Travelling and Eating in Tamil Nadu

1391592046726We’ve actually left Tamil Nadu and are enjoying the sunny beaches of Goa. Since I’ve already written about Goa in a previous post, I thought I would describe our travels in Tamil Nadu in general, and tell you something about the food there.

1391933135133We had flown to Chennai with a good idea of the places we were going to visit ( Mammalapuram, Kanchipuram, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Vailankanni, Trichy, Madura; see map) but with no plan of how to get from one place to the next. Most of our destinations were 60 to 100km apart and we discovered that hiring a car with a driver to cover these distances only cost around $25 – $35. 1391932630332

We figured that this was a good deal and we ended up choosing this means of transport for the most part. Since we arranged our cars on the street rather than through our hotel (more expensive) and didn’t want air-conditioning as we like travelling with the windows open, we sometimes ended up with ancient vehicles and on one occasion, an equally ancient driver who drove in his bare feet and didn’t speak a word of English. Within the towns, we took auto rickshaws which are plentiful and sometimes creatively painted. The roads have all manner of vehicles, bullock carts, bicycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, cars and trucks, all going at their own pace. Almost all trucks have a colourful painted sign saying ‘Horn OK or Horn Please’. The horn is used to warn the vehicle in front that you are behind them and need to be given way. Surprisingly, this works well and the traffic always seems to flow smoothly despite the narrow roads and variety of vehicles. I’ve been in more traffic jams in Toronto than we ever came across in India.

 1392136453382One of the nice things about having a car at your disposal is that you get to see the countryside and you can stop where you like. Tamil Nadu produces a lot of rice and we drove through vast fields of rice paddies. Because it was the end of the second monsoon, the rice was in the process of being harvested. This is still done by hand for the most part though we did see a couple of mechanized harvesters. It’s a backbreaking job to harvest rice manually and the wastage is enormous. Over 40% of the crop is lost through inefficient harvesting, loss to rodents, and spoilage. Many plant researchers are aiming to develop more prolific rice plants but it seems to me that it would make more sense to find ways of improving harvesting and storage.

pic201402112210371391934712524Many of the villages still have mud huts with thatched roofs. The next step above is a tiled roof and the more affluent have a brick or concrete house often painted in funky colours. Every village has a little market area with vendors selling fruit and vegetables and there’s always a stall selling flower garlands which are placed on shrines or thin jasmine garlands sold by length for women to decorate their hair. It was good to see schools in rural areas and it pleased me to see lots of young girls on their way to school.

 

pic20140209140723The food in Tamil Nadu is pretty spicy even for breakfast. Breakfast consists of little steamed rice cakes called idli or coconut and rice pancakes called oothapam served with a thin lentil curry and a cocunut chutney, or a spicy type of fried doughnut, or deep-fried very thin rounds of dough called puris served with curried chickpeas. Dosas, paper-thin, very large rice pancakes are eaten at all times of day and are served plain or with various fillings. The coffee which is grown in south India is excellent and just delicious. Fidz thought it was as good as coffee in Italy which is high praise indeed! Lots of street stalls sell coffee and it is served in a little glass together with a little pot so that you can pour from one to the other to make it frothy and cool it down.

pic20140209140810Food, even in many restaurants, is served on a banana leaf and there are vendors in the market, just selling banana leaves. Most people eat with their hands and every restaurant has a wash-hand basin so you can wash your hands before and after dinner. Luckily, they provide foreigners with cutlery which was lucky as we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat rice with our hands!

1391932783073Our best meal was at a seaside shack in Velankanni where we had freshly caught sole and lobster, grilled right there in front of us, and served (at our request) with just salt and lemon. No cutlery, even for foreigners here but we managed quite well with our hands.

 

 

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Temples in Tamil Nadu

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Tamil Nadu has a number of towns where there are Hindu temples going back to the 7th century. Temple architecture in the south is different from that in the north. Typically there is an outer enclosure and the entrance is surmounted by a high decorative tower called a gopuram. Within the enclosure is the main shrine often adorned with a gold dome, and I’m not talking about paint but plated with real gold!

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Some of the larger temples have more than one enclosure like the Ranganatha temple just outside Trichy which has seven and which is one of the largest in India. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai has a single enclosure but it has four entrances each with a huge ornate gopuram. The more ornate gopurams are rich with painted iconography with images so packed together that its hard to take them all in.

