I can only beg your forgiveness for the delay in giving you this update. I have been so busy for the last week that it's really difficult to get enough time on the internet to do it properly, and the longer I waited, the more time it was going to take! I have now devoted three hours of my afternoon to writing this blog which I will do in 2 parts so as not to crash the computer. The first half will appear today, the second half will appear tomorrow.
So I had left you in Thekkady, where I spent one night, before waking up nice and early to jump on a bus into the Western Ghats - a south Indian mountain range. The bus was a public one and rammed full of people. The driver could hardly contain his excitement at being able to emit piercing blasts of his horn on every hairpin bend, and the conductor put a Bollywood movie on the DVD player, hence my headache at the end of the trip. I actually enjoyed the film a lot. The subtitles were instructive but hilarious. E.g. [a man to his friend who is wearing sunglasses] "Chennal, you are wearing such a nice cooling glass, are your eyes sore?" The film was well over three hours long and excessively cheesy, but the guy got the girl in the end, which I suspect is always the case. The locals also received the film enthusiastically, but who wouldn't? After all, this is a world where 80s fashion is devastatingly cool, love is professed through a dance on a mountain, all bad guys have moustaches, and revenge is best served on a baddie by tearing up his cinema ticket.
We passed through some stunning scenery - steep green mountains and paddy fields flooded with water which reflected the sky. The women wore bright sarees in green, blue and fuschia pink, and occasionally villages we passed through were celebrating festivals. This required a lot of dancing in the street and setting off firecrackers in front of vehicles. We arrived at Madurai in the early afternoon and went straight to our hotel. Being now in the state of Tamil Nadu it was necessary for me to buy a new sim card. This is the one time so far where I have completely lost my temper with India. Getting a letter from my hotel to prove I was staying there was painstakingly slow, being asked to find a Xerox shop to photocopy my passport was irritating, and the man in the shop stopping to serve other people in the middle of serving me was very frustrating, to say nothing of the major language barrier problems. All sorted though, I went to meet my group to visit the Sri Meenakshi temple.
The temple is a huge Hindu one and the first of the temples we visited. It is in honour of the god Shiva, but you also have the chance to worship Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, who has a human body and an elephant's head due to a misunderstanding in which Shiva chopped his head off. These things happen I guess. Hinduism is a very attractive and colourful religion with over 30 million gods and goddesses to choose from. It is the dominant religion in India since the separation of Pakistan and India in 1947. Less than 20% of Indians are Muslim. The temple was stunning with huge plaster of paris towers which are intricately painted. Unfortunately most of it was in scaffolding as it has come round for the temple's 12-yearly repainting. I had the opportunity to be blessed by the temple elephant, which is an actual live elephant. I have a great photo of me with an elephant's trunk on my head (heavy and a bit sweaty). Afterwards we had some time to do some shopping in the many souvenir shops inside the temple (again I think the Church of England could learn some lessons in fundraising from this).
Thursday was largely spent traveling, with a nice leisurely 10am start and a walk to the train station. The train was an hour and a half late, with a six hour journey and then a three hour bus ride to the next destination. Indian train safety would no doubt make Network Rail bosses faint with horror. It is possible to hang out of the door as the train speeds along (I have a charming photo of me doing this). Food is readily available and is sold by staff walking through the carriages constantly. As long as you like your food deep fried or soaked in grease with a generous helping of spices, you're set. The toilets are somewhat rudimentary - you simply squat over a hole in the floor and deposit your bodily fluids directly onto the track. In the night the train turns into a sleeper train, which gave me the chance to climb onto one of the shelves that also serve as beds and sleep for most of the journey.
