30 April 2008

A micro view of Auroville

Classes have been interrupted by the summer holidays so I thought I would go somewhere and do something. My silence lately has been due to the fact that I'm in Auroville keeping busy with some volunteer work.

I took a train to Chennai Central. I know this 5-hour trip well by now. I was still on the train when I got a call from someone speaking hurried Tamil. 'English?' I asked. 'Taxi Pondicherry!' was the response. The taxi I had booked was waiting for me. 'White shirt. Entrance!', he told me before hanging up. When I stepped into the heat and humidity outside Chennai Central I was faced with many white shirts who all wanted my business. 'Taxi Madam?' 'Where do you want to go?' 'Mamallapuram?' 'Pondicherry?' 'Guesthouse, Madam?' 'Auto-rickshaw?' 'Where do you want to go?'

Soon I was in a white Ambassador hurtling past Marina Beach and then we were heading down the East Coast Road towards Pondicherry, with the breeze from the Bay of Bengal coming through the open windows. 3 hours later, after a stop for some coconut water, we took a right turn onto a road that headed towards Auroville. We passed a foreigner on a motorcycle wearing a blue turban and I thought this must be the right place. We passed many other foreigners on motorcycles with their children propped in front on the gas tank, Indian style, or clutching their parents' shoulders from behind.

Auroville is an interesting experiment in international living. It recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, commemorating the day when people from 124 nations mixed soil from each of their countries in a large urn by the banyan tree, giving birth to Auroville. Today 2000 people from 44 nations live here. The idea was to create a self-sustained eco-village. What's amazing is that this land was completely arid 40 years ago with no green cover. It was the pioneers of Auroville who had planted the many trees and shrubs which cover the township today.

It's nice to get away from the city for a while. On my bicycle I pass Tamil villages with women busy drawing water from wells, children playing ball, cows and goats wandering down the road, bullocks pulling a cart loaded down with hay. I'm in India. Then I pass a gate crowned with bougainvillea, with a sign that says 'Boulangerie'. Inside, I find croissants and pains au chocolat. I'm in Europe. Around me people are speaking French, Italian, German, Russian, Tamil... Where am I? Tea stalls rub shoulders with organic food shops. The residential communities are called 'Aspiration', Repos', Verité', 'Recueillement'. Everything closes at 5pm sharp. I'm in another world.

I'm posting a few pictures I've taken here but I realize they don't really reveal what Auroville looks like. That's why I'll call this a 'micro' view of Auroville. Hopefully I can post a more 'macro' view soon.

18 April 2008


After an unusually wet March with pleasant temperatures which were cooler than usual, summer has arrived with a bang! The mercury is rising with each passing day, hovering around the mid-to-upper 30s. The daily power cuts have started again now that fans and air conditioners are working around the clock.

The school holidays have begun and there seems to be a cricket game going on in every street as children are making the most of their time off.

Another sure sign of summer is the arrival of mangoes at the market! Lime juice and sugar cane juice sellers also have long lines of thirsty customers.

At the height of the afternoon the city takes a siesta while everyone sleeps the heat off!

16 April 2008

Circling Arunachala Hill

A few years ago I visited the temple town of Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu. This town is famous for its Shiva temple which is one of the five Shiva temples in South India representing the five elements. Here the element is fire. The temple is at the foot of Arunachala hill, another important landmark, which is considered to be the embodiment of Lord Shiva and therefore sacred. All this auspicious spiritual energy floating around makes Tiruvannamalai an important spiritual centre and home to several ashrams.

I decided to climb the hill for the view over the town. The terrain was quite rocky and involved a lot of climbing over big boulders and slippery rocks which was quite strenuous. I soon found it was easier to climb barefoot. I put my sandals in my bag and continued climbing in my bare feet. Halfway up I stopped to admire the view of the huge temple compound below. Soon I was joined by a family from Australia who were travelling in India for a month. We climbed the rest of the way together.

When we reached the top, the rock was covered with a sticky black substance. I put my sandals back on. These were the remnants of the Karthigai Deepam festival which is celebrated each year on the full moon day in the month of Karthigai (which falls sometime in November or December according to the Tamil calendar). During this festival, a huge lamp is carried to the top of the hill. It’s filled with 3 tonnes of ghee and lit. The flame represents Lord Shiva and can be seen up to 25 kilometres away.

The next day I learned it was a full-moon day which is a special day in Tiruvannamalai. On each full-moon day, people come from the surrounding villages and towns to do a special pilgrimage which involves walking around Arunachala hill. This pilgrimage is considered to bring great spiritual benefits.

During the day it was quite hot but there were already a few people walking along the 14-kilometre road which circles the mountain. By the afternoon there were more and more pilgrims – men and women of all ages and walks of life, some carrying children, others leading older people by the hand – all walking barefoot down the road. The police was busy closing traffic on the busy road.

