Kerala - Trivandrum
January 2006

I've been in Kerala, in southern India, for nearly a week now, and thought you might like an update.

I'm in the state capital of Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram being the full name).
Its a busy administrative and political centre. There are also fairly regular demonstrations,
such as the large march I saw earlier this week.

I spoke with some demonstrators later, who came from construction jobs in rural areas in the north of Kerala, worried about their pensions and bonuses. It looks like the Marxists will take over the state again at the next elections. That has tended to create centralised, out of touch decision-making.

I'm here to support an international programme of non-violence training workshops - the 'Alternatives to Violence Project' (AVP). This is the same programme I worked with during my two years based in Johannesburg. There has been about a decade of activities in India, and we have one very keen organiser here in Kerala, whose work I am here to support this month.

So I found myself in the office of the Director General of Prisons this week, and visiting various Gandhian organisations, to prepare the ground for workshops in the future. From Monday we're travelling north to central Kerala, where the current programme of activities will focus. Joined by other facilitators from Delhi, Mumbai and New Zealand, we aim to train a local team of facilitators for future work in this region.

We've been finalising parts of our schedule and putting together our equipment this week, while I've had a chance to acclimatise and recover from a long and sleepless journey here. Although I've been as far south as Tamil Nadu before, its my first time in this part of India. The view from the plane was lush and tropical as we came in to land, with only fleeting glimpses of buildings visible through the trees and coconut palms. Quite beautiful and exotic, although the town itself is more built-up and hectic than that first impression suggested!

The Padmanabhaswamy Temple is Trivandrum's most recognisable landmark, with its intricately carved gopuram rising to over 30 metres.

A few days ago we just happened to come across a prize-giving ceremony there for one of the temple elephants, with no less than Kerala's Chief Minister in attendance.

India continues to offer a surprising mixture of contrasts, the humdrum casually intermingled with the fantastic and extraordinary!

On the other end of town there are some well-kept gardens, with a good selection of trees.

The unusual wooden building of the Napier Museum stands in the centre. Its carvings include some strange mythical beasts - a fierce looking combination of elephant and lion, which I've been seeing everywhere.

 

There are few tourists here, most heading for Kovalam on the coast. However the few 'attractions' are busy with frequent school parties of young children, often with notebooks in hand. Kerala is famous for taking education seriously, having a literacy rate of over 90%. (One such group enlivened an incomprehensible but strangely familiar tour of the local palace. The tour was in Malayalam, but with very familiar elements if you've seen any other Indian palaces, with '3D' portraits and ridiculous imported crystal pieces - a whole throne this time!)

 

The gardens house one of India's 'better' zoos, which also teemed with small people. I have mixed feelings about animals in captivity : unsure if their suffering can be balanced by the educational and conservation value of modern zoos. I suspect that my own interest in animals probably began with our regular visits to 'my' chimpanzee in Nairobi. Visiting to Gerald Durrell's project in Jersey may one day help decide matters.

This week CNN-IBN reported on the stand-off over the last Asiatic lions in Gujarat. These are the same lions my grandfather had nightmares about in his final years, remembering his childhood in the countryside near Amreli where they could be heard roaring at night. I often visited the small breeding programme at London Zoo before I realised the family connection!

The last remaining wild population of these lions is now limited to, and outgrowing, the Sasan Gir reserve. Though in some ways a conservation success, this single location makes them vulnerable to diseases like canine distemper. The Gujarat government is not allowing Madhya Pradesh to have a few breeding individuals to establish a second population as a safeguard, although a park for them has already been prepared (without tigers, as these would kill lions in the wild). Gujarat gives state pride as its main reason, although lions were never historically limited to Gujarat - indeed their range extended through northern India and even to the edges of Europe.

- update - Sachin and I visited the lions of Sasan Gir in 2007 -

At the same time, there are still questions about whether people can co-exist with wild populations of large predators at all, especially in heavily populated regions of India.

 

The zoo is better than others I've seen in India, and obviously still being developed. However some of the enclosures were very bare, especially those of the birds. The sloth bear was clearly traumatised, moving incessantly from one foot to the other, although its enclosure was fairly good. (It may have been a rescued animal. Performing bears are illegal but still common in India, and bred in horrendous conditions in China to extract bile for traditional medicines).

Perhaps the highlights for me were the animals only found in India, which aren't particularly affected by captivity. Seeing the teeth and scales of the gharial up close was a particularly horrible treat.

 

The Mithun (Bos frontalis) is a giant form of cattle from northern India and Bhutan, with an unusually bulky shape. I've seen this distinctive profile before, maybe in temples or on dairy products, and simply assumed it was an exaggerated caricature - I don't know if there is any connection.

The youngster below was very licky indeed, even making friends with a male hogdeer and slurping between its antlers.

(These pictures are mainly for Helen, and her strange fixation with ungulate tongues)

However the best discovery in the zoo grounds wasn't an animal at all, but the flowers of a tree, which also sported some large round galls covered in ants. I'd never seen flowers like these before!

Apart from organising for the coming programme, its been a quiet week. Our ridiculous and wonderful family network managed to find some distant cousins even here, but we've managed to miss one another so far!

I've been reading a useful book I picked up at one of the local stores - 'The Shaping of Modern Gujarat' (Yagnith & Sheth - Penguin India). This documents some of the early history and migrations to the region my family is from, in the north-east of India. It also charts subsequent economic, political and cultural developments, including the trading culture, and the plague and famine at the beginning of the last century, and some of the key characters involved.

This is filling in a lot of gaps for me, and helping me understand why our communities have such narrow interests and concerns. I've suspected this was a product of out time as an 'in-between community' in East Africa, but it runs deeper than that, I'm now realising. There is also a lot I'm seeing and learning about India today, particularly as we try and work with different agencies here. Not all of it good, sadly. Well, lots more to learn and explore...

We leave tomorrow morning for the first of our actual workshops, which will be instructive.

Wish us luck!

Anand - Jan 22nd