Drums beating, cymbals crashing, lamp glowing, makeup shining, eyes glaring, face twitching, mouth gurning, hands undulating, feet stamping, costumes spinning, jewellery glinting, brow sweating, rhythm escalating. Welcome to the world of Kathakali, Keralan ritualised dance-drama with little unchanged over the last 1,500 years. Originally performed in the 16th century in temples, palaces and at religious festivals, the sacred dance-drama tells stories of Hindu mythology and the lives of the Gods.
The venue was Trivandrum’s striking Kanakakunnu Palace, surrounded by lush gardens, with wooden echoing flooring, gold-patterned walls, quaint balconies, luxurious chandeliers and colonial-style ceiling fans.
Always performed at night, Kathakali is enacted in front of a traditional kalivilakku butter lamp. The musicians assembled on stage; first 2 drummers, one with a horizontal drum strung around their waist and one upright. They were joined by two men on vocals and percussion, one with small symbols and one with a wooden rattle-like instrument. A loud narrator introduced the story, the Hindu epic of Ramayana, and the audience fell silent in anticipation.
Rama burst onto stage, luxuriant yellow satin skirt, purple velour top, and a silver-tiered headdress. His face was thick with bright green, lurid paint and his eyes glowed red and glared deeply into the captivated gaze of the audience. Dancers paraded down the audience aisle as the second act began, with 2 additional drummers increasing the volume and rhythm of the musical accompaniment.
The words of the singing vocalists behind are translated into actions by the soundless performers through a series of poses, bodily positions, facial expressions and sign language.
A small man with a big, bushy black beard and moustache leaps on to the stage, furious at Rama breaking Shiva’s bow. The singing paused as he began dancing angrily to frenetic drumming, Clenching his fists, he repeatedly and energetically jumped up and down, eyes and eyebrows twitching frantically whilst waving his red and gold tomahawk-style axe. He repetitively brandished his silver-tipped finger in accusation at Rama, who bows with hands together at every denunciation.
Periods of singing are interspersed with interludes of rapid drumming, with the drummers becoming faster and sweatier. The bearded character (clearly very pissed off about that bow still) is passionately expressive, constantly gesticulating and signing with his hands, eyes staring and intense facial expressions. The movements of his hands and fingers are detailed and intricate, known as ‘mudra’ these movements allow the silent actors to convey the story. The music gains momentum and volume to accompany escalating dancing and foot stamping. Just as you thought it was winding down, again he would begin stomping and spinning around.
Rama takes his, more sedate, turn for dancing, ignored by the bearded man who covers his ears. He responds by raising his axe towards Rama in a frenzy of drumming and hopping round the stage, beating his chest and forehead and preening his impressive moustache forcefully.
After two hours of intense drumming, singing, stomping and staring the performance reached its tinnitus-inducing peak. Rama and the bearded man dance together, passionately building up to a fight. A final tussle over the bow and suddenly Rama is recognised as a reincarnation of Vishnu which has an immediate calming effect on the angry bearded man who turns from violence to worship and embraces Rama.
In the humid, sticky Keralan evening I don’t know how the thick face-paint didn’t melt off but it stayed as still and perfect as the faces of the actors wearing it. Over two hours of one of the most intense and passionate performances I have ever seen left you feeling exhausted and wondering how the audience felt after the traditional all-night-long plays, let alone the actors and musicians with their unwavering stamina and intense concentration. A magical experience and the perfect finale to our enchanting time in the state of Kerala.
Auto rickshaws, tuk-tuks or simply just ‘autos’ are everywhere in India! It’s not known how many there are but in some towns and cities the number is seemingly so disproportionate to the amount of customers that the rickshaw stands are often overflowing with hundreds of empty autos awaiting their next fare.
For many Indians being an auto driver is a good honest job, although with a new auto costing about £1800 we couldn’t fathom how it was a viable career considering the competition for just one 20p fare! We met numerous rickshaw drivers who lived by the meter, offered an amazing service and were truly happy to hear about why we were in India! To encourage meter use we always tipped these guys generously. The story was very different in Delhi and the other tourist hotspots where walking down the street actually becomes a tedious task as countless autos cruise past hawking for trade. As a tourist you are targeted and hounded and after bartering with at least 5 or 6 drivers you will still end up paying about 4 times the meter price (which they will never use).
For some drivers their auto is home from home, you will frequently see drivers asleep across the back seat and eating meals. Most autos are black and yellow or green and yellow, yet despite their uniformity there is still room for personality. Many drivers customise their ‘Tuk-Tuk’ by adding personal modifications, custom paint jobs, chrome accessories, sticker portraits of their favourite Bollywood stars and huge soundsystems.
