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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Taj Mahal, and Indian Temples and Mosques




The TAJ Mahal 
I think that one of the most iconic visions of India for most people around the world is the Taj Mahal.  We hear about it from the first time we enter school as little kindergartners learning about the world.  It’s one of the 7 Wonders of the World!! For many, its something that will only be seen in pictures or online.  However, through this wonderful Fellowship I am now a visitor to the glorious, magnificent, and amazingly awesome Taj Mahal!!!

Just to give some history, The Taj Mahal is a white Marble mausoleum located in Agra, India. It was built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Taj Mahal is widely recognized as "the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world's heritage."

I must say that there are no words that can express what I felt when going through the doors of the courtyard and then finally seeing the sight of the Taj.  It is utterly…..I don’t even know what to say……but that its beautiful. Intricate, detailed, balanced, holy, loving, architecturally an awe inspiring vision.  When you see it from afar after entering the courtyard, it almost looks ghostly on an early morning. At times it’s the same color as the sky. White but fades if there is fog.  But as you move closer, and the Taj gets bigger and bigger, you just start to slow down and take it all in.  How much he loved a woman to build this beautiful honor in her name.  Wow.  “The ultimate love story”, as someone mentioned to me after sharing my experience. At every couple of steps, you wanted to just stop and stare, take tons of pictures, stop then stare, then finally move on until you get to the  next section of the courtyard that leads up to the Taj. I was glad to get there early.  At about 8am the lines were already beginning to form at the beginning of the entrance.

One of the funny things about the Taj is that it is not really a large space inside.  With all of that magnificence, in its basic definition it is a tomb that holds the bodies of both the King and Queen. You walk around a replica of their caskets and then are escorted through the other rooms which make up the columns on the outside that holds the big dome in place.  A very basic internal design.  BUT the DETAIL, MARBLE, DESIGN, INLAYS, PATTERNS, etc… OMG!!! I personally love Indian design. The filigree, patterns, and all of the many intricacies that make up the aesthetic of the building and temple art forms.  It was a paradise to see.  What an experience.  I sat for a few hours and stared, imagined, and day dreamed about how I wish I could have my family and friends with me to share such an amazing sight. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity and blessing to say I was there.







Indian Temples and Mosques

Within India there tons and tons and tons of temples, mosques, tombs, mausoleums, etc. India is a holy Country wrapped up in the worship and benevolence of hundreds of gods, deities, kings, emperors, etc.  In the public parks, within small towns, surrounding and scattered throughout large cities, temples abound with histories that are span the ages and almost all are beautifully and intricately designed in the same fashion as the gods and royalty of which of they honor.   Since this week was Diwali, I did not have many meetings. Most Indians took vacation or had off due to the holiday. This gave me time to go sightseeing and getting a good grasp of my surroundings and the landscape of Delhi.
Within the last 4 days, I have probably visited, photographed, worshipped along with, and admired about 20 or so temples. All amazing and all different.  Here are just a few pics of some of the cultural joys of India. 


My First Eisenhower Meetings.....


On Thursday, Oct 27th, I awoke from my Diwali haze and still hadn’t properly adjusted yet to the time difference.  After I finally went to bed at 7am only to have to wake up at 10am, I was definitely feeling an energy lull and was hoping to get some more rest before I officially started meetings on Friday.  However, I received an urgent call stating that my meeting with the Ministry of Education was granted for 3:00pm that day.  “Wow!!” I thought, “this was great!”.  Since last month, I had been wanting to get an appointment with the Indian Ministry of Education to discuss the new $35 tablet that has come out of India in order to address the digital divide and provide alternative ways to provide online education in schools and universities.  This innovative and new device is a very progressive initiative coming from the Indian Government. 


N.K. Singh (Ministry of Education)
My first meeting in India, especially on this topic, went pretty well.  I met with NK. Singh, a very quiet man, and apparently the individual in charge of developing the concept of the $35 tablet.  We spoke about how  under his leadership, the Indian Government started negotiations, about 4 years ago, with a company out of London to create and manufacture the now Askash Tablet.  It was developed to just provide the very basics of applications for Indian youth and underserved people to access the internet, get online educational content, and have another way to learn while in the classroom and when at home.  The tablet has been stripped of the normal “bells and whistles” of mainstream tablets such as the ipad or the android.  This is why the price was able to be so low at $35.  Mr. Singh and his associate also allowed me to test and play around with one of the tablet.  It was amazing.  Some specs of the tablet - small, about the size the size of an android, Has 2 USB ports, touch screen, can download applications, basic in design, light in weight, has the same operating system of the Android 2.2.  I was very grateful for the time they gave and the opportunity to “test” and actually physically see India’s new “magic pill”.   In the end, of course I asked what were their intentions of taking this global and testing the device in other Countries were similar education and broadband initiatives were taking place.  Their response, “we want everyone to be able to have this product”. That was all I needed to hear.  We made action steps to move conversations along and to connect with other Heads Of State in regards to partnership and collaboration opportunities. Not bad.

On Friday I met with two other organizations that were very interesting. One was Digital Green and the other Western Union.

