Commercial Empire

Madras on India's south east coast is a crowded, colourful maze where any quiet place qualifies as a welcome refuge. So one busy morning, I walked past a sign declaring "St Mary's Church . . . oldest Anglican church east of Suez . . . Sunday 8.30 am Holy Communion" and stepped into a small church with damp-dappled spire.

Inside, I learned that this was the place where Robert Clive, the legendary "Clive of India", married in 1753. He was fresh from his victory at the seige of Arcot where, outnumbered by 40 to 1, he set in place British domination of India that would endure over the next century and beyond.

If the church is simple to the point of austerity, the building across the road is downright dilapidated. A marble plaque states that Clive lived here when it was Admiralty House and again (as Lord Clive) when it was the Governor's town residence. The plaque proudly declares that "this building was repaired once in 1780 AD and again extensively in 1795".

Somehow, this vice regal residence fallen on hard times, with public servants scuttling in and out to endless files of paper tied with pink ribbon is more evocative of the Raj than any museum display could ever be. Here history has marched past but the legacy of bureaucracy remains. The British may have introduced paper shuffling but Indians perfected it.

From the multiple forms at the airport customs desk, the Morris Oxford clones that crowd the streets, several highly literate English-language newspapers, and Indian delight at English word plays, British influence in India is all pervasive. However, little of the modern day charm and attraction of India comes from the Raj. Instead one is left with a sense of the unmitigated gall of an Empire that would subjugate a prosperous, ancient land and dynamic culture for commercial profit. India represents the ultimate corporate takeover.

The story started long before Clive of course. On December 31, 1600 the East India Company charter (with capital of 50,000 pounds) was approved by Queen Elizabeth I and the traders set out to compete against the Dutch and Portugese in the "new world". However, India wasn't their first goal - only after the Dutch forced it out of what is now Indonesia did the Company even bother to send vessels to India on the third company voyage in 1607.

When the East India Company was granted land by the local Raja in 1639 and established the town of Madras, it was a major step towards the Company's total rule of India. The first tiny Fort St George was built in 1644. Today the much expanded fort houses the state Legislature and Secretariat.

Indigo, tea, cotton, silk, sugar and spices were regularly sent back on the 16,000 kilometre voyage aboard the Company's 30 ships bound for Europe. At its peak, the East India Company employed 50,000 staff. By 1740, the company's trade was about 500,000 pounds - or more than 10 per cent of Britain's revenue!

The importance of Clive and others like Warren Hastings and Cornwallis was to take the Company from the role of tolerated traders under Indian (Mughal) administration to imperial rulers. Percival Spear, a historian summed up Clive as a "clerk who turned out to have a genius for irregular warfare. . . Like most men of his situation he was an opportunist not overburdened by scruple".

Still, he didn't do it merely for the glory of empire. For one venture (when he put a pro-British ruler on the throne of Bengal) his share of the "official compensation" was 234,000 pounds and a land grant worth a further 30,000 pounds per year. Bengal to pay, of course.

It took less than 80 years for the East India Company to take control of the whole dynamic sub-continent of India. But the cost of administration was huge and, eventually, company rule gave way to goverment rule and corporate profits shrank dramatically. In 1813 the Company's trading monopoly was abolished and after years of declining fortunes it ceased to be a trading concern in 1833. During the recriminations after the Indian Mutiny of the 1850s its last powers were abolished.

Throughout its life the East India Company faced the problem of paying for the goods it purchased from India. After everyone took their share the company rarely had enough left over to pay its costs. This was quite unlike the other great British venture, the very frugal Hudson's Bay Company that exploited Canada and its few inhabitants with impunity. Long after the East India Company had disappeared, the HBC recorded its highest annual profit of $C80.3 million in 1979.

After St Mary's put thoughts of empire into my head, it was impossible to ignore the overlapping Indian and British influence scattered throughout India.

The sandalwood-trading city of Mysore is one of the most pleasant cities in India. Its markets are clean, the wide streets relatively uncrowded and one of the Maharajah's spare palaces has been converted into the luxurious Lalitha Mahal Palace Hotel. Each Sunday night, the resplendent expanse of the Maharajah's Palace is illuminated into a magical fantasy land.

It's peaceful place. However, just outside town lies the ruins of Tipu Sultan's eighteen century capital. The "Tiger of Mysore" was a thorn in the side of the British for decades until conquered and killed by Wellesley in a bloody battle in 1799. His defeat was the start of British domination of southern India.