Riding in one is akin to taking a jaunt on a ghost train, the scare factor is certainly equal! The auto can turn on a dime, you are open to the sights, sounds and smells of the city and you could be hit in the face at anytime by anything! Amongst the sea of green and yellow the autos tussle for space with just inches to spare. Inside space is at a premium and you certainly feel like sardines in a can. Typically an auto can carry 4 people, on one occasion we witnessed 14 people riding on one rickshaw!
India. It’s the ‘marmite’ of overlanders; you love it or hate it. With the exception of a huddle of vehicles in Goa, we saw very few overlanders and the common consensus was to transit fairly quickly between Iran, Pakistan or China and Southeast Asia.
For us, we love India, but at times we also loved to hate this colourful, crazy and chaotic country with cultural differences as wide as the Ganges. It’s a nation with the biggest extremes we’ve ever encountered, a rollercoaster of adventures, sights, smells and sounds. As an overview, we think these are some of the biggest factors, both positive and negative, when considering whether to overland in India.
Roads and Driving
It’s all about the horn. Remember the simple rule that every road user only looks forward, therefore you need to use the horn every time you pass a pedestrian, ‘2 wheeler’, car, truck, tractor, rickshaw, bus, ox cart or pilgrim procession. Apart from cows. Cows take no notice of anything and by default have priority owing to stubbornness and sacredness. The road-worthiness of most vehicles are a hazard; bald tyres, overloaded pickups, entire families wedged on underpowered scooters and trucks painted so elaborately they obscure the drivers peripheral vision. Take your time and assume every person, vehicle and animal may stop, swerve or pull-out without warning. Bus drivers with tight schedules, particularly in Kerala, are notoriously dangerous drivers and will overtake mercilessly, forcing oncoming traffic off the road- give them a wide berth.
Road surface conditions are generally OK, it’s the turmoil of traffic which can cause problems. Most roads are wide enough for 2 lanes of all vehicles but factor in street stalls, parked tuk-tuks, makeshift shelters, kids playing and dogs sleeping and often you’re left with just enough room to squeeze a slim camel through. The main highways crossing the country are excellent, they are monotonous toll roads but worth every rupee if you want to gain some ground quickly. Speed bumps are everywhere but unpainted and unsigned; expect many “Ooooooff’s” as you hit them without warning.
When you do have the luxury of dual carriageway, expect other drivers to use the wrong side of the road- it’s not uncommon to have a scooter or tractor coming towards you in the overtaking lane. It’s an unofficial global overlanding rule that night driving is avoided, but in India this really is essential as very few people use lights, hazards in the road are numerous 24 hours a day and there is hardly any street lighting.
One of the biggest attractions in overlanding is wild camping but unfortunately this is extremely difficult in India owing simply to a huge population, lack of accessible wild places and curiosity (sometimes suspicion) of locals. Other people we met had camped, only to be woken by the police and moved on to a ‘safe’ place (hotel or area near the station). India’s stunning National Parks are off-limits for camping, mostly vehicle access is strictly by park Jeep and when roads do cross these magnificent landscapes the authority-loving rangers are on your tail in minutes if you as much as stop for a sarnie. Park periphery’s are worth checking out- we managed a few stealthy sleeps on the quiet boundaries of reserves.
We did manage to find some wild camp spots, far easier in the less populated states of Gujarat and Rajasthan and in the North-eastern states, but it takes some hunting. Often we would find a spot, go for dinner, then come back and pop the tent when it was dark, leaving early in the morning. This keeps your budget down but is not the most relaxing camping style. Many times we asked guesthouses with gardens if we could camp there, with the benefit of both security and access to an outside toilet/washroom and always for a small or no cost. Truckstops were OK for the end of a long day if travelling on highways, with the bonus of a roadside restaurant and basic facilities. Not the quietest night’s sleep but we had no problems. Occasionally hotels are necessary, we were paying around £6-10 a night which is not super cheap but they had safe parking, Wi-Fi (sometimes working) and all-important showers.
Scamming and Cheating
It’s the tourist destination’s disease, if somewhere is frequented by foreigners in India, the hassle you will get multiplies dramatically. In towns and villages off the ‘trail’ you will pay the rest as everyone else but in areas of unofficial ‘tourist tax’ it can become arduous when faced with deliberate over-charging, made-up fees, service price increases and blatant asking for money.
