Archive for June, 2012

We are on the campus of Parshvanath Vindapeeth University, on Baranasi Hindu University grounds. BHU is huge, acres and acres, and park-like. Our little compound includes countless mango trees, several dogs, and families who live on site.

We have fresh mangoes at lunch and dinner. Apparently, it is either against the law, or very frowned upon, to take mangoes from the trees. (Of course, like everything else, we are allowed to pick mangoes from the trees if we like.)

Night before last, when the winds started to come, the families on campus came out with flashlights to take the mangoes that were falling from the trees.

Ashleigh has taken to bringing a few mangoes with us when we go into town–we give one to our tuk-tuk driver, or too a child. They are very well accepted.

The buildings remind me of a kind of semi-abandoned tropical hotel. Once-bright colors, peeling plaster and paint, wood expanded by heat.

This is someone’s study carrel in the library.

Me, searching for a book. Once you find the section you want, you go find the librarian, and he comes with a giant ring of silver keys to open the doors.


Here is a photo from the puja we saw on our first evening. The elements of fire, incense, bell ringing, conch-blowing, anointing, singing, and dancing are used. The crowd occasionally responds with clapping, uplifted hands, or responding.

This pink, river-side house would be my first choice if I lived in Varanasi. I love the sort of gingerbread detailing.

I continue to find great doorways and passageways to capture my imagination.

Day before yesterday, five of us started at Asi Ghat, the southernmost, and walked all along the river. In the afternoon, we came across a cricket game. We watched the the two guys took their turns at pitching and batting, which the kids loved.

As I was watching, a lovely little girl approached. I had just braided Nelda’s hair, and the little girl wanted to braid mine. She did two braids and tied them together with my barrette at the back of my head.

We passed by the Burning Place again, but didn’t go down into it. Here are stacks of wood higher up the bank, waiting to be sorted and used.


I’ve begun my research project: I’m writing a four-week curriculum for secondary schools students around cultivating self-awareness and perspective-taking, based on Jain principles. I’m also writing a teachers’ guide that will accompany, and provide additional information on Jain philosophy and resources.

We found a wonderful Western-style coffee shop in town, which has real, good coffee. It’s a nice break to go there to read, and have a real coffee, with good milk. The shop is on a second story, and so monkeys wander around the window sills outside, regarding us as we study. Yesterday they had apple pie, which was delicious. Strange to be eating warm apple pie in India, under the direct gaze of a monkey.


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the Burning Place

View of the river.

Our first day in Varanasi, four of us went down to the Ganges to see the ghats (steps). As we meandered around, we came to the Burning Place. A priest who is in charge offered to take us around the ghat and explain the rituals to us.

It has taken me a few days to process what I saw, smelt, heard, breathed, and experienced.

The first thing I noticed was the fire, the smoke, the ash, and the wood.  Then, I realized I was seeing bodies burning, and saw legs and feet sticking out of flames. I saw the skin melt yellow and burn away.

There are only two burning places on the Ganges. Hindus believe that those who die near, are burned at, and put into the Ganges go straight to nirvana. Only men are allowed at the burning places; women are seen as “too emotional,” and their strong emotions, crying, or wailing would disrupt the movement of the soul to its final place. No photographs are allowed.

I felt guilty because the women of the families were not allowed, but I was. I’m not sure what to do with this feeling, other than note it, acknowledge it, and remember it.

Many sick, dying, and elderly people try to get themselves as close to the river as possible. The priest pointed out two big buildings near the ghat that act as hospices; they are filled with they dying. Every morning he goes to the railroad stations and brings back the bodies of the dying.

The wood they use for burning is unique, and expensive. It costs Rs 525 for one kilogram, and takes more than three hundred kilograms (at minimum) to burn a body.  (Although, if a family can’t pay, others donate, or the priest and his workers will beg nearby to gather enough money. Everyone who wishes will receive the service. We gave the priest Rs 525 before we left. Rs 500 is about ten dollars US.)

Up where the wood is kept, along with dried grass that the family uses to light the fire, is an eternal flame. The small fire, mostly white-hot embers and ash, has been burning continuously for 3,500 years.

