An eye-opening quest to India


By Debbie Phipps, Head of Upper School

When I told friends I would spend spring break in India, one guaranteed that it would be “eye-opening”—an adjective that understates the impact of the two weeks that English teacher Meg Fifer and I spent traveling across Rajasthan. For some time, the idea of bringing students to a far-away land (ten hours different in time) has taken up valuable space in my brain. So when Meg and I boarded the plane, with vague notions of a potential service trip combined with cultural sight seeing with students in some year in the future, we weren’t at all prepared for the impact of India. (See Meg’s video travelogue here.)

It’s easier to capture moments than any general impressions. Some of what we imagined was true. The streets in cities are unbelievably crowded. At any moment, motorbikes, cows, tuk tuks (small golf-cart like taxis that weave in and out), cars, rickshaws—and in some cases, carts pulled by camels—followed patterns that we could not detect, yet we saw no traffic accidents. Indians eager to have photographs with US visitors asked us to stand with them; children practiced hesitant English phrases—“I’m fine, thank you”—as soon as they saw us. The sounds are loud and unending, and the colors so bright and varied that at times it felt unreal. An elderly man wearing the traditional white pajamas and turban might pass a woman with a fuchsia sari trimmed with gold thread, a young man in western gear, a schoolgirl wearing a tie and high socks, and children in tunics and sandals. Add to this an array of Indian dishes that I never learned to recognize but uniformly loved, and you can imagine how well I slept at night.

We visited mosques and temples of Sikhs, Jains, Hindus, and Muslims, and a desert village populated by Bishnois. The village included a family compound with four generations living in closely spaced huts. This sect does not kill living things, so they burn cow dung for fuel, are completely vegetarian, and dedicate their lives to living in harmony with nature. Some of their 29 principles (bish means twenty, noi means nine) resonated with Quaker tenets. At a Sikh temple in Delhi—still wearing the sign of a blessing from the Hindu temple nearby—we sat with other worshipers listening to the chanting of the priest and experiencing—despite the relatively loud music—the same sense of peace of Meeting for Worship. We then viewed the back area of the temple where volunteers shaped chapati—bread rounds—to serve to anyone who wanted a meal; these would be shared with a lentil dal and hot chai.

We were struck repeatedly by the spirituality of the country and strove to understand the role religion has played in India’s complicated history. At a Jain temple, we passed a group of monkeys as we wound our way to the large marble structure on a rural hillside, each column carved completely and individually. Visitors were asked not to talk, and by that time, we removed our shoes automatically before entering any place of worship.

Viewing the architectural treasures of the Moghul dynasties was equally and literally eye-opening. Though Meg and I have seen countless images of the Taj Mahal, witnessing it for the first time—coming through the red granite gate and viewing, from a distance separated by water—the white marble glowing in the afternoon sun proved unforgettable. We returned the next morning for sunrise, this time able to take in the details that we missed on our first overwhelmed tour. The ways in which the designers used perspective to make the excerpts from religious texts—created through mosaic—appear the same size and the optical illusion created by having the four corner pillars lean slightly reminded us of the importance of studying math and art history. A visit to a series of rocks used for astronomical predications in Jaipur made us wish we remembered more physics.

I think I can still name my shahs in order, but I know I recall that Emperor Akbar’s palace at Fatehpur Sikri had separate bedrooms for the three wives, each of a different religion, a move towards consolidating the Moghul empire by including three religions in his family. One bedroom was decorated with elaborate carving, a second with early examples of fresco painting, and the third (the favorite wife) was decorated with a stunning mosaic. We met a maharajah walking his dog while sitting by a lake in Mewar, took a boat on Lake Pichola to tour the summer palace at Udaipur, studied miniatures in the blue city of Jodhpur—where artists are supported in an apprentice-like structure to ensure that the ancient arts continue—, and toured forts and monuments and tombs everywhere. Some of the most memorable moments, however, were unexpected: children running out to wave “ta-ta” as we passed, a wildly painted camel cart passed along the road, cows stopping traffic on the busiest city streets, and everywhere, people wanting to welcome us to their country. When our flight was cancelled on the way home and we had to reroute through Amsterdam—requiring a sleepless night and some airport time with the wrong currencies—it still seemed eminently worth it to share this amazing adventure.

I’ve been fortunate in my life to travel: 47 US states, several countries and continents, often with an opportunity to study as I go. Still, India would be the most life-changing place I’ve visited—at least in terms of broadening my worldview, challenging my attention span, urging me to overcome preconception, and requiring that I engage actively, all day and every day. It left me wanting to be more helpful to people needing directions in cities, to smile more at strangers, to take more time to reflect (in silence or not), and especially, to make sure children have a chance to share what they know. I hope too that I’m more appreciative of the opportunities I have each day—that’s hard to measure—and that someday, I can share this experience with students.


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