While I was having my dinner that evening at a roadside eatery I watched as the crowds on the road grew bigger and bigger. I decided to join them. The walk took about 3 and a half hours. There were several shrines along the way that people would stop to pray at. At the end of the walk the crowds dispersed at the big Shiva temple, climbing into buses which would take them back to their homes.

I found this quote about the Arunachala giri valam (circling of the Arunachala hill) here:

Every human being, irrespective of race, religion or nationality MUST do it at least once in his or her lifetime. It doesn't matter if you live ten thousand miles away. You must make the trip to Arunachala just to circle the hill. The spiritual benefits of doing so can NOT be described in words.

04 April 2008

Examination time again

I come across ads like the one above on a regular basis, claiming that a ‘unique and research-based program’ can bring out ‘the genius in your baby’. I remember seeing another in a doctor’s office advertising a similar ‘make-your-baby-a-genius’ program which boasted that your ‘little one will speak five languages and read the newspaper by the time he or she is five’. A friend complains that her 3-year-old brings home homework from playschool!

Needless to say, education is highly valued by Indian parents and they will do all they can to help their children succeed. A friend’s colleague paid 40,000 rupees (636 EUR / 1000 USD) in bribes to get his son accepted to a good school! This says something about parents’ desperation to get their children a good education (as well as something about the state of corruption in this country).

Though the Montessori system focussing on creativity is very popular for pre-school children in India, as soon as children start school they are subject to rote-learning which is the dominant teaching method used in schools here. Independent thinking and creativity are not given much emphasis as examination results, grades and percentages count for everything. Students are pushed to become doctors, lawyers or engineers. The arts are frowned upon. Competition for university places is extremely high.

This being examination time, students are currently sitting for their final exams before the summer break. Many parents take time off work to help their children prepare. Examination time puts an extreme amount of pressure on students and sadly, many decide they cannot cope. In 2006, 5,857 students — 16 a day — committed suicide across the country. Here are only some of the distressing reports I come across in the papers:

This is the one I read this morning:

Bangalore: Tension prevailed in front of S N High School in Jeevan Bima Nagar on Thursday, when angry relatives of an SSLC student who committed suicide protested against the school authorities, holding them responsible for the girl’s death.

The deceased is T R Shanthala (16), student of Visveswaraya School on Airport Road and daughter of Ramesh, a security officer. She hanged herself at her residence in Jeevan Bima Nagar on Tuesday.

Her act came to light after the house owner and neighbours broke open the door to find her hanging from the fan. Her parents were away when the incident happened.

The parents and relatives, who tried to barge inside the school on Thursday morning, alleged that the school authorities did not allow Shanthala to appear for the Kannada exam, since the girl had lost her hall ticket and had only a photocopy.

(The Times of India, 4 April 2008)

BANGALORE: Fearing that he might fail in his examination, a second year PUC student committed suicide by hanging himself at his house in Chickpet police station limits on Wednesday.

The police gave his name as Praveen Kumar (19), a student of The National College in Basavangudi. He was the elder of the three sons of Nagaraj, a goldsmith and a resident of Kilari Road.

According to the police, Kumar hanged himself from the ceiling with a dhoti when he was alone at his second floor house. The incident came to light around 12.30 p.m.

The police said Kumar has left a note in Kannada that he was taking the extreme step as he feared that he might fail in his Mathematics examination, which was held on March 24. He was scared that he had to face humiliation if he failed in the examination. After autopsy at Victoria Hospital, the body was handed over to the family. The Chickpet police have registered a case.

(The Hindu, 27 March 2008)

Bellary: Depressed over poor performance in the ongoing pre-university examinations, an 18-year-old girl committed suicide by setting herself on fire at her house in Satyanarayanpet here on Tuesday.

Rashmi, daughter of a police constable, returned from college after writing her Business Management paper and set herself on fire. Her mother was away when the incident occurred, police said.

She was immediately rushed to a hospital, but succumbed to burn injuries, police added.

(The Times of India, 20 March 2008)

Unlike in the US, it’s not a faulty gun law that’s killing Indian kids. Here, we have another way to kill our children. It’s called examinations! At least six students ended their lives across the country last Thursday. And all the suicides were attributed to examinations.

Two teenagers from Delhi were found hanging from the ceiling at their homes. One could not cope with studies and the other was afraid of an English exam. A final-year student hanged herself in Mumbai — she wasn’t prepared for her economics paper and didn’t want her family to be ashamed of her poor marks. A Class XII student from Surat hanged herself from the fan, as another threw herself before a train in Allahabad. And a Class X student killed herself in Andhra Pradesh after her principal made her stand outside the classroom for not paying the school fee. All these happened on a single day.

But this could be just the tip of the iceberg. While, five students have killed themselves in Mumbai since January, Delhi witnessed six student suicides in the last 10 days. With board exams going on, three students ended their lives in Gujarat and two in Uttar Pradesh.

(The Times of India, 17 March 2008)