Looking Back and Looking Forward

I’ve compared my work from this summer and last summer quite a bit throughout my blog posts. Last summer I worked for a non-profit organization in Honduras that initially worked to transplant families and individuals living in a riverbed slum to a safer environment with collectively built houses. They now build school infrastructures in poor communities and run programs for orphans and other low-income children. While this all sounds good, it was impossible for me not to be critical at every turn while I was working for them. Mostly white, American volunteers were doing most of the construction work, which they were not trained to do. The communities often had to stare at a half finished school until another group of volunteers arrived during the next winter, spring, or summer break. We didn’t even have to apply for visas to go there, while thousands of Hondurans attempt to cross into the US every year on an extremely dangerous journey. As one Honduran explained to me, they’re often thrown out “like dogs.” Students who spent hundreds of dollars on plane tickets and volunteer fees were working with people who made little over $100-$200 per month. It all seemed so wrong, and I was unable to avoid feelings of hopelessness and depression during my time there.

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Work in Honduras

I feel as though this summer in India helped me to balance both critical and positive thought. As I look back over my experiences, they weren’t entirely different from those of last summer. The workers in the factories made low wages (when we went for a nice dinner out, my bill would add up to a week’s worth of their salaries), as college students we were probably not qualified to do the work that we did, and the longer we were there, the more we learned about layers of social issues affecting them, including oppression, coerced sex work, domestic abuse, and more… However, I realized that my ability to be critical of all these things wouldn’t get me very far. It would be ignorant to be overly optimistic, but I knew that getting bogged down in the issues would make me useless to the situation. I also learned to focus on a specific issue—anemia—and keep my sights on the narrow, small issues that I could impact. Further, I learned not to look at small, positive progress and dismiss it as unimportant. While I could say that handing out bananas, a few months of iron tablets and deworming pills was probably fairly insignificant in the scope of human need around the world, it was still something. Keeping in mind that it was a fairly small impact and making goals to return to India and do something more substantial has turned out to be very different from rejecting the value of my work and its potential.

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Enjoying work, coconuts, and an enormous opportunity to learn about the lives of migrant workers on our trip to Orissa

As I come back to Penn, I’ve been thinking about how to employ these lessons to my every day environment. Obviously they come in handy when I do community service or learn about similar social issues all over the world. But they also help me to tone down my tendency to over-critique and criticize right on campus. I could write quite a few blog posts on how I feel about Penn’s stress levels, pre-professionalism, and lack of contribution to the Philadelphia community. But, this semester I’m trying to focus on the good parts—the awesome class discussions I have in my anthropology classes, the technology available to me in my science lab, the passionate people that surround me—and I’ve been a whole lot happier. I’m looking forward to seeing where I can take this in the future.

The Leader, The Empowered, and The Fighter: A Collection of Powerful Case Studies

Throughout my time in India, Andrew and I collected many powerful case studies from a number of men and women. We spoke with several mitaans, including one from the city of Dewas that made great strides for women in her community within a four year period. We interviewed women in an adult literacy class to learn more about the ways in which education empowers them. We also chatted with a woman who overcame seemingly insurmountable hardships to become financially independent. I have shared these stories below (you can also find the complete versions of these case studies and others on the SPS website: http://www.samprag.org/).

Left to Right: Andrew, Prasann, SPS professional, Ranu, Sasha, and me.

Left to Right: Andrew, Prasann, SPS professional, Ranu, Sasha, and me.

The Leader

While walking home, Ranu would frequently pass by Samaj Pragati Sahayog’s Dewas Office. She was familiar with the concept of Self-Help Groups, as she was a member of an SHG from another local organization and had many friends and family, including her mother, who belonged to SPS-run SHGs. After much consideration, Ranu decided to contact SPS four years ago for a position as a mitaan. Only three years later, she was promoted to senior mitaan of the area, in which she overseas 4,400 families.

Although Ranu has had a successful career as a mitaan, she has also faced a number of challenges. Her grandparents and extended family failed to support her desire to work and gain independence. Additionally, SHG members outside her immediate neighborhood were hesitant to fully trust her and were difficult to communicate with. Despite these initial adversities, Ranu has excelled in her position due to her perseverance, as well as parental support. Ranu’s father helps drive her to and from work, allowing her to work late into the night. Additionally, her mother helps take care of her children by preparing them for school and cooking meals. With the emotional and physical support of her family, Ranu, a widow, now earns enough money to put her two children through school.