Digital Green
I had the chance to meet with Rikin  Gandhi. He is the President and CEO of Digital Green. DG is an organization that provides builds and deploys information and communication technology to amplify the effectiveness of development efforts around the world to affect sustained, social change. The Digital Green system combines technology and social organization to improve the cost-effectiveness and broaden the community participation of existing agricultural extension systems. The unique components of the Digital Green system include (1) a participatory process for local video production, (2) a human-mediated instruction model for video dissemination and training, (3) a hardware and software technology platform for exchanging data in areas with limited Internet and electrical grid connectivity, and (4) an iterative model to progressively better address the needs and interests of the community with analytical tools and interactive phone-based feedback channels.
I met with them to talk about ways in which our organizations in Philadelphia could leverage some of their platforms to organize underserved communities and provide alternative ways for underserved communities to adopt and share amongst each other, the new technologies that are being deployed throughout broadband initiatives in Philadelphia.  Very good meeting.  Rikin is very ambitious, passionate, and is one the rise as it pertains to deploying and engaging rural Indians to adopt technology.  Very impressed.

Western Union
My next meeting was with Kiran Shetty.  I know meeting with Western Union may seem a bit curious compared to my initiatives with technologies.  However, Western Union is doing exactly what has been labeled as “The Indian Way” in business.  Combining a way to provide services, reach their bottom line in profits, but also making impact by empowering the community through technology. They are engaging in a social mission of connecting rural Indians to technology in order to transfer money, create bank accounts, and begin to have ways for rural Indians, in particular women, to take charge of their financial futures.  One of the ways is in offering services which allow for poorer communities to use mobile phones in order to create and make financial transactions without starting bank accounts.  When speaking to Kiran, he stated that he never thought of what they were doing as “social business”, but after speaking with me, he got it.  I shared my company’s goals as doing the same and we spoke about ways to provide the mobile technologies being used in rural India, within areas of Philadelphia.  A very good conversation.  Next steps, connections to the software companies that are helping Western Union with such endeavors. 

My first impression in regards to this first slew of meetings was how well I was received and how sincerely open the Indian Government and both Digital Green and Western Union,  was to have further conversations and how quickly they forwarded me additional information after the meetings.  This is always a good sign .  I was a bit nervous given that here I was, never seen nor heard of before, and already was, for example, able to test the device that was in the Global news not less than a month ago.  I knew I was now going in the right direction.  I am glad I had information about broadband initiatives taking place in Philadelphia and shared more information about my new appointment to the FCC during all three meetings. That has helped in validating why I was there and what I wanted to discuss especially seeing ways for our countries to connect across shared visions of education and providing access to “the people”. 

Overall, not a bad first week in India. Experienced a new cultural holiday in the most authentic ways as possible, spent time with families, saw a device which has the potential to change the world, and met with great people who were sincere in hearing what I had to say and were engaged in my topics of conversations.  A good start for the Fellowship! Let’s keep it up! B

Diwali in India!!


On Oct 26th, I was able to experience the very lovely and highly celebrated Indian Holiday Diwali!! Diwali is analogous to the Christmas holiday celebrated in the United States.  Diwali is one of the Indian festivals celebrated all over India, with equal enthusiasm and zeal. The word 'Diwali' is the abbreviation of the Sanskrit word 'Deepavali', which means 'rows of lights'. One of the major Hindu festivals, it is celebrated to commemorate the victory of good over the evil, when Lord Rama defeated Ravana and rescued his wife Sita from his custody. It is predominantly a five-day festival, with a number of customs and rituals followed during each day. People prepare themselves for the festival weeks ahead, by cleaning and decorating their premises.

The main festival day falls on the no-moon day of the dark half of Kartik, according to the Hindu lunar calendar. Celebrated with vigor and gaiety by people of every religion, the magical effect of Diwali creates an atmosphere of joy and festivity. Innumerable lamps are lit on the roofs and windowsills of the houses, thus, giving a divine look to the whole scenario. It is said that Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth, roams the earth on this day and enters the house that is pure, clean and brightly illuminated. Therefore, people, before exchanging gifts and bursting crackers, offer prayers to the deity.

I had the pleasure of celebrating Diwali with my good friend Luxme Harihan’s family in Delhi.  I first went to visit her family members, Sujata and John Sundaresan in South Delihi who celebrate Diwali by performing Rangoli ceremonies.  Rangoli is a traditional decorative folk art of India.  These are decorative designs made on floors of living rooms and courtyards during Hindu festivals and are meant as sacred welcoming areas for the Hindu deities.  The purpose Rangoli is decoration and it is thought to bring good luck.
Sujata’s community where she lives has been enacting a rangoli tradition for years.  This year the house blocks had to develop a theme and draw rangoli’s that illustrate the themes selected.  Her particular block was celebrating the history of the God, Krishna! It was a beautiful night.  I came to her house when when they were still drawing and decorating the courtyard in the day.  Sujata showed me around and welcomed me in into her home and community right away.  Since she was a judge this year, she showed me all of the blocks and what they each designing.  It was great.  But at night, after everything was totally lit, the entire celebration took on another level of excitement.  It was truly a wonderful sight.  Candles, oils, designs a blaze, the Diwali fireworks in the background…..I was wonderfully amazed.  





I then visited Luxme’s other family members, Gouri and Neeraj Mehta,  in a town called Gurgoan. Gurgoan is a suburb of Delhi and many international corporations have affiliate offices located in the this area. Gouri also welcomed me in with open arms.  At Gouri’s home, Diwali was more of a traditional celebration. Prayers were sent up, family came over, and a good Diwali meal was prepared.  The meal consisted of, beans, potatoes, and sweets for the gods, great conversation, family antics, fireworks, and late night stories….I felt right at home. 

Thank you Luxme for sharing your family! Loved celebrating Diwali in India 2011.  Wow.

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