September 15th, 2009 · No Comments
The Silver Exhibit in the V&A
Having a Good Time at the Fitzroy
Like many of my classmates I decided it would be worthwhile to summarize all of my discoveries this month in London. During this post I will focus on six main themes found within London: Parks, Churches, Pubs, Other Religious Institutions, Theatre and Museums.
Each park that I visited had its own distinct characteristics that separated it from any other. Green Park was the first I visited and after perusing a few others, I realized there was nothing that exciting about it. Located right across from Buckingham Palace, Green Park certainly provides a good place to go and take a break from the busy atmosphere of the area. Besides this however there is not much going on and I would recommend that potential park goers walk the extra distance over to St. James Park.
In addition to the large number of waterfowl heckling people for food which offers consistent entertainment St. James offers some picturesque flower beds throughout and various monuments along the way. It has the relaxing atmosphere of Green Park with a bit more excitement sprinkled in.
Regents Park offers a completely different feel from Green or St. James. Located in a separate area of London, Regents Park has a history of being used by a higher end crowd. I could tell this immediately from the feel of the park. The decorative shrubbery and elegant architecture throughout gave me a feeling that Regents is not as well used as other parks.
Since I was one of the members of the Parks group that gave a walking tour of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens I could go into a lot more detail about these two green spaces but I will choose not to in an effort to be concise. In summary Hyde Park is the largest green space in London and is often used for larger events such as concerts, festivals etc. It also contains a large number of monuments throughout including the 7/7 memorial and the Diana Memorial Fountain. Kensington Gardens is home to a variety of key monuments but is not as well trodden as Hyde. Overall it makes for a quieter atmosphere, more conducive fo reading or “snogging”.
Regents Park were my two favorite green spaces in London. Regents, is both beautiful, and extremely large and I continually felt the need to go back and explore. Kensington Gardens appealed to me in that it was quainter than Hyde Park but contained a like amount of history and monuments throughout. Although I would be content spending a length of time in any London green space Regents and Kensington would be my top choices.
Overall I enjoyed going to the theatre on so many occasions. What better place to do so than in London after all? Here I will discuss my favorite performances and theatre venues.
All in all I enjoyed all but two of the performances we saw. The two Shakespeare productions at The Globe Theatre were fantastic. Although I did not particularly enjoy reading Troilus and Cressida it made a huge difference to be there so close to the actors. The fantastic drum chorus at the end really sealed the deal. As You Like It was probably my favorite show I saw here in London. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s simpler plays the actors really made it jump off the page. Being down it the pit was fantastic because of all the ad-libbing and constant interaction with the crowd. I even felt traces of Touchstone’s saliva on my arm at one point.
The other Shakespeare performance I saw, All’s Well That Ends Well, was lackluster. Although the Olivier was my favorite performing venue (this is what an auditorium style theatre should be like…why can’t Dickinson have something like this?) the play itself was odd and ended on an abrupt and odd note.
The other play we saw at the National Theatre, The Pitmen Painters, was fantastic. Although I was dozing a bit because of the Benadryl I took right before the show, the actors kept my attention and I appreciated that the play was based off of a true story.
Easily the oddest play we saw was Arcadia. An extremely intelligent performance the play juxtaposed two different periods in time and created a singular storyline in which the plot was based. Overall it was an entertaining performance that made me think early and often.
Finally there was Blood Brothers. The lone musical I saw produced feelings of disbelief, anguish and held back laughter. The ridiculous 80’s sound track and creepy narrator just didn’t do it for me. I think it’s safe to say that I was not the only one from Humanities 309 who was a bit surprised to see just about everyone in the audience give it a standing ovation.
I had a very positive experience with the theatre here. I would go back to the globe again and again. I loved being that close to the action. I would also enjoy seeing another show in the Olivier. There really is so much to choose from here. It’s simply a matter of figuring out your tastes and saving your money so you can see a lot of performances.
From Westminster Abbey to St. Paul’s Cathedral we saw most of the major churches/cathedrals during our month in London. St. Paul’s was easily my favorite. From the fantastic crypt to the hundreds of stairs up to the tower it had so much to offer in the way of history and mystique. Westminster Abbey fascinated me primarily because of all the literary figures that had been buried inside as well as the room that was dedicated to “The Order of the Bath”. Other churches that I really enjoyed taking a look at were: “St. Martin in the Fields” which sits just outside Trafalgar Square and Nicholas Hawkesmoore’s “Christ’s Church” which is located in very close proximity to Brick Lane.
Other Religious Institutions
Overall the Sikh Gurdwara was my favorite place that we visited. I appreciated the simplicity of the religious doctrine as well as the conviction and honesty with which our tour guide, Mr. Singh spoke. The morning was capped off with a fantastic sit down meal together in which everyone was served the same food and drink.
I had different feelings about the Hindu Mandir. It was clear to me from the very beginning that the Hindu religion is not nearly as modest as Sikhism nor are they trying to be. From the extremely decorative prayer room, to the museum located right in the center of the Mandir I never felt particularly comfortable inside.
