The Tirupati Tales

January 19, 2011

In one of his 1,102 garlanded verses—line begins with the word that ends the last and the first verse begins with the word of that ends the final creating an eternal round—the great alvar (one immersed/sinkingin god) poet/saint Nammalvar (our own alvar)writes:

Young one, before you weaken and your days grow short,

before you reach the limits of your set time,

go to the feet of Venkatam amidst the many flowers and ponds and groves

where he lies on his hooded-serpent bed. (Tiruvaymoli 3.9.10) Trans F.X. Clooney

It is often wise to follow the advice of a man whom was thought to be deaf and mute by his parents and community until his vow of silence was broken with the unbroken outpouring of 1,102 verses of the finest Tamil devotional poetry to ever have been composed; so I did. (Another hagiography has there being a pause for deep meditation on the line 1.3.1, only for Nammalvar awaken and then finish the poem without further interruption. The line: at the waist was tightly bound with a rope — what! — to the grindstone — such distressing vulnerability!’ The story of a young Krishna tied to the stone to prevent him from engaging in youthful mischief also may offer a nice chance for reflection on the incarnation—what it means for the eternal to become vulnerably human.

Along with Anita, a doctoral student from Sweden doing work on Indian pastors’ and churches’ theologies of religions (see post from a long time back for a very brief introduction to the subject), and approximately 50,000 other daily pilgrims I headed to the feet of Venkateswara (the Lord of Venkatam)in the hills of Tirumala that look down upon plains of Tirupathi. Along with Nagaland it was the second of the two places I most wanted to visit while in India especially after my being able to sit in on a seminar of Tamil devotional poetry led by Prof. Clooney. Fortunately, but not surprising the KSTDC (Karnataka State Touris? something something) organizes a two day trip that leaves Sunday through Thursday from Bangalore. We headed to the Badami House where the tourist department resides the morning of our planned departure in order to book tickets. The trip will not run unless there are at least ten pilgrims (we were the closet things to ‘travelers’ on this trip) booked. Luckily, for us we were numbers 33 and 34 for the trip which meant it was neither over nor underbooked. Later we realized that we were 33 and 34 of the second bus.

We departed Bangalore at 10PM for our five hour trip to Tirupati. Upon arrival at 3am we were taken to the hotel in order to wash up for our temple visits. We were not sure if this was a compulsory bathing or if our showers from UTC prior to leaving would be okay; we opted for the latter especially as there were no towels with which to dry.

We left the hotel at 445 for darshan at the Sri Padmavathi (Sri [the consort of Vishnu] who is full of lotus flowers [for fans of Top Chef padma means lotus]) temple. Already outside the temple the merchants had arrived offering their fares, including garlands for the goddess, to the pilgrims. The TTD who runs to the temple complexes in Tirupati and Tirumala does a very nice job of organizing the throngs of pilgrims that come to visit the temples. Given the tragic events at Sabarimala last Friday it was very reassuring to see the infrastructure in place to ensure our safety. There were, however, moments where, though not fearing for my life, I did briefly fear for my wellbeing, but more on that later.

Sri Padmavati

Having purchased our ticket in one area of the complex and moving towards the temple itself the power to the complex went out, and we were plunged back into the darkness of the early morning. For a minute there were no songs to the goddess coming from the speakers and no overhead lighting. Only the faintest of sounds and light coming from the inner sanctum of the priest chanting and candles burning were to be observed. It was serene and then the generator kicked back on and things were back to routine for an old temple in the 21st c.

I have not been barefoot too often in Bangalore (as it is not probably advised) and the few times I had been for church or temple. For this trip I would spend a good five hours and probably 4-5km barefoot. I was a bit tenderfoot, but survived. As one crosses the threshold into the inner regions of the temple one walks across a cool damp floor that cleans one’s feet as much as it rejuvenates your spirit. It adds also to the otherworldliness of the affair, barefoot on cold damp stone, incense burning all around. And I mean this not only in that this is a very different kind of worship than I am used to kind of otherworldliness, but also in that this is holy ground, where heaven meets earth (see the stanzas below), and one can certainly experience the sacredness of this space (no need to psychologize it here).

The passages through the temple, even more so at Venkatam, is labyrinthine. Like the Christian devotional practice of the Labyrinth, it offers the one waiting in line the chance for deep inner reflection. However, unlike the Christian practice which involves a mat in a room or a stone path outside, the walk through the complex offers outer experience as well inner. There is audible chanting coming over the speakers often accompanied by the chanting, individual and group, of the pilgrims; the smells, incense, flowers, pilgrims; and sights; the temple and pilgrims which change as one moves through the line.

At Sri Padmavathi temple the line was short, ten minute queue, but nevertheless there is that moment where one sees the outside of innermost sanctum and one knows that the goddess is just on the other side. (It should be noted that the murtis, often translated as idols, are the gods and goddesses themselves and are neither mere stone carvings nor iconic references to them. When you ask a pilgrim why they have come, they will most often say ‘Here is where God lives and he is a powerful God). The anticipation and the exuberance of the community can overcome you—for this is a very communal thing. And as soon as you cross before the goddess you are grabbed by the temple handlers and escorted away. Five seconds perhaps, seven if you stand firm at the initial attempt to pass you on, and then you are out the door and out of the temple. It is ephemeral, but its brevity does little to stymie the love of the devotee or the efficaciousness of their plea.

After a brief breakfast we bordered a bus for Tirumala. Shedding our shoes on the KSTDC bus, we would be barefoot for the next 4.5 hours. One of the TTD organizational precautions is to limit the buses and cars that can summit the hills. VIP’s may take their cars to the top, but are not allowed to be accompanied by their armed guards within the inner sanctum. Everyone else may walk the 20kms uphill or take a TTD bus 100IR round trip. We did the latter.

As we pulled into the depot our bus was boarded by a wild-eyed, holy beggar. Filling the bus with incense, he would bless you for a couple rupees—nonpayment was not encouraged and a 10 spot got you and your seatmate an extra feather touch. Having picked up a couple pilgrims our bus made the quick climb up to the top of Tirumala. Our driver was skilled and confident which resulted in an unfortunately exhilarating ride to the top. This was the first instance I thought I might me God before meeting God.

