2013年6月2日 星期日

The last of the Bengal Tigers , South Indian trip 2011

Anne-Cathrin and Dieter were the envy of us all because they sighted a Bengal tiger, the only ones out of a group of more than 30 on the Safari , and they had pictures to prove it .
Tiger pictures courtesy of Anne-Cathrin

After dinner the Jungle Lodge where we stayed scheduled a documentary film "The Truth About Tigers'' by Shekhar Dattatri, a renowned Indian conservation and wildlife filmmaker, to explain to us the sorry plight of the Bengal tigers .Bengal tigers arrived in India approximately 12,000 years ago, but fewer than 1500 are left in the country today. Tigers thrive in an extreme diverse range of habitats and are prolific breeders, all their present problems are man-made .

Tiger hunting was considered a sport during the British Raj , hunting records revealed that between 1875 and 1925, 80,000 tigers were killed and taken as trophy, while an estimated equal number might have died later of their wounds. By the early 1970's, tiger numbers had dropped to about 1300 . At this critical time, Guy Mountfort, an English conservationist and co- founder of World Wide Fund for Nature, spearheaded a fund raising campaign in the UK that collected one million pounds to give as donation to India specifically for setting up and managing tiger reserves. Mountfort succeeded in persuating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to ban tiger hunting in 1970, and in 1972 , ushered in the Wildlife ( Protection) Act, giving legal protection to tigers and many other species of wildlife .The " Project Tiger" program was launched in 1973, and in 1980, Indira Gandhi brought in the Forest Conservation Act. Through these 2 laws, protection of forests and wildlife is enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The Central Government is to provide funding for the operation of these Reserves– salaries to field staff, patrolling vehicles, boats, firearms and wireless equipment and the construction of anti-poaching camps.

Today, there are 39 Tiger Reserves in 17 states, but while India has the strongest wildlife laws of any country, they're extremely poorly enforced. The reality is the State Forest Departments are weak, demoralized, red tape-ridden bureaucracies which were initially set up by the British Raj to exploit India's timber resources, and have had virtually no institutional reforms or modernization for the last 31/2 decades. According to the Indian Government's own admission, at least 18 of the 39 Tiger Reserves are in an extremely precarious state, and as of 2010, only about 8-9 are doing reasonably well .

Wildlife Reserves are frequently in the hands of corrupt officials, who would accommodate mining or timber felling at the behest of Chief Ministers who see forests as a burden and conservation an impediment to development. Unscrupulous officers 'bid' for posting to a wildlife reserve that has received a large budget, then recoups his 'investment' through constructing useless and often destructive "development projects", while vegetation that provides food and cover to animals is cleared in the name of ' weed removal' . In this way vast sums of money meant for nature protection are siphoned off, leading to a perpetual shortage of funds to employ frontline staff. It is estimated that there are over 20,000 field staff vacancies in State Forest Departments across the country because of 'lack of funds'. Most reserves are manned by ageing under- equipped and poorly trained 'jawans', the Forest Guards, who are virtually the only frontline staff against poachers; clad in tattered clothes , they're made to stay in leaky shelters, and left to face the wrath of encroachers armed only with sticks ! Anti-poaching camps, where they even exist, are usually in poor shape, with no wireless equipment, firearms, first aid kits, vehicles or even basic necessities such as clean drinking water. To top it all, field staff, especially 'daily wagers' who are employed as 'watchers' and as assistants to Forest Guards, often don't get paid for months.

True to form the World Bank make an already bad situation worse by funding a huge ill-conceived 'Eco-development' scheme in 1997, ostensibly to wean away indigenous people living around wildlife reserves from depending on forest resources and degrading the forests. With massive amounts of money pumped in and lax monitoring on how it was spent, corruption went through the roof - State Reserve officials became totally preoccupied in building new roads that fragmented already fragile habitats and putting up contraptions that led to irreparable damage to the environment, in the meantime the Reserves were left wide open to poachers and timber smugglers. In a bid to cover-up the systematic trapping of tigers, Government agencies withheld research permits to scientists and NGOs, and falsified data. The poachers meanwhile have become ever more sophisticated, operating with code names, communicating with cell phones, retaining top defense lawyers, and equipping military-styled guns and explosives. Abduction and armed assaults on forest guards and local policemen rose rapidly, turning many Indian forests into killing fields. Terrorism in Tigerland only hit the press when in Oct 1997 a bus-load of tourists was held up at gunpoint by poachers and smugglers on a safari trail at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve ( where we went). A dozen staff and tourists were kidnapped but were fortunately released after a fortnight.

Globally the wildlife crime is second only to narcotics. While the Chief of Army admits " It's common knowledge that there's a revolving door between wildlife traders, dealers of drugs and peddlers of illegal arms " there's little political will to tackle the problem.  Interpol sources say of its 177 member countries, India probably has the worst on the ground protection mechanisms. According to Julio Ribeiro, Chairman of the Maharashtra State Committee of the WWF-India : " It obviously benefits all players to keep the lucrative trade routes open" as the crime syndicates buy off politicians, judges, police chiefs, forest officials and tribal community leaders. I was somewhat surprised that in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption index ranking of 174 countries, India was at 94, I'd have expected it to be much lower. Just to give it a little perspective, the cleanest country then was New Zealand, Somalia came last ; China with its sore record was at 80, while Germany ranked 13, HK at 14 and the US at 19 . 

