Why Sikhs Wear a Turban and What it Means to Practice the Faith in the United States

People participate in a candlelight vigil near the White House to protest violence against Sikhs in 2012.  AP Photo/Susan Walsh

People participate in a candlelight vigil near the White House to protest violence against Sikhs in 2012. AP Photo/Susan Walsh

An elderly Sikh gentleman in Northern California, 64-year-old Parmjit Singh, was recently stabbed to death while taking a walk in the evening. Authorities are still investigating the killer’s motive, but community members have asked the FBI to investigate the killing.

For many among the estimated 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., it wouldn’t be the first time. According to the Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in North America, this is the seventh such attack on an elderly Sikh with a turban in the past eight years.

As a scholar of the tradition and a practicing Sikh myself, I have studied the harsh realities of what it means to be a Sikh in America today. I have also experienced racial slurs from a young age.

I have found there is little understanding of who exactly the Sikhs are and what they believe. So here’s a primer.

Founder of Sikhism

The founder of the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 in the Punjab region of South Asia, which is currently split between Pakistan and the northwestern area of India. A majority of the global Sikh population still resides in Punjab on the Indian side of the border.

From a young age, Guru Nanak was disillusioned by the social inequities and religious hypocrisies he observed around him. He believed that a single divine force created the entire world and resided within it. In his belief, God was not separate from the world and watching from a distance, but fully present in every aspect of creation.

He therefore asserted that all people are equally divine and deserve to be treated as such.

To promote this vision of divine oneness and social equality, Guru Nanak created institutions and religious practices. He established community centers and places of worship, wrote his own scriptural compositions and institutionalized a system of leadership (gurus) that would carry forward his vision.

The Sikh view thus rejects all social distinctions that produce inequities, including gender, race, religion and caste, the predominant structure for social hierarchy in South Asia.

A community kitchen run by the Sikhs to provide free meals irrespective of caste, faith or religion, in the Golden Temple, in Punjab, India.  shankar s. ,  CC BY

A community kitchen run by the Sikhs to provide free meals irrespective of caste, faith or religion, in the Golden Temple, in Punjab, India. shankar s., CC BY

Serving the world is a natural expression of the Sikh prayer and worship. Sikhs call this prayerful service “seva,” and it is a core part of their practice.

The Sikh identity

In the Sikh tradition, a truly religious person is one who cultivates the spiritual self while also serving the communities around them – or a saint-soldier. The saint-soldier ideal applies to women and men alike.

In this spirit, Sikh women and men maintain five articles of faith, popularly known as the five Ks. These are: kes (long, uncut hair), kara (steel bracelet), kanga (wooden comb), kirpan (small sword) and kachera (soldier-shorts).

Although little historical evidence exists to explain why these particular articles were chosen, the five Ks continue to provide the community with a collective identity, binding together individuals on the basis of a shared belief and practice. As I understand, Sikhs cherish these articles of faith as gifts from their gurus.

Turbans are an important part of the Sikh identity. Both women and men may wear turbans. Like the articles of faith, Sikhs regard their turbans as gifts given by their beloved gurus, and their meaning is deeply personal. In South Asian culture, wearing a turban typically indicated one’s social status – kings and rulers once wore turbans. The Sikh gurus adopted the turban, in part, to remind Sikhs that all humans are sovereign, royal and ultimately equal.

Sikhs in America

Today, there are approximately 30 million Sikhs worldwide, making Sikhism the world’s fifth-largest major religion.

‘A Sikh-American Journey’ parade in Pasadena, Calif. AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker

‘A Sikh-American Journey’ parade in Pasadena, Calif. AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker

After British colonizers in India seized power of Punjab in 1849, where a majority of the Sikh community was based, Sikhs began migrating to various regions controlled by the British Empire, including Southeast Asia, East Africa and the United Kingdom itself. Based on what was available to them, Sikhs played various roles in these communities, including military service, agricultural work and railway construction.

The first Sikh community entered the United States via the West Coast during the 1890s. They began experiencing discrimination immediately upon their arrival. For instance, the first race riot targeting Sikhs took place in Bellingham, Washington, in 1907. Angry mobs of white men rounded up Sikh laborers, beat them up and forced them to leave town.

The discrimination continued over the years. For instance, when my father moved from Punjab to the United States in the 1970s, racial slurs like “Ayatollah” and “raghead” were hurled at him. It was a time when 52 American diplomats and citizens were taken captive in Iran and tension between the two countries was high. These slurs reflected the racist backlash against those who fitted the stereotypes of Iranians. Our family faced a similar racist backlash when the U.S. engaged in the Gulf War during the early 1990s.

Increase in hate crimes

The racist attacks spiked again after 9/11, particularly because many Americans did not know about the Sikh religion and may have conflated the unique Sikh appearance with popular stereotypes of what terrorists look like. News reports show that in comparison to the past decade, the rates of violence against Sikhs have surged.

Elsewhere too, Sikhs have been victims of hate crimes. An Ontario member of Parliament, Gurrattan Singh, was recently heckled with Islamophobic comments by a man who perceived Singh as a Muslim.

As a practicing Sikh, I can affirm that the Sikh commitment to the tenets of their faith, including love, service and justice, keeps them resilient in the face of hate. For these reasons, for many Sikh Americans, like myself, it is rewarding to maintain the unique Sikh identity.

SIMRAN JEET SINGH is a Henry R. Luce Post-Doctoral Fellow in Religion in International Affairs Post-Doctoral Fellow at New York University.


What’s Behind the Protests in Kashmir?

