Tag Archives: india

Animal Abuse and Tourism: Where do we Draw the Line?

elephants tourism travel animal abuse
Not so picturesque

Like walking into a guide book, we ran into “domesticated” elephants several times now in Kerala, always completely by accident.  Well, by accident or unknowing on our part.  But the two times when we saw elephants at or near hotels were certainly no accident.  I quote the word domesticated because I’m not convinced that such an animal can be domesticated.  And if it can, surely this cannot happen over the course of one lifetime–isn’t true domestication a multi-generation process, a form of contrived evolution?

Elephant animal abuse India temple Kerala
Is this worth it?

According to EleAid, India has some of the strictest laws in Asia governing domesticated elephants, but the laws aren’t enforced.  City life is completely unsuited to what elephants need, and some elephants used in tourism or in temples are known for being chained to one spot their whole life or completely over-worked.

As a person who loves animals (and used to spend quite a bit of time with science), I find myself pulled between two poles: I want to both be with animals and see them able to live their lives naturally.  As interesting as it was to spot a bear on a neighbor’s porch in Maine, for example, it was sad to realize that this animal had acquired a taste for human food and was bold enough to walk up to someone’s house and take it.  This means that it is likely that bear will someday die because of something it eats or because it

IMG_3052On our seventh official day of the Kerala Blog Express, we got to take a boat ride in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (*Tigers not Guaranteed.)  This area is only accessible by boat, and is the first place I’ve seen in India with zero trash.  The animals have substantial protected acreage at their disposal, and their lives appear to transpire without human interference, other than boats that watch from a safe distance.  To me, this is how nature was meant to be observed: from a safe distance, in a respectful way, and in controlled numbers (of humans.)

We were able to see elephants again in Wayanad by driving through Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.  We were not permitted to drive through the rest of the sanctuary as planned because the weather was making the animals nervous.  I was glad to hear that we were not being allowed to do something that would jeopardize our (and in turn the animals’) well-being.  To me, the surest sign of a good sanctuary or preserve is that they use the word ‘no.’  There should not be a dollar amount that will assuage concerns for the animals’ well being.

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In Wayanad

As much as we love the magic and intensity (and let’s not forget the profile pics and blog posts) of witnessing a wild animal at close range, it isn’t natural.  They aren’t meant to bend to our will, to eat our food, or to carry us around.  They need space, not chains, and reputable research and preservation organizations need our money more than sketchy places that drug or otherwise abuse the animals do.  It’s not satisfying and it won’t boost my page views, but participating in the mistreatment of animals is not what’s best for those animals.  Neither is going on an elephant ride (or playing with tiger cubs), getting the cool photos, and then writing a contrite, hand-wringing post after the fact to retroactively atone for our participation.  Unfortunately that seems to be the preferred route for travelers with a conscience, myself included: get the snaps, then talk about how messed up it is afterwards.

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A little one in the wild of Wayanad

Beyond the ethics of it, animals are far more interesting when they are behaving as they choose.  As fellow member of the Kerala Blog Express Daniel said on Instagram, seeing a mother and baby elephant interacting in the wild is far better than watching one perform for us on paved city streets.  It was amazing to see a small herd of elephants quietly going about their business this afternoon, not bothered by our presence, not decorated by anything other than mud and their own skin, and completely free of chains.

I hope that governments and tourists alike will help make it easier for letting animals be wild to be an easy choice, one that is rewarded with good publicity and plenty of business.  I hope that consumers become more aware of the power of their dollars, their presence and their photos, and wield them accordingly.  I hope elephants and other, less PR-friendly animals are still around in the wild for generations to come.

Periyar Tiger Reserve wild elephants elephant travel tourism india kerala
Doesn’t this look better than chains and decorations? In the Periyar Tiger Reserve

Want to learn more about how to help animals and make humane decisions?  Try some of these resources below.