The only religious institution I wish we had gotten a chance to visit is a Mosque. I had been to one many years ago but I did not remember a whole lot from my experience. I wonder how much more lively the East End, and all parts of London would be if Ramadan were not taking place during our time here.
I could go on and on about museums so I will attempt to stay as concise as possible.
The British Museum was massive, convenient since it was so close to the Arran House but a little one dimensional at times. One of my favorite exhibits at the British Museum was a special exhibit on Living and Dying that drew information from all different time periods and cultures.
The National Gallery was fantastic. Although I have a hard time appreciating some visual art the gallery kept my attention for a number of hours. Seeing so many famous works of art was phenomenal.
The Tate Modern was my least favorite museum here. Although I am trying I have a hard time understanding modern art. After about 45 minutes in this museum it ended up being too much for me.
The Cabinet War Rooms/Churchill Museum were two of my favorites. The realization that I was standing in one of the most important places in World War II history was unbelievable. The War Rooms felt so authentic. I really felt as though I had been taken back in time to the 1940’s while inside.
The Victoria and Albert was easily my favorite museum in London. There was so much variety inside and so much to see. I could have easily spent a few days inside. Two of my favorite exhibits were the silver and jewelry exhibits. I’m not sure what this says about me as a person but I found it unbelievable that individuals could even own such treasures. I also enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the V&A staff. At most of the other museums I visited I felt like I was doing them a disservice simply by being there. Although I understand that taking pictures of an object in a museum doesn’t do it justice I like to be able to have the option of doing so.
The Sir John Soane museum interested me but it wasn’t really my cup of tea in the end. It also had a stuffy atmosphere to it that I didn’t really appreciate.
One thing I can draw from my experience at museums here is that each and every one has something that distinguishes it. With so many museums I thought that it would be impossible to avoid some overlap but I never really felt that. Cheers to London and its museums.
Finally we have pubs. What would London be without it’s public houses? In some cases pubs are the true museums of London, designating what an area was like in the past and what type of clientele it attracted. During my month here I had a chance to visit a few pubs and get a general sense of what some possible differences could be. It is clear to me that each pub brings something different and unique to the table. The Marlborough Arms was convenient being so close to the Arran House and was a great place to enjoy a pint over a meal with friends. The Court was conducive to socializing in a different way. The music was louder, the people louder and the drinks cheaper. Other places I visited offered other things that made them stand out as well. One thing that i’ve learned about pubs is that it’s hard for one to please everyone. Since everyone has different tastes and desires when it comes to pubs you are better off going to one with a small cohesive group.
To conclude this novel I would just like to say that I think we saw a lot of different faces of London this month. I realize there is much more to see here but between walking tours throughout the city, trips to major monuments and museums and individual exploration I have learned a ton about London, it’s history and where it is going. I look forward to more London explorations in the future but for now, ON TO NORWICH!
Tags: Churches and Cathedrals · Henry · Pubs · Theatre
September 13th, 2009 · No Comments
It’s taken me a while to formulate my thought about religion and identity, but I think I can finally say something on the topic.
Sikhism and Hinduism are fairly new to the UK, as Sikhs began immigrating overseas in the 1950s, after the liberation of British India (1947) and the division of Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India (this division cause fighting in the Punjab region between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs). According to the BBC, while Hindus also began immigrating in the 1950s, Hindu immigration particularly increased in the 1970s when Indians were forced to leave many newly independent African countries, such as Kenya and Uganda. In London, these groups settled into lower class areas, such as the East End where immigrants have traditionally lived since the Huguenots. As we learned from Salaam Brick Lane and Brick Lane, this area often suffers from racial tension and violence (though the neighborhood has been gentrified a bit since Tarquin Hall’s days on Brick Lane).
If our visits to the Southall Sikh Gurdwara and the Sri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden proved to me one thing, it is that Sikhs and Hindus are clearly still seeking to find their place in the larger London society. Each place of worship we visited had numerous pamphlets and other resources for learning about their religion. Within these pamphlets (and of course the exhibition on “Understanding Hinduism”), both religions cited famous white guys praising the peacefulness of the corresponding religion. I don’t mean that sentence to sound as cynical as it might seem, but it just appeared to me that the institutions were really trying very hard to find a way to convince outsiders not to fear what is different. However, instead of simply informing visitors of their beliefs and practices, it was found necessary to justify these beliefs and practices with a white man’s approval. The most blatant example of this can be found in the “Understanding Hinduism” exhibition at the Mandir. In the section, “Hinduism for the individual,” the exhibition reads: “Hinduism, through its heroes and history, relays the real values of life. As George Bernard Shaw confirmed…” This statement raised a few questions in my mind. Most importantly: What makes George Bernard Shaw the authority on the “real values of life?” Shaw was famous for many things, but I’m fairly certain an expertise on Hinduism is not one of them. I would much rather hear the Hindus’ or the Sikhs’ own views on their religions, as I did not feel such justifications helped me to learn.
