Judi Stewart and Guy Cowley

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A typical small town street scene - notice the cow on the street and the monkeys on the left roof
The holy mountain overlooking the town
The temple from the mountain showing its large size
Sacred cows!
Judi with some of the students
Lighting the bonfire
Dancing by the school pupils
A folk story and dress up competition from the training school students
Tiruvannamalai is not a typical tourist destination – unless you are a devout Hindu for whom it is one of the most holy sites in South India.  We were visiting on a mission, or rather to a mission – a hospital and school for deaf children established by a remarkable woman called Sylvia Wright over the last 30 years or so. It also gave us a chance to see “small town” India in a more rural location than our normal destinations.
Getting there was an adventure in itself. We had researched the bus but, when we got to the bus stand, the location and bus number were different.  Nevertheless, we got on and were charged what seemed a very low fare - about 50p each for 100km.  Our doubts were heightened when road signs showed us on the way to a town 30km away with a similar but not identical name!  Some sighs of relief when we went through that town and started picking up signs to the right place.
Tiruvannamalai is dominated by two things – a large volcanic hill overlooking the town, topped by a sacred flame at festival time, and a huge temple below the hill.  We visited the temple on the first day and it is very impressive – several courtyards within each other with the “holy of holies” at the core.  All on a huge scale – say 200m square.  Also interesting were two caves about 500m up the hill – which had been the meditation sites for a local holy man – and which provided a panoramic view of temple and town.  Finding them was surprisingly difficult – we needed to “incentivise” a local boy to find the path.  Inside the caves it was somewhat disconcerting, when eyes had adjusted to the very low light levels, to find that we were not alone!  Several silent and motionless meditators were already in place in each.  Outside the caves, a useful lesson was learnt – don’t eat bananas when monkeys are around! Confronted by an aggressive demand from a none too clean ape there is only one sensible course of action – get rid of the banana.  We departed the scene fairly rapidly to avoid the risk of a bite or scratch.
The hospital and school were truly inspirational.  From nothing in the late 70s, Sylvia has created a sizeable hospital to treat the rural poor, who cannot access or afford the main hospitals, a school for 200 severely or profoundly deaf children and training schools both for nurses and for teachers. We spent most time at the school which is as large as Mary Hare (school for the deaf Guy worked at), though only drawing pupils from the area about 50km around the school - evidence of the level of inherited or disease related deafness which exists in the local population!  The school is oral, though deficiencies of hearing aids mean that the speech which the children are able to develop is fairly limited and (as in the UK) this forms the main inhibition to progress after school (rather than the underlying deafness).  Nevertheless, all children seemed confident, happy and motivated, a tribute to what is being achieved.  We were really encouraged by the enthusiasm of teachers and students alike, their willingness to learn and the generally balanced feel of the school – disciplined and with high standards but achieved through a happy collaboration not by imposition.
Highlight of the visit was celebration of Diwali with the school.  Great excitement with bonfire, fireworks and dancing, only slightly dampened by rain on the night which caused a retreat to a brand new lecture hall built for the nursing school.  Less of a highlight was Guy playing cricket with the boys and failing to uphold (or demonstrating!) the English traditions – out first ball!
Again transport is worthy of note.  The school was about 4k out of town, requiring a lengthy ride in an “auto” (a motorised 3-wheeler used throughout India for short taxi services).  Lewis Hamilton – eat your heart out!  We overtook motorcycles despite approaching buses, themselves overtaking, with minimal lights and on a road with the normal share of potholes and bumps!  Normally entertaining but in this case causing recourse to devout prayer!