World on the Weekend: India

For our family, Indian culture seems quite exotic.  There are relatively few south Asian people in Quito, though there is one excellent curry restaurant in the Mariscal neighborhood.  Since the documented history is well over 4000 years old, however, it’s definitely worth a look.  Geographically, India was not always limited to the borders drawn on current maps, which date back to British decolonization in 1947 when mostly Hindu India separated from mostly Islamic Pakistan.  Indeed, the story of the ancient Indus Valley civilisation, a contemporary of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, was large enough that it also encompassed most of present-day Afghanistan as well.  And civilized it was: while not much is known because we can’t yet decipher their writing, it would seem from archeological evidence that they had well-organized cities carefully planned and laid out in grids, they produced enough food to support a class of artisans who wove textiles and played games with boards and dice, and, most surprisingly, had excellent sanitation with nearly every home having a bath and a type of flush toilet leading to a sewer system. What is even more amazing is what this society did NOT have: there seems to be no evidence of weaponry beyond basic hunting tools.  There are no structures that would appear to have been used as temples or palaces for any kind of royalty.  Yet, from the layout of the cities, there must have been some sort of over-arching government to plan and collect taxes.  Susan Wise Bauer explains in her Story of the World series that there are basically three ways to know history: oral histories from people who are alive today, written records, or archeological evidence.  Conversations about the type of evidence needed to come to these conclusions about the Indus Valley civilisation can be quite interesting.

Hinduism, one of the main religions of India today, is an ancient and complex religion.  There is no need to teach it in great detail to a child who is not of the faith unless there is an interest.  However, the pantheon of gods with their varied anatomies and interconnected back stories tells us as much about the Hindu cosmology as about the people who follow it.  From a child’s point of view, creatures of mixed species, such as Ganesh, with the head of an elephant and the body of a man with 4 arms, are always fascinating.

Yoga is Buddhist in origin, another one of the major religions in India.  It is both a form of physical exercise and mental meditation because it involves concentrating on holding often difficult poses for short periods of time.  Yoga has been shown to increase mindfulness and improve concentration in children.

For a more modern take on India, Bollywood is a phenomenon that is even bigger in its own right than Hollywood, and both the films and the unique style of music and dance that they often feature are hugely popular in South Asia and beyond. 

Since 1947, India and Pakistan have been in constant conflict and both have nuclear power.  As I write this, India and Pakistan continue to experience and perpetrate violence against each other, with a particular crisis in the majority-Islam autonomous region of Kashmir controlled in parts by both Pakistan and India. India has recently revoked Kashmir’s “special status” as an autonomous region and the area is now on lockdown with a heavy Indian military presence and a local communications blackout.  It is up to your family to decide whether to follow the developments on this story together, and if and how to discuss the ongoing violence with your children. 


Fashion and math

Learn how to drape a sari (we used a scarf which, on Child, was about the right dimensions for a sari) and how to make mendhi (traditional henna tattoo) designs on your hands and feet with turmeric paste. 

Dance and movement

You can find Bollywood dance tutorial videos for kids on YouTube and spend a fun half hour learning a new dance.

Then relax with some yoga poses.  If you want, try this activity: say the name of a pose and allow your child to imagine the pose before showing her the correct one.  For example, if you didn’t know what a “downward facing dog” position was, how would you imagine it?  Conversely, if I stand straight on one foot with my other drawn up to my inner thigh and my hands clasped together, what would you name that pose?


For math, have a look at images of some of the different gods and other creatures in the Hindu pantheon.   You’ll notice that even the ones with non-human shaped bodies nonetheless have symmetrical limbs. None (at least to my knowledge) have, for instance, three left arms and one right arm, and if they have a “third eye”, it is always centered in the middle of the forehead rather than to one side. Using scissors and paper, cut out some torsos, heads, arms and legs of humans and other animals and imagine your own creatures.  The only rule: all of the creatures have to have bodily symmetry.  This means understanding even and odd numbers because it is not possible to have a symmetrical body with five legs


Played the following logic game:  Describe something that might turn up in an archeological dig and then imagine the story behind it.  For example:

  • A brick with a small paw print and a piece of broken pottery next to it (perhaps a cat jumped on the brick before it was dry and knocked down the pot)
  • A big board with symbols on it found next to a road paved with bricks (might have been a street sign)
  • Bricks placed to form a wall with some that are crushed (perhaps an invader broke down parts of the wall)
  • A tiny wheelbarrow, perhaps only a few inches tall, and too small to use for carrying big things, buried outside of a structure that appears to be a house (maybe a child was called in to dinner and left his toy outside and it was covered by mud when it rained that night). 

Then, challenge your child to leave clues in different rooms that might suggest what she has been doing.  For example, he might leave a wet washcloth on the side of the tub so you might guess she had showered.  Or, she might leave her doll on the bed surrounded by its diapers and milk bottles for you to guess that she had been looking after it. 


Make curry and allow your child to help cut up the vegetables.


I don’t know how to drape a sari, nor how to make a turmeric paste of the proper consistency for mendhi tattoo designs.  However, we watched tutorials and looked at images to get ideas and we tried to copy what we saw.  I do not pretend to know everything, and I believe it is beneficial for Child to see how I go about looking up that which I do not know.  The same happened when we followed the Bollywood dance tutorial: though I love dance as a hobby and Child has spent many years watching and imitating me as I stretch, twirl and prance about the living room, this was a form of dance that was new to me and she enjoyed watching me learn as much as she herself enjoyed learning it.  We watched the Bollywood dance videos and Child was enchanted by the beauty of the female performers with their jewelry, costumes and make up.  Sadly, she noted her wish to have long, straight, black hair as Indian women do, and as most girls in Ecuador do.  As it happens, she takes after me with her short bouncy curls.  In the lesson on Switzerland, described later, we watched the 1947 movie of Heidi starring Shirley Temple which eventually made her feel better about her own hair.

The game of name-that-yoga-pose didn’t work the way I had anticipated: Child likes cats and every movement reminded her of cats.  She ended up choosing names such as “cat hunting a mouse” or even “cat pretending to be a tree”. 

The symmetry challenge also failed to match my expectations.  Child seemed to see my requirement that the gods have symmetrical limbs as an unreasonable limit to her artistic freedom.  “But I want to do it the way I want,” she protested as she carefully placed two arms on one side and none on the other.  It finally transpired that her figures were dancing, which she managed to explain by pointing to a picture of a Shiva statue in a book who was standing on one leg with the other raised across her body and slightly bent in a pose that ballerinas call attitude.  She then showed what she was attempting to have her paper doll do by demonstrating with her own body.

The history game was difficult at first.  Deducing from evidence is not easy for children, and perhaps not for adults either.  We have read Sherlock Holmes stories as well as mysteries featuring The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, the Thea Sisters and others, but though she recognizes an unsolved dilemma when she hears it, and though she marvels at the resolution, she rarely attempts guesses of her own.  This activity was challenging for her and she required more than superficial help.  In the end, the activity of leaving clues for me didn’t work as she was unable to do it herself, so we discussed each clue and then challenged her father to solve the mysteries.  He made some deliberately incorrect guesses (“Were you cooking the doll?”) which amused and delighted her and sent her into fits of giggles, so the game was a success from that point of view.

The curry was a disaster.  However, Child had valuable practice cutting vegetables with a proper sharp knife.  We also discussed why cooking rice at high altitude was trickier than cooking it at sea level which led to a discussion of how water boils at a different temperature as well.


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