Disclaimer: I was in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  They gave no input on my posts or their subject.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Street Harassment and Traveling Advice for Women

Everyone has a lot to say about women travelers, especially if they’re solo, especially if they go somewhere in the Global South.  And really, everyone has a lot to say about women.  Some of the advice is good, like researching backup plans ahead of time so you don’t get stuck staying somewhere that makes you uncomfortable.  It’s pretty obvious and rather good advice for everyone, but at least it’s not bad.  There’s also a lot fo bad advice out there, ranging from racist to victim-blaming, restrictive to non-sensical.  Some people just can’t seem to stop themselves from sharing this advice, even if I don’t ask.  Even if they’ve never been where I’m going.  All of the advice essentially boils down to one premise: as a woman, you are vulnerable and it is therefore your responsibility to alter your behavior in every way imaginable in order to prevent other people from harming you.  If you fail in this, you will be judged for your poor safety efforts and it will be used as an excuse to make blanket statements about what women travelers should or should not do.  Its for your own good, honey.

Thankfully, there was very little street harassment directed my way on my trip to Kerala, India, contrary to the typical American view of the country.  Some of us were discussing possible reasons for this, with the most obvious being that we spent very little time on actual streets.  We were generally in our bus, and when we walked we tended to be on the grounds of a hotel or other attraction where the only people we see are staff.  Not that staffers never harass customers, but it is in their best interest to treat us right, even more so considering we are travel bloggers.  I was very rarely alone, and the group had gender parity (for the bloggers.  On the staff side, Rutavi was holding it down for team XX by herself) so it was rare for me to walk somewhere without someone who presents as a man nearby.  And of course, I do not speak Malayalam or Hindi, so it’s possible I missed some things.

I did enjoy one little insight into the minds of my male compatriots.  One night, 7 or 8 of us went out to buy alcohol.  There were only two women, myself and another blogger.  To buy alcohol in Kerala, a person needs to stand in a line at a small storefront and ask the clerk for what they want, then pay.  All of these stores seem to perpetually have a line, and line culture in India involves a bit more jockeying for position and a lot less personal space than an American is used to.  I took one look at the situation and knew that we didn’t all need to wait in line and that I was definitely not going to be one of the people who did.  It didn’t look scary, and if I needed to I could have, but it just seemed obvious to me that if I could avoid being the only woman in close quarters with a lot of men trying to buy alcohol (and some who had clearly already had their fill), than I should avoid it.  One of the guys must have had the same thought because right away he said that the two women would wait here.  Another guy was confused by this, which is how most guys I have traveled with would react.  It simply doesn’t occur to them–they have never had to think that way.  The idea of a man considering a woman’s safety without being told to (or assuming it’s either exaggeration or an excuse to completely restrict her behavior) is a rare quality indeed, and it immediately raised my positive opinion of him.  Of course, for every helpful precaution there is an annoying bit of paternalism, and one of the men came walking back to us instead of toward the store.  He was nominated on the sly to babysit us women.  I called him on it immediately, and he begrudgingly admitted it.  I didn’t mind the company of course, and the sentiment was frustrating but understandable.  It was just weird that it seemed somewhat covert.

In that story we were in one of the few populated areas where we were able to wander off.  We spent a lot of our walking around time in more rural areas, which offer fewer opportunities for harassment from a purely numeric perspective, though harassment in all forms occurs everywhere.   We are also foreigners, and while that attracts a different sort of attention, it also can cause people in the service industry to be overly deferential and more careful how they behave around us.  Sometimes that extends to average people in the country, out of a sense of hospitality or awareness of the importance of the tourism industry, or a mix of the two.

It’s imperative to remember that my experience here is not universal, and that Kerala is not all of India.  Those with different perceived gender identities and sexual orientations, skin tones, ethnic groups, socioeconomic status, castes, and physical and mental ability levels could all be treated much differently than I. There is the biggest difference that is often overlooked by travelers: those who are local likely experience their own communities in a completely different way than I do.  All this is to say that just because I have barely been harassed doesn’t mean other travelers or Indians won’t be.  Moreover, the State of Kerala is very different from other parts of India, which have their own, often more intense, histories with gender-based violence.  This is not to say Kerala doesn’t also have a problem with gender-based violence (it does; everywhere does) but it does not tend to make the headlines the way Delhi has.

