Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India

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We arrived in Chennai last night (just barely) as our Male-Colombo flight was delayed 1 hour and we only had 1 hour to connect for our flight to Chennai but luck was on our side and the connecting flight waited for us and amazingly our luggage made the connection as well. Today marks 7 months of travel and to date we haven’t missed a flight or had any luggage lost. All things considered we’ve been pretty lucky so far. We’ll spend three nights here and are essentially using the time to organize the next month of our trip covering the South East, South Central and South West. Our plan is to hopefully end up in Goa around mid-late December where we hope to rent a bungalow or house for a month before heading north. We definitely don’t want to rush but we also want to chill and relax in Goa over Christmas and New Years.

Organized and ready to go!

Below is the route we intend to follow over the next 12 days. We have a car and driver booked and we’ll head out first thing tomorrow morning. This portion will primarily be a historical Hindu temple tour before we end up in Goa. We set aside 12 days which should be plenty as we want to spend a month in Goa and then really focus on Northern India where we have yet to travel. We travelled the south several years ago and I travelled through the south 27 years ago so our focus this trip is on the north. We start our journey in Chennai and have a driver until we arrive in Hampi. We’ll figure out how to get to Goa from there. It won’t be difficult but we need to book accommodation in Goa ASAP. Being a Portuguese Catholic enclave Goa will be very busy over Christmas and New Years so our fingers are crossed we can get something good for a long stay. Stay tuned for updates. First stop, Mahabalipuram.

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Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram)

We departed Chennai on the 1st and arrived in Mahabalipuram before noon so we immediately checked into our hotel and then headed out to see the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites that lie within a small area of town. The temples and caves were built by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries but the most amazing and awe-inspiring thing about all of these temples and caves is they are carved and chiselled out of solid granite rock faces and boulders (except the shore temple which was built with blocks of granite). It is absolutely mind blowing how this could have been done, never mind with such precision and beauty. It was truly incredible to see this. Note: I did visit Mahabalipuram 27 years ago but didn’t absorb the beauty at the time.

 

Mahabalipuram to Puducherry via Auroville

We departed Mahabalipuram on the 2nd and made our way to Puducherry with a stop in Auroville. Puducherry is a union territory of India and is formed out of four enclaves of former French India. Auroville, “The City of Dawn” is an international community dedicated to peace, sustainability and “divine consciousness”. We’re not  sure if this is a cult but we had a great cheese sandwich in Pondi from cheese made from an Auroville farm and it was really good so we know they at least make good cheese.. The European middle-aged hippies riding their motorcycles in the area made for good speculation but we were really put off by the fact that we saw many riding their motorbikes, young kids holding on precariously as passengers, sometimes three to a bike and not wearing helmets. You wouldn’t do this at home, you would be charged for child endangerment but somehow all logic and common sense is lost when driving in India and, in a traffic situation that you cannot compare to home. We don’t know what they are thinking other than they aren’t. We feel sorry for the ignorant mother who will suffer for the rest of her life because of her stupidity. Maybe “divine conciousness” renders you stupid.

Puducherry Pics

Puducherry to Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

Our next stop, December 3rd, was the city of Trichy, more or less the geographical centre of Tamil Nadu where we visited Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple which is quite possibly India’s biggest temple with 49 separate Vishnu shrines. It is sometimes referred to as Srirangam as it is located on Srirangam Island located between the banks of the Kollidam and Kavari Rivers.

Trichy to Madurai

Yesterday we departed Trichy and headed further south and west to Madurai, one of the oldest cities in India, a metropolis that traded with ancient Rome and was a great capital long before Chennai even existed. The big draw here is the Meenakshi Amman Temple, the Thirumalai Naick(er) Palace and also for us the very interesting Gandhi Memorial Museum.

Gandhi Memorial Museum

Thirumalai Naicker Palace

Meenakshi Amman Temple

Madurai to Ooty (Udhagamandalam)

Today was a long drive, about 7 hours through rural India full of chaotic towns, (the traffic and driving is crazy, there are no rules of the road!!), squashed dogs on the roadside and a very harrowing drive up into the Nilgiri Hills to the “The Queen of Hill Stations”, Ooty. At an elevation of 2,240 metres (7,350 feet) the air is much cooler and fresher which is a nice break from the smog in the lower elevation towns. Originally a hill station for the British to come to cool down during the hot Indian summer months, tea is still grown here but Ooty is essentially a supply base and market town for the surrounding area which is still largely dependant on agriculture although tourism does play a part in the local economy.

Ooty to Mysore (Mysuru), Karnataka

Today we descended the Nilgiri hills and left behind the cool fresh air of Ooty. It was a real treat to sleep with the windows open and actually smell clean air. The majority of the area is a forest preserve until you reach Mudumalai National Park on the northwest side of the Nilgiri Hills. Mudumalai is a designated tiger reserve and contains around 50 tigers which we did not see (and didn’t expect to) but we did see spotted deer and gaurs (bison) while driving on the main road through the park. The forest is thick jungle and looks more like you would imagine African jungle to look like with the tigers roaming under the thick dark canopy waiting to pounce without warning. As you exit Tamil Nadu into Karnataka State, Mudumalai NP turns into Bandipur NP, also a designated tiger reserve which also hosts a small population of tiger, spotted deer, gaur, Indian elephants, antelopes and numerous other species. The park was once a private hunting reserve for the Maharaja of the Kingdom of Mysore. Six hours later after what was supposed to be a 3 hour drive we arrived into Mysore (Mysuru) in the state of Karnataka. Mysore was the capital of the Kingdom of Mysore from 1399 to 1947 however here there is very little if any British architectural influence in the city as the maharaja were on good terms with the colonial British occupiers at that time in history so the architecture is considered Indo-Saracenic Revival architecture which was a style used by Indian British architects.

Ooty to Mysore road pics 

Mysuru, an amazing palace and blister skin art..

We had a full day today exploring the very nice city of Mysuru with a population of approximately 18 lakh. 1 lakh=100,000 so there are about 1.8 million people in the city. Our driver, Iyyappan wasn’t too familiar with the numerous sites to see in and around the city so we picked up a local (his name escapes us so we’ll call him Toor) who is affiliated with his company and we headed to our first stop, Chamundeshwari Temple located on the top of Chamundi Hills, about 13 km from Mysuru and about 3,000 feet above the city. The original temple was thought to have been built in the 12th century and it’s tower in the 17th century. Leading up to the temple is a huge Nandi, the bull mount of Shiva. Carved from one piece of granite it is 15 feet high and 24 feet long and around its neck are exquisite bells. Impressive and reminiscent of the Mahabalipuram rock carvings.

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Chamundeshwari Temple and views of Mysuru 

So today is a school holiday in nearby Kerala state, the Hindu temple is a revered site so us and what seemed like about 1,000 busloads of students ascended the hill to be met half way with a major traffic jam. It was utter chaos (seems to be the buzzword so far in India) so we did a u-turn and headed back down with the plan to visit again later in the day, Once we hit flat ground Toor suggested we stop in for a visit to a sea shell art emporium. How exciting! We relented and paid 50 rupee each admission ($1 CAD) and went inside to what turned out to be an amazing display of sea shell art and art created out of everyday waste and garbage. There is a huge Ganesha ranked in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest sea shell created statue in the world, a giant model of the Taj Mahal using only the natural colors of the shells and an amazing array of other art made from shells, twist ties, hair, paper, used wooden match sticks, pistachio nut shells etc.  We were fortunate to meet the artist who created all of the wonderful pieces of art and through conversation she showed us a beautiful flower and in her heavy Indian accent said it was made from what we understood her to say, “blister skin”. What?  Yes, blister skin. Joyce didn’t take a picture of this work of macabre art unfortunately but we both wondered, how do you collect blister skin?  Do people volunteer to burn their skin then peel it off of the blister in a nice oval piece of skin? Very weird but the flower was beautiful and she was an artist so, whatever. We continued to go around the museum admiring the truly incredible works of this woman until we came upon another work of art. This one was labeled ” made from pistu skin”. It looked a lot like the blister skin piece we saw earlier then it hit us. This piece and the other was made from pistacio shells. Pistu is an Indian term for pistacio and they call the shells skin. I know, pistu doesn’t really sound like blister but with a heavy accent it did. We nearly peed ourselves laughing. It was a typical lost in translation situation but man was it funny! We hadn’t had a good belly laugh like this for a long time. It reminds me of a situation in Durban, South Africa. I was at a local bar (really?) and I asked the white bar tender how he liked Durban. What I thought his reply was “it’s too white” was in fact “it’s too quiet”. Best to apologise and ask several times if necessary if you’re not sure what was said.

Sea shell art

It is interesting to note the swastika on the above picture of Ganesha. The swastika is an ancient religious icon used in the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and Southeast Asia where it has been and remains a sacred symbol of spiritual principles in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that it became stigmatized in the West due to its association with Nazi symbolism as an emblem of  Aryan race identity.

Next stop was Mysore Palace. Built on 72 acres for a total cost of 40 lakh, 4 million dollars, because there wasn’t corruption back then we’re told, and is still home to and the official residency of the Wodeyars dynasty. The architect was British and the design incorporates Indian, Indo-Islamic/Arab, Neo-Classical and Gothic styles. Only a small portion of the palace is still in the hands of the Wodeyars, the rest we’re told was taken over by the government due to back tax issues. It is hard to ascertain the exact details on this but the government-owned portion holds a lot of  beautiful artifacts which were gifts presented to the royal family over many years from many foreign dignitaries and countries. Me thinks the government got more than was due. The most up to date info I could find dates back to 2013. ” Govt wants the palace, so does the Royal Family”. Oh the challenges of the royal!

Mysore Palace

Mysuru to Hassan

We departed Mysuru on December 9th for our next stop, Hassan, about a 4 hour journey. We used Hassan as a staging point to visit two towns famous for their Hindu temples located about 40 km and 55 km respectively from Hassan. The town of Belur and the Channakeshava Temple, and the town of Halebid with the Hoysaleswara Temple. Both are very much off the beaten tourist path so we were virtually the only white faces among a sea of Indian school children and tourists. Something we noticed so far on our tour of temples.

The Channakeshava temple in Belur is a Hysola temple commissioned in 1116 and took over a century to build. The artistry and architecture are outstanding.

Channakeshava Temple

Another Hysola Temple, the Hoysaleswara located in Halebid began construction in 1121 and went on for 80 years but was never completed but is considered to be the masterpiece of Hysola architecture.

Hoysaleswara Temple