How to Use This Curriculum
First rule: There are no rules. These resources are completely free and at your disposal. Use as much, or as little, as you want. Study casually, or work to create a portfolio of academic work that will blow the socks off of the educational establishment.
Feel free to adapt the materials for your own purposes. We expect families, business people, backpackers, college students, high school kids, middle aged vacationers, and retirees who are on a late life adventure to take these materials and run with them. We’d be very happy for teachers or travel group leaders to add these materials to their study abroad packets as well.
The nature of open source is collaboration, so please feel free to contribute when you become aware of resources we haven’t listed, or you have project ideas that we haven’t developed. Send us your work and inspire others to reach higher and deeper as they travel!
Buffet Style Learning
Does the menu look overwhelming? Looking for a formula to use as a skeleton for your studies in India?
- Two books
- Two films
- Three articles
- One Problem & Solution or Project Option
- One Cultural Assignment
Table of Contents
- Books for Kids
- Project Options
- Problems & Solutions
- Cultural Assignments
- Create Your Own Coursework
A Passage To India
Britain’s three-hundred-year relationship with the Indian subcontinent produced much fiction of interest but only one indisputable masterpiece: E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, published in 1924, at the height of the Indian independence movement. Centering on an ambiguous incident between a young Englishwoman of uncertain stability and an Indian doctor eager to know his conquerors better, Forster’s book explores, with unexampled profundity, both the historical chasm between races and the eternal one between individuals struggling to ease their isolation and make sense of their humanity.
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition
by Nisid Hajari
Nobody expected the liberation of India and birth of Pakistan to be so violent—it was supposed to be an answer to the dreams of Muslims and Hindus who had been ruled by the British for more than a century. But as the summer of 1947 approached, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs were heavily armed and on edge after a year of riots and gang fighting, and the British rushed to leave. Hell broke loose. Trains carried Muslims west and Hindus east to their slaughter. Some of the most brutal and widespread ethnic cleansing in modern history erupted on both sides of the new border, searing a divide between India and Pakistan that remains a root cause of many of today’s most menacing security threats, from jihadi terrorism to nuclear proliferation. Based on major new sources, Nisid Hajari’s revelatory Midnight’s Furies lays out the searing truth about one of the world’s most momentous and least understood tragedies.
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel is a modern classic that has been read and loved worldwide. Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevokably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.
The White Tiger
by Aravind Adiga
The white tiger of this novel is Balram Halwai, a poor Indian villager whose great ambition leads him to the zenith of Indian business culture, the world of the Bangalore entrepreneur. On the occasion of the president of China’s impending trip to Bangalore, Balram writes a letter to him describing his transformation and his experience as driver and servant to a wealthy Indian family, which he thinks exemplifies the contradictions and complications of Indian society.
Recalling The Death of Vishnu and Bangkok 8 in ambition, scope, The White Tiger is narrative genius with a mischief and personality all its own. Amoral, irreverent, deeply endearing, and utterly contemporary, this novel is an international publishing sensation—and a startling, provocative debut.
A Suitable Boy
by Vikram Seth
Vikram Seth’s novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find — through love or through exacting maternal appraisal — a suitable boy for Lata to marry. Set in the early 1950s, in an India newly independent and struggling through a time of crisis, A Suitable Boy takes us into the richly imagined world of four large extended families and spins a compulsively readable tale of their lives and loves. A sweeping panoramic portrait of a complex, multiethnic society in flux, A Suitable Boy remains the story of ordinary people caught up in a web of love and ambition, humor and sadness, prejudice and reconciliation, the most delicate social etiquette and the most appalling violence.
India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution From Independence to the Global Information Age
by Gucharan Das
India today is a vibrant free-market democracy, a nation well on its way to overcoming decades of widespread poverty. The nation’s rise is one of the great international stories of the late twentieth century, and in India Unbound the acclaimed columnist Gurcharan Das offers a sweeping economic history of India from independence to the new millennium.
Das shows how India’s policies after 1947 condemned the nation to a hobbled economy until 1991, when the government instituted sweeping reforms that paved the way for extraordinary growth. Das traces these developments and tells the stories of the major players from Nehru through today. As the former CEO of Proctor & Gamble India, Das offers a unique insider’s perspective and he deftly interweaves memoir with history, creating a book that is at once vigorously analytical and vividly written. Impassioned, erudite, and eminently readable, India Unbound is a must for anyone interested in the global economy and its future.