Family members first cut and shave all of the hair from the body, and then bring it down to the river to wash it. They crack the top of the skull, to aid in letting the spirit escape. Then, they take it back up and wrap it in white (the color of funerals and death here), and then wrap it in brightly colored cloth and garland. All the bodies I saw were wrapped in saffron-yellow cloth and then gold, red, and rainbow garland.

While we were there, there were at least four bodies burning, six bodies wrapped and waiting, and we saw two other bodies come in procession. The families carry them, singing or chanting, as they make their way down to the river.

I found seeing actual burning flesh less horrifying than, for example, seeing photographs of burned bodies from the Holocaust. The difference is intention, I think. In the latter, soldiers were murdering, humiliating, and seeking to annihilate. In this case, though, families are manifesting their religious and community hopes, and there is no doubt (as there sometimes is in Western funerals) that the loved one has gone straight to heaven (or nirvana.) In fact, the priest said that the attitude is one of, “Now you go to heaven; I will go home.”

The ashes were all over me; I was breathing in the end of life in this material world. I felt the smoke burn my eyes and watched wood settle. I saw scraps of old garland floating in the water. I tried to pay attention to everything, and spontaneously prayed, crossing myself, when I realized, with a jolt, that I was looking at another body.

Later that evening, we watched a puja. Hundreds of people gathered close to five small stages by the river. Five young men in yellow stood; one on each stage prepared his materials for worship. To music, drums, and endless ringing of bells, the men completed rituals with fire, conch-blowing, petal-throwing, and incense.

As the incense wafted over the crowd, I remembered that in the Eastern Orthodox church (for one), the priest or acolyte censes the congregation to protect us from the holy presence. Remember the Holy of Holies, the cloud concealing God’s face, the various fires and clouds that protected the Israelites and holy people of the Bible from God’s presence.

Meanwhile, down at the river’s edge, women held baskets full of small candles. It seemed that people would come and purchase a floating candle, and send it out onto the river, like a prayer. As the evening wore on, more and more little candles floated along, carried by the currents of the living and the dead.

After a body is completely burned, the family members carry small pots of water from the Ganges to start extinguishing the fire. All around the burning place, dark black ashes pooled near the banks. Someone from the family takes whatever large bones might be left in the ash, and carries them carefully to the water. They take one last pot of water back, pour it on the ash, and then smash the pot. They are finished with the funeral duties, and can “go home.”

I find the tangible heartening. In my experience with funerals, so much is unseen. Between the time a person dies and the time I see them again in their casket, days pass. Clothes are changed, make-up applied, decisions made with careful professionals. I have read that in the US, it is even common now for family members to use a silver shovel (provided as part of the service) to scoop the earth into the open grave; it’s thought that we, as consumers, don’t want to get our hands dirty.

My memories of my grandmother’s death, for example, include the smell of the hospital, with mauve and gray plastic hospital room accoutrements and the constant sound of ward announcements and footsteps in the hall. Her body seemed the only physical thing, and insubstantial in the face of chemicals, tiling, and electronics. Later, at her funeral, the casket was brushed and satin lined, the parlor carpeted and hushed. Everything clean and well-decorated. So little physicality.

In contrast, the funerals I saw at the Burning Place were all physicality, all fire, wood, water, and flesh. Hoarse voices singing, worn hands carrying. Cows and dogs throughout, children begging nearby. Hands, faces, fire, water, ash.

What more can we do for those we have loved? We carry them, wash them, find the fine linen, sing our best song, and wait with the elements to help them finish their material existence.

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On one of our last days in Jaipur, we visited a textiles factory. All of the dyes are plant based, and the printing is from hand-carved wooden blocks. I was in love with the wooden blocks and took all kinds of close-up photos of the carving.

For this pattern, the workers went over the cloth–several feet long, all down a long table–twice.

Close up of an elephant block.

Upstairs, four schoolboys were embroidering a wedding sari. I could not believe how quickly they could thread the tiny seed beads onto the needle, one-handed. Some of the blankets and fabric sold (while the factory is mostly wholesale, we did purchase some things) go to a scholarship fund for the students who work there. I bought an amazing embroidered bedspread–full of color and images from India; 70 percent of the price will go to the scholarship fund.