We found that karma always brought a balance, for all the aggressive Tuk-tuk drivers, light-fingered shopkeepers, change-ignorers and price inventors were so many genuine, wonderful people who wanted nothing more than to chat to visitors to their country. We were invited for meals, cups of tea, people let us camp in their gardens and land, we were guests at weddings, given discounts and gifts for no reason other than people were fascinated by our travels. One petrol station owner in Manipur even filled the car with Diesel as a present and a hotel owner in Gujarat gave us unlimited free food and drink for our entire stay. Deep breaths, roll your eyes at yet another attempted scam and focus on the truly amazing generosity and welcome of the majority of Indian people- we rarely experience hospitality to strangers like that in the west.
Even after a long time on the road, the cultural differences coming to India can hit you like a soggy Paratha to the face so let’s deal briefly with the ones that us foreigners struggle most with.
Personal Space - Stop the car for more than a couple of minutes and people will be staring, hands cupped, through your window, opening doors and crowding around you and your vehicle. Although only simple curiosity, weeks and months of this can become suffocating and exhausting, especially when people are just staring constantly and not engaging. For those people that greet and chat to us, we are the happy ‘thumbs-up-posing-foreigners’ in literally thousands of photos and selfies (some holding reluctant Indian babies). Privacy is rare so al fresco cooking, relaxing, washing and ‘bathroom activities’ become extremely tricky.
Rubbish - There’s no escaping the fact that India is simply one of the dirtiest countries; poor waste collection and management services plus a vast population mean streets everywhere are littered, rivers are polluted, beaches are filthy and wherever you stop you seem to be stepping over debris and refuse of some sort. It’s an enormous problem for visitors and locals and one which is difficult to adjust to.
Bureaucracy - India loves archaic paperwork, reams of it, complete with a multitude of signatures and rubber stamps for everything. Give a man a uniform and a whistle and he will use it with vigour. The endless rules and regulations can become draining, whistles being blown for parking a metre too far to the left to pointing your camera too far to the right. Corruption is rife and dealing with any authority a painful test of patience of Dalai Llama-like levels. Console yourself with the fact you only have to endure with this infuriating bureaucracy temporarily, unlike poor Indian citizens who have to deal with this every day.
We Say Yes!
But the culture is exactly why you should adventure the highways and byways of India! Where else in the world would you be stuck in a traffic jam caused by pilgrims rolling themselves along the road, pass groups of wild Elephants, see cows with more decorations than a Christmas tree and visit multi-coloured, flashing fairy light-covered temples where thousands of rats are worshipped. Food is incredible, inexpensive and diverse (once your stomach has ‘adjusted’) and people and customs change enormously with each distinct state. Temples, palaces, forts, colonial architecture. Wildlife is fantastic and landscape varies from the mighty Himalaya Mountains, dense jungle, pine forest and rolling desert dunes to idyllic palm-fringed beaches, wide rivers, vivid green rice paddies and rolling tea plantation hills.
Despite the challenges, overlanding is a great way to see the real India, to get off the backpacker-beaten track and experience a country and culture like no other on earth. One thing’s for certain, there is never a dull moment and no other country has left us with such beautifully bizarre memories, even after over 4 months in the country we were still witnessing things on a daily basis which made our jaws drop.
India is a spiritually diverse country with 6 separate religions vying for the high percentages: by far though Hinduism has the majority share with 80% of the population being practicing Hindus.
Hinduism is an incredibly complex religion of which I’m not about to try and explain. One aspect that we found fascinating during our time in India was the extent of the religious devotion through acts of offerings, commitment and pilgrimage by Indians and Westerners!
Pilgrimages and festivals are common in India and we were lucky enough to witness several.
Unexpectedly in Kerala, we bumped into a procession of men in a trance like state hanging from meat hooks on moving vehicles! OH! That’ll be the Thaipusam Festival!
Thaipusam is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly by the Tamil community on the full moon in January/February. Devotees prepare for the celebration by cleansing themselves through prayer and fasting for approximately 48 days before Thaipusam. On the day of the festival, devotees undertake a pilgrimage along a set route while engaging in various acts of devotion, notably mortification of the flesh by piercing the skin, tongue or cheeks with skewers. It was pretty horrific. The procession starts with the village youngsters who have up to 40 little bells hanging from their chests and backs from fishing hooks. As the boys approach puberty they have skewers pierced through their cheeks and arms. When they reach manhood they are themselves hanging like Christmas decorations from trucks!
As we headed south through Goa, Karnataka and Kerala we witnessed hundreds of elaborately, kitschy decorated jeeps packed with sweaty pilgrims. After a little investigation we discovered they were all heading for Sabarimala. The Hindu Pilgrimage site is located on a hilltop in a dense forest. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, with an estimated 100 million devotees attending every year. Traditionally these pilgrimages would have been made on foot now Hindu devotees spend a lot of money with tour operators to carry them across the country to attend!
