Western eyes turn east

26th September 2003 at 01:00
In India, religious studies pupils, led by Kim Horner, found bad smells, dead goats - and life-affirming spirituality

I have long hankered to take a group of A-level religious studies students to India, to see at first hand the Buddhist and Hindu culture we study. I have travelled to India before, and I didn't want to take students on a run-of-the-mill tourist's trek around the famous sights. Instead, I wanted them to absorb the energy of temple worship, and to see how worshippers, some poverty-stricken and destitute, live their lives.

I wrote to travel agencies with my proposal, and finally chose Guerba Adventure Company. We agreed an itinerary, and discussed health and safety issues. Preparations began in earnest. We set up evenings for parents and lunchtime sessions for students to prepare them. There were endless conversations about vaccinations, how much anti-bacterial gel to take, and how to avoid Delhi-belly.

Despite some headline-grabbing news stories in the months leading up to the trip, parents and students held their nerve. So, to my utter surprise, I found myself at London's Heathrow Airport with eight A-level students from Meridian school in Royston, Hertfordshire, my religious studies colleague and a parentgovernor, the solitary male in the party.

Nothing can prepare you for India, as we found the minute we stepped into the fray outside the airport terminal in Calcutta, in the East of India.

We'll all remember the heat, the smells, the taxi-drivers and the beggars.

The first day, jet-lagged but excited, we acclimatised ourselves by visiting a 500-year-old Hindu temple. It was simple, beautiful and full of devotees. Then we came upon the carcass of a sacrificed goat, its blood splashed on the tiles below. The head was being nudged by a dog. Our Westerners' sense of disgust prompted the first of many conversations about differing cultural perceptions of "life" and "death".

We wandered around a vegetable market on a dirty side street where men, fresh from washing at the pumps at the roadside, sat in the dust selling their wares on open sacks.

We also became connoissuers of rubbish, starting with the endless mounds of festering waste down by the Hooghly river, next to the bathing ghat. On our trip we saw rubbish at every stage of rejection. New rubbish; rubbish that had been picked over by humans; rubbish that had been searched for edibles by dogs, pigs and buffalo. Anything left after being used by man and beast was rubbish, indeed.

We visited Mother Teresa's mission for handicapped and destitute children, and while saddened by their plight, we were inspired by the kindness and love shown to them by the nuns and volunteers. The mission exuded positive energy. Mother Teresa's words, displayed for all to read, impressed us:

"How can we love the God whom we do not see if we do not love our fellow human beings whom we do see?"

We took the overnight sleeper to Varanasi, the holy city once known as Benares, to the northwest of Calcutta. Getting through the melee at the station was an adventure in itself. We saw three beggar girls, no more than seven-years-old, fighting over whose patch it was that we had stumbled into. On the train, we settled down to a comfortable night on padded sleeping shelves, toilet roll at hand for use in the Western-style amenities (some of the students were not prepared to go Indian). We woke to the tea-vendors' cries of "chai", and gloriously lush green countryside.

When we arrived in Varanasi - the City of Shiva - we bundled into rickshaws that took us straight down the alleyways that lead to the Ganges river. At Manikarnika ghat, we watched the cremation of the dead; peaceful and dignified ceremonies. The bodies were adorned in red and gold; the smell of sandalwood filled the air; and eldest sons cast ashes into the sacred river.

At sunset, we took a boat ride, and placed offerings of light onto the calm water. As we drifted down the Ganges, we saw dhobi wallahs (washerman) bathing, animals wallowing, devotees praying. We saw Hindu priests performing ancient purification rituals with fire, incense and sacred water to the sound of bells and chanting. It was a beautiful and powerful end to the day.

In the days that followed, we visited Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first teaching, and Bodh Gaya, where he became enlightened. There, Buddhist and Hindu teachers taught us that our lives were precious, and that we should act in good heart.

But, the most important aspect of this trip is what we have learnt from this amazing experience? India challenged our Western way of thinking. We saw people with no possessions - and beautiful smiles on their faces, and once-abandoned children being cared for with tenderness and love. Of course, the trip brought Hinduism and Buddhism alive for us.

How did the students respond? One said that the experience had opened her eyes, "and made me feel I should appreciate the things I take for granted in my life". Another said: "Whatever I do, I want to make a difference; India has changed my outlook on life."

I wonder if things will ever be the same for us again?

Kim Horner's party travelled with Guerba Adventure and Discovery Holidays.

Tel: 01373 858 956; email:info@guerba.co.uk. The Meridian school trip cost pound;1,017 per person

A passage through india: Meridian's tour Day 1, pm: depart Heathrow for Calcutta.

Day 2, am: Arrive Calcutta, explore local area.

Day 3, am: Visit ghats and temples near the Hooghly river; Ramakrishna mission.

pm: Jain temple; Kumhartuli (potter's village); Birla temple.

Day 4, am: Mother Teresa's mission; flower market, Howrah bridge.

pm: India Museum.

pm: depart Howrah railway station for Varanasi.

Day 5 am: Arrive Mughal Sarai station, Varanasi.

pm: Walk around Old City from Raj ghat down to Manikarnika ghat (Burning ghat); sunset boatride on the Ganges river.

Day 6,am: Local walk.

pm: Lokinath Divine Light mission.

Day 7,am: Sunrise boatride on the Ganges river.

pm:Durga and Tilsi Manas temples; Hanuman temple and Old City from Asi ghat to Manikarnika Ghat.

Day 8,am: Drive to Sarnath, visit temples and museum.

pm: Walk around Varanasi.

Day 9: Drive to Bodh Gaya.

Day 10, Theravada and Mahayana temple visits Day 11, am: Buddhist projects in Bodh Gaya, including tree planting campaign; home for the destitute; leprosy clinic.

Day 12: Drive to Patna, south of Varanasi, depart for Calcutta; arrive Calcutta Day 13, pm: Return to favourite haunts in Calcutta.

Day 14: Depart for Heathrow.

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