The boys at work. It’s kind of incredible to think about the “problems” we Western teachers have in getting and keeping student attention and focus. These four middle-school aged boys work most of the day, sitting or squatting, on incredibly focused and time-consuming work. They don’t make mistakes. They are earning money for their families and at some point make time for school, to learn reading, writing, and skills to continue to move them ahead economically.


Last night, we boarded a train to leave for Varanasi. We were in an AC “sleeper” car, with three tier bunks. Thank goodness for the AC. I slept on the bottom bunk and actually slept quite well. I woke up around 4AM to see the sky lightening from a deep indigo into a lighter blue. People were already walking in the fields, herding small flocks of sheep or goats, or carrying water pails along the side of the tracks to fetch water.

Me on the train with my “snack pack.” The Jains always pack us food when we travel by bus or train. Yesterday we had potato-stuffed naan-like bread with a relish, and a bag of tiny fried, spicy chips.

We arrived at Mughal Sarai Junction at 6:30AM. Someone from the program picked us up, and we drove into our campus. It’s the largest residential university in India, and is full of trees and lush greenery. Mangoes are abundant and we can pick and eat them from the trees if we like. It is very, very humid here– the most humid place I’ve every been. It has a beautiful kind of falling-down tropical feel…like a place that was once palace grounds and has been mostly abandoned for years.

Tonight we’re going to go down to the Ganges for the first time.


On a solemn note, I’ve also been thinking about the name Manju Singh a lot since the weekend. Manju, a twenty year old woman living near Jaipur, was beheaded by her father last Sunday in a so-called “honor killing” He felt that she was being promiscuous, and was found afterwards walking around the village with her head and a bloody sword. When the story came up on my Yahoo! India newsfeed, it was followed with at least three similar stories, including of a female infant. I cannot imagine; I cannot wrap my mind around living, parenting, and teaching in a community where just being a girl child puts one at risk.

We had a lecture on Jain law last week, and saw some of the features of the Indian Constitution, which tries to deal with the problem of “female foeticide.” Reading the articles about it is hard, and makes me really doubt humanity. In the linked article, in addition to describing the horrors of the practice of female foeticide, the writer describes the challenges and discrimination girl children and women face throughout their lives here in India.

I am not sure I have anything coherent to say on the topic at this moment, but it weighs on my heart.

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Two days ago, some of us visited the Monkey Temple– outside of Jaipur, near mountains, a kind of broken down abandoned place. But there are people, monks, kids swimming, a scant few tourists, and monkeys.

Ganesh, inside of one of the temples. The buildings are like abandoned castles and have temples, shrines, and icons in otherwise empty rooms, throughout. You’re walking barefoot along hot marble, you walk up an empty staircase or turn a staircase, and there is another vista, or peeling wall of color, or breathtaking idol.


One of the monks, inside a tiny room shrine. He anointed the top of our hands with perfume, and then our foreheads with bright orange, and then came around, asking our names, and brushing the top our our heads with a feather bouquet.

The colors and smell, and heat, and concentrated devotion, were so intense. I get a feeling like my elbows and sides are kind of getting floaty, with the potential to expand out. Hard to explain. Like getting light headed, but in my body’s structure, and in a good way.


I can’t get enough of these empty rooms, with old painting and detailing. This room reminds me of an old dowager, who once was the belle of the ball, but now is aged, and her skirts are drooping and her hair fallen. Plus, the monkey.


The next day, our entire group took a walking tour of Old Jaipur, including the insides of the walled city. Old Muslim worship spaces, from Mughal times, have been turned into apartments. Shops, animals, children, laundry, shrines, food, trash, and noise abound.

Tough little girl, with fabulous shoes, outside one of the gates.


View from the outer walled space into the inner walled room. I love the curlicues of marble and plaster.


We were treated to spicy lentil pastry pockets, with fresh yogurt. Delicious street food.


We ended the tour by stopping at the cafe–literally dug out into one of the walls–that has the best chai in Jaipur. Hot, milky, luxuriant with cardamon.


We broke into groups to explore…I visited countless textile and jewelry shops. Here is an abundance of sari material. A wealth of colors and textures.


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So, our plan worked. Yesterday at 9:30 AM, my classmate Devon and I went back to the set of “Dance, India, Dance” and he blew them away in his audition. They asked him to arrive later in the afternoon to tape.