Indian festivals, temples and pilgrimages are big business in India. Every temple has a huge notice board (a bit like a takeaway menu) with the price list for offerings and ‘puja’ rituals offered by priests; some larger temples even have a computerised payment system. In a country where the average daily wage is less than £2 it was staggering to see the amount of revenue generated by Shiva and Co. through fire waving and sweet offering!
The Rolling Saint
On the roads in India you can witness anything! So it came as no surprise to see a man rolling down one of the countries motorways. Mohan Das aka Lotan Baba or ‘The Rolling Saint’ is an Indian holy man who is promoting peace by rolling his body along the ground when he travels, sometimes whilst smoking.
With his unique approach to overlanding he’s covered a whooping 30,000km and even tried to cross the notorious India/Pakistan border where he was stopped and told he needed a passport and visa like everybody else!
Admittedly he is a pretty special guy, he once undertook penance for 7 years by standing in one place and eating grass.
Ardh Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage where Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. The Kumbh Mela and the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela are held periodically on rotation at four sites: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. The festival is held at each site every 12 years, with a half festival every 6 years. Bathing in sacred rivers is considered to cleanse a person of all sins… The estimated attendance over the Kumbh Mela is approximately 120 million people – that’s a lot of sinners!
The main festival site is considered to be in Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganges. We caught the tail end of the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and got to experience the full extent of how many people felt they needed their sins cleansed!
Just 20km north of Haridwar lies Rishikesh. In February 1968, the Beatles arrived here in North India, also known as “The Valley of the Saints” at the foothills of the Himalayas to study Transcendental Meditation. Rishikesh is roughly 7000km away from Bangor in North Wales, which is where the Beatles first attended a seminar by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
Being a huge music fan I was excited at the prospect of visiting Rishikesh and experiencing the place where the Beatles had one of their most productive times. A huge chunk of “the White Album” was written at the Ashram and whilst there I enjoyed learning about the context in which the songs were written. With fresh ears I listened again and again and read new meanings into many of the songs I had taken for granted.
I knew that the Beatles had shared their class with Donovan, Jane Asher, Marianne Faithfull, Flautist Paul Horn, Mike Love of the Beach Boys and with Mia Farrow along with her sister Prudence. The song Dear Prudence, composed by Lennon using a guitar picking technique taught by Donovan, was intended to lure Prudence Farrow out of her three week intense meditation!
It’s no secret that the Beatles time in India ended in controversy due to allegations of unfair business negotiations, allegations of sexual impropriety and drug use; the latter causing great tension between the Maharishi and the Beatles!
Western Devotees, Spiritualists and Yoga Disciples
The Beatles had travelled 7000km to India on a pilgrimage of sorts to ‘find themselves’, possibly with drugs, possibly with Transcendental Meditation, after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. In 2016 Westerners are still heading east in search of answers, they are easy to spot in Rishikesh despite dressing like the locals!
But surely Hinduism requires a life of dedication, not just a two-week holiday and a pair of white cotton trousers, to begin to understand the complexities of the numerous gods and deities, it is an incredibly tough religion to get your head around after all? An observation proven to us when we spotted a clearly confused western couple in Rishikesh who were taking part in a Hindu ceremony and drinking water from the Ganges who were then later spotted in a shop purchasing Tibetan Buddhist Thangka’s wearing Islamic style headdress’.
Emma: Do you want to go to Auroville?
Me: Sounds like a Lars von Trier movie!
On reflection after visiting Auroville and digging a little deeper it seems my nerdy film director remark was not too far from the truth. The idiosyncrasies of life in the microcosm of Auroville have many parallels with several of Lars von Trier’s movies.
Auroville is an experiment in the making - a “universal township” started in the late 1960’s to realise “human unity” for a population of up to 50,000 people from around the world.
Situated near Pondicherry in south-east India the township is now home to 2,345 people coming from 50 nationalities all working together towards peace, sincerity and truth; creating the ideal society beyond all social, political and religious conviction with an emphasis on education, self sustainability and creativity.
It’s a proposed utopia here on planet earth where the emphasis is less about capitalism and more about socialism. In Auroville money is no longer the “sovereign lord”, material wealth and social standing play no role with the focus being placed on individual worth: what you can offer as a human being.
Auroville, or the ‘City of Dawn’, was founded in 1968 by ‘The Mother’, whose image is unnervingly plastered on nearly every home, building, and public space around Auroville. She was inspired by her relationship with Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher and yoga guru and in 1968 announced her 4-point Charter laying the foundations for her vision of “integral living”.
Now this is all starting to sound a little culty* and not to dissimilar to the synopsis of Lars von Trier’s movie ‘The Idiots’ where a group of perfectly intelligent young people decide to react to society's cult of an aimless, non-creative and non-responsible form of intelligence by living together in an alternative community. The film focuses on a new recruit, a lost soul, who is introduced to their megalomaniac leader. The Auroville website states “One lives in Auroville in order to be free from moral and social conventions”. In ‘The Idiots’ the group’s main activity is going out into the world of "normal" people and pretending to be mentally retarded! The Idiots view themselves with a self-righteous air of confidence that elevates them above “normal” people. They belong to something special and are protective of the group in fear of outside influences.
Auroville has it’s own printing press and in one of the many gift shops that visitors can access you can purchase many books about the Guru’s philosophy along with publications written by the residents. The cities Outreach Media Centre, an Orwellian-esq committee established to monitor press about Auroville, keeps a close eye on what is published about the community by its own press and certainly by outsiders.
A model in the visitors centre demonstrates how the town, designed by architect Roger Anger, will spiral out like a universe from the central Matrimandir, the ‘soul of the city’ through several planned zones with names seemingly inspired by ‘The Crystal Maze’: Industrial Zone, Residential Zone, International Zone, Cultural Zone and Green Belt.
Sadly the current reality doesn’t look much like the model with the exception of its centrepiece! The Matrimandir, a large golden sphere, is situated in a huge open area called 'Peace', from where the township radiates outwards. It’s a place “for trying to find one's consciousness” and not for a frenzied attempt at acquiring gold notes like in the Crystal Maze. The Inner Chamber in the upper hemisphere of the Matrimandir is akin to the set of a sci-fi version of an Indiana Jones movie, completely white, with white marble walls and deep, white carpeting. In the centre sits a pure crystal-glass globe which permeates a ray of electronically guided sunlight that falls on it through an opening at the apex of the sphere. The inner chamber is the heart of the city, but unlike the churches and temples of the past this space is devoid of images, organised meditations, flowers, incense, religion or religious forms. As an Aurovilian this space is about YOU and for YOU… but not your ego!
The gardens surrounding the Matrimandir are manicured and in stark contrast to the rest of India. The garden is divided into 12 parks each named after attributes we should all strive for "Harmony", "Bliss" and “Perfection" to name a few.
Ironically, the immaculate gardens are cared for by lesser-educated Indian workers from outside Auroville, working on a standard salary. They are not the only outside ‘help’; Auroville employs over 5000 villagers as cleaners, watchmen, masons, drivers, waiters and a whole host of other people generally in less-skilled, labour-intensive positions.
This is starting to sound a little neo-colonial now, where’s the Raj?
Well Auroville claims that where possible, when a clerical, supervisory or managerial position cannot be filled by an Aurovilian, it places a well-qualified local person in that position. Local people freely approach Auroville for work and the town does offer good rates of pay, great working conditions, pensions schemes and a whole host of other benefits.
Unfortunately, illiterate or unskilled people can only be employed in jobs they are capable of performing. As far as I could tell there are no programs in place to improve education amongst the employed locals despite Auroville doing practical work to improve the quality of life in the surrounding villages. It is true however that Auroville’s location has indeed brought a huge income to the surrounding area.
For ‘foreigners’ living in Auroville work is not a way to earn a living but a way to express yourself and to develop skills which benefit the community as a whole. Artists and writers are welcomed with open arms, and the arts are accessible to all. Obviously a place like this attracts humans of good will with sincere aspirations, so how do I sign up?
Well there is a waiting list to become an Aurovilian because of an apparent housing shortage (probably due to a disproportionate amount of yoga instructors to builders). The lengthy two-year application process requires you to prove you are dedicated to ‘the cause’. You must work for free as a contribution to Auroville and, from what I’ve read on the internet, you are not allowed to leave for two years! In the plot to Lars von Trier’s ‘Dogville’ Nicole Kidman’s character is reluctantly accepted into a small Colorado town. In exchange, she agrees to work for them. She finds out that their support has a price and the town's sense of goodness takes a sinister turn, as her freedom becomes a workload and treatment akin to that of a slave… That’s unlikely to happen in Auroville! After your two-year probation period you are asked to stand before a small group that reviews applications and ultimately decides if you can become an Aurovilian.
So is it still possible to live in 2016 using the ideals of hippies from 1968?