When we discuss street harassment abroad, we must remember that this is not a foreign behavior, or one unique to a certain climate, region, language, religion, or culture.  It looks different from one place to the next, but street harassment happens all over the world so it should be combated all over the world.  Relegating terrible behavior to certain places or types of people lets those who harass but do not fit our mold off the hook.  It can also leave people feeling singled out instead of supported, as evidenced by some of the backlash from the story of a white American study abroad student in India this past year.

At the same time, I feel it is important for those who experience street harassment to find ways of bringing the behavior into the light no matter where they live or who perpetrates harassment.  Many women who travel downplay street harassment abroad in order to keep from worrying loved ones, to minimize racist responses from listeners, to distance themselves from upsetting memories, or because they’re so used to others minimizing their experiences.  However, when we stay silent it can feel like being victimized again.  Personally, my best tool for dealing with street harassment isn’t fighting back or preventative measures.  It’s discussing my experiences with fellow female travelers.  I have mostly given up talking about it with male travelers because their responses range from neutral to disappointing to extremely upsetting, but when they do get it, as in the story above, it brings a feeling of relief.  On the other side of things, I love it when I am able to discuss street harassment with local women in order to learn more about their experience.  Sharing these stories reminds me that this behavior is real, it is not okay, it is not my fault, and I am not alone in experiencing it.  It can also minimize the level of daily stress that street harassment piles on.

LGBTQ and women travelers receive a lot of advice from all directions, all of whom are completely confident that they know what is best.  It is a complicated mix of contradicting and often insulting or victim-blaming information.  I’m a big believer in the Hollaback! model for dealing with mistreatment of women and LGBTQ folks worldwide, which is that local communities are experts on their own experiences, and that however a person feels most safe and empowered is the right choice for them.  Translated to international travel, this means it can be the best decision for one person to travel solo, while for another it is better to arrange to travel with companions.  Or, more realistically, the same traveler could arrive at varying conclusions depending on many factors, including their comfort level with independent travel, their assessment of their own safety, and their preference.  I am equally sick of hearing women being shamed and blamed for solo travel as when they are bullied as less-than for opting to go a safer, more comfortable route such as traveling with a package tour, a touring group, friends, family, or a partner.  We really don’t need more people telling women what to do.  However you manage to feel safe and comfortable while traveling is what you should do, because I firmly believe we need to make travel more accessible, not less.

What’s your experience of street harassment, at home or abroad?  Does it match what others who live or travel to there experience?  How do you feel about all the advice people constantly give women?

The Party

Che Guevara India Kerala Communism
One of many street art Ches around Kerala

After I had made all my arrangements to go to Kerala, I found out something fantastic: it has an active communist party (or two)!  Does communism find me or am I chasing communism?  Either way, I find it fascinating, especially to see how it works in a unicameral parliamentary democracy.  Kerala prides itself on being the first place where communism came into power via peaceful elections, a tidbit no one lost any time in telling me.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front (which includes the currently-impotent Communist Marxist Party), is still very active, generally winning elections on alternating 5 year terms.

communism socialism kerala india
It is common to see little offices like this one, as well as sponsored bus stops.

The Kerala Land Reform Act (which originated in 1963 with several notable amendments),  gave land rights to tenants, ending the feudal system (except for cash crops) and giving thousands a home of their own for the first time.  The reform completely altered the state and set it on a trajectory for relatively little economic stratification.  Redistribution of wealth (and land in particular) is a hallmark of communism, often lamented by wealthy landowners, and beloved by hardworking farmers freed of their peasant status (unless they’re just random people who you forced to be farmers.  That doesn’t go over to well.)  People commonly referred to Kerala as a state made entirely of the middle class, and I think the land reforms were a key factor in this.

