Burning Flowers, Colored Smoke

Sandy Astone

This morning a bus took us to Old Delhi, where we waited at the subway station for our guide. During the drive, it struck me as the most crowded place we had been to on the whole trip. The streets were packed with every kind of vehicle imaginable, many rickshaws, the occasional bus, and more motorcycles than could be counted. It also struck me how many people were just in the street, weaving through the traffic with little care for the chorus of honks from drivers they momentarily stopped. The electrical infrastructure was also fascinating. Each power pole was a rat’s nest of power lines going every which direction. It was genuinely surprising to me that the power grid was still functioning and stores and houses were still receiving electricity.

After a little while, our guide arrived. He was part of the Salaam Baalak Trust and took us on a walk all over the city. First, we walked down a packed street just off the main road that took us into the maze of houses and stores. He told us how the system of begging works, and we saw food stalls with beggars sitting next to them. Then we walked back to the main road, and towards the main mosque of Delhi. We saw the inside and climbed up a tower within the mosque which had an amazing bird’s eye view of the city. Then we walked through a big bazaar to get to one of the nine contact points that the Salaam Baalak Trust has established throughout the city, and met a group of children from the ages of two to thirteen. After some playing and a picture with the children, we headed to the last stop on our walk, a Jain Temple. The inside was beautiful and was covered in idols, sculptures, and paintings on crumbling plaster ceilings. After this, our city walk was over, and we headed off to lunch.

The Salaam Baalak Trust is an NGO specifically organized to support children all over India, the name directly translates to “Salute the Child.” They have nine “contact points” all over Delhi, one of which we were able to visit during our walking tour. Their goal is to provide opportunities to neglected and abused street children, as well as raise awareness and sensitize people who may not know about the issue. Recently, they have also teamed up with the Central Queensland University in Australia to provide some of their students with higher education.

The system of begging really struck me as a product of the extreme population growth of Delhi. The idea is that large groups of beggars will all gather near food stalls, and wait for someone to pay for their food. The cook has a cheap option that more fortunate people can pay for to feed one of the beggars which positively affects their karma. This and the rapid integration of technology, exemplified by the unorthodox electrical grid and building construction, all make me view rapid population growth differently.

Jacob Sirk-Traugh

Today we took a long walking tour of Old Delhi which was a very interesting experience for a multitude of reasons. Our tour guides were part of an organization that works with street children, called Salaam Baalak Trust. Both of our tour guides had lived on the streets as children and had been rescued from the streets by the organization they now work for. 

The crowding, poverty, and pollution were the main things I noticed because they were so extreme. The streets were filled with beggars who would follow us and tap our shoulders and put their hands out. Many of them had disabilities, lost limbs, or looked like they were starving. Many of them were children. Our tour guide told us that many children on the streets start using hard drugs around the age of nine, and most are using by fourteen. Wherever we went, there were people packed in around us, and there was a constant risk of pickpocketing or getting hit by one of the drivers who were driving through crowds of people and barely yielding to pedestrians. The shop owners were constantly beckoning at us to come look at their goods. Many of those who have an entrepreneurial spirit were selling the same goods as at least four other people within ten yards of them.

One part of Old Delhi that gave me some hope was the restaurants where for thirty rupees you can buy a decent meal for one of the nearby beggars. The reason this exists is mainly religious, and it works, because as our tour guide told us, money donated directly to the beggars might not be used in the best way. 

After we spent some time walking through the narrow streets, we traveled to one of the largest mosques in India, Jama Masjid. The architecture inside was very impressive and the marble artwork was beautiful. After walking around inside for a bit, we decided to climb a massive tower which overlooked Old Delhi. The view from the top was strangely beautiful. Though it was mostly smoke, run down buildings, and overall desolation, it made me think about how large the world is and how many people don’t get to just go home. It’s very eye opening to see and to try and understand to some extent the struggle which defines so many people’s lives. 

Back in the streets of Old Delhi, we walked to an informal school run by the Salaam Baalak Trust. The organization has 9 centers located around Delhi, and the mission of these centers is to get children off the streets, off drugs, and to get them a decent education. When I got to meet some of these kids it was really inspiring to see them taking advantage of the small opportunity they have. It was also sweet to see how friendly and eager to meet us they were. At first, I thought we wouldn’t have much to say to each other, but yet again I was proved wrong. During our brief time together we were able to connect through a variety of hand games, which I have come to realize are a sort of universal language. Old Delhi was a difficult place to see, but there were pockets of hope.

Burning Flowers, Colored Smoke

Zoey Ocampo-Sobkoviak

Smoke in my lungs and then a different smoke and then a different smoke. Roti on the tawa, burning milk on the sides of a chai pot, bus exhaust, burning fields, burning flowers. Spicy smoke, sour smoke, cigarette smoke, turmeric smoke, the kind of smoke that seeps into my mask and my clothes. 

Each alleyway and street that Junaid from the Salaam Baalak Trust led us through hit me in wafts. Even though Old Delhi was filled with all kinds of sensory experiences from hawkers, clothing shops, cabs, and hanging bells, the smells were what reached me first. Every step forward could either have been deliciously exuberant or an indubitably big mistake.

The day was bluer than our previous times in Delhi, but from the very top steps of the Jama Masjid mosque tower, I still smelled a breeze laced with the smog of twelve million people living in just one city. My dark-blue scarf blew off the top of my head as I looked outside at the great expanse of houses below. French tourist perfumes and Indian guide hair products wafted through the translucent fabric.

In the Bazaar near the mosque, I smelled dust and human waste. I smelled degrading garbage mixed with fragrant sweets. The red sandstone around me transported me to a different time, but the scents grounded me to the current, ever-changing moment. 

Inside the classroom of the Salaam Balak contact point which lay outside the bazaar, I smelled musty clothing and my own sweat. I smelled the Sri Ram Ashram again, for a brief moment. Yet, this place was different in many ways. Many of the kids led lives I could only ever read about or imagine from a distance. Young children start collecting trash and selling it to make a bit of money in dense urban areas. I walk through the smells of smoke and garbage, but I do not live in it. Junaid told us that some children as young as 9 or 10 start sniffing glue or white-out. These contact points are meant to intervene and offer children on the streets of Delhi access to education, shelter, and food. Much like CORD, the organization works to help these children pick themselves up and nourish their dreams.

I probably smelled of privilege or at least something similar. Or maybe I smelled of ridiculousness due to the fact that I was dressed like a chicken with my bright orange leggings and my non-matching kurta. Whatever it was I smelled like to them, it didn’t matter in the moment. We sat and played together in an almost impossibly coincidental way. I asked a few questions in Hindi, and one child counted to me in English. We played hand clapping games and I smelled joy. Our time was simple, like the smell of the scribble-ridden newspaper on the ground. Underneath the joy, however, I sat in moral turmoil, taking in the tile and patched tin roof. I looked at one girl as we said goodbye, knowing I might never see her again. She smelled to me of hope in a city full of contrasts, but who am I to say who she is? I should wonder instead what she thought of me.

Later still, in the Jain temple and the sari shops of Chandni Chowk, I smelled rose incense, and old wooden fixtures. I smelled peeling paint and ancientness. I smelled muddled water under my shoe and I smelled bursts of color. At the Red Fort I smelled carnival ride grease and swaying trees.

I am not sure how else to convey the feelings that arise for me each time I visit a new place in India. It has gifted me, whether I asked for it or not: the ability to feel the color of each space seeping its way into my senses like smoke. 

Smoke from the roti on the tawa, or burning milk on the sides of a chai pot, or bus exhaust, or burning fields, or burning flowers, or burning Tibet, or burning tongue. Colored smoke, spicy smoke, sour smoke, cigarette smoke, turmeric smoke, incense smoke rising up above the bustling cities and sprawling natural landscapes.

A Rare Kind of Place

Mariah Cohen

Dharamshala was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. The crisp mountain air was a nice change from the heat in Delhi, and I absolutely loved the scenery. The Himalayan foothills were beautiful on their own, but once the fog cleared and you could see the tops of the mountains with snow at the top, it was breathtaking. Aside from the scenery, Dharamshala was a very nice place to stay. I loved seeing the Tibetan culture sprinkled throughout the town. There were prayer wheels everywhere and we never got tired of spinning them.  There were prayer flags hanging from trees and across the streets, which added some cheery color to our trip, and there were intricate paintings and carvings on the walls wherever you looked. I will definitely miss the undeniable beauty of Dharamshala.

One of my favorite parts of our visit, aside from the shopping, was the Norbulingka Institute. Norbulingka is committed to the preservation and continuation of Tibetan culture and arts. Our tour guide, Ravi, walked us all around and showed us different people working on traditional Tibetan crafts such as painting and woodworking. Of course, Norbulingka was just as well decorated as the heart of Dharamshala, where our hotel was located. There were prayer flags strung high above fish ponds made from stone, and luscious green plants that flanked stone steps leading to a Buddhist temple. The buildings were held up by amazing red columns with paintings that connected with the roof. We all took some amazing photographs, as one may have guessed. The temple was surreal. There was a 30+ foot tall Buddha statue at the center and Thangkas and tapestries depicting different stories of the Buddha. 

Before leaving for Delhi, our last activity in Dharamshala was the Kora walk. On this walk, we were silent and allowed ourselves to reflect on what we’ve experienced so far on this trip, all while admiring the neverending beauty our surroundings had to offer. The Kora walk had some of the prettiest decorations I have ever seen. There were thousands of prayer flags and painted stones throughout the path, and the Tibetan dogs didn’t shy away from here, which made it all the better. I really enjoyed the Kora walk because it gave me some time to just enjoy nature and process all that has happened in the past two weeks. I truly hope I can come back to Dharamshala some day.

Sam Kaplan

Today we left the Himalayan foothills to return to Delhi and ended our 3-ish day visit in the Tibetan-influenced city of Dharamshala. It was wonderful to stay and play at Sri Ram Ashram, and it was interesting to see the diversity and sites of Delhi, but when we arrived in Dharamshala I thought to myself, ‘This is a place I could easily live in.’ 

We stayed near the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in a town called McLeod Ganj, halfway up the mountain. Our hotel, the Serkong House, had balconies that simultaneously looked over the valley and looked up at the snow covered Himalayas. The foothills and mountains were jagged with long ridgelines and deep valleys in between them. But where the mountains were white and gray with snow and rocks, the foothills were green with splotches of color, populated by a dense layer of trees and broken by the occasional village or house. The air was cool and for the first time since arriving in India, clear. I was reminded of the high peaks in Yosemite National Park that gave way to rolling hills and a couple valleys. But unlike Yosemite, this was not just a park but the home of many Indian, Tibetan, and Himalayan tribal people.

McLeod Ganj is a rare kind of place and I still find myself thinking about its curious cultural position. It seems that at least a third of the people living there are monks who study at the temple adjacent to the Dalai Lama’s house. Many more Tibetan lay people also live there, drawn to the seat of the government in exile. Some are descendants of tribes who live in the mountains, and some are Indians from the surrounding state of Himachal Pradesh. On one hand McLeod Ganj is like the capital of Tibet. While China has taken over the Tibetan state, Dharamshala has acted as a beacon to many Tibetan’s searching to practice their religion freely and escape Chinese oppression. Dharamshala has become the home and archive of Tibetan things, people, culture, and religion. On the other hand Dharamshala is not part of Tibet, it is part of India. In a way all of the Tibetan refugees are visitors or guests in India. As Rinchen Khando, founder of the Tibetan Nun’s Project, talked to us about, Tibetans still yearn to reclaim their homeland. What does it mean to have a government and religious leader who people flock to, operating under the refuge of another government? What does it mean to have a culture carried on only by people and not by a specific place? What does it mean to watch as another government tries to strip your cultural home of its culture?

The situation in Tibet is horrible in many ways, but out of that situation a place like McLeod Ganj is born. Today we walked the Kora Circuit, a sacred trail that runs around the home of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. At one point the road branched off to a home for the elders and I saw many of them walking the loop, moving slowly but with resolve. I saw one sitting with two younger adults and talking, maybe even teaching them. I was struck by these elders; there seemed something resilient  and encouraging about the walk they were taking. They were and are the custodians of Tibetan culture, it is possible that some of them had to escape Tibet themselves when China took over, and they are still walking their sacred trails.

