The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Chapter I

Chapter II

Chapter III

Chapter IV

Chapter V

Trip to sacred India continues
Students face challenges in cuisine and culture

UTC professors Dr. William Harman, philosophy and religion, and Dr. Elizabeth Gailey, communication, are leading a five week summer study tour in India. The trip is made possible through a generous grant from the University of Chattanooga Foundation, which covers approximately 75% of student costs including travel, lodging, and food.

What follows is a firsthand account of UTC student Janel Watson.

Wednesday June 9, 2004
1:45 pm

Sunday while still in Mamallapurum we visited the Shore Temples. Carved out of a single boulder around the 5th century C.E., the tallest appeared to be around three stories high. In a way I was sad that we have nothing so old and filled with history in the U.S. These temples were the first to be made from stone, before wood was used, which was easily destroyed by termites. At our first stop Dr. Harman discussed how worshippers would bathe in the giant water tanks that surround the temple before entering. Although they are now empty, and this temple is no longer used for worship, I could imagine the scene.

Before we even left the fenced enclosure that surrounded the first temple street peddlers – or beach peddlers in this case - began to haggle with us. They stood outside the chain-link fence shaking their shell horns and knickknacks. From temple to temple they followed us, hounded us, and hollered at us. For the most part we ignored them or said “vaendam,” meaning “ not interested,” the most useful Tamil word we know.

Monday we drove back up to Chennai. It was a rough day. Most of us were still recouping from jet lag, and those who weren’t already suffering from traveler’s diarrhea fell ill after breathing Chennai’s syrupy smog. We visited St. Thomas Mount (known throughout Christendom as the site of St. Thomas Moore’s martyrdom) and quickly walked through Fort St. George, stopping at St. Mary’s Church.

After traveling by bus to Pondicherry we planned to attend a goddess festival that included fire walking. Dr. Harman’s colleague, Dr. Ulrike Niklas, who is married to a Tamil man and now lives in the village of Korkkadu where the festival took place, extended the invitation.

We had lunch in Dr. Niklas’s garden, inside what I would call an outdoor living room. It was a small house-shaped building made of concrete with a tiled roof. The room was hot because the fans were not working at first. The hunger and heat became unbearable when someone lit incense, and I thought I would die from the smoke. They had prepared a feast of traditional Indian food, but having eaten it for every meal since our arrival, it was the last thing I wanted on my banana leaf plate. I ate the mango and picked at the rice. Feeling brave, and recently intrigued by the Tamil language, I tried to ask for more water with the Tamil Dr. Harman had taught me. After getting a strange look from the person serving me, I got a glass of warm chunky milk instead – which, needless to say, I didn’t drink it.

After dinner our host suggested we walk around to see the village, which turned into a two-hour journey. We saw men climbing what looked like palm trees to gather a juice that the tree excretes and is collected throughout the day in ceramic pots hanging under the leaves. We saw their many temples and shrines and received strange looks, laughs and stares from the villagers.

When we returned to the house I rested on one of Dr. Niklas’s beds instead of going to the festival. I have learned that so many decisions here in India are a matter of weighing consequences, and, knowing my physical limitations, I opted not to attend rather than risk doing more than I could handle.

Today I hoped to spend walking around in the French part of Pondicherry and strolling the beach, but I woke up to a fever and stomachache. The hotel we are staying at is not exactly a Holiday Inn. The shower is merely a nozzle coming out of the wall; the drain is in the corner. I am still glad I’m in India, even with stomach problems and a smelly hotel room. I know that what I came here for cannot be found inside the walls of The Ritz Hotel.

Saturday June 12, 2004
7:30 pm

We made it to Madurai two days ago after a six-hour train ride in a second-class car. It was my first and hopefully last experience in this mode of travel. We passed the time by talking to each other and those around us. Staring out the barred windows at the Western Gats was also a nice distraction. There was no food to eat, at least that we thought to be safe, and each of us was left to whatever snacks we had packed. It was a long day.

I did have one good meal before we left Pondicherry. Our last night there we visited a French restaurant, and it was heavenly to eat something without curry! I think the food limitations are wearing on all of us. Some of the guys were joking about making a commercial with our video equipment about curry being part of a balanced breakfast, and showing people scooping it into their coffee and cornflakes. Maybe that is only amusing to those of us who are beginning to smell spices in our sweat.

However curry is not the only barrier between a good meal and me. Somehow I seem to be wearing an invisible sign that reads “PLEASE DON’T FEED THE AMERICAN.” Our first night in Madurai a group of us ventured to the rooftop restaurant, and we all ordered our meals. I actually ordered the same three items as my roommate. The first dish came for both of us, but then she got her second and third and I waited patiently until it was obvious the food was never coming.

When everyone was finished eating and drinking the checks arrived, and just as expected my check included everything I ordered, including the food I never got. At the first mention of this problem to the waiter he insists that the food is almost ready, so close it is nearly on its way out. Maybe in a Western restaurant this could be somewhat believable, but eating at an Indian restaurant requires blocking out a two-hour time slot. It took ten waiters, half an hour and three non-productive conversations to make the never received items disappear from the check.

Last night I discovered that everyone except me had ordered dinner with their drinks. Being on a time schedule I grabbed the nearest waiter and told him what I wanted. I was warned that Indians have a desire to please, and will say yes even when the answer should be no, and will act as if they understand what you are saying even when they have no clue. Needless to say, the order never made it to the kitchen and for the second night in a row I was dinnerless.

Items like “chicken lollipop” and “mackroni ‘au’ gratin” appear on our hotel menu, and just because something is on a menu doesn’t mean the restaurant actually serves it. It’s the idea of certain foods having the possibility of being served that gives restaurants here their ambiance. I am learning that no matter how frustrated I get with India she will keep throwing more at me…she has a twisted sense of humor.

Not all is bad here. Part of me is falling in love with this country. Without the food barrier, I could imagine staying here for quite some time. Dr. Gailey says the constant movement and sound of the city matches my energy.

Last night, on an empty stomach, I visited the Minaskshi Temple to see the god Sundareswarar, an incarnation of Siva, laid to rest with his wife, the goddess that gives the temple its name. Madurai is known as “the temple city”, and this is its main temple. Minaskshi, in a way, is a mother and a protector to her patrons. Most enter the temple through the southeast corner to honor her first.

There are five towers outlining the wall of the temple grounds that taper towards the sky with nine-stories of overwhelming height. Each is made of granite and completely covered in plaster sculptures painted with amazingly vibrant colors. The figures reveal stories from ancient Hindu epics. Standing in front of one of these towers makes you want to be reverent, even if you don’t know why.

Inside we couldn’t go to any of the main shrines, because we are not Hindu, but in a city that is a constant scream of horns, music and loudspeakers, this place somehow keeps the noise out. It is full of people just walking, talking or praying. As women walk around with their families, you can hear the bells on their toe-rings and anklets although you normally can’t see them as their saris touch the ground. You can smell the rose and jasmine garlands that decorate the women’s hair and the necks of the deities. The little children who are dressed in miniatures of their parents’ clothing aren’t shy and run up to you with their big brown eyes staring.

In the center of the temple grounds is a large shallow pool, nearly the size of a football field. Stairs surround it for sitting, and the surrounding structures are reflected in the water. This place is the heart of Madurai, and for me a place for solitude.

So other than a constant bellyache that is half hunger and half homesickness, I am doing well. I’ll be starting my research project soon and hope in it to find an outlet for understanding this beautiful but complex culture.