Charcoal makers of India

The poor of rural India can’t always afford gas to cook on, and very few have electricity. Often cooking fires are fed with coconut husks or leaves, sometimes with charcoal.


There are many thorn trees in this area which have taken over from the indigenous trees. they grow quickly and are a menace. People are allowed to cut these trees where they grow on government land. Some take them home to burn, but others use them to make charcoal, which they then sell as a fuel.

A few days are spent collecting heaps of thorn bush.

They are then piled carefully together in a mound.

The mound is covered with earth, the fire is set by lighting green branches inserted into the mound so that the wood does not burn too quickly. This produces a good quality charcoal.

With no financial outlay necessary, making charcoal can give a huge boost to a poor family’s finances.


Breaking the mould – brick making in India

For as long as people can remember bricks in India have been made by hand. You can often see a small brick kiln beside the road where a family will make their own mud bricks and sell to locals. The quality of such bricks is not always good as the kiln is too small.

Close to Lakeside is a much lager commercial brick factory. A visit there is always popular with our guests.

The mud is put into the mould by hand…

…then tipped out.

There are about forty families employed at the factory. Couples often work together and are paid by the number of bricks they make.

The bricks are left to dry in the sun for about one week, being turned two or three times so that they dry evenly.

Then they are taken to the kiln. This is the same shape as the amphitheatres the Romans used for their chariot races.

The sun-dried bricks are carefully stacked in sections, each of which will be sealed off for firing.

Once the section is sealed it is covered with bricks and sand. The metal ‘lids’ cover the holes where the fuel is put in.

The fuel is a combination of thorn wood and cashew nut shells. These nuts have been roasted and the kernals removed. The remaining shell is very oily, this helps to create a fierce, consistent heat which creates a good quality brick.

The chimney is an ingenious design. It is on rails so that it can be moved from section to section as they are fired.

The firing lasts for one day, then the bricks are left for a week as they cool down.

The bricks are then removed by hand…

…loaded onto lorries…

…and taken to Dindigul where they are sold. Local people can buy directly from the factory.

As with all things in India, a new machine has recently been brought in to increase production. In this case, however, it has not meant the loss of jobs. The factory still employs the same number of people but produces twice as many bricks. The machine is still very simple and is labour intensive. It is fascinating to watch.

Some of the bricks are still made by hand, but I wonder how long that will last. Regardless of how the bricks are manufactured, it is a fascinating process and our guests always enjoy their visit.

If you come to stay at Lakeside, I’ll be happy to show you around!


The smallest temples in the world?

Somewhere in the jungle in the south of Karnataka are these tiny temples.

They have been here for centuries, if not millennia, used by the local tribal people as part of their animistic religion (believing that all things have a spirit or god in them and worshipping them).

I believe that there are three of these temples in all, one represents rounded hills, the second steep pointed hills and the third a squarer type of hill. The two that we saw are only around 40 – 50cm high and are within a few hundred feet of each other. The third is ‘lost’ as far as our guide knows, but the tribal people are likely to know where it is and still use it.

The small copper pot and stone-carved receptacle which you can see here are thought to be around 1,000 years old and are still used in worship. Our guide asked us not to disclose where these small temples are as the artefacts could be stolen by ‘antique hunters’ who would get a good price for them.

There is a sense of timelessness at these tiny temples, a feeling of being part of something ‘other-wordly’ and unique. People have risked the dangers of the jungle to come here; the wild elephant, leopard and tiger no deterent to their determination  to worship god in their own special way. Long may these places remain a hidden haven for the local people who see them as part of their past, present and future.

Why do Tamils paint their cows?

I’ve just been looking back over this blog and noticed the post about Pongal from 2012. If you want to know why Tamils paint their cows you will need to read this! Today is Day 1 of Pongal, so I would like to wish a happy festival to all of my friends who will be celebrating.

In the previous post I mention the beautiful green rice fields after the monsoon. Sadly, there is less rice in the fields this year after a poor monsoon so everyone is hoping that this year things will get back to normal.

Happy Pongal!