The loss of habitat and food supply due to the encroachment of villages and clearing out of the tiger's prey base through hunting are the other reasons for the impending tiger extinction. Our planet's in a crisis because of the human population explosion. In the year 1900, the world population was a mere 1.6 billion, today it's 7 billion, projected to be 9.2 billion in 2050 . The huge population expansion and accompanying increase in resources usage undeniable has caused havioc to the ecosystem through global warming, and pollution by chemicals and genetic manipulations. India's population at 1.21 billion means while India occupies 2.4% of the world's land area it has to support 17.5% of the world's population. The high fertility rate at 2.8 means the population clock will tick off more than 50,000 people a day, and in just a few years, India will have more people than all the industrialized countries combined. By 2025 India's projected to be the world's most populous country, surpassing china ( I've always maintained China's One Child Policy for the past 30 years has saved the world ), and would result in increasingly impoverished and sub-standard conditions for growing segments of the Indian population. As of 2007, India ranked 126th on the United Nations' Human Development Index . The massive human population has already taken up space and environment which rightfully belongs to other living creatures, this is why thousands upon thousands of species either have already gone extinct or about to. According to Global Footprint Network, right now the global growth is using 1.5 Earths, one generation is living at 150% of sustainable capacity .Though to be fair, when assessing resources plundering it's not just about the number of people, e.g. at this moment the US uses about 1/3 of all the raw materials consumed each year : less than 1/15th of the world population requires 5 times its " fair share" to maintain its inflated position.

The South India Trip was made up of 2 parts : before the 7 days luxury train journey on board "The Golden Chariot", a few friends and I spent an extra few days to see Chennai, Kanchipuram, Mahabalipuram and Pondichery.

We landed in Chennai at 2 AM, dead tired, were met by Mr Radhakrishnan the assistant manager of the tour agency and promptly driven to the wrong hotel. After a great deal of head shaking and phone calls we were finally deposited at the correct hotel, well past 4 AM. We never saw the poor driver again . Rumour has it, in India people are done away for much less.

Channai, formerly known as Madras in British colonial times, is the capital city of Tamil Nadu , a south Indian state. Roman and Greek traders frequented Tamil country at least since the 1st millennium BC, and under the Chola Empire (from 3rd century BC), tradings with South-East Asia , China and most of the Arab world bloomed until the fall of the kingdom in 1327. The Apostle St Thomas is believed to have arrived in Tamil from the Holy land in 52 AD and preached until he was martyred on St Thomas Mount in 72 AD. After the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, a church was built over the tomb as commemoration, this was later rebuilt with the status of a cathedral by the British in 1893. In 1956, Pope PiusXII raised the church to the status of a Minor Basilica, making it one of the only 3 Basilicas in the world that were built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus, the others are St Peter's in Rome, Italy, and St James's in Santiago, Spain. On February 11, 2006, it was declared a national shrine by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.

All this is very well until we think about why St Thomas was killed .The week I was in Tamil , The Hindu, a Chennai newspaper (in publication since 1878) carried 2 reports on the Graham Staines case . Dr Graham Staines was an Australian Christian missionary who had worked among the tribal poor, specially the leprosy patients, at Baripada since 1965. On the night of 22 January 1999, according to the reports, a mob of about 50 people, armed with axes and other weapons, attacked and then set alight the station wagon where Staines and his children, Phillip ( aged 10) and Timothy ( aged 6), were sleeping and burnt them to death. Some villagers tried to rescue the Staines family but were stopped by the mob, who also prevented the Staines from escaping from the vehicle. In 2003, one Rabindra Kumar Pal (alias Dara Singh), the ring leader of the mob and a teacher of Hindi to the tribal villagers, was sentenced to death by hanging by a special Central Bureau of Investigation court, but in 2005 the Orissa High Court commuted the sentence to life imprisonment . The news report I read was on the Supreme Court upholding the High Court decision because : 1) the crime did not fall under the rarest of rare category so did not justify a death sentence ; 2) the intention was " not to kill but to teach a lesson to Staines about his religious activities" ; 3) "the attackers were provoked by the "corruption of tribal culture" by the missionaries ( Staines among them) , who they claimed fed villagers beef and gave women brassieres and sanitary towels." In its 76-page judgement, the court came out strongly against the practice of conversion.

Religious conversion had always been a horn with the Hindus since the invasion of the Islamic rulers. Local sentiments against Christian Conversions began after the Goa Inquisition which was set up by the Portuguese missionaries (1560 - 1774) to punish Indian Christian converts who opted to go back to their original Hindu or Islamic faith . Anti- Christian feelings intensified during the British colonial era because the British East Indian Company actively financed Evangelical Conversions, sometimes by force. The conversion of a Brahmin student in 1888 sparked severe protests in Chennai by Indian nationalists of the Indian National Congress . Christian conversion was accepted by historians as one of the factors that led to the First Indian War of Independance .

