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High in the mountains of the Himalaya, students explore Buddhism and environmental issues

Immersion in Buddhist culture in India leaves lasting impact

Photo of Rabongla Buddha Park in South Sikkim, India

Among the students’ itinerary was a visit to Rabongla Buddha Park in South Sikkim. Photo: Frances Garrett.

Prior to her trek in the mountains of the Himalaya, Pavitra Giritharan’s travel experiences were trips to British Columbia and California with her family that hadn’t quite prepared her for the gruelling, eight-day hike that was part of her summer course.

Taught by Frances Garrett, an associate professor in the Department for the Study of Religion, and history lecturer Matthew Price, the course took the students to the Sikkim region of northern India to study religious, cultural, environmental, and travel practices.

The area is home to numerous communities, including Sherpa, Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali, and is the site of the Khangchendzonga National Park, recently designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Buddhist monasteries populate the region, including the host monastery for the Kagyu Buddhist order, headed by the 17th Karmapa, who recently spoke at U of T about environmental issues.

Bringing in-class research to life

Each of the four students in the course submitted a research paper in advance of the trip to Sikkim, focusing on a local issue of interest. One focused on traditional medicines and plants, while others explored creation stories and ecotourism and development.

Damien Boltauzer, a third-year major in religion and anthropology, researched sacred geography in Sikkim in the Buddhist and Lepcha cultures.

“I looked at sacred spaces in general, as well as the reasons that spaces were sacred there, including links to royal or political boundaries or to kinship and ancestry,” he said. During the three-week trip, the group stayed in monasteries and homes; homestays are the region’s preferred way to house tourists in this environmentally sensitive area.

“Families treated us like royalty,” Giritharan said. “We ate dinner communally, and we had traditional home-cooked meals native to the different groups.

“At the monasteries, we saw how the monks lived, witnessed rituals and taught English classes to young monks.”

Garrett, who heads the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Studies, was eager to bring the study of religion to life for the students.

“Living among monks is much different than studying Buddhism in the classroom, because you can see what they are doing at all times of the day,” she said.

For the professors, too, it was different than being in the classroom.

“We were with the students around the clock, so it was a full-time teaching in a sense,” said Garrett. “It was very gratifying.”

  • Undergraduate students Oona Nadler (second from right) and Damien Boltauzer (far right) with young monks at Lingdum Monastery. U of T students visited an English class at the monastery. Photo by Frances Garrett.

A profoundly transforming experience

Garrett and Price have strong interests in experiential outdoor education, and the mountain hike in Khangchendzonga National Park, a sacred site to both Buddhist and Indigenous people, provided the perfect opportunity.

“The physical challenge was necessary to have an expansive learning experience,” Boltauzer said. “It forced us to come out of our comfort zones and ordinary routines.”

The trip confirmed that studying religion is the right path for him.

“It was very inspiring and it intensified my interest,” he said. “I am more inspired to keep studying so that I can understand what I saw.”

For Giritharan, the experience shifted her career focus from becoming a marketing professional to “doing something more globally engaged.” Since returning, she and a friend have successfully raised enough money to send 10 girls from Dharavi, India to school, crowdfunding through their registered not-for-profit Love Pangea.

“I learned a lot about different people and belief systems, but I learned most about myself,” she said.