The hill flattens out for the temple mount and all along the road are pilgrimage houses and hat stands. Should you ever want to buy a hat and found your city wont for hats, I would advise you to visit Tirumala. I have never seen so many hats, tens of thousands of them. There were ski hats, baseball caps—too many Yankee hats—cowboy hats, safari hats, in all shapes, sizes, and colors. The sheer number assures that even the pilgrim with the most discerning of tastes could find a suitable hat. It also assures that the thousands of freshly shorn devotees can purchase immediate protection from the often blazing Andhra Pradesh sun. Having offered their hair to Venkateswara, men, women, and children stroll the temple grounds with their very bald heads proudly displayed. As I am letting mine grow for the moment, my locks stayed with me.

One of the many benefits of traveling with the KSTDC is that they handle the logistics including the purchase of darshan tickets. On our behalf they purchased a special group ticket which meant a slightly shorter line than the free queue, but still most likely 3.5-4 hours. Having passed through the first level of security we entered the second level of the complex. It is not for the claustrophobic for you are somewhat caged in upon your entrance. This is to keep line cutters out, for which there would be little tolerance, and keep the line looking like a line. Anita and I had attempted to place ourselves in the center of our group to ensure that we would not become separated from it. We were blessed to have a 6’4” Indian with a purple striped shirt in our group as well as 6’1” Indian with a yellow oxford both of whom provided easy visible targets within the many, many people (we were confident that they would not leave us also and further encouraged by the fact that we too rather stood out).

here is where our queue started--at the back

The next four hours were spent slowly snaking through the complex, gradually moving closer to the inner sanctum. The further the line was from Venkateswara the more distracted it was. There was more chit-chat, exchange of pleasantries, handshakes, stories, even horseplay—the young teenage boys in front of us quite enjoyed smacking each others’ tonsured heads. The closer we moved the more pious things became and the more the jockeying for space occurred.

After the first hour, Anita and were at the back of our group. Twenty minutes later a family had maneuvered between us and them. An hour later and an extended family of male devotees positioned themselves in front of us. This pattern kept repeating for the next two hours until finally there were 35-40 people between us and the group. As lines were beginning to merge the closer we got I was a bit nervous that we could drop as many as 100-200 people behind which could mean half an hour or more real time.

As we moved closer and closer the crowd became more one-minded and single-minded. Some devotees began to pull out prayer sheets with shlokas for recitation. Others led their kin and the group in community chants—Goooooooooooooovindaaa was especially popular with the little boy walking ahead of me.

Perhaps the toil of the wait was on my face, as many pilgrims encouraged me that we were very near to the Lord—I think this was both a spatial and spiritual statement. After another round of security we had crossed the first threshold and were now possessing cooled and clean feet. The line continued around past smaller temple shrines and brilliant stone carvings and beautiful gold ornaments. As we moved across the final threshold you face perpendicularly the open antechamber to the inner sanctum. From here you can see the devotees catching their first, if faint glimpse of the Lord. Three, four times as many people stand in a small space that would be uncomfortable with a fifth of the people. At this moment I am a bit anxious about being crushed. Several times before I had been squeezed and that was in a more open area, here it seemed a slip end well.


With a right, then a left, and a left I was now standing in the antechamber. Hands were held high in praise, and mine soon followed as to keep balance. The crowd pushed forward and then back, swayed left then right. ‘Govinda’ was chanted louder and louder, children were on parents shoulders, teenagers climbed on the railings, men and women were on their tip toes. I tried not to crush the elderly in front of me or trample the child at my knees, and I succeeded. The strain of the confined space and trying to keep firm against the mass of people behind was almost too much. After nearly elbowing a grandmother in the head and tripping on another’s sari a young pilgrim grabbed my hands, but them on his shoulder and said, “follow me.” So I did. I stopped fighting the crowd and became part of it, tossed around yes, but nonetheless moving towards God. This was quite a nice physical expression of how I think religious communities ought to function—helping one another get to God.

Like an hourglass the antechamber funneled us into a single line as we entered the chamber proper. All around me handlers were exhorting me to run, to hurry, both verbally and physically. And then there I am, before Venkateswar for 3-5 seconds. It is very dark and he is very dark, and I can only really make out the bright garland draped around him. And then a hand comes and pushes me back and another and another only releasing me to grab an elderly woman not willing to leave the presence of the Lord and an ecstatic young man who has dropped to the floor. And then I am outside of the inner sanctum—amongst a crowd, but no longer in it. Many devotees speak of the immediate serenity that comes upon seeing the Lord, and I would not be surprised if a part of it, even just a small part, is in the freedom from the crowd that one now experiences.

Venkateshwara--the Lord of Venkatam

Venkateswara is a powerful god, and those who come to see him often also come to make a wish. One man in our group wished to become a grandfather and a family came to celebrate their daughter’s 21st birthday. Some seek a high mark on one of the many exams that will open or close a door for you India, some seek marriage blessings or financial success or spiritual success. I too made a wish, and because it is perhaps a Western superstition not to reveal it I won’t. I will give you a hint that it came from the Lord’s prayer, and despite my great love of dinner rolls it has nothing to do with daily bread—even if you take bread to mean cheddar by which I mean money.

The going down from Tirumala was more suspenseful then the ascent. The brakes shrieked that they needed changing and the driver did his best to get us loose on several of the switchbacks. We made it, boarded our bus and returned to Bangalore arriving 22 hours after we had departed. And though this post is 2500 words long, not including the lines below, they do not do justice to the total experience of the day.

Here are two passages from the Tiruvaymoli that talk about the temple and Lord of Venkatam. You can see what a special poet can do with a special place.

(Formatting is funny) Trans.  F.X. Clooney

III.3.1 For all time without end, to abide there and offer perfect service,

that’s what we must do,

there at Venkatam where cascades roar

— serving that beautiful light, our father’s father’s father.

III.3.2 My father, ancestor to our father’s father’s father:

the heaven-dwellers and lord of heaven-dwellers,

at Venkatam where red flowers delight,

they endlessly praise that beautiful great dark one there.

III.3.3 That great wondrous one with lovely red lotus eyes,

his mouth a red ripe fruit, his body a dark blue gem,

the lord of Venkatam where clear abundant waters cascade,

the lord of the heaven-dwellers, of endless, ancient praise.

III.3.4 If I call him “lord of the heaven-dwellers,”

does that glorify him who dwells in Venkatam,

that lofty radiant light, who caught me in his net, low, empty me?

III.3.5 Is it enough to call him “light, worshipped by all the world, first form,”

when this ambrosia of the Veda of the Vedic scholars

dwells in flawless, glorious Venkatam?

III.3.6 Those who take up the task of reverencing the one who lives in Venkatam

do good for themselves and truly destroy sharp debts and the deeds of the body.

III.3.7 The quieted heaven-dwellers and their leaders

come and worship with many flowers, water, lamps, and incense,

at Venkatam, the broad hill which gives us freedom, likeness.

III.3.8 He lifted up the hill to protect them from the cold rain,

he once measured the world, the highest one:

to worship him even once at his hill, Venkatam, destroys sin.

III.3.9 Disease, birth and death, all three

will perish for those who place at their mouth and in their mind

the fresh flowers, lovely lotus feet,

the cowherd of Venkatam who destroyed disease, birth and death.

III.3.10 Young one, before you weaken and your days grow short,

before you reach the limits of your set time,

go to the feet of Venkatam amidst the many flowers and ponds and groves

where he lies on his hooded-serpent bed.

III.3.11 Those skilled in these ten verses from the incomparable thousand

sung by Satakopan of Kurukur with its tall groves

about the lord who spread wide his feet and leapt the earth —

they will gain the good life and prosperity, praise through all the world.

Song VI.10

VI.10.1 Great-mouthed one who ate the world, lord of incomparable fame,

form of light surrounded by everlasting radiance, tall one, your servant’s life breath,

O lord of holy Venkatam, sacred mark on the brow of the world:

summon me, that this servant, descendant of an old clan, may reach your feet.

VI.10.2 You hold the sacred wheel of raging fire that breaks down, razes to the ground,

burns to ash entire clans of wicked demons, king of the divinities,

O lord of holy Venkatam where lotuses red as flames grow in muddy pools:

show me your grace, that this servant who loves you without end may reach your feet.

VI.10.3 Your color is the color of a lovely cloud, so dark,

lord of miracles, ambrosia that seeps sweetness into my mind, commander of the gods,

O lord of holy Venkatam where clear waterfalls crash spilling gems, gold and pearls:

great one, just say, “Ah, there he is!” and bring this servant to your feet.

VI.10.4 Demons who won’t say “Ah, ah!” torment this world,

but your bow rains arrows of fire on their lives, husband of the great goddess Tiru, God,

O lord of holy Venkatam which gods and sages love:

unite with this sinner that I may deserve your feet covered with flowers.

VI.10.5 You are mighty with the bow that pierced the compact row of seven trees that day,

you crawled between two giant trees twined together, first one,

O lord of holy Venkatam where elephants herd like dense clouds,

lord of the strong Carnka bow, when is the day when this servant will reach your feet?

VI.10.6 “When will we ever see the twin lotus feet that once paced the world?”

ask the host of unwinking immortals as they praise you each day,

O lord of holy Venkatam, standing, waiting, serving you with body, tongue, mind:

when is the day come when this servant will reach the truth, touch your feet?

VI.10.7 Ambrosia that this servant loves so well, God of the unwinking gods

with the fierce eagle on your banner, lips luscious like fruit, lord,

O lord of holy Venkatam, antidote to sins that multiply like weeds:

I cannot wait a second to see your feet, though I’ve done no penance.

VI.10.8 “Even though I’ve done no penance in order to see your feet, I cannot wait to see them,”

say the subtle blue-throated one, the perfect Four-faced one and Indra,

O lord of holy Venkatam, as they and their women whose eyes sparkle delight:

Mal, dark and entrancing, come to me, your servant, as you came before.

VI.10.9 You don’t come as you came, as you didn’t come, you come,

eyes like red lotuses, lips like red fruit, four-shouldered one, ambrosia, my life,

O lord of holy Venkatam where glowing gems make night into day:

alas, this servant cannot be away from your feet even for a moment.

VI.10.10 “I cannot be away even for a moment,” says the Lady on the flower

who dwells on your chest,

you are unmatched in fame, owner of the three worlds, my ruler,

O lord of holy Venkatam where peerless immortals and crowds of sages delight:

with no place to enter, this servant has entered right beneath your feet.

VI.10.11 “Come, enter right beneath my feet and live, servants,”

the lord without any equal keeps saying, offering them his grace, and

about him Satakopan of Kurukur where paddy fields are plentiful

has perfected these thousand verses —

whoever holds on to anyone who holds on to these ten about holy Venkatam

will be enthroned in the high heavens.


Pictures From Nagaland

January 14, 2011

Sunset on the Naga Flat lands, day 1


Part of the liquid courage needed to make it into Mokokchung--concealed to ensure its entry and my nonarrest

Naga Christmas Tree--1 part Banana Tree, 1 Part Pine Tree, 1 Part Christams Joy (that's Lenir on my lap)

Because Christmas would not be complete without a Cake Race

The day after Christmas, aka the day I preached l-r Ren, Panger, me, Wati, Atula

Ren's dad showing how to beat the log drum

Nagas were once, not too long ago, head hunters--this is a monument to those days

The Spider, which Panger killed, underwear for perspective and drying

Mr. Molo on his veranda

More to come…

Farewell to Nagaland

January 13, 2011

Mokokchung (I think we found the spot they used for the official town picture)

A view from the village of Lonkum (Covered by stone)

I touched down in Bangalore last night at 2230 having spent nearly three weeks in Nagaland. The experience there was amazing, the scenery gorgeous, and the people kind and generous. I have met many new friends, reconnected with old ones, and I very much look forward to returning in the not so distant future.

This will be the first of three on my time in Nagaland, but don’t worry one will be almost entirely pictures and the other will tell the story of Jinna and Etiben–the Ao Romeo and Juliet. This one will be a straight travelogue about my last ten days in Nagaland–with some picture.

