Spiritual Southern India - September, 2017

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October 6th 2017
Published: October 5th 2017
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On previous visits to India, the beauty of the palaces, magnificence of the surroundings and grandeur of the monuments never failed to leave me breathless, but all this resided in the northern region – now I’m ready to explore peaceful and serene locations in the southern climes. Care to come along? Let’s do this!

I begin my latest adventure with two long days of traveling across the globe on four flight legs on three continents before touching down in my Indian port of entry, Mumbai. Here I have a 3-hour layover in the middle of the night, which is barely enough time to get the immigration and visa procedures completed and still make my connection on to Chennai, the gateway to South India. I’m making time to explore Chennai (formerly Madras), this massive conglomerate of urban villages and diverse neighborhoods making up Tamil Nadu's capital, and hopefully will be pleasantly surprised. Its role is as keeper of South Indian artistic, religious and culinary traditions. Among Chennai’s greatest assets are its people, infectiously enthusiastic about their hometown; they won’t hit you with a lot of hustle and hassle. Recent years have thrown in a new layer of cosmopolitan glamour: luxe hotels, sparkling boutiques, quirky cafes, smart contemporary restaurants and a sprinkling of swanky bars and clubs.

A little bit of history:

Armenian and Portuguese traders were living in the San Thome area of what is now present-day Chennai before the arrival of the British in 1639. Madras was the shortened name of the fishing village Madraspatnam, where the British East India Company built a fort and factory (trading post) in 1639–40. At that time, the weaving of cotton fabrics was a local industry, and the English invited the weavers and native merchants to settle near the fort. By 1652 the factory of Fort St. George was recognized as a presidency (an administrative unit governed by a president), and between 1668 and 1749 the company expanded its control. About 1801, by which time the last of the local rulers had been shorn of his powers, the English had become masters of southern India, and Madras had become their administrative and commercial capital. The government of Tamil Nadu officially changed the name of the city to Chennai in 1996.

With its sweltering southern heat, roaring traffic and lack of outstanding sights, Chennai has often been viewed as the dowdier sibling among India’s four biggest cities. But even if only just caught here between flight connections, it’s well worth poking around the museums, exploring the temples, savoring deliciously authentic South Indian delicacies or taking a sunset saunter along Marina Beach.

The one good aspect of flying for so long, is arriving in the very early part of the day (i.e. 4:45am) while it’s still dark and the Chennai airport is a ghost town. Once I exited the plane, it was just 15 minutes before I had luggage in hand and the Hilton limo driver was handing me a chilled bottle of water…..we were off on the 10-minute drive to the hotel. What a delightful surprise – this hotel is gorgeous. Marble everywhere (reminded me of an ancient tomb) with a front lobby so vast, I was tempted to test the acoustics for repeating echoes. Like the airport, the hotel was deserted except for the front desk clerk and he was already checking me in as I exited the vehicle – now that’s customer service for sure. My suite was located on the top (9th) floor and once my bags were delivered, it was hot shower time…..the king size bed was calling my name….it was now more than 40 hours straight since I had last been horizontal on a comfy mattress.

Over the coming days, I got to see and do a boatload of interesting things. First a “get a lay of the land” drive around the central part of the city, stopping at the Government Museum (also known as the Madras Museum) which is a repository of Indian human history and culture. Started in 1851, it is the second oldest museum in India after the Indian Museum in Kolkata. It is particularly rich in archaeological and numismatic collections, and has the largest collection of Roman antiquities outside Europe. Among them, the colossal Museum Theatre is one of the most impressive. The National Art Gallery is also present on the museum premises, which is built in Indo-Saracenic style, and houses rare works of artists like Raja Ravi Varma.

Next up on my list was a visit to Dakshin Chitra (translates as “Picture of the South”), an open-air ethnographic museum about 14 miles outside of Chennai. It comprises four sections, the biggest and the most popular being 17 heritage houses which reflect the living styles and cultures of people of the southern Indian states. The homes have been divided according to economic status and region. They allow a glimpse into the yesteryear culture of the Indian Deccan region. The Chettinad house and the Brahmin Colony are a must see, as are the wooden houses of Kerala. You will also see Karnataka spacious architecture and Andhra home’s interesting circular mud structures. The Crafts Bazaar is the area of the village where the artisans get to set up shop. Here you will find textiles, jewelry, bangles, marble crafts and other kinds of artifacts. The crafts bazaar is divided according to the states. The Art Gallery and Activity Hall always have something going on….today, I watched the Smoke and Shadow Puppet Show…..cheesy as hell, but worth the 30 minutes I spent watching the life-size puppets being brought to life. Stopped by the Kanali Restaurant for lunch and got to sample South Indian Thali which is very popular with visitors….fantastic lunch and spicy.

