Penn Senior Kimberly Kolor’s Journey to Study Life and Religion in South Asia

While studying abroad in India, University of Pennsylvania senior Kimberly Kolor found even the smallest excursion became a learning experience.

For example, nose piercing, as it turns out, has custom attached to it. On a bike trip to a local jewelry shop in south India she intended to get the left lobe of her nose pierced; however, the jeweler swiftly pierced the right side before she could utter a word. Turns out that in south India custom calls for only the right side of the nose -– never the left -- to be pierced.

“I’m interested in the subtleties of daily experience,” says Kolor, a religious studies and South Asia studies double major with a minor in international development. “My main goal was really to get involved with daily life, which I think is sometimes underrated in academia.”

She began taking Tamil language classes at Penn, which was important for her 12-month experience in South Asia.

“Before I lived abroad, I felt like a contradiction,” says Kolor. “I was studying South Asian religions but had never been to South Asia.”

In June of 2013, through a Boren scholarship, Kolor traveled to Madurai, India, where she spent six months taking intensive Tamil classes and studying with the South India Term Abroad program.

Living with a host family, she often spent her days taking care of daily needs, such as hand washing clothes in the morning and preparing dinner. Much of the food was new to her, but her motto was, “I will try everything.”

Most people were afraid she wouldn’t be able to handle the spiciness of the food, but she assured them that she was willing to taste it all.

“I would say, ‘Whatever amount of spice you like, give me more. That’s how much I like it.’” 

In India, she volunteered at an orphanage, took Bollywood dance classes and studied Silambatam martial arts with a local master. She also did a research project on street temples, which would influence her later work on public space and beautification in Sri Lanka.

After returning to the United States for Christmas, Kolor traveled to Sri Lanka last January to study with the Intercollegiate Sri Lankan Education program.  The country’s diversity permitted Kolor to study Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian traditions. 

She says, “I found myself in a unique position that a lot of people there aren’t in. I was interacting between these communities a lot.”

The ways in which people ornament bodies and spaces, in particular, caught her eye and was integral to her experience. When she went to a Hindu temple, she would dress in a sari and wear bangle bracelets. When she visited a mosque with her host family or friends, she would be sure to cover her head and arms.

“People were always commenting on what I was wearing and how I was wearing it,” says Kolor.

The experience was her inspiration to stay for three more months to pursue an independent ethnographic research project funded by the Gelfman International Summer Research Grant, South Asia Studies Department, Penn Program for Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism and Penn Undergraduate Humanities Forum.

Through her research, she observed how ways of creating and judging beauty, whether it be a public beautification project or a piece of jewelry, can have a profound impact on the ways that people interact with one another.

She spent her time taking photos, visiting sites, conducting interviews and discussing questions with friends. Kolor says she enjoyed the pace of her life there.

“Just taking the bus was fun. You might not get a seat, and you might end up squeezed in between tons of people and have to ask person next you to hold your bag. Or, if you’re sitting, you might end up holding a child in your lap.”

A particularly memorable adventure for Kolor in Sri Lanka was taking a seven-hour bus ride to go to a festival attended by more than 100,000 people, where she ran into friends from the local campus who showed her around the sacred sites. At the festival, she watched a parade of elephants and dancers, chatted with a Buddhist monk, made a pilgrimage to a mountain temple and bathed in a sacred river.

“It’s more than cliché to say it was life-changing, but it really was,” says Kolor. “I became so invested in the community and made lifelong friends.“

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