Friday, August 6, 2010

August 2-4 Jaipur

Jaipur, capital of the state of Rajasthan, is known as the “Pink City”. There are various theories about the derivation of the “pink” nickname, from the terracotta color of the old city walls (Jaipur was built in 1727 as a “planned” city, with 9 sectors dividing the population according to occupation and caste) to the notion popularized by the British that pink is the color of hospitality, and thus the buildings were painted pink for the visit in 1876 by Edward VII. The city is now painted pink every 10 years; in 2000 the fresh paint corresponded to a visit by former President Clinton.

Our hotel in Jaipur, the Jai Palace, is my absolute favorite, and it was my turn to have a room all to myself. The building was surrounded by gardens. a life-size chess board, and a gorgeous pool. The interior décor is delightful –traditional Rajasthani themes in bright colors and modern motifs. In each of the hotels that we’ve enjoyed, the floral arrangements have been exquisite, and the Jai Palace was no exception. On our last evening there, the dining room and adjacent garden area were booked for a birthday party. Guests in stunning saris enjoyed an outdoor buffet under a billowy white tent. It was really fun to have a close-up glimpse of another aspect of the modern middle-class Indian lifestyle.
In Jaipur we had the opportunity to visit a school devoted to the education of students with disabilities. The accomplishments of the school and its students are quite impressive. It was also the first building we saw India with wheelchair ramps. The mission of PRAYAS is total inclusion of disabled and socially disadvantaged students into the mainstream of educational opportunity.

Despite an early morning rain, our group enjoyed an elephant ride at the City Palace and again marveled at the architecture, a synthesis of Rajasthani and Mughal styles. Truly marvelous is the Jantar Mantar, one of Maharaja Jai Singh II’s five observatories located in various parts of the country. Constructed with stone and marble, an array of astronomical instruments were precisely and scientifically designed and are nearly 100% accurate according to today’s computer-based readings. A large contingent of (predominantly male) university students was visiting at the same time, and like us, were undeterred by the rain that had again begun to fall.

An entire page of the local newspaper was devoted to photos of parks and the countryside surrounding “The Pink City”. Rajasthan is arid, a desert state in this country of diverse ecosystems. However, thanks to the monsoon rains, the predominant colors of Jaipur during our stay were myriad shades of green.

We concluded our visit to Jaipur with an ethnic Rajasthani dinner at Chokhi Dhani Village, and for some, a camel ride!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

July 31-August 2 Agra

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding was front page news in all of the papers on August 2nd! The Hindustan Times carried another more detailed story inside the front section as well. President Clinton made several trips to India during his term of office.

Turns out it’s easier to go back to Delhi from Varanasi, and then on to Agra, so that’s what we did. We flew to Delhi, spent the night at our “home” hotel, the Taj Mansingh (very elegant) and took the train on Sunday, August 1st to Agra. After lunch at the Agra hotel, we regrouped and set out in a bus our first site visit, Fatehpur Sikri. Built during the second half of the 16th century by Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri was once the capital of the Mughal Empire. One of the largest mosques in India, the Jama Masjid is located there. Because we visited on a Sunday, the site was crowded with families enjoying a breezy afternoon after the morning rains. The mosque too was thronged with worshippers and there was a festive spirit all around.

We set our alarm clocks for an early start on a day we’d been anticipating for weeks. In order to avoid both the crowds and the heat, we met in the lobby at 5:30 a.m. and set off for that wonder of wonders, the Taj Mahal. It took 22 years to build this tomb, a monument to love. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan authorized the building of the Taj for his favorite queen, Mumtaz, after she died following the birth of their fourteenth child. The white marble is inlayed with intricate colorful designs made from semi-precious stones. I purchased a book with stunning photographs of the Taj Mahal and close-ups of the detailed engraving because I know my own photos just won’t begin to capture the beauty of this place.

From the Agra Fort, we were able to get more photos of the Taj Mahal from a distance. In these shots, the white marble gleams next to the green trees. Emperor Akbar commissioned the building of this structure as well, and it was here that his grandson, Shah Jihan, spent the last eight years of his life, imprisoned in a War of Succession by his third son. From the terraced building where he was confined, Shah Jihan could sit and stare at the Taj Mihal and think of his beloved Mumtaz.

As I’m writing this we’re on the train bound for Jaipur, the last city on our itinerary. Everyone is starting to think of home and the responsibilities that await each of us upon our return. Kathleen, Principal of a charter school in Harlem, was on the phone today discussing test scores and teacher bonuses. When we return to our hometowns, there is a range of one day to three weeks before we’ll all be back in school. I’m looking forward to seeing my family and sleeping in my own bed. Six weeks of travel in India has made all of us appreciate the advantages we often take for granted.

When we disembarked from the bus at the train station this afternoon, we were each handed a boxed dinner of sandwiches, fruit, and other Indian food delights. As we walked to the train platform, we were approached by children begging for food. At least five of us immediately handed over our meals to the children, although we’d been cautioned not to do this. We’ve read in the newspapers how rapidly the median income is rising in India, but for the poorest of the poor, begging at places frequented by tourists is still the only life they know.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

July 27-31 Varanasi (Benares)


How does one describe the overnight train from Kolkata to Varanasi . . . hmmm . . . good question! Let’s just say it was part of the amazing enigma that is India! We were assigned to small “cabins” of 4 persons each. I negotiated for a bottom bunk; Andi and Mary took the top ones (thank you!) and Elizabeth, who wasn’t feeling well, got the other bottom bunk. We each had clean sheets wrapped in brown paper, a heavy blanket (appreciated since it was really cold), and a small pillow. We ate a boxed dinner of vegetarian Indian “wraps”. Some people read, others played cards or just chatted until after 11 p.m. Many in the group enjoyed nearly a full night’s sleep. ( I slept for about 3 hours.) We pulled into Varanasi at 7 a.m. and went to our hotel. After lunch, we met in a conference room for a lecture on “Spirituality In Varanasi”, followed by “Indian Art and Architecture in Varanasi”.

Our next scheduled event was a boat ride on the Ganges. Rather than taking the big tour bus to the ghats (stairways from the river bank to the river for bathing before worship), we took bicycle rickshaws through the narrow roadways. Our little convoy experienced the “no rules” Indian driving habits up close and personal. A cow in the middle of the road seemed unconcerned that cars, taxis, motorcycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, and bikes heading right for it swerved just in time. I have heard that traditional rickshaws (a man pulling a cart with 1-3 passengers) have been abolished as of next year. While I enjoyed the ride with Dave, a fifth grade teacher from Gainesville, I felt really uncomfortable about having an elderly Indian man pedal me around. On uphill slopes, he walked briskly, pulling the bike along. His wiry frame indicated that he’d been doing this kind of work for many years, and I worried about how he will support himself (and family) if the bicycle rickshaws are outlawed as well.

At the ghat, a crowd of pilgrims and tourists was beginning to form to watch the nightly ritual performed by seven Hindu priests to thank and praise “Mother Ganga”, and wish her a good night. Our group cllmbed into a large boat and we were rowed out from shore for the ceremony, known as the Arati. Perform the ritual began, however, we were rowed to the next ghat, where cremations are conducted—up to 150 daily. We watched reverently as our guide, Dr. Singh, explained that Hindus believe that releasing one’s ashes in the holy Ganges stops the cycle of reincarnation and the spirit is purified of all karma. A family, led by the eldest son, brings the body to the ghat, pays a fee, and watches and prays while the body is cremated. The ashes are collected and the family releases the ashes to the river. The entire process may take 6-8 hours. There were at least 6-8 fires burning, with clusters of mourners near each fire. As Dr. Singh noted, Hindus regard death as part of the life cycle, so while there is sadness that a departed family member will be missed, there is also acceptance of death as a release of the soul from earthly pain and suffering. Because the rituals have been practiced from generation to generation, young people learn early that death is a part of life.

The following day we visited a school that infuses spiritual instruction throughout the curriculum. We arrived early in the morning to see the entire student body assembled in a beautiful courtyard, where they were led in prayer, songs, and meditation before beginning their academic instruction. The school’s founder has found that students are better able to concentrate, have improved ability to memorize subject matters, and have a heightened sense of creativity that students taught by traditional methods. The Dalai Lama has visited the school twice since it was founded. You can read more about the school’s philosophy at the website: The Alice Project derives its name from Alice in Wonderland as children are invited to explore their unconscious minds.
Our stay in Varanasi included another school visit, as well as a visit to the Golden Temple. As non-Hindus, we were required to leave all bags and our schools outside of the temple and present our passports for screening. The temple was very crowded as this is the month for pilgrims to travel to Varanasi to worship Shiva here.

A sitar and tabla concert of classical Indian music topped off a busy last day in Varanasi. Current and former Fulbright scholars were invited guests, and following the concert we enjoyed a buffet dinner. It was during our conversations with the Indian Fulbrighters that we realized again not only how honored we were to be in such esteemed company, but also that our incredible experience in India was coming to an end.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 19-23 Chennai (Madras)


After an uneventful flight, we checked into our hotel (another in the Taj line of 5 star hotels), ate a very quick lunch, and hopped onto a bus for a city tour, narrated by Dr. S. Saresh, himself a Fulbrighter who will travel to the United States in January to do research following his marriage in November. We enjoyed Dr. Saresh's knowledge and humor throughout our stay in Chennai.

Our first evening in Chennai, situated on the northeast end of the state of Tamil Nadu on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, was spent in the homes of former Fulbright exchange teachers. Five of us enjoyed a visit with the colleagues and family of Shoba Raman and feasted on a traditional Tamil dinner. Shoba, a high school chemistry teacher, had invited some of her primary teacher friends, who brought examples of their students' projects. These artistic extensions of the curriculum are completed in class so that the teachers can assist and assess the students understanding. Often when I send project assignments to be completed at home, it's mom and/or dad who do the work!

We spent an entire day at the Padma Seshadri Senior Secondary School. Each morning begins with a whole school assembly intended to focus the students on the day ahead. Every day the birthday song is sung, and selected students summarize school and world news. After observing in classrooms, lunch was provided and we were then treated to music and dance performances by very talented children. Instruction in traditional music and dance keeps the next generation connected to their heritage at a time when the winds of change are sweeping across India.

Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal about 60 km south of Chennai is the site of rock temples with bas relief carvings. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temples have stood since the 7th-9th centuries. We were amazed when our expert guide, Dr. Saresh, told of how he climbed on the ancient carved elephants as a child!

Our stay in Chennai concluded with a walking tour of the Mylapore historic neighborhood and cultural center of Chennai. Amidst the bustling vegetable stands, flower stalls and jewelry shops, the Kapaleeshwawar Temple stands in all its glory. As non-Hindus, we were permitted to walk inside the gates of the temple but not within the sanctum santorum dedicated to Shiva and other deities. The temple is believed to have been built in the 7th century. The gopuram (spire) with engraved deities has recently been painted in a host of bright colors. Some locals feel that the painting detracts from the temple's natural beauty. Either way, it is breathtaking and the center of daily life for the Hindu residents of Mylapore.

Following our temple visit, we boarded a plane for Kolkata in West Bengal. The pace is of the trip is tough at times but the chance to see so much of India as a Fulbrighter is an unparalled opportunity. I am truly thankful to be here!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 16-18 Pune


Aman Setu School (Bridge of Peace) is a picturesue school located on the outskirts of Pune. Formed by a group of teachers with a common vision for a world of harmony, the school admits students of varying class, caste, religious, and linguistic groups. Children learn and explore through a curriculum developed to teach love, peace, respect, courage, hard work, responsibility, and balance. They garden and take care of animals. Use of recycled materials is prevalent throughout the school. An old school bus on campus is used for small group tutoring. With each of our school visits, I am more inspired and eager to implement new ideas in my classroom.

We also visited the Aga Khan Palace, where Mahatma Ghandi, his wife Kasturba, and his long-time secretary Mahadeobhai Desai were incarcerated during the Quit India Movement. Both Kasturba and Mahadeobhai passed away during this time. The Palace was built in 1892 by Aga Khan III. In 1969, Aga Khan IV donated the Palace to India as a mark of respect to Gandhiji and his philosophy.

Niki, art teacher from Brooklyn, New York and I took advantage of some free time to visit Vaishali Patak and her family on Sunday, July 18th. We had met Vaishali a few days earlier at her school, where she is the art teacher. She specializes in Warli painting, which she studied following her formal university training. Vaishali and her husband Manoj, an executive for Coca-Cola in Pune, welcomed us into their home and were eager to share her vision of the Warli style. Still using the characteristic triangle, dots, and dashes, Vaishali also incorporates pieces of colorful fabric glued into the painted design. The result is a gorgeous interpretation of her subject. Niki and I both purchased some of Vaishali's original work, which I will enjoy for many, many years.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 13-15, 2010 Ahmedabad


(See Wikipedia links for photos)

The festival of Rathyatra was celebrated on July 13th in Ahmedabad. Each year thousands of Hindi people flock to see a procession of painted and decorated elephants carry chariots with images of the gods along the main city streets. The day before, while visiting the SEWA women in the vegetable market (see previous blog entry), we were delighted to come upon the elephants being readied for their “big” day. About 8 elephants stood patiently as they were being painted with brightly colored designs. We saw the wooden canopied chariots where the statues of various gods would be placed. Due to the dangers of being out in the crowds, however, we were advised to avoid the actual festival, and departed early on the morning of the 13th to visit various sites outside of the city.