Time to bid adieu to Chennai and move on to my next “port of call” to spend the next couple of nights at the Radisson Blu Temple Bay Resort. Just 45 miles south of Chennai, Kanchipuram was the major seaport of the ancient Pallava kingdom. A wander round the town’s magnificent, World Heritage–listed temples and carvings inflames the imagination, especially at sunset. It’s known as the City of a Thousand Temples (no, I wasn’t about to count them to verify that claim), and I can believe it – big and small, they were everywhere. Kanchipuram is one of the seven holiest sites for Hindus and pilgrimages are held here frequently. Another claim to fame is its high-quality silk saris, woven on hand looms by thousands of families in the town and nearby villages. Silk and sari shops are strung along Gandhi Rd, southeast of the city center.

There is one major drawback to this part of the world: incredible, stifling humidity (to the point you can barely breathe without coughing) and the oppressive heat. Thankfully the past few days have been overcast with nary a glimpse of sunlight….that helps with the temperature level but only increases the humidity…..you can’t win around here, I swear to god! The locals are smaller in stature and much darker in skin tone than their northern brothers, but they are far friendly than those I found in Delhi or Mumbai. Women here almost always wear the traditional dress of cotton or silk sarees (silk is generally reserved for special occasions only), and only the younger women favor western wear. Men wear the dhoti, a cloth wrapping from waist to feet which is then folded up to form “shorts”, leave legs bare from mid-thigh….not always a pretty sight as you can imagine.

Southern India populations are known as the “rice eaters”, as this is where most of the country’s rice paddies reside. This is a gentler, more relaxing, less taxing and stressful part of the country. Like a giant wedge plunging into the ocean, South India is the subcontinent's steamy heartland – a lush contrast to the peaks and plains up north. Wherever you go in the south, you'll be bumping into the magnificent relics of the splendid civilizations that have inhabited this land over two millennia – the amazing rock-cut shrines carved out by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains at Ajanta and Ellora; the palaces, tombs, forts and mosques of Muslim dynasties on the Deccan; Tamil Nadu's inspired Pallava sculptures and towering Chola temples; the magical ruins of the Vijayanagar capital at Hampi…and a whole lot more. It's a diverse cultural treasure trove with few parallels.

Thousands of miles of coastline frame fertile plains and rolling hills in South India – a constantly changing landscape kept glisteningly green by the double-barreled monsoon. The palm-strung strands and inland waterways of the west give way to spice gardens, tea plantations, tropical forests and cool hill-station retreats in the Western Ghats. The drier Deccan 'plateau' is far from flat, being crossed by numerous craggy ranges and often spattered with dramatic, fort-topped outcrops. And across the region, preserved wild forests shelter wildlife from elephants and tigers to monkeys and sloth bears.

South India's glorious culinary variety and mélange of dining options beckon hungry travelers. Some of India's most famous and traditional staples hail from here: large papery dosas (savory crêpes) and idlis (fermented rice cakes) are the backbone of South Indian fare. The south's vibrant cities are the pulse of a country that is fast-forwarding through the 21st century while also at times seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages. From in-your-face Mumbai and increasingly sophisticated Chennai to historic Hyderabad, IT capital Bengaluru and quaint, colonial-era Kochi and Pondicherry, southern cities are great for browsing teeming markets and colorful boutiques, soaking up culture and indulging in South India's trendier side. Think fashionable cafes and coffee houses, imaginative gourmet restaurants and a blitzkrieg of hipsterized microbreweries and cocktail bars.

The union territory of Pondicherry, generally known as “Pondy”, was under French rule until 1954. Some people here still speak French (and English with French accents). Hotels, restaurants and ‘lifestyle’ shops sell a seductive vision of the French-subcontinental aesthetic, enhanced by Gallic creative types and Indian artists and designers. The internationally famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram and its offshoot, is located just north of town. Pondy’s vibe is more bohemian-chic, New Age meets Old World hang-out on the international travel trail. The older 'French' part of town is full of quiet, clean streets, lined with bougainvillea-draped colonial-style townhouses numbered in an almost logical manner. I was here for just one night and for the first time on this trip, was treated to a “mini monsoon” rainstorm while having lunch in the French Quarter. Sitting on an upstairs verandah I was thinking how hot and damp I was, when the heavens opened and a solid wall of torrential rain fell….instantly the temperature level dropped drastically and for the first time in days, I actually felt comfortable out of doors. I really enjoyed sitting and watching the storm roll thru the city, wind blowing the rain spray over the table and the nearby palm trees bowing as if in worship to the wind gods.

