Category Archives: Culture

Aspects of cultural and religious life in Tamil Nadu

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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Floral tributes

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Continuing from the previous blog, one of the features of the hill stations are their gardens, and most of the larger towns have a botanic or public garden. The one at Ooty surrounds the old residence of the Governor and is more of a botanic garden: the one in Kodai is more of a public park, begun in 1908 by a forest officer from Madurai, Mr Bryant, and named after him.

Here during May and June the flowers are at their best. The rose garden has been carefully nurtured; the bedding plants went in in March when the nights were not so cold; and now Bryant Park is packed with visitors. It is the venue for the annual Flower Show which is now in its 52nd year and which follows the usual British flower show format – with some interesting Indian additions.

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So – you can expect to find displays of single and grouped specimens of roses, dahlias and carnations, but also Bird of Paradise and orchids. In the vegetable section you will find carrots, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes and onions, but also green chilli, banana on a stem and plantains.

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A curious section is for carved vegetables. When we were there in 2001, I vividly remember seeing carved statues of Ganesh and Siva, made from large turnips, I think. This year there is a splendid model of the Taj Mahal made from plantain stem and white radish.

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But the star of this year’s Show is an “Angry Bird” made from 20,000 carnations!

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To the hills!

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You may have seen that temperatures in India have soared. Delhi hit 45.1 the other day (over 113F) and one of our friends, who is visiting Orissa, said that the thermometer was hovering around 40 most days with a “comfort level” (as the weather men say) of 50! I presume they mean discomfort level.

May in India is when the sun has passed over the southern states and is heading to its June 21st rendezvous with the tropic of Cancer, which crosses India from the Gulf of Kutch to Kolkata, passing almost exactly through Bhopal. There are no clouds to filter the rays. Modern buildings are all of concrete with flat roofs and just soak up the sun all day, radiating it out again during the night. [The colonial architecture, having to deal with the heat without electricity for fans and air conditioners, is a lot more sensible. High ceilings, wide verandahs and ventilation spaces at the tops of the walls.]

This is the month when those who can, head for the hills. From early May to the end of June the hill stations are crowded with visitors. In the north is the famous station of Shimla, summer seat of government in the pre-independence days, with places such as Mussoorie, Dalhousie and Nainital catering to visitors according to budget, as those who read Kipling will recollect.

In Tamil Nadu we have two main hill stations: Ootacamund and Kodaikanal. “Snooty Ooty”, or as it prefers to be known, The Queen of the Hills, is in the middle of the Nilgiris range with Coonoor a thousand feet or so lower down. Here the ghat road gives up its leisurely descent from Ooty and disappears over the edge of the cliff, dropping five thousand feet in just over twenty miles to Mettupalayam on the plains below.

Going up to the hills is just as exciting. Approaching Kodaikanal the town gets ever closer but the road doesn’t seem to want to start climbing. Eventually, about 30 miles short, the road changes from a good wide highway to something a bit more than single track but not always quite two-lane, and starts to climb. Six thousand vertical feet and two hours later you pass through a narrow notch and arrive at the dam which forms Kodai lake.

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Lakes were created in all the major hill stations, and at Kodai is used for boating with a delightful path around the shore for walking, cycling or pony riding. Fast food Indian style is everywhere – especially, at this season, spiced mangos.
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There are also numerous shops selling chocolates, perfumes, essential oils, cheap fleeces and balaclavas.

The hill towns are sadly over-developed, but many original bungalows still survive with names such as Rose Cottage, Burnside, Hilltop or Valley View. The temperature dips sharply at sunset and then the air fills with the scent of wood smoke as rich and poor light their fires. At sunset the road down also gets a bit hairy as people who have dallied suddenly realise they need to get home. A ghat road after dark is not for the faint-hearted!

There is so much more to say about the hill stations – but that is for another time.

400 yards of Anna Salai

[I wrote this in January 2001, when we first arrived in Chennai. The Connemara Hotel is an Art Deco masterpiece, Spenser Plaza is the oldest shopping plaza in India, built on the site of the original Spencer’s Department Store. To retrace this walk at present is tricky due to the excavations for the Chennai Metro. The pavement shops have gone and the hoardings are mainly plastic sheet, now, instead of hand-painted. But the buses still stop at the junction!]
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When I leave the Connemara to walk round to Eunice’s office, I am leaving a place where a room and breakfast cost $130 a night: that is 8000 rupees a day. The official poverty line in India is about 60 cents a day, so what I spend on a night in the hotel could support 216 people. I find this quite difficult to imagine.

Anyway, on leaving the hotel, I first see the auto-rickshaw drivers waiting by the gate (they’re not allowed into the hotel grounds). They don’t try to persuade me to use their services any more, as I do this walk every day. If I do want to do a trip, I try to use Navin, who is a good driver and has a good rickshaw. He lives with his family in a slum replacement property by the river, measuring 10 x 15 feet. One door and no windows, and I don’t know how many people live in it.

