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South India

Anyone for a Curry?

January 2011

India is an enigma of a country replete with vast contradictions; it’s a ‘third world’ country that is heading towards ‘first world’ global status at breathtaking speed. Immense wealth is counteracted by intense poverty and a spirituality that soothes the inner being opposed by a pervading intensity that assaults the senses at the very first contact. A journey through India is not for the faint hearted; what you encounter can tear at your emotions and engender a feeling of exhilaration at the magnificent sites. Breath in all that India has to offer and the experience will be unforgettable.


This was a journey through the south of the country and a visit that I had promised myself since I toured northern India back in 2002.

A Brief History

The beginnings of organised settlement in the south of India date back to the era of 2000 – 1000 BC. Metal technology and the domestication of animals around this period led to a transformation in the development of the indigenous social groupings. By the 6th century BC dominant cultures began to emerge and compete for supremacy of the region. Towards the end of the 1st century BC, a greater understanding of navigation and the monsoon winds in particular, brought merchants from Rome to South India in pursuit of the abundant trade in spices and other precious commodities. Archaeological evidence has unearthed Roman pottery and coins attesting to the volume of trade that was occurring at this time. Fast forward through the centuries and numerous ambitious kingdoms and empires flourished and declined - in some cases leaving behind temples or crumbling monuments as memorials to their one-time dominance.


Although the south of India was exposed through time to international trade and maritime connections, it remained relatively secluded from the numerous invasions that sporadically influenced Indian history. This relative immunity engendered distinct styles of music, dance, theatre and architecture from that evident in the rest of the country. Even at the peak of the Islamic incursions large parts of the south remained untouched. The consolidation of Mughal dominance in the north of the country began to have an impact in the south from the mid 16th century. Despite the overall power of such great Mughal rulers as Akbar and Shah Jahan, the south was never completely absorbed into the Mughal Empire.


The incursion of European commercial interests began with the Portuguese towards the end of the 15th century, the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Kerala in 1498 heralded the dawn of a new era in the history of South India. The Portuguese maintained a dominant grip on the regions commercial activity for around a century before the British, the Dutch and the French began to make inroads into their domination of trade. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the British consolidated their position to be become the supreme power in South India. With the disintegration of the Mughal Empire in the north of the country, by the mid 19th century Britain acquired dominance over the whole of India, making it the jewel in the crown of the vast British Empire. British influence pervaded vast sectors of Indian society, from education to the civil service, from the class system to the use of the English language, the effects of which still resonate down through modern day India.


The turn of the 20th century saw the seminal evolution of the freedom struggle that would see its apogee in the country achieving independence from British rule in 1948. The post-Independence period heralded a reorganisation of the South’s state boundaries. The South was divided into four states formed purely on a linguistic basis. The 1950’s saw the Indian government actively pursuing a policy of accelerated industrialisation in the South, even so today the vast majority of the population here still remains rural.


In more recent times the South has benefited markedly from embracing the hi-tech industries, particularly in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Many western companies are now regularly out-sourcing tasks, basing call centres and the like in the region. With this business concept increasingly comes glass-fronted hi-tech corporate headquarters and glitzy new shopping malls, on par with anything that may be found in Western Europe. The newly monied urban middle class have adopted Western fashions: they smoke and drink alcohol whilst partying the night away in trendy night clubs. Therein lies the endemic dichotomy in Indian society. With the wealth concentrated in the hands of so few, who exhibit ever increasing displays of consumer consumption, the vast majority of the people continue to exist below the poverty line; the contrast is increasingly stark.

An elegantly attired local gentleman

The Journey

The adventure starts in Chennai (formerly Madras); founded only some 350 years ago. It is the largest metropolis in South India. Madras was Britain’s first foothold in the country and the birthplace from which she would build an empire across the whole of India. Today Madras is a booming cosmopolitan city, the commercial, political and cultural centre of the region, in addition to being the centre of the regions film industry. Our city tour begins with a visit to Fort St George, originally built in 1640 by the British East India Company and expanded down the years. It is a splendid example of military architecture. The buildings within the compound have names that resonate with iconic names from British history; Clive House, Wellesley House, Cornwallis Cupola. Rather than being just a monument to the past, life flourishes within Fort St George as the government, the military and local administrators all conduct business within the compound.


Next on the itinerary was our first introduction to the classic style of Indian architecture, which would be encountered throughout this journey. Kapalesvara Temple is a Dravidian style temple dedicated to the god Shiva. The wonderfully ornate 8th century Hindu temple supports magnificent sculptures and deity images, both within the temple compound and completely covering its impressive towering gopuram (gateways). The main shrine contains a Shiva lingam (phallus), to which the devotees make ritual offerings.

The neo-Gothic San Thome Basilica was originally built in the 13th century and subsequently rebuilt in 1896. It is venerated as being built on the site where the apostle St Thomas - the famous Doubting Thomas - was buried.  The stained glass windows tell the story of Thomas’s life. Thomas was decreed the Apostle of India in 1972, being highly venerated by South Indian Christians. The basilica also contains relics of the apostle including the lance-head that killed him.


Visit an Indian railway station and you’ll experience Indian life in the raw: people sleeping on the platform; luggage strewn everywhere; food vendors plying their trade; people and animals leisurely strolling across the tracks and station officials going about their administrative tasks. The sights, the smells and the sounds here encapsulate the Indian experience in a nutshell. We board our train in Egmore Station for the 5 hour journey to Tiruchirappalli (Trichy).

The Rock Fort Temple in Trichy is perched high up on the summit of a 90 metre rocky outcrop. This rock is one of the oldest known in the world, being approximately 3,800 million years old. The sheer abruptness of its rise skywards immediately grabs the attention, but the real centre of interest is the temple at the summit. A flight of 344 steps hewn out of the rock leads to the top, where the Uchipillayar Koll Temple contains inscriptions dating back to the 3rd century BC. The strenuous climb to the summit is rewarded with a wonderful view of the city.

96 - Srirangam Temple, Tiruchirappalli,

A short distance outside Trichy is the island of Srirangam. The temple complex here, which is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, is practically a town in itself. The complex is surrounded by 7 concentric walls containing 21 ornamental gopuram. Narrow streets lead you to an egregiously  ornate gopuram through which you enter the compound. Elaborate carvings cover the numerous structures and everywhere the devotees are supplicating in prayer and making votive offerings. The temple’s main highlights are the equestrian statues, carved on monolithic columns. They are so realistic that they appear ready to jump out at any moment. The temple elephant, for a small gratuity to its handler, will place its trunk on your head and give you a blessing.


An hours drive from Trichy is the town of Thanjavur, which is the location of the magnificent 10th century Brihadesvara Temple. The exquisitely carved entrance gopurams stand over 27 metres (90 ft) tall, and lead the visitor into a vast courtyard within which the main temple stands. The temple is guarded by two gigantic sentries each carved out of single stones. Small subsidiary temples and shrines are sited around the perimeter of the courtyard. In excess of 200 ritual lingams (phallus) - the sacred fertility symbol of the god Shiva - are located within the temple compound. Beautiful sculptures, carvings and deity images adorn the temples outer structure. Temple priests and locals mingle with inquisitive tourists in what is a spiritual and tranquil atmosphere. Brihadesvara Temple is widely acknowledged to be the finest paradigm of the Dravidian style of architecture.


We arrive at our hotel in Madurai and, as is the custom in India, we are greeted with offerings of flower garlands and refreshments. This ancient city has a history that dates back to pre-Christian times. We experience a white knuckle encounter with India’s traffic system. A journey in a three wheeled tuc-tuc is not for the faint hearted. Vehicles and people flow fluidly around each other, often avoiding a collision by millimetres. Madurai lives up to its epithet of the “temple city” of South India and, more than worth a visit, is the 16th century Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple - dedicated to Shiva and his consort Meenakshi. The temple is a magnet for pilgrims across India and is the largest temple complex in the country in terms of area and the number of structures within a single compound. Within the compound are a plethora of halls, shrines and colonnades. These various structures are adorned with highly ornate sculptures of religious deities. In all, there are believed to be some 33 million sculptures throughout the complex. The temples outstanding features are four towers standing at the four cardinal points of the compass, soaring to heights between 43-49 metres (140-160 ft). Each of these towers is adorned with innumerable sculptures of gods, goddesses, birds, animals and humans. The colonnaded corridors surrounding the main temple courtyard are a hive of commercial activity concomitant with selling all the requisite items necessary for a temple visit – such as flower garlands, incense sticks, votive offerings and food offerings. The Minaksi Temple is not just an architectural masterpiece, it is a living entity and functioning religious institution. Devotees come to worship several times each day and some live out their lives within the temple confines. It holds weddings; religious classes and people eat/sleep there. Madurai ultimately is not just a one temple town and if you explore a little off the beaten track you will find numerous tourist-free community temples and even a royal palace waiting to be discovered.


