Monday, June 29, 2009

Day 4: Agra

There was no leisurely morning mulling over the previous day’s experiences, however, as our fourth day began bright and early with a drive to Agra, a visual and architectural testament to the wealth and grandeur of the Moghul rulers in India. After experiencing breakfast at the Indian equivalent of an interstate roadside stop, we were off to Sikandra to view the glorious tomb of Akbar the Great, a sixteenth-century Moghul emperor who is remembered not just for his military success, but his attempts to reconcile religious differences within his kingdom. Though Akbar belonged to the Muslim Moghuls, his court incorporated great religious diversity of scholars as well as the religious preferences of his wives. His tomb, though not as famous as that of his grandson, is nevertheless a marvel of Moghul architecture, featuring rich marble inlays set in red-orange sandstone. The detailing is absolutely exquisite. Though there is a lack of human figures or animals, the building is completely covered in geometrically based floral and abstract designs as well as carved Arabic calligraphy in relief. For those of us used to western architecture, the level of detail can be overwhelming, but the immaculate beauty is matched by the setting of the tomb itself, sitting amidst antelope-strewn verdure fed by irrigation.

We were adequately awed by the tomb, needless to say. Imagine our reaction, then, when we went to the building constructed by his grandson Shah Jahan: the Taj Mahal. Manav told us that the best way to see it for the first time is to forsake incomplete glimpses on the trek up to the main viewing area, instead keeping your eyes down until you can see the whole building in its entirety. Well, when we finally came through the dark arch and lifted our eyes up to the sun, the view was absolutely dazzling. Pictures cannot adequately convey the profound natural complexity of the swirls in the white marble of the mausoleum's dome. Neither can they show how the perfect symmetry of the building and grounds render the Taj itself more beautiful by removing aesthetic distractions, but without reducing it to formulaic components. Even while facing the battles of the hundreds of Indian and non-Indian tourists all trying to take the same exact picture from the same exact spot (placing one's hand in the air in such a way that it looks like one is pinching the top of the dome is a must), the radiance of the Taj shines through (a slight caveat: some RLC members, after having viewed thousands of pictures of the Taj Mahal throughout their lifetimes, found the Taj slightly underwhelming after all the hype). We did discover, though, why few ever see pictures of the inside of the tomb. In contrast to the outside complex of landscaped pools, tree-covered gardens, delicate white marble exteriors inlaid with semiprecious stones, long patios with clear vistas of the Yamuna river, the inside is rather plain. Plus, cameras are forbidden inside. Shah Jahan built the magnificent complex as a mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their (count 'em!) fourteenth child. A funny story we learned from the tour guide we hired to take us around the Agra sites: the wife's full name was much, much longer; in fact, the emperor gave her the nickname Mumtaz Mahal because he couldn't say (or couldn't remember) her full name. Of course, this is probably a little exaggerated, especially given Shah Jahan's great devotion to this wife. After completion of the Taj Mahal, he intended to make an identical black version facing it on the other side of the river, but, in keeping with royal drama, his son imprisoned him in the Agra Fort not long after construction started. Shah Jahan's only request was that he be placed in a room granting him a view of his wife's burial site, which he did have until his death eight years later. As a result, we only have one Taj Mahal, but the foundations of the second one can still be seen from the Taj's observation patio facing the cattle-strewn riverbed.

Those responsible for the upkeep of the tomb take great pains to maintain its pristine conditions: parking is around two kilometers away from the tomb itself, presenting innumerable commercial opportunities for those hawking mini "marble" Taj Mahals, bottles of water (much needed!), camel rides to the entrance (watch where you step!), and beaded jewelry. Tourists also are subjected to surprisingly stringent entrance measures, including metal detectors, paddings-down (genders separated, of course), and prohibitions on certain electronic devices, as one RLC-er learned the hard way when the security guard insisted that her telephone earphones were an attempt to bypass the anti-mp3 player restrictions.

