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.

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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!