#17 Madurai and Trichy, India

We got up in time to take a 7AM bird-watching walk with a member of the staff who’s official title is “Green Butler” and who has become the resident naturalist.  He has been working for the hotel for 7 years and knows where to look for every bird in the area. With the “Birds Of South India” book and a pair of binoculars, we set off to walk around the property. He is working on clearing paths, restoring an overlook the British once used, and establishing a butterfly garden. He has been studying the caterpillars to figure out which one belongs to which butterfly. He identified plants and their uses and reminded us of a story Ragesh told us earlier in Kerela. There is a low-growing plant that recoils when touched. Commonly called the “shy plant”, it stays recoiled for about 15 minutes. Turns out the Viet Cong used it to track American Troops.

Anyway, we were so impressed with this guy’s initiative. With the support of the hotel’s manager, he created this position and is working to develop it as part of the hotel program. Ronni wrote a glowing recommendation and left it for the manager as we checked out.

Our next stop was the Srirangam Vishnu temple in Trichy. Suresh found us a very good local guide who took us through the grounds. It is considered the first, and most important of the 108 main Vishnu temples. Just to keep us all confused, this temple is also known as Thiruvaranga Tirupati, Periyakoil, Bhoologa Vaikundam, and Bhogamandabam. It is enormous, covering 156 acres, with seven prakaras or enclosures formed by thick, huge, rampart walls which surround the gold-covered sanctum. There are 21 towers and the Entire complex lies on an islet between two rivers. We saw all this, standing on the rooftop of one of the buildings. It was a great way to get an idea of the scope of the Temple.

Again, we became the object of many photo shoots. I’m sure there are more Indians taking pics of us, than we take of them. Part of it just might be that Ronni and I are dressed like many of them, which probably brings them endless amusement. After one group encouraged their children to pose with us, they insisted on sharing their lunch with us. We tasted two dishes, one savory, one sweet, then saw the outdoor stalls where the food was cooked, served, and sold.

We had lunch in town on our way to the Rockfort Temple. Lunch was typical South Indian – banana leaf plates, no utensils. What stood out were the squatting, hole-the-floor toilets, (not the problem in themselves ) up under the rafters of the building – dark, dank, low ceiling, and, by any standards, horrible. Ronni and I declared ourselves totally initiated.

Then we climbed the 1000 steps to the Ganesh (Rockfort) temple. On the way up, there are carved out rooms, one of which serves was being used as a study hall. A group of women were chanting in Tamil. We learned that the people of Tamilnadu pride themselves on restricting themselves to speaking only Tamil. They learn no other dialects so cannot speak Hindi or Malayalam, or any other languages. Many have some English skills, but that depends on where we are in Tamilnadu. Again, a huge departure from the culture of Kerela.

The temple itself is small, and at the top of the rock. access is through steep steps carved into the rock, mostly in an ascending tunnel, then the last part is outside and has stunning views of Trichy. From the very top, eagles soar at eye level. The only tourists we encountered there was an Indian couple from Australia. They made the point that this spectacular place should be world renowned, but sits here in relative oblivion. The temple is maintained by the Archaeological department of India.

We left the temple and walked back to the car. On the way, we almost bought yogurt shakes, but they were using ice chips so we politely declined. I think most do the venders understand. I hope so.

#16 Over the Mts to Tamilnadu, India

This morning we left Kaivalyam. As there were only 10 rooms, we met many of the other guests, a few of whom we may see in LA. Suresh was at the top of the road to meet us and we begin our long drive over the mountain range (Western Ghats) from Kerela to Tamilnadu. Suresh has his own version of Waze. He checked in with a friend who was on the road ahead of us and learned that there was a one to two hour delay due to roadwork. So we detoured, saved the time, then sat back as he skillfully maneuvered the steep, hairpin tours between areas of rockslides and stretches of unsaved road. At the top, we crossed the state border, left Kerela and entered Tamilnadu.

Kerala is the southwestern state in India.  Tamilnadu is the southern most state. Malayalam is the language of Kerala and Tamal, the language of Tamilnadu. Kerala has been a great spice trade center since 3000 BC. Tamilnadu has been the home for the Tamils from as early as 500 BC and the Tamil language is said to be one of the oldest languages in the world. Tamil literature is at least 2000 years old. Kerala is the seat of Ayurvedic medicine. Tamilnadu is the home of Dravidian (original people of the region) style temples. Kerala’s literacy rate is as high as 94.59%. It is the higher than any other state in India. Although the literacy rate in Tamilnadu is not as high as in Kerala, the state of Tamilnadu has 10.56% of the total business enterprises in the whole of India. Kerala prides itself on acceptance and and harmony between Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. It will be interesting to see what that is like in Tamilnadu.

We sensed competition between the two. They are clearly different. Entering Tamilnadu, I felt like I was entering another side of India. Here there are cows on the streets, more evidence of Hindu culture, certainly in terms of the temples, and in general, less order. Politically, there appears to be much more corruption.

We drove through Madurai to the top of a hill at the edge of the city. There we found the Gateway Hotel. Turns out, it is one do the Taj Hotels (very fancy). It has 63 rooms now, but it was originally built as the residence for the Chief Executive Officer do JB Coats Ltd., in 1890.  That would be the massive textile company. If you have ever bought thread, it was probably JB Coats. The place is so British that our American accents disappeared and we started describing everything as ‘quite lovely’.

We had tea and a light lunch there (way too expensive), met our guide for the afternoon and headed out to Madurai to see the palace. Called the Tirumalai Nayakar Mahal, it was designed by Italians, built, including the carvings, by Tamils In 1636.  Today, only a portion of the palace remains, but what is left is awe-inspiring. there is a sound and light show every evening, and it must look great after dark. We were there during the day and it is evident that funds for historic sites are sadly lacking. The place is partially restored, but mostly in a state of neglect. The museum section is filled with beautifully carved stone deities, but only a few of the brass name plates remain. We were fortunate that we had a knowledgable guide with us. Then it was time to go to the temple.

We asked our guide to find us a tailor in the Marketplace just outside. He said his karma kept him from recommending anyone, but it happened anyway. Pinchas got a few shirts and I got something as well. The tailor said he would have the clothes delivered to our hotel.

The Sri Meenakshi – Sundareswarar Temple is on the banks of the Vaigai River, in the middle of the city. It is dedicated to Parvati who is known as Meenakshi and her consort, Shiva, named here as Sundareswarar. It forms the heart and lifeline of the 2500 year old holy Hindu city built around this incredible huge temple.

There was a long line to get in, but somehow we were put in front of everyone and got through security relatively fast. It would have been quicker, but the woman security officer kept finding cell phones on Ronni, three to be exact! The temple was filled with men on a pilgrimage who walked miles to offer pranam, or prayer. We learned that they are only required to walk the last 7 miles, but we have been seeing them throughout our trip. Only Hindus are allowed into the inner sanctuary, under the gold dome, but we saw much of the central portion. I love that the temple grounds are a place for much more than prayer offerings. You can buy food for offerings. There are families settling in and unpacking food, people taking naps, and others just socializing. There are snacks for sale and souvenirs to buy.

Eventually we made our way out, said goodby to our guide and had dinner with Suresh at an outdoor restaurant. I pressed Suresh about where he stays and learned that he has been sleeping in the car. Ronni knew from her India trip last year, that all the guides sleep in their cars, but it makes all three of us uncomfortable.

When we got back to the hotel, the tailor’s delivery man was there to both give us our packages and to try to get us to buy additional ready-to-wear stuff from him. He was quite insistent, but we were tired of being hustled, annoyed and done for the evening.