The wealth and richness of India’s culture is obvious everywhere you turn. Grand temples with incredible architecture stand out against the haze in the distance. Colourful street side statues and temples caught my eye regularly, even in rural fields away from hustling cities. Music and prayer calls ring out while locals decorate themselves with meaningful symbols of their religion and culture. Intoxicating smells of sizzling food paired with chutneys and spices was mouthwatering. Extravagantly coloured houses lining bustling streets contrast greatly to the plain coloured houses in suburban New Zealand. The description could go on and on and on. It’s no wonder India can be described as an assault on your senses. There is an abundance of things to take in that are usually very foreign from what we are used to in New Zealand.
During our IndoGenius experience, we visited temples of many different religions and participated in various ceremonies and traditions. On the first official day with the Australian students, we got to experience a Havan. It’s a Hindu ceremony to cleanse, energize and protect the inner self as well as the surroundings where the ceremony is performed. Significant ‘firsts’ such as marriage, birth, death etc. are often marked by a Havan. As this program was my first time setting foot in India, it was the perfect ceremony to mark the occasion. It involved various chants and offerings of grains/ earthy material.
We also got to practise Bollywood dancing with Gilles, the Bollywood dance instructor from the IndoGenius team. Not only was it an incredibly fun icebreaker to get to know each other, it was also the perfect way to be exposed to and participate in the culture of India.
Surprisingly, one of my cultural highlights was visiting the New Zealand High Commission. We were all suited up in traditional Indian wear for the visit, talking about how New Zealand and India can partner together as well as learn from one another. After discussions, questions and refreshments, the boardroom table was moved aside and music prepared for a performance; a test of our newly acquired bollywood dancing skills. After completing our choreography (obviously with a few forgetful steps and laughter), the team at the high commission surprised me completely. People working within the building were gathered to sing a waiata for us. A familiar tune of Tutira Mai Nga Iwi met our ears and we joined in singing together. The exchange of culture was truly beautiful. Kiwis dressed in traditional Indian wear dancing bollywood style while representatives of New Zealand High Commission (mostly Indian) singing a waiata. It was a perfect example of a respectful, appreciative exchange of culture. For me, I felt like this cultural exchange is how we should approach other cultures. To be willing and enthusiastic to learn and participate in a culture that is not our own. To be willing to make mistakes and share our knowledge, not only of the culture of our country but also share what we have learnt about another culture. To be continually learning, open minded and respectful.
In our final week of the trip, we went to Auroville and visited Solitude Kitchen – an organic farm that harvests all the food they serve from their gardens. It’s full of native plants and follows the ‘do nothing’ method which is exactly what it suggests – do nothing except return organic matter to the earth. One of the founding members, Krishna Mackenzie, spoke about the importance of reestablishing our relationship with mother nature. When he said, “disconnecting from mother nature is like the disintegration of the human spirit”, it reminded me about the deep connection to the land that is prevalent in Maori culture. There is such a rich connection from the land to the sea and everything in between, viewing soil, water and land as taonga (sacred treasures). The strong bond to the land, Papatuanuku, Mother Earth provides Maori with identity and unity – sustaining them and giving life but also needing guardianship so the land isn’t over exploited. It makes me think that if we had a stronger, deeper connection to the land like Maori do, we would be more conscious of the consequences our actions can have on the environment.
Learning about the vibrant Indian culture has ignited my desire to learn more about Maori language and culture. Usually coming back home to Aotearoa after being overseas and exploring new things, it’s hard to be fully satisfied adjusting to the reality of life and routine. This has felt extremely different after India in regard to nature and culture. I would love to explore our beautiful country more and be more connected to the incredible nature all around us. I would love to learn Te Reo Maori, even just the basics, and learn about the culture. India has sparked an immense curiosity to learn more about my home, just as I learnt so much in India.