effort in India to digitize this way,” he says, explaining how the system allows users to search for terms and discover the entire Jain philosophy on that particular subject. During an interview at the institute’s monastery, Yugbushansuri reiterates this point: “On meditation, if one wants references from Jain scripture, we can get more than 7,000, 8,000 references,” demonstrating the power of this system.

At this writing, Gitarthganga has over 125,000 books, manuscripts and ebooks. Five thousand books have been added to the digital database, along with thousands of ebooks, articles and photos. The remainder will be added over the next decade or so, says Zaveri. While it may seem like a small number, it’s impressive considering the very specific prohibition against the use of technology in the Svetambara monastic tradition.

For Jain monks and nuns to use a cell phone, computer or tablet is strictly taboo. Says scholar John Cort of Denison University, “The Jain understanding is that technology requires electricity, and the means of generating electricity are inherently violent.” Christopher Key Chapple, a scholar at Loyola Marymount University, says in his book Jainism and Ecology: Nonviolence in the Web of Life, using electricity causes harm to the organisms (“fire-bodied beings”) present in electrical current.

While most lay people use technology all the time, Svetambara monks are strictly prohibited from doing so. So they direct some 45 staff members and volunteers, including three coders, in the hands-on computer entry work.

Gitarthganga is by no means the only Jain library in India; many mandirs, or temples, have their own libraries, with the Koba library in Koba, Gujarat, being the largest and best-known. Because education and knowledge are highly valued among Jains (they are consistently among the best-educated minority groups in India), many temples have excellent collections of religious books and manuscripts.

Jainism is a somewhat obscure practice in much of the world. While it’s one of India’s oldest traditions, there are only about 4.5 million practitioners there (out of India’s 1.2 billion total population) and about 250,000 in the Jain diaspora, according to the World Religion Database.

As a result, many outside this small community have no knowledge of Jain principles, dietary practices, or history.

Mahavira, who was born between 599 and 540 BCE, is considered the father of Jainism as we know it. Jains believe that their religion is timeless, and thus was not created, but rather, revealed. Mahavira brought modern Jainism to the people of India and is revered by devotees.

The religion has five core practices: ahimsa, or nonviolence, being chief among them, as well as chastity, avoiding lying or harmful speech, not stealing, and refraining from materialism or having possessions. Jains are vegetarians and have an extremely strict diet that excludes root vegetables and eggs, amongst other foods. They also fast often and have particular rules about when meals can be taken during the day.

The ultimate goal of practicing Jains is attaining moksha, or release from the cycle of birth and death. The monastic traditions practice extreme asceticism to achieve this release, including refraining from using all technology, traveling only by foot, wearing simple white robes (or in the Digambara tradition, no clothing at all), practicing total abstinence and fasting frequently, sometimes until death.

There is an impetus in the community to promote knowledge about the religion. Pravin Shah, who started the Jain elibrary in 2008, says he began the project as a way to bring religious texts to the next generation of Jains.

Shah, who practices Jainism and came to the United States in the 1970s, says that no one in the U.S. had access to texts that would help them teach Jain children growing up in the diaspora. So he decided to create an online resource to make such texts available, for free.

The Jain eLibrary project differs from Gitarthganga in that Shah works with a number of Jain libraries and scans their documents into his online database. The documents are not keyword searchable, so navigating the database without prior knowledge of Jain texts can be a challenge.

The Gitarthganga Institute has developed a unique in-house software to facilitate the move to digital. Now, says Satva Bushan Vijayji, another disciple of the guru, the monks can analyze the texts, and can physically direct the staff building the library or doing programming.

According to Yugbushansuri, who says he came up with the idea for this project 30 years ago, this resource is intended “for experts and scholars, not the common man.” Much of the library’s contents are in ancient languages like Sanskrit, so “experts need to put the scriptures of Jainism in perspective for others.”

However, experts abroad have yet to make much use of it; the digital files are not accessible outside of India. A visit to the Gitarthganga website reveals only information about the project and does not contain access to the database itself. As to whether the information will ever be made available outside the institute, Zaveri says that Gitarthganga will continue to work with Jain scholars throughout the world so that they can “share their research with [Gitarthganga],” while requesting information “as needed.”

And according to Shah, Gitarthganga was reluctant to digitize in the first place. He says that he requested books from several different Jain libraries to add to the Jain eLibrary, but was rebuffed by Gitarthganga because, according to him, they hoped to keep their texts from being sullied by technology.