Kashmiri Muslims shout slogans during a protest after Eid prayers in Srinagar.  AP Photo/ Dar Yasin

Kashmiri Muslims shout slogans during a protest after Eid prayers in Srinagar. AP Photo/ Dar Yasin

India recently enacted a law which will end a special autonomous status given to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, known in the West as simply “Kashmir.”

Amit Shah, India’s minister for home affairs, announced in Parliamentthat the Bharatiya Janata Party government was revoking Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in the name of bringing prosperity to the region.

Since 1954, this article has governed federal relations between India and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state.

I’m a scholar of South Asian politics and have written extensively on the evolution of the India-Pakistan conflict in Kashmir.

Article 370 is woven into that history.

History of Kashmir’s autonomy

Article 370 originated in the particular circumstances under which the former prince and last ruler of Kashmir acceded to India shortly after the partition of the British Indian Empire into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947.

The prince, or maharaja, agreed to have Kashmir become part of India under duress. His rule was threatened by an insurrection supported by Pakistan.

Article 370 was designed to guarantee the autonomy of the Muslim majority state, the only one in predominantly Hindu India. The clause effectively limited the powers of the Indian government to the realms of defense, foreign affairs and communications. It also permitted the Kashmiri state to have its own flag and constitution.

More controversially, Article 370 prohibited non-Kashmiris from purchasing property in the state and stated that women who married non-Kashmiris would lose their inheritance rights.

Changes over time

But the independence of the Kashmiri state has been declining for decades. Beginning in the early 1950s, a series of presidential ordinances, which had swift effect much like American executive orders, diluted the terms of the article.

For example, in 1954, a presidential order extended Indian citizenship to the “permanent residents” of the state. Prior to this decision the native inhabitants of the state had been considered to be “state subjects.”

Other constitutional changes followed. The jurisdiction of the Indian Supreme Court was expanded to the state in 1954. In addition, the Indian government was granted the authority to declare a national emergency if Kashmir were attacked.

Many other administrative actions reduced the state’s autonomy over time. These have ranged from enabling Kashmiris to participate in national administrative positions to expanding the jurisdiction of anti-corruption bodies, such as the Central Vigilance Commission and the Central Goods and Services Act of 2017, into the state.

What it means for India and the world

What has happened as a result of the move to revoke Article 370?

Kashmiris living in New Delhi gather for a function to observe Eid al-Adha away from their homes in New Delhi.  AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Kashmiris living in New Delhi gather for a function to observe Eid al-Adha away from their homes in New Delhi. AP Photo/Manish Swarup

Kashmiris living in New Delhi gather for a function to observe Eid al-Adha away from their homes in New Delhi. AP Photo/Manish Swarup

The decision has been met with considerable unhappiness and resentment in the Kashmir Valley, which has a Muslim population close to 97% – versus 68% of the population of the state as a whole. The government of Jammu and Kashmir, meanwhile, does not have the legal power to challenge the move.

China and Pakistan have expressed displeasure.

Pakistan has long maintained that it should have inherited the state based upon its geographic contiguity and its demography.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir. While I don’t believe Pakistan will initiate another war with India over this issue at this time, I doubt it will quietly resign itself to the changed circumstances. At the very least, it will seek to draw in members of the international community to oppose India’s action, as it has sought to do in the past.

China, which considers Pakistan to be its “all-weather ally,” has stated that the decision was “not acceptable and won’t be binding.”

SUMIT GANGULY is a Distinguished Professor of Political and the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University.


Dynamic Duo: How a Lawyer Couple is Paving the Road for LGBTQ+ Rights in India

Section 377 under the India Penal Code hungover LGBTQ+ lives for years, criminalizing their very existence to exist. Lawyers Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju fought to change that—and won. 

Pride flag in New Delhi, India. Nishta Sharma. Unsplash.

Pride flag in New Delhi, India. Nishta Sharma. Unsplash.

Since 1861, when India was under British colonial rule, there was a section of the India Penal Code that crimilized homosexualtiy as it was “against the order of nature”. In 2013, protestors fought for the code to be recognized as unconstitutional in the eyes of the law, but in a historic case titled Suresh Kumar Koushal vs. Naz Foundation, the Bench stated “We hold that Section 377 does not suffer from… unconstitutionality and the declaration made by the Division Bench of the High Court is legally unsustainable.” Although they would not mark it unconstitutional, the Bench also stated, “Notwithstanding this verdict, the competent legislature shall be free to consider the desirability and propriety of deleting Section 377 from the statute book or amend it as per the suggestion made by Attorney-General G.E. Vahanvati.” To put in more simple terms, the Bench wanted to redirect who made the decision, and stated the matter should be decided by Parliament, itself, not just the judiciary. 

In 2016, the case was revisited by three Court members and they decided to pass it on to a five-member court decision. It was not until a year later when the LGTBQ+ community of India saw results. In 2017, in the Puttuswamy case, the Court ruled that “The right to privacy is implicit in the right to life and liberty guaranteed to the citizens of this country by Article 21” - a historic decision which overruled a previous case that said there is no right to privacy in India. The Court also found that “sexual orientation is an essential attribute of privacy. Discrimination against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation is deeply offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual. Equality demands that the sexual orientation of each individual in society must be protected on an even platform. The right to privacy and the protection of sexual orientation lie at the core of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.” Essentially, they condemned discrimintion and give validity to the rights of the LGTBQ+ community. 

