A Climate Dialogue to Remember: South Asia and the 2023 Monsoons

A Dialogue of Civilizations course led by CEE Professor Auroop Ganguly traveled to India during the summer of 2023 to study climate science and engineering, adaptation and policy, data science and artificial intelligence, and cultural immersion.

Written by Auroop Ratan Ganguly

The Prelude

The Northeastern University (NU) “Dialogue of Civilizations” (DOC) is a faculty-led, month-long, study-abroad program managed by the NU Global Experience Office (GEO). I have been leading an Honors Dialogue on Climate Change in Emerging Economies, where one four-credit course (Climate Hazards and Resilient Cities Abroad) focuses on climate science and engineering and the other on adaptation and policy (Climate Adaptation and Policy Abroad). Data science and Artificial Intelligence, as well as cultural immersion and understanding, are deeply embedded within the program. We went boldly into the South Asian monsoon from July to August of 2023, covering Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and in India, Leh in Ladakh, Delhi and Agra in and around the National Capital Region, and Kovalam in Kerala. While our Climate Dialogue has attracted students from all colleges at Northeastern since its inception in 2014, this year, the fourteen students were drawn from the Colleges of Engineering, Computer Science (Khoury), Science, Health (Bouve), and Social Science. Our 2023 Climate Dialogue program enabled the following NU Path attributes: ND (Engaging with the Natural and Designed World), AD (Analyzing and Using Data), and IC (Interpreting Culture). Our previous Climate Dialogue programs were in India during 2014, 2015, and 2016, Indonesia and Singapore during 2017, Brazil and Peru in 2018, Nepal and India in 2019, Virtual in 2020, and Tanzania in 2022. The Climate Dialogues from 2014 to 2020 were described in a YouTube video created for NU Alum and the individual links are available from the Fun Page of the SDS Lab. The 2022 Climate Dialogue to Tanzania is described here. The Poster for the 2023 Dialogue to Nepal and India, shown in Fig 1, was shared with the students prior to the start of the program. Our month-long travel, from the high mountains and valleys of Nepal and Ladakh to the riverine plains of Delhi and Agra and coastal backwaters of Kerala, perhaps made our NU Huskies resilient to the vagaries of climate. The group is pictured in Kovalam, Kerala with martial arts (Kalaripayattu) performers and in front of the Taj Mahal (which the poet Rabindranath Tagore called “a drop of tear on the cheek of Time”) in Fig 2 (main photo).

Fig 1. 2023 DOC Fair Poster

The Venue

South Asia, or the land comprising present-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, has been and remains a land of contradictions in the Western imagination. The Greek ambassador Megasthenes (circa 350 BCE), in his book Indica, describes India as a land of plenty with laws prescribed by philosophers. Certain historians believe that Alexander’s army retreated and revolted because they were too afraid to face the combined might of the empires based in Pataliputra (present day Bihar) and Gangaridai (present day West Bengal in India and Bangladesh). The Romans traded with India: silk and pepper went to Rome while wine and glassware came to India. Christopher Columbus set out in 1492 to discover a new sea route to what was then the famed land of India but only managed to “discover” America instead. The English poet Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), in his poem “To His Coy Mistress”, wrote the following immortal lines: “Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side, Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide. Of Humber would complain.” The French philosopher Voltaire (1694–1778) wrote: “I am convinced that everything comes to us from the banks of the Ganges”, and “it is not up to us, who were but savage barbarians when these peoples were sophisticated and learned, to challenge them with their antiquity”. The word mogul originated from the fabled riches of the Moghul Empire based in Delhi and Agra of North India. However, perceptions changed in modern times. Sir Winston Churchill, that great hero of the West, is reported to have said that Indians are “a beastly people with a beastly religion” and is directly blamed for causing the manmade Bengal Famine of 1943 which caused deaths and misery at an unprecedented scale. Not to be outdone, former American President Richard Nixon was caught on record saying that “undoubtedly the most unattractive women in the world are the Indian women”, while his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, who was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, mentioned (possibly to flatter his boss) that Indians “are masters at subtle flattery … that’s how they survived 600 years”. Beyond words, the then American leadership has been blamed for the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh. Fast forward to the 2020s, and in a rare bipartisan show of unity, the current American President Joe Biden is purported to have said that India is the most important country to him while the former American President Donald Trump indicated, “we are very, very proud of India”. Clearly, the timing for a Dialogue to South Asia from a US university could not have been more opportune.