                                      Dara Singh, a hero to the Hindutva

Anti-conversion legislation was enacted in many Princely States even during Colonial times, and after Independence many Indian States have endorsed Anti-Conversion Law, which states anyone who "attempts to convert either directly or otherwise any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means " can be imprisoned and fined. Some States require the convert to produce a legal affidavit 30 days before conversion to confirm s/he's converting by own will - or else face a fine . While Freedom of Religion is supposedly guaranteed by the Indian Constitution, the High Court maintains it must be subjected to the interest of public law and order : " to avoid disturbances to the public order as conversion from one religion to another is reprehensible to the conscience of the community. "

Wheares in the 1980's the concern was over conversion to Islam (after the conversions of an entire Harijan village in Tamil Nadu to Islam in February 1981),conversion to Christianity has been the source of contension since the 1990s , and violence against Christians has escalated dramatically . As Christians seek to improve education and health of the poor, hordes of untouchables and tribes people have converted to escape poverty and deprivation, as well as the caste system. In Orissa,e.g., where tribes people comprises 39% of the population, the Christian population has gone up by 56% between 1991 and 2001 alone, over four times the average population growth. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) claims the anti-conversion law was put there to keep poor and low caste Indians subservient to Hinduism, as while the law prohibits conversion to Christianity, "reconversion" of low caste Hindus is permissible, plus the punishment for converting these groups is harsher than for converting higher caste Hindus. The irony is while the elite and prosperous higher castes are taking full advantage of convent education imparted by the Christian institutions, the backward and destitute are denied access to help for fear of " forced conversion ". The religious fault lines are so ominously threatening that a spokesman of Orissa's Christian community, Dr Swaroopananda Patra, has been given, of all things, a bullet proof jacket by the police to protect himself !


Our stay in Chennai was brief ,and all I can remember of the city were patchy information like :
Channai is a city of statues, there're even gold statues of actors on the main boulevard, probably on account of Kollywood, a major base for movies in Tamil language ;
Madras University's 150 years old but they only started the Medical Faculty in 1975, the fact that today Chennai's the major Health Tourism Center of India is no mean feat ;
Chennai's an industrial as well as I.T. city, but traditionally southern Indians tend to be professionals while northern Indians are traders ; literacy rate of over 90% in Chennai is one of the highest of any Indian cities.
Divorce rate's 10% , pretty good compared with the 50% in HK

Chennai's the gateway to many centers of historical and cultural significance in south India, e.g. the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Mahabalipuram, which boasts of the earliest-known examples of Dravidian architecture (characterized by prominent Buddhist design features)  in India.

Mahabalipuram's a 7th century port city of the Pallavas Dynasty, the name alludes to the Seven Pagodas that stood on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, of which only the Shore Temple survives to this day. It's a monolithic rock-cut, but after being exposed to the elements for 1300 years many of the carvings are worn and eroded . According to an ancient Hindu legend : Prince Hiranyakasipu was a disbeliever of the god Vishnu, unlike his son Prahlada who loved Vishnu. When father and son argued about Vishnu's nature, Prahlada said Vishnu's omnipresent, including in the walls of their home, so Hiranyakasipu kicked a pillar. Vishnu emerged from the pillar in the form of a man with a lion's head, and killed him. Prahlada then became king, and had a son named Bali. It was Bali who founded Mahabalipuram on this site . The Shore Temple is a complex of 3 shrines, 2 dedicated to Shiva and the smallest to Vishnu.

For a long time the story of a large vibrant city which was so beautiful the gods became jealous and sent a flood that swallowed it as well as the six temples in a single day, leaving only the seventh temple standing, was thought to be just a myth. But many modern Tamil fishermen claim to have glimpsed ruins at the bottom of the sea. Then came the 2004 Tsunami. Just before the Tsunami struck the Bay of Bengal, the water off Mahabalipuram's coast pulled back approximately 500 meters.Tourists and locals alike at the beach recalled seeing a long, straight row of large rocks emerge from the water, only to be covered again by the waves as the Tsunami rushed to shore. In April 2005, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the Indian Navy searched the waters off the coast of Mahabalipuram using sonar technology and confirmed the row of large stones to be part of a 6-foot-high (Biswas), 70-meter-long wall (Subramanian). The Tsunami also made some lasting changes to the coastline, uncovering a few previously submerged statues and small structures on the shore, the most famous were a granite lion and a large inscribed stone.The current opinion among archaeologists is that yet another Tsunami destroyed the city in the 13th century .

The Pancha Rathas ( Five Chariots ) are so called because they're arranged in the form of processional chariots. They're rare examples of whole buildings cut from a single pink granite, with ornate exterior and interior. They were named after the famous five Pandava brothers of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, and was built in the late 7th century

Descent of the Ganges or Arjuna's Penance is a 96 feet by 43 feet relief hewn out from granite, it's one of the biggest open-air rock canvases in the world. There're 3 versions to the story behind the relief ;
1) Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and a Mahabalipuram hero, undertakes a penance to obtain a rare weapon against his enemies .
2) The wise king Baghirata performs austerities so that Shiva would order Ganges to descend to Earth to nourish the world , this cosmic event is witnessed by swarming crowd of gods, goddesses, mythical beings, wild and domestic animals .
3) The waters of the Ganges are believed to possess supernatural powers, Baghirata begs Shiva so that Ganga might descend to earth and wash over the ashes of his relatives, releasing them from their sins. In order to break Ganga's fall from Heaven to Earth, she falls onto Shiva's hair, and is divided into many streams by his tresses .

There're eight mandapams( cave Sanctuaries ) in Mahabalipuram , the best known is Krishna Mandapam located behind Arjuna's Penance. It's covered with bas-reliefs depicting the famous story of Krishna as a child saving the villagers from the wrath of Lord Indra. All very beautiful but what caught my eyes were the goats scaling the top of the shrine !

