04.06.2014 - 08.07.2014 38 °C
Everything in southern India has a different flavor. From the language, primarily Tamil to the vegetarian cuisine - thalis and dosas, to the terrain. Days are spent coming from or going to visit temples of which there are literally thousands, some classified by UNESCO.
As if Indian city names weren't complicated enough, sometimes the new names aren't so different Pondicherry - Puducherry, Mahabalipuram - Mamallapuram. Thankfully, contractions are popular. Despite the tongue-twisting name, Mamallapuram (Mal), a little under 2 hours south of Chennai (Madras) is classified as a world heritage site for its temples and natural rock formations. The vestiges of the 7th century Shore Temple dedicated to Shiva sit at water's edge. It's hard to tell if it's being swallowed up or regurgitated by the sea.
A short rickshaw ride takes us to the 5 Rathas (chariots) Temple, a group of sanctuaries each dedicated to a Hindu god with a sculpted animal standing guard. Most remarkable is that each temple and figure is carved from a single piece of stone. This archeological wonder was dug out of the sand by the British some 200 years ago.
Carved into a long rock wall along one of the main streets in town are scenes of daily life and Hindu mythology.
A bit further down the road, looking as if it's about to roll, sits an enormous rock called, get this... Krishna's Butter Ball!
The expansive Arunachaleswar Temple (dedicated to Shiva in his incarnation as fire) sits in the town of Thiruvannamalai at the base of a dormant volcano. It has four particularly tall gopurams (typical Hindu stepped tower gate). On full moon and other holy days, people come to worship at the temple and climb the volcano; barefoot in the blazing sun, of course. During the annual festival of the Nov/Dec full moon, millions of pilgrims make the journey.
Thanjavur, once the capital of the Chola empire is home to the 11th century Brihadishwara Temple, also a Unesco World Heritage site. The thick fort walls dissolve from beige to pink, orange and red tones as the sun shifts overhead.
As with all Hindu temples, shoes must be removed. Locals don't seem to have trouble walking on blistering hot stone, while I hop around trying to catch bits of the worn-out runners that have been laid out. When there's no carpet, I hug walls trying to fit my feet into the thin crisp shadow of the midday sun. In some areas, a strip of ground has been painted white and what a difference that makes. On the rare occasion that I remember, I pack a pair of socks, but not all temples allow them. In the center of the complex stands a 25 ton Nandi (Shiva's bull) carved out of a single stone. The arcade that stretches around the huge complex is filled with sculptures and colorful paintings of Shiva.
Pondicherry or Pondy, is a bustling chaotic town on the southeast coast. But crossing over the canal to the neighborhood bordering the sea is like stepping into 18th century France. Large houses, freshly-painted pale yellow, topped with red-tile roofs, sit on tree-lined streets named Alexandre Dumas and Romain Rolland.
The elegant Hotel L'Orient, has been lovingly restored with muted colored walls, 4 poster beds, polished wood floors and impossibly high ceilings making you feel like a veritable French aristocrat.
A few more hot bus rides down the southeast coast lands us in Tamil Nadu and in particular the Chettinad region, the enclave of the Chettiars, a large clan of 9 families who made their fortunes in international business and finance. They built expansive mansions in their native villages (Karaikkudi, Kothamangalam, Pallatur, Kanadukathan,...) with imported Burmese teak, Italian marble, Japanese tiles and Belgian mirrors.
The streets are long and straight, lined with expansive dilapidated homes. It feels like a ghost town and looking towards an intersection, I half expect to see tumbleweed blow by. The silence is deafening. This cannot be India.
The entrance to our hotel, Saratha Vilas, is unassuming, yet a push through large wood doors into the partially covered courtyard and the grandeur of the place unfolds.
Oversized daybeds amid lush greenery lead up a few steps to the columned portico standing on polished black (Belgian) tiles. Stepping into what might be the foyer in a European home, feels like walking into Versailles.
Through large windows, designed for air circulation, on the far wall, a succession of spaces recedes into the distance.
Most Chettiar mansions have a similar layout based on Vastu Shastra, the Tamil version of Feng Shui. Oddly, this front room was the marriage hall and is wide rather than long. There must be 20 meters looking left and right, with large chandeliers, mirrors, paintings and a polished marble floor. Behind a painted screen at one end is our room. The key itself is a conversation piece.
Each day at 7 am the women who work at the hotel draw a design on the floor in the main courtyard. Made with a paste of white rice the Kolam is believed to bring prosperity. Throughout southern India millions of women draw these designs in front of their homes and shops every day.
