July 22, 2013

An Interfaith School

Mount Mercy Interfaith  School
"A group of Indian professionals working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after long deliberations, came to the conclusion that the deliverance of the Muslim community lies in education. The other major conclusion they had reached was that there is need to provide quality education at affordable cost. The dream became a reality in the form of Mount Mercy School (MMS), which was inaugurated in June 1999 by the then Governor of Andhra Pradesh, Dr. C. Rangarajan." *

As the name implies, this school is truly interfaith, where  40% students are muslim.  Out of the entire student body,  50% are female. 
It's located in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where the regional language is Telugu. 

This is not a boarding school but rather a day school with 800 students. Under the leadership of their forward-thinking and progressive principal,  students in grades pre-K to 10th receive their education in a safe, multicultural setting.  Although most students' families pay tuition, many students receive a subsidized education through charitable grants from sponsors. 

All the  classrooms that I visited were clean, attractive and comfortable. The students and teachers welcomed us warmly, and were eager to show us their work.  What impressed me the most was the fact that the students are learning multiple languages: Telugu, Arabic, Hindi, and English. 

Some of the classrooms have been newly equipped with interactive white-boards, and I saw a roomy, air-conditioned computer lab with desktop computers, an  interactive white-board, and access to the Internet. 

One of the tour's highlights was a simulated wedding ceremony in the local style, with the participating students wearing beautiful clothing typical of the region. 

 If I lived here, I would send my own children to this school because I saw an openness and  respect for all faiths and cultural backgrounds.  Here children are learning to work and play together despite their religious or socioeconomic differences.

*Quoted from a flyer I received from MMS on July 19, 2013

Welcome to Southern India!

Hello South India!
Early this morning we left Hyderabad for Madurai. We were fortunate to enjoy cool rainy monsoon conditions throughout our 5-day stay in Hyderabad. 
I was a bit worried (okay, I was terrified) when I saw our smallish plane. 
I don't like propellers. 
                               All photos by Chris Gibson
Thankfully the flight to Madurai was smooth and uneventful, despite the propellers. 

As soon as we arrived in Madurai (aka Madras), we noticed something different.  Here, the sun was shining and the wind was almost hot.  The streets here are smaller and just a bit congested mostly  with motorcycles and very few cars.  The population is just over a million (as of 2011 census), much less dense than what we've seen in other cities.  It has a small-town feel. The city of Madurai is the hub of the state of Tamil Nadu, and is important because people consider it the religious center for South India's Hindus. 

Unlike what I've seen in northern India, the men here wear either slacks or the traditional Veshti, which is one and a half yards of unstitched fabric, simply wrapped around the waist.  The women wear typical Indian styles including Salwar Kameez, or Kurthas.  Speaking of clothing, I've noticed many people wearing the world famous "madras" pattern. I think it's all beautiful.

Tomorrow we will visit the Meenakshi Amman Temple, with its ancient  brightly-colored  tall towers. Tonight I'm going to make sure I fully charge my camera battery!  I can't wait to share with you the pictures.

July 15, 2013

The Chemistry of Religions

Today our group visited St. Xavier's College in the morning, then in the afternoon we watched student debates at the Cathedral & John Connon School. In both settings, I heard and learned more about the complexities of pluralism in India. 
The more I learn, the less I understand. 
Does this make sense?

                                                  St. Xavier's College, Mumbai
                                                       Pic by Chris Gibson
Diversity is just a fact of life.  I think we can all agree on this. And as long as there is diversity, there will be conflict. There's no escaping conflict. 
So what about religious pluralism, or any kind of pluralism for that matter?

I think pluralism is the positive end-product of what we do to address our diversity. 
Unfortunately, pluralism is NOT guaranteed.  At best, pluralism might be well-established within a region; it might be localized in small pockets of communities;  it might be something that is just intermittent. 

Now, I have some more questions. For instance,  what happens when religion becomes politicized? 
What does a politicized religious/cultural landscape look like? 
In this instance, could religious pluralism even  possible here?

We have just 24 more days left in India, and I hope to answer some of these pressing questions by then. 
Thank you for dropping by. Namaste!

July 14, 2013

Jain Temple in Mumbai

                                                Stone elephant at Jain Temple.
                                                      Pic by Chris Gibson
We visited the Babu Amichand Panalal Adishwarji Jain temple here in Mumbai. I was pleasantly surprised by this brightly decorated temple. Its small size lends to a quiet and intimate ambience.  Although we were not permitted inside, we were allowed to walk around the perimeter and in the courtyard. I saw two large stone elephants and different deities, including an image of Ganesh. I was confused by this because Ganesh is Hindu.  I'm wondering if Jainism is an off-shoot of Hinduism. 

The ancient religion of Jainism comes from India. Like the Hindus, the Jains believe in  reincarnation.  

The Jains believe that they can achieve bliss and freedom when they lead lives of harmlessness. This means no animal (including insects) can be harmed. They are strict vegetarians.

I wish we had the chance to speak more in-depth with a Jain. There are so many questions I still have.  

July 11, 2013

Train to Amritsar: All Aboard!!!!

Upon checking in at the hotel here, we were greeted at the door and anointed. 

On Tuesday July 9th we left Delhi  on an early train to Amritsar. This was our first train experience.  

Even at 6:15 in the morning the Delhi Train Station was hot, crowded and dirty. To enter the main terminal we had to haul our bags through the security X-Ray Thing, but nobody was there to view the contents of our bags.  I don't  think the X-Ray Thing was even turned on.  