Aside from the important role SPS has played in her own life, the organization has also enhanced the lives of those in the community. For example, the SHG program serves as a platform to encourage women to leave their homes that otherwise wouldn’t do so due to sociocultural norms. This has allowed women to further engage with one another in different capacities, and has increased the concern they have for one another’s wellbeing. Consequently, many of the women now partake in the “Knock Campaign” against domestic violence. Once alerted that an SHG member is abused, older members will confront the perpetrator. This neighborly concern has also manifested itself in other ways. Not long ago, a member’s husband passed away. The community responded to this tragedy by setting money aside to donate to her so that she could purchase groceries to support herself, her two children, and her widowed sister-in-law until she found work.

Ranu has also been involved in a number of successful initiatives in her community. She established 200 gas connections in her cluster and rallied 200 women to speak to local officials about garbage that failed to be removed, which caused health problems. In the past, attendance at these events has led to other improvements. For example, the women spoke to the local official about collecting their ration cards, which they were entitled to but not receiving. Within two days the government distributed the welfare cards. The influential senior mitaan also opened 100 savings accounts during a single cluster meeting, by inviting the bank manager to attend.

Families of SHG members are also recognizing the importance of SHGs in their communities. Husbands, in-laws, and parents view SHGs as vehicles to distribute information and access easy credit. As women are the mediums by which families have access to these resources, women are now respected and involved in decision-making processes. Children also benefit from SHGs. Ranu works with local girls in the Kishori Manch Program, which engages girls in educational activities about sanitation, home life, and school life to reduce the number of child brides. Ranu is a powerful force in her city of Dewas.

The Empowered

Bhuri is a champion for change in her village of Punjapura. She has been a Self-Help Group member for the past six years and a federation leader for the past four. During her time at Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bhuri has contested local elections and, more importantly, established a night school to empower women.

In 2013, Bhuri had the opportunity to visit another community in the nearby state of Uttar Pradesh, as part of an SPS exposure visit. While there, she attended a nigh school session, in which she saw older women learning to read and write. The women of Punjapura had often criticized adult literacy classes, as they felt that it would be nearly impossible to teach new concepts to older members of the community. In Bhuri’s eyes, however, age was not an acceptable excuse to neglect one’s education, as was made evident by her U.P. exposure visit. Upon returning to her village, Bhuri mobilized women in her community to attend the newly established night school, which was the first in Punjapura and in the Gartnichi area. SPS, along with her federation, searched for a teacher, as well as covered the expenses of blackboards, writing utensils, and books. The cluster also supported the night school financially, as all of its members are eligible to attend.

The night school has not only bolstered the literacy rate of women in this rural community – many of whom have never attended school before – but has also empowered them. Women can now sign and fill out bank notes, read important letters and documents, read dates, count to three hundred (they could only count to 25 or 30 previously), and help their children with their homework in order to more directly support their education. Of the women that have access to cell phones, they can now dial numbers and write text messages, which allows them to communicate with professionals, friends, and family, as well as dial emergency numbers if need be without the help of others. SHG members enrolled in the nigh school program have become independent and self-sufficient.

The night school has also dramatically increased their self-confidence. Prior to partaking in the classes, the women were unable to sign their names. At local government meetings, which happen bi-annually in Punjapura, men would grab their fingers, place them in ink, and press their digits onto government attendance sheets and papers. The women saw this process as incredibly humiliating and degrading. Other individuals would also taunt the women at these meetings due to their educational capacities. Now, women enter the sessions with confidence and have even begun collaborating with local officials on the night-school program. They have gained unparalleled respect from their community, including from government and bank professionals. Women have also gained the confidence to tackle other community problems, such as alcoholism, due to their enrollment in the program.

The importance of the night school to the community is made evident by the lengths women go in order to attend class. The class ranges from 10 to 16 students, some of who travel over 1.5km at night to attend the school, and runs six days a week from 8:00pm to 10:00pm. Women also attend the two-hour long sessions after spending a long day working in the fields and completing their household chores. Bhuri, however, would like to see an increase in attendance, which is affected by these factors, as well as social pressure and false concepts concerning adult literacy (e.g. older women cannot learn or there aren’t any benefits to attending night school). During Bhuri’s mission to encourage women to attend the night school program, she has knocked on door to door, as well as provided women anecdotal evidence about the program’s successes. For Bhuri, an education is not only a means to becoming literate, but also serves as a vehicle for female empowerment.