Then comes the first stretch of “pavement” up to the corner. I put it in inverted commas, since it is really only earth and broken slabs. There is a useful electricity junction box here – useful as a place behind which the men can go for a pee (although it is not exactly private, and I don’t know what the reaction would be if I went for a pee there). There is also the first of the beggars, a guy with withered legs who has a hand-pedalled cart to get around on. Two lads of about 7 and 10 work here with a hand pump, inflating bike tyres for a small charge.

Approaching the corner there are some stalls which conveniently block the pavement and force pedestrians into the road. We have:

  1. a fast food stall, serving water, tea and coffee; curry and rice (and pretty good it looks)
  2. a stall from which you can phone and fax (international too)
  3. a flower stall
  4. a woman with a machine which crushes sugar cane to make juice
  5. a cobbler
  6. a guy who appears to cut up inner tubes, for some mysterious purpose
  7. a book seller.

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Towering above these are the advertising hoardings for which India is famous. These are mainly made of tin sheets tacked to flimsy wooden or bamboo poles, and hand painted, even down to extremely accurate trademarks. Camel trousers are on one, and Arrow shirts on another. Most days there are some guys clinging onto the poles with one hand while painting with the other. There are certainly no safety harnesses. These hoardings are perhaps only 30 feet above the pavement, but some in the centre of town are about 120 feet up.

On the corner, which is railed off for safety, is the unofficial bus stop where everyone gets off into the middle of the turn left lane, since the official stops are too far away from the junction for convenience. It adds another thrill of excitement to getting off a bus, to add to the thrill of hanging onto the outside since the inside is full. I have seen 10 lads hanging on to one bus doorway with just the toes of one foot in contact with the bottom step.

Next I see the two old men, one who makes belts and the other who mends sandals. They can’t afford a stall, so they squat on the pavement at exactly the right level to inhale the exhaust fumes. They shade themselves with gunny bags tied to the railings behind and stretched forward to loop over one toe.

There is usually a woman with a baby begging here – I am in two minds whether to give, but the advice from Eunice’s staff is not to – and 2 or 3 kids who shout hello and try to shake my hand. They also want rupees.

We hit the entrance to the Spencer Plaza next, a multi-storey fully air-conditioned shopping centre. Only cars are allowed in the parking, so the rickshaws are forced to park illegally outside on the road, adding to the congestion. Spencers is popular in Chennai because of the a/c, but it is claustrophobic inside, full of little stalls, and I was glad not to have been there the other day when FoodWorld caught fire.

This is the main road of Chennai, so some big offices come next, each with its pavement resident: the man who sells lottery tickets, the woman who sells fresh coconuts, the two elderly cripples outside the shop which sells fridges, more books and belts, a guy who appear to sell plastic netting which I think is for storing fruit in.

The exciting part of the walk, where the pulse rate goes up, is where the pavement disappears for 50 yards. Pedestrians are the lowest form of life, whatever their skin colour, but just here there are not many places to jump to, as there is a high wall along the road. At least going to Eunice’s office I can see what is coming and squeeze in – coming back, I need eyes in the back of my head.

Just where the pavement restarts you get a part you don’t want to use. I am no electrical expert, but I feel somehow that cables sheathed in metal which is peeling off should be safely underground and not poking out of the ground. I tiptoe amongst them, but in the rainy season it must be interesting just here.

Across the entrance to the garage forecourt I stop and start, as the cars and rickshaws wheel in at full speed from the main road and I am expected to know which point they are aiming at. The same is true of the two streets whose entrances I cross here, where vehicles coming in and out do not stop for people. I have had cars nudging my legs before now.

I am approaching the lane to the office now, and only have to detour round another informal toilet (behind another junction box – I am glad I don’t work for the electricity board) and sidestep another beggar, before I can turn in. I have been ignored by most people, stared at by some, importuned by about 6, and that’s life on this bit of street.

Gingee

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It is the long school holidays and Hubert recently took his family down to Gingee for the day. This is a historic site a couple of hours drive south of Chennai, and is pronounced “Shinji”. Getting there from Pondicherry is even easier, but despite its attractions few westerners ever visit – perhaps this is because it does not fit into a standard touring programme.

Gingee needs a full day, and the challenge is to get there as it opens and do the hill-top sites before midday; you can then picnic under the trees at the foot of the hill and have a siesta through the worst of the heat before finishing off with the tanks and temples.

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For Gingee is a royal site, constructed around three isolated hills of tumbled rock. Stone stairs take you up each hill, through gateways and a series of encircling walls, to the summit from which a stunning view opens out of the plains: and from there you see the strategic nature of the place, guarding a key route from the plataeu to the plains. The stonework is particularly fine in the way in which it is buttressed into the huge boulders, leaving little or no room for invaders to clamber up.

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It was Vijayanagara who developed Gingee into a strategic outpost from the 15th century, but like all South India forts it changed hands many times, ending up with the East India Company forces in 1762. By the end of the 18th century it has lost its value and was abandoned.

The Archaeological Survey have been busy in Gingee for years and are gradually bringing back to life the massive granaries, the elephant tank (with a ramp down which the elephants could walk into the water), a possible royal residence, a mosque and several temples.