Sikhism and the Gurudwara…

…From my experiences, Sikhs have always seemed like incredibly benevolent and optimistic individuals. I have been very curious to learn more about their religion and visit a Gurudwara (Sikh house of worship, meaning literally “Gateway to the Guru”). With the hospital unusually quiet this morning, today was my chance to break away and visit the most prominent Gurudwara in Delhi, the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib.

Sikhism is the fifth largest organized religion in the world. There are more than 19.2 million Sikhs in India and 700,000 in the United States. According to the pamphlet I was given, “A Sikh is a person who believes in one God [Ik Onkar] and the teachings of ten Gurus enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Book.”

Once I arrived at the Gurudwara (after nearly two hours of travelling), I was given a tremendously warm welcome by a white-bearded volunteer who explained to me what I should do. There was a specific place for foreigners where I left my shoes and socks and was given a triangular cloth to tie around and cover my head.

I then joined the masses in washing my feet in a small pool of water and walked into the courtyard surrounding the temple itself. I followed everyone to the left as we entered to a long set of what looked like ticket windows.

I observed as people bought aluminum foil bowls containing food, deposited their receipts in a large metal drum, walked across the courtyard to two men who took half of it, and then walked into the temple with what remained. I was rather confused. I spoke to this man, who was taking half of everyone’s food, to learn more.

–The congenial man taking half of everyone’s prashad–

The man explained that the food was kadah prashad. For Rs 10 (20 cents), people bought a bowl, gave half as an offering to the Holy Book, and took the rest home. I tried to find out what happened to the half that was donated but struggled with the language barrier and let it go. I went back, bought some kadah prashad, gave the man half, and walked into the Temple.

The temple was rectangular in shape with live music and ceremonial procedures being conducted at an altar in the middle of the room (which contained the Guru Granth Sahib). To the left, right, and back of the space, people sat on the plush carpet and listened to the music in motionless solitude. The steady flow of worshipers moved clockwise around the altar, bowing at various significant points throughout the temple. I had noticed music playing outside but had not realized that it was coming live from inside the temple. The music was a seemingly integral part of the religious experience. It was loud, consistent, compelling, and amplified throughout the Gurudwara so that everyone could hear it. After a while, three new musicians rotated in, giving an entirely different feeling to the space.

After a while, I made my way to the exit, outside of which dollops of prashad that had been obtained at the entrance were handed to each worshiper. My questions were answered, at least partially. I took my prashad to the steps next to the exit and enjoyed the sacred pudding-like delicacy.

–Man looking over the Sarovar and main temple–

I continued to follow the worshipers clockwise around the sacred water feature called the “Sarovar.”

The entire Gurudwara was a flurry of activity and unusual rituals. This man was filling empty plastic bottles of all types with holy water.

–Lining up for lunch–

The Gurudwara Bangla Sahib is not just a temple; it is also a school, hospital, and kitchen. And what a kitchen it is! As I approached the kitchen and dining hall, hundreds of people were already lined up for lunch. Inside, the kitchen was stirring with dozens of volunteers and Gursikhs (Sikhs completely devoted to the ‘true’ guru). Groups of people from different races, ages, and religions rolled chapatis, cooked chapatis, filled and transported enormous pots of soup, cleaned dishes and silverware, and prepared the dining room for the next wave of diners.

In the Sikh tradition of langar, any person of any faith or background is welcome to eat at the Gurudwara for free. Between 10,000 and 20,000 meals are served here every day! All ingredients are donated and most of the workers are volunteers. The food is strictly vegetarian so that all may eat equally without restriction.

The next time I looked at the dining room, it was filled with obedient and hungry guests. Wanting to try some of the cooking, I went back to the front where the doors were just closing. As an obvious outsider, I was told to go around to the side, where I was let in and showed one of the last remaining seats on the floor.

Everyone sat in silence as chapati was handed to us and aloo (potatoes) and dal (lentil soup) were poured into our metal trays. I was amazed and impressed by the clean atmosphere, efficiency of the service, and quality of the food. Surprisingly, it was actually one of the best places I have eaten out in India!

After a few more chapatis and helpings of aloo, I deposited my tray and spoon at the exit. Feeling uneasy about taking food for free, I went back into the kitchen and spent 30 minutes rolling and flipping chapatis with the locals. Speakers in the kitchen and dining room played the continuous spiritual music from inside the temple. No one spoke, except when I would mess up and then they would all laugh and help me fix my mistake. Although I probably slowed production more than I helped, it was a fascinating undertaking to be a part of.

