Category Archives: Anna Coufal

After the Palace

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Getting our tourist shots at the Taj Mahal

After we said goodbye to everyone at the palace, Sam, Shaniece, Camilla, Jeremy and I took a flight to New Delhi from Ahmedabad, where we stayed at the Hotel Le Roi in Paharganj for two nights. The first night we stayed in, as we were told by hotel staff that it was too dangerous to explore at night. Early the next morning we departed for Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, which was breathtakingly beautiful. Afterward our tour guide took us to visit a gemstone and jewelry shop where they sold precious and semi-precious stones including those used in the Taj Mahal such as the one-of-a-kind Star of India, a black stone which twinkles as you move it, which was used to adorn the outer archways with verses of the Quran. Upstairs there was a music shop where they invited us to try to play the sitar, and we danced the “queen dance” from the well ceremony for them. He also took us to a shop that sculpted the marble and stones used in the Taj Mahal to make tables, wall hangings, and other ornaments. The trip in its entirety ended up costing us a lot more than we wanted to spend, but it was well worth it.

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Taj Mahal’s exquisite marble and inlaid gemstones

The next day Camilla left for Nepal, and we met up with Pawan, a friend of one of my closest friends growing up, and his friend Arman. Pawan and Arman, who were very sweet and funny, showed us around New Delhi near where Pawan went to school at Delhi University. We were lucky enough to take a ride on the metro, which we never would have been able to navigate on our own as the stops are labelled in Hindi. They showed us a great time and took us to a cute bar with hookah where American music was blasting and people were watching India lose the cricket final to Pakistan. It was a great way to end our month-long adventure.

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Riding the metro with Arman and Pawan

Back in the States, it has been surreal to be able to eat a variety of foods and not have to cover my shoulders. I miss the morning birdsong, the chai, chiku, mangoes, pani puri, as well as the cows, buffalo, dogs, goats, peacocks, and hogs roaming the streets. There was so much I experienced in such a short span of time that sometimes it feels like it was all a dream. I’m still making sense of how it felt to be a woman there, and how people, especially women, referred to certain norms which to me feel oppressive, such as women not being allowed to go into a temple menstruating, not being supposed to sit next to a driver, or having to cover one’s head, neck, face, shoulders and/or legs out of “respect.” There is so much behavior normalized there in terms of gender roles which sometimes felt offensive to us, and likewise, some of our behaviors seemed offensive to them. For example, one of our drivers complained that Shaniece, who is very tall, failed to realize her shins were showing at the sword dance performance. This was aggravating to us, as it seemed so insignificant and not something she could help as a tall woman being forced to wear specific clothes made for shorter people. It is in these moments we had to be especially careful discerning the difference between adapting our behavior to fit their norms and staying true to our deepest values. In a society that worships so many female deities, it can be hard for outsiders to understand why women seem so subjugated. I am still having trouble wrapping my head around it.

Baby wild hogs with their mother (Video by Shaniece Maldonado)

There’s a lot I’m grateful for here in America and a lot I admire about India. The way animals are respected and allowed to live freely in India is quite nice to observe. There is a plurality and general acceptance of various religious practices; many people practice more than one religion or sect of Hinduism, and spirituality is acknowledged in every facet of life, which I appreciated especially in terms of how serious mental healthcare is regarded. While there is currently and historically a lot of tensions between Hindu nationalists and Muslim Indians, it is worth noting that many people in India incorporate both Hindu and Muslim traditions in their religious practices. Though the dress and behavior of women is highly restricted, the clothes and jewelry are flattering on all ages and sizes, and the colors and designs are gorgeous and vibrant. Vices like smoking and drinking are left to the men, and many women are disciplined enough to wake at sunrise to meditate and practice yoga. In many ways, the mentality of many women I met in India reminded me of orthodox Jewish women from my hometown who are content with their lives, much of which were decided for them. I still struggle between trying not to judge these attitudes and the feeling that this rigid patriarchal structure is more oppressively unhealthy than stable and healthy. It is especially hard for me to understand how, in a society in which so many deities are female, and it is understood that women are able to do everything men can do and more, why women are subjected to such confined lives compared to men. It also makes me reflect on how rape culture has been normalized for so long around the world and still is to a degree, even and in some ways especially in America. Here women are constantly objectified, exoticized, and sexualized, and the qualities that make us different or unique are always being pointed out to us. I can see why it might be easier to wear what everyone else is wearing, though ultimately I wish that was not an issue to begin with.

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Last chai in India

Going to India was the greatest opportunity of my life, and despite several challenges and obstacles, I don’t regret a minute of it. I learned just as much what it was to be an American as I did what it means to be an Indian, and transformed my thinking in ways I haven’t even processed yet. I anxiously await the day I can return.

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Fieldwork

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The Citadel in Halvad

In the final week and a half, we all scrambled to get as much out of our suddenly limited time as possible. It’s crazy how a month can feel like a year and a day all at once when so much is happening. This process was unpredictable as we were running on “India time,” which meant someone may not show up for an interview scheduled for one day, but someone else may unexpectedly show up for an interview another. There was a lot of miscommunication, and sometimes it wouldn’t be made clear to drivers or interviewees that we were sent to conduct certain interviews. Some students had a clear idea all the way through what their research focus was, and others like myself were drawn toward several subjects. The chaos of India time and trying to figure out how to focus or adapt our research based on the field work we were able to access in a limited time frame was both very frustrating and exciting.

 

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Last-minute escaping into town with Nirvan, Shaniece, Lilly, and Nangorlee

Shaniece and Camilla went several times to visit some of the palace staff women in their homes. Barrett and Camilla started regularly visiting Jesada, a Bharwad (shepherd caste) village, in order get to know the people and help Bapa with a film/photography project he and a deceased student/colleague had started several decades previously. Jeremy continued his daily study of the harmonium with a group of musicians, and Chrissy went to Ahmedabad to study and teach at a dance studio. Lilly and I got the chance to go to Kankavati to interview Amritbhai, the lead actor of the Bhavai group, with Shaniece and Millie filming. The Bhavai are both Hindu and Muslim, as they were converted several centuries ago, which is when their distinctive performance tradition emerged. After performing with our fellow “queens,” we were curious about what it meant to him and other Bhavai performers to embody female roles, and he explained to us in Gujarati, with the help of Jayshree, Rina, and Vish’s translations, their dressing-room ritual process of invoking and embodying their goddess. They enter what seems to be a trance, in which they forget they are men and focus completely on embodying the goddess.

 

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Jayshree and Amritbhai

Out of curiosity, I also went with Nangorlee to speak to some local doctors. Nangorlee was conducting research on food insecurity, so she interviewed an Ayurvedic practitioner, Dr. Komal, as well an allopathic pediatrician, Dr. Patel. At the government-sponsored Ayurvedic clinic, Dr. Komal gave us a brief explanation and history of Ayurvedic medicine and showed us her garden, explaining some uses of several of her many plants. She was a huge advocate of Ayurvedic medicine and did not use allopathic remedies at all. Dr. Patel, the pediatrician, helped us to better understand how healthcare works in India and some of its strengths and weaknesses compared to America, where he lived for several years. Healthcare and medicine are much cheaper in India, and more accessible due to the lack of interference from insurance companies. People pay reasonable prices out-of-pocket and avoid long lines and waiting rooms, as doctors don’t have excessive paperwork to deal with. Vaccines are virtually free. Food insecurity is not an issue as it once was, but people often get infections from drinking water that has not been boiled. It is easy to get treated as long as the person is aware of local healthcare resources, which is unfortunately not always the case.

 

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Nangorlee documenting Dr. Komal’s Aryuvedic garden

Finally, I was fortunate my last week that Diptaa, despite dealing with the loss of her father, was able to take Shaniece and I several days in a row to speak with Dipakbhai, a local astrologer (Jain cosmology) and guruji. It was with Dipakbhai, his son, his daughter, and his wife that I made the strongest connections. Although Dipakbhai did not speak a lot of English, his presence was comforting, his home was relaxing, his shrine to his goddess Ambe was intriguing, and he and his family were extremely welcoming. He read Shaniece’s and my horoscopes, and having dabbled a bit in Western astrology myself, I was quite impressed with his perspective, which was more remedial than deterministic. That resonated deeply with me, as I have a strong interest in energy healing and divinatory techniques in that remedial sense. We interviewed him, with Diptaa’s help, about his background and religious beliefs and practices. Shaniece interviewed him and his wife about their wedding and marriage experience. Diptaa really helped to push us to ask lots of questions including quite a few “passport questions” regarding their backgrounds and situations in life. Although we haven’t gotten a chance to translate his responses to our questions in depth, his son Darshan educated us quite a bit about Hinduism and Jainism with his passionately crafted journal entries, which he would enthusiastically read aloud to us each day. Dipakbhai’s place certainly was a home away from home away from home. And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye.