Located about 8 miles northwest of Pondicherry is Auroville, City of Dawn, famous for the meditation center inspired by the teachings of the Indian Yoga Sri Autobindo. is a place that anyone with idealistic leanings will love: an international community dedicated to peace, sustainability and 'divine consciousness', where people from across the globe, ignoring creed, color and nationality, work together to build a universal, cash-free, nonreligious township. Outside opinions of Auroville's inhabitants range from admiration to accusations of self-indulgent escapism. Imagine over 100 small scattered countryside settlements, with 2,500 plus residents of 52 nationalities. Nearly 60% of Aurovillians are foreign; most new members require more funds than most Indians may ever have. But the energy driving the place is palpable and, on a visit, you'll receive a positive vibe. Auroville was founded in 1968 by 'the Mother', co-founder of Puducherry's Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Aurovillians run a wide variety of projects, from schools and IT to organic farming, renewable energy and handicrafts production, employing 4,000 to 5,000 local villagers. Somehow, I don’t see myself in this “spiritual” enclave, definitely not my idea of a good time, as many who know me would agree.

A long driving day followed Pondicherry, turning away from the steamy coast and heading west into the interior (and hopefully a LOT less humidity), arriving in Thanjavur in late afternoon. Here are the ochre foundation blocks of perhaps the most remarkable civilization of Dravidian history, one of the few kingdoms to expand Hinduism beyond India, a bedrock for aesthetic styles that spread from Madurai to the Mekong. A dizzying historical legacy was forged from Thanjavur, capital of the great Chola empire during its heyday. Today Thanjavur is a crowded, hectic, modern Indian town – but the past is still very much present. Every day thousands of people worship at the Cholas' grand Brihadishwara Temple, and the city's labyrinthine royal palace preserves memories of other, later powerful dynasties. I have reached a point on this trip of being totally “temple-d out”….if I never see another temple, shrine, church or mosque again in life, it will be too soon! I have walked and viewed enough Hindu temples to last me a lifetime, of that I am sure. Two nights here and I decided to take a day and just “chill out”….no sightseeing, no bus riding, just an entire day to do exactly nothing….I needed it.

The Brihadishwara temple was built as a tribute and it reflects the power of its creator, Raja Chola I. It is considered as one of the greatest glories of India because of its architecture and is also listed as one of the world heritage site by UNESCO. The temple is also one of the most valued architectural sites of India and the tallest temples in the world. The structure of the temple is enclosed with wonderful design and was constructed between the year 1003 and 1010. Its approached from the eastern side through two gateways which are called “Gopuras”. There are two guardian statues beside the gateways made by the Shaiva legends (a community who believes that Lord Shiva is the almighty of universe). The exterior of the temple is decorated with hundreds of painted sculptures. The interior of the temple has a massive idol of Lord Shiva, a god with three eyes in which the third eye is closed. Legend has it that if Lord Shiva opens his third eye, the universe will be destroyed. The inner gateway is the Brihadishwara temple with a single large dome weighing about 81 tons. It is interesting to think how a huge dome weighing 81 tons be placed at such a height. The compound of the temple also includes a statue of Nandi; a shrine with octagonal dome known as “Chandeshvara”; a columned hall; and a towered sanctuary and other small shrines. There are well carved figures of Lord Shiva and other gods on the walls of the sanctuary. Altogether, there are 250 statues of Lord Shiva throughout the entire compound.

A Little Bit of History:

Nobody knows exactly when the first Chola kings took power in southern India, for sure the Chola Dynasty was established by the 3rd century BCE, because they are mentioned in one of Ashoka the Great’s stelae. Not only did the Cholas outlast Ashoka's Mauryan Empire, they continued to rule all the way to 1279 CE - more than 1,500 years. That makes the Cholas one of the longest-ruling families in human history, if not the longest.

The Chola Empire was based in the Kaveri River Valley, which runs southeast through Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and the southern Deccan Plateau to the Bay of Bengal. At its height, the Chola Empire controlled not only southern India and Sri Lanka, but also the Maldives. It took key maritime trading posts from what is now Indonesia, enabling a rich cultural transfusion in both directions, and sent diplomatic and trading missions to China's Song Dynasty 960 - 1279 CE.

Around the year 300 CE, the Pallava and Pandya Kingdoms spread their influence over most of the Tamil heartlands of southern India, and the Cholas went into a decline. They likely served as sub-rulers under the new powers, yet they retained enough prestige that their daughters often married in to the Pallava and Pandya families. When war broke out between the Pallava and Pandya kingdoms in about 850 CE, the Cholas seized their chance. King Vijayalaya renounced his Pallava overlord and captured the city of Thanjavur (Tanjore), making it his new capital. This marked the start of the Medieval Chola period and the peak of Chola power.

