Saturday, February 7, 2015

India Adventure II: Bangalore

Dee and I got back to Bangalore from His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s teachings late on December 30th, and spent the night at her house.

The following morning we took a ride on her motorbike to the pretty Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike Park, not far from Dee’s family’s home and the college she attended in Bangalore. We spent the afternoon in the homes of her extended family members, visiting and preparing for the cousins’ New Years Eve Party.

I particularly enjoyed meeting Dee’s extremely mature and bright sixteen year old niece, who at my request gave me a list of music and TV shows to check out: Asif Aslak, Sundhi Chawan, Arjit Singh, Mohammad Irfan, Be Asha Bonsli, Lata Margeshkar, Kushore Kumar, Sherya Gyosal, Sonu Nigam, Shankar Madavan, M.S. Subhakshimi, TV show Sarbai VS Sarabai, Sun Raha Mai Na Tu, and Main Pyaer Kiya.

She and I sat together on a couch in the living room, next to a TV that was tuned into an Indian soap opera, for the benefit of her grandmother. I have learned from observation that these shows, the plots of which seem to center on conflicts between mothers and their daughter-in-laws,are always on in TVs across India. When I see TV dishes on homes in rural India, I have come to assume it is because the families who live there – particularly the women – want to be able to follow these shows. Admittedly, these dramatically filmed and sound tracked shows are addicting. I would rather watch these shows than Bollywood films – much more insightful into Indian life, if overly dramatic and not entirely realistic.

Dee and I brought freshly made Indian chips, purchased at the nearest Hot Chips shop, to her cousin and aunt’s house for our New Years Eve Party.

Dee's sixteen year old cousin and an aunt (not her cousin's mother).

A few of Dee’s other cousins came by for our film festival. Dee had rented a projector and screen, which we set up in her cousin and aunt’s living room. We watched videos from Dee’s collection. We first watched a few episodes of Modern Family, which I had never seen, and found it funny to be watching it for the first time in Bangalore. We all enjoyed watching Agatha Christie’s 1978 film Death on the Nile, while sharing hot pizzas from Domino’s followed by cake. (I pulled the cheese off of my pizza slices, and later fed it to a pair of small, black street puppies I found while walking at a lake with Sowmya.)

.Hot Chips freshly made chips shop in Bangalore.
New Years Eve Party house on left side of the street with the orange trim.

A few of us slept on the floor, on blankets at the house that night, after New Years Eve had come and gone in India. The following morning we talked with Dee’s sister, who lives in New Jersey, as the ball was dropping in Times Square. I am still not sure at what moment I truly celebrated the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015. I hope you had a wonderful New Years Eve, whenever and wherever you celebrated the holiday.

I took an auto (three wheeled vehicle that operates on a meter, like a taxi) to Sowmya’s house the following morning, January 1. Dee booked that auto for me using an app on her iPhone. I just paid an extra ten rupees (sixteen cents) on top of the metered fare, for the benefit of having an auto show up at Dee’s house at the appointed time.

I had so much fun sitting on the indoor swing set up in the living room.

I then stayed with Sowmya until I left Bangalore for Mumbai on January 29. During this time I got to see the day to day operations of Sowmya’s nonprofit, Prafull Oorja, which she has officially registered with the Indian government as a trust. Having known Sowmya since I moved to San Francisco in 2003, it is amazing to get to personally witness all of the amazing things she is now doing in India. Prafull Oorja brings peace to individuals and communities through yoga. Sowmya, her co-director and fellow Santa Clara University alumna Madeline Sears, and their team of 10+ Indian, American, and German yoga, dance, and art instructors provide private and group classes to youth with developmental disabilities.

In addition to giving classes out of the Prafull Oorja studio in Sowmya’s spacious apartment, Prafull Oorja instructors visit private schools for students with autism twice weekly to teach the students yoga classes, through contracts with the schools.

Sowmya and Maddie.

Prafull Oorja also just completed a series of five weekend long yoga practice and philosophy classes in a rural village, reaching sixty one men, women and children, through a partnership with an Indian health care company.

Bubbles School for Autism, Bangalore.

Through their work with Prafull Oorja, Sowmya and Maddie have become experts in the use of yoga and alternative therapies for special needs populations. It is amazing to see them work.

Each time Sowmya sees a student, she asks the student what activity they would like to do in class, that day. She then takes the students’ interest, and overall health into account when determining how she will treat the student during that class period. She will often use some reiki, which we received training in from Dr.Punjabi last January and a Tibetan singing bowl into her treatment. It is amazing to see the transformation in her students in one single treatment – the visible difference between when they walk into her apartment for class, and the time when they leave to go home.