I would also like to comment on an observation made by many classmates in blogs and conversation about the relative modesty of the gurdwara when compared to the highly decorated mandir. In any religion the size and intricacy of a building of worship is determined by the community in which it is built and the amount of funding available. I’m sure none of the churches in our neighborhoods compares to St. Paul’s or St. Peter’s. In the same vein, the gurdwara we visited doesn’t compare to the Harmandir Sahib. The mandir in Neasden is much grander than mandir near my house in Somerset, NJ. The places we saw were single examples of larger religions and we must be careful when making observations about the religions as a whole.
Whenever I’m given a difficult topic to write about I try to go back to the basics. What is identity? According to Merriam-Webster, identity is the “sameness of essential or generic character in different instances” or “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” So, how can this be applied to immigrants in England?
In the various immigrant neighborhoods we have visited, it is clear that the communities are attempting to maintain some sort of “sameness of essential or generic character.” They built religious institutions, opened shops and restaurants, and created a small community that is similar to their home. In other ways, the community’s identity is forced to change when it moves to a new country. The environment is different. Ways of dress could change. New languages are learned in order to get jobs and communicate with others. A new country presents many challenges for an immigrant group and at some point something has to give, and not everything can stay exactly the same.
On an individual level, it’s much more difficult to generalize how one’s “distinguishing character or personality” is challenged by immigration. As we learned from Brick Lane, many times a person’s values can be completely transformed. When Nazneen first comes to England, all she wants is to return to Bangladesh and she never speaks out against her husband. By the end of the novel, she refuses to return with him. We’ve also learned about some of the challenges faced by second-generation immigrants. Magid, Millat, and Irie are caught between two worlds: their parents’ expectations for them and their own society. The ease of adaptation is also affected by economic status. Doctors and grad students face different challenges than do poorer people forced to live in violent neighborhoods.
Tags: readings · Sarah
I have been drawn to all things Hindu and Indian since I was about twelve years old. I’m not sure what sparked my interest, nor am I sure what has kept me captivated, but I was quite excited to visit Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.
My first impression of the Mandir was overwhelmingly positive: I fell in love with the architecture and design. I couldn’t help but stare at the elaborate carvings all the way up the walls in the main lobby and wonder how long it took to get everythingso perfect. While admiring the architecture, I also got a more upbeat, “fun” vibe from the entire place: when we waited in the lobby of the gurdwara, we all spoke in hushed tones and were worried about respect and protocol. The chanting over the PA system in the gurdwara as well as the quiet, sometimes hurried passing of Sikhs through the lobby gave the place a somewhat stern vibe, whereas the lobby of the mandir was full of people, loud voices, and movement. This automatically made me (and I believe others in the group) more relaxed, despite the high levels of security outside.
Part of my interest in Hinduism has always been because of the “honour[ing] the whole of creation, see[ing] the presence of God in everything,” as stated in the Understanding Hinduismexhibit and pamphlet at the mandir. However, despite feelinga connection to the foundations of the religion as outlined in the pamphlet and at the beginning of the exhibit, some of the things our guide said as well as the entire “SwaminarayanFaith” section of the exhibit didn’t seem to completely mesh with my previous experiences with and knowledge of Hinduism. Our guide was plain to us that all decisions, from interior decorating to finances, were made by the current Guru, and no one was allowed to question his choices. Additionally, much of the BAPS sect of Hinduism focuses on worshipping someone named Bhagwan Swaminarayan, who was seen as “the incarnation of the Supreme God” back in the 1800’s. If Hindus are supposed to be able to see the presence of God in everything and everyone, I have a hard time understanding why some people are allowed to be venerated and obeyed without question (and have paintings, wax figures, and marble sculptures adorned in gold and surrounded by food all over the mandir). I suppose this is a question I’ve always had about the faith in its entirety: the “ground rules,” so to speak, seem to be grounded in equality and the perception of the holy in everyone and everything, yet historically, women and members of lower castes have not been given equal status in Hindu societies, while some men are allowed to be venerated simply because they have done good deeds and have become ascetics. This leads me to the conclusion that all religions are fundamentally the same, for better or for worse: the basic ground rules and mission statements always promote love, seeking out “truth,” and doing unto others as you wish to be done to yourself, but in practice, these messages often get skewed and can end up in bloody wars, idol worship, and ignorance.
Shifting gears, however, I found the worship in the temple proper to be one of the most enjoyable and upbeat religious services I have ever attended. Though I would have appreciated a bit of a carpet on the marble floor (as well as equal seating status between women and men), the hymn was celebratory and beautiful, everyone was allowed to join in, and after the statues of various had been blessed by fire (at least, I think this is what waving the flames in front of them did), the fire was then allowed to be “enjoyed” by every member of the congregation. I loved the overall joyous mood, the celebratory and upbeat vibe, and the simplicity and general brevity of the entire worship. Some good music, some pyrotechnics, and a chance for everyone to get a bit of the love: that’s my kind of religious service.