Ghandi: An Auto-Biography: The Story of My Experiments With the Truth
by Mohandas K. Gandhi
Mohandas K. Gandhi is one of the most inspiring figures of our time. In his classic autobiography he recounts the story of his life and how he developed his concept of active nonviolent resistance, which propelled the Indian struggle for independence and countless other nonviolent struggles of the twentieth century.
In a new foreword, noted peace expert and teacher Sissela Bok urges us to adopt Gandhi’s “attitude of experimenting, of tesing what will and will not bear close scrutiny, what can and cannot be adapted to new circumstances,”in order to bring about change in our own lives and communities.
Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict
by Aroup Chatterjee
*Note: This book is much more widely available in India, especially Kolkata. It is available on Amazon but I would never suggest you pay the price found there. If you can find it, it is very worth the read.
Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict is an alternative biography to the common story those of us in the West have internalized. Written by Aroup Chatterjee, this look at Mother Teresa’s life and work from an alternate perspective is well worth a read for anyone willing to look beyond the presented face of missionary and volunteer work in the developing world.
The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice
by Christopher Hitchens
* Note: This is a fine alternative to Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict though slightly less inclusive of research and lacking the authorship of an Indian citizen.
A Nobel Peace Prize recipient beatified by the Catholic Church in 2003, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was celebrated by heads of state and adored by millions for her work on behalf of the poor. In his measured critique, Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory & Practice, Hitchens asks only that Mother Teresa’s reputation be judged by her actions-not the other way around.
With characteristic élan and rhetorical dexterity, Hitchens eviscerates the fawning cult of Teresa, recasting the Albanian missionary as a spurious, despotic, and megalomaniacal operative of the wealthy who long opposed measures to end poverty, and fraternized, for financial gain, with tyrants and white-collar criminals throughout the world.
A Fine Balance
by Rohinton Mistry
With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India. The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers–a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village–will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.
As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.
by Salman Rushdie
Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, the very moment of India’s independence. Greeted by fireworks displays, cheering crowds, and Prime Minister Nehru himself, Saleem grows up to learn the ominous consequences of this coincidence. His every act is mirrored and magnified in events that sway the course of national affairs; his health and well-being are inextricably bound to those of his nation; his life is inseparable, at times indistinguishable, from the history of his country. Perhaps most remarkable are the telepathic powers linking him with India’s 1,000 other “midnight’s children,” all born in that initial hour and endowed with magical gifts.
This novel is at once a fascinating family saga and an astonishing evocation of a vast land and its people–a brilliant incarnation of the universal human comedy. Twenty-five years after its publication, Midnight’ s Children stands apart as both an epochal work of fiction and a brilliant performance by one of the great literary voices of our time.
A controversial film but still something of a must see. The story of Jamal Malik, an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s Kaun Banega Crorepati? (2000) (Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?) But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika, the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions. Each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the answers to the show’s seemingly impossible quizzes. But one question remains a mystery: what is this young man with no apparent desire for riches really … Written by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Born into Brothels
Amidst the apparent growing prosperity of India, there is a dark underbelly of poverty of another side of the nation that is little known. This film is a chronicle of filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s efforts to show that world of Calcutta’s red light district. To do that, they inspired a special group of children of the prostitutes of the area to photograph the most reluctant subjects of it. As the kids excel in their new found art, the filmmakers struggle to help them have a chance for a better life away from the miserable poverty that threatens to crush their dreams. Written by Kenneth Chisholm
Life of Pi
A young man who survives a disaster at sea is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery. While cast away, he forms an unexpected connection with another survivor: a fearsome Bengal tiger.
A Passage to India
A Passage to India, set circa 1920, during the Indian British rule, Dr. Aziz H. Ahmed was born and brought up in India. He is proficient in English, and wears Western style clothing. He meets an old lady, Mrs. Moore, at a mosque, who asks him to accompany her and her companion, Adela Quested, for sight-seeing around some caves. Thereafter the organized life of Aziz is turned upside down when Adela accuses him of molesting her in a cave. Aziz is arrested and brought before the courts, where he learns that the entire British administration is against him, and would like to see him found guilty and punished severely, to teach all native Indians what it means to molest a British citizen. Aziz is all set to witness the “fairness” of the British system, whose unofficial motto is “guilty until proved innocent.” Written by rAjOo
The Story of India
Michael Wood visits places and interviews experts all over India to cover the great chapters of the subcontinent’s history.
Michael Wood travels throughout the subcontinent, tracing the richness and diversity of its peoples, cultures and landscapes. Through ancient manuscripts and oral tales Wood charts the first human migrations out of Africa. He travels from the tropical backwaters of South India through lost ancient cities in Pakistan to the vibrant landscapes of the Ganges plain. Archaeological discoveries in the Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex in Turkmenistan by Soviet archeologist Viktor Sarianidi, including horse-drawn carts (mentioned in the Rig Veda), cast new light on India’s past. Wood also attempts to re-create soma, an ancient drink recorded in the Rig Veda.
The second episode in Michael Wood’s series moves on to the revolutionary years after 500BC – the Age of the Buddha and Mahavira. Travelling by rail to the ancient cities of the Ganges plain, by army convoy through Northern Iraq, and down Pakistan’s Khyber Pass, he shows how Alexander the Great’s invasion of India inspired her first major empire in the form of the Mauryan Empire, ruled by Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka.
Episode 3 describes how, after the West’s “discovery” and subsequent exploitation of the Monsoon winds, trading of spices and gold with the ancient Romans and Greeks put the subcontinent at the heart of global commerce. The trading of pepper, rice and silk put the West coast of India, and particularly modern-day Kerala, on the map of global business.
This episode also looks at how the invading Kushan empire from central Asia, particularly the emperor Kanishka, established major trading cities in Peshawar and Mathura, as well as helping to take Buddhism to China.
The achievements of the country’s golden age, including how India discovered zero, calculated the circumference of the Earth and wrote the world’s first sex guide, the Kama Sutra. In the south, the giant temple of Tanjore built by emperor Rajaraja Chola and traditional bronze casters, working as their ancestors did 1,000 years ago are shown. Michael Wood calls Tamil Nadu, “The only surviving ‘Classical Civilization’ in the world.
The documentary series about the history of India charts the coming of Islam to the subcontinent and one of the greatest ages of world civilization: the Mughals. Mahmud of Ghazni leads an expedition to Somnath and destroys the temple of Shiva and all idols there. Michael Wood visits Sufi shrines in Old Delhi, desert fortresses in Rajasthan and the cities of Lahore and Agra, where he offers a new theory on the design of the Taj Mahal. He also looks at the life of Akbar, a Muslim emperor who decreed that no one religion could hold the ultimate truth, but whose dream of unity ended in civil war. In the narrative he movingly describes the murder of Darah Shikuh.
This episode examines the British Raj and India’s struggle for freedom. Wood reveals how in South India a global corporation came to control much of the subcontinent, and explores the magical culture of Lucknow, discovering the enigmatic Briton who helped found the freedom movement. He traces the Amritsar massacre, the rise of Gandhi and Nehru, and the events that led to the Partition of India in 1947.
In Bundelkhand, India, a revolution is in the making among the poorest of the poor, as the fiery women of the Gulabi Gang empower themselves and take up the fight against gender violence, caste oppression and widespread corruption.
Children Of the Pyre
Children of The Pyre is a compelling real-life. Self-narrative of 7 extraordinary children who make their living out of the dead at Manikarnika, the busiest cremation ground in India. Tempered by the heat of the pyre, strengthened in the face of adversities, crafted by the volley of abuses, watch these imps weave through the pyres and struggle through disdain to snatch their livelihoods. This film is a terrible saga of exploitation that celebrates the victory of innocence over the most harrowing realities of life.
The World Before Her
Two young women follow completely divergent paths in the new, modernizing India-one wants to become Miss India, the other is a fierce Hindu Nationalist prepared to kill and die for her beliefs.
For each of these we will suggest several possibilities within each general heading, and then leave it open for a student to tackle some other interesting subheading that they would like to pursue:
Research and write about an aspect of the history, politics or culture (source books, individual experiences, site visits)
Choose a period of history that you find interesting and study it, through books, media & site visits or interviews. Options include, but are not limited to:
- The British Colonial Era in India
- The Vedic Civilization
- Rise of the Sramana Movement
- Growth and Influence of the Muslim Dynasties
- History of Buddhism in India
- The Magadha Dynasties
- Rebellion of 1857
- Indian Independence Movement & Partition
India is the 7th largest economy in the world and in 2014 replaced China as the world’s fastest growing economy. Spend some time exploring the sectors of India’s economy as your interest drives you and learn more about India as a driving force in world markets. Some areas you might like to research or investigate as you travel include:
- Petroleum products and chemicals
Agriculture in India
Agriculture is a major segment of the economy of India. As you travel you are sure to see crops of a variety of sorts being grown. Spend some time learning about these crops, talking to farmers, perhaps even participating in the process through volunteering your time or a WWOOFing type experience. Study the production of one of the major crops of India. Examples include:
- Buffalo Milk or Meat
- Cow’s Milk
- Sugar Cane
- Goat Milk or Meat
Research how Partition is affecting Indian citizens today. Be sure to look at the Kashmir region, India’s relations with Pakistan, the current divides in “old” and “new” areas of each urban area, and the prevailing attitude towards Britain. Compose a 5 blog article series for a complete novice on the subject.
Develop a guide, written or electronic, to the caste system in India. Our Western notion of the caste system is overly simplistic and does not allow space for an understanding of the cultural and religious roots of the castes. Does the caste system still exist today? How has it changed or remained the same? What was the historical basis for such a system? What complexities are foreigners missing in our understanding of the caste system?
Write 5-10 reflective letters to someone back home about a controversial figure in Indian history. This figure can be an Indian citizen or someone who had major influence in shaping the course of the nation. Be sure to pay particular attention to any common misconceptions about this person. People for consideration include, but is not limited to:
- Mother Teresa
- Mahatma Ghandi
- Muhammad Ali Jinnah
- Sonia Ghandi
- Indira Ghandi
- Jawaharlal Nehru
Explore the reasons for the vast socio-economic divide in India. Can these issues be addressed? Who is most negatively affected by this strong divide? How do children fare in a society that is so divided? What effect does the divide have on the education system?
Study the Art
Study the art of a particular region and produce a multi-media project related to the art history and modern expression.
Study the religious influence of popular art in India. Pay particular attention to the various representations of the same God. Why is this? Examine the differences in religious art in different regions of India. Record temple visits to compare and contrast what you find.
Textiles in India are particularly vibrant and culturally significant. Study the various forms of acceptable dress in India. Learn the parts of what we commonly call a sari. Take particular note of what these pieces cover and what they do not. Be sure to pay special attention to colors and patterns that may be culturally symbolic or specific to a certain region.
Take the time to dig deeper into Bollywood. Head to Mumbai and get yourself cast in a Bollywood movie as an extra. Yes, seriously. Head to the Salvation Army Red Shield Hostel in Mumbai and sign yourself up. Approached by a guy on the streets of Mumbai who asks you to be in a movie? He’s probably legit. Ask for credentials and check in with the Red Shield Hostel if you aren’t sure. The hours are long and the pay is next to nothing but there is no better way to study the Bollywood art form. How has Bollywood changed? What has remained true over time? What role does music play in Bollywood films?
Study the Language
English has complicated history in India but it is widely spoken across the subcontinent. Learning a bit of one of the many officially recognized languages is more important than just adding a new skill to your bag of tricks. Hindi and English share the title of “official language” of India. Hindi was, and still is, considered a northern language; though southern Indians have gained a fair bit of communication ability in Hindi in recent years.
Each state in India has its own official language. Officially, there are 122 major languages in India with over 1500 more identified by the most recent census. You get the idea. Most Indians speak at least 3 languages- their mother tongue (literally the language their mother spoke to them at birth), their first language (the language their school was taught in), and Hindi or English- whichever wasn’t their first language.
If you want to communicate with as many Indians as possible, stick with Hindi. If you happen to be in southern India and you want to impress some new friends, try your hand at the most prominent local language. Whatever you do, at least learn ‘yes’ , ‘no’, ‘thank you’, ‘please’, and the numbers up to 10.
Study the history of the English language in India and the role the other major languages have played in forming the culture and politics of the country.
India is has a rich and diverse religious heritage. The major religions of India include: Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Jainsim. Of these, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism & Jainism find their roots in India.
Study the roots and modern practice of one or more of these major religions. Compare and contrast, including their interaction within modern Indian culture. Think about the origins of religion and the modern application in daily life, both as individuals and communities. Reflect on your experiences as it relates to what you observe in India. Are there differences by region? Age group, or other qualifiers?
Festivals in India
For a month by month listing of festivals in India, as well as explanations of what they celebrate and how they are celebrated, investigate the Festivals of India website.
Make a point of celebrating with locals if you encounter a festival. One of the best ways to make meaningful local connections and to learn about the culture and religious belief of a place is to participate in festivals.
Festivals of India lists options by region, religion, date, Hindi calendar, gods and goddesses as well as religious spots, making it easy to find festivals near you or according to your interests.
Profiles of a City
There is no way to lump India into one box. Every city is different and has it’s own unique culture and flavor. If you are going to visit several cities, perhaps doing a few city profiles to compare and contrast the differences across regions in the country would be an interesting way to learn more about the diversity of India.
Interview at least one person from each of the following demographics:
- A child under the age of 10
- A woman over the age of 16
- A man over the age of 16
- A young teenager
- An individual over the age of 50
Remember to be culturally sensitive and be clear about your desire to interview them for educational purposes. Tell them you want to learn something from them. Attention should be paid to not interview people from only one socio-economic level. Take care to interview laborers as well as academics, for example.
Profiles Of ….
Conduct a series of at least five interviews within a country. This is different from the Profiles of a City exercise because you are choosing the focus. You might focus it on a certain caste, a certain profession, a certain gender or cultural demographic, or a region.
The point of the exercise would be to get a well rounded view of what it is like to live in India either, overall,from a variety of ages, incomes, employments and experiences; or very specifically in a narrow deomgraphic. This could be conducted as video, or as text and the student would be expected to do an analysis of the experience/information.
People you might profile:
- Restaurant owners/workers
- Buddhist Monks & Nuns
- Government officials
- Doctors or Nurses
- Street vendors
- Artists or Musicians
- NGO workers
- Long term expats
Study a current problem within the country and suggest, or support a solution.
India is one of the most economically divided nations in the world. One of the biggest challenges facing the nation is how to bridge the gap between the richest and the poorest citizens. But is enough being done?
Examine the causes of this socio-economic chasm and identify organizations effectively working to solve the problem. These can be governmental agencies, aid organizations, NGOs, volunteer groups, educational institutions, or any other organization that you find to be making a positive, lasting impact on the situation.
What makes their work effective and sustainable? How can locals and tourists alike support their work?
Women have long struggled in India to find equal footing as their male counterparts. Identify the current threats to the girl child and women in India. Examine the roots of these threats and what is being done, if anything, to protect female members of Indian society.
Research and identify organizations working to effectively elevate the status of women they work with in their communities. Compare and contrast issues related to, and the condition of, women in rural areas vs. urban ones. Examine the political climate around women’s issues. Research domestic initiatives vs. international aid that seeks to address these disparities. Spend time with actual women and seek to understand at a personal and local level.
Children in India face particular struggle in India when it comes to education, malnutrition, and human trafficking. Choose one of these three topics and examine the root causes, current struggles, and potential solutions to the problem.
Be sure to get permission from a parent or guardian before speaking to any child for this project.
Education & Minorities
In The Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF identifies several inalienable rights that are specific to children around the world. In addition to identifying access to education as a basic right, the convention also outlines the rights of linguistic minorities.
“In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities or persons of indigenous origin exist, a child belonging to such a minority or who is indigenous shall not be denied the right, in community with other members of his or her group, to enjoy his or her own culture, to profess and practise his or her own religion, or to use his or her own language.” (CRC, article 30)
India is a signatory to the CRC. When it comes to education in India, is the CRC being upheld? How has language impacted the equal access to education for children in scheduled caste and scheduled tribe populations? What role has English played in upholding or undermining the CRC as it pertains to education and the rights of linguistic minorities?
The Savior Complex
Visitors to India have long struggled with what is known commonly as “the savior complex”. Take the time to honestly examine your own assumptions and motivations for visiting India. Note any changes in your thinking or behavior over the course of your journey.
What has most influenced your thinking about India both before you arrived and once in country? How might your own assumptions and motivations, and those of your fellow travelers, have left a negative impact on those you encountered in India. Where do these assumptions and motivations come from? How can you/we combat them?
This is a list of ideas for projects that you can take and run with. In order to get credit for these projects there needs to be an “output” of some measurable sort. Common options would include a video project, a blog post, an essay, a published piece of work, or a certificate of some sort documenting the experience (in the case of a class taken)
Study the Language
Record the number of hours of language instruction along with verification from the language school. One week (minimum) is recommended. There are numerous reputable language schools in all of the major traveler centers of India.
Sample the Foods
You wouldn’t be in India if you weren’t at least a little adventurous, right? No use in leaving India without learning something about the distinct flavors of the region you are in. From Biryani to Dosas to Chicken Tikka Masala, every region has a specialty. Document the experience of trying at least five brand new foods during your stay (a fun photo essay? or video?)
Find out and sample the dish that locals swear is their best– don’t let them take it easy on you! Make sure you ask for traditional favorites!
(Hint: If you do not eat meat, tell whoever you are asking that you are ‘veg’. If you are vegan, tell them ‘pure veg’. The Hindu and Muslim faiths both have food restrictions that make this request a non-issue in any metropolitan area in India)
Discover your own favorite food from the region. Remember, southern Indians like their food HOT, north Indian food most often resembles the food tourists call “Indian” back home. Don’t get stuck in a rut, sample lots of different things to find a favorite in each region.
Eat street food. Yes, seriously. If you follow some basic guidelines Indian street food is incredibly rewarding. In general fried food is safest and you can ask the vendor to re-fry briefly it before you eat it. Anything piping hot that locals are waiting in line for is also generally safe to eat. Stay away from fresh veggies, fruit you can’t peel, and ice and you should be good.
Collect at least one recipe from each region you visit. I cannot tell you how happy most Indians are to share their food stories with you. All you have to do is ask most of the time and before you know it, you will be whisked into someone’s kitchen for a detailed cooking lesson. Write it down. You’ll forget the recipe when you go home to make it for your Mom.
Have a Meaningful Interaction With a Local
What is a meaningful interaction? You get to decide that. In general, it should be an interaction in which cultural exchange took place and you learned something. Sometimes these interactions look like very little on the outside but are totally life changing on the inside. Other times, they are rock your world amazing from every angle. It could be a meal shared, an afternoon’s excursion, a discussion that opens your eyes in some way, a self revelation that happened without any words exchanged at all.
Please read The Street Kids of India: A Guide to Grappling with Extreme Poverty in India to help you frame your interactions.
Document this interaction and how it impacted you.
Take a Class….
- Whatever interests you
Music in India
Indian classical music is based on a completely different scale than Western music. For those interested in music and composition, try you hand at learning raagas, the melodic modes used for composing traditional South Asian melodies. Perfect the raagas and you may find yourself able to play or even write some traditional Indian tunes.
Procure some form of documentation from the class provider to document your experience. You might also create a video, or a piece of art, or write about what you learned and how you learned it.
Museum and Cultural Site Visits
India is like no other place on earth when it comes to living history. So many practices, norms, foods, and architecture are still intact as they were hundreds (or more) years ago. Don’t burn yourself out but do yourself a favor and visit every monument you possibly can. Take pictures. LOTS OF PICTURES. Keep every ticket stub. Try to create a physical time-line in a journal or notebook with pasted and stapled images and ticket stubs from the places you visit. You will be creating a visual map of how modern day India came to be. You’ll thank yourself later.
Here are some ideas for places to visit (this list is by no means exhaustive):
In and Around New Delhi:
- Jantar Mantar- An ancient astronomy site complete with 13 astronomical instruments
- The Taj Mahal- Take a relatively short train ride to Agra to see this iconic site. Get up much earlier than the hotel manager tells you to guarantee a sunrise.
- The Red Fort- Residence of the Mughal Emperor for nearly 200 years
- The Lotus Temple- Baha’i temple located within the city limits of New Delhi
- Raj Ghat- The memorial site for Ghandi
- Humayun’s Tomb- Tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun, commissioned by his son Akbar
- Paharganj- The current backpackers paradise of New Delhi and an area that has served as the marketplace since the Mughal Era.
- Shajahanabad- New Delhi old city
In and around Kolkata:
- Victoria Memorial- Built to commeortae the peak of the British Empire in India
- Kalighat Kali Temple- Important site for Hindus. Be warned- animal sacrifices happen regularly.
- Tagore’s House- the 1784 mansion of Rabindranath Tagore
- Pareshnath Jain Temple- One of the most ornate temples in Kolkata. Make sure to walk around the neighborhood a little. You will find other hidden gems.
- Bodhgaya & the Mahabodhi Temple- Not exactly close to Kolkata but Kolkata is the closest metro area to this faxcinating Buddhist site.
In and Around Mumbai:
- Elephanta Island- Also called Gharapuri. This island is home to an impressive set of ancient,carved caves that will remind you just how important religion is in India.
- The Gateway of India- A monument on the Mumbai waterfront. You will catch the ferry to Elephanta Island here.
- Bollywood set tour OR extra casting in a movie- Yes, you really can be in a Bollywood movie.