Full House…

…When we returned home from Jaipur on Sunday, one more volunteer had arrived. This week, there have been 13 people living in our home (including 9 volunteers). We are certainly cozy, to say the least. With nine people using one restroom in India, the line can get uncomfortably long. My host-mother hired a cook to prepare our breakfasts and dinners. However, his food is not nearly as delicious. The cook was let go today and we are excited that my host-mother has regained control of the kitchen.

–My room, where five of us are sleeping–

The celebratory atmosphere in the community has been building gradually for weeks now. This weekend is the big wedding everyone has been waiting for. Rumor has it that more than 2,000 people will be in attendance for the main event, which is Sunday night. The neighbors have covered their home in lights that illuminate the entire street and family members have been arriving from around the world, including the groom’s sister, who has ironically been living in Phoenix, Arizona for four years.

With my kurta pajama, scarf, and jooties ready to go from Jaipur, all I needed to complete my outfit was a formal turban. The female volunteers have had their sarees tailored and required only matching bangles and jewelry. My host-father took us shopping today in an extensive market about 8 km northwest of our home-stay to help us find the final touches. Just as I had envisioned, we drove up to a busy market with one store that sold and rented only turbans. I would never have found it alone. There are pictures of the turban, but you’re going to have to wait for the surprise on Sunday. Here are some scenes from the market:

I also went back to the barber for my second haircut today. It was far less comical and eventful than my previous one. However, they doubled the price on me to Rs 100 ($1.94)! Go figure. It was still underpriced.

–My host-father says they can still fit one more person on a bike (I can’t wait to see that)–

–Men staying warm in an empty store next to the barber shop–

Open-Air Slum School…

…This morning, we had the opportunity to visit another slum school only a few hundred meters down the canal from where we normally volunteer. Although it was outside, this classroom had the advantage of desks, better lighting and ventilation (courtesy of nature), and a chalkboard that could be easily read by the entire class at once.

Two American volunteers were assisting the teacher here and were teaching the students how to make origami. The kids were eager to show us their progress.

After an hour helping in the new school, we walked through the slum back to where we usually teach.

The morning class at our school was being taught by two French volunteers who had the kids overwhelmingly excited about “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” and “no more monkeys jumping on the bed.” As always, I was greeted by name and with salutes from around the room and even on the streets.

After class, we jumped rope with the kids (they love it when we join in) and had chai tea in the teacher’s home just around the corner from the school.

After chai, we went home for lunch before returning to finish a “Healthy Eating” mural that we had started yesterday.

–Residents of the slum trying to staying warm while we walked home–

Abdominal Mass (GRAPHIC)…


We had heard that a major surgery was going to be taking place today and that only two volunteers would be allowed in the OT. A 27 year old male patient had noticed pain in his abdomen and had come in for a checkup. Ultrasound and MRI tests revealed a large solid mass in his lower abdomen. A normal, perfectly healthy looking man quietly entered the OT, acknowledged us and the staff, and lay down on the operating table. He waited patiently and silently with arms stretched out like a crucifix for more than a half hour as latex gloves snapped and dozens of fearsome-looking cold metal tools clanked and scraped.

Like the pedestrians here who fearlessly cross six lanes of frantic highway and passengers who ride on top of heavily-ladened three wheel vehicles, this patient seemed surprisingly unalarmed by the impending danger. His pulse remained a steady 56 and blood pressure only slightly higher than normal as he waited. Once the surgeons entered the OT, all waiting was over. The patient was prepped with the usual procedures. A catheter was started almost immediately using only a Lidocaine lubricant. His pulse was, needless to say, no longer calm. The anesthesiologist removed vials and syringes from his briefcase and began IV injections one after the other, all while talking on his cell phone.

The cutting and cauterizing began as the room slowly filled with the aroma of burning flesh. Once through all of the abdominal layers, the skin was separated and the surgeon immediately pulled up a massive solid mass.

Even the anesthesiologist and technicians were taking pictures. At this point, the removal was fast. The surgeons investigated for more masses but seemed satisfied by their one enormous acquisition and began to suture the man back up.

–Preparing to send the sample off for testing–

Some more scenes from throughout the OT:

–Operating with bare feet in slippers while surrounded by bio-hazards–

Monkey Temple…

…Just a few kilometers east of the central walled city of Jaipur is the Galta Gorge. Although not as well publicized or known to tourists, it was one of the most interesting sights I have experienced in India. We had been told that we should visit the Monkey Temple by my host-father and showed up not knowing what to expect, except a lot of monkeys. However, we knew we were in the right place as soon as we got out of the car. The narrow valley is home to over 5,000 monkeys, hundreds of goats, and dozens of cattle. I found that clapping loudly and making scary noises kept the troublesome monkeys from attacking.