It also made me happy to see how much her students’ parents appreciate Sowmya, listening closely as Sowmya describes how their students did in class that day, and the advice she has for the students to follow during the upcoming week. Even if I just go on what I have observed while visiting Sowmya, it is no wonder that Prafull Oorja receives inquiries from people around the world who are interested in learning more about their work.

Sowmya  and Maddie have designed a Yoga Training tailored to working with children with special needs. They give this training to prospective Prafull Oorja instructors. I got to go through the Level 1 Training with Julie, an American from Washington State who recently moved to Bangalore. I also photographed another Level 1 Training that took place on Sowmya’s eight unit apartment building roof. Sowmya and Maddie trained a prospective new Prafull Oorja team member from Bangalore, Eszter, who is from a town outside of Hamburg, and Ashley, who is from upstate New York. Maddie had met Eszter and Ashley at her swami’s (Hindu) ashram in the coastal city of Gokarna.

I had a great time meeting the Prafull Oorja students, their parents, and the Prafull Oorja partner schools’ staff members. I enjoyed sitting in Sowmya’s kitchen with the mother of one of Sowmya’s students, hearing about her trip to the Grand Canyon, and swapping stories about US and Indian education systems over mugs of tea, while her son was in class with Sowmya.

Prafull Oorja teacher training. Sowmya is teaching with her hands on her hips.

I visited Bubbles School for Autism with Sowmya one day, and got to sit in on two of Sowmya’s group classes, and photograph a third class. Each student has an aide. I enjoyed watching the aides – mostly Indian women, but also one young Tibetan man - interact with and supported their students.

While visiting Bubbles, I was invited to lunch by the school’s founder and another administrator. One of the women introduced me to the blog she kept while facing cancer. I had a great time learning from these two strong, visionary women. During our visit they praised Prafull Oorja and Sowmya and Maddie in particular, sharing how happy they were to hear that Maddie would be returning to Bangalore from the US in the near future. (Maddie returned to Bangalore in early January, after having spent a few months with family and friends in the US.) It is gratifying to see how much my friends’ work is valued and appreciated.

Sowmya teaching at Bubbles with the support of the students' aides.

I also got to meet many of Prafull Oorja’s yoga, dance, and art therapy instructors. Sowmya and Maddie hosted a Pongol Party for the Prafull Oorja team, in celebration of the harvest season. Sowmya, Maddie, and Prafull Oorja team member Haresh cooked up dishes traditionally served on Pongol, with help from Sowmya’s amazing housekeeper, Jabena. We sat on the floor of Sowmya’s apartment and ate off of banana leaves, reminiscent of when Sowmya, Maddie, and I had visited a (Hindu)ashram in south India in December 2013.

Pongol Party.

One of Sowmya’s guests told a story about celebrating Pongol in his village when he was a small boy, and another guest brought traditional Pongol miniature, edible icons in the shapes of temples, livestock, and crops that she had made using a mold, and a mixture of milk and sugar.

Pongol Party.

In addition to Pongol, we had one of the weekend rural village program Prafull Oorja instructors, Kranti over for dinner one night. I enjoyed witnessing his enthusiasm for the work he is doing for Prafull Oorja, as he told us stories about his work in the village. I also enjoyed getting to know Prafull Oorja’s other teachers when they came over to Sowmya’s house for work meetings.

Prafull Oorja teacher with Pongol icons.
Medha told me about one of her past jobs, working for Greenpeace in their Bangalore office. Through her, I learned Greenpeace is one of the strongest environmental organizations in India. It was fun to meet Kala, who used to volunteer for Youth Seva (service) group in Bangalore. She used to regularly visit a school in one of Bangalore’s informal settlements (slums) to teach the students basic subjects. When not at her day job – working at an architecture firm in Bangalore – she now gives her time to Prafull Oorja, helping out with administrative tasks.

A lot happened while hanging out in Sowmya’s apartment. I hosted two dinner parties – inviting Dee over to Sowmya’s house try my version of San Francisco restaurant The Little Chihuahua’s vegan, fried plantain and black bean burrito, and then inviting Shilpa over for vegan lentil chili, another non-spicy American recipe adapted in accordance with locally available ingredients.

 I met Dee and Shilpa through Sowmya, during my last visit to Bangalore. Dee and Sowmya met through Choe Khor Sum Ling, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Tibetan Buddhism study center in Bangalore. Dee and Sowmya traveled together to Dharamsala in 2012 to attend a teaching given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Sowmya then introduced me to Dee. Dee and I traveled together to Bylakuppe in 2013 and Mundgod in 2014, to attend teachings given by His Holiness.

Sowmya met Shilpa through Sowmya’s first job in Bangalore. Shilpa wasn’t only a fellow co-worker, but also a neighbor. She lives with her family and two rescued street dogs in an apartment complex less than two blocks from Sowmya’s house. When Sowmya first introduced me to Shilpa, she was a volunteer with CUPA – Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, an animal welfare organization in Bangalore.