Even now, these resources are difficult to retrieve. Flugel recalls that on a visit to the library, a student found 136 resources that would be useful for her work. Gitarthganga sent only seven via email due to what they say was a technological problem.

Flugel speculates, though, that the lack of access could be due to the politics of competing Jain sects. Different groups take on different community-oriented projects, he explains, each jockeying for recognition and supremacy, much like the kinds of intellectual competition between Ivy League universities. Says Flugel, “All of this can only be understood within the context of sectarian competition within Jainism. It’s a nice thing, they outdo each other in producing books and libraries and temples, all sorts of prestigious things.”

But Yugbushansuri is confident that the resource will be helpful, and that users will spread the good word about it. There is no other plan, other than “via word of mouth,” to share this resource with scholars or the public at large. Eventually, the texts will be translated into Hindi, and an English encyclopedia will be added. But Flugel and Shah both agree that the library will have “no choice” but to embrace the digital age and share the wealth of its knowledge so that the religion can survive. Says Shah, “They have to change. There’s no other way.”


Breaking Fast with the Shahs

Photos by Sangsuk Sylvia Kang

Additional reporting by Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

For Jains, every meal is a chance to strengthen and practice their religious beliefs.  Foods are carefully chosen in accordance with the Jain principles of nonviolence, and many Jains fast as a way to become closer with God.  

The Shah family--Taral, Kalgi and their daughter Manya, plus an assortment of parents, aunts and uncles--welcomed us into their home one Friday evening in March to share their dinner.

The whole family had gathered to share a meal with Mita Sanghvi, one of the family’s aunts. She was reaching the end of a year-long fast and eating one of her few designated meals that night.  

The Shah family’s living room where they greet guests. Though it looks like a tapestry from a distance, the artwork pictured is actually carved (about ¼ inch deep) onto the wall itself.

Every part of the Jain meal is carefully prepared in accordance with the specific requirements of the concept of ahimsa, or nonviolence.  Jains are strict vegetarians and take additional precautions to minimize harm to all life forms, including microorganisms, during their meals. Jains do not use root or bulb vegetables since they believe that growing these vegetables causes harms to insects and organisms. Dinner that evening consisted of (clockwise from top) pao bhaji, dal, fruit salad with pomegranate seed, lentil, vegetable pancake, roti, and athana, a home-made mango pickle dish which the Shahs gifted for us to take home.  

The Shah family sits down for an early dinner together around 5 P.M. They eat before sunset because the family members practicing the strictest form of Jainism do not eat after sundown. This is another practice against violence toward living organisms – Jains believe that the period after sundown is when bacteria grows most rapidly in food.

Mita Sanghvi (in pink salwar kameez) is participating in Vashitap, a year-long fast during which adherents eat only two meals on alternating days and drink water on the remaining days. Her fast is the reason for the family’s gathering today.

Traditional Jain artifacts adorn the Shah home. Aside from religious (Jain) artwork or statues, their home is decorated mostly in beige / muted colors and objects that serve practical purposes.

Everyone is expected to clean his or her plate at the end of the meal. Wasting even a morsel of food goes against Jain principles.

Jains fast to purify themselves, but also to feel closer to god. Five of Mita’s family members will be completing the same fast this year.

In order to not waste food, the strictest Jains will pour a bit of water onto their plate and wash it with their fingers.  They then drink the liquid to clean their plate in a practice called pani dhoine pivu

Clean cups and bowls after the Shahs have finished their dinner.  


This is Mita Sanghvi’s second time undergoing a Varshitap fast; her last Varshitap was three years ago.  After fasting she feels stronger, she says, as the fast reminds one that “every sense is in your control.”

Many Jains use water boiled in the home as drinking water. Jain scholar Dr. John Cort writes in his book, Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India, “According to Jain biology, by boiling water, one prevents the birth of infinite invisible organisms, and actually prevents much himsa [violence]. The small amount of himsa that one causes from boiling water is much less than that which results from drinking unboiled water with all its microorganisms.”

Manya Shah, 10, is the only Jain in her class. Her mother, Kalgi Shah, packs Manya a strict Jain lunch each day.

All the food in the meal was prepared on that day. Stored food accrues microorganisms over time and therefore is excluded from the strictest Jain diet.

Hemendra Sanghvi explains the science of the Jain diet. Everything, including the types of fasts one performs and time of day one eats, is formulated to avoid harming, animals, insects, and the tiniest microbes. “No one should be hurt because of your own choice, or your own taste,” he says.  