Krishna's Butterball's nearby, it's a massive rock boulder five meters in diameter, balanced on a hill slope at an angle of 45 degrees . It's said that Pallava kings had tried to move this boulder with their elephants but all failed .

Balakrishnan was our guide at Kanchipuram. He's portly, enthusiastic, and had friends all over the place. He's married with 2 children and was in the middle of building a house - which was temporarily on hold because of cash flow issues, which was a mighty incentive to work hard. I gave him a fat tip , told him 2 of the bricks in his house're mine and I reserve visiting rights.

Kanchipuram's one of 7 holy cities in India and an important place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Buddhists. It dates from the early Chola Dynasty in the 2nd century and originally had 1000 temples, of which only 200 are left. The most beautiful temple to my mind was the seventh century Kailasnatha Temple which is also the oldest . It's a low strung sandstone compound full of half animal deities and is dedicated to Shiva.

Ekambareswarar Temple, one of 5 Shiva temples manifesting the 5 prime elements of nature - earth, water, air, sky, fire. Ekambareswarar Temple represents earth, a carved panel tells the story of the temple's origin : The playful Parvati unthinkingly covered her husband Shiva's eyes for a moment with her hands which resulted in the earth being enveloped in darkness for years. The enraged Shiva ordered Parvati to do severe penance during which time she worshiped her husband in the form of an earth lingam , which still stands in the main sanctuary today . When Shiva sent a flood to test her, she clung to the lingam with her hands until the waters subsided. Some believe they could see her finger- prints on the lingam. The temple's Raja gopuram ( the entrance tower to the temple ) reaches a height of 59 meters, and is one of the tallest in South India. The Temple has five enclosures and the Hall is said to have a thousand-pillars, though the actual number is 540.

The Varadaraja temple was built by Vijayanagara kings during the 10th century. Special features of the Temple include the sculptures of two lizards, one covered with Gold and the other with Silver, carved on the ceiling of the corridor enclosing the Sanctum surrounded by the sculptures of the Sun and the Moon ; the100 Pillaed Marriage Pavilion (each pillar has a description of Lord Vishnu on it ) with its exquisite sculptures, the riders on horseback , temple jewelery and a chain at the four corners. Amazingly, this entire masterpiece was sculpted out of a single rock.

The story behind the Temple was : Indra, the king of celestial deities, after escaping the curse of Goddess Saraswathi, installed the silver and golden lizards who witnessed his ordeal. Brahma performed a yagna ( Hindu ritual of offering) at this site, which was washed away by the fast flowing river Vegavathi. The Temple deity, Vishnu, laid himself flat to stem the flow and the yagna was successfully completed. Vishnu emerged with the brilliance of a thousand Suns and stayed put here permanently.

Kanchipuram is also famous for silk textiles. According to Hindu legend Kanchipuram weavers are descendants of Sage Markanda, the celestial weaver for Hindu gods ; unfortunately Kanchipuram silk industry also has one of the highest rate of child and bonded labor in India.

We were shown a few more temples but by then I had had enough of Hindu Temples, and my attention drifted off to the noisy political campaigns that got south India all worked up for the coming assembly election. The polls turnout for Tamil Nadu has always been high - 70 to over 80 % Not difficult to understand once you get an inklng of how politics work in India, which extends far beyond bus-loads of bribed voters.

The out-going DMK party ( Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ) government headed by M Karunanidhi as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was noted for the construction of the new assembly building in Chennai, as well as road, bridge and drinking water projects all over Tamil Nadu in its 5 years of rule; but more notably for spending tax money generously on freebies: e.g. 1 kg rice for 1 rupee, free health insurance and free concrete house scheme for the poor, and free color television and gas stove for all. It's finally brought down by the usual : 1) high food prices from late 2010 to early 2011; 2) corruption scam involving the issuing of 122 licenses to 85 telecom companies at the set price of 2001, the scam was believed to have costed US$15.03 billion to the Indian exchequer and led to the arrest of A. Raja, the Union telecommunications minister+ Rajya Sabha, a member of DMK + Karunanidhi's daughter + Sharad Kumar of Kalaignar TV ; 3) nepotism which Prakash Karat , general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) described thus ( quote) : " Karunanidhi's extended family members have spread their tentacles like an octopus in the fields of media, cinema and other aspects of Tamil business and politics "
The DMK was pitched against the AIADMK ( All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) as the 2 largest parties in the election and the released manifesto of each party was as follows :

DMK promised it would give if elected :-
Free laptops for all college students and free mixer or grinder for women.
Rural schemes and Metro Rail for Coimbatore and Madurai.

AIADMK promised it would give if elected :-
20 kg of free rice for ration-card holders.
Laptops for students from classes XI.
Free fans, mixers and grinders.
Free mineral water to BPL ( Below Povery Line) families.
Monorail for Chennai.
New power generation projects and IT Industries in Coimbatore West and development of Small Scale Industries in Madurai Sout

AIADMK won hands down . Viva Democracy !

                    fishermen in front of slogan promising new housing

Pondicherry ( New Town) was a breath of fresh air. It was designed in the French grid pattern, very neat and clean with its French style villas, particularly in the French Quarter where we stayed. Pondicherry was only transferred back to India in 1954 and French is still the de jure official language, making it a favourite destination for French travellers. The French guy sitting next to our table in the restaurant told me he headed out to Pondicherry for a short holiday, he's still there 3 months later with no plan to leave soon. Pondicherry came to recent world fame when the entire first act of Ang lee's movie " Life of Pi" was shot on location there. It's fitting that such a magical akin spiritual tale should originate from Pondicherry, for it has long been the home of Aurobindo, a spiritual community established by Sri Aurobindo in 1926.