Shilpa and I worked together to rescue a street dog we named Leo, who had a wire tied around his neck when he was a puppy, that had become embedded in his neck as he grew into an adult dog. In addition to seeing Shilpa when she came over for dinner, I also got to see Leo, now free of the wire and maggots that had been living in his flesh, and still living on the street between Shilpa and Sowmya’s homes.

The first time I saw Leo this year.

Thanks to Shilpa, Maddie and I were able to visit CUPA’s Large Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre (LARRC), located in Kengeri, a quiet, more rural Bangalore neighborhood, near Bangalore University. LARRC is home to 22 rescued street dogs and CUPA’s large rescued animals - two buffalo, eight cattle, six donkeys, three petite Indian horses, and one former racehorse.

The second time I saw Leo this year. You can see he has a scar around his neck, but otherwise looks great.

Many of the large animals at LARRC are male, being of no value to some people because they cannot produce milk. One of the cows, Bill was rescued on his way to the slaughterhouse. Male calves are slaughtered before they are seven days old. Another male calf, Ganesha was found where he had been abandoned near a garbage heap, severely dehydrated when only two days old. Some of the other animals had been found on the streets where they had discarded by their owners due to sustained injuries that were expensive to treat and made the animals incapable of working.

CUPA Large Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. Photos not permitted inside of CUPA centers.

My favorites animals at CUPA were the horses, who had been found starving at small time riding schools, and the pair of bullocks, Ugra and Dusheri who had run away from a ritualistic slaughter, the likes of which take place in Karnataka, the Indian state where Bangalore is located. Ugra and Dusheri have blue tongues that look and feel like starfish. They wrapped their tongues around the bananas ... it was fascinating and very fun to feed them.

Maddie’s favorite was Cubbon Little, a small buffalo calf who had been abandoned, dehydrated on Cubbon Road in Bangalore. Cubbon Little put his head in her lap, and stood there for several minutes so she could pet him. We had fun feeding the large animals bananas, and watching the kind LARRC staff members feed each of the twenty two dogs a big bowl of home cooked dinner.

Ugra and Dusheri. Photo from LARRC brochure.

I spent a day visiting two of CUPA’s other centers – the CUPA ABC Sterilization Centre (spay/neuter center) in the morning, and the adoption center in the afternoon. Thanks to Shilpa for organizing these three visits for me.

I was so grateful to get to visit the CUPA ABC Sterilization Centre. (“ABC” stands for Animal Birth Control.) Although I witnessed the surgery being performed on homeless animals when I worked at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA), I have gained an even greater appreciation for the surgery (and the SFSPCA) in recent years, having seen so many unwanted dogs and cats on city streets in East Africa and Asia.

It was great to get to meet one of the CUPA vets who has been performing between 20-30 spay/neuter surgeries per day, six days a week for the past twelve years at CUPA. His commitment to, and pride in his work and CUPA was apparent not only in the way he worked, but also the way he spoke about it. I am so thankful for CUPA.

Vijay has been managing CUPA’s ABC Centre for the past six years. He is responsible for capturing Leo on the street last year so Leo could have his surgery, a task which required four attempts because Leo was hard to catch. (I was present for at least one attempt.)

I learned from Vijay that Leo had smelled awful when he was brought in to the center, a result of his neck wound and the maggots. Vijay told me that people throw rocks at dogs that are ugly or smell bad. So now simply because Leo no longer smells, and his neck has completely healed, leaving just a thin ring of hairless scar tissue, Leo is living a much better life on the streets.

Also, Leo spent two and a half to three months living at the ABC Centre after his surgery had been completed. During that time Leo got to learn that people can be kind towards dogs. These two reasons, combined explain why I saw Leo out on the street in the day time, this year and that he did not run away from me as hastily as he did, before he had his surgery.

The ABC Centre is on the right hand side of this street. This is a school down the street from CUPA's ABC Centre.

As an aside, the first time I saw Ravi, the entrepreneur who runs a small shop near Sowmya and Shilpa’s house and the place where Leo spends time, Ravi recognized me and updated me on Leo’s health. I was touched that Ravi been watching Leo, remembered me, and thought to update me when he saw me.

Vijay also taught me that some Bangalore residents turn their pedigreed house dogs out on the street when they are no longer wanted. Anytime CUPA sees one of these dogs on the street, they pick up the dog and bring it to the CUPA Second Chance Adoption Centre. The house dogs cannot survive on the street, in competition with the street dogs. I wanted to go see these dogs, so I traveled from the ABC Centre to Second Chance’s location in another part of Bangalore. On the way I passed this calf, helping himself to a lunch of flowers on the roadside.