The Fighter

Kunwar joined the Self-Help Group Program over a decade ago, so that she could access loans more easily, as well as adopt saving habits. At the time, she separated from her husband when her youngest son was only 3 months old, and was disowned by disapproving parents that forced her to live in inhumane conditions. By joining an SHG, Kunwar was able to provide a better life for herself and her children.

When she joined the SHG, Kunwar only had Rs. 20 of savings. Now, however, she has enough savings and earnings to pay for her children’s educations, including the costs of sending her daughter to study nursing in Ujjain.

Kunwar has benefitted from a number of loan programs provided through the SHG Program to purchase land, building materials for her home (e.g. plaster, roofing, etc.), latrines, a refrigerator (which she uses to store soda and popsicles to sell), and a sewing machine. She also used a mix of loans and savings to purchase thirty poultry, pay her for her children’s education, and establish a shop that sells foodstuff, cutlery, and bangles. In the future, Kunwar would like to purchase additional poultry for eggs to sell at her shop.

Despite her success, she has also faced a number of difficulties. Community members outside of her SHG thought that she was generating money illegally to afford private education, as well as construction materials and items to build her home and small enterprise. Furthermore, they questioned her interactions with male SPS employees, who would often ask her for advice, and her status as a single mother. Kunwar, however, persevered despite social pressures. This perseverance, amongst other qualities, were noted by SPS and her community.

The SHG members saw a lot of potential in Kunwar. She was not only outspoken and progressive, but also defended other members of her community. Consequently, they asked that she not run for SHG president, so that she could become a cluster leader and federation treasurer. SPS also recommended she run for the higher level positions, as she was exceptionally good at repaying loans and managing savings. Kunwar served in both capacities for a total of eight years. Kunwar serves as an inspiration to her children, community, and SPS.

The Long Way Home

The road I’ve traveled in the last 3 weeks since leaving India has been long and yet very short.

The 16 hour flight from Delhi to New York felt unbearably long, but considering how many miles and time zones I traversed, it was hardly anything.

I arrived home exhausted to the point of deliriousness, but less than 2 weeks later, found myself back on Penn’s campus, moving my same boxes and furniture into a dorm room, just as I’ve done for the last two years.

Seeing all my friends and more casual acquaintances, I quickly realized that talking about this summer was not going to be easy.  It’s not the kind of conversation you can have in the hurried five minute small talk you have with all your on campus acquaintances. People will say, “So…how was India?!” And I find that I’m not really sure what to tell them. (Often I just respond: “really intense.”) Every day in India was such a mix of thoughts and emotions and experiences, that I’m not sure how to boil it down for them into something easily digestible.

Now clearly it’s always hard to explain everything you did in a summer to people, I know my summer wasn’t unique in that. But I do feel some kind of added burden, because I know that the people I talk to expect me to tell them not just about my experience, but about India – it’s this exotic, frightening, far away place and it’s become my responsibility to, in a sense, translate it for them. It’s scary to think that I will shape how they perceive Indian culture or society. I certainly don’t feel qualified to do so. It often feels easier to let them fall into their own stereotypes rather than try to explain the weird nuanced reality – a reality that in part aligns with their stereotypes and in part sharply diverges from them. That’s what makes digesting the summer so tricky: I didn’t cull one clear sense of the culture or society or mindset, I gathered a wide diversity of observations and experiences that are hard to to synthesize. Throughout the summer, and to this day, I remember Professor Kapur telling us at our CASI orientation that India is a country of contradictions.

But let me for a moment leave the challenges of translating my experiences for others, and return to myself.

When I landed back in New York, I remember feeling like I was in some kind of sterile heaven. I don’t mean to use sterile in the negative sense, it’s just the best word I can think of to express what I mean. Everything is so…clean, so simple. Everything happens so effortlessly. The 85 degree heat felt cool and breezy to me. The supermarket aisles seemed to gleam with prepackaged delicacies. The sidewalks clear and easy to walk on. I could walk into a store or call up a customer service agent and have a quick and easy conversation in English. Every car, bus, or train ride felt smooth and fast and so…comfortable.