Sri Aurobindo was an Indian nationalist, freedom fighter philosopher, yogi, guru and poet . He was educated in King's College, Cambridge. In 2007 the house he stayed in (1884 - 1887) at 49 St Stephen's Avenue in Shepherd's Bush, London, was commemorated with a blue plaque. While in politics Sri Aurobindo was imprisoned by British India for writing anti-British articles, it was during his imprisonment that he reputedly had mystical and spiritual experiences that turned him into a spiritual reformer. To escape British persecution he moved to Pondicherry, then a French colony, to continue his spiritual work. He was joined by Mirra Alfassa, a psychic and occultist of Turkish Jewish and Egyptian Jewish parentage. Together they formed the Ashram ( community) and Mirra came to be known as The Mother. Sri Aurobindo died in 1950 and Mira in 1973, their bodies were placed in the Samadhi (vault) in the courtyard of the Ashram which we visited in the Old French Quarter promenade .

We were also taken to the Auroville or City of Dawn,12 km north of Pondicherry. It was founded in 1968 by The Mother and designed by architect Roger Anger. The most striking structure there is the Matrimandir (literally, "Mother's temple"), the "Soul of Auroville" in the center of town. The Matrimandir's a big golden metallic futuristic-looking sphere that has in its center a Chamber, in the middle of which is a 70 cm translucent crystal ball sitting in a gold mount, which glows when a single ray of sunlight hit it straight from the top of the chamber. According to Mother, this represents "a symbol of future realization." As stated in Mirra's first public message about the township, "Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. " Basically it's an "experimental" township where "normal people" can seek spirituality without having to dredge for food and shelter. Both the Government of India and UNESCO endorsed the township. Auroville is governed by the Auroville Foundation through an act of the Indian Parliament and at present it has a population of more than 2,300 people.

It was Pongal Festival the week we were in Pondicherry and I went off to investigate. Pongal's a Harvest Festival celebrated over 4 days .According to Hindu mythology, Pongal is when the day of the gods begins after a six-month long night. Pongal is therefore celebrated in the month of January after the winter solstice.
                   bathing and clear all cooties before the festival
                                            blessings for the motorcycle  

The first day Bhogi is in honor of Lord Indra, the supreme ruler of clouds that give rain. On this day a ritual called Bhogi Mantalu is observed, when useless household articles and old clothes are burnt in a bonfire through the night . Burning the wastes signifies the destruction of evil and renewal and also to keep warm during the last lap of winter. This is a day for family gathering and new clothes for the family is a must.

I thought Bhogi was a neat way to dispose of rubbish until I read The Times of India later in the day, splashed over the front page of the newspaper was : " City sees less smog this Bhogi but more than 11 early- morning flights delayed ", the report continued with " three incoming flights, including an international flight, were diverted after smog created by Bhogi bonfires reduced visibility to less than 200 meters at the airport." But sources in the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board ( TNPCB) claimed the percentage of nitrogen and sulphur oxides were already lower than the year before, a credit to their intense campaigning before the festival for a smoke-free Bhogi, and organising police cars to patrol the city through the night .

It's traditional for Tamils to decorate their homes with banana and mango leaves and embellish the floor and front of the house with the kolam, the auspicious design. When the kolam's done, a small heap of cow dung is placed at the center with a hibiscus flower stuck to it. At sunset the cow dung is flattened on a wall and used as fuel when dry. The ash of this cow dung cake is considered sacred and is smeared on the forehead, then of course cow dung is also believed to be a germicide. Water mixed with cow dung is traditionally sprinkled at the entrance of homes to invite in the Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of Prosperity) .

The Kolam symbolizes luck, peace, hope, happiness and prosperity, the bold colors' also believed to be able to prevent evil and undesirable elements from entering the house . As it's traced in white and colored rice flour which feed insects and birds, the kolam therefore also shows man's concern for all living creatures. Except nowadays the Kolam powders are made from rock chalk and chemical dyes, not a good diet for any living creatures.


The third day is the Mattu Pongal and homage is paid to the cattle. The cows are washed and painted, kungumam is applied on their foreheads and multi-colored beads, tinkling bells, sheaves of corn and flower garlands are tied around their necks, they are then fed with Pongal (a sweetened dish of rice cooked with lentils, cardamom, jaggery, raisins and cashew nuts) and worshipped with Arati to ward off the evil eye and to thank them for their hard work. There's a lovely story to how the poor cow and buffalo came to have such a harsh life. Shiva asked his bull, Basava, to go to the earth and instruct the mortals to have an oil massage and bath every day and to eat once a month. Basava got it backwards and told the mortals to eat daily and have an oil bath once a month. Shiva was enraged and banished Basava to earth to plough the fields now that people eat everyday.

The fourth day is Kannum Pongal when women perform rituals to bless and protect their brothers. This is also the day when families go for picnics and traditional dances.