 

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Dipakbhai’s home (top), Saying goodbye (bottom)

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Adventures in Gir

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First Rain of Monsoon Season

By the third week, many of us were itching to get out of the palace and on with our field research. Monsoon season came our way on the first day of June, which happened to be Nirvan’s birthday. We celebrated the rain by dancing barefoot in the garden, and later that evening, despite the power repeatedly going off, Lilly and Millie organized a surprise party for Nirvan, where Rina and Jayshree gave him a proper Hindi birthday ceremony.

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Nirvan’s surprise birthday celebration

The opportunity was presented to travel eight hours to visit the Gir Forest, a wildlife sanctuary southwest of Dhrangadhra, in hopes of seeing wild Asiatic lions. Barrett and Chrissy stayed back to focus on their research, and the rest of us embarked on a three-day adventure to Gir. We stayed at Jamjir, a lovely, relaxing, and comfortable homestay, with Bapa’s cousin Falgun. In the day we did some hiking. After dinner we watched a spectacular performance by several Siddi men. The Siddi are a group of Gujarati Indians who are descended from Uganda. They have lived in a village called Jambur in the Gir Forest for hundreds of years. Their dances were brilliant, especially their monkey dances, and there was even fire breathing! Eventually they got us all up and dancing with them. Even Bapa, to our delight, was inspired to show his most striking warrior moves!

Bapa Dancing with Siddi Performers at Gir

 

At night we all piled into two vans and drove around looking for the lions. For over an hour and a half, we drove around and didn’t see anything. Two people spotted a leopard (or was it a jaguar?) for a second sitting on a wall, but it jumped off. As we kept on searching and finding nothing, I had resigned myself to not getting to see them. Just before we were about to turn back, Camilla spotted a group of nine lions and for about ten seconds they were visible. Some of us got a good look at all of them them. I didn’t, though I saw a cub reluctantly following a lioness back into the forest. About ten minutes later, a few young lions, one with a mane slightly grown in, crossed behind our van. Though it was dark and the back window was dusty, they were about ten or fifteen feet away and we could see them well. We were all so excited at these two moments, but the lighting was so poor that none of us got a good picture of them. Maybe that made it all the more magical.

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Jamjir resort group photo

The next day we traveled to a city about seventy kilometers from Dhrangadhra called Sayla which was once a princely state, like Dhrangadhra, ruled by the Jhala Rajputs. On the way it stormed heavily, which was terrifying and exhilarating to witness from the vantage point of an Indian road. For the first time we saw a couple of large trucks turned over, which was surprising because despite the chaos of driving in India, we had not really seen any accidents.

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Temple in Muli 

When we got to Sayla, we stayed at the Bell Guest House with Somrraj and his wife, who provided us another very comfortable and hospitable stay. They took us to visit several temples including a Swaminarayan temple and a stepwell with a large warrior shrine. People, we were told, often came to the stepwell and shrine for healing rituals. The trip was a wonderful breath of fresh air and opportunity to get to know Gujarat beyond Dhrangadhra and its surrounding villages.

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Stepwell (top) and shrine (bottom) in Sayla

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We also visited the homes of three artisan families: one wove vibrant multicolored rugs from recycled material, one practiced a dying form of shawl weaving and embroidery called Tangaliya from the Dangasia community’s Bharwad (shepherd caste) tradition, and one hand-beaded intricate wall hangings, decorations, jewelry, and other adornments. Their work was beautiful and impeccable. We came back refreshed and ready to jump into our field research.

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Handcrafted beaded pieces in Sayla

 

Kuva-no-Ker

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Well performance with Bhavai troupe (still from video by Barrett Griffin)

 

There’s no such thing as being a “fly on the wall” visiting a community that rarely meets outsiders. This is especially apparent when your professor is a prince. In anthropology, it is important to consider this when situating oneself within a field site so that the novelty and subsequent centering of the anthropologist does not take away from the observation or interview processes. Here in Dhrangadhra, we have found the avoidance of being centered to be nearly impossible. Wherever we go, we are treated like celebrities. People don’t just stare at us; they follow us, tap us and grab us, and constantly implore us for “selfies.” While this can be annoying, especially when we have work to do or we can’t understand what they are saying about us or why they giggle, their behavior makes sense. In the ‘melting pot’ of the United States, even the most sparsely populated areas have exposure to a number of different cultures. In towns like Kankavati and Jesada, meeting people from other countries is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Our scarves may not be tied correctly, our hairstyles and textures might seem strange, and our conscious and unconscious behaviors may be vastly different from their own. Furthermore, our professor, Dr. Jhala (Bapa) is a prince, which makes our presence all the more noteworthy. It is very difficult to convince people not to hold you in such high regard in a society in which social status is so fixed and paramount, especially with the language barrier. Most of the time, we don’t have a choice but to go with the flow, accepting this privilege in order to go where we need to go, see what we need to see, and talk to who we need to talk to. The best we can do is simple gestures of kindness such as smiling, waving to people, and taking pictures of or with them. One of the photographers brought a polaroid camera, which really helps in terms of being able to give something tangible back. Sometimes with kids, I’ll cross my eyes, stick my tongue out, or generally act goofy just to break the barrier of intimidation and bring out a smile or laugh. Most kids seem to respond very well to that.

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Kankavati woman insisting on a photo with Sam following the Rajput sword dancing performances

When we attended the revival event at the Well of Sorrow, we had a slightly different experience. Though we were greeted like celebrities, by the time the ceremony began the attention was no longer centered on us. The rituals and presence of the royal family became paramount, and we were able, for the first time, to observe these people without being a focal point. This event was in remembrance of the Jhala clan’s Eight Ranis (queens) who in 1486 jumped into the Well of Sorrow with their maidservants and subsequently drowned during Sultan Mohamed Begawa’s siege of Kuwa. This historical event is known as Kuva-no-Ker, the destruction of Kuwa, and people still use the term to refer to any great calamity.

Several large tents were set up around the well, and many people came from surrounding villages to witness the ceremony. We were given chairs to sit near the royal family to watch the ritual. Then we were invited, along with members of the royal family and female Rajputs (warrior caste) to pour water into the well as a symbolic gesture of remembrance. The Jhala clan is part of the Rajput caste. We then moved to a tent where we witnessed Rajput girls from one village, dressed in turbans and jeans, then young men from another village, perform sword dances. These were possibly one of the most exhilarating performances I have ever witnessed. They were swinging swords feet away from us, close to each other, sometimes climbing on each other’s backs or even blindfolded. We were not allowed to take footage out of respect, but it was an unforgettable experience. Afterwards we enjoyed dinner in the garden with the royal family.

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Rajput women and girls (sword dancers wearing turbans)

A couple of days later, we filmed a dance around the well with some of the Bhavai (male) performers, who were dressed like the Ranis. We had been rehearsing this performance for two weeks in addition to getting henna tattoos, buying costumes, and making masks. We each represented an animal deity representative of each Rani and her descendents. I was a tiger. The other animals included a parrot, horse, cobra, magical bird, crocodile, and a lion. Unfortunately, we didn’t have anyone to perform the role of the rooster. We developed movement to represent these creatures and performed our individual one-minute dances, with our homemade masks, around and near the well. Many people from the village came to watch. After that, we changed into our “queen costumes” which included elaborate saris and large skirts. We kind of just followed what the Bhavai performers were doing, dancing around the well, and standing with them as they reenacted the Ranis deciding to jump in the well. Although the rehearsal process had been time-consuming and frustrating for some of us, it was a rewarding experience and an honor to take part in an event that held so much significance for these people. Though it can be very difficult to navigate the issue of privilege, it felt good to be included in this event in a way that showed the people that we recognize and honor their heritage.

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Me in my tiger mask (photo by Camilla Martinelli)

The Negotiation Phase

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Desert Sunrise (Photo by Shaniece Maldonado)

Addiction is a subject most people try to avoid. The reality is, however, we are all addicts. We live in a world in which we are increasingly being alienated from our most basic sources of sustenance, so we fill those voids with other things. Maybe it’s something obvious like drinking, smoking, drugs, or prescription pills. Maybe it’s the internet, TV, or video games. Maybe it’s work. Maybe it’s school. Maybe it’s never simply allowing oneself to be alone in silence. Whatever it is, it is very hard to break away from this pattern of constant stimulation. When you travel, however, you are forced to adapt your defenses and coping mechanisms.
When I was eighteen, I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety disorders. Basically, I had a complete mental breakdown and could no longer deal with any of my obligations. It took several years of therapy and antidepressants to get to a point where I was somewhat emotionally stable and reliable. These treatments were not especially effective for me after a few years, and I discontinued them once I felt stable enough to manage my issues. Since I have managed to do very well academically, I wasn’t worried about coming to India without consulting a therapist. Gujarat is a “dry” state, which means alcohol is prohibited, and since I don’t drink very much I didn’t consider that to be an issue either. I figured the stimulation and opportunities available here would be manageable enough without the aid of medication or other ways to “take the edge off.”

