30 January 2008

Tibet in South India

The brilliant red of the Tibetan monk’s robe and his shaved head caught my eye as he sped along on a motorcycle. A little further along I saw another Tibetan monk chatting on a mobile phone. Then two more buying fruit in the market. I was on my way to Madikeri, Coorg and was passing through Kushalnagar where a Tibetan settlement is located nearby in Bylakuppe.

There are over 35 Tibetan settlements located throughout India which were established in the 1960s when the Indian government offered land to Tibetan refugees fleeing the Chinese occupation. Dharamsala in the North Indian state of Himachal Pradesh is the best known settlement because that’s where the Dalai Lama resides and has established a government-in-exile. However the largest number of exiled Tibetans are found here in the South Indian state of Karnataka, where 50,000 live and work in five settlements spread across the state.

I visited the Namdroling monastery in Bylakuppe and discovered a sprawling settlement covering many acres of agricultural land. There were Tibetan prayer flags flying in the wind and signs asking you to “boycott Chinese goods”.

The monastery is known for it’s magnificent Tibetan-style temple, the Padmasambhava Buddhist Vihara, more commonly known as the Golden Temple. I left my sandals outside and climbed the steps to the entrance. A sign outside said: “Please refrain from running and shouting”. Once inside, a boisterous crowd of Indian schoolchildren dressed in blue uniforms was doing exactly that!

Three elaborately-decorated golden statues dominate the interior, representing Lord Buddha, Guru Rinpoche – considered to be the ‘second Buddha’, and the Buddha of long life. The walls of the temple are covered with exquisite paintings of male and female deities.

Not knowing much about Tibetan Buddhism, this place is somewhere I'd like to come back to and spend some time to learn more about these exiled people and their religion.

23 January 2008

Too young to work

— Photo: K. Pichumani

Heavy duty: The pile of tyres seems an overload even for six hands, a sad spectacle caught on camera near Royapettah. When will the shame of child labour end in our country? © The Hindu, January 6, 2008.

One thing I find difficult to get used to in India is seeing children at work. The young boy who rides a bicycle in the mornings delivering milk can’t be over 13. Same with the kids in shorts and bare feet who clear tables and mop floors in restaurants. The rag pickers who roam the streets and rummage through garbage for plastic and other salvageable items are often children. Children are also employed on farms, in hotels, tea shops, and factories. Many young girls work as maids in private homes.

Today’s paper reported that over 10.5 million children work in India, while 60 million children are neither in work or at school. The law on child labour prohibits the employment of children under 14 in ‘hazardous’ jobs, which includes domestic, hotel and restaurant work, but it is not enforced and children at work, like the image above, continues to be a familiar sight. Not only are they missing out on a childhood and education, but with no one to fend for them, these children are often subject to exploitation and abuse at the hands of their unscrupulous employers.

Many of these children’s parents cannot afford to pay for their schooling, and to make ends meet, they send them to work so that they can bring home a little extra income. The only way to give these children a future is to send them to school. Some employers of domestic staff are willing to pay for the schooling of their employees’ children. There are also many NGOs working to eradicate child labour by putting working children in school and offering support to families so that their children can stay in school. Some of these organisations include the Lovedale Foundation, the MV Foundation and the Parikrma Foundation, and there are many others. The cost of sending a child to school for a year is 7090 rupees (123 EUR / 185 CAD / 179 USD). For many of us, this is a small price to pay for the future of a child, a family, a country.

But it’s only through enforcement of the child labour law, responsibility being taken on the part of employers to respect the rights of children, as well as the responsibility of the government to support education for the underprivileged that the ‘sad spectacle’ pictured above will become a less familiar sight.

15 January 2008

Happy Sankranti!

Today is the holiday of Sanskranti, the harvest festival, which is one of the most important festivals in South India. In Tamil Nadu, this festival is called Pongal and lasts for four days. Here in Karnataka, only today is a holiday, though the festival will also stretch on for a few more days.

This is a special time to celebrate the new harvest and honour animals which work the fields, like cattle. Cows and bullocks are decorated with flower garlands and their horns are painted in bright colours. Houses are given a good cleaning and old, useless things are discarded in order to bring in the new. Families get together and sweets are shared.

The festival was announced with the usual street processions, drumming and loud music. Long striped stalks of sugar cane are sold on street corners. This morning my neighbours' doorsteps are decorated with kolams which are much more elaborate and colourful than usual. Here you can see some of them:

11 January 2008

Raji's kitchen

I just got back from spending another week in Chennai. In the mornings, before going to the Music Academy for the Dance Festival, Raji would give me a cooking lesson. I learned how to make tomato rice, lemon rice, rava upma, coconut chutney, tomato chutney, potato masala, vegetables with coconut, and dhal.

I like Raji's kitchen; it's a typical South Indian kitchen, neat and functional:

03 January 2008

Photo essay: Coorg

One of the things I love about India is its diverse landscapes and people. Coorg (also known as Kodagu) is one of those places that feels like a world apart.

This is a hilly region about 200 kilometres south-west of Bangalore full of rolling hills, coffee plantations, forests and fresh air. I could have sworn the sweet, fresh air carried a hint of coffee and spices!

During a hike through a coffee plantation, I paused to snap a picture of rice paddies after the harvest.

Abbi Falls is one of the major tourist attractions.

I met these local schoolgirls on the top of Brahmagiri Hill, which is at the source of the river Cauvery, one of India's seven sacred rivers. (The third girl insisted on hiding behind her friends while keeping an affectionate hand posed on each of them.)

Coorg's inhabitants, the Kodavas, are also quite unique and their origins are not clear. Their language is a mix of three South Indian languages (Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam) and many aspects of their culture are very distinctive. I noticed that women wear their saris in a very different way: draped across the chest and then pinned to the right shoulder (instead of across the left shoulder) with the pleats worn in the back (and not the front). Married women wear headscarves. Men traditionally wear turbans and black tunics with red sashes, and a dagger tucked in at the waist.

Kodavas do not follow a religion per se but worship their ancestors (see photo above) and their weapons which are celebrated during an annual festival.

We stayed in a homestay with a young Kodava couple in their charming house. After having studied and worked in Bangalore, they have now settled in their home region of Coorg where they run their guesthouse and manage their family's coffee plantation. It was a good way to learn about the local culture and taste homemade Kodava cuisine.

01 January 2008

Happy New Year!

I took this picture this morning in Madikeri, Coorg. More pictures of Coorg to come soon. In the meantime I wish everyone a very happy and healthy 2008!