Some people move to Auroville to escape while others are clearly looking for answers, for some though I’m pretty sure it has become just something ‘cool’ to do. The town didn’t feel as ‘hippie’ as I was expecting, the gift shops and cafes had an air of wealthy East Dulwich about them and we spotted countless cool-looking 30-somethings eating overpriced organic salads. Sadly, I think moving to Auroville has possibly become the latest ‘thing’ for wealthy trendy ‘hipster’ families from Europe to do. One local woman told us the town is full of rich Europeans who desert Auroville during the hot summer months, which is not really embracing the spirit of the place!
On paper the dream still sounds inviting, but unfortunately, after nearly 50 years it’s clear that the experiment has exposed some flaws in the original philosophy. Auroville is seemingly a utopia with contradictions; this shouldn’t belittle the concept though. For a place that claims to renounce money, material wealth and politics there sure seemed to be a lot of it going on! History has proven that where there are people there are politics, India is a country bursting with bureaucracy (and corruption) to which Auroville is not immune.
For Auroville to exist it has to work closely with the Indian Government who partially fund the experiment. Under the umbrella of the Auroville foundation exist plenty of working parties and councils: Auroville Foundation, Advisory Council, Working Committee, Auroville Board of Commerce, Auroville Council, Residents Assembly, Executive Council and the Village Liaison Group.
Aurovilles income comes from NGO sponsorship, profits from commercial units within Auroville, from a number of 'Auroville International' centres around the world, from guesthouses, donations and from the Aurovilians themselves.
As an Aurovilian you can still access savings from your country of origin. If you don’t have any savings the community meets all your needs, and provides a cash allowance or 'maintenance' (a monthly sum, just enough to meet your basic needs), which you receive from the commercial unit or community service you work for. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor there is no private ownership of land, housing or business in Auroville as you are constantly investing in the collectively owned land, housing and business. Ultimately the land still belongs to India and Auroville could be evicted at any time!
The cities aim was to become self-sufficient, at present Auroville can only produce adequate amounts of milk and some seasonal fruits. It produces only part of its total rice and grain requirements, and less than 50% of its total fruit and vegetable requirements. Maybe the artists need to spend a little more time out in the fields? Ironically most families in rural India are pretty much self-sufficient.
In Lars von Trier’s movie ‘Dancer in the Dark’, the lead character Selma (played by Bjork), an east European girl (of which there are 44 in Auroville) travels to America with her young son, chasing the ‘American Dream’ she expects it to be like a Hollywood musical only for the story to end tragically. So is there ever trouble in paradise?
Having spoken to several Indians living and working on the periphery of Auroville, the utopian vision occasionally turns sour. Conflicts between locals and Aurovilians (baring in mind a large percentage of Aurovilians are Indian) are frequent. The same typical disagreements arise that would happen in any organised society: bad behaviour, disproportionate workloads, non-payment of monies, etc, etc.
One main factor that agitates the surrounding villages is the sense of ‘us and them’. Seemingly, the residents of Auroville don’t want to share their knowledge with the locals. Again this attitude is not really embracing the spirit of Auroville. It’s easy to understand why though. Being an Aurovilian is something special, if all the surrounding villages operate in the same way; using the same water harvesting techniques, waste management, recycling, etc then Auroville is nothing special and all the westerners who want to move there are essentially just living in rural India and thus losing the superiority that comes with being an Aurovilian. This haughtiness in part possibly stems from this quote I found on Auroville’s website relating to evolution “Ultimately the people here believe they are helping humanity move beyond its present limitations”. If that doesn’t bolster your ego and give you an air of superiority then nothing will. Sadly, the Mother’s vision of a utopia based around spirituality where “One can unite with the Divine only by mastering one’s ego” has now possibly been resigned to the history books.
Auroville may not be perfect, but it is important for a place like this to exist. An alternative formula for a new way to live and think, where balance and harmony with each other and the environment are the focus. Obviously a daring experiment this bold faces enormous challenges and leaves itself open to criticism (as demonstrated above – at least I didn’t mention the suspicious death of an American student!) and after visiting the place it is very easy to be cynical, however as our world grows increasingly more consumerist it is still as a refreshing concept now as it was back in 1968. More people than ever still believe in the dream and want to flock to this, the world’s largest (and growing) existing spiritual utopia.
*As an internationally recognised township project, endorsed by UNESCO and supported by the Government of India Auroville is not operating as a cult!
My hands-down (hands-in!) favourite feed in India was the Thali. These ‘set meals’ were always the best value and represented an assortment of typical, local food of the area, varying enormously between states and regions. Thali’s were always the most popular choice in cafes and restaurants so you were eating the freshest food, albeit often a mystery as to what would appear on the table in front of you. Thalis are incredible value, in Thokkilangadi, Kerala, we paid the equivalent of 45p for a Fish Thali, with as much as you could eat.