Roadside in Bangalore.

Upon arrival I was immediately greeted by a gorgeous, steel gray, velvety soft female mastiff who had been abandoned on the street and was picked up by CUPA within the past two months. The small adoption center was home to maybe 25 adult dogs including rottweilers, yellow labs, large terriers, small lap dogs, a gorgeous typically active boxer, and a handful of street dogs, all available for adoption. 

CUPA does not charge an adoption fee, but every adopter must be prepared to let CUPA visit their home, unannounced each month to check on the welfare of their adopted dog. If an adopter is not taking care of their adopted dog, then CUPA will seize the dog. 

Second Chance is managed by Melissa, a strong young Indian woman who must have a high tolerance for sound, because there was a lot of barking and activity taking place at Second Chance when I visited the dogs. These are some fortunate pups.

On my way to the ABC Centre in the morning, I came across a dog whose ear had been ripped off. The wound was oozing yellow pus, which drizzled to the concrete ground under my gaze. The dog is being fed by the Infant Baby Jesus Church where the dog lives, but Vijay said that he would do something for this dog, and Shilpa followed up with me about it.

CUPA's Second Chance Adoption Centre.

On the way out of Second Chance that afternoon, I came across a starving, injured dog. A Second Chance team member said if the dog was there the following day, that she would call CUPA to have it picked up and taken care of. I brought it a bowl of water, but it would not drink. I then carefully reviewed the menu at a local café, searching for the most dog friendly dish that contained egg, to the amusement of the café staff. They then gathered, along with other men nearby to watch as the starving, injured dog ate its full of egg briyani off of its newspaper dish.

Street dog at Infant Baby Jesus Church in Bangalore.

Street dog eating egg briyani.

A better photo of the same dog.

A second hungry looking street dog approached just as the first dog was finishing its meal. One of the bystanders smiled and pointed to the second hungry dog. I appreciated his engagement and encouragement. 

Since the first dog had walked off when the dish was only half finished, the second dog was able to clean the dish. The second dog fortunately left the two whole green chilies that I had missed, aside, uneaten on the newspaper plate before walking away. 

I was then approached by a young Indian man who asked why I had fed the dog. I was thankful for his interest and the question. The green chiles incident, and the crowd’s interest added some lightness to an otherwise sober situation. I have not called to find out if that first dog has since been picked up by CUPA, but will check.

It made me happy to see this dog eat.
I received a great email update from my friend Sarah, who I met during the November course at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal last month. In my final post from Kathmandu, I mentioned -  and posted a photo of - a light colored street dog with skin problems that Sarah and I were looking to bring to Street Dog Care’s Saturday clinic, for treatment.

Sarah volunteered at Street Dog Care's Saturday clinic, ensured the dog we were concerned about was being looked after by the organization, and then continued to volunteer with Street Dog Care. She helped out at the Street Dog Care center for a few days before leaving Nepal. One of her tasks was transporting a sick street dog back and forth between the center and the vet’s office each day. I am so thankful for Sarah and Street Dog Care.

Another good bit of news comes from Dharamsala Animal Rescue, the animal welfare nonprofit in north India that took in and cared for Luckypuppy, last year. I opened an email sent to me from Dharamsala Animal Rescue last month, I found this photo at the top of the email.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama holding the Dharamsala Animal Rescue 2015 calendar.
I don't remember what I was thinking ... I was so surprised to see this photo. I then read the following beautiful message from the organization's founder, Deb:

Hello DAR friends, 

You just never know where life is going to take you, who you will meet, or what will have significant and lasting impact. 

I certainly never would have predicted that a trip to Dharamsala in 2008 would turn my entire world upside down. Turning a life that was somewhat predicable into a life where I never know what is coming next. 

This can be a difficult career choice for me and my staff. There are language barriers, cultural differences, the sadness of losing animals to car accidents, disease, and regular maltreatment by humans. We get questioned about the importance of our work, "Why not humans? Why not children?"

Then comes a day, November 19, 2014, when you are randomly on the same plane as His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama. On this day, you get thanked for your work profusely. No questions asked! It gives you the much needed energy to keep doing what you are doing. 

I am not a Buddhist. I am barely spiritual these days, but I do believe that DAR is on the right path. 

Today, marks the day of our final fundraising push for 2014! It has been a great year thanks to all of you. In addition, we have received Grants from Tres Chicas, Virginia Wellington Cabot, Robin Reed, The Brigitte Bardot Foundation, and The Office of the H. H. the 17th Karmapa. 

Help DAR close this year out by donating $20 plus shipping for a DAR 2015 Calendar. (USA ONLY)

Why you ask? Well, the Dalai Lama has one so why shouldn't you? : )

Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your ongoing support. 

