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[Longitude & Latitude]

Discovering India by plane, train, rickshaw, ferry, elephant and car

By Lorena Russell, Ph.D.

Burt Holmes

At the Taj Mahal (front, L–R): Mohammed Mohsin of the University of Tennessee and UNC Asheville faculty members Cindy Ho, Grant Hardy and Connie Schrader; (back, L–R): Rodger Payne, Keya Maitra and Lorena Russell.

No amount of cramming could have prepared us for India—the bustle, the heat, the noise, the sheer numbers of people, and of course the animals. The first time we saw a cow in a traffic island, we grabbed for our cameras, but soon were accustomed to traveling alongside goats, pigs, camels, elephants, peacocks, ponies, monkeys and dogs—everyday occurrences for India’s 1.15 billion people.

My traveling companions and I for two weeks last July were on a mission to absorb as much of Indian life as possible so that we could share these experiences with our Humanities classes. Our interdisciplinary group, led by Keya Maitra (Philosophy) and including Connie Schrader (Health & Wellness), Grant Hardy (History), Cindy Ho (chair of Humanities, professor of Literature & Language) and Rodger Payne (Religious Studies), also explored study abroad opportunities for UNC Asheville students at Visva-Bharati University in West Bengal. Our itinerary took us to Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Kolkata, Santiniketan, Rajgir, Bodh Gaya and Varanasi (Benares), with stops at historical sites, museums and craft cooperatives. We visited Sikh, Muslim, Jain, Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques and holy sites. We traveled by plane, train, rickshaw, ferry, automobile (even elephant), and met beggars and businessmen.

Visva-Bharati University in the village of Santiniketan, West Bengal, was founded by the Nobel Prize-winning poet and thinker Rabindranath Tagore in the early 20th century. The school is committed to interdisciplinary study and a style of education akin to liberal learning, like UNC Asheville. We discussed with philosophy, religion and Chinese department faculty the possibility of offering UNC Asheville courses like the Senior Colloquium in Liberal Studies in Santiniketan.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professorship, held by Gordon Wilson, this extraordinary trip strengthened our belief in the value of experiential learning to teach the Humanities—it’s one thing to read and talk about religion and philosophy, for example, and quite another to partake in rituals! As we reflect on the experiences and make sense of our travels, I am impressed with how much we continue to learn from each other, and although two weeks in a country does not make us specialists, we have a deeper understanding of India and a passion to share with others what we’ve learned.

Associate Professor of Literature & Language Lorena Russell will offer a post-colonial literature course in spring 2009.