Category Archives: Culture

Aspects of cultural and religious life in Tamil Nadu

A village festival

Shrine in the roots of the Banyan tree decorated for the Festival

Shrine in the roots of the Banyan tree decorated for the Festival

Food preparation area

Yesterday, 14 August, was the festival of Adi. This is a big event at our local temple when hundreds of pilgrims come to pay their respects to the local holy man, Sadayandi.

As far as we can determine, the legend is that Sadayandi was a sadhu who lived in a cave on hillside. He was noted as an astrologer and the local people came to consult him when they needed advice. After his death the cave where he lived became a temple with a sacred grove and a number of subsidiary shrines at the foot of the hill, nestling under ancient trees.

Throughout the year local families come to mark important rites of passage such as the first haircut of a child when they are about two and a half years old. On these occasions a goat will be sacrificed and friends and neighbours will be invited to join the celebrations and eat the goat as well as to make a contribution of money towards the child’s welfare. Phil has written about this in an earlier blog.
On this special festival day the whole area was transformed with all the shrines decorated with new clothes, a battalion of priests in saffron lunghis on hand to assist with pujas, and around the shrines all the necessities for a successful puja were being prepared. Garlands were being made, trays of candles, banana, coconut and beedi to satisfy the god were available and the barbers were on hand to provide the full head shave for all those who wanted to go all the way and sacrifice their beauty to the gods.

The garland maker

The garland maker

The priest waiting for next Pooja
Food was being prepared for all who came. This is provided free by the temple authorities and the local people and we had duly made our financial contribution a few days earlier.
Although it was still early, there was already a column of people wending their way up the hillside to the cave.

Food preparation area

Food preparation area

Religious duty done, the fun can begin. More stalls were getting ready to satisfy other needs – fried snacks without which no Indian day out is complete, a plethora of plastic toys for the children and even a wonderful wooden wheel (not quite the London Eye) to give the children rides.

Indian National colours make a tasty snack

Indian National colours make a tasty snack

Deep fried heaven - Indian style

Deep fried heaven – Indian style

The police and emergency services were on hand too but, in the early morning calm their duties were not arduous and they were enjoying their breakfast.

Local policemen ready for action

Local policemen ready for action

The mediaeval celebration of a Saint’s day in a local church must have felt much the same.

The Sadayandi temple is located near the Kamaraj Lake about 5 km from the village of Athoor, near the town of Dindigul.

It’s time for a break

We’ve been blogging about Tamil Nadu for some time now, and with August nearly upon us and a spate of birthdays to celebrate (including my father’s 90th) we are calling a halt for a month. We hope very much that you’ve enjoyed sharing our passion for south India – please tell your friends and let us know what you’d like to hear more of.

Here are a few snaps to round off, taken in the garden at the cottage (or from it). The really excellent one of the paradise flycatcher was taken by our friend Sanath Roy – look out for his blog on WordPress too.

Rock face

Rock face

Yellow-billed babbler

Yellow-billed babbler

Frangipani blossom

Frangipani blossom

Bougainvillea

Bougainvillea

Sunbird outside the window, trying to scare off his own reflection

Sunbird outside the window, trying to scare off his own reflection

Asian paradise flycatcher

Asian paradise flycatcher

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

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It will be a disastrous day for south Indian roads when every motor-bike owner successfully aspires to own a car! Mind you, the launch of the Tata Nano, retailing at the time for one lakh rupees (R100,000) – around £1200 – was supposed to entice the motorcyclists away from their bikes, but you don’t hear so much of it these days.

Bikes are the transport of everyman, and carry everything. Tamils are a slender race, so three men fit easily onto a bike – and often do. Four men is feasible but a bit of a squeeze. Two men, with the passenger carrying something across their knees, is normal – I haven’t the photographic evidence, but I have seen any amount of amazing baggage – a goat, a small calf, a mattress, a bicycle, and once a large sheet of plate glass, which was really scary.

Bikes can be retro-fitted with a metal frame to carry six gas cylinders, for delivery down the small side lanes; bikes like the one in the photo are used rather as a donkey would be elsewhere. Our local milkman comes up the road each morning to the man with the buffalo herd carrying a huge churn and also the man to do the milking.

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But it is as a family vehicle that the bike reigns supreme. I definitely remember seeing an advert from the family planning people recommending that Indians restrict themselves to two children. One very good reason, they said, is that “the whole family can then easily be carried on a bike”. The man drives with the older of the children sitting in front of him; the woman rides side-saddle behind with the baby on her knee (or when the second child gets a little older, between her and her husband’s back). I should perhaps mention that all Indian bikes are fitted with a sari guard over the rear wheel, to avoid tangles.

Nor any drop to drink

Before the monsoon

Before the monsoon

The dreadful floods and loss of life reported from Uttarakhand have drawn attention to the onset of the 2013 monsoon, which arrived on June 1st at Kanniyakumari (the expected date) but then moved far more rapidly north than is normal, catching the pilgrims going to Kedarnath unawares. The finding and cremation of bodies continues – wood with which to cremate the dead is being taken in by helicopters which return with survivors.

But here in the middle of Tamil Nadu we are anxiously awaiting the rain – at second hand. Apart from the odd shower, we don’t expect much rainfall on the plains until November, when the winds of the retreating monsoon pass over the Bay of Bengal, picking up new moisture, and depositing it to the east of the mountains. But our dams and tanks are thirsty for water.

It is said that water which reaches the sea in rivers is wasted, so the Cauvery, the Vaigai, the Pannaiyar and the Palar are rivers of sand up to a mile wide and remain like that for most of the year. But there is a huge network of canals and irrigation channels which snake out over the land from large reservoirs at the foot of the hills.

There has been rain in the Nilgiris, and I hear that the Kundah dam is filling up and they have been able to start power generation. But around Kodaikanal there’s hardly been a drop. I walked up to the river this morning and it is a mere trickle among the stones. Nothing is reaching our dam, and soon the level will be below the lowest outlet and Dindigul will have to rely on water from deep borewells.

After the monsoon

After the monsoon

The lake can fill very quickly once the river starts flowing – our neighbour saw it rise one year by three feet overnight – but just at the moment we look out onto grassland and the local herdsmen are taking advantage of this and bringing in goats, sheep and cattle to graze.

The other people taking advantage of the low water level are the sand and mud miners. Until yesterday, there were three diggers removing 6 feet of red sand – said to be excellent for brickmaking – which was going out in convoys of big lorries. Closer to the remaining damp patches, gangs of men were taking out dense black mud and loading it onto tractor trailers, destined for the plantations. River mud and sand is very fertile and much in demand, and there is a big “informal” economy around its extraction.

Red Brick

Collectorate

Collectorate

The towns of the southern hill stations are tiny compared to those of the plains, and because the British authorities of the time were laying out a township in pretty much virgin territory, they seem to be more compact. This is particularly true of Ooty, where the Collectorate sits in a cluster of old buildings just down the road from St Stephen’s church.

St Stephen's

St Stephen’s

St Stephen’s is a delightful light building, whose construction was quite controversial – the then Governor laid the foundation stone in 1829 and then seems to have shamed the Madras government into finding the money. The great wooden beams for the interior were taken from the Tipu Sultan’s Lal Bagh Palace in Srirangapatnam, following his defeat in the great battle of 1799.

Nilgiri Library

Nilgiri Library

Opposite are the colonial buildings, of brick and wood, put up 100 to 150 years ago and surviving remarkably well. The Nilgiri Library has just celebrated its 150th anniversary with a makeover, and the Collectorate (or administrative HQ) is always spick and span. Higginbothams book shop has been freshly painted. The predominant colour for the bricks is red; and where there are wooden shutters (more usually found down in the plains) these tend to be green. The Madras Club’s new bamboo blinds, or chicks, are a splendid shade of green – it could be described as British Racing Green, but the paint shop in Dindigul knows it as “Country Club Green”!

Higginbothams

Higginbothams

It all makes a refreshing change from the white concrete boxes of modern India. Concrete painted white is singularly unsuited to a tropical climate, as we found to our cost when we had to repaint our house in Chennai yearly. The whitewash, if you don’t watch the painters like a hawk, gets diluted 50/50 to make it go further, and at the first shower trickles down the walls and into the garden where it makes greasy grey puddles. Even undiluted, it turns grey with mildew after the monsoon and the whole house looks quite unappealing.

Perhaps the early painters knew something which is now forgotten. I have a theory (unproven) that maybe that particular red and green contained some element (lead? arsenic?) which was inimical to mould and mildew and kept the buildings looking fresh. Whatever the case, they are much more attractive than the modern ones.

Steam up!

