A Travellerspoint blog

India

Pondicherry

Taken over by the French in 1674, and briefly occupied by both the Dutch and the British, Pondy was not formally reunited with India until 1962. We stayed in the old French quarter near the sea, which has many old houses, a number of which have been renovated, but with the rest in various states of disrepair. Nonetheless the whole area has a certain charm, and a vaguely French air about it. There were even several French restaurants as well as Italian and Vietnamese, but we opted to stay with Indian food.

Our street sign in Tamil, English, and French
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Our Street, partially renovated
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Another street, this one in even better shape
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The restaurant scene
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In the evening, Nanette and I walked on the promenade facing the sea, and stopped for mushroom dosas in a very local place. In addition to the promenade, the adjoining road was closed to traffic on Saturday night, and there was an endless parade of Indians of all ages, strolling along the wide boulevard. In the middle was a large statue of Gandhi, which kids were using as a kind of slide. It seemed to us that Gandhi, looking very much like Ben Kingsley, was smiling down on the scene below. It was a great place to rollerblade, and no sooner had I said this, then two kids showed up who were doing exactly that. We walked back to our guesthouse accompanied by the sounds of a police band sitting opposite Gandhi, and dressed to look like French gendarmes.

Promenade in the morning
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In the morning we had breakfast at our guesthouse, Les Hibiscus,

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and got started talking to Monia, a French traveler in her 30's, who has been teaching in India for the last four years. She was actually born and raised in Belgium, and didn't move to Paris until she was about 18. Her parents, if you can call them that, more or less abdicated all responsibility for both her and her younger, autistic brother. As a result she was in charge at a very early age. Her parents hardly worked, content to reap the benefits of the Belgium social services system. Luckily that system provided well for her brother, and he is now living in a program for adult,severely autistic persons. Monia was an excellent student, and for a while was training to be a neurosurgeon and paying for it herself. In the end, she was forced to drop out because of having to earn money to take care of her brother. She did manage to finish her undergraduate degree in psychology. Unable to get a job in that field, she found an IT position in a bank ,where she worked for several years. She didn't like it, and eventually moved to Kerala to take a job as a French teacher. She has also managed to travel extensively in South America and other places. In a few months she is moving back to Mumbai, where she has a much better job.

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She came with us on a visit to Auroville, the communalistic community based on the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother, a French woman who helped to start the place in 1968. The only place they really let us see, and that only from the outside, was a large gold dome, that is their meditation hall.

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The residents houses, gardens, and schools, which we were more interested in, were more or less off limits to visitors. To some degree this is understandable, though I can't think of any reason why they should tell you this in advance.

Returning in the heat of mid-day, we showered and then went off to a veg meal in what, thankfully, turned out to be an air conditioned restaurant. Afterwords we went to sample the pastry and coffee at Baker Street, Indian owned and run, but French trained despite the British name. By far the best pastry, well really the only pastry since the start of our trip, but it really was excellent, and there was ac to boot. We spent most of the afternoon talking to our new travel bud, before returning once again for one of our many daily showers. Later we went out to LeClub with Monia for beer and pizza. The day passed by too quickly, and we said our goodbyes the next morning before heading out to our next destination.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:57 Archived in India Tagged people buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Temples of Trichy, Thanjavur, and Kubakonam

We have been on a temple whirlwind. Flew from Colombo back to Madurai, and then a hot 2&1/2 hour bus ride to Tiruchirappalli, or as it is more commonly known, Trichy.

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In the AM we hired a tuk- tuk to take us first to the Rock Fort Temple, and then to Sri Ranganathaswamy.

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Rock Fort involved a lot of steps cut out of solid rock and many variations of Shiva.

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And no, this is not Mary and Jesus
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Good view of the city, but even though we went early we were dripping with sweat.

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The piece de resistance however, was the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. Dedicated to Vishnu and as large as a small town, many shops are located in the outer walls.