It was an ancient rival that finally finished off the Cholas. Between 1150 and 1279, the Pandya family gathered its armies and launched many bids for independence in their traditional lands. The Cholas under Rajendra III fell to the Pandyan Empire in 1279 and ceased to exist. The Chola Empire left a rich legacy in the Tamil country. It saw majestic architectural accomplishments such as the Thanjavur Temple, amazing artwork including particularly graceful bronze sculpture, and a golden age of Tamil literature and poetry.

Let’s talk about the food here…..in one word…..incredible. It is very different from the dishes I enjoyed when visiting the northern region last year – here it is much hotter (they do love their chilies) and have a wide variety of spices to choose from, when preparing these marvelous meals. Even the cold, sour goat milk yogurt and the creamy smooth bean curd has a different flavor. Being such an agrarian society in the south fresh fruit and veggies are in abundance, and with 80%!o(MISSING)f the population being Hindu and vegetarian, they sure know how to make non-meat dishes taste wonderful. I could easily convert to becoming a “veggie” full time if I lived here. For the past five days I have eaten outstanding food, from sweet mango chutney to spicy marsala and meals I can’t spell and certainly can’t pronounce! But with very few exceptions, they have been a delight to the taste buds. The best part is when the selections are served “ala carte” very much like tapas, with just a couple of spoonful’s (at the most) of each. It’s not uncommon for 6 to 9 dishes be served for lunch or dinner, so having more than a mouthful of each would make it impossible to sample the rest. Most are spicy with mouth-burning results, but the cool yogurt is always there to make it better.

Today enroute to Madurai, I stopped at a restaurant called Bangala which is a former mansion turned hotel and restaurant. No dishes here….a very large banana palm leaf serves as place mat and lunch plate all in one. By the time the wait staff had passed my chair and put whatever delicacy they were holding down on the leaf, I had a total of 9 different items to enjoy….each one a different color, taste and content….how cool is that? Once I had ploughed my way thru them all, they simply rolled up the leaf and discarded it. Then here came the dessert -homemade vanilla ice cream that would make Ben and Jerry weep in sheer frustration. Geez these folks can cook!

On my first morning in Madurai, I had a zero-dark-thirty (i.e. 4:30am) wakeup call to join a local sightseeing tour known as Vanakkam to Madurai (means welcome in the local Tamil language). This 2-hour walking tour with a local guide was an introduction to everyday life in an Indian city, to see firsthand how it comes to life at the dawn of a new day. From prayer rituals to food market shopping, with cow milking and front step decoration in-between. It was still cool enough to be comfortable walking the back alleys despite the ever-present humidity, but once the sun rose, it was another story entirely. The dirt, the noise, the crowds on the streets, the crazy traffic with equally crazy scooter drivers – all combined to make this interactive adventure something to be remembered. The highlight (or should I say lowlight) of this tour was when one of the just-milked cows decided it was time for her morning bowel movement and wouldn’t you know it – just a couple of feet from where I was standing. Thank god, I had yet to eat breakfast! The smell almost knocked me off my feet and I beat a hasty retreat around the corner. There can be too much nature and back to basics at times, that’s for sure. Returning to the hotel around 9am, I enjoyed a late breakfast of yogurt, fruit and eggs before grabbing my swimsuit and diving into the super cool outdoor pool….now this is my idea of “nature” first thing in the morning.

A Little Bit of History:

Chennai may be the capital of Tamil Nadu, but Madurai claims its soul. Madurai is Tamil-born and Tamil-rooted, one of the oldest cities in India dating back 3,500 years in written history and archeologists recently finding tombs dating back 15,000 years, it’s a metropolis that traded with ancient Rome and was a great capital long before Chennai was even dreamed of.

Tourists, Indian and foreign, come here for the celebrated Meenakshi Amman Temple, a dazzling maze-like structure ranking among India's greatest temples. Otherwise, Madurai, perhaps appropriately given its age, captures many of India’s glaring dichotomies: a center dominated by a medieval temple and an economy increasingly driven by IT, all overlaid with the hustle, energy and excitement of a big Indian city and slotted into a much more manageable package than Chennai’s sprawl.