The word ‘Thali’ can be translated directly as the Hindi word for ‘plate’ or ‘tray’, on which the set meal is served. The only choice you generally have is Veg, Fish or Non-Veg, with vegetarian being the most common. As everything is prepared and bubbling away in huge pots in the kitchen, your meal is presented in minutes.
The meal is like a colourful, symmetrical, work of art; sometimes the selection of curries and dahls are ladled into small, round, individual, metal bowls, sometimes piled carefully directly onto a round metal tray or banana leaf, occasionally into pre-formed plastic trays. On the side, pickles, chutneys, sauces, salad, salt, fresh chillies, onion and yoghurt raita are carefully placed. Some Thalis include a desert also, a tidy portion of syrupy Gulab Jamun, sweet semolina rice, ice-cream or sticky Jilabi.
If you’re hungry, the Thali is a delight as once you’ve emptied one small bowl, it is re-filled; in busy restaurants men with narrow metal buckets filled with Sambar, Dahl and Curry fly round the floor ladling out top-ups to every table. Cutlery is not an option, locals expertly mix the components of the Thali together with deft fingers- food unanimously tastes better when eaten by hand.
Variations are endless, in the south rice is a more common accompaniment whereas breads feature more heavily in the north. Thali’s reflect the wide-ranging cuisine of the country, coconut-based down south with fish, and creamy, meaty curries in the north, every time is a surprise and a delight with no tough menu decisions to be made.
There is simply no better way to start your day in the South of India than feasting on one of the regions fresh, mouth-watering breakfasts. Roadside, beachside, village, town or city, tiny cafes, restaurants and street stalls churn out simple breakfast staples to a steady flow of hungry morning diners. Varying from a simple shack with a single steaming pan of Idli to a shiny modern canteen with a Dosa list as long as the monster pancakes themselves, breakfast is a meal not to be missed when in the southern states.
Dosas are thin pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter, they can be crispy and plain (Saada Dosa), stuffed with spicy potato curry (Masala Dosa), made with semolina flour (Rava Dosa), a pile of thick and fluffy dosas with lentils (Set Dosa) or white and watery (Neer Dosa). Flat, round, rolled-up, triangular or conical, the Dosa shape is often as diverse as its filling. The same rice flour batter is also used to make Uttapam, a thicker crepe that often has onion or tomato mixed in with the batter.
Ubiquitously served with fresh coconut chutney and Sambar, the chutney is often so fresh we once waited for the guy to climb a nearby palm tree to cut down the coconut to make it. Sambar is a watery, spicy lentil-based vegetable stew which is synonymous with south Indian dishes, dunking your Dosa or Idli into a small metal bowl of piping hot spicy liquid is a standard part of the breakfast routine.
Idli are soft, white, steamed lentil rice cakes, like round fluffy pillows of deliciousness waiting to be dipped into fiery Samba and velvety coconut chutney. Vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from lentil or chickpea Dahl, deep fried so they are fluffy and light on the inside and golden and crispy on the outside. Sometimes served alongside Idli, they are also dipped in the universal Chutney and Sambar.
With plates of Idli or Vada costing as little as the equivalent of 30p and a Dosa around 50p, breakfasts in the south were fast, fresh, inexpensive and utterly delicious, we miss them already!
Only a few kilometres from one of the worlds most visited monuments, The Taj Mahal, lies the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on the peaceful Yamuna River.
The centre houses and cares for 211 Indian sloth bears, all rescued from the horrendous former practice of ‘dancing bears’.
Historically, Indian Sloth bears cubs were stolen from their mothers, their muzzles pierced with a red-hot iron poker and a rope attached through their nose to force them on to their hind legs to ‘dance’; first for Mughal Emperors, then for local crowds and tourists. The bears endured a life of pain and suffering with health problems, cramped cages and poor food.
In 1996, research carried out by the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS revealed 1,200 dancing bears in India. Over the next 12 years, Wildlife SOS achieved the incredible task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 600 bears until the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.
We had a tour around the rescue centre in Agra, where groups of rescued bears roam in large enclosures, each group cared for by dedicated keepers. Their health is continually monitored as years of abuse and malnutrition, plus the physical scars of their nose piercings and canine teeth removal can cause them ongoing problems.
In a sad reminder of their past lives in servitude, their noses still show tears and holes where their ropes were tied and some bears still sway repeatedly, still haunted by years spent in confinement.
A visit to one of the centres two kitchens revealed the enormous scale of feeding over 200 large mammals; huge vats of wheat and millet porridge with honey and milk sat ready to be distributed to the bears for one of their three daily feeds, alongside boiled eggs, fresh fruit and cooked vegetables.
