A Travellerspoint blog

Southern India

sunny 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. A6DA48D1B6127DFE1DDF4667A05A595F.jpg
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.A6D7159EA0EAFB517E481C1F05C4B45C.jpgA6D6AA79DA717BA850D25103FD48DBF3.jpg
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.
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Carved into a long rock wall along one of the main streets in town are scenes of daily life and Hindu mythology.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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For a brief escape from the oppressive heat of the south, we head to India's most famous hill station, Ooty.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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impressions of Bali coming... eventually!

Posted by SpiceChronicles 00:18 Archived in India Comments (3)

Mumbai (Bombay) and points south

sunny 38 °C

It is said that New York is not representative of America. The same can be said for Mumbai, and oddly enough, Mumbai feels a lot like New York!
Perhaps it's the Starbucks or Le Pain Quotidien that catch my eye as we weave through traffic in the distinctive black, Padmini taxi. Auto rickshaws are not allowed to circulate in the center, but motorcycles and buses are and it's a frenetic scramble for position as everyone rushes to go absolutely nowhere, honking incessantly. Forget the notion that pedestrians have the right of way and do not dare to rely on a traffic signal. It's bad enough that you have to remember to look to the opposite of naturally, but when you do attempt to cross, vehicles pass in front AND behind you hardly slowing down, outright nudging you out of their way. The rule seems to be, the more space you occupy the more priority you have and you always have priority if you're in front if you're bigger! Eventually, you get the hang of this insanity that seems to work though it may be only because Indians seem to have little tolerance for those who cause accidents.
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Long avenues lined with tall buildings hide an intricate network of streets. Sprawling neighborhoods of past or booming grandeur, monuments, business districts and slums share tight borders populated by a colorful mix of people. Buildings wear the indelible marks of the intense heat and humidity that engulfs the city before the monsoon and the torrential rains during.
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Our separate entrance at the Hotel Moti in Colaba, resembles The Best Marigold. The grand staircase leading up echoes with faded glory. The room, though sparse, is large and clean enough. An A/C screams cold air at us. The place would be a masterpiece if the owner had the means to restore it. The 4-story building stands in the shadow of the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace hotel which itself stands by the imposing Gateway to India at the edge of the Arabian Sea. On nearby side streets, trendy boutiques including Bungalow 8 and upscale restaurants like Khyber occupy renovated buildings with high ceilings and exposed brick. Most establishments have A/C. Even the minuscule barber shop on the sidewalk near our hotel can pull closed a folding plastic door offering a man a cool cut and shave.
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The busy Colaba Causeway lined with shops, with sidewalks claimed by vendors leaving just a single-file lane for pedestrians, pulses with activity day and night. Making our way through the throngs of people, we walk to the magnificent, Victoria Station, today called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the short tour is worth taking just to escape the blur of people rushing in every direction on the platforms. Trains barely come to a full stop as they empty and refill their wagons and it's always a polite fight for a non-reserved seat.
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Chor (thieves) Bazaar is a web if small streets packed with antique shops. Exactly how antique is certainly up for discussion, but it's a fascinating place to spend a couple of hours and there are some great finds. We would be in trouble if we had a place to furnish.
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In addition to the (as grand as its name) Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum (formerly the Prince of Whales Museum),
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on the list of pleasant surprises is the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. A bit out of the way, It houses a vast collection of artifacts, photographs, manuscripts, and objects illustrating the history of the city. Most appealing is the lavish renovation of this 18th century renaissance building itself.
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We head out along Marine drive towards the vicinity of Chowpatty Beach to visit Mani Bhavan, the house where Gandhi sojourned in Bombay. Now a museum, the small rooms are filled with photos, texts and memorabilia. You can see the simply furnished room where he wrote some of his most famous texts, and there is an air conditioned room with nicely constructed dioramas depicting the major events in his life. We linger here on the second floor not only for the A/C but to really get a sense of one man's fortitude and the simple means by which he achieved his goals. It's a humbling visit.
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Walking over to Chowpatty Beach, the sun bombards our power umbrella which struggles to deflect the crushing heat. When we arrive at the legendary beach, there is hardly a soul. Well, of course not; it's broad daylight. We wander off in search of Kotachiwadi, a Christian enclave wedged between Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, famous for its colorful 2-story wood houses on narrow streets where taxis and rickshaws don't venture. Lost in the web of minuscule lanes, we come across a congregation of about 20 sitting on benches and plastic chairs in front of an effigy to the Virgin Mary singing hymns.
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As the sun sets on Chowpatty, the beach has morphed into a theme park atmosphere with hundreds of locals picnicking, swimming and socializing. Vendors sell cotton candy, balloons, toys, and all kinds of food including delicious roasted corn on the cob sprinkled with fresh lime and chilly salt. Yum! We are the only foreigners and many, many people want to pose for photos with us. The atmosphere is so festive that I ask someone if this is a special occasion. "No! It's like this every day. We come here to cool off."
