Tag Archives: India



At a party last night I spoke with two brand new acquaintances about my trip to India. One of them is widely read in religion and physics (is there ultimately a difference?) and seems truly to have grasped the meaning of my experience there.

The other is the daughter of a Pakistani Muslim. She is doing her graduate studies on the Muslims who stayed in India after Pakistan was established in 1947. They had longed for a strong Muslim community and had no desire for a separate nation. Today they remain extremely observant to daily prayers, cleansing rituals, and traditional clothing. It is a way for them to maintain solidarity as a significant minority. The people she has interviewed are now in their 80s. They were in their teen and twenties at the time of Independence.

By contrast, Muslims in Pakistan are just as likely to be non-observant, like her father (who loves bacon and enjoys an occasional gin and tonic). My new friend pointed out the obvious: In this county it is perfectly normal to be a non-practicing Christian. No one in the U.S. questions you if you say you are Christian. Who cares if you attend a church? Who is surprised if you attend only on Christmas Eve and Easter?

We have a single notion of Islam, right or wrong, black or white or mixed. What we too seldom recognize are the multiple versions of Islam. They are not all the same! Christians are not all alike!

When you think about it, Unitarian Universalists are not all alike. We know that. Then we visit Unitarian or Universalists in another county–The Philippines, Transylvania, The Republic of Congo, the Khasi Hills in northeast India–and we know we’re not in Kansas any more.

Open your hearts, your minds. There is a whole world more than ever any of us could have imagined.

Sri Meenakshi Sundareswara Temple


Sri Meenakshi Sundareswara Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, is said to be the place where Lord Sundareswarar (Shiva) and Meenakshi (Parvati), his consort, were married. A 12-day festival is held each year in Madurai to celebrate this wedding. Shiva is known here as Sundareswarar, “Beautiful Lord”

This is a huge complex with many colorful towers (Gopuras) and grand pavilions (Mandapas). The Hall of a Thousand Pillars actually has 985, but each one is beautifully carved in Dravidian style. It is mentioned some 2500 years ago. This particular Temple was built in about 1600. Another restoration was completed in 2009.

Weddings and marriage blessings are very popular here. Meenakshi and all women are honored here, more so than in society at large. Near the entry we bought garlands of fresh flowers. Alan and Lisa each carried an extra one for their special wedding ritual.

Enjoy the random selection of slides! Some show an elephant giving blessings (putting a garland around our necks and placing his trunk on our heads); one of Alan and Lisa just before their blessing by a priest; some are from the Temple Art Museum.

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Wikipedia info

And another website

Ever wonder what happens to your trash?


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You can throw it away and forget about it. Maybe you’ll recycle it. You’ll see someone throw a plastic cup out the car window and wonder about her/his character. You notice trash in a park and sometimes you pick it up for disposal. You see someone going through a dumpster and recoil just a tiny bit.

Streets are pretty clean in Delhi as big cities go, but not all the trash is carried away in large trucks. However, private contractors are taking away a big source of revenue from the poorest of the poor: the waste pickers. You might have seen them going through dumpsters or picking up trash alongside roads and buildings. It’s not food they’re after, though a piece of fruit might be a bonus. They’re looking for recyclables like plastic, cardboard, clothing, fabric and metal. They are not beggars or thieves—they are simply trying to eke out a living on the margins of society.

Not exactly number one on most tourist itineraries are the dumps out on the fringes of Delhi. Shashi Dhushan Pandit is an activist who could see the exploitation of poor people. Loans of 100 rupees would be charged 10 rupees per day in interest. Temples would acquire land needed by peasants. Shashi became a well educated activist at a very basic, grassroots level.

He escorted us to Pua, an hour’s bus ride, where dozens of people, dogs, and flies live among piles of trash. There is an order here—plastics, cardboard, metal in separate piles. Bicycle carts bring in new loads for the people to pick through and sort. Since it rained the night before our visit, the ground was muddy and slippery. Not many outsiders take an interest in this work. We were met with a half dozen men who protected us from any harassment or problem. Some of them offered a hand to help us through the mud.

At the site, someone had written in chalk, in English, “WELLCOME.” Several tarps had been carefully laid out in a clearing, upon which a ring of matching chairs awaited our arrival. Shashi spoke to us with passion. We didn’t need to understand Hindi to be able to get the gist of what he said. He and his people will not give up until their needs are addressed. He and others are already educating multiple sectors of waste pickers about services available and how to practice democracy. (Like IAF/community organizing groups in the U.S.), they learn how to stand up for their rights as human beings. Another level of education is about the nature and advantages of unions. One difficulty in forming a union is that the workers must name their employer. Yet who employs them? Everyone!

The Indian government has special economic zones (aka “exploitation zones”) in which the state acquires land cheaply (often from peasant farmers) and resell it cheaply to industry. The construction of a nearby temple with mostly non-Indian money displaced 20 thousand people. A new 5-star hotel is going up next to this waste operation so the ones we met are already looking for another place to go.

A few notes help explain the pictures: Vivha teaches and her husband Manoj assists, though he also works as a waste picker and an activist. Classes are normally held outside for about 70 children, but since it rained the previous day, they used the small classroom and fewer were in attendance. There is a wide age range, from toddlers to about 12 years old. Vivha has a high school education and very few teaching materials, but she teaches reading and writing in Hindi and English (at least), about days, weeks, seasons, numbers—all the basics. I recorded one girl’s recitation when Vivha called on her. Vivha would love to offer a midday meal to the children for the nutrition, certainly, but also as an incentive for the children to come, for the parents to send them. They also need basic immunizations and check-ups.

ID cards are prepared for the workers. The color red represents labor and green represents the environment. A familiar recycling symbol appears on the back. ID cards are a step in establishing documentation as Indian citizens who may not have a birth certificate or a permanent address.

Recycling these piles of waste save the Indian government millions of rupees annually. The waste pickers get pushed further outside the city. Some of us wondered about the birth rate, but we were reminded to consider the death rate as well. With no health care or adequate nutrition mere survival is difficult at best.

Those of us who had the privilege of visiting and witnessing the very private struggles and living conditions of some hard-working people are still trying to process what we’ve seen. We’re thinking about our part in this system of exploitation and marginalization. We collected 23,000 rupees among us to assist with slates, chalk, and other educational materials for the children.

The Holdeen India Fund was established by a real estate mogul who left millions of dollars in trust funds to the UUA. He was not a Unitarian Universalist and he had never been to India, but he wanted to shelter his estate from taxes. After he died there was a long period of negotiations with his family and finally $25 million dollars was put into an endowment, the interest of which is dedicated to grassroots activism like this. Holdeen leaders look for people like Shashi who are doing the work, sit down with them and make a plan. This could include funding, training, and/or seeking additional sponsors to achieve a set of goals.

Though the caste system is no longer official policy, the people we met briefly are among the poorest of the poor. Often they come to the city from poverty in small villages and encounter culture shock. The city is so anonymous. People don’t know or care about each other the way they do in the villages. They don’t have time for each other. (Does this sound familiar in our fast-paced society?)

The waste pickers, though, have strength in numbers and have actually fought successfully against for-profit corporations. They are working for survival, not so much for profit. Sometimes authorities side with the people, the ones who clean up after everyone else, the ones who clean up after us, after me.

Krishna’s Farm


After an overnight train ride Tuesday in which I was lucky to be among 4 people in a 1st class cabin (most of the group was actually in 2nd class) we quickly de-boarded because the train just stops for a few minutes in Rajahmundry. Some of Abhi’s family members met the train to help with luggage and to get us to the hotel to freshen up. Porters carried 3-4 rolling suitcases on their heads and a smaller bag over each arm and we could barely keep up with them. Plus, they went up two flights of stairs and back down on the other side of the tracks to reach our rides.

The morning was relaxed; several of us lingered over breakfast to try to remember the chronology of the many temples and places we have visited. Then we took showers and got ready—for lunch! I tried the South India Thali, a traditional meal that claims to promote balance. At least the tray was balanced! Rice surrounded with small stainless steel cups of delicacies like vegetable curry and paneer. It was a great sampler—I tried some of everything though it was more than I could eat. Just after I announced that I must be balanced now, a cup of ice cream was delivered.

After lunch we visited Abhi’s cousin Krishna’s organic farm. We were greeted loudly by dalmatians from their enclosure. They would probably have loved to get at one of the chickens or turkeys! There were three calves, some cows, and some water buffalo. A three-week old calf was untied and jumped for joy—ran around friskily and also found its mother. The cowherd had to chase after the cow to get her back to the herd. The farm grows sugar cane and also has some coconut trees that produce water coconuts.

A worker with his machete and a rubber ring to hold him as he worked his way up a coconut tree, cut down a few for us. Then the tops were cut off until there was a small hole. A straw was inserted and each of us enjoyed refreshing coconut water. It is clear, and not strongly flavored like coconut, but it’s very good. We were served sweets made with cashews or dates. Delicious. So much good food on this trip!

The farm is right on the Godvari River. During last fall’s floods the river rose 50 feet! The farm was about 20 feet deep in water and sustained quite a bit of damage. The setting is absolutely beautiful and it was cool and breezy. Lovely hospitality.

Just a Moment, Please


(written Feb. 23, 2011)

Travel is a bit exhausting, especially when we have stayed in a different place four nights in a row. There have been wonderful hotels—Parisutham (means “very clean”) in Tanjore; Annamalai in Pondicherry, currently the Anand Regency in Rahahmundry. In fact, they are nice enough that we would love to stay longer! Tuesday night accommodations were on the overnight train from Chennai to Rajahmundry, after several day trips by bus.

Our bus driver and his assistant who drove us around in Chennai drove the bus to Madurai in time to meet us when we flew in. They have been excellent. The driver can make a 180-degree turn in Indian traffic–no small feat!

From now until we leave India, it looks like we’ll stay at least 2 nights in each place. Today we will meet at 9 to debrief, then go visit Abhi’s mother in her home briefly, then get to the airport for a 12:50pm flight to Hyderabad. Glad we’ll stay there longer!

Another frustration is Internet access. Each place is different; some have passwords, some have wireless, some have very slow or poor connections. I paid for 2 days in Chennai. Mainly, there’s just not enough time both to get connected and to scan email, FaceBook, and/or blog. This morning I have an extra hour because the bedside clock is incorrect—but the Internet is down……..

Then there’s the struggle with photos. I tried compressing one so it could be uploaded but that didn’t work. Next I’ll try to save them to our family website, but of course I have to be connected in order to do that.

Still . . . [Now there’s a good word—still. It has the “however” connotation and even more importantly, the “be here now” connotation. Be in the moment and in this place, this chair, this body, this spirit. I am in India for just 3 weeks and there will be time later to take care of all this busy-ness.Though I would love for everyone to know what’s happening currently, the stories and images are still good even after I get back. It’s a little like mailing postcards even though you will probably get home before they arrive.]

Still . . . I’m having a wonderful time. Travel is what it is and the benefits are enormous.

Still . . .

Breathe . . .

Smile . . .

Chocolates and Chennai


Chocolates and a sweet card (in Spanish) were waiting for me on this beautiful Valentine’s Day. Jon and I will enjoy a special lunch today; our next chance will be well into March!

My bags are packed (and repacked) for tomorrow morning’s departure toward Chennai! Reading the Lonely Planet travel guide was a real help: There was a link to travel tips especially for women. You can get information about countries all over the world. Based on those tips, I changed out some of the clothes to take with me. Check out http://www.journeywoman.com

The trip to Chennai via Washington Dulles and Frankfurt will take about 25 hours of travel time each way, plus trips to and from airports and getting through security and customs. India is 13.5 hours ahead of Central Time. [Gee–I’ll just be 1.5 hours behind son Rob in Japan!] Other websites of note: http:/www.incredibleindia.org and http://www.mapsofindia.com.

Just a little bit of business today–trips to the bank and the grocery store and I’ll be nearly ready. In a way, the shorter my list gets, the more room there is for anxiety to fill in the gaps.

But it’s Valentine’s Day! A time for special attention to love in all its forms. We are sisters and brothers who share SO much in common. Love your neighbor, everyone! My neighborhood will soon get a lot bigger, halfway around the world. I’m expecting to see, hear, taste, smell, touch, and sense an entirely different world view. I send neighborly love to all of you–no matter where you live! What will you do today to show a little love?

Peace through Pie and other Ponderings


Peace through Pie! A great idea launched by Luanne Stovall for MLK Weekend. Pie socials are a great way to bridge the gap between racial groups: inclusive circle, diverse ingredients, and everyone gets a place at the table. My sermon today highlighted the pie social yesterday at Sweet Home Baptist Church, near my house in Clarksville (central Austin). I think we just might do that at Live Oak next year!

I have been working through 3-4 lists to sort out work and local errands and things I’ll need in CA and in India. The India list is a lot longer! The Republic of India has an impressive visa. I’m happy it came through with no problem.

Questions: should I take my laptop or get by with my iPod Touch? What kind of adapter or converter will be necessary?

Someone mentioned an excellent map store on I-35. I can’t find it on the web, though. Anyone know about it?

Have you ever used Dr. Bonner’s soap bars or Soapies or bar-soap shampoo?

As I check things off my lists, one is this morning’s sermon, my last one for a while. Another is the conference call with the Southwest UU Women’s Board. A great conference is shaping up March 4-6 in Dallas. Check it out at http://swuuw.org/

Tomorrow, though, I’ll get ready for the annual Minister’s Retreat at Camp Allen, near Navasota. It’s an Episcopal retreat center in a lovely setting and a beautiful chapel. I’ll bring copies of the roster of attendees. And at least a little bit of the work I still need to complete!

In the midst of the busy making and checking of lists, though, I am taking time for meditation, yoga, and walks. Staying centered will help keep me sane.