Speaking of tourists, it must be noted that the RLC posed for Indians a significant tourist attraction in and of itself. The white skin and fair hair of many of our members was a source of great curiosity for many of the locals, particularly that of Olaf and Rebecca. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the Taj. All throughout India there are now scores of photo albums featuring a decreasingly-smiling Olaf standing next to increasingly-delighted Indians. We found it sad that throughout our trip Indians evinced such deference for foreigners, whether the result of colonialism or otherwise. For example, billboards throughout Delhi featured skin lightening creams boasting, "So white, so beautiful," and the treatment we received at the sites we visited was far beyond what was necessary and what was typically given to visitors. Not only are such advertisements ironic given the sale of their antitheses in the United States and the western world, but they betray a lack of pride in their own country which many of us found very saddening.

Several members of the RLC saw this deference for foreigners manifested in an even clearer way at lunch following our visit to the Taj. Manav had already planned on lunch at a pure vegetarian restaurant which would allow some of our Jewish members to eat Indian food along with the rest of the group. Unfortunately, by the time we got out of the Taj Mahal, it was afternoon and the restaurants had retreated into siesta-mode. Yet Manav and Nikhil were not yet ready to give in to our guide's increasingly resentful and irritating pressure to take us to a restaurant where he would receive a commission. Enter a clash-cultural experience: Indian Pizza Hut. Where else can you get "Kadai Paneer" pizza featuring paneer (similar to cottage cheese), capsicum, and paprika or "Golden Surprise" crust with a mysterious meat collage exploding out of it? We definitely weren't in Kansas anymore. But beyond the food, the Pizza Hut wait staff gave us treatment beyond that of the typical Agra-ite, or so we assume. At least, we don't think it is typical for waiters to suddenly break out into a combination Indian/break-dancing extravaganza. The RLC Naacho members were especially impressed, and those of us who aren't members of that esteemed group increased our insistence on an upcoming RLC Indian dance performance.

In addition to the Taj Mahal, the Agra area is also known for its incredible marblework. Like at the Taj itself, local artisans are expert at inlaying semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, malachite, jasper, cornelian, and turquoise into hard marble in delicate, detailed designs that dazzle the eye. Right next to Pizza Hut was a government-sanctioned store selling such wares, so, our stomachs sated, we went over for an all-out shopping diversion. The very accommodating salespeople gave us a quick demonstration of to tell high quality marble from imitation by placing a light bulb within a Taj Mahal miniature and watching the whole building glow from within. Then, we got to work, sifting through exquisite samples of marble plates, coasters, animals, statues, and boxes in order to be able to exit the shop with much lighter wallets and much heavier backpacks.

From there, it was off to the last stop on the day's tour: the Agra Fort. Not only is the site famous for being the place of Shah Jahan's imprisonment, but the fortress is remarkable for being a pristine example of the attainment of the heights of both luxury and security. While the red sandstone walls are double ramparted, seventy feet high, and utterly impermeable (at least to a non-military viewer), the inside is characterized by room upon room of sumptuous decorative inlay, massive pillars, intricately carved walls allowing the viewer to gaze at the Taj Mahal beyond, and vast planned gardens. It was built by Emperor Akbar in 1565, and since then has only grown in extent and magnificence. Even the pillars themselves are objects for adornment, as one gets the impression that anything solid enough to be worked on and dead enough to stay still was subject to decoration--not that this is at all a bad thing, though. The detail of the palace is even such that one can tell the religion of the emperor's many wives by the shape of the room in which each lived.

We were at the fort right at sunset, which meant that the photographers among us had a field day playing with the shadows cast by the many-pillared halls, hidden recesses, and colorful visitors. The local monkeys were less willing subjects, though, running off as soon as we approached (evoking empathetic pleas for the animals' privacy from the more faunal-friendly RLC members).

This being the last stop on the Agra excursion, we then exited the fort for the long four-hour bus trek back to Delhi (once again very thankful for the air conditioning). As usual, dinner was late, even by Frist late meal standards, and conducted at the same good ol' Indian rest stop. There we were able to sample the amusing fusion of Indian and international cuisine (who knew Mexico was a big pasta consumer?) before wilting back to the bus for joys and challenges. Once again, another jam-packed day, with the prospect of even more prospects to come!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Day 3: Delhi

Shopping day! Since the Jews observing shabbat were confined to the residency, the rest of us took the opportunity to do some, ahem, unstructured activities at some non-essential Delhi sites. After meeting with students at the Rai Foundation for breakfast, many of us went to the Indian version of a strip mall, made up of government-approved shops representing all the different Indian states. This was really our first opportunity to goggle over local jewelry, handcrafts, and clothing, and goggle we did. The color and beauty of the items in the stores were amazing, and as we did the mental conversion of around 50 rupees to the dollar, we reveled in the opportunities they presented. We also took advantage of the vendors surrounding the emporium, as Dean Paul fulfilled his long-sought dream of trying Indian potato chips (who would have thought of masala flavor?).