Bangalore is the centre of India's computer industry. The imposing Secretariat building, the Vidhana Soudha, is a stunning example of neo Dravidian architecture. This was once a British enclave: names like Richmond Town and Avenue Road reveal its heritage. Winston Churchill once lived a very comfortable colonial lifestyle here. Legend has it that his barber would shave him while he slept to save time in the morning.

With a typically perverse Indian logic, the inland city of Hyderabad is a centre of the world's pearl industry. The pearls are imported from Japan and elsewhere in Asia then sorted, polished and drilled in Hyderabad. With prices about a third of Australian prices, shopping for pearls here is one of the world's best travel bargains.

Hyderabad is also the home of one of the great ecclectic art collections - in the Salar Jung museum. There are some 35,000 pieces in the collection from Persian miniatures and illuminated Korans to English landscapes and Italian marbles. Like London's V&A, it's too much to absorb but the sheer cosmopolitan extent is impressive.

It reinforces the image of India as a great trading nation. Indeed, Akbar's Mughal empire of 1600 had revenue of some 17.5 million pounds. Two hundred years later, Pitt's Great Britain only had a revenue of 16 million pounds.

During Indira Ghandi's time, Indian external trade was greatly reduced as it struggled for self sufficiency. Now the ports are more welcoming and there are non-Indian goods in the shops. Australia exported some $590 million in goods to India in 1989-90, a growth of 6.3 per cent over the previous year. Coal, wool, vegetables and minerals make up the great majority of this - manufactures account for only $60 million. India had $280 million in exports to Australia that year - most of that was apparel, textiles, precious stones and leather good.

The major Australian company in India is ANZ-Grindlays Bank, which is the largest foreign bank in India with over 60 branches. Other Australian companies there include BHP and Atlas Air. India cuts about 70 per cent of the world's diamonds: the industry employs over 800,000 people and forms the country's major export industry. Argyle Diamonds, which extracts about a third of the world's diamonds from its mine in the Kimberley region of WA, has many of its stones cut in India.

The dramatic contrasts everywhere in India provide a fascinating canvas of life. An inconspicuous doorway may lead from a street scene of abject poverty to a jewellery store when prices of tens of thousands of dollars are commonplace. The bustle of a city street offsets the serene pace of the villages. Elaborate clothes walk alongside simple dhotis.

Throughout there is a good humour that makes India unique. Just before I visited Hyderabad this year, there were reports of Hindu-Moslem riots. When I arrived, I asked my guide if special caution was required. His reply was: "Why? The clashes don't affect you. The British and Europeans merely raped and pillaged our country for more than 200 years. But we revere you - we only kill each other."

While India continues to be the most colourful destination in the world, it's also becoming more comfortable for visitors. The ever-expanding Oberoi group of hotels provide impeccable modern guest facilities throughout India. And there are now some 11 palace hotels where a couple can literally live like maharajahs for about $100 a night. Details can be obtained from the Government of India Tourist Office at 17 Castlereagh St, Sydney, telephone (02) 232 1600.

As events turned out, New Delhi is a final momunent to the days of British India. Delhi became the capital of India in 1911 and the new city of wide tree-lined avenues radiating out from Connaught Circus was the impressive achievement of architects Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker. It was inaugurated in 1931, just 16 years before independence.

However, the Republic Day Parade on January 26 down New Delhi's Janpath reveals how much of Britain is still in India. This military show-and-tell is completely Indian but the uniforms are largely English - or Scottish (often with the addition of Sikh turbans). At the end of the parade a troop of mounted red-coated cavalry galloped to a halt in a cloud of dust to escort the President and Prime Minister away. Robert Clive would have been impressed.


In Pursuit of the Last Lions in Asia

By David McGonigal and Lynn Woodworth as they explore the forests of Gujarat

"Lions and tigers and bears - oh no!" sung Dorothy and her friends as they set off along the Yellow Brick Road to the Land of Oz. From these clues we can be sure that she was right to declare that she wasn't in Kansas. In fact, the only country on earth where all three species reside is India.

After a terrifying walk through long Indian grass one afternoon we concluded that the only thing worse than looking for tigers and not finding them is searching for the elusive beasts and unexpectedly finding them. Bears, on the other hand, can often be seen by the Indian roadside, chained and expected to perform tricks for passing tourists. The very fortunate may find a bear in the forested national parks of India.

Then we have India's lions. When one thinks of lions, Africa immediately comes to mind. That's fair: there are some 200,000 lions in Africa from West Africa to South Africa; in western India, there's a population of 250 asiatic lions in just one national park.

