Sunday, January 31, 2010

Toda Tribe, Ooty

Climbing up a hill past some immensely tall trees with flowing, extending roots, we reached a house with colorful laundry hanging outside. An Indian woman and her daughter were there, so I asked her where we might find the Todas, a tribal group located in the region. She explained that she was a Toda and directed us to the gate where we could see more people of her tribe. Rather quickly, we were met by a Toda man, dressed in a dhoti and plaid shirt. Nearby, other men were dressed similarly – certainly not the traditional Toda costumes of thick white woven shawls striped with red and black as pictured in the guidebook. Similarly, the homes were also of a more modern type, built of concrete, painted in bright colors, and containing satellite dishes on top. We obviously were not going to get an authentic experience here.

Thankfully, there was at least a traditional 100-yr old barrel-shaped temple made out of bamboo, grass and cane available for us to see. The only opening was a very small door (no visitors allowed). Symbols on the front included the sun, moon, and a buffalo. A short distance away was a fenced in area, containing a very cute baby Toda buffalo with long ears and light brown shaggy fur. The buffalo are revered in Toda culture and are also used for their milk, which is consumed in vast quantities. Next to the pen was another barrel shaped hut and a square one made out of mud. Walking towards the man’s home, he pointed out his father going up the hill, wearing the traditional shawl. In the man’s nicely furnished bright pink home, he showed us some of the shawls, scarves, and vest all in the creamy white wool with red and black embroidered motifs. Spotting a photo of his wife (with the characteristic hair ringlets) and child, I was glad to hear that their child was being exposed to Toda traditional culture, despite the outward embracement of modern life.

Ooty Botanical Gardens

At the hotel, we were greeted warmly by the people behind the reception desk and then in the restaurant where we ate a late supper. It actually felt rather good (or at least a change) to cuddle up in several blankets that night – something I certainly don’t do in Chennai. The next morning, we were awakened to the sun and a blue sky. Fresh chai made from Nilgiris tea was a great way to start the morning. Now that it was daylight, we finally had a chance to see what Ooty looked like. Colorful but small homes nestled up the steep slopes of hills. An emerald shade of green, many of the hills were carpeted with tea bushes or were terraced. Like most South Indian towns, Ooty had its share of tea & coffee stalls, stands selling samosas and other fast foods, barber shops, and tiny stores selling a bit of this and that. A large arch graced across the main road, along with huge photos of state politicians and the party flag.

Inside the Botanical Gardens, one of the first things that caught my eye was a small pond with calla lilies encircling it. With the drops of last night’s rains still on the white petals, they were enjoyable to photograph. Unlike some of the botanical gardens I’d seen in India, this one was quite beautiful. Everything was well-maintained and manicured. Paths crisscrossed through the green grass, past a large variety of trees, shrubs, and colorful plants. Stairs led up to a flowerbed with contrasting plant colors forming the shape of playing card symbols. A sign next to a fossilized tree trunk proudly marked the tree’s old age. The clean scent of eucalyptus and cedar filled the air. Everyone seemed to be rather relaxed, enjoying the beauty before them.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Drive to Ooty

For a departure from temple towns, flat land, and rice paddies, a trip to the Nilgiris is an excellent choice. Nicknamed the “Blue Mountains” (or nila giri), this junction of the Eastern and Western Ghats is named because of the Kurunji shrub that turns the hills blue with blossoms once every 12 years. Similar to the hill station in Munnar, this region contains high altitude grasslands, shoals (montane evergreen forests), and steep hills covered with freshly plucked short tea bushes. Although the drive up to the Nilgiris can be slow, one is rewarded with beautiful glimpses of lush green valleys, tea plantations, various types of trees, and some wildlife. Due to its high elevation, clean air, and cooler climate, Ooty and surrounding areas in the Nilgiris are popular tourist destinations, particularly by South Indian residents who come here to escape the scorching heat.