The women in the family discuss the Jain diet after dinner.

Pankaj, Mahesh and Taral Shah [L-R] discuss the merits of fasting. Jains fast on different days, called tithis. They avoid certain foods or do not eat at all on the fifth, eighth, and 14th days of the lunar month.

Manya sits on her mother’s lap as the family listens to Pankaj speak.  

Mita Sanghvi touches Pina Shah’s feet in a gesture of humility. Many Indians, not only Jains, perform this gesture to elders or teachers as a sign of respect.

Mita receives a gift upon completing her fast. It is typical for women who are fasting to receive some type of token to celebrate their accomplishment.

Manya poses for a photo with her family’s live-in domestic help. It’s not unusual for wealthier Jain families to have servants of a different religion--the Shah’s domestic help is Hindu.

Taral shows a drawing of Arjun from the family’s shrine. Taral and his family have a small, private shrine for home worship, while Pankaj, his uncle, has a larger outdoor shrine that is open to the whole community.

The Shahs have built a Jain temple upstairs in a room in their house. Here, Manya dusts the god with a peacock duster, which is used to clear away any insects or microbes.   

Manya stands inside the the family’s temple.  

A family photo. Back row, from left to right, Hemendra Sanghvi, Mahesh Shah, Pankaj Shah, Darshna Shah, Jyotika Sanghvi, Mita Sanghvi, Pina Shah

Front row, left to right, Kalgi Shah, Manya Shah, Taral Shah.

The authors (Andrea Januta, Sangsuk Sylvia Kang, and Ellen Ioanes, L-R)  join the family for a photo.  


Houses of Worship: The Unintended Victims of Demonetization

By Andrea Januta and Ellen Ioanes

New Delhi -- Late on a cool spring night in Delhi, pilgrims and tourists from all over the world make their way to the Nizamuddin Dargah, a shrine which houses the body of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, one the most famous Sufi saints. The visitors sit on the floor in the large open area outside the mausoleum itself to hear the qawwalis, or Sufi devotional music.

First starts the tabla, a small drum, then other musicians join in with the harmonium and with their voices. Soon, the crowd is swaying to the music, captivated. To show their appreciation for the music and commitment to the saint some devotees walk up to the musicians and begin dropping rupees in front of them. Some are timid, with only a couple of bills to spare; others have a stack of bills and make an elaborate show of bestowing them onto the musicians.

In the two or so hours they spend playing these devotional songs, the qawwali musicians will bring in piles and piles of bills -- sometimes as much as 20,000 rupees.

In addition to listening to devotional music, worshipers lay garlands of roses and sweet candies around the tombs of the saints. Some purchase shawls to lay on the tombs in a thick tapestry of multi-colored cloth.

To support the shrine’s upkeep and charitable activities, visitors also leave cash on the tombs or in locked wooden boxes marked “Donations” in Hindi and Urdu.

 

70 Percent Drop

But donations -- to the singers or the shrine -- aren’t what they used to be. Religious organizations across India have seen significant decreases in contributions since the government’s sudden announcement last November that the two largest rupee bills, the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, were no longer valid. (In dollar terms, these bills are worth just under $8 and just under $16, respectively.)

Syed Hammad Nizami, a descendant of the saint and one of the shrine’s caretakers, estimates that donations to the shrine have fallen by 70 percent since November. His family has run the shrine for hundreds of years and relies entirely on cash offerings for its maintenance and operations, including charitable programs and workers’ salaries. The shrine distributes free food twice a day and runs a madrasa that serves 150 students.

When donations plummeted, the Nizami family had to find funds elsewhere to avoid scaling back these programs.

“At that time it was very hard for two, three months, so we organized wealth from our savings,” Syed says. They have seen a moderate recovery since, but cash flows are still far below their usual levels.

“Worship is not changed,” he says. “People are coming continuously. But people [don’t] have the money to contribute.”

 

Fighting Corruption and Crime

In November of 2016, the Modi government rolled out its plan for demonetization and remonetization. Overnight, the government took all 500 and 1000 rupee notes out of circulation and introduced new 500 and 2000 bills. Limits on exchange and withdrawal resulted in a severe cash crunch nationwide.

The government announced the move to attack and weaken a growing counterfeit market linked to terrorism and corruption, as well as a largely untaxed economy conducted in cash. “Demonetization is truly the first major frontal assault on black money,” said Arvind Panagariya, the Vice-Chairman of the government’s policy think-tank, the Niti Aayog, in an interview with India’s Economic Times. “It sends a loud and clear signal that the prime minister is serious about combating corruption, and there is not going to be any compromise on this front.”