Communism in Kerala hit a turning point in 1967 with the Naxalite uprising, and other ensuing violent acts.  Elements within the party wanted a more anarchic stance, and used violence to that end, which drastically changed public opinion.  The communists, who at the time were one party, were forced out of government and had to clean house.  Naxalites and other destabilizing elements split from the party, and the purged CPI(M) returned to the national discourse,  Naxalites are still active (and violent) in India, although deaths have decreased in the last few years.

Idian National Congress Kerala India politics
An ad (or street art?) from the party that leads the other coalition in Kerala, the Indian National Congress

The acceptance of religion and ignoring class differences are major departures from classical communism.  That did not go unnoticed.  Eventually, the powers that be in Moscow and Beijing decided that Kerala communism wasn’t communist enough, and turned their backs.  Honestly, from the standpoint of human rights, efficacy, corruption, and common sense, having communist leaders in China and the USSR say you don’t make the grade is a bit of a compliment.

Another manifestation of communism is the bureaucracy in Kerala, though to be honest I think that’s a hallmark of governance.  The Nazis had bureaucracy and they were fascists, on the complete opposite political pole.  Both liberal and conservative politicians in the US have put forth bills that embellish our already strong bureaucratic tradition.  Basically, bureaucracy = government jobs, so it’s in the government’s best interest to keep itself (and its friends) in business.  While several different Indians blamed the bureaucracy of Kerala on communism to me throughout the trip, I’m not sold.  Convince me in the comments, guys!

Advertisements for Kingfisher, the most popular beer.  While the beer itself isn't nationalized, all alcohol sales in Kerala are public.
Advertisements for Kingfisher, the most popular beer. While the beer itself isn’t nationalized, all alcohol sales in Kerala are public.

What did make me think of communism was the state-run liquor distribution.  Obviously nationalizing industries is a hallmark of communism, but so is standing in lines for basically no reason.  If it were a sport, people in communist countries would win the world cup of queueing every time, and their governments would be champions of creating high numbers of needless lines, usually in inconvenient locations.  Stay tuned for a post on alcohol in Kerala because it’s fascinating there.  And delicious.  Just kidding, Indian wine was terrible, but the beer and whiskey were passable.

I think it’s interesting how many pockets of communism there really are left.  The American view is that it’s all gone–except for our own president, of course.  All kidding aside, people do seem incredulous that Sweden’s Third Way exists, or that Cuba is not actually a barren wasteland.  Which leads many people to argue that all of this isn’t really communism.  In some cases that’s true–Kerala isn’t a purely communist state, more like a liberal welfare state with an extra dose of paternalism and solidarnosc–but I’d also argue many capitalist countries aren’t purely capitalist anymore, including the US.  And thank god for that–the Gilded Age was the worst.

mundu lungi kerala che guevara communism socialism india
Kerala’s Che wears a mundu.

Kerala certainly embodies an overall egalitarian quality, with stronger workers’ rights, high levels of education and healthcare, less prominent caste system (it’s still there though, more on that in a later post), overall religious tolerance, and a high sex ratio (that is, XX fetuses aren’t being selectively aborted as they are in much of the world, including other parts of India.)  It is also quite developed compared to the rest of India,  with the highest life expectancy, lowest homicide rate, and lowest corruption in the whole of India.  Kerala also has a strong focus on environmentalism and recycling, which we saw in hotels and public campaigns everywhere we went in the state.  Globally Kerala does quite well in regards to development, with an HDI of 0.79, which translates to “High Development” (the only Indian state to do so) compared to India as a whole, which scored 0.554, or “Medium Development”.  (I cannot tell you how excited I was when our tour guide, Manoj, brought up the Human Development Index!)  Basically, Kerala is my kind of communism: take away all the censorship (newspapers for days!), corruption, and human rights violations, and add religious tolerance and a high standard of living.  Of course, do the same thing to capitalist countries and I’m all in as well.

