Máire White ’20 Discusses Recent Research Trip to India

Maire White stands in front of Indian temple smiling at camera
Máire White ’20 (PC: Luke Butcher)

Máire White ’20 is a senior Asian Studies and Chinese double major, as well as an Ignite Fund fellow. She will be presenting on her Senior Honors thesis on March 10th in Rehm Library at 4:30 P.M. Her thesis is on Tamil Shaivite revivalism and Hindu activism. She will also discuss how her recent trip to Chennai, India, funded by an Ignite Fund grant, has enhanced her research. Máire recently took time to answer some questions about her research and her trip. She also extended her thanks to her external reader, Professor Dheepa Sundaram from the University of Denver, whose guidance on things Tamil has been invaluable to her project. 

1.  What was the goal of your trip to India?

I wanted to go to Chennai, India to do some fieldwork and read some primary sources for my honors thesis.  Chennai is a really interesting place within Tamil Nadu because it’s an education hub as well as a major center for IT companies, so people are really well educated and very engaged with religion and politics. I chose to live in the suburb of Mylapore, where I did interviews with people at Kapaleeshwarar (கபாலீசுவரர் கோயில்), which is one of the most prominent temples in Chennai.  Kapaleeshwarar is an important temple for several reasons.  First, Shiva’s wife Parvati is said to have worshiped Shiva who was in the form of a peacock in this temple (hence the name of my suburb, as “mayil” in Tamil means peacock).  Second, devotional poems written in Tamil called the Tevaram from the middle ages mention this temple, so it has a sort of legendary character.

I was asking people about how they engaged with Lord Shiva, one of the most popular Hindu gods in the region, on social media websites like Facebook or Instagram and how their religious beliefs inform their understanding of Indian modernity.  Furthermore, I got to visit the Theosophical Society, which is a library that seeks to help people understand “religious wisdom,” mainly Hinduism.  Most of the sources are from the 18th-20th centuries, and I was looking at collections of sources that were written by Maraimalai Adigal, who was a Shaivite orator, professor, and sannyasin that wanted to reform Tamil Nadu or Dravidian society (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu) and modernize without British or North Indian support.

2. What gave you the initial idea for this trip?

I found out that I could go on a trip like this when one of my professors, Dr. Lewis from Religious Studies, suggested that I go to India to further my honors thesis research.

3. Describe the day-to-day experience of traveling in India. What did you see, eat, etc.?

Every day, I would wake up at 4.30 am to go watch mangala aarti, which is when a Hindu priest wakes up the gods within the temple, and is one of the most crowded times for puja (worship) every day before school or work. Hindu temples typically serve small free, vegetarian meals to people, called prasadam (பிரசாதம்), and consists of a rice dish mixed with vegetables and a sweet. Then, the temple was usually open until 1:30 before they close until 4:30 so that the gods can rest, so I could stay and observe, chant in Sanskrit, do informal interviews, or participate in pujas in the temple.  I almost always ate dosai for lunch, which is like a large, savory crepe filled with masala potatoes and served with sambar and chutney.  After lunch, I could go to the Theosophical Society and read sources.  Another thing that I was lucky to have the chance to see was that it was Madras Music Season, where there are Karnatic music concerts accompanied by bharatanatyam devotional dancing in temples almost every night.  For dinner, I was usually given rice, some other kind of vegetarian curry, dhal, and chapati.  Then, I would make my notes legible or transcribe them on my computer before going to bed early.

4. What was the most significant aspect or experience from your trip, research-wise?

For me, I had the opportunity to get access to sources and visit places I never would have had the chance to without going to India.  I could not have had the opportunity to truly understand the zeitgeist within Mylapore, read some of the sources in the Theosophical Society, or do interviews without physically going to India. Further, I got to practice Tamil language every day, so hopefully it’s gotten a little bit better!

5. How did this trip fit into your academic and professional goals?

Currently, I’m writing my honors thesis on the development of a Shaivite modernity in Tamil Nadu, so this research fits in.  In the long run, I’m applying for master’s and PhD programs to continue my studies on the same topics.

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