Deb Jarrett
Kamlesh Singhbora
Dr. Yog Raj
Parveen Kumar
Munna Thakur
Sanjay Singh
SamSher Singh
Pavna Devi
Richard Scrambler
Monja Mckay
Balochi Sondhi

I can only acknowledge and rejoice in the good work Sarah did at Street Dog Care, and the overall amazing Dharamsala Animal Rescue team because they shared these stories with me. It shows that good things like this are happening all of the time, but may just be unknown to us.

The teacher that Sarah and I studied with at Kopan Monastery, Lama Zopa Rinpoche taught during the November course that the reason we only hear bad stories in the news is because there are so few bad stories in relation to the number of good stories that are happening all of the time. The news outlets therefore make room only for the bad stories, because they cannot possibly report on all of the innumerable good stories.

Even during my time in Bangalore, there were more good stories. Lama Zopa Rinpoche came to Bangalore to teach in early January. I got to go to the hotel suite where he and his team were staying, to help clean and prepare the suite for his arrival. I was surprised to find Venerable Khunpen, a German nun who manages the education program at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala, in the suite when I arrived, helping to prepare the suite. It was wonderful to see her again. I attended his public talk, entitled Transforming Problems into Happiness.

There were so many people there – mostly Indians – that people were standing against the back wall of the large room where the event was held, at Ranka Heights, near the Choe Khor Sum Ling (CKSL) center.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teaching Transforming Problems into Happiness.

I also got to see him at CKSL, when he led us in a Guru Puja by the First Panchen Lama.

CKSL is on the second floor.

Guru Puja with Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

I got to see him again for his last public talk in Bangalore, entitled Making Life Happy, also held at Ranka Heights. That last night I got to approach him after his talk and receive a blessing.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche teaching How To Make Life Happy.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with students after his teaching on How To Make Life Happy. I am in the pink on the right. Photo by Dee.

Flyer for How To Make Life Happy reproduced on a poster, now hanging in CKSL thanks to this hanging work by Venerable Legtsok.

Several western monks who study at Sera Monastery in Bylakuppe teach at CKSL. They were in Bangalore for the duration of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s visit. One morning one of the monks, Venerable Namjong, led us in a group recitation of The Golden Light Sutra, using beautiful gold covered books that had been printed by Dee via CKSL, by a printing shop that was started by former street boys. It was great to be able to enjoy The Golden Light Sutra in English, after having heard Lama Zopa Rinpoche give the oral transmission of it to us in Bodhgaya last year during the auspicious Tibetan New Year (Losar)celebrations.

In addition to seeing Venerable Khunpen and the monks from Sera Monastery, it was great to see Venerable Sarah Thresher, who I had studied with last year, and Venerable Samten, who I stayed with and took teachings from at Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s Delhi center,last year.
Reading of the Golden Light Sutra at CKSL.
Some of us went to the Bangalore airport to see Lama Zopa Rinpoche off, when he left Bangalore for his next scheduled teachings in Delhi. We didn't reach the airport in time to see him before he walked through security and entered the building. (From my experience at the Delhi and Bangalore airports - as well as the Kathmandu, Nepal airport - you must present a printed e-ticket at the curb, before entering the airport building, in order to gain entry to the airport building.) So even though we didn't get to see him outside, we still got to see him through the airport window. He saw us, smiled, and waved. It was fun.

In addition to my Buddhist studies and activities, I went on another Hindu pilgrimage with Sowmya and Maddie this year. The three of us - along with a short term Prafull Oorja intern, Ri Anne, who is a restorative yoga  teacher from Rochester, New York - traveled three hours by train to Chennai, on India’s east coast to see Sowmya’s guru, the hugging saint Amma.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche waiting in the seated area on the other side of the glass from Dee and I.

Breakfast on the train to Chennai. Front to back - Ri Anne, Maddie, Sowmya.

Amma is on an India tour. We were fortunate to be able to see and receive hugs from her when she held a public event at her temple in Chennai. Due to Sowmya’s nearly lifelong relationship with Amma (“mother”) – Sowmya’s mother has been taking Sowmya and Sowmya’s brothers to see Amma at her ashram in California since Sowmya was a little girl - we somehow wound up sitting next to, and then on the stage near Amma during the event. I am in awe of the magic Sowmya continues to weave whenever I spend time with her.

Amma gave a teaching before she began offering hugs to everyone in the room. During her teaching, Amma said “Always remember that all of our actions should bring joy and happiness to others.”

Amma then told a story about a father who stole a bag from the riverside. The father took the money from the bag, and then threw the rest of the bag’s contents, and the bag itself into the river. Two days later, the father brought his sick son to a doctor. The doctor told him his son would die, because the doctor did not have the herbs needed to treat the boy. The doctor said his medicine bag had been stolen from the riverside two days prior. The father wept, and realized the error of his ways. The moral then shared was “As Amma always says, before we utter a single word we need to think twice.”