It wasn’t until September 2018, though, when the Court ruled “in so far as it criminalises consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex” in the Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India  case. According to an article in the Guardian, chief justice Dipak Misra stated that “Criminalising carnal intercourse under section 377 Indian penal code is irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary”. Misra goes on to say “Social exclusion, identity seclusion and isolation from the social mainstream are still the stark realities faced by individuals today, and it is only when each and every individual is liberated from the shackles of such bondage … that we can call ourselves a truly free society.” 

 Now, a year later, two lawyers who worked on dismantling Section 377 came out as a couple. In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju announced that they were a couple. Ms. Guruswamy stated that they fought so hard because "That was when [they] decided that [they] would never let the LGBT Indians be invisible in any courtroom". 

The couple’s decision to come out was met with raved support, one user on Twitter congratulated them and added, “Personal is indeed political”. Which is true - queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere because to fight for the rights the community deserves, the community must do it as a unit, rather than individually.

Menaka Guruswamy and Arundhati Katju’s accomplishments are not limited by the strides they have made with Section 377, but also with the visibility they have given to the LGBTQ+ community - in India and across the world. They represent the strength and power the LBGTQ+ community has when they preserve despite the setbacks.

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.

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INDIA: Piplantri - Where 1 Life Creates 111 Lives

How a village leader changed the perception of women in India, one tree at a time

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Girls connecting with the trees in Piplantri. Photo provided by Piplantri Village.

Every time a baby girl is born in Piplantri, India, the village gathers together to plant 111 trees in her honor. The custom began a couple of years ago, when former village leader, Shyam Sundar Paliwal was forced to ponder the fleetingness of life after his daughter tragically passed away at a young age.

Piplantri and other villages in the area were facing two crises that greatly affected the quality and value of life. One issue was social: a high rate of female infanticide. Traditionally, female births were considered a burden on the family. The parents of a girl are expected to provide a dowry to her husband’s family, which can be a big financial undertaking. Additionally, daughters were married off well before the age of 18, before they could obtain an education. 

Piplantri and its surrounding villages faced environmental hardships as well. The villages in the Rajasthan area are suffering from deforestation with the increase of marble mining. 

Paliwal decided to confront these issues with a plan that can be broken down into three words: “Daughter, Water, Trees.” 

To counter the pessimism around the birth of a baby girl—and improve the lives of the daughter and her family—the village raises money for a “trust” every time a girl is born. The family is to contribute one third of the fund, which is set aside until the girl turns 20. This alleviates the problem of the financial burden of a dowry. 

In order for the family to receive the money, they must sign an affidavit agreeing not to marry their daughter until she is of the legal age of 18 and has received a proper education. 

To solve the deforestation problem, the village gets together to plant 111 trees in the girl’s honor. As a part of the contract, the family agrees to take care of those 111 trees. Hopefully the trees will help the spread of water along the land. 

And the scheme gets even better. The fruit trees being planted were beginning to attract a lot of termites. In order to prevent infestation, the villagers planted many aloe plants to protect the trees. The villagers can harvest and sell the aloe—which has incredible healing benefits—and make a profit, to even further improve their quality of life. 

Although Paliwal is no longer the leader of the village, the tradition continues. Now, teachers report that there are just as many girls enrolled in school as boys. And, the village is lush and green with the hundreds of trees planted. 

Other villages are following suit. The nearby village of Tasol is trying out Piplantri’s eco-feminist village model.

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 

Saving India’s Most Sacred River

Each year, about 8 million tons of flowers are dumped into India’s rivers. As flowers hold a sacred place in Hindu rituals, they are often thrown into the Ganges, India’s holiest river. Unfortunately, pesticides and other chemicals from these flowers are mixing with the water, exacerbating an ecosystem already plagued with pollution. Enter HelpUsGreen, an organization that has begun collecting the waste flowers and upcycling them into products like incense, soap and biodegradable styrofoam. Through the group’s efforts, they’re addressing an environmental threat while giving the flowers a new life.

In India, Grassroots Initiatives Work to Undo the Period Taboo

For many Indians, lack of access to menstrual products is compounded by entrenched societal stigma. Across the country, women are beginning to make a change.

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A sign in Bali, Indonesia, demonstrates stigmatization of menstruation in the Global South. dominique bergeron. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For most people with periods in the Western world, menstruation is something of an afterthought—annoying and sometimes painful, but easily dealt with, and far from debilitating. In parts of the Global South, however, “that time of the month” is not only a serious health concern and financial impediment but also a source of profound social and cultural tension. Over the past two years, grassroots activists have brought increased attention to the plight of menstruating women in India, and begun to envision a future in which well-being and participation in society is not dictated by one’s reproductive cycle.

Shameful attitudes toward menstruation in India are deeply ingrained, and, especially in rural areas, can be actively harmful to women of all ages. Indian women experiencing their periods can be banned from entering the kitchen and preparing food, separated from family members, and removed from religious ceremonies, sometimes on the grounds of theistic tradition: In 2018, many Indian men were outraged at a ruling by the country’s Supreme Court allowing women of menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, a Hindu temple in Kerala dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, who is seen in traditional mythology to be disgusted by the concept of female fertility. Indignation at the ruling reached a peak in January 2019, when one person died and dozens were injured in protests against the judgment.

Equally dangerous, and highly imbricated with traditional views of menstruation, is the pervasive lack of access to sanitary products, which are crucial to keeping women clean and safe during their periods. An estimated 70 percent of Indian women are unable to afford such products, with 300 million resorting to unhygienic options such as newspapers, dry leaves, and unwashed rags. Menstruation is also a key driver of school dropouts among girls, 23 percent of whom leave their schooling behind upon reaching puberty.

