Friday, May 30, 2014

Tibetan Monastery

 On Thursday May 29, 2014 we visited a Tibetan Monastery. The temple was so beautiful and had art work  full of such vibrant colors. The main colors were red and gold. There were sculpted dragons and peacocks in the art. Tibetan is a secular form of Buddhism. Taking the Jetavana Garden as a model, the Buddha's father Shuddhodana in the town of Kapila Vastu,  built the Vihara complex known as the Nyagrodhu trees grove. There the Buddha Bhagwan,  together with a monastic assembly, miraculously rose into the sky and as a result, innumerable transmigrators  gained faith. All of them ,with the exception of Shuddhodana,  and Devadatta attained the level of stream enterer. Then,  for the sake of Shuddhodana,  the Buddha Bhagwan miraculously transferred there the residence of the gods,  while he taught. Inside was the huge statue of Buddha. Relatively new with big glass and gold chandeliers .

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Swaminaryan Akshardam

 On Thursday when headed to New Delhi to go see Swaminaryan Akshardam. This was a unit complex of Indian culture. The temple was funded by Indians all over even in the USA.It show cases Indian art, wisdom, heritage, and values as a tribute to Bhagwan Swaminaryan (1781-1830) CE, It is set on 100 acre and the temple was built in only 5 years. It was inspired and created by Pramukh Swami Maharaji . In the middle of the temple is a 11 ft high, gold plated Murti of Bhagwan Swaminaryan. There was so much detail down to the finger print of the hand. The temple had such vibrant colors, jewels, stones, pictures , and carvings of elephants and peacocks.This is a modern temple recently built and they set the bar high for temples. They have an exhibition where we watch a film on a giant screen, walked through various scenes of robotic figured that talk along with a narrator, and we took a boat ride similar to USA log rides. In the exhibits we learned about an 11 year old boy Yogi, Neeykanth Varni. The Swaminaryans way is peace and regardless of your religion the atmosphere set that tone.There was messages along the foot of the temple and one that stood out to me was that one small act from the heart is enough to please God. What I took from that is that it's not the size of the deed ,but the genuineness behind it. Due to high security we was not allowed to take cameras into the temple and my words can not describe the full beauty of this site. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity

The Martyrdom site of Mahana Gandhi

So when been here for days but we seen so much. Y We visit The Martyrdom site of Mahana Gandhi . This is the place where he spent his the last 144 days of his life before he was assassinated. We took pictures beside his grave,

how awesome?Gandhi was very educated he went to British law school. He fought without violence for the rights and freedom of the Indian people. Many great leaders follow his way such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Agra Visit

In the last few days we have done and seen so much. The visit to Agra was such a unique experience. We started the day by eating breakfast at this excellent roof top restaurant. When sitting on the roof, you could see straight past the village homes, and had a great view of the Taj Mahal. It was so awesome because all I could do was stare at the thing and wonder how such a marvelous building was made without the tools we have now. The view made me want to skip breakfast and just go straight to see it up close. Once we had breakfast, we went back to the hotel to drop off our bags and things because, as you could imagine, security was pretty tight. Once we were finally in, it was just a breathtaking site. My group and I spent about an hour taking photos and enjoying the beauty of the monument before we even went in or got close to it. After visiting the Taj, we went to Agra Fort. The fort was massive in size. The wall stretches about 2-3 km in size, and only 25% of the fort is available for the public because the Indian army is using the other 75%. The fort was a great site to see. The tour we had of the fort was a very unique tour because we got to go into a part of the fort that is otherwise blocked off to the public. We got to see the bathroom, which was built for the princess. The bathroom was uniquely crafted with mirrors encrusted all over. The mirrors made it so that when one candle was lit, it would look like a thousand candles were lit. The entire fort was crafted amazingly. The engineers and the architects of the fort crafted it in such a way that makes you wonder how they thought of such things. For example, in part of the fort when hot water was poured down the drain, the entire room would heat up, and in another room, the window was carved in such a way that there was a cool breeze through the room. It was just very amazing. It's also crazy to think how everything is hand crafted.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

New Friends, New Experiences

For those of you who have been following my Facebook page, you have seen glimpses of some of the beautiful sites India has to offer. Currently, we are in Pushkar. We have seen many fantastical things, and have already been on some exciting adventures, such as riding camels this morning, but what I want to share with you right now is an experience that has meant much more to me.

As we walked through the streets of Pushkar yesterday, we stopped and took pictures of the little store fronts displayed with beautiful fabrics, and others ordained with beautiful gold and silver jewelry. At one point, we walked into a little opening that peered off across a lake. Children were swimming in the distance. The light blue of the sky was beautiful against the backdrop of the city buidlings and the darker blue of the lake itslelf.The peaceful bliss of the spot is not easily described. I began to turn around to make my way back out onto the street when one of my fellow travelers spotted them, a beautiful woman in a red headscarf standing with an even more beautiful baby girl, with dark black hair and little gold earrings.

