Final Reflections from the Blogging Team


Finding the words to describe my time is India is close to impossible. We have had so many incredible experiences and met so many wonderful and strong people. We have spent the last three weeks trying to speak Tamil with auto rickshaw drivers, winding our way up the Western Ghats, eating food with our hands, visiting religious spaces, and being welcomed into people homes where people fed us until we were bursting. Every little experience that we have had has contributed to our learning experience in this course. Without the unscheduled situations where we had to “adjust” we would not have been able to grow the way we did. I wouldn’t change this experience if I could. 
-Katira Dobbins 

Coming back to the US after these three amazing weeks is going to be the weirdest transition I’ve ever experienced. Not having to constantly adjust a dupatta (scarf) and wearing skinny jeans again is going to be a change in habit. 

When we went to Asheville only four months ago, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being surrounded by twenty other people for three weeks. But once we arrived in India and got into the flow of things, my need for alone time disappeared, at least until the last week. 

I have been pleasantly surprised with the relationships I have formed with everyone on the course. In these three weeks, we have become a family. I look forward to having a Elon/Maryville reunion sometime in the future and will look back on this trip as one of the fulfilling experiences of my life.-Catherine Colbran

The amount of kindness we have been show by a wide range of people here is still difficult to process. My friends and family were all apprehensive when I said I was going to take a course in South India this January, but I hope I can convey to them the generous atmosphere here. And not just the smiling faces and open minds, but all of the hospitality we were shown from people of all religions is more than humbling. As I sit here on the last day, I am nervous about going back to the United States where we boast religious freedom, but are not always exposed to what authentic coexistence is. 

Looking back, the most meaningful moment I had was going to the temple and being blessed by Hindu priests who didn’t care that I wasn’t a Hindu or that I was American. Their religion and culture is so inclusive. I saw this further when some of us were invited to join a wedding at the New Woodlands hotel. Everyone was welcoming and sharing endless food with us. 

During our designated class sessions I struggled with the concept of caste-and I still do. However, one key point that showed me the complexity of the term is how caste can be inclusive, not only exclusionary. To me, all cultures have some form of a caste system, but it is sometimes simply implied and rather than explicit.

In terms of personal growth, I have a much better understanding of South Indian culture and an appreciation for their focus of the family. I would like to bring back and practice a more collective sense of identity instead of the fiercely independent culture that many Americans, including myself, have. I will miss the food like nothing else, but I hope to bring the creative use of vegetables and protein back with me to the States. I hate to leave behind Gobi 65 (a fried cauliflower snack that tastes better than any chicken nuggets in the world) but I can’t wait to see my friends and family! Please, just go to India if the opportunity presents itself. Just go. 
-Bailey Kitts

I decided during my first semester at Elon that I wanted to take the India’s Identities study abroad course. I was enrolled in Amy’s Hindu Traditions class as she prepared for her and Brian’s 2015 India course, and she showed us pictures of 7th-century stone carvings, described the women who perform rituals for the snake deities, and introduced us to Indian epics full of heroes and demons and flying monkeys. 

Two years later, I made it to India and spent three weeks exploring sites, interacting with people, and developing new perspectives on the things I had learned in my classes at Elon. Some of the time I was excited to make connections back to my coursework, like identifying characters in extravagant wall murals and recalling stories about local deities. Many times I encountered things that surprised me, or challenged my preconceptions about religion in South India, such as the visuality of Catholic practices and the number of roadside shrines and images we encountered. 
We spent three weeks fully immersed in South Indian culture and society. Although I’m ready for a salad and I miss my cat, it’s tough to leave. I’ll miss the constant conversation about current politics and religious pluralism and things that matter. I’ll miss waking up every morning in India with the intention of experiencing something new and taking in all the day has to offer. Until next time, India! 
-Anya Fredsell 


I jotted down a prompt for this final reflection which reads “paragraph or two reflecting on our own experiences, both personal and academic.” Amy and Brian advised us to be prepared for the inevitable question: “how was India?” and the difficulty we would have answering it. I’m already encountering that difficulty in trying to draft a response — a paragraph or two is nowhere near enough. These past three weeks have been non-stop, as busy as the streets in Chennai, and I feel like we really have something to show for it. These have been three weeks of exploration, discovery, and complicating ideas we previously thought were simple. I have learned so much about culture in South India that can only be learned by seeing — so much that I thought I would never be able to process it all.

