The world’s seventh largest country by geographic area, India is one of the fastest growing developing countries. It has remarkable religious diversity, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and historically has been influenced by Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Islam, which were brought to the country several hundred years ago.
As a double major in history and religion, senior Zachary Leja found the diversity of India to be a perfect fit given his academic focus on Asian religion, and enrolled in the Institute for International Education of Students (IES) program in New Delhi for the fall semester of his junior year.
In New Delhi, Leja enrolled in three courses: a General Hindu Religion class, which discussed Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Islam, an Indian History class, and a Film Study class.
He was also given the opportunity to participate in volunteer work, which, for the most part, took place in the office of a local non-government organization, Mobile Creshes.
He worked with the organization to help “provide preliminary education for these children by starting small daycares and schools on those construction sites,” Leja said.
Since much of New Delhi was under construction, many young women with children were hired to work on sites. The problem, however, was that their children had no access to daycare or school.
Leja worked and took classes during the week, enabling him to spend his weekends traveling throughout India. “Every day [was] a real adventure,” he said.
Soon after arriving, Leja became aware of how different his American life was from that of those in Delhi, and was faced with intense culture shock.
Visiting India during Monsoon season enabled Leja to become further immersed in Indian culture.
On his first Saturday, Leja and his friends went out to a store to buy some groceries. As they finished shopping and exited the store, it started raining heavily. The streets became filled with rushing water and the metro station became inaccessible, inconveniently at the stop they intended on using.
“We [got] off at the next metro station and tried to find our way back, and the streets were flooded [with] water […] as high as our knees,” he said, motioning to his legs.
Since they were not acquainted with the surrounding areas and routes of New Delhi, Leja and his friends were lost for almost two hours, trying to find their way home by asking local people who did not entirely understand English, the language with which he was most comfortable.
Leja described that after leaving the shop, they needed to cross a wide, six-lane street.
“We just crossed three lanes,” he said. “We were standing at the middle of the street waiting to cross as there were cars and buses passing by. It was flooded on the side we had not crossed, and suddenly, a bus passed by and created a five to six meter water wall. We were [drenched], and our (newly purchased) cell phones were broken.”
He experienced similar events throughout the course of the semester.
“It was very interesting during the monsoon season because [since] it rained almost every day, traffic was backed up,” he said. “It turned out that one of the most efficient ways to go around is to use animals, like donkeys, horses, and elephants. You saw people riding those animals […] through the streets.”
In addition to wandering the New Delhi streets by elephant, he traveled through the desert by camel. He also visited the city of Sarnath, where it was said that the Buddha gave his first teaching and where breathtaking Buddhist temples can be found.
Throughout his travels and studies, Leja learned not only from his experiences, but from the people with whom he interacted. At a small tea shop near the metro station that he visited each day to catch a train to class, Hash, a young Indian shopkeeper, asked Leja if he could practice English with him.
After their first meeting, Leja would spend about 15 to 20 minutes before his classes at the teashop visiting Hash, their friendship growing as they talked more and more about their lives. Hash eventually came to call Leja his “little brother,” and encouraged him to visit when he is able to return to India.
“I’d recommend study abroad and India to anyone,” Leja said. “It is an amazing place with an amazing culture and people.”
Liu is a member of the class of 2016.