My adventure on the Politics, Philosophy and Religion (PPR) trip to the Visthar Centre of Peace and Justice Studies in the southern state of India, Bangalore, did not get off to the smoothest of starts. My case burst open, completely breaking in the middle of Kings Cross station as I was on my way to the airport to meet the rest of the group. Thankfully I was able to buy a new case, but I was reminded of just how much I may have over packed when my suitcase weighed 10kg more than everyone else’s. I remained adamant that this was due to the extensive medical supply that my slightly hypochondriac mum insisted I brought, and not because I packed too many clothes.
After a near full day of travelling we arrived at Bangalore airport in the early hours of the morning, exhausted but very excited to start our adventure. After meeting the brilliant staff at the centre, including our group leader Roshan (honestly the best guy ever), we soon settled in. Our days included lessons, guest speakers, and tours of both Bangalore and the nearby city of Mysore.
I think I speak on behalf of the group when I say that the absolute highlight of our time in India was our 3-day field trip to the nearby district of Koppal. Nearby in terms of India that is, as it still took us 12 hours to reach on the night train. This mode of transport was quite an experience for us all; whilst the beds were surprisingly comfortable, the toilets were not. I think our faces said it all when a friendly American tourist was acting out her best squatting tips for us.
We visited Visthar’s sister-centre which set up the Bandhavi initiative, a residential programme that cares for young girls at risk of becoming devadasis. This refers to girls who are dedicated by their families to worship deities at Hindu temples. Historically women within the devadasis system were well respected, yet in recent times, as the temples have become poorer, ‘the devadasis fell into a life of poverty, misery and abuse’, an explanation by poet Abhay Kumar used by the Visthar centre.
As soon as we arrived, we were greeted by the girls running up to the van to meet us. The warmth and happiness that the girls possessed was instantly noticeable as they made us feel part of the group despite none of us speaking a common language.
At each of the meal times they would save us spaces to sit with them, repeatedly calling us sisters. We were also able to do a citizens panel at the centre where we were able to ask the girls questions. Their willingness to be so open and optimistic when sharing their often hard-hitting experiences was brave and incredibly admirable. A fitting sentiment to end our amazing three days in Koppal was the memorable remark that Alex, one of the members of our group said to all the girls,
‘I arrived two days ago as an only child; I leave today with more than a hundred sisters’.
Our experience in Koppal honestly gave us some new perspectives. Whilst this may sound very typically ‘Gap yah’, it was a humbling experience that made us feel incredibly lucky for what we have, and I know that I will treasure this memory.
Other parts to our amazing adventure included riding a rickshaw, seeing an elephant in real life (top agenda on my bucket list), visiting many different Hindu temples, seeing that cows have right of way on the roads, crashing a wedding; receiving a parcel from my mum containing 82 pairs of surgical gloves as she was worried about my eczema (I told you she was a hypochondriac); partaking in Eid Mubarak and more generally meeting the people of India who were always friendly and willing to share their experiences.
The most significant thing I will take with me from my time in India is the importance of travel. Travelling across the world and being completely out of my comfort zone, away from anything and everything I know, whilst it was terrifying and difficult at times, it is the best way to experience life.
I learned so much more about the people and the Indian culture by travelling there than I would have from any book or film. More importantly I discovered so much about myself. Seeing the injustice of the vast disparity between the rich and the poor in India gave me a new perspective on what I have to be grateful for.
So even if travelling abroad is not an option for you, then travel wherever you can, even if it’s just to the next city. Learn new things, meet new people and make new memories.
So what are you waiting for? GO!
If you fancy reading a more detailed account of our adventure, then visit the blog made by Alex Owens, at http://www.lancasterhitsindia.blog.com!
By Lizzie Gregory
[Image Credits: Lizzie Gregory & Sarah Lee]