- Banganga Tank- The oldest continually inhabited place in Mumbai
- Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat- An utterly fascinating (and colorful) look at how Mumbai washes its clothes.
* A note on slum tourism in Mumbai: While there are tours through the slums of Mumbai, most notably the Dharavi slum, I cannot in good conscious recommend them. These tours end up being something of an experiment in voyeurism. If you are intrigued by the slums of India I encourage you to watch a movie/documentary or read a book. If you feel compelled to insert yourself into the slums, do wo with your wallet- directly to a reputable NGO working with the inhabitants of Mumbai’s slums.
Volunteering in India is fraught with challenges. The poverty alone can drive even the most cold-hearted individual to want to volunteer their time. But all of that volunteering comes at a cost. Scandal has rocked orphanages accused of buying children for the “volunteer trade;” the savior complex creates short term opportunities for volunteering with little long term concern for the outcomes; even Mother Teresa and her order have come under intense fire for her questionable services and practices directed at the poor. Volunteering in India should not be undertaken lightly.
For those concerned about the impact of visitors volunteering in India, consider creating a blog, paper, or even a letter home based on what you learn about volunteering in India. Ask around. Listen to what locals have to say, even if it makes you uncomfortable.
Alternatives to volunteering in India:
You do not have to volunteer to make a positive impact on the community you are visiting. Consider these options:
- Shop at businesses that actively support volunteer or NGOs organizations run by locals.
- Donate money or specifically requested items to an organization that employs and seeks out local volunteers and workers.
- Consider visiting a private school whose ethos are in line with your own and asking them if you can anonymously sponsor a girl student for the year or, better yet, through the end of her schooling.
- Read a book about the harm short term volunteering can do. In fact, read two.
- Refuse any tour or program that makes a point of highlighting “picturesque poverty”. This includes slum tours, orphanage visits, and hospital prayer stops.
- Spend the time you would have spent volunteering on educating yourself on the many, many unsavory practices employed when it comes to child beggars.
- Talk a walking tour with Salaam Baalak Trust, an ethical organization that has created a sustainable model for working with India’s street children.
If you do decide to volunteer, consider the following:
- What do you have to offer that a local cannot give to the same project?
- Is your volunteer stay lengthy enough to make a lasting impact?
- Will the end of your volunteer stint leave children, the disabled, or the elderly wondering where you went and feeling abandoned?
- Can you do the work you have been asked to do in the time frame you have been given?
- Is the organization transparent about where their money goes and why?
- Have you asked locals for their opinion on the organization you are considering?
Get out of the hostel, rent a place in a local village, or do a homestay.
Photo essay or a blog description of why living local was different than living in a hostel. How did this experience change the economics of your stay? What did you learn about the way locals live? What challenged you? What would you do differently next time?
- Avoid bus tours. These only serve to separate you from the people in the areas you are rolling through and you will be limited in how much time you can spend exploring any one place.
- Say yes to invitations to someone’s home. Accepting such invitations can seem scary when coming from a culture where such a thing is not the norm. Saying ‘yes’ will make you friends and give you an opportunity to learn more.
- Put your camera down for one entire day. Getting out from behind the lens will force you to stop looking for picture perfect moments and start enjoying what is front of you, exactly as it is.
- Stay away from anything you recognize. You’ll get all the McDonald’s you want when you get home. Unless you need the internet or the bathroom, avoid anything that looks familiar for the first half of your trip. Frequent locally owned businesses instead.
- Learn how to say yes, no, please, thank you and the numbers up to 10 in Hindi. This will go a long way when interacting with local business owners and new friends.
Through an organization like WWOOF, HelpX, or Workaway you can arrange for an opportunity to work in exchange for your room and board in a number of capacities, from farm labour to hospitality. Lots of students make use of these experiences to lower the cost of their travels, while at the same time learning valuable skills or “trying out” various career areas that interest them.
Request feedback in the form of a short evaluation that can be used later for a CV or reference
Public Transportation Project
Everyone has seen the images of auto rickshaws in pictures of India. They are the easiest and most ubiquitous form of transport in the country. You can even take a rickshaw deep into the most rural villages and tandas. But did you know there are actually four categories of rickshaws in India and that not all of them can go everywhere?
- Did you know there’s a metro system in many of India’s biggest cities?
- Did you know there are multiple classes of train travel on the winding system that takes travelers criss crossing across the entire, sprawling country?
- Did you know you can hire a boat to float you down the Ganga River, watching each individual ghat pass you by?