I’m still not sure what all of this means, the resilient elders, the tragedy of Tibet, the cultural melting pot of McLeod Ganj, the Tibetan home away from home in Dharamshala, and the provided refuge, given by the Indian government. But I continue to think about it, and I continue to explore the situation in my mind with curiosity, sadness, and a touch of hope. I know there is something in all of that information, something to be learned, something to be changed about the world. In the meantime I present the pieces of observation to you.

Keeping Inner Peace Alive

Interview with Rinchen Khando and Tibetan Nuns Project

Sky Weir

In the 1960s, Rinchen Khando became involved in the Tibetan Women’s Association (TWA), which her sister founded. The TWA was established to promote women’s rights and raise awareness about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Rinchen Khando became the president of the TWA in 1987 and held the position for over two decades. Under Rinchen Khando’s leadership, the TWA has significantly promoted women’s education and empowerment in Tibet. The organization has established schools for girls in remote areas of Tibet, provided scholarships for women to pursue higher education, and advocated for women’s rights internationally. In 2006, Rinchen Khando was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honors, in recognition of her contributions to women’s education and empowerment in Tibet. She has also received numerous other awards and accolades for her work, including the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department in 2008.

As we interviewed Rinchen Khando, we asked questions that enabled us to get answers that we were genuinely interested in. One of my personal favorites was a question I helped create which asked, “In an interview with Venerable Thubten Chodron in 1992, you said ‘Trying to preserve our own happiness in a self-centered way actually makes us more fearful and unhappy’, what is the best way to teach young people to act for the common good when it doesn’t immediately benefit them?” This is an important question because it relates to the development of empathy, altruism, and a sense of social responsibility, which are crucial for creating a healthy and thriving society. She responded to this by bringing up “pure intention” which she believes we need to instill a sense of within our young. She said we shall do this without any benefit, or expecting something in return, then even if it doesn’t work out, we won’t be disappointed. Ultimately, teaching young people to act for the common good requires a multifaceted approach that focuses on empathy, social responsibility, and community building. She also brought up inner peace in her response which was a common theme in all of our conversations. This led into one of the questions I asked her, “How have your beliefs and values helped you navigate difficult circumstances, both politically and personally?” Her response was similar, with her main message being not to lose hope. Inner peace is also important, and something people are lacking nowadays is patience as well as perseverance, which are essential to navigating life, both the highs and the lows. Her words about inner peace really struck me as I believe it is an essential component of a healthy and fulfilling life. As a whole, inner peace refers to a state of calm, tranquility, and contentment that arises from within. When we are at peace with ourselves, we experience less stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. We are better able to cope with life’s challenges, and we are less likely to get overwhelmed by them. This, in turn, improves our mental and physical health. Inner peace also helps us to develop better relationships with others. When we are calm and centered, we are more patient, understanding, and compassionate towards others. We are less likely to be reactive and more likely to respond in a thoughtful and empathetic way. This helps to build stronger connections with others and promotes a sense of unity and understanding. Ultimately, by cultivating inner peace, we can live more fulfilling and meaningful lives, and make a positive impact on the world around us. Overall, Rinchen Khando’s life and work are a testament to the power of education and the importance of fighting for human rights and equality. She is an inspiration to people all over the world, and her legacy will continue to inspire generations to come.

Cecily Kelly

Today we drove to the Dolma Ling Nunnery to interview Rinchen Khando, the sister-in-law of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the founding director and special advisor at the Tibetan Nuns Project. The Tibetan Nuns Project is a nonprofit organization that helps support Buddhist nuns study and advance their education while exiled in India. When we arrived, we were given a tour of the nunnery which included the kitchen, dining hall, sewing and work rooms, the temple, and then we were taken upstairs to the room where the interview would take place. The room was very simple, yet elegant; tables with tea and cookies had been set up, the walls were covered in art, and the windows looked out into the serene courtyard in the middle of the compound. The interview did not go exactly as expected, but Ms. Khando had a plethora of interesting and insightful things to say, and was a lovely host. One thing that I really enjoyed hearing her talk about was the way that Tibetan youth interact with their heritage and culture. I was expecting her to talk about the difficulties of getting younger generations to care about a place they had never lived before, but she surprised me when she said that young people are very interested in Tibetan culture and religion. She also said that because children are so interested in the culture and religion, the elders are being forced to be interested accordingly, and this is helping keep the language and culture alive.

