Are you interested in studying a new culture, experiencing a new language & customs, meeting new friends, and contributing to the advancement of world understanding? Would you like to become Ram the king-god? That was the experience, and more, for Hunter Larsen, Lakewood Rotary’s returning exchange student. Hunter recently spent nearly a year in India, immersing himself in the culture there, meeting other students from around the world, and becoming Ram the king-god for a day. Hunter sent back updates on his experiences, and this is an excerpt:
In my new host city, Chandrapur, we celebrated a festival in honor of Ram, the king-god of the Ramayana. To celebrate, one of the local temples puts on an eight-day program with a daily theatrical story of the Ramayana and some advice from the leading swami. I was asked if I wanted to play Ram. They ask men between the age of 18 and 30 to perform as god for this ceremony. I thought this could be interesting so I met the local swami and he said I would do.
To rally everyone together and ensure that everyone knows it is Ram time, they dressed me up in full costume and paraded me and Sita (wife of Ram but technically another foreign exchange student) around on a tractor through town. My makeup and costume took an hour to get ready. People came out of their homes to clasp their hands in prayer and give us some prasad (sacrificial food and juice).
After a few days, we needed to perform at another temple to act out one of the scenes. Again I had to be in heavy makeup. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw when they opened the curtains. After my “brother” washes my feet, I give him blessings by touching the top of his head and then get in his boat. After we get out, I forgive him by hugging and he takes my shoes and places them on top of his head. Before the curtain came up, this fast- paced music starts from a live band playing right next to me. The swami started singing and the crowd started dancing. As the curtain came up, I could see the crowd and what they were doing.
Instead of the typical Indian dance with flailing arms and big smiles, it was more like a Grateful Dead concert. People had their eyes closed and were just swaying with their arms in the air. One man seemed to be having a seizure in his hand. It just wouldn’t stop shaking. The weirdest part of it all was that I was the center of attention – but I was Ram, after all, their god-king. After the acting, a few town elders came and put a garland around my shoulders, touched my feet and placed a tikki (red dot) on my forehead. Never in the history of India would an elder touch a teenager’s foot as a sign of respect. The only exception is when the teenager is dressed as a god. I was told that the ceremony would be shown on national television.
Hunter had a life changing experience, and Lakewood Rotary is looking for people like Hunter. Students in good standing, born between August 16, 1993 and August 15, 1995, are eligible. Students depart about August of 2011 and return about July of 2012. Costs can run around $4000-$6000, though there are savings (no car insurance or car, food savings, etc., for the time the student is away). Also available is a one month summer exchange: the student is matched up with a student from another country, and they each spend one month with each other’s family.
For more information, please visit www.rye5020.org, and call Greg Rediske 253-581-2332 (day), 253-582-4687 (evenings). Applications are due by October 10 for this year’s program.