The blog prompt asked us to consider the differences between Sikhism and Hinduism and think about how these differences make life in the UK easier or harder for the various devotees for the religions. Much like Anya said in her post, I feel somewhat reluctant to answer this question for several reasons: one, because we have nearly beaten this topic to death in class discussions, previous blog posts, readings, etc, and I feel like we are repeating ourselves and each other. Secondly, since we come from such different places, traditions, and experience and have only cursory knowlege of the religions and life experiences of the people we are observing. I feel a bit presumptuous in sayingthat the Sikhs may have a harder time acclimating to life in the UK because the markers of their religion tend to be worn on heads and faces and arms and their difference is not only marked by the color of their skin. Perhaps I’m not looking deep enough or I wasn’t perceptive enough while attending the gurdwara and the mandir, but I didn’t see much of anything else in the beliefs or customs or houses of worship that would concretely signify greater or lesser ability to adapt to British life between Hindus and Sikhs. When it comes down to it, both religious groups are groups of immigrants from India with different religions, skin colors, foods, customs, rituals, and lifestyles than the white Anglo-Saxons commonly thought of as definitively “British,” and I don’t necessarily think a common Brit judging the foreignness of a Sikh or Hindu would care about the religions’ specific dogmas: they would just see a foreigner.
September 8th, 2009 · 2 Comments
Do beliefs make a difference in how two faiths adjust to life in the UK? Of course. Hinduism and Sikhism are incredibly different religions. One is polytheistic, the other monotheistic. One needs pages to define its practices and customs, the other a couple sentences. One supports offerings in shrines at the home, the other preaches the importance of meditation. One has a gift shop in a temple, the other a type of soup kitchen. The beliefs of Hinduism are so foreign to the English culture that it seems to attract people by its mystery. It’s something that could go either way; that is, its very noticeable differences could have inspired intense fear or interest in the English people.
Based on the observations of a person who has limited knowledge on the subject, the English seem to have responded to Hinduism in the latter manner. And who wouldn’t be impressed with the absolutely gorgeous images that are associated with the religion? The figures of their gods, the hand-carved wood that adorns their walls, the bright colors of their dress- Hinduism is without a doubt a very eye-pleasing religion. Sikhism, on the other hand dresses, itself in a quite dull manner in comparison. That’s not to say that both places of worship on the outside are anything less than impressive. But the first thing that greets you at the Hindu temple is a gift shop filled with beautiful figurines that you can’t help but want to have. Conversely, the first thing you see at the Sikh temple is a small closet in which you are to place your shoes. It’s more than a little different. This discrepancy in design is more than a difference in taste. A religion that sees gods in many different forms has more to show off than a religion that recognizes only one. That’s quite understandable.
What is a little less understandable is how differently the two religions were accepted into Britain. Both found a presence here in the 1950s with the Indian immigrants came over to find safety after the 1947 Partition of India. Members from both the Sikh and Hindu faiths came to England in hopes to get away from the tension and fighting that was occurring in India. This, of course, is not the sole reason for the influx of Sikhs and Hindus to England but it was definitely a major cause of it. Both the Sikhs and Hindus differ from the traditional English appearance immensely. The Sikhs wear turbans, cannot cut their hair, and tote swords. The Hindus wear bright colors and have bright red dots on their foreheads. The English wear grey and black and, while many carry knives, none too many have a sword at the hip. Though both are clearly different from the traditional British appearance, what is important to note is how the two were affected by prejudice towards that different appearance and how they remember that experience. On the BBC website, the Sikhs mention that they changed their appearance in efforts to be employed in London. The Hindus, on a website from the same news source, make no mention of racial prejudice against them whatsoever. No matter how peaceful a new group of people might be, London has never failed to have a prejudice against a group of newcomers. It’s something that would be nice to not be true but alas in my understanding it’s not. So, why this discrepancy? Both Hindus and Sikhs came from the same land around the same time for similar reasons and yet only one actually mentions the ‘dirty’ details: that there was religious turmoil that needed to be fled, and that once a safe place was found, life was less than instantly easy. I don’t really have an answer for this.
I would argue that there might be certain tendencies that help point to an answer. The Hindu temple tended to be more of a bragging ground to flaunt how grand the religion was. In fact, in the museum, a sign proclaimed that there was absolutely no hypocrisy in the Hindu religion. I applaud them if that’s the case but my observations found this not to be true. Again, I have limited exposure to the religion but one that ignores the huge discrepancy in male and female rights present in the religion might be said to have some hypocrisy lurking around. The Sikh temple by comparison was what it was. It was a huge temple that also made sure to note how much it cost to build; still, it lacked a museum. In place of that and a gift shop, the Sikh gurdwara has a place to feed community members who need a meal. One recognizes the faults with the world while the other seems to cover them up with beautiful decorations. Is that what it takes to fit into British society? Maybe. But even if the Hindu section of the BBC website refuses to recognize that London may have been less than welcoming to them at times, the people who first greeted us when we came to the temple were armed guards. They were quite kind but their smiles couldn’t hide the bulletproof vests they had on. Clearly, both communities have found difficulties in coming to London. How they deal with this prejudice is quite different.