Honestly, I’m still reeling. The last few days of class could not have been better — we took time to process and sum up our experiences with religion, gender, and caste, and try to move towards cohesive theories for the construction of identities related to each. It was, in a way, academic closure: a rare privilege that I wasn’t sure I’d get. More than anything, though, it showed me how much more I have to learn. I began this course not even knowing what questions to ask, and now I see how valuable that knowledge is. This course has, in equal measure, frustrated, inspired, exhausted, bewildered, and enlightened me — it has been an unparalleled experience that I am excited to bring with me back home. 
-John Kessler 


My time in South India has been different than any other experience in my life. I came in with so many worries and expectations, but now that I’m on the other side, I’m happy to say that it was incredible and will forever be too difficult to sum up in just a few paragraphs. I’m forever grateful to Amy, Brian, and our Elon-Maryville crew for allowing me to really step out of my Communications-comfort-zone and open myself up to learning about entirely new things, which I feel like I haven’t done much lately. 
During our last class today, Brian asked us to name our favorite moments from the past three weeks, and I found myself unable to pick just one. From adventuring to Amy’s favorite spots in Mylapore and Chennai, unexpected train sleepovers, mini-concerts in Sunil’s village, lush tea estates, Cochin’s unique history, blessings from a temple elephant, and witnessing an entire city mobilize to defend their culture … how could I choose? There’s just one thing left to say: Thank you, India!
-Christina Elias

Final reflections from the blogging team


Finding the words to describe my time is India is close to impossible. We have had so many incredible experiences and met so many wonderful and strong people. We have spent the last three weeks trying to speak Tamil with auto rickshaw drivers, winding our way up the Western Ghats, eating food with our hands, visiting religious spaces, and being welcomed into people homes where people fed us until we were bursting. Every little experience that we have had has contributed to our learning experience in this course. Without the unscheduled situations where we had to “adjust” we would not have been able to grow the way we did. I wouldn’t change this experience if I could. 
-Katira Dobbins 


Coming back to the US after these three amazing weeks is going to be the weirdest transition I’ve ever experienced. Not having to constantly adjust a dupatta (scarf) and wearing skinny jeans again is going to be a change in habit. 

When we went to Asheville only four months ago, I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of being surrounded by twenty other people for three weeks. But once we arrived in India and got into the flow of things, my need for alone time disappeared, at least until the last week. 

I have been pleasantly surprised with the relationships I have formed with everyone on the course. In these three weeks, we have become a family. I look forward to having a Elon/Maryville reunion sometime in the future and will look back on this trip as one of the fulfilling experiences of my life.
-Catherine Colbran


The amount of kindness we have been show by a wide range of people here is still difficult to process. My friends and family were all apprehensive when I said I was going to take a course in South India this January, but I hope I can convey to them the generous atmosphere here. And not just the smiling faces and open minds, but all of the hospitality we were shown from people of all religions is more than humbling. As I sit here on the last day, I am nervous about going back to the United States where we boast religious freedom, but are not always exposed to what authentic coexistence is. 

Looking back, the most meaningful moment I had was going to the temple and being blessed by Hindu priests who didn’t care that I wasn’t a Hindu or that I was American. Their religion and culture is so inclusive. I saw this further when some of us were invited to join a wedding at the New Woodlands hotel. Everyone was welcoming and sharing endless food with us. 

During our designated class sessions I struggled with the concept of caste-and I still do. However, one key point that showed me the complexity of the term is how caste can be inclusive, not only exclusionary. To me, all cultures have some form of a caste system, but it is sometimes simply implied and rather than explicit.

In terms of personal growth, I have a much better understanding of South Indian culture and an appreciation for their focus of the family. I would like to bring back and practice a more collective sense of identity instead of the fiercely independent culture that many Americans, including myself, have. I will miss the food like nothing else, but I hope to bring the creative use of vegetables and protein back with me to the States. I hate to leave behind Gobi 65 (a fried cauliflower snack that tastes better than any chicken nuggets in the world) but I can’t wait to see my friends and family! Please, just go to India if the opportunity presents itself. Just go. 
-Bailey Kitts


I decided during my first semester at Elon that I wanted to take the India’s Identities study abroad course. I was enrolled in Amy’s Hindu Traditions class as she prepared for her and Brian’s 2015 India course, and she showed us pictures of 7th-century stone carvings, described the women who perform rituals for the snake deities, and introduced us to Indian epics full of heroes and demons and flying monkeys. 
Two years later, I made it to India and spent three weeks exploring sites, interacting with people, and developing new perspectives on the things I had learned in my classes at Elon. Some of the time I was excited to make connections back to my coursework, like identifying characters in extravagant wall murals and recalling stories about local deities. Many times I encountered things that surprised me, or challenged my preconceptions about religion in South India, such as the visuality of Catholic practices and the number of roadside shrines and images we encountered. 
We spent three weeks fully immersed in South Indian culture and society. Although I’m ready for a salad and I miss my cat, it’s tough to leave. I’ll miss the constant conversation about current politics and religious pluralism and things that matter. I’ll miss waking up every morning in India with the intention of experiencing something new and taking in all the day has to offer. Until next time, India! 
-Anya Fredsell 


I jotted down a prompt for this final reflection which reads “paragraph or two reflecting on our own experiences, both personal and academic.” Amy and Brian advised us to be prepared for the inevitable question: “how was India?” and the difficulty we would have answering it. I’m already encountering that difficulty in trying to draft a response — a paragraph or two is nowhere near enough. These past three weeks have been non-stop, as busy as the streets in Chennai, and I feel like we really have something to show for it. These have been three weeks of exploration, discovery, and complicating ideas we previously thought were simple. I have learned so much about culture in South India that can only be learned by seeing — so much that I thought I would never be able to process it all.

Honestly, I’m still reeling. The last few days of class could not have been better — we took time to process and sum up our experiences with religion, gender, and caste, and try to move towards cohesive theories for the construction of identities related to each. It was, in a way, academic closure: a rare privilege that I wasn’t sure I’d get. More than anything, though, it showed me how much more I have to learn. I began this course not even knowing what questions to ask, and now I see how valuable that knowledge is. This course has, in equal measure, frustrated, inspired, exhausted, bewildered, and enlightened me — it has been an unparalleled experience that I am excited to bring with me back home. 

-John Kessler 


My time in South India has been different than any other experience in my life. I came in with so many worries and expectations, but now that I’m on the other side, I’m happy to say that it was incredible and will forever be too difficult to sum up in just a few paragraphs. I’m forever grateful to Amy, Brian, and our Elon-Maryville crew for allowing me to really step out of my Communications-comfort-zone and open myself up to learning about entirely new things, which I feel like I haven’t done much lately. 
During our last class today, Brian asked us to name our favorite moments from the past three weeks, and I found myself unable to pick just one. From adventuring to Amy’s favorite spots in Mylapore and Chennai, unexpected train sleepovers, mini-concerts in Sunil’s village, lush tea estates, Cochin’s unique history, blessings from a temple elephant, and witnessing an entire city mobilize to defend their culture … how could I choose? There’s just one thing left to say: Thank you, India!
-Christina Elias

Indian Sweets + Tea/Coffee


Amy and Brian bought us a selection of Indian sweets to try. We had a milk-based sweet, a ghee-based sweet, and a cashew-based sweet. The group consensus was by far in favor of the cashew sweet. It came in a soft bar form and almost tasted like a fudge. 


The milk-based sweet was pink and there was some confusion as to whether it was rose or strawberry flavored–even after we tried it! Amy introduced it as a pressed cake topped with almond shavings. It looked like something you would eat with a cup of tea in the afternoon. 


The last was a delicately soft mixture of pure ghee and sugar. It was sold in small quantities for good reason! Ghee is just clarified butter and the sweet was filled with so much sugar you could taste the crystals. 


Indian sweets put American ones to shame: they are intense in flavor and richness. I really enjoyed the simplicity of the treats. There were only a few ingredients in each with no preservatives or processed sugars. While the taste test was much appreciated, my favorite dessert by far here is the chocolate dosa. 

–Bailey Kitts (second from left, in the black kurta)


Sunil!


(Sunil sports a new MC Scots sticker on his motorcycle!) 

I would like to introduce someone special to the world: Sunil! He is great colleague of my professors. Sunil has worked with study abroad students over the years. Although my group of students is just one of the many encounters Sunil has and will have with travel abroad students, I am delighted he was made a part of my Indian experience. As our class Indian professor, Sunil offered great insight and a different persective on the many things that we, as foreigners, would not have observed ourselves. He has taught us many things as a group and has also taught us things through individual conversation and insight.

One great thing I have taken away from Sunil is his constant positivity. No matter the situation at hand, if we look to Sunil he always has a smile on his face! “What to do?” and “Nothing will happen!” followed by an ever-present, jolly smile is what I will remember most. I am glad we could take our selfies! Sunil definitely shined a great light on India and helped make my first time out of the country one to remember! I will without a doubt miss Sunil!

–Timela Crutcher (with a new friend in Mylapore)

Planes, Trains and Auto-Rickshaws


Over the past few weeks, we’ve been to many sites and seen many things. We left our homes to travel across the world and here we’ve touched sand on opposite coasts in South India and journeyed from a bustling city into quiet, green mountains. Each day we’re on the move. Here are some of the many forms of transportation that have taken us from point A to point B.


The very first day of our journey we boarded a huge airplane that flew across the ocean, leaving the familiar behind. During our first bus rides through the streets of Chennai we learned that lanes are optional, horns are essential, and each venture into an intersection is an act of faith. We’ve piled into three-wheeled auto-rickshaws with “dashboard deities” adorning the vehicle that assure our safe arrival. People on scooters wove around us; some scooters hold extra passengers who sit sidesaddle in their saris or hold babies or text from the back seat. People on bicycles meandered by, while others led ox-drawn carts.

One night we took an overnight train from Tamil Nadu to Kerala and slept in three levels of bunkbeds that dropped down when the train started moving. Another day we took a short metro train ride in Chennai, looking out at the city as it flew by. We joined a group of energetic school girls in uniforms and braids on a public bus as they headed home from school one afternoon.

Our houseboat in Kerala floated down the canals and we drank fresh coconut water as we passed rice paddies and colorful birds and families waving from their boats. We traveled all through the Western Ghats in a large coach bus with friendly drivers who skillfully navigated the hairpin turns on the steep mountainside.


Our own feet propelled us along busy streets and through colorful temples. Our feet walked up steps to ancient stone monuments, and strolled though pathways in a tea estate.


We’ve been from here to there and back again, all in three short weeks. Here’s to to all of the pilots and drivers and conductors that have made our travel possible!

–Anya Fredsell  


(Iliana fastens flowers into Anya’s hair at a local goddess temple on our last morning in Chennai)

Looking at god(s) 


(Hand-carved stone images for sale in Mammalapuram) 

If you haven’t already gathered, India is a lot to take in. It seems like every square foot of this enormous country is saturated with indicators of the lives cycling and moving through it. For the most part, my senses have been delighted by the overload. There is so much to process that I’m finding it tempting to get lost and let it all consume me (don’t worry Mom, I am sticking close to the group!). In all of this though, perhaps the most fundamental visual indicator of life in India is the one I’m finding it difficult to digest: God. 

I was born into a tradition that forbids the worship of images or physical forms of god, even when they represent the one we believe in. Through this trip I’ve come to realize that over the years of practice and education in my tradition, I’ve unintentionally internalized the less-than-favorable light its teachings shed on people who do not share the same iconoclastic practices. While we were prepping for this course, I became fearful that my bias was going to negatively impact my ability to comprehend this experience. This fear came to a head on our first full day in India while we were touring some of the many religious sites Chennai has to offer. Our first site was Hindu and our second site was Jain, and both brimming with delicate yet ornate figures of gods/goddesses/holy beings. In each space I felt my bias gripping on to my throat. I wanted to yell out “it’s only stone!”, but I let myself swallow the words, keeping the discomfort right beneath my chin. The images were not only in temple spaces, but also on storefronts and auto-rickshaw windshields. They were carved into the gates of people’s houses and sitting dutifully outside restaurants. Growing up in a community which doesn’t even use the name of God without specific intent, the idea of putting God on anything and everything felt unholy. The third space we visited was a mosque, and as we walked past the ablutions area and into the prayer room the discomfort dissipated. My eyes soaked up the clean white walls with the subtle gold and black detail. I felt much less exposed, less like an outsider, even though I understood the many ways my identity was in conflict with this space as well. I didn’t want to leave. The third space we visited was a church which, much to my disappointment, had adopted some of the more visually engaging practices of the Hindu-dominated culture that surrounds it. The lump in my throat returned. 


(Paintings from Hindu, Christian, and Muslim traditions on a wall in a Chennai neighborhood highlight India’s multi religious fabric)

As we continued to visit spaces that housed image-driven worship over the next few weeks, I found myself reluctant to participate in the accepted ritual choreography, even though I understood the educational value and purpose of it. Often times though, I pushed myself to do it, but not without insurmountable guilt (is this the point where I out myself as Jewish?). My main concern was that I would be identified and judged by someone in my community (which is actually ridiculous because my community currently barely exists in India). It was at this point that I had to admit that my adherence to my bias was mostly performative, and perhaps not driven by a higher Truth, but rather a devotion to communal practice that I happen to find deep meaning in. 


(A stone image of Ganesha, the Hindu Lord of Beginnings (who is believed to also remove obstacles), is flanked by snake deities at a Madurai temple) 

This realization helped level the playing field for me. I don’t think I understand how one can believe an image to be divine, but I recognize how my form of worship is also flawed and could be seen as peculiar. In the past few weeks I’ve also come to deeply appreciate the idea of an accessible God, one who can help your business or safeguard your health. One you can look right in the face (be it, human, elephant, snake, or otherwise) and say “I need you, please,” or, “Let’s make a deal.” 

Additionally, this form of worship is congruent with Indian culture where your senses are consistently flooded with stimuli. People’s perceptions of the divine can only come from what they know, so in India it makes sense to have a God who is colorful, expressive, fluid, interactive, and searching for a good bite to eat (I’m looking at you, Ganesh). Now that our course has brought us back to Chennai, I’m looking at forward to visiting some of the same sites we toured on our first day, with new perceptions of what it means to see god(s) in India. 

–Iliana Brodsky (below, exploring Mylapore with a local college student)

Mostly Madurai 📷

Our group poses in front of the Golden Lotus Tank at the Meenakshi-Sundareshwar Temple


Class time & presentations


Gorgeous murals at the Meenakshi temple


Waiting for lunch at the mosque


Lots to learn about India’s struggle for independence at the Gandhi Museum


Working on field journals in the treehouse at our hotel near the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border 

Architecture and images in Madurai 


Aley receives a blessing from her new elephant friend!


Getting a closer look at the elaborate makeup artistry in the Kathakali dance-drama tradition 

 

Tailor shop adventures!


Commerce + current events amid the 17th century sculptures in the Eight Goddeses Hallway at the Meenakshi Temple


Midday prayer at the mosque