"Her name is Amrika," I heard the mother say. It wasn't long until the pair was a tiny spectacle with our group around her. After a minute, the group contined to make its way through the city. The mother and child walked with us. She talked to a few others, but soon her and I were in stride with one another.

"Where are you from," she asked me.

"I'm from the United States."

"America," she said while nodding.

"What is your name?"

"My name? My name is Sita."

"Hi Sita. My name is Kayla." She extended her right hand to me as we walked, Amrika safely secured by Sita's left arm as she sat on Sita's hip.

"It's very nice to meet you Kayla," she said as we shook hands.

"It's very nice to meet you too. Would you like to get a picture with me?" She smiled and nodded, and so me and my new friends posed for a picture on the dusty streets of Pushkar.  Sita smiled and her eyes were kind, but something behind her eyes was sad. After the picture, Sita walked a little ways up. After a few moments we were beside each other again. She motioned her hand to her mouth and then to Amrika's mouth - a motion I have seen many of the women begging on the streets do.

"Do you need money?" I began to reach for my rupees.

"No, no money. Just food for my baby. Can you get me food for her?" I nodded. She guided me to a merchant and his little store front only a few steps away. She pointed to a yellow box. "This will help feed her." The merchant got the food down, after Sita spoke to him in her own language. She held the box, and it was, as she said, food for her baby.

"375," said the merchant.

"Is that okay?" Sita looked at me. I nodded and I paid the merchant, the 375 rupees, about 6.41 American dollars.

"Thank you my friend." She nodded repeatedly, "It is so hard," she broke off and again motioned to her child's mouth. I nodded and smiled. She smiled back, her eyes still showing glimpses of her life, her unknown to me, yet obviously tough, history.

I parted ways from Sita and Amrika, waving and telling Amrika "bye-bye," over again.
I felt so good walking away, but after a moment a thought struck me, was I just conned? What if she worked with the merchant, and after I "bought" her food for her baby she returned the box and split the money with the merchant? This idea is not so outrageous as it might seem; as we continued to walk, we passed several children and others asking for us to buy food for them. Last night at dinner, Dr. Maher explained that people know others are more willing to buy food instead of giving money so many will have one buy them a box of food at one place and then they go to another store and sell it back for a little higher price. If these people are poor and in need of food, why do they not eat the food? Why do they try to sell it to get more money? I don't think poverty, or the desperation poverty creates, is easily explained.

When we were walking back to the hotel yesterday evening, I saw Sita and Amrika again. She waved at me, and was getting Amrika to wave. I waved and smiled back. She walked straight to me.

"Hey Sita! Hey Amrika!" Amrika grinned and stuck her hand out towards me.

"Hello my friend." Sita smiled. I talked and played with Amrika for just a minute. Her eyes smiled; there was so much contrast between her own dark eyes and her mother's eyes, her own eyes shone with happiness and wonder. So full of a life yet lived and a history yet told. I was only there a minute or two when I knew I needed to part because I saw that my market buddy was walking ahead.

"I need to catch up with my friend. It was good to see you again, Sita. Bye-bye, Amrika!" I smiled and waved as I started to walk to catch up with my small group. Sita and Amrika waved.

"It was good to see you too, my friend."

It was nice to see a familiar face on the street that was not part of our group. It was nice to see a familiar, friendly face. The probability of Sita conning me exists, but the probability of her sincerely needing help to feed her baby also exists. Even if she did pull a con, I think it was trying to secure provisions for Amrika. Even if she resold the food to try to get more money to spend on food for her and Amrika, was it not right that I helped her in some way secure a few small meals for Amrika? Should I not try to give when I can? Should we not all try to help those who are victims of brutal poverty?

Two sayings come to my mind when thinking about my interaction with Sita and Amrika. First, "If I gave something to everyone who asked of it, I would have nothing left." Why should I have more than another? Why should I not need to sacrifice to build another up? I think service to God through service to others is an overlapping theme in many religions, and rightfully so. I believe we should build each other up. The second, "Catch a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man a fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." I couldn't, in that moment, feed Sita and Amrika for a lifetime, but what can society do to work at building programs to help women develop skills so they can work and feed their children? What programs can be created to help children gain an education so they can break this cycle? What can we do to make sure one day Amrika does not need to ask help to feed her own baby?