The Locations

Fig 3. Nepal land of the Buddha

Nepal is the land of Chomolungma (Mother Goddess in Tibetan) or Sagarmatha (Top of the World in Nepalese), which is known to some in the West as Mount Everest. Mr. Everest, of course, did not do much except taking credit for the work of a scientist in British India called Radhanath Sikdar, who in turn is credited with first calculating the height of the world’s tallest peak. Nepal, a Hindu majority country with a secular constitution, also happens to be the birthplace of Lord Buddha. The monsoon winds in Nepal originate from the Bay of Bengal and causes rainfall along the southern Himalayas, including in the Kathmandu valley. While our group in Kathmandu mostly witnessed a break (i.e., no rain) period in the monsoon, Nepal as a country faced the brunt in 2023. During the 2023 monsoons in Nepal, lower than average monsoon rains did not bode well for agriculture, yet floods and landslides ravaged human lives and property. Our group was fortunate to have several guest lecturers, including Dr. Nakul Chhetri from ICIMOD (an intergovernmental organization studying the Himalayas), who coordinated a visit by our group to the ICIMOD biodiversity site, famous mountaineer Maya Sherpa, who described her adventures climbing Chomolungma and K2, among others, and lecturers at the Tribhuvan University (TU) Pulchowk campus (“the MIT of Nepal” according to our hosts) organized by Prof. Ashim Ratna Bajracharya. Besides guest lectures, one feature of the visit was the strong interactions between NU and TU students. Later in Kathmandu, we were joined by serial renewable energy entrepreneur Ardeshir Contractor, who made a mark in both US and India, and has since joined the AI for Climate and Sustainability (AI4CaS) focus area within NU’s Institute for Experiential AI (EAI). The group stayed at the Soaltee, visited tourist and cultural places such as the Kathmandu Darbar Square, and dined at a nearby Nepali Bhanchha Ghar and at Newari food places. The group was allowed free time to interact with the local community and visit places of their choice, such as the Pashupatinath Temple and trips to view Chomolungma and other mountain ranges, such as from Kalapatthar. Excerpts from our week-long Kathmandu visit is shown in Fig 3.

Fig 4. Ladakh the Little Tibet

Ladakh in India has been called Little Tibet owing to the cultural continuity with the ancient land of Tibet and is also known as paradise on earth owing to the natural and even unearthly beauty. We visited tranquil Buddhist monasteries with views to die for, interacted with Buddhist lamas and everyday Ladakhis, watched streams of people coming out from a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and interacted with influential and common people. Our newly built hotel was by the Shanti Stupa with a brilliant view, the idyllic surrounding was matched by the Tibetan, Ladakhi, and regional Indian and Indian-Chinese food. Ladakh, which is known to be rain-shadow region of the Himalayas and has a cold desert climate, was deluged during our visit. Homes and hotels not designed or used to such deluge often flooded, with rainwater leaking from some of our hotel rooms for a little while. Our climate resilient NU Huskies – to their credit – refused to change hotels when offered to do so, because they wanted the experiential feel. Ladakh is where we hosted several students and professors from India. Danish Mansoor, originally from Anantnag in Kashmir, was a B.Tech. and M. Tech. student at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar (GN) in Gujarat. His MS research on the Indian monsoons was supervised by Prof. Udit Bhatia from IIT-GN, an alumnus of the SDS Lab at NU. Danish participated in our first climate war games (role playing exercises: see relevant descriptions in our 2022 Dialogue writeup), which focused on regional mitigation, and has now joined the NU SDS Lab for a PhD in Interdisciplinary Engineering. Two India-based professors, Prof. Rajarshi Majumder from the University of Burdwan with research expertise in regional and developmental economics, and Prof. Sourav Mukherji from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Bangalore or Bengaluru (IIM-B) whose research topics include social entrepreneurship. In their free times, the students and professors individually went around Leh city, including marketplaces, monasteries, restaurants, and two-humped baby camel shelters, while a few went to other nearby places in Ladakh such as other monasteries, Pangong Lake and the Khardung La Pass. Our Ladakh adventures are captured in Fig 4. As shown in Fig 5, we visited the river Indus (or, Sindhu) multiple times: a river after which a state (Sindh), a country (India), and a religion (Hindu) have been named.

