Category Archives: Pre-Course

A Semester of Preparation

A Look Into Our Semester of Prep by Marlena Fernandez

The India’s Identities study abroad course is certainly a unique adventure for both Elon and Maryville students. From the first meeting of Elon students with Amy and Brian, I could tell that this course was going to be an interesting combination of serious academics and a world of new experiences. Elon students attended three hour classes once a month prior to departure as part of the University’s system of 1 credit-hour prep courses for winter term courses abroad. The class times became intense hours of discussion, learning, and cultural immersion. From engagement in the current topics to updates on travel logistics, the class time we had with Amy and Brian was invaluable.

indianFoodThese class meetings were supplemented by reading assignments and briefs for each set of readings. The briefs were short discourses that allowed students to think deeper about the reading and identify the key points. The briefs served as more than a summary; these briefs where a synopsis of the variety encounters that we will face in India as we study gender, religion, and caste through immersive experience. Notably a favorite portion of class time was the chance to try a new India food item, which was yet another way that we have dipped our toes into India while in America.

Outside of class students were expected to study Tamil, a popular language in the region we will be visited. Though Tamil can be a bit intimidating, Amy’s vast experience with the language has certainly been a great help. Amy and Brian even made a Thanksgiving video to emphasis the important Tamil words and phrases that we will use while in South India.

IMG_0052The semester held many other experiences in addition to the class meetings. The first of these was a retreat to Asheville that united Elon and Maryville students in one place and an open atmosphere. Over the course of the weekend, many nervous faces turned to brimming smiles, strangers became dear classmates, classmates became new friends, fears were discussed and assuaged, hopes were considered and enlivened, and, of course, Indian food was cooked and devoured. That weekend has proven to be pivotal to group dynamics and the creation of a social contract that will carry us all through our three weeks in India. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet my Maryville classmates and am eager to see them again.

One way that contact is being maintained between Elon and Maryville is the Facebook group for all of us. Throughout the semester we have all posted exciting, intriguing, and engaging articles on a myriad of topics in India. Most of the articles were found in the popular Indian news such as The Times of India and The Hindu. Postings often lead to insightful and stimulating discussions that have increased our understanding of modern India while helping us learn more about each other.

MovieScreeningShotTwo film screenings were also important to our pre-departure development. The screenings of The World Before Her and In God’s Land have allowed us a glimpse into the nation of India. We have seen the reflections of daily life across spectrums of turmoil and triumph. From gender relations to caste conflicts, learning from this additional medium has developed a new element of understanding to our knowledge base. This visual medium was further stimulated by the visit to a Hindu temple in Cary, NC. The temple is an astonishing and glorious representation of Indian Hinduism. The white glistening walls, the magnificent structure, the extravagant murtis, each contributed to the overwhelming experience. We had the chance to absorb each aspect of the temple and the worship occurring there as we walked around in amazement. The temple visit was followed by an Indian buffet at a local South Indian restaurant. Again, food was used as an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the adventure that lies ahead in just a month.

The final assignments that each student will complete before department are two papers, one on a site we will visit and one on a topic that we will address. Each student will become resident experts on their site and topic and will give a presentation of each while we are in India. These assignments offer the chance to really delve into the details of our personal assignments. Most of the education has been centered on broad, overarching themes with use of specific examples; however, students will be able to explore their assignments in more depth than before. I am excited for my site and topic research and look forward to sharing me new knowledge with my classmates. More than anything, I know that all of us are ready, mentally and emotionally, for our course to India but honestly cannot believe that it is nearly time to depart.


In God’s Land

5A Film Recap by Justin Brown

On Monday, November 17, 2014, we watched the film “In God’s Land”, made by Pankaj Rishi Kumar. The film, as Pankaj told all of us before the film started, was based on the conflict between a large temple, a small village, and an economic zone near the village. Pankaj also explained how he used animation in his film in order to experiment with different documentary techniques. When he finished giving us background for the film, it was safe to say we were all excited to see Pankaj’s film.

At the start of the film, we were introduced to both the SEZ (Special Economic Zone) and some of the villagers in a nearby town. The first part of the film really outlined the conflict and history of the town and zone very well, and we soon learned that the SEZ was taking over part of the villagers’ agricultural space, which the government has claimed is dry and arid land. Additionally, the SEZ highlighted a conflict between the nearby temple and the villagers. Whenever the temple was asked to give land for the SEZ, they willingly gave vast swaths of land, since they are the primary owners of the land in the first place. This was done, at least according to the villagers, without any input from them. This upset the villagers because they claim that their village is set on ancestral land, given to them long ago.

As the conflict continued, it was clear that this was both an inter-caste and an educational difference argument. Many of the villagers claimed that when the SEZ was fully operational, they would be stuck with menial labor jobs while the more educated people would continue to earn large salaries. There were also villagers who In Gods land Bcommented that once their children retired, they would have no place to come back to if their land was taken by the government and the SEZ.

