Temples, Thali Meals, Bullock Cart Rides

Itinerary for Winter Break 2010:

15th December  5 am: Leave Austin.
16th December 11.55 pm: Arrive in Singapore, jetlagged and disgusted by falling airplane food standards.
17th December: Shop for India trip.
18th December 9 am: Leave for Chennai.

At this point I would like to point out that I have taken four flights in two days or so, basically across 0.75 of the entire world. I don’t know why I couldn’t have just gone to Chennai straight. This is clearly the result of some mysterious decision that my parents took.

20th December morning: Leave by flight to Madurai.
24th December evening: Return by flight to Chennai.


Anyway besides the flight, my holiday in India after three years was very… interesting. I don’t mean it in the waiter-there’s-a-fly-in-my-soup kind of Interesting with a capital I, I genuinely felt as though I was experiencing a lot more of Chennai than I usually do. Or perhaps I just had more time to think about it; after all I did spend close to 10 hours on the road (i.e. potholed monstrosities). But I saw all my relatives, got drawn into the general whirlpool of family gossip, had a good long look at matrimony and its attendant horrors, and ate a lot.

In summary, things I did/that happened to me:

Trip to Madurai to see my grandparents

At some point during the trip, my dad unearthed an old album of his family. My grandparents are featured in it fairly often, along with my older cousins. In those photos, grandpa is solid and a little forbidding, and grandma is plump and a little crooked-eyed. Real life is a little different: my grandfather is just as tall but is nearly skeletal, and he speaks with quiet humor and intelligence, on the rare occasions he can be induced to speak. My grandmother is thinner as well, and looks as though she has collapsed a little into herself, although she is still as gossipy and mischievous and mean to people she doesn’t like.

I tried not to think too much about the fact that I will probably see them pass away within this next decade, but at least now I realize that time does pass, in a sense. They weren’t always like this — that’s just what I thought when I was little. But now I know how they’ve changed. I think I can deal with it.

Other than that, frankly, there wasn’t much to do at Madurai. There were books and the internet occasionally, but besides that the most fun was going to Sankarankovil, which is our family deity temple. The place is definitely at least a thousand years old; just think about that for a second. Sankarankovil has seen centuries pass and the stone pillars still bear traces of old Tamil writing. It’s marvelous from a historical standpoint, and makes me want to strangle the idiots who drop plastic rubbish all over the place. Also, apparently, our family deity is Sankaranarayanan, who is half-Shiva and half-Vishnu. This is significant, or at least I’d like to think so, because we’re Iyers* and therefore Shaivites, and the Iyengars are Vaishnavites. You’d think this would make us more tolerant or something, because we embrace more deities… no such luck.

Biggest disappointment: not being able to take the train. I freaking love Indian trains, or at least sitting in the bourgeois 1st class A/C sleeper compartment, with the two bunk beds that my brother and I always have dibs on. I mean, who the hell takes a plane to Madurai from Chennai?

Cousin’s wedding reception

This was easily the most fun in the entire trip, except for when the bride, my cousin S, had to stand for three hours and had to go to bed after taking two painkillers. That girl is a trooper: big smile for the punters (that line just never seemed to end) who came to give the happy couple presents.

The entire wedding, which I sadly couldn’t be there for (not least for the family drama that accompanied it) was in itself a story, but during the reception I got to see how sweet the “boy’s side” were — the boy himself is really a sweetheart — and they love her, so I’m certain she’ll be happy with them.

My family had a bunch of rooms to ourselves and my other aunt and uncle** and my closest cousin J had come down for the thing, so it was a lot of fun wandering into rooms, talking, making fun of my cousin S and everyone else and eating things.

Also, the wedding/reception food? They had at least five kinds of dessert in the evening. I just want you to think about that for a second.

Mantra resort trip + temples

I spent the evening of Jan 1 2011 on a bullock cart, bumping through tiny villages in the area of Veppathur, South India. Unique way to ring in 2011, but it was also part of this touristy thing that guests at Mantra get to do. And Mantra is a high end resort started by my uncle, modeled after a Brahmin agraharam complete with thali meals and the most excellent service ever. I’m torn between sniffing at the concept — I mean, this is elitism even within elitism; I’m pretty sure Brahmins aren’t the only ones who can make good idlis, plus the decor’s all very simple rustic and I’m a cynic —   but I have to admit it was a really really great experience. The staff is well-trained but genuine, there isn’t any fawning smoothness that I’ve encountered a couple times before. The facilities are well-maintained and everything’s provided for. Best of all, that area is famous for some of the best temples in South India. Do a day trip to Kumbakonam, or even take a half hour drive, and you’ll see about three UNESCO temples built around the Chola era, some dating back to more than a thousand years.

It’s really hard for me to describe why I feel drawn to these temples. It’s not for any religious reasons, because I’m pretty much agnostic, but their sheer precise, intelligent beauty is hard to ignore. They’re also not painted the garish bright colors that most temples are these days because UNESCO apparently requires them to be in their original (i.e. present condition), faded state. But my uncle tells me those garish colors are what the temples are supposed to have; he also tells me that some old temples have taken UNESCO money and then reneged on their promises to keep the temple uncolored.