–A monkey looking out over Jaipur (you can see a couple of kites flying in the distance)–

We walked to the temple on top of the peak overlooking all of Jaipur. The views were amazing but we were all a bit underwhelmed. I had a hunch we were in the wrong place. I had noticed pictures of sacred tanks in my guidebook, so we enlisted the help of some eager locals to show us the way to them. After a kilometer of switchbacks through steep terrain, we found the spectacular set of temples and sacred baths that we were looking for.

I felt like I was living in a National Geographic Magazine. Here I was watching the pilgrims wash away their sins in curative holy water while monkeys ate bananas and picked flies off of one another in front of an 18th century mountain temple where worshipers prayed to an elephant deity named Ganesha.

Amber Fort…

…Our next stop was one of the most beautiful forts in the state of Rajasthan, if not all of India, called Amber Fort (known locally as Amer Fort). The city of Amer gained prominence as the capital of the Kachhwaha Rajputs, a formidable clan of the ruling warrior class, from 1037 AD to 1727 AD, after which Maharaja Jai Singh II (the man who built Jantar Mantar) moved the capital 11 km southwest to Jaipur.

The Kachhwaha clan used marriage as a form of diplomacy, which they seem to have handled very well. Noticing the rise in wealth and power of the Mughal Emperors in Delhi, Agra, and Fatehpur Sikiri, the Kachhwahas ensured strong ties with the Mughals through marriage and military support. War booty contributed to massive wealth for the local Maharajas (kings). Maharaja Man Singh, the Rajput (warrior ruling class) commander of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s army (remember him from Fatehpur Sikiri and Agra Fort), began construction of Amber Fort in 1592.

Because the Kachhwahas were strictly Hindu and the Mughals strictly Muslim, the resulting architecture of Amber Fort is a unique blend of both architectural styles.

–A corner of the courtyard surrounded by the 12 queens’ chambers–

The Maharaja here would have 12 queens and many mistresses. Each queen lived in a separate room around the courtyard shown above. Secret passages in the walls behind allowed the Maharaja to travel freely throughout the palace and into each of the queens’ chambers in secrecy. Carvings of Kama Sutra still adorn the molding in some of the queens’ chambers. Although the Maharaja likely had dozens of children, only his first son was attributed to him.

–Jaigarh Fort standing watch over Amer–

I believe no invading force ever entered Amer to challenge the Kachhwahas, which was probably a good decision. The town of Amer is surrounded on most sides by steep, rocky mountains. A massive wall that resembles the Great Wall of China runs up and down the ridges of the mountains and is easily visible from miles away. The Amber Fort is halfway up one of the highest mountains and is directly downhill from Jaigarh Fort. Jaigarh serves as a massive citadel that overlooks and protects the entire town, wall complex, and Amber Fort below.

–View into the valley from Jaigarh Fort–

–Amber Fort viewed from a protective tower in Jaigarh Fort–

–Jai Van Cannon–

Situated on the highest point in Jaigarh Fort is Jai Van, the largest cannon on wheels in the world. Weighing in at 50 tons and with a barrel length of just more than 20 ft, Jai Van could use 220 lbs of gun powder to launch a massive cannonball over 22 miles. Impressive distance, but I am skeptical of the accuracy. Four elephants were required to move it into firing position.

The Maharajas used elephants to move up and down the steep paths as well as power to move supplies and military equipment. Elephants are still the luxurious way to enter the fort. However, each elephant is only allowed five trips up to the fort each day before it is taken home, fed, and given rest. The elephants are also rested in the middle of the day when the sun is highest in the sky. Although we did not get the chance to ride to the top, our tour guide took us to one of the ‘stables,’ for lack of a better word, where we were able to play with the elephants.

Their skin is tough and hair like cactus needles, albeit not as sharp or hard. Their eyes can almost talk. This elephant was eating as I stood under his trunk, which contributed to my laughter. Standing so close to a chewing mouth that looked like it could take my head off in one bite felt a bit strange.

We also did some shopping in Amer at a huge fixed-price store that I actually enjoyed shopping at. In preparation for the wedding this weekend, I bought this hand-embroidered kurta pajama, silk scarf, and pair of camel-skin jooties with the curly pointed toes straight out of Aladdin.

Jantar Mantar…

…As an enthusiast of astronomy, navigation, physics, and architecture (among many others), I had been eagerly awaiting a visit to Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Literally translated as ‘calculation instrument,’ Jantar Mantar was built by Maharaja (King) Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734 to improve scientific understanding of celestial bodies and provide more exact astrological predictions. He built five such complexes throughout Northern India but the one in Jaipur is the most impressive and best preserved.

There are 16 different sets of large instruments here that each serve different purposes or provide different methods of taking the same measurements. Walking through Jantar Mantar is like walking through a sculpture park that also happens to be one of the most incredible science projects on Earth.

–Laghu Samrat Yantra–

Located at 27 degrees North latitude, each of the instruments (except for the instruments dedicated to specific zodiac signs) is inclined at an angle of 27 degrees from level and points directly toward true north. Therefore, if you looked up any of these instruments from the base of the inclination, you would see Polaris (the North Star) seemingly resting on the top of the device.

–Where time is measured on the Laghu Samrat Yantra–

The Laghu Samrat Yantra is essentially a large sundial that is capable of determining local time within a margin of error of 20 seconds. When we visited, the local time’s deviation from India Standard Time was 33 min back. In other words, when the sun was directly overhead in Jaipur and the devices that point to true north cast no discernible shadow to the east or west, a watch would read 12:33 pm India Standard Time.

–Samat Yantra–

Unsatisfied with an accuracy of 20 seconds, Jai Singh II had the Samat Yantra (“The Supreme Instrument”) constructed. At 27 m (90 ft) tall, it is the largest sundial in the world and is capable of measuring local time to within 2 seconds. The shadow from the Samat Yantra moves at a speed of 1mm per second (6 cm per min) along what is essentially a massive ruler shaped into a half ring and tilted at the same 27 degree angle.

Other devices are used to track stars and constellations, determine the declinations of celestial bodies, and predict events or horoscopes.

–Three of the instruments in the Rashivalaya Yantra–

The Rashivalaya Yantra is comprised of 12 different devices each at a different angle and orientation. Each of the 12 devices is specifically used to make measurements for one zodiac sign, such as Sagittarius or Taurus, and is oriented and inclined at the appropriate angle for its respective constellation. In combination with other instruments, astrologers could make highly specific (they call it ‘accurate’) horoscopes using these devices.

–Ram Yantra–

The Ram Yantra is an instrument comprised of two cylindrical devices made up of thin wedges that complement each other. The instrument would normally be one large cylinder, but then no one could enter the device to make accurate readings. Thus, the cylinder is cut into wedges and adjoining wedges are separated so that people can walk between every other wedge. The missing wedges are then built into a separate, complementary cylinder just beside the first. Thus, only one of the instruments works at a time. About every 15 minutes or so, the center post’s shadow will move off of the measurable surface into one of the spaces where a wedge is missing. Then, the astronomer would have to go to the other cylinder where the center post’s shadow had just entered the measurable surface area. It’s quite hard to explain, but maybe you can figure it out looking at the photos.

–Jai Prakash Yantra–

The Jai Prakash Yantra is another device comprised of two complementary hemispheres. If overlaid with one another, the two fractional hemispheres would make one solid hemisphere without any gaps. On the hemispheres is a map of the heavens. It is used to determine the accuracy of other instruments in the complex and determine which zodiac device to use.

–Narivalaya Yantra–

The Narivalaya Yantra is comprised of two circles placed at an angle of 27 degrees toward the ecliptic. It is used to calculate time and follow the solar cycle.

Jaipur, Kites, and Rajvilas…

…All six of us volunteers left the house this morning at 7:30 am in a car that we hired to drive us to, from, and around Jaipur for the weekend. Crammed in a Mahindra Bolero (the most prevalent SUV here), we set out on the 258km drive southwest from Faridabad. In the United States, this drive would have taken 2.5 hours on a state highway. In India, it took 7 hours on their equivalent of an interstate! Although most people luckily do not obey it, the posted speed limit is 40 km/hr (24.8 miles per hour!). One would expect that a toll road would forbid the use of camels, oxen, and vehicles with no more power than a lawn mower, but they do not. They also do not regulate the traffic. The entire way, I think there were only two traffic lights. Thus, cars, trucks, bicycles, camels, cows, dogs, pedestrians, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, and vehicles with literally only a chassis and steering wheel pull on and off or cross the road wherever they want. Needless to say, horns and brakes are always in high demand.

We arrived in Jaipur at 2:30 pm and found our hotel, the Sunder Palace. For Rs 350 ($7) per person per night, we had great service, impeccably clean rooms, high speed internet, hot water, and constant power! We were all highly impressed. We had lunch at a restaurant called Niro’s and then went perusing the many bazaars of the “Pink City.”

Not realizing that next week is the annual Kite Festival in Jaipur, I looked up at the sky and was amazed by what I saw. The sky was filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of kites of many different colors and at different altitudes. It is a shame the kites are too small to turn out well in photos, because the sight was beautiful. Some were so high that they were hardly visible. I looked directly above me and saw one tiny thread just a few meters above my head. I followed it to the ground and found the controller standing in front of a store down the street. I followed the string the other way but couldn’t tell which one kite was his because there were so many. I walked over to the man and he handed me the silk thread to fly the kite. I found out that his was the one 4000 meters out and that he still had half a spool of thread remaining. Some kites were more than 10000 meters (over 6 miles) out! I found it incredible that there was almost no effort needed to hold the kite. When I gave it back to the man, another kite began to attack his. Swirling his arms and tugging and dropping his arms, the kite swerved and dodged a few seconds later, then began to float to the ground as the silk thread was severed by the attackers line.

Having had such a mind-blowing experience at the Oberoi Amar Vilas in Agra (ranked as Travel + Leisure’s 14th best hotel in the world for 2011), I had made a reservation for all 6 of us in the bar of the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur (ranked as Travel + Leisure’s 8th best hotel in the world for 2011). We showered, cleaned up, and embarked once again in the Bolero. Some of the crew was a bit skeptical as we drove out of town about 10 km. Along a dark nondescript road seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we turned into a small row of hedges with a fire-engine-red gate, three security guards, and yet another impeccably dressed gate manager. The driver, who spoke only very little English and just drove where I pointed, looked at me as if we had unexpectedly arrived at the main gate of the White House. He rolled down the window and I explained to the manager who we were. “Welcome to the Rajvilas, Mr. John,” he proclaimed as the guards flung open the gates. Another sole guard in ancient military style regalia awaited us at the other end of the driveway. There were no other cars, no other people, and no other noise. Silence is so rare here that it is a treasure just to experience it.

We each ordered one drink in the bar and took turns exploring everything from the stores and restaurant to the restrooms. I appropriately ordered their specialty drink called ‘Diwan-E-Khas’ (Hall of Private Audience, which is usually the most palatial room in the forts and palaces).


…Today, I saw my second Bollywood film, Don 2, which is a huge hit here in India. It stars Shahrukh Khan, India’s most prized and famous actor, who plays an international gangster that lives and takes on enemies like an Indian James Bond. The cinematography, music, and effects were just as good as a Hollywood blockbuster. However, I cannot comment on the acting as 98% of the movie was in Hindi. About every five minutes, there is a token English phrase thrown in. To be honest, I don’t really know why.

The movie experience here is highly cherished. A new hit movie comes out every week or two and everyone asks and talks about it. For only Rs 100 ($2), viewers get a huge theater with full food and beverage service and seats that slide forward as they lean back (making them extra comfortable).

However, even the movies here are deafening. Luckily, having been prepared for long tuk-tuk rides surrounded by blaring horns, I had my earplugs with me. My friends laughed at first but were jealous by the end. We left at intermission, which was an hour and twenty minutes into the movie!

–An Indian batting cage…for cricket!–

–Dinner and a movie the right way–

If you’re reading Liliana, I thought of you calling me a philistine.

In case you were wondering, I am indeed receiving mail! I have received two Christmas cards recently that took 15 days to get here. Thanks for thinking of me! Merry Christmas to you too! Love you all.


I want to let everyone know that I will be leaving on Friday to go to Jaipur for the weekend and am again uncertain if I will be able to post updates. I will try my best. If you do not hear from me, have a great weekend!

…One of three volunteers who recently arrived is a dietitian from Australia. Today, we took a scale and measuring tape to the slum school in order to weigh and measure each student in preparation for teaching them more about what they should strive to eat (even if they can’t always get it). Using charts and calculations, she determined, unsurprisingly, that most of the kids were small and undernourished for their ages. In fact, many of the children fell into the bottom 5% of the nourishment tables. It was somewhat ironic to see the teacher serving lunches out of the bucket as we weighed and measured each of them.

One of the students today was 15, skinny to the bone, and had just had her marriage to a 25-year-old man arranged by her parents. She seemed shy and nervous. I am not sure if it was because of the attention we gave her or because of the arrangement.

Some more photos of the day:

–Kids vying to have their picture taken outside of the school–

–Improvising games: badminton with a board–

–Our lunch, where Ratatouille poked his head out yet again–

–A special dinner of pourri, aloo, and rita at home–