The religious aspect of this film was also extremely interesting. In response to the nearby temple’s control over their land, the villagers chose to worship their own god, named Sudalai Swami. This god contrasted in every way possible with the god housed in the nearby temple, with one villager commenting on how Sudalai Swami would accept any offering made by any individuals, instead of larger offerings desired by the temple god nearby. All in all, Sudalai Swami was the village’s way of religiously rebelling against the larger temple god nearby.

In Gods land A[1]After the film ended, Pankaj was available to answer a few questions posed by the audience. One that really stuck out to me was when someone asked if he got any criticism from India for “exposing” what was going on in the government of Tamil Nadu. Pankaj laughed and said that the state of India was the one who funded and helped promote his film, with the film even going on national television! He further explained that everyone knew what was going on there and he wasn’t doing anything extremely investigative, but that it was a “silent issue”.

Overall, the film was a wonderful way to experience Tamil Nadu before we leave for our trip. Pankaj was extremely helpful in understanding some of the background to the film and for answering some questions afterwards. And I’m sure Amy enjoyed hearing the interviewees speak Tamil too!

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India’s Identities: Thanksgiving Break Edition

Current News from India by Kristin Kimberlain

Greetings from Maryville College! We are all so excited about studying in India and have been eagerly preparing for departure. In addition to the class discussions we’ve had with Amy, Brian, and the Elon students, many of us are currently enrolled in a 3 credit hour World Cultures course on the Indian subcontinent. In this class, we have been studying religion, gender, class, caste, history, and politics in order to understand the ways in which people make sense of life and the universe in South Asia. In addition to reading and lecture, each student is required to make a short presentation on an article from a South Asian news source, and I’ve decided to share what I found with everyone here.

The article I chose to present is a short piece from The Hindu called “Single Women Not Welcome”. This article highlights the experiences of unmarried, middle-class working women living in Chennai. Chennai is reportedly one of the safest cities for women in India, but many women report problems with finding housing in the city. Single women interviewed in the article said that they were often presented with non-negotiable, undesirable ultimatums when inquiring about renting.  A landlord that was interviewed admitted to preferring renting to families over renting to single women; single women, however, are preferred to single men.

Age-based discrimination also exists against unmarried female renters in Chennai. Younger women are much preferred as tenants to older women. The older a woman is, the more questions there are raised about why she is not married, whether she plans to be married, or whether she is divorced. Even when a single working woman is able to find a home, she often continues to receive prying questions not only from landlords, but from nosy neighbors.

This article speaks to the ways in which gender is part of identity and socialization; gendered experiences and stances on what it means to be male or female shape everyday life. It also speaks to the ways in which diversity exists in experiences of gender. Stereotypically, Indian women are expected to experience an almost linear progression over the course of their lives; they are expected to be daughters in their birth homes, then wives and daughters-in-law in the homes of their husbands and extended families, then mothers and older women. As exemplified in this piece, however, not all Indian women choose to marry, or may choose to marry at a time later in their lives than is traditionally accepted. In India, marriage is not only about the relationship between two individuals, but is about the relationship between families, where women typically perform certain duties and are viewed as assets to the family whole. Loyalty to the family and seeking to get married is often seen as being more important than the pursuit of individual aims like professional careers. Many women, however, especially in urban areas like Chennai, balance their professional and married lives. Ideas and traditions about what it means to be a woman in India change as women’s experiences and vocalizations about what it means to be a woman  change. Unmarried, working urban women face discrimination in a patriarchal society, but also manage to find and create their own identities. Where and how, if at all, are these women’s identities reflected? Can they see themselves mirrored in popular culture? In each other? In the words of Nitya Menon, the journalist who wrote this article, Chennai still has “a long way to go” in terms of accepting women’s choices and who they are.167    2013-01-23 09.07.44

Cary Temple Visit

A Preview of India by Audrey Griffith

At 9 am on a brisk November morning, the Elon students arrived at Sri Venkateswara Temple in Cary, North Carolina. After an hour or so in the car, students were in awe at the incredible white edifice that welcomed us. Its massive stature and immense beauty were different than anything Elon students are used to. This moment gave us just a taste of the constant bewilderment we will feel in India.

We met in front of the temple and enjoyed being back together. Our group dynamic is really forming with abundant giggles as well as plenty of academic discussion in anticipation for all of the knowledge we will attain in India. Our excitement is our biggest common ground right now and it is rare we get sick of talking about it.

