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Gift of Hindu ceremonial outfit brings alive religious culture for students

robe_t.jpgBOONE—When Jaimie Houston’s great-grandparents, Raymond and Ellen Houston, traveled the globe, they always returned with interesting stories and items from their international jaunts. Among their travel memorabilia was a formal Hindu outfit purchased in 1959, most likely in Nepal. The outfit has been donated in their memory to Appalachian State University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion by the Houston family.

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A formal Hindu outfit typical of those worn by individuals with upper-class status in the 1950s has been gifted to Appalachian State University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion. Department chair Dr. Ozzie Ostwalt, left, holds pantaloons that were part of the outfit, while Jaimie Houston holds a scarf and Dr. Thomas Ellis holds the hat and jacket that was part of the formal wear. Houston’s grandmother gave the outfit to the university. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Troy Tuttle)

“This gift provides a real-world example of a lot of what we teach in the classroom and will open up a part of a world that is different than our students’ world,” said Dr. Ozzie Ostwalt, chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion. “This won’t be just a museum piece. Students will have access to this.”

A Greensboro resident, Houston is a graduate student in Appalachian’s Department of Social Work. Her grandmother, Frances Houston of Minneapolis who had kept the ceremonial outfit for more than 50 years, gave it to the university after seeing a formal kimono on display in the residence of the chancellor.

“Our family was happy to donate the outfit so that it can be used to help students understand the traditions of the Hindu culture rather than just looking at something in a book,” Houston said.

Dr. Tom Ellis, an assistant professor in the department, specializes in South Asian religions and philosophy and the Hindu tradition. He speculates that the outfit was typical of those worn by men in the upper levels of the Hindu caste system to formal events, such as public festivals, weddings or temple rituals.

“The outfit’s rich color and ornamentation send a signal about the importance of the person wearing it,” he explained.  “Often times the study of religion is thought to focus only on high and lofty ideals, but it is always embodied in people and their culture. It’s important for students to remember this, especially when studying other cultures.”

“This gift has energized us to collect more cultural artifacts related to various religious traditions that will be available for our students to look at and learn from,” Ostwalt said.