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Better late than never . . .
India

Self-help groups and the sun temple

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On the way to Puri, we stopped at Konark to see the sun temple, which is one of the major historical attractions of Orissa state. It's a massive structure, built in the 13th century. It has two particularly notable features (to the non-scholarly eye) - it's built in the form of a chariot, with huge carved wheels around the base and the remnants of statutes of horses. And it's covered with intricate carvings, perhaps best described by the website webindia123.com: "horses, floral motifs, colossal mythical animals, whimsical depictions of daily life, trade, erotic sculptures of amorous dalliances, war and trade and erotic imagery of human love manifested in countless forms as marvelous and detailed as those seen at Khajuraho." I don't know what the carvings at Khajuraho look like, but having had this warning, I'll make sure that if I have the opportunity to visit, it won't be with three colleagues from work, including the head of my department. Bit of a weird crowd to be with in those circumstances - everyone on their best behavior, and generally making a point not to call anyone's attention to anything.

We finally arrived in Puri just in time to go to dinner and collapse. The next day was Sunday, and it was completely free. I went for a walk along the beach at about 8 that morning. I was out until about 10, and I fried. I wasn't expecting the sun to be so intense that early in the day, but I learned my lesson. I kept an umbrella with me for all subsequent daylight excursions.

I got a lot of attention as I wandered along the beach, but most people just wanted to say hi and ask where I was from. Puri is an important pilgrimage site for Hindus, but apparently doesn't get many foreign tourists. While being the subject of so much scrutiny is always unnerving to me, I just had to adjust to it because it happened everywhere except Calcutta and Delhi.

Most of the time that we were in Puri we were in meetings at the hotel, which were enlivened by periodic brief blackouts as the electricity cut out. The hotel also didn't appear to have a functional water heater, but it was usually warm enough in my room that I found I didn't really mind a cool shower in the morning. The water at least wasn't ice cold. The air conditioning was less than highly effective, and nobody was sorry to leave the hotel when the time came, but it did have a gorgeous view of the ocean.

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We did get out of the hotel one day to visit villages that had SHGs. We were greeted at the village by a crowd of women, who called out an ululating greeting and showered us with small grains and blossoms, then offered us bouquets. They talked openly and easily about how they felt the SHGs had been good for them and their village. They told us a lot of things, but what impressed me most was their confidence. Five years ago, before the SHGs began, the women said that they didn't leave their houses much or talk to people outside their families. But they spoke in public readily enough now. They told us at one point that we were only asking about them -- they wanted to ask us questions, too. And when they asked our group if we had any advice to improve their SHGs, they had the confidence to question the advice that was offered.

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