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Bollywood movie stars are akin to gods and we catch a glimpse of the magnitude of this one afternoon as we stroll along the Bandra West Bollywood Starwalk where the biggest names have earned their star along this seaside strip. There are also statues of actors and plenty of people posing next to them. Many stars live in the modern apartment buildings along the water. We come across a group of adoring fans standing in front of superstar Salman Khan's building waiting for the demigod to appear on his terrace and wave: something we're told he does daily.
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As mentioned before, train tickets are not easy to reserve and comfortable seats for long journeys are almost impossible to score last minute. We decide to take an overnight sleeper bus to Hyderabad. The standard seats have been removed and replaced with bunk beds. On one side of the bus the beds fit 2 people on the other side they are single berths. It's important to choose an upper berth away from the pile of flip flops and sandals that cover the narrow aisle. The mattress is comfortable with clean sheets, pillows and blanket. A stiffly pleated cotton curtain offers a modicum of privacy. The only potential inconvenience, aside from heavy snorers, is the lack of a toilet. Anticipating the worst, one of us heads off in search of a solution. Figuring that it will not be easy to aim into a bottle in a moving vehicle, one procures a wide-mouthed container. The irony of course is that in the middle of the night, despite several attempts in some extremely funny positions, he is unable to relieve himself. Naturally, the driver stops every few hours for the rest of us. Sometimes there is a toilet... of questionable cleanliness.
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Hyderabad, or Cyberabad, as it's playfully referred to given the recent proliferation of IT companies, is an astonishing mix of old and new. Not a top pick on the tourist trail, the first impression is underwhelming, no, downright ugly. But within a day, we begin to discover the treasures hidden behind tall walls, at the end of winding streets and inside courtyards. In the 16th century, the Deccan, southern plateau, became the Islamic center of India. From the 18th century, the Nizam dynasty ruled Hyderabad, fending off the British and French for control of commerce right up to India's independence (1947). Mineral-rich soil which produced stones like the Koh-I-Noor and Hope diamonds, and the region's strategic geographical location brought inconceivable wealth to the Nizams and noble families who served them. The city is filled with remnants of culture, prosperity and certainly the greatest number of mosques and shrines per square meter. The old city, anchored by the Charminar (gate and oldest mosque) remains firmly planted in the Middle Ages, with endless bazaars selling everything, tiny streets jammed with cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, cows, pigs, and a stream of women draped in black and men in white hugging the edges. In contrast, ultra-modern Segunderabad and Banjara Hills resemble upper middle class neighborhoods in the US. Wide freshly-paved avenues, traffic lights that most respect, gated communities, and shopping malls with valet parking packed with people dressed in jeans and polos. We stop in at the Hard Rock Cafe for our first burger in months! In the 3D theater next door they are showing 1/2 a dozen attraction films from our favorite 3D movie producers!
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The Falaknuma Palace, once the 6th Nizam's summer residence, sits about 15 minutes away on a hill overlooking the sprawling city. Today, it's a 5 star hotel that has been painstakingly restored. Getting inside, when you're not a guest takes a bit of maneuvering, but the 100 seat dining room table is a must see. There is hardly a soul to admire the over-polished setting.
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On the other hand, Chowmahalla Palace, home to many generations of Nizams is a museum and you can freely roam the beautifully restored grounds The highlight of this visit is the Durbar Hall, Khilwat Mubarak, where all official and religious ceremonies were held. 4 rows of gleaming crystal chandeliers catch the flooding sunlight.
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The Purani Haveli, principal home of the 6th Nizam, is most famous for the staggering 73 meter (240 feet) Burmese teak wardrobe. This is the granddaddy of walk-in closets! They say he never wore the same clothes twice.
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The city of Hyderabad was built when water ran out at the massive Golconda Fort which was the centerpiece of the region for centuries. It is the soil around Golconda that produced the biggest diamonds in history. The outside wall stretches over 10 km and there are several ingenious security systems: to deter stampeding elephants, large pointed metal spearheads cover the 2 foot thick doors, and the entrance has a diamond shaped structure which rebounds the slightest sound all the way to the highest point of the fort. It takes us an hour to reach there on foot.
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Standing as a backdrop for a pick-up game of cricket is the 500 year old Toli Masjid mosque. In addition to the standard 5 arches representing prayer, charity, pilgrimage, fasting and faith, the intricate details of the minarets are bathed in beautiful light at the moment we pass.
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The journey to Cochin (today called Kochi) is epic. 12 hours to Bangalore on a sleeper bus; this one is not a modern Volvo which we note for future bookings, but it's comfortable none-the-less. We have just enough time for a cup of tea at a roadside stand, before boarding a semi-sleeper bus for the next 12 hours.
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Here, seats have footrests and recline almost completely putting you pretty much in the lap of the person behind you. It's a little tight for our western body frames but thankfully, the bus isn't full. As soon as we get moving, the entertainment system is fired up and one ear-piercing Bollywood film after another plays for the duration. There are no English subtitles, but the plots are simple enough to follow. Our fellow passengers are so thoroughly engrossed that when the DVD jams it nearly causes a riot. Play resumes and the audience returns to fits of laughter and snacking.

The state of Kerala stretches along the southwest, Malabar, coast of India. Cochin is the port town in the center. For centuries a major hub for spice trade, when Vasco de Gama landed here in the 15th century, it opened a new and extremely profitable route to Europe. While the Portuguese, Dutch and British took turns massacring each other for control, a small community of Jews fleeing persecution in the Middle East and Europe settled in and prospered. These Paradesi (white, foreigner) Jews where different from the Malabar (black, Indian) Jews that had arrived centuries before. There are many theories as to when exactly, but the earliest recording in Cochin is on a hotly disputed set of copper plates from around 1000 AD that now sit in the Paradesi Synagogue. While they tolerated each other, the Malabar and Paradesi Jews remained resolutely distinct.
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Of the 8 synagogues (7 Malabar and 1 Paradesi) only the Paradesi synagogue, built in the 16th century by Sephardic Jews, remains (somewhat) active today. It has been timelessly restored and is open to visitors for a nominal fee and for prayer though there is no longer a rabbi. The synagogue sits in Jew Town in Fort Cochin. While it, along with Jew street in Ernakulam, sound pejorative, we are quick to learn that the Jews of Cochin were far less persecuted than their European counterparts and enjoyed special privileges throughout history.
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We meet a man from Los Angeles who comes to Kerala often on business and who has developed very close ties with the family that maintains the synagogue. It is Friday evening and he has come for the sabbath prayers. After, he invites us to join him for dinner at the home of Queenie Hallegua. Granddaughter of Samuel Koder a wealthy merchant and major benefactor of the synagogue, Queenie continues the Friday night open house dinners made legendary by her grandfather in the early 1900s. The atmosphere is rather somber these days as we are clearly at the end of the line here. Of the few thousand Jews that once lived in the region only a handful remain.

We also visit the synagogues of Chennamangalam and Paravur whose buildings have been restored, but are relatively empty inside.
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Clearly the most unusual synagogue is Kadavumbagam, which lies at the back of an aquarium fish and plant shop in Ernakulam. "Babu" the owner of Cochin Blossoms is a Malabar Jew and he explains that when Israel became a nation in 1948, there was a mass exodus from Cochin. By 1972, his temple's congregation no longer had enough men (10) for a minion and by 1977, the synagogue was abandoned. Babu installed his shop in front of and has undertaken renovations of the synagogue, but with little to no funding it's slow-going.
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Kathakali is the traditional dance of Kerala. Stories based on the life of Lord Krishna are acted out with very precise movements and facial expressions synchronized to rhythmic beats and melodies. Years of rigorous martial arts training are required to master the art form. Equally impressive is the make-up session that takes hours, every night, before the show. The audience is invited to sit in. Bold lines and colors are used to define the personality of each character.
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Coming soon: the rest of southern India...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 02:56 Archived in India Comments (12)

Incredible India

Delhi & Rajasthan - March 1-20, 2014

sunny 35 °C

The well-chosen slogan from India's tourism authority sums it up in two words: Incredible India!

Delhi: A total assault of the senses from the minute you step out of the airport terminal even at 4AM. If there's one piece of advice to offer, it's act like you know where you're going and how you will get there even if you don't, because if you waiver, for even a millisecond, you will be pounced on by eager men with varying means of locomotion. But Indians are efficient if not organized and the prepaid taxi stand will ensure a fair price and provide reference for future rides which you'll be thankful for the next time you have to negotiate a fare.

Our hotel, Grand Godwin is in Paharganj a bustling, dilapidated, noisy area near the New Delhi train station popular with backpackers and famous for its crowded Main Bazaar. The streets are jammed with yellow and green auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws - affectionately referred to as Indian helicopters - motorbikes, cars and pedestrians weaving in both directions with little regard for one's side of the street! Looking up all you can see are neon hotel signs receding to infinity. While the neighborhood isn't as pretty as the circular colonnades of Connaught Place, the room is 4 star and much better value than anything I will visit in a nicer area (30€/night).
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We do however, eat almost all our meals in the restaurants around Connaught Place which range from basic to ultra trendy. One favorite is the United Cafe: mirror, velvet and crystal of a bygone era serving scrumptious food.
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Delhi is full of contrasts. Honking is akin to breathing here, but it is possible to escape the deafening noise. Sites like the Red Fort, Humayan's Tomb and the Purana Quila offer immense manicured grounds to stroll through and wonder at the majesty of ancient cultures. Once you get the hang of using the metro with its Smart Card, getting around is easy and less chaotic than the exhaust-filled roads.

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There is a large Muslim community and India's largest mosque, Jama Masjid, sits high above Old Delhi offering a 360° view. Most popular though is the mosque of Nizam-ud-din where on Thursday nights, thousands flock to listen to traditional singing. Getting to the mosque is a challenge, winding through narrow streets lined with vendors selling flowers, incense, food and other offerings and worshippers hurrying to arrive by sundown. Uncomfortably, we make our way with the mob, the air thick with Incense. Shoes must be removed, but we hold out until the last possible moment before bearing our soles.
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Delhi to Jaipur is a 5 hour train ride picking up dust as we rattle our way into arid Rajasthan. Temps are rising and within a few days, we'll be trying to remember the chill we felt in New Delhi. We visit the City Palace and the beautiful Hawa Mahal, but the highlight of the pink city is the majestic Amber Fort perched on a hillside outside the city. On the way are the beautiful white and beige marble tombs of a long line of maharajahs. Save for a group of local boys playing cricket in front, we are the only visitors.
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The Pearl Palace Heritage hotel in Jaipur is an unexpected find. Although a new construction, it's quite charming. The lobby is hand-painted and old black and white photos cover the walls leading up bleach-white marble stairs. An oversized lock and bolt opens fort-thick wood doors to our "Jaisalmer" room and we step into what looks and feels like the inside of a sand castle. Call it elegant kitsch! The rates are ridiculously reasonable (30€/night) and I wonder if this will last when word gets out that the hotel was one of the shooting locations of the upcoming sequel to The Best Marigold Hotel.
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A friend joins us for 5 days and in order to optimize our time together, we hire a vintage Ambassador with driver and set off on a highlights tour of Rajasthan.

The Samode Palace, an hour outside of Jaipur, is our first stop. The tiny town of Samode is all of one winding, pitted, gritty, road lined with a few local shops. At the end of the main street we pass thru an arch and morph from a dusty, sepia-tone atmosphere, into a brightly-colored scene of bold green lawns, bordering a flower-lined drive. As the car turns in and stops at the base of grand stone steps, our gaze climbs to meet the warm yellow facade of the palace. Once the home of the Maharajah of Samode, this 450 year old gem sits like a glowing ember in a cluster of hills. Most enchanting, is the manageable size of this palace. In addition to our elegant suites (113€/night), as first-time guests we've been automatically upgraded, there are two particularly beautiful historic rooms, the Darbar and the Hall of Mirrors. The craftsmanship is palpable in each room with fine glimmering details that cover the walls and ceilings in rich, saturated colors and intricate fabrics. These are gathering rooms for important events where lavish celebrations continue to take place today.
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Dinner is a royal treat which starts with a visit of the kitchen to meet the chef and his team and to plan our meal. We dine alfresco with a lovely bottle of Indian wine from the Sula Vineyards.
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Pampered and well-rested, we drag ourselves down those magnificent steps to our ivory Ambassador and bump out of town towards the lakeside town of Pushkar. On the way, we stop in noisy, crowded Ajmer to visit 2 very different places of worship. At first glance, the Nasiyan temple looks like a typical, red stone, Jain temple on a busy street. We wind our way up a dingy metal stairway several flights to a very large glass enclosed room that can be viewed from 2 levels. Emerging from the dark stairwell, the scene is simply astonishing: an enormous diorama depicting the Jain interpretation of the ancient universe. Even more astonishing is that this fantastical scene is made of pure gold!
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The most important muslim pilgrimage site in India also sits in Ajmer - the Dargah (sanctuary) of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti. Our driver inches thru a sea of claxoning rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians until he can go no further. We walk the rest of the street in the blazing, blinding sun amidst thousands of worshipers and very few tourists. We are funneled towards the entrance where we reluctantly hand over our shoes wondering if we'll ever see them again. Somehow, over the shouting, a kind, French and English speaking man gracefully offers to accompany us. We cover ourselves head to toe and enter the flow toward the gate, pressed tightly against one another, until we are ejected from the bottleneck inside the grounds and the noise level resolves. Resting place of the most revered Sufi saint, long lines of people shuffle around the 13th Century tomb, while others pray in the mosque, or simply sit with their families in contemplation.
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Although famous for its annual camel fair, on most days, Pushkar is a mellow enclave of pastel-blue tint whitewashed houses, lining the ghats around a sacred lake. We check-in at the charming Inn Seventh Heaven (25€/night) then quickly head out to find some cheap clothes for Holi, the infamous color festival celebrating the change of season taking place the next day: I know from experience that it's imperative to be prepared.
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"Happy Holi!" a passerby says as his hand caresses my face leaving a trail of hot pink powder on my cheek. In the same beat, I feel the cool spray of a water pistol and jump as the bright orange liquid hits my throat and trickles down inside my T-shirt! I reach out to shake an extended hand as a fistful of electric blue powder hits my shoulder and when I turn to see where that came from I find myself face to face with a group of jubilant boys yelling "Happy Holi!" Each one shakes our hand, hugs us and throws more color at us. We are not 10 steps from our hotel and already color-coated! The streets are teeming with people carrying small plastic bags filled with bright colored powders, water guns, buckets of colored water, and kids are running around in a frenzy of friendly-fire. We gravitate toward distant beating drums, abandoning ourselves to embracing strangers, slapping hands and chanting Happy Holi, Happy Holi, Happy Holi... The main square is like a huge Rave party, with hundreds of gyrating bodies, all throwing color at each other. The atmosphere is joyous, festive and just plain fun. The party slowly dies down as the sun sets and one can imagine the entire country showering off in exhaustion.
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By day 4 we are getting used to our driver zig-zagging through traffic and tailgating cars before darting past on either side, honking incessantly. Sometimes it's just better to close your eyes. Driving into Jodhpur wins him accolades as he navigates the overly congested streets squeezing the car thru the gate of the old city and pushing forward as the streets tighten around us. We transfer to a rickshaw for the ultimate, theme park type, twist and jerk weave through a labyrinth of tiny streets lurching to a halt at the door of the quaint Shahi Guesthouse (30€/night). The steps leading up to the funky colorful rooms are cut for agile giants. The view of the blue city with its majestic fort from the rooftop is mesmerizing.
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As this part of the journey comes to an end, we look forward to coming back to Rajasthan in the cooler winter months. For now, we are heading south into sweltering heat and humidity...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 02:12 Archived in India Tagged india new delhi rajasthan Comments (5)

Apple & Feta

From New York City to Greece

sunny 23 °C

New York City, an intricate maze of glass, concrete and brick sprouting from a narrow land mass that is Manhattan. In perpetual upward motion, the city never looks exactly the same and each visit reveals new buildings scratching at the troposphere. Dominating the skyline is the nearly complete Freedom Tower, the kingpin of the new World Trade Center complex.
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It's been over 10 years, yet the wound is wide open.
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On this particular visit to the Big Apple, a dear friend treats us to a breathtaking flyover of New York from his 4 seater. We glide along New York's sandy shores before turning inland towards the southern tip of Manhattan, flanked by the Statue of Liberty and Staten Island on either side. Trying to decipher plane-speak and scouring the airspace for aircraft announced by air traffic controllers is a fun exercise.
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On the ground, New York's waterfront has blossomed over the last 15 years. In addition to the classic Staten Island, Statue of Liberty, Circle Line ferries and other private boat trips on offer, there is now a bustling network of short-hop ferries shuttling people to and from New Jersey (Hudson River) and Brooklyn (East River) in just minutes.

With an all day pass on the East River, we hop on and off and visit Brooklyn, but spend most of our time on the waterfront taking in the magnificent view of New York City from the well-deserved, most popular spot - DUMBO. It's a picture-perfect day and the parks along the river are teeming with a mix of tourists, film crews and local residents.
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In the shadow of Manhattan's tall buildings, Roosevelt Island rests in the middle of the East River offering a sublime view of the city and in particular the United Nations. The short tram ride carries us over the city's busy avenues, by the mid-floor windows of several apartment and office buildings and dangles us just meters over the East River before easing into the tram terminal on the island. We walk to the newly refurbished FDR Four Freedoms Park and marvel at the view.
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Across town, running between Gansevoort Street and West 30th street, the former railroad known as the West Side Line has been reincarnated as the High Line. Just over a mile long, this elevated park offers a delightful stroll and mid-high view of New York's rehabilitated Chelsea district.
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With a belly full of oversized American food, we head towards a Mediterranean diet in Greece.

Arriving in Rhodes is like taking a colossus (pun intended) step back in time.
The largest island in the Dodecanese and adjacent to Turkey, Rhodes is an ideal starting point with low cost flights from Europe and endless island hopping options via an extensive ferry network.

The Old Town is a masterpiece whose beauty is trumped by a multitude of souvenir shops and restaurants fronted by overzealous touts. I admire the grandeur of the fortified walls against the pristine azure sky and revel at the relevance of this ancient civilization to our own, when suddenly the sound of the wind rattling the "I love Greece" paraphernalia that covers every inch of retail space, jolts me back to the present. It is mid-October yet the frenzy of tourists continues to beat fervently.
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We find the Panorama hotel outside of town for 20 euros a night. It's a good half hour to walk to town, but there's a bus for lazy days, and a taxi home at night is just 5 euros; no haggling necessary. The family-run place is a steal at this time of year. The room is actually an apartment. Breakfast by the pool in the morning is delightful, but we remind ourselves that it's off season and it's probably a different scene during peak months.
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With a barrage of offers at the waterfront, we settle on a day trip to a small island called Symi. What a revelation! The picturesque port is lined with freshly painted neoclassic buildings. Leaving the majority of tourists behind, small alleyways lead to wide stone steps that wind up into the hills in an endless labyrinth forcing us left, then right, no back, around. Symi oozes charm and we can easily imagine spending more time here. We head back down to the port for a feast of grilled octopus before dragging ourselves back on board the ferry.
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On yet another picture perfect day, we hop an island bus to Lindos the other highlight of Rhodes. From a distance, the town looks like a pile of white sugar cubes neatly fitted into the rock. A steep walk down a winding road leads us to a charming bleached-white village with narrow winding streets and pretty hotels marred only by wall-to-wall tourist shops. The beach here is a perfect crescent of sand with clear blue water, that is likely jammed during the top months. Clearly, the best way to visit this and most islands in Greece, would be on a private boat. We hike alone, along the plateau opposite offering a splendid view of the village, the acropolis and the bay.
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The 9 hour ferry to Santorini turns into a 2 day adventure. Gail force winds prevent the boat from docking leaving the captain no option but to continue another 8 hours to Athens. While everyone yells at the poor man and his staff, we seize the opportunity and are offered a cabin, which will be ours until the ferry takes us back to Santorini the following night. The next morning, with a full day to spend in Athens, we head off to explore.
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We arrive in Santorini in the middle of the night. At the Blue Sky Villa, my name is taped to the entrance with instructions and the key to our room. It's a charming hotel in the main town of Fira, off the tourist trail (read: no spectacular view), for again 20 euros. The room is bright and clean with a tv, fridge, terrace and though we won't need it at this time of year, a/c.
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I get why people flock to Santorini. Colorful rugged rock formations crowned with whitewashed dwellings that change color as the sun shifts in the sky and wide-angle views from heights that leave you breathless. Beautifully appointed hotels and restaurants tightly terraced along the cliffs, with private balconies, infinity pools, candlelight dining and sunsets on the 10 side of the scale. But, at least 2 cruise ships drop anchor each day bringing thousands of day trippers and I cannot fathom why one would pay for the privilege of having hoards of people parading through the tiny streets and alleys that weave through these establishments.
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Thankfully, there are ways to escape the crowds. We explore the traditional villages of Pyrgos and Megalochori delighting in local eats. But the prettiest and most popular is the 10km hike along the cliffs from Fira, through Firostefani and on to Oia (pronounced eeya) at the northern tip of the island.
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At sea-level below Oia, lies Ammoudi, a mini port lined with nice looking restaurants and a ferry to the small island facing Santorini. As we step off at Thirasia, an eager restauranteur ushers us, the only tourists, to his rather unassuming resto. After a tasty batch of small fried fish and homemade wine we hike up to the top of the island to admire the fantastic views of Santorini. The homes along the winding street seem deserted but we encounter a few locals and learn that during the high season, approximately 2000 tourists traipse through daily.
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As November approaches and temps drop, businesses slowly shut down and ferry schedules dwindle. We agree to return to Greece at a later date, perhaps before the season starts, when we'll have more time to visit the hundreds, no thousands, of islands scattered in the Aegean.
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 13:31 Tagged new york greek_islands Comments (8)

The Sri Lanka Highlights Tour

sunny 30 °C

Over the last 5 months we have visited most of Sri Lanka at a leisurely pace. With "the kids" coming for their summer vacation, we put together a 1 month, best-of tour. It was over in a blink. As they discovered the many facets of Sri Lanka, we enjoyed returning to our favorite places, seeing familiar faces and the wide smiles when people recognized us. Everything seemed the same yet different.

The heat was much more tolerable than the stifling hot and humid weather we endured the previous months. Retracing our steps down the west coast we were shocked to see that the wide sandy beaches we had strolled on in March had been swallowed by the ocean and sandbags now provided a figurative barrier between the crashing waves and the hotel terraces. The turbulent sea reflected thick heavy clouds as they passed over stopping briefly to unload buckets of water before rebuilding their loads. Yet most days were beautiful and there were few tourists. Many of the guesthouses and restos were closed, hastily renovating or expanding to meet the increasing demand. Come November, the sea will have retreated and with Lonely Planet's label as destination of 2013, as well as several recent TV features, resorts like Bentota, Hikkaduwa, Unawatuna and Tengalle will be throbbing at capacity.
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Aching to see leopards, we returned to several national parks and this time Yala National Park, did not disappoint. However, as it was now high season in this part of the country, there were dozens of jeeps jostling for position when one was spotted. We were not as lucky as those just a few yards ahead of us, and for an unbearably long time we had to endure watching the joy on their faces as they wielded their cameras in front of the spectacle. Our driver did his best to inch into view and at one point someone motioned to me to stand on the roof of the jeep. As I clambered up searching over the vehicle in front of me, a leopard nonchalantly strolled across a clearing about 30 feet away! I was unable to capture the moment and unfortunately my jeep-mates only caught body parts, but four safaris later we were elated to have seen a leopard.
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Elephants on the other hand are plentiful throughout the country and we saw them doing everything from crossing busy roads, bathing in rivers and lakes, devouring leafy greens, carrying heavy loads and marching in processions elaborately dressed.
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We headed back to Ella, our favorite hiking base in the Hill country with hands-down the best laundry service on the island, great coffee and all the western food one could crave: These things begin to matter after 5 months! The area offers easy hiking through rolling hills blanketed with a patchwork of tea plantations. Trains putter through the countryside dotted with waterfalls in strict contrast with the seascapes of the coast.
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From a town called Haputale, the 4 of us squeezed into a 3-wheeler winding along a narrow road up to the estate once owned by Sir Thomas Lipton. At the pinnacle, appropriately named Lipton's Seat, is a breathtaking 360° view which was, to our dismay, completely socked in. But as we sipped a cup of namesake tea, a strong wind gingerly pushed away the dense fog ever-so-slowly revealing a good part of the majestic view.
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Next up were the beaches of Passikudah and Kalkudah on the east coast where the season is in full swing. Although much busier now, we were still practically alone swimming in the clear waters of Kalkudah beach. It's obvious though that this will not last for long as all the virgin land has been sold and properties are sprouting like weeds in a garden.

