Tamil Nadu state: Pondicherry, Tanjore, Madurai; Kerala state: Cochin January 7 - 28, 2009
1/9/09 - 1/28/09 90 °F
The beaches I wrote about last time provided a nice break from visiting the temple towns, which are not places where one wants to stay any longer than necessary. They have all the noise, filth, and crowds typical of India cities, but non of the charm. The temples, however, make it worthwhile to spend at least a night.
The South Indian temples reflect Indians' love for ornate decoration and bright colors. All the buildings, including the entrances, have high towers that are completely covered with ornate sculptures and carvings of the presiding deity, and are oftentimes painted with bright colors.
The inside of the temples vary, depending on the level of maintenance. Regardless, shoes and socks are not allowed once inside the courtyard. Cows, on the other hand, are sacred to the Hindus, and thus are free to roam inside, as are bats in some of the more ancient ones. So, in some cases we found ourselves walking barefoot around the courtyard carefully sidestepping holy shit, literally.
Elephants, on the other hand, have the honor of giving blessing to anyone willing to pay a tip (either in cash or bananas):
We also went to a temple to see the Pongal (new year) celebrations. For this auspicious occasion, the horns of the cows are painted bright red and yellow. Then at some point in the night, there was an Indian version of the running of the (very unhappy looking) bulls through the courtyard, without any barriers for people to hide behind (I read in the papers that, in another town, one person was killed and several injured during one of these bull races).
Kids joining the revelry on the back of a tractor-converted truck:
The temple we really wanted to see was the iconic Meenakshi temple in Madurai. Of course, given our luck, we were there just in time for the once-every-12-year-repainting of the temple so everything was covered up.
A small tower that's not covered up to give an idea of what's under the brown bamboo and leaf covers:
Being inside, though, was quite an experience... seeing the devout Hindus stand in jam-packed lines for hours just to get a distant glimpse of the Goddess shrouded in incense smoke, hearing the chants of the Brahmins (the priests) as they perform puja (ceremony for the God/ Goddess). The Brahmins are the only ones that can access the inner sanctum where the sacred idols sit, but anyone who has money can pay for them to perform the puja (it felt like a big money making scheme for them). We got pulled into doing a few pujas. In one temple in Chidanbaram, Ashok even had to take his shirt off and follow the Brahmin around (sorry no pictures allowed).
Besides temples & beaches, we also went to a couple of unique cities. One of them, Pondicherry (about 4 hrs south of Chennai) ended up being our place to meet up with friends. Josh traveled with us there where we hung out for a few days. We then extended our stay so we can meet up with Ashok's childhood friend, JoJo, and his family. Pondicherry was a French colony for a brief period in history, long enough to leave behind a nicely planned out, clean and relatively quiet French quarter that's unlike the rest of India. And good coffee. In fact, Tamil Nadu is the only state in India where one can find a good cup of Indian coffee.
Besides wandering around the streets, we also spent a lot of time in the charming, breezy courtyard of the Hotel du Pondicherry where the decor makes one feel transported back in time to the 1920's, and where one can just sit back and relax for hours (yes, it's the exact same spot in both pictures).
Hanging out with Josh:
JoJo, Deepa, and Kabir sleeping soundly in his stroller:
Our last stop in South India was in Cochin, Kerala, known for its “backwaters”. This is another place where people go to get away from the noise and chaos of India, and a boat ride through its various tributaries was indeed very peaceful.
Cochin, a Portuguese influenced city, is also known for the Chinese fishing nets right off of the harbor, which have been used for centuries to catch fish. There are plenty of stalls selling fresh, “you buy, we cook” seafood next to the nets. However, one look at the trash on those beaches, and we decided to pass.
Not to worry - we did find good food in Cochin - but were too busy enjoying it to take pictures. Here is a picture of the colorful & tempting spices for sale on the streets... just think of the possibilities: