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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

Darasuram

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 roam the premises in a place, where the intricacies of the workmanship are not in neck craning heights. The temple really boasts a wonderful insight into the temple art of South India including many fine and wonderful sculptures adorning walls and pillars.

Chidambaram

Chidambaram might be considered by many just a stop over on the way to central Tamil Nadu. Yet just passing by would be a pity, because to the locals this is one of the most important places in the land. The Shiva temple in the town center is considered to be the magnetic equator of the world. The place is sacred to Hindus, because it is here, where the energy streams criss crossing the globe form a knot. And it is here that Shiva danced his Tandava, the dance of destruction and creation. It is from here that the dancing image of Shiva in the form of Nataraja was formed, multiple arms, surrounded by flames and balancing himself dancing on the body of a demon. It is said, that if you conquer your ego (the demon, destruction) the universe will open up and grant you all its secrets (ring of flames, creation). To Hindus this place is therefore holy as it is said to grant passage from our limited intellect into the knowledge and wisdom of the universe, known as Moksha. The temple is open to all visitors and allows us to witness the rituals at the main shrine.

Things I love about Pondicherry

Haven’t really counted, but I am sure its more than 40 times that I have stopped at Pondicherry, that amazingly underrated city on the east coast, just three hours south of Chennai. Honestly I have no idea why this place has not turned into one of the prime attractions long ago.

I am not talking here about the two great exceptions, the Auroville and Aurobindo Pilgrims, once united and now a highly divided lot of “Peace on Earth” seekers. But those I do not really count as the curious culture travellers like myself.

Just imagine a place, so french in style that even the French rub their eyes in disbelieve. Hey and this quite little french riviera place is surrounded by a loud and lively Indian city. Where on Earth do you find a place like this?

Now there are a few places I think you just need to see.

Riksha ride

Take a Riksha in the Morning and see the city from the perspective of a Riksha driver. Its entirely their project and they are so proud to show you their city. Stopp at the tea stall and share a hot cup of typical Indian chai with you. For Information ask the front desk of Maison Perumal or Palais de Mahe Hotel.

Goubert Market

Wow, this is a place like no other! From the rather smelly fish section with the endless squabbling selling ladies. Last time I was there, I really had that very evil thought of understanding why those fishermen spend all their nights at sea, listening to nothing but the comforting sound of the waves and the wind.

If you manage to survive this noisy and fly invested hurdle, the veggie section seems like heaven. The voices reduce by half and the fragrance change is rather welcome. The array of veggies and fruits is just amazing. But this is not all, folks. If you pass from there towards the temple you will find yourself suddenly in the world of flowers. Rose and Queen of the night fragrances linger in the air. The stalls are turned into artists workshops and its amazing how fast those nimble fingers create works of art to be offered at temples or worn by bride and grooms at weddings.

Then there are tailors and textiles and a host of other shops, selling pulses, sugar and lots of other daily needs.

Last time I was there with a group. Gave them one and half an hour and at the end I had to drag them almost out of the place. Thats the magic of Goubert Market, my favourite place in the city.

Heritage walk

INTAC is a organisation that tries to protect the architecture and the cultural value of the city. They offer a walk trough the french town in the later afternoon. Its the great opposite of the Riksha tour in the morning. From the raw view of the man of the street you get now the intellectual inputs of an architect and the struggle to retain the cities charms. The contrast couldn’t be bigger. A walk not to be missed!

Evening at the temple

There is no better light to see a temple than in the evening, especially if its a living city temple, bustling with local families. The fading light of day and the candles turn these temples into an oasis of peace. Even the otherwise happily chatting kids become silent and their eyes lite up. The temple has another really nice touch in the evening – music. The ancient flutes and drums create that special ambiance of reverence and peace. More so, there no organised and pre fabricated rituals. Its a great reminder of this vast and feel-able difference between mythology and religion.

dscf0521Honestly, I am not too fond of the poor elephant standing outside the temple on this tiny platform, raising tirelessly his trunk and blessing people for a few coins. But then I am not fond of catholic priests sodomising boys either and both seem to get away with it since centuries. Religion is a funny thing that somehow turns a blind eye on injustice to animals and humans, as long the packaging promises relief from sorrow and pain.

The evening promenade 

If you have not taken a stroll in the evening along the sea promenade, its like you have not been to Pondicherry at all! This is another completely different take on life, nowhere else found in India. A street that is being blocked for traffic from the evening till the morning, so people can walk and children can play! And its not just a street, its the absolut main street of the city and this not just at some rare holiday.  No, its blocked everyday. Families, friends, guest, visitors all end up in the cool evening breeze, strolling up and down carefree along the sea. People come to read, chat, meditate and watch their children play. This promenade reflects the true identity of India, its lived and practised secularity. Just love the place.

Evening at PondicherryFood & Shopping

Pondicherry would not be Pondicherry without a Baguette and a good coffee. You find it in Baker street and other cosy corners of the city. Pondicherry really a good number of real nice restaurants and bars.

Restaurants, bars and shops are often run or influenced be the two large communities of Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram. Both communities are involved in the creation of wonderful and eco friendly products like textiles, paper, furniture, Incense, fragrances and jewellery. There are many boutiques with really nice finds and of a otherwise not available quality. Pondicherry is definitely also worth a shopping stop.

You might wonder, why my list does not feature the famous Auroville or the Aurobindo Ashram. After all a large tribute for the upkeep of the city goes to these two societies. My take is that if you are not part of it, they are not more than visiting a museum. Both have very restricted policies towards visitors and Auroville is basically just a nice walk in the forest to the gold plated Globe (Matri Mandir) and back. If you stay longer in Pondicherry they are definitely worth a visit

If you are in Pondicherry I would like to recommend the following accommodation:

www.cghearth.com/palaisdemahe or www.cghearth.com/maison-perumal

Hey, please leave me your inputs. As a traveller I am always open to learn and experience new things. Please drop me a line.

The backwaters

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The Backwaters
Lounging on a deck chair, moving gently, immersed in a rippling , scented silence. Can there be better ways to explore a new world than this? Once, these houseboats were barges, transporting rice along the large and intricate network of lakes and canals that cover the central part of the state of Kerala.

Around the expanse of Lake Vembanad, the backwaters of Kerala are a unique and fragile-ecosystem unlike any other in the world. Enveloping the port towns of Alleppey and Quilon on one end, they stretch like a patchwork quilt clear across the state, up to Calicut in the North. Some are no wider than an arm span, navigable only by canoe. Others are dual carriageways, deep and rippling, sometimes broadening out into vast misty lakes, sometimes curling into twisting worm turns, hemmed by paddy fields and fed by a thousand fat streams from the high ranges of the Spice Mountains to the East.

Experience Tip
To really enjoy the backwaters we suggest at least a 2 night stay on the house boat. Not only can you really get the feel of the cruise, but you will also be able to visit temples, churches and villages on the way, or take a leisurely stroll into the lush and green paddy fields. The boatmen will stop on the way to show you the various trades of the area, like Coconut Farms, Coir spinning and other typical small enterprises.

As an added benefit you will also leave the one night trails of most of the boats, which makes the experience calmer and richer.

For an undiluted and unforgettable experience, please have a look at: http://www.cghearth.com/spice-coast-cruises

Sunset spirits