We returned to Sigiriya and Pidurungala to walk where monks once scaled sheer blazing rock, without modern-day stairs and hand-railings, to admire the expansive vistas as we reflected on the willpower and determination required to lead a life of meditation and self-discipline in such austere conditions. We rode bicycles around the ruins of the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura and revisited the large lying Buddhas of Dambulla Rock Temple.
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Perhaps the only area left in Sri Lanka that doesn't require advanced booking during the high season is Jaffna in the north. Bastion of the Tamil, Hindu culture, the area was the headquarters of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan) during the war and was severely damaged including the railroad which was completely annihilated. The wounds are still open as attests the sole military checkpoint we encountered in the country, but rebuilding is in full-swing. The landscape is flat and arid making it ideal to visit by bicycle. Sights include the Dutch fort and several elaborate Hindu and Buddhist temples both on the mainland and surrounding islands which are reached by questionably sea-worthy vessels, reeking of petrol. The boats are packed with devotees carrying offerings for their respective gods and we are welcomed aboard with the usual, "What is your country? What is your name? Where are you going?"
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We board another one of several buses to spend few days on what we consider one of the nicest beaches in Sri Lanka, Nilaveli, just outside of Trincomalee. It's high season now and lodging is limited and overpriced compared to our previous visit, but the soft sand and clear blue sea are delightful for swimming. We pack a picnic and motor out to Pigeon Island once again for a day of great snorkeling.
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Sri Lanka's largest and most important Buddhist festival is the annual Esala Perahera in Kandy honoring the (Buddha's) sacred tooth relic, preciously guarded in a gold reliquary within the Temple of the Sacred Tooth. For 10 days, actually nights, participating temples parade dancers, drummers, and glittering elephants through the streets. People flock from around the country in growing numbers as the festival reaches its climax on the full moon. Some pay for the wood grandstand seats, others pay more for chairs dubiously set-up on balconies, but most just claim an inch of pavement with a piece of plastic and sit on the street all day waiting for the evening's festivities to begin. A few hours before the festivities, around the temple grounds, elaborate preparations are in motion. Elephants are bathed, fed, dressed and their costume lights tested, dancers don their costumes, and buckets of coconut shells are gathered for the torches that accompany the entire procession. At nightfall, we watch the 2 hour procession from our hotel balcony (booked months in advance). What a privileged view!
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At the same time, another major festival is taking place in Kataragama, a sleepy town in the southeast part of the country that springs to life when thousands of (primarily Hindu) pilgrims end their 45 day trek from Jaffna in the north. Here devotees perform acts of sacrifice and self-mutilation to endear themselves to the gods. The festivities end with a symbolic "water cutting" ceremony in the hopes of bringing bountiful rain to the area.
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With just a few days left before we leave the country, we decide to head back to Hikkaduwa, the beach resort where we started our trip 6 months ago for a very special reason. In 2004, we had planned to spend the winter holiday here but opted for New York instead at the request of a family member who adores everything Christmas in NY conjures. On December 26th, we watched the horror of the Tsunami on TV including images from Hikkaduwa! Last year as we prepared our trip, it seemed logical that we should start our travels here.
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The monsoon waters are slowly receding and while many guesthouses, restaurants and shops are still closed, a few of our favorite places are open and the weather is beautiful. It's the perfect place to end this first leg of a very, very long journey.
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Posted by SpiceChronicles 15:46 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (6)

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