After hearing a bit about what we would observe in the Temple from Amy and Brian, our centers of knowledge in this whole process, we were ready to enter the temple. Just before the entrance we were confronted with an entire shelving unit for shoes. We took our shoes off, as a sign of respect, and entered peacefully. Paintings were the décor of the ground, intended to be like the kolam art seen so frequently in India. There were offerings of fruit and candles as well as signs of worship that greeted us. Bananas and apples were abundant, used as prasad: offerings to the deity.

We entered into the room to hear priests chanting loudly and in sync. Many in the crowd were chanting with the priests. Each person in the room was sitting cross-legged on the floor moving their upper bodies in order to find a position to see god. They all wanted to achieve darsan: a mutual vision between the devotee and the deity. Many men had the Vaisnava symbol painted on their forehead to represent their devotion to the god Vishnu. Some women had rings on their second toes and red turmeric powder in the part of their hair, indicating that they are married. Children were running around and happily worshiping here. Their puja was evidently a precious time for the people in the temple.

We were welcomed with kind gazes. We must have appeared out of place but no one seemed phased by us. They welcomed us into their practices, placing sweet milk in our palms to drink. We were careful to take this with our right hand, the clean hand. Some of us were unsure of what to do with this, but it was a happy discomfort. We were adjusting to our new surrounding.

We went to the Siva temple to observe a puja to the navagrahas, the nine planets. There were long, loud chants during this and a process of dressing the anthropomorphic figures in flowers and cloths. The priest doused the murti in sesame oil in order to reflect the gaze of Saturn because darsan with this god is not desired. Those who had made a donation partook in pouring sesame oil as well.

To the side of the Siva temple, the shrine of snake goddesses was full of lit candles, flowers and fruit. A couple was clearly giving honor and worship to the snake goddesses. Professor Allocco has spent eight years of her life studying snake goddesses and their significance in South India. Her passionate work makes being around these figures so exciting. She was able to provide us with small details from the prasad in front of the murti to their connection to fertility. She presumed the couple was worshipping because of a desire for or appreciation of offspring.

After about an hour in the Siva temple, we returned to the Visnu temple to see the largest murti (image f the god) adorned in beautiful flowers. Everyone was pleased to see the god adorned in such beautiful offerings. These flowers and jewels signified great respect to the deity. More people were present for this part of the day.

After a morning of taking so much in, our stomachs were rumbling and we were ready for some Indian cuisine! Amy and Brian, with their keen knowledge of India—and food—led us to just the right place: Tower Indian Buffet. Yes-we said buffet. We certainly took advantage of the endless supply of unfamiliar food. Amy and Brian guided us through selections and helped us pick what may please our taste buds.

Many of us were excited by the wide variety of bread selections. Idli was a favorite for many. It is a simple cake-like substance with a savory flavor from the rice and lentils, its two main components. Many enjoyed the vadai, fried lentil donuts. Many were pleased to see Indians like fried food as well. The waiters brought out a large amount of masala dosa: these are lentil crepes filled with potatoes. In addition to our variety of delicious carb options, there was a large variety of lentil and vegetable dishes. Many were hard to recount but they certainly were filling and pleasing. Sambar, a lentil stew, was key to our meal and will be to many of our meals in India. Rasam was also delicious by itself and on top of rice. This spiced soupy dish will also be key to many of our meals.

The exposure to the variety of foods was exciting and prepared us thoroughly for our future meals. We finished with delicious desserts, making our plethora of “sweet tooths” quite content. Many were joking that the one dish tasted like donuts doused in maple syrup. And the mango ice cream was certainly a hit as well. Some of us finished with a few seeds that tasted strongly of mint. The eating experience was different for many and very exciting!

Our time in Cary was just a taste of the daily flavor our India trip will burst with. Excitement is building.!

The World Before Her Blog Post by Haley Burniston

This week the Elon students all got together to watch and discuss the documentary The World Before Her filmed by Nisha Pahuja. This film explored the issue of gender and the Western influences on perceived gender roles. It began by introducing us to young women who hope to shape India’s future in very different ways.

Prachi Trivedi is a young leader of a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls. Prachi has attended this camp around forty-two times and says she is prepared to fight for Hinduism if she is needed. She believes she was created by God to fight for the Hinduism movement, and has trouble identifying with either of the gender stereotypes. As Prachi is an only child, she explained that it is almost as if she were raised both as a boy and a girl at times. Throughout the film it is clear that she is unhappy with taking on the role of a female in India, to marry and have children, which her father describes as what women were created to do. Prachi, however, knows that within her culture women do not have the power to do anything else and realizes that she may have to give in to her father’s hopes for her. This is largely due to the fact that Prachi truly believes in violent resistance to Western culture and its influence, along with Christianity and Islam. This resistance has been known to be extremely prevalent throughout India. Women are terrorized for things that are very “normal” in the Western culture like dating, drinking, and the clothes they are wearing, for example. The Miss India pageant has caused many uprisings in the past as many see it as unacceptable.