Doing serious shopping can work up an appetite, though, so of course that meant: lunch! One part of the group had gone earlier to the restaurant to ensure the reservation, so those of us who came later found them lounging at a very western-reminiscent Indian café (complete with Ricky Martin, ice cream-blended coffee drinks, cushy leather chairs, and, most importantly, a clean bathroom). We then headed over the crackerjack box of a restaurant where we would have our first experience with South Indian food, as we attempted to answer the question: how many Princeton students does it take to fill up a table? The answer ended up being a lot, but, in our defense, it could have been even more if we hadn’t been eating the delicacy known as dosa. A traditional dosa resembles a large four to six inch diameter rolled crepe, but it is crisp enough that it retains its three dimensions, meaning that our table was, to say the least, heavily laden. Until we were able to get some work done on our dosas and dip portions into the provided sauces (among them such interesting flavors such as coconut and tamarind), we talked and laughed at each other’s variously successful attempts to eat over top of each other’s meals.

After lunch we split up again. Dean Paul went the National Gallery of Modern Art, one group went back to the state emporium, another went to Southex, an area more known for its higher quality clothing, and still others went to a local market. No matter your bargaining skills, Olaf discovered, blond hair and western features are a serious handicap. Even his “I may be white but I’m not stupid” fell flat in the face of the Indian vendors, as the starting price he encountered for an object was double and even triple that quoted to Shivani for the same item. Thankfully, others were more successful in their shopping, as we were to be treated throughout the week with the visual delights of Farah’s purchases: several gorgeous salwar kameez traditional Indian outfit composed of a long shirt, pants, and a scarf known as a dupatta.

Regardless of shopping success, though, by the evening most of us headed over to the Sacred Heart Cathedral for mass (I say most of us because several people of the Southex contingent had, ahem, transportation issues related to the Rai Foundation transportation; it’s still puzzling how it can take one hour to get gas). Several of the Christians in the group had expressed great alacrity at finally getting to see their faith represented in India, but by the time we walked out of the cathedral, we were wondering if this really was the same Catholic Church we have in the United States.

As in all the denomination’s churches, the structure of the mass was the same in terms of reading biblical passages, participating in congregational prayer, singing hymns, and listening to a homily given by the priest. The specific content within this structure, though, was markedly different. First of all, the music was unknown to our Catholic members, though Rachel actually recognized one song from her very un-Catholic Baptist upbringing. These songs were not accompanied by the requisite-in-all-but-fact organ, but by electronic backup covered by chanters who, well, could have used a little help (as Emmett said, nowhere is it written that good song leaders are necessary for worship, but it certainly does make it easier to get into a holy mindset when they are not so horribly off-key it is distracting). The more serious difference in the service, though, was the homily itself, which echoed the “all paths are one” concept we had been hearing throughout the week (so much for John 14:6 in the Bible).

For this reason, our meeting with the priest afterward was even more confusing—and even upsetting. While in his homily he had mitigated distinctions between faiths, in our discussion he condemned Hindus unilaterally for their attacks against Christians in India. When Jahnabi challenged his assertion that all Hindus are to be held accountable for the work of a few extremists, the priest responded: “Look at my shirt. If I get a spot on it, is it not all completely dirty? If one spot is black, it is all black.” We responded with a stunned silence.

This lack of nuanced thinking was not the only issue that arose, however. Apparently, Rachel has been wrong all these years for thinking that Protestants believe that Mary was the mother of God. And who knew that much of the Reformation was due to Martin Luther King and his churches in Africa? It must be acknowledged that a clear language barrier may have contributed to our perceptions of the priest’s lack of tact and that some clarifying questions may have resolved the historical and theological misstatements, but, needless to say, the RLC Christians are not planning of becoming members of Sacred Heart anytime soon.

