As my husband and I got on US-30 W, entering Lancaster County, the world cast off burdensome cities full of tall skyscrapers and congested roads, and expanded to become an enormous liquid blue sky above us and seemingly endless green fields around us. That blue sky wasn’t doled out in small glimpses, occasionally visible through buildings huddled together, nor was it lacerated by the pointed ends of those buildings. Instead, the view was generous, panoramic, and the snow-white clouds, like toppings of whipped cream, appeared to be denizens of this sprawling summer sky, as they set afloat leisurely. Having lived all my life in India, I do not remember exactly when my curiosity was piqued by the Amish people. However, as our travel plans to the US began to mature this summer, my husband and I discovered our mutual interest in finding out more about them. We decided that we would take a trip down to Lancaster County, in southeastern Pennsylvania, a town that has been home to a sizeable settlement of the Old Order Amish people since the early eighteenth century. “We’re both going to be tourists in those parts though,” my husband had said musingly, a native son of the state, whereas I was a first-time traveller to the US.
A community of people little understood and much mythologized, the Pennsylvania Amish arrived on American shores for the same reason as most other communities would later on in the course of human history, to escape persecution. During the 16th century Reformation of the Catholic Church in Europe, a group of people emerged, called the Anabaptists, who believed that instead of following the Catholic tradition of baptism at birth, religious belief should be a willing confession of faith when one had become an adult, thus undergoing baptism when the person came of age. Deemed as heretics, most of the Anabaptists were put to death, while some survivors of this religious persecution fled to the mountains of Switzerland and southern Germany. In 1536, the Anabaptists would become united under the leadership of a young Catholic priest from Holland, Menno Simons, and his followers would come to be known as the ‘Mennonites’, a religious denomination that Merle and Phyllis Good’s 20 Most Asked Questions about Amish & Mennonites listed as having nearly ninety thousand followers in India. However, a breakaway faction would emerge in 1693, led by a Swiss bishop, Jacob Amman, whose followers were labeled as the ‘Amish’. The Mennonites and the Amish have similar beliefs: for instance, both believe in adult baptism, the doctrine of non-resistance not only in the times of war but also in their daily life in peacetime; disavowing the individual and prioritizing God, family and community; and a literal interpretation of scriptures from the Bible. But the Amish are the more conservative of the two, staunchly resistant to what they call the modern and worldly way of life, continuing to stand by their beliefs even in the 21st century. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, a pacifist Quaker and an advocate for religious freedom, invited the Amish and the Mennonites to come and settle in his province, as part of his ‘Holy Experiment’, which had been to make the colony a haven for the peaceful co-existence of people belonging to different faiths and religious denominations.
General interest in the Amish people stems from their unswerving faith in and adherence to a primitive lifestyle in comparison to our modern everyday lives. It is an effort on their part to sequester their religious community and preserve their traditional culture from the changes in the ‘outside world’. For example, they shun the use of technology in their private lives, so the mobile phone isn’t a necessary appendage of their bodies; their faith forbids the usage of electricity, hence they use propane gas instead, kept in cylindrical tanks outside their houses to light up and heat their homes; and rather than drive cars, they use horse buggies as a means of conveyance, which are fitted with solar power turn signals and reflectors. Their conspicuously atypical attire is also an object of curiosity for a majority of people. The Amish use clothing as an outward expression of the sartorial simplicity advocated by their faith, unlike for most of us in the non-Amish world, where clothes are a medium of expressing our individuality. Every Amish man and woman follows the same strict code of dressing, albeit with standardized quirks grounded in their religious beliefs. To give an idea, men are not allowed to wear belts and must hold up their broadfall trousers with suspenders, while women are not allowed to have buttons (considered adornments) on their dresses, instead using straight pins to keep them in place.
What had intrigued me about the Amish was to come across an instance of antiquated cultural practices coexisting in the same space as, or in spite of, modern technologized modes of living in the geography of 21st century America, something that seems to be far more characteristic of India. Imagine being an American tourist in the Indian capital city, New Delhi, having come down for the first time, and let’s say you’re heading towards the gleaming glass structures of the Vasant Kunj malls. On the way, as you stop at the intersection with JNU on the left and Vasant Vihar on the right, you peer out of your air-conditioned Uber car and find yourself staring into the ruminative eyes of a large-bellied black bull tied to a cart that has pulled up alongside the road. As a first-time traveller to the US, I had certain preconceived notions about how American life was supposed to be (e.g. fast cars and tall skyscrapers), as if any country can be a uniform narrative. However, once we had left behind the whooshing cars on the highway and turned into Old Philadelphia Road, a horse buggy came trotting up to our side and I encountered another America. Such a sight felt comfortingly familiar, our Toyota Sienna waiting alongside the horse buggy at the traffic signal.
