There is a great tourism advertisment that runs on CNN every once in a while titled "Incredible India." It shows a young back-packer who travels by himself through various locations in India. There is much color and excitement. Most important of all, the traveler is seen making friends, being embraced in exotic cultural experiences, and getting caught up in the everyday life of the people of India.
That's what Diane and I experienced when we traveled to see our cherished friend, Sabirsha. After my failed attempt to visit him in November, 2010, Diane and I visited Sha in the Kerala region from 10-20 February, 2011. Select pictures (https://picasaweb.google.com/robertsdenny860/India2011#) from our journey offer only a glimpse of our "Incredible India" experience.
There are so many revelations from our travel - economic, political, religious, and cultural. Economically, Kerala is less densely populated than other areas of India and it has always had substantial natural resources. The lower density and high resources created positive trade opportunities which enhanced educational opportunity and should have created broad employment opportunity. The problem with the current employment picture is political. The people of Kerala have little faith in their government and see many of their politicians as corrupt. The proof of ineffectual government is that the economy of Kerala has not grown to a level that its workers have opportunities to match their education - many are underemployed or they work abroad. That's how I came to know Sha in the first place; after graduating from university, he didn't have good opportunities in Kerala so chose to work in the Arabian Gulf, a pattern followed by many workers who have come from Kerala to the Gulf and other areas for generations.
The religious heritage of Kerala is beyond fascinating. In fact, I would assert that it is an exemplary model for establishing religious appreciation across disparate faith communities. Jainism and Buddhism were dominant centuries ago. Hinduism replaced Buddhism as the primary religion of the people but Christians also established permanent communities in Kerala as early as first century AD. Jews followed the Christians and then Islam came to Kerala soon after the Prophet Mohammed PBHN established its base in Medina and Mecca (6th century AD). These religions came to Kerala as a result of the active spice trade that brought ships from Egypt (1,500 BC), Arabs and Phoenicia (3rd century BC), and Europe (1st century BC) to its shores. The trade and economic opportunities in effect became fused with religious pluralism and respect - charters and land ownership were established with all these groups as the Kings of Kerala recognized that all religious groups required legitimacy if trade were to thrive. The necessity of religious tolerance to trade vitality has created an amazing array of temples, churches, and mosques. The density of one type or the other varies by the region but it is not unusual to see places of worship comfortably placed beside each other throughout Kerala.
The documentation of the culture of Kerala, and its historic emergence, contains many gaps and contradictions. A book given to me by Sha, Kerala's History (Menon, 1967/2007/2008), helped me a great deal. This particular book traces archaeological records, documents, and art objects over many centuries to conclude that the culture of the people of Kerala has almost always been one of engagement with others, respect, and hospitality. Whether the openness to others was driven by climate (two monsoon seasons per year), topography (shielded by the Ghat Mountains to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west), trade (spice, herbs, and pearls), or by bounteous food supply (rice, fruit, and fish), the unmistakable fact is that today's Kerala is rich with welcoming and hospitable people. Perhaps greeting others of different backgrounds throughout the centuries was the cause. Maybe it is a nuturing environment cultivated through sharing natual resources. Or, perhaps it's the influence of the many mothers, wives, and sisters who remain at home to raise families while their sons, husbands, and brothers are forced to leave Kerala to pursue earnings that will bring prosperity to their families.
Diane and I were the beneficiaries of a Kerala that has a vibrant natural environment, an open culture, and extremely hospitable people. Sha, his family, and friends entertained us with deep and amazing care, demonstrating nothing but giving and generosity (evidence of which is in the picture to the right of our welcoming feast). Sha’s view of the world is truly one of abundance, and he demonstrates it with numerous acts each day when he gives all he has, expecting nothing in return. And, once he has given, others take care of him in ways that are truly profound. This is what I’ve grown to understand as love – the selfless, sacrificial, and unquestioning giving of oneself to family and friends.