There are apparently, over 10,000 Chettiar mansions in the area yet only a handful have been restored. However, Chettinad is quickly gaining popularity as a tourist destination and renovation projects are proceeding in all the villages. The work undertaken by the two French architects who run Saratha Vilas is by far the most thoroughly accomplished. A masterpiece of understated elegance, honoring the traditional style and craftsmanship of a Chettiar home while adding just enough modern conveniences and personal taste to create a contemporary luxury accommodation. But the master plan, imagined by Michel and Bernard and well underway, is for the entire Chettinad region to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
In the small village of Athangudi, craftsmen make the distinctive tiles found in all the Chettiar mansions. A piece of glass is placed in a mould and colored powders are poured in. The mould is then removed and the pattern is covered with a layer of sand on both sides and set aside to rest for a day before being placed in water for 2 days. Once dry, the glass is removed. Working in pairs, tile-makers complete about 250 tiles per day.
There are many Hindu temples in the area. Each bordering a large water tank. Staring down the steep steps into the virtually empty basin, it's hard to imagine it rains here at all.
In addition to the wealthy Chettiars, the villagers of this region have also contributed to making this area unique in India. Every year between May and August, one after another villages honor Ayyanar, the god who protects the villagers. Pottery offerings in the form of horses, cows, elephants, goats, and human figures are carried in a procession to the village temple where they are arranged in neat rows on the temple grounds.
Each year, new offerings are added and as the years go by, nature grows on and around these delicate objects. Scattered throughout the region are sanctuaries dedicated to Ayyanar, some in the form of temples while others lie in a sacred forest or clearing as designated by the living gods, men who through trance transmit Ayyanar's desires.
The most popular offering is a horse and in the potters' village a very special horse is made each year. This one stands 7 meters tall and took 22 days to make. It is carried by 50 men who relay themselves over the 5 km walk to its resting place at the temple next to those of previous years. As with many local traditions, there are only a few families of potters left as younger generations are leaving for work in bigger cities.
For a brief escape from the oppressive heat of the south, we head to India's most famous hill station, Ooty.
Following rave reviews from our favorite guidebook, we take the vintage miniature steam train on a 5 hour putter into the mountains. It turns out, this is a popular attraction with Indian tourists who arrive in droves, laden with feasts for the journey. This ol' engine needs water to propel her up the mountain and we stop at almost every station to top off and check that all parts are attached and functioning properly. At every halt, the local tourists bound off the train to take pictures and eat.
In horror, we watch as they throw garbage on the ground. Indians firmly believe that they are providing work for others. And while the mentality towards waste management in general is slowly changing, the country remains quite filthy and it's going to take generations to clean up.
The Garden Manor hotel near the botanical gardens in Ooty is cute and comfortable. It's the best thing about the town, well almost. The kitchen is a disaster. After several unsuccessful attempts to find an edible breakfast we pack up and leave.
The bus to Mysore is a winding ride through the mountains with a rare sighting. As is often the case, we are the only tourists on the bus and no matter how crowded, seats are always found for us. Sitting up front offers a great view. A few Spotted deer on the left, the occasional elephant on the right and then... a leopard! Over the last year we have bounced through many a reserve hoping for a glimpse of elusive wildlife, and here on a public bus, for all of 1 euro, a leopard casually crosses the road before us!
The centerpiece of Mysore is the Maharaja's Palace. The building that stands today was built in the early 1900s after fire destroyed the original palace. It is an impressive monument filled with royal history and intricate architectural details. Inside, photos are strictly prohibited, one wonders why, but the magical moment comes one night at the end of the regular sound and light show when the 100,000+ bulbs that frame the entire monument shine brightly for exactly 2 minutes before dramatically powering off in unison.
The Parklane is a quirky, comfortable hotel. The restaurant has a reputation for good food and does a bustling business with locals. We will remember it for the one slip-up at breakfast which coined a phrase: When served severely moldy bread, our waiter rushed back with fresh slices and said, "Sorry madame, kitchen confused!"
The Keshava Temple in Somnathpur is worth the 45 minute ride out of Mysore. Built in the 13th century, it is one of three temples from the Hoysala period classified as a Unesco World Heritage site. The temple sits on a raised star-shape platform with every inch inside and out covered with carved figures of gods, goddesses, musicians, animals, and scenes from ancient Hindu texts called Puranas. The ceilings are carved with the various stages of a blooming banana flower and the names of all the sculptors are carved into the temple.
The fortified city of Srirangapatnam, the official capital for most of South India in the 18th century, is most famous for the epic encounter between Tipu Sultan and the British at the end of the 19th century, in favor of the Brits. Only parts of the walls and gates still stand, but a mosque and a temple remain. Nearby, is the Sultan's summer residence, Daria Daulat Bagh, an ornate palace largely made of wood, covered with murals depicting daily life and important military campaigns.
But the really beautiful site outside of Mysore is the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary where in addition to flocks of wild storks, Ibises and Cormorants, we are mesmerized by the giant crocodiles soaking up the sun on the banks and patrolling the river.
With our visas about to expire we take a train from Trichy to Chennai intending to fly to Bali though one of us is denied exit from India on a technicality so small even the immigration officer has to use a magnifying glass to point it out! The red tape is so thick, it takes one week, many documents and several office visits to obtain the required paperwork.
impressions of Bali coming... eventually!