                                           fisherman Jayaram family photo

The Golden chariot train left from Taj West End, Bangalore. Our fellow travellers were a mixed bunch of Germans, Britons, Australians, Americans and Indians living in America.  Anne-Cathrin was the first in the group to catch my eye on account of the teddybear that peeped out from her rucksack. Turns out  Anne-Cathrin makes teddybears as a hobby which she gives to friends as gifts, but this bear she has kept for herself and the lucky fellow has travelled with her all over the world . My poor teddybear has never even ventured further than my bedroom, so to compensate I've put him in the painting, waving a small Hong Kong flag. Now he goes to the Internet and meets new friends ! The painting's all in orange, a nice Hindu color, and as one teenage castaway stranded in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger asserts, the color of survival. Desperate survival.
We started the trip with a visit to the Chitrakala Parishath Art Gallery where a musical cultural show was put on for us. I was late to the show as on the way in I spotted a dozen earring stores on the grounds of the Gallery. I love Indian earrings, they're over-the-top and bling-bling, and I'm a bling-bling girl. I slipped quietly to a back row seat next to a handsome Indian guy decked out in a splendid white suit. " Are you the train manager?" I was intrigued, the white suit was so out of place. " No, I'm Imran Khan, I'm an actor " "Oh, how nice !" I said stupidly," What're you doing here ?" " I'm travelling with you lot for the whole trip, my crew and I are making a travellog for the TV Station. It's all about train travelling, we start in India, then all over Asia and possibly Europe "  At the train station house we attended a cocktail reception served by college girls hired for the occasion. I chatted with a couple of them, both 2nd year students in Marketing and Economics, and both had their eyes glued on Imran Khan, who was busy obliging the locals who all wanted pictures with him. " So is he, humm.... how do you put it , famous ?" " Sure he's well known here !" They exclaimed, " He started as a child star so he's been around a long time "

                                                        camera crew in safari
                                                     Picture with Imran Khan

Mysore was once the state capital, today it's better known for its resplendent palaces, sandalwood and rich silks. Succumbed to temptation, I bought a silk sari in Mysore .  For the past few years I've been exploring the feasibility of a second career in fashion design after I retire from Medicine; my friends love all my designs but I figure they're biased. One particular line of design I've pursued play on Chinese style clothing made from Indian fabrics, and as our little group was mainly female European , I showed them a few of these to acquire an European perspective. I call them Chin-dian designs, sort of a Chinese Indian compo " At which point Dieter burst into laughter and laughed so hard he nearly fell off the chair, much to my chagrin. Germans might not be renowned for a sense of humor but apparently they're mightily tickled by the weird. Luckily the ladies were much more charitable, there were a suitable amount of "Ooohs" and "Aaaahs", but it turned out the Indians liked them the best ! An Indian lady who's emigrated to L.A. years ago had a daughter studying fashion design in the US, and she took pictures of all my designs to send to her daughter for reference 
 Chindian dress in front of Gumbazis, the mausoleum of Tippu ultan in Srirangapatna   
Another Chindian dress, the Indian dancer got her mother to take a picture of the dress too
                                                               Mysore Palace
                                                 Mysore Tourist Department
                                                         Mysore village school
                                                                    Train station
                                          pictures of thieves at train station

The next stop was Hassan in Karnataka state. We climbed close to 700 steps up Vindyagiri Hill at Shravanabelagola to see the 58-feet tall Gommateshvara Bahubali , the world's largest monolithic stone statue. This is one of the most important Jainism pilgrimage destinations . Every twelve years, thousands of devotees congregate here to perform the Mahamastakabhisheka, a spectacular ceremony in which the statue is covered with milk, curds, ghee, saffron and gold coins.

Tyagada Kamba

People who prefer not to walk can take the palanquins.
Belur in Hassan is also famous for the Chennakesava Temple ( dedicated to Vishnu ) and the Hoysaleswara Temple ( dedicated to Shiva )
outer wall friezes of Chennakesava Temple , elephants symbolize strength, lions courage and horses speed
ChennakesavaTemple doorway with dvarapalaka( doorkeepers) sculptures
Belur temple

Hampi is the site of the medieval Vijayanagar Empire, which was as powerful as Rome of that time. The group of Monument ruins is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the highlights of this tour 
a stone shrine built in the form of a chariot, an iconic structure of Hampi
stables for ceremonial elephants of royal households
Vittala temple with the musical pillars, so named as they emit musical notes when tapped 
                                                               Queen's bath
Ugra Narasimha, a 6 meters rock sculpture, is one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu

I've to say the time I enjoyed most during the train journey was the 3 hour siesta time after lunch everyday. All our meals were taken at the train, and the afternoon program started late in the afternoon presumably to avoid the mid-day heat .

While the others slumbered I roamed the station towns to see India on-the-ground, as opposed to historical buildings. In Maysore I stumbled into a block of streets lined by wholesale shops dealing in custom jewelry, and had a field day; but much more interesting were the street people and the street scenes . People were too friendly. I was taking pictures of some kids when a guy, seeing my interest in children, pointed to a small girl in her mother's arms and made an offer, " Would you like to take this child home with you ?" " No thank you," I was careful and polite " I don't think she'll like Hong Kong "

The Tungabhadra River flows through the state of Karnataka , and serves the local community very well. Everything gets washed in the river, cows, bikes, cars, clothing, people ........ all side by side.

