Autorickshaw Economics

I had a brief conversation with our autorickshaw (better known to you perhaps as a tuk tuk, in India often called just “auto” since they are so common) driver in Madras today on his finances. Of course he had every reason to inflate his expenses and lower his income, since he was telling me these numbers primarily to justify a higher fare (for an hour’s rental), but I had a sense that at least some of the numbers were true. I think it’s interesting to hear what people make do on here, and thought you might as well. He is a local (Tamil) man in his mid 30s, with a wife and two children, “one lady one gent.” Monthly figures:

Rent Rs. 1500, after utilities Rs. 2000 ($50)
School fees Rs. 750 (~$18)
Food expenses, including his meals during the day Rs. 3000 ($75)

He estimated total monthly expenses at around Rs 7000-9000 (around $200). He told me that rent for his autorickshaw is 200 ($5) per day, but I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying his income was. His general point, though, was that he just barely meets his expenses. [By way of local comparison, a young man from Hyderabad who said that he worked in the IT industry said that starting salaries were Rs. 20000 ($500) per month.]

After he told me this, he asked me what my salary was. I couldn’t help but be evasive and not answer.


Riding through the countryside in Tamil Nadu, you see him everywhere. Who is this somewhat manically smiling old man, always pictured with his fur (?) hat, dark suglasses and prominently displayed expensive looking watch? (Actually, the whole image has a glamorous sheen, including the positioning of his hand.) I was certainly curious, and did some research (though I opted not to buy the book, MGR: The Man and the Myth–I read a review later saying that it’s not that great anyway).

M.G. Ramachandran (1917-1987), usually referred to as MGR, was a Tamil actor turned politican. A huge Tamil language movie star starting in the 1930s and 40s (Tamil film, called Kollywood, is third in India after Hindi and Telugu films, made in Bombay and Hyderabad, respectively), MGR was deeply interested in politics and eventually ran for office under the DMK (Dravidian Progress Federation) party, which was a Tamil ethnic/linguistic-centered party in Tamil Nadu. He launched a successful breakaway party called the ADMK (later AIADMK) in 1972, became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1977 and died in 1987. He was so popular that his death led to widespread mourning and chaos throughout the state, including numerous suicides, rioting and looting.

MGR being used to sell silk.

The first thing that I found strange about MGR, even before I knew who he was (though it was clear that he was a politician, from the posters he appeared on), was that each representation of him was essentially identical–he always has his hat, sunglasses and watch, and is often in exactly the same pose. I believe this is for a few reasons. One suggestion is that this fits well with an audience accustomed to Hindu iconography. Just as in Christianity Peter is presented with the keys to the Church and Paul with his sword, Hindu gods usually appear with set props in set poses. More generally in that same theme, these props help identify MGR immediately. Visual identification is of course important in societies that are not fully literate. I recall that Mexico City subway stations have icons that are prominently featured in addition to names, and in one visit to an Anglican church in Madurai we saw ballots for church committees which had photographs in addition to names. I imagine that ballots for state and national office in India may also have pictures, since political ads almost always feature what look like mug shots of the candidates. Easy and quick recognition is of course important for the literate, as well.

The other major thing that occurred to me, perhaps because I am unaware of more subtle meanings of MGR’s life and career, is the difference between Tamil and U.S. politics in their recognition of wealth and celebrity. Politicians in the U.S. are generally reluctant to display their wealth, instead identifying themselves as everymen (Kerry in a Carhartt vs. Kerry windsurfing or vacationing in Sun Valley; Bloomberg taking the subway (after riding to the station in a car); folksiness of Reagan or Perot). On the other hand, here’s MGR, who seems to have used (and his political successors continue to use) his superstar status in full, by presentation in such a glamorous/ritzy aspect. One person we spoke to said that MGR’s watch was like a computer, and stored large amounts of important information as well as performed calculations, assigning MGR a sort of superhero tool. To this day, people lay their ears on MGR’s well-visited tomb located off of the beach in central Madras to hear if the watch is ticking (he was buried also with his sunglasses and hat, we were told).