September 7th, 2009 · 3 Comments
Going into the trip at the Sikh Gurdwara last Thursday I was unsure of what to expect. By the time I came out I felt very positive about the experience. Things could not have been more different for me at the Hindu Mandir. From the moment I saw the Temple and noticed that there were security guards in front I had an odd feeling. This did not go away. After depositing my bag and all my valuables in the security trailer across the street I made my way into the Mandir. After depositing my shoes in a rack similar to the Gurdwara our tour guide began speaking with us about the Hindu religion. After a quick introduction he began immediately by praising Hinduism and the Mandir pointing out the intricacies of the building including the ceiling which is made from a special wood found in Burma. Unlike Mr. Singh at the Gurdwara who was dressed in traditional Sikh prayer garb our guide at the Mandir was dressed in western attire with a button-up collared shirt and slacks. After walking through the humungous prayer room my hypothesis that Hinduism and Sikhism should be polarized with one another seemed pretty accurate. The prayer room featured one giant ornate rug that covered the majority of the room. On the walls there were giant portraits depicting the past four Spiritual Guru’s of the Swaminarayan Faith and lifesize statues of each. The prayer room also featured two giant projectors in the front of the room so those that are praying in the back of the room can get a phenomenal view of the front stage. In addition there were skylights located in the center of the hall that could be opened or closed at any time.
After hearing about the prayer room we crossed over to the other side of the Mandir where we entered an exhibit explaining the ins and outs of Hinduism. Although our guide said that the Mandir served a multi-purpose role not only as a place for people to pray but also a place where people can learn, I was still a little disconcerted by the presence of a museum in the middle of a place of worship. While waiting to enter the exhibit the class looked at a wall outside that featured pictures of all the famous world politicians that had come and visited in the past. The wall also featured certificates and awards that the Mandir had won.
Inside the museum I learned a lot about Hinduism but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of humility with which the information was presented. There were quotes from notable figures such as Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau praising the Indian way of life and the Hindu religion. An example is:
“It is already becoming clear that a chapter which had a Western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end the self-destruction of the human race…At this supremely dangerous moment in history, the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way” – Dr. Arnold Toynbee (British Historian. 1889-1975).
Other parts of the exhibit not so diplomatically claimed that the Hindu’s invented the concept of zero and created the first university over 2,700 years ago. Everything seemed glorified and most definitely biased. Although I expect every museum to have some sort of bias I did not expect it to be as brutally obvious as the Mandir made it seem.
To sum up my experiences at the Sikh Gurdwara and the Hindu Mandir it is safe to say that they were vastly different from one another. Since Hinduism is the oldest living religion in the world it makes sense for them to refer to many of their ways as “Indian”. Despite this fact I couldn’t help but notice that Sikh’s were being excluded when these descriptions were being made.
The best way to describe the Hindu religion and the Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is immodest. Everything both in and outside was big, new and technologically driven. Even when our class had an opportunity to participate in a traditional Hindu prayer I found it hard to concentrate because there were security guards standing around the premises. Although the Sikh Gurdwara was certainly big and looked fairly new the message preached inside was of simplicity, the polar opposite of what I sensed at the Mandir. Although I still did not feel entirely comfortable paying my respects to the guru at the Gurdwara I felt that had I participated in prayer I could have felt at peace. Even something as small as just sitting down to a meal together was significant to me. Especially since every single Gurdwara serves the same meal to every single person everywhere. To me this example completely JUXTAPOSES the Hindu tradition of hierarchy rooted in their caste system. Since Sikhism is a fairly new religion and has not fully been recognized by much of the world there are bound to be some bumps in the road but it seems to me that part of the reason Sikhism was founded in India was to rebel against the values of Hinduism.
As far as where I see these two religions going within Great Britain it is hard to say. Both Southall and Neasden seemed to be pretty homogeneous communities with mostly people of Indian descent in both regions. Because of this I think that both the Hindu and Sikh religions will have their place within London, at least for a while. Using the example of Mrs. Suri in Tarquin Hall’s Salaam Brick Lane it seems that the Indian community remains tightly knit regardless of where members of the community immigrate to. The Indian community itself traditionally churns out millions of educated “youngsters” every year many of which go on to hold prominent positions in a variety of fields including business, law and medicine. Because of this the Indian community as a whole is in no danger of disintegrating anytime soon.
As Mr. Singh told us at the Gurdwara he wishes that a day will come when he can go to the security check point at an airport and the security guard will know that he is a Sikh, therefore a peaceful man, and let him pass without any hassle. Due to the fact that Sikhism is such a young and upcoming religion (according to the BBC there are 336,000 Sikhs currently living in Britain) one can only hope that over time and with more exposure in the U.K. people will come to understand it better and the Sikh’s will find their place here in London. The only obstacle I see Sikh’s facing is their ability to blend in to the professional work force here in London. Some businesses may require that men shave off their facial hair in an attempt to look more like the typical British professional. As a Sikh one would have to ask himself how much that part of his religion means to him and whether he feels like he is sacrificing anything by shaving. If the answer is that the Sikh feels like he is sacrificing something than it will be difficult to predict what will happen.
With Hinduism being the world’s oldest living religion it is clear that Hindu’s have managed to traverse many obstacles throughout the years. In addition, they have completely modernized their religion to fit 21st century standards. Although I did not enjoy my experience at the Mandir all that much I have to admit there is certainly a rare brilliance and resilience that comes with being a Hindu. With some of the world’s smartest, most self-motivated and disciplined individuals running the show Hinduism is not going anywhere in London or in the U.K. In fact I see it growing steadily, especially with all the adaptations Hindus have made to fit the times.