What started as an efficient drive from Srirangam abruptly changed shortly after passing the “Welcome to the Nilgiris” sign. Our car climbed up the steep road, passing through forests of tall sholas and tropical trees. Due to a road closure further up (the Nilgiris had problems this monsoon season with mudslides), we had to turn around and take the less efficient route to Ooty. Seeing that some people had pulled over and were now looking in the valley below, we also went to check things out. Several wild elephants were spotted, but unfortunately trees mostly obscured the view. The air was much cooler and cleaner up here – a refreshing change from the normally hot & humid Chennai. Our driver expertly maneuvered the car through the narrow winding roads without becoming impatient, stressed, or aggressive. A bit higher up, we began spotting more monkeys along the roads and in trees. Soon the light began to fade, enveloping the tea fields with a cool blue fog. Visibility was further reduced by rainfall. Further along, our pace slowed from a crawl to a halt, due to an accident. Needless to say, we arrived in Ooty much later than expected.

For more photos of Ooty, visit my Ooty Flickr page

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Trichy and Srirangam

After eating breakfast at a local “hotel” that served Idlies, we drove to Trichy’s main site – the Rock Fort. Perching dramatically on a towering rock rising 83 m (272 ft) above the otherwise flat terrain is the fort, originally made by the Nayakas of neighboring Madurai who made Trichy their second capital in the 16th and 17th centuries. A Shiva temple was constructed at the same time. Very little of the original fortress remains. It played an important part in the Carnatic wars and also when the British came to the area. For those who ascend the 344 steps hewn out of rock, a panoramic view of the city and surround area awaits them. With our time short and a fair amount of driving today, we decided to skip the stair climbing and instead visit Srirangam.

Located 6 km north of Trichy is the Ranganathaswamy Temple at Srirangam, one of the most revered Vishnu shrines in South India. The island on which the temple complex is situated is formed by the Kaveri and Kollidam rivers, which, according to Hindu legend, symbolizes the transcendence of Vishnu. Unlike the temple complexes in other towns, this one seemed to engulf the entire city. In fact, it covers a total of 148 acres. My DK India guidebook used Srirangam as the diagram illustration for a South India temple town. While walking to the first gateway, we passed by a man who was making white chalk circles by thumping a loosely woven basket on the ground. I had seen these circles around the temple near my apartment in Chennai, particularly during special events. We reached the first gateway, topped by an immense and heavily carved gopura. It leads to the outermost courtyard, the latest of seven built between the 5th and 17th centuries. Although colorful, it lacked the profusion of sculptures I had normally associated with South Indian gopura. Completed in 1987, it largely replaced the original one that was mostly destroyed by the Delhi armies in 1313. Once inside, the bustle of a temple community was immediately sensed. Stalls sold various items for pujas including greens, coconuts, and fresh flower garlands. Other stalls sold food, souvenirs, or household items. Locals were going about their daily chores and shopping routines. Devotees with the telltale “V and Y” marks on their foreheads made their way towards the next series of gopura. Cotton candy sellers carried their goods on a stick, the bright pink sticking out in the crowd. We made our way up to the entrance of the fourth courtyard, which required those wishing to enter to remove their footwear. I would have loved to have stayed longer and explored, but it was felt that it would be prudent to move on in order to reach Ooty at a decent time. Perhaps I’ll come back and explore Srirangam properly.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Thanjavur - the Brihadishvara Temple

Our next destination was Thanjavur. We only had time to visit its main landmark – the Brihadishvara Temple. Considered the finest example of Chola architecture, this temple is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was completed in 1010AD, built by Rajaraja Chola I and is a testament to the unrivaled power and might of the Chola dynasty.

