Sunday, August 31, 2008

Elliot’s Beach, Besant Nagar

Blessed with a long coastline, one of Chennai’s beaches is known as Elliot’s Beach, located in the neighborhood of Besant Nagar. Since I was already in Besant Nagar for the Velankanni church festival, I went to the beach there, meeting up with a colleague who lived nearby. Approaching the beach through a narrow path, it appeared as though the ground-covering of green plants with pink flowers went right up to the sea.
Looking in the distance, only one fishing boat could be spotted. To the distant right was a fishing village, its boats lined up on the beach. To our left, some boys, dressed only in their underwear, played in the strong currents, cooled down from the heat of the day. We also enjoyed the refreshing feel of the water running over our feet, with a surge quickly getting the bottoms of our capris wet. Further up the sandy shore people ventured into the water, the women in their saris.
Further up the beach, some boys and young men played cricket, the ubiquitous sport of India. Vendor stalls were quite on the Sunday morning. Right across the street from a line of shops and cafés were some simple homes woven from palm fronds. As with other parts of Chennai, the contrast between the classes in the same neighborhood was quite distinct.
Had this beach been in other parts of the world (and with cleaner water), I can only imagine how developed and commercialized it would be. For now, Elliot’s Beach remains a more simple recreational spot.

Velankaani Catholic Festival

This week the Catholics of Tamil Nadu (the state where Chennai is in) are celebrating the Velankanni Festival. On Friday night a statue of Mary and Jesus was paraded around the area of the church in Chennai.

Legend Behind the Festival
According to legend, Mary (the mother of Jesus) rescues a few Portuguese merchant sailors during a violent storm. Upon reaching the shore of Velankanni, local fishermen took the sailors to the thatched chapel. Grateful and eager to pay tribute to Mary, the sailors built a small but permanent chapel on their return trip. Subsequent returns resulted in improving the chapel and an initiation of the feast.

Modern Festival
This annual festival lasts for nine days and draws over 1,500,000 pilgrims – more than any other sacred shrine in India. Both Christians and non-Christians alike visit the church, with some looking forward to miraculous cures. Some fashion candles in the shape of the diseased part of their body in hopes of a cure.

The Valankanni Church in Chennai is smaller and less elaborate, but still draws many visitors, particularly during the festival week. When I was there today, a large Mass was held outdoors, with services alternating between Tamil and English. On the way into church, some lit candles and a couple of women dressed a statue of Mary in a sari. In the room next to the worship area, a young woman laid a garland of flowers normally used in temples onto the tomb of a beloved priest. At the front of the worship area people crossed themselves or kissed the glass containing a statue of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Strands of jasmine flowers hung down around the Caucasian sculptures.

Outside the church a lady stamped the hand of a child using the traditional stamps used to create the vegetable dye prints on cloth. On the road leading up to the church, a young man dew a crucifix in chalk along the parking spot edge of the road, something likely possible due to the marathon which closed down the road to vehicles.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Up Tiruvannamali's Arunachala Hill, Waiting at the Pumps

After a quick snack, some of the group ascended up Arunachala Hill (the “Red Mountain”) to see the caves where Sri Rama Maharishi, a 21st century saint, spent 23 years in meditation. Along the way we stopped to enjoy the view of the city below, the main temple still looking quite large. Although less humid, the steep climb marked only by small white arrows was still rather difficult. Every so often I had to stop to drink and take a moment’s rest. Happy that I made it to the top cave, I opted not to go up to the “pond” at the top – even though it was only 7 minutes up according to the local person. The two colleagues that did go up said it was disappointing and they definitely didn’t drink from it as our guide suggested. Carefully descending the sheer rocks, we were finally down to the bottom. A bit overcome with the heat and exercise-induced exhaustion, I was glad I was close to the van.

