Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

Patrick French - India: A Portrait

A young girl walks passed a fishing boat on Marina Beach in Chennai, India, on on March 20, 2010. Stretching for approximately 12 km, Marina Beach is listed as one of the longest beaches in the world. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

A young girl walks passed a fishing boat on Marina Beach in Chennai, India, on on March 20, 2010. Stretching for approximately 12 km, Marina Beach is listed as one of the longest beaches in the world. (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Ladakh is about as far north as you can get in India. The modern nation created after independence was implacably diverse, culturally and geographically.

Tamil Nadu is more than 1,500 miles south of Ladakh. It is a different kind of world. While Ladakhis are wiry, with narrow facial apertures — a small nose, mouth and ears and slit eyes, perhaps in response to the icy, windy climate — Tamils usually have a wide sprawl of a face, in keeping with the southern lushness. The land is rich with vegetation, paddy fields and mango trees, and the view from the coast is filled with fishing boats, long painted skiffs with curved prows, catching kingfish. Young men dive low for stone fruit — giant blue-green mussels, which they pluck off the rocks.

When the Indian national flag was chosen at independence, a tricolour of saffron, white and green, Ashoka's wheel of dharma, or law, was placed at its centre. The emperor Ashoka had united the subcontinent before the birth of Christ, but even his kingdom stopped advancing when it reached the south. The southern tip of India, perhaps more than any other place on earth, has an unbroken chain to the ancient past. There have been caste wars, the usual comings and goings of power, with one imperial dynasty replacing another in earlier times, but no invasion. European traders — British, Dutch, Portuguese and French — had all pursued their interests forcefully over the centuries, but the society had retained its own earlier forms. It would be as if the religion or culture at the time of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt in the fourteenth century BCE, had survived in snatches in the everyday life of modern Egyptians.

The noise of central and northern India can at times drown out the subtlety of the south, which has been so vital in determining the country's present status. On the edge of Chennai or Madras, it can be so luxuriant and humid and quiet that you feel as if you are in another land; but it is just another face of India, with the tinkle of bicycle bells and the echoes of a temple the only distraction. Saravankumar, a professor, described it to me this way: "The identity we have here goes right back to the first century, to the Tamil poem Puram 183. I would say my Tamilness comes from the language." I could understand what he meant, and could see — or hear, on the street and in the home — how the high-speed, bubbling Tamil tongue was part of the environment. So while the north had its upheavals, the south went on forever.

The nation can be triangulated in many ways: it is all India. Far across to the east, about 1,750 miles from Chennai and the same distance from Ladakh — up near Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh — lies Meghalaya. It is a hilly and rainy state, a kingdom with rushing waterfalls, tropical forests and unexpectedly successful rock groups. The people look different from Tamils or Ladakhis, and follow their own traditions.

Take just one tribe in Meghalaya as an example, the Khasi people, who are more than a million strong. Their language bears some connection to Khmer, which is spoken in Cambodia. They are a matrilineal society: their family name comes from the mother's side, and the last daughter in the family to leave the family home is the custodian of all ancestral property. The Khasi religion is not connected to any other faith and emphasizes a belief in one supreme god, U Blei. In their creation myth, the Moon (which is male) and the Sun (which is female) stand symbolically for the divine presence. The Khasis have a covenant with their deity — who is the dispenser, the maker, the giver, the creator, the divine law. They believe in the concept of "iapan," or pleading with god for everything they need, and are very sure about how they came to be on earth — by descending a golden ladder from the mount of heaven's navel. What they are not sure about is how exactly man came to be created by god.

As Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, a Khasi, explained to me in perfect English: "Although we believe we were created by god, we also think that it is not the business of humans to know exactly how. As I said, the Khasis believe in one supreme god, who is formless, or rather whose form man cannot even begin to imagine, for that is forbidden. A Khasi does not believe in idol worship, since he must not conceive the appearance of god. We do not have a place of worship since our religion is private and familial. True worship takes place in one's heart, or at one's family's hearth. Because of this, the Khasi religion remains largely unorganized, and it is completely lacking in missionary tendencies. This is because a Khasi believes his god is also the god of the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian, and of all other people. His motto is, therefore, 'Ieit la ka jong, burom ia kiwei' — 'Love one's own, and respect others.' As for me, I will always prefer my own religion to any other because it's the only religion that I know which does not believe in hell's damnation. The Khasi universe is two-tier — heaven and earth — and there is no room for hell."

Each of these disparate places was part of the nation that was born in 1947.