Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wayward Explorers

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and landed on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. He was in fact looking for the Malabar coast (today's Kerala) which, at the time, was the source of most of Europe's spices (which were very expensive commodities back then). The fact that he was 15,500km off course and yet is still greatly admired today is a mystery to me. Anyway, for many centuries Kerala has been an important centre for spice production and remains so to this day. Wandering around the spice market of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin), Kerala's main city and port, is a veritable assault on the nose. There are heaped piles of cinnamon, cloves, green cardamon, black cardamon, mace, nutmeg, green and black pepper, aniseed, star anise, ginger and many others whose names and uses elude me. It seems, from the number of spice sellers who targeted me as a potential customer, that spices are very popular souvenirs. Though what I would do with a kilo of cloves is beyond me. Not only do I dislike them in particular, but, when I do cook, I'm not much of a spice person in general either, barely using anything other than salt. The same cannot be said of Keralan cuisine that believes it has a duty to support the local industry by pouring in mountains of the stuff. It's not particularly bad, except when you happen to bite directly on a cardamon seed or a clove.

But back to our explorers. When the sea route to the Indies was finally discovered it was done so by Vasco da Gama (who was actually looking for it) who landed in Kerala on the 20th of May 1498. 26 years later he would also die there whilst on his third trip to the Indies. His gravestone can still be seen in the St Francis church in Kochi (his remains, however, were shipped back to his native Portugal in 1539). The Portuguese (and later the Dutch) influence can be seen in the houses in the old part of Kochi, where one could almost believe oneself in Europe, albeit a warmer and more humid version of the continent; and in the many churches in the state. Upon arriving in Kerala with their Jesuit missionaries, intent on converting the heathens, the Portuguese must have been surprised to find their job already half done when they found that Christianity, though a minority religion, was already firmly entrenched. It had been brought all the way to India from Palestine by the apostle Thomas (he of doubting nature). But, because they weren't proper Catholics, they converted them anyway.

Ah-Shur-Am Gettin Outta Here

The West has always had a fascination for the exotic mysticism of Asia, and that of India in particular. Perhaps it is because the critical and questioning nature of Western philosophy has eroded away the power of religion's dogma there, or maybe it is the very esoteric nature of Oriental religions that increases their allure, or it could just be a case of the grass always being greener on the other side. Whatever the cause there area great many Westerners that come to India for "spiritual enlightenment", and there is a commensurate industry of gurus, ashrams, yogis and swamis that provide it for them ... for a fee, of course. (Though it must be noted that these sects are also hugely popular with the local population as well, who devote incredibly large amounts of both time and money to them. As is often the case, poverty, lack of education and credulity go hand in hand.)

Since this is such an integral part of Indian culture my curiosity compelled me to experience it firsthand. I therefore checked-in to the Mata Amritanandamayi Math ashram, home of Amma. Amma (Mother) is a jovial, slightly chubby 50 year-old who preaches love as her central tenet and practices it by going round the world hugging people, hence her appellation as the Hugging Saint. Although she professes a unity of religions, the rites and rituals of her cult are clearly Hindu; and her various "profound" statements are little more than cliched platitudes.But there's nothing wrong in that really, and there is no denying that she has used a lot of the vast sums of money she has raked in for charitable causes (building schools, hospitals, houses and even universities).

What I found disconcerting, however, was the ashram atmosphere. Here Amma, undoubtedly with her tacit approval, has been elevated to god-like status. Garlanded pictures of her adorn most of the rooms; hymns of dedication (penned by her own hand) are chanted to her daily; people pay ridiculous sums for her cast off garments or dolls that she has blessed ($180 anyone?); and she even refers to herself in the third person which is the surest sign of being absolutely bonkers (unless you happen to be the Queen). Furthermore people at the ashram seem to want to ignore any inconsistencies in her message. A glaring example would be the fact that physical contact of almost any kind between the sexes is streng verboten. The fact that she preaches universal love and that her signature party trick happens to be hugging anybody and everybody doesn't cause the least bit of head-scratching amongst her devotees. The ashram population is almost evenly split between locals and Westerners, yet the two groups have little, if any, interaction. They have separate services, separate accommodation, separate dining areas and separate food. Although I do understand the latter because Amma wouldn't be able to retain as many foreign adherents (and their money) if they had to eat watery rice and bland vegetable curry (to which I ascribe my latest bout of loose bowel movements) three times a day, seven days a week. To this people may say "so what, it's just beardy hippies, and they don't harm anyone." And that may be true, but I am constantly reminded of the words of Martin Luther King when he said that "nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."

