When we turned off the well-maintained coastal highway, the road almost immediately fell into disrepair. We bumped along, and carefully navigated around holes half-filled with rubble, while monkeys scattered ahead of us. As we drove further into the Indian countryside, the road dissolved into a rough dirt track and we slowed to rural Indian pace.
The view from the van window painted a picture of how people worked in this part of southern India. Stoneworkers toiled in their workshops by the side of the road, especially at night when it was mercifully cooler. Men and women passed along the road, balancing bundles of long iron struts on their shoulders, on their way to a construction site. And every field we passed was tended by rice labourers: often women in brightly coloured saris complementing the luminous green of the fresh shoots.
Soon we arrived at the Irula village on the edge of the desert plains, to be met by the village head man.
The Irula people are traditionally known as India’s snake catchers. For many generations they have been employed to rid villages of cobras, kraits, vipers and other dangers. Often armed only with a long stick and a cloth bag, husband and wife teams would work together to hunt venomous snakes. When your prey is so dangerous, it is never a good idea to work alone. Now, a government scheme helps the Irula to make money from their traditional way of life - collecting and milking the snakes to make life-saving anti-venom. We were shocked at how comfortable they are working with snakes. Apparently, trust and calm are essential.
After arrival, we were presented to the village head, an old man with wiry hair, a grim expression and bloodshot eyes. He scowled at us and said almost nothing. It was only a few days later that I learned that he was blind and barely speaks to any of the villagers, let alone strangers. Finally, as agreed, he took the camphor we offered him and burned it as an offering in front of the village holy tree.
This was the villagers’ spiritual lord and protector: a huge palm tree at one end of the village. The older generations of the Irula rarely interact with the modern India found back towards the coast in the towns. When someone is born, they make offerings to the tree. And when they fall ill, they prey to the tree for their recovery.
We spent a week with the Irula. We were welcomed, and soon became friendly with several families. The children loved us - screaming in delight at seeing their pictures on the back of my camera. As it is for so many rural people, life is tough and poor, but slow and simple.
Families share what little rice and lentils they have, and everyone who is able takes whatever work they can - most often labouring in the fields or on construction sites for three or four dollars a day.
Health problems are a terrible double threat. Without proper treatment, injuries, bites and infections can become deadly serious. But they also wipe out that person’s earning potential - and that can put whole families into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape.
This was why The Vaseline® Healing Project was funding and supplying medical missions into rural India. Simple things like protecting wounds with Vaseline® Jelly or washing with antibacterial soap can make a huge difference to the health and wealth of an entire village.
They were very keen to take the children to see the doctors from the Healing Project. Some of the children had miscellaneous cuts and minor infections, but above all, Kanniapan wanted to take them to the doctor to teach them a new precedent. “You have to learn to look after yourself,” he told the children, “This body, this skin, it is all you have.” Going to the doctor for medical support represented a new way: a more reliable way of staying healthy, and especially learning how to protect the hands and feet that would become an essential means of maintaining a livelihood.
Kanniapan himself was ill when we met him, with an unknown condition that had been grumbling on for a while and had recently become worse. We only learned how worried Poongkodi was when she broke down crying as we asked her why she wanted to go to the doctors. While Kanniapan spent all his energy looking after the children, his wife was desperate for him to receive treatment too. The doctors were able to assess him, and set him up with a course of treatment to return him to health.
Kanniapan and Poongkodi both have deep respect for the traditional ways of their people.
But they also want to create a brighter future for the children of their village. After the last day of filming, as we burned a final camphor offering to the tree God and enjoyed a fresh cut coconut, we watched several villagers experimenting with the medical supplies they had been given by the doctors. As the sun ducked below the horizon and the fire started to die, Kanniapan showed some of the youngest children how to apply Vaseline® Jelly to minor cuts and grazes, and Poongkodi looked on with both joy and relief flickering in her eyes.