Our first stop was the Sun Temple at Modhera. It is a magnificent structure with a pond a ground level for feet washing, and steps to various levels with shrines, a main hall, and the sanctum sanctorum. While sitting and enjoying the beauty of the Sun Temple, I was asked to take a photograph for a group of five young American women working for World Camp, an NGO doing Aids education work in Ahmedabad. They too had left the city to avoid the Rathyatra crowds. They were full of enthusiasm not only for the work they do, but also for having some time to explore the cultural riches of Ahmedabad.

Next we visited the Rani-ki-Vav ( scroll down at Wikipedia) step well at Patan. The well is an ornate structure used to capture rain water in the arid state of Gujarat. Constructed by Queen Udayamati around 1050 AD, the actual tub that holds the water is at the base underground. Steps leading down to the water were used for community gatherings as well as worship at 800 shrines to various gods. Nearly 400 sculptures remain. Our guide explained that women were secluded from the men when the people gathered at the well.

Our final discovery on July 13th was the Patola weaving workshop in Patan. Here an intricate technique using hand-dyed silk on a loom has been developed by families in the area, who pass the skill from generation to generation. Saris and wall hangings woven in the Patola technique are quite expensive and have received worldwide recognition and awards. It may take 4-6 months to create one sari for a wealthy woman from Mumbai.

On Wednesday (July 14th) we spent the morning at the Centre for Environmental Education learning about the support this agency provides for developing instructional materials as well as training teachers in methods that support the education of India’s students about critical environmental issues. At many of the schools we have visited, we see posters and bulletin boards created by the children with slogans such as “Save Water” and “Plant Trees”. We were told that Ahmedabad is the most polluted city in India!

A highlight of the Fulbright-Hays Seminar for me was the excursion to the Sabarmati Ashram established along the banks of the Sabarmati River in 1917 by Mohandas K. Gandhi. Here Gandhiji developed the movement based on passive resistance that ultimately led to India’s Independence from Britain in 1947. In 1930, Gandhi and 78 supporters walked from the Ashram to the Indian Ocean (the Dandi March, about 241 miles) to protest the British Salt Law, which taxed Indian salt in an effort to promote sales of British salt in India. Gandhi never returned to the Ashram, having vowed to stay away until India had won its independence. The Ashram has been preserved so that it is easy to imagine Gandhi, his family, and his supporters living and working there to develop a self-sufficient community.

On Thursday, July 15th, we traveled to Pune, an IT hub, and center for educational, research and development institutions. I will write about our enlightening experiences in Pune next time!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

July 10-12, 2010: On to Ahmedabad


Saturday the 10th was a travel day—a four hour car ride (4 cars for our group) down the mountain to Chandrigahr, and a 30 minute flight to our Delhi hotel for a quick one-night turnaround to our next destination, Ahmedabad. In 1818, the British East India Company took over the city from the Maratha generals, who had ended the Mughal period in this area.

In the state of Gujarat, Ahmedabad is known for its flourishing textile industry. Despite our scheduled “free time” on Sunday afternoon, immediately after our arrival at our hotel, we regrouped and set out for the Calico Museum’s afternoon tour of antique textiles. A variety of styles were displayed, each breathtaking—tie dyed pieces with patterns so minute it seems impossible to have been done by hand, embroidered pieces, and beautiful patterns made by block printing.

Dinner in the hotel on Sunday evening (the 11th) was fun. The décor was a soccer theme and the waiters all wore the jerseys of Spain. Of course—tonight was the World Cup Final match! It was Super Bowl Sunday in India! The game aired at midnight. One super sports fan stayed up to watch; the rest of us read about it in the morning paper!

Monday’s schedule was full of new experiences. We visited the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) workshop in the morning. Registered as a trade union in 1972, SEWA trains women in employable skills and provides basic health care, child care, and shelter until the women can become self-sufficient. We visited the sewing workshop where some of us were measured for a kurta, churidar, and dupatta—the traditional outfit of a working woman. We met a young woman whose home and all possessions had been burned in the riots of 2002. She is now the production manager and chief designer for all of the fashions produced in the sewing department. Her success is the goal of SEWA for all women working in the “unorganized sector” which comprises 94% of the labor force in India.

After an afternoon of informal discussion with teachers and administrators in the Gujarat educational system, we traveled to the Rajmadu restaurant that serves traditional Gujarati cuisine. We sampled a variety of primarily vegetarian dishes, served on a silver platter. We also enjoyed a traditional dance performance and puppet show. It was a relaxing end to an information-filled day!

Namascar until my next entry. I'm almost caught up!