Saturday, October 31, 2015

Alappuzha and the Kerala Backwaters (Day 3, Travel Week)

Day 3

After waking up in Kochi, we travelled a short distance to the beautiful backwaters of Kerala in Alappuzha, India. The Kerala backwaters have been alluring foreigners and Indians alike for centuries. Parallel to the Arabian Sea on the Malabar Coast, there are 900 kilometers of canals, waterways, lakes, and lagoons. The Kerala backwaters boast an extremely diverse ecosystem of fish, birds, and other aquatic life, though I am almost certain recent pollution is putting it at risk. These backwaters have provided an economy reliant on agriculture, fishing, and tourism. See the map below for an overview of the Kerala backwaters.

As you can see, the Kerala Backwaters, located in Southwestern India, join with the Arabian Sea on the left of the map. The brackish water is what, in part, makes the ecosystem so diverse. We were near Alleppey, also called Alappuzha. I think it would be interesting to study the health impacts of pollution to the ecosystem (see "Disease Ecology" in 'Useful Links').

On the drive there, I noticed many communist symbols painted and dozens of flags flying. As it turns out, one of Kerala's main political parties is the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Although the Congress Party won in the last election, the second most popular party is the Communist party, and they are behind only by a narrow margin (see "Communism in Kerala" in 'Useful Links'). Nationally, India is actually heading towards a more two-party system with factions similar to the Democrats and Republicans like that of the United States.

CPI stands for Communist Party of India, and it was common for these symbols to be on outdoor walls in Kerala.

Upon arrival, it was clear that we were about to embark on an awesome ride. Smriti booked a houseboat, called a kettuvallam, for the 10 of us through the entire night. The boat featured 5 rooms, an eating area, and a place for lounging. That night, we decided to dress up in formal traditional Indian clothes for fun. Girls wear Sarees and boys wear a Kurta (top) and pajamas (pants). It is very hard to put a Saree on and takes much patience, but the end result was awesome! After wearing a Saree for even just a couple of hours, I have so much respect for women who wear them everyday (even though it would become easier over time I am sure). The meals on the houseboats were delicious, my favorite item being the local bonefish and dal for dinner. Because pictures definitely describe this day better than words, see the photos below!

View from the front of our houseboat; the boats all look similar and have thatched roofs.

Emilie, Tazeela and I in our Sarees!

Michelle and I! :)

Smriti did such a good job helping us putting our Sarees on, and looks great herself!

Sometimes I worry about these two...

The camera loves us?

Ashlin and I :D

The blissful Kerala backwaters

Can you say girl power?

A flooded field at sunset

Drifting houseboats at sunset, what a lucky life

I love these people!

I will never tire of Indian sunsets. Alappuzha, India.


Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the photos from Day 3 of travel week! Within the next couple of days, I should have Kollam (Travel Week, Day 4) posted...the adventure doesn't stop here.



Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kochi (Days 1 and 2, Travel Week)

At 1:00 a.m. on October 17th, a great passenger train slowed into Udupi station. In the dead of night, I would have imagined the locomotive to appear daunting, but it actually brought a welcome change to the relative silence of the station. As the train halted, I hoisted my bags onto my back and travel week began.

Sleeping on the train was much easier that I thought it would be. Perhaps it was due to my exhaustion, or perhaps to the comforting lull of clinking wheels on a track, but when my head hit the pillow, I did not wake until arriving in Kochi.

Day 1

Kochi is a beautiful coastal town known for its European influence, fish curries, and local spices. On the afternoon of arrival, we checked into Bernard Bungalow, a two-story homestay located in the heart of town. For lunch, we ate at Oceanos, and it was one of the best meals I have had in India, and maybe in my entire life. In Kerala, the state in which Kochi is located, the oil used for cooking is coconut, and so every dish was delicious. My personal favorite was the coconut fish curry with lemon rice. I wish I had gotten a picture, but we were all too hungry to think about photographs at the time!

That evening, we took our taxi to the main shopping area in order to admire the sights and sounds. A majority of the outdoor shops offered an array of scarves, brass statues, and elaborate pillow cases. Other stands sold spices, such as curry powder, turmeric, and cinnamon. After a quiet dinner and relaxing walk back to the bungalow, I went to bed early because the next day was going to be busy! Pictures below.

Kerala Spices

View of the local football field from atop Bernard Bungalow.

Spice market!

Jars upon jars upon jars

Nataraja, or Dancing Shiva!

My artsy attempts?

Laundry services that have been practiced for generations...

A sitar, an Indian instrument used in classical Hindustani music.


Bamboo-rice tubes: A traditional rice breakfast dish made in Kerala and served with chickpeas

Day 2

The language of Kerala is Malayalam, a different language than Kannada, which is spoken by the local population in Manipal (Manipal is situated in the state of Karnataka, which is just north of Kerala). Kerala has a high population of Arabs, Christians, and also has the best literacy and health indicators of any state in the country. Kochi is also home to one of India's main naval bases.

Vasco de Gama landed somewhere near Kochi in 1498 at the beginning of the European Age of Exploration. In the years following, many other European powers found interest in the region as well. As such, there is Portuguese, as well as Dutch British, and Jewish influence.

To explore the great cultural salad that is Kochi, we hired a guide to take us to the best places. Mr. Jerald, a local, fluent in Malayalam, Hindi, and English, showed us around. First, we went to the Jewish Synagogue, Paradesi Synagogue, and learned that only 7 Jewish people remain in Kochi; however, there was a large population of Jewish people here at one time, namely during the colonial era and the Holocaust. The Synagogue did not allow pictures, but was elaborately decorated with glass chandeliers, hand-painted tiles, and Hebrew inscriptions. Afterwards, we walked to the Dutch palace where we saw a beautiful, painted rendition of the Ramayana. The Ramayana is an Indian epic that features Rama, an incarnation of Vishnu, and the rescue of Sita, a princess, from Ravana, a demon. This palace-turned-museum also featured a history on the ruling families of Kochi, intricate palanquins, and an assortment of weapons, jewelry, and clothing. Pictures below.

Outside the Paradesi Synagogue.

Pictures were also not allowed in the Dutch Palace, but paintings similar to this one were in there.

Group pic outside the Dutch Palace!

After this, we saw the famous Chinese nets of Kochi, once a lucrative business for many families. However, due to modernization, pollution, and a changing economy, this specific trade just barely supports 50 families today. Nonetheless, it was a treat to see such an ancient tool still being used with such expertise. Pictures below.

Ready for catching!

A huge freighter chugged in the near distance.

As a final stop before lunch, we visited the St. Francis Church. Vasco de Gama was buried here for a time, and his grave remains inside the church still. However much there is a momento to this explorer, there is also much negativity surrounding his landing and ideals. European imperialists brought to India railroads, a postal system, and various agricultural assets, but they exploited much more. Forced conversion to Christianity, unfair and racist pay grades, and broad economic exploitation are just some of the hardships that were faced. (See "Impacts of Imperialism" in 'Useful Links'). Pictures below.

St. Francis Church, the oldest of its kind in India!

Vasco de Gama's tomb.

The inside of the was undergoing renovation when we were there, but was still very nice to visit!

On a lighter note, lunch was delicious, and I saw some beautiful wall art on the walk there. If you're ever in Kochi, be sure to check out the hip, quaint Kashi Art Cafe and be sure to order the chocolate cream pie! After lunch, we visited the Kerala Folklore Museum, an impressive display of Indian artifacts, jewelry, and carvings, all collected by one man over the span of 30 years. That night, we ate at Fusion Bay, where I ordered a very yummy Jewish Fish Curry with green mango rice. Pictures below.

Some very cool wall art around Kochi!

More wall art.

Lunch selfie with Smriti!

Kashi Art Cafe with these two <3

Owned by one person, this museum displayed an impressive collection of artifacts, jewelries, and costumes.

