Monday, December 10, 2012

On the Road: Calcutta

Sorry for the lack of updates folks but it has been for a good reason! We have been traveling all over India and are currently in the chilly North. We recently spent a few days in Calcutta, which was described by one student as "what you think of when you think of India".

Rolling out parathas for Kati rolls!

While its poverty is undeniably in your face, Calcutta is also overflowing with India's colonial history and a plethora of fascinating sites and experiences. On our first night we had kati rolls, which are parathas stuffed with your choice of filling from paneer to mutton. With this flavorful street food, Calcutta was off to a great start!

The Rama Krishna Mission.
Calcutta is also known for the Kalighat, a temple dedicated to Kali, widely known as the goddess of destruction. So on our first morning we hopped on the metro and made our way over. While some temples in India are quieter, the Kalighat was bustling with early morning devotees. We wandered around taking in the noises and fervent worshipers and some of us were able to witness a goat sacrifice. While it was certainly startling for those who watched, as we reflected later on several of us were reminded of what the true meaning of sacrifice means and what it truly signifies when we say that Jesus was sacrificed for us.

A roadside shrine.
We also visited Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and the Motherhouse, her home in Calcutta. We were struck by the beauty of her ministry and how much one person was able to accomplish. Another highlight was Sari Bari, an NGO dedicated to providing an alternative livelihood for women who no longer want to participate in prostitution. They do this by teaching the women to sew and create beautiful handmade sari blankets. Our students came away inspired by the work that the staff and women do!

Our next stop was Varanasi - one of India's holiest cities. Keep an eye out for our next post!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On the Road: Hyderabad

The semester has flown by for Batch 3! We are sad to have left Coimbatore and the many good friends we have made behind us. But we are also excited for what is to come because we are on the road!

Posing at Golconda Fort!

For the next two weeks we will be traveling up to the North of the country and continuing to explore and learn about incredible India. First stop? Hyderabad!

Hyderabad is the capital of Andhra Pradesh and has a wealth of Islamic history. We will be learning more about Islam and contextualization here and visiting everything from forts to mosques.

Follow our posts as we travel and we will be sure to keep you updated! Thanks for reading.

Weekend Trip: Kerala

Kerala is fondly called "God's Own Country" by its people, and for good reason. Although it can be fairly humid, Kerala is also lush and green and lined with natural waterways that has earned it the nickname "Venice of the East".

Our focus during our time there was the Indian economy with classes taught by Vichara, a collective of academics passionate about educating people about how the economy, globalization, theology and social justice all tie in together. These are some of the heavy topics that we have all been struggling through this semester - is development and globalization good for India? And how does our faith fit into this picture? 

Sitting in class with Vichara.
We spent several days discussing these issues together with the professors at Vichara and possibly left with even more thought-provoking questions than we came with! But this semester we have also been talking about how we learn to live in the tension, and how to live with the questions that may not have answers yet.

Exploring the steps where St. Thomas was said to have arrived in India.
Our afternoons were filled with field trips to the surrounding areas. Christianity was said to have been brought to India by St. Thomas himself in 52 A.D. so we went to explore the legacy he has left in the area. Our first stop was the steps where he first stepped into India, followed by one of the churches he founded. For several people in our group this was the first time they had visited a site connected with the Bible - what an experience!

Checking out one of the churches that St. Thomas established in India. It is said that he built seven (and a half!) churches.
Next on our list was Amma's Ashram. Amma is a guru, or spiritual teacher, who has a reputation for affecting her devotees spiritually just by hugging them and is also known for her many humanitarian projects. This was a difficult site for many of us. We wandered around the Ashram and spoke to several devotees, many of whom are Westerners, about their lives there. Their stories were compelling and challenging - they spoke of Amma's compassion and how her love for the world had called them to live better lives devoted to the service of others. It was certainly a different perspective and we are constantly encountering this idea of how to live in a world of plurality here in India.

Amma's Ashram, home of the hugging saint.
Lastly, we spent an afternoon on the backwaters! This is one of National Geographic's Top 50 Places to visit in the world, so needless to say we were quite excited. 