The contestants of the pageants, however, and their families, tend to see them as opportunity. Ruhi Singh took pride in competing in Bombay for the title of Miss India. As women in her community are limited to what they can do, she went to the city and is making something of herself, as she explains. Her parents too are proud of her and wish her well as she poses for magazine photos and participates in the televised competition. Ruhi argues that adopting pieces of Western culture does not “destroy India” as many seem to think. She goes on to explain that it can be compared to trade and that with technology, products, fashions, and other fads are easily replicated and adopted globally. What is happening is simply modernization, not complete culture abandonment. Although Ruhi is sharing these beliefs, she is participating in a pageant in which she is itemized and exploited. During the film, for example, she takes part in a runway where she is covered in linens so only her limbs will show to better judge the contestant’s legs.

Both of these young women are fighting for beliefs that claim to liberate women, but are doing quite the opposite. After watching this film it seems, in India, Prachi’s father is unfortunately very correct when he implies that men have all the power and it is a male run society. It is clear we have only just scratched the surface of gender issues in India and we will only dive in further throughout this course.

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Asheville Trip

Asheville Blog Post by Haley Burniston

Waking up to an alarm at 6:00 a.m. to squeeze into the middle seat of an acquaintance’s small stick shift car is not what one would imagine a Saturday morning at college would be like. The eleven Elon students and eleven Maryville students enrolled in the India’s Identities winter term course made their way to Asheville, NC on September 27th. The ride was full of much needed caffeine and conversation openers; the car filled with a nervous excitement. Within a few hours we would be meeting and getting to know the individuals we will be spending a month with in India. Knowing that they will be the individuals that we laugh with on the bus, lean on in a time of need, try new foods with, and make unforgettable memories with made for an anxious eagerness.

Upon arrival, as expected, we tended to cling to those we already knew with a few individuals breaking the ice and introducing themselves right off the bat. Once all twenty-four of us, both sets of students along with our professors, Amy and Brian, had arrived to the Asheville house we broke into small groups to describe our schools to one another. Following this exercise, we partnered up with an individual whom we had never met, took turns talking about ourselves, and then had a chance to introduce our partner to the entire group. Slowly but surely we were all getting acquainted to the many new faces surrounding us in the room. The conversations were flowing at lunchtime and the forming of new friendships became much more apparent.

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Since this was an academic trip, we had time set aside for class around the dining room table where Brian and Amy had set up a projector. We discussed the articles we had each read about gender roles in India and about hijras (referred to as aravanis in Tamil Nadu), the name for a third gender. It was interesting to hear about the stereotyped roles and life cycles, especially comparing and contrasting them with those with which we are used to in our Western culture. We also discussed the caste system and the hierarchy involved along with the role it plays in the life cycle, rituals, and many other aspects. As there was quite the range of majors in the room, many of the topics were review for some, but entirely new to others, which made for a learning environment filled with questions and attentive listeners. As we prepare to travel to India, it is important to prepare academically so that we are able to recognize different cultural aspects, for example, and better understand our experiences abroad. After we finished up discussing the coursework we then began to discuss things we are excited for and nervous about to draft up our expectations from one another moving forward.

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While doing this exercise, an overall consensus when talking about things we are excited for was: food! We broke up into teams and worked to cook a very traditional South Indian plate, with many of the flavors we will come across in January. After given recipes, the house quickly became hectic as twenty-four chefs makes for quite a full kitchen! The aromas filled the house and we were all looking forward to trying the dishes. What better way to get to know your neighbor at the dining room table than making a fool out of yourself trying to eat a saucy dish with your hands for the first time; the struggles and successes caused laughter, satisfied hunger, and undoubtedly made a few messes. We all went to bed very full Saturday night!


We woke up on Sunday for breakfast and class where we wrapped up the weekend by writing our first entry in our journals, something we will surely all become accustomed to throughout our journey together. Prompted to write about what we are expecting, what we anticipate to feel, and our hopes and fears, we were given the opportunity to share our entry with a partner and respond to one another.

An excerpt from my journal entry is below:

“As prepared as we might all feel ahead of time this semester, there are many things that cannot be imagined and can only be experienced, which I will understand and be confronted with after we arrive in India… I think it is important to remember that the new experience that might make me nervous or uncomfortable is probably new to all of us and that I am not expected to necessarily know what I should be doing or how I should be feeling.”

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After being surrounded by so many positive, excited individuals I was reassured that we will quickly become a tight knit group and can depend on one another in times of fear, homesickness, and anything else that might be thrown our way.

Waking up before the sunrise on a Saturday morning to sit in the middle seat of a newly made friend’s small stick shift could not have been more rewarding. January 2nd can’t come soon enough!