P.S. I am sometimes asked why I am so interested in religions and the like when I am so obviously an avowed atheist and amateur cynic. The question is valid, and I think it has something to do with a morbid fascination for the, what seems to me, unexplainable and illogical clutching at dogmas. I suppose it would be best to compare it to the instinctive curiosity that everyone has when they see a car wreck by the side of the road and slow down to get a closer look, all the time saying to themselves "thank god it wasn't me".

Friday, January 27, 2006


Tucked away in the southwest corner of India and isolated from the rest of the country by the Western Ghats mountains, lies the state of Kerala. Sometimes dubbed the "Venice of India" (I don't see why one should always compare places with canals to Venice. One could just as easily call it the Birmingham of India.) Kerala's backwater canals are a must see. The way of life among the brackish waterways has changed little in the past few centuries: the main mode of transport is still by punted canoe, coir rope (made from coconut fibres) is still spun the old-fashioned way, and the same type of fish nets have been used since time immemorial. A few hours being lazily poled along the labyrinthine network of channels, watching the people at work, the children at play and the birds doing their thing, is remarkably relaxing.

The state, although populous, is highly rural, with most people living along the backwater canals, for which the state is famous, cultivating coconuts, bananas, spices and other mainstays of the tropics. This makes it one of the poorer states in India, and yet paradoxically it is one of the most developed. Its people have the highest life expectancy, the highest literacy rate, the lowest rate of infant mortality, and so on. Many people attribute this to the state government, which has often been controlled by the Communist party (the first state in the world to have a democratically elected Communist government), and their socialist welfare policies. Whatever it may be you don't see the same extreme poverty here as in other parts of the country. Which just goes to show, not all backwaters are backwaters.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Guess The God

Some of the most interesting sights in India are its Hindu temples, from the ancient cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora to modern mandirs. The Hindu pantheon is full of colourful gods and fantastic legends of their exploits, scenes of which cover the walls of their temples. I've therefore devised a little game to amuse myself, where I try to guess the various deities on display and the associated stories. I'm not often successful but I'm getting better all the time as I learn more of the mythology. Still, I do manage to recognise Ganesha most of the time!

The southern state of Tamil Nadu, in particular, has some extraordinary temples. Older dynasties are represented by the monolithic temples at Mahabalipuram and the great Chola temple at Thanjavur. The latter's 70m central tower is topped by a dome made from a single stone which, because it weighs over 80 tonnes, required an earthen ramp 4 miles long to get it to the top! Tamil temples are usually characterised by their gopurams. These are gateways that are surmounted by huge, pyramidal towers. Every inch of these towers are covered in gods, demons, mythical beasts, heroes and anything else the sculptors happened to dream up, all painted in garishly bright blues, reds and greens. Two beautiful examples of gopurams are found at the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Tiruchchirapalli (it has the highest one in the world at 73m) and at the Sri Meenakshi temple in Madurai, which I really enjoyed in no small part due to the continuous and slightly hypnotic mantra of Om Shiva resonating throughout the complex from the many loudspeakers (it probably had some subliminal message). Not only are the temples interesting architecturally, but I find it fascinating to see people carrying out their devotional duties. It is very different to services that one sees in churches and mosques which are usually led by priests and are very ordered. Here people come in and set about doing their little ceremonies (lighting candles, circumambulating statues, offering bananas to the resident elephant, throwing coconuts against a wall (honestly!)) in their own time. Temple complexes also seem to be places where people just come to relax and perhaps have a picnic in the cool shade.

From the previous paragraph you may also have noticed that there's an old proverb in Tamil that says: don't use two syllables when you can use six instead. OK, I did make that one up, but there is no escaping the fact that many of the place names are unnecessarily long and unpronounceable. Luckily Tiruchchirapalli is usually referred to as Trichy and Udhagamandalam is more commonly known by the much cuter name of Ooty.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Food For Frogs?

Well, my time in Sri Lanka is up. I must say I have enjoyed myself and it has made a welcome intermission to my time in India. My last day was spent at the beach resort of Negombo where, after having barely seen another foreigner in 3 weeks, I was confronted by swathes of flabby, middle-aged Westerners, cramming in a couple of weeks of sun before returning home. The more I travel as I do, the less I can identify with such holiday-making where, to me, there seems to be little interaction with the local community. Enough of that though, I'm not here to preach or judge; people can do as they please, and I suppose I have the luxury of time, which many people with jobs do not.