The city’s claim to fame is the Meenakshi Temple, a historic Hindu temple located on the southern bank of the Vaigai River. It is dedicated to Parvati, known as Meenakshi, and her consort, Lord Shiva. The temple forms the heart and lifeline of Madurai. Though most of the present structure was built between 1623 and 1655, back in the 14th century the Sultanate Muslim Commander Malik Kafur plundered the temple and looted it of its valuables, destroying much of the structures in the process. It was rebuilt by the Nayak ruler Vishwanatha Nayakar around the 16th century. It houses 14 gopurams, ranging from 147’ to 167’ in height with the tallest being the southern tower at 170’ high. The temple attracts 15,000 visitors a day, around 25,000 on Fridays, all wanting to view the estimated 33,000 sculptures. It was on the list of top 30 nominees for the "New Seven Wonders of the World". The temple is the most prominent landmark and most visited tourist attraction in the city. The annual 10-day Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival, celebrated during April and May, attracts at least one million visitors.

Time for a change of scenery (and climate), so first a 5-hour drive south to spend a couple of days up in the mountains and in the jungles. Leaving Madurai shortly after breakfast, the first 4 hours on the road across the plains – not much to see, so I dozed for most of it – but soon mountains appeared on the horizon…..this is the Western Ghats Mountain Range which stretches from the tip of India, to just north of Mumbai, a distance of approximately 1,600 miles. Then the bus started to climb and the landscaping changed drastically. Forests deep and thick on both sides of the highway, with sweeping views of the plains far below. The temperature had also dropped drastically, with humidity now in the tolerable range and the air feeling fresh and cool. Just after lunch I arrived at the Cardamom County Resort, a nature retreat set in beautifully landscaped gardens against the green clad mountains of the Periyar Forests. The cottages are built on various levels, following the natural contours of the hillock within the resort. Each cottage with its spacious bedroom and private verandah is simple yet stylish…I was given one on the third level from the lobby and pool area….here we go again, out in the back forty with plenty of slippery stone steps to enjoy on the way up!

The afternoon was taken up with a visit to a nearby privately-owned spice plantation. Soon as I climbed down from the bus, this delicious aroma wrapped itself around me – hard to identify the individual scents. Only a short mud-path walk which wound its way thru fields of cardamom, pepper, cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, turmeric and other fragrant spices…it was a spice supermarket on steroids. Our guide explained the multiples uses both in food preparation and medicinal remedies which have been used over the centuries here. In ancient times, pepper was worth its weight in gold and was the driving factor for Europeans to find a shorter way to India, which ultimately led to the discovery of North America. Hence the fact we now call the indigenous tribes Indians in the USA. A light rain began to fall during the walk – banana palm leaves make a great umbrella by the way….LOL

After a couple of hours back in the hotel, getting settled in and taking a much-needed refreshing shower, it was time for the evening’s entertainment. Kalaripayattu is a martial art which originated as a fighting style in Kerala. The word kalari first appears in the Tamil Sangam literature to describe both a battlefield and combat arena. Each warrior in the Sangam era received regular military training. It is one of the oldest surviving fighting systems still in existence in the world today. The Kalari or arena is a sunken pit packed with red mud. Early scriptures state that in the 6th Century A.D, the Buddhist Monk, Bodhidharma, introduced Kalaripayattu into China, which then became the base of what was later formed into Shaolin Kung-Fu, Karate and other Asian martial arts.

According to Indian mythology Parashurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, established Kalaripayattu in Kerala to protect the state and provide a service to the community. This, in combination with the Kalari healing system, allowed for practitioners to develop mastery of the mind, body and healing skills, using traditional Indian medicine.

With the focus on discipline, Kalaripayattu training involves warm up and flexibility exercises, strength and stamina training, step work, traditional forms of unarmed and armed combat techniques. Training is always under supervision of a Guru or instructor, and only through dedication can a student hope to become a Kalari master. Advanced students are guided through 'marma', vital energy point combat and sharp weapons training.

Arriving at the arena for this show just before sunset, I had a front row seat with excellent visibility down into the pit area. First one of the practitioners lit the traditional oil lamps in one of the corners to honor the gods, and then the rest of the 6-man troop joined him to be introduced to the crowd. For the next 40 minutes, I sat in awe of the artistry of these men. It was a combination of gymnastics, acrobatics and fighting ability in such fluid form – do they really have spines? If so, they must be made of rubber. Not only where they each poetry in motion but good looking to boot – oh god, be still my hormones! The closing act involved rings of fire as these magnificent specimens threw themselves into the air, diving thru to safety – I was holding my breath as I shot photo after photo, capturing this wild event. I was amazed I could capture this activity, as it was all happening so fast – check out the photos attached.

