The South, ascendant
November 2, 2006
Rajeev Srinivasan on the rise of Southern India
I recently landed in Trivandrum, in the midst of a light rain-shower: the northeast monsoon is active in Kerala. The plane described a wide circle out to sea and then made its descent and I was reminded once again that Trivandrum is, just as San Francisco is, a dramatically beautiful airport to land in, as you make your final approach over the water. The knife-edge-straight beach stretches as far as you can see, with just a cove here where fishing-boats shelter, and a breach there where a stream’s delta fans out.
The Arabian Sea has many shades of color: muddy where a river (maybe the Neyyar; perhaps it is the Veli Lake) drains its sediments, forming a brownish fan-tail out to sea; a lovely aquamarine in the shallows close to land; and a deep indigo as the land falls off precipitously towards the continental shelf. Off to one side is the Kovalam Leela Hotel, nestled against the side of a steep hill much like a terraced Balinese hillside.
All around is an expanse of green: a carpet of coconut trees, broken now and then by an expanse of paddy fields following the meander of a now-extinct river; several brown and swollen rivers marking their paths to the sea; and ahead, like a scar on the red, red soil, a hillside being eaten away by clay-miners. Red earth and pouring rain, I was reminded of the soul-stirring Sangam-era Tamil poetry: “But in love our hearts are as red earth and pouring rain, mingled beyond parting.”
As we descend through threatening cumulus clouds, the land is invisible now and then. Then, as the plane descends to the runway, the sleight-of-hand wears off: the dense green carpet below is misleading. This is no tropical rain-forest: obscured by the palms, the place is teeming with houses, people, cars; a whole town springs to view, to complement the few large buildings that soar over the treetops.
This is my home, regardless of where I go; San Francisco, my other home, is only second-best. I love to return to this heart-breakingly beautiful land: the idea of Kerala, or perhaps the ideal, is extraordinarily attractive, although the reality may be less so. I was feeling a little nostalgic, as I had heard about the imminent celebration of the golden jubilee of the creation of the State of Kerala on November 1st, 1956; and also because this marks ten years of my writing for Rediff: my first column was on October 28th, 1996.
This golden land; this land, beloved of the gods; this most fortunate of lands, blessed with rains [“Sibilant, sinuous, sinister” at http://us.rediff.com/news/jun/30rajeev.htm ], covered with nature’s bounty, a veritable primeval garden. A very long tradition of agriculture: they used to cultivate eighteen different varieties of rice, and innumerable ones of bananas, not to mention mangoes, jackfruit, tamarind, teak. A true storehouse of genetic variety, especially in the last few untouched virgin rain-forests of the Western Ghats. Its core competence is agriculture: it has some of the best-watered and richest soils in the world. And Kerala also has a very distinctive and sophisticated culture of creativity, as seen in its magnificently understated wooden temples and the dramatic performances of kathakali, koodiyattam and theyyam.
I am a big fan of South India. If I were to try to view the rest of South India from the perspective of a native (see my previous column, Geography is Destiny http://www.rediff.com/news/2004/feb/20rajeev.htm), I would have much to be proud of.
All of the four States were formed on the same Rajyotsava Day, November 1st, 1956.
If I were a Tamil, I would celebrate Tamil Nadu, with its glorious traditions exemplified by the overwhelming temple towers and rich produce of the Kaveri Delta in Tanjavur, and the modern industrial success stories of Chennai and Coimbatore. Not to mention the fabled Pallavas and Cholas: the Pallava ‘Descent of the Ganges’ in Mahabalipuram, from 1,400 years ago, is still a marvel. Karikala Chola’s 2,000-year-old Grand Anicut still stands as an amazing feat of irrigation engineering, and Rajaraja Chola’s fleet of 1,000 years ago that defeated the maritime Srivijaya empire of Sumatra clear across the Indian Ocean was the largest fleet ever assembled before the 19th century.
Tamil’s classical Sangam literature is fascinating too, with, among other things, its classification of the land based on the flowers: mullai (jasmine) for the forest, kurinji for the hills, neythal for the coast, marudam for the grasslands, and palai, with its intoxicating flowers forever associated with yakshis (driads), for the semi-arid lands.
By coincidence, this October the kurinji bloomed, as it does once every twelve years, turning the Nilgiris blue, true to its name that means Blue Mountains. Sadly, most of the mountain biosphere that sustains the kurinji has been wantonly destroyed in the last 150 years, with the substitution of native plant species with plantation crops. Tragically, this continues to happen in the South: the trashing of invaluable local knowledge.
Karnakata is my favorite State in the Union. It is a splendid State, with its tremendous range of scenery and flora, from the rainforests of the Western Ghats to the unspoilt beaches of the Konkan Coast; to misty and beautiful Coorg, and then on to the superlative sculpture of Belur, Halebid and Sravangabelagola, and then further north Badami, Pattadakal and Aihole, and most of all, that exquisite teardrop on the face of time, the destroyed city of Vijayanagar. A charming and self-effacing State, but also, thanks to Bangalore, the analog of California and a magnet for the young and ambitious.
Andhra Pradesh is the State that I am least familiar with, but once again its culture goes back a very long way to the zenith of Buddhist ideas, with Amaravati and the great philosopher Nagarjuna. It was also the site of the only source of diamonds in the world for a very long time: Golconda’s fabled mines. Furthermore, although I don’t want to get in the middle of a Karnataka-Andhra war, if I am not mistaken, Vijayanagar, the greatest Empire of the South, spoke Telugu.
It is no wonder that with such a rich heritage, the South is rising again. To be really accurate, the South should include Maharashtra and Orissa as well, which share the geography and to some extent the culture, but I am using the traditional definition of the South as these four States.
TO BE CONTINUED…