Traveling Southern IndiaJanuary 9, 2011 1 Comment
Chennai, India is the city I called home for many years before moving to the United States. Early last summer, I went on a 2.5 month-long vacation to visit my parents, in-laws and extended family and had a wonderfully relaxing time. There’s something about going back home that no other trip or adventure can give you.
Chennai has a thriving cultural scene (in the traditional Indian context!), boasts the world’s longest beach, has some of the finest jewelry and clothing stores in India, is home to incredible temples and landmark buildings…and is the city where I spent some of the best years of my life. My daughter got to experience first hand some of the traditions I grew up around, and was pampered to no end by relatives on both sides of the family – an experience I’m so glad she had.
The city my saner half comes from, Coimbatore, is known for its once thriving textile mills and premier educational institutions. Next to Chennai, this is where I spent most of my time in India. The city was gearing up to host the world’s first ‘Tamil’ conference while I was there – a grand scale event which hundreds of thousands of people were expected to attend, featuring cultural programs, art shows, music, poetry, debates and discussions. I left Coimbatore before the event commenced, but got to witness all the preparations, the grand stage and open grounds where mammoth tents were being set up to host the event.
My father’s hometown and the town I spent many summers in as a child, playing with cousins, pampered by grandparents and enamored by the simplicity of small-town living. Tradition requires that we pay a visit to our family deities and village temples at every possible opportunity and although many of my relatives and cousins have now moved on to the greener pastures of cities, a trip to Kumbakonam and our village deities is sure to be accompanied by a generous dose of nostalgia. The magnificence of thousand-year old temples, the casual presence of peacocks and elephants in temple courtyards and the sight of children jumping into rivers and playing unsupervised were some of the aspects that left my daughter a little amused and I suspect, somewhat awe struck.
The town my father-in-law hailed from… just as we visit the family deities and village temples on my family’s side, it is also customary to visit those of my husband’s. At the face of it, these trips look religious in nature and they are to some extent – the purpose of the visit is after all to worship at the shrine of the deities – however, for me, it’s more about staying in touch with your roots, being able to go back to where your ancestors came from and never losing sight of your background and who you are.
Ancestry pays an important role in Indian society – people easily trace back their lineage to four generations at the very minimum and if not for annual trips like these, these quaint villages may be all but forgotten in the frenzied lives we lead today. It’s always refreshing to go back to a rural setting and watch life unfold at a slower, calmer pace, although modern life has caught on here too and don’t be surprised if you visit a village with mud houses where there’s no indoor plumbing, but every house has a TV and multiple cell phones!
Since we live so far away from our families, whenever we visit India we make it a point to spend as much time as we can with them when we’re there. Since my husband’s siblings live in different parts of the city and have school-age kids, it’s hard for us all to be together for any length of time. Indian schools follow a different calendar and the months when we’re there, kids are busy preparing for tests, doing homework or rushing to classes after school. The only way to spend some quality time together with everyone is to take a short break and get away from there. And that’s what we do every time. We rent a minibus, convince everyone to take a day or two off and go away to a destination that’s at least a few hours away by road. This way, we all get to catch up on the road, cousins get to gossip, we bring along picnic baskets and have a good time. The destination is usually a hill resort since there are plenty of those in Southern India.
This year it was Munnar – home to India’s leading tea estates, full of lush green slopes, pristine waterfalls and a breath of fresh air for all of us city folks. Scenic drives, breathtaking views, nature strolls, garden tours, family games and two nights later, nobody was ready to head back.
Kanchipuram and Oru Irukkai
Kanchipuram is a city about 80 kms SW of Chennai and is known for its thousand year old temples, rich heritage and silk textiles. It’s also where our families’ spiritual gurus lived and continue to live. During this trip to Kanchipuram we were witness to a special treat – a thousand year old temple chariot (theru) was being taken on a procession around the city, with thousands of worshippers, onlookers and volunteers participating in various ways. Witnessing such processions is considered auspicious, but for me, it was all about the serendipity of happening to be at that place on that day, being able to experience a tradition that’s thousands of years old. Auspicious or not – it was enthralling to watch a part of history being relived. We made our usual visits to the Kamakshi temple, the Kanchi Mutt (hermitage/ashram) and then made our way to a small village named Oru Irukkai to witness a remarkable structure in making. Mani Mandapam is an architectural marvel that’s being constructed using thousand-year old techniques and materials that ancient kings and dynasties employed to build grand temples in South India. The Mani Mandapam revives some of the ancient architectural grandeur and makes one ponder as to how such huge single-stone structures, intricately carved pillars and grand temples could have been built thousands of years ago without the use of machinery or modern technology. Definitely worth a visit for students of architecture, design or just about anyone interested in Indian history and culture.
I visited the IT hub of India last year with the sole purpose of spending time with an aging and beloved relative who was 98 at the time. We had a wonderfully relaxing day with my cousin, his family and my elderly aunt and uncle, and didn’t as much as step out of their house to see Bangalore – which we had visited several times before anyway. The one day that we spent in Bangalore with my uncle is what remains etched in our memories from our trip to India, because, less than a week later – he passed away. We had just landed in the US by then and couldn’t make the trip back for his funeral.