In the interview, Ms. Khando also spoke on the importance of women empowering each other, but she said something that I had not thought about before. She emphasized that empowerment has to be given genuinely, and has to be given willingly rather than forced. A lot of times we see empowerment being given to women forcefully, or when it is not necessarily wanted; instead it must only be given when its reception is enjoyed. Although I have heard this many times, my most important takeaway from this interview was that in order to be happy, we must be content. If we are always wanting more, such as money or cars, or a more “exciting” life, then we do not have the time to be happy. I think this takeaway is especially important living in the United States because there is such an emphasis on always needing more. The ideas of the “American Dream”, and the need to be “successful” are so prevalent in the United States, and they prevent so many people from ever being content. So many people waste away their lives wanting more than they have, rather than enjoying their life and what they do have. When we stop looking for things that we think will make us happier, we are able to truly be content, and find our true happiness.

Bella Cambell

Today we interviewed Rinchen Khando, the former director of the Tibetan Women’s Association. She was so well spoken and wise, and it was one of my favorite interviews out of all the Values trips. She had so much to say, and one thing that struck me was about empowerment. She talked about how empowerment has to be given genuinely and received happily. That also went along with something else she said about how if people are doing things for others, they have to do it out of pure intention, not for themselves. Throughout the interview she emphasized having inner peace, and the ways to keep it alive. One way was not only to earn for yourself, but to earn for others. To keep that inner peace alive, you have to give back to your community. 

In a world full of distractions and competitions, we are always trying to have the best and be the best, but we don’t take the time to really look and appreciate what we have in the moment. Khando gave an example that we are always looking at our neighbors who have a fancy car and huge house, and we can never be content because we don’t have what they have. We tend to focus on what we don’t have rather than what we do, and when we do that, we then start to lose our inner peace because we aren’t content with what we have. We don’t do a lot for our hearts, we do it for our image. She joked about how people are discovering too much and inventing too much, but is it to help the greater population or is it to get fame and have their name on it?

I asked her if she had any advice for us on how to have a balance between having a successful career and achieving permanent happiness. She talked about letting your heart choose your career because nowadays people choose a career for the salary or the fame, not because it’s what they truly love doing. If you choose a career that will give you more money but it isn’t what you are passionate about, you will lose your inner peace because you won’t be happy. That spoke to me because I am choosing a career that doesn’t make a lot of money, but it’s my passion and I’ve been nervous that I am making the wrong decision because I won’t have a lot of money. She reassured me and reminded me that money isn’t happiness and if you are doing what you love it will reward you in a deeper way then money ever could. In the end she taught me to be content with what I have by living simply and to follow my heart and passion to keep my inner peace alive.

Lending Open Ears and Hearts

Jacob Sirk-Traugh

Today we interviewed Shri Narender Paul, Chief Operating Officer of the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD). CORD is an organization focused on uplifting communities in rural India in a variety of ways. One of their main strategies is to bring autonomy to rural India by teaching those in poverty employable or entrepreneurial skills. By doing this, rural communities become self reliant and are lifted out of poverty. Additionally, CORD helps form large women’s groups within their villages which can help with education and literacy, domestic violence, supporting children, offering microloans, helping with disabilities, and much more. One thing that struck me during the interview was when he told us how pursuing a career based in helping others allowed him to find purpose and to stop being a “confused teenager.” Additionally, he was talking about how he has realized that because humans are so interdependent on each other, you can’t just take from society, you have to give something back. This led to my first major takeaway from this interview which was that helping others is always beneficial to oneself and that it is a spiritual necessity to give back. 

Because he joined CORD as an occupational therapist, Shri Narender Paul is passionate about disability issues. He believes that solving these issues is about more than just the solution, but about the people involved. The most important thing, in his opinion, is making sure that the disabled are not viewed as a burden or charity cases, but active members of their economy and society. This really struck me because disability issues are so often thought about from the perspective that these people are a burden to be dealt with at the cost of some resources. In reality, it is not only morally correct, but also economically prudent to support disabled people to participate wholly in society. This interview really made me think about the power of anti-disability stigmas. 

CORD utilizes many unique strategies in the development of rural India. Because India is such a diverse place, cultural pushback or misunderstandings can happen. When asked about this, Sri Narender Paul told us that they avoid this issue by educating and providing training to people native to the community they are trying to help. This helps overcome many language and cultural barriers. Additionally, because the people suffering from a specific issue are the most involved in solving that issue, there isn’t a lack of understanding of what the problem actually is and unwanted solutions are not imposed on communities. Understanding these strategies has helped me understand why CORD is such a widespread and successful organization, as well as proving to me that to attain long term solutions, you must directly include the community members as the agents of change.

Zoey Ocampo-Sobkoviak

Before our interview with Shri Narender Paul, the COO of the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development (CORD), we took a tour of the facilities that are used for education, different forms of therapy for local people with disabilities, and the facilitation of artisanship. We also watched a video that detailed the mission of CORD: to help rural communities in India and Southeast Asia empower themselves through education, political action, emotional support, and entrepreneurship. The organization’s main site is located amidst the snaking roads of the Himalayan Foothills in Himachal Pradesh. CORD was founded by Dr. Kshama Metre in 2003, inspired by an earlier program developed by Swami Chinmayananda in 1985.

Though it was a bit difficult to find information on Dr. Paul in the research and question formulation process before coming into the interview, many of our questions landed well and led to thorough and insightful answers. During this research and brainstorming stage, I found information on his involvement in fighting against ableism in India through therapeutic services and other forms of advocacy. Ableism is a large issue in both India and the United States and doesn’t seem to get the media attention as other systems of oppression. There are religious and cultural differences in the way this system is propagated between our two countries, however, the lack of visibility for people with disabilities, violence and hatred toward them, and a general attitude of burden or pity are common to both places.

I asked Dr. Paul what he finds to be the most significant challenges to changing people’s perceptions about disability rights in India. In that moment, I saw his body language shift, as this was an issue he was clearly passionate about. He shared with us that there are significant challenges of religious and social stigma in rural communities, but the real problem lies within the educated, urban population of India that generally still holds unconscious biases against people with disabilities. This is because those biases are much harder to combat. CORD works to provide resources for physically and intellectually disabled people and their families (especially from poor, rural backgrounds) in a way that involves them in the decision making processes. At one point in his explanation, Dr. Paul asked, “why should people with disabilities be seen as the objects of pity and charity, instead of being seen as valuable contributors to society?” In alignment with this inquiry, he shared that CORD offers spaces for people with different disabilities to create their own enterprises through the arts and seek support from others with similar experiences. After he asked that question, I leaned forward more in my chair, because I could see that this problem really mattered to him, and not because he operated from a place of pity or ego, but because he had a great deal of empathy and believed that everyone has value and deserves to live their lives with purpose and dignity.

He also mentioned that for a long time the option to count yourself as a person with disabilities in the census was non-existent in India. However, CORD and other organizations have fought to represent a variety of disabled people in the Indian census, so that there is a wider availability of data about disabilities which creates a ripple effect of representation and the dismantling of outdated narratives.

Even in our society in the United States, where social justice and disability rights are garnering more attention, many of us that don’t have a disability still struggle to understand that our good-intentions and misplaced pity are not enough to change our ableist actions and thoughts. Language and information is powerful, therefore, we should not erase the struggle that disabled people face in spaces that are created with able-bodied people in mind by saying that they are “differently abled” or ignore the importance of collecting data about the diversity of disabilities and the amount of people that have them. 

To return to the reflections from our interview with MMS and Sri Ram Ashram alumna Soma Sharan, developing a more equitable future for everyone is not achieved through ego-driven, patronizing forms of philanthropy (economic or otherwise), it is achieved by lending our open ears and hearts to those who are impacted by the trauma of systemic oppression in order to find solutions that actually benefit us all.