Along the way back to Chennai, our van driver informed us that he didn’t have enough diesel fuel to get us back. He checked at a few gas stations, but they either had no diesel or the lines were so long that it would have taken at least an hour wait. He even called for another van to pick us up in case ours ran out of fuel. Luckily we found one on the other side of the highway. Making a U-turn, we joined the line but somehow wedged our way near the front. After about a 20 minute wait, we were back on the road. Nearly 5 hours later, we were back in Chennai, our trip now completed.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tiruvannamali - Arunachaleshvara Temple

Arunachaleshvara Temple
The next morning we packed up our items in the vans and headed into town to visit the most important structure of Tiruvannamali. It is one of five elemental shrines of Shiva which has a gold-encased linga, representing fire. Shiva is believed to have appeared at this town of pilgrimage as a column of fire. Approaching the entrance of the temple gate, we were told we had to drop off our shoes at a nearby stand. After the man at the stand carefully bundled our sandals together with rope, we cautiously walked over the road and back into line. Once inside, I admired the sheer size of the temple structure, covering a vast area of 25 acres (10 hectares). In the large courtyard areas, many people were already gathering. Perhaps some would join the pilgrimage 8.7mi (14 km) walk, barefooted around the red Annachala Hill the following night in the light of the full moon.

Like other South Indian temples I’d seen, this temple’s pyramidal spire was encrusted with figurative and decorative details. The two largest spires were a light monochromatic light gray stone, much different than the multi-colored spires I’d seen in Chennai. The Raja Gopuram (pyramidal gateway to a temple) is the second tallest tower in South India, reaching 217 feet (66 m) in the sky with 11 storeys. Built in the early 1500’s, the tower is in excellent condition. Other parts of the temple date back to the 11th century. Monkeys played amongst the tower’s relief sculptures. One had a wreath of red flowers around its neck.

After visiting some smaller structures, I then entered a thousand-pillared hall. Here an elephant was there with his master. Passing by the opportunity to be blessed by the elephant (with payment), I took a picture and moved onwards. As people approached the exit of the hall, they rang a rather large bell, its sound clanging every few seconds. Small shallow ceramic bowls with clarified butter burned on the temple floor. As I neared the inner shrines, I was told that photography was not allowed in this area. Following the crowd, I entered the right side past a large gold object – perhaps the linga I had read about. I gave the requested 50 rupees for entrance. Short barred fences snaked the many visitors through the area. In different niches and areas of this dark room were altars with deities in them. Others were more simplistic in shape. Many had flowers or porridge like mixture on them. Although this right line still was rather slow, it went a lot faster than the left side. I later learned from a teacher who took that line that the left side was the non-paying lane – so I was in the “express” lane!

Back in the courtyard area, pilgrims now were stopping to have a snack under the shade of the trees. Others were offering prayers or flowers at one of the many small altars, including one dedicated to the Nandi bull. Taking photos of the different buildings, I spotted the large Shivaganga Tank but decided not to take photos as people were bathing in it.

Ready to leave, we proceeded to go back to the gate where we entered. We then found out that we had to exit through a different gate farther away. Walking slowly on the road with our bare feet, we finally made it to the shoe stand.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bus Ride into Tiruvannamali, Cattle Truck Out

Our vans took us to our final destination of Tiruvannamali, one of the most sacred cities in Tamil Nadu. On our way to our hotel, we saw the towering pyramids of the main temple complex. After a refreshing drink at the hotel, three of us began walking back into town. Realizing that we didn’t have a whole lot of time before we needed to get back for supper, we pondered about faster transportation methods. Seeing the local bus pulling up just ahead, we quickly jumped aboard, happy that it wasn’t full and the cost was only 6 rupees (14 cents). The open bus with its stiff board seats wasn’t a luxury, but it definitely was cheap and convenient.

Walking through the town, I felt the hum of activity around the many shops and in the streets, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as in Chennai. The slightly slower pace was welcomed. Along the way, people asked if we could take their picture. Music projected from some of the town’s over 100 temples. Small Indian flags fluttered, above the streets, celebrating Independence Day. Along the slightly more pedestrian streets a number of people carried goods on their heads. Some shops sold religious (Hindu) souvenirs and items. Other shops had large bags of spices and hot peppers for sale. Just commenting about how the more pleasurable scents, we suddenly came across some streets with open sewers. Near the temple entrance a grey-bearded religious person clothed in orange cloth approached us and gave us some “advice.” While waiting for a bus, we noticed some people getting into the fenced back of a truck. After asking the driver if he was going past our hotel, we climbed in. When the money collector asked for an absurd amount (80 rupees - $1.84) for the three of us, one elderly man stepped up and said that no, it was only 3 rupees (7 cents) per person. A slight curiosity to have two redheads and one blond females on the back of the truck, we had a nice but short conversation with the people aboard.

