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Fascinating personal introduction to Tamil culture
on 2 October 2007
Historian Michael Wood has been seen recently on TV, hosting the best programme in the BBC's India and Pakistan season. There is a hardback, glossy book (The Story of India) which is a direct spin-off of that TV series, but A South Indian Journey is an older, more personal tale of Wood's exploration of Tamil Nadu's temples, festivals, people and places.
It's an enthralling read. As with Wood's TV series, the book is very engaging; lively, well-informed and packed with historical facts but not weighed down with them. I knew very little about Hindu beliefs or the caste structure of the southern Indian people, and came away not just with an improved understanding but also a real sense of the richly developed culture of the region.
The best part of the book is without doubt the bus journey which forms the main section, and takes Wood on his pilgrimage to various important shrines. Here you get a real sense of the bustle and thrum of modern people carrying out traditional activities, rubbing shoulder to shoulder in packed crowds, seizing an occasional moment of spiritual clarity at a tumultuous time. It's easy to read and very easy to become engrossed in the story as the hours whizz by.
The latter part of the book is less successful. Wood returns some years later to visit other temples on his journey and the flow is disrupted as indeed his journey was. The lives of his friends in India progress and we see how they are affected by the sweeping change of the last decade. The end of the book is a little unsettling, but overall it succeeds in capturing a flavour of India at a certain time. And Wood is excellent at transmitting his enthusiasm and explaining his interpretation of history.
I've also got the big glossy Story of India coffee-table book which is broader in scope and more 'professional' and less personal. However, A South Indian Journey is the one I'd recommend you read first. Just bear in mind that the bulk of it was written and originally published in the 1990s, so it's not a snapshot of India today.