A Breath of Fresh Air

Meeting India and its multifaceted diversity, rich culture and universal values provides a glimpse into its glorious past as well as a connect with the young, vibrant and confident new India surging forward

I am just back from a family trip covering South India. It was an enriching and uplifting journey of continuous discovery steeped in history and culture for all of us. We indulged in the varied culinary fare of South India offered to us at our hotels. Our son Tarun delved into an understanding of the Kanada and Malayali alphabet with our guides. By the time we reached Mumbai, he had significantly enriched his vocabulary and was holding a decent conversation in Hindi with our drivers in Mumbai who are all from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar.

Meeting India and its multifaceted diversity, rich culture and universal values is a breath of fresh air. It also provides a glimpse into the glorious past of India as well as a connect with the young, vibrant and confident new India surging forward, despite so many bottlenecks and diverse spanners in the wheel of development and progress. This confident spirit is evidenced in so many fields. The shops and markets have an abundance of locally produced goods at affordable prices and business is good and brisk. Every young seems to have a mobile phone and is very savvy about which useful apps to have.

This new assertiveness was again showcased in the successful launching of a record 104 satellites, 101 of which belong to foreign customers on a single rocket by the remarkable team of scientists at ISRO (the Indian Space Research Organization) this week or the growing presence of Indians at the head of some of the largest multinational companies in the world. No wonder that in mid January, the IMF has despite the fall out of the demonetisation drive by government, still forecast India’s growth rate at a healthy 6.6 % for the fiscal year 2017.

The journey in India was like walking into the footsteps of the Ramayana or the Puranas and the various dynasties that ruled various regions in South India from pre-historic times, namely the Pandyas, the Cholas, the Cheras, the Pallavas, the Chalukyas, the Nayaks, the Rastrakutas or the Hoysalas. It also provided an insight into the footprint of the Portuguese, the Dutch, French and British colonial powers in India.

South India covers the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh (split since June 2014 into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu as well as the union territory of Puducherry. Each of these States has a rich and distinctive culture, language, literature and history, all thriving and growing robustly within the Indian Republic around the proud and common identity of being Indian.

Incredible India

The moment we landed in Chennai, we were instantly immersed in the spirit of Incredible India. We were greeted at the airport with the traditional Namaste/Vanakkam with palms joined together face high, head slightly bowed. This warm welcoming reverence would be continuously repeated throughout our journey in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana, and Mumbai by the hotel management and personnel, the restaurant staff, the doormen, the porters, the drivers who drove us round and the guides as well as the owners and personnel of shops we visited. We and tourists in general reciprocated warmly. There were no handshakes. Everyone basically felt at home.

Incredible India is translated in Hindi into Atulya Bharat which means ‘Incomparable India’. India and its profound philosophy fascinate. The spirit of incredible India also captivates the millions of foreign tourists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Israel, Japan, Australia or Russia, etc., visiting India during the December to February peak season. In fact the majority of the residents at the hotels are foreigners keen to live the Indian experience fully, some blithely donning Indian clothes. During the bare-footed temple visits, they follow the rituals with awe and happily smear their forehead with the tikka. Some humbly also reverently touch the floor of the temples in the Indian tradition. A Kathakali show depicting a scene from Shiv Puran we went to in Cochin in Kerala was attended mostly by foreign tourists. Yoga classes offered as a free service in the hotels and Ayurvedic treatment or massage are all part of the diverse facets of the Indian experience.

Indian culture and traditions are so deeply seated in India that Indians leave their shoes outside churches and enter them bare-footed. Similarly, shoes are left outside while visiting the old Synagogue in Cochin. The Jewish caretaker of the Synagogue who is 94 years old is looked after by two women, a Hindu and a Muslim. These are all potent symbols of incredible India.

India is not the world’s biggest democracy for nothing. People from all walks of life express their views very freely. Speaking in their mother tongue, they are vocal and articulate. These views are very often a far cry from the media take on events. Listening to people from the various states we realized that the common man fully supports the government demonetization drive to get rid of corruption and black money, despite hardships endured as India is largely a cash economy. It also transpired that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is very popular and his style of governance is largely endorsed by the multitude.