The small hillside town of Thekkady is a surprising retail oasis, full of fairly up-market shops catering for the tourist trade that inevitably passes through here on the way to Kerela. Driving up into the hills the scenery changes dramatically. This is where you find the tea plantations and the rubber tree estates. We eventually arrive in Chenganacherry where we board our riverboat for a relaxing 3 hour cruise along the Kerela waterways. The large complex of beautiful lagoons and palm-shaded canals provide a restful break away from the rigours of the tour. Top up the suntan, read a book, or just watch the day to day life of the locals as they go about their business.

444 - Chinese fishing nets, Cochin, Indi

Kochi (formerly Cochin) is the commercial capital of the region of Kerela and its history stretches back before the arrival of the western colonialists. This was the land of spices, ivory and timber that attracted the Arabs, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Romans - and from the turn of the 16th century - the colonising Europeans. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all first arrived in Kerela before spreading outwards across the rest of India. We first visit the Church of St Frances which is the oldest European church in India. Our tour takes us next to one of the most interesting parts of Cochin, Jew Town. Jewish trade with the region dates back to the times of King Solomon, and in the past the Jewish community flourish. Sadly today the Jewish community numbers just ten people and where once Jewish merchants and businesses traded, today there are the ubiquitous tourist shops. The Pardesi Synagogue was originally built in 1568 and rebuilt in 1664. It is the oldest synagogue in any commonwealth country. Individual hand-painted Chinese tiles cover the floor and amongst the numerous religious treasures are ancient scrolls of the law and golden crowns. The synagogue is an exquisite memorial to the substantial Jewish community that once lived in Cochin. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Mattancherri Palace is a veritable museum full of beautiful items of furniture, palanquins, textiles and mahogany and teak carved ceilings. The real highlight of any visit here are the 17th century murals that relate the Hindu epic of the Ramayana. Cochin’s most distinctive features are the giant Chinese fishing nets that dot the shore and dominate the skyline. They are unique to this part of Kerela and are reminders of the centuries-old influence that China has exercised on this part of the Indian coast. A boat trip at sunset enabled me to shoot some dramatic photographs of these ingeniously constructed cantilevered fish traps.


In the evening we were treated to a performance of a traditional Kerelan dance - a highly stylised dance-drama - the Kathakali is a deeply moving and aesthetic experience. Painted faces and vivid costumed characters from the Hindu epics dance their story to the accompaniment of a percussionist. The performance is made up of pure dance as well as mime. The application of heavy make-up, which precedes the performance on stage, is a metamorphosis of mortals into the immortal deities and demons of the story. The hundreds of complex hand and facial movements combine to make this a refined and colourful exponent of the performing art form.

Mettupalayam is the terminus of the narrow gauge Nilgiri Railway, operating on a rack and pinion system. The train is hauled by a magnificent ancient steam locomotive. Travelling up in a series of switchbacks, at times clinging perilously to the hillside, the train proceeds at a sedate walking pace. At frequent stopping points the multitude of passengers disembark, photographing the train and each other. The carriages are overcrowded, the seats are uncomfortable, but what an atmosphere as the train makes its way through the scenic Nilgiri Hills up to Udagamandalam (Ooty) with the locomotive belching out smoke in a pounding rhythm. Situated at an altitude of 2,250 metres (7,500 ft), Ooty is a former British hill station where the ruling colonialists would come to exchange the heat of the plains for the cool mountain climate. Ooty’s great claim to fame is hidden away in grounds of the exclusive Ootacamund Club. It was here during the time of British rule that the game of snooker was invented. The club is an old style gentlemen’s refuge, with sumptuous wooden panelling and flooring, where game trophies and photographs of lords, generals and maharajahs adorn the walls. The club has been frequented by numerous heads of state, including Winston Churchill who apparently still owes Rs78.00 (£1.12) in club fees! The club affords a rare insight as to how the wealthy privileged classes have indulged themselves down the years. Frequented by the British and then by the wealthy Maharajahs, Ooty earned itself the epithet of “Snooty Ooty”.

The regal city of Mysore is home to one of India’s most astonishing palaces. Mysore Palace is an extravagant structure built in an opulent melange of Hindu, Islamic, Moorish and European architectural styles. Originally built in the 14th century the palace has undergone subsequent re-buildings - the most recent being in 1912. The structure is adorned with a heady mixture of arched canopies reminiscent of Rajput palaces, Mughul style onion domes, complimented by a European design campanile. The exterior of the palace is decorated with a multitude of meticulous carvings. The extravagant splendour is amply repeated inside the palace. The Darbar Hall is designed in the style of a spectacular mosque, short squat pillars supporting scalloped arches that appear to extend endlessly in all directions. The Throne Room contains a figwood throne, overlaid with ivory, plated with gold and silver and studded with diamonds and precious stones. Handsomely proportioned corridors and halls are lavished with marble floors, mahogany ceilings and stained glass windows. There are gigantic chandeliers, enormous doors wrought in silver and endless elaborate inlay and stucco work.


Mysore has quite a different feel from the other towns we have visited so far, having a more affluent feel to it. There are neatly kept open park areas, not so many motor cycles and many more motor cars on the road. The abject poverty and begging, so evident elsewhere, is far less visible here. To end the day it was off to the splendidly named Park Lane Hotel for dinner.


Chamundi Hill towers over Mysore, providing a wonderful viewpoint for the city and the surrounding area. The summit is dominated by the pyramidal gopuram of the Sri Chamundesvari Temple, decorated in the traditional Hindu style with hundreds of highly coloured deity sculptures. Descending the hill you encounter the 5 metre (16ft) monolith of the Nandi bull. Carved in the 17th century from one enormous piece of rock, the bull represents the Hindu god Shiva’s chosen mode of transport.


Located 35km outside Mysore, the Prasanna Chennakesava Temple in Somnathpur displays the height of the temple builders craft. Such is the intricate degree of sculptural and structural craftsmanship that this temple is a delight to photograph. Built in 1268 the temple is constructed from soapstone, which is both easy to work and hard wearing. The exterior walls are covered with frescoes displaying narrative passages from the traditional Hindu epics. Depicted in vivid detail, no two frescoes are alike; such is the accuracy of the work that each section of the narrative ends at a door frame.


The island of Srirangapatnam is home to the summer palace of Tippu Sultan, who having declared himself Sultan in 1782, fought a series of battles against the expansionist British forces.  The summer palace, originally called Daria Daulat Bagh was built in 1784. Made of teak wood and set in formal gardens, the walls are covered with large murals commemorating Tippu Sultan’s four battles against the British commander Lord Cornwallis.


This evening we caught the overnight train from Mysore to Madras - a special atmosphere all of its own. Mamallapuram lies a short distance down the coast from Madras and it represents the final destination on this journey. This part of the Indian coast was particularly hard hit in the 2004 tsunami and in the process, large volumes of sand were washed away revealing the remains of a huge temple. At one time a bustling port, today Mamallapuram’s eternal legacy is its exquisite remains of ancient Dravidian temple architecture, sculpture, shrines and sculpted rock panels. These temples wistfully gazing out at the sea were never completed or consecrated, so no worship is engaged in. Unoccupied and free of the bustling activity resonant of places of worship, they convey a sense of serenity and agelessness. The Five Rathas are a group of rock-cut temples that are formed in the shape of wooden rathas (temple chariots). Dating to around the 7th century AD these free standing works of art are each carved from single individual pieces of rock. These architectural gems are a fitting tribute to the skills of the ancient sculptors and unique examples of their kind.


One of the highlights of Mamallapuram is Arjuna’s Penance, the world’s largest bas-relief, measuring 27 metres by 9 metres and it is one of the major masterpieces of Indian art. Depicting scenes from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, these breathtaking carvings are an exquisite composition of hundreds of celestial beings, animal and humans; the dominating figure is a 5 metre (16ft) long elephant leading a procession. Amongst the numerous wonders in Mamallapuram the best known landmark is the specious circa 8th century Shore Temple. Standing silhouetted against the sea, the perfect proportions and minutiae of sculptural detail make this temple pure poetry in its form. The temple is unique in containing shrines to both Shiva and Vishnu co-existing in repose.


The last stop on the final day of this journey was a most emotional and heart-warming experience. The Hope Foundation Primary School was built in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which swept away the previous school and extinguished many lives; many of the children here having lost siblings and parents. The children welcomed us with a wonderful dance routine. Education came to a halt as we were shown around the classrooms and the children eagerly showed us their work. All semblance of classroom order went out the window as we showed the children how to make paper airplanes. At the culmination of the visit the children presented each of our group with a personalised thank you card. This visit was one of those magical moments that leave you with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.


An Overview

India never fails to disappoint; it is an intoxicating and spiritual experience that gets right under the skin. Whilst immersing yourself in a cultural, spiritual and architectural journey, India is no less a mouth watering gastronomic sojourn into one of the world’s great cuisines. You will indulge your penchant in curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but not the pseudo-curry you know back home. Although poverty and begging are still evident, the modern high-tech India is visible everywhere. Intensive road building projects, up market apartment buildings and shiny glass office blocks are a sign of the modern immerging India. While it is true that a trip to India will grab you by the throat and give you hard shake, it will also leave you with memories of an unforgettable experience that will inevitably make you want to return for more.

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