Before the brief look at the Assam Rifles and the occupied state of Nagaland, I think we were somewhere just around Christmas. My friend Wati has kindly given me  copy of my day-after-Christmas preaching moment, and as soon as I find a way to upload I will (not just so you can give me feedback, but because I think the entire service is on there and you can see what an Ao American Baptist service looks like).

A few days after Christmas I was struck with a stomach bug. It was nothing too bad and was accompanied only by nausea and the things often related to that; however, not with any great frequency or force. Under the great care of Panger and especially Ren, I was in good hands and so took it as an opportunity to enjoy some bed rest and catch up on sleep. I also took it as an opportunity to try a little sizzurp/drank as I had 2.333 of the five ingredients. I lacked both tylenol-codeine cough syrup (only had codeine that’s how I came to the .333) and a jolly rancher both of which helps assure one’s sprite becomes Easter pink according to Lil Wayne. I don’t suggest one try this at home. It is never wise to mix pharmaceuticals even if the Houston based sound of chopped and screwed gives us some idea of possible side effects–short term and long term RIP DJ Screw [here is a chopped and screwed version and the original of  Notorious BIG’s Juicy. My entrance into the world of qualified sizzurp sipping was in fact quite accidental. I had the Sprite to aid with the nausea, promethazine to help quell the accompaniments of nausea, and codeine for the possibility of any pain. I did not want to take the promethazine too early because I figured I should get out of my system anything that was wreaking havoc upon it. So instead I took the codeine as I was having some abdominal and head pains. Twenty minutes later I was sick again, but felt like I had gotten it all out of my system–including the recently swallowed pill. Ready for bed and with Panger staying the night in the friend’s bed, I placed the promethazine under my tongue as per my nurse’s suggestion and soon drifted off to sleep. About an hour later I awoke to some buzzing, turned out we had some sort of flying bug in the room. I made an attempt to dispatch of it, but quickly realized I lacked most of the most basic motor skills and so quite literally sunk back into bed–not before mistaking my ipod bud for a bug and nearly toppling out of bed trying to get it off my chest. Panger, once again, came to may rescue and terminated whatever it was with extreme prejudice. I woke up the next morning feeling really refreshed with the exception of a severely dry mouth. My brief foray into an obscure subculture of the hip hop community taught me three things. 1) Chopped and Screwed really does capture the mental and physical effects of drinking sizzurp, 2) Mixing pharmaceuticals, even if its all the rage with the youths, is not all it is cracked up to be, 3) I think I finally know why Lil Wayne’s voice is permanently raspy–the promethazine has turned his mouth and throat into the Atacama. So the whole experience was really in service to knowledge.

The celebration for New Year’s Eve at police point–named for the point where police direct traffic at the a 5way intersection–was wild. The town had set up stage in front of the main church and hosted an evening of music and comedy. The bands, playing mostly covers were more than decent, and the comedian was apparently a riot–I had no idea what he was saying, but everyone was laughing.  The loudest part of the evening was most definitely the crackers. The duration of cracker bursting was not as long as Diwali–thanks to the weekend a good whole ten days of bursting–but the Mokokchung residents made up for in intensity. Fireworks were exploding overhead or directly in front of you depending on one’s elevation in relation to the lighter, while crackers were exploding at much closer proximity. Early I said that in Bangalore it was if quarter sticks of dynamite were being thrown in the street; here it was like a half stick. Plus they were being thrown by all people of all ages at all the levels of insobriety in all manners from every position imaginable at everyone. From alleyways to roof tops, from convenient stores to private homes it was raining crackers. People had no qualms about throwing them into large groups of people, and as the clock ticked down to midnight the police commissioner grabbed the microphone to make sure everyone had the crackers ready. From the stage he stood on out at least a hundred meters half sticks of dynamite were blowing in peoples faces and the commissioners only concern was to make sure everyone was prepared to blow some shit up–my words not his. I guess he failed to notice that that was already happening. Ren told me that a decade ago when the town leaders were especially strong and respected no one would dare light crackers before midnight. Now it was anarchy. Even for me it was a bit much–and I had been chased by Princeton University on two different occasions for firework demonstrations on the golf course (can I help that the grad school bell tower makes for such an inviting backdrop?). I have a video that I will try to post soon.

main church on new year's, sermon occuring inside

On New Year’s day we went to Ren’s home village in order for Panger to deliver the New Year’s sermon. It was in Ao, but seemed to be well received. We spent the rest of the day touring the village. As we met Ren’s aunt for tea a group of children began to crowd around the door only to run off when I waved at them–this would repeat a few times. Finally Ren’s aunt explained to me that the children were pretty sure that I was Jesus–a testament to both my unshavenness and the typically Anglo depiction of Jesus in Nagaland. (Santa also delivers presents on Jesus’ behalf as he is usually tired from being born).

After New Year’s most of my time was spent in preparation for the talk I was to give on human rights. Human rights is not my area of expertise, but after having TA’ed for a few classes in which it came up with some frequency and having an interest in the field I began pouring into my research. After a marathon all-nighter–you can take grad student out of grad school but can’t take the grad school out of the grad student–I had a 20 page paper titled “The End of Human Rights: The Beginning of a Reconsideration.” I will try to post in some capacity or you could subscribe to the Clark Theological College Journal and catch it there. I used Moyn’s recent book the last Utopia to set up the end as in termination of human rights and played that off the end as in telos, aim, objective. I introduced on theoretical problem and one practical and then offered a threefold reconsideration structured around Ambedkar’s motto: educate, agitate, organize! I think both presentation went well–I was later booked for performance at Eastern Theological College in Jorhat Assam–and I learned a great deal from the students who kindly read and responded to the paper. Great experience overall.

Eastren Theological College Seminar

However, to get to Assam for the 930 lecture we had to leave Mokokchung at 3am. Panger kindly went to get the van checked out and turned out the brakes need replacing. Good catch I thought, until he continued, they are cheaper in Assam so we will get them there. That’s right a three hour downhill descent on brakes that were suggested to be replaced.