But I couldn’t say that I still really think that way at this point. I’ve kind of settled back into my usual routines, back at school organizing my schedule and attending club meetings. India sits in the back of my head, in its own little separate, intensely spiced compartment.

So if I’m being totally honest, I don’t think I’ve yet figured out how to connect this summer to my life back at Penn. The two feel pretty disconnected. When I really start talking about India, I have lots to say, but I think even as I’m speaking I realize I’m repeating a lot of the same things, because I haven’t yet quite processed what I went through. And LEAP and Yamuna Nagar feel so many universes away from my life here that I’m not quite sure how to join them into a broader perspective or personal narrative.

Perhaps what’s most telling? When people ask me: “Do you think you’d go back?” I always respond, without skipping a beat, “Oh yeah, for sure.”

Home

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It’s been exactly a month since my last blog post and since I boarded a plane out of Bangalore and by now I’m fully acclimated to life back in America. It’s hard for me to be sad about being home, especially when it means eating American food and seeing everyone I missed all summer, and I can’t say that I am. I have no huge desire to fly back to India right away, but I don’t think I expected to. What I do have, though, is a summer full of priceless and worthwhile experiences, and a feeling that I’ll be sure to return someday.

Over the past weeks since I’ve returned I couldn’t help but constantly think or comment ‘In India….’ in regards to almost every situation. Although I can’t help myself from deciding whether something was better in India or better in the US, there’s no shortage of things I prefer and miss from India. It’s often the small things I never thought I’d miss, like the familiar yet always interesting rides to work everyday or walks to the gym. There was just so much more to see than there is on the couple block walk to Pottruck at Penn. Or the stray animals, like the kitten who was born nearby work and who we saw grow up everyday through our tea breaks with coworkers. There are far too many things to name. 

The largest conclusion I’ve reached since my return was a simple one of how worthwhile and impactful my summer in India was. It’s impossible to quantify the lasting effects and changes in thinking I’ve had, but I’m sure that there are few other things I could have done this summer that would have been as meaningful. Up until the past summer, I had spent every summer of my life in Philly. Not to say they weren’t great and valuable summers, but I don’t think they were times of great reflection. I think I had to to travel to the other side of the world to really understand what it means to live and study at home. 

Alternative Livelihood Loans and Climate Change

Since 1990, Samaj Pragati Sahayog has worked to increase the number of irrigated fields in the Dewas District. SPS has done so through the construction of dams, wells, gabion walls, and other watershed structures in an effort to help farmers adapt to climate change. Previously, farmers in the area relied heavily on rainfall, which has become highly unpredictable due to increasing monsoon variability. In helping farmers irrigate their fields, however, SPS has unintentionally promoted mono-cropping. Farmers now have enough water to sustain fields of cotton, corn, and soybean. Farmers are also beginning to deplete groundwater resources at a higher rate to feed these more water-intensive crops. These practices have made farmers especially vulnerable to the economic consequences of climate change.

In order to address these concerns, SPS promotes indigenous crop varieties, such as sorghum, to decrease the number of mono-cropped fields and to limit groundwater exploitation. The organization also deploys other technologies and management methods to achieve the same ends. Furthermore, SPS created alternative livelihood loan packages, which are available to over 30,000 families in the region. These loans are provided through SPS’s Self-Help Group Program and allow women to purchase cattle, buffalos, goats, and chickens, as alternative sources of income. Additionally, many women purchase sewing machines to tailor clothes for market, or motorcycles so that their husbands can travel to semi-urban or urban areas to work in other industries (e.g. construction).

Although SHGs exist throughout India (they originated in southern India in 1992), SPS focuses primarily on working with women in urban, semi-urban, and rural areas. SHGs serve as alternative options for communities below the poverty line to obtain loans. Before SPS created its regional SHG Program, communities relied heavily on local moneylenders and Microfinance Institutions for loans; however, these institutions provided loans at a significantly higher interest rate and inadvertently promoted indebtedness. SHGs, on the other hand, provide communities easy credit, low rates of interest, tailored loan installments, and the ability for individuals to negotiate the terms of their loans. SHGs also have a social component, as the monthly 2 hour SHG meetings serve as platforms for community members to discuss pertinent issues in their community – whether its alcohol abuse, domestic violence, literacy, or water shortages. These meetings also provide individuals with a space to form friendships and learn about government schemes and programs.

