Friday, May 9, 2008

Greetings from: Benares Hindu University

It’s difficult enough keeping students awake during nice weather in Delaware, but in 100+ degree temperatures in India? I’m surprised any learning goes on at all. The large campus of B.H.U. doesn’t have the classical architecture of American universities, meant to impress parents and potential donors alike. Instead, its buildings are more functional, the color of the earth itself. It’s a minor oasis, a part of the city and yet someone separate from it. The roads are lined with trees and walkways, and if it weren’t for the scavengers picking through the garbage, you could almost be lulled into thinking that you had reached a sanctuary from the constant push-push-push of Varanasi.

At the western edge of the university is the New Vishwanath Temple, which (like many of the other calm, peaceful sights in Delhi) was somewhat of a park for the locals. After wandering about the temple and its grounds (barefoot and hopping on the hot concrete), I settled into a quiet gazebo, which had a ceiling fan. In it, three young male students sprawled out on the ground and read. Nearby, a family relaxed, although the children seemed particularly energetic. They kept stealing glances at me. Eventually, though, all three of the male students succumbed to sleep; one tried his best to focus on the newspaper he had taken from a file folder, but his eyelids drooped, and his grip on the paper loosened. I can’t say I would have done different in his place.

The small museum also on the B.H.U. campus provides some solace in Varanasi, but the staff has an ingenious way of saving energy: they turn on lights and fans only when visitors step in to a certain exhibit -- maybe a good thing, considering how the frequent blackouts slows fan blades to a stop and allows the insidious heat to return. A few of the exhibit halls were closed, but the collection of illuminated manuscripts -- from the whole of the country and covering time periods beyond the Mughal -- made the trip worth it. Interestingly enough, three entire exhibits were dedicated to benefactors to the museum: the founder of B.H.U., artist and sculptor Alice Boner, and a German man who collected antique manuscripts and maps. The library in his honor seemed to have a surprising number of 1980s-era books about India -- books your eyes skip over when you’re browsing at Goodwill. The museum feels haphazard; it has little bits and pieces that people think should be on display -- from antique coins to statuary to modern Indian art -- but no one has an overarching vision of how to put all those pieces into context. It’s a rich cultural heritage stuck together with bubblegum.

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