A kerala houseboat!
We watched the houseboats drift by as we wound our way around the backwaters of Kerala. In some ways, Kerala reminded us of India herself - a place of both beauty and challenging questions.

Enjoying the sunset on the backwaters!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Holidays: A Week in Review

Recently, we had a holiday week here in Coimbatore. Not only was it Navaratri, but it was also Bakrid, a Muslim holiday remembering Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and celebrating God's provision of a goat. So we took our few days off to explore wider India - from visiting friends in Gujurat in the North to reaching the Southern tip of India for a wedding, we did it all!

A festive scene at the Gujrati Samaj.
Credit: Ashley Ober
A few of our students stayed in Coimbatore and danced the night away at the Gujrati Samaj. In Gujurat, one of the northern states, they celebrate Navaratri by throwing a traditional dance for the whole community. We were lucky enough to get invited to this celebration and learned a few garba moves. While we were not able to see dandiya, a stick dance, we had a great time!

Morgan (left) and Aleena (right) with our student assistant , Poornith (center),  dressed up for the wedding. 
Others in our group traveled down South to the tip of the state where Tamil Nadu borders Kerala. They were lucky enough to experience a traditional Christian wedding, which holds onto Indian customs while distinguishing itself from the Hindu traditions. 

Aleena and Morgan with the bride and her friends on the wedding day!
Before the actual ceremony, the groom's family comes to the bride's home and presents her with various gifts that she will need for the wedding - from the bridal sari down to the very shoes that she will be wearing. Morgan and Aleena enjoyed spending time with the bride and her family and getting dressed up for the festivities! 

At the beautiful Siruvani Waterfalls.
Those of us in Coimbatore also took a day off for prayer and reflection in the middle of our week. We headed to a beautiful Christian retreat center, where we meditated upon what God has already done so far in our time here and what he may have in store. Afterwards we headed to a nearby waterfall to spend some time outside! The walk up to the falls was lush and green, certainly a different landscape from most of India that we have seen so far.

An Indian Halloween!
Finally, to cap it all off ISP threw a party! Many of us have been missing the autumn season. We did get monsoon season instead, but as much as we enjoyed that it really is not quite the same. So on Halloween we had a party to celebrate all things fall. Students tapped into their creativity to make a tree (for pin the leaf on the tree) and other decorations to set the scene. Even our food was reminiscent of the fall with cinnamon apples and spiced wassail. Then we all dressed up; everything from a peacock to a mermaid made an appearance! It was definitely a week of experiences to remember. 

Interested in joining us? See our facebook and site for more information.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


 For the past week here in Coimbatore we have been in the midst of Navaratri celebrations! The nine night Hindu holiday celebrates the goddess Durga, an embodiment of shakti or power. There are several festivities that fall under this holiday.

Ayudha Pooja at a local factory.
One of them is Ayudha Pooja, when people ask the gods to bless their industries. During this holiday, machines are turned off to rest and then given a thorough cleaning for a new year. Then everyone at the company pauses to attend pooja (worship) to thank the gods for their success in the past year and to ask for their blessing in the coming one.

Add caption
We went to a local factory  to observe the rituals behind this holiday. As the employees made offerings of coconuts and bananas before images of Ganesh (god of wisdom), Lakshmi (goddess of wealth) and Saraswati (goddess of learning), they explained what the ceremonies meant to them.

Machines are also blessed in a pooja ceremony as an offer of gratitude to the gods for providing tools. As they toured the factory, students saw banana fruits and leaves, symbols of prosperity,  set out as offerings before various machines. The sign of Shiva, 3 lines, was also evident on almost every tool in the factory. Even outside the factory, machinery and places of work (such as buses, cars and generators) were decorated with this sign. As we wandered around the factory we continued to ask questions - what do these offerings symbolize? What is the role of non-Hindus at the factory on these holidays? And what can we learn from what we have seen?

Golu (dolls) at a local professor's home.
Afterwards, we went to a professor's home to see her Golu, or statues of gods, decorating 7 tiers along with lights and other figurines. Her family welcomed us with dancing, singing and sweets! When they asked us to sing as well, we landed on a song we all knew - I could sing of your love forever. What a reminder of the diversity that lives together here in India.

ISP learning about Golu

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ooty, Ooty, Ooty!

The Nilgiri Hills
There are many reasons that we love Ooty, but one of them is that we feel a little bit like we're walking through scenes from the Sound of Music when we're up there.

Ooty is one of India's several hill stations, towns established by the British as vacation homes in the mountains for the cooler temperatures. It almost felt like fall as we used blankets for the first time this semester and built a few bonfires to cozy up next to!

The hairpin turns might make you nervous, but the views are definitely worth it!
As picturesque as it is, Ooty has a lot more to offer than just its views. Our first stop was Freedom Firm, an organization dedicated to rescuing girls out of prostitution in India. Rodney, who works there, sat down to tell us about the process that their investigators go through to find and then rescue girls. They partner with local authorities and advocate for these girls in the courts, but beyond the policy side, Freedom Firm also work to rehabilitate these girls. In the Nilgiris, the organization provides basic classes, horse therapy and vocational training. The students were inspired and challenged by these girls' journeys and the unique problems that are encountered in doing this work in the Indian context.

At Freedom Firm learning about sex trafficking in India. 

The Ooty region is also famous for its wildlife sanctuary and reserves, so we took advantage of the opportunity to go on a safari ride through Mudumalai. We were eager to see what animals are running around in the mountains and were lucky enough to spot wild peacocks, gauer, deer and even several elephants! Students were also eager to see a tiger, but despite scouring the landscape from our jeep windows none were to be found. Maybe next time?

Monkey family in Mudumalai!
We then spent time at a tea estate where we saw the process of making tea from "pluck to cup". Our group had the opportunity to see how tea leaves are dried, rolled, oxidized and processed to produce the different grades and qualities of teas that we love to drink.

At the tea factory learning about how tea is made.

Then we were able to follow the process back to the plant and see how the tea workers pluck the leaves in the field. It was such an informative experience and our group came away from it with a different perspective on tea.

Students learning how to pluck tea.
We were also able to visit two tribes that live in the Nilgiri Hills - the Toda and the Kurumba tribes. Our group enjoyed mingling with them and had time and space to ask questions about their lives and customs. The experience caused our students to examine how the government interacts with people even the remote rural areas of India and gain an appreciation on their traditional way of life.

Kelly at the Toda village wearing a shawl with traditional embroidery. 
Other highlights from the weekend included teaching our BACAS staff the joys of s'mores, exploring the botanical garden, and enjoying the homemade chocolates that the town is famous for!

ISP and some of our wonderful BACAS staff. Enjoying the Nilgiris!
Photos taken by Randy Cronk

Visit our facebook page to see a student re-creation of the monkey family above and for more photos!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Student Post: Ashley Ober on Culture Shock!

It's hard to believe that our students have been here for over a month! The gloss has begun to wear off a little and we have been discussing culture shock and how we each see and experience it here. Although culture shock can present itself as a surprise, it is also found in the small moments in day to day life when we realize that we are far removed from the places we call home. Here are some of Ashley's reflections about her time here so far:

Culture Shock
by Ashley Ober

They say it happens in the first 2-3 weeks.  You can read, plan, pray all you want, but it is inevitable.  Culture shock happens to the best of us.  One minute you are strolling along, minding your own business, and then something happens that takes you back and reminds you that you are no longer living in the familiar.

I was reminded of that when I stepped into the slums for the first time.  I have been interning with World Vision and up to this point I have not gotten to see or participate in any of their activities.  So when the opportunity came to go and see a slum I was both thrilled and nervous.  Thrilled because I was finally getting to see something I have been reading so much about.  Nervous to find out how the slums would change me.

So there I was, strolling through the slums.

Walking over trash and human waste and squeezing through crowded alleys, stepping over dogs or chickens or whatever other livestock was currently chilling there.  At one point I reached a clearing and some woman handed me her naked baby and wanted me to take a picture with her child…all while Akon was playing in the background coming from someone’s hut.  It was weird and heart-breaking and wonderful, all at the same time.

