3rd Year Undergraduate Student Jon Hunt reflects on his time on a UKIERI Study India Programme last year.
I spent six weeks last summer in India, (mostly Delhi), as part of the UKIERI (UK-India Education and Research Initiative) Study India Programme. As a geography student I found the opportunity to learn about a great economic and social power by actually visiting the country itself too great to miss. I enjoyed various experiences around India both as part of the programme and my own adventures, and I tried to reflect on their significance from a national and global perspective. The programme involved visits to cultural and political sites around Delhi (as a background to India’s past and present); talks from prominent business people and politicians; an internship with a choice of organisations including the Tata Corporation and some NGOs; and talks in schools and universities. Such activities allowed an opportunity to consider the Indian story from a variety of backgrounds before a series of workshops were provided in UK schools in an attempt to engage the future generation with global issues and to develop the enthusiasm to solve them.
What I consider to be my first experience of India was a lady on the plane who proceeded to force-feed me popcorn before we’d even spoken. This remained one of my fondest memories of the trip and came to epitomise the generosity and friendliness of the people of India. It is easy to be alienated by the cultural curiosity of many people in India – the staring, the questions, the giggling – but if one accepts this then an endless stream of chit chat and jokes can be shared. Some of my most enlightening times came not in a great temple or a guided tour but in talking to other young people. This was a generation that was embracing modernisation, wanted to connect with the global society but was also very wary of following the route towards ‘western’ capitalism. As a result I felt we shared certain commonalities despite upbringings that likely couldn’t have been more different. Of course there were times when I didn’t always feel so welcome and it would be wrong to make such broad assumptions. Yet, if you don’t let people treat you as a tourist or regard the country as a museum then you can quickly begin to break through the barriers.
My initial exploration involved a life and death struggle to cross the road where lanes, speed limits or even traffic lights don’t seem to be respected. The heat was unbearable and the degree of poverty and waste was striking. Such was the colour, the chaos and the variation, the first couple of days involved frantic photo taking, before I began to stop acting like a spectator in a zoo and instead opened myself up to the people and the country. Once I took the plunge, India was not such a different universe and began to feel like a place I had belonged to for a long time. As we wandered round temples of religions I didn’t follow and took part in rituals I knew nothing about, I began to respect their openness and they seemed to respect my curiosity. A communal ritual of fire in a Hindu temple was a perfect way to end my first week and gave the group a chance to reflect upon a hectic series of activities in an even more hectic country. We revelled in soft chanting and the warmth of fire, set against the backdrop of a slowly calming monsoon.
Jon participating in a Hindu fire ceremony
The first chance to experience India as an individual came at the end of the first week. Five of us instead hired a taxi to take us the eight hour drive north to the town of Rishikesh – known as ‘the home of yoga and meditation’ – which rested in the foothills of the Himalayas. We were initially greeted by cows, thieving monkeys and a hairy gentleman who looked like he had more than a few stories to tell. Without much explanation he began to lead us off the beaten track and up into the hills; like excited children we eagerly followed. We decided to ignore the common warnings on this one and it paid off: instead of finding ourselves dead in a ditch, we were showed a fascinating abandoned village in the trees, originally built as a meditative retreat. With the sun setting the silence was eery as we explored darkened corridors and inspected inspirational graffiti.
Other excursions included an obligatory trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. After hearing so much about it, I cannot pretend I wasn’t slightly under-whelmed at first: even at sunrise there were already crowds of people and the excessive photo opportunities seemed just a formality after travelling so far. That said, the tomb rising over the dirty, sprawling town does make it all the more imposing. Once the rising sun cast a warm glow over the white marble and I could appreciate its intricacies, the building revealed its true beauty. I sat for a good couple of hours taking it in, before I saw a monkey dragged past me on a leash and being beaten with a stick. I then wondered how a country could simultaneously invoke feelings of awe and disgust. That was perhaps the hardest part about being in India; it is a country that is open about its culture, that doesn’t seem to hide its corruption and, as a result, you can witness the most uplifting and the most saddening aspects of humanity.
Jaipur seemed to encompass almost everything you expect from India including combinations of narrow, winding streets and large open bazaars; snake charmers and puppeteers; bustling restaurants and street food vendors and a trip to the top of the Red Fort on the back of an elephant. Set against a backdrop of hills and lakes, the Fort provided an impressive view before we travelled to ‘Monkey Temple’ – one of my favourite sites of India. Walking up a hill through swarms of running, playing monkeys helped to portray a country that boasts the extremes of nature (humans included) and, despite the young boy guiding us throwing the occasional stone to ward off the over-enthusiastic ones, both sets of beings seemed content with each other’s company. In a similar way, the family who dwelled at the hill-top shrine were open to our presence and the parents watched calmly on as we sat and played with their children. Our two cultures may never truly understand each other – the phones and cameras we flashed and the respects we paid may seem shallow and superficial, whilst their spiritual artefacts were never going to invoke authentic belief on our part. Yet just as human and monkey may need each other more than they believe, perhaps it is only the endless diversity of culture that creates any meaningful significance.
Back in Delhi, to highlight a further issue in Indian society, we visited an orphanage, which provided an enlightening experience. I was somewhat reluctant to make the visit at first, feeling the children were being used as tourist attractions. Despite this I found it thoroughly enjoyable and can’t remember the last time I smiled for so long. Once again wishing to avoid generalisations, I have to admit I have never met such happy and positive children and cannot help think there is something implicitly wrong with the construction of our own society that is currently experiencing an epidemic in childhood apathy and depression.
Crowds celebrating Eid, the end of Ramadan, at India Gate in New Delhi
Once the four-week programme in Delhi had concluded it was time to take the adventure elsewhere, this time alone, as I headed to Goa and Kerala for the final 10 days before term was due to start again. My time in Goa essentially involved relaxation, and, after four weeks in the fumes and chaos of Delhi and a jam-packed programme of activities, it was the perfect antidote. There was to be no plan for the days after rolling out of bed to sunshine, nature and a lush tropical scenery.
For the final few days I jumped on a ‘quick’ eighteen-hour train down to Kerala. The train itself was an experience – getting lost in the views and striking up conversation with a few interesting characters; the majority of whom seemed to find me just as interesting and, for some reason, absolutely hilarious. The mere sight of me alone on the train hanging out the open door, partly for the breeze but mostly because I hadn’t grasped the magnitude of the dash for seats upon boarding, was enough to invoke lots of giggles amongst passengers. I stayed for a night on Varkala cliff, an impressive stretch of rocks and beaches and an apparent rendezvous for travellers from across the world. For the final day I headed out to Eravikulam National Park. The journey through forests and mountains in the morning sun seemed a fitting tribute to the end of my time in India and a stark contrast to my first experiences of the country.
As I took the flight back to Delhi the next day I reflected on the frantic stress I’d endured the previous few days in return for several moments of pure bliss and the relationship seemed to sum up the experience of travelling in India. The prospect can be daunting but, if one takes the time and makes the effort, the rewards can be truly extraordinary.