Temple detail at Gangaikondacholapuram


This is history you can feel and touch and breathe. Many of the temples are actually complexes, with an inner courtyard and the sanctum right at the center, and if you can tell from the photos, there is a profusion of sculptures. Even the smallest panels of the pillars have tiny Ganesh sculptures, painstakingly carved. There’s a kind of harmony between the straight lines of the supporting structures and the almost voluptuous figurines. Total brilliance.

By the way, at Gangaikondacholapuram (translation: “the kingdom of the King Chola who captured land all the way up until the Ganges in the North whoa!”), something odd happened which I really should’ve been expecting anyway. My family got stared at, big time. Now, my grandfather tells me that the family lore is we migrated from Poona/Pune, which is up north in — hang on let me look this up — in Maharastra somewhere near Mumbai. So that could account for our light skin color, which is decidedly non-Dravidian. But I swear to god we were getting more looks than the European visitors there. Finally three kids ran up to us and wished us “Happy New Year!” In English. Because clearly we couldn’t be Tamil.

Wandering around Chennai in general

I actually like Chennai, mainly because of my relatives. But I do not relish being pushed around by crowds and I do not like travelling by road anywhere. This is because most of the places I’ve been to seem unable to distinguish between the sidewalk and the road. Result: potholes which no one cares about because oh well it’s just the national highway and we Indians should be used to this by now; cows, goats and dogs all wandering across, which is frankly really funny; and pedestrians seeming completely oblivious to the traffic.

I’ve realized the trick to crossing the road in Chennai: you need to saunter across the road like you own it, which forces oncoming vehicles to slow down because they don’t actually want to kill anyone. The legal fees would be absurd, after all. So the end result is that traffic usually moves along at about 20 km/hr and no one has bothered to put in enough pedestrian crossings.

What else? All my Madras family (or nearly all) have moved into a single apartment complex. So there’s my youngest aunt in the bottom floor playing Sai Baba bhajans, my second-oldest uncle in the first floor booming into his phone to a business associate, and then my youngest uncle, his wife and my grandma in the second floor, usually having some kind of discussion at what sounds like the top of their voices. It’s really… jolly, actually, to be able to run up and down the stairs looking for people to feed you/people to help you/people who need to be found for other people/people to argue laugh with. To top the whole thing off, the very top floor is split into two halves and each half has two floors instead of one. One is occupied by the travel agency that my uncle runs, and the other is rented out by someone else. God knows what she must think of us.

On the other hand, I’ve decided that Chennai itself is just noisy, that’s just how it is. Somewhere at 4.30 in the morning, for instance, a temple nearby starts playing religious music. Roosters with no sense of timing at all begin crowing even earlier at 3 in the morning. There’s always someone talking in the road, or some auto rattles past, stuff like that. I think Chennai babies must be able to sleep through absolutely anything.

Wait, oh my god you guys, filter coffee. This is going to sound absurd but I’ve actually never drunk it before this trip. I was forbidden from drinking coffee until I went to the US and could do whatever the hell I wanted within limits, but still. And can I just tell you — filter coffee leaves Starbucks writhing in the dust. That is all.

*There are even further divisions of Brahmins, apparently, and during this trip to Madurai I was informed by my grandfather that we are vadama Iyers, which apparently makes us top cat even amongst the Brahmins. My grandfather also explained that there are other, more “impure” varieties of Brahmins who are really no better than non-Brahmins and who don’t eat crosslegged as we’re meant to, and got down on the floor to demonstrate. Grandpa is normally a sweetheart but sometimes I just… don’t know. I need to write an article about this.
**It just occurred to me that there is a complex naming system for South Indian families. I’m going to have a make a chart or something for this, but basically, there are three families living in our apartment in Chennai: my youngest aunt (there are three girls and my mum’s the second), my youngest uncle (there are four boys) (living with my grandma), and my second-youngest uncle. The people who turned up for my cousin’s reception were my oldest aunt and her husband.

2 thoughts on “Temples, Thali Meals, Bullock Cart Rides

  1. YES! now you will know what I mean when I go on and on about those temples – they’re incredible. just. incredible.

    um. how did it take you 23 years to drink filter coffee? sumi oh my goodness I hated starbucks for the longest time when I came here.

    pune is 3 hours outside of mumbai, thankyouverymuch.

    as for that naming system, krishashok’s got you covered. http://krishashok.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/relatives.png though without accompanying translations, i’m afraid.

    hi fellow vadamite. which sounds like vegemite except it’s supposedly a good thing, no?

    1. wait, what do you mean “now you will know what i mean”, i never said temples weren’t cool! just that the newer ones were boring 😛

      and i think i’m going to hate starwho when i get back to the US 😦 maybe i should’ve brought filter coffee materials back from madras.

      excuse me, i said “somewhere near mumbai”. *mutters about mumbai maniacs*

      HAHAH i saw that naming system. except NO ONE i know says athaan, come on. i don’t even know who he’s referring to. i think i need to make myself a written explanation of that chart. there are too many arrows for me!

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