Location: looking out at the jungle, Periyar National Park
Notable sightings: yesterday, an elephant blessed me with his trunk at the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai; today, monkeys galore in Periyar
“In India, you can happily choose your religion. No problem. No religious problem. You cannot choose your caste. We have caste problem.”
So, casually, remarked our local guide for the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai.
I'd always assumed that one's caste was like one's voting preference or preferred sexual position: we all have one, but it's rude to ask about it at a cocktail party. Not so. I learned today – to my complete shock – that not only may you ask about caste, but that it's considered as incontrovertible as one's eye-colour. In fact, the government issues you with a card stating your caste. The four castes are, starting at the bottom, Worker, Businessman, Warrior and Brahaman. In some villages, the bottom caste are considered too low to even be allowed into a temple for worship, and everywhere only a member of the top caste can become a priest.
I knew, as many westerners do, that one must marry within one's caste. What I didn't realise was that this is no historic, vague, romantic notion most useful as an obstacle for Bollywood couples to overcome, but is strictly followed even today – or the consequences can be horrific. Our local guide at the temple told a story that had recently been in the press: a young woman had secretly married below her caste but remained under her parents' roof. When the parents started to talk about arranging her marriage and consulted a matchmaker, her secret came out. The girl's young husband was attacked and killed by local villagers, who then went on to burn houses in the village that belonged to members of his caste. Finally, the girl's father, hideously ashamed, killed himself. Not. Romantic. Not. Cool.
Unlike in Australia where we're all for the underdog coming out on top, Indians accept their caste as their lot. Further, there's no way to move between castes: if your grandad cleaned toilets for a living, so will you. And without complaint or any sense of injustice (well, generally). Only those too poor to be allocated to a caste or too rich to care (all up, about 20% of the population) are outside the system.
While we're here, some more interesting tidbits on marriage:
- Hindus take their horoscope very seriously. A family is likely to have a family astrologist who will be consulted on everything from potential matches to with which letter your baby's name must start.
- Because marriage is so important, it's seen as far too risky to leave it to “love” and couples are paired up according to eleven compatibility points, based on their horoscopes.
- Arranged marriages are the norm. Singleton's families submit their profiles, with photo, CV and horoscope.
- Matched couples meet in person once in a public space — such as a temple — and then have the chance to veto the selection. Success leads to negotiation of a dowry. And happily ever after?
So it was a busy morning of learning at Meenakshi's (the three-breasted re-incarnation of Parvati, wife of Shiva) temple. No photos, sadly, as security was very tight and you couldn't bring anything into the 16 acre site, but you can use your imagination: huge colourful Dravidian-style towers (8), a Hall Of A Thousand Pillars that was actually aptly named, a bejewelled and beflowered temple elephant who blessed you for ten rupees which he accepted in his trunk, offering bowls of fruit and jasmine everywhere and Hindus at worship. The walls are painted in red and white stripes, white for death (ash) and red for life (blood).
By ten am we were done and the temperature and humidity had soared to unbearable levels so it was tuk tuk and Kingfisher time. Today we took a bus 5 hours from Madurai, in the state of Tamil Nadu, to Periyar, in the southernmost state of Kerala. It's jungle time.