Wildlife & Politics in Kerala
Ok, maybe not totally wild, but the “life” part still applies.
My last post on our Kerala trip starts with this pic of Kim and Morgan riding on Sundari the elephant. Elephants are extremely important in Kerala culture, and all festivals there will feature elephants. Our hotel was easily able to direct us to a place where they kept some festival elephants so we could see and ride on these amazing beasts.
The ride that the girls took was short but still incredibly memorable. At one point Sundari, being led by her mahout balked at continuing the walk. After unsuccessfully trying to cajole the beast forward, the mahout called over another of his colleagues – this fellow gently talked the elephant into proceeding, as Kim related, much as a patient parent might talk to a small child.
I like to think everything worked out well for Sundari, for after the short stroll she had a snack of 3 kgs of bananas that our driver providentially recommended we bring:
The dexterity of the elephant trunk is amazing. Sundari had no problem taking from our hands a single banana, or picking one up from the ground. I’m sure she could have picked up a pencil or a coin with equal ease. All 3 kgs of bananas – peels and all – were gone in about a minute.
Another place we visited was Ponnumthuruth Island – in English, Golden Island. The name comes from a local legend that princesses of the Travancore Kingdom hid their golden jewelry there. Certainly all of India is mad over gold, but the fever seems to burn hottest in Kerala – with only 3% of India’s population, Kerala nonetheless yearly acquires 20% of the country’s gold. In 2012, the wedding of the daughter of the CEO of Muthoot Finance Co. (one of Kerala’s biggest banks) made headlines for the 5 kg of gold – over Rs. 1,47,50,000 (1.5 crore) or about $250,000 at current prices – worn by the bride. Then in a recent headline we see smugglers attempting to bring 1.8 kg of gold into Kerala from Singapore, hidden in printer cartridges, roller-suitcase axles, and other apparently not-so-clever means.
But we really were not interested in gold at Golden Island. We wanted to glimpse Kerala’s famous backwaters, the intracoastal network of lakes and canals that runs all up and down the Arabian Sea coast. Golden Island is in the middle of one such lake, and the way you get there is by boat, poled by a boatman:
This is a place where the jungle habitat of Kerala expresses itself clearly. All around are coconut palms, cashew trees, and other tropical flora. The water of the lake is salt and in it we saw numerous jellyfish:
On the actual island the main thing to do is visit the temples. There are three: for Lord Ganesh, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Pictures were forbidden, but we did observe a puja being made by the Brahmin for Lord Vishnu. Also just outside the temple walls were two shrines for snake-gods, one pair of gods devoted to Lord Shiva and another pair devoted to Lord Ganesh. A man was guiding us about these temples so I asked him, “In the north where we stay there are many temples for Lord Shiva and Lord Ganesh, but few for Lord Vishnu. Why is that?” He told me quite plainly: “In the north they are Aryans, light people, and here in the south we are Dravidians, dark people. That is why.” That I suppose is as good a capsule of the complexities of Hinduism you are likely to hear.
Then we spent another 30-40 mins just roaming the small forest of Golden Island. As I mentioned, cashew trees are everywhere, here is a small sample that we saw:
That curved sort of bud in the center of the picture is the actual cashew. It is inside a tough and caustic husk and, when mature, the green pod above will ripen into a large, orange-red fruit. We tasted such a fruit growing wild there at Golden Island – the flavor was tart but not unpleasant, like cashew-flavored lemon drink.
Then it was time to return and our boatman poled us back. On the way I managed to get a picture of a hawk or eagle-like bird:
Not all of Kerala is jungle of course. As we traveled about, mostly on small roads, we saw many colorfully painted, large bungalows, like this one I snapped as our driver barreled down the road at speed:
I asked our driver, Who owns these nice houses? His answer came quickly: Overseas money. 2.5 million or more Keralaites work overseas, primarily in Persian Gulf states like UAE, Kuwait or Qatar; in fact when we visited London over end of year holiday, one of the managers at our hotel was from Kerala. With extremely high literacy and education rates, Kerala is in an excellent position to supply valued workers. Remittances from these workers are estimated about 49,700 crore (about $8B !) for 2011 – this is about %30 of the entire domestic product of all Kerala. The majority of these emigrants are Muslims. They follow a centuries old pattern of Arabian traders moving back and forth to India – it is called the Arabian Sea, after all. But nowadays, with laws changing both in India and abroad, emigration from Kerala seems to be on the decline.
And this brings me to politics. I don’t have much to say on this, philosophically, but I will say politics is everywhere visible in Kerala:
Political posters cover any and all exposed spaces. Also it seems that householders allow different parties to paint or put posters on the walls surrounding their bungalow, I assume sometimes for a fee. All of these posters include the symbols of the respective party: The hammer and sickle for CPI (Communist Party of India), the raised-hand for UDF (United Democratic Front), and – most rarely seen in our Kerala travels – the lotus blossom symbol of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), the extremely conservative, Hindu-nationalistic party that is making a fair run at breaking the decades-long dominance of the leftist Congress party for rule of India
I think folks from the USA are often amazed to hear of successful communist political parties in other nations – it is part of the 20th century American narrative that we led the fight against communism, and that we won it too, making the world safe for capitalistic purveying of nifty consumer goods like smartphones and TVs which due to the self-created efficiencies of global markets are built in countries like China that just happen to be … communist?
I said I would not be philosophical … sorry, almost done. I guess seeing all these unexpected symbols on our trip brought back to my mind that India has its own national narrative, that for modern, independent India starts with Gandhi and his vision of agrarian socialism. The founders of this largest democracy in the world were socialists – capitalism in the form we see in India today is a relatively recent thing, dating to 1991 and the introduction of new, liberal trade policies under then finance-minister, now prime minister, Manmohan Singh. But for all the magic powers of capitalism and markets, Kerala seems to be doing fine with socialism; they have highest literacy and education rates of any Indian state, and in 2010 a UN study ranked Kerala highest of any Indian state on its human development index, an aggregate score combining per-capita income, life expectancy, education, and income distribution. It is little wonder Kerala has small interest in the “Modi miracle”, as BJP top candidate Narendra Modi styles his achievements in his home state of Gujarat.
Nothing deflates a discussion or a blog post so much as politics so I’ll stop all that now. Here are some final images from Kerala: Morgan on our boat ride back from Golden Island; Kim and Morgan beneath a very large cashew tree at the elephant compound; and, fishing boats slowing working their way north along the coastline at Varkala Beach.
The world is big and there’s much to see and so I can’t say I expect to be back to any of these places. I believe the images will stay with us. Only time and mind will tell.
Till next time.