Not everyone takes their religion seriously, or lets it interfere with a nap
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We hired a guide for this one as there are as many as 49 separate shrines, according to Lonely Planet, and it would have been easy to get lost. There are also many towers or goparums, where there is a mass of humanity, Gods, demons, and animals, all climbing on top of one another, procreating, sometimes dying, destroying, etc. These Goparums seem to be the perfect religious symbol for India, in this crowded, sweaty, grungy, but incredibly colorful and vibrant country.

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Sex plays a prominent role in many of the Hindu temples with lingams, aka phallic symbols, both short and fat, and tall and skinny, some reaching up to the ceiling. Our guide pointed out that Krinshna was quite a playboy and had more than 16,000 girlfriends. How they arrived at this number I don't know. On one spot on the biggest goparum, he showed us a frieze of Krishna watching women bathing. They had left their saris on the shore of the river, and before they returned, he stole their clothes so that he had a good view of all them naked. There were sacred statues of bulls ,many Ganeshas, Hanumans, and of course, Brahmin priests, dressed in white, waiting to bless us in exchange for a small amount of money.

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They didn't want us taking pictures inside the temple, and I noticed these two cute girls. They didn't seem to mind having their pictures taken.

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On the way back we noticed a ceremony taking place on a side street that looked like a marriage. It turns out that it was a kind of coming of age ceremony for Brahmin boys of around 15 years. Similar, it seems, to a Bar Mitzvah. At first we stood in the back taking pictures, but it wasn't long before we were ushered to the front and warmly welcomed. Many people seemed eager to have us there, and to explain the ceremony, which involved the boy and his father and many other men of the community. When we left they gave us a bag of party favorites, consisting of a scarf, a sweat rag, very necessary here, and a bag which said construction and catering and the name of their company. Obviously not a poor family.

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Then it was back to our hotel, where we showered for the 3rd time of the day, and then took the bus to Thanjavur. Once again, we spent the afternoon by the pool before getting up early to see the Brihadishwara Temple, built by the cholas around 1000 AD.

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There were many big stone walls around the temple. Shiva's bull was once again in evidence, as well as this giant lingam.

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At one point there was a yellow liquid pouring forth from the lingams that looked very much like sperm. Fertility it seems,is prized here, despite the overcrowding.

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The architectural details and statues were brilliant.

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Next was Kubakonam, where we are now. Our hotel is quite comfortable, which is a contrast to this obviously very poor town with many temples. Our favorite was Airavatesvara, which was built by RajaRaja's son around 1146 AD. Similar to Brihadishwara, it had the feel of spiritual mystery about it, with dark colonnades, many candles, dark Ganeshes, and wonderful, detailed sculptures. It was also surrounded by granite walls, which were reddish in color in the fading daylight. Even though our tuk-tuk driver took us on a temple dash through the town and we saw five others just before sunset, none of them had the character of Airavatesvara.

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Posted by jonshapiro 14:04 Archived in India Tagged buildings photography tourist_sites Comments (2)

Madurai

We left Munnar by private car a day early, and came here to Madurai, a bustling, hot, typical Indian city, with cars honking, buses belching black smoke, and plenty of garbage.

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Our hotel, JC Residency, is a bit of an oasis. Cool, clean, nice room, and nice pool, though also in typical Indian fashion, no place to lounge around in the shade. The only staff person who seemed to know what he was doing was Sam, so we asked for him as often as possible when we needed information about the town.

The Menakshee temple did not disappoint. It is a huge complex,dedicated to Parvati (Menakshee by another name) and Shiva, her consort. Reports about it age vary widely, from the 6th through the 15th century, although at some point it was destroyed by the ruling Muslims and then rebuilt. It has 12 large towers, gopurams, full of Hindu Gods standing on top of each other, painted in bright colors, with an assortment of demons as well. Each tower is different from the next, and the overcrowding of figures is very much like the rest of this crowded and sometimes overwhelming country. Luckily, we got there in the morning when it was relatively cool and uncrowded.