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

I preferred the older Chola dynasty stone gopurams which have spectacular carvings. The detail worked in stone is exquisite.

1389716622554The innermost enclosure contains the main shrine devoted to a particular god and within the enclosures, are minor shrines. Lots of activities going on in the outer enclosures. There is food such as coconuts and rice for offerings on sale. There are areas where food is cooked in some temples which is given out to the poorer devotees. Some people just seem to be sitting around, either waiting for a specific prayer time or perhaps the temple is a more pleasant place to sit than being out in the street. All the priests are men but it seemed that the majority of devotees were women, just like in our churches!

1391564767492Tamil Nadu has churches and mosques as well. What I found most interesting about these is that they have elements of Hindu temple worship. You don’t enter churches without removing your shoes and many have large spaces in front of the altar where you sit on the floor. In a church in Vailankanni which is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, I saw a man approaching the altar with a small coconut tree with the coconut still attached to the end which he left by the side of the altar. Immediately outside was a large tonsure hall where pilgrims could get their heads shaved which is often done among Hindus as a form of sacrifice and devotion.

Mosque, Nagore

Mosque, Nagore

We visited a Moslem mosque in Nagore whch had an outer enclosure with five turrets, closer in style to a gopuram than a minaret, with both men and women praying at the same time whereas in most traditional Moslem mosques, men and women pray in separate areas. The chants sounded more like Carnatic music than Islamic. Again, there were people just sitting in the courtyard looking like they were just passing time. All in all, religion seems more like a way of life here than it seems to be in the west.

 

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Pondicherry

Ecole Francaise D'Extreme Orient

Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient

The Union Territory of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry) actually comprises a small district separate from the state of Tamil Nadu with its own Chief Minister. The city itself is on the sea about 100km south of Mammalipuram. It was owned by the French until 1954 and there are local people who speak French perfectly.

1390321192304Shocking though it seems now, the city was once divided into the French Quarter called Ville Blanche (White Town) and the Indian Quarter called Ville Noir (Black Town). Still referred to by the same names on maps, the two sections are separated by a narrow canal and the difference between the two towns is striking. White Town is closest to the sea and has wide tree-lined streets with French names and colonial style buildings. With its 2km sea wall and Promenade, and high-end restaurants and heritage hotels, it’s a little like a small town on the Cote d’Azure. Black Town has narrow, crowded, and busy streets and is like every other small town in India. Needless to say, people now move freely about the city.

1390321376574The Promenade on the seafront is a busy place in the evenings with people walking briskly for exercise and others strolling about chatting with their friends. The temperature at this time of year is perfect. About 25C to 30C during the day with an ocean breeze dropping to the low 20s in the evenings. We noticed quite a few people walking around with what appeared to be headphones except that they didn’t quite fit into the headphone wearing demographic (granny in a saree). We realized that they were wearing earmuffs for the cold! If you look closely at this photo, the husband is wearing earmuffs and the wife has a wooly hat.

Matrimandir, Auroville

Matrimandir, Auroville

Pondicherry was a trading port in antiquity and interestingly, remains of Roman amphorae dating to the 1st and 2nd century AD were discovered at Arikamedu,  an archaeological site about 7km south of the city. The amphorae contained garum (fermented fish sauce), olive oil and wine. Incidentally, the ones carrying wine were the most plentiful! Presumably, the Romans brought these goods to India and went back with pepper and spices since pepper was worth more than gold at that time. Speaking of gold, just outside the city is the experimental township of Auroville which has a huge building in the form of a gold sphere called the Matrimandir, at its centre. Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman called Mirra Alfassa (also known as ‘The Mother’) to be a place where all nations could live in harmony and not be separated by race, politics or religion but pursue a higher consciousness. Over 2,000 people from a number of different countries live in Auroville and the Matrimandir is the meditation centre.  The Mother was closely linked with Sri Aurobindo, a philosopher and yogi who founded the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. No ‘White’ and ‘Black’ towns here but I couldn’t help wondering how many poor Indians could have been fed or educated with the money it took to build the Matrimandir.