For my honors thesis, I am really interested in the ways in which the SHG Program can combat the economic risks associated with climate change. Although SPS’s SHG Program addresses monsoon variability in a number of ways (e.g. workshops about sustainable dryland farming practices and indigenous seed varieties), I am most interested in its alternative livelihood loan packages. While in India, I had the opportunity to speak to several individuals including mitaans, SPS professionals, and SHG members about these packages. Through my conversations, I learned more in detail why these programs are necessary in monsoon variable regions.

In Patakal Village, which is approximately an hour away from where I was staying, I spoke with one beneficiary of a buffalo loan named Mal. After she purchased her buffalo in 2008, she joined the local dairy co-operative (which SPS manages) for income. Her involvement in the dairy co-operative has increased more dramatically in recent years due to monsoon variability, which Patakal has been particularly affected by. Like many of her neighbors, Mal was hit hard by crop failures arising from unpredictable climate. In fact, most of her fellow SHG members defaulted on their loans due to losses from floods and droughts. In order to mitigate the risks caused by climate change, many of the members, including Mal, began to accept more SHG cattle and buffalo loans. Recently, Mal has fully transitioned to livestock rearing and makes the majority of her income through the production of buffalo milk, which is sold at a higher price at the market due to its high fat content. Mal earns 70,000 rupees annually by producing 10 to 12 liters of milk daily. With her financial success in the dairy industry, Mal has been able to fully fund her children’s education, as well as stave off economic ruin. She is in the process of mobilizing other women in her community to accept cattle and buffalo loans, so that they too can mitigate the economic risks associated with agricultural production.

Dairy Co-Operative

Dairy Co-Operative

Dairy Co-Operative

Dairy Co-Operative

While in India, I listened to other stories that were equally as powerful as Mal’s. Bhuri from nearby Punjapura Village has a poultry loan, which has earned her thousands of rupees. Since partaking in the poultry program in April, she has owned 100 chickens, which she sells in local and regional markets for over 400 rupees a piece. Although she did not initially switch to poultry rearing for the same reasons as Mal, she stated that many others in her village have made the partial or full transition because of climate change. These alternative livelihood loans are important in providing economic protection to rural farming communities.

Many of the women in this image are beneficiaries of SPS's poultry loan in Punjapura Village.

Many of the women in this image are beneficiaries of SPS’s poultry loan in Punjapura Village.

I will not only study why these programs are important to rural farming communities, but also what factors limit their enrollment. Several factors limit enrollment and participation in rural communities such as mistrust, history of defaulting on loans (which make individual ineligible for loan packages), and social pressures (e.g. the purdah and daughter-in-law status). After collecting initial data this summer, I am looking forward to writing my thesis this semester!

Reentering the U.S.!

Return to America: From Murugan Idli to Wawa

While in India, Busra, Vivek and I discussed how this entire experience would feel like a dream when we arrived back in the United States. Our foresight could not have been more accurate. It’s not that the powerful memories of our crazy and exciting experiences have disappeared; I just have difficulty recreating how it felt to live in our little “Aravind bubble”. I no longer worry about the logistical issues that we encountered in India (negotiating for everything, food/water safety, travel challenges) yet I am somehow no less stressed. I can easily call an Uber now if I need to travel somewhere instead of bickering with an autorickshaw driver over 30 extra rupees. I can walk up to a suspicious food truck and eat its food without a (huge) concern of getting sick. Despite having access to these conveniences, I miss the routine of work, and I miss seeing my colleagues, mentors, Busra, and Vivek every day. I miss walking down the street among the clamber of people, animals, and all sorts of vehicles. Receiving an email or Whatsapp message from my friends back in India momentarily brings me back to the fact that I actually spent 10 weeks at Aravind. I’ve demonstrated my questionable Tamil abilities to some of friends, but the basic words feel unfamiliar even though I spent my summer listening to the language. I also really, really, really miss the Dominos pizza of India.

