Friday 26 April 2013

Chennai - Day 14

We are in Chennai, the state capital that was once known to the world as Madras. When I was about 15, a colourful tartan fabric known as Madras was in vogue and for some reason it is that colourful fabric that now comes to mind. It's funny how the mind works.

But back to our day in Madras.

We started our day in the lobby of the beautiful Park Hotel. A new city is always exciting. Last night as we walked along the sea, we had a taste of what Chennai had in store for us so were in a hurry to start our day along with Mr. Rudi, our driver and Mrs. Githa, our guide. Our first stop was at Kapaleeshwarar Temple, a temple dedicated to Shiva that is famous for its wish-giving tree. My experience visiting India over the years leads me to believe that often the guide or driver is very keen to share the temple, church or mosque where their family worships. I was not able to determine if this was the case with Kapaleeshwarar and Mrs. Githa but her knowledge and passion for the stories of this 7th century temple made me think that it could very well be.

Lord Ganesha or Ganesh - my favourite Hindu god - greeted us as we entered the temple. He is the elephant headed son of Shiva, the remover of obstacles, and the ‘God of All Good Things’! Devotees often pray to Ganesh before beginning a journey or a new project which makes him very popular as people in India seem to be constantly on the move. Outside the temple, the flower vendors sell strings of marigolds and jasmine adding to the colour and excitement of this sacred place.

It is believed that St. Thomas, an apostle of Christ, came to India in 52AD to spread Christianity. In Chennai the memory of his visit remains in the form of the beautiful Gothic Basilica of the National Shrine of St. Thomas.

Following our visits to Kapaleeshwarar Temple and the Basilica, we passed Chennai’s Central Railway Station, a landmark in the city’s colonial heritage district, Fort St. George. And it is here, in Fort St. George, where we were to see the great Chola Bronzes that we had read about in William Dalrymple's excellent book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. As closely as I read Dalrymple’s account of the family of sculptors whose forefathers had created these treasures, it wasn’t until I stood in the bronze gallery that I understood the work, the art and the faith that was involved in producing such breathtaking work.

After seeing the beautiful form of the gods and goddess we travelled the short distance to the city's most famous silk emporium where the regions extraordinary Kanchipuram saris were on display. While shopping is always the last thing we do and it's always an optional activity, I am always happy to see how many group members love the experience and how long we end up surrounded by these flashes and bolts of colour!

Back at the posh Park Hotel we took the elevator to the rooftop terrace and spent the rest of the sunny afternoon by the pool, relaxing on the large covered beds that are on the deck with a little liquid refreshment. I painted mini memories, had a swim and enjoyed it all.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Madurai to Chennai - Day 13

Today we flew from Madurai to Chennai, known for much of its life as Madras. It is always hard to move on from a place as fascinating as Madurai. There is always more to see, to hear, to taste. This maybe why I have always returned to India and I hope someday to come back to Sri Meenakshi Temple and Madurai.

One thing I have learned about travel in India, is that the tour company is always anxious to get you checked out and off to the airport. Sometimes it seems much earlier than necessary. But unexpected traffic or impromptu wedding celebrations have a way of undermining a tight schedule so today we agreed to pack up and make our way. Today traffic was light, the wedding parties had parted, and Jos took a shortcut so our arrival at the airport was much too early. On the up side, I think that our dear driver Jos was ready to drive home to Cochin and was looking forward to waving goodbye to his charges.

En route we were treated to the entertainment of a mahout taking his elephant to the lake for a bath. It was a lovely photo-op a good reason for the early departure.

On arrival at the airport we each said our goodbyes to Jos and followed the company representative through the security check.  It was to early to check in so we found a seat and waited. The airports that we passed through in India this trip were what you wish an airport should be. Bright and modern with all the luxuries. It was not hard to spend time in them.

Our flight aboard Jet Airways was comfortable and it wasn't long before we arrived in Chennai. I had not been to Chennai for many years, but Ben had told me this hotel, once the site of a famous film studio, was high on his list of places to stay. Welcome to the Park Hotel!

We had time to check in and then joined Mr Rudi, our new driver, for a quick tour of the old part of Chennai called Fort St. George and a visit to Marina Beach. Families in India who are lucky enough to live near the sea enjoy evening gatherings at the beach. The cool breeze must be the main draw for adults, but the kids come to ride the merry go round, to have fresh roasted corn or colourful ices (we would call them slushies), and to laugh a lot and enjoy this special family time. It is easy to say thousands of people joined us on Marina Beach that evening. It was a lovely welcome to Chennai.


Thursday 11 April 2013

Sri Meenakshi Temple at Madurai - Day 12

Feb 22, 2013 Thinking Day (the birthday of Lord and Lady Baden Powell) in Madurai

I should entitle this day as "A Very Auspicious Day!"

We were to spend our day visiting the Sri Meenakshi Temple. One of the reasons for tourists to come to Southern India is the temples. It is hard to describe them. I always think of them as towers of ice-cream colours when looked at from a distance and up close, you must see them for yourself. The carvings are just impossible to explain. These temples represent much that is special in India.  I never think of India without seeing in my minds eye, The Colours of India!

As we arrived at the Sri Meenaskshi, a man sat to have his head shaved - a sacrifice made before worship. We removed our shoes, stored them with the temple staff, and passed through the main gate. It is hard to explain this temple, it is large, huge even, and seems to go on for ever. 

Photo by SR Sasikumar (எஸ்ஸார்)

It was a very auspicious day! Today brides would marry, couples would renew their vows and and parents awaiting the arrival of a new addition to their family would come for blessings. The temple was alive with excitement, and we joined in. This certainly was a special day for us. 

Our tour guide finished our half day tour with a stop at the Mariamman Water Temple which didn't have any water because of the previous rainy season, the monsoon, had not brought enough rain. We wished them better rains in the coming year. 

Later in the afternoon I relaxed in the hotel pool, surrounded by beautiful gardens,  but this was not what some of our group had in mind. Madurai is known for its busy markets, so they jumped into a motorized rickshaw and headed back to town.

They reported at dinner that they had found a rickshaw driver who showed them the market and helped them extend the excitement of the morning on into the rest of the day.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

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Periyar to Madurai - Day 11

The boarder crossing between Kerala and Tamil Nadu was in Periyar Town, just a short distance from our lovely hotel. 

We had come to this region earlier than planned because of the national drivers strike, a strike which was still continuing. But Tamil Nadu is not Kerala, where our driver would face a dangerous journey if he broke ranks. Crossing the border into Tamil Nadu was crossing into a less charged environment where we could continue without worry.  All we had to do was make the short trip from the hotel to the border which went off without a hitch.

At Periyar Town, the crossing gate was down so our driver Jos parked the van, gathered his documents, smiled and went across to the office. And we settled in for a long wait.

But it wasn't long until Jos returned. He jumped into his seat as the gate was lifted and we crossed into Tamil Nadu. I am not sure if I had reason to be nervous, but I was. One thing is guaranteed in India, a good driver is well aware of what can and cannot be done. Once again this was proven.

As we had climbed into the Cardamom Hills to reach Periyar, we now descended from these heights as we left. A strange looking tree with no leaves, just pods, began to dot the tropical landscape on this side of the border.

"Jos, what kind of tree is that?"

"Hmmm... like the match box."

To which Marion replied, "Mesquite!"

"Yes, that's it!" 

It is so great to travel with a small group and a great driver. The conversation just carries on as we ask questions, laugh and include everyone.

On arrival in Madurai we checked into to Taj Gateway Hotel, a heritage hotel high on the top of a hill overlooking Madurai. As they would say, "away from the maddening crowds".  After checking in, and finding our rooms, we joined our local guide for a short visit to the Thirumali Palace and the Gandhi Museum. Marion decided to stay back and was enjoying quiet time beside a lovely swimming pool in the garden. Her company, peacocks!

Our first stop was the Thirumali Nayakkar Palace.            

"Thirumalai Nayak ruled Madurai between 1623 to 1659 CE. He was the most notable of the thirteen Madurai Nayak rulers in the 17th century. His contributions are found in the many splendid buildings and temples of Madurai. His kingdom was under constant threat from the armies of the Delhi Sultanate and the other neighbouring kingdoms, which he managed to repulse successfully. His territories comprised much of the old Pandya territories which included Coimbatore, Tirunelveli, Madurai districts, Aragalur in southern Tamil Nadu and some of the Travancore kingdom.

Thirumalai Nayak was a great patron of art and architecture and the Dravidian architecture evolved into the Madurai style. He rebuilt and renovated a number of old temples of the Pandya period. His palace known as the Thirumalai Nayak Palace is a notable architectural masterpiece." (Wikipedia)

The palace is currently being restored: the pastel southern India colours once again renewed to their original splendor. Everywhere, you see soft pinks, yellows and turquoise, highlighted by burgundy to bring out the carving at this magical place.

Thirumalai Nayak is not to be missed!

Not everything in Southern India are ice-cream colours. A visit to the Gandhi Memorial Museum gave a detailed history of India and the life of Mahatma Gandhi.

"Gandhi Memorial Museum, established in 1959, is a memorial museum for Gandhi located in the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India. Known as Gandhi Museum, it is now one of the five Gandhi Sanghralayas (Gandhi Museums) in the country." (Wikipedia)

We returned to the hotel for a short rest before meeting on the patio of the hotel dinning room. It was a special day for one of our group. Today was Marion's birthday. Our moving along had confused the order for the cake. At the Spice Village this morning the chef told me the cake was ready, at breakfast. I was sorry to tell him it had to be at dinner. He was disappointed, but Marion had not joined us for breakfast as she was preparing for our departure. A cake at breakfast would just not do.

At the Taj Gateway, the chef had kindly accepted the challenge of producing a cake. On the completion of our meal, the cake arrived, orange and mango complete with a candle. On the top was written, "Happy Birthday Marion!" It is always fun to share a special event in someone's life as you travel. I have a special memory of my birthday, while on a cruise on the Nile River. I hope Marion will include this birthday in Madurai in her special book of memories.