Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pondicherry and Auroville, Tamil Nadu.

David and I managed to leave Chennai on March 18th, after I was finally able to eat more than curd and rice. We spent the next couple of days in seductive Pondicherry, which was under the French until 1954 and still retains a strong colonial charm. We stayed at the Hotel de Pondicherry, which in itself was a special experience: overall decadent feel with spacious rooms with high ceilings and beautiful color combinations. Below are a few images of this heritage hotel, its garden outside, and the veranda/reception...

We stayed in the French Quarter, which is close to the beach and is defined by beautiful streets with colorful and elegant buildings, large trees and blossoming flowers (see example below).

A really welcome change from busy Chennai! Pondicherry has a great boardwalk that gets very crowded around sunset time, with families, vendors, and all sorts of people coming to enjoy the breeze and the sea air. About halfway along the boardwalk is an impressive sculpture of Gandhi surrounded buy beautiful sculptures which David has identified as Chola:

(Gandhi by day.)

(Gandhi by night. Even though it's not easy to see, in the evening time children turn the sculpture into something of a jungle gym, climbing up and down its side ramps which they use as slides!)

In Pondicherry we had delicious breakfasts...

(The prevalence of white is an indicator of my still recovering belly. This was idly - rice dumplings - with sambar (soup) and chutney, as well as curd and white rice at the American owned Kasha Ki Asha. We definitely recommend it.)

...and drank more fruit juices...

...we found fruit vendors with tasty fruit...

(This man posed for me holding up the bananas, which was really special. I think he was selling more than 5 different kinds of bananas! )

...and went to the town temple, where we saw yet another Laksmi (Hampi had one too) blessing generous donors...

(David caught this with great timing!)

In Pondicherry we also saw the most packed autorickshaw yet!

(Walking by a rickshaw parked in front of a school, we noticed all those backpacks and became a little curious about who was sitting inside...)

(It appears that the driver was trying to fit a whole class in his rickshaw! He just piled one girl right on top of the other!)

Of course, we visited the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This was funded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo, but quickly given over to a French woman, Mirra Alfassa, to be in charge. Henceforth she was known as The Mother.Today the ashram is a large and powerful institution, owning several businesses and properties around Pondicherry. People have complained that since the death of The Mother (1973), the ashram has moved away from the ideals that were upheld by its gurus. In any case, at the ashram there is a beautiful granite mausoleum dedicated to Sri Aurobindo, commemorating the place where he died. This tomb like structure is covered with flowers and lies under a huge shady tree: it's lovely to simply sit there in silence and watch as many people touch their foreheads to the mausoleum and take a moment to meditate/contemplate/pray/etc.

(The ashram from the outside. No pictures are allowed inside.)

The ashram also resonates in the park of Pondicherry, where gigantic wind chimes hang around the grounds and fill the air with soft notes whenever a breeze stirs the branches. When they sound it's a bit like a gentle reminder to breath and be aware of what is around you...

We left Pondicherry two days ago to come and learn about Auroville, the "human unity" experiment taking place a few kilometers North of Pondicherry. Originally affiliated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Auroville is a kind of utopian community founded in 1968, with the purpose to create a city "dedicated to human unity, and based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother." When The Mother died in '73, the differences in ideology between Auroville and the Ashram lead to a case with the Supreme Court of India. In 1981, Auroville was recognized as an independent, secular, government organization, and it has enjoyed a very particular status since, having its own parliamentary act in the Constitution. It's a VERY complex experiment, both in its history and present. David and I have been attending a series called "Insight Seminars" which has been very useful in answering some of our questions. In the seminar you are able to talk to other people curious about Auroville, as well as "Aurovilians," people who live here and work within this unique system.

I wouldn't know where to begin to explain Auroville, but here are a couple of things. It's an eco-village of about 2000 people, with a strong focus on sustainability, recycling, renewable resources, and intelligent urban planning/architecture. The central ideology revolves around concepts of unity, spiritual growth, social awareness, perfecting oneself, education and experimentation. There is a lot of volunteering, trading, bartering, sharing, and exchanging going on, and the economy tries as much as possible to move away from cash exchange.