In his book, Plain Secrets, An Outsider among the Amish, the writer Joe Mackall observes that there are two opposing views of the Amish: the romanticized view that seeks to preserve the Amish as a ‘splinter of some idealized America of a century ago’; and the sensationalized view of the people as ‘fire and brimstone’ fanatics. How you see them reveals more about “what outsiders need to see in the Amish than about who the Amish actually are,” opines Mackall. I wanted to see how a living, breathing community is transformed into an exotic myth, and the function of such a myth in modern American life. Particularly illuminating in this context is what David Walbert writes in his book, Garden Spot Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America,
Americans who read about the Amish…in popular magazines or drove to Lancaster to see them wanted very much to believe that such a mythical place could exist…the Amish were portrayed, however (as) innocent, even childlike, relics of an American past rather than active participants in an American future… (The) Amish seemed a people out of time, more appealing and yet less relevant than ever to modern society (2002, 68)
An exception to the secular cult of American individualism, the culture and customs of the Amish may be an anachronism in American life, but their economic value lies in that they are a curious oddity for the American people and international tourists alike. Hence, immensely marketable, becoming more relevant to the globalized world economy of today. The most startling form of integration of the Amish into the non-Amish cultural topography has come through the commodification of their un-acculturated identity, smartly packaged for tourism purposes. In his book, The Amish in the American Imagination, David Weaver-Zercher outlines the two ways in which the Amish have been drafted into American life, as an ‘ideology’ and as a ‘commodity’. On the one hand, the Amish way of life can be used as a silent symbol of a golden past when things were simpler, and as a corollary, deemed better. And on the other hand, writes Weaver-Zercher, the Amish can be treated as a commodity, advertised and consumed as a tourist attraction.
That brings me back to a baking hot June day. As the cool interiors of the Discover Lancaster Visitors’ Center seemed like a welcome relief from the heat, I wasn’t going to be the one to complain about the perils of capitalism and consumerist culture. In fact, as my husband parked the car outside the squat red-brick building of the Visitors’ Center, I found myself itching to go inside and start the tour, feeling as excited as a child would on a trip to the zoo. At $25 apiece, my husband bought two tickets for the bus tour, which due to a minor mix-up also allowed us a free tour of an Old Order Amish house, a ten-minute drive away. The Visitors’ Center had a gift shop and a gallery exhibiting the skilled craftsmanship of the Amish people, such as, the elaborate patchwork quilts sewn by Amish women, the exquisite woodwork of Amish men, a range of handicrafts, and several paintings of Amish life, to name a few. For a moment, it felt as if I was the kindred spirit of a foreign tourist in a handicrafts emporium in Rajasthan. The currency exchange rate promptly shattered that illusion.
At half-past twelve in the afternoon, escaping the stern glare of the sun, we climbed aboard an air-conditioned minibus, along with an elderly white couple, and a young white couple, presumably in their thirties, with four small children. Our tour guide and bus driver was a pleasant, middle-aged lady, her blond hair tied in a ponytail and her face open and smiling. “Welcome to the Amish Countryside Tour. I begin this tour with the hope that when you finally get off this bus, each of you will have come to understand and respect the differences that set apart the Amish from the rest of the world, and yet see them as real people living real lives, not as mythical creatures or objects of ridicule,” announced our tour guide by way of an introduction. With that we set off, even as I was suddenly reminded of a childhood trip to the Bannerghatta National Park in Karnataka, my mother and I seated in a similar sort of bus, looking out through the window at the leopards going about their business in their habitat.