Time to explore the nearby national park, so it was another early morning wakeup call to board a shuttle bus out to the preserve, for a 90-minute cruise on the lake. Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve is one of the most captivating wildlife parks in the world. Elephants in Periyar are another major attraction. In 1895, the British undertook water resource management plans for the area and started work on a dam and an artificial lake under the auspices of Colonel Pennycuick. The picturesque lake in the heart of the sanctuary was originally about 10 square miles, but now spans an area of 21 square miles. This perennial source of water, which initially led to the submersion of large tracts of forestland, slowly attracted wild animals. It eventually resulted in the adjoining forests being granted protection by the Maharaja of Travancore. Post-1975, Periyar finds itself in the enviable position of being a national park as well as a protected tiger reserve.

Periyar (also known as Thekkady) is a park where tourists can witness playful elephants, whose population is currently around 800. They make excellent wildlife watching. The population of tigers is also increasing appreciably. The terrain ranges from hilly to flat grassland areas at the edges of the lakes. I really didn’t expect to see tigers and I didn’t – they are nocturnal and very shy animals….the noise the amount of tourists make around this lake, ensures tigers stay a long way away. But I did view cormorants nesting in the branches of drowned trees in the middle of the lake, Indian bison on the hilltops, wild boar and deer at the water’s edge….all in all, a pretty decent cruise with gorgeous morning weather.

In the same vicinity is an elephant camp which offers tourists the chance to ride one of these gentle giants thru a small spice plantation, and the opportunity to feed them and watch them move large timbers with those incredible trunks. Having ridden elephants in both India and Africa previously I decided to pass, but did take the opportunity to photograph these magnificent beasts in action. There is something about the gleam in an elephant’s eye that I identify with – a pragmatic viewpoint on life, accepting what cannot be changed and enjoying what can….probably my most favorite animal.

Having a free afternoon at the hotel, I opted to book a spa appointment at the onsite Ayurveda Clinic for a 90-minute full body massage. In a private room with my therapist I undressed and prepared to be pampered for the next hour and a half. First, she pulls out what looks like a strip of rice paper approximately 12” wide by 36” long with cotton ties at each end. It was obviously way too big to be a mask and I guess my look of confusion was enough for her to explain this was a “modesty panel” to be worn as a diaper. I had to laugh….the last time I was on speaking terms with modesty, Washington was still crossing the Delaware.

Wearing my new attire, she had me sit on a stool facing forward while she mixed up the lotus oil concoction. When the spa advertising material stated “full body massage” that’s exactly what they meant. With a handful of warm oil, she douses my entire head and begins her 10-finger massage….my first thought was “oh shit, now I have to wash my hair after this”. For the next 10 minutes it was scalp to neck to ears and forehead of deep hot oil massage and catching a quick glimpse in a wall mirror, I resembled Buckwheat of the Little Rascals – my hair was stuck up like a porcupine and drenched to the very ends. God only knew what was about to come next.

Having worked my head into a literal frenzy, she indicated that I climb up onto her massage bed face down on the thick fluffy towels. So far, so good. Removing my modesty panel leaving me stark naked, she began by pouring a stream of really hot oil from my shoulder blades to my toes – for a minute there, I thought I had wandered into an S&M torture chamber and hot candle wax had replaced the oil. I easily forgot the initial shock when she began with the soles of my feet, applying pressure to what is known as “marma” points of the body. I assume this corresponds to Chinese acupuncture points. Using her thumbs, she pressed these marma points (9 in all) which was sheer heaven….I could do this every day of the week, given the opportunity. Shifting her attention to my lower calves, she found places on my legs I didn’t know I had places….uncomfortable at first, but as her magic fingers released the tension in my muscles, it really started to feel wonderful. By the time she had reached my ass with a lot more oil, she was kneading dough like a baker on a mission and I was having the time of my tiny life. I’m convinced my butt is at least 2” smaller now.

Some 45 minutes later it was time for me to roll over so my body front could receive her ministrations….keep in mind I was half drenched in lotus oil down the entire length of my back. As I made the move, the towel slipped, my oiled ass made contact with the leather table top and I was headed for the tile floor….thank god she expected this and grabbed me around the waist to prevent the inevitable. What a hoot, she and I both burst out laughing as her arms slide around me in all directions – she couldn’t get a firm hold. One thing I know for sure: I was wearing enough oil from hair tips to toe tips to be registered as a commodity on the Chicago Commodities Exchange!

Another wonderful session from toes to hair line and unlike any other body massage I have had elsewhere. In India only the genitals are off-limits to the therapist. I had no idea that my regular breast exam was part of this therapy session but what the hell, I will take free medical attention anywhere and anytime I can get it.

I thought my massage session was over once she had spent a few minutes on my face but no, there was more to come. Directing me into an adjoining bathroom, I was positioned under a warm shower and she proceeded to scrub me down from head to foot, including a vigorous hair washing session. This was interesting to say the least and once wrapped in warm towels, she had me back on the stool so she could towel-dry my hair. That woman was determined to have me leave the spa with dry hair – she must have spent 15 minutes using two large towels rubbing my hair until I was convinced I would leave totally bald.

And what did all this incredible attention cost me, you ask? My bill was a total of 2,800 rupees ($43.26)….yep, I was amazed as well….is this a deal or what? I was so relaxed as I staggered out of the room, she had to help me into the lobby to sign out. That night I had the sleep of a lifetime – hardly surprising considering my spa session only a few hours previously.

The following morning it was time to depart for my final destination of this southern India trip – a 5-hour drive to Kochi which is the largest city in the state of Kerala and from where I will fly home in a few days. A delightful drive down the mountain side with endless tea and coffee plantations lining both sides of the highway. I photographed native women harvesting the tender pale green tea leaves into large hemp sacks which when weighed, would determine their daily pay. India is the world’s largest producer of tea, but the majority of the annual 1.3 billion tons are mainly consumed domestically, with less than 9% being exported to the outside world.

For many travelers, Kerala is South India's most serenely beautiful state. A slender coastal strip is shaped by its layered landscape: almost 370 miles of glorious Arabian Sea coast and beaches; a languid network of glistening backwaters; and the spice- and tea-covered hills of the Western Ghats. Just setting foot on this swath of soul-quenching, palm-shaded green will slow your subcontinental stride to a blissed-out amble. Kerala is a world away from the frenzy of elsewhere, as if India had passed through the Looking Glass and become an altogether more laid-back place.

Besides its famous backwaters, elegant houseboats, ayurvedic treatments and delicately spiced, taste-bud-tingling cuisine, Kerala is home to wild elephants, exotic birds and the odd tiger, while vibrant traditions such as Kathakali plays, temple festivals and snake-boat races frequently bring even the smallest villages to life. It's hard to deny Kerala's liberal use of the slogan 'God's Own Country'.

Serene Kochi has been drawing traders, explorers and travelers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India can you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj. The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. It’s a delightful place to spend some time and sleep in some of India’s finest heritage accommodations. Kochi is also a center for Keralan arts and its nickname is Queen of the Arabian Sea. It is here that Vasco de Gama established the first European settlement in India.

Mainland Ernakulam is the hectic transport and cosmopolitan hub of Kochi, while the historical towns of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, though well visited by thousands of tourists, remain wonderfully atmospheric – thick with the smell of the past. Other islands, including Willingdon and Vypeen, are linked by a network of ferries and bridges. I would be staying on Willingdon Island at the Trident Hotel, a famous Indian-owned hotel chain I have stayed in previously in Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.

My first evening in town was spent with more exposure to the local traditions by attending a Kathakali recital at the Cochin (Kochi) Cultural Center. Elements of the art of Kathakali are found in the ancient ritual plays of Hindu temples and various dance forms that are believed to have been gradually developed in Kerala from as early as the 2nd century until the end of the 16th century. Many of its characteristics are very much older than its literature, as they are a continuation of older traditions, but these did not crystallize until the 17th century when the Rajah of Kottarakkara wrote plays based on the Hindu epic "Ramayana" in the local language, which could be understood by ordinary people. Before this, the stories were enacted in pure Sanskrit, which was known only to the learned few.

From then on, Kathakali emerged as an individual style of dance-drama into a "people's theatre" from the traditional dances of the past. The plays were performed by the Rajah's own company of actors, not only in temples and courts, but from village to village and house to house. The new art form (called Ramanattan) soon became very popular all over the area. The feudal chieftains of Malabar (as the area was then called) began to vie with one another in their efforts to produce the best Kathakali troupes and this competition contributed to the rapid development of the art in a very short period.

Kathakali is one of the major forms of classical Indian dance. It is another "story play" genre of art, but one distinguished by the elaborately colorful make-up, costumes and face masks that the traditionally male actor-dancers wear. There is no script, there are no backdrops or stage scenery, just the actor-dancers using facial expressions and hand gestures to evoke various emotions in place of words. It takes approximately 6 years of full-time training before students perform on stage, with boys starting around the age of 10 and living with their teachers. In recent years a few women have joined this elite group, but they are few and far between.

There are about 101 Kathakali stories. The stories were originally performed from just after sunset until 4am the following morning back in the 16th and 17th centuries, but due to the increasing demand for more concise versions, now the plays are composed for 1-4 hours instead. To watch the Kathakali masters prepare for their evening performance, I arrived at 6pm just as they were applying the elaborate makeup, using natural vegetable dyes in vivid colors, creating an incredible mask. It can take up to an hour to apply all this and then a short demonstration of facial expressions and hand gestures before the actual performance began. This last approximately 40 minutes and tonight’s drama was the Narakasuravadham story which depicts the son of the King of Heaven (the green-faced hero) being enticed by a beautiful woman with a request for marriage an invitation for extreme passion and sexual encounters – nothing like wild sex to get a party started! Upon discovering she’s a demoness in disguise when she reverts to her real self, the hero uses his sword to cut off her thick breast and nose, causing permanent disfigurement to prevent her from using her wiles on other men in the future. The moral of the story is “under all circumstances, evil should always be punished” – yeah, I second that motion. LOL

My last full day in India and I’ve saved the best for last. Heard about the houseboats of Kerala for a long time and today I get to experience them for myself. Alleppey – is the hub of Kerala's backwaters, home to a vast network of waterways and more than a thousand houseboats. Often compared to Venice due to its abundance of canal. Wandering around the small but chaotic city center and bus-stand area with its modest grid of canals, you'd be hard-pressed to agree with the 'Venice of the East' tag. But head west to the beach or in practically any other direction towards the backwaters and Alleppey becomes graceful and greenery-fringed, disappearing into a watery world of villages, punted canoes, toddy shops and, of course, houseboats. Float along and gaze over paddy fields of succulent green, curvaceous rice barges and village life along the banks. This is one of Kerala’s most mesmerizingly beautiful and relaxing experiences.

Located approximately 40 miles south of Kochi, it required a 2-hour bus ride from the hotel before arriving at the dockside in Alleppey, where a row of about 15 houseboats were moored, awaiting paying passengers. Climbing aboard from the bow, I made for the second floor which would give me a clear view forward to take the best photographs. It was hot and extremely humid until one of the crew finally rolled back the canvas drapes on the front and sides, giving cross draft breezes from the water.

It was just after 12:30pm when the mooring ropes were slipped free and the boat slowly began to drift out into the current. I expected a lot of engine noise once we were underway, but was pleasantly surprised at the silence as we picked up a little speed and slowly left the dock behind. These flat-bottom boats were once cargo carriers (rice), but once roads were improved and trucks became available at much lower cost, these modes of transportation were basically out of a job. Hundreds were beached on the river bank and no-one was interested in buying them, except for maybe firewood. Houseboats had been extremely popular in Kashmir for many years, especially for newlyweds during the British Raj period, and someone here in the south got the bright idea to turn these derelict rice carriers into the same thing. Renovation happened and a fabulous new business began! Now hundreds of these boats are plying the rivers, canals and lakes of the Kerala region offering overnight stays with full board.

We would be cruising for the next 3.5 hours, moving from the wide river into much narrower canals and then back out into a huge lake, big enough to be an inland sea. Homes have been built on one side of the waterways, with vast rice paddies on the other side. Boats of every size from basic paddlers to one large enough to be a floating supermarket, and every size in-between. One “long boat” was hauling trash from the residential dwellings, another was delivering cases of bottled water. Ferries collected passengers from numerous “bus stops” on either side of the canals and at each stop, a crowd of women in brightly colored sarees resembling a group of parrots, waited for their rides. As we moved deeper into the canals, I watched as women standing knee-deep in the water, beat clothing against flat rocks as if taking out all their aggression on their laundry. I saw one man lathering up with soap from neck to knees, wearing just his dhoti, and then diving into the deeper water to rinse off.

By 2pm the crew started preparing the table on the lower deck for lunch….it would be buffet style with cabbage, rice, chicken curry, grilled fish and Indian bread, all cooked by the crew from scratch. It was delicious and spiced to perfection. There is something very luxurious and relaxing to be eating such wonderful food while gently cruising along these waterways, watching life on the river banks slide by. People wave as we pass and seeing our cameras, are always ready to pose for pictures.

Time to return to the dock and return to reality. It was a pleasant interlude for a few hours and a fabulous way to end my 3 weeks in this fascinating country. The sun was slowly setting as I clambered down from the boat and made my way back to the bus for the return journey to Kochi. It was still hot and humid and the air-conditioned bus interior was a boon. I have packed a lot of activity into a short amount of time and the days have flown by. In just 24 hours, I will once more be entombed in that metal tube, hurtling across the globe enroute for home. And where do I go next you ask? Stay tuned – my next adventure begins in just two weeks on another continent. Cheers…..

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6th October 2017

Southern India
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12th December 2018

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