There is much more, and we will only be here for another couple of days, but I highly advise stopping by and taking a look for yourself if you are ever in this part of the world. It is also a place worth visiting for much longer, depending on your interests. In addition, the land of Auroville itself is really beautiful! When it was bought, Auroville was a deserted place, but since the 1960's Aurovilians have planted millions of trees! Today they keep the temperature relatively cool and the air smells wonderful! Our guest house (Center Guest House) has tables under this gigantic banyan tree... it's so beautiful to eat underneath it...

(Huge banyan tree.)

(View outside our balcony.)

(Simple and comfortable room.)

(Our temporary shrine: the picture of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo comes with the room. I really like how David added to it :-))

For the next couple of days we will keep exploring Auroville and then continue making our way South throughout Tamil Nadu. We recently discovered that we will be meeting David's family, as well as my sister (!), in Sri Lanka on April 7th, where we will spend a week together. I really look forward to meeting up with them and getting a feel for Sri Lanka (On the side: my thoughts go out to the hundreds of refugees who are struggling at this very moment because of the fighting going on between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government. The situation in Sri Lanka is really awful, all the more because of the lack of support for the refugees.)

We are now into our 3rd month of traveling and staying in Pondicherry and Auroville has been very restorative. We hope all of you who are in the West are beginning to feel the signs of Spring and send warmth your way.
A presto,

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chennai (Madras), Tamil Nadu.

So, here we are in Chennai. For the past week we've been hosted most graciously by Sudha and Ravi, friends of David's parents. Staying at their house has been truly wonderful: not only is it so restful to stay in someone's home and eat delicious home cooked meals (Sudha has made sure that our menu never be the same! Only since being at their house have we begun to understand the wonderful variety of foods available in Southern India: from millet to brussel sprouts, to different kinds of rice based noodles and dumplings, many varieties of dahl, as well as incredibly tasty cauliflower, and so much more... "Unfortunately" Sudha and Ravi are vegetarian and cook food very lightly, without ghee or butter: David and I have landed in a food paradise!) In addition to feeding us and giving us a lovely room to sleep in, Ravi and Sudha have suggested all sorts of plans for us, and allowed us to use their home as a base for day trips in the area. (I will upload a picture of all four of us shortly.)

Among my favorite things has been a visit to an absolutely wonderful art school: Kalakshetra. The school was founded in 1936 by the visionary dancer Rukmini Devi. Among the many ideas of this school is the belief in students' potential and creativity, so that teaching should work with, rather than against, that creative impulse. Rukmini Devi actually worked closely with Maria Montessori, who in 1939 was invited to Chennai by the Theosophical Society for 6 months and ended up staying in India for 6 years (she did not return to Italy as WWII broke out.) Thanks to Sudha, we arranged to watch a Bharatanatyam class, the traditional dance form from Tamil Nadu (Ruksmini Devi really revived the form.) So interesting to see the dancers practice again and again as their teacher sang the poem that they were dancing to!

(Dancers wear a special kind of sari for lessons, called a "dance sari".)

Sudha also arranged for us to see the rehearsal of a piece which the lovely school director, Leela Samson, is performing in Delhi just as I am writing. Seeing a rehearsal was so exciting: the musicians and both dancers were excellent, and there was a vibrant quality to the whole process as it was the first rehearsal for the artists and they were due to perform a day hence! Really a special time, as well as a beautiful theater.

(To the right, the school director, Leela Samson, rehearsing.)

(The rehearsal was attended by lots of students, although this picture was taken towards the end and only few remained. To the left and right of the dancers sit the musicians, singers, and time keepers.)
Ravi and Sudha also introduced us to Nayantara, a woman our age who lives in Chennai but also went to Stanford. She was really nice and unexpectedly invited us to celebrate Holi with her and some of her friends. That was really special: this festival of colors is mainly celebrated in the North, so we wouldn't have known about it were it not for her invitation (we were hosted at the house of a couple from the North of India, and Nayantara's own family is from the North). To prepare for the festival, David and I bought some cheap white clothes that we knew would have to be thrown out by the end of the day. Here we are, before:

And after...

For David's birthday (March 12th) we left Sudha and Ravi's place for an overnight stay in Mahabalipuram, where we got to see more beautiful sculptures! To get there we took a "Hop On Hop Off" bus, a first, and a pretty good experience. We hopped off and on at two locations along the way: the first was Dakshina Chitra, an interesting museum that has bought houses from the different states of Southern India and somehow "recreated" the culture around them (no doubt this would make for an interesting deconstructionist exercise...)

(Getting hennah done in the "Tamil Nadu" area of the museum. You can make out an upside down peacock on my arm.)

(Learning to make a children rattle toy using palm leaves in the "Kerala" section of the museum.)

The second stop was at a site called Tiger Cave, the first glimpse I got of Pallava sculpture before reaching Mahabalipuram. While the cave was very beautiful...

...I am most fond of this place for the incredible chance it offers for lingam worship...

(Blissful worship.)

Mahabalipuram was exeptional. Below is an image of the well known 5 Rathas (chariots). All the buildings and the animals you see have been sculpted out of a single, giant boulder.
(Another view of the 5 Rathas.)

While Mahabalipuram is best known for a magnificent wall carving depicting all the creatures of the Earth coming to praise and thank Shiva for bringing the Ganges down to Earth

(Right above the temple, standing to the left of an ascetic in tree pose, you should be able to make out Shiva.)

David and I loved many of the pieces there. Below is a fantastic relief of the fearsome goddess Durga about to slay a demon disguised as a bull. It's so alive, full of movement and detail, as well as interesting characters. Hopefully you will be able to zoom in by clicking on it!
We also loved this Ganga Lakshmi. As you can see here, she is usually portrayed in a very plastic version: both elephants simoultaneously pouring water over her. The overall feel is of symmetry, resulting somewhat static. Here, instead, the artists were really playful.

Since returning from Mahabalipuram, David and I have also made a day trip to the small and dusty town of Kanchipuram, where we saw a beautiful Shiva temple from the 7th-8th century (the town is actually COVERED in temples, but very few have beautiful art.) Below are two images of the reliefs on the walls of the temple, both depictions of Shiva.

Kanchipuram, while interesting for the Kailasanath Temple, proved poisonous for my health: I have been stranded at home all day with a typical Dehli belly and all the other symptoms that come with it (general aches, sometimes a little fever, tiredness, etc.) It is not so bad, considering it's only the second time since we've been here and that it's given me the opportunity to bring the blog to date.

Tomorrow (if I have recovered enough) we plan to leave for Pondicherry, where we will stay for a couple of days before moving on to Auroville. I hope this entry finds you well and healthy!



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hyderabad and Tirumala in Andra Pradesh.

From Nagarjuna Sagar, David and I took a bus up to Hyderabad: as usual, quiet tiring, but also always lovely to see the people around us and get a sense of public transportation in India. (Even though it's pretty rough sometimes - especially when buses are not AC - we have found places to be well connected and buses and trains to run regularly and on time.)

(This sweet pair was sitting a few rows behind us. The mother was a little shy about being photographed, but she also seemed delighted when I showed her the image.)

(Umbrellas are functional ways of creating immediate shade. This woman was sitting on the main road of one of the villages we passed with the bus.)
We managed to get into Hyderabad during a heatwave, which was not so great since this is a very polluted city, with very few trees and too many cars and autorickshaws. The city itself has a long is history associated with different Muslim rulers, and so far it has been the place where we have seen the largest Muslim population. For instance, while we have seen many Hindu couples riding motorcycles...

This was the first time we saw Muslim couples on scooters!