We were still having some transportation issues, but several of us were more than happy to return to the Meadows campus from the cathedral via rickshaw. Our drivers gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “racing home” as the Sarah, Deepa, and Nikhil car were far out-performed by the Shivani, Olaf, and Rachel car (ahem, no authorial bias). Delhi does still have old-fashioned rickshaws powered by bicycle-riding drivers, but the open-doored versions in which we rode combine modern innovation with old-school Delhi traffic habits. Result: total Indian coolness. Plus, there is the added bonus of watching Deepa jump two feet in the air when poked by an outside finger. Not to mention that, as Olaf pointed out, the whole experience was so surreal that it sounds like the beginning of a joke: “A Buddhist, a Catholic, and a Protestant all from Princeton University were sitting in a Delhi rickshaw discussing Catholicism….” Add to that the component of one rickshaw driver pulling over to the side of the road refusing to go on when he lost sight of the other driver and you have one inimitable RLC experience.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 2: Delhi

The Guinness Book of World Records should include a new category: the most temple visits in one day. If such a category existed, I think the RLC would win, hands down. Yesterday was an absolute flurry of travel activity, yet not so much that the significance of each sacred site was diminished by overstimulation or fatigue. On the contrary, last night's joys and challenges were deeply heartfelt and varied, with everyone commenting on or responding to the new perspectives and places we had been shown.

With an even earlier wake-up bang of 7:00, we began yesterday's adventures early, hopping on the bus at 8:30 to go to Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, Delhi's Sikh temple. Sikhs, we learned, share a lot of commonality with Hindus, even worshipping at each other's temples, for example. Yet their characteristic turbans (in either black, white, orange, or a deep blue) also mark their independence from their Indian brethren. Like at other temples, we were asked to remove our shoes, after which we waded through a shallow dip and proceeded to the temple itself (exceedingly thankful that the sun hadn't reached its zenith yet--the ground burns!). The temple itself was, of course, beautiful, and we were allowed to sit on the plush carpet and watch people pay homage to the enshrined scriptures. While musicians played and sang sacred passages, pilgrims—Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs—came and bowed before the altar, often dropping money and orange flowers with their devotion (orange is a sacred color). Then we processed outside to view the kitchens where, we were informed, 12,000 people are served daily (25,000 on weekends). Some of us also tried parsadam for the first time, a substance reminiscent of a cross between peanut butter and a cornmeal mush.

After completing a slow file through the single-person bathroom, we rushed off to Birla Lakshmi Narayan Temple, a Hindu place of worship. Neha, thrilled at having been taken for a native Indian (if they only knew...), Deepa, Manav, and the other representative Hinduish RLCers helped to explain the various deities figuring inside the red sandstone temple; Dean Paul swears he will have them memorized by the end of the trip. The spot was also memorable for its incarnation of non-Indians’ quintessential India: a man charming a very persnickety king cobra, though it didn’t look all that charmed, to be honest.

Speaking of honesty, we could have perhaps have had a little less of it at our next visit, which took place with Dr. Karan Singh at the Indian Council for Cultural Relations. Dr. Singh, in addition to being the heir to the traditional royal throne of the Kashmiri maharajas, is also [one] of the founders of the Temple of Understanding, an interfaith group of which two members joined us and Dr. Singh. Dr. Singh seemed extremely articulate, judicious, and hospitable, but as the meeting wore on, his comrades—and even Dr. Singh himself—made some remarks that were at best less than tactful and at worst downright xenophobic. When Melekot asked, for example, asked about Indian democracy within the context of liberal democratic theory, Dr. Singh went off on a rant about the paternalistic attitude that implied, asserting that Indian democracy was a distinctly different species from its American counterpart—itself defective.

