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 Coast to Coast - Southern India
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Southern India

On our journey through Southern India, we saw diverse landscapes and had many experiences. Whereas the north had large cities well-known in the west, the south was a bit more off the beaten path.  India has 36 self-governing states and territories much like the US.  Each state has a unique geography, demography, history, culture and language.  We visited two on this trip starting in Tamil for several days then onto Kerala. 


In Chennai, we visited prominent temples featuring intricate figures of the major hindu gods. Some of the temples were large, many were small, some were quite old, others not as much but all were active with visitors and adorned with offerings of marigolds and other flowers. In one, we even participated in the local tradition of smashing a small coconut against the wall for good luck.  Inside this local temple, we saw hundreds of statues of Ganesh the elephant god of good luck and fortune.

The city is located on the southeastern coast on the Bay of Bengal. The beach offered a glimpse into the local maritime activities.  We found an active community of fishermen who would go out with their nets every day, while on shore, their wives would be selling their catch. There were plenty of people at the beach but apparently in India, most people don’t swim.  Of course, Mark stuck his toes in, because he could.

Rice is a main crop in southern India.  It is a very labor intensive crop as it is difficult to mechanize much of the process.  While we passed many rice fields, we were able to stop at one close to the road where women, very colorfully dressed, were bent over busily gathering the newly growing rice shoots into bundles for transplanting.  They worked very quickly but watching them gave us all a sore back. 

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Pondicherry & Madurai

In Pondicherry, a little further down the east coast, we had a local guide give us a tour through the French Quarter.  It seems this area of India was a French colonial settlement until 1954.  While there, we visited the local ashram for a meditation session, saw a few more colorful temples and visited Auroville on the outskirts of town.  Auroville is an experimental township established in 1968 to “realize human unity in diversity”.  Men and women of all countries live in peace and harmony above creed, politics, nationality and caste. The community is still going strong with 3300 residents.  We were able to visit the gardens and see the big dome where community members can gather to meditate.  The rest was off limits.  It seemed a bit cult-like to us but who knows.

Leaving the coast, we headed inland (west) to the city of Madurai.  Madurai presented historical landmarks, including Meenakshi Temple (hindu) dating back to 1200 CE and The Thirumalai Nayakkar palace.  This temple complex – there are a dozen buildings, is a very active and an important place in the life of the local citizens. Each of the tall pyramid-like structures is covered with thousands of colorful carvings depicting the hindu gods. Inside the buildings we saw many families seeking blessings for weddings, births, deaths, pregnancies and any other major life event. Decisions are prayed over and offerings are made to the gods in the hope of good outcomes. We learned a lot about the Hindu religion and Dharma, Vishnu, and Shiva as well as their wives, animals and stories.  My favorite is Genesh the elephant god who is over the entrance of most temples.

The Thirumalai palace, built in the 17th century, had many roman influences, and was designed to impress European trading partners.  All religious beliefs were covered as well – domes for the Catholics, arches for Islam and statues on the roof for Hinduism. Somehow it all seemed to come together. While it is currently being renovated, it was easy to visualize its former glory.  

After visiting the architecture, we had an opportunity to get closer to the city.  We each climbed into a bicycle rickshaw to navigate the local roads and feel the rhythm of local life as we navigated by vibrant local markets.  At one point, we got out to wander among the vegetable and fruit stalls.  Did you know there are 6 different kinds of bananas? 
 

Thakeddy

 

We continued our westward drive leaving Tamil, heading over the mountains, leading up in elevation to the town of Thakeddy in Kerala. The cooler air was most welcome! Our destination – a spice plantation where they grew black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, red chili, nutmeg, tamarind, cocoa, vanilla, and coffee - all the essentials for Indian cooking.  After a delicious lunch, we were guided through the gardens to identify the various plants. The plantation and lunch shed light on the intricacies behind blending Indian spices.  Very interesting!  We also had a local home visit for a cooking class which offered hands-on experience in crafting various regional dishes including various curries – too many to name.  Recipes from our guide might help us make some of these when we get home.  One takeaway was that coconut oil and indeed coconuts feature prominently in southern Indian cooking.  Yum!

 

In the evening, we attended a martial arts demonstration with swords, knives and shields.  Apparently, this practice originated in India a few thousand years ago.  While the show was definitely for tourists, it was entertaining, nonetheless.