Bharatanatyam jewelry

Decorative art in the museum

Jewish fish curry with green mango rice! Yum!

In summary, Kochi was an amazing place to start out travel week. Seeing Kerala, a different state than the one I have been in the whole time, showed me yet again how linguistically, religiously, geographically, and politically diverse India really is.

Tomorrow or the day after, I will post from Allepey and Kerala Backwaters (Travel Week, Day 3) and continue with this pattern until I am finished detailing travel week!

As always, thank you for reading and do not hesitate to comment or email with any regards or questions!



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

"It's all about the people"

"It's all about the people" is a phrase that my mom always used to say to me when something really good (or really bad) happened. Her wise words continue to ring true here in India, and, thankfully for me, the people I speak of are making my experience here an amazing one.

It is hard to describe the warm feeling I get when someone first decides that we trust each other enough to share a part of their life with me. It signifies friendliness, dedication, and openness. I just think it is so amazing that I can connect with someone that normally lives over 2000 miles away from me and it makes a place so much more than a photo, a description, or a statistic. It makes a place tangible, comprehendible, and real.

What prompted my thoughts for this post were a culmination of events (and of my thoughts) over the last week or so. Last Monday, the Study Abroad Cohort celebrated Emilie's birthday, and we invited our friends studying in the Geopolitics Department to join us. It could have been the giddiness of the atmosphere, but I am just so humbled and thankful that we have made friends with people so willing to share their country, life, and experiences with us, even if it is only four months. I just love them!

Study abroad cohort + Geopolitics students + Emilie's birthday= A good time

Another moment that prompted this post was seeing where our dance teacher conducts some of her other classes. Last Wednesday, she brought the four of us dancers to an old, yet durable, building where her and her husband carry out their passion and livelihood of teaching Bharatanatyam Dance to students of all ages. Both being artists, they constantly constructively criticize their students and they made the class perform a number of routines and songs for us to watch and listen to. Of course, these students, being trained since very young ages, blew any skills we had out of the water, and I was amazed at some of the students' focus and determination for the subject. We also had the privilege of seeing a student our age that is going for her expert examination; she brought to life the mythological story I mentioned in my blog post, "Why Does Ganesha Have An Elephant Head?". Being able to witness my dance teacher's life outside the context of the one class we take from her was amazing because I was able to understand the positive impact her and her husband have on the community and on promoting a beautiful art form.

The wonderful class doing dance!

These girls also learn to sing, as the art of music and dance are intricately wound together. Their voices were amazing!

My research professor also deserves recognition in this post because she has been absolutely great to work with! Her enthusiasm to share information and always teach me something is appreciated because I have so much to learn. Her willingness to bring me to some of the sites for my research (and buy me a tender coconut) is also very much appreciated. I hope one day she visits the U.S. so I can show her around DC or Chicago or something. (Rest assured, if any of the wonderful people I have met here ever visited me in the U.S., I would love to be as good of a person and host to them as they have been to me).

And of course, there is Smriti, and anyone who has been following this blog knows how instrumental she has been to our experience.

Overall, I think a huge thing my experience abroad has taught me is humility. I have been extremely humbled by the people I have met, things I have learned (and have yet to learn) and experiences I have had.

(There are many people I did not mention above that would go on here, but I have only a limited amount of time).

Anyway! The last week has been a whirlwind. With midterm studying, dance, painting (Praveena Aunty is the best art teacher EVER), research, and a trip to Sringeri and Varanga, I have had little time to relax. The details of my adventure are below:

As far as midterms go, I am basically done! Phew! I had to study a lot last week and this weekend to prepare, but I am glad they are over so I can stress less. As always, dance and painting have been fun and Dr. Aarthy, Priya, Prashanthi, and I have set some dates for my finals field visits at the end of October.

This last Saturday, Smriti took us to Sringeri to see a brilliant gopuram and temple, and then we ventured into Varanga to witness Kere Basadi (a Jain temple).