Fig 5. The Indus or Sindhu River

Delhi has a long history spread over thousands of years from the ancient (some have argued: mythological) times of the Mahabharata to the Mauryan and the Gupta Empires, the latter (Gupta) often called the first golden age of India, to the medieval Mughal times (when the Taj Mahal was built in Agra), often thought of as the second golden age of the subcontinent. Delhi was the capital of the British Raj in India for about thirty-five years, when by some estimates the British colonial powers stole $45 trillion from India, killed 100 million Indians, bequeathed a legacy of partition and mayhem, and transformed the land from one of plenty for over thousands of years to one of penury within a few decades. Our students debated the various pathways to Indian independence, such as the ones suggested by Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. We discussed Gandhi’s advice to the Jewish people during Nazism, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of unarmed people by the British for which there has been no apology till date, and the apologists of Churchill (who was directly responsible for killing millions of Indians, e.g., during the Bengal Famine) versus the refusal to grant Bose a similar courtesy (as was granted to, say, Neville Chamberlain). We discussed possible analogies of the Indian independence movement with the plight of the Moriori when they followed their pacifist leader Nunuku-whenua to their genocide, the connections with the Irish movement, and more recently, cynical political assassinations, such as that of the African leader Patrice Lumumba. However, to keep the discussions civil at all times, I pointed the students to the debate pyramid. While in general Delhi receives a muted monsoon, during our visit the entire old Delhi area (with the forts and places of worship) was flooded by the river Yamuna, even though our hotel in new Delhi near the Qutb Minar and Iron Pillar was not impacted. Delhi was a busy time for us: we visited two top Indian universities, the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi (IIT-D), known the world over for technical and scientific education, and the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), known for social sciences and humanities as well as natural sciences. Our primary hosts were Prof. Somnath Baidya Roy (professor and head of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences) at IIT-D and Prof. Chirashree Dasgupta (professor at the Center for the Study of Law and Governance) at the JNU. Prof. Udit Bhatia from IIT-GN, a NU SDS Lab PhD, visited us as a guest lecturer in Delhi to discuss about climate models, relevant data sciences, and the Indian monsoon. Our group also visited the Namami Ganga Project and the National Museum in New Delhi. In New Delhi, we were also treated to a Michelin-class (arguably, much better) dinner by Chef Sudipto Bhattacharya, who took us through a culinary anthropology experience (a video of the session will be made available upon request) from the pre-Vedic times of India to modern times, which included lectures as well as multiple sets of dishes representing different culinary eras of India. While at the Taj Mahal in Agra, we were joined by Prof. Ranjit Kumar of Dayalbagh Institution, an experiential place of education. We discussed the flooding of the river Yamuna near the Taj in the context of climate variability and change. Our adventures in Delhi and Agra, lasting a bit more than a week, are captured in Fig 6.

