Kumbakonam – India’s most ancient cultures

If you love to retrace the footsteps of ancient cultures, myths and legends you certainly have to come to this part of India. If you are keen to explore more than just the century and measurements of temples then this is the place. If you share my fascination of mythology and the socio economic background of some of the most astonishing achievements of 3000 years ago, then Kumbakonam is the place to experience. This is the land before religion, where Shiva, the all-pervading form of existence is worshipped as the five elements and the nine celestial bodies, the planets. Take a step back into time  when the Vedas and Upanishads were written, studied and explored. A time where sound was an understood as an in music manifested emotion. Shiva’s Tandava at Chidambaram is nothing less than the victory of our supreme self over the destructive elements of our ego.

If you take time to explore this area, you explore shrines and arts that reflect the spirit of ancient science, where the influence of the cosmos on our physical and mental system was studied and explored. The culture of South India right up to the invasion of the British indicates a socio political system of a very high order, where a loosely formed caste system set the base for a non violent coexistence. No surprise, that this culture was of great interest to others and travelled far and served as the foundation of the temples of Ankor Wat and the Hindu faith in Bali.

In compare to the Northern part of the country, South India was untouched by islamic wars and invasions and retained a less diluted form of its ancient knowledge.

The British in turn were after the material riches and even forcefully tried to eradicate local knowledge, rather than learning from it. Much of India’s wisdom was forced underground and is being gradually revived. Ayurveda, Yoga, Kalaripayattu and other forms of physical, mental and spiritual healing are rediscovered, to a large extend also fuelled by western curiosity and the recognition that western capitalism is turning into a proposition that raises more questions than providing answers. Besides this age old technics of healing there is an incredible wealth in art and music in this region.

For me a magical point of innate attraction and a must see is the Chidambaram Thillai Nataraja temple, considered to be the place, where Shiva danced his Tandava, the celestial dance of creation. The name of the city literally means “atmosphere of wisdom”. The temple architecture symbolises the connection between creative arts and the divine. The temple represents one of the five elements (air, ether) and is considered to be the geomagnetic centre of the earth.

Another very important cultural and historical part for Hindu faith are the Navagraha, or the temples of the nine planets. These shrines can be found in small villages or completely surrounded by fields.

Darasuram is not a living temple these days. Yet, it is a wonderful place to see the astonishing temple architecture in a smaller form. Its nice to observe the intricacies of the workmanship once not in neck craning heights. The temple boasts a wonderful insight into the temple art of South India including many fine and wonderful sculptures adorning walls and pillars.

Gangaikondacholapuram, another close by wonder, is known as an architectural and engineering marvel. It is open and without the traditional temple walls and has one of the largest statues of Nandi, Shiv’s bull in India.

Swamimalai

When you look at one of the bronze idols in temples and shops, you look at a craft that goes back more than a thousand years. This art, is also known as the lost form. Statues are sculpted from wax, slowly covered in clay, dried, covered again and eventually baked in a kiln. The hot wax is drained from the freshly baked clay and  and  replaced with molten bronze. A fascinating art and by all means not as easy as it sound here, as only about 10% of the efforts prove to be effort of grace and beauty.

The weaver

India and Saris is a love story dating centuries back and there is no garment that dresses a woman with more elegance than this 5 meter piece of woven craftsmanship.

In the village of Thirbuvanam almost every house owns a handloom. On my last visit, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Jothi, a master weaver. He explained, that the fine silk from the factory is too thick, so its manually split into three, producing an almost invisible thread, that is used to hand weave the most wonderful Saris, interwoven with artistic gold and silver patterns. This craft has been part of this region for generations. No wonder then, that these silk saris are considered among the finest in India.

Pondicherry – a travellers tale

What I really love about Pondicherry is, that it has all those contrasts. One one side you walk in the shade of the tree lined french quarter with its colonial buildings, including french street signs and red barrette police. But once you cross the canal, separating the “white town” from the rest, you end up in a typical lively, loud South Indian town with all the street hawkers and colourful markets.

This is a city to discover on foot and relish and explore with your camera.

Moreover there is very little chance of getting lost. The streets are laid out in easy to navigate patterns unlike most other Indian cities.

One of my favourite spots in the city is the Indian coffee house on M.G. Road. I got introduced to these always clean and historical places way back in the late 80ties by my friend and Tabla Maestro Sandesh Popatkar of Nagpur. Indian coffee houses are an institution and were one of the first acts of defiance to the British Crown. Once you step rough their door, you get this kind of kind of dignified ambience of simple sophistication.