We made it, but not after my failed attempt to sleep resulted in bouncing back and forth either cracking the hell out my head or slamming the heck out of my knees–much to the delight of those riding up front.

I had a wonderful time in Nagaland and can not thank enough all those that made it possible especially Panger, Ren, Lenir, Akum, Principal Taka, Molo, Wati, Arun, and Wati.

On Rifles and Things

January 1, 2011

Nagaland is an occupied state. One regularly sees the Indian Army on patrol–often toting large, semi-automatic assault rifles–and both the days and nights are punctuated by machine gun fire at what seems to me to be random times: 12:22 PM, 3:49 AM. Just outside the main town area and situated between several villages sits one of three nearby strategic encampments of the Assam Rifles, an Indian Paramilitary outfit. They man a checkpoint into town–though it is very lax–train, march, recreate, and have target practice in view of of anyone and everyone entering into Mokokchung proper. The closest US analogy I can come up with would be if the United States found Kentucky to be prone to civil unrest and stationed the Tennessee militia–or God forbid the Indiana militia–to parade through town in burnt orange or candystriped track suits (when not donning fatigues the Rifles sport snazzy maroon track suits with their outfits name lettered on their back) letting Kentuckians know they are not alone and are being watched. For me it can be a bit distressing–do I have my passport and my travel permit–the Indian government requires both tourists and nationals to register for a Protected Area Permit (not clear if it is I or the area that is to be protected) prior to entering Nagaland (4 of the 7 North East states require such permits). That I have never been asked for either suggests that the perception west and south of here is very different than the reality here. For those living here a constant, visible military presence does have long term psychological effects. Peace can only be maintained by a show and threat of force/violence, we are citizens, but of a different kind–ethnically this is already an issue for North East men and women working in other parts of India who are routinely and systematically targeted on the basis of their ethnicity, often violently.

Fifteen to twenty years back there was a strong internal push for an independent Nagaland state–a push that has been ongoing since 1947. Various Naga groups engaged the Indian military forces in a guerrilla style war that still occasionally flares up in the more remote hillsides. The movement was brutally put down with whole villages burnt and town centers set aflame. (My friend’s wife recalled how 15 years ago she barely escaped a shelling while doing laundry at the river. Her father also informed me today, as we were standing in front of his village’s log drum, that in 1954 the Indian Army had also come through and razed many of the villages forcing the Naga peoples into the jungles for almost a decade–some of her elder sisters’ friends were born in the hillsides. The material history of the village was lost–ceremonial garb, weapons, instruments, crafts, the original log drum created by the village at its founding–and had to be recreated through the survivor’s collective memory).

Since the ceasefire in 1997, the government has turned Nagaland into a kind of welfare state with many of its citizens making/trying to make a living through government jobs and government sponsored programs. Its present economic viability is nearly, if not entirely dependent upon the state–there is little state self-generating economy here. Why does India attempt to pacify by abrupt or subtle force a region that it has little interest in developing or resourcing? From a national security standpoint Nagaland and the North East states constitute a geographic buffer against China. Protected elsewhere by the Himalayas, India’s only vulnerability to a land assault from China would be through the hills of the North East.

Though it is topographically blessed with verdant hills and lush valleys, Nagaland is not so geographically as it is located between two major military countries that maintain a cordial, but tense relationship–see the debate over Arunachal Pradesh, the North North East East of India or Southern Tibet depending on where you are viewing it. However, unlike other disputed regions, the North East except for its diasporic community has little ethnic or cultural connection with the greater subcontinent. Until recently its affairs were the concern of the ministry of foreign affairs.  Non-north east nationals, aka citizens just like their fellow citizens in the north east, must register for the above mentioned entry permit. Unfortunately for Nagaland, it seems that in the eyes of India it is a strategic possession and not much else.

Christmas in Nagaland

December 27, 2010

For my first Christmas away from Louisville, Nagaland was a wonderful alternative. We spent Christmas Eve in Mokokchung’s town center—police point—where I was able to watch not only a fancy dress competition—which included a break dance to perhaps the raunchiest Christmas rap I have ever heard and many performances containing social messages against drinking and encouraging better dieting—but also a motorcycle rally in which both bike and rider were costumed and a cake race which is what you might imagine: a relay race involving cakes for a giant cake prize. The town center was packed with folks, and we were fortunate enough to cross paths with the ubiquitous Molo who served as my translator for much of the fancy dress competition. Following the festivities Panger and I retired to my guest house to do some work and for him to take a much needed respite from the business of his home. At the moment his household includes his wife Ren, children Lenir and Akam, sister Naro, brother Temjen, and cousin Anora. The latter three have been spending the break with the family to help with the children and to work on the house. So it can get crowded and sometimes one needs a break.


After dinner and with the children having been put to sleep, Panger, Ren, and I ventured out to visit a couple who worked at the college—he in charge of all the food preparation, she a professor in Christian ministry. We watched some news and ESPN South Asia. The former included coverage of India’s FBI/SEC raids on various Congress and BJP officials (Cong in trouble over the golden goose that was the Commonwealth games, the BJP over bribes in the telecommunications scandal regarding 2g networking). The consensus is that the raids have come much too late with all incriminating papers shredded and burnt. ESPN teased me with a brief shot of the Gtown/Memphis game and I thought that perhaps we would get a highlight or two. At the end we did…of Memphis unleashing a thunderous dunk on Georgetown. What an injustice. Perhaps one billion people will assume Memphis beat Gtown, which they did not, simply because a decontextualized clip was aired. ***Side note*** One of my favorite things to do is to see college shirts and sweatshirts and try to figure out how they arrived here. Perhaps they are from charitable donations, perhaps from family abroad. ***Side Side note*** The satirical newspaper the Onion ran a rather hilarious story at the expense of Philadelphia Eagles a few years back. For the major playoff games like the NFC championships and the Super Bowl the NFL will print off t-shirts for both teams to ensure they will be ready immediately for public purchase—the window on such things is small. The winning team’s shirts will make it to the US market; the losing team’s will not be unpacked until they arrive at charity distribution centers around the developing world. If you know the fate of the Philadelphia Eagles you know that they lost several NFC Championship Games. Finally, after three or so years they won the NFC championship only to lose in the Super Bowl to New England Patriots. The Onion story was an interview with a passionate Eagles fan from El Salvador who had followed the Eagle’s exploits through the delivered shirts. He was so happy that after several victories in the NFC championship the Eagles finally won the Super Bowl.***Here I have seen a Maryland lax sweatshirt and a Purdue Boilermakers shirt. I wish I had a few Gtown shirts to leave behind.***  It was a very nice way to spend Christmas Eve.


