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Visiting the Untouchables of India - Page Three

Abhorrent Conditions

I am mortified at the abhorrent conditions of the poor, but worse is trying to understand a culture that accepts it as retribution for past sins.

The problem seems too overwhelming to fix, so Hinduism washes it all away as God's will. As written, Hinduism subcribes to the theory of Karma (the law of cause and effect). Each individual creates his or her own destiny by thoughts, words, and deeds.

Illness, accident, and injury result from the karma one creates and are seen as a means of purification. Karma is believed to accrue over many lifetimes. Hence, an illness may be seen as a result of actions in this life or a past life.

Still it's hard for me to accept. The first shanty town I see is under a highway underpass. It's an impression burned on my brain. It's so unsanitary and dehumanizing I look away in disgust. Chickens and cows (sacred animals) cohabitate with people in the same 6 feet of space.

Conscience Wins Out

One sleeps in a makeshift hut while the other is chained to a rope. Some think that these extremities are what make India so fascinating. I think it's horrible and secretly give away oranges and apples to starving children. I'm told that doing so will encourage the begging but it's my conscience I'm battling and it wins out everytime.

Some students leave Chennai to visit the capital, Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay. They return with stories far worse than Chennai; begging touts, foul odors, noise and pollution. One tour guide even has to tackle a street seller with a water bottle.

Air and Water

Air in New Delhi is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes a day, so students donned scarfs around their mouths. Students in Varanasi decided to skip a holy dip in the Ganges because bathing in it is equivalent to swimming in toilet water.

40,000 cremations are performed each year along the Ganges, most on wood pyres that do not completely consume a body. Thousands more who cannot afford cremation simply thrown cadavers into the river. In addition, the carcasses of dead cattle and industrial and toxic chemical waste pollute it.

We're honored to be the first foreigners invited to Kodur, a small Dalit village in Tamil Nadu. Little more than a thousand hopeful Untouchables await our visit. It's a special invitation that begins with lighting a candle in holy camphor oil, spreading it on the ground and marking a dot on our foreheads.

Vishnu Temple at Mamallapuram, southern India

Alien World

Accompanied by a parade of half-naked musicians and aging dancers, we follow the merry men through their neighborhood of mud huts, gardens and farm animals. I'm truly in an alien world, a world miles from civilization and decades from progress.

A strong woman balances a clay water pot on her head as she invites us into her home. Her mudhut has dirt floors neatly swept and cleaned of debris and bugs.

We remove our shoes and enter a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. She has no sanitation, no running water and limited electricity but she's proud to show off her cooking and invites us for dinner.

Little girls swarm around me amazed at the camera I'm carrying. A battery-powered radio is the only technology they're familiar with.

Unlike in the city, Dalit children are too shy and reserved to touch my camera or take my hand. Their wide eyes and gentle curiosity stays repressed until I give each one a giant bear-size hug and the ice is broken. At first they pull away but gradually more and more youth crowd around wanting a hug of their own.

Working Against Prejudice

Mahatma Gandhi fought long and hard to raise the awareness of the needs and rights of Harijan (Men of God) or Untouchables. Today, several committees and organizations continue to help improve Dalit treatment. Dr. Henry Thiagaraj; a UN-NGO and coordinator of our homestay, works against discrimination and prejudices.

Technically it's illegal to discriminate against Untouchables but millions face violent reprisals if they forget their place. Dr. Thiagaraj shows us extreme examples of those raped, burned, lynched, and even gunned down. Some websites he's written for include: echoinggreen.org and hrw.org.

He tempts me to shoot a documentary here - a dangerous but rewarding proposition. We exchange numbers and I'm hopeful that I'll be back one day. By night fall, Dr. Henry decides against having us spend the night here because monsoon rains can deluge the ground and he's afraid we'll get sick. The visit wraps up with a traditional dance recital by the children. My heart melts.

Holy Sites

The British first established Chennai 350 years ago, so there are several churches and holy sites to see. But Hinduism is the most celebrated religion and Kancheepuram is one of seven of the most sacred pilgrimmage sites in India.

Ekambareswararwar Temple dates back to 16th century and is the largest of the Shiva temples. It sprawls over 20 acres with a 1,000-pillared hall and a towering gopuram at 6,000 feet - one of the tallest in South India. Other temples include names I can barely keep straight but whose carnal courtyards and hedonistic sculptures contradict the inhibited nature of Indians.

Indecency Sanctified

One temple reveals how immorality and indecency are sanctified in the name of Hinduism. Lingam and Yoni are the male and female sexual organs and both appear in hundreds of bas-reliefs. My own camera, I dub her Beta-Betty, blushes with embarassment.

Everyone knows Hinduism is steeped in eroticism but these explicit tantric carvings border on hardcore porno. For grins I buy 12 miniature reproductions - the perfect stocking stuffer for all my experimental friends!

The world is a smaller place since leaving India and if it weren't for the Sudras and Dalits, I doubt I'd ever return. They both helped me document the best and worst parts of South India.

The wretchedly poor majority, the searing temperatures and the emphatic merchants were the worst. The delicious culinary delights, bargaining power and seductive architecture were the best.

Deep down though, it's their generosity that's made my world richer. Thank you, kind souls, and pray to Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva that I'll be back with camera in hand.

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