Autorickshaws, bottled water, dirt, rice, being called madam, being stared at and cows are now part of my daily existence and I'm a bit worried that as I become more and more acclimatised to India - 'indianised' if you like' - that my blogs are becoming progressively dull. I'm sorry. Its just that little things that were a wonder to me at first are now just the norm. Its funny how quickly you adapt to being in a place. Saying that I would like to add that I will NEVER get used to the gross habit of phlegm clearance that many Indians practice throughout the day and the male practice of pissing anywhere that takes their fancy. Not hygienic, not pleasant thank you very much!I have now arrived in South India in search of some 'new' Indian experiences.Main differences noted so far; warmth, an even more fervent love of rice and Tamil. Communication problemsTamil is one of the world's ancient languages and the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu. I'd love to tell you I'm picking it up no problem but I would be telling a big fat lie! With over 200 letters in its alphabet Tamil has its own beautiful script but in many places, such as road signs and menus (thank god!), words are also written using the English alphabet. Even with this to help the language is close to impossible. Every word has at least three times as many syllables as a regular English word and then, when spoken, is said three times as fast. I've lost track of the number of times I've had to ask for words to be repeated or written down for me so I can stare at them for five minutes before attempting to pronounce them! Have a go at saying these place names really fast; Mamallapuram, Valuthigamedu, Koyalagudam, Thinnaipakam, Shovalaram and you'll get an idea of my recent communication struggles. Saying that, the few words I have picked up, vanakkam (hello) nanri (thank you) and en payar Vicky (my name is Vicky) seem to be going down very well. As a lot of people speak English in the South I don't think many visitors attempt to learn any Tamil so a little effort goes a long way.City lifeI spent my first week in South India in Chennai one of India's great economic powerhouses. The city has expanded and modernised greatly in recent years thanks to its involvement in India's IT boom and although it doesn't have the historical appeal of Delhi or the faded beauty of Kolkata it felt good to be in a thriving city again. I relished in the joys of a 'fruit supermarket', tracked down some toilet paper, went to a museum, gallery, book fair and even to see some Hungarian jazz! These may sound like small achievements but after spending a lot of time in remote towns and villages you come to really appreciate the dose of culture and activity you can find in the big cities. Chennai doesn't have much to offer in the way of tourist attractions, the British left the legacy of Fort George - the original settlement spot of the East India Company - but apart from that the main attraction is Marina Beach. 13km of white and sandy beach just outside the main hub of the city. The beach is a kind of a weekend activity for families, groups of friends and young couples. When I was there it was during a festival called Pongal so the beach was even more crowded than usual and there were stalls selling everything from fried fish to plastic toys. Beaches don't really get used to their full potential in India because people don't sun bathe and women and girls don't really swim - they kind of paddle but don't take any of their clothing off so get totally soaked and then dry off in the sun. So basically the beach was full of tacky stalls, food vendors and a load of young men having a laugh splashing about whilst their girlfriends and family sat and watched on. Part of me wished I could lie there for a few hours in my bikini and have a splash about as well (knowing full well that with all the unwanted attention that would bring it would be the most unpleasant experience imaginable!) but I made do with a stroll. I was kept happy by a chai-wallah that had found his way onto the beach. Sun, sea, sand and a cup of chai….ahhhhh!Pongal and JallikattuAs I mentioned I reached Chennai just in time for Pongal festival - a kind of harvest festival that symbolises the prosperity and abundance harvest time brings. It runs over three days during which people clean their houses, buy new clothes, gather with family and friends and honour their cows for their contribution to the harvest. In the Chennai the festival was marked by some massive 'Happy Pongal' bill boards and several celebratory events, such as the fair at Marina Beach, but the festival really comes into its own in the villages. Here, amongst the farmers and labourers, the festival still has far more significance. The women I met were really gearing up for a celebration, preparing food and scrubbing their houses clean -It reminded me a bit of the the mad rush and panic that accompanies getting ready for Christmas day.But above all this the best part of Pongal is the 'crazy cows'. The third day of the festival is all about honouring your cattle for their contribution to the harvest. As part of this they are decorated and everywhere you go there are cows with horns painted every colour under the sun - red, green, blue, yellow and red stripes, green polka dots, a few bells as well....it was fabulous driving around and then seeing these colourful cattle everywhere! I did wonder what they made of it all