While he was performing, not only were we the crowd going wild, but even the band was taping him with their cellphones. Oh, he did breakdancing (two minutes’ worth!) to James Brown’s, “Sex Machine.” Awesomeness. They were also looking for a singer, so Nelda sang two songs with the band. I was not lying when I told the assistant director, “Your audience will love this!”

After Devon performed, two professional Bollywood dancers came up, with Matthew, another classmate, and the four of them had a kind of cross-cultural dance off.  So cool.

Later that day, we were treated to a private sarangi performance. Ten of us gathered with the musicians; it was splendid. After they played several songs, they asked if anyone wanted to sing– sing along, and they would provide backup with the instruments. I sang “Beulah Land.” So, so strange and otherworldly to sing a song I’ve known (and sung) since childhood, a country church song, backed by instruments with an entirely different mode and sound.

Several others sang, and we heard amazing, heart-full renditions of songs, against this new background. It was one of those sublime moments that happens in a new community– you’re listening together, feeling unexpected frissons of nostalgia and wonder, and then you literally begin to harmonize: on “Down to the River to Pray,” harmony began, next to me on either side, from across the room, and then I added my own voice.

If you think about it, spontaneous harmonizing is kind of holy, and a good metaphor for how we ought to try to move through life. You listen carefully, you appreciate with whole-heart the voices of others, and you take a brave leap to join in yourself. And you can’t force it…when it arises naturally, it is the loveliest of all, gilded even by its unexpectedness.

What could even begin to top such a day? Oh, an Indian wedding, that’s all. We learned another life lesson yesterday: Always follow fireworks. After the sarangi performance, we heard fireworks outside. Four of us decided to follow them; we found ourselves in the middle of a parade bringing the groom to the bride and reception site. Dancing, lanterns, a wildly decorated horse, and a band. Oh, we danced. And one of the relatives invited us to come along. And then, at the reception site, we were invited in and welcomed hugely.

The hospitality! Everyone we met wanted to know if we were enjoying ourselves, where we were from, and made conversation. It was like a regular wedding, I guess, except we started out being _complete strangers_ to the wedding guests. Can you imagine such a radical graciousness? An extension of the most beautiful part of your family to include bystanders and stragglers? Oh, and the food was absolutely the best I’ve had in India…


Me, Ashleigh, and Nelda in the crowd.


One of the traveling chandeliers– the wedding procession had two lines of these, one on each side of the parade. Giant, gas-lit chandeliers. I was smitten.


The entrance to the reception.


Fresh naan! There was a whole naan station; four women crouched up on a ledge, making the dough into little balls. Several men were kneading and making the dough. Another pair of men cooked them over the coals, and a last man popped the biggest air bubble when it came off the grill, and dipped it in hot butter. Oh, my. The bottoms of the naan was salty from the coals.

From the big (reality television) to the little (bursts of fire-warmed salt on my hungry tongue), yesterday was again filled with the absolutely unexpected. And I couldn’t ask for more.


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After lunch today, eight of us piled into two tuk-tuks (auto rikshaws, safer and prettier than the tap-taps in Haiti). We careened through the Pink City, through the old gates, and marketplaces, and up a mountain to Amer Fort.

Of course, no sooner do I get out of the tuk-tuk than I find myself holding a baby… One thing I love is that no matter where I go, Petionville, Haiti, St. Louis, MO, the Bronx, Jaipur…baby heads always smell sweet.

Elephants!  We found a guide, bargained for a price, and he led us into a village, to a big barn full of elephants, elephant keepers, and children. The longer we were there, the more children we attracted. Our guide helped us negotiate an elephant ride price, and off we went.

Four elephants, through this relatively empty village. Children stopping cricket to run and holler, “Hello! Howareyou? Iamfine!” at us, and children gathering on roof tops to wave at us, and people coming to their front stoops.

An elephant ride is bumpy. It was actually quite hard to take photographs from the elephant.

Then, we went back up to Amer Fort. Incredible. I almost, _almost_, like it more than the Taj. I have more than 100 photos…we got to go inside this old mansion from the 1600s, and just walk around, every hall way, every door way, climb up in turrets, take in every view. Spectacular.

An arty shot of part of the fort, mountain behind, through a stone honeycomb window screen.

And then!  Well, first we came back and had a nice restaurant meal at “Little Italy.” Delicious. I had cheese fondue and four cheese pasta. Such a nice break from curries and dahls, however delicious they are.

When we got back to the compound, we heard music coming from the part opposite us. We peeked through a wall and saw some kind of dance competition. Of course we had to run around to another entrance and go in!

I think it’s Dance India Dance…although I will find out for sure tomorrow, because… we’re taking a classmate to an audition. One of our group is a great dance, breakdancer, and as soon as he came over to watch, we wondered if he could compete, or audition. So I took out a business card, and my iPhone (I figured it made me look like I knew what I was doing) and introduced myself to the stage manager. I said I was from California, and had a dancer who would like to audition, and could we make it work. After some discussion, and me talking to an assistant director, it appears that we have an audition tomorrow morning for the taping tomorrow evening. How crazy is that?

What a day! When I got up, I didn’t even know there were elephants in my near future…and elephants were just the beginning.

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We woke up early in Hastinapur and visited one more local temple, attached to a school. A local Jain founded the school and the community supports scholarship students from the surrounding town.

My view from the women’s side of the worship service.

Me with a local family.

Singing on the bus to Agra. (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Wonderwall,” “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Hotel California”…)


The Taj Mahal! First of all, I can’t believe I was actually at the Taj Mahal—I try to imagine all of the images of it I’ve seen throughout my life, from calendars to posters, screen savers, even the little tea tags on our bags in Delhi had the image of that most famous monument.

A few months ago, I was really stressed out from school, and needed to read something comforting. I still have a copy of The Secret Garden my Grammy sent me when I was eight years old; I re-read it. This has long been a beloved book of mine, and I was surprised to see how much of my sense of self and the world has been influenced by it. And—the book starts out in India; Mary’s father was an important British military figure, and her family lived in luxury surrounded by Indian servants. The descriptions of the heat, the lushness, the smells and foods…I had long forgotten the story starts in this faraway continent. How strange to think of myself in McLeansboro, Illinois, reading this story and trying to picture the world. And now this same self has encountered the Taj Mahal, and knows the heat, lushness, and smells Mary describes.

It is huge. Dreamy. A mirage. Massive. Inspiring. I walked through one of the gates, and saw my first glimpse of it through a giant, decorated archway—the pale, nearly-glowing whiteness, the arching gracefulness, the splendor.

The mausoleum itself is surrounded by gorgeous green grounds, with waterways and red brick outbuildings that would themselves be amazingly beautiful if not competing with the Taj itself.

View of one of the gates.

At the far end of the gardens.


In all its magnificence.


Archways, soaring archways at every turn.

The ceilings within the mausoleum.


The beloved wife’s tomb.


Detail of the jeweled inlays.


Stone screens and carved marble.


Arabic script to illuminate the marble.


Into one of the gates.

Detail of corners surrounding doors and archways.

Detail of marblework.




The gate through which we entered and exited.

After the Taj, the bus dropped those of us in the six-week program off at the train station so we could leave for Jaipur.


Outside of the train station.

The arrivals and departure board.


Inside the station—only two tracks. A posh, English-accented recorded voice announced arrivals and departures. Small carts sold soda, water, juice, and snacks. Entire families lay on blankets waiting for their train.

Initially, our train was delayed from 7:35 pm to 9:00 pm. And then ‘til midnight. And the day before, the “midnight” train hadn’t come until 3:00 am. Jaipur is only four hours away, so our handler rented three taxis. The drivers piled our possessions on top of the cars, we piled in, and undertook the journey.

The roads into Jaipur were the best I’ve seen. We reached campus around 1:00 am, and were greeted at the gate to our building with biscuits, an anointing with red on our foreheads, and our wrists were tied with red thread. Tea service was waiting in the dining room if we liked.

Our accommodations are much nicer here—the rooms are better appointed and cleaner, and we have warm water. After taking a bucket shower, I took to my bed—right next to the fan. The weather is cooler here, and with the fan right next to me, I experienced the most delicious sensation: I was so cool that I wanted to be under my sheet. For the first time in India, I climbed under the sheet, and fell happily asleep.

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