The group of 8th century monuments in Pattadakal is another UNESCO World Heritage Site . It consists of 9 Hindu temples and a Jain sanctuary, they're special because the buildings were a blend of southern and northern Indian architectural styles.

                                                                women at work
Imran Khan at work

Many evenings Imran Khan could be heard learning by heart pages of script for the next day. " I don't think I can do your job,"I told him."I've always hated reciting from memory and I'm uncomfortable with cameras " "I don't think I can do your job either "he said, and we fell silent, both grateful for being in the right job that we have. Inexplicably I got picked for every play, singing or dance performance during my school years, until I refused anymore participation after a chat with the music teacher . When the teacher put me in the choir competing in the Annual Hong Kong Inter-School Singing Contest for the 4th years, I was obligated to ask " Surely you must know by now I don't sing very well ? " "But I don't need you for the singing" she rolled her eyes heavenward in exasperation " I've other girls to do that. What I need from you is to stand in the middle of the front row, look straight at the judges and smile ! " I walked away from the choir there and then and never sang again .

By the time we reached the Badami sandstone cave temples Anne-Cathrin and Dieter already suffered from "temple fatigue"and played hookey. Unfortunately for them they were caught red-handed by my camera, and I was just taking pictures in random !

The name Badami is believed to have come from the color of the stone- almond, and the 4 caves temples reflected religious tolerance of the era which allowed followings that included Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

 The party broke up after the last stop at Goa , but I opted to stay behind in Bangalore for a few more days.
the Vidhana Soudha, is the seat of the state legislature of karnataka
                                                        Palace Bangalore

Bangalore is the second fastest growing major metropolis in India , and was ranked by Lonely Planet to be the 3rd among the world's top 10 cities to visit in May 2012 . The best way to get around Bangalore I found is by 3-wheeled taxis , as with 5 million vehicles on the road traffic jams are the order of the day, and the motored tricycle is small enough to slither through any small gaps between cars. The only nuisance was the haggling of fares, I got fed up when it went from 150 rupees to 300 rupees for the same ride, and took the bus, all of 30 rupees. The buses were clean and comfy, and provided one's not in a hurry, I'd highly recommend as another great way to get about .

Bangalore is known as the Garden City of India, on account of its greenery and the many public parks . I was lucky to catch the Annual Flower Show at Lal Bagh ( The Red Garden ), the glass house of which holds India's largest collection of tropical plants . It was Saturday and the place was packed, but as everywhere else in India the crowd was kept in check remarkably well by a man with a stick, which he only had to raise and the throngs of people parted like the Red Sea.

I ran into a group of female school teachers in the flower show. India will always have an edge over Pakistan, the rival country, because of how it treats girl's education. Mahatma Gandhi was a protagonist of women education , emphasising the need of women education to improve the lot of society."If you educate a man, you educate an individual; if you educate a woman, you educate a family" he said .

"Why are the kids in a police van ?" I asked the taxi driver and he explained " Probably one of their father's a policeman and so the van's used to take them home from school "  

After visiting the Chitrakala Vidyalaya ( College of Fine arts ) and all the museums I could find on the map, I dropped in at my other favourite places of call : the bookstores , and picked up several books on Gandhi . I was most impressed by how Gandhi defined Education. For Gandhi, education is 'the moral development of the person'. He lamented : "
The real difficulty is that people have no idea of what education truly is. We assess the value of education in the same manner as we assess the value of land or of shares in the stock-exchange market. We want to provide only such education as would enable the student to earn more. We hardly give any thought to the improvement of the character of the educated." He continued " By education I mean an all-round drawing out of the best in child and man -- body, mind and spirit. Literacy is not the end of education nor even the beginning. Literacy in itself is no education. It is only one of the means by which man and woman can be educated. An education which does not teach us to discriminate between good and bad, to assimilate the one and eschew the other, is a misnomer ". The three pillars of Gandhi's pedagogy were its focus on the lifelong character of education, its social character and its form as a holistic process . Suprizingly for a revolutionary, Gandhi was firm on keeping students completely away from politics. "If students will participate in politics, they will be pawn at the hands of the politicians who will utilize them for fulfilling their desire. This will hamper the development of a student and his education will suffer a setback. " Anyone who has seen how the Hong Kong Student Union has behaved in the past dozen years will bow to the wisdom of this sage .

                                                      children at the Science Museum  

The minute I checked into the Hotel Royal Orchid I was greeted enthusiastically by a most helpful concierge. " What's your name?" I asked.He told me 3 times yet I still drew a blank. In the end I pulled him to one side, " I'm sorry, but there's no way I can remember your name, so just between the two of us I'm going to call you Steve." I discovered later Steve was elected Employee of the Month. I happened to crash the monthly party the Hotel throws for its staff just as Steve was presented with the certificate.

Nimarta, the daughter of a family I met in Amritsar, lived right opposite the Hotel Royal Orchid. She had just done a Master's in Accounting and was working for an IT company in Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India. However, relationship between the foreign IT companies and the city has not always been cosy. In 2006, at the funeral of screen legend Rajkumar, the mourners demanded that Microsoft shut down for a day as a sign of respect . When Microsoft refused riots erupted, the offices of Microsoft, Dell, IBM and Wipro were stoned by the mob, and more than 1,000 IT firms and other businesses were forced to close . The two days of violence left 8 people (including a policeman) dead , more than 100 people injured, 50 vehicles damaged, and Software firms alone lost about $40m .