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They did not however, let us bring our camera, though we could use our cell phone to take pics. Something about security. We were also not allowed, as non Hindus, to go into the inner sanctums.

We did manage to get in here
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All in all, we spent about two hours, listening to the recorded chanting, and gazing up at the towers. Pigeons flew around the gopurams in widening circles, perched on the various Gods and demons, and of course, shitting on them. There were also many lingams, yakshis, yoginis, and other statues scattered about, and in the on site museum.

Indian women gazing up at Temple
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We returned to spend most of the rest of the day lazing about the pool. Just too hot to do anything else. The following day we went to see the Gandhi museum, which was somewhat interesting and the palace, which was not. In the afternoon we were back at the pool where Nanette started chatting with an Indian- American family now living in Madison, Wisconsin. Interestingly, Josephine's husband, was a surgical resident, as is our daughter, and made the switch to interventional radiology. She was visiting her mother Rosalyn, with her very cute 3 year old, Annabelle. They have English names because they are Christians, which seems to be the trend here, as they were originally named by the Portuguese when they were converted hundreds of years ago. Now that I reflect on it, they should all have Portuguese names.

It wasn't long before Rosalyn invited us over for dinner the next night, and we promptly said yes.

It was a long tuk-tuk ride to their modest house on the other side of town.

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Stanley, her husband, was there, as well as their youngest son, who is almost finished with his accounting degree. Two other sons, one of which is married to Josephine, are still in the states. Both Stanley and his wife lived in Chicago for a while, but decided they liked the lifestyle in India, and so returned several years ago. Now they are both retired. They made a number of local dishes for us including avial, dosas,chappattis, chicken curry, appum, and several others whose names I can't remember, and although there was one servant helping in the kitchen, Rosalyn, it seemed, did most of the cooking. We ate at a small table, with Stanley, while the women, as well as younger brother served us, much like in the Burmese families in the US, who we tutor in English. Over dinner, we chatted with them about their lives in India as well as the US. Josephine's marriage was arranged, and she really didn't get to meet her husband until shortly before moving to the US. He was accepted into a residency program in Madison after finishing medical school in India. She was 24 at the time. Right now, she appears to enjoy life in the states, especially Madison, although her husband is just about finished, and they will move to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania this summer, because he has a job there. Prior to her marriage, she had trained as a dentist in India, but has not practiced in the US. Annabelle takes up most of her time, although she did work as a dental technician for a few years in Madison. Everyone was very gracious towards us and it was a highly pleasurable way to end our time in Madurai.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:43 Archived in India Tagged people tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (3)

Munnar

We are in another isolated place high in the Western Ghats, much greener, cooler, and more rugged than Wayanad. It is surrounded by tea plantations, cardamom fields and rocky peaks.

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The place we are staying in is a two story house, and we have the upstairs honeymoon suite, my nomenclature, with two rooms and a balcony, overlooking a spectacular mountain valley. Unfortunately, Regi, who I have been communicating with for several months, does not actually stay here, and the only folks that do, the caretaker and a Tamil woman with a baby, have very little English. So when I wanted stronger coffee this morning, I made a muscle with my right arm. Hard to tell whether that made any difference.

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Food has been a problem, as they ordered veggies and rice for us from a restaurant several klicks up the road, and it was greasy and gave us both indigestion. Breakfast of idly was marginally better, as it was homemade, but they are clearly not set up to serve meals, despite what I had been told earlier.

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We feel a bit marooned, and I suspect that there have been few, if any, Westerners staying here, especially without a car, as we are about 12K from Munnar, on a narrow, winding road.

Earlier today, we went on a hike with a guide. We thought we would be climbing one of the nearby mountains, but got a late start,and he seemed reluctant to take us up the highest peak because there are "wild elephants up there." It seems that if the Naxalites are not hiding out on the peaks, then the elephants will get you. We spent most of the time in a nearby forest, and in and out of tea plantations.

Tea pickers
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Wild Morning Glory
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On another day, he agreed to take us up on the ridge line of a lower mountain, and I hope to be over my nasty head cold by then.

