Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Three Seas Meet

In Madurai, M.K. Gandhi made his decision to only wear khadi, Indian-made cloth. I wanted to buy some clothing made from khadi, but apparently the only things made from this cloth are lungis, which are um... pieces of cloth.

The temple in Madurai was amazing, but it's difficult to depict it here. When I was standing in front of the temple, looking at all the unique colourful statues on the towers was fascinating; looking at my photos all the statues start to look the same.

Inside, the temple had fascinating paintings on the ceiling, again every one unique, and it was filled with stone statues. Sadly, non-Hindus are not allowed to take the goddess's darshan.

I also slept much more than I thought necessary in Madurai.

Kanyakumari is the southernmost point of India! It is the point where the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south, and the Arabian Sea to the west, all meet. It is also the closest to the equator I have ever been: 8 degrees north latitude. I met Alex on the train, a Chinese guy working in Delhi, and we spent the day talking about our experiences living as foreigners in India.

The town is named for Kanyakumari, the virgin goddess who won a battle against the demon. Her temple is lovely inside, as is the goddess, but photos are not allowed inside, and the outside is generic.

This photo is on the ferry to the Swami Vivekananda Rock memorial, where Vivekananda apparently meditated for three days before developing his Hindu reform philosophies. Beside Alex is a young man who told me about the truth as taught by Vivekananda, set off my proselytizer alarms, and eventually bought me a book. Beside that island is a huge statue of Tiruvalluvar, who makes his second appearance in my trip.

I visited the Gandhi memorial, where his ashes were exhibited before being scattered in the sea. Important photos from his life are reproduced on the walls, but otherwise it's uninspiring. The Vivekananda museum was closed for renovations, a disappointing but benign side-effect of the monsoon season.

The day I visited, the waves were incredibly powerful, and I watched for a long time from the observation tower.

I also discovered that sleeping so much was an omen of the terrible head cold to come, which marks my 6th (or is it 7th now?) cold or illness since arriving in India.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Continuing Down the East Coast

From Chennai it was a short trip south to Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram) which is a little tourist town built around some of the most excellent sculpture in India. I also highly recommend Le Yogi restaurant, which satisfied my lasagna craving. Here the monsoon slowed me down for half a day, and from here on, I never saw a sunrise or sunset because of overcast skies.

It's difficult to decide which carvings were my favourites. There were many similarities with the Hampi ruins, but the carvings at Mamallapuram were more realistic, used different perspectives from the traditional ones, and carried more of a sense of humour and whimsy. Beautiful carvings of elephants stand out on Arjuna's Penance. I loved the cat standing on his hind legs, at the left, under the elephant's tusks; he seems to be imitating Arjuna (who is outside the frame). The Nagas on the far left are also fascinating. A temple relief of Durga fighting stood out for the composition, and the way each person is depicted uniquely.

Krishna's butter ball, a huge stone apparently balanced on the slope, is popular for photos. It's only round from one angle.

The Shore Temple, two monolithic temples carved near the sea, is also unique, despite the extensive damage from sand, salt, water, and wind.

The Five Rakshas (Chariots) are also each unique monolithic temples, and the giant stone lion, elephant, and nandi (Shiva's bull mount) add personality to the site. These were covered by sand for centuries before their rediscovery.

A little farther south Pondicherry, one of the French colonies, still looks the most "European" of all the cities in India. Many heritage buildings are now under restoration. I spent a lot of time watching the waves roll down the beach. I was delighted to discover the only city in India that has regular street signs--this is a rare trilingual sign: Tamil, English, and French.

The monsoon blasted me here: it was the most humid place I've ever been ("breaking a sweat" was the same as "drenched in sweat"), and one night it rained so hard it flooded the street. The photos didn't turn out so well, but hopefully you can see that the street is water instead of pavement!

At the Sacred Heart Cathedral I discovered a big event; the courtyard was filled with altar boys and men in robes, and women in saris. Then a VIP arrived, and a little girl scattered flower petals under his feet. My knowledge of Roman Catholic religious garb is a little shaky, but after a little research I believe this is the Archbishop of Pondicherry.

Pondicherry has another remnant of the French colonial period. Police here wear a uniform unique in all of India: they add a distinctly French red cap.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Looking back at my stay in Chennai (formerly Madras) in Tamil Nadu state, I'm surprised that I did so much in just a day and a half. When I arrived I had to search for a hotel with rooms, but then I had the cutest little room ever! Recently remodeled, it had blue floral tiles, pink molding, one window in blue glass and one in green! I also met the harbinger of the monsoon, in the form of a very welcome overcast sky. It dropped the temperature to almost bearable, although the humidity was still ridiculous. Early in my trip, the heat really made me surly!

I started at the Kapaleeshwarar Hindu temple, and made the change to typical Dravidian architecture. Colourfully painted deities and mythical creatures cover every inch of the temple towers. It was a drastic contrast with northern Hindu architecture.

Christianity is more popular in the south, and Chennai has two important churches. St. Mary's is located in Fort St. George, and is the oldest existing English church in India. It was quiet and friendly, although the European memorial statuary seemed out of place in India.

St. Thomas the Apostle Cathedral was built over the tomb of one of Jesus' disciples, and is only one of three in the whole world to do so. Apparently "Doubting Thomas" came to India to preach Christianity, and was the source of Syrian Christianity in India. In Tamil Nadu I often stopped to listen to Roman Catholic mass in Tamil.

From there it was a short walk to the waterfront promenade, where I took some photos of the lighthouse as the sky darkened, watched families playing at the edge of the water, people flying kites, vendors selling chaat and horse rides, and struggled to find the subway station.

The overpriced museum was still worthwhile for the comprehensive overview of Dravidian sculpture and the terrific collection of bronzes, many of which depicted dancing Shiva. Poor lighting and glass cases largely prevented photography

Finally, a trek to Valluvar Kottam, a monument honoring the 1st century BCE Tamil saint Tiruvalluvar. It's built in the form of a chariot, and has verses from the Tirukular. Part of the trouble finding it was that Indians are often SO polite that they will helpfully give directions, even if they have no idea where you are going. Lonely Planet guides also have notoriously bad maps for walkers like me, which means I can usually double the estimated time. Later, I found a special edition one rupee coin with Tiruvalluvar.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Palaces and Forts, Gods and Hijab

A visit to Hyderabad began my 16-day trip in South India, and this blog begins a deluge of posts about it! Hyderabad was founded by a Muslim ruler of India, considered joining Pakistan upon India's Independence in 1947, and still has a high population of Muslims. Here I was surprised when women wearing the niqab voluntarily uncovered their faces in public when they asked me to photograph them. It kind of shuts down that controversy in Canada about refusing drivers' licenses and voters' rights to women wearing the niqab because "they can't show their faces". Although some sects of Islam believe this, nothing in the Qur'an requires women to cover their faces or hair in the presence of men not their family. I've also really come to support the rights of women to cover their hair and/or face. In many regions of India, I voluntarily cover up to gain some relief from a culture of leering men of all religions and this. Trust me, no one is going to undermine that culture by "liberating" her hair, although it is perfectly acceptable to go uncovered also.

Who knew that Buddhism was also so prevalent in Andhra Pradesh's history? The state museum had a large collection of bronzes, stone sculpture, and even a supposed relic of the Buddha. Hyderabad also has the largest monolithic Buddha statue in the country, installed in the middle of the lake in 1992.

I spent an entire day exploring Golconda Fort and the Qutb Shahi Tombs with Penny and Jamie from Britain. Both sites were full of hidden corners, detailed carving, and crumbling ruins. These two cute Muslim girls were dressed in their best for the day out.

The Charmahalla was the palace of the nizams, and had a cool collection of *really* vintage cars.

It was in the same area as the Mecca Masjid, which contains bricks made of soil from Mecca, and the major landmark, the Charminar. This area is one giant bazaar, where I bought pearls. Hyderabad is also known as the City of Pearls.

In Tirupati, the most visited pilgrimage site in the world, and my next destination I took darshan from the god Venkateshwara, also known as Lord Balaji or Govinda. It's not really a tourist destination, because you can't take photos of the temple or the god, and there's nothing else to do. Darshan also involves waiting for hours, or sometimes days, as a minimum of 100,000 pilgrims visit daily, and the number goes up to 500,000. For me, it took about four hours in the "quick darshan" line, also the most expensive. It was an incredible experience, but I was also put off by the "big business" feel; this temple is the richest in India, and it got that way by continually asking for money from pilgrims.