These successes are not purely a credit to the CPI(M), but also to the United Democratic Front (the opposition, led by the Indian National Congress), the virtues of coalition governance, Kerala’s matrilineal history, the educational and cosmopolitan influences of outsiders, including the church, and the people of Kerala for voting for progressive parties and measures, and holding their government accountable.   There’s certainly still a lot of work ahead of Kerala, especially in terms of sewage and water treatment, waste management, a high reliance on remittances, and lingering class and gender issues.  It really depends on what you compare Kerala with, the rest of India, other parts of the Global South, or the Global North.  Sewage, water treatment and remittances are major issues in the Global South, whereas waste management, class and gender issues need work worldwide.

Disclaimer: This post was made possible by Kerala Tourism, who sponsored my trip to Kerala, India.  They had no input on the subjects or views of my posts.  The opinions contained are completely my own.  I am open to sponsorships and advertising as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Ayurveda

Kerala is known worldwide for the system of healthcare and healing known as Ayurveda.  It was one of the things I heard most about before arriving.  Scholars think Ayurveda has been around since 5,000 BC, and the majority of practitioners worldwide are trained in Kerala.  Ayurveda doctors evaluate patients by using all of their senses, and consider a person holistically: mental and physical health as well as diet.  Recommendations for treatment often include dietary changes as well as physical treatments, and its common to treat things like weight gain, migraines, and general aches and pains as well as more serious ailments that Western medicine would say requires surgery.

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The grounds of an Ayurvedic spa.

Practitioners use a variety of herbs and spices in their healing, as well as other natural elements like milk, honey, and oil.  Some are mixed in a poultice and rubbed over the body, while others are applied and wrapped on parts of the body.  Warm oils are a major component of Ayurveda, and it seems most procedures involve covering the person in oil at one point or another.  There is also quite a bit of massage in Ayurveda, and of course this is the component that carries over to the casual consumer like myself.  Unlike western massage, the focus is on rhythmic rubbing, sometimes with two different masseurs at once.  Patients are always treated by someone of the same gender, and most procedures involve a high degree of nudity.  Genuine Ayurveda can also involve leeches and enemas, although I’m willing to bet few tourists get involved in that.

While on the Kerala Blog Express I had two complimentary Ayurvedic massages, one from the Kumarakom Lake Resort in Kottayam and the other from Vythiri Village in Wayanad.  Nelson was nice enough to give me a heads up on the overview (including the minimal attire), but I basically went into the first one feet first, figuring that if it was terrible, at least I could write about it.  They were an hour each, starting with a phenomenal ten minute scalp massage.  She rubbed oil into my head (much less than on the body but still more oil than my hair usually encounters) and moved on to what I call the travel blogger muscles: the neck and shoulder muscles that become aggravated by carrying a backpack full of tech, hunching over at a computer, or riding for many hours in the world’s coolest/craziest bus.

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The lobby of an Ayurvedic spa.

Both of my masseuses were completely professional and relaxing.  I feel like I will literally never be cleaner than I was after my massages–although I did keep finding oil on my ears for a couple of days.  So many nooks and crannies!  The way they used their hands I actually forgot there was a person massaging me.  During the first one I almost fell asleep a few times.  The first massage also included a mud body scrub, which I washed off while still in the spa, but for the second one I stayed oily (after wiping off the excess) for an hour or so before bathing, in order to let the oil sink in.   After both massages I was completely relaxed, and my face is the smoothest and softest it has ever been.   Both also involved a lot of movements that were confusing and jarring at first (like lightly hitting all over my head, or abrupt finger flicks and squeezes) which turned out to be weirdly pleasant somehow.  I don’t know who was the first person to think of hitting tourists and charging them for it, but they were one smart cookie.

Wares for sale at an Ayurveda shop
Wares for sale at an Ayurveda shop

Some other members of the group had a more…invasive experience.  That was not how it was for me, but it was still a full body massage, so it is not for the faint of heart.  One member of our group had un-requested assistance bathing themselves after the massage.  Yowza.  It’s interesting to me that of the people who were uncomfortable (and rightfully so, it sounds like some masseurs got up close and personal) no one really said anything to the masseuse.  I think when humans feel like something is “supposed” to happen they will keep their mouths shut through a lot, perhaps out of surprise or not wanting to offend or do it wrong.  What an interesting manifestation of consent (or lack thereof) and a common reaction to unwanted touching: paralysis and silence.

A tranquil pool at an Ayurdveda spa.
A tranquil pool at an Ayurdveda spa.

I only personally experienced the quick, tourist version of Ayurveda, so it’s the only one I can really evaluate.  Some tourists, like a woman I met on the flight over, go through procedures in depth, but that requires a greater commitment.  That woman and her husband were going for 2 or 3 weeks, which she considered the bare minimum to do it right.  The greater commitment is not only an issue of time but also of behavior.  Patients are expect to eat vegetarian food and refrain from sex, among other things.  Most Ayurveda hotels had a completely separate section for those experiencing treatment, so they would not be disturbed by regular vacationers.  It was quite clear from the expensive, all-inclusive nature of Ayurveda spas located inside hotels that their target demographic is not Indians, but rather wealthy tourists.

IMG_2311I wish I could have had time to see an Ayurvedic hospital, which is how local people experience Ayurveda.  From what I understand, for many Malayali this is their main form of healthcare.  We spoke with a few different practitioners of Ayurveda, and both seemed prepared for cynicism.  One was asked whether Ayurveda can cure cancer.  His rather sensible answer was that it cannot, but no system of medicine can.  What it can offer is relief from some of the negative side effects of chemotherapy.  He said he’s seen patients able to return to chemotherapy much quicker with the help of Ayurveda, since it shortened the recovery time.  I don’t know if that’s true, but Ayurveda is certainly profitable and long-standing, and a central part of Kerala’s identity as a state.

Have you ever heard of (or experienced) Ayurveda?  What do you think of non-Western medicine?

Disclaimer: This post was made possible by Kerala Tourism, who sponsored my trip to Kerala, India.  They had no input on the subjects or views of my posts.  The opinions contained are completely my own.  I am open to sponsorships and advertising as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Munnar

One of the most beautiful and relaxing parts of our time in Kerala was heading up the mountains to the tea plantations and spending a night in the hill station of Munnar.  The cool mountain air was a lovely relief after so many sticky days.  We were pleasantly surprised that the state-run hotel was quite nice, and a few of us got to eat french fries!  Most importantly, since we arrived before sunset, everyone had some free time to themselves.  This all came at the point in the trip where people usually need a break–from the hectic pace of travel, from the parade of foreign buffets, from the formula of a group trip, and from the inside of our (admittedly swag) bus.

I went for a walk with Gaia and Meruschka, eventually coming across about half of our group at one time or another.  I enjoyed moving at our own speed and in such small numbers.  It always relaxes me to be able to shoot without a group either waiting for me or constantly suspicious that I could possibly find a shot they didn’t.  The results aren’t exactly stellar, but shooting always helps to clear out the cobwebs, which is exactly what I needed after a long day on the bus.

Like everywhere else in Kerala, multiple major religions were present at every turn.  As we moved farther north, the increasing influence of Arabs and Islam was comforting.  I love hearing the call to prayer, especially at sunset, and I found the influenced version of Kerala food to be fantastic.  I think we all found ourselves wishing we could stay in Munnar longer, but perhaps the reality is that we were just starved for some sunshine and free time off the bus.

Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

A Day with the Masters: Kalamandalam School in Kerala

We had the opportunity to visit Kalamandalam dance school in Kerala.  The school teaches over 20 different disciplines, including several types of dance, theatre, makeup, drumming, and singing.   There are 60 teachers and over 200 students in those 20 disciplines, and several of the current teachers were students themselves.   The school itself is funded by the state government in an attempt to preserve local traditional arts.  Several of them died out before they could be saved, as many artforms were practised only by specific families in certain geographical areas and were not passed on when family members lost interest or died out.

Students take regular school courses in addition to lesson in their given discipline, usually attending for six years.  It takes 8 to earn and undergraduate degree, and several more for a PhD.   The program is residential, with students living together nearby in a dorm-like Spartan atmosphere.  Classes can start as early as 4 in the morning in order to fit in the necessary hours to practice their discipline, attend standard classes like math, and complete their homework.

In another time period, the arts primarily belonged to the upper class, meaning that only those from certain castes could participate.  They also were only performed in certain areas at certain times, and did not tend to be open to the general public.  This modern, public revival and preservation of the arts has democratized this aspect of culture, allowing all Kerala people (as well as foreigners and other Indians) to participate as well as view these arts forms.  Several of these types of performance are  classified as part of the World Heritage by UNESCO.   It’s great to see the government taking an active role in preserving culture and combatting yet another manifestation of the caste system.

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Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post.  I am in Kerala, India on a trip sponsored by Kerala Tourism.  The views contained are completely my own.  I accept advertisers as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For advertising inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Archaeology in Kerala

P J Cherian
P J Cherian

The other day in Pattanam, central Kerala , we had an amazing opportunity to see an archeological site in progress and meet with the site’s director.  I’ve seen many artifacts uncovered by archeologists, especially in Egypt, but this was my first chance to visit an active site.

The site was first excavated due to some surface findings, with digging starting in 2007.  The site now includes 4 acres of land with nearly 45 separate trenches in a heavily populated area.  All but one of the trenches have produced artifacts thus far.  The effort is lead by P.J. Cherian, the Director of the Kerala Council for Historical Research.  The team is made up of 20-25 locals, which a rotating cast of visiting team members, including 12 people coming from Oxford next week and 4 or 6 coming from Australia in the next few weeks.  The excavation is mostly funded by the Kerala state government, and won’t be displayed publicly for at least a year.

Pattanam trench, 1 of about 45.
Pattanam trench, 1 of about 45.

Cherian said one of the biggest obstacles to his line of work in India is a lack of interest and education among the population.  In the words of his son, “why do you need the history of 2000 years, isn’t 200 enough?”  Of course finances are also an obstacle, and it was clear his focus is on the research (at least for now) more than the eventual display of these artifacts.

This artifacts from the site go back as far as the Iron Age (1000 BC), covering 90 generations over 2,000 year period.  When speaking about the significance of the site, Cherian said this site yielded 4 million pieces of pottery–previously, only 700 pieces had been found throughout all of India.  Within the historical context, it has long been known that there was a major international port city in the area, but historians didn’t know its exact location.  The presence of artifacts from Mesopotamia, the rest of India, pre-Islamic Middle East including what is now Yemen and Oman, and Europe make him confident that this is that trade city.  The oldest layers contained evidence of regional travel, with successive layers containing evidence of trade from farther afield.

The sign that caught my eye
The sign that caught my eye

Towards the end of our visit, we went to the office/museum to see some pieces that have been unearthed so far.  On one of the signs, I noticed the term “feminist archeology” referenced and of course my interest piqued.  I asked Cherian about the term, and he responded that it refers to archaeology that tries to imagine the worlds of women and children.  He said, “We never imagine women when we undertake archaeology.  We just think of men, even today, because it is a male-dominated patriarchal society.”  In his words, this type of archeology attempts to answer the question, “where were your women, what were they doing?”  I’m glad that these questions are now being pursued by archeologists and that their absence from traditional archeology is being addressed.  However, it is a bit pathetic that women and children have historically been ignored by the field (and many others), and I find realities like this are the reason we need a term like feminism (as about to “humanism” or “equality”): the generic terms that sound inclusive have historically been exclusive, and that needs to be recognized if it is to be remedied.

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