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

Cost barriers can prevent Indian women from acquiring menstrual products. Marco Verch. CC BY 2.0

In a sociocultural landscape where natural bodily functions are affecting the human dignity of people with periods, education, outreach, and access are crucial. In February 2018, Indian news outlet Daijiworld reported on one person working toward these goals: the so-called “Pad Woman” of Manguluru, who has been leading a group of young students in her southwestern port to create awareness of menstrual hygiene. The Pad Woman, Prameela Rao, is the founder of non-profit Kalpa Trust, which offers students at the Kavoor government First Grade College materials to manufacture sanitary pads for women in rural areas. The completed pads are distributed free of charge to the colonies of Gurupur, Malali, Bajpe, and Shakthinagar, obviating the need for women to purchase prohibitively expensive mainstream menstrual products. The pads are made from donated cotton clothing, which the students wash, iron, cut, and stitch to create the final product.

In the western state of Gujarat, an organization known as the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) is directly targeting period taboos among rural communities. Activists Manjula and Sudha told the Indian magazine The New Leam that, for the girls they have educated in the villages of Karamdi Chingaryia and Jariyavada, confusion and fear regarding menstruation have given way to confidence and clarity. For the AKSRP, which emphasizes gender equality and the societal participation of women, offering rural villagers the ability to make informed choices about their own menstrual health is key. As of The New Leam’s report in April 2019, the non-profit had reached about 60 Indian villages, providing information about sanitary pads of various designs, longevities, and price points.

While pads are a far more hygienic choice than rags or newspaper, they are not the only option: Back in Manguluru, two German volunteers have initiated a menstrual cup project known as “a period without shame.” In their pilot run, Nanett Bahler and Paulina Falky distributed about 70 menstrual cups free of charge to Indian women, as well as leading workshops on effective use for recipients. The cups, which are made of silicone and emptied around twice per day during one’s period, can be used for up to 10 years, making them a hygienic, eco-friendly, and potentially more affordable option for people of all ages.

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Manguluru, where Indian and German activists are working to provide menstrual products. Aleksandr Zykov. CC BY-SA 2.0

Such grassroots efforts have been instrumental in chipping away at stigma among Indians in certain cities and villages, but broader change is unlikely without widespread publicity. One potential avenue for increased awareness is the newly released documentary Period. End of Sentence., which follows rural Indian women in their battle against period stigma. To create the film, Iranian-American director Rayka Zehtabchi visited small villages outside of Delhi to inquire after women’s menstrual health, and shot extensive footage of women who have learned to create their own sanitary products. The diligent pad-makers, many of whom are housewives who have never before held a full-time job, sell their creations to locals in their area, educating women on proper use and convincing shop owners to stock the products. By the end of the time span covered by the documentary, the women had set up a factory and manufactured 18,000 pads, earning economic self-sufficiency for themselves and an Academy Award nomination for Zehtabchi.

The work of these Delhi entrepreneurs, along with that of the AKSRP and Pad Woman Prameela, has made a positive difference for countless people—but, according to Mumbai-based journalist and author Puja Changoiwala, education and access must rise above the grassroots level and reach the legislative in order to create enduring change in attitudes toward menstruation. In a piece for Self, Changoiwala suggests that the Indian government should distribute free pads and launch an “aggressive nation-wide awareness program,” engaging celebrities and the press to address the dire consequences of long-held stigma. For anyone in India with a period, such a moment cannot come soon enough.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

In India, Using Plastic Waste as Tuition at a New School

A school combines accessible education with environmental responsibility through a creative program.

Photo of plastic waste by  John Cameron  on  Unsplash .

Photo of plastic waste by John Cameron on Unsplash.

In 2016, Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar founded Akshar School in Assam, a state in northeast India. Initially, the school struggled to enroll many of the children living in the area. Most families could not afford private school tuition, and relied on the $2.50 per day wage their children could make working in the nearby stone quarries.

In the winter months, many families in Assam burned plastic waste to keep warm, unaware of the health and environmental hazard this created. The fumes would often linger in Akshar’s classrooms, and ended up giving Parmita and Mazin the idea that would transform the school.

Instead of tuition, Akshar began requiring students to bring 25 plastic waste items to school every week. “We wanted to start a free school for all, but stumbled upon this idea after we realised a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area,” Parmita told Better India.

Through the use of plastic waste as tuition, students who would not have been able to attend the school were able to learn, and the surrounding environment benefitted. Under the new tuition system, the school blossomed, and now enrolls 100 students ages 4 to 15. Before the tuition program was implemented, Akshar had only 20 students.

To compensate for the wages that children could be making working in the mines, Akshar established a tutoring program, where older students can help younger ones with their work in exchange for currency tokens that can be used to purchase snacks, toys, shoes, and clothing. The students can even exchange the tokens for real money to purchase items online. But financial compensation isn’t the only rationalization for the tutoring program. Through teaching, older students are able to develop useful life skills, practicing communication, leadership, and compassion.

Tuition isn’t the only unusual aspect of the school. Parmita told Better India that the goal of the school is to break with traditional curriculum. Students take class in open areas, and grades are divided by level rather than age.

“We realised that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children,” Mazin told Better India. That would mean not only providing an accessible education, but one that would enable children to find jobs after graduation. To this end Akshar offers career focused classes alongside traditional ones, enabling students to gain skills in cosmetology, solar paneling, carpentry, gardening, organic farming, electronics, and more. The school is also willing to adapt to create the best education for its students. Mazin told Better India that when the school noticed a spike in landscaping in Assam, they began to draft plans for a sustainable landscaping course.

Mazin and Parmita’s success with Akshar has inspired them to create more schools that follow the same philosophy. They hope to implement the Akshar model in 5 government schools over the next year, and 100 government schools in the next 5 years.