Instead, seeing as I have finished with Sri Lanka, I ought to make a stab at summarising my thoughts somewhat. All islands, certainly due to their insular nature, have their eccentricities (just look at the British!), and Sri Lanka is no exception. It's cuisine, though nothing to write home about (rice and curry for the most part), they do have several peculiar specialties. The ones that you notice immediately are hoppers and their unrelated namesakes string (or steamed) hoppers. The former are mainly eaten in the evening and are best described as bowl-shaped crepes. Usually they are dipped in curry or, that old subcontinental standby, dhal (lentil stew). String hoppers, on the other hand, are more of a breakfast thing, and are little patties of vermicelli that, because they are quite tasteless, just like normal hoppers, are dipped in either curry or dhal. To make up for this the Sri Lankans have the delicious, and peculiarly orange, king coconuts in such abundance that they cost less than water (10 cents for a coconut!). Nevertheless the most trying part of eating out in Sri Lanka is the actual ordering itself. Prices are never listed, and for that matter neither are dishes. Here's an example of a typical restaurant encounter (waiter = Wa):

Me: Good evening. What do you have for dinner?
Wa: What do you want?
Me: Well, what do you have? have you got a menu?
Wa: No. Just tell me what you want.
Me: Do you have rice and vegetable curry?
Wa: No.
Me: Rice and any curry?
Wa: No.
Me: Rice?
Wa: No.
Me: Well, do you have any rotis then?
Wa: No.
Me: How about string hoppers?
Wa: No.
Me: Well what do you have?
Wa: We have (normal) hoppers.
Me: Anything else?
Wa: No.
Me: Aaarrgh! why didn't you say so to begin with.

This is then followed by me asking for the price, getting a hugely inflated answer, and then trying to negotiate a reasonable price. I've grown resigned to dual pricing for many things, but I draw the line at food. I resent being regarded as a walking cash machine to be taken advantage of by locals, especially when it comes to buying something as essential as food (Sri Lanka is by no means the only place where this happens, but it is one of the most blatant). I did thoroughly enjoy myself though, from my nature walks to the ruins to the fascinating discussions with the lodgers at the Colombo YMCA about the political situation on the island.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Faded Splendour

North of Kandy Sri Lanka reverts to wide plains of paddy fields, banana plantations and palm trees. It was here that the first Sinhalese kingdoms were established some 2500 years ago. The first major capital was Anuradhapura. It's positioning in the plains, however, proved to be its downfall, as, during the next 1500 years, successive South Indian invaders conquered the hard-to-defend city time and again. The city was finally abandoned and the capital moved to Polonnaruwa, which was also in turn abandoned after another South Indian invasion several hundred years later (early Sri Lankan history is rather repetitive: Indian invasion, repulsion of invaders, Indian invasion, repulsion of invaders, Indi...).

Both sites, however, are very extensive and show that the early Sri Lankans knew their stuff. In fact the ruins are larger than any of today's Sri Lankan cities with the exception of Colombo and perhaps Kandy. Anuradhapura's ruins especially just sprawl for miles and miles with umpteen stone foundations and pillars dotting the surrounding jungle. It's great fun exploring them by bike, pedalling where the fancy takes you (though not too far because I'm lazy) and just stopping to watch the kingfishers flitting from tree to tree or the egrets jabbing at frogs in the ponds. I've discovered on this trip that I've grown rather fond of hiking and twitching (for you non-Brits, twitching is British slang for bird watching, which is rather alarming as it appears that I am growing prematurely middle-aged!

In Anuradhapura there are also the remains of about 5 massive stupas, each in excess of 50m, that can be seen from many miles away, towering over the jungle like spiky bubbles (modern-day Anuradhapura has no buildings over 4 stories). But Anuradhapura's crowning glory is Sri Maha Bodhi. When Buddha attained enlightenment he was sitting under a tree: the Bodhi tree. The original Bodhi tree does not exist any more, but the one in Anuradhapura has grown from a cutting of the original and was planted in 288 BC, which makes it, apart from being a very holy tree (and as such it has security that most heads of state would be jealous of), also the oldest human planted tree with a known planting date, which means I can add another superlative to my list (along with one of the stupas which happens to be the tallest brick structure in the world). Even more bizarre is the fact that the tree is tended by a family of keepers whose position is hereditary. So for the past 2294 years this family has kept watch of the tree without interruption. At least they have job security!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sweet Tooth

There are some places in the world that just have to be visited because of their names alone: lake Titicaca, Ouagadougou, Timbuktu and Condom spring immediately to mind. Another contender for the list would have to be Kandy (for obvious reasons). As a child I once imagined a town designed by Willy Wonka and peopled by Oompa Loompas. Of course I quickly grew out of such fantasies, but nevertheless the name has held a certain fascination for me to this day.

Sri Lanka was first targeted by Western colonial powers in 1517 when the Portuguese established Colombo and started taking over the coastal kingdoms. These were defeated with short shrift, but the kingdom of Kandy held out in the mountains even after the Dutch took over from the Portuguese in the 17th century. It wasn't until the British arrived on the scene in 1796 that the Kandyans were finally defeated after a couple of bloody wars. That is why Kandy is considered the cultural capital of the Sinhalese. It is also the spiritual capital for the Buddhist Sinhalese as it has a temple containing the holiest relic on the island: Buddha's tooth. And not just any tooth, but his upper, left canine. I'm not sure whether eye teeth are holier than molars, but it's important to be exact about these things. The divine dentition is kept within its own little room, inside a multitude of ever-diminishing golden caskets (sort of like Russian dolls) and is revealed to its adoring fans three times a day for half an hour, when you get to sidle past it for a few seconds.

Buddhism is the religion of the majority Sinhalese population, and it is said by some that the form of Theravada Buddhism practiced here is the least adultered form of the religion in the world. (Most people in the West imagine the Tibetan form, with the Dalai Lama, when they think of Buddhism, but Buddhism in Tibet has been greatly influenced by the local, animistic Bon religion.) Though, to be honest, Buddhism is not as visible here as in Thailand or Laos, where you can hardly walk without stepping on a monk as there most men become monks for at least a short period of time during some part of their lives. Here the religion seems to be more subdued and less visible, though that might be due to the fact that there are also significant Hindu, Christian and even Muslim minorities.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Same-Same ... But Different

Last January I was at the end of the world when I visited Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the last bastion before Antarctica. Now, almost exactly one year on, I am at the end of the world again. Or, to be more precise, World's End. The centre of Sri Lanka is mountainous, and therefore referred to as upcountry by the locals, and refreshingly cooler than the hot and humid plains of the coast. This is where Sri Lankans go on holiday (in a strange reversal of roles Westerners usually go on holiday to go somewhere warmer whereas here they go somewhere cooler). The southern edge of upcountry ends at Horton's Plains where the hills abruptly fall away to the plains below. The edge is called World's End.

Horton's Plains is a huge draw for local Sri Lankans because the scenery is unlike anything else on the island: mist-shrouded, undulating, boggy plains with low, tangled forests and copses. Personally I was rather underwhelmed as it looks rather like what I imagine Dartmoor to look like: it's marshy, misty, drizzly and there are even people prancing about in deer-stalker hats (apparently the height of hiking fashion over here). All that the place needs to make it perfect is a big, scary dog running around scaring the bejeesus out of people. I was even less impressed by the entry fee ($17), but I managed to get around that by taking a 5 mile detour round the ticket office along some dodgy paths, through some fields and up a couple of hills.

I've been using this trip to Sri Lanka as a bit of a return to nature, after the ruins and cities of Pakistan and India, due to the diversity of landscapes in such a small area and their easy accessibility. My rambles have taken me to upland rainforests where I saw plenty of birds and monkeys; to isolated waterfalls with beautiful pools for swimming; and through lovely tea plantations that cover most of the hill country, clinging to impossibly steep hillsides and shrouded in mist. Of all agricultural crops, a tea plantation is probably the least ugly and unnatural for me, as it looks more organic, hugging the contours of the hills it needs to grow on. And although I'm not much of a tea drinker I found the visit to a tea factory fascinating. The whole process is quite complicated, with innumerable sorting and sifting stages to differentiate the tea into different qualities and grades, such as the bizzarely named GFOP (or Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe) and Dust Number 1. I was even lucky enough to be there during a quality assurance taste-testing, though to me all the teas tasted the same: very bitter! thank god for milk and sugar.

Friday, January 06, 2006


Serendipity has to be one of my favourite words in the English language. Not only does it sound happy and cheerful, but its meaning pure luck in discovering things you were not looking for, is full of optimism. The word comes from an old Persian story about the 3 princes of Serendip. And Serendib happens to be the old Arab name for Sri Lanka, which meant "island of jewels". It's an apt name as because Sri Lanka is one of the largest exporters of sapphires as well as other semi-precious gems, and the small town of Ratnapura is at the heart of gem mining on the island.

One would, perhaps, expect jewel encrusted palaces and gold-plated Rolls Royces in a town of Ratnapura's reputation (or you would expect them if you had an overly fertile imagination), but it is in fact a rather dreary little town. The only indication of something being afoot is the high proportion of jeweller's shops. I was given a mini-tour of a workshop by a friendly and rather knowledgeable gem-dealer who, to my great surprise, didn't go for the hard sell and didn't seem to mind taking the time to explain various cutting, polishing and identification processes. A fact for which I was very grateful , not least because I learned a good deal about gems and their production. But the mining industry is the Big Thing in the area with with everyone and their cousin's pet poodle wanting in on the action. Actually, to call it an industry belies the very ad hoc nature of mining in Sri Lanka. There are literally thousands of mines dotted around the countryside and most of them are little more than deep holes in peoples' back gardens (especially down by the rivers). The process involves excavating copious quantities of mud, panning it to leave just the stones, and finally sifting through the stones to find a (semi-) precious one which, to the untrained eye (i.e. me) looks disappointingly unspectacular and very much like all the other stones. To give you a rough idea of quantities the miners found a couple of sub-carat stones (worth about 30 cents) from about 25kg of mud when I was there. Apparently that was a very good haul. All I can say is that they need something more than serendipity!

As a slight aside, I experienced one of the effects of the heightened conflict situation here during my last might in Colombo. I was sitting in my dorm at the Colombo YMCA (my first time in a YMCA), ready for bed in my boxers, chatting to a couple of long-term local residents, when all of a sudden the entire place was full of soldiers. The whole building was combed from top to toe, people were woken and bags searched. At least I must have given them something to talk about afterwards as I sat there in just my underwear as the sergeant (?) checked my papers.

Sunday, January 01, 2006


For New Year's I made it about as far south as I'm likely to get for the rest of my travels; to the port city of Galle (pronounced gall, as in bladder). The city used to be he main port of the island for many years and was successively ruled by the Portuguese, Dutch and finally the British as the various colonial powers jockeyed for supremacy over the spice trade in the Indies. Despite such an illustrious past the town is rather subdued and sleepy, with the odd tout politely offering their services and amorous couples hiding under umbrellas in the park.

The old town is surrounded by large fortifications (the largest European fort in Asia) which have saved the town on numerous occasions, most notably last year during the Boxing Day tsunami. The tsunami hit Sri Lanka very hard (over 30,000 people perished on the island) ravaging communities from Trincomalee in the northeast, to about 50km past Galle in the southwest. (I cannot begin to imagine the scale of the disaster, let alone describe it, so I recommend you read this blog-post by someone who visited the area a few weeks afterwards.) From a superficial glance (out of the train window coming down from Colombo) it looks as if things are sorting themselves out, although one can also see some families still living in temporary accommodation and many people have heart-wrenching stories of loss and suffering, most of which are genuine (although after the 3rd story about a guy needing to buy powdered milk for his polio-suffering daughter I have decided to take some of the claims with a pinch of salt).

New Year's Eve was mostly spent on the beach rediscovering why I'm not really a beach person: not much to do, salt water, and sand getting absolutely everywhere. The evening was also a bit of a damp squib, quite literally in fact, as there was a big downpour at around half past ten which doused the beachside bonfires and soaked the fireworks. It did, however, give me some time to think and reflect on the past year and the one ahead. People often ask me whether, being on such a long trip, I miss being away from home. I'd have to be a cold person not to miss my family, but there are other, perhaps trivial things that I miss as well: Sunday lunches down at the pub (bangers and mash and a couple of pints of bitter for me please) with a few good friends, and perhaps watching the football as well; my little creature comforts such as a nice, cosy bed, my computer or just vegging in front of the TV; and playing ultimate frisbee on the weekend (and perhaps going down to the pub afterwards). But I'm enjoying myself immensely out here; plus I also realise that opportunities to do what I am doing are extremely rare and that I'm unlikely to be able to embark on such an expedition again, so I'm taking full advantage of it.