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The Center for the Advanced Study of India provides funding and support to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct independent research and volunteer internships in India. Funds for the CASI internships are made possible through the support of Penn’s Office of the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives in conjunction with Penn Abroad and Penn’s Global Internship Program (IIP) and through the generous support of CASI donors.
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A hunt for broken images begins!

Fri, 06/02/2023 - 17:13

Broken images tell a story too. And I am investigating exactly that for my 2023 summer project.

Hello, my name is Shaashi Ahlawat. In field, I introduce myself by saying that I am from Haryana (India) and that I did my masters at the Nalanda University in Bihar (India). My audience, often villagers, brighten up with this connection to Bihar which is where most of my fieldwork has been so far. I add that I’m doing PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of them don’t understand this name so I quickly add, USA. Their faces by now are glowing with pride because USA is clearly a big deal! For you, my reader, I will also share that my department at Penn is South Asia Studies.


I was in India for the past two years between 2020 and 2022 doing fieldwork for my dissertation research (it took two years thanks to the pandemic!). It was during this time that I began noticing patterns across broken stone images in my area of study. Some of them seemed intentional effacing of either faces or specific attributes. Others appeared to be accidental fragmentation which could have been due to structural collapse among other reasons. Post-fieldwork analysis has further motivated me to look deeper into this phenomenon which is why I am traveling across eastern India and Bangladesh this summer to understand if there is more to it than a regional trend. I am using the term ‘broken’ colloquially for this piece but also to not limit it to ‘mutilated’ images, best understood through the acts of iconoclasm, until the case has been rested.

My dissertation research at Penn focuses on the question of decline of Buddhism from eastern India and more specifically from the region of Nalanda-BiharSharif (NBS hereafter) following the thirteenth century CE. This is a micro-region I chose within the jurisdiction of Magadha, an administrative unit or cultural region which has had a documented history linking it to as early as the sixth century BCE. My work is archaeology heavy but I also work with primary texts such as inscriptions and historical records including Tibetan, Persian and Colonial accounts. My core dissertation fieldwork (2021-22) was a village-to-village surface survey documenting archaeological material (no digging!) and locally observed oral narratives.

As I am processing this data and writing, it has become apparent that I address the pattern in broken images so that the question of deliberate vs accidental destruction can be settled. It is important also because the popular narrative presents these occurrences simply as a result of Islamic iconoclasm and thus stands as one of the evidence in establishing the clash-of-civilization model between Islam and Buddhism thus explaining latter’s decline from India. Too simplistic! I’m here to bring nuance. And thanks to the CASI fund I will have solid material evidence backing it up.


In order to compare my observation from the area of my study, I am traveling to archaeological sites and museums across the states of Bihar and West Bengal in India, and four divisions of Bangladesh – Dhaka, Rajshahi, Rangpur, Chittagong. I have requested access to the reserve collections at the museums I am visiting because fragmented sculptures tend to be stored away. Most of them have agreed to work with me and I want to keep my hopes up yet grounded, given the notorious ways bureaucracy works in the two countries. Besides that, I am looking forward to be challenged by the excruciating heat and long cab rides. Time to splurge on water bottles, coconut water and electrolyte packets!

Stay tuned to learn more on what exactly I am looking at aka the categories of damage and repair.

Image: A view of arranged stone sculptural fragments in the storage of the Patna Museum, Bihar. Photographed in December 2020 by the author.

Countdown to Delhi!

Tue, 05/30/2023 - 19:52

Hello readers! I’m Meghan Fersten! I am writing to you from my hometown of Montreal, Canada, almost ready to board my flight to Delhi in just a couple of days where I will be an intern at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). Just two weeks ago, I celebrated my graduation from the College with a major in Neuroscience and minors in Healthcare Management, Medical Sociology, and Chemistry. I am a submatriculant in Penn’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program and I will be returning to campus as a full-time graduate student this fall until August 2024! I am so grateful that my Master’s program referred me to this internship as an opportunity to conduct the fieldwork component of my MPH. 

It’s hard to believe that my summer in India is nearly here and I am beyond excited for my experience with PHFI to begin! The organization’s interdisciplinary and collaborative focus on research and interventions is fascinating to me, as I believe this approach to the study and practice of public health is extremely valuable. I am most looking forward to the unparalleled opportunity to partake in direct fieldwork experiences surrounding critical issues related to health care access, policy development, and education in a country that I am eager to learn more about. I am hoping that this internship will allow me to better understand and contribute to a global perspective of population health through various approaches. From my studies and extracurriculars, I have become interested in the processes by which research, data, and evidence-based public health interventions inform health policy and promotion. I am excited to work on projects in these realms, and look forward to understanding how such interventions can effectively address health inequities. 

As an international student who is passionate about traveling, I am thrilled to explore the beauty of modern India and all it has to offer me during my stay. I’m so excited to try all sorts of new and authentic dishes, as well as to learn about music, the arts, and cultural traditions in the city and other regions in the country. I will be living and spending most of my time in the lively city of Delhi in the Green Park neighborhood. I have never been to India before, and I am nervous about the very high temperatures (especially as a Canadian who is not used to this!), learning how to navigate such a big city, and how to communicate with locals while respecting cultural practices. It will surely be challenging to live in a new place for an extended period of time, but I can’t wait to dive right in! I know I will learn and experience so much and I look forward to reporting back soon. 

Bye for now – next time in Delhi!

Hi! – Ashna :)

Thu, 05/18/2023 - 16:06

Hi! I write to you from a conference room in Riobamba, Ecuador, having just spent the past 2 hours talking to a doctor about the challenges of starting an ophthalmology residency program at a local hospital. Just 2 weeks away from going to the Aravind Eye Care Hospital–arguably the pinnacle of low-cost, high-volume, high-quality ophthalmology–I’m so excited to experience a true success story, learning about the many challenges that were overcome to make Aravind Eye Hospital what it is today.

My name is Ashna Patel, and I will be interning at the Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, Tamil Nadu this summer. I’m a rising junior from Pittsburgh, PA in the Life Sciences & Management (LSM) Program, studying Biology and Finance with a minor in South Asian Studies on the pre-med track. At Penn, I’m a part of Penn International Impact Consulting, Alpha Kappa Psi Professional Business Fraternity, and the HATRICC-US lab at Penn Medicine.

This summer, I’m most excited to truly experience India. The first time I remember visiting India was just this past December, and living in my Mom’s childhood home, meeting family for the first time in years, and seeing the beauties of Jodhpur and Udaipur made me feel oddly immediately at home. I feel really lucky to now have the opportunity to meet and get to know South India alongside Achint, Eric, and Sage this summer, and look forward to the many yummy meals, pretty temples, and scenic views that lie ahead.

I’m also incredibly excited to learn about what global health ‘done right’ looks like at a hospital lauded internationally for its management. Having spent last summer at Bwiam General Hospital in a rural region of The Gambia, I saw how under-resourced health systems can struggle to meet the basic needs of their communities. At Aravind Eye Hospital, I’m excited to see how a few resources can make a big impact, and hopefully play a small part in understanding the next challenge the organization hopes to tackle through my project.

Super grateful for this opportunity, and can’t wait to get started!

Entering Eric’s Escapades

Wed, 05/17/2023 - 10:06

Hello dear reader! Did my title catch your attention?

My name is Eric Lee, I’m originally from New Jersey, and I’m a rising sophomore (’26) in the College of Arts and Sciences studying biochemistry and biophysics. I’m involved in research at CHOP and student government, and I enjoy playing the violin and running. Before my freshman year, I had actually written about the CASI internships in my college application’s Penn-specific essays because they seemed like such fantastic abroad opportunities. That said, I’m super excited to intern at Aravind Eye Care Systems with Achint, Ashna, and Sage this summer!

I applied to the internship at Aravind because I wanted to have my first exposure to global health through a hands-on environment. What intrigues me about India is that as a very populous country with incredible resilience despite issues like infectious diseases and water contamination, it’s one of the best environments to learn about solving global health challenges. Plus, Aravind’s hospital model has been praised all around the world as an effective public health practice for its ability to provide eye care services to the rural poor for free. I’m excited to meet the wonderful leaders behind Aravind and keep in touch with them long after the internship. I’m also excited to explore cool local organizations in my free time like Kynarou, which builds healthcare and drinking water infrastructure for Tamil Nadu’s poorest villages.

And then, there’s the amazing culture, food, and daily life of India that I’ll be fortunate enough to see for the first time! I can’t wait to visit landmarks like the Kutralam Waterfalls and Meenakshi Temple, and I’ll definitely make sure to make travel a priority during my time in India. I’m also really looking forward to observing the lives of everyone I’ll meet during my internship and how they differ from people’s lives in the United States. Because there’s so much to encounter, including multiple foreign languages, I’m a bit nervous about not fully absorbing my experiences in India or exploring everything that I want to explore. But even so, I’m confident that my co-interns and I will learn an incredible amount and make the most of our time in Tamil Nadu.

A beautiful journey starts in June. So long for now, and see you next in India!


Tue, 05/16/2023 - 10:46

Hi! My name is Melissa Bell, and I will be an intern at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) this summer.

I am a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, majoring in Health & Societies with a concentration in Health Care Markets & Finance. I am also pursuing a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. 

I am so excited for this summer! The PHFI internship will allow me to learn more about the health care system in India, as well as have hands-on experience in the field of public health. PHFI is an amazing institution with an incredible staff, and I am eager to learn from and work with the organization. This opportunity will be incredibly enriching as I plan on pursuing a career in public health. Additionally, I cannot wait to live in India and experience everything it has to offer. I will be residing in Delhi and look forward to learning more about the culture, living in the fast-paced city, and eating fantastic food. Moreover, since I love to travel to new places, I am particularly enthusiastic about exploring the diverse regions of India on the weekends. 

Since I have never been to India before, I am definitely a little nervous. I am most apprehensive about the super high temperatures, language barrier, and all the unknowns that come with traveling to a new place. However, the unknown makes this summer even more exciting.

I look forward to reporting back upon my arrival in Delhi!

Aravind Pre-Departure Introduction – Sage

Mon, 05/15/2023 - 12:01

Happy Spring!

With the school year just coming to a close and June fast approaching, I am beyond excited to get to introduce myself, my interests, and my expectations for this summer as an Aravind intern in Madurai!

My name is Sage Leland and I am a rising sophomore in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences. I plan on pursuing a biophysics major with computer science and chemistry minors. Outside of the classroom, I am involved in dance and music on Penn’s campus through Penn Dance, a modern dance company, and Penn Chamber, in which I play the violin.

My love for the arts is a big reason I am drawn to the diverse culture in India; I cannot wait to be immersed in the vibrant dance, food, and music scene in Tamil Nadu. One of my goals while in Madurai is to learn a bit of Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian style of dance found in the south. I’ll keep the blog posted on how that progress goes, but without knowing Tamil, I’m worried that some of my goals will be harder to achieve than I hope.

This will be my first time visiting India, and while I’ve traveled to China before, one can hardly compare the two. Before arriving, one of my biggest worries is not understanding the language and cultural practices. I’m worried about unintentionally offending our gracious mentors and hosts by asking questions that might be considered taboo or having trouble communicating because I don’t know the language. My mind is racing to think of what I could possibly pack because almost all of my clothes are unsuitable for India’s humid and hot summers.

Yet, despite my fears, there is so much to look forward to. I cannot wait to explore the shopping scene in Madurai, which will serve as not only a remedy to my concerns about suitable clothing but also as a way to learn more about the local peoples’ culture through what they wear. And while I might be getting scammed by the tourist offices and auto rickshaw drivers because I am a foreigner and don’t speak the language, it will be a small price to pay relative to the perspective I hope to gain during my time in Madurai.

While at Aravind, I am particularly looking forward to having the opportunity to work on projects that tangibly impact the well-being of patients. We leave in just over two weeks, and I am still grasping with the idea that Ashna, Eric, Achint and I will be working with such a vast global healthcare system.

Here’s to the next two weeks blowing by! Next stop, Delhi on June 1st.

Hello! – Achint

Sat, 05/13/2023 - 16:44

Hi everyone! My name is Achint Das, and I will be a CASI-Aravind intern for Summer 2023 in Madurai.

I was born in Delhi, but I grew up for most of my life in New Jersey.

I am a sophomore (Class of 2025) at Wharton concentrating in Healthcare Management with an interest in international health business and diplomacy.

I am most excited about getting in work in Aravind and living in Madurai! Aravind is world-renowned for its ophthalmology services model and my professors and mentors have all mentioned it naturally as sources of inspiration for their own work. I’d love to learn how Aravind was able to build and maintain such a model and I’m excited to contribute my own work to this special hospital. On another note, I am very excited to eat lots of food, explore the beautiful nature, and dive into the cultural and religious sites in Madurai and India with Ashna, Eric, and Sage!

I am most nervous about adjusting to Madurai. A few things that will be different will be the very hot weather, 6-day work week, and cultural norms; even though I’m Indian, South Indian culture is incredibly different from Bengali culture (my ethnicity), and I will have to be prepared to make mistakes and learn through trial and error. However, I’m confident that I’ll be able to adjust and excited to see how I grow from this entire summer, both professionally and personally!