As Nimarta's parents were visiting her for the week ,we arranged to go for dinner together at a roof top restaurant in UB City, the biggest commercial property project in Bangalore. The UB Tower, the corporate headquarters of the Kingfisher Group (which owns beer brands, airlines as well as property), is modeled on the Empire State Building .
UB City pioneer Dr Vijay Mallya

The few hours I spent with Nimarta and her family was disheartening, as I witnessed firsthand just how little Indian women's position at home has changed, despite how their status has gone up in the workplace. The wife and daughter were subservient to a fault. They didn't dare any opinion of their own while in front of the husband and all decisions were submitted to him, even in matters as mundane as ordering food. " What would you like for drink ?" The waiter asked. I knew exactly what I liked. " A beer please !" I beamed at the waiter. I could plainly see the wife also wanted a beer, she kept shooting furtive glances at the husband until I came to her rescue and asked directly " Would you like a beer too ?" At which the husband magnanimously gave his consent, " Order one if that's what you want " And it was so she did. The same went for the rest of the orders, Nimarta checked every dish with her dad and not her mum, which is the more usual in most other cultures when it comes to food orders. All my questions to the wife, even what she did during the day, she looked first to her husband before answering. I caught up with the wife in the Ladies. " You're intelligent and capable, why do you let yourself be bossed so ?"" Well, he IS the man of the house, " she replied with a wan smile "And it's OK, I'm used to it , it's been like this ever since we're married." After dinner Nimarta drove us back in her little car, on the way we passed by the big office compound where she worked. Just then her dad got it into his head he wanted to see her office - Now! " But it's almost 11 o'clock, all the offices are locked down" she pleaded " I'll get into trouble with the Security if I enter the building now with outside people, I might get fired " " No! I want to see it NOW and no more excuses !"That was the ultimatum. Nimarta was near tears before I defused the situation by feigning fatigue " It is rather late and I'm beat, I'd really like to get back to the hotel as quick as possible and get some rest "

The evening brought to mind a strange pantomime I saw in the restaurant in Goa enacted by the train manager and the assistant manager. The train manager, a young guy in his early 30's, immigrated to the US with his family as a teenager, and after 15 years and a university degree in Virginia, decided to return to India. "Why ?" I asked and he couldn't give me a good answer. In the Goa restaurant we had buffet lunch and as I passed by the table where the management team was seated to get food, I saw out of the corner of my eye the manager tilted his head slightly towards the dessert table, whereupon the assistant manager leapt to her feet and dashed off to fetch a tray of dessert for him . I guess that's as good an answer as any why Indian man prefer to live in India, I can't imagine any assistant manager in the US ( or HK for that matter) would agree to serve her male colleague like this ! 

Nimarta was 28, an age deemed almost "unmarriageable" in India, and she's patiently waiting for her father to decide her future."You're highly educated and make a decent living, you've a Master's for God's sake !" I'm the eternal incorrigible dissenter, and on learning there're two Chinese men working in her firm, earnestly begged her " Marry Chinese, our men have gotten a lot better now ! "

Beneath the glittering bright lights, Bengalore has its share of the poor. According to a 2012 report to the World Bank , about 20% of the population of Bangalore reside in 862 urban slums. The Muslim quarters are readily distinguishable by being visibly poorer, but I found the traditional markets and small shops there much more fascinating than the big shopping malls that spring up all over the city. Muslims comprise only 13.4% of the population in Bengalore, since the rise of the Muslim Underworld in the late 1980's and 1990's, there has been on-off scuffles for supremacy over turf in the Muslim areas. Although there're definite links with gun rackets, gun culture came late, the first supari (contract killing) by gun was in 1989. Fortunately all shops're left alone after paying a little hafta ( protection money).
Muslim market

As it happens the only time I was questioned about my attire was in the Muslim quarters. The young guy in the earring shop couldn't stop himself :" Why are you wearing shorts ?" " Because it's so hot ! Why, is it a problem ?" " No! Not if it's because it's so hot " He didn't sound convinced. The flower vendors were much more forgiving, I was given a red rose by each of them.

The road where Hotel Royal Orchid was, was re-named the Old Airport Road since the opening of the new Bengaluru International Airport. On the way back to the Hotel one evening I stumbled onto a Shiva Temple , the Shiv Mandir, in the strangest location, right inside a shopping mall ! The Total Mall looked no different from any other mall from the outside, except for a small doorway to the left of the Mall which marked the Entrance to the Temple . Visitors're required to pay a small fee for some offerings which a priest helps them to dispose of for "darshan"- to offer prayers . After handing over the shoes at the shoe counter, I came up to a huge Ganesha statue and mounts of offerings hung on tree branches. The 65ft tall Shiva statue was right at the back and was spectacular. It was built in 1995, with Lord shiva seated in Lotus position , the river Ganga flowing from his hair locks, against a background of cemented cave-like "yatra" , or Mount Kailash, the heavenly abode of Lord Shiva .
The Shiv Mandir Temple is a fitting place to conclude my experience of India in this trip . This mixing of business with religion, modern vs tradition, and deep tranquil sanctuary right in the midst of high hustle and bustle, is to my mind, an accurate portrayal of life in India today.