(How many people could this fit in India? So far, the most we've seen on a motorcycle are three adults and one child...)
The highlight of our stay in Hyderabad was a visit to the "Medieval" fort of Golconda, about half an hour outside of the city. The fort used to be the capital of the Muslim Kingdom of Golconda, and was originally built as a capital for the kingdom, and then rebuilt as a defense against the invasions of the Mughals from the North. This picture gives a good sense of the general build of the fort.gives a good sense of the general build of the fort.

(The army quarters.)

(One of the entrances to the queens' quarters.)
We visited the fort and then attended the "Sound and Light Show", which brings the fort to life with colored light and a fairy tale like recounting of its history, complete with the sound of galloping horses, sung poetry from the time, and the climactic sounds of the battle under which the fort fell. Here, for you, is "Golconda by Night":

During the show we learnt that when Golconda fort became too small for its growing population, the Shah started the construction of a new capital for his kingdom, today's Hyderabad.

(The Charminar was built by the Shah shortly after Hyderabad was founded, in 1591. It is one of the most important monuments of the city and used to house the meetings of dignitaries.)

We left Hyderabad gladly, although a little unsure of the trip ahead of us: before returning to Chennai we planned to stop in Tirumala, a HUGE pilgrimage center in the South of Andra Pradesh where people from all over India come to ask the main deity (Venkateswara - a form of Vishnu) for their wishes to come true. In order for the main deity to grant their wish, pilgrims are supposed to shave off their hair as an offering. Tirumala is thought to be the richest and most visited pilgrimage site in the world, and is visited daily by about 50,000-100,000 pilgrims. Because it is such a busy place, all overnight trains were booked way in advance and David and I had only one option for our trip there: overnight bus with (drum roll) reclining chairs. We figured if we can do transcontinental airplane trips like that, a bus should not be too difficult. Well, it was definitely an experience, of which the highlights were 1) the outrageously loud volume of a Hindi movie that was played for the first two hours of the journey; and 2) the likewise outrageously loud volume of the morning prayer which was blasted at 6.30am. Luckly David and I are still mesmerized enough with all that is new and different to have found it funny...

Tirumala definitely made up for the difficult journey there. It's hard to describe the whole process, but basically once you arrive at the temple grounds you buy a ticket and stand in que in order to catch a glimpse of the God (or the statue that represents it.) This is called Darshana. We got tickets for the faster que, which meant we were in a line for only one hour and a half. In line you stand pressed against the bodies of other pilgrims, trying to prevent people from cutting in front of you, while avoiding crushing little children and older people. Every now and then a chant of "Goooooovinda!" starts and people chant together for a few moments. Around us were women singing and praying softly, and a fun group of young men, all with their heads shaven and sandalwood paste all over their bald heads.

Right before seeing Venkateswara you arrive at the main temple: an incredibly intricate construction complitely plated in gold and silver. The "viewing" only lasts a few moments: there are temple guards all around literally shoving the crowd along so as not to hold up the que too much. And then, you are out! That is the most exhilarating feeling, and it leaves you in a blissful state: you are done with the que, have been dizzied by the golden temple, and have caught a brief glimpse of a beautifully adorned sculpture about 10 meters away, only lit by candle light. What's even more lovely is that after Darshan the priests feed you Prasad, a little bit of food you are supposed to have after viewing God. For us it was a delicious mix of curd and rice, with some mustard seeds. And finally, each pilgrim (together with their ticket) receives complimentary Laddus, DELICIOUS balls of ghee, cashews, raisins and some sort of doughy element that are renowned among those who have been at Tirumala.

(Delicious laddus, each large enough so that your hand can't close around it.)

(Blissful faces on their way back to Chennai. You can spot some shaven heads in the back.)
(They were sitting across the aisle from us and we were a little jealous of how quickly and easily they fell asleep...)

(Sunflowers and mango trees growing next to each other in the country around Tirumala.)

And so, blessed and carrying sweets, we made our way back to Chennai...