From being a comparatively poor country at Independence in 1947, India has become a fast-growing major economy. It's a hub for worldwide information technology services, and plenty of call centres. Labour is cheap.India has a space programme which includes several planned or completed extra-terrestrial missions and is a nuclear weapons state, ranking high in military expenditure. It has ongoing and long term disputes over Kashmir with its neighbours, Pakistan and China.
Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. India has therefore substantially reduced its rate of poverty. However, it still faces the challenges of gender inequality, child malnutrition, and rising levels of air pollution. The extreme poverty rate in India is now down to 3%. but that is still nearly 50 million people.
There are more road deaths in India than any other country in the world. Officially, about 115,000 people die on Indian roads each year - though a recent British Medical Journal study suggests that the true number of fatalities is closer to 200,000.
I have a love- hate relationship with India. It is an endlessly fascinating assault on the senses: colourful, vibrant, and wonderfully spiritual. The festivals are joyful and amazing. the landscapes temples and architecture are astonishing
The crowds and disregard for personal space are wearing, the poverty is difficult to deal with, (though numbers of people living on the streets appear to have diminished dramatically over recent years). The treatment of women as second class citizens is still a huge challenge in many places.
I have visited ten times and have still only seen a small part of India’s incredible diversity.
The first time I went to Sri Lanka we toured the island. It was supposed to be a group tour, but there were only a couple travelling with their granddaughter in the bus with us for most of the time. We began in Colombo, a city which grew to importance because of its large harbour and very strategic position on the trade routes. The British made it the capital, when they incorporated what was then called Ceylon, into their Empire. It's still the largest city, financial hub and judicial capital, but the legislative and administrative duties were pushed out, to a new capital, in the Colombo suburbs, called Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte,
Colombo features plenty of colonial buildings and our first sighting, (to be followed by many more), of the locals playing cricket on Galle face Green. Volleyball is the national sport, but cricket is the national obsession. I saw the cricket ground at Galle on a later visit but that’s moving on too fast.
Our tour takes us to the tea country at an elevation of over 6,000 feet in Nuwara Eliya. We are accommodated in an atmospheric relic of a tea plantation mansion. The tea is described as light in colour and delicate in taste. The mansion is cold and damp.
Kandy was the last capital of the ancient kingdoms of Ceylon. It's also an important religious centre. We are lucky enough to catch the annual grand Esala Perahera procession - the parading of the Buddha's Tooth. It's kept in The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic or Sri Dalada Maligawa, iwithin the royal palace complex of the former Kingdom of Kandy. It's one of the most sacred Buddhist relics in existence. They process it through the streets on the back of an elephant - in a specially decorated howdah.
A whirlwind tour involved the famous rock Buddhas of Sri Lanka, reclining and reposing,
The area around the city of Dambulla is known as the Cultural Triangle for obvious reasons. Though it's more like a weird rhomboid. It includes the rock fortress at Sigiriya the Dambulla caves and Mihintale, the old capital at Anuradhapuror and the ruins at Polonnaruwa.
The fortress at Sigiriya is built on top of a massive rock column 180 metres high (AD 477-495). There are frescoes on the rock and a lion gate half way up- hence the name 'Lion Rock'. It's stunning and truly vertigo inducing.
The huge white Ruwanweli Maha Seya, also known as the Mahathupa, is a stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Two quarts or one Dona of the Buddha's relics are enshrined in the stupa, making it the largest collection of his relics anywhere. Anuradhapura is centred on a Sacred Bodhi Tre. It's, believed to be grown from a cutting taken from the original Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.
The cave temples at Dambulla are thought to date back to the first century BC, but over the centuries they have been added to and extended, to form the present complex of five separate cave temples.
Polonnaruwa was the second oldest of all Sri Lanka's kingdoms, after Anuradhapura in 993. Here are, the colossal ruins of the incredible garden-city and statues, created by King Parakramabahu I in the 12th century. There's even (it's thought) one of Parakramabahu himself. The reclining Gal Vihara is the most famous Buddha at Polonnaruwa. And the Polonnaruwa Vatadage structure is thought to have been built to hold the Relic of the tooth of the Buddha. The one that is paraded in Kandy. There is an alternative theory, though, that it might be for Buddha's bowl instead.
We finally make it to the beach at Trincomalee, on the east coast. We aren’t allowed to go any further north, because we are near Tamil Tiger country. Our hotel is overbooked and they send us to a smaller basic place down the road. We learn to eat authentic Sri Lankan curry, with heaps of chilli on the side, mixed with coconut to take away the heat of the chilli. Eventually, we manage to complain our way back, into the right hotel.
My second and third trips are to Ayurvedic establishments in the south west of Sri Lanka at Weligama and Beruwela. I'm collected from the airport in the small hours and have to keep poking my taxi driver to keep him from nodding off. He stops at a McDonalds to get us both a snack. McRice and chicken, with ginger beer. There's no escaping the Yellow Arches.
