Thursday, January 26, 2012

From to Chennai to Puducherry

Our trip to Tamil Nadu was quickly arranged and we left many details to the travel agency. In other words, after we left Chennai we had little idea of what was ahead for us. The first days were filled with monuments and temples we never knew existed. Most were UNESCO World Heritage Sites - there are many world hertigate sites. Our first stop was  Mahabalipuram.. It was supposed to be about an hour drive from Chennai, but the Prime Minister was visiting Chennai and roads were closed, so an hour become more like two hours. We visited 5 areas spread over 8 square kilometers that included temples and stone sculptures, many carved from a single rock, date back to the 7th century.
A guide (Basru) brings meaning to the visual treats

                                                  A tee-shirt can add to the memories

Due to a strike all the craft shops  were closed.  They were protesting local zoning rules against locating stalls in the park.  A similar one day work stoppage in other parts of Tamil Nahu was to protest Kerala's opposition to the enlargement of a dam, which delivers significant water supplies to Tamil Nadu. Over the next few days we read stories of "black flag" protests and strikes - shopkeepers close their shops and deny the government a day's worth of tax revenues.
Unrelated to the strikes were the banners and graffiti with the hammer and sickle, which we saw from Puduicherry (our next stop) and onward. We asked our driver about the popularity of the Communist Party. He said that the communists were active in Kerala. He didn't have anything more to say on the subject of communists, but he had a lot to say about corruption. He believed that the large number (142 more or less) of Indian political parties was at the heart of corruption. In contested districts the parties have been known to give potential voters can get color television, money, or other inducements. The driver believed that Indian needs a two-party system and cited Singapore as a political model. Actually Singapore has more than two political parties, but everyone we have met in our travels admires its lack of corruption and aggressive anti-corruption strategies (a public official caught taking a bribe can lose his job and pension). BTW in Malaysians advocates  two political parties see it as a way to create multi-ethnic parties instead of its current racial based parties.
Puducherry was a former French colony until 1957. We stayed at the Anandha Inn. It is located in a central area, so we could wander the streets and enjoy the city's "French feel."

The room included this line up of adult beverages
The next morning we headed to Auroville - an "ideal township" that reminded us of Eugene, Oregon and similar areas that seemed to be caught in a communalism time warp. It struck us as a pleasant place to spend a few days, but we found the operationalization of "realiz[ing] human unity" unnerving.

Street in Puducherry - quieter & cleaner than Chennai

Puducherry - window grate
                                         Elephant outside the Ganesh temple -temple elephants may get a
                                         rejuvenating holiday
Faded sign reads "green point" - no question what is more important

Tree in Auroville

Auroville Path to the Matrimandir

Auroville near Visitors Centre toward cafe and gift shop 


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why we went to Chennai

Dinner with Patrick
In September I responded to a LinkedIn message from a former Fulbrighter, Patrick Suzeau, a choreographer who was spending his sabbatical in Malaysia. Over the next few months Doug, Patrick and I would meet at performances in KL and hang out together - not so much because we were Americans, but because we were among the few audience members over the age of 35!

Patrick, trained in ballet now concentrates on Indian dance, introduced us to Indian dance. He suggested that we go to the Temple of Fine Arts for Shankar Kandasamy's dance dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey god. It was an amazing performance.(Here is a clip of Shankar dancing a piece dedicated to Shiva.)  Patrick often mentioned his plan to go to a dance festival in Chennai in December. Doug checked Asia airfares to Chennai, found they were were low, so we decided "why not." We book out flight, made reservations at the New Woodlands Hotel, and planned to meet Patrick in Chennai.

The hotel is walking distance from the Music Academy. Performances started at 9:15 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m. We just walked in a found a seat. We stayed to the end of the 1.5 hour performance, although dropping in and leaving was not uncommon. I enjoyed watching the audience, many of whom drummed along with the musicians or made the iconic hand motions. Doug noticed the links to jazz.

The performers are lead by one singer.  He then appears to hold musical dialogs with the audience and with other members of the group.  (Liz disagrees, as she did not feel a dialog existed between the performers and herself.  I think she was spending too much time observing the audience.) In turn, each member of the group takes the lead and the dialog continues moving from musician to musician.  To this untrained musical observer this seems similar to how jazz ensembles, and modern rock bands perform.  I wonder if the Asian Indian diaspora from the 19th century had an influence on the development of jazz.  I know that Indian music had a profound influence on the second half of the 20th century on rock music.

Patrick was attending a seminar "Mad and Divine Women." Again we decided why not. The seminar was on India's "beloved saint poets." A line in the program asked "why is it when men express such feelings [passionately craving the divine] they are called 'realized' and women are called 'mad'? Doug and I knew too little about mystical poets and Indian gods and their stories to get much more out of the presentations. We went to several evening performances (USD2). We learned that we have a limited capacity for long solo performances. Patrick pointed out that the length was because the pieces were being presented as devotional pieces. Too much repetition for our taste - but at the cost and the ability to leave, we can't complain.

We were told that the conference would be on you-tube. A few addresses have been posted, but no dances. We found you-tube clips of performers that we enjoyed: Malavika Sarukkair, Aditi Mangaldas, and Mythili Prakash.

One afternoon we went to a theater near the Music Academy to see another dance. On Christmas night Patrick went to a performance in another part of the city. The newspaper reported other dance and music performances. Our conclusion - Chennai  even without Patrick's suggestions one can find treats for their eyes and ears through the city.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Exploring the hills of Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu allowed us to experience India's natural resources. A drive into the hills took us along narrow streets, offered lovely views and opportunities to buy locally produced teas. Wildlife eluded us - except for monkeys that will show up everywhere.

To started from Coimbatore, described as "India's Manchester." Our hotel, Alankar Grande, was fine and had the added bonus of being located in a walkable area. We walked by 3 coffee roasters - totally unexpected. We ducked into a department store, saw beautiful saris being shown with flair. The salesmen would fling the saris into the air to unravel them. We were too conspicuous to even try to take a picture.

Anthony Raju, Ooty based guide
The next morning we took a 90 kilometer trip to Coonor, The road had multiple hair pin turns, requiring almost constant honking to warn off vehicles coming in the opposite direction. Each bus going down was passed slowly and cautiously - inches separated us.  No wide margin for error. At Coonor we met our guide, Anthony Raju (09486450114 with Royal Tour Travels, across from rail station in Ooty). As we walked through Sim's Park he told us that he also guides treks - something that we should consider in the future. He thinks that India's greatest problem is overpopulation - he has 9 siblings none of whom has more than two children. He has two daughters - his younger daughter is finishing her degree in biology and getting a teaching certificate. We always delighted to meet Indian men who take pride in their daughters.

Sim's Park Coonor

Our first sighting of a lawn mover since
leaving US

 Pasteur Institute (Across from Sim's Park)

Apparently one can get tours of the Pasteur Institute. This is clear example of leaving too much in the hands of the travel agency.

From Sim's Park we went to the Swamy and Swamy (really) tea plantation. We had a good factory tour followed by a tea tasting - we left with tea marsala and chocolate tea, the latter tastes similar to Milo. 

Tea Plants - Factory in the background

Tea Leaves Right Off the Vines

Tea - nearly ready for packing. Looks like tea dust to us

Trying to stay warm - it may be 60 degrees F, probably warmer

View of Coonor and storm clouds from Cyclone Thane
moving in

We drove to a few view points, had lunch, and waited to take the Blue Mountain Train to Ooty.

Blue Mountain Train - Unreserved seats 3 Rupiah (6 cents)

Always a chance to give feedback
By the time we reached Ooty it was seriously cold (maybe 60 degrees) and totally fogged in. We slept in our sweatshirts. Anthony announced that if the weather was bad we would not tour Ooty. The weather was cold and rainy with poor visibility. The remnants of the cyclone that hit Chennai and Pudcherry shorty after we left arrived in Ooty. Fortunately the hotel had wifi or we would have gone insane. The next day their was a new year's eve dinner (allegedly compulsory for hotel guests). It was quite a spread of food held in the hotel's car park. A curious night.

Our New Year's Eve garb 

From Ooty we headed to Mysore. Shortly out of town we stopped for a forest walk - quiet and peaceful. The parks and walks are filled with Indians rather than tourists. (Well, perhaps some Indian tourists.) This section of Tamil Nadu is aggressively anti-plastic and we could not take our water bottles on our short hike.

Forest area outside Ooty

Enjoying the view

Later in the trip we drove through Mudumalai Wildlife sanctuary. Our driver let us know that he thought that Ooty was expensive and polluted and we would have a much better vacation if we stayed in the sanctuary. Our driver was right - so if you are reading this while you are planning a vacation opt for the sanctuary.
A black faced monkey

Look closely - an elephant in the center. He is an "office elephant" not a wild elephant, which as we understand it means that he does tasks in the sanctuary

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Short Day in Mysore

Mysore was a marked change from the cities and towns of Tamil Nadu.  A Maharajah (1884-1940) was credited with transforming Mysore into a center of education, the arts, and city planning among other things. The city has wide boulevards laid on a grid. Cars, auto rickshaws, and motor bikes don’t stray into the lanes going in the opposite directions, they stop at lights, and pedestrians can cross the streets without endangering their lives. The city is clean – no visible piles of rubbish – we were told that it is the 2nd cleanest city in India. Our only bad experience was with the travel agency, it had booked us in the Peridot Hotel, over 10 kilometers from the city center on the border of an industrial park – not an attractive area for wandering and many disincentives in getting to the city center. Our driver was dismayed that we hadn’t been booked in the city center “because there are so many interesting places to see.” Consequently, we largely saw the city through the eyes of our tour guide.

Palace Mysore
My rule “one country, one palace/castle and one church/cathedral/temple” avoids tourist fatigue; nevertheless, if we want to see anything in India I had to ignore this rule. Fortunately, we weren’t  inundated with palaces or temples, and the ones we visited were worthwhile. Serial trips allow us to absorb and connect palace details with what we saw last year, such as, floor sections with inlaid marble from Agra and marble staircases from Rajastan. Ivory tusks and inlaid ivory were everywhere. Our guide emphasized that prohibitions against ivory are respected, and that the last Maharajah gave up elephant hunting and went on to become a president of WWF (World Wildlife Fund). The son of the last maharajah lives in the palace, but he is a private person and missing from public pictures.  He was elected to parliament several times, but a political career has not materialized.

Our guide was informative and answered questions about Hinduism clearly. During our trip we had seen groups of bare-footed men (some bare-chested) dressed in black sarongs. They were making a pilgrimage. So why were they at the palace? Seems that they not only visit and pray at temples they also visit tourist sites. While on pilgrimage they abstain from tobacco, alcohol, meat, and sex.We also learned a little about the marks on men's foreheads - three horizontal white stripes signified a follower of Shiva and two vertical stripes designated followers of Vishnu. The stripes are in white signifying purity. Some men will have other marking in different colors, but keepimg track of their meaning is a challenge.

From the palace we drove out of the city for the view and to visit a temple with Nandi, a bull said to have transported Shiva. The Mysore bull was carved from one stone; it is third largest Nandi statute in India.
City view: State forest reserve in foreground, private (dry)
land in center

Nandi - 15 feet high & 24 feet long
We had lunch at Om Shanthi, a coffee shop in the Siddharta.Hotel. Our guide suggested that we get one thali and share it, but we couldn’t resist the opportunity to try both a have North Indian and South Indian thali. Both were great, but we couldn’t manage to eat the naan, puri, and parotta. We asked for the bill but we weren’t finished yet. We each received ice cream (in a dixie cup) and a banana. An amazing and yummy meal. (Unlike our tour of Rajistan we were not sent to restaurants crowded with tourists, we seemed to eat at local favorites.

After lunch we went to a silk factory – no activity, we saw the loom and piles of silk -  outside Mysore there are many busy silkworms at work.. Next we crossed the street to see sandalwood factory. Again no activity, but we saw the sample pieces of sandalwood and plastic (ivory substitute) – the woods are colored and none are painted. Our factory guide explained the process. Then she showed us massive tables (seating 14 comfortably); one depicted village scenes. The guide may have thought that we would buy one (hope springs eternal). Convinced that we wouldn't she showed us beautifully crafted carvings (mostly of Ganish). She suggested that if we bought one it become a family heirloom. I am not sure if Colin and Brendan are in the market for more family heirlooms, so if we buy such a piece it won’t be on this trip. All in all we were not subjected to the intense pressure of Rajasthan sales people.

Our last stop was at the fruit and vegetable market – it was clean and lacked the awful smells of wet markets (which include a meat section).   This market was built nearly a century ago and has over 735 vendors working 365 days per year from 6am to 10pm. We bought a kilo of oranges for USD 0.60! They allowed us to skip the hotel’s mediocre (I am being kind) breakfast. The guide also gave a locally famous sweet – drop dead sweet.  Doug was sorely tempted to purchase samples of vegetable dyes, which were were displayed in colorful cones throughout the market.
Dyes for body markings, painting, and holi
One of many flower stalls: Flowers are used for
devotions and weddings
Wondering what is in yam ice cream? It is the purple vegeable
in the background

Another display of fruit
V. Venkatesh
Our guide was V. Venkatesh (I am trying to verify his e-mail, can supply mobile if requested ). Throughout the day he was informative pointing out various buildings and answering our questions about Mysore, Hinduism, and Indian life. Guides can have one of three licenses: South, North, East or West India; a state license; or for monuments. We have found that guides licensed for south Indian are the best; they seem more comfortable with English and have a greater breadth of knowledge. Here are a few things we learned from Venkatesh. Indians love cricket, cinema, and mobile phones. Some elements of the caste system remain, primarily in choice of marriage partner. Our guide felt that neighboring Kerala was heavily promoted, but Karnatata has a lot to offer. His favorite place in India, other than Mysore, was Pattadakal in northern Karnataka. Karnataka's previous minister of tourism (resigned August 2011) is in prison, which my explain the limited effort to promote the state. A good time to visit Mysore is the 10 day festival Dasara (or Dusserah) held in late September - early October. From our guide's description and information on the web this is something that we will want to attend. So much to see in India, so hard to make choices