Christmas day began at 6:30 when I woke up to flip on the geyser switch to heat the water for my shower. I quickly returned to sleep and re-awoke at the more decent hour of 7. My first attempt at a shower occurred as I was being settled in after my journey through the mountains. I failed not only at getting thoroughly clean, but staying at least partially warm. Evidently my chattering teeth were audible through the door and elicited a worried query from Ren. I guess I sounded as frozen as I felt. This attempt went much better. First, I brought my long underwear top and new sweatshirt into the bathroom with me along with two towels. Next I got the water hot enough as to be very warm but not so hot that it could be mistaken for cold. I then began a strategic scrubbing campaign in which at least 75% of my body remained within the stream of hot water. Upon finishing the shower I quickly wrapped my lower half and went to drying off the top. As soon as the top was dry I wrapped my hair in the towel and slipped the long underwear and sweatshirt overtop. Next I sat on my bed in front of heater-cum drier. Having already laid my clothes out, I tucked myself back into bed and heated up each article of clothing in proper order. The total shower process from geyser to dress takes about an hour of which I am in the shower for about 3 minutes and in bed for about 50—a near perfect ratio.


After this I walked down to Panger’s house where Santa had visited the night before. Baby Jesus was too tired to make the delivery so Santa was sent in his stead—this was the beginning of wonderful mix of the sacred and secular from a locale far from the Christmas warzone. I had brought Lenir a few Dr. Seuss books—the Lorax and Green Eggs and Ham (pork is really big here)—some coloring books and crayons and a set of hot wheels. Panger and Ren presented me with a beautiful red and black patterned shawl with a white strip running through the middle which presents the Ao Naga’s understanding of the interconnectivity of creation. The shawl is presented only to community elders and honored guests and it demands a respect from the community. I am honored to have received it and was a bit hesitant to wear it out. I did not want to offend the public by wearing it—perhaps they might think I was wearing it not knowing the significance it possessed—nor did I want to offend Panger and Ren who had bestowed it upon me knowing its significance. I wore it and it was without incident.


Our first Christmas service was outdoors in front of Clark Theological College’s class room building. The community had asked Panger if I could preach the Christmas sermon. Having assured them that I was more than qualified to do so and perhaps stretching my preaching skills and experience to televangelist levels, he kindly informed them that I would be too exhausted mentally and physically to preach. Instead I was charged with a Christmas greeting (heads up Louisville, PCUSA, and Boston College I extended a warm season’s greetings on your behalf) and to come up with a game for the post-service, post-lunch recreation hour. In my place the principle of the college delivered a fine sermon and the pot-luck lunch soon was brought out. We enjoyed several variations of pork—the most delicious and heart stopping being the various ways to cook pig fat—and much to the delight of everyone I once again accidently consumed the world’s hottest chili. Last time it came in a soaked piece of mustard leaf; this time it was courtesy of a lump of rice. Soon we were all playing games, and my suggestion of duck-duck-goose included not only the little ones but faculty and administration as well. The whole recreation hour was a riotous good time with the highlight being the dean of graduate students slipping around the circle with the principle in hot pursuit.


After we finished at Clark, Panger and I ventured to our friend Wati’s church. Wati is a fellow alumnus of PTS and serves as head pastor at a Baptist church in the hospital district of town—which happens to be Molo’s family church as well. We arrived just as their recreation hour was shifting towards the fancy dress competition. Rev. Wati escorted us to the best seats in the house where we were able to enjoy a fabulous set of performances which included the finest lip synching I had ever seen. In between two performances Wati leaned over to ask if I would preach at the next day’s service. Panger, too far to run interference and looking much too delighted in my efforts to defer, gave a little nod which I interpreted to mean the old ‘give greetings’ routine. I said I did not feel comfortable preaching—though unpracticed I am nevertheless a classically trained PTS preacher. Where was I to find a Greek New Testament let alone find the time to do a proper exegesis of my verses (it was 2:00 PM, we had several appointments still to make, and first bell was at 1030 am). Wati too gave a knowing smile and said fine, a fifteen minute greeting would be okay. Later that night Panger assured me that it would be okay, gave me a general outline to guide me on what would be expected, and sent me to the guest house to reflect.


I actually was less anxious about the prospect of preaching than I initially had expected. First, I was a classically trained PTS preacher which means that I spend most my Christmas Eves reflecting on how I would deliver a better sermon than my home church’s pastor as he preached—though once I feel I was justified as the interim pastor spouted heresy from the pulpit. Jesus was like a Christmas present, divinity wrapped in humanity. The Cyrils would have been most upset. Second, eleven years, several hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of theological education, hundreds of books read, and one set of comprehensive exams passed meant that if could not pull something together in 12 hours that was theologically coherent and spiritually meaningful—despite not having preached in six years—I should reconsider my career choice. Perhaps the style would not be there, but the content damn well better be. I think I did a respectable job (you can soon be judge as there will be a video), and when I asked Panger and Wati for the feedback they had nothing critical to say—I did not push them too hard on it. I did get a chance to review the video briefly and commented that I could use a haircut. This generated from Panger the following: “Well sure, such things don’t bother me, I am more content oriented, but the congregation has a certain understanding of what a preacher looks like and a nice haircut is part of it.” Point taken.