But even in the midst of all the dirt and waste and poverty there was such a sense of community present.  Kids played and women chatted and people went in and out of each other’s houses with ease.  There was laughter and smiles and hospitality, maybe even more than I have seen where we live on Race Course.  Whether it be fate or circumstance that planted those people in that community, they were doing life together and it was beautiful.

And at the end of the day I was at peace.  I had experienced a slum for the first time, and left there not having changed a thing.  But I met a sponsor child names Jasmine who loves to dance.  I got to take some pictures of some of God’s most precious creations.  I learned a little more Tamil and sang the ABC’s in English with some school children.

And at some point during the trip I got some poop on my dress…but I was content…and it was good.

Culture shock happens to me in glimpses and flashes.  One minute I am so taken back by the complex attraction contained in this diverse place.  The next minute I am heartbroken by the poverty and injustice and inequality that I see.  And then I get annoyed, sometimes with the smallest things like ants in my kitchen every morning or cold showers or crowds of people gawking at me because of the shade of my skin.  It comes and goes constantly.

Everyday I feel like I learn something new here in India.  Somedays it may be small like a new word or a new mannerism.  Somedays it is bigger like hearing God’s voice or coming to a greater understanding of where I fit into what God is doing in India.

Here are a couple things I have learned…
-       Cars play music when they are in reverse. (No kidding.)
-       Sometimes if the store you are shopping at doesn’t have enough small change they give candy instead (something that we should totally do in the U.S.)
-       Shoes must always be taken off before entering a house, church, or school lab…or else the mammas of the house get a little upset (trust me, I know)
-       Toe rings are a symbol of marriage and everyday I get asked if I am married or not…and when I say no they ask when my parents are arranging one for me.
-       The cost of living is WAY cheaper here.  I got my groceries for the week for about 500 rupees (which is about $10 U.S.)
-       If you feed birds uncooked rice it expands in their stomachs and kills them (Haven’t tried this yet, but thinking about giving it to some of the pigeons outside my window)

My prayer lately is that God would give me new eyes.  I don’t want to look at the slums and see poverty, but potential.  I don’t want to look at my Hindu and Muslim neighbors and see a missional project, but to see them as human beings created in the image of God struggling to find stability and truth in this world.  I don’t want to see the ants and little Milton cockroaches with disgust, but to see them as “all creatures of our God and King”.

Ok, so the last one might be a stretch, but you get my point.

I don’t want to only see India through my North American lens, but I want to see India the way He sees India…whatever that may look like.  So for those who have been praying for me, again I say thank you, thank you, thank you.  I have felt the power of your prayers.  I got a cold during the first week here that is just about over.  I have yet to get sick and I have been safe and cared for in every possible way.

Continue to pray for India.  God is at work here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Pictures: Madurai!

Our director has fondly dubbed the weekend trip to Madurai the "Coimbatore Appreciation Trip". Why? Because Madurai is humid and hot and when you step out of the shower it's hard to know where the water ends and the sweat begins!

But Madurai is also an ancient city, known for its temples, history and stunning architecture. The city streets are built in a lotus shape and the Sri Meenakshi temple is in its midst as both the spiritual and geographical center.

Gandhi Museum
Photo Credit: Hannah Burgess
We woke up bright and early to leave Coimbatore at 5am. Most of us slept for the scenic ride there (although, those who were awake saw some wild peacocks) and were greeted with a traditional South Indian breakfast - dosa, puri, and idli on a banana leaf! Add some sweet Indian coffee and we were ready to explore Madurai.

Learning about India's independence at the Gandhi Museum.
Photo Credit: Karmen Tam
Our first stop was the Gandhi Museum which is housed in the Tamukkam Palace (an old exhibition pavilion) that belonged to Rani Mangammal from the Nayak Dynasty and was built around 1670 A.D. We spent the morning wandering the museum and learning about India's long struggle for independence from the British. Strikes and protests, which spurred the independence movement, continue to be frequent in India. In fact, many stores, restaurants and the public transportation system in Coimbatore recently closed down for a day in solidarity with those who are currently pushing for lower gas prices here. India's independence story is built around this idea of a common struggle and helps us to understand why it continues to be so prevalent today.