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Mammalipuram and More Festivals

Panch Rathas

Panch Rathas

Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna’s Penance

Mammalipuram (formerly called Mahabalipuram) is a small coastal town about 60km south of Chennai.  It is famous for its Pallava Dynasty (7th – 8th century) monolithic, rock-cut temples and shrines.  They really are quite amazing with fine relief sculptures carved out of the granite. There is a small hill on one side of the town with many of these cave shrines and close to the shore is a group of five called the Panch Rathas.

1390225901549The Pongal festival which lasts for 4 days was still on when we were there and as in Kanchipuram, there were elaborate sand paintings outside the doorways.

Many day-trippers from the surrounding villages had come into the town to picnic and celebrate as Pongal is a holiday. The town was teeming with people and it was a challenge to see inside the smaller shrines as everyone seemed to want to take family photographs with various combinations of family members in front of the most interesting sculptures. After a while of patient waiting, we gave up and just enjoyed watching the people.

Krishna's Butter Ball

Krishna’s Butter Ball

There is a giant boulder on the hill called Krishna’s Butter Ball (the deity Krishna was playful and liked to steal butter!). It is about 5 metres wide and is delicately balanced on a smooth surface, apparently defying the laws of physics. Of course, many wanted to be photographed appearing to hold the boulder in their palm and it was quite funny watching these whacky photos being taken.

1390226064020We were lucky to be in Mammalipuram during a classical Indian dance festival. Performances were held every evening outside the Shore Temple and since they were free, we took advantage of that and went every evening we were there. Most of the performances were Bharatnatyam which we love to watch. The dancers performed with live musicians and their movements and facial expressions were spell-binding.

The day we left Mammalipuram, bikers on all types of motorbikes were riding into the town from all directions. There was some sort of a biker’s festival scheduled for that day. Though it might have been interesting to watch, the noise on the narrow streets was deafening. A good time to leave!

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Chennai: Gateway to Tamil Nadu

Fishing Boat, Marina Beach, Chennai

Fishing Boat, Marina Beach, Chennai

It was a wonderful change going from -30C in Toronto to +30C in Chennai (called Madras until 1996) and for those of you struggling through a Canadian winter, I’m sending you a burst of sunshine through the above photo. There are two monsoons in Tamil Nadu and the northeast monsoon lasts until December so this coastal city is green and leafy at this time of year.

University of Madras, Senate House

University of Madras, Senate House

Chennai is large sprawling city which does not seem to have a defined city centre but is more a collection of neighbourhoods, or at least that’s what it seems like to us. First occupied by the Portuguese and subsequently by the British, there are many churches and several grand buildings, built in the Indo-saracenic style by the British. Marina Beach fringes the city and stretches for 6km, from formerly Portuguese occupied San Thome’ in the south to British occupied Fort St George in the north. St Thomas, the Apostle (doubting Thomas) spent the end of his life here and his remains are preserved in San Thome’ cathedral. There are lots of hospitals and medical centres as Chennai is fast becoming a centre for medical tourism i.e. a place where tourists come to get medical procedures done which might be too expensive in their own countries.

1389691786955We found the beach, which is almost 1km wide, fascinating. Fishing boats, fishermen mending their nets, and vendors selling freshly caught fish are to be found on the southern end.  There is still evidence here of the destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami and homes lining the shore are in the process of being rebuilt. Further north, the beach is a social hub and meeting place. We were there on a Saturday evening and it was interesting to watch people enjoying all manner of entertainments, fortune telling, horse rides, street foods and just hanging out.  Families with children, young men and women, grandparents, were all there each enjoying different things.

1389686700713Tamil Nadu seems quite a progressive state. Interestingly, the Chief Minister is a woman and women in general seem more emancipated. Education of women at all levels is promoted by the government. Another thing I found interesting is the large number of Engineering Colleges. On the way to Kanchipuram yesterday, about 70km from Chennai, we saw at least half a dozen and also a slew of manufacturing industries such as Dell, Motorola, Nokia and Honeywell. The opportunities for jobs might explain why we did not see as much poverty in the city.

Decorating for Pongal

Decorating for Pongal

Today January 14th is the harvest festival of Pongal here in Tamil Nadu. We are in the temple town of Kanchipuram. Houses have a design painted on the ground outside the front door and have decorations of sugarcane and turmeric tubers. A special sweet of mashed rice and lentils, wrapped in a green leaf and steamed, is served and also offered to the priests at the temple. Women wear red and don their good jewellery. New clothes and household items are purchased. Its a bit like Christmas. People flock to the temples of which there are many in Kanchipuram and there’s an air of festivity. A great time to be here!1389695710470

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Happy New Year 2014

1389100545294Happy New Year to all my readers from freezing Toronto. The ambient temperature today is minus 20C and minus 40C if you factor in wind chill. Exposed skin can freeze in minutes. We can’t wait to get out of here and thankfully, tomorrow we leave for India (maybe, if flights can take off!).