20171203_110655Another magnet for me is the “Goubert Market”, built by the french just a stone throw away from the French quarter. Kind of close enough to get your daily goods, but without being disturbed by the smell of the fish market and the noise of the bartering crowds. Its like entering another world, really loud and smelly at the fish market and really blissful quite and with fragrance in the air at the flower section. I just love to walk around this labyrinth of shops, point my camera, take a huge amount of pics and soak in the atmosphere. The garland makers have a really soft spot in my heart and I love to watch them create these works of art, to be used for weddings, ceremonies and at temples as an offering for the gods.

Once out of the market, I put on my old practised poker face, walk up to the Ricksha and negotiate a ride back home. My magic trick is to ask him to take me first to his favourite tea stall.  This mostly opens a window to conversation and now he will not only take you to his tea stall, but also give you a tale of his city, proud to be your guide. As a contrast I suggest you take a INTAC heritage walk in the afternoon. Ashok, the architect will take you trough the french town and tell you about the efforts they do, to protect the heritage of the city. INTAC is an organisation, involved in protecting local heritage. There is no evening in Pondicherry without a walk by the sea. Imagine! the town closes its main road for traffic, so people can enjoy a walk. All of Pondicherry comes down here to walk, talk and enjoy the cool breeze and the sound of the waves in this amazing town by the bay of bengal.

Of course you can take a trip to Auroville too. A place where once the baby boomers of the west hoped to create a better world of eternal sunshine, joy and harmony. The place still exists and has this weird kind of “secret society” aura, a feeling I remember from San Francisco, when I stumbled by accident into the recruitment home of Scientology. In the same way the Aurobindo and Auroville Societies (they split some time ago over the difference of how to promote harmony)have an enormous political clout and own by now half the city.

If you are in Periyar

For me, Spice Village and Periyar have always had this feeling of finally arriving. I just love the nature, the walks and the clean fresh air. And there is always sound, its never still and quite, there is a constant buzz of insects, birdcalls and the “whoo whoo” of the dark and beautiful Nilgiri Langur. Once on a bamboo raft we heard the tiger call, real close. Frantically we tried to get some speed ….and got stuck on one of those ghost like trees jutting out all over the lake. Took us half an hour of swearing and a bath to get going again. By that time of course, the most noble of all creatures had disappeared into the jungle. Another time we finally laid eyes on the most amazing “jurassic” experience – the Great Indian Hornbill. What a sound, the “whoosh, whoosh” of its giant wings vibrates the air and literally sends a shiver down your spine.

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But in the national park there in not everything about wildlife. Roughly two generations ago the Indian Government decided to settle the indigenous communities outside the park. For them it was a big change. They had been living off the forest by collecting honey, herbs, firewood, fishing and occasional hunting. Kind of homeless they withered away, men took to alcohol, drugs and turned to poaching. Luckily some good initiatives offer new perspectives. Spice Village adopted the traditional grass thatch to offer jobs and the wildlife department educated young men into guides and guardians of the forest.

Last time in the Periyar forest, Prateesh, our naturalist and me were accompanied by Vishu from the Palia community. His granddad was still living completely off the forest and inside the park. We asked about the changes within such a short time. Honestly, I came out humbled of the park. So many times I had been there and was never aware of what knowledge these communities really had. Vishu told us about their indigenous system of medicine that could cure almost any disease just by using plants, bark and roots. He knew how to deal with snake bites and attacking elephants. Just a few month prior he had saved a lady that was surprised by an elephant rushing out of hiding. Brave Vishu with bare hands attacked the beast till it shied away. He told me with a chuckle that they actually play with the elephants on the meadows a show of strength. The winner gets the right of way. So next time you venture into the park, you know you are protected by the masters of the wild.

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Travellers usually arrive at Periyar after a week or more of intense culture, temples and wonderful sights from the plains of Tamil Nadu. Periyar is just the oasis you need to digest all that you have learned from the world of wisdom, architecture, culture and art. Here you can dive into the sounds of nature, away from the blaring horns of day to day Indian traffic. Its the place to fill your lungs with fresh mountain air, often laden with the fragrance of flowers and the scent of spices grown here in such abundance.

Simply take a day or two off from travel and get spoiled by nature, after all you have reached “Gods own country”, Kerala.

Did you know that pepper originally comes from these hills and became one of the most valuable trading goods on the planet? Take time and visit one of the many spice plantations that dot the hills. Follow the accent of cardamom from its long leaved plant to its final use in our 50 Mile diet restaurant at Spice Village. Just spend a few hours aimlessly wandering trough our garden, watch the monkeys jump from tree to tree and the dog sized Giant Malabar Squirrel litter the pathways with petals of his favourite flowers.

Take time to do a tour of the resort and learn about all the eco measures that were taken to respect nature, the communities and to leave a minimum carbon footprint, while still offering you the best of international comfort. Spice Village in itself is worth a journey.

