CLEARWATER — Thirteen members of area Unitarian Universalist churches recently traveled to India with the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, a native of that country, unaware that they would be actors in a drama.
"I wrote the script for this play," said Janamanchi, spiritual leader of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater since 1999. "I wanted to get everyone involved in the unfolding drama that is India."
The drama, he said, was designed to convey a message for the travelers to bring home: "We share a common humanity — you don't have to look alike or live alike to feel a human connection."
His plan took the visitors to the far corners of India, from opulent high-rise communities and expansive industrial parks to mountains of waste in New Delhi, home to thousands of the poor.
During the three-week trip, the travelers went from Janamanchi's hometown of Rajamundry in the south, to a "Bollywood" set, to a half-dozen sacred shrines and temples throughout the country. They traveled on trains, immersing themselves in the daily rhythms of that bustling land of contrasts.
Allen Ongchangco of Palm Harbor, traveling with his wife, Lisa Baird, and their 8-year-old daughter, Maya, said he was especially affected by the constant presence of various religious denominations in public spaces.
"One can hear the muezzin's call to prayer, a Hindu chanting nearby and see a car with a sticker proclaiming 'Jesus saves,' " he said. "That sense of religious intermingling was quite comforting."
A particularly meaningful experience for Barbara Brandt of Dunedin was a visit to the waste pickers in a basti (slum), one of 70 such slums in New Delhi. At this one, some 900 men, women and children, including farmers and artisans from small villages who had been displaced by industrialization and globalization, had set up makeshift huts. They were culling recyclable material from the mounds of fly-ridden trash and selling it.
Brandt, traveling with her husband, Mark, said she was moved by the hospitality of the waste pickers.
"They put out chairs for us and served tea," she said. They also had covered the debris-strewn ground with plastic sheets, she added, and written "welcome" in limestone powder.
Janamanchi said the waste pickers represent two of India's unique qualities: what he called "radical hospitality" and finding joy and hope amid deprivation.
"Hospitality to the stranger is a Hindu tradition," he said. "The guest is not just like God but is considered to be God."
Hope and joy are present as well.
"People take the time to enjoy life within their limitations," he said, but the helping hands of others offer them hope.
One New Delhi couple, for example, had set up a small school for children under age 12. A friend of Janamanchi organized the workers into a federation to protect them against private companies laying illegal claim to the salvageable trash.
Janamanchi said the mementos he brought home also represent the true spirit of his native land. Among his purchases were a hand-woven silk sari, laced with traditional golden threads called "zari"; a handmade cashmere shawl with an intricately embroidered floral pattern; a plate made of brass, copper and silver, a unique craft of Thanjavur, a city in southern India; and a marble and gold-leaf plate from the state of Rajasthan in northern India.
Many of these creations, he said, are dying arts because of the wear and tear on the hands of the craftsmen and weavers.
"You feel the sense of the sacred in this work," he said. "You see these things not as baubles but as objects of great creativity and beauty."
In a way, the arts of his nation, said Janamanchi, convey a sense of what India is really about.
"The Hindu belief," he said, "is that we all carry a spark of divinity within us."
India, he said, is itself both a spiritual and a sensory experience.
"That combination is what you see in our art," he said. "That is India for you."