At the driveway entrance to our hotel, they bid us farewell. We even had some time to have a drink on one of the hotel’s several balconies, also enjoying the breezes (not common in Chennai), slightly less humid conditions, and sunset. That evening we had a pleasurable meal at a nearby resort hotel.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gingee Fort - Krishna and Rangantha Temples

From the arched openings of Durbar Hall, I could see the spire of Rangantha Temple. The tiles on the roof had now faded, blending in with the surroundings. I liked how the angular flat roof with its series of squares framed the inner courtyard with its more organic temple spire. In the distance I could see one of the other fortress hills.

Krishna Temple
Nearby was the Krishna Temple with its pyramidal spire. Although some of the gods and other carved figures were in bad condition, I enjoyed looking at the profusion of details contained on this spire with its curved top. I could feel one of the carved dancers jutting her hips in a dance, the gold disc decorations pulsating with movement. Within the temple area were two small stone structures that looked like enclosed altars. Nearby were some large granaries, now very dark and empty.

Banyan Tree Monkeys

Back at the base of the hill, we waited for the rest of our school colleagues to & R. Monkeys played at the roots of the banyan tree while a few baby monkeys were perched in the tree’s crook. Some of us went up one of the other hills a short way, but had to return as it was time to go. In the middle of the lush fields and surrounded by trees, I could see what looked like a small mosque and a hall. Not having enough time to explore the expansive fort, I may have to come back again to see the famed Venkataramana Temple.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

At Gingee Fort, Tamil Nadu, India - Background, Durbar Hall

Gingee Fort - History
About 4 hours and 100 miles (160 km) later, we reached Gingee (pronounced Senjee) Fort, one of the few remaining forts in the state of Tamil Nadu. Dramatically perched on the top of three jutting hills were three citadels. One could immediately see the 65 ft (20 m) thick stone walls surrounding the fort in a triangular-shaped area 7km2( (4.35 mi2). At its height Gingee was rated as the “most impregnable fortress of India,” earning it the nickname “Troy of the East” by the imperialist British. Although the region’s historical importance dates back to before 600AD with some cave temples, what we see today dates back to the end of the 14th century when the Nayyakka rulers established Gingee as their capital. Their strong fort walls, towers, temples, shrines, granaries, and tanks were built from granite.

Up the Granite Stairs
As I began to ascend the formidable-looking number of granite stairs on Krishnagiri Hill, I noticed a few monkeys on some rocks, appearing to watch guard over the great expanse. Near the top were some fortifications, including walls with arrow slits, portals, and lookout areas. Because the buildings were perched on different levels of the stony hill, it took a while to find out the best way to get to each and explore the structures. Some people chose to take the safer more worn paths, while others simply scaled up the steep rock.

Durbar Hall
One of the most prominent buildings on Krishnagiri Hill is Durbar Hall. Its small-domed top and colonnaded balconies were seen from quite a distance. I had to wait to get inside the hall, as a professional photographer was busy taking photos inside and through the windows. Once inside, I admired the ribbed arches, fanning gracefully to the ceiling. The slightly pointed window openings were multi-leveled, giving the hall a great deal of light. From the balconies one had a great view of the region. Through another entry below was a stage-like area with carvings of elephants and a series of flat-sided columns with reliefs of deities and decorative forms on them.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Trip to Gingee Fort, part 1

As last Friday was Indpendence Day here in India, we had off of school. One of the veteran teachers organized a 2-day trip south of Chennai to Gingee Fort and the town of Tiruvannamalai to see its sacred temples.
This is the first of several blog entries on the trip. Today I will focus on the trip down south and reflect on what I saw from my van window.