Sirngeri, India, is a hill town. Situated up winding roads, this place is famous for its 1200 year old temple, called Vidyashankara. At this magnificent place of worship, a bursting gopuram of pinks, blues, and greens greeted me as I unstrapped my sandals. Stepping inside, men offered elephant blessings, locals avoided the hot sun, and the Tunga River gave a beautiful backdrop to the temple. The temple was impressively intact, as evidenced by the intricate stone carvings. We also found a hanging bridge, which, naturally, turned into a photo shoot. Pictures below.

Magnificant, colorful gopuram.

Gopuram from the back.

Elephant blessing.

Vidyashankara Temple.

The white path is there so you do not burn your feet when walking around the temple!

Sharadamba Temple.

Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom.

Emilie, Tanzeela, and I!

Tom and I! #tallpplclub

Beautiful view of the Tunga River.

Beautifully intact stone carvings, Vidyashankara Temple.


After a quick lunch of rice and mango juice, we headed for Varanga, a small, agricultural village in between Karkala and Agumbe. At first, I was skeptical because the bus driver let us off in front of a rice field at a dead end. However, after some galashing around, we peered through a thicket of trees and saw a basadi (Jain temple) sitting in the middle of a dense pond. After summoning a priest, we were able to take a wooden canoe (the only way to get there) to reach the stunning relic. Garnished with golden doors, symmetrical architecture, and a sense of peaceful isolation, there was not a more perfect way to spend the afternoon than watching the rain fall from the safety of the basadi's cover. The Kere Basadi was constructed for people to worship Lord Parshwanath, who is known to bring prosperity and wishes to his devotees. Jainism is a religion which centers around achieving liberation through peacefulness and renunciation. Worshipped by 4.2 million people globally, Jainism preaches that all living things have souls. Of the places of worship we have visited, I have found that the places for Jainism have been the most serene and peaceful. This basadi was no different, and in fact, Varanga and the Kere Basadi is one of the quietest, most peaceful, and isolated places I have ever been in my life. It was a great experience.(See "More Links for more info on Jainism). See pictures below.

Exploring Varanga.

A rice field in Varanga, India

The agricultural Midwesterner in me had to take a close up of these rice plants!

The only way to reach Kere Basadi is by wooden canoe, accompanied by the priest.

The Kere Basadi!

The golden door to the temple.

The rainy, peaceful view from the Kere Basadi... I could have spent all day there.


After our adventure to Kere Basadi, we headed home after a long day. Smriti bought us all Frankies (you thought I was going to say ice cream, didn't you?), which are one of our favorites. A Frankie is essentially a paratha (type of bread) wrapped in a tortilla-like fashion, filled with chicken, vegetables, and doused in tangy sauce.


On another note...

Two things I absolutely love about India:

1. The culture of fixing and reusing, instead of just throwing it out. The other day, my shoe's velcro ripped off and my pants also ripped. If I was in the U.S., I would have probably just have had to thrown them out and get new ones. Here, however, I got both of them fixed by experts (a cobbler and tailor, respectively), and did not waste a thing. I am in love with this concept and hope that, through cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas, the U.S. can adopt similar practices.

2. BUS RIDES. Bus rides are going to be so boring back in DC. Each bus ride to Udupi is an absolute treat, as on each ride, Bollywood music blares on speakers, the open air rushes through your face, and the ticket master shrieks his whistle to signal the bus to go. In essence, bus rides here are quite lively!


I hope you have enjoyed reading this week's blog! As always, please comment or email me with any questions or comments.

Note: I will be on "Travel Week" starting this Friday night/Saturday morning, and will be gone for 8 days. I think there will be too much content to fit into one blog post afterwards, so I will probably successively release each day of the trip afterwards in multiple posts (we will see for sure though).

Thank you for reading.




Last Notes: The answer to the question "Which city is the most populous in India?" is Mumbai (Bombay) at around 12 million. The song that I have attached to my blog, lastly, is U. Srinivas playing the Mandolin. He is revered as one of the most revered mandolin players in India, and is from Chennai (in South India). Enjoy!