The cause for the difference may be twofold. First, wealth impresses in India. Like many Asian societies, India is wealth and status conscious, and the glamorous aspect of MGR and his fancy toys must have struck a sense of awe in some of the public. Wealth would also have contributed to an aura of incorruptability (just as it does in the U.S.), and MGR reportedly started his own party because he was concerned that the other members of the DMK were not sufficiently transparent. [One of MGR’s most popular programs was free meals at schools for students, and he was clearly a populist–I suppose if MGR was promoting more elite-favoring policies, it would have done him well to look less rich.]

But I think the more important difference, and why MGR’s moviestar status was played up, may be that MGR’s political success was directly related to his pop/mass culture superstardom. MGR wasn’t a movie star who happened to become a politician, but a movie star who was always political, even by wearing party colors in his roles. By being such a visible member of the Tamil-language culture (to be sure, Tamil-language movies would be something that Tamil speakers would have in common more than their compatriots who speak other languages, including especially the numerically and politically dominant Hindi speakers), who better than MGR to lead a party that was centered in part on being Tamil? The Tamils celebrate the fact that their language and culture are ancient, and do not want to feel secondary to Hindi speakers from up north (Tamil Nadu schools uniquely in India do not require the learning of Hindi, I read in one place). While not the equivalent of having Thiruvallular (the man whose statue stands on the island next to the Vivekananda Memorial in Cape Comorin, sort of like the Tamil Homer or Shakespeare it seems) as Chief Minister, having MGR as Chief Minister certainly highlights your Tamil-ness. And it seems that MGR was successful, someone around whom the Tamils could rally, and during his leadership Tamils gained representation at the some of highest levels of the national government.

MGR Memorial in Madras

Speaking of Tamils, as an aside one might be curious what the relationship between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Tamils of Tamil Nadu in India is. Sri Lanka is of course extremely close to Tamil Nadu, separated by the narrow Palk Strait and almost connected by Adam’s Bridge (a natural or man-made near-causeway connecting Sri Lanka to mainland India). The Tamils in Sri Lanka are Hindu and mainly located in the north and east, especially along the coasts [I believe they were more generally distributed throughout the island at one point, but the country has segregated to a certain extent in part due to the widespread mutual violence], while the Singhalese majority is Buddhist. Although MGR himself was born in Sri Lanka, near Kandy in the central highlands, it appears that there was no general support of Sri Lankan Tamils or the Tamil separatist movement by the Tamil Nadu government (perhaps such support would be too controversial, given that there is quite literally a war going on in Sri Lanka). And I believe India has tried to maintain an ability to intermediate between the Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government, to promote stability. No doubt though that Tamils in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka share a common culture, by virtue of history, religion, language and family connections.

Listening for the watch.

Thanjavur and Mamallapuram

The big temple at Thanjavur was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site on our trip, and the rock-cut temples and shrines of Mamallapuram our second.

The Thanjavur temple dates from the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Chola rule of South India was approaching its height. The Chola kingdom was quite powerful, and made its impact all over Southeast Asia, contributing Hindu/Indian culture to that region.

The temples and shrines of Mamallapuram are from the seventh century, from the Pallava kingdom. In case you are not familiar with rock-cut, or monolithic, structures, they are made by chiseling away at a big rock–so while some of these appear to be full-fledged buildings, they are almost more like huge sculptures carved from one stone. We will be visiting more rock-cut temples and shrines at Ajanta and Ellora (the Ajanta caves are particularly ancient and are said to have inspired the Mamallapuram ones). The most impressive rock-cut sites we have seen are those at Lalibela, Ethiopia, which are essentially full-fledged (small) churches that you can enter and worship in, all carved out of a single rock.

Some pictures.


A sadhu outside the temple.

Schoolchildren visiting the temple.

A view through the entryways.

Detail of entrance to central shrine.

Bicycles parked outside main entry.

Sunset on the tower above the central shrine.

Two views from outside the walls:


Local boy on sculpture (relief) inside cave temple.


Local boy.

Five Rathas, rock-cut temples.

Children on field trip at Five Rathas.

Krishna’s butterball, a boulder defying gravity.

Relief inside a cave temple.

Shore temple.

Fishermen breaking the waves.

Sri Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Among the temples that we have visited in South India, the Sri Meenakshi temple of Madurai is by far the most intense and atmospheric. In fact, it is probably one of the most interesting public spaces we have been in, and certainly the single place of worship that we have found most exotic and fascinating. It is not that the architecture of the temple is so outstanding–as impressive as it is, it certainly doesn’t inspire the immediate awe of, say, the Hagia Sophia or the mosques of Istanbul or the greatest cathedrals of Europe. It’s not even the most beautiful Hindu temple we have visited on this trip (that choice may be the Chola era temple at Darasuram). But the space is so chaotic with activity, so full of people engaging in a form of worship that to a Western observer is so foreign, that it simply overwhelms the visitor.

There are many things about the temple which trigger this response, and I thought I would touch on a few.

First is the space itself. The Madurai temple is in the center of the town (I suppose the town was actually laid out to surround it) and huge, the outer walls enclosing a space that is about 250 meters on each side. Because the temple is so ancient (sources say over 2000 years and there have additions at various periods, although much of the structure dates from the 17th century), it is a true jumble of many different buildings, unlike temples that were conceived and built by a single design. This disorganization of layout results in more chaotic flows of human movement, and to the visitor the potential of getting lost, adding to the experience of the visit. The Madurai temple also has fewer spaces that are open to the sun than many other temples, making much of it very dark and cavernous. The many pillars are sculpted, some containing carvings of gods and the ceilings painted with geometric designs. The florescent lights (or the neon, for that matter) used today are unattractive, but one can imagine what the temple was like when oil lamps were used.

Second is the sense of historical continuity. Some of the other temples we have visited, like at Mamallapuram or Thanjavur, were also old but now are really archeological/tourist sites, even if still active places of worship. At Thanjavur, for example, even the Hindu visitors somehow seemed much more like tourists than pilgrims, even while engaging in devotional practice. I think that this is because these sites have a certain museum-like feel, with partially ruined structures being restored and maintained by the Archeological Survey of India. Though ancient the Madurai temple was built in accretion over the centuries, with successive rulers making their contribution to the heritage of the temple, unlike the Thanjavur temple which feels and often is a snapshot of one particular (long dead) king. Madurai could not be a more living and breathing place.

Third is the flow of worshippers. The temple is at times totally packed with people, especially around the entryways (the “queue” at the chappals stand can be quite an ordeal) and surrounding the tank. As at many Hindu temples, the activities of the people present are varied–some are actively performing the circuit of worship, some seemingly lounging about, some more sightseeing than praying and others engaged in some form of business (within Madurai temple one of the halls is reserved for flower/offerings vendors). We saw a very large number of newlyweds taking pictures around the tank (indeed, the first night we had trouble getting a hotel room because so many wedding parties were in town).

Finally, the form of worship. To a Christian visitor, even a Catholic one well familiar with worship before idols, Hindu worship is exotic and foreign. People pray before reliefs and sculptures of elephants (Ganesh), phalluses (Shiva lingam) and other representations of exotic gods, and cover their foreheads with dots and lines of ash and other powder (some of which are actually on the carvings themselves, see below). Brahmin priests, shirtless but strung with decoration, stand and chant before shrines, lighting oil lamps and bathing the statues. The occasional sadhu, or itinerant ascetic, goes by, looking generally like someone who may be committed back home. Not to be offensive, but all this seems so medieval or pagan (in the pre-Christian sense)–to me it really felt like a trip back in time, what religious worship must have been like in the west and near east long, long ago.

Below are some pictures from Madurai.

Facing the western gopuram down the street.

Gopuram detail.

Hallway near southern entrance.

Column detail.

Worshippers in a main part of the temple.

Some people we encountered.

Temple flagstaff, with sunlight streaming in.

Statue with paste for placing on forehead.

View into central shrine, with sunlight streaming in.