After what seemed like a long time, we were finally out of the mega city of Chennai. Now, thatched huts were intermixed with more modern ones made out of concrete. Tropical trees contrasted with dry land. Scattered throughout the flat fields were colorfully clad women, bent over to carry out fieldwork. Occasionally I spotted some smaller tractors, including the recognizable colors and logo of John Deere. Combines were busy harvesting, adding to the quiet bustle. Boundaries of the small fields were mounded up, likely to accommodate rainfall. Sharing the road with motorized traffic were cows pulling loads of straw, sporting differently colored horns adorned with decorative tips.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bridge Across the Adyar River

On Sunday I took a walk on the bridge across the Adyar River. A lion-like sculpture greeted passersby on each end of the bridge. Rather early on this weekend morning, the traffic wasn't too bad yet. Another plus, the bridge had a sidewalk so I didn't have to compete for space with all the mopeds, auto rickshaws, and other crazy traffic. While the breeze was pleasant, the stench was not. It turns out that much of the city's sewage is pumped through this river, one of two rivers that winds its way through Chennai. Litter, particularly plastic, collected along the river's edges. From the middle, I had a panormic view of my neighborhood as well as the one across the other side. The large Malar Heart Hospital punctured the otherwise rather low skyline, consisting of apartment buildings and palm trees. Near the shore one could see small thatched huts and narrow dirt paths connecting the huts. A long cement fence blocked access to most of the river - not that I would now want to gow down and visit it. In the middle of the river a rowing team practiced its skills. Hopefully the smell was less pungent from their position. So sad, as this river emptying into the Bay of Bengal could be a beautiful walk.

I find it ironic that Chennai's sister city in the US is San Antonio. With its lovely Riverwalk, downtown San Antonio is a pleasant place to go for a stroll, eat by the river, listen to concerts, shop, etc. Perhaps the sistership will provide some assistance and guidance to Chennai for revitalizing its water sources. I heard from a local that Chennai indeed is attempting (or at least talking about) to clean up the Adyar River. Money is a big issue though. Plenty of opportunities for the willing investor...

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Guest in a Hut

Continuing my exploration of my neighborhood and also seeking a good area for walking, I crossed the busy underpass of the Thiru Vi Ka Bridge and into the section of Arunachala Urur Puram (don’t you love the Indian names?). At first the street was rather quiet (a rarity in Chennai) and paralleled a forested area of the Theosophical Society with its surrounding wall, but then it took a turn. Two cute kids with large dark eyes were there, a little boy squatting (doing his “job”)” and a young girl with a purple skirt out on the road. Suddenly I was once again in a poorer area, a dusty road with thatched huts and simple concrete homes, a few bottomless children playing in the street, and more garbage than normal.

A man with a full head of hair was in a small overhang of his house, leaning into a mirror appearing at first glance to be shaving. Spotting me (very easy to do, as I stick out with my light skin and red hair), he greeted me and invited me into his small home. Kicking off his sandals at lightning speed, he entered the main room and invited me to do the same. Seeing his wife, I also took off my sandals before entering and shook her hand as she greeted me. Immediately a plastic chair was drawn over for me, the only one in the room. After being introduced to the wife and two daughters, the man asked if I would like some fish curry. With an unacclimated stomach, I politely declined, saying that I had recently eaten, even though it was about 2 in the afternoon. He then asked if I would like coffee. I felt that might be safe and simple. The aluminum cup was extremely hot, so the wife smiled, took the cup from me and began pouring the coffee back and forth from another cup from a rather large distance. This action reminded me of the tea preparation in Mali and Tunisia, an expert ritual practice that produced a slight froth on the top.
Cement walls painted in pink formed the lower interior of the house, reaching the height of the rather short (by American standards) man. A few shelves ran around the perimeter of the interior walls, holding the family’s simple belongings. On the entrance side the wife had a collection of various sized aluminum pots and pans and hotplate powered by a gas canister. On the top shelf of the next wall, I spotted a Barbie doll with pigtails sticking up. When I pointed to it, the young daughter smiled in a bashful manner. You could tell that she played with her lone doll a lot, styling the hair like any girl would. Just above the cement wall where the thatched roof began sloping to a peak was a black and white photo of the husband’s parents. A ceiling fan, along with the painted cement floor, kept the room surprisingly cool. In the corner of the room was a battered armoire, perhaps containing the family saris (traditional woman’s dress). The older daughter stood in the doorway of a second tiny room that contained a TV. On the wall next to me was a picture of Jesus with an enlarged glowing heart, along with a rosary with a cross. Asking the husband if they were Christian, he smiled and pointed to the corner of the wall where the shrine of a Hindu god was, explaining that even though they were Hindu, all religions were basically the same and respectable by him. Smiling instead of agreeing with him, I admired his tolerance and respect for other religions.

After some small talk about our families and other simple topics (the husband was the only one who was able to converse in English), I asked them if they would like their photo taken. When the husband asked if I would return again for some fish curry, I replied that I would come back as I lived close and wanted to give them a copy of the photos I had taken. Thanking them for their hospitality, I waved to the family as they stood in front of their home’s entrance and also waved bye-bye. I could tell that they felt honored to have me in their home. I was glad to oblige and do a bit of cross-cultural exchange and meet some locals of Chennai.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

A Trip to Ideal Beach Resort, Mahabalipuram

A mere 3 ½ hours after arriving at my apartment, I was boarding a school bus to the Ideal Beach Resort, located outside the historical city of Mahabalipuram, about 40 km away from Chennai. Following a shaded road to the hotel buildings, we were welcomed with a garland of jasmine flowers. Walking towards the hotel room the school rented for the day, I noticed how new all the buildings looked. This was one of the areas affected by the tsunami of 2004.

Walking along the sandy beach, I scanned the horizon of the sea. In the distance, fisherman braved the rough seas in boats hewn from logs. Along the shore, colorful boats and weathered log boats lined the beach for quite a distance. A few fishermen were mending their nets, using their toes to facilitate the process. Next to the hotel’s’ beach area, small fishermen’s huts were built a distance away from the shore. I wonder if these simple dwellings were all built post 2004, not to mention how the tsunami must have affected the livelihoods of these people dependent on the sea.

Along the warm golden sand, I spotted the carcasses of several ocean creatures, including several puffer fish, red snapper, and eels. Young men posed for a camera with the fish carcass they had used to create their version of a sand castle. Crabs scuttled, camouflaged by the sand, popping into a vast network of small sand holes. Cows lounged around on the beach, also seeming to enjoy a holiday. In the distance, more thatched huts were visible next to a more forested section. A Hindu man with his Christian wife approached us, eager to sell the bedspreads made from used saris (traditional Indian woman's dress). Although colorful and clever, neither one of us had brought any money - an easier (but truthful) way to decline buying anything.

After an enjoyable brunch consisting of both Western and Indian foods, I took a swim in the hotel’s pool – cleaner and free of dangerous rip tides than the nearby sea. Others relaxed in lounge chairs around the large pool. Rather quiet when I arrived, the pool area was later filled with the sounds of multiple languages and children splashing. There were quite a number of Korean families. It is likely that many of these will be attending the American International School in Chennai where I work. Knowing I had enough sun exposure, I decided to sit in the shade for a while. Eyeing an ice cream bar one of the Korean kids was eating, I also decided to get one – a wonderful treat on a humid day.

I then took a walk through the grounds of the resort. Flowers and plants lined the walkways. Palm trees dotted the lush lawn. Large white statues of Hindu gods contrasted sharply from the colorful surroundings, seemingly not part of the same world. Butterflies danced in the air, fluttering to the flowers in the trees and ground. Construction, most of it done by hand, was underway, with more landscaping and buildings developing.

After another walk on the beach and driveway, it was time for us to return to Chennai. I was eager to unpack my suitcases from that morning. With its closeness to Chennai and tranquility difficult to find in the city, this would be a nice place to visit for the weekend. I will then have to visit the famous granite carvings of Mahabalipuram.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Electrical grid in my backyard

This electric grid is in the driveway of my apartment building. Other ones like it are scattered throughout the neighborhood. A bit scary looking to me!