As we drove out of Madurai, it was a lovely evening, and the sun was setting. It dawned on me that it might be my last time for a while to chat with someone in Tamil, so I started a conversation with the very amused driver. Looking at the familiar chaos and bustle of the streets was comforting, and I finally came to the realization that I was departing a place that had become my home for an entire summer. Despite some of its flaws and challenges, India is an incredible country. Whenever people ask, “How was India??” I struggle to find an explanation that captures everything that I felt while I was there. It’s unclear as to when I’ll return India, but I’m confident that it’ll happen some day. As a wise Penn student named Vivek once said, “If you want to come back you’ll find a way.” (Add that one to the quote list)

Travelling back to the U.S. involved getting lost in several airports, sprinting through security, making friends, and realizing that I have enough common sense to make it halfway across the world. (The last part was probably the most surprising.) I think the strangest part of coming home was stepping foot into the JFK airport. It’s funny when a country you’ve called home your entire life feels incredibly foreign. I felt awkward wandering around in a kurta, even though it was what I wore every single day in India. When I got into the car with my parents, I chuckled when my mom had to remind me to wear a seatbelt. I was astounded by the road safety and the fact that everyone actually stays in their respective lanes. It probably won’t surprise you from my previously mentioned food preferences that I immediately demanded that my parents stop at a Wawa in order to acquire some macaroni and cheese. I was once again reminded of the joys of American food while prancing around Wawa (still in a kurta) picking up every item that I could imagine. After the novelty of American living wore off, though, I found myself craving a crispy ghee dosa from Murugan Idli. (In reality, I mainly missed the gleeful expression on Vivek’s face when we would go).

I am confident that this is not the end of my relationship with Aravind. This internship has already led me to a clinical project at CHOP that relates to sickle cell disease, nutrition, and ophthalmology. It even connects with content material that I covered in Aurosiksha lessons! I am so thankful to have had this unique opportunity, and I am already jealous of the next group of interns that get to go to Madurai. I challenge CASI to find people more awesome than Busra and Vivek, though that goal seems pretty unattainable.

This leaves me with one final question: Can I apply again next year??

A very happy Vivek (and Devendra) and Murugan Idli

A very happy Vivek (and Devendra) at Murugan Idli

Reentering the U.S.!

Reentering the U.S.!

Memories of Mandu

Nearly a month ago, I headed to Mandu with Andrew, Sasha, Nishtha, Prasann, Abhi, and Ashley. Nishtha, Prasann, and Abhi are SPS professionals who work with the organization’s Self-Help Groups, while Ashley was a Master’s research fellow from the University of Arizona. Although we were tired from a late night at the office the day before, we hopped into the jeep around 5:00am and traveled for the next 4.5 hours southwest to the archeological site of Mandu.

Looking out from the base of Mandu.

Looking out from the base of Mandu.

Beautiful greenery at the base of Mandu.

Beautiful greenery at the base of Mandu.

Waterfall at the base of Mandu.

Waterfall at the base of Mandu.

According to Sanskrit text, the city of Mandu was built in the 6th century BC and is characterized by a long history of invasions. Between the 10th and 11th centuries it fell under the ownership of the Parmars, Khiljis, and finally the Taranga Kingdom through a number of battles. In the 16th century, Akbar the 1st also claimed Mandu under the Mughal Empire, until it was once again taken by the Marathas during the first half of the 18th century.

Mandu consists of a number of noteworthy sites. The three that we visited were the Jahaz Mahal (or Ship Palace), Jami Masjid (mosque), and Roopmati’s Pavilion.

Jami Masjid  (Mosque)

Jahaz Mahal (Ship Palace)

Jami Masjid (Mosque)

Jami Masjid (Mosque)

Roopmati's Pavilion through the thick fog and monsoon rains.

Roopmati’s Pavilion through the thick fog and monsoon rains.

I was excited to visit Mandu for a number of reasons other than its archeological and historical significance. I had read about Mandu in several articles regarding the best places to visit in India during the monsoon season, as it is known for its verdant beauty and charm. I was not disappointed! Trees, flowers, and waterfalls painted the landscape. It was also my first time traveling someplace as a tourist in India. I had gone to Indore a few weeks before that for Domino’s Pizza, the Bollywood “Dil Dhadakne Do,” and to restock on snacks; however, I don’t think that counts! Andrew and I also arrived quite late in Delhi and only had the opportunity to grab dinner at Hauz Khas the evening before we left for SPS. Finally, my colleagues, as well as past SPS CASI interns, spoke highly of Mandu – it is now an SPS tradition of sorts to take interns to the site.

Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Window at Jahaz Mahal

Window at Jahaz Mahal

Artificial lake at Jahaz Mahal

Artificial lake at Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

Jahaz Mahal

At Jahaz Mahal

Me at Jahaz Mahal

I was blown away by the ancient structures at the three locations. I have always been fascinated by archeological sites and had actually contemplated pursuing archeology when I was in high school, because I wanted to work in Latin America studying Mayan ruins. I am not only attracted to the physical beauty of the buildings, but also the mystery and history associated with them. While at Jahaz Mahal, I wondered what palace life was like for its residents. Nishtha, who served as a great guide at Mandu, told us about the ceremonies that would take place in certain sections of the palace. Furthermore, she led us to a bathhouse, which had star-like shapes cutout overhead. We theorized what it must have been like to bathe at night under the moonlight – the cutouts reflecting stars against the interior walls and floor. This image followed me as we walked towards the exit in the pouring rain.

Ceiling of Bathhouse

Ceiling of Bathhouse

Bathhouse

Bathhouse at Jahaz Mahal

Jami Masjid and Roopmati’s Pavilion were also quite beautiful; however, thick fog and heavy rains had set in right as we were nearing Roopmati’s Pavilion (sorry for the lack of photos!). We had almost considered not going to the last site, but we trudged on nevertheless. As we scaled the steep incline needed to reach the pavilion, thunder resounded softly in the distant hillsides. Around us, women and men were cooking roadside corn-on-the-cob (something I sadly did not eat before I left India), the smell reminding me of fond summer memories from the San Diego County Fair. At the pavilion, I looked over at a sea of fog, which obscured the Narmada River and the bustle of vendors and tourists down below.

Roopmati’s Pavilion was constructed in the 16th century for the singer, Rani Rupmati. She was married to Sultan Baz Bahadur, and was one reason Mandu was conquered by Akbar. The general under Akbar, Adham Khan, decided to invade Mandu, because he had heard of Rupmati’s beauty. Rupmati responded to the invasion by committing suicide via poison. Below is a passage from Wikipedia about the lore of Rupmati (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roopmati):

“Baz Bahadur, ever so fond of music, was the last independent ruler of Mandu. Once out hunting, Baz Bahadur chanced upon a shepherdess frolicking and singing with her friends. Smitten by both her enchanting beauty and her melodius voice, he begged Roopmati to accompany him to his capital. Roopmati agreed to go to Mandu on the condition that she would live in a palace within sight of her beloved and venerated river, Narmada… Unfortunately, the romance of this Muslim prince and Hindu shepherdess was doomed to failure. The great Mughal Akbar decided to invade Mandu and capture Roopmati and Baz Bahadur. Akbar sent Adham Khan to capture Mandu and Baz Bahadur went to challenge him with his small army. No match for the great Mughal army, Mandu was easily defeated fell. Baz Bahadur fled to Chittorgarh to seek help. As Adham Khan came to Mandu, was surprised by the beauty of Roopmati and Rani Roopmati stoically poisoned herself to avoid capture. Thus ended this magical love story steeped in music, poetry and beauty”

Aside from its history and mythology, I was also captivated by the presence of nomadic Rajasthani tribes. As we climbed the green mountains on our way to Mandu, we passed by sheep, goats, lambs, camels, and members of the far-flung tribe. Tribal peoples travel hundreds of miles southward by camel and foot to the more vegetative state of Madhya Pradesh to provide pasturelands for their livestock to graze on during the monsoon period. I was amazed by the shear number of sheep (pun intended) we drove past, as well as the towering camels, which were holding children and goats in their side pouches. It was definitely an amazing site to see, which I have added videos of below (please ignore my commentary).

I will hold on to these memories from my day at Mandu. Although the journey was long (9 hours to and from – we got back home close to midnight), it was well worth it. It has a wealth of culture, history, and beauty unlike most other places in India or around the world.

Our group minus our photographer, Andrew, at Jami Masjid. Left to Right: Nishtha, Prasann's friend, Sasha, Ashley, Prasann, Abhi, and me.

Our group minus our photographer, Andrew, at Jami Masjid. Left to Right: Nishtha, Prasann’s friend, Sasha, Ashley, Prasann, Abhi, and me.

Mosque Mosque