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A 6-week waking dream in North and South India.

A 6-week waking dream in North and South India.

Old May 9th, 2016, 03:26 AM
  #21  
 
Join Date: Sep 2012
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Loving your photos too, although your words give the destination plenty of life. Munnar reminds me of Sri Lanka tea country in many respects.
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Old May 9th, 2016, 04:05 AM
  #22  
 
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I'm enjoying your report and looking forward to more. How many days was your trip?
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Old May 9th, 2016, 04:06 AM
  #23  
 
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OOps-Just reread your title. 6 weeks=42 days.
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Old May 9th, 2016, 08:01 AM
  #24  
rje
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Madurai

Photos of Madurai are here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157665509823980

They show more if you make them large!


We had begun our descent from the Western Ghats (the mountain range separating Kerala from Tamil Nadu) when our driver pulled off the road. He pointed down the hill where our road could be seen continuing in an endless series of downward "S" turns and counted off the number of turns we'd be taking with a big grin. "27 hairpin turns", he cried. "Count them!" And with that, we were off. I could plainly see he was relishing the chance to drive them! As we careened around turns, we looked down the steep drop to the plain below. That plain was Tamil Nadu. The change to flat terrain is sudden and abrupt from the steep hills, and as we crossed that plain, we saw it was only broken by an occasional hill of bare rounded stone. We drove around and through large herds of goats sharing our road, and many villages. I told our driver that I knew we had no time to stop, as we had a long drive to Madurai, but that I wished we could. They looked so intriguing. He told me not to worry, and that there were many such villages near Madurai, and that we could go to some during the next few days.

Madurai is such an ancient city, and yet today not well known in the west. But in ancient times it was very well-known:

“In 22 B. C. Roman Emperor Tiberius wrote to the Roman Senate complaining that the rage for jewels and precious trinkets on the part of the Roman ladies was draining the empire of its wealth, viz., gold.” In 70 A. D. India drained Roman gold to the value of a million pounds a year. “The trade was highly profitable to Madurai but the balance of trade was so adverse to Rome that the Indian trade seriously affected the coinage of Rome.”

On the last trip I'd spent several days in Madurai, arriving on the overnight Tuticorin Express Train from Mysore (which was a mini-adventure in itself), and had been smitten by the great temple, the Meenakshi Amman Temple. I wanted C to see it, as I was sure she'd love it, and I wanted a return visit for myself. And now we were getting close.

Oddly, a few weeks earlier back in New York City, I'd had a vision examination conducted by an ophthalmologist of Indian descent whose first name is Meenakshi. I asked her if she was possibly named after the Goddess Meenakshi, and she smiled and said yes, and that none of her patients had ever known to ask her that. I commented on the coincidence, since Meenakshi is known as the "fish-eyed Goddess", which sounds strange, but was actually praise, as that meant that she had perfect eyes. What a name to give a little girl in New York who would grow up to be an eye doctor!

Madurai is a bit dusty and chaotic, so we were staying on a wooded hill just outside it, just as I did during the last visit. The Gateway Hotel is owned by Taj Hotels, which in turn is owned by Tata, which appear to own everything in India. The hotel is full of wild peacocks that roam the grounds and sometimes the lobby. It seems that when the estate was turned into a hotel, a couple of tame peacocks were brought in to provide "atmosphere". But unexpectedly they were females who went into heat, and their cries attracted many wild randy males, so the population soon exploded!

The hotel has lovely garden grounds with a very pleasant pool, but the service was bit of a comedy. Here's one example emblematic of the problems. They didn't have a safe in the rooms, but instead, ancient safety deposit boxes which the staff had to unlock for me each morning and night. They kept the keys all tangled in a jumble inside a cardboard box. So each time I'd need my box opened, there would be a long delay while they fished through the cardboard box looking for the right key. They even lost the key for some time one day. This wouldn't have been an issue for me in many hotels in India, where odd lapses are normal, but in a Taj hotel, this was peculiar. That, along with a number of similar events prompted me to have a word with the manager at checkout!

It is a long story that I told elsewhere on this forum, but I had been given permission by the local police to photograph inside the Meenakshi temple. Anyone was allowed when I had last visited, but some misguided vision of what entails security had prompted government officials to ban photography in the temple except for cell phone cameras. The Madurai police say someone with a bomb in their camera might try and destroy the temple. But my contacts in Madurai had spoken to the police in advance of my coming and gained permission for me. However, just before we arrived, a bomb went off in another Indian city far away, and my permission evaporated.

So when we arrived I went to the police station with my contacts from Madurai to plead my case. I politely pointed out even government airlines like Air India allow passengers to bring cameras on board, as do all the other airlines in the world, and that a jet aircraft 30,000 feet in the air is far more vulnerable than a temple made of stone. I volunteered to take my camera apart at the entrance to show there was nothing inside.

But I was told over and over that it would be impossible to bring in my camera because of "security". Finally I gave up and went to the temple without my SLR camera, but I did take a lot of photos with my iPhone, as did many other visitors that day! Some of those photos can be seen if you follow the link at the start of this Madurai post. In addition, I added some photos I took during the last visit, as they could have been taken today, nothing inside has changed.

It is a glorious temple, with many nighttime ceremonies and pujas, so it is well worth visiting again in the evening as well as during the day. Every night there is a closing ceremony where a representation of Shiva is carried in procession to his wife Parvati's bedroom where the two are joined and put to bed. This is accompanied by chanting priests, drummers and torchbearers!

Luckily, most other great temples in Tamil Nadu have no similar ban on photography, so I was able to take a lot of photos inside them.

The streets around the temple are fascinating in their own right. Markets, tailors, shops of all kinds abound, and they are as interesting at night as during the day. Maybe more so. There are no cars on some of those streets, so it makes for easier wandering.

Another worthwhile but seldom visited site is the laundry ghats by the river. Also, there are some white rock quarries outside of Madurai that are supposed to be photogenic, with white oxen pulling old wood carts laden with the white stone up steep hills. I never made it there, but they sound interesting.

And true to his word, our driver fulfilled my request and took us to some small villages about ½ hour outside Madurai. Wandering through them, a smile was enough to break the ice with the residents, who were quite welcoming and pleased to have me photograph them.

One recommendation for a very good lunch or dinner in Madurai would be Sree Sabarees. Don't be put off that it is #1 in Tripadvisor! It is the real deal, and they have very good food including excellent Thalis. There are several locations in Madurai.

(coming up next, the Chettinad region.)
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Old May 9th, 2016, 08:56 AM
  #25  
 
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Loving this! Munnar looks/sounds like a place we would really enjoy.
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Old May 9th, 2016, 10:16 AM
  #26  
rje
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Kathie,
Munnar was lovely, and I'd like to go back.

CaliNurse,
Thanks, and welcome back. Hope your trip was wonderful!

progol,
Thank you so much!
And you make a great virtual travel companion.

tripplanner001,
Sri Lanka is definitely on my list of places I'd like to visit.
But the list is getting so long...!

shelleyk,
That's OK, I kept forgetting when I was coming home!
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Old May 9th, 2016, 12:46 PM
  #27  
 
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rje,
Your description of the trip to Madurai is wonderful and hilarious, with as your driver careening down the mountain! Loved the story of your ophthalmologist named Meenakshi -- I'll bet that she was impressed that you knew the origin of her name!
And the photos are just amazing! The shots of the goats -- what an experience that must've been! I also loved the intimacy of the shots of in the small town. And even if it was just the iPhone (or earlier shots), the photos in the temple are simply stellar. Thank you!
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Old May 9th, 2016, 12:53 PM
  #28  
 
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Wow, RJE--so much to wonder, see, and respond to!! Will comment bit by bit, so neither of us gets overwhelmed!

First--thanks for link to Gary Leff's article about "plane rage." I agree with his analysis of that "study."

Your Etihad apartment ...whoa!! Until now, my "ultimate" was BA First Class in its current incarnation. Having had luck at somehow (ok, confession:--lots of credit card offers!) accumulating 400,000 "One World Alliance" (visions of Darth Vader) miles, I've considered one way in the Etihad First Class. Alas...if only that didnt exhaust so many precious FF miles! Anyway, so glad that you and C got to enjoy and relish this probably once in a lifetime travel mode!!!! What a lovely gift to her!

Re head bobble video---thank you for sharing. The vid, which automatically followed on my computer, is hilarious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SY1vJTZgHRI

My explanation of the head bobble: an instinctive genetic response to India's bad, long, and/or winding roads, and crazy driving style. How to prepare yourself for carsickness-causing inner-ear fluid shifts? Prophylactically creating them yourself, in the form of the head bobble!

Your thread title--yes!!!! Those moments and flashes of scenes in daily lives!! People ask why I keep returning--I reply that India is a place where, within first ten minutes on a local road away the airport, you see 100 things that make you grab for your camera, with your jaw dropping with wonder. A girl with a water pitcher on her head...a man giving himself a bucket bath...a mother feeding a baby...an old man squatting by the roadside bruise his teeth...a barber on a street corner. As Faith Pandian of the aptly named Indian Panorama once explained to me, when I wondered how to figure out the ongoing passion for India---it's the awe of seeing every facet of life, from birth to death, and all the in-between moments, right out on the street, unself-consciously on display, in the vivid colors and sounds and more of India. Nothing, even the daily activities of daily lives, seems mundane when I'm there!

OK, back to your fantastic report!!!!
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Old May 9th, 2016, 02:14 PM
  #29  
 
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Rje - your report brings back so many wonderful memories and I feel like I am there with you. You have a wonderful way with words! We also stayed at the gateway hotel which was a beautiful property. How I wish we had spent more time in Tamil Nadu, exploring the amazing temples and small villages. Looking forward to more. Reading your report makes me want to return.
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Old May 9th, 2016, 04:31 PM
  #30  
 
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Really enjoying your report. The drive down to Tamil Nadu sounds amazing even if mildly scary. Meenakshi Amman Temple would be right up our alley, as are some of the other temples you're visiting.
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Old May 9th, 2016, 07:52 PM
  #31  
 
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CaliNurse: thank you for your insight into why you keep returning to India. I, myself have been trying to put into words for others why I find India such a spiritual place to visit and your insight :

"you see 100 things that make you grab for your camera, with your jaw dropping with wonder...................it's the awe of seeing every facet of life, from birth to death, and all the in-between moments, right out on the street, unself-consciously on display, in the vivid colors and sounds and more of India. Nothing, even the daily activities of daily lives, seems mundane when I'm there!"

Your words are exactly why I would return................India is REAL!


RJE: thank you for sharing your travel experiences. I look forward each day to read about your experiences.........I like how you integrate your photos to back up your words....................
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Old May 10th, 2016, 03:11 AM
  #32  
 
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Calinurse - I completely agree with dragon88 - I love your description of WHY your passion for India! As someone who has been there only once but completely taken by it, I can say "I understand!" I'm now planning a second visit and can't wait!

rje- your report is wonderful; the words and the photos just work together beautifully!
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Old May 10th, 2016, 08:01 AM
  #33  
rje
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progol,
It was pretty amusing photographing that big goat herd. Right before they engulfed our car, I'd gotten out and was lying on the road to get that angle as they approached me. I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't got up before they reached me?
And the incredulous looks on the herders faces was only matched by the look our driver gave me when I got back in the car.

Calinurse,
Thank you for your wonderful, poetic and profound comment about India!

dgunbug,
I agree! There is so much we left still left unseen in that area that I'd love to go back, too, and spend more time in each locale.

tripplanner001,
Lest the description of the drive down the mountain makes you nervous about taking it yourself, don't be concerned, while the road was very winding, it was the speed of the driver that made it so...memorable.

dragon88,
Well said!
And thank you for reading.
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Old May 10th, 2016, 10:43 AM
  #34  
rje
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the Chettinad region

Photos of the Chettinad region are here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157665509823980

They show more if you make them large!

The drive from Madurai to the Chettinad region is short, but the difference is dramatic. From a teeming city to a series of sleepy dusty little villages so chock-full of abandoned Chettiar mansions that it would take weeks to see them all. On our sampler trip we only have a day and a half.

So mainly we concentrate on the village where we'll be staying, which as it turns out offers many treasures.

The Chettinad region has some similarities to the Shekhawati region (Kathie has another thread going now regarding the Shekhawati region, and I remember Thursdaysd wrote an account of the area which she had explored). Both regions are known for having mansions covered in forms of art (and are themselves a form of art), and both are showing the ravages of time and neglect, but still maintaing a power and beauty. The mansions in both regions were constructed by merchants, traders and bankers who wanted to display a visible form of their fortunes made, and both had families that moved away when the conditions that made those fortunes possible ended. In the case of the Shekhawati region, it was the end of the spice route, in the Chettinad region, the end of the British Raj. They can both feel like ghost towns at times. Both have caretakers who will sometimes allow entry, usually for a small fee. And both are richly deserving of a visit.

Before we get to the village where we'll be staying, we stop at a Chettiar mansion in another town which our driver thinks we'll want to see. He is right! "What is the name?", I ask him. "Very famous house", he answers. This is typical of the information we get from him. So far during the trip, his contribution to our understanding of India has been to periodically point at some large nondescript building and say "Very important factory", slowing down our car as we approach, in expectations that surely I'll want to take a picture of such a fine example of a huge brick rectangle. I keep disappointing him, though, not asking him to stop the car so that we can gaze at "very important factory" or the high wall he points to, behind which is apparently "very big school". Oddly, he notices, I never seem to want to take a picture of those walls. But we're inconsistent, as he knows we did want to go to the Meenakshi temple, the splendor of which he'd managed to reduce to "very big temple". I can tell he is trying to make sense of my inexplicable lack of enthusiasm for what he finds important, and my interest in what he finds mundane, turning to look when he hears the "click" of my camera, to see what in Shiva's name that crazy American does find interesting now.

Luckily, I've done a lot of research before we left home, so I know where we want to go and what we'll be seeing. But in the cases where I failed to do enough research, often the only contribution I can hope for from our driver is "Very large wall". Still, as I keep telling C, he is an excellent driver!

And he is right about one thing, the mansion he stopped at is undoubtably famous and pretty nifty. I find out after I get home and do some research that it is called Athangudi Palace, located unsurprisingly in Athangudi. It's covered with painted statues, some of which are humorous depictions of British soldiers. But we have bad timing, seconds after we park, a big tour bus pulls up, and a boisterous group of French tourists spill out. As the trip goes on, we will begin to notice that a large number of the tourists we see in less-visited regions in India turn out to be French. Are the French more intrepid travelers than other nationalities? We decide to return later, and after taking a few photos we continue on to our hotel, Chidambara Vilas (in the village of Kadiapatti). It is another of these old Chettiar merchant's mansions, beautifully restored from previous ruin and turned into a gorgeous and well-run hotel. Walking into the "lobby" is jaw-dropping. The wood in the interior was imported from Burma, sporting pillars made of polished teak, rosewood and granite, lights and mirrors from Belgium, chandeliers from Daman and Diu and tiles from Italy. It is an attraction unto itself, and we spend a good amount of time just walking through it and admiring the fine craftsmanship. There is an attractive pool on the second floor that sadly we never find time to enjoy.

The restaurant is beautiful, too and the Chettiar food is very good. While we have lunch in the dining hall under towering ceilings, the chef comes out periodically to make sure all is well, and while talking to him, he mentions that he worked in a restaurant in America. "Where in America?", we enquire. "Edison, New Jersey" is his unexpected answer. But he came back to India, and Edison's loss is Kadiapatti's gain! Our's too.

Walking through the quiet village streets outside the hotel is fascinating, as the village is chock-full of these old mansions, now decaying, but still architecturally opulent. It is a bit sad to see them in this state, but as the area has seen a resurgence in interest, more and more of them are being restored. And frankly, the patina of age on the non-restored ones is quite lovely.

Dinner is again quite good, and we retire to our room early, lying on the bed and looking up at the unusual (to us) fan suspended from the ceiling over us. It is a contraption made of pieces of heavy richly-colored fabrics attached to a wooden frame which we can swing over us, like a trapeze, by pulling on a braided cord on the wall over the headboard. But so unfair that we should be required to pull this in order to keep cool. Where are the servants who should be doing such a task? Disgusted at this unforgivable oversight, we go to sleep.

I wake early and let C sleep while I go out with my camera, walking through the village, observing morning activities like drawing water from the village well and filling colorful jugs, delivering hay, marching cows all the way to… somewhere. After breakfast, we drive to several more mansions (among them, the CVRM House and VVR House in Kandukathan). These are uninhabited save for a caretaker family who unlock the doors for us and let us in for a few rupees. These mansions are only partially restored, but fascinating, as they have the original kitchens from the 1800s, etc.

At one of our stops, C's knees are catching up with her, so she waits in the car while I take some photos. I return about 5 minutes later to find the car surrounded by about 30 school children. Our driver has wandered off for some reason leaving C alone in the big white Innova. The children are just gazing in at C, some smiling, some giggling, some solemnly motionless, with big-eyes. She is a star! This keeps happening throughout the trip –– she is a source of curiosity and wonder. I know this sometimes happens to tourists, but somehow I fail to elicit such a response, which is just as well. That is, until I pull out my camera, at which point everyone either wants a photo of themselves, or their baby or their goat, or their pumpkin, which a man in Jodphur runs to retrieve, so that he can pose holding it high toward the heavens as he grins at me triumphantly!

At the end of our last day it is evident that we should have scheduled at least one more day in the area, but at the time I planned the trip I wasn't even sure we should go. Maybe we will be able to return one day.

(coming up next, Trichy and Tanjore.)
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Old May 10th, 2016, 10:50 AM
  #35  
rje
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I put the wrong link in for the Chettinad photos and fodors won't let us edit!



Photos of the Chettinad region are here:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/albums/72157664341481163

They show more if you make them large!
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Old May 10th, 2016, 11:05 AM
  #36  
 
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What a wonderful trip report! I'm floating though your waking dream.
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Old May 10th, 2016, 11:54 AM
  #37  
 
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Envy you the hotel in Chettinad. Mine was fine, but yours sounds really special.I came across some special houses in Coorg, too.

I think the French may be more intrepid. I have run into small groups of them in places well off the general American tourist's radar - southern Laos in 2002, far southwest China in 2004, Syria in 2009 - although there were a LOT of European tourists in Syria then. So few Americans I was questioned on the way back in Istanbul airport, where I had switched to my US passport.
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Old May 10th, 2016, 01:56 PM
  #38  
 
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I'm like an alcoholic, sneaking away from "must-do"s for a quick drink! Your text and photos are completely intriguing and dangerously addictive!!!!!
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Old May 10th, 2016, 02:05 PM
  #39  
 
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Wow! The mansions look absolutely amazing. I love it that you are able to experience a different slice of India, although I am surprised that you ran into a tour group there.
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Old May 10th, 2016, 02:27 PM
  #40  
 
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How can a country seem so "raw" at first glance but is magnificent and wonderful at second glance? Your photos are splendid. How did you find this hotel..........the use of wood is amazing! Your experiences continue to reinforce the fact that India continues to be full of surprises at every turn for the mind, body and soul............Thank you....
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