Back to Christmas day. I left with Molo to visit his brother as Panger brought the car around. Molo’s brother is successful local business man, and though he did not speak English, his boisterous had me laughing with him despite my only partially guessing as to what he might be talking about. With a mouth full of pan at all times—he even prepared his own—he had Molo and Panger in stitches the whole time with me trying to keep up. I tried to follow the conversation and was able to pick up on when I was being referenced but for the most part I had at best a vague idea of what they were saying. I take it is a kind of compliment that no one felt it necessary to provide a running translation of the conversation, nor did I expect one. It was obvious that these are old friends and I did not wish to slow their Christmas conversation by asking what, what—even though I knew both Panger and Molo would not hesitate to translate. After about 45 minutes I could tell the conversation had shifted to me and I could infer that it had to do with my travel arrangements. As Molo informed me, his brother wished to bestow upon me the second honorific gift—a Naga knife—and they were all discussing the logistics of transporting it back to Bangalore and the states. It was determined that the odds of me brining the knife home successfully were not good. As we were leaving he let it be known that should we find a way to get the knife back to the US he wanted to be the one to give it. Just like Molo, he was a most kind man.


Our last stop of the day was to Molo’s home. Here I got to meet his grandmother, a 105 year old woman with nearly all her capacities. She was tired as it was late afternoon, but Molo showed me a film of her from the morning signing a Christmas carol melody—an amazing sight.  Molo’s father presented me with a lovely straw basket filled with oranges from the orange tree in the backyard—one of 18 fruit trees growing back there. My pork consumption has only been matched by my orange consumption—which are in season despite it being in the low 40’s—as each is nearing twenty pounds.


Our Christmas concluded with a trip to the main Baptist Church, the mother church, which had a carol service—sacred and secular again. It lasted about two hours and had some spectacular performances. The church was fortunate to have several well known choirs present and the quality met my expectations which were quite high—Nagas are fantastic singers and musicians.


It was a long, but special day. No doubt, I was homesick, but the warmth and hospitality with which I was received did not make it seem like I was on the other side of the world.


I retired to the guesthouse at 930PM and after exchanging Christmas cheers with my family and Jessica prepared for my greetings/sermon. After a couple of hours of reading, reflecting, and sketching I had an outline and fell quickly into a calm sleep which was fortunate. I had to awake in time for my hour shower process as well as go over my outline a few times.

Country Roads take me Home

December 23, 2010

Last afternoon I arrived in Nagaland, a state tucked into the far North East corner of India. If you want to, grab an atlas, open to India and go to its North East point, then follow a narrow strip of land just north of Bangladesh and there you will find Nagaland. I have to come to Nagaland to spend Christmas with my good friend from seminary Pangernungba aka Panger and his family. Christmas in Nagaland is a statewide celebration–90.2% are Christian the majority of whom are American Baptist. Houses are adorned with larger paper stars, brightly colored and brightly lit. The Naga students at UTC had them placed on my the campuses buildings, but driving through the villages at night was an amazing sight. After four hours of windy, bumpy roads up the side of the hills, I can relate to Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem  בית לחם (not to the bread house/granary–bet ‘house’ lehem ‘bread’ as I had translated once on a Hebrew exam–bonus point for linguistic reasoning made up for the minus point for lack of common sense) especially as my journey was guided by the star along the way. I do think that an ass would be more comfortable on one rather than in the back of the van I was in. Nevertheless I owe great thanks to Molo–Panger’s cousin who came to pick me up–and Mr. Moya–the driver–for taking that journey both ways to see me safely here.

I left the UTC at 430 am for my flight to Kolkata which included a stop in Hyderabad. Once in Kolkata I collected my luggage—luckily I did not assume they would be transferred onto the next flight for me—and boarded a flight for Jorhat in Assam. The Jorhat terminal is tiny perhaps servicing a few flights a day. Unbeknownst to me, my flight was packed with officials from Delhi, government leaders from Assam and Nagaland, and the president of Eastern Seminary where  I will be giving a lecture in a couple of weeks. Molo and Mr. Moya were waiting for me outside and we hopped into the van for the start of our adventure.

The drive through Assam was flat. There were lots of baby goats, sheep, and cows along they way—more than I had seen throughout my entire stay in urban Bangalore. We also drove past vast tea colonies with their short shrubs dotting the horizon. Assam is famous for its delicious tea and you can most definitely pick some up at your local grocery store. On our way out of Assam crossing the state check point, entering into ‘no-man’s-land’ and entering Nagaland through its check point, signs sponsored by ‘BRO’ were numerous. I am not sure what BRO stands for, but they are charged with encouraging driver safety through witty signage. My two favorite ‘Safety on the road, safe tea at home’ and ‘BRO be easy on my curves.’ The second one I enjoyed more until I figured out BRO was in charge of the signs and it was not an attempt at California colloquialism.

However, prior to entering Nagaland which is a dry state we made a stop at the last ‘refilling station’ in Assam. With the holiday season in full swing and with the temperature being near freezing a few bottles of whiskey were called for as well as a couple cans of beer for me. I was encouraged to begin drinking on our way, so when in Rome. At the halfway point we stopped for some stretching and fortifying. One of the liter water bottles had been emptied of a third of its content and whiskey soon replaced the water. Told that it would keep me warm, I drank…what would be about half the bottle.  How I ended up with half the bottle about 4 shots of whiskey cut with water was a result of the polite dance between host and guest. Two beers and 4 shorts into the ride and a near empty stomach meant I was feeling pretty good until the twists, turns, and switchbacks came.

If you have ever driven the back roads in Appalachia then you may have a good estimate of what the ride was like—slow, bumpy, and nauseating the whole way. I have a fairly strong stomach which is tolerant of most driving related nauseas—I can read in the car and usually have no problems in the mountains or hills in a car or bus. In Venezuela I even managed not to get sick as the young boy next to me did on me. I do get sick on some amusement park rides—like the spin ‘n pukes—so I recognized his face and got him to the window just in time to prevent a major accident. Sitting in the back of the van on a seat about six inches off the ground tested the strength of my gut. That I made it is perhaps a testament more to my mental than to my gastronomic stamina. With it being dark the last hour was tough. I could only see 100 feet ahead and what always awaited us was a turn. In the 85km from the airport to Panger’s front door, I imagine 30km were straight. Twenty of those came in Assam; the remaining ten distributed in 50m increments over the last 55km. It was an adventure, and I cannot thank Molo and Mr. Moya enough for making the roundtrip to see me here. Such hospitality.