The bus trundled down a narrow strip of a road cloven through vast swathes of farmland, which comprise the Amish countryside. The landscape that emerged in front of our eyes was dotted with large white houses, dark green shutters pulled halfway down at the windows and wet clothes drying from lines on a pulley system, two distinctive features of Amish houses as our tour guide informed us. The disembodied clothes flapped about in the wind, like colourful daubs of paint against the canvas of a blue sky. “For an Amish person, there is nothing more important than God, family and community, and they take it very seriously. They are not allowed to marry outside of the community, and those who break the baptismal vows are publicly shunned. It is a close-knit, self-reliant farming community, although they engage in limited dealings with the outside world,” our tour guide stated. In an Amish house, three generations of a family live together, and the average family size can range from seven to ten children, a sight that used to be common enough in India. In fact, one of my maternal aunts is the eleventh child in a line of twelve siblings. After years of religious persecution, the Amish population size had been in a state of decline. The community elders concluded that families should have more children to increase the total strength of the congregation. The result of which is that Lancaster County now unofficially competes every year with Holmes County in Ohio, in terms of their Amish population size.
As our bus wound its way through fields of Amish staple crops–corn, alfalfa, winter wheat, tobacco and soybeans–the flow of traffic constituted of an occasional non-Amish car and a number of horse buggies, painted an unobtrusive black. A mother and her daughter, both pale and unadorned, in traditional Amish dress, passed us by in a horse-driven open buggy. “The horse buggies are supposed to follow traffic rules, but I occasionally see them ignore stop signs and take off,” said our tour guide, winking at us sideways, as she deftly steered the bus. In the parking lots of nearby malls, there are tie-rails for the horse buggies where they can be safely fastened, while their owners participate in the rituals of another religion, American consumerism. Though the Amish are not permitted to drive cars, a major point of difference from the Mennonites, they can accept rides or even hire a car to be driven around by a non-Amish person, as well as avail bus and train rides. “But airplanes are off limits,” added our tour guide. “Why?” asked a co-passenger, the father of the four children. “Too worldly,” she replied and laughed.
At certain points in the road, we spotted little Amish girls, wisps of sunlit blond hair peeking out of their prayer coverings, which they use to cover their heads. They were walking barefoot and dragging along their non-motorized scooters behind them. They smiled shyly and waved to us and our tour guide said that it was considered polite to wave back at them. However, what was decidedly impolite was to stick a camera into their faces and photograph them, as their faith prohibits photography of themselves. Even the figurines of the Amish people in the gift shop that we would visit later on were faceless, in adherence to the biblical commandment of not making a ‘graven image’ of oneself. To compensate, as our tour guide painstakingly pointed out farm animals such as mules, cows and miniature horses, and even a flock of camels in one particular farmstead, I duly obliged by taking pictures of them. She also repeatedly drew our attention to a distinctive one-room structure that frequently appeared in the course of our journey. These were the one-room red-brick schoolhouses that Amish children attend only up to the eighth grade, receiving academic instruction and religious education both in German and English, concurrently picking up the Pennsylvania Deutsch (‘Dutch’) dialect at home. After finishing school, boys take up farming, agriculture being the cornerstone of Amish life, or acquire a vocational skill or learn a trade, becoming accomplished craftsmen. On the other hand, girls devote their time towards learning the art of housekeeping and dispensing domestic duties, as well as skills like quilting or sewing.
In the year 1972, after a long drawn out legal battle, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Amish people, so that they were not coerced into compulsory high school education. For the Amish, such practices encouraged ‘individualism, competition, rational thinking and secularism’, seen as potent threats to their traditional values. Rumschpringa is that period in the life of an adolescent Amish person, when he is allowed to spend a certain amount of time in the ‘outside world’, at the end of which, he either formally chooses baptism within the Amish Church, or leaves the community. Our tour guide was of the view that four out of five voluntarily choose to come back to the fold because of the material and spiritual benefits of being in a tight-knit community. “The rest end up in Breaking Amish,” my husband wisecracked. Their steady conformity to community values and principles follow the Amish to their graves, as we noted when our bus passed by a graveyard. The headstones on Amish graves were all of the same size, indicating no difference in status among the dead as in life.
