Meandering through South India

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March 7th 2013
Published: March 7th 2013
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February 19… After the morning safari, I took a car from Sasan Gir back to Junagadh to catch the train to Ahmedabad. The train departed exactly on time (first time that’s happened here), and I travelled in AC2 class – no one else in the compartment for the first few hours, which was nice. In Rajkot, this lovely older Indian couple arrived to share the compartment. He was a businessman, she a retired politician at the Gujarati state level, I think and they were headed to Ahmedabad for a conference the next day. They were so helpful at Ahmedabad, making sure the tuk-tuk driver was giving me a fair price for the ride to the hotel – too cute!

February 20… It was a travel day today, as I flew from Ahmedabad to Chennai with IndiGo Airlines. The flight was about 2.5 hours long, uneventful and I landed mid-afternoon ready to head directly to Pondicherry on the east coast of Tamil Nadu. It took about 3 hours on major roadways to reach the outskirts of Pondicherry and another hour from there to actually get to the hotel. It’s good that the driver was constantly asking to make sure he was
Pondicherry BridePondicherry BridePondicherry Bride

she was having 2000 people at the reception!
headed the right direction to the hotel, but then we got caught up in demonstrations that blocked the road near the hotel. I didn’t know until the next day that there had been a two day, nation-wide strike called by bank employee unions – the protesters were marching in support of the strike.

February 21 – 22… It was a couple of lazy days in Pondicherry, which lies on the east coast on India on the Bay of Bengal. It was colonized by the French at one time, and there are still aging facades of its former colonial heritage. More recently, it is known as one of the settings for the movie, Life of Pi, some of which was filmed in the area. They haven’t made too much of that yet, but I’m sure that with the movie’s recent Oscars, the hype will start. It really doesn’t have a beach to speak of, but the boardwalk along the ocean is a pretty nice place to stroll, and there are lovely ocean breezes to cool the air.

My primary purpose in Pondicherry, aside from rest and relaxation, was to plan out my next few weeks of travel. I met with a local travel agent and finally decided that I would book a car and driver for 10 days to get me some of the places I wanted to see in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It will be a lot less aggravation than trying to manage the local buses or the trains.

A tip for anyone planning to travel here on your own – if you want to travel by train, the reservation system opens 60-90 days in advance for most trains and they get booked up surprisingly quickly (20 million people travelling by train per day will do that!). As I had no firm ideas as to destinations when I left Canada, I hadn’t made any reservations. Next time, I will know better!

Belated birthday wishes to my cousin Laura (Feb 21 - older than me by three weeks!) and friend Nili (Feb 22).

February 23… My driver (Vijay) arrived an hour earlier than expected. I’m glad he was prompt but I wasn’t quite ready to go yet. Anyway, off we headed to Chidambaram to see one of the most holy temple sites for Hindus in India, Nataraja or Shiva, Lord of Dance. The existing temple complex was established in the 12th and 13th centuries and built in Dravidian style. This type of architecture is built using pyramid shaped gates (gopurams) of carved stone in a step design. There are thousands of carved statues in the gopurams, including those of the gods, kings, warriors and evil spirits. The carvings at this particular temple complex have been painted in a variety of bright and bold colours. There are gopurams at each of the cardinal points (N,E,S,W) of the temple complex. Non-Hindus are not allowed inside the inner sanctum of the temples, but it was still very interesting to walk inside the complex walls and take in all of the intricate stonework and carvings. It really was quite over the top.

After Chidambaram, we headed to Thanjavur, the site of another important pilgrimage site for Hindus, the Brihadishwara Temple, also dedicated to Shiva. This temple complex is over 1000 years old and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, as part of the Great Living Chola Temples. This temple complex was built by the Chola dynasty, one of the longest-ruling families who at one point ruled all of South India. The unique aspect of this temple
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Royal Palace
complex is that the structures are made from granite and the stone carvings are not colourfully painted like other Dravidian temples in the south. Also, the highest point in this complex is the vimana, or central tower – in other temples, the gopurams are the generally the highest points in the complex. In addition, there is a massive, 25 tonne Nandi (sacred bull) carved from a single piece of stone standing guard in from of the main temple. It was a pretty impressive complex.

February 24 - 25… We headed further south and east from Thanjavur to an area known as Chettinad, a group of approximately 75 villages. This region is the home of the Chettiars, best remembered for their merchant and banking prowess during the 18th and early 19th centuries. These people travelled extensively throughout much of Southeast Asia and returned to build fantastic mansions and fill them with treasures they found abroad. In addition, the region is also known for their cooking style, which is incredibly tasty.

I splurged and stayed two nights in one of the restored mansions in Kanadukathan, just behind old Maharaja’s palace. It was like living in a different time – marble
Chettinadu Mansion 5Chettinadu Mansion 5Chettinadu Mansion 5

the owner of the mansion
floors from Italy, hand-painted tiles from Japan, teak from Burma. This mansion is still owned by the original family, the matriarch and patriarch who happened to be in residence while I was there. The room was the biggest I’ve stayed in India, with a huge bathroom and attached patio. Pretty swish! It is sad is that so many of these mansions have been abandoned and are, with a few exceptions, slowing decaying. The ones that have been restored are magnificent though.

February 26… Happy birthday to my niece Marla! Off to Rameswaram today. Rameswaram is on the southeast tip of the Indian subcontinent and is actually on an island connected to mainland India by road and rail bridges. It is less than 50 km to Sri Lanka from here, although there are no longer ferries connecting the two countries.

Ramanathaswamy Temple was constructed during the 12th century to celebrate Shiva and is one of the holiest sites in India for Hindu worshippers. It has the longest corridor of all temples in India and there are thousands of pillars in the halls surrounding the inner sanctum.

February 27… The trip to Madurai this morning took just over three hours, so we arrived around noon. The city is more than 2500 years old and is the second largest city (1.2 million) in Tamil Nadu, after Chennai. Its primary claim to fame is the Meenakshi Amman Temple, dedicated to Parvati, Shiva’s consort. It is very unusual to have Hindu temples built celebrating female deities, so this temple is one of the few of its kind in India. The temple complex is massive and was built during the mid-1600s, though worship at the site has taken place for much longer time. I was so disappointed to discover that photography within the complex had been banned only a few days before my visit. Pictures from the outside just don’t do it any justice at all.

February 28… I played tourist today with a busload of Indian tourists to see other sites in and around Madurai. Talk about a fish out of water – the only Caucasian among a group of 20 Indians. It was fine though, as everyone was quite friendly. We visited the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, home of the dynasty that constructed the Meenakshi Temple. Much of the palace is in ruin but the main entrance and courtyard have been restored to its former Dravidian / Islamic beauty. In addition, we visited the Gandhi Museum, which was an interesting take on the 200 year struggle for Indian independence. We drove outside the city to the Alagar Temple, another Dravidian temple but on a much smaller scale than previously visited dedicated to Lord Vishnu.

March 1… Kumily, near the Periyar Tiger Reserve was the next destination. The scenery changed dramatically as we got closer to Kumily, as we climbed into the Western Ghats, a chain of low mountains dividing Tamil Nadu from Kerala. I spent the evening watching the traditional Keralan cultural activities of Kalarippayat, a type of martial arts and then Kathakali, a form of art and dance. The Kathakali was much different from any of the other cultural performances I’ve attended. The storytelling was focussed on the use of hand and facial gestures, and the artists were elaborately made up and costumed. I can’t say that I enjoyed the accompanying “music” – a couple of drums and banging cymbals got quite annoying after the first 10 minutes.

March 2… I booked a jeep trip into the Periyar Tiger Reserve, with no expectation of seeing tigers but the hope of perhaps getting to see some of the wild elephants that roam the park. No luck though, even on the 2 hour jungle excursion I took on foot with a guide. Oh well, animal sightings this time in India were obviously not meant to be!

March 3… For the first time I can ever remember, I got motion sickness in a car on the drive from Kumily to Munnar. I think my mistake was trying to read my tablet early on in the journey. Not a pleasant feeling! The road between the two towns is just over 100 kms in length but took nearly 4 hours to travel, given the narrow and winding roads (Dad, you would not have enjoyed this drive – it makes the mountain roads in BC look like heaven). There were no straight patches at all and I swear my driver thought he was competing on a Grand Prix circuit somewhere in Europe. I don’t know how many prayers I sent up as we were overtaking on a blind corner. Not an enjoyable way to spend the morning but we did arrive in one piece, for which I am deeply thankful.

Munnar is one of the old British hill station towns, where the elite went to escape the heat on the plains during the days of the British Raj. The area is now the home to huge tea plantations and spice gardens. The scenery is beautiful and calming, with tea fields rolling off like carpets of green into the distance.

March 4… We hired a local guide and headed out to see some of the sights near Munnar. The highlight was the trip to Top Station, on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where you can see the Western Ghats in all directions.

March 5… Today was the last day with my car and driver. Vijay dropped me in Fort Kochin, located along the Keralan cost around lunch. The first hour of the trip was much like that from Kumily to Munnar, on narrow, winding roads, but once we descended into the valley then coast, it was more manageable. It did, however, take almost an hour to find our way onto the island where Fort Kochin is located, after many missed turns and asking for directions. All-in-all, having the car and driver was a good, though relatively expensive, way to
Munnar 6Munnar 6Munnar 6

Tea plantation
come across from Pondicherry. I’m pretty sure doing it by bus and / or train would have frustrated and annoyed me, so it was the best decision.

March 6-7… The most noticeable difference along this coast is the humidity. The last couple of days have been in the high 30s, and with the high humidity, it’s draining to be out for any extended period of time, especially in the early afternoon, which is why I suspect many businesses and sites close for a few hours midday.

I’m staying in a lovely family homestay in the center of the Fort Kochin. I like the vibe in Fort Kochin, though there aren’t too many specific sites to see. I did another cooking class this afternoon in the home of a local woman, which was again very good. Even though the basic ingredients and spices are much the same in both north and south India, the flavours of the foods are different. Today’s menu was prawn curry, eggplant curry, cabbage and carrot curry, dahl fry and uppam, a type of fermented rice pancake.

Other Observations… As I posted on Facebook a few days ago, I’ve been gone 9 weeks now
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Chinese fishing nets
and I am missing a few things from home. I want a steak with all the trimmings, a spinach and feta pizza from Sophie’s, and am missing cheddar cheese immensely (paneer just doesn’t work for me – the texture’s too much like tofu). I can probably knock off a couple of those cravings in the six days I’m home in early April.

I’ve also been a bit lonely travelling by myself these last few weeks – one of the benefits of group travel is having companions to share places and experiences with. That said, I’m on my own schedule and not accountable to anyone except myself. I guess it’s a trade-off.

Tomorrow, I head south by train to Trivandrum. I’m going to spend a week at the Sivananda Ashram, recommended by Christine from the Rajasthan tour, doing some yoga and meditation. It will be a pretty cool way to spend my birthday!

Additional photos below
Photos: 71, Displayed: 31


Pondicherry - Afternoon GlowPondicherry - Afternoon Glow
Pondicherry - Afternoon Glow

through the church window

7th March 2013

more adventures
I am in awe of your gorgeous photographs taken during your ever so interesting travels. I am still living vicariously through your Travel Blogs. Ever so enjoyable
7th March 2013

great stuff!!!
Love your pictures, especially the temples, flowers and birds Happy Birthday on Wednesday!! Hugs Auntie Barbara
7th March 2013

Hi Marilyn. We just adopted a little boy Matthieu 4 and a little girl Sophia 3. It is now formal. Anyway my wife travelled all over india and loved it. If we hadn't had the kids she would have loved to join you. I want to go to india at some point, likely with small children in tow. I only plan to work a few more years and then I will be retired and raising teenagers. Ain't life grand. My Dad passed away in January so I am now an orphan.
8th March 2013

Loving your story
Hi Marilyn, You are making us so envious. India is our favourite travel destination ( one of our sons is married to a lass from Patiala in the Punjab) and you are reminding us of many happy times on the same route. We hope you were very nice to your car driver as he was probably also sleeping in it ! You don't mention masala chai or lassis....all part of the India experience. Thanks for sharing with us.
8th March 2013

Hi Marilyn, I love the faces. They tell so many stories. Great pictures, as usuall. Great times, Mechtild
9th March 2013

such a gorgeous pics and overall nice blog Hotel Designs
10th March 2013

Happy Birthday
More great tales and pictures -- Have a great Birthday---Enjoy each precious moment Lots of Love and very best wishes Uncle Bill and Nicole
13th March 2013

Happy Birthday!
Happy Birthday, Marilyn! Hope you are getting that peaceful, easy feeling doing yoga and meditation at the ashram! Enjoy yourself! Can't wait to hear of your next adventures. Luv, Lorine
13th March 2013

Happy Birthday...
Not sure if you'll get this today, March 12th, but I'm thinking of you - hope you have (had) a Happy Birthday, Marilyn!! Loving the travel blog and the pictures are amazing. Take care!!

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