Karnataka, Voyage of Discovery

Our journey up the spine of the Deccan state of Karnataka from Mysore to Bijapur turned into something of a thrill ride backwards and forwards through its history as we stopped off at some of the finest ancient sites in India. And there just are so many of them. Half were not even on the original plan that I had handed to Deepak, my indefatigable organiser in Delhi. He must have made a unilateral decision that there were certain places that I simply could not afford to miss; either that or he couldn’t bear the thought of having to get me back later when I realised what a treasury I’d overlooked.

Fortunately for Grahame (who does not share quite my passion for ancient civilisations) the countryside was absolutely beautiful and our driver happy to stop for pictures of and questions about traditional agricultural methods. We saw people at work everywhere; herding, ploughing, harvesting, winnowing, often with only the most basic of hand tools. Between the villages you could almost be feel yourself stepping back a few hundred years, the landscape was so idyllic.

Two things stood out as seemingly characteristic of this state. No one works too hard and everyone has enough to get by. A grandiose statement with which I am sure many would disagree but I can only stand by what I observed during ten days on the back roads. Wherever we went we saw people who had enough time to stop and chat, men with unbent backs, women colourfully attired (and since they carried their burdens on their heads their posture was absolutely superb), children cycling to and from school and even the pie dogs looked as if they had enough to eat.

My travelling companion noticed a pleasing variety of crops with fields often given over to multiple crops; sugar cane grown with bananas, beans with tomatoes and rice, corn, sunflowers other fruits we didn’t even recognise all within the space of a few acres. Where production has been centralised, for example the processing of rice or milk, the plants are not very big and apparently local to a small cluster of farms. We were told that it had been a particularly dry season and, indeed, several of the lakes were almost dry but this is still a remarkably benevolent landscape, something which perhaps explains how so many dynasties of religious and secular rulers have been able to rise and fall here on the switchback ride of history.

In this particular state a considerable amount of attention is being given to educating its children about that history and since we were there during the school holidays we met them by the coachload. I say “holidays” but the authorities have apparently reached some sort of compromise with working parents and flocks of juniors (6-11 year olds) all neatly dressed in their brightly coloured uniforms proceed in intersecting “crocodiles” across every historical monument in the state. These official educational outings have become an important cornerstone of Karnataka policy as have free uniforms, books, bicycles and even additional sets of clothing to encourage the rural communities to keep every child in school. And they were adorable.

As we were usually the only Europeans around and often the first that these children had ever seen, we frequently found ourselves completely surrounded. Mercifully, the state’s benevolence does not extend to mobile phones for the little ones and it was the teachers who kept stopping us and asking for photographs. It is difficult to refuse when you find yourself engulfed by thirty or so appealing and well behaved small children but it happened so many times that we could scarcely see the ancient sites through the throng and began to realise that our own education was being neglected. At one stage Grahame asked in frustration “how many more of them are there?” I made a quick mental calculation and replied: “about five hundred million”.

The teenaged children were also out in force and, while their schools do not necessarily take them for free, they all seem to be enjoying excursions at this time of year as well. These girls don’t wear uniform and vie with each other for the most brilliantly coloured and elaborately adorned salwar kameez outfits (without the old-fashioned baggy pants of their grandmother’s generation). Prettier than parakeets, they brighten up any boring old archaeological photographs. That’s if you can fight your way through them to get a glimpse of the statuary at all. The boys also, are anxious to show off and I suppose the elaborately quiffed hair, too-tight jeans and uncomfortably pointed shoes do give them a bit of a peacock strut.

For this is the “selfie generation” and, if one in a thousand grew up to remember anything more than the quest to obtain the best image of themselves and their friends to share on social media I would be surprised. The most interesting backdrop they could find amongst the ruins for their pouting, giggling mugshots seemed to be a pair of British grandparents and few bothered to ask politely. And there were literally thousands of them. Here it was impossible not to show annoyance so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Grahame and I turn up on You Tube grumpily telling a group of Indian teenagers to get lost.

Speaking of social media, India apparently now leads the world in the new phenomenon of the “killfie”: the fatal selfie. Backwards over cliffs, off the top of high buildings, under trains or in the jaws of wild animals, over a hundred Indian youngsters lost their lives last year in the quest for the perfect pose. Much as I love this country, I am not totally blind to its faults.

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