Our bus tour included two stops, first at a petting zoo run by an Amish family that proved to be a delight for the children on board the bus, and secondly, an Amish store selling a cornucopia of wonderful items, from birdhouses, handmade quilts, bags, magnets, wooden handiwork, to soft pretzels, cinnamon rolls and the Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy, shoofly pie. At the store, we bought a wooden train-set for our two little nephews. A horse and buggy was parked outside the store, and the two of us stood in front of it, while our tour guide took a picture of us on my mobile phone. It struck me as a bizarre thing to do, like taking a picture with a sadhu, a hermit who has renounced the world as we know and live in. As we climbed aboard the bus again and left behind the Amish countryside, the white houses with the dark green shutters, the farmlands and the horse buggies, their fleeting glimpses appeared like something that had been taken out of context. It was two in the afternoon when the bus dropped us back at the Visitors’ Center, but my husband and I were yet to be saturated with details of Amish life.
We set out immediately for the Old Order Amish house tour. On the way, I spotted a horse buggy parked out front in the parking lot of Target. At the start of the tour, a twenty-odd group of individuals of all ages had assembled inside the prayer room of the house. A tall, thin man, hoary with age, dressed in a flannel shirt and dark trousers walked in. He was our tour guide for the day, walking us through a tableau of Amish home life. There are no Amish church buildings; people practice their faith through actions in their daily lives and pray in their homes. Thus, the prayer room of the Amish house serves as the ‘church’ for the community, as the congregation meets every Sunday for a long prayer service that is conducted in German, followed by lunch for the entire community in the member’s house. Next, we went into the kitchen, where there was much surprise among the kids in our company when they saw boxes of cereals, Captain Crunch and Cheerios, in the Amish pantry. “They aren’t heathens, you know,” said the old man, with a twinkle in his eyes, and it came to me then that he closely resembled Roald Dahl’s BFG, albeit in a more human-sized stature. There was also much bewilderment among the adults upon learning that the Amish used refrigerators, stoves and water heaters without electricity, as well as telephones! “Not in the house though, they have phone shanties and a number of families might avail of it as a public facility,” our guide informed us, adding, “They are more technology-friendly than you think.”
All the rooms in the house were lit up with natural light, the walls painted in light pastel shades and left unadorned, like the people. Moving through the other rooms in the house, our guide spent a considerable amount of time giving us detailed information on how Amish men and women dress. Both men and women’s attire comprises plain, solid-coloured shirts and dresses respectively, no prints or patterns allowed; men team their shirts with broadfall trousers held up by suspenders, straight-cut coats with no lapels, and a broad-brimmed hat at work; women put on a cape and apron, their long hair tied in a bun and concealed by a heart-shaped prayer covering. Men grow a beard after marriage, and women wear black prayer coverings before marriage and white after. Wearing jewellery is tabooed, so no wedding rings. “But now that the women go to malls, they probably buy fancy Victoria’s Secret stuff to wear under those plain coloured dresses and white aprons,” our tour guide wondered aloud, to the accompaniment of nervous laughter from the group. The tour concluded with a final gathering of our group in a small wood-floored room, with an empty casket placed at the head of it. “This is where the deceased Amish person’s body is kept and then the prayer service held in the prayer room,” announced the guide, as the rest of the group fell back and stood quietly in the solemn darkness of the room. Earthly detachment and self-effacement are central tenets of the Amish faith, which urges them to focus more on the world yet to come.
At the end of the tour, my husband and I were left contemplating upon all that we had learned about the Amish. As with anything that is different from what we consider to be the norm, learning about the Amish and their way of life heralded an opportunity to think about our own values and customs and what we hold dear, or to see how the world is perhaps congruous in its incongruities. Before leaving the premises, we went into the adjoining gift shop and bought two cute, miniature figurines of an Amish boy and girl. They were faceless, almost apparitional. Staring at them, I realized that what we would take away with us was knowledge of the Amish as a people, not of them as individual people. The Amish to us were like the featureless figurines that we had bought. But even then, it was a step out of ignorance, as travelling always is. Perhaps, on another trip, we could strike up a conversation.
Good, Merle and Phyllis Good. 20 Most Asked Questions about Amish & Mennonites; People’s Place (Book 1).Good Books, 2001.
Mackall, Joe. Plain Secrets An Outside among the Amish. Beacon Press, 2002.
Walbert, David. Garden Spot Lancaster County, the Old Order Amish, and the Selling of Rural America. Oxford University Press, 2002.
Weaver-Zercher, David. The Amish in the American Imagination. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
All photographs, courtesy the author.