Each day, I eat a vegetarian pitta and vata balancing diet (the curry is still pretty hot and some of the vegetables are truly vile). Then, I have a massage involving yellow-orange paper knickers, wooden trays and a great deal of warm oil. Sometimes i Have oil dribbled on my forehead and have to wear a cap afterwards. These are followed with daubings of sticky brown poultices. (More yellow. I'm beginning to feel like Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.)
Then, I lie on a bed with acupuncture needles stuck all over me. An Indian lady jabs them in and moves onto other prone victims, removing them in rotation. She's a little absent minded and sometimes loses the needles. I'm not convinced she knows who has what. I fear she is just being hopeful. Finally, I glug disgusting, specially brewed, draughts of medicine. They're intended as purgatives. An accidental double dose ensures they work splendidly.
In-between, I doze on a sunbed looking down on golden beaches and watch the sun set, through thousands of waving palms. There's some fabulous snorkelling, though rain cuts both these pleasures short. The clientele was mostly German - I do a lot of reading too.
In the evening there is entertainment, such as traditional dancing. And, on New Year's Eve, greasy pole climbing - and firecrackers.
Weligama is known for its sweep of beach (it means sandy) and its stilt fishermen. They erect a single pole in the chest-deep water on the beach, just few metres off-shore. Then they perch on a cross bar and use a bamboo fishing rods to cast their cast their lines. It means they can out reach the surf.
In-between treatments I get to sneak in outings.
There are several gorgeous beaches in the area. In mate Frances and I take a trishaw to Mirissa, just along the coast. It boasts some diverting jewellery and fabric shops. As well as an island. Taprobane Island (see above). It was built in the 1920's by Count de Mauny-Talvande (not his baptised name). It's the only private island on Sri Lanka and it makes play on its luxurious mansion and grounds. And the fact that there is nothing between the island and Antarctica. Except the sea, of course. You have to wade out to it. There's a nice cocktail bar at Mirissa too. though we are not supposed to have alcohol.
Th city of Galle is half an hour up the road. The main sight here is the Dutch fort with its adjacent light house, by the water. Others would argue that it is the cricket ground. There' s also the fish market. the fruit market and some temples, especially an old Hindu temple with an intriguing interior.
In the other direction Matara and Dondra, right on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. There's a 39 metre high seated Buddha statue at the Weherahena Buddhist Temple, followed by the lighthouse at Dondra and yet another temple with several giant buddhas, further on at at Wewurukannala Vihara. Here. there's the biggest Buddha in Sri Lanka. This one is 50 metres tall. It dates back to the eighteenth century. but that's the more restrained part. The larger, gaudier part, was added in the middle of the last century. As was the Tunnel of Hell, through which you have to pass to approach the Buddha. It reminds you of all the punishments that await should you succumb to temptation on the road to enlightenment. It's not pretty.
You can climb to the top of the Buddha for a close up look at his head and views across the complex.
The retreat at Beruwela is closer to Colombo and nearer the tourist beaches of Bentota. More shops, and the Kande Vihara Temple.
Read more about Sri Lanka here.
Levels of extreme poverty run at about 4% of the population, which is low for a developing nation and good when compared with most of Asia.
I was going to spend Easter at home writing, but then I read an article in a Sunday supplement and settled instead for a fortnight having Ayurvedic treatment. So, here I am in Kerala, a state in the far south of India. It's known for beaches, palm trees and its mountains- the Western Ghats. The capital, where I've landed, is Thiruvananthapuram, thankfully often shortened to Trivandrum. It's almost right on the southern tip of India. Gandhi nicknamed it The Evergreen City of India, but it's apparently also known as God's Own Capital.
My first stop, at Kovalum, is classic postcard bent palm trees with fine white sand and a line of wooden dhows marching into the sea. There's a striped lighthouse on the main beach, which is packed. It's a favourite meeting place for the locals, as as well as being a home for the fishing boats.
First, a mini tour of the area. starting with Thekkady. Thekkady means teak and this is very much a tourist town. It is advertised as being home to herds of elephants, sambar, tigers, gaur, lion-tailed macaques and Nilgiri langurs. But it is also famous for its thick forests So, in fact, sightings of elephants and especially tigers are highly unlikely. Tea plantations, myriad fantastic green patterns waving up the slopes, at Thekkady. Spices grown locally, in gardens open to the public and included on every tour.
A boat cruise in the Periyar ‘Tiger Safari’ Park, where I'm told, there is more chance of seeing elephant. And deer and bison coming down to drink. But, as Lonely Planet says, ‘it doesn’t scream wildlife experience’. It’s an artificial lake, made by the British constructing a dam on the river, and the boat is crammed with noisy Indian tourists. Unsurprisingly, we fail to spot any tigers, (except for cardboard cut outs), but we do encounter a small herd of elephant, sauntering down to the water. All the passengers scream and run to the rail, on one side, to see them. For a few moments I fear my time is up. The elephants lumber off, of course.
Afterwards, tea and banana fritters on the lawn of my hotel.