The big moment came, though, after Dr. Singh departed for another engagement and his Muslim colleague tried to explain the root of religious and political conflict. There are no problems, he said, between Buddhism and Christianity or Judaism and Christianity. Islam, however, and the Wahabi sect in particular, is the wrench in global harmony that disrupts the peace that would otherwise exist between other compatible religions. Following an hour and a half in which the theme of all religions being the same at their core was reiterated several times, this speech was especially piercing. From our end of the table, it is safe to say that this comment was followed by looks of stunned amazement mixed with varying amounts of indignation and outrage. As Miriam later said, “I don’t know who should be most offended.” Should it be the Muslims, who were blamed for the war and brutality being perpetrated throughout the world? Or should it be the other religions, which were essentially “all the same”? As expressed at our Joys and Challenges later that evening, RLC members on both sides were upset at the assertion.

Our stomachs at least were calmed, though, immediately afterward at the Chor Bizarre, a restaurant specializing in Kashmiri fare. Though Manav was disappointed that we were not seated to be served in family-style dining, the thali dishes coming out on shining brassware left few complainants—though the afore-mentioned meeting was certainly a topic of conversation.

After lunch, we left the sanitized world of Coke and dry martinis for a different view of Delhi as Manav introduced us to the sights and sounds of Chandni Chowk. Fumes of spices, sweat, fruit, and exhaust mingled in cacophonic refrain as masses of people pressed their bodies together en route to their various destinations within the market. Originally established by the daughter of Shahajahan (the Moghul emperor responsible for the Taj Mahal), Chandni Chowk is now a bustling center populated largely by low-income citizens and poor industries that nevertheless maintains a native vibrancy.

Our meandering path through bicycle rickshaws and past jewelry hawkers to Jamma Majid, a great mosque dominating the area, was difficult, though—both literally and figuratively. The contrast between the deathly poor and the opulent treatment we received at the hands of our generous Muslim guides was stark. It was difficult to reconcile sitting in a sparkling, air-conditioned room sipping glasses of water, Coke, and Fanta with the abject misery only a few hundred yards away on the other side of the wall.

The mosque itself was quite a sight, though. Having arrived right at prayer time, we were able to witness the masculine procession into the main building, as the men bowed towards Mecca in perfect synchronization (the women, we were told, prayed elsewhere in the side wings of the mosque).

Our guides even held back the public to allow us an unencumbered trek up to the top of the minaret. The winding stone staircase was for many of us the first cardio we had experienced in a while, and it was coupled with steep steps suddenly descending into temporary darkness—an interesting climb, to say the least. The view from the top, however, was spectacular. Delhi is a very flat city. To people used to huge skyscrapers marking the center of a city it offers few visual cues. One cannot drive around and suddenly come upon a sprawling city vista, and it is difficult even to ascertain when one is in the city or not. The minaret, therefore, was our first glimpse of Delhi as a whole, and it was a gorgeous one at that. On one side we could see the alleyways of Chandni Chowk leading off into oblivion; on another we could glimpse the distant blue of a river in the same water system that runs past the Taj Mahal in Agra (a later stop on our trip). As we struggled to not push each other down the dark hole marking the stone staircase, we were treated to a panorama of the city that utterly invalidated any inconvenience in climbing the steps.

After coming down (and, for those of us who were deemed inappropriately dressed, returning our borrowed robes), we were very hospitably escorted to the area right outside the Red Fort, a Moghul structure built for the city’s fortification. We had some time before the bus came, however, so we popped into the Jain temple right across the street (note: “popped in” with a group of this size is a relative term). Jains, Nikhil informed us, are firm believers in the sanctity of nature, and therefore make the utmost effort to refrain from killing any living being. This belief was manifested in the temple itself, which incorporated plants, trees, and other living things into the area surrounding and even inside the temple. More than the other temples we had visited so far, this one had a very quotidian feel, as worshippers deftly moved in and out of the richly decorated rooms. The painting and inlay was even more elaborate here than in the Hindu or Sikh temples we had visited earlier. The small rooms housing shrines and statues of various deities were rendered overwhelming by the sheer richness of their colorful, golden ornamentation. For several people in the group, though, this temple was especially meaningful, as its people and architecture created an ambience distinctly different from the other spiritual sites we had seen.