Amma's temple in Chennai.
Everyone who attended the event was given a printed token that looked like a raffle ticket, with a letter and number printed on it. When your letter is called, you go wait in line so that you can approach and then receive a hug from Amma. I gave one of her western students, all of whom were wearing white outfits, my purse. Another western student wiped my face clean, while another ensured I did not have any sharp ornaments in my hair. I was asked which language I speak, in case Amma wanted to address me. Finally, I stood before her, while she sat, cross legged on the edge of the stage. She gave me a big hug, and repeated three words of blessing into my right ear. Sowmya told me Amma had said “mother, mother, mother”.

Having heard of Amma for as long as I’ve been friends with Sowmya, and having noticed posters advertising Amma’s events in the USA, it was special to get to see Amma with Sowmya.

Outside of the Amma event at her temple in Chennai.
We stayed at the temple until mid-afternoon, and then took an auto to nearby Bessie Beach. It was my first time seeing and putting my feet in the Arabian Sea. We arrived at the beach just as the sun was setting. There were many people there, enjoying the deep and wide, light brown sand beach but it was peaceful and quiet.

Bessie Beach in Chennai.

Bessie Beach in Chennai.

Bessie Beach in Chennai.
Our little group then wandered down the coast a few feet to attend an amazing free concert that Sowmya had seen advertised on Facebook. Theconcert was organized by a group of (high caste) Brahmin young people, who wantto bring classical Indian music to the fishing community adjacent to BessieBeach. In researching the location of the event, I found that some people call the fishing community a slum that borders a wealthier part of Chennai. Sowmya and I found and read a treatise the lead organizer had written, stating that Brahmins went to theaters to hear beautiful classical Indian music, and that these events were inaccessible to the fishermen. They therefore organized the event to bring this music to the fishermen, in their own community.

When we arrived at the location of the concert, it was already underway. A stage had been set up about two hundred feet inland from the tide line. The stage was surrounded by tall speakers, and faced a hillside covered with occupied, brightly colored plastic chairs. A group of children sat, cross legged, directly in front of the stage. There were many photographers and videographers documenting the event. I joined the children sitting in front of the stage. The music we saw, performed by a group of six young men playing a variety of beautiful instruments, was captivating. I was so thankful that we got to be there.

Beach concert on Bessie Beach in Urur Olcott Kuppam fishing village in Chennai.
Beach concert stage.
I later learned that the audience had been composed mostly of Brahmins. Ah, so it goes. I did see some young people who seemed to live nearby, standing on the edge of the group of plastic chairs. I am sure, given the size and volume of the event, that the music did reach part of the fishing community. At the very least it was a really well intentioned event, and the treatise Sowmya and I read online was bold and well said.
Hindu temple we passed as we walked up the beach back towards town to start heading back to Bangalore.

Sowmya, Maddie, Ri Anne, and I then enjoyed a nice dinner in the nearby town before making our way to a semi-sleeper (reclining seat, like an airplane) bus, which took us back to Bangalore.

Maddie, Ri Anne, Eszter, Ashley (the two women Maddie met at the Gokarna ashram) and I went on another pilgrimage of sorts, to see Krishna Das in concert at a fancy performing arts center in Bangalore. I was unfamiliar with Krishna Das, but listened to him before we bought our 750 rupee (roughly $12) tickets to the concert and thought it sounded like it would be fun.

That assumption was indeed correct.

From the flyer we received when we entered the theater:

“Layering traditional kirtan with instantly accessible melodies and modern instrumentation, Krishna Das has been called yoga’s ‘rock star.’ With a remarkably soulful voice that touches the deepest chord in even the most casual listener, Krishna Das – known to friends and fans simply as KD – has taken the call-and-response chanting out of yoga centers and into concert halls, becoming a worldwide icon and the best-selling Western chant artist of all time. In 2012, KD’s album ‘Live Ananda’ was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Age album and KD was invited to perform at the Grammy awards ceremony …”

The audience was almost entirely Indian. I enjoyed sitting in my plush seat towards the back of the theater, watching everyone have a wonderful time. Later on in the performance many members of the audience got up to dance, swaying their hips, with their arms extended over their heads, participating in the call-and-response chanting led by KD and two percussionists. Maddie, Eszter and Ashley were down in front of the stage, dancing.

A sampling of the setlist (which was printed on the flyer we received when we arrived at the concert) follows:
Raama Lakshman Jaanaki / Jai Bolo Hanumaana Ki
Shree Guru Charanam / Shree Hari Sharanam
Om Aayeem Saraswatye Namaha Om
Om Taare Tuutaare Tuh-re Swaahaa
Jaya Bhagavaan

outside of the concert hall - me, Ri Anne, Eszter, Maddie, Ashley.
I also got to celebrate one of Sowmya’s neighbors, Neha’s Birthday with her. In accordance with Indian tradition, we surprised her by ringing her doorbell at midnight, when her birth-day began. One of her co-workers had ordered a cake that said “Happy Birthday, Gorgeous”. She answered the doorbell, completely surprised, in her pajamas, and let us into her apartment. We then smeared Birthday cake on her face, also in keeping with the tradition. We ate the remaining cake, hung out for a while, and then let Neha go to bed.

Krishna Das concert.

Waiting outside of Neha's apartment at midnight, with her cake.

Neha wearing her surprise Birthday cake.

Neha had us over the following night for a Birthday Party she threw for herself. Her friends looked beautiful, and were well-dressed. It was fun to meet some of her girlfriends, and get to hear about the form of Buddhism they practice, which is based on the Lotus Sutra. I also got to hang out with Sowmya’s neighbors Ayesha and her mom, who had also come to the Pongol Party. Ayesha came with me to attend Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s public talk, Transforming Problems Into Happiness. It was great to see them at Neha’s Birthday Party. Neha served a lot of food and another delicious Birthday cake. I get to do so many fun, new things, hanging out with Sowmya.

I also threw a party while in Bangalore. Well, OK – a Lehigh family Happy Hour. I reached three Lehigh alums via an email invitation. Two alums met me early on a Wednesday night at Toit, a bar in the upscale, nightlife neighborhood of Indiranagar. 

Sunjeev, originially from Bangalore graduated in the late 1980’s. Nik, originally from Chicago graduated in the early 1990’s. They had never met – on campus or in Bangalore, but discovered they had mutual friends in Bangalore. It was fun to hear their stories about their time at Lehigh, and the things they have been doing since then. We also discussed some Lehigh news, including the retirement of Professor Aronson, and the appointment of Lehigh alum Richard Verma, '90 to the post of US Ambassador to India. It was a great to meet them both, and we had a great time at Toit. I look forward to catching up with them next time I am in Bangalore.

Neha cutting her Birthday cake during her party.

While in Bangalore I went to see Nik's fantastic New York board certified dentist, Dr. Jagdish Rohira. I look forward to seeing him next time I am in Bangalore. I also visited Dr. Jampa Yonten at hisTibetan Healing and Wellness Center. I had learned about Dr. Yonten from Jamyang, who carpooled back to Bangalore in the same car as Dee and I from His Holiness’ teachings in Mundgod on December 30. Dr. Yonten was fantastic.

Me, Nik, and Sunjeev at Toit in Bangalore.
I have been thinking a lot about this passage he published in the 2014 issue of his Tibetan Healing and Wellness Center newsletter, available for reading on the center’s website:

“In order for a Tibetan physician to be an eminent one, he/she must have at last [sic] six main qualities. These qualities are: intelligence, compassion, sense of commitment, have skillful means, be diligent and endowed with moral values. Of all these qualities, a compassionate mind is the most important given the busy, competitive and stressful lives we lead. When I was on a tour in Croatia in 2000, a journalist asked me what I was specialized in. I humbly replied that my specialization is compassion, because without it, you cannot be a good doctor.”

Dr. Yonten practices in the US each spring, and in the UK each autumn. He works out of the Tibetan Healing and Wellness Center in Bangalore during the rest of the year. The places he named that he visits in the US have high concentrations of Tibetans. I wish I could go with him on one of his trips, to see what his practice looks like in the US. Dr. Yonten’s Bangalore office is in Tibet Mall. The mall is just across the street from the entrance to a women’s college, Jyoti Nivas College, and is in a Tibetan neighborhood. (I have been told that Bangalore is the biggest city to the Tibetan refugee communities in south India, and therefore has a large population of Tibetans.)

I had so much fun walking through the Jyoti Nivas College campus after my visit with Dr. Yonten, observing the ethnic and religious diversity of the young female student body, and the beautiful campus facilities. A sign hanging on a campus wall said that the college is one of ten schools in India recognized as a “School of Excellence” and is the only one in the Indian state of Karnataka. I also enjoyed that like the Central School for Tibetans that I had stayed at in Mundgod, this school was decorated with inspirational quote signs. These large black signs with white letters were hanging, horizontally, high above students’ heads from light posts across campus. My favorite sign read “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Tibet Mall in Bangalore.

I also peeked around the Tibet Mall, which contains small independent shops run by a mix of Tibetans and Indians. They all sell fancy, sparkly, bright colored, high heeled shoes, handbags, jewelry, and short, slim fitting dresses, the likes of which I assume are worn by college girls worldwide. I had so much fun exploring the shops.
Facing the college entrance gate.

