From India Abroad February 16, 2007, Pg M11

Ghosts of the Past

Ramya Gopal visits an Indian village where time and tradition appear to have stood still

The urban scene of India has become a dichotomy between prosperity and poverty, modernity and tradition. Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore are hungry for steel: tall skyscrapers, metro stations, and multistoried shopping complexes. However, the morning warbles of the subjilawallas, the colorful temptation of street clothing, and the barber under the banyan tree have refused to disappear into wistful oblivion.

This modern story of India is one with which we have all become familiar; the miracle India praised on the covers of magazines and newspapers. Yet in its villages, this dichotomy is replaced by a one-sided reliance on ancient tradition. When I visited a village near Chennai this past summer, I saw for the first time the archaic India described in the stories of the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana.

As we drove away from Chennai, the roads dwindled from paved to dirt and then sand. The air of the coast was permeated by a pungent odor of fish, but one that the people seemed to relish. The hot sand calloused my feet but there was no litter for me to avoid as I had in the cities. Women in colorful saris and men in dhotis were squatted on the slimy floor sorting the fish. Repulsed, I strayed away from the stink, but it nostalgically reminded me that fishing villages initiated the story of the Mahabharata. Satyavati, the embodiment of mothers in the epic, was the daughter of a fisherman, and it seemed as if these fishermen were continuing the legacy. Interrupting my musing, my host beckoned me to a row of small motorboats shuddering against the coast. Boats were the only method of transportation across the lake and to the village.

On the island, I walked, with seaweed in my toes, past small huts with thatched roofs. The main attraction in the island was an ornate temple surrounded by everyone in the village. A tent had been strung beyond with seats lined in rows like a movie theatre. I stood awkwardly in the sun, unsure of the village mores, until a few older girls beckoned to me. They had pulled out a chair and formed a towering circle around me. The girls had matching plaits and silver anklets.

A few were wearing simple cotton pavadais (petticoats), more traditional to Tamil Nadu, although one was wearing a nightgown. We gawked politely at each other; American suburban girl meets Indian village girls. "Why do you have your hair like that? In a bun?" they asked me in Tamil. Taken aback, I didn't have an adequate response, so I steered the conversation away from me to them. I discovered that the girls were between 18 and 20 but had only studied in school until 10th grade. In between giggles, they added that one of them was engaged. The girls were at the ripe age for marriage and their parents were looking for grooms for them. However, they could not marry out of their village because it was the only "untouchable" village in the area. This social discrimination as a result of caste distinction echoed again in their stories about the old temple.

One reason for my visit to Idamani--the place I was in-- was to witness the opening ceremony of a new temple. The old temple had been destroyed by the tsunami two years ago. As the girls began to open up to me, I listened to their stories of backward practices associated with the temple. One example was the men's inability to wear a poonal, the sacred thread, because they were not "upper caste". Other families would not even visit their homes because they were untouchables. Women were not allowed in the temple when the men held their meetings. These restrictive traditions had been eradicated in the cities and other parts of the world but persisted in this village.

The inauguration ceremony of the temple was announced by the ringing tones of the nadaswaram and the temple quickly became crowded. Some women looked out coyly from their thatched huts. Young girls were made up in magenta colored lipstick, designs around their eyes, and traces of dried turmeric on their faces. In the center of the temple was a large (homam )fire and shahstri (priest) sang bhajans with the villagers repeating after him, clapping. Colorful flowers, rice, and butter for prasadam on aged yellow banana leaves completed the ceremony.Interestingly, while members of the "higher" caste had rarely visited the old temple, the inauguration ceremony had been attended by many outsiders. The new temple would, hopefully, become an emblem of caste reform.

Even as economic development brings modernity to India's villages, strong social divides still linger. In this village, for instance, water purification infrastructure has been put into place yet women still quit studying in favor of marriage. It was the most striking difference between the city and the village; caste lines more sharply divided and a central part of daily life. It left me with the thought that true prosperity was impossible until social advancement and a sense of equality became firmly entrenched in our communities.