Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Intro to India
If there is one word I could use to describe India, it would be bamboozling. The world's seventh-largest country in area, and second-largest in population, India is home to over two thousand ethnic groups, and 1,652 languages or dialects. Religiously, it is just as diverse: nearly every religion imaginable has some sort of presence within the country. While Hinduism is the majority religion, Jainism and Sikhism also have large followings; and the world's third-largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan, calls India home. One can also find every geographical feature possible within the country's borders; from the empty deserts of Rajasthan, to the beaches of Kerala, to the steamy jungles of the interior, and up to the towering Himalayas in the north. Along with China, it is one of the elephants in the room when it comes to discussing the future of the world, whether in terms of political power, environmental impact, scientific progress, or any of a dozen other issues. By 2050 India is projected to be the world's most populous nation, home to almost 2 billion people, as well as the third-largest global economy.
While this is all very impressive, India also faces enormous challenges as its economy continues to chug along. Recent advances have by no means benefited the entire country: some of the richest men around are Indian, but so are some of the poorest people in the world. Corruption continues to plague the country's politics. Climate change will wreak havoc on the coastal regions of India. There is a vicious Maoist insurgency underway in some of India's poorest areas, and the military seems to be unable to control it. Speaking of the military, India is locked in an intractable, seemingly existential conflict with Pakistan. Both states have fearsome nuclear arsenals, so any war between the two (there have been four already), immediately becomes a global concern.
Even taking all of that into account, I am extremely excited about the trip. I can't wait to see the variety of people and places present in the country. The cuisine of the subcontinent is world-renowned, and for good reason. The hugely diverse dishes of India's various ethnicities make for an array of flavors that is almost impossible to fully comprehend. I plan on experiencing India's food to the fullest extent possible while I'm there. Finally, India offers a nearly-unparalleled view of history; home to empires ranging from the Mughals to the British, as well as one of the oldest civilizations known to man, based around the Indus river valley. Trade routes have crisscrossed the region for millenia, leaving trails of culture and influence scattered in some surprising areas.
I'll go into more detail about the specific cities and towns I'm visiting when I get back, but here's a quick run-down of their names: Cochin, Munnar, Alappuzha, Kovalam, Madurai, Tiruchirappalli (commonly called Trichy), Puducherry, and Mamallapuram. All of these are located in southern India; the first four are in the state of Kerala, while the latter four are in Tamil Nadu.
Wedged in between the Arabian Sea and a mountainous region called the Western Ghats, Kerala sits on India's southwest coast, and is home to 32 million people. The state has been an important stop in the international spice trade for thousands of years: sea-faring traders ranging from the ancient Phoenicians to the Chinese of the Middle Ages came to Kerala to load up on goods. In 1498, Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama arrived, setting off years of intense competition between the major European powers to control the spice trade. Today, Kerala has the highest literacy rate of any state in India. It is considered to be one of the more successful regions economically, but there are still plenty of poor people to worry about, and it is very rural. The state's official language is Malayalam (not Hindi), and the people that live there have voted in a communist state government in every election since 1957. Kerala is a major tourism destination, famous for its beaches, backwaters, and hill stations. I'll cover all of those extensively when I return.
Tamil Nadu sits east of Kerala, and is much larger: it has a population of 62 million and covers 130,000 square km. (Kerala's area is only 39,000 sq km.) Tamil Nadu is one of India's oldest states, and was the home of the ancient Dravidians, who settled in the area around 1500 BC, after being pushed out of northern India by the Aryans. (Dravidian refers to pre-Aryan India. Today, people that live in Tamil Nadu are called Tamils.) The Aryans did, however assimilate some aspects of Dravidian culture into theirs, laying the groundwork for Hinduism. For much of history, Tamils developed largely in isolation from northern India, creating their own architectural styles, as well as their own language, Tamil, which is the state's main language. Tamil Nadu was established as an autonomous state in 1956, but Tamil nationalism still runs high. Many Tamil politicians support the Tamil Tigers, the separatist group that assassinated Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and fought a brutal guerilla war in Sri Lanka that only ended two years ago. Despite these issues, Tamil Nadu is very important to the rest of India: the ancient cities and temples of the state are very popular with tourists, and Chennai, the country's fourth-largest city, sits on Tamil Nadu's northeast coast. I can't wait to see what it all looks like.
I return on June 13th (After a 15 hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. Hooray...), so I'll begin posting pictures and stories soon after that. This will be my last post until then, so enjoy this ridiculous song that my kindergarten class is obsessed with: the Gummy Bear song