Next, the UP escalator was not working, so we all had to haul our heavy luggage up three landings. Ever notice how your suitcase gets heavier and heavier when climbing stairs?  We were all drenched with sweat by the time we boarded our air-conditioned train. But then guess what. We then had to  lift and place our heavy suitcases on the over-head rack. 

Oh. Good. Grief.  My suitcase, which weighed 30 lbs this morning now seemed to weigh60  lbs.,  and even though I managed to haul it up over my head, I couldn't push it fully onto that rack. The image of Atlas holding the world over his head flashed through my mind and my arms began to tremble before my friend Mary came to the rescue and helped me PUSH my big bad suitcase onto that rack.  

The 6-hour train ride was uneventful. Looking out the window we saw men squatting down by the road, doing their Morning Business. Yes, toilets are scarce in the smaller villages. What is NOT scarce, however, are cows and pigs, all milling around the villages. We saw plenty of rice paddies and  some corn fields. Small red-brick homes dotted the flat green landscape. There seemed to be plenty of water for the farmlands. I'm not sure if this was due to the heavy monsoon rains or to irrigation.  The closer we got to Amritsar,  I saw  more farmers and water buffalo working in lots and lots of lush green rice paddies. 

Speaking of water, I was a bit hesitant to use the toilet on the train, so I didn't drink anything on the trip.  Now my friend Mary was curious and went to investigate the train toilet situation. I couldn't believe it when she reported that when she looked down into the toilet, SHE SAW THE TRAIN TRACKS ZIPPING PAST THROUGH A HOLE.  With this bit of news, I decided to wait until we reached the hotel to use the bathroom. 

When we arrived and took our cabs for the hotel, I noticed how Amritsar was nowhere near as populated as Delhi. This "small town feel" was a pleasant surprise.  I also noted how we must have just missed a heavy rainfall because there was extensive street flooding.  We had to lift our luggage and weave around the ankle-deep flooding outside the Amritsar Train Station. All in all, we were all glad to arrive at our hotel and begin a new round of exploration.  Namaste!

July 8, 2013

Delhi: The beautiful Tomb of Humayan

Pics by Chris Gibson

Amritsar and Sikhism

The Golden Temple: Day and then Night.
Pic by Chris Gibson
The Golden Temple: a temple for all!
     Amritsar is a city of 2 million in northwestern India, in the the state of Punjab. It's about 15 miles east of the Pakistan border. What's significant of Amritsar is that it's the spiritual center of Sikhism, and their Golden Temple, the Harimandir Sahib.
     The city of Amritsar was founded in 1577 by Ram Daas, and the Golden Temple was built soon after in the 16th century.  The Harimandir Sahib is considered a holy shrine by the Sikhs. What I really like about this temple is that it was built for worship for men and women, and people of all religions can enter and worship God. 
      We visited the Golden Temple early in the morning (July 10) and the monsoon gave us wind and hard rain all morning. Walking barefoot on the marble pavement in the wind-driven rain made our Temple visit even more surreal. I say surreal because first of all, the people in the Temple were either peacefully enjoying the ambience, or  deep in prayer. Also, the heavy rain did not diminish my experience. I think it just magnified it. In any event, I was grateful it was not hot and sunny. 
      We then made plans to visit the Golden Temple again later in the evening to see the lights. I was dealing with a nagging headache and was  so very tired and I regretted my decision to go, but once we got there (around 6:30 pm), I was rewarded by a beautiful viewing of the Temple lights. Firstly, the setting sun shines right on the gold. Then, the lights are slowly turned on little by little, until it's finally illuminated completely and reflected in the pool.
      I highly recommend a visit to the Golden Temple. There are facilities to store your shoes near the entrance, and if you forget to bring a head cover, you can easily purchase one  for mere pennies. 

July 1, 2013

The 2013 Fulbright-Hays India Group: From Coexistence to Pluralism

In my head I keep playing with terms such as diversity, coexistence, and plurality. Just what does religious pluralism look like? Depending on what you read, the terms are used interchangeably.

After some extensive reading, I discover that diversity is just a fact of life. We have for example ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity.

Yesterday the 12 members of our FH cohort met for the first time here in Berkeley California.
We are a diverse group. We come from all around the US. Some are teachers, some are principals, and one is a superintendent. Many of us have extensive experiences abroad. I think the only common threads are that we all teach, and  we all have a desire to learn more of India. 

Diversity is just diversity. A diverse group can be a mixture of people who, on one end of the spectrum merely tolerate each other, to the other end of the spectrum where we appreciate each other's differences.

Let me repeat: Diversity is just diversity. When I think of diversity, I think of the animals that live on the Serengeti plains of Africa. You have diverse species living alongside each other on the Serengeti.  Lions live alongside the antelope.

But lions also eat antelope.  

I think the next thing is coexistence.  What does it mean to coexist?
According to the freedictionary.com, coexistence is defined as "a condition or policy in which nations coexist peacefully while remaining economic or political rivals." 
That makes me think of  the Lion and the Antelope problem.

So what is pluralism? What does it look like?
This is a loaded question I hope to articulate soon.

I hope in the next 40 days our FH cohort will evolve from a diverse group merely coexisting (think Lion + Antelope) into a diverse group working in the spirit of pluralism. 
Please excuse typos, as I'm working on the iPad. 
Thanks for visiting.