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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

Traveller’s seek…….. a forgone conclusion

There is only one species that is going to change the consciousness of the planet – the seeker and the cross cultural traveller!

Some 30 years back the planet opened up. Countries that were closed because of internal policies, wars and turmoil became peaceful and opened their door to visitors. People left borders behind and took travel as a human right. They went out exploring, learning and connecting to other cultures, continents and places. Of course it was not all sunshine out there. Many western people realised the power of their money and brought suffering in forms of prostitution, drugs and other human abuse to many places and unfortunately to some extend continue to do so.

Yet, travel became the means to connect and getting to know each other. Because of this keen seeking to keenness to understand the world enjoys today a variety of wonderful manifestations.

We enjoy fusion music, world cuisine, student exchange programs, international researches in almost all fields, and so many more. Without the curious seeker, on whats beyond the boundaries of his home land much of this would never have happened.

If I look at todays world, it seem that travel is often no longer a human right, but slowly turning into a privilege. Right wing politics, racism, religion and “the so called war on terror” are closing down ever more borders and from the look of it, travel will even get more restrictive in the years to come.

Even the knowledge that it is just a few big conglomerates that benefit from the present war mongering is not going to change the situation as it stands.

However we can live without Avocados from Chili that turn vast landscapes into desert.

We can live without mangoes and beef from the amazon, who’s production destroys thousands of hectares of land each year. We can exist without changing the car every two years and we certainly can live without the handbags and shoes from high end fashion brands, because we know that they produce them at minimum wages in horrible conditions in Bangladesh and Vietnam.

What we should not live without, is travelling the globe. Experiencing new cultures, learning new ways of live and fill our memories with un-deletable pictures from what we experienced. Even the carbon print produced by travelling is offset by a long shot if we live a little bit more local at home.

Tourism is the only industry, not dominated by the very few big and dominant corporations. Its core drivers are local hoteliers, local money and local employment. Tourism weaves a string between cultures and is by all means forged by human spirit. If you choose well, you will always find the local spirit in where ever you go.

Easter is symbolically the resurrection of the spirit and if we travel, we will continue to use the experiences we make to transform our inside. Even Emperors like Akbar realised it in his vision of “Din-i Ilahi”; which says that if you merge all your knowledge and experiences of all cultures and religions, your wisdom and tolerance will be without limit.

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.

Ramu from Visalam

Ramu from Visalam

Please meet my friend Ramu, he is our man for everything at Visalam in Chettinad. Ramu hails from a traditional Chettiar family. The Chettiars, after whom this region is called, were among the first traders to go to China and Africa. Because of a Tsunami in the early 19th century that destroyed all their villages, they decided to move their families away from the shore and settled in the region between Thanjavur and Madurai.
A day with Ramu gives you a great insight into the life of the region. He will take you to the weekly market, the tile factory, the small horse temple and many more places. Contact with him gives you an experience not just a mere sightseeing of the place.