Emma is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Gateway to the Ganges

Daily life in the Indian holy cities of Rishikesh, Haridwar, and Devprayag. This region lies in the foothills of the Himalayas where the Ganges River descends from the mountains. I visited not knowing what to expect, and I was both awed and saddened by the experience. The beauty of nature and the Hindu ceremonies contrasted with the poverty and suffering on the streets. The people I met had a high-spirited resilience that seemed to stem from surviving and maintaining their devotion through a challenging life.

INDIA: Phoolon Wali Holi

Holi, known as the Festival of Colors, is a popular Hindu festival celebrated in India and surrounding areas. Colors and water are thrown on each other, amidst loud music and drums to celebrate. Kieran Mellor, the videographer, comments on his work “Since witnessing the insane celebrations of Holi inside Banke Bihari Temple in Vrindavan, I knew that these celebrations deserved their own little film. Hours before the temple doors open, thousands upon thousands of devotees gather to take part in the 20 minute flower and colour throwing celebration of Phoolon Wali Holi. As the doors open, an unstoppable surge begins as the crowd funnels inside and the chanting and applause becomes thunderous. Many people carry offerings which they will bring to the front of the temple to devote to the deities, others pray as they enter through stone archways. For me, however, the most intense part comes when the entire temple unites in raising their hands, and yelling in unison as colours and flowers surround them.”

The Floating Forests of India

Located in the Indian state of Manipur, Keibul Lamjao National Park is the world’s only floating wildlife sanctuary. The park’s Loktak Lake—the largest freshwater lake in northern India—is a spectacular sight, dotted with green patches and rings of vegetation known as “phumdi” that float atop the water. A biodiverse park, Keibul Lamjao provides sustenance to the people and animals of Manipur—including sangai, an endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer revered by locals as the binding soul between humans and nature.

INDIA: The Landscapes and Cultures of the Chadar Trek

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Home to the legendary, yet treacherous, Chadar Trek, the Zanskar region of Ladakh has earned the reputation of a trekker’s delight.

Stirring images of the Phugtal Monastery, and the river, both in full spate and frozen, of the lush valleys and the Zanskari people have enticed me from the time I was at school and this year, I finally managed to do the trek for myself.

The trek usually begins at Lingshed and culminates in Phugtal, but I undertook it the other way around. In fact, I was able to reduce two days travel time to two hours by chartering a helicopter to my starting off point. It all began at Padum from where we headed to Phugtal and then across the Zanskar through Pishu, Hannmur, ending finally at Lingshed.

The experience was phenomenal. From traversing the most treacherous paths and crossing deep gorges and valleys to witnessing rivers of the most unreal blue and sleeping under the milky way, the entire trek was really something else; the delight of a hot shower at the end of those ten days made it sweeter still. It wasn’t all milk and honey though. Ascending nearly 16,000 feet at some passes and walking at least 20 kilometres a day, the trek tested my wits and guts, making me question why I embarked on this adventure in the first place.

In retrospect though, I can say without a shred of doubt that it was well worth it. Not only did I witness first-hand the glories of a phenomenal terrain, but I also met some wonderful people and experienced inspirational no-waste lifestyles. More than anything else, I learned what I myself am capable of enduring both physically and mentally; that when push comes to shove the human body and mind can surprise us in more ways than one.

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HAJRA AHMAD studied photography in Ooty, a small hill town in South India. She became inspired by the darkroom and now specializes in travel and wildlife photography as well as often shooting hotels and interiors. Her photography has enabled her to travel to many new places and her work continues to evolve with each shoot.


“Untouchables” Still Struggle for Equality in Indian Society

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography -  https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/ . CC  BY 2.0.

For centuries, Dalits occupied the lowest rung of Indian society. Flickr user The Philosophy of photography - https://www.flickr.com/photos/matteo-gianni/109971376/. CC  BY 2.0.

With 1.2 billion citizens India is the second most populous country in the world, and while today’s India is governed by a parliamentary system, for more than three millennia, India’s massive population lived under a rigid caste system that forced many Indians into occupational roles with no hope of advancement.  Though modern India has officially done away with castes, the old system’s influence is still felt, particularly among those formerly identified as “untouchables”.

According to Hindu texts, the caste system was brought to India by the creator god Brahma. The top caste was occupied by Brahmins, India’s priests and teachers. Next came Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers. Below them, Vaisyas made up the middle class of merchants and traders while Sudras were unskilled workers or peasants. Dalits were “untouchables,” outcasts who existed outside of the caste system entirely and were often relegated to undesirable tasks like street sweeping, toilet cleaning, and disposing of dead animals. A person’s surname identified to which caste they belonged., While one could never hope to ascend to a higher caste in a single lifetime, it was believed that through dedication to one’s Dharma, or caste-specific duty, one could earn a higher position in the next life.

In 1950, the caste system was abolished, creating new opportunities for social mobility and intermingling between India’s various social groups.  India even elected a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, who served from 1997 until 2002. Tensions remain, however, as Dalits, still identifiable by their surnames, continually find themselves subject to discrimination, harassment, assaults, and rapes. Many attacks go unreported, and local police tend to show leniency to the attackers.

India’s caste system has been likened to South African apartheid or the Jim Crow laws, both of which required many years of legislation and social pressure to affect changes which could be embraced by the general populace—if they were ever fully embraced at all. As India wrestles with its own history of social stratification, the future of its Dalits remains unclear.  But it is clear that Dalits, who make up a quarter of India’s population, are an integral part of Indian history, culture, and society, and they won’t be leaving any time soon. Greater equality could be vital to India’s overall health as a country.

JONATHAN ROBINSON is an intern at CATALYST. He is a travel enthusiast always adding new people, places, experiences to his story. He hopes to use writing as a means to connect with others like himself. 

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This Mega Kitchen Serves 40,000 People Each Day

With one of the largest kitchens in Asia, the Shri Saibaba temple in Shirdi, India, prepares, cooks and serves quantities of food that are nearly unimaginable. The kitchen dishes out as many as 40,000 meals per day, every day, all year long. It takes 600 people working in two daily shifts to prepare all this food. Yet despite all the effort, meals are free to the public. Why? The temple believes that those who are hungry deserve to be fed, and those who are thirsty deserve to be given a drink.

Gay Sex Decriminalized in India

The supreme court’s decision removed a 150 year old clause created by the British colonial government.

Rainbow flags in Alvula, India. Kandukuru Nagarjun. CC 2.0

Rainbow flags in Alvula, India. Kandukuru Nagarjun. CC 2.0

Last Thursday the Indian supreme court voted to dismiss section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made gay sex illegal. The law, labeling gay sex as “against the order of nature” was created in 1860 by the British colonial government and was in existence for 150 years before being struck down last week. While the section was briefly dismissed in 2009, it was reinstated four years later due to appeals filed at the supreme court. It was the supreme court’s decision a few days ago that removed the law once and for all.

The dismissal of the law was due in part to the tireless efforts of many LGBTQ activists who risked reprecutions of up to life imprisonment for publicizing their sexuality in order to petition and protest for the removal of the law. They represent the many gay and trans people who have suffered blackmail, intimidation, and abuse because of the section.

“History owes an apology to members of the community for the delay in ensuring their rights,” Justice Indu Malhotra said in a statement.

The supreme court went further than merely decriminalizing gay sex: as part of the repeal of section 377, gay people in India will finally receive all the protections of their constitution.

The law, called “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary” but Chief Justice Dipak Misra, was defeated in part because it conflicted with a recent law granting privacy as a constitutional right. It was also largely perceived out of step with modern India. In their decision, the justices referenced the fact that the Indian constitution is not “a collection of mere dead letters”, but a document open to evolving with time and social attitudes.

According to Menaka Guruswamy, one of the main lawyers representing gay petitioners, the court's decision not to discriminate based on sexual orientation has created a “very powerful foundation.” It represents a public acknowledgement that as a gay person, “You are not alone. The court stands with you. The Constitution stands with you. And therefore your country stands with you.”

In excitement over the law it is important to acknowledge that India is not in any way “catching up” to the west in LGBTQ rights. Instead, the removal of this oppressive law is an example of India decolonizing. Many Hindu temples show images of people of the same sex embracing erotically. In the temples of Khajuraho there are depictions of women embracing and men showing their genitals to each other. There are Hindu myths in which men become pregnant and in which transgender people are awarded with special ranks. India Today writes that “In the Valmiki Ramayana, Lord Rama's devotee and companion Hanuman is said to have seen Rakshasa women kissing and embracing other women.”

In response to the law’s framing of homosexuality as unnatural, Anil Bhanot wrote in the Guardian that “the ancient Hindu scriptures describe the homosexual condition to be a biological one, and although the scripture gives guidance to parents on how to avoid procreating a homosexual child, it does not condemn the child as unnatural.”

The removal of the law represents a shift toward a more progressive future while also returning to India’s pre colonial attitudes.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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India Scraps Tax on Sanitary Products after Protests

India joins Ireland, Kenya, and Canada as one of the four countries worldwide with tax free menstrual products.

Image Credit: Nick Kendrick. CC BY 2.0

Image Credit: Nick Kendrick. CC BY 2.0

Almost a month ago, in response to widespread protests, India declared sanitary pads tax-free.

"This was a most-awaited and necessary step to help girls and women to stay in school, their jobs, to practise proper menstrual hygiene,” Surbhi Singh, founder of Sachi Saheli, a menstrual health charity, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The decision to tax menstrual products was made over a year ago under the new national goods and services tax that united all India’s states in a single tax system with the same rates for the whole country. Under the new tax tampons were taxed 12% - the same amount as many luxury items. This was despite the fact that many contraceptives as well as condoms were exempt.

The tax sparked widespread protests and inspired the organization She Says to coin the slogan #lahukalagaan - Hindi for tax on blood. One petition by lawmaker Sushmita Dev to revoke the tax received 400,000 signatures. “Clearly the government had put forth frivolous arguments for one year and then delayed it,” Dev tweeted in response to the tax.

After over a year of protests, petitions, and widespread outrage, the tax was finally repealed late this July. Finance minister Piyush Goya told reporters that India’s “sisters and mothers will be happy to hear that sanitary pads have been given a 100% exemption and brought down to a tax rate of zero. Now there will be no [tax] on sanitary pads.”

Despite their new tax exempt status, it is incredibly hard for Indian women in rural areas to acquire sanitary products—according to the BBC four out of five women in India lack proper resources for menstrual care. Sanitary pads cost between five to twelve rupees each, meaning that often rags, ashes, leaves, and even sawdust are the only options for girls and women. The lack of sanitary care is tied to dramatically increased rates of infection, but is also linked to girls missing or dropping out of school.

India’s decision to exempt sanitary pads from taxes is adding the the global conversation surrounding period poverty. The charity Plan International UK released information that 1 in 10 girls and women under 21 can’t afford to purchase sanitary products. Women, as well as transgender and nonbinary people who menstruate, have their period for an average of 2,535 days of their lives. For those without access to sanitary products, that’s almost seven years of struggling to attend school or work without necessary products. Even people who can afford pads or tampons often experience anxiety around setting aside enough money to afford them each month.

According to Jo Feather, the ActionAid senior policy advisor, the issue is tied to gender inequality. She told the Independent that, “to solve period poverty globally we need to collectively address the issue of gender inequality at its root. We must not allow women and girls to be identified primarily by their biological functions and ensure their periods are celebrated, not ashamed, and can be a positive step in exercising empowerment.”

A significant aspect of period poverty is the stigma in many countries surrounding the topic. Often this taboo silences women, and keeps lawmakers from passing the necessary legislation that could make sanitary pads and tampons available to all women.



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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The Rock Garden of Chandigarh

A self-taught sculptor’s secret garden.

A picturesque waterfall in the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

A picturesque waterfall in the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

On 25 acres in Northern India sits a dream-like rock garden - an ethereal combination of sculpture, architecture, and landscape.

The man behind the garden is Nek Chand, who was born into a Hindu farming community in the rural Punjab. Chand grew up immersed in the fairy tales his mother told him and loved to play in the nearby forests and rivers. When he grew up, Chand became the first person in his village to attend high school, but returned to continue working on his family's farm. There he built giant scarecrows out of cloth, his first sculptural project other than a piece he had created as a child from broken bangles.

Soon, however, Chand and his family were forced to flee their home due to violence surrounding the partition. They re-settled in Chandigarh where Chand began to work for the city as a construction supervisor.

Nek Chand surrounded by his sculptures. Image Credit: The Guardian

Nek Chand surrounded by his sculptures. Image Credit: The Guardian

It was at this point that Chand began work on what would eventually become the Rock Garden of Chandigarh. In 1958, six years after being displaced to Chandigarh, Chand began to create a sculpture garden in a hidden forest clearing. He worked at night and in secret, creating statues from bits of pottery, iron, bottles, bicycle frames - refuse from the villages of Chandigarh that had been destroyed to make way for a new, more modernized city. Chand saw beauty in what others passed off as garbage, and peddled these bits of glass and pottery north on his bicycle to the clearing that was slowly becoming a garden.

The project continued in secret for a little over a decade, largely because the land Chand had chosen was designated as a conservation area in 1902 and was a no-build zone. In 1975, however, Chand revealed his project to the city's chief architect. Instead of following the laws that would have called for the project’s demolition, the authorities caved to public pressure, and not only allowed Chand to keep building, but provided him with a salary and a crew of 50 workers to continue the project. The garden opened to the public a year later.

Statues of dancers in Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

Statues of dancers in Rock Garden of Chandigarh. Image Credit: Atlas Obscura

Now, Chand’s original 12 acres have expanded to 25, occupied by the same dream-like sculptures and waterfalls. At times the garden seems like a small village, as over 5,000 visitors a day join sculptures of queens, dancers, monkeys, elephants, schoolchildren, and more. Atlas Obscura describes how the “whole area has been created for a whole body experience of walking, touching, and enjoying the beautiful community that began as a small rock collection.” It seems the garden is as much concerned with how the people inside it occupy its space as with the art objects inside it.

The garden is also an homage to Chand’s farming community in the Punjab. Many of the paths through the garden are similar to village streets, and the fairytale-like ensemble of statues reflects Chand’s childhood imagination.


EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Did 4 Million in India Actually Become Stateless Overnight

A released list of citizens has many worried about the future citizenship status of those excluded.

On July 30th a three year effort in India to update Assam, India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), overseen by the Indian Supreme Court, released its final draft list. It is the first update since 1951 when the NRC was first carried out to count citizens and their holdings. Critics view the list as a reflection of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies as many of the four million excluded are Muslims, who make up ⅓ of Assam’s 32 million.  

And because of the increased discrimination against Muslims in Assam, the intentions of the NRC update are under question.  Many see the proposed 2016 Citizenship Amendment Bill as an embodiment of the discrimination. The amendment, were it to be passed, would grant citizenship to Hindus who fled Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh—but not Muslims. Considering this, UN human rights experts have voiced the opinion that “local authorities… are deemed to be particularly hostile.”

The main concern though for international organizations is that even with legitimate documents, many officials are faulting individuals for minor technical issues. These errors include spelling errors, age inconsistencies, or confusion caused by various names. Aakar Patel, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, addressed such potentially misguided intentions by cautioning the government that the “NRC should not become a political tool.”

But how does one prove their citizenship? Each individual and every member of their family must provide two forms of documentation. The first is considered List A: documentation of an individual’s ancestors who were either on the 1951 NRC or any voter lists between 1951 and March 24, 1971.  The cut-off date is in accordance with the 1985 Assam Accords, which stated any individuals who fled violence after Bangladesh declared independence a foreigner.

Then the individual most prove their connection to their legacy person through List B documents, such as a birth certificate.  Still, both set of documents are difficult to obtain as many are poor illiterate families who either cannot access historical records or simply do not have the relevant documents.

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Villagers wait outside their local NRC Center to verify their documents (Source: Reuters).

And for those not on the final list, they will be left with only those rights “guaranteed by the UN” according to Chief Minister of Assam, Sarbananda Sonowal. In other words, these individuals would be stateless: losing land rights, voting rights, and even access to welfare. For those individuals, the state has mentioned foreigners returning to Bangladesh; but Bangladesh has said it is not aware of any of its citizens living in Assam. And even though many news platforms have noted the construction of a new detention center to better process foreigners, Sonowal has said no one will be sent to detention centers

Considering this, South Asian director of the Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly said the government must “ensure the rights of Muslims and other vulnerable communities.” And for many human rights activists, such protections are crucial to preventing a parallel to the Rohingya’s loss of citizenship in 1982.

Currently, officials are reaching out to individuals not on the list and educating them on how they can file claims and objections to their status. Members of the Supreme Court have also emphasized that the list “can’t be the basis for any action by any authority” in its current draft form. Although the  “legal system will [ultimately] take its own course” according to Siddhartha Bhattacharya, Minister of Law and Justice.



TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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Nigeria Replaces India as Home to Most in Extreme Poverty

Extreme poverty is increasingly common in Africa according to a Brookings Institution report.

A snapshot of what poverty means in Nigeria (Source: Daily Trust).

A snapshot of what poverty means in Nigeria (Source: Daily Trust).

Imagine living on $1.90 or less a day, struggling even to access basic necessities. 767 million people in the world fit that description, according to a 2013 survey (the last comprehensive survey on global poverty): 1 in 10 people. The World Bank describes such people as “predominantly rural, young, [and] poorly educated.” For a long time India has been home to the most people living in extreme poverty. But Nigeria is now number one for most people in extreme poverty, according to Brookings Institution, a DC public policy nonprofit.

This change reflects a geographical shift in extreme poverty. Once extremely common in Asia, economic progress has helped to eliminate a significant proportion of extreme poor. The trend in Asia reflects worldwide trends since the 1990s that have seen rates of extreme poverty decrease by more than 60% according to the World Bank. Progress in India also reflects progress with the international Sustainable Development Goals, set in 2016, that seeks to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. Since the goals were set in 2016, 83 million have escaped extreme poverty.

However, the progress in India has not been praised by everyone. Some wonder if the reported progress illustrates continued rural distress and worries about job creation in India. Another potential criticism is about what poverty means. For India, a middle-income country based on its per capita income, its poverty line is $3.20 or less per day according to the World Bank. This means poverty is less defined by living on the edge of hunger and more on having an income that can access opportunities of a growing economy, according to a financial editorial in Mint.

Meanwhile, extreme poverty has become the unwelcome status quo in Africa. This is most notable in statistics, calculated through the IMF’s World Economic Outlook and household surveys, provided by the World Poverty Clock. It states as six people enter extreme poverty per minute in Nigeria, 44 leave it in India. More generally, 87 million Nigerians (44% of the population) live in extreme poverty while 70.6 million (around 5% of the population) live in extreme poverty in India.

Further, Nigeria is only a part of the extreme poverty in Africa. Two-thirds of Africans live in a state of extreme poverty and 14 of the 18 countries that have rising numbers of extreme poor are located in Africa. Indeed, on track to be number two for extreme poor is the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The theme of poverty in Africa also depicts difficulties in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. When it was implemented in 2016, the pace required to eliminate poverty by 2030 was 1.5 people every second. However as countries have slowed down in eliminating poverty, the actual pace is remarkably less—by 2020 it could be 0.9 people per second. The difference in pace will make it difficult to eliminate poverty by 2030 if not impossible, especially as the required pace to get back on track for the goal is 1.6 people per second.

In spite of the difficulties, eliminating global poverty is a priority for many charitable organizations. One is The Borgen Project, a Seattle nonprofit who hopes to be “an influential ally” for the world’s poor by building “awareness of global issues and innovations in poverty reduction.”  The Borgen Project builds awareness by advocating for poverty-reducing legislation by meeting directly with members of Congress or staff. They also hold members of Congress accountable for blocking poverty-reducing legislation.

The Borgen Project’s success is especially evident in the passing of the 2017 Reinforcing Education Accountability in Development (READ) Act. The Act holds the US accountable for ensuring access to basic education in war-torn and developing countries. Basic education encourages economic growth by equipping people with skills needed to participate in the global marketplace— an important step to reducing poverty.

Another successful organization is international organization Oxfam, which hopes to create “lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social justice.” Oxfam strives to create such systemic change through social justice advocacy of legislation that reduces poverty; disaster response improvements; and public education about the causes of poverty. Oxfam also focuses on programs that educate individuals about their rights or address inequalities in resource accessibility— such as clean water initiatives.

These programs cultivate local partnerships and networks with a focus on “locally informed and locally driven solutions.” For example, after over ten years of working with local communities and government authorities to minimize the impact of disasters on poor people, El Salvador was able to swiftly respond to the October 2011 flood. More importantly, when a village (La Pelota) received unclean drinking water, they asserted their right to clean water by sending it back to the authorities.

Both organizations show work that has been directly done to eliminate poverty. Like other organizations that focus on global poverty, they strive to enforce systemic change by targeting root issues. These include a lack of education— of individuals about their rights as well as the general public, a lack of adequate resources, and a lack of legislation that addresses the poor. Whether it is by 2030 or later, it is possible to imagine a future where extreme poverty does not exist. Many individuals already do.



TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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INDIA: The Rajput Ride

Two of skateboarding’s finest ambassadors found themselves on the prowl around the Indian state of Rajasthan during Holi, the Hindu festival of color. Michael Mackrodt and Vladik Scholz landsharked it around New Delhi, Jaipur and Jodhpur with an excellent wingman in Dan Zvereff. We asked Dan to set the scene for the unique Patrik Wallner skate edit above:

“Skateboarding is an activity that combines athletic endeavour with the urge to explore the cities of the world,” says Zvereff. “In some senses it could be described as an art form that evolved on a world covered in cement; what attracted us to the board all those years ago was that original experience of finding a new place where no trick had ever been done before."