Letter from Vrinda Chidambaram, MTour08 Participant
I came to Georgia on the Monastery Tour last year with several goals in mind. I was interested in Georgia’s tradition of polyphonic music, its art, culture and history, and its language, and it was my hope to gain a better understanding of all of these. With no overstatement, I can say that the tour exceeded all my hopes and expectations in helping me to achieve these goals.
In touring the monasteries, I learned about the rich culture, both sacred and secular, of Georgia. We visited 6th century churches and saw the worn frescoes decorating their ancient walls. The guides at each monastery offered detailed accounts of the history of the churches and expertly described the icons and architecture. We heard about the pre-Christian traditions and the early Christianization of Georgia. We also heard many stories about the devastation wrought during the Communist period and about the current revival of the old culture, in which Luarsab Togonidze, one of the tour leaders, is deeply involved.
In various churches, we were able to listen to the unique polyphonic chant which varies in style from region to region and even had the opportunity, thanks to our guides, to learn several of these unique and beautiful songs ourselves.
At Princeton, where I am a graduate student in Slavic and Theoretical Linguistics, I am part of a choir that performs Georgian music, and last summer on the tour, I was able to hear for the first time how these songs are meant to be sung and how powerful they can be in their original context. We learned the history of the music, much of which predates Christianity in the Caucasus, as well as some of the more technical aspects of the music, as John Graham, one of the leaders of the tour, is a doctoral candidate in Musicology.
My linguistic interest in Georgia was also addressed during the tour. I had studied some Georgian prior to the tour and was baffled by the seemingly endless complexity of the Kartvelian languages. In Linguistics, it is not uncommon for a theory to be valid for virtually every human language with Georgian being the radical exception. So, I took it upon myself to study the syntax and morphology of Georgian to discover that it has one of the most highly complex verbal systems of any natural language.
While on the tour, I did not study Georgian systematically (I continued to study Georgian in Tbilisi after the tour ended), but gleaned some passive knowledge of the modern spoken language, being constantly exposed to it. John and Luarsab were both ready and able to address many of my questions concerning the Georgian language and I gained some knowledge of the fundamentals of Georgian syntax, which provided me with a basis for further inquiry. And what I came to understand during the course of the tour is that the language underwent a series of transformations during various invasions and occupations and that its lexicon is now filled with borrowings from Persian and other Indo-European languages.
The Monastery Tour not only provides glimpses of an ancient culture and language that are profoundly distinct from all its neighboring cultures and languages, but it also appeals to the academically minded. If your interest is in history, music, art, architecture, religion, or linguistics, the Monastery Tour in Georgia can provide an insightful introduction to these subjects that will surely inform your continuing studies.