Mokokchung by night is spectacular. The city sits on the side of five or so hills and is divided into 12 districts. Each district has its own large church which on Christmas is a lit in brilliant colors. Panger’s door opens onto one such vista and the intensity of the full moon sitting over the city was breath taking. This morning I got my first glimpse of surrounding area by daylights and it is equally as beautiful.

Nagaland Country Side

For dinner I, by accident, took a bit too much of the chili recently voted the world’s hottest. I had forgotten that I had placed a tiny spoonful on my plate which I later covered with mustard leaves. In one bite of a mustard leaf I took the whole spoonful at once—at least my sinuses are clear.

Panger and Ren have arranged for me to stay in the guest house. I have a whole home to myself as my would-have-been housemates are out of town for the holidays. The digs are nice, and it has a Western toilet. I’ve been told that is the primary reason I have been placed here; I will not/cannot complain. It is cold here, not Northeast or Michigan or even KY cold, but its about 35 at night. What makes it cold is no heating, fire or otherwise. Lots of blankets and my santa’s hat kept me toasty throughout the night. The transition from shower to pajamas was brutal, but I have been spoiled by Bangalore’s perpetually temperate climate.

I’m very glad to be able to spend Christmas here in Nagaland with some very good friends—both old and new. I am a bit homesick, this is my first Christmas away from family, but it is comforting to be in such good company. Merry Christmas to all my family and friends. Have a blessed holiday and a wonderful new year. I will be sure to write from 2011 while you are still in 2010 to let you know what the new year is like.

Also, when I return to Bangalore in 3 weeks I’ll post my pictures.

Thanksgiving Part 2: Kerala

December 17, 2010

I never filled you all in on the rest of our trip to Kerala. We spent our two days on Fort Kochi and got a pretty good lay of the land from the Dutch Cemetery to Jewtown. The fort area was very relaxed–Kerala is a communist state–and inundated with tourists. We did have one exciting adventure in an auto on our return from Jewtown through the spice market. Having walked the 2 or so miles there we decided we earned a ride back, but had difficulty catching an auto. Finally one was procured, but as we got about a half kilometer into the trip the auto ran out of gas. We were in a bit of tourist no man’s land as we were between the two main tourist areas. All the auto we saw while broken down were ferrying folks back and forth. Our driver finally coaxed a man on a motorcycle to take him to a gas station where he was able to fill a 20oz sprite bottle with a gas/oil combo. Fifteen minutes after the stoppage we were on our way again only to stop at a gas station a couple minutes later–better safe than sorry I guess.

When she was healthy Jess took most of the photos so I don’t have many from the trip.

Here is a much acclaimed tourist spot of Kerala ‘God’s Own Country.’ As we did not travel the backwaters I cannot say how accurately this capture the Kerala experience. However, as Jess was heavily medicated at times this may be a fair representation of her experience.

It’s rather intense and sublime, and the campaign and the ads mesmerized me since I arrived here (played on my HBO at Hotel Swagath). I’m not sure who their target demographic is, but I was both creeped out and drawn in to this world.

For those interested in spending a few months there themselves, I met a Bishop, who happened to be very good friend with Panger while they were at UTC and whom Panger thinks I might have met while he was a father pursuing a PhD  in Philadelphia, seeking an English teacher at his college.

Last minute gift idea

December 16, 2010

With little more than week left to find that special someone that special gift I have the perfect stocking stuffer for you or your loved one (please note that it most likely will not fit in a standard stocking).

Fun for adults and children of all ages

Here is a link to amazon and certain happiness:

Unfortunately, I guess my publishing name will always be Christopher Conway rather than C. Bob Conway. Of course my pseudonym would be Wally Ormond or in polite company Sir Wallace Ormond of Omaha. Accent as you like.






Thought I would offer my views on the whole Chris and Christmas thing with a photo

Also I worshiped with the Presbyterians this Sunday at St. Andrew’s Church during their English service. Not only was the service decent and in order, but other than a few of the carols being sung in various Indian languages it was rather like being at 2nd Pres.


Christmas at UTC (and PTS)

December 11, 2010

Finals are over (for the students, I am still writing more than ever) and with the semester drawing to an end, it is time to indulge in the greatest of seminary traditions–the institution wide Christmas party.

When I was at PTS the annual Christmas party did not have the same semester concluding energy that it would have had had we joined the rest of the college and graduate world–with the exception of a few ivy’s and a few schools that do no believe in finals–and had our finals before break. So we had to find other ways to fuel the festivities: large amounts of alcohol (just kidding grandma). Often the 4th Brown Christmas Party and Mackay Center Dance would fall on the eve of flag football playoffs so I had to make sure that I was in playing condition. My spirit imbibing was kept to a respectable minimum. You don’t win a PTS Flag Football Championship impaired 😉 Go Renegades of Funk-celebrating our five year victory anniversary.

Here are some photos from the PTS of Christmas Past:

69 Harrison Christmas Card (sent to the family of the man who gave us all our furniture including that table upon his father's death)

, me)”]Mackay Christmas Dance Jenn, me, Jessica (you can tell year by hat and tie)

(Jenn, me, Jessica Mackay Dance you can tell year by hat and tie)

UTC has a different kind of spirit fueling its Christmas celebrations. Over three days there have been culture festivals, skits performed by dorms, skits performed by class and program, dances by children of students, games, caroling–with an accordion and drums–and a wonderful meal served out on the lawn with the entire campus community present. Tomorrow we will have a carol service which was always my favorite at PTS (and not just because Hodge would be lit up with lights and serving eggnog and cider). I especially enjoyed the service when we sang this song:

I will probably post once or twice more before I leave for Nagaland, but this time is as good as any to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Photos from Christmas UTC Present:

Santa Clause is coming to town

If you can have lobsters and whales at the nativity you can have raccoons

Jai and me

jenny and me

Lapaih and other Burmese students at UTC and me

And some videos: The last two for those who got the reference to lobsters

The middle violinist not only moonlights in this band, be he serves a congregation and also runs accounting for the ERC. A very nice surprise to see him get all Yahoo Serious on the strings.