- Did you know you can hire a houseboat to take you exploring in the backwaters of Kerala? Not to mention the taxis, buses, and planes that offer their own adventure.
Don’t just take a taxi! Talk to locals and ask questions about how to get from one place to another. Explore your options.
Keep a “transportation log” as you go. Why? Like everything else in India, transportation is not a simple exercise in getting from location A to location B. Politics, corruption, class status, and privilege affect every nook and cranny of the transportation systems in India. Do your homework before you choose to take a ride on a foot rickshaw. Learn how to hop on and exit a bus before you give it a try. Listen when someone tells you the norms and etiquette of riding on an overnight train. Getting around and across India will teach you just as much, if not more, than anything else you do in this bustling country.
Challenge yourself to take every type of public transportation available while you are in India. Create a photo essay or videologue of your adventures. What did you learn?
Attend a Religious Observance
Religion is a big deal in India. Everyone, including your rickshaw driver, will ask you what your religion is. Some religious ceremonies and holy buildings are off limits or have very specific rules for entering so please, be respectful. Some major faiths to look into include: Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, the Baha’i faith, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
Varanasi is a particularly wonderful place to immerse yourself in religious ceremony. Head to the ghats and hire a boat for the sunset puja or walk from ghat to ghat along the water at sunrise to witness Buddhist and Yoga practices happening early in the morning. Consider creating an art project based on the intense visual experience that is religion in India.
Bodhgaya is home to the Mahabodhi temple, the site Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment. It’s a particularly fascinating village to walk wander around for an afternoon or two. There are Buddhist temples from all over the world lining the streets. Sarnath is located not far from Bodhgaya and is the place Buddha is said to have given his first teaching. These two sites are two of the four holy pilgrimage sites for Buddhists.
If you make a point of keeping your eyes open, you will find Hindu holy sites and images all over India. It would be utterly impossible to list them all but Kalighat in Kolkata, Swaminarayan Akshardham in New Delhi, and Babulnath Temple in Mumbai are some to look into.
Finally, if you are at all inclined to go on a little adventure, please head to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This impressive Sikh temple was built as a place for all people of all faiths to come and worship God equally. Whether you happen to be religious or not, the Golden Temple stands as a monument to the diversity of religions in India.
Learn to ask for what you want. If you meet someone interesting, ask them to teach you. Ask them for an interview. Ask to shadow them for a day or a week. You’ll be surprised at how eager people are to share what they know and teach when someone shows actual interest. Learn to ask questions. Learn to take social risks by putting yourself out there as a learner.
You have an idea or an interest. Something surprises you on your journey and all of a sudden you have a burning desire to know more. Plan your attack:
- Narrow your field of study to a particular question or topic.
- Compile resources: Look for teachers. Who knows what you need to know? Or who can you interview to learn more? Are there books or videos on the topic you’re interested in?
- Quantify it. How will you demonstrate what you have learned? A research paper, a video project, a photo essay, through art or music, a blog post, a published piece, an interview series, a mini documentary or do you have some other idea?
Produce a quality piece of academic work that reflects your experiential learning. The whole key to quantifying outside the box learning is to translate it into something that reflects the value of what you learned and how it contributed to your overall educational process.
Perhaps this will be as simple as a traditional research paper, depending on the depth and length of your study this could be as short as three pages or as long as a dissertation. Maybe you’ll produce a video for YouTube, or something grander, like a mini-documentary. Perhaps you’ll do something concrete instead, an art, or community action project and you’ll tell the story through a photo essay, or a series of blog posts. The possibilities are limited only by the resources you have at hand. Get creative. Think outside the box and truly experience your education.
Check Out Some Gap Years Real Students Took to India
For more Gap Year inspiration check out our partners, No Crap Gap Guides.
Do You Have Anything to Add to This Resource Page?
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Jenni Mahnaz is a photographer and freelance writer who enjoys life best when she is on the move. Among many other countries and multiple continents, Jenni has traveled to India 4 times and has proudly survived two monsoon seasons. She holds a MS in Social Science and an advanced certificate in UN Studies and conducted the research for her Masters thesis with UNICEF in the rural villages and tandas surrounding Hyderabad. A believer in digging deep wherever she goes, Jenni supports travel as an essential component of a well-rounded education and recently started the “Worldschool Babies Group” in NYC as a means of getting families out and exploring the world as early as possible. You can find more about Jenni and her work at WitnessHumanity.com and JenniMahnazPhotography.com.