I certainly didn’t anticipate the difficulty I would have regulating my emotions in frustrating situations. That is not to say I wasn’t warned. In the manual, it specifically says that after the initial “honeymoon” phase where everything is new and exciting, a second “negotiation” phase would follow in which simple things become extremely frustrating. For one, there were technical issues such as the water not working and the power (and thus air conditioning) going off during the hottest parts of the day. Another issue that really bothered me was the obliviousness of some of our photographers, whose equipment and copious photo-taking, in my view, often proved disruptive to our explorations. The people we were visiting were often so wrapped up in wanting to get their pictures taken that we were not able to properly observe their activities. Of course, our presence itself was inherently disruptive to a degree. What made it worse was the fact that, for example, when we attended the wedding, people were more interested in getting their pictures taken than the event that was taking place. This angered the priest and the bride’s father, and we had to leave early.
What set me over the edge was when we went to the desert to meditate. First of all, I was grumpy, as we had to wake up at 3:00am after being asked to stay up until 10:00pm the previous night to rehearse for a performance at the end of the month. So when one of our photographers decided to fly a loud buzzing drone overhead during the entirety of our meditation session, I was enraged. I tried not to be, but at that moment I realized with all the stimulation and lack of alone time, I needed a moment to connect to myself in silence and appreciate the magical moment of the sunrise and the whispering wind. After that point, I lost control emotionally. When we got to the next stop and some of us were told we weren’t covered enough to go into the temple, I burst into tears. For most of the day, I felt like an overflowing well. The water just kept on coming. That upset me even more because I felt myself slipping and was terrified I would have another serious breakdown. Thoughts started surfacing in my mind that I didn’t realize I was still capable of having. I watched as everyone else enjoyed themselves, wishing I could partake in their happiness but feeling incapable of doing so. At the end of the day, I was solely responsible for my misery.
I took the next day off to process what had happened, and I realized that being in this vulnerable position was bringing up lots of old feelings that the busyness and comforts of home had allowed me to avoid dealing with. The fact is, the people taking all the photographs and flying drones were coping too. To engage deeply is not easy. It feels safer to be behind a screen or camera lens, especially if that is a skill one has confidence in. In fact, for some people like the photographer with the drone, it is easier to engage deeply from behind the lens. Additionally, the photographers were not usually able to capture authentic, candid moments as the attention was so centered on their equipment. We all have to deal with our own challenges and obstacles. One photographer dropped her hard drive, and another dropped an important lens. We are all human and vulnerable, which is not a comfortable feeling, and we deal with it in different ways, some of which are at odds with each other. As we have gotten to know each other, many of us have revealed tragic losses and difficult experiences which we haven’t dealt with emotionally yet or in a long time. I feel so grateful for all of these amazing people, even if we occasionally drive each other crazy. They say that you learn as much about yourself as you do about these places on study abroad, and I wholeheartedly concur. Although this experience has been emotionally challenging, I’m so glad I have this opportunity to challenge myself to feel things I haven’t let myself feel in ages. I’m grateful for the realization that I needed to connect with myself without the distracting comforts of home.

Getting Settled in India

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Wow. So much has happened in the past week, and between three days of travel and five days of adjusting to a different culture and time zone, I’ve had basically no time to process my experience in writing. It feels like I left Philadelphia a month ago. First of all, I couldn’t have been luckier in terms of the group of people that have decided to embark on this journey with me. There are eight of us undergrad students, one grad student, and one alum. Our teacher, Dr. Jhala who we call Bapa (which means father) is a prince, though since India declared its independence in 1947 the Jhala clan no longer holds political power. Nevertheless, the family is still held in extremely high regard, and maintains this palace compound where we stay called Ajitnivas.