I hope all your new year’s resolutions have started out well. My two most pressing ones namely eating and drinking less, and exercising more, have not yet begun but soon…………! It seems that every year I make the same resolutions regarding healthy living. However, I sometimes ponder on resolutions to strengthen the spirit and so when we passed the taxicab shown above, I was very taken with the sign. Actually its an ad for a business course at Humber College but also something we should all strive for whether it be in our work or in our hobbies. So on that note, I hope you all get a chance to do more of what you love this year.

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It Really Was A White Christmas

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David, Lake Nipissing, Ontario

Terence, Lake Windermere

Terence, Lake Windermere, BC

1388391181875We had the proverbial festive Christmas with too much to eat and drink and we continued the week in this way, staggering from meal to meal. Many were not so fortunate. Toronto was hit by an ice storm and several neighbourhoods were without power for a number of days. Trees fell over, damaging cars and roofs of houses, and blocking some roads. People have been telling me that I bring bad weather as the last time I was here in the summer, we were hit by floods!

1388391085431Despite the chaos that the ice storm created, the landscape looked magical. Tree branches were covered with ice so that they glittered when the sun shone and with the ground covered in snow, it really was beautiful to look at.

“What do with the pictures above have to do with all this?”, you might ask.  My father loved to fish and some of my nephews have acquired his passion. They fish in all types of weather and here are two of them ice-fishing. One in BC on Lake Windermere close to the Alberta border and the other on Lake Nipissing in Ontario. In case you’re wondering the smaller fish is a pikeminnow (squawfish), and the large one a walleye.  In Canada, you have to find a way to enjoy the winter or you would be sitting at home for six months doing nothing.

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Merry Christmas From Toronto

1387739988426Wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas. May joy be your gift this Christmas.

 

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A White Christmas?

1387315507561The weather has been brutally cold in Toronto over the last week. At the weekend, we had the first snowstorm of the year which was earlier than usual. The temperature plummeted down to minus 20C and the lake froze all the way to the Toronto Islands.

1387316137281Undaunted by these freezing conditions, Torontonians are out skiing, skating and sledding. I have become soft after spending so much time in Rome and go out wearing several layers of clothing and only walking to where I need to get to as opposed to strolling around feeling exhilarated by the snow.

 

1387316012264Luckily, there are Christmas indoor events to go to like candlelight carol singing services which I enjoy, especially when there are little children singing. Without doubt, it will be a white Christmas which is very picturesque especially when one is sitting indoors looking at it through a window while enjoying food and drink!  The warmth of being with family and friends makes up for the freezing conditions.

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The Start of the Festive Season

Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

Last Sunday, December 1st, marked the opening of the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. A rather tacky market I must say but the shops around start putting up their lights and Christmas decorations so there’s definitely signs of Christmas approaching. The official start of the festive season in Rome is December 8th, Feast of the Imacculate Conception when the Pope replaces the wreath on the statue of the Virgin at the top of a tall column near the Spanish Steps (see Christmas Preparations).

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum

Unfortunately, I will not be there to see this event as I returned to Toronto a couple of days ago. Its nice to be back and its such a change to see new and avant garde architecture instead of buildings steeped in antiquity.

I’m enjoying wandering about the streets of Toronto and I find the store displays here interesting and colourful. Yesterday, we walked along Queen St which has lots of funky stores with enticing displays and little art galleries featuring contemporary art which makes walking around a visual feast. The highlight of my day was seeing this headless bronze by Louise Bourgeois at a show at the Modern Art Gallery (MOCCA) curated by David Cronenberg. A beautiful piece if  a little disturbing but then again, the whole show was somewhat disturbing. One of the quotes on the wall said “The silence in the room makes you think that something terrible is about to happen”.  Luckily for us, our next stop was at a micro-brewery so we were able to regain the festive spirit.

Bronze, Louise Bourgeoise

Headless Bronze, Louise Bourgeois

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