Tamil Nadu: Part 1

March 1, 2011

My trek across Tamil Nadu was a whirlwind tour of temples and the cities that grew around them. My mind was thrown all over the place as I immersed myself in trying to learn a bit about Hinduism, while at the same time, getting into the rhythm of long-term travelling. Beginning in Kanyakumari, which is the southernmost tip of India, I headed north to Madurai, then through Trichy and Thanjavur, and then up to Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram, and finally Chennai. Each one of these cities deserves and entire blog post, decked out with photos and notes, but in an effort to keep some of the mystery alive for those would-be travelers out there (and to keep you awake), I will try to keep it short.

The post is in two parts, with some notes (in italic) I took while on the road interspersed in between. You can read about whichever city you like, or just skip it and look at the pictures.

Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of India and the is location where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea meet. Although devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the town is now back to (what I imagine is) its former bustling self. It is an intensely religious place for Hindus, and bathing in the ocean is considered to be especially auspicious. I cannot describe what it is like to put your feet into the ocean; it is truly a powerful experience knowing the importance of the place, both geographically, historically, and spiritually. Bathing there was one of the highlights of my time here.

-On trains, I often wish I could speak Hindi just to know what all of the Indian mothers get so worked up about all the time.

Madurai is one of the oldest cities in South Asia, and it certainly felt that way. The city is a maze of narrow streets packed with every means of transportation imaginable traveling on roads covered in potholes, dust, and dirt. I got lost in about thirty seconds from leaving the door of my hotel, and at some point just gave up trying to figure out where I was. Luckily I was saved by my new friend and tour guide for the day, Sekar, who somehow convinced me to spend some time putting around the city on his rickety old bike-taxi. He took me everywhere, from the temple markets, to Gandhi’ s blood-stained dhoti he was wearing when assassinated, to crazy markets in the suburbs, to a place where people dry cow patties to burn in their stoves at night. I ended up spending the whole day with him and then woke up at dawn the next morning to spend a few hours enjoying the famous Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple complex at sunrise, which is both Madurai’s physical center and spiritual soul.

-You have to be open in India; you close up, you miss out.

-I often find myself using the patented Mike Sanders method of communication; a small collection of choice words in Hindi coupled with intense hand motions and facial expressions.

-Lots of Mahindra 475 d1 tractors in the fields. I feel like I am missing out at home.

I then bussed it up to the chaotic city of Trichy, where I got a stunning view of the whole city from the Rock Fort and visited the massive temple complex at Srirangam. Temples in South India are quite different in their layout but often very similar in the execution. So while seeing the temple at Srirangam was certainly interesting, but it still felt a lot like I was back in Madurai, because the temples are of the same style and scale.

-Most cities seem to open up around 9am, which is odd considering that 6am-9am is the coolest part of the day.

-Indian fashion is a funny thing. The 70s are still raging here in the subcontinent, with tall, skinny kids trying to be Indian gangsters, decked out in bell bottoms and tucked in shirts with massive collars, buttoned only halfway up. In the south specifically, almost without exception, younger women wear kurtas, older women wear saris; younger men wear western clothes, older men wear lungis.

However when I arrived in Thanjavur the next day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful, quiet temple complex that actually looked old, surrounded by that chaotic Indian city that I am learning to love. The temple was unpainted unlike most of the other boldly colorful temples around India, so it felt more like an ancient ruin than a fully-functioning temple. Thanjavur is also famous for its Chola bronzes, so I made sure to spend some time at the Thanjavur Art Gallery getting to know exactly what a Chola bronze was.

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