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Ajitnivas (Photography by Sam Romero)

Getting to India was quite an adventure in itself. Four of us decided to arrange our flights to have a fifteen-hour layover in London. The flight to London was about seven hours, and from London to New Delhi was another seven hours. From New Delhi we took a one-and-a-half hour flight to Ahmedabad, which is a three-hour drive from our destination, Dhrangadhra. Most of us are still adjusting to the time difference, a week later. It wasn’t until yesterday that I could sleep for more than an hour without waking up.

We certainly learned the importance of keeping track of our things while exhausted in London. We had a great day walking around the city, drinking ales at a pub, and taking a short boat tour to see famous landmarks. On the way back, Shaniece left her phone on the Underground (the subway). As the doors closed, a man held up the phone and waved to her. The people in the car all pointed to a button, which Shaniece tried in vain to press only to the effect of giving her a slight shock. In a moment of desperation, she rushed past the gate blocking the entrance from the station platform to the tunnel, which caused all the trains on the line to stop! It was a crazy situation, but fortunately the Underground employees and other people at the station were extremely kind to us. After giving her several lectures about how she could have died rushing past that gate, to our amazement, they were able to get her phone back. We chuckled imagining how SEPTA employees would have handled this situation. As we got off the train to the airport, I realized my wallet was not in my purse. As I frantically searched for it, a security guard walked by carrying Sam’s wallet. Apparently she had dropped it exiting the train. Soon, she realized she had my wallet in her bag, which I must have dropped earlier and she had been keeping safe. We were extremely relieved to know that somehow we had managed to hold on to all our most valuable and necessary possessions. Of course, when we got to New Delhi our checked luggage was nowhere to be found. Fortunately, it was merely delayed and we were able to get it back several days later. Lesson number one: travel is unpredictable and it is easy to get disoriented and lose things.

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London

Dhrangadhra is very hot at this time of year, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It is dry, though, which makes it much easier to handle the heat. In addition, most people do not go out between the hours of 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, so it is perfectly acceptable to take naps. It is both wonderful and a bit unnerving to be living in a palace. While we are told the people who work here consider it a good opportunity, it is strange to have people essentially waiting on us. Because most of them do not speak English, it is difficult to communicate with them other than to say abhar, which means thank you in Gujarati. Nevertheless, most of them are very warm towards us, and we communicate through gesture, and more than anything, simply through smiling at each other. Shaniece brought nail polish, and yesterday she, Camilla, and some of the women have had some very nice exchanges painting nails and doing henna together.

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Camilla (L) with Barati (R) (Photography by Sam Romero)

In addition, a woman named Jayshree speaks English and is almost always with us, helping us to navigate these places. Jayshree works as a social worker at an NGO with women and children. She is extremely warm and makes us all feel loved and safe. As Camilla remarked, she feels like a combination of a mother, a sister, and a wife. She makes her own clothes (which are all gorgeous and expertly tailored), and she teaches women to sew at the NGO. We all feel very lucky to have her with us.

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Jayshree (L) dancing with Chrissy (R) (Photography by Liliana Jacobson-Peregrino)

Because most of our names may be hard for Indian people to remember, we were given Indian names. My name is Anande, which means “joyful one.” We like to wander the beautiful palace and its grounds at night, most of which is not in use and in varying degrees of ornateness and disrepair. We are not to flush toilet paper, and we are warned the water is not safe to drink or brush teeth with. Only certain areas of the palace have wifi, and most of us do not use data on our phones as we have discovered data is extremely expensive and quick to be used up. Apparently, however, this wifi is a recent development along with the air conditioning in the bedrooms.

So far, we have been busy visiting temples and sacred sites, buying clothes in the city, hearing music, going to weddings, etc. We are served four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. I was surprised how easy it was to adjust to eating Indian food every day; I love Indian food, but as an American I’m used to being able to enjoy a variety of cuisines day to day. But the food is delicious, and I always look forward to the next meal. It is also very fun to wear the clothes here. Though us women must cover our legs, shoulders, and chest, the fabric is light, loose, comfortable, and beautiful. It is amazing to walk down the streets of Dhrangadhra and see so many beautiful women adorned with lots of jewelry with long pretty hair. I don’t think I’ve seen an outfit I would consider “ugly.” Though dress codes for women can be restrictive, at least the options are flattering.