Shop in Tibet Mall.

I finished my visit by eating a plate of vegetable momos at a Tibetan restaurant recommended by Dr. Yonten’s wife, who is from Darjeeling and works with him in his practice. I then gave myself an uninteresting walking tour of the neighborhood hoping to discover a Tibetan presence, but aside from the area just outside of Tibet Mall, failing to do so. Nonetheless, it was a pretty, tree filled neighborhood and a beautiful day, so it was good to be out.

Hallway inside of Tibet Mall.
The following night, Wednesday, January  28 – my last night in  Bangalore - I attended a play Keep Calm and #ashtag On at the Goethe Institute with Dee.

From the invitation:

"Keep calm and #ashtag" explores how gender is constructed and reinforced in real and virtual public spaces. 

Cyber space becomes a new public space in which gender plays itself out: Why does Nikhil play an online game as a female avatar? Why does Tanya create an anonymous Facebook profile and what does she do with it? What happens when Sachin’s fighting video goes viral? The play looks at the collisions of real and virtual spaces and the drama that unfolds.

The absurd, funny and sometimes painful episodes connect through hyperlinks to a fast-paced ride into the violence of gender construction in teenage years. The play seeks to provoke a healthy dialogue around the complexities that young people face in defining who they are as men and women, and the ways in which they navigate real and cyberspace in their everyday lives.

The show is designed to be performed at schools and can be followed by Q and A sessions and workshops.

I was excited to go to the Goethe Institute in Bangalore, since there is also a Goethe Institute in Nairobi. The event I attended with Dee was a private show intended to introduce the play to school teachers who might then want to bring the play to their schools. (Dee teaches drama at a private international school in Bangalore, and is a part of the theater community in Bangalore. I think she knew at least half of the event’s guests, as well as the people behind the play.)

Goethe Institute in Bangalore.

It was a powerful play. The line that stood out to me the most, I later learned was taken from a piece  feminist literature: “What if all women woke up today happy with themselves. The bottoms of the world’s economies would fall out.”
The play's creators shared their hopes for the play and the conversations they hope to generate in schools,
 following the play. The audience was invited to give feedback and ask questions of the creators and actors and actresses. I felt very fortunate to get to be there for many reasons, including getting to see a performance by a talented cast from Mumbai, the capital of the performance art world in India. Big thanks to Dee, who like Sowmya always makes incredible things happen.

I left Bangalore for Mumbai on Thursday morning, January 29 on semi-sleeper bus operated by the bus company that Dee always uses – Vijayanand Travels (VRL). The bus was supposed to leave Bangalore at 12:30pm and arrive in Mumbai 16+ hours later, at 5am the following day. That seemed fairly reasonable as compared with a flight, and it turned out not being so bad. It was just hard to say goodbye to friends in Bangalore.

Sowmya and I paddle boating in Bangalore.
I am sure I will be back in Bangalore. A few tips for booking buses in south India:

1.) A woman cannot book a seat next to a seat that has already been booked by a man. If a woman has already booked a seat on the bus and there is an empty seat open next to her, then the next woman who books a seat on that bus must book the seat next to that woman.

 2.) Even though the back of the bus is bouncy, and the front of the bus may seem safer because you are sitting near the driver, the best seats are in the middle of the bus. This is because there will be a flat screen TV playing near-constant Bollywood movies at a substantial volume, hanging from the bus ceiling, just behind the driver. Also, the driver will be making frequent use of his loud, high pitched horn to push slower moving vehicles out of his way. So either bring noise blocking earplugs, or sit in the middle of the bus. Fortunately, I had noise softening earplugs handy, which helped a lot.

3.) Bring food and bottled water, but know that food will be available at a rest stop at some point. However do not drink too much water, because bathroom breaks will be few and far between. However, if you ask the driver then he may pull over to the side of the road for you, and you can venture off into the dark. If you and the driver do not speak the same language, then make your point by showing the driver a roll of toilet paper.

I wrote this post on Thursday, while on a 39 hour train ride from Mumbai on India’s sort of southwest coas to Bodhgaya, closer to India’s northeast coast. I am now in Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha attained enlightenment underneath the bodhi tree. I am very happy to be here.
Bus ride from Bangalore to Mumbai.
A blog post about the past six days – my time in Mumbai - is forthcoming. I will then be all caught up. Thanks for reading and sharing this journey with me.


  1. I really liked your blog .I lived in bangalore for 25 years and used to visit hot chip shop , fond memories .
    thans for posting your experience , enjoyed reading it .

    1. Thank you. You were fortunate to get to spend so much time in Bangalore - my favorite big city in India, and Karnataka is beautiful. I will make sure to enjoy my next bag of Hot Chips extra.


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