Since the sun was closing in on Friday evening, the Jews in the group were not able to accompany us to the mosque or the temple. They had their own adventure, though, as they barreled through the Delhi streets to the Chabad house to pick up challah for Shabbat. They ended up making it back to the Residency with only 10 minutes to spare. When the Gentile section of the group arrived, they led us in some of their traditional blessings as we broke bread together and learned the significance of the sabbath as a day of remembrance and refocusing. This was a great lead-in to our first discussion of the trip, as Miriam led us in considering prayer. What exactly is its purpose, we pondered, and what does it do for us?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Day 1: Delhi

Our first full day in India! After coming from our respective homes and destination vacations, we have all safely arrived at the Meadows Campus of the Rai Foundation. We are extremely fortunate: far from a dumpy, rat-infested nightmare of a shanty, our rooms come complete with ensuite bathrooms, mini-fridges, pillow-laden cushy couches, home-cooked native meals, and (rather awkwardly, for some of us) maid service that includes laundry and bed-making.

Yet for most of us, who only arrived yesterday (or even early this morning), we have not had time to get familiar with the rooms. After a 7:40 am wakeup bang, we were treated to our first Indian breakfast of fresh papaya, omelets, vermicelli, vegetable rolls, and a savory sort of wheat pancake before meeting with Rishi Jaitly ’04, an American expatriate who now works for Google here in Delhi and the man behind He talked to us about the awakening of his Indian identity and the importance of cultural identity to Indian society.

From there, it was off to the furnished board room of the Rai Foundation for a meeting with our host Mr. Rai himself, who has dedicated his life (and enormous amassed fortune) to bringing equal access education to Indian students. While we sipped our creamy Indian coffee, he hailed India as a place of perfect harmony in religious diversity, with all its various sects and communities united in vedantic philosophy and the pursuit of peace and happiness. By virtue of the fact that the same energy makes up all parts of the world, Mr. Rai said, Indians have found a commonality that replaces religious wars with a “loud democracy,” albeit fully susceptible to other issues. The economy booms, yet the poor starve, women are mistreated, and water is depleted. “Every issue from any part of the world exists in India,” Mr. Rai said—a testament to the incredible challenges the country faces. We were already running a bit late, so the Q and A was shortened, but lightened by the prospect of a meal at Mr. Rai’s home on Monday evening. We left heavily laden (each!) with a box of gourmet Finnish chocolate; Dean Paul’s box will last until the next RLC adventure.

Then we were off to the Bahá’í temple, or as it is more commonly called, the Lotus Temple, based on its shape reminiscent of the sacred flower representative of purity. It is a stunning piece of architecture completed only in 1986: a nine-sided circle (figure that one out), the sides of which curve out in graceful arcs and culminate in a nine-pointed star penetrated by the dazzling Indian sunlight to the marble floor below. No one is allowed to talk inside the temple itself, but the hubbub of hundreds of pilgrims, resembling vividly colored flowers in their bright saris, fills the air above the nine pools outside the prayer hall. The hall is an ideal place for reflection, which is further facilitated by portions of the writings of Bahá’í founders displayed inside the temple. Several members of the group commented on the familiar tenor of the passages, which resembled portions of the Bible.

After uncovering the mysteries of the Indian ATM system and what exactly goes into an Indian boxed lunch, we came face to face with a vastly different temple: Akshardham. Whereas the Lotus Temple architecturally was an example of elegant simplicity, the gigantic Hindu temple complex is incredibly ornate, the central building supported by a herd of hand-carved stone elephants, each unique and weighing up to several tons. As Manav said, it is indeed a marvel that the complex took only five years to complete, for the rich pink stone of the porticos, altars, sanctuaries, pools, and sacred rooms was painstakingly carved in exquisite detail.
In addition to the requisite 7,000 artisans, 3,000 volunteer Hindu devotees of Swaminarayan helped complete the beautiful Akshardham. Like the Lotus Temple, it is a relatively new construction (2005), yet it contains one of India’s two IMAX theatres, large landscaped gardens, and a musical fountain.

Unfortunately, the temple itself is closed for renovations, but there was still plenty for us to do, including a 12-minute Indian rendition of the “It’s a Small World” boat tour! The short float-through history of Indian religious and cultural history was not only informative, including the fact that EVERYTHING—including spaceships—was invented by Indians, but had a short drop into the water at the beginning that became Jeff’s joy for the day: we raised our arms and cheered in proud Disney fashion.

There was also an animatronic show about the life of Swaminarayan, whose miracle of bringing fish miraculously to life as a four-year-old was the commencement of a life of devoted to nonviolence, vegetarianism, and self-searching. The show sparked a lot of conversation within the council: is the presentation of a religious philosophy via animatronics a reduction of the philosophy’s significance? Granted, the animatronics were high-quality (they even stood up!), but much was lost in the English translation of the guru’s words. There was also much discussion of the open encouragement of vegetarianism, including animals bearing signs such as, in the lion’s case, “I kill animals for food, but humans kill me for sport.” As Dean Paul noticed, the religiously and ethically based justification for such a lifestyle choice was unique to those of us who had only previously been exposed to the ecological arguments so pervasive in the United States.

Several RLC members also participated in abhishekam, or the ritual bathing of a small statue of Neelkanth (an older name for Swaminarayan). After removing their shoes, we watched as Jahnabi, Nikhil, Deepa, Rahul, Shivani, and Manav poured small flasks of water over the figure and received the red mark of dilak on their foreheads. Don’t worry, though: we discovered that even in India a gift shop and paid cheesy photo op is a requisite part of a visit to a national monument. From there, it was back to the hostel for a delicious dinner. We were delighted to learn that Farah's assertion that Paneer Tikka Masala would not be served in India was dead wrong.

The conversation prompted by Akshardham was not the beginning of the beloved RLC conversations, however. As so many people noted in their joys and challenges at the end of the day, the spontaneous and profound conversations randomly begun between individuals are a key and deeply meaningful part of life at the Religious Life Council. We are happy to report that these conversations have begun—and even elicited a warning by Dean Paul of the hazards of conducting them while crossing the street. We talk on, however (despite jet lag), and I am sure that the upcoming visits with people and to sites will gird our tongues with fodder for further conversation.

Pre-India preparations

Operation India has begun. Yes, it’s hard to believe while living in what appears to be a New Jersey suburban rainforest (four straight days of drizzly gloom), but in slightly over one month we will be traversing the sun-scorched streets of rural India. Then we will trade the watery pipe interruptions of the Murray-Dodge basement for the beloved belligerence of Delhi taxi drivers and roadside vendors. Even the beloved garlic nan courtesy of your favorite neighborhood Indian restaurant will give way to—we hope, at least—authentic Indian ambrosia. What that heavenly nectar exactly is, the non-Asians among us have no idea; but, we have been told, it does not include the ultra-Americanized paneer masala.

We are now on our second session of trip planning. The first one on May 5, attended by amongst others all the sleep-deprived and writing-weary juniors (JPs were due earlier that day), was dedicated to getting the basics planned and organized. Manav and Jahnabi, our fearless leaders, have divided the team into three groups: logistics, itinerary, and group dynamics, headed by the Manav/Jahnabi duo, Shivani, and Miriam, respectively. Each will be a pivotal part of making the trip a valuable, enriching experience, whether that is meeting with the Indian president, searching for a Kosher grocery store, or making sure we don’t pass out from dehydration along the way. Tickets are all bought, so now we just have to make sure that we can get in the country; road trips to obtain visas at the Indian consulate in NYC, courtesy of Ben Herzberg and his rocking convertible, are imminent. The most important piece of cultural education to emerge from the meeting: STDs are available, don’t worry. Olaf even testified to seeing an Indian sign bragging, “The lowest STD rates in the country!” (*STD refers to international calling capabilities).

The second session on May 7 was dedicated to making sure we don’t look, act, or feel like complete buffoons while we’re there. A nurse from UHS presented on necessary health precautions, and Neha whetted our cultural and intellectual appetites with information about the cities we will be visiting: Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. Not everything was encouraging, however. In the words of Neha: “It’s going to be hot, brutally hot.” The prospect of temperatures in the hundreds is not exactly...comforting. The prospect of McSamosas, also, destroyed any conceptions of pure, unadulterated cultural isolationism.

But it’s impossible to quench the group’s enthusiasm. Dean Paul was excited to learn that Indian clothing would even be available in “our” size, and in typical Princeton fashion, we have plans for “cultural preparation” of the film and literary variety in order to be better informed punjabis. As Olaf said in our first Hindi lesson, “We’re white but we’re not stupid.”