The hallway inside the Meenakshi Temple!
Photo Credit: Hannah Burgess
We also spent time at the Meenakshi Temple! This temple is dedicated to the goddess Parvati (known here as her avatar Meenakshi) and her partner, the god Shiva (also known as Sundareswarar). The architecture encompasses stone carvings and intricate towers, and the entire structure is repainted once every 12 years.

There are 12 gopurams (towers) at the Meenakshi Temple. The one near the Western Gate has 1511 statues carved into it!
Photo Credit: Hannah Burgess
We were able to witness and ask questions about the various activities going on at the time as well. Many devotees come to the temple to ask for babies since the temple celebrates the union of Meenakshi and Sundereswarar. As a result, the temple plays host to baby naming ceremonies and to hopeful women who throw balls of butter as offerings to images of Meenakshi.

Enjoying the view of the temple.
 From dedicated pilgrims performing pooja (worship) rituals to elephants giving blessings, the temple is a hubbub of motion as people go about their daily lives.
Drinking Kashmiri tea and learning about rugs!
Photo Credit: Karmen Tam
During the weekend we were lucky enough to be housed by the Tamil Nadu Theological Seminary (TTS). The seminary follows a unique model of education where, in addition to taking courses, students participate in one of the seminary's various ministries (such as prison ministry and interfaith dialogue), do an internship at one of their organizations (like their HIV/AIDS hospice), and then spend a year living in the slums. The campus also grows much of their own food and provides vocational training for the poor in the area.

The Dalit Resource Centre at TTS.
Photo Credit: Karmen Tam

They also house their own Dalit Resource Centre on campus which contains a collection of books about the untouchables, has cultural events and advocates for Dalit rights. It was eye-opening to speak to the staff there to learn more about prejudices against untouchables and how all-pervasive it is in society. We capped off our weekend by going to Arulagam, the HIV/AIDS hospice run by TTS. They provide care to those affected in the area, which includes awareness and medication, and also house a number of children and adults. We were able to spend some time learning about their programs and then playing with the children there! Our visit to TTS and their various outreaches has made us consider what our own seminaries could look like if they chose to follow such an intentional model of serving the poor.

Thanks for reading! Keep an eye out for upcoming posts!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Student Post: Aleena Plummer on Home Visits!

A couple of weeks ago we sent our students on home visits, when they are paired off with a BACAS student to visit for the day! Aleena had a great experience learning about what life is like for an Indian student here. Here are her thoughts, originally posted on her blog. Happy reading!

Escaping City Life
by Aleena Plummer

On Saturday, the students from the India Studies Program were sent home with some of the students from BACAS (the college I’m attending here in Coimbatore). Now, many of the students who go here are from places far away and live in school housing which is called “the hostel”. These students are referred to as “hostelites” and have LOTS of rules. But the remainder of the BACAS students live in and around Coimbatore with their families, and those were the students we were sent home with.

The bus drivers wanted a picture with us.
Ashley, a fellow ISPer from Pennsylvania, and I went with a girl named Yoga to her family’s home. We rode two busses in a journey that ended up being about an hour and a half long just to get from the school to her house—which she makes twice every weekday. It was crazy! Anyway, Coimbatore is bordered by some sort of mountain range which can be seen even from in the city but are quite a ways in the distance. Well our bus journey took us all the way to the last stop on the 3 bus and almost to the foot of the mountain range. It was amazing! Yoga lives in a small village that her family has lived in for over two hundred years, according to her uncle. Several of her family members all live within a few houses of each other and we spent a significant part of our day simply visiting with each different aunt in her family, touring their homes, and attempting (and failing) to refuse the food that EVERYONE in India offers to (read: forces on) guests. Her uncle who is a lawyer in the city was able to converse with us, and another sixteen year old uncle (Yeah, I don’t get it either…) also knew pretty advanced English. I only know about two words in Tamil at this point (hello and thank you), so communication was limited. But it was nice to get out of the city for a day.