though....Cow 1: Oh crap it's nearly Pongal again.Cow 2: Wonder what ridiculous pattern they're going to paint on our horns this year?Cow 1: I know! I got bloody stripes last year! Looked like I had two candy-canes sticking out of my head!But that was just my over-active imagination, I'm sure they love it!This year there seemed to be some controversy that went hand in hand with Pongal in Tamil Nadu. Namely the practice of Jallikattu and whether it should be banned. Jallikattu is basically bull taming, a bit like bull fighting but on a more parochial scale and the ultimate aim is not to kill the raging bull but to 'tame' it. From what I can make out from the reams of news columns that filled the newspapers over Pongal it is traditional in some villages to let bulls run a gauntlet down through the village so young men can try to prove their strength and prowess by trying to bait and stop the raging bull. According to history this practice started thousands of years ago as simply young men trying to outrun the bulls as they let them run through the village. This progressed to them trying to lasso the running bull. It was only in later years that it metamorphasised into Jallikattu a 'spectator sport' where the aim is to bait and control the bull. In recent years thanks to poor organisation and safety measures at the events, that draw thousands of people to watch, there have been many deaths and lots of controversy surrounding the use of underhand methods to enrage the bulls. Finally this year the question as to whether the 'sport' should be banned reached the High Court in Delhi. Most city dwellers, foreign residents and animal activists believed it should be banned for both safety and animal rights reasons. However, down in the rural areas surrounding Madurai there was outrage at the prospect of it being banned. According to them Jallikattu is an age old tradition, the papers were full of accounts from villagers about the bad luck it brings when the races are not carried out; disease, poor harvests, natural disasters. From an outsiders point of view it was interesting to read about how the two sides of the argument panned out. My personal view is that the sport seems cruel and unnecessary and is something that men have brutalised over the years but then who am I to judge people's traditions that have absolutely no meaning to me. The level of importance put on the event was clearly very high and it was interesting to witness the level of superstition that still existed amongst the rural communities. I think if this was anywhere in the west the practice would be banned - PETA would not allow anything else - but here in India (despite PETA's best efforts) the slant of human and animal rights is slightly different and the High Court eventually ruled that it could go ahead but with increased safety measures; medical tests, blunted horns, crowd control etc....The most famous race at Palamedu near Madurai went ahead. 83 people were injured, 14 seriously, no-one died. There was increased crowd control from the police, a bit of protest from animal activists and thanks to the increased media attention locals made a fortune letting space to individuals who wanted a good viewing spot. So, in that way at least, Pongal did mean a time of increased prosperity for the villagers!MamallapuramI spent the final day of Pongal on a day trip to Mamallapuram, a favourite tourist attraction just south of Chennai. I always really enjoy doing the 'tourist' spot visits in between all the project work because it gives me a sense of relief that I'm not the only westerner in India. Also with other foreigners around it takes the staring pressure off me a little which is nice!Mamallapuram is basically a 'spot to visit' because of its beautiful 7th century shore temple that looks out across the Bay of Bengal and Five Rathas five rock cut temples resembling chariots. What is great about visiting sites like this India is that they are totally hands on. Unlike places like Stone Henge in the UK where people are so paranoid about their preservation that you can go to see them but have to stand a good distance away, here you can touch them, walk around them, even sit on them for a photo!I also had a weird moment in Mamallapuram. We were stuck in a traffic jam trailing out of the town and I spotted a fellow westerner. Nothing strange about that at all apart from that he was particularly distinctive because he looked like Side-Show Bob (huge mass of crazy hair) just less yellow. Anyway, the wierd thing is that I saw the very same Bob guy when I went to see some Hungarian Jazz in Chennai a few days later. Small world! I suppose when you think about it its not so surprisingas there are a few places tourists to Tamil Nadu will be certain to visit but I still thought it was quite a crazy co-incidence....didn't realise Hungarian Jazz was so popular!Crusade and motivating womenThe first project I visited in Tamil Nadu was an AVI partner called Crusade, a small voluntary development organisation working in two areas in the northern part of the state. Most of Crusade's work is facilitated through its SHG's - women's self help groups - that they have helped to set up over the last 17 years. SHG's are basically small groups of women within villages that get together and start a sort of savings club. They put so much money aside each month and in this way build up their economic situation. The groups also get money from government funds and from organisations like Crusade to build up their savings and nurture their development. From this fund the women can take individual low interest loans to start up businesses, pay for medical expenses or anything else they need. A lot of good work is achieved through the strength of these groups, not just across Tamil Nadu but across India. The SHG format is familiar across the country and is something that has helped to empower thousands of poor and marginalised women for their social and economic well-being. Crusade's strategy as an organisation is to equip its SHG's to be self reliant. Training sessions are held on everything from accounting to health awareness and village level politics - in this way Crusade has set up a really efficient communication network across the two states it works in. My main task over the two weeks I was with Crusade was to interview some of the women that have benefited from Crusade's programmes. I spoke to some incredibly motivated women that really were inspirational. Some had set up their own businesses, some had fought for the rights and needs of their village in their local panchayat (village council) but all of them had done incredible work on the back of little or no resources. They really did prove that you don't need a lot make a difference to your own life and the lives of others, you just need a little bit of will power and dedication.KalamkariCrusade conducts skill training classes in crafts such as embroidery and tailoring so women can increase their skills and hopefully also increase their earning potential. Another craft form that they have recently started to branch into is Kalamkari, the ancient Indian art of making intricate drawings on fabric with natural dyes. This project is going really well and last year Crusade employed one SHG member to work full time at one of their training centres on orders they receive from the UK and abroad for kalamkari gift cards and panels. I had seen Kalamkari before but never really understood exactly what it was or how it was achieved. It is a very lengthy and intricate process that invloves several stages of cloth preparation, painting, washing, drying, dyeing etc etc And on top of this each dye colour is painstakingly preapred using natural materials such as seeds and wood bark. It was really fascinating to see the whole process unfold into a beautiful and colourful mural at the end.I also got the chance to see some kalamkari professionals at work at an arts centre in Chennai called Kalakshatra. It was great to visit such a creative space and see all the wonderful panels and fabrics being put together. Jothi (Crusade's secretary) and I were also able to pick up a few ideas from the gift shop there. There were loads of really tasteful and easy-to-make items that could be put together to sell in the UK. If there was more demand and sale of the items Crusade send over it could mean that more women could be employed full time to produce them which would be fantastic! You know me, I love a good project to get my teeth into and I came away with loads of ideas about products and how they could be marketed through AVI when I'm back in London. One to think about anyway!MaduraiAnd all that brings me to where I am now, in Madurai one of South India's historical hotspots! The city's main sight to see is the Sri Meenakshi Temple complex that dominates Madurai's skyline with its four multicoloured towers. I am referring to my trusty LP (Lonely Planey Bible) when I say it is a 'rioutously baroque example of Dravidian architecture' but this basically means it is covered in colourful images and carvings of Gods and Godesses, animals and mythical figures. So far I have only seen it from above when I went to a rooftop restaurant but I have heard it is a swarm of activity from morning to night so today I am bracing myself for a visit to the throng of holy pilgrims!Madurai, as well as growing up as a popular trading point for Spices was also the site of the Sangam - the academy of Tamil poets. Over the years it became Tamil Nadu's cultural centre and apparently played an important role in the development of its beautiful (but impossible!) language! Then of course the British played their part as well when Madurai fell to the hands of The East India Company in 1840. The Brits tore down the old fort and filled in the moat that had originally encased the city and instead constructed four broad streets where the old moat used to be. These streets remain today and are in the central hub of the city. I have had a couple of days in Madurai now, enough to take in the crazy chaotic haze of tourists, temples, bullock carts, flower stalls and redundant auto drivers that are always trying to give you a lift somewhere! I also had a crazy experience the other morning when an elephant from the next door temple came across for a visit to the hotel I was staying in. Sitting having my morning cuppa I also got the chance to get blessed by an elephant - for the princely sum of 20rs of course! Incidently during this crazy experience I also started chatting to a fellow north londoner who was staying at the hotel and runs a clothes stall in Camden Market! Small world syndrome strikes again! It was so nice to reminisce about home!I haven't really experienced Madurai fully yet as I have been out visiting a school complex north of Madurai for a couple of days but I am back in the city for the weekend and intend to do some serious exploring!