It was amazing to watch these majestic animals, finally free from their lives of painful performance and torture, now able to enjoy social interaction, good food, natural behaviours and a life in peaceful nature.
It’s an incredible success story for conservation and animal welfare in India and demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time by dedicated and passionate individuals Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani and their team. Volunteers from around the world come to the facility to give their time to help feed and care for the bears, as well as raising awareness and much-needed funds for the ongoing work of the organisation.
Despite the trade in dancing bears being over, the threat of poaching of Indian Sloth Bears still remains. We met ‘Elvis’ who was recently confiscated on the border with Nepal on his way to China where there is still a lucrative market in bear ‘parts’ for medicine. Fortunately he was rescued in time and is now in quarantine at the centre where he is doing well.
You can visit the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and even arrange to spend a day with keepers to learn more about their work caring for the bears; http://wildlifesos.org/agra-bear-rescue-facility or follow their fantastic work with wildlife on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia
Not having done much research prior to arriving in Ahmedabad I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the city had four Le Corbusier buildings. With a love of architecture and full of intrigue I had to find out more about why these buildings were here.
In post-independent India of the early 1950’s Le Corbusier had been involved in planning the city of Chandigarh and designing several prominent government buildings. During his time in India he was commissioned by the president of the Mill Owners’ Association to design the organization’s headquarters in Ahmedabad along with 3 other domestic buildings.
The secretary of the Millowners, Surottam Hutheesing also commissioned Le Corbusier to build him a house that showcased his social and economic position and reflected his modernist lifestyle and beliefs. The building symbolized Le Corbusier's domestic architecture whilst integrating the traditional features of Ahmedabad design. However, the plans were sold to fellow millowner, Shyamubhai Shodhan. Despite his different lifestyle and an entirely new site for the project, Shodhan elected to retain the original plans.
Of the four buildings in Ahmedabad the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan are accessible to the public. Despite Villa Shodhan still being a private residence we managed to sneak in and have a look around!
Constructed in 1954, the Mill Owners’ Association Building is considered important as it clearly demonstrates a period of re-evaluation and reassessment for Le Corbusier. This is clearly evident through the drastic changes to his style from the previous decades and glaringly obvious in the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan.
During the period between 1945–1956, Le Corbusier started to incorporate and consider nature more frequently into his designs. The considerations of light, wind, rain and the addition of plants into the buildings in Ahmedabad are clear. Within the Mill Owners’ Association Building a rhombus of sunlight penetrates deep into the concrete structure whilst beautifully sculpted staircases seemingly float between floors. Working in predominately warmer environments Le Corbusier took his cues from traditional Indian architecture emulating large pillared halls and shady areas created by overhanging ledges.
The Mill Owners’ Association Building sits between Ashram Road to the west and the Sabarmati River to the east. Openings on the west of the building are placed diagonally to obstruct views and noise from the street. The introduction of these angled thickened concrete facades and a brise-soleil, incorporated with the use of plants diffuse direct sunlight and prevent the inner areas from becoming too hot whilst still allowing a breeze to pass through. At the rear of the building a cool wind blows from the river through deep reveals and openings that also allow light to enter the lower spaces. Here the apertures frame views to the river below. Up on the parasol of Villa Shodhan there is a roof garden camouflaging the building with its environment.
Le Corbusier’s work during this time took on many influences from the De Stijl movement. The parasol roof and the connectivity between the interior spaces in Villa Shodhan clearly reflect this. The window configurations and the asymmetry of the brise-soleil reflect the key symbols of the De Stijl movement that can be seen in the paintings of Mondrian.
The Mondrian-esq rectilinear plan and grid of the Mill Owners’ Association Building’s exterior stand in stark contrast to the interior spaces. Inside large convex and concave volumes panelled in wood veneer act as lecture halls and meeting places whilst the interplay of harsh concrete shapes toy with ever-changing geometric sunlight that pierces the shade.
Both the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan are both fine examples of mid-century Le Corbusier modernism. These two fascinating and slightly unexpected buildings, in my opinion, are equally as historically important in the history of architecture in India as all the temples we visited!
As we travel overland we often notice quirky idiosyncrasies about the world around us. It’s no mystery that India is unlike any other country and respectively our observations here are quite unique. In Kerala state in particular the Indian definition of ‘cool’ has seemingly manifested itself in the shape of a slightly overweight, smiley, 30-something, moustached - ‘Kerala Man’. The trustworthy Kerala Man ‘look’ is literally plastered everywhere in Kerala and is used to sell all manner of products from movies and diamonds to politics.