The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Students and faculty journey to sacred India

UTC professors Dr. William Harman, philosophy and religion, and Dr. Elizabeth Gailey, communication, are leading a five-week summer study tour to India. The trip is made possible through a generous grant from the University of Chattanooga Foundation, which covers approximately 75 percent of student costs including travel, lodging, and food. This faculty-selected group of students will focus on Madurai, India, known as the "the temple city." There, a massive and famous goddess temple serves as the geographic and spiritual center of the predominantly Hindu city. Additionally, the group will visit the extreme Western ghat forests of Kerala.

What follows is a firsthand account of UTC student Dustin Harris, who is keeping a journal of his experiences. This is the first in a series*

*We hope to have photos in the future.

From the journal of
UTC student,
Dustin Harris

Days #1-2: Two Days in the Air
We left Chattanooga on the adventure of a lifetime. After more than four months of anticipation, the time had come to go to India. The changing time zones and random naps make it hard to determine how long we’ve traveled, but 35 hours may be a good estimate. From Chattanooga to Memphis on to Minneapolis-St. Paul and through the Netherlands, we landed in Bombay about three hours ago. At 6:30 a.m., we will fly to Chennai and take a bus to the hotel.

Everyone is excited about being here. In a way, we’re family. For the next five weeks and two days, the16 of us are going to be the only familiar faces most of us will see.

Day #3: 16 Tickets to Paradise

Today was our first day at the luxurious but secluded Ideal Beach Resort. We arrived around noon and were immediately greeted by the staff with consecrated water and an intricate, hand-woven lei made with freshly picked flower blossoms. Following the ceremony, we were offered a delicious watermelon smoothie and the chance to become reacquainted with air conditioning for the first time since Thursday.

After more than 40 hours of nonstop traveling, Ideal Beach offers us a much-needed opportunity to relax and reenergize, as well as a chance to get to know one another a little better. For three days and three nights, we will enjoy a beautifully landscaped, wonderfully serviced environment. My room has air conditioning and ceiling fans on the inside and a spectacular ocean view from the second-story balcony.

But even in this time of pampering, the consensus seems to be a fear of staying at this awesome, isolated resort and losing the entire meaning of being in India (i.e., cultural diversity; the urban hustle and bustle; dire poverty alongside tremendous wealth).

Dr. Harman has made it clear: “Don’t get used to it.” Something tells me that for right now, I should simply enjoy the high life and expect to see the “real” India in the near future.

Day #4: Everything’s Negotiable
Today, we kicked off the day around 8:30 a.m. with visits to three “shore temples,” so called for their location next to…well, the shore. Although floods have eroded away much of their exteriors, the ancient temples haven’t lost their wonder.

After the field trips, we went into the merchants’ district. Before we even got off of the bus, we were overwhelmed with traders pushing everything from statues of Ganesh to hand-carved stones. It only took a few minutes to remember everything Dr. Harman taught us about prices in India: they’re entirely negotiable (especially for Americans).

Because of India’s extreme poverty, her people make a living by making crafts and selling them to tourists. Consequently, because Americans are some of the wealthiest citizens in the world, they receive a much different pricing schedule than the locals. Also, according to at least one book, it’s actually an insult if you don’t try to bargain.

Never wanting to disappoint, I decided to make my first attempt at this meticulous art form. After just under two hours of talking, I managed to haggle a carved stone dealer asking 500 Indian rupees for one carved stone down to 150 rupees (less than $2) for five pieces. Success!

For lunch, we ate at Golden Palette. Today was the first time in 20 years that I’d eaten without my hands. The food here is both amazing and inexpensive. For around 125 rupees (around $1.50), you can get a full-size delicious meal. In fact, the hardest part about eating out is pronouncing the menu.

Day #5: A Parade by the Ocean
This morning, I got up around 4:30 a.m. I figured I only have one more morning after today to spend here in Paradise and oversleeping tomorrow may mean never seeing an Indian sunrise. I decided to take my camera and a two-minute trek to the beach; I arrived at the show a little early and got a great seat in the sand. Clouds covered the horizon, but I knew I’d see the sun. Just as the sun came up, the most surreal thing happened: an ocean-side cow parade. For about two minutes, it was just me, the sun, and about 22 heads of cattle on this beautiful beach. If I was anywhere else in the world, it would’ve seemed too strange, but it was something about being in India than just made it all make sense.

For our day trip, we went into Chennai, a fairly large city about 50 km away from the resort. As India’s fourth-largest city and capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai (formerly know as Madras) serves as South India’s art headquarters and was just the right place to begin studying cultural diversity. After lunch, we visited a family-owned Indian carpet store. There, our host demonstrated how carpet is made and explained the differences in quality between family- and industry-owned manufacturers.

Day #6: The Festival for a Goddess
This morning was somewhat bittersweet. We left our resort around 8:30 a.m. and began the drive to the Soorya Hotel in Pondicherry, a French settlement about 90 minutes away from Ideal Beach. Later that afternoon, Dr. Orlick Nicolas (an old friend of Dr. Harman’s) invited us to attend a goddess festival in her village. This has been the highlight of the trip so far.

Each village honors its own goddess—in this case, Draupadi Amman—with an annual celebration of fireworks and fire walking. After meeting our group, the local member of the legislative assembly—equivalent to a state senator—ordered that we should have a platform brought to us on a chariot so that we might see the festivities more easily.

The people’s generosity was met only by their excitement to see us. It was hard to not feel like a celebrity. At one point, an elderly woman came up to Ryan holding leaves and coals in her hand. After speaking with her in Tamil, Dr. Nicolas learned that her son had carried the leaves across the hot coals and she wanted us to have them because they had been blessed.

We cannot thank Dr. Nicolas enough for inviting us into her home, feeding us, and allowing us to take part in such an incredible religious ceremony. I would be hard pressed to find another person who has ever attended such an event; travel agencies simply do not offer this in any package. This celebration has allowed us—12 college students from Chattanooga— to witness the locals of a small Indian village pay homage to their goddess for another year of service. This experience has taken us beneath the first layer of India. We have surpassed the gift shops and bargaining, the fruit smoothies and massages, to arrive at a village were racial differences are celebrated, life is precious, and material possessions are given a new meaning.

This is India.