Fossil remains reveal that lions once lived everywhere from England, across Europe and the Middle East to Siberia - even Alaska and the Yukon. That's a wider territorial range than any mammal apart from man and his livestock. It's thought that African and Asiatic lions became different sub-species somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

In the last century Asiatic lions have been hunted to extinction in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Early this century only 20 or less were left in India so lion hunting was banned. In 1947 their home in the Gir Forest of the west Indian state of Gujarat was declared a reserve.

It's an out-of-the-way place to visit. The fastest way we found was to fly from Bombay to Bhavnagar from where we were driven for several bone shaking hours to Sasan Gir, just north of Veraval on the Arabian Sea.

In Australia, an operator had costed our short side trip to see the lions at well over $1000 - not including airfares. An Indian operator offered us the same trip for just a few hundred dollars so we booked with him. We could probably have done the whole excursion for not much more than $100 if we had been prepared to take our chances on arriving at the Lion Safari Lodge without a booking.

But any travel in India gives new meaning to the expression "thrown to the lions". We arrived at the gates of the lodge at dusk, tired and dusty after hours of chewing on grit and diesel fumes. The lodge was closed for renovations. So we tried the Forest Department Guest House. The remarkably unhelpful manager there told us that he held no reservation for us and, despite the evidence of rows of keys hanging on the hooks behind him, he didn't have any rooms available. Eventually, he relented and gave us an air conditioned room "but it's booked tomorrow so you'll have to leave."

We certainly weren't eligible for dinner - that had to be pre-ordered before noon. In fact, we only had minutes to spare if we wanted to order tomorrow's breakfast.

We awoke before dawn and joined other tourists shivering near the hut from where the open 4WD vehicles would take us into the park. We were warmly dressed because we knew from African experience that dawn game drives are only rivalled by Antarctic exploration in their cold quotient.

Only a few minutes into the drive we came across a pair of lionesses. Now perhaps Africans make too much of the ferociousness of their lions with strict prohibition on even putting your arms outside the vehicle. But it was still a surprise to see two Indian workers strolling along a few metres behind these lions chatting and swinging their lunch boxes. Then we noticed bus stops along the road. Perhaps I missed a sign at the entrance declaring "Australians on bicycles welcome"?

Asiatic lions look different from the lions of Africa. They are paler, prefer forest to open grassland, and have cute black tufts at the end of their tails. The males have smaller manes than their cousins in Kruger. And, despite complaints from local cattle farmers, they appeared to have manners enough not to attack workmen or tourists.

Those were the last lions we were to see on the drive. Fortunately, we filled in the hours spotting deer and antelope, specifically chital, sambar and nilgai. The bears of the 1412 square kilometre park remained elusive. But we had (in the words of the brochure) "numerous varieties of birds, whose sprightly hops, molodious (sic) twitterring (sic)-softly add to the sublime symphony which the nature has orchestrated here".

The rest of the day was occupied endeavouring to persuade the guest house manager that he should give us a room for another night. We chatted to a young English traveller who was heading to the few shops of the village on a futile quest for a towel. "Weren't you given a towel?" we asked as we showed him those artistically arranged on our hard-won beds. "The manager said there weren't any," he replied. Filled with indignation, he confronted the manager again who eventually drew a key from his pocket and unlocked the large cupboard behind his desk to reveal scores of pristine towels.

On the following morning we bounced down rutted tracks for an hour before we met a woman hanging out her washing. She pointed out that there were two lions just across the road. "Quick, chase them" our local guide declared as he clambered over a low stone wall in hot pursuit. We followed. The lions, both male, continued to walk deeper into the forest taking nervous glances over their shoulders at the six of us crashing through the bush behind them. I've never pursued lions before. There was a stirring touch of Hemingway in the concept of turning the tables on these predators in pursuit of a travel article. Literary lion indeed.

Sadly, it was less intrepid than it sounds. The lions of Sasan Gir are breeding well but there is some concern about inbreeding. The noted American geneticist Steve O'Brien discovered this when tranquillising lions to obtain essential blood samples. He used full strength darts for the lions of Serengeti with no harmful effects. Suspecting that the lions Gir may be inbred, he cautiously reduced the dosage to less than half strength. Even so, the first lion darted simply (and immediately) died. Genetically speaking, these lions couldn't open their own milk bottles. No wonder they ran away.

Facts

Gir National Park is closed during the monsoon (mid June to mid October or mid November). The best time to visit is between December and April. You need a visa to visit India - apply well in advance.

Our tour was organised by Major S K Yadav, owner of Wanderlust Travels in Delhi, Tel (91-11) 687-5200 or 611-1899, Fax 688-5188.

For information about India contact the Government of India Tourist Office, Level 1, 17 Castlereagh St, Sydney NSW 2000, Tel 232-1600.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd