On our last day at the beach resort, after a morning of beach side classroom, we loaded into buses (decorated with various things, our favorites being the Jesus Express and the green one covered in pictures of babies) and stopped by Dakshinachitra, a cultural museum displaying Indian culture. We walked through traditional houses, listened to a drum performance and ate off of banana leaves. Some of us bought artwork made by local artists and practiced our bargaining skills. Many of the girls got henna on their hands which was then frantically scraped off as we hurried off to yoga.
The baby van pulled up in front of a lovely home and we found our yoga studio on the roof. The breeze was perfect and we practiced breathing exercises. Whenever I’ve taken yoga anywhere else, it’s become a competition, no matter how hard the instructor tries to change this. Everyone is pushing themselves too hard and craning their necks to look at their neighbor to see if their stretch is better. One of Ravi’s first remarks, when we sat down on our mats, was to let us know that we should be in no way pushing ourselves farther than we should. If we couldn’t place our palms flat on the floor, we should bend our knees. This mentality was very interesting and I believe it’s because yoga has more meaning in India than it does as a typical exercise class in the United States. It no longer becomes a flexibility competition, it turns the focus inward. The amount of relaxation felt compared to the amount of actual yoga done was very skewed. Some people fell asleep on their mats.
Yesterday we visited the American Institure of Indian Studies’ (or AIIS) campus for Tamil language studies located in Madurai (where we are currently staying). This AIIS campus specializes in a year long Tamil language program geared towards American college students. Dr. Amy Allocco, our course leader from Elon University, actually completed this program when she was first studying in India. There are currently six students enrolled in the program, hailing from colleges all across the country. Most of these students are either in their gap year between completing their undergraduate degrees and beginning their graduate work, or are currently working on their post-grad degrees. It was really great for a lot of students to get to spend some time with people who are participating in a similar experience abroad.
As a special treat, the professors at the AIIS campus invited Dr. Uma Kannan, a prominent Indian scholar, to give students a lecture on some of the work she has been doing over the past few years. Dr. Kannan spent the first portion of her lecture discussing kolams. Kolams are ritual symbols drawn in front of many Indian households every morning and night. Kolams are made with rice flower, a white paste, that not only serves as a wonderful chalk, but also as a tasty treat for birds and insects. Indians believe that the kolams bring auspicious blessings on their homes because of the offering given to local animal and insect life. They also serve a more practical purpose, as the rice flour attracts insects, thus keeping them away from the home. Kolams are an especially important part of the Pongal festival, a harvest celebration that begins on the 14th and is celebrated throughout Southern India. More information on the Pongal festival will follow as the celebrations begin.
The second part of Dr. Kannan’s lecture focused on the Madurai Malli, a special breed of Jasmine that is found only in this part of India. The harvest of the Madurai Malli is especially delicate because the flower is only used in its bud form, just before blossoming. Malli usually blossoms in the evening, so locals will go out and pick the buds in the early morning. The Madurai Malli has a fragrance that is more heady than traditonal jasmine, the petals are much hardier, the color is always white, and the flower generally stays fresh longer. Madurai Malli is weaved into garlands used to adorn the images of gods in temples, made into curtains for doorways, and often used as a wedding decoration. The Madurai Malli is also shipped internationally, there are actually special planes that depart each morning that carry large shipments abroad. One interesting fact that Dr. Kannan mentioned is that the Malli is used by Christian Dior for the “J’ Adore” fragrance, and Dior often sends representatives to Madurai to purchase shipments of the flower.
Last night some students were talking at dinner and we came up with a list of things we were all so glad that we packed for this trip. As opposed to sambar, a traditional South Indian staple food, we agreed that we could not have made it this far without the following things:
-Passports (because we want to come home eventually)
-Band-Aids (for those of use who have never worn Chacos)
-Hand wipes (just to keep things fresh)
-Pepto Bismol (no explanation needed)
-Dupatta (don’t drop it)
-Comfy shoes (which doesn’t mean Chacos for everyone)
-Extra bags (for gifts!)
-Miles (he is the best at India)
Best wishes to friends and families,
Allison Hren and Jay Rutherford