Drag net fishing in southern India

The lake from which Lakeside gets its name is fed by monsoon rains which fall onto the foothills of the Western Ghats – and onto us! Once the lake is full the water goes over the overspill to fill other lakes in the area, water that is used for irrigation of some fields but is predominantly drinking water for Dindigul.

When it is full the lake is more than 20 feet deep at the centre, and as it covers more than 500 acres this is a lot of water! Each year the local government puts the fishing rights for the lake up for auction – one man will bid to stock the lake and to harvest the fish. This man will then employ locals to fish the lake, and most days you can see them out in their little coracles.

As the level of the lake falls the fishermen are able to utilise huge nets which are set in a semi-circle and then pulled in to shore. This can guarantee a large catch of fish in a relatively small space of time.

The nets are laid by the boats . You can see a line of floats cutting across the foreground of the picture.

The men in the boats follow the net in, making sure that it doesn’t catch on any obstacles – and scaring the fish away so that they don’t try to jump out.

The scene from Lakeside.

In this picture you can also see some men in the water helping the net to move more freely.

Once the net gets closer to the shore the men in the water help to drive the fish further into the shallows.

One or two splashes can be seen as the fish start jumping…

…then it becomes quite chaotic as they all try to escape. You can see how big some of these fish are!

After a successful afternoon fishing it’s time to lay out the nets to dry before heading home.

And so ends another fascinating afternoon at Lakeside – all without leaving the comfort of my chair!

Dying traditions in an emerging India

You may have read some of my posts about local traditional crafts which seem to be disappearing (potter, coracle fishermen, buildersari weaver ). I can well understand how the young people of today want a better life for themselves. Everyone is looking for a job which is less physically demanding, which pays more and gives them more time to spend with their families. The problem is that many skills are being lost as the younger generation shun the arduous, poorly paid jobs of their parents. So what happens to those skills? Will they be lost forever? Will they be ‘re-discovered’ in a few years and be used to set up ‘themed’ museums where people can go to see what life used to be like in India?

We at Lakeside are not the only ones who struggle with this. Take a look at this post from les3elephants, a resort in Kerala. Maybe you will have to visit India and stay there while you can still sleep under the traditional roofs built of bamboo and coconut!

The way forward for India is difficult, challenging and exciting. The question of disappearing skills has no real answer. All we can do is wait and see what develops over the next few years…

A CNN Hero from Madurai

I first came to India through my connection with the Joe Homan charity.  Many westerners, particularly in todays economic climate, say that we should no longer be sending money to India which is now becoming a wealthy country; it is up to the Indians themselves to care for their own poor.

Many people believe that Indians do nothing charitable.  It is true that in the past few gave to those whose ‘karma’ it was to be poor, but the younger generations of emerging India have an emerging social conscience, they are just not in a position yet to do everything for themselves.

Please take a look at this video to see what one person has done in our local city of Madurai (winner of CNN Top 10 Heroes 2010).  People like this need our continued support until India can stand on her own two feet.

Find out more about Narayanan Krishnan here

Narayanan Krishnan

Landing on your feet – The Indian blacksmith

I remember, as a child, cycling from my home in Kettering to the village of Weekly during the summer holidays.  I never told my Mum that was where I was going because she would have forbidden it, but I wanted to go and see the blacksmith at work.  I had always wanted a horse of my own but knew it was impossible so it was my best opportunity to get close to a horse and see how to care for it.

Now I am the proud owner of Raja.  Twice in the first few months since he came to us we had the local smith out to fit shoes.  I wasn’t happy with what I saw being done and so bought a rasp to try to care for his feet myself.  As a first time owner  I had no experience but felt that what I was doing was better for Rajas feet and have been riding him ‘barefoot’ for seven month now.  As I am on a visit to the UK, my friend Lorna has shown me how to keep a horses feet in good condition without shoes, and I’m happy to know that we have been doing things just about right -certainly better than the local smith.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s not a cruel man but his skills are traditional and basic, a far cry from what we find in the western world.

Here in rural India horses are cold shod and the first job is to prepare the nails to be used.

The part of the shoeing which has concerned me most is trimming the hoof.  No hoof knife here, the smith simply uses a chisel to cut off excess hoof.  This can obviously cause pain and bruising to the foot and also damage if not done correctly.

The hoof is finally filed to get the correct shape before the shoe is fitted.

As there is no forge the shoe if roughly shaped by hand and is not a perfect fit.

After my visit with Lorna I now know what I need to do to care for Rajas feet and have the confidence to continue caring for him myself, leaving the smith to continue his usual work with the local ponies.

I suppose you could say that Raja has landed on his feet in finding a home at Lakeside!

The sari weaver – a dying art


Sari weaving as a cottage industry

I recently took some of our guests at Lakeside on our village tour.  They were most impressed to see a sari being woven.

In India you will find whole streets of families with small businesses doing the same job – a street of carpenters, or basket makers, or tailors, or weavers.  This is most probably due to the caste system where families of the same cast tend to live together, and with the tradition of arranged marriage within family groups it means that whole streets are often one intricately connected extended family.

In the street of weavers which we visit some families weave cotton saris, some silk and some a mixture of the two fibres.

Winding the bobbins

Thread is wound onto the bobbin on a traditional spinning wheel, the bobbin is then fitted into the shuttle.

Many westerners will recognise the looms as the same as those used in Europe at the beginning of the industrial revolution with the ‘flying shuttle’.  The threads are separated by the use of foot-pedals whilst the shuttle is sent at speed back and forth across the fabric.  For saris with intricate borders there are patterns (similar to the pieces of card with holes in them which play music in a music box) which help to create these wonderful effects.

It takes about 3 days to set up a loom and 3 more to weave the sari which is about 5 meters in length.  For this a weaver will get somewhere between Rs 120 and Rs 150 per day when the costs of the materials have been deducted.  To make a living the family will need 2 looms and probably a small area of land to grow their own vegetables etc.

The weaving of a sari, like the work of the village potter, is another art that is dying out in Tamil Nadu. It pays poorly, keeping people at barely above

Foot work!

subsistence level, and the young people don’t want to learn the trade, preferring IT instead, or maybe moving to a better paid job in a town or city.  The people who make money from saris today are those with big automated factories making in bulk and employing small numbers of people.  In the future it is only likely to be those who hand-weave very expensive silk and gold saris for weddings etc who will be able to make a decent living from this trade.














Police, chicken biriyani and a Hindu god


There is just one day a year when I would ask you to not visit us at Lakeside.  This year that day was18th July.  The Sadaiyandi festival.

The path up the hillside

Just five minutes walk from us are two banyan trees.  Beneath one is a statue of Durga, a mother goddess, whom women pray to if they want a child.  Under the other is a statue of Sadaiyandi who is a local protector god.  From the banyan grove there is a steep narrow winding footpath up the hillside to a small cave temple.  Inside are some small statues to various gods including Ganesh who is always a great favourite in south India.  This small cave has been a focus of worship for as long as people can remember.

On the day of the festival at least 40,000 (yes forty thousand!) people travel down our single track road to the grove, most of them climb the hillside to the cave before having a picnic in the grove or down by

The cave temple

the lake.  To describe it as ‘chaotic’ would not be too far from the mark.  Hindu worship is always lively and to have so many people in one place can lead to arguments, accidents on the hillside, pick-pockets, drunkenness – the same as anywhere in the world where huge crowds gather.

To monitor all of this 150 police officers are stationed in the area, a particular focus is down by the lake to make sure no one tries to go swimming after drinking – there have been drownings in past years.  Lakeside hosts the group of 10 or more police Inspectors who have overall charge of the festival, providing them with a chicken biriyani lunch and a place to rest when off duty.  We enjoy it very much as it gives us a chance to get to know them better, and discourages ‘sight-seers’ from the temple!

For us the night before the festival is the most difficult part as there are fireworks and music all night long.

No sleep for us on the night of Sadaiyandi festival!

View from the cave temple