Madurai

Madurai is one of the oldest living cities of the world. The center and the reason for the city is the complex of the Sri Meenakshi Temple. The immense and colourful Entrance doors (Gopurams) are visible even before you reach the city. To get to the temple is an experience in itself. Since the city was build in a rectangular pattern around the temple long time ago, the streets are narrow and full of people, cars and other means of transport. Its a real challenge for the driver to negotiate his car trough these alleys and lanes. Once you are there, the complex just seems to spread without end in each direction. Once you have passed the main gate you realise that there is another wall within, protecting shrines and ponds. You enter into a city, vibrant with pilgrims, here to ask for favours, fix marriages, hold ceremonies and simply come to devote some time to their inner healing. There are halls with shrines, dedicated to the planets. There are temples for Ganesha, the bringer of luck and two main shrines, one for the goddess Meenakshi and one to Shiva her consort. Their duality represents the static principle (Shiva) and the emotional or dynamic manifestation (Parvati). This duality or inseparability is repeated in Hinduism again and again, signifying each time the manifestation of a different aspect of life and the universe. There is always just not enough time inside Meenakshi, there is so much to see, learn and simply witness. Besides the wonderful temple, make sure to pass by at the Tirumal Nayak Palace, a Palace full of influence of different European cultural periods.

Chettinad – the heart of Tamil Nadu

Chettinad is kind of a holiday. Simple life, villages, small markets and great food. Chettinad cuisine is considered one of the finest in India, even tough it is not as well known as the Hyderabadi-, or North Indian cuisine. Fact is that the use of spices is nowhere as complex as here. Thats why we decided to put a big table into the kitchen so you can chat with the chefs directly, while enjoying your lunch. Just make sure you stay at Visalam.

Being here is taking a cycle and ride trough the quite village lanes, to visit small local handicrafts, where they show you how a Sari is woven, or at another place how floor tiles are made. Having a stroll trough the weekly market is another really happy experience. Chitchat with the banana seller and marvel at the variety of veggies at offer. Of course even here in Chettinad there is no escape from Shiva, but why would you, after all, he has so many forms. Here in the villages, he is worshipped at Ayyanar the protector of the fields. He rides a horse and not his Nandi bull as usual. And his temples are really worth a visit. The shrines are simple, and the entrance is kind of cute. Lines of funnily grinning terra cotta horses line the way to the shrine. They are offered by the communities each year as a thank you for a good harvest.

And of course if you come to stay with us at Visalam, we make sure that your experiences and excursions are guided by our local story tellers, because how else would you get that authentic flavour you are looking for?

In Chettinad stay at: http://www.cghearth.com/visalam

Imagine ……

Imagine just for a while a world without money. Lets replace the value of money with curiosity and benevolence to the planet.

What a world would it be without the competition, without the unequal distribution of wealth? A world where we are all the same, no border, no banks, no politicians would tell us what to do. Things would be done because of the inherent curiosity and goodness in humanity. Today crime is at its peak and mostly because of money or the need to divide us into races and religions. Take away money and religion (make it philosophical instead) and there would be much less crime.

Imagine a man who loves gardening and a man who loves to create cars. The man with the garden, needs a car to bring his goods to the people. So he goes to the man who builds cars and explains his needs. The man with the cars tells him, just look around, take one, its there. The gardener happily drives his car to the people and tells them; hey if you’re hungry, take, its there. You can spin this thought to everything in life and realise, yes it can be done. There is enough curiosity to create technology that is beneficial to the planet and all its inhabitants. There is enough land to grow food for everyone. There is enough of everything if we take away the principle of what we are built on right now.

The monetary system we are bound to has too many flaws. It favours a few, divides people, countries and cultures and worst of it all it is based on a lie. It has never given the equality it promised, has not stopped hunger and exploitation as politicians, economists and bankers told us it would. In fact it is and has been the catalyst of all the evils of today. Its basic principle works like with an endangered species. Lets take Elephants, Ivory today is double the price of gold and the fewer there are, the more are killed, because in our system rarity promises higher gain. The same rule can be applied to everything in life.

So lets just sit back and fathom a planet without money …..

Thanjavur

People call it the “big temple” and the talk is of the probably grandest structure in South India, the Brihadeshwara Temple at Thanjavur. The top of the temple is adorned by a 70 ton rock and till date the speculation is on, on how this giant rock was brought up there more than 1000 years ago. The tenple is not s colorful as many other and that makes him sort of a change. Is the size that impresses and its simplicity. The temple feels like an oasis, just a wonderful place to see.

If you are in Thanjavur you have to make sure to visit one of the famous Veena makers. The Sarasvati, or Rudra Veena is a South Indian classical instrument that hasn’t changed much since the times of the vedas, almost 3000 years ago. Its a string instrument made from the wood of the jack fruit tree and it takes a craftsman several weeks to create one instrument. To visit these craftsmen is like visiting a museum, where literally thousands of years greet you in a still active environment.