Fig 6. Delhi the Ancient Capital

Kerala is known as God’s Own Country, owing to the breathtaking natural beauty of the backwaters, beaches, and mountains, as well as the cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity combined with a high literacy rate. We stayed in at the Travancore Heritage near the Kovalam region with easy access to the hotel beach. A celebrated King of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, was the first non-European in modern times to defeat a European colonial power, when he led his military to rout the Dutch at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. The region has perhaps the richest temple in the world: the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the state of Kerala, India. The onset of the Indian monsoon in each year is marked as the time when the monsoon winds hit the Kerala coasts, including Thiruvananthapuram. While Kerala gets significant rain during the monsoon season, our group saw little rain (i.e., mostly a break period of the monsoon), although the monsoon winds made the oceans dangerous for swimmers and other regions of Kerala got significant rain. We were joined in Kovalam by a PhD student, Elizabeth Eldhose from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT-B) in Mumbai. She works closely with us through her PhD adviser Prof. Subimal Ghosh, who has been a long-time collaborator. Elizabeth joined our second climate war games, focused on adaptation in India (for a description of our climate war games scroll down to the relevant portions of our 2022 Dialogue writeup), as well as our cultural presentations (she discussed the contributions of Marthanda Varma). From the beaches to the backwaters, along with a visit to an elephant orphanage, as well as the paintings of Ravi Varma and the brilliant cuisine of a diverse land, the group enjoyed every bit of our week-long experience in Kerala. Of particular interest was a show of Kerala’s traditional martial arts: Kalaripayattu. At the recommendation of Prof. Udit Bhatia, we also welcomed a virtual guest lecture by his colleague at IIT-GN: Prof. Michel Danino. Our adventures in Kerala and the majestic beauty of the state are captured in Fig 7 and Fig 8.

Fig 7. Kerala Gods Own Land

Fig 8. The Magic of Kerala

We are especially grateful to Chariot India, not just for their logistical support during the trip, but also for going above and beyond at times of need. We are especially grateful to Mr. Prasanna Gautam who was embedded with us and the CEO Prabodh Badoni who ran the operation.

The Content

While we will not discuss the course syllabus and detailed itinerary here, the interested reader is referred to the syllabus and itinerary.

Cultural immersion was embedded in multiple ways. Here are just two examples.

The students were asked to pick a few personalities from the long history of India and provide their individual perspectives, following which they were asked to write their views on the entirety of Indic history as made apparent via all the presentations.

The personalities (in chronological order) were as follows:

  • Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro
  • Gargi Vachaknavi: The Vedic Rishika
  • Lord Krishna: The Bhagavad Gita
  • Gautama Buddha
  • Adi Shankara
  • Aryabhata: Bakhshali Manuscript
  • Chanakya: The Arthashastra
  • Ashoka: The Great
  • Samudragupta: The First Golden Age
  • Gopala: The Elected King
  • Raja Raja Chola: Ponnyin Selvan
  • Akbar: The Greatest Mughal
  • Dara Shikoh
  • Marthanda Varma
  • Rani of Jhansi
  • Mahatma Gandhi
  • Rabindranath Tagore
  • Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose
  • Satyen Bose: Boson / Bose-Einstein
  • Indira Gandhi

The students were asked to write blogs summarizing (any part of) their experience: a few examples are provided below (in no specific order):

Fig 9. Learning a Grand Challenge

The presentations by the students and visiting faculty are partially captured in Fig 9.

The Instructor’s Corner

Fig 10. Puja Das TA par excellence

Puja Das, an SDS Lab PhD student and the Dialogue Program Assistant, has been a wonderful Teaching Assistant. Originally from Bangladesh and an award-winning teacher, she was able to provide her perspectives on both the content and the culture. She is captured via her multiple avatars in Fig 10.

The students in the class loved Puja: see the card they gave her in Fig 11.

The students also awarded an A+ grade to the professor: see Fig 12.

Fig 11. The best Dialogue TA ever

Fig 12. To Sir, with Love

We would like to thank our respective spouses without whose support this Dialogue would not have happened: Puja thanks Ashis Pal and I thank Debashree Bagchi Ganguly.

Related Faculty: Auroop R. Ganguly

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering