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Archive for January, 2012

It was 64 years ago today that Mohandas Gandhi (known as Mahatma, the great soul) was murdered by a Hindu extremist, who believed Gandhi had been too sympathetic to the Muslim cause during the British withdrawal from India.

Delhi has two Gandhi memorials, one the site of his cremation at Raj Ghat, in a park on the banks of the Yamuna river where several other Indian leaders have since been commemorated, and the other at Birla House, in New Delhi, where he was shot.

I visited both places with friends last week, seeking to commemorate Gandhi quietly and away from the grand ceremonies that today will mark the anniversary of his death.

The site at Raj Ghat (literally the riverbank of the king or leader) was designed by Vanu G. Bhuta, an American-trained Indian architect who won the Government-sponsored competition to create a suitable memorial to Gandhi. His was a stark, modernist solution, intended to reflect the profound austerity of Gandhi’s life. The design, which was completed around 1956, is a square, sunken garden, surrounded by walls that serve as viewing platforms. In the centre of the garden is a raised, black marble slab, decorated solely with an engraving of the phrase “He Ram” [Oh God], supposedly Gandhi’s last words, and an eternal flame burning in a large lantern.

Originally the surrounding garden was red earth, but it has been changed several times since its installation and is now British-style grass punctuated with trees planted by visiting foreign dignitaries (from Queen Elizabeth II and Dwight Eisenhower to Ho Chi Minh).  When we visited last week, we admired the proportions and scale of the garden, and the way it can be experienced first in a broad sweep from above, and then intimately (and barefoot) at the memorial itself. The bright marigold petals add a typically Hindu touch (and on occasions the whole memorial is smothered in patterns of flower petals). For me, however, the dignity and repose of the space were somewhat spoilt by the bright green matting laid for mysterious reasons over many of the stone paths, and by the retractable barriers that discouraged visitors from getting too close to the memorial.

The second Gandhi memorial in Delhi is at Birla House, where Gandhi was shot. It is now a national museum, known as the Gandhi Smriti.

I had read of the footprints cast in stone marking his final walk from the house to a planned prayer meeting. But the reality was disappointing: the footprints were not, as I had imagined, gently sunken into the earth, as if preserving the exact tread of his final few steps. Instead, they are oddly raised and too numerous to bring much poignancy to the site  –  and apparently any child who sees them as an invitation to walk in Gandhi’s footsteps is quickly disabused of the idea by the museum guards. The whole site seemed to me slightly dispiriting: I’ve written elsewhere about its surfeit of information boards, and the much-trumpeted interactive displays in the house were one of the strangest museum experiences I have had.

For me, the memorial garden at Raj Ghat, ideally shorn of its bright matting and barriers, is a far finer way to commemorate the founder of the Indian nation.

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Kerala is one of the most beautiful Indian states. Its tourism department has adopted the slogan “God’s own country” to trumpet its perfect climate, the lushness of its landscapes, its long history and splendidly varied culture.

We were there over Christmas and were enchanted by our experiences. But, like so many places, Kerala is facing environmental challenges and conflicts between natural resources and local livelihoods. Here are three examples that struck me.

Kerala is famous for its waterways, for the vast beauty of lake Vembanad and over five hundred miles of canal that make up its navigable backwaters. The banks of the canals are lush with coconut palm, the water full of luxuriant floating plants. But soon we noticed that those floating plants were too exuberant, too ubiquitous, too uniform… We recognised them as water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), a plant native to South America and innocuously common in northern European ponds.

Introduced into tropical places such as the Keralan backwaters, water hyacinth is an exotic invasive second to none. Spreading by runners and seed, a population of this plant can double in size every two weeks. It is choking these internationally significant wetlands, preventing navigation and fishing, clogging irrigation systems, and crowding out native species.

Encouragingly, in an effort to eradicate the problem, and to make use of the mass of unwanted plant material, the Keralan government is piloting a project to harvest the abundant water hyacinth and turn it into an alternative energy source. It will be interesting to see whether or not it succeeds.

A very different issue is the amazing popularity of the Keralan kettuvallam  or houseboat as a means for tourists to explore the state’s tranquil backwaters. Originally these boats were designed for grain transportation, principally for the rice grown in profusion in the waterside paddy fields. Ecologically designed and propelled only by poles, the boats gradually fell into disfavour as traders came to prefer roads as a faster transport option. Then an Indian businessman had the bright idea of converting some of the boats for tourists’ use. It seemed a good idea: preserving these beautiful heritage crafts through giving them a new purpose. But conversion of course included adding Western staples such as flushing toilets, electricity and petrol engines. Given the staggering popularity of the boats (the number operating out of a single port expanded over four years from fifteen to almost four hundred), the local government has been struggling to tackle the consequent pollution, congestion and eco-system disruption.

One final example: the iconic Chinese fishing nets that are found along Fort Kochi’s shorelines. Like elegant hammocks, the vast bamboo and teak structures are lowered into the water by a team of five or six fishermen, and then raised a few minutes later using a complex system of large stones and ropes as counterbalances. There is something captivating about the unhurried rhythm of the movements.

Probably brought to Kerala by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, sadly today the nets have high maintenance costs and an increasingly poor catch, as modern dredgers collect most of the available fish before it reaches the shoreline. This lack of commercial viability means that only twenty or so of the nets now remain, and their future seems uncertain. Yet they are the most photographed feature of Kerala and are, in many ways, a symbol of the state. The fishermen have long argued that the government should support their continued use, as an important part of Keralan heritage and culture, and in the last few weeks it has looked as if they may get their wish. The local tourism council, working with the heritage body INTACH, has announced plans to provide subsidised teak to the fishermen, to reduce the heavy maintenance costs of the nets. Whether this will be enough – and whether it is a good idea to support economically non-viable practices just because they are traditional and attractive to tourists  – is a question for another day.

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