We arrived in Puducherry quite late and went straight for a French meal (steak and red wine, mmmmm.) I should point out, however, that the red wine cost about 15 quid per bottle and was in retrospect perhaps not a good move for a girl on a budget. We spent Friday morning looking around Puducherry. Renamed from the European 'Pondicherry' in 2006, it was originally a French outpost. Because the French didn't relinquish control over it until 1967, it was not placed in any of the Indian states when the unification of states took place ten years earlier. It is therefore a self governed principality. Because of the huge French influence the city had a decidedly French feel to it, with croissant shops, actual curbs on the pavements, a very French looking monument and a huge verdant park. It was very strange to see this odd fusion of French and Indian cultures. We visited an Ashram and another Hindu temple. We also had the chance to see the sea on the eastern side of India, although the beach is shored up with stones to protect the town from future tsunamis - the 2004 one caused considerable damage here.
We left Puducherry at lunch time and travelled to a town called Auroville which is nearby. This is more like a commune, founded by a woman who called herself The Mother in 1957. It works along essentially communist principles: people come and live in the commune and contribute their skills - in return they receive their board and food. The community renounces all religions, which they correctly claim cause nothing but conflict, and encourage people just to find some kind of truth and enlightenment through their own existence. It has a large centerpiece called a Matrimandar, which they claim houses the largest crystal in the world, although no one except inhabitants has ever seen it, and nobody knows how the community would have paid for it. It seems like a nice idea at first but there are a number of flaws. Firstly they employ locals to do the most menial tasks, such as toilet cleaning. This not only reinforces the caste system of India, but goes against their principle of being self sufficient and getting everyone to muck in. The community doesn't teach children to pass exams, but more just the skills of life, which is not particularly useful if one of your ambitions happens to be becoming a doctor or an engineer: for this reason it would be hard for the community to interact with the outside world. Our guide was extremely sceptical about the whole affair. He turned up one day and the community was shut and the police were there. He was told that someone eminent had died but discovered from a friend of his that a new vice chancellor had found irregularities in the books (the governors of the commune have to deal with money to enable the community to trade with the outside world). When he revealed his findings half the community turned on him and the fight was so big the police had to be called. I find this community nothing but a very apt demonstration of how the idea of a perfect society is completely at odds with human nature.
Something which has continually struck me throughout the trip is the amount of poverty. I think that the north will be even worse so I need to steel myself for that. You can deal with it for a certain amount of time but after a while it becomes quite overwhelming. Old women going through bins to find food, women with newborn babies and children begging on the street, horribly disfigured and disabled people pulling themselves around on makeshift skateboards. I have been struggling to get my head around a world where this is possible. Giving to the beggars doesn't really solve the problem and you can't give to them all. I would like to start giving to a charity that helps people in India when I get home but I'm worried that the amount of corruption and bureaucracy will mean it doesn't do much good. The population of India increased by more than 21% between 1991 and 2001 and is set to overtake China by 2035. There is no reason why the increase should slow down as it is traditional to marry and have a large family - you are an oddity if you reach 30 and are unmarried and without children. But there is desperately little space as it is and the competition for resources is going to become increasingly fraught. The standard of living has to drop but the gap between rich and poor is widening and it is the very poorest people who will suffer the most. They could consider introducing the one child per family rule that they have in China but it goes against the national religion, and how would it be policed? Because it is considered better to have a boy (more earning potential and you don't have to get yourself in debt for a dowry when they marry) there will be millions of girls in state care - there are 4 million in China. This can't be a solution. The Indians themselves seem to find it very easy to ignore the poverty and I suspect this is for two reasons. Firstly they are confronted by it every day and are used to it, and secondly because the Hindu religion teaches that to find yourself in that state you must have accumulated bad karma in a previous life and therefore it is deserved. The richest Indians are starting to buy imported goods which will further hit the livelihoods of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of heavily indebted farmers have already committed suicide. I was reading a Hindu paper which said that there are 836 million people in India living on less than 20 rupees (about 25p) per day. That is nearly 17 times the population of England. India is also fourth in the world for the number of billionaires. It's a problem that doesn't seem to have a solution and for that reason I'm finding it very difficult to deal with. I just don't know what can be done to help without huge social and cultural change, but how will that be achieved in a country of over 1 billion? Please slap me if I ever seem ungrateful for anything I have again. Being here really puts my life in perspective and I cannot stress enough how fortunate I feel to have been born where I was.
I think that's enough for today but more tomorrow.