We also took a tuk-tuk into Munnar, and ate lunch at a thali place that received good reviews. Unfortunately, neither the town, nor the restaurant are worth writing about.

Despite the isolation at Regi's place, and the rock hard bed, which reminds us of China, the sunsets are as brilliant as I have seen anywhere, as is the view from our balcony. We have enjoyed sitting out there, drinking a beer, listening to world music on my travel speaker, and just gazing out at the last light of day. The sun goes below the clouds as the sky turns pink, and then the mist descends, so that it is hard to tell mountain from sky. Subtle shades of grey and orange dominate, as the outline of the ridge line above merges with the darkening sky as dusk turns to night.

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Posted by jonshapiro 11:03 Archived in India Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains photography Comments (4)

Kochi

We arrived here after departing Payyanur in the morning for the seven hour train ride. Our Indian friends left later the same morning, and so we are truly on our own for the first time. Kochi is the most touristy place we have been to thus far, and white faces seem to outnumber Indians in this, the old section of town, known as Fort Kochi. On our first evening we ate a recommended place, where they seemed to dumb down and de-spice the food, especially for us westerners. We despaired of finding good food, but that turned out not to be the case.

Yesterday, we went to the old Jewish synagogue, dating from the 1500's and were surprised to find that it was Purim. No one was allowed in except Jews. It was one of the few times we did feel like the "chosen people."

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To our astonishment, there was a Lubovitcher Rabbi from Israel, who was in Kochi to help the tiny Jewish community still left celebrate both Purim and Passover. There were two elderly, Jewish ladies, one of which, Sarah, age 79, was, we had been told, the last Jew left. But Miriam was also there, and apparently there are still a handful of others, seven in all. The Rabbi also told us there was another group of 20 or 30 "black Jews" in a nearby community. Black because they look more like Indians. Also in attendance was a young Jewish man from the upper west side of Manhattan, and two young cousins, Zachary and Amy, both Americans from Denver. The Rabbi seemed quite glad to see us, even though I told him about my secular upbringing, he offered to put teffelin on me. How could I refuse? One black box went on my head, and another on my arm, held up by leather straps. Each box contains prayers, and the purpose is apparently to link head and heart together in the worship of God. We then said a few Hebrew prayers together, or rather the Rabbi said them, and I attempted to repeat them. A Bar Mitzvah, he said, after we were finished. I guess I had to come to India to get in touch with my Jewish roots. I did not tell him of my former Bar Mitzvah, which was a series of Yiddish skits written by my father, and performed by my class at the very secular Sholem Alechem Folk Shule.

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While this was going on, Nanette was chatting with Miriam and Sarah in the women's section in the back of the synagogue. They told her that the Jews of Kochi lived in peace for many years, with a cosmopolitan mix of Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus. The only group to persecute them was the Portuguese, not surprisingly, as they arrived during the time of the inquisition. It seems they were also interested in converting the local Hindus, as well as the spice trade, as evidenced by the presence of several Portuguese churches. Although they were kicked out of Kochi relatively early, they remained in the adjoining state of Goa until 1961, at which time the Indian Army finally forced them to leave. They were followed by the Dutch and then the English, who, from the late 1700's, were to rule all of India until the middle 20th century.

After my "Bar Mitzvah," we listened to the story of Purim, in Hebrew, as spoken by the Rabbi. He was accompanied by his nine year old son, who bobbed up and down, davening, while chanting with his father. He also pointed out a word here and there, that his father forgot. It was all quite charming.

Nanette with Rabbi and his family in Kochi park
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We then walked through Jew Town, formerly shops run by Jews, and now mostly owned by Kashmiris who cater to the tourist trade.

Shop in Jew Town
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Nanette with Sarah in her embroidery shop in Jew Town
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We stopped off for ginger ice cream and a cold drink, and I spent most of my time talking to Zachary, who works for the US State Department in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.

Zachary and cousin Amy
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I was hoping to find out how he landed the job at such a young age, so I could pass it on to the son of our good friends, Bill and Debbie, but it seems he had no special connections, and was just brilliant enough to score in the top two percent of the college grads who take the grueling series of exams and interviews that are offered to anyone. The strange thing is, he was hoping to be posted to Beijing as he speaks fluent Mandarin, but in typical bureaucratic fashion, was sent to Dushanbe because that is where they had an opening. Equally strange, his job is to distribute money for narcotics interdiction, most of which I assume, ends up in the pockets of the very corrupt government officials. Zach told me about the national sport of Buzkashi, a kind of polo, in which a galloping group of men try to pull apart a headless goat, and drag it toward a goal. It is more or less a free for all without teams, and sometimes goes on for days. Although they speak Persian in Tajikistan, as does Zach after a nine month intensive class, Russian is the lingua franca for most of the Stans. It seems like a fascinating place to visit, but Nanette has already informed me that if I am going there, it will be on my own. A bit too macho for her I'm afraid. Perhaps she can hang out in Istanbul, which seems to be the gateway for most of these countries, but first, I have to practice my survival Russian, an uphill battle at best.

As noted, we had given up finding any serious Indian food in Fort kochi, but the number one pick on Trip Advisor, Fusion, did not disappoint. In fact, I would have to say that the fish pappas, a spicy mahi-mahi with Kerala veggies, had to be one of the best meals I have enjoyed in India, and a bargain to boot. I also very much enjoyed the Jewish pepper chicken. With Syrian food on the menu as well, it was indeed, a delightful fusion.

After 9 or 10 AM, it gets quite hot here at this time of year, and so we have done things in the morning, and returned to our ac room in mid-day, before venturing out again around 4. As well as a bedroom, we have a large air conditioned living room to hang in, and although no one else is staying in the adjoining rooms, a staff person is almost always around, and it feels somewhat intrusive. The concept of personal space in India, seems to be lacking. As I am writing this, Nanette is trying to paint, and the maid, Bridgett, is constantly peering over her shoulder and asking what she is doing.

We went back to Jew Town on another day to do some jewelry shopping, and when we can stand the heat, have visited a number of tourist sites, including Vasco Da Gama Square, with its famous Chinese fishing nets. They are, "believed to have been introduced in Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, from the court of the Kubla Khan. The fishing net established itself on the Kochi shores between 1350 and 1450." (Kerala Tourism.Org).

Photo by Nanette
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We have also been to the Dutch Palace, so called because it was renovated by the Dutch, although built by the Portuguese. There were beautiful painted murals of the Ramayana on the walls. Yesterday we took the ferry to Vippin Island, which is very close by, and walked there for a bit.

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Not a lot to see, but the view back to Fort Kochi was a good one, and there were more Chinese fishing nets. We saw one being hauled up, but it looked as though there were no more than a handful of fish. Everywhere it seems, the sea is overfished and depleted. There were also nice churches.

Old Portuguese Church on Vippin
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Church detail
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Across the street from our service apartment, is the upscale Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Located in a beautiful, though recreated,19th century building, there is an outdoor bar right on the water, overlooking the ferry dock. It's a nice place to have a Kingfisher in the late afternoon, when there is still a breeze. This has become part of our daily routine, as well as dinner at Fusion, and breakfast at an art cafe, Kashi, where they make a big, filling omelette, excellent coffee, hard to find in India, and they actually serve dark bread.

Back of Brunton
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View from bar
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This being the end of our 4th day in Kochi, we will be more than happy to head out tomorrow for the hills of Munnar. It should be cooler in the Ghats, but how much so, remains to be seen. Pramila continues to call or write on an almost daily basis, and to help with travel arrangements. Although I am aways effusive with my thanks, I sometimes feel that we are imposing. She assures me that she enjoys it, and will not know what to do with all her free time when our trip is over.

Posted by jonshapiro 11:02 Archived in India Tagged train_travel tourist_sites cities_postcards Comments (4)

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