I am being driven around by a dishy, but very, naive six foot 29 year old who spends the whole journey telling me that he would like to fall in love with an English lady. He drives like a maniac, as does everyone. Only the cows use the zebra crossings. There's plenty to see in Kerala. Mountains covered in lush vegetation, huge flat valleys, abundant flowers. Hindu temples and an ornate Roman Catholic Church with a huge dome to report. Ox carts rolling by. There are also statues of gods being transported. It's Vishu, a holiday in Kerala which, according to the local blurb, ‘is celebrated with much fanfare and energy’.
Now I’m staying on an island resort on the edge of a lake. It’s only accessible by small speedboat. This is what the website says: 'History in Liquid Reflections. There are so many facets to the Coconut Lagoon experience. The heritage of the old feudal villages of Malabar. The vast frolic of the Vembanad Lake. The shimmering waters of the canals that criss-cross the property. The flavour bursts of Kerala home-style cooking'. Coconut Lagoon is located in the Kerala district of Kuttanad, or the Land of the Short People. Someone suggests that this name came about because the folks here are always knee deep in the paddy fields that form most of the island.
I have an ‘antique’ cottage. I get up and have a shower in my open air bathroom, complete with full size banana tree, offering ripe hands of fruit. Eat vegetable dhosas for breakfast, along with water melon juice and fresh mangoes. Amble along the labyrinth of little canals and bridges, Venetian style, that make up the island and take a two hour boat ride through the backwaters, past canoes and flat boats skipping through the channels, all lined with palms and bobbing darters.
Children cavort on the banks playing cricket and letting off loud firecrackers, when we ignore the shouts of ‘Gimme Pen’, the tourist international language. Return, a trifle scorched and clamber into a hammock overlooking the lake. The miniature hump backed cows that act as lawn mowers are butting the boys who are trying to tether them. Eat fresh cashews and pineapple for lunch with coconut and ginger shake. Read till I am even more scorched and then fall into the swimming pool. Sit and read in the Jacuzzi. Then go for another boat ride, this time to watch the sun go down behind the lake.
Finally, my first Ayuredvic treatment. Massaged and pummelled with oil and herbs by two women at once. Blissful, sublime. Then a curry buffet. The food is brilliant. Best curry so far, the unlikely sounding cashew and pea. Stuffed to the hilt (well the Indians love English clichés and it's catching). I can just about manage to type.
It's a balmy beautiful evening and pipes are lilting across the water.
Cochin, (or Kochi) where I am treated to a converted maharajah’s palace. Polished teak and designer curry. This famous port 'Queen of the Arabian Sea', was an important spice trading centre on the west coast of India from the fourteenth century onward, when a flood fortuitously carved out its harbour. It's a delightful hotchpotch of tiled colonial bungalows, diverse temples and churches and restored mansions. Like the Old Harbour House. And there's a fort. But, the must see here are the picturesque cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, all along the beach.
My ayurvedic centre, the Somatheeram (the one mentioned in the paper) is located on the tranquil Malabar Coast, just north of Cochin. Though very lovely, this hotel is full of meditating Italians and Germans. I exhaust myself trying to speak German (Ach so you have zee British sense of humour!) The Internet Café has two computers, making it exactly twice as large as the last one, though unfortunately it is not even half as fast.
My treatment proper starts here. I already feel loads more relaxed. I've only one set of bags under my eyes now. I'm put though my paces in the Ayuredvic hospital. Questionnaire and then diagnosis - which mixture of the 3 doshas vata/pitta/kapha am I? They make me vata/pitta which is fine, as that's what I made myself in the book I read at home. Basically I'm too quick for my own good - no surprise there either. Then they tell me I shouldn't sunbathe or eat spicy food. I'm not entirely obedient on either score. The spicy prawns are much too tasty. I’m spending a lot of time in the hammock just outside my room - well it's in partial shade.
The treatments are intended to rejuvenate and purify. The word purgation is rather freely bandied about. Most of it is very wonderful. I'm massaged with herb bundles and dripping jugs of oil (the masseurs use hands and feet). I'm laid in a trough and have warm oil dripped on my head from a clay pot in a pendulum motion. It’s like being on the edge of the sea - very calming. Then I have hot oil drizzled over me (as they say on all the best restaurant menus) for half an hour. I know now just how the turkey feels. All this absolutely stark naked. No inhibitions left now. This is all part of what's called panchekarma. If I'd had longer they would have added colonic irrigation (with you guessed it - hot oil) and used leeches on my skin. Of course I'm madly disappointed.
The resort is built all up the hillside and I have a cottage with a view over the bay. The path is lined with exotic flowers and punctuated with picture stops, so it takes half an hour and a pint of water to get up to the restaurant. I fall down the steps one day and cut my legs, so I arrive in the hospital rather earlier than anticipated.
Otherwise, life is quiet but relaxing. Catching up on my reading before I come home. And guess who turns up to visit me on the beach this morning?
Read more about Ayurveda, when I went to Sri Lanka here and read more about India here.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.