People are also supportive of his vision of establishing uniform fiscal measures in the Republic and a common legal framework for all in secular India. Narendra Modi’s swachh (clean) India drive is already having an impact as we found Kerala, Karnataka and Hyderabad quite clean. A ban on plastic has also been decreed. Many told us that although huge funds are available for development in each State, only a fraction of it is used for projects and the improvement of the State.

Chennai has become the Detroit of India as some 30% of the automobile industries in India are based there. These include the manufacture of 16 brands of cars, utility vehicles and motorbikes such as Renault, BMW, Daimler, Yamaha or Royal Enfield. Although Bengaluru is the IT capital of India and a global information technology hub, other cities such as Hyderabad, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata Ahmedabad, Gandhinagar or Delhi have also developed major information technology hubs in India. Travelling across four states we found a large number of new highways, one of the major bottlenecks of India, being built.

Bonding plural India

At the hotels, the hotel staff comprises graduates from the Indian Hotel Management colleges. The hotel personnel come from all over India and showcase its rich diversity and oneness. Indians from the North East States such as Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, Manipur or Meghalaya rub shoulders with local recruits and those from Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Bengal, Bihar or Rajasthan. In pursuit of their career, there is a high mobility of young men and women across India to take job opportunities wherever these are available away from home and become independent. This free mobility of young Indians across the sub-continent bonds the nation. This also results in more Indians speaking several Indian languages apart from their mother tongue, English and Hindi.

When we landed in Chennai, we found Tamil Nadu in turmoil owing to the Supreme Court ban on Jallikattu, a traditional event enacted during the Pongal (Shankranti) celebrations. A particular Indian breed of bull having a large hump on its back is released in the crowd and people try to grab and hold on to the hump as long as possible to showcase their bravery. A seal from the Indus valley civilization and a cave painting found near Madurai depicting this practice dates its origin as early as 400 BC.

Last year, the Supreme Court decided to ban the practice in the light of representations made by animal welfare groups and the heavy toll of deaths and injuries registered each year during Jallikattu. Protests against the Jallikattu ban on the ground that it was a long standing element of popular culture spread across towns and villages throughout Tamil Nadu from Chennai to Puducherry, Thanjavur, Trichy or Madurai. The protests went on for days. Animal welfare groups also held marches in support of the ban.

The confrontation between the opposing groups was held in the best democratic spirit. Whenever, the protest line got out of hand, somebody would raise a hand and things would calm down. Under pressure, the government issued an ordinance to lift the ban. Jallikattu was promptly organized with new injuries and fatalities.

One of the important features of South India is its many temples. Temple building has been a major occupation of the various dynasties that ruled South India. The kings were patrons of arts, culture and literature. The temples are dedicated to the key deities of the Hindu pantheon. They are in fact cities within the various cities, built in accordance with principles of temple architecture defined in the Shilpa Shastras. The temples are among the largest in India and cover huge areas built over decades by successive rulers and dynasties.

For example the Ranganathaswamy temple in Trichy contains 49 shrines, all dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It is considered to be the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world. It covers an area of 156 acres with a perimeter of 4,116 metres making it one of the largest religious complexes in the world. The walls are enclosed by 21 elaborately carved and decorated Gopurams (towers). The temple complex contains seven concentric walls with the shrines placed in the inner sanctum sanctorum of the temple.

In olden times people from across the kingdom were invited to come to the temple complex at the time of religious festivals. The outer concentric spaces were used to house them during the duration of the festival. Food would be freely given to them by the king during the duration of the festival.

Every one of the thousands of pillars, walls and ceilings of the diverse temple complexes in South India are elaborately carved and depict vivid narratives of scenes from the Puranas, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. An accreditated guide will walk you through them.

The archaeological survey of India is doing a wonderful work to locate and excavate new archaeological sites. They are also painstakingly restoring the rich legacy of historical buildings and monuments in India to their previous splendour. The government of India has also initiated a programme of visit of historical sites for secondary school students under the guidance of qualified guides so that from very young Indians take cognizance of their historical heritage and the events which have shaped India through the ages.

Mrinal Roy

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