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Arriving on the overnight Nilgiri Express from Chennai at the station of Mettupalayam, at the foot of the Nilgiris, you can – if you’re in a hurry – take a taxi up to Coonoor and then on to Ooty. It’ll take about an hour and a half – longer if you can persuade your taxi driver not to overtake on hairpin bends. The problem, of course, is that hairpin bends are much the easiest place to get past lorries: on a left-hand hairpin the lorry always goes onto the right-hand side to get round in one go and cars can slip through on the inside. Downwards traffic takes avoiding action. Everyone knows this is the system, and of course it works – most of the time!

But if you are not in a hurry you can take the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, recently inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The rack-and-pinion train leaves Mettupalayam just after 7am and reaches Coonoor a little more than three hours later. An ordinary diesel traction locomotive then takes the train on from Coonoor to Ooty in another hour and a half.

The railway opened in 1899 with special coal-powered steam locomotives made in Switzerland. These have very recently been replaced by oil-powered steam locos made at the Golden Rock workshop in Trichy. The track from Mettupalayam to Coonoor climbs 1400 metres in 28km with a maximum gradient of 1 in 12 (the steepest in Asia) and a number of tunnels and bridges. In places the train is going so slowly that it is quite possible to get down and walk alongside for a while, and there are a number of stops to allow things to cool down. We recently went back to the Nilgiris and took a few photos of the train close to Hillgrove station, where it passes alongside the ghat road.

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From Coonoor to Ooty the track climbs another 500 metres, with stations at Wellington, for the Officer’s Academy; Aravankadu, for the Cordite Factory, then winding through the lovely Ketty valley (the other photos were taken at Ketty station) before reaching Lovedale, for the Lawrence School then passing through a final tunnel to run for a short while by the side of the lake then into Ooty station.

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You may have seen the train in the film A Passage to India, where Coonoor station had a starring role.

St Mary’s in the Fort

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From its founding to the present day, Madras has been governed from the Fort. There was attempt a few years ago to build a brand new Secretariat building on a large site close by, but that fell foul of political wrangling and the building is now to be a hospital instead. So the Chief Minister’s office is still inside Fort St George, built by the British East India Company and opened on St George’s Day, 1644.

Along with offices from which the Madras Presidency was originally governed, and accommodation for the British officers and men, the Company built a church dedicated to St Mary. As was usual at the time, the engineer/architect was a military man, and the church has very thick walls so it can be used to store ammunition in times of crisis.

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St Mary’s describes itself as “the oldest church east of the Suez”. It was consecrated in 1680 and has been in continuous use since then by the Anglican community of the Church of South India. Inside is cool and surprisingly light; the floor is of large flagstones and the pews are dark wood.

Many famous people are buried at St Mary’s, though as the site is cramped it is only the earliest tombs which are actually at the church. There is a large graveyard on the way to Egmore station which contains many more, including the Commonwealth War Grave. And the church register records names from history.

In fact the first marriage to be recorded was that of Elihu Yale in 1680 itself. Yale went on to become the second Governor of Madras from 1687 to 1692 at which time he was relieved of his post due to excessive profiteering. Some of the profits later went to assist the new Collegiate School of Connecticut in the Colony of New Haven – Yale’s grandmother’s second husband was an early governor of New Haven – and that in due time became Yale College.

Another famous name linked to St Mary’s is that of Robert Clive – “Clive of India” – who was married there in 1753 at the end of his first trip to India. He had just become renowned through his defence of the fort of Arcot with a few hundred men against several thousand troops of Chanda Sahib.

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Visiting St Mary’s is an atmospheric step back in time and can be combined with a visit to the Fort Museum. Photos are problematic at the moment since it is covered in scaffolding.

Flower power

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Flowers are an incredibly important part of South Indian life. Gods and Goddesses are garlanded as part of their ritual worship; brides and grooms are laden with garlands so heavy that the bride can scarcely lift her head; most women weave a string of jasmine into their hair each morning. Rooms hired for weddings and other functions are intricately decorated with flowers and palm leaves – houses too. Even cows and bullocks are decorated with marigolds at the time of Pongal.

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There is therefore a huge industry associated with flowers. Down the road from our cottage a couple grow jasmine on 20 or so bushes. The buds are picked in the early morning and taken to a local buyer who fills wicker baskets of buds from a number of growers. These are trucked to central markets and from there distributed to shops and homes.

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We’ve been taking some photos at the central flower market in Chennai, at Koyambedu. Flowers here are sold by the kilo – which is a lot of petal! – and you can also buy ready-made garlands. Women outside plait the jasmine with three thin lengths of thread, ready for the hair.

