October 30 – November 12
The past very busy two weeks started with our Hindi teacher Parvez Sir took us to venture further into Madhya Pradesh along with two South African exchange students. Omkaheshwar, our first stop, is home to one of our state’s jyotirlinga, Shiva’s most sacred abodes. There are twelve in India, and we got the chance to visit the other in MP in Ujjain, in August. I continue to be very interested in learning about religion here, so I was especially excited. Our past jyotirlinga trip was on Sunday, Lord Shiva’s day, which made for an exciting and crowded experience. Omkaheshwar on a Monday gave us a little more room, although the small area with the idol was still packed. After crossing a footbridge adorned with the Om symbol, we walked through the small island that holds the temple. We went through the ritual of taking off shoes and washing our feet and hands before arriving at the idol. We admired Lord Shiva among the jostling crowd and poured water over Shivling, the representation of the god. Instead of crossing back over the footbridge, we took a small boat across the river to the mainland. The boats were all painted colorfully, with vivid om symbols and the shubh labh (the names of two of Lord Ganesha’s sons, which mean auspiciousness and profit). At our second Jyotirlinga visit, we learned more about the 12 sacred abodes- five of which are in the state of Maharastra. Jyoti means radiance and linga means the image of Shiv, so the word means “the Radiant Sign of the Almighty Shiva.” I’m looking forward to visiting the other ten jyoritlinga at some point!
We drove an hour east to Maheshwar, another town on the Narmada River. Maheshwar is home to the Ahilya Fort, the residence of an important Holkar queen (and namesake of the Indore airport) Ahilyadevi about 200 years ago. We walked alongside the river after exploring some of the beautiful fort, which is now used as a heritage hotel.
Also inside the fort, we visited a workshop where women in beautiful saris worked on handlooms to create the famous Maheshwari textiles. We were all in awe of their work, and even got the chance to ask them a few questions in Hindi. Since it was part of the fort, this was apparently not the most budget friendly silk shop. Our well-connected Hindi teacher knew the best prices in town, and his family friends generously welcomed us to sift through piles of scarves, saris and kurtas in their living room/workshop. The entire neighborhood was made up of families who created beautiful textiles, and standing outside of the house you could hear the clacking of tons of handlooms working together.
Both of the cities we visited were on the Narmada River (the fifth largest on the subcontinent), which flows through central India. I recently finished reading Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things,” which provided very vivid descriptions of South India, and made me even more excited for Bangalore. The blurb in the back discussed Roy’s activism work with the Narmada River Valley. Construction of dams throughout central India has displaced many of the people that reside on its banks. Spending time in multiple cities on the river has definitely sparked my interest in further learning about the issue.
The next day, we celebrated Halloween! At school, everyone was happy to see us celebrating our first American holiday here. Misha Sir especially was thrilled to learn about the “pumpkin festival.” With an awesome package from my grandma (thank you, Granny!!), I decorated both our classroom and my house with paper pumpkins. The jack-o-lanterns were a great visual aid for explaining the holiday, since pumpkins here are what I usually think of as squash. Also included in the package were Pez. It was a lot of fun to hand out the candy and figure out the dispensers at school. The night before Halloween, my host mom took me to a bakery for cake to celebrate. My host sister and I used make-up to face paint blood and scars, and we even got to “trick or treat” to two of our aunties’ houses. I really enjoyed celebrating with my host family, and I can’t wait for Thanksgiving.
Halloween was also Tulsi Vivah, the ceremonial marriage of the goddess Tulsi to Lord Vishnu. Since it was the night before our zyada jeldi (too early) flight to Bangalore, I spent the night at Lucia’s house and got to celebrate with her family. We dressed tulsi in wedding clothes- a red sari, bangles, earrings, etc. After Lucia’s host mom said prayer and we each took a turn with the pooja thali, we made 108 rounds around the tulsi plant. 108 is a very auspicious number in Hinduism. Prayer garlands come with 108 beads, and Luci’s mom counted our rounds by sliding a bead to the side after each round. After pooja, we burned crackers (fireworks) with Lucia’s sisters and friends.
Since our trip to Mumbai, we have been awaiting the AFS Inter-School Education fest in Bangalore, in the south Indian state of Karnataka. For the five day trip, I was hosted by sisters the same age as mine back home. I loved being the much-older sister again for a few days. Half of the AFS students in India came for the fest, and I was co-hosted with my new Thai sister, who this year liives in Tamil Nadu.
The first two full days we spent in our host school, where we presented to Indian school kids about our home countries. Talking about my life as an American helped me to reflect on my role as a student ambassador, and I enjoyed openly answering questions. I stressed that as an American, I believe in the importance of tolerance and inclusiveness. We got to spend a lot of time with the other AFS kids- I presented alongside a kid from Germany, and we all did some sort of cultural performance. The Americans and I did our best with footloose!
English is very commonly spoken in Bangalore, as well as Karnataka’s language, Kannada. The five of us NSLI-Y girls still fit in a good amount of Hindi practice, from speaking with our host families to giving our introductions in Hindi. The trip helped me feel more confident in my speaking skills and take pride in my learning!
After the academic part of the trip, we had a day to tour the city. We started by practicing meditation in a Buddhist temple. I was thrilled about this stop because although we’ve visited Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Sikh gurudwaras, we had not yet seen a Buddhist temple. Next, we went to ISKCON’s largest temple, which sits on Hare Krishna hill. We chanted the Hare Krishna, Hare Ram mantra on 108 (auspicious!) different steps leading up to the temple. The complex was expansive, with ISKCON bookshops and food stalls. I’m hoping sometime soon to check out the ISKCON temple in Indore.
At the Bangalore Palace, we took a tour of the beautiful Tudor-inspired building (and also took Although we didn’t have time to visit the famous Commercial Street for shopping, we tried a hand at bargaining after our lunch break- North Indian thalis! (Next time, I’m going to make sure I have dosa for every meal.) When we left early Sunday morning, I was so sad to say goodbye to the other exchange students, but happy to be home. Sharing our similar challenges and having fun together left me recharged for the next six months and I am now scared about the approaching halfway mark.
Back in Indore, my normal classes have started on their normal schedule for the first time since before Diwali. I’ve switched to swimming in the mornings, and it even gets a little cold sometimes!
Saturday, we veered from our normal schedule to spend the day volunteering at the Indore Cancer Foundation, a hospital specializing in head and neck oncology. We spent the day washing windows, picking up litter, and weeding. I loved giving back to the community, especially to an organization as important as ICF, which strives to provide treatment for patients no matter their financial or social background. Working together with my Indian peers made the whole thing extra fun, too! I’m looking forward to helping out at ICF more often, and maybe even using my Hindi skills to work with patients.
After a very busy couple of weeks, I’m looking forward to spending time with my host family and celebrating Thanksgiving soon!