Sunday, July 2, 2017

Tamil Nadu: Travel to the Secret Heart of India

In the far South that drives between three seas and sank the tip into the ocean, still, lives the authentic India. Tamil Nadu, the land of temples, is the birthplace of the Dravidian culture. The architecture and the Indian art here have been preserved intact. Thus, huge and colorful shrines stand out in the crowded city of crowds and cars, or between the quiet rice fields of the plains.

I remember one of the last evenings spent in South India, after a spectacular dinner. With some friends and traveling companions, we sat under the long white porch of the hotel at Tiruchirapalli, to talk about the meaning of these trips. There were those who objected to what some people say that this experience changes their lives, those who supported that can change their life if your life is indeed something to change and, finally, who stated that, inevitably, in a journey in some way, you know it or not, our lives change.

I definitely belong to the last line of thought. Every trip I did somehow has changed me and this is definitely among those who have done it with more force. It was a three-week trip throughout the length and breadth of the South India region of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Karnataka. On one of the last days, after buying a map for a few cents on the street, we realized that we have covered about 2500 km marked by various tourist stops, alternated with colorful temples crammed with people, museums and archaeological parks, traditional ayurvedic centers and villages.

The region of Tamil Nadu impresses with its variety of attractions, for its temples and the beauty that characterizes this part of South India. When I planned the trip, I thought I was already prepared, but the impact of South India was totally different. From different vegetation, the temples and then a huge crowd of people in hero worship, we never found ourselves isolated. The kindness, friendliness, availability of this population involved us totally.

We made the trip in a car all to ourselves with a guide and a driver. We slept in hotels, resorts or sometimes homestays. Finally arriving in Madras or Chennai, we met our guide that looked after us in the days to follow. From Chennai, after a few hours of sleep, we are ready for Mamallapuram, a World Heritage site, also known as Mahabalipuram, which is a town in Kancheepuram. Here we spend an entire day exploring the temples and rock carvings in the area. The Shore Temple overlooking the sea is pure poetry carved into the rock.

It seems to be the latest in a series of buildings that stretch along the coast, submerged today. This theory gained credibility during the tsunami of 2004 when the waters retreated that unveiled the outlines of what could have been twin temples. After continuing to Kancheepuram and tour of the Golden City, one of the seven sacred cities for Hindus, here we visit many Hindu temples, built in different periods and dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.

Pancha Rathas temples are made from individual blocks of rock, and each temple is dedicated to an Indian deity. Buried for centuries under the sand, they have been unearthed 200 years ago. Well if the temples were not enough to arouse your interest, definitely this will do. Here, between 630 and 670, the masons learned the Dravidian style, which dominated throughout the architecture of the South. But it is in the monolith Arjuna's Penance that unfolds all the skill of these artists is a bas-relief and long 29 meters high 13, on the surface they explode countless gods, mythological beings, and animals.

After leaving Mamallapuram, we come to Pondicherry, a city that in some parts retains the charm of the time, when it was under French rule with tree-lined avenues, mustard-colored houses. For this Franco-spiritual mix, Pondicherry has evolved into a sparkling place that is relaxed with a gourmet cuisine. For a taste of French cuisine, ranging from Satsanga, at the tables in the garden we tasted Steak Au Poivre Vert and Bouillabaisse.

From Pondicherry, we move to Chidambaram Nataraja Temple, the great religious complex dedicated to Shiva as the cosmic dancer. There are four gopurams, the monumental towers placed at the entrance of the temples decorated with stone sculptures of various deities. The main entrance shows the 108 sacred positions of Tamil ballet. Here we witnessed the fire ceremony that takes place six times a day. Sounds of drums and bells, while oil candles are passed under the statue of the deity thus ensuring the continuity of the cycle of creation.

And then it's lunch time. We eat there the rice with vegetables offered by the pilgrims, served in a banana leaf that served as a plate, sitting on the ground in the courtyard of the temple. Then we continue our tour of the day visiting the temples. Among its 74 temples, the most representative temple is certainly the Brihadeshwara, dedicated to Shiva. It is included in the monuments belonging to the UNESCO World Heritage. We also visit the Art Gallery which houses a valuable collection of bronzes of the Chola dynasty. In the afternoon we visit the Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram.

At Tanjore, also called Thanjavur we taken an evening stroll before dinner. Later we go for dinner, where we have the idli and dosa, the typical south Indian dishes made with rice flour.

Sri Ranganathaswamy at Tiruchirappalli, better known as Trichy seems more than a place of worship. It is grandiose, with colored gopuram located on an ancient rock nearly 4 million years old. Climbing the walls you can admire 21 gopurams and inside are innumerable sacred buildings. We go past the minor deities to come in the inner sacred area dedicated to Vishnu sleeping on a naga bed. For those not yet satisfied, the 83 meters high Rockfort Temple, one of the greatest temples dedicated to Vishnu dominates the city and is home to two temples reachable by a staircase of 540 steps, and needless to say that the effort is amply rewarded.

You have to tackle first 344 steps leading to the monastery of Vinayaka Temple, dedicated to Ganesh. But it is the Ranganathaswamy Temple, built in honor of Vishnu on an island in the Kaveri River, that amazes with its 21 gopuram and the seven courtyards which extend over 60 hectares.

We are at the end of Tamil Nadu and Madurai also will be full of temples. To discover the cradle of India you must visit this westernmost city. I thought I had already seen the wonderful temples but the Sri Meenakshi Temple has been the ultimate expression of the south! For the visit you cannot carry bags, backpacks etc. and above all, we cannot photograph or several occasions.

One thing I've learned on this journey in Tamil Nadu and should be kept in mind is that when you ask a Tamil to take a picture if he shakes his head left and right means that he agrees, although for us it would be a no, and if they look straight in your eye means that they disagree. In the late afternoon, we witness the impressive ceremony of the puja at the temple.

Meenakshi Sundareswarar is the main point of seduction with a maze of temples, columns, sculptures, surrounded by high walls and dominated by four huge gopuram, towers decorated and colored in bright colors, 46 meters high. But it is at night that it reaches the maximum enchantment when the priests carry in procession the idols of Shiva until he reunites with Meenakshi, the lady with fish eyes. Once outside, you will be enchanted by the extraordinary vantage point from in front of stores, which allow tourists to climb to the top floor terrace.

At the Cottage Arts Emporium, there are objects a bit from all over India, from Rajasthan furniture to paintings of Tankha by Tibetans, from rugs to antique jewelry. In the nearby workshop, there is a wide selection of cotton fabrics, which is produced here in Madurai. Silk saris are instead the Madurai Silk. The area of Chettinad is about ninety kilometers from Madurai.

Later we visited the Tirumalai Nayak Palace and Gandhi Museum. At the end, we drive to Periyar and we stay at a resort in Periyar. It is located in a natural park that was a true oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of unspoiled nature. We take a morning walk in the park.

Then after an exhausting journey, we arrive at Mettupalayam. The alternative to Mettupalayam is the nearest and chaotic Coimbatore. This big village has a beautiful train that boasts of being among the cleanest in India. And it is at one end of a railroad which is a UNESCO world heritage, a steam train dating back to the nineteenth century. It travels 46 kilometers in 5 hours through Coonoor and various remote mountainous locations to climb to the 2,200-meter long track to Ooty.

The mythical Nilgiri Mountain Railway was built in 1908 by the British and since 2005 has been added to the sites that are part of the Mountain Railways of India of which includes the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. We arrived at Ooty, also known by the name of Blue Mountain, probably due to the blue haze gave off by eucalyptus, or for Kurunji, a particular flower that blooms every 12 years, giving the slopes a bluish hue. At Ooty with the arrangement, we found a guesthouse with clean rooms, garden and lake view with a nice living room where we met many other travelers.

Ooty is a peaceful resort town in the mountains of the Western Ghats, surrounded by forests and tea plantations with nice hotels with many South Indian families on vacation. We spend the day in a walk with a guide between mountains and woods a few kilometers away from the town. We visit villages of different ethnic groups and tribes, and we go through the tea plantations where we see the hard work of collectors, as also we see here and there the Nilgiri langur and large black monkeys.

On our second day, we did a nice hike through the mountains, in a pretty Swiss landscape that is more sub-continental. We passed through the rows and villages, goats and cows. The people are wonderful and friendly. It was really nice, despite the inevitable rain. Here you can also have tea and watch your monkeys. Walking through the paths we made an interesting discovery at the end of the garden, from an opening in the fence, where we reach a small road leading up to an ancient tribal village.

We could not imagine being in a place where time has stopped, and at least the structures, including the temple, are those that were built centuries ago! In the square in front of the botanical garden, is the Tibetan Market.
We head towards Doddabetta, the highest mountain in southern India, where we enjoy a magnificent view of the surrounding valleys.

This peak is also home to the Telescope House, where we peer into what the operator wanted. Fortunately, Doddabetta does not end there. Through the trails with an explanatory plaque, we reach the very beautiful observation points, and enjoy the cool mountain breeze and get lost in nature. The next stop is the Houseboat, that is located in the valley in an artificial lake created in 1823. Inside you can rent a boat or sunbathe on the banks, so it is a step that deserves at least half a day.

In Ooty lies what India has called a miracle of the creative art of the Millennium: the Thread Garden. It is an artificial indoor garden, created using the machine for the four-dimensional embroidery manual winding and 60 million meters of wire. On the brochure, it says that the show is breathtaking. The latest and by far the most interesting stop of the day was the Mudumalai National Park. This park is home to a remarkable variety of wildlife, including tigers.

The park provides a shuttle service for a half-hour mini Safari priced at 120 rupees, with which it is impossible to see the Tigers, given the immense territory where they hide, but you can spot elephants, wild boar, and deer.

Ooty was a very interesting stop, but mostly relaxing thanks to its cool climate, its unspoiled nature and the choice of the hotel, really wonderful. Valparai is another small paradise surrounded by tea plantations. But we are also happy to head the next day to the golden beaches of Goa.

Tamil Nadu Travel Tips

Defying the laws of physics, Krishna's Butterball is held in precarious balance on a slope of Mahabalipuram hill in Tamil Nadu. It is a natural rock about five meters in diameter that has remained in that state for centuries. Its capricious form is the fruit of years of erosion of the wind, whose force has dragged the grains of sand that burned and smoothed its surface.