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India: “I Forgot About my Illness and Pushed Myself Harder Than Ever”

August 23, 2016

GPJ-IndiaCOIMBATORE, INDIA — We travel for many reasons: to escape, relax, learn. Sometimes we want to meet new people, or simply get away from the ones we know!

In April, I decided to travel into the Nilgiri Hills and wander through the tribal communities there as a way to recover from my recent medical treatments and rejuvenate my spirit. I also wanted to get back into the stride of work. I went in search of new stories and new communities and to immerse myself in new cultures, without any filters.

One day, I met a few women from the Toda tribe and walked with them. They were wearing the traditional “poothkuli,” a handmade embroidered shawl. They looked so beautiful.

They told me that they were on their way to a nearby Toda settlement where a funeral was being organized for an elder. They told me about what they call their “green” funerals, which emphasize their relationship to nature. But when they saw my interest, they warned me that, as an outsider, I wouldn’t be allowed into the funeral by the community leaders.

I will go there somehow, I told myself. I wanted to see it, and to make this community’s green funeral rituals heard beyond this local community.

I went with them to the funeral and, after a long discussion with the Toda tribe elders, they finally agreed to let me observe the funeral ritual the next day. But they had one condition: “You are not allowed to take photographs,” they said. I reluctantly agreed.

The next morning, after a sleepless night dreaming about the nature-friendly Toda funeral, I was on my way to the funeral site at Karikadu Mund in a lorry with other Todas. It was hot and the sun burned bright at the top of the hill where the ceremony was to take place.

As I stood with some elderly Toda women watching the preparations, all I could think of was how to get my camera out of my backpack and start taking photos! After chatting with the women, through one woman who knew a little Tamil, I asked them if they would speak to the elders on my behalf and help me get permission for photography. I explained why the photographs were needed.

After a long discussion with the elders, I was granted permission to take photographs!

I forgot about my illness and pushed myself harder than ever, rushing from one place to another to make sure I covered each and every ritual.

I spent the night in that village and left the next morning, my memory card filled with photos and videos and my heart and mind filled with all I had seen and experienced.

“Makka, you are like my granddaughter, come back!” said an elderly Toda woman to me as I was leaving the Karikadu Mund, taking my hand and rubbing it along her cheek in a gesture of affection. “Makka” is a term of endearment, meaning daughter, son or child.

I had gone into this pastoral, tribal community alone and as a total stranger. I left the next day with a community full of friends.