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Women praying at Ranmal Temple in Dhrangadhra

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Wedding in Jesada

Navigating the streets of Dhrangadhra is not like anything I’ve experienced before. First of all, there are no road rules. While sometimes this doesn’t seem to make a difference in terms of safety, other times certain drivers scare the crap out of us. In general, though, I’ve noticed people here don’t seem to get road rage. The lack of rules has an effect of making the people who drive on these roads much more aware of everything that is going on, rather than relying on rules and boundaries to ensure safety. People drive wherever they can, and there seem to be more motorcycles and rickshaws than cars. Bulls, dogs, goats, and boars roam freely, eating the colorful trash adorning the brown roads.

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Because animals are considered to be manifestations of Hindu deities, they are respected here. They are left to roam free and are not generally kept as pets except for in situations where they are utilized for a purpose. I treat my cat like he’s my son, so it feels strange to me to see all these dogs walking around and people paying them no attention. My first night here I tried to call to one of the dogs, and he seemed extremely confused. It wasn’t until I called him multiple times that he even realized I was talking to him, and when he figured it out he seemed very confused that a human was trying to interact in that way with him.

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Dog enjoying milk libations at stepwell in Kankavati

Because this experience is delightful and exhilarating, it can be hard to recognize feelings of culture shock. I expected culture shock to be a conscious experience, but it is actually a rather unconscious process. Out of nowhere, several of us have experienced feelings of depression and heightened emotion. I think, at least for me, part of this has to do with the poverty many people are living in as well as how much women are repressed. While it is clear many people live in tents outside the palace ground, it seems so normalized here that it sometimes takes a while to comprehend the extreme difference of our lives in this palace with their lives on the sides of roads. In Ahmedabad, women with babies would come up to the car, gesturing that they needed food. It also takes a while to realize how different it is to be a woman here. Since in America we often associate bright colors, beautifully draped clothes, bare midriffs, and piercings with empowered females, it is easy to forget how patriarchal this society is. When a woman is married here, she is not supposed to wear certain colors like blue, black, white, and grey as they are associated with widowhood. Women are also supposed to wear certain jewelry to indicate their marital status. It was difficult to watch a young girl marry in a neighboring village called Jesada, as it was clearly the worst day of her life; she looked absolutely devastated. She did not get to choose her partner, she was about to be separated from her family, and she now had to lose many freedoms she once had in order to serve her husband. In addition, an eleven-year-old girl was also to be married. Though she does not have to leave her family until she is older, it was shocking to witness something like this. Now I know, especially after feeling so happy most of the time and then occasionally terrible out of nowhere that these experiences can be wonderful, but they must be processed. As anthropologists we must keep our minds open, but at the same time, we must recognize when certain issues push our ethical buttons.

Getting ready for India

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Hey folks! My name is Anna, and I am an undergraduate anthropology student at Temple University. This week I embark on my study abroad journey in Dhrangadhra, India! Fortunately, the children I nanny are 2nd generation Indian-American, and both parents speak Gujarati, the language spoken in Dhrangadhra. In fact, the seven-year-old daughter taught me the phrase modhu bandh which means “shut your mouth.” Surely this phrase will be invaluable in my field work! The parents have been generously helping me prepare for this experience by teaching me about food, inviting me to Indian-American community events, and telling me about their experiences as Indian-Americans both in America and in India.

For the past semester, I have been studying the craft of ethnography in anthropological and sociological fieldwork. Ethnography is a tricky medium. There are a variety of methodologies that can be used in field work. Among these approaches, some are more successful than others in avoiding ethnocentrism and considering cultural relativity. They may be specific to a social structure, comprehensive, or comparative. Ethnographic construction may involve writing, film, audio recording, and/or performance. I believe that now, at a time when globalization is spreading faster than paranoia and biases are eroding, it is important to establish ways to interact cross-culturally and publish these findings that are effective, respectful, and non-exploitative. Staying in Dhrangadhra for the entire month rather than dividing my time traveling to several different countries or regions will allow me to gain an appreciation for what it takes to adjust to life in a different culture far from home.  This skill is critical in anthropological work.

On an intellectual and spiritual level, my foremost curiosity is what is spirit and how is it linked to the body? From what I understand, there is an infinite number of answers to this question shaped by various cultural, temporal, geographical, and political factors. I know that what I want to do someday will be rooted in this question, and spending time in a place like Dhrangadhra will be a transformative experience that will allow me to explore it in new ways by observing and learning about religion, nutrition, medicine, and performance.

That’s all for now. See you in Dhrangadhra!