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I hope you enjoy the photos. Here are two more of our friend Maya’s wedding – you can see what fabulous garlands and hair decorations she was wearing!

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The Andaman Islands (1)

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The Andaman and Nicobar Island chain stretches from just above the northern tip of Indonesia (Banda Aceh – where the 2004 tsunami originated, as I mentioned in an earlier blog) to south-west of Rangoon, now Yangon. The Andamans can be visited from Chennai or Kolkata, but the Nicobars are off-limits to tourists due to the Stone Age tribal communities which still live there – you may remember seeing aerial footage of spear-shaking men (on North Sentinel Island) trying to scare off a military helicopter which was checking up on their island post-tsunami.

In passing, one of the groups which do communicate now and again with anthropologists explained that they survived the tsunami since they recognised the animal behaviour and followed them as they fled inland. This is perhaps an ancient memory of previous tsunamis passed down through the generations, in stark contrast to the modern folk near Kanniyakumari on the southern tip of India who went out onto the seabed to collect stranded fish as the first wave retreated and were caught and killed by the second.

The Andamans appear in Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, where a mysterious death occurs at Pondicherry Lodge and Sherlock Holmes traces the story back to an Englishman and three Sikh accomplices who stole a fortune in Agra, were caught, and sentenced to penal servitude for life in the islands. An Andamanese, armed with a blowpipe and deadly poisonous darts, is the loyal servant of the Englishman, Small, who is trying to regain the treasure.

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The British use of islands as jails is well-known all over the world. St Helena, for the Boer prisoners of war; Seychelles for exiles and political prisoners, such as Kabaka Mwanga of the Buganda and Archbishop Makarios; and Port Blair for those who fell foul of British rule in India. We have friends in Chennai who, as Indian freedom fighters, were sent to Port Blair and the notorious Cellular Jail.

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We visited in 2006 – here are a few photos of the jail – and one surprise for me was to learn that during the Second World War the Andamans were occupied by the Japanese. The Cellular Jail is now a national monument, and among the exhibits are souvenirs of the occupation – a newspaper advertising lessons in conversational Japanese, for example, and currency notes – and pictures of Subhas Chandra Bose, who was controversially allied with the Japanese, raising the Indian flag of Independence for the first time on Indian soil.

Rain and water

The newspapers are reporting that the monsoon has arrived dead on time – on June 1st it arrived at Kanyakumari, or Cape Comorin – the Land’s End of India where “the three oceans meet”, according to the tourist literature. Wikipedia unkindly points out that this is inaccurate, and that Kanyakumari only actually borders the Laccadive Sea – not the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal as well. And to add insult to injury, Kanyakumari is not the most southerly point of India, merely the most southerly point of the Indian mainland. Indira Point is much further south, but since this lies at the tip of the Nicobar Islands (just across the water from Banda Aceh, where the 2004 tsunami began), and since the Nicobars are off limits to visitors due to the Stone Age tribes who still live there, Kanyakumari is the furthest south most of us are likely to get.

Anyway – the monsoon has arrived on time and is now working its way up the west coast. Alexander Frater’s book Chasing the Monsoon describes really well the joy and relief felt by Indians as the rain arrives and the atrocious heat of May is washed away.

Not in Tamil Nadu. All we get is the cloud which spills over the Western Ghats, accompanied by the odd shower, certainly not monsoonal torrents. Not many people realise this. My Delhi colleagues used to say “bet you’re glad the monsoon has arrived” and were amazed when I said “not in Chennai. We need to wait until November for our monsoon rain!”

But the rivers, lakes and tanks of Tamil Nadu will now start filling up, slowly but surely, as the water comes across the borders from Kerala, Andhra and Karnataka. This is assuming, of course, that the water is allowed to come. The Cauvery River Tribunal, for example, has been sitting for decades to try to recalculate what the shares of the river’s water should be for each State, but every time there is a drought (like early this year) the farmers try to stop the dams being opened to feed the canals leading into Tamil Nadu. Since this can include suicides – usually jumping off the dam into the water coming out of the sluices – it is a serious matter.

I hope that when I get back to our cottage in 2 weeks time the river which fills our lake will be showing a little movement. The lake is now at its lowest and the local government are busy digging out 50 years of silt – excellent for the plantations, so the local farmers are queuing up to buy as many loads as they can manage.

A photo of an empty lake is a bit boring, so here is one which I took earlier, as they say.

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