Yoga’s family has traditionally been farmers and they still own their farmland and employ ten to fifteen people to farm it, so Ashley and I got to journey on the backs of motorcycles along a rutted, one lane, dirt street to the farmland the family owns. At that point, we could literally see the base of the mountain. The landscape here is remarkable because the land is completely flat and then the mountains just bust up out of the earth.The farm was pretty interesting. Not really what someone from America would picture a farm as. Everything was still all dusty and didn't really seem like good soil for growing things in.

While we were in Yoga's village, we visited a local government run school. Because we were foreigners and guests to the village, we were able to walk through the rooms that the students were working in. They were all so adorable that I just wanted to take them all home with me! I was dying. All I had to do was wave at a little kid and they would be so excited they couldn't even sit still. It was precious.

By the end of the day I was so tired that I almost fell asleep on the bus ride back to the city! And it was only about 4:30 in the afternoon. I can't believe that Yoga rides the bus an hour and a half every morning, sits through a day of school, and then travels all the way home again in the evening. I thought it was bad to ride in to Hall-Dale from Richmond when I was in high school. At THAT was in my mom's van, not public transportation. Overall though, it was a great day and I was really glad that I got to spend a day away from the noises and crazy traffic of the city!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Field Trip: Perur Temple

It is temple week here at ISP! One of the many wonderful things about living in India is that our learning extends far beyond the classroom and stretches into the streets. This week that means our students are heading out on their first field trips to temples to learn more about what they are studying in their classes. 

Students are excited to be on their way to Perur Temple!
Our first visit was to Perur Temple, which is dedicated to Shiva the destroyer. This temple is on the outskirts of our lovely city of Coimbatore and is situated on the banks of the Noyyal River. It has been standing for the past 1500 years and devotees from the surrounding area regularly come to worship there.

Outside Perur Temple which is dedicated to Shiva, depicted on the ceiling.
 Many students were excited to see their first elephant in India at Perur! Elephants are often kept in Hindu temples to bless people as they come through by placing its trunk on their head.

Aleena, Johanna and Morgan enjoying some refreshing coconuts!
Keep an eye out for our upcoming posts as we take our first weekend trip to Madurai where we will explore the ancient Meenakshi Temple!

Photos taken by Karmen Tam

Monday, September 17, 2012

In Pictures: Amazing Race: Coimbatore!

Orientation would not be complete without a little adventure! So towards the end of their first few days here we sent our students out on the Amazing Race: Coimbatore.

ISPers with the tailor at Feelings.
What is the Amazing Race? Students are given a list of important locations in the area and turned loose for an afternoon of exploration. This is the first chance that they have to be out on their own and part of the aim is to encourage ISP-ers to gain confidence in getting around their city. At the end of their afternoon they are met by a staff member for a celebration dinner where they share their stories!

Aleena tries to push up the leaning tower on Race Course.
Their tasks ranged from finding the grocery store and discovering new produce (ask them what butter fruit and brinjal are!) to spotting the replicas of famous landmarks from around the world that dot Race Course. 

Tanner and Ashley at the neighborhood Ganesha Temple. 

On the way they also searched for Connexions (a nearby bookstore), peeked into some neighborhood temples and braved buses and autorickshaws. 

Morgan discovers Bollywood movies!
Despite their jet-lagged state, all of the teams had an exciting afternoon that they're not likely to forget soon!

Aleena explores Pazhamudir, a local grocery store.
Photos by Aleena Plummer, Kelly Uchiumi, Hannah Burgess and their teammates.

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Our students have arrived! They have hit the ground running as they learn about India and get acquainted with our sprawling city of Coimbatore.

ISP trying new foods on their first night in Coimbatore.

Right off the plane they were welcomed by staff and peer mentors and they began taking in the sites on the bus ride through the city. The students wrapped up their first night here by sharing a giant family dosa, an ISP tradition!

Rangoli, a traditional decorative art, done by BACAS students to welcome ISP.
Photo Credit: Kelly Uchiumi
  Everyone was kept busy as “batch 3” conquered their fears of the public bus, tried on salwaars for school and kicked off their first few days of classes. We capped off orientation with the Amazing Race: Coimbatore, where students head out and hunt for different landmarks around the city.
The students after being thoroughly welcomed and garlanded by BACAS.

For now, everyone is settling in and learning more about doing life together in India. Stay tuned for our next post!