September 7th, 2009 · 2 Comments
What I have gathered from visiting both the Hindu temple and the Sikh gudwara is that Sikhism is all about the equality of people from all classes, races, genders, and backgrounds, while Hinduism is founded on the idea of the jati, or caste system. Also, in the practice of the Sikh faith there are very little rituals and very few gaudy symbols, while Hindus use numerous rituals and symbols in their worshiping practices.
In most ways it is more difficult for Sikhs to adjust into British culture than it is for Hindus. With their five Ks, or the five physical symbols that Sikhs have to symbolize their faith, the Sikhs stand out a lot more than the Hindus. Since 9/11 and 7/7 there has been a lot of hostility toward South Asian individuals who wear turbans and have long beards, since then ignorant individuals have tormented Sikhs because they associate them with terrorist activities. Also, some work places do not permit their employees to have unshaven faces and uncut hair. Living in England also forces the Sikhs into a unequal class society that is not compatible with the Sikh’s belief in equality.
Hindus have an easier time adjusting to the British culture because they do not have any spacific visual keys to thier religion that could create a social backlash or hostility. They also have a strong understanding of the British class devisions because of their understanding of their own caste system. However, the fact that Hinduism is a polythisit religion might create some agressive actions from the primarily Christian British society.
There will never be complete peace and unity with a community. Unfortunately, the same is true for a religious group. There will always be arguments between the more orthodox members of the society and how they interpret scripture, rules, or messages, and the younger generation that was raised in a very different world from their predecessors. In some cases, these arguments lead to forward progress for the religion as a whole, for example with more equality for women or more opportunities for all members of the congregation. However, just as often if not more so, this can lead to divides and people leaving the faith altogether.
In many ways Sikhism and Hinduism are very similar. Both religions believe that shoes should be removed before entering the inner sanctum of the temple, that peace is a necessary force in life, that donations and charity will hold you in higher stead with the god(s), and that life is a journey to learn from. However, when observing the people at the Sikh and Hindu temples I discovered another thing that both religions prize – children. There was a definite sense that the children were learning to respect their religions from a very early age. In the Gurdwara I saw a little girl of about 4 tying a headscarf onto her squirming little brother. Obviously this girl had learned that in her faith, covering your head is necessary inside of the temple. In the Hindu temple, many young children went up to their parents to get change to offer to a particular deity in prayer.
The other thing that struck me as interesting was how the Sikhs and Hindus have adapted to being in the United Kingdom. Some changes are quite obvious, the Sikh men cannot carry their defensive swords due to British law. However, it is interesting to consider that some Sikhs have been forced to remove their head-covering or trim their facial hair due to the parameters of their jobs. The changes for the Hindus are not as obvious. It is, of course, possible that some Hindus have rejected the idea of obstaining from meat and fish since entering the UK, but that doesn’t seem to have the same direct correlation as with the Sikhs and their changes.
Although this blog post is supposed to focus mainly on the Sikh and Hindu religions, I would find it amiss if I did not mention problems and arguments within my own faith. I stated at the beginning of the post that all religions have problems, but sometimes the butting-of-heads between the younger generations and those who are more set in their ways can end in forward progress. I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and I know that my religion is not perfect. However, I think that the stubbornness of those people who are high up in the Catholic hierarchy on the issues of married priests, female priests, homosexuality, etc. are going to cause the faith I believe in to crash and burn in the future. (Can you tell I’m liberal?)
In many ways, this links directly to the Sikhs and the Hindus. Both are being forced to adapt to their surroundings, both religiously and culturally, in Britain; some as second-generation immigrants who believe in their religion to a degree and others as die-hard orthodox followers. In order for their religion continue to have forward progress, these people need to sort out their differences long enough to come to a consensus. I hope my Church will do that too.
September 5th, 2009 · 1 Comment
A great perk about studying abroad in England is that you’re doing just that: studying. Everything we do is a learning opportunity. We constantly are taking note of the interactions between people, what groups of people are present in what area, and conversely what groups of people are absent from what areas. As much as I love this constant state of observation, I can’t help but wonder if sometimes I’m reading too much into situations. About three minutes ago when I started this blog, I planned to write on how different groups of people are treated differently throughout London. I still believe this is true. But in those three minutes, a wonderful thing happened. Space Jam came on! If you don’t remember, the movie involves Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny saving the world from evil aliens. Talk about quality entertainment! Two children from London picked out the flick to watch before their bedtime and, being the mature people that we are, four of my fellow students and I are kindly decided to keep them company (while reciting our favorite lines right along with them). The children can’t be more than nine years old. We are all a little more than double their ages. Yet here we are all sitting around a television enjoying a Saturday night together. As this happens, I’m wondering: just how differently are separate groups of people in London? In its first couple scenes, Space Jam has told us that forced control over others is wrong, that stealing talents and goods from others is wrong, that everyone has something to learn from others, and that everyone has something to teach others- not too shabby for a movie that stars a basketball player and an animated rabbit. On our visit to a gurdwara, we were told that those who followed Sikhism believed in lifelong communal learning as well. I in no way mean to belittle Sikhism to the level of Space Jam. I do believe though that the people sitting in the lounge with me are listening to similar messages as those that are delivered in gurdwaras. With such similarities being apparent in mainstream culture and arguably a minority religious belief in London, the separation between these groups is sadly easy to recognize. This may seem paradoxical but I believe it makes sense. Clearly, the mainstream culture and minority cultures claim to believe in similar ideals: communal learning. Yet the London community is separated (making such learning difficult) based off of ethnicity, race, and class. How frustrating! I could understand if these groups’ core values or ideals were so conflicting that problems arose and, therefore, separation made a bit more sense. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Some sort of disconnect is present. A misunderstanding between cultures? A hypocrisy in one or both? What accounts for this separation?
There doesn’t seem to be easy answer. Our class discussions have tended to point the finger at the majority culture and for the most point I’ve supported that sentiment. But I don’t know if the answer is really that simple; that is, I don’t think that the mainstream culture holds 100% of the responsibility for the separation that exists between cultures. But Space Jam reminds us that we can all get along in the end if we just communicate with one another instead of ignoring how much we have in common and highlighting our differences. That’s not to say that our differences should be completely erased. The Sikhs have a beautifully unique lifestyle that, in my opinion, shouldn’t be ‘mainstreamed’. But to have a gurdwara all the way in Southall rather than have a felt presence in London, to have Brick Lane be a predominantly Bengali community with few other places in the city where such communities exist, basically to have a separated society is, to me, exactly opposite of what all of these communities teach. Maybe Michael and Bugs need to make another movie for this lesson to be learned. I know I would gladly spend another Saturday night learning from them. But my hope is that the lesson isn’t just taught. Clearly, that is already happening. The hope is that the lesson starts being learned and applied. Maybe I’m reading too much into Space Jam’s influence on London culture. But as a student who is always observing and studying what’s going on in my surroundings, I don’t entirely think that’s the case.
September 5th, 2009 · 2 Comments
Each Religion Can Be Beautiful in Its Own Right
On Wednesday our entire class went on a walk of London’s East End. After reading a few books this Summer dealing with this part of the city I had a very narrow view of what to expect before going on the tour. The East End is typically home to the most recent immigrant population of London which today is the large Bangladeshi community that has immigrated within the past 30 years. Most of the post colonial literature we read portrayed the east end and specifically Brick Lane as a dingy place where its inhabitants are trapped between their home culture and the culture of Great Britain. Often this leads to conflict and not the best living situation.
After hearing all of this negative portrayal of the East End I was surprised once we got away from Liverpool Street Station to see a quiet, unobtrusive Brick Lane. Part of this could have been attributed to Ramadan taking place which nearly all of the East End Bangladeshis observe. That being said it was evident a lot had changed in Brick Lane over the past few years. It was noticable that the city had been putting in a strong effort to change the dynamic of the area. As we concluded our walk and moved into a more well-off area near the Tower of London I realized that the image I had of the East End going into the tour was not close to what I had found. In fact the only thing that reminded me of the East End I read about was when I was riding west on the Central Line later that afternoon from Mile End to Bank and I noticed an incredible difference in the overall quality of the two Underground Stations. When hearing about Brick Lane I had expected something more akin to East St. Louis but instead found something closer to East Dublin or East Carlisle. Sarah made a great point in class today that the Brick Lane area seemed to have a bit of a “hipster” feel to it. To go along with this you’ll notice one of my hyperlinks above is connected to a series of restaurants on Brick Lane. Ten and maybe even five years ago this would never have happened. Although there were signs of immigrant communities in Brick Lane they did not become extremely noticeable until we got to the Whitechapel area. If Brick Lane is indeed becoming an area where the London mainstream is beginning to spend a good amount of time and money then where are the first generation immigrants being pushed to?
On Thursday we got to observe another area of London where immigration was prevalent as we headed to Southall, home to a large Indian community. Unlike the East End my first impression of Southall was just what I expected it to be. Walking through the area I noticed a very diverse Indian community consisting of people dressed both in western attire and in traditional south Asian clothing. Along the walk I noticed a few Churches which told me that the community has assimilated into the greater British culture a little bit. After a few more minutes of exploration we arrived outside the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, put scarves over our heads and prepared to head inside. Upon entering the first thing I noticed were the separate areas for men and women to hand over their shoes and cleanse themselves before prayer. The only experience I had to compare this to was when I visited a mosque many years ago and the same process took place. As we entered the main hall and waited to begin our tour I took in my surroundings. There was a man writing Punjabi on a whiteboard and a collection of men women and children wandering throughout, praying and meditating but most of all staring at the group of 28 Americans standing in the middle of the Gurdwara. Eventually our guide Mr. Singh showed up and began to tell us all about the Gurdwara and about Sikhism. The main things that I gained and understood from his quiet, pensive voice is that Sikhism is a religion of love and a religion in which learning takes place throughout one’s entire life. No Sikh has all of the knowledge in the world and each member of the community has the ability to learn from each other and from God. Mr. Singh was a very humble man and spent a lot of time continually apologizing to us that he was not a worthy guide. I sensed that humbleness is a quality found often within the Sikh religion. Although I felt slightly uncomfortable walking into the prayer room, bowing to the guru and heading back out I enjoyed my experience at the Gurdwara overall. The visit was capped off by a wonderful meal that was simple but nourishing, a metaphor of the Sikh religion as a whole.
On Friday as our class discussed the post-colonial literature we read I tried to find connections between our experience at the Gurdwara and the stories we read about. None of the books we read featured a major Sikh character so it was hard to make a direct comparison. However, one thing that I noticed that seems to apply to all immigrant groups is that there are stark differences in how the first generation and second generation handle themselves in the community. In just about every immigrant population we’ve read about/observed here in London the first generation immigrants tend to want to hold on to their home culture/religion whereas the children of first generation immigrants try to fit in with the greater British culture a bit more. This only makes sense considering the majority of them are attending public schools with other children from different backgrounds and have no experience living in the place where their parents are from. I noticed in the Gurdwara that many of the children were dressed in more western garb and wore a dew-rag type of head covering instead of a traditional scarf. Also I did not see anyone at the Gurdwara that was a teenager. It seems to me that England is very similar to the U.S. in that religion is lost on a lot of young people. I’m curious to find out if this is true throughout the world.
Overall my readings of Post-Colonial literature and my visit to the Gurdwara taught me a number of things. The first is that it is impossible to predict exactly how an immigrant group will assimilate or whether they will at all. It is also difficult to predict how each generation will handle being in a new situation. Despite these unanswered questions I learned a lot from the books we read and through our visit to the Gurdwara. I know that this learning will continue as I spend more and more time in London and as I move on throughout life. Much like the Sikh religion, learning about immigration is a lifelong task.
September 4th, 2009 · 1 Comment
Even though I am one, I rarely feel like a tourist in London. Perhaps the fact that there are hundreds of other tourists makes me feel a bit less conspicuous when I snap photos of St. Paul’s and Big Ben, or perhaps it’s because I truly feel like I’m getting to know this city bit by bit (I have a good chunk of the Tube map in my head now, which amazes me). I readily call London, Bloomsbury, and the Arran House “home” in a way I adamantly refuse to label Carlisle and Dickinson, and when I helped an American couple from California find their way on the Tube the other day, they asked if I lived here, and I automatically answered yes but didn’t realize what I had said until ten minutes later. Despite the fact that we’re often looked at on the Tube or the street for being loud and having different accents, and even though we will probably all be known as “the American” in our various social circles in Norwich, I feel more at home in London than I have ever felt outside of my Connecticut bubble.
Yesterday, however, I felt like a tourist and an outsider for the first time in a while. Southall immediately felt foreign the second I got off the train. Perhaps this is because of my relative lack of experience with England outside of greater London, or perhaps it was because of the street signs and advertisements in Urdu, but Southall only felt more foreign the farther we got into it. Even just walking down the street, I felt that we were being looked at and wondered about much more closely and obviously than we often are around Tottenham Court Road, for example. From what I’ve paid attention to, many Brits will hear a bunch of loud young adults with American accents walking down the pavement, and they seem to give us a cursory glance when they’re sure we’re not looking before walking on. In Southall, on the street as well as in the gurdwara itself, people didn’t seem to hide their blatant staring at our group. This didn’t feel unfriendly, necessarily, or undeserved: Southall isn’t exactly an area that sees a lot of tourists, especially young, mostly white Americans, and I bet many were wondering why the hell we had reason to come to Southall. In the gurdwara, people didn’t seem to hide their curiosity whatsoever, but this time I felt a slight embarrassment: even though we were all being respectful and obeying their customs, I wondered what they thought of us being there and if they felt mocked by our curiosity, our sometimes comical scarf-wearing, and our close observation. I felt as though we might be intruding into their sacred space, perhaps one of the few places in Britain where they are among their own kind and NOT the outsiders, simply by being there and treating the gurdwara like it was another tourist stop on the tour of England and as a space that does double-duty as a museum as well as a space of worship like Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s.
As we discussed in class today, for many of us, being an outsider is an infrequent and uncomfortable experience, but I wholeheartedly agree with such experiences being beneficial, educational, and healthy. However, after feeling like a complete outsider for the first time in a while, I found myself reflecting on how the gurdwara is probably one of the only places in the area where the Sikhs aren’t the outsiders and aren’t given strange looks for having turbans and beards. For the hour or however long they’re in the gurdwara, they are able to be themselves and focus on what matters most to them, but in the outside world, where they’re not even allowed to participate fully in the requirements of their religion (since they aren’t allowed to carry knives/swords, and in some professions, might not be able to have long hair or beards), they are constantly bombarded with strange looks and being “foreign” just because of the way they look. I wonder what this does to a Sikh’s identity, especially through the various generations and levels of devoutness. We have read several books on the concepts of being an immigrant and a permanent outsider in England, but since Sikhs can perhaps stick out even MORE due to the physical markers of their religion. I also think that identity varies from individual to individual, even though two might come from the same place at the same age and live in the same new environment, and I regret not asking our guide more about the Sikh identity in a secular, western community.