Overall, regardless of whether or not Sita and Amrika gained something from me, I gained something from them. My heart goes out to Sita and Amrika, and I don't think the right words exist to explain what imprint these two have left on me. I think these human interactions, these gateways into human experiences, are part of the importance of this trip, and to understanding people in all situations in the world. We need to understand where others come from, and I believe we should help them when we can. The argument can be presented that people outside of our own culture are content with their lifestyle and do not need "help." If by "help" you mean forcing different cultural beliefs upon these people, then absolutely not. But if by "help" you mean ensure that mothers can feed their children and that these children can get an education and one day break away from the cycle of poverty, then absolutely, they do need help. At home and abroad, people need help, and if we don't decide to offer help, who will?

I hope this post means as much to someone reading it as the experience meant to me. Something as simple as not knowing whether or not you were conned can be more than an interesting story, as it can spark self and societal reflection. Something as simple as an interaction between a poor Indian woman and an American traveler can be enough to spur change - I hope this leads to some sort of positive change.

This has been one of the most meaningful experiences I have had thus far. I have had countless experiences, though, that will stay with me a lifetime. I look forward to sharing other experiences with you all. Tomorrow, we leave for Agra! :)

Arrival to India

The study abroad trip to India has been an exciting experience for us thus far! The extensive travel is a new experience for me in particular because I had never been abroad before. The farthest I had been from home, Louisburg NC, was to the West Coast of the United States and now I am 10.5 time zones away.

In about a week's time, we have visited countless locations and historical sites. A few days ago, we spent our days trekking through city streets and markets in both New Delhi and Old Delhi. To those reading, I recommend you google the Akshardham temple because it is one of the most wondrous works of architecture I have ever seen (I am unable to post pictures to this blog until our return and we were not allowed to take pictures of the temple). A great day of the journey involved visiting Isa Khan's tomb, Humayun's tomb, the Baha'i temple, and the Birla House. At these places we enjoyed learning about the vast Mughal empire, the openness of the Baha'i faith, and Gandhi's lifework and message. Although we have been visiting many important sites of historical and religious importance, we have all found much value in our day-to-day interactions with everyone living in Delhi and Pushkar. We are learning about a way of life that is very different from our own and we are just beginning to explore a subject Dr. Maher brought to our attention, if it wasn't already present: religion and its role in solving social problems.

After leaving Delhi, we took a long train ride to Pushkar, where we are staying now. As I write this post, I am looking out at a beautiful stretch of a small mountain chain from the open top floor of our hotel. Tomorrow we will be departing for Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal. I am signing off for now and plan on joining everyone else for a much-needed, post-camel ride siesta.

Welcome to Delhi!

Just as milder temperatures began to dawn upon Cary, North Carolina, my 13 study abroad classmates and I began our journey to India, land of blistering sunlight and excessively high temperatures. The adventures began immediately after we landed at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Jetlagged from over 25 hours of flying, we finally made it to our hotel around 3:00am. At this point, I honestly had no idea if I felt tired. Trust me, it's a feeling only understood when experienced. Nevertheless, I made the wise decision to get as much sleep as I could that night. It paid off, as I felt refreshed, upbeat, and ready to experience the wonderful sites and sounds of New Delhi.
The places I most enjoyed in New Delhi were the Lotus Temple and Birla House. From the outside, the Lotus Temple is an amazing structure. From the inside, it's an incredible place of worship. The tranquility and peace experienced inside felt second to none. There, I felt a divine spiritual connection through my prayers. I felt similar excitement at the Birla House, the site where Mahatma Gandhi spent his final days before he was assassinated. An overwhelmingly solemn yet peaceful feeling resonated within me as I walked alongside the path that Gandhi took to his usual prayer spot on the day he was assassinated. It was truly a surreal moment. The great man who had toiled tirelessly for India's Independence had stood where I was standing just 66 years ago.
Perhaps the most miraculous event that has occurred so far during this trip to India is the rainfall. Having heard stories about how India doesn't experience rainfall outside of the monsoon season, I didn't expect any rain to fall during our trip. I even guaranteed to one of my classmates that it would not rain. On the same day I made this guarantee, however, it poured. Some "expert" I am... From now on, I will expect rain everywhere we travel in India, although it's too bad that I didn't pack a raincoat.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Welcome to our journey to India

I am a professor of Religious Studies at East Carolina University, and for the ninth year in a row, I am leading a study abroad program to India.

For more information about our program, see our website here: and also here: You can read previous blogs and see lots of great photos about previous trips.

This year, my assistant will be Aaron Iaquinto, who was a participant during the 2008 program. He is an artist and instrument maker:

We hope you enjoy following our journey.

Derek F. Maher, PhD
Associate Professor, Religious Studies Program
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies
Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences
East Carolina University
Office: Bate 2002B
Mailing address:
1002 Bate Building
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858