Some also speculate that the announcement aimed to sway public opinion ahead of upcoming elections. But its surprise implementation -- with less than four hours notice -- upended the economy.

People scrambled to get their hands on usable bills, and businesses across all industries were hit as spending fell.

 

Effects Felt Across Religions

The Nizamuddin shrine isn’t the only religious institution feeling the crunch.

Five miles away at the Jama Masjid, one of India’s largest mosques, donation boxes are prominently displayed. But, these have yielded disappointing returns for several months. Tariq Syed Bukhari, a member of the leading Sunni family in Delhi and brother of the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid, says the mosque has cut operating expenses in response to the drop in contribution levels. “I would say, as of now, the position is a little bit improving,” says Bukhari. “But from November until January, [the drop] was more than 50 percent.”

But it hasn’t cut down on its charitable activities, Bukhari said. The mosque has continued feeding families in need, but to do so it had to negotiate to receive food on credit. The mosque feeds a couple dozen families every month and expects that soon donations will improve enough that it can repay the loans. Its most important charitable activity, however, is providing iftar, the fast-breaking meal, to over 100 people daily during the holy month of Ramadan. This year Ramadan begins in the last week of May. “We still have time,” says Bukhari. “Things will ease out by that time.”

 

Some Spared

Other groups have been luckier. Rushi Rathashriji, a Jain nun in Ahmedabad, says that demonetization didn’t impact her even though Jain nuns rely entirely on donations for their livelihood. “Everybody was giving just the usual. Nothing changed,” she says.

Jains are required to give one fourth of their income to charity as part of their religious practice -- and wealthier Jains give more. There are many causes for them to choose from, including cleaning the Ganges, supporting impoverished citizens, and paying for the care of animals. Rathashriji guesses that this predetermination is responsible for her stable income level. “Since people have already decided what percentage to give, they made up for it two or three or four weeks later when they had the cash.”

Many of the larger transactions, usually given to Jain nuns after weekly public sermons, are done by wire and are thus less likely to be affected by the cash crunch. As Jains are typically wealthier members of Indian society, this may also protect them somewhat from economic hardships of demonetization.

 

A Gift for Some

Shrivatsa Goswami, the guru of the Caitanya Prem Sansthan Ashram, views demonetization as a gift. “It was not at all a point of any suffering or any pain,” he says.

His ashram is located in Vrindavan, a town in the northern region of Uttar Pradesh. The town is over a hundred miles from Delhi and has a much smaller economy than the financial hub, India’s second richest city. He points out that this may be part of the reason that his town is less opposed to demonetization. Since the restrictions limit withdrawals to 4000 rupees a week, a sum that he says many poor Indians “will never see” in that period, he argues those below the poverty line are unaffected.

Instead, he believes that the backlash was created by corrupt officials and media hype. Ordinary people, he says, took demonetization as “a good intent for first step towards cleaning the system. It's not going to clean in one day, you know.”

As evidence, he points to the recent election results in Uttar Pradesh, which overwhelmingly elected the BJP ruling party responsible for demonetization’s implementation. If the policy had harmed most citizens, he says, the results would have been the opposite.

Goswami supports the government’s current reforms. One of his major gripes is the lack of taxpaying citizens: just over 2 percent of India’s population pays income taxes, according to the Indian government’s own figures. The burden disproportionately falls on working class Indians whose salaries are directly taxed.

“That wrong has to be corrected,” Goswami says. “And some harsh measures have to be taken care of. And now, because of this political stability, maybe more harsh economic reforms will come.“

 

An Uncertain Future

While this may seem like a needed reform for some leaders, others continue to feel the burden of demonetization. At the Jama Masjid, Bukhari says employee salaries have been cut, and he doesn’t know when they will recover. Approximately 25 people are employed at Jama Masjid, including the imams, ticket sellers and cleaning staff.

While the mosque does charge small sums for permission to take photos or tickets to enter the tower overlooking the grounds, it does not come close to meeting the mosque’s operating expenses.
Like many houses of worship nationwide, the mosque is looking for ways to cope with the unexpected financial hardship. But according to Bukhari, religious organizations face limited options because of their public and religious nature: “You can’t put an entrance ticket on the mosque.”


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.

Daily Dispatch: Day 7
BY ANA SINGH
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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 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