Like other Hindu temples, entrance is through the gopura gateways. In front of one of the two gopuras an elephant stood off to the side, blessing people by putting its trunk on their head. Both gopuras were of the same shape and contained carved figures. Dominating the outer fa├žade of the inner gopura mirrored symmetrically on each side were two fanged dvarpala door guardians, directing devotees to the sanctum with their pointed figures. These are considered to be the largest monolithic sculptures of any Indian temple. Other panels illustrated scenes including the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

In the middle of a spacious courtyard was the Brihadishvara Temple, surrounded by various subsidiary shrines. In front of the temple was the Nandi Mandapa, so named for the monstrous sculpture of Nandi (Shiva’s bull vehicle) carved out of a single block of granite weighing 25 tons. Devotees passed by the side of this calf sculpture with a large underbite, with a length of 6 m (20 ft) and 3.7 m (12.1 ft) high. It is the second largest Nandi in India. The ceiling of the mandapa was painted with bird, angel, and floral motifs, contrasted against a sapphire blue colored background.

Seeing the long lines waiting to get into the temple, we decided instead to focus on the exterior as well as the passage area around the sanctum. The star of the show for most is the Vimana, a 66 m (217 ft) high pyramidal structure made out of granite and built over the sanctum. Unlike most temples, this Vimana is actually taller than its gopuras. On top of the thirteen storeys is an octagonal cupola, carved out of a massive block of granite weighing 80 tons. The shadow of the cupola never falls to the ground, demonstrating the remarkable calculations of the architects. Although historians are unsure of exactly how the cupola was placed on top of the vimana, but the most popular theory is that it was hauled up a six-kilometer long ramp, moved along by elephants that rolled it up the ramp using perfectly round logs. At the top of the vimana is a guilded finial, presented by the king himself. In niches closer to the bottom portion of the temple were life-size sculptures of various gods including Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganpati,Ganesh, and Lakshmi. As in the Darasuram temple, remnants of paint were scene, with red and green appearing to be dominant colors.

If one simply gazed and admired the main temple, they would be missing one of Thanjavur’s great treasures – Chola frescos adorning the ambulatory passage around the sanctum. These frescoes were discovered in the 1930s when the inferior 17th century Maratha paintings covering them began to disintegrate. Portrayed in the frescoes were lifelike portraits of royals, deities, dancing girls, and elephants. I was a bit surprised by how vibrant the colors were, made of rich pigments of lapis lazuli, red and yellow ochre, lime and lap soot. Most were in fairly good condition. In front of the frescoes was a row of lingas. Guidebooks said that the frescoes would be closed for viewing, but thankfully they were not. I only had to contend with a fence around its perimeter that was very easy to photograph through (no flash, of course). I do hope that exposure to the elements will not destroy these pieces.
Near the building now serving as an archaeological museum, I once again spotted a group of men and women dressed in all red. I had seen them in Mahabalipuram as well – was there some sort of pilgrimage in which these folks were participating? The bright red of their clothing created a beautiful contrast to the neutral colors of the stone.

With the light already beginning to fade, it was now time to head to Trichy, located 36 km from Thanjuvur. Compounded by a large construction detour in Trichy, it was well into the evening before we arrived at our Tamil Nadu government hotel, which I’ll be sure to never stay at again.

See more photos of Thanjavur on my Flickr site

Mylapore Festival - Kolam Contest

On Sunday I attended the kolam contest at the Mylapore Festival. This annual event (which I attended last year as well) invites participants to transform a square section of pavement into a beautiful design using only white rice flour. Most of the designs employed symmetry (particularly radial symmetry), but a few such as the peacock below deviated from tradition. Onlookers, comprised of locals and a few tourists, watched participants ranging from young girls to grannies showcasing their best design. Upon completion, people had a chance to vote for their favorite kolam. Which would you pick?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Darasuram Temple

Our first site of the day was the Airavateshwara Temple in the village of Darasuram. It took us longer to get there, as our driver (like most Indians I have met) did not know how to read maps and instead relied on guessing or asking locals. The road we took from one main town was a smaller one, which meant a longer, but more scenic drive.

Built in 1146-1173 by the Chola leader King Rajaraja II, this temple may be small in size but its beauty equals that of Thanjuvur and other Tamil temples. Walking past the kids playing soccer on the green grass outside of the temple’s high walls, we reached the large gopura gateway set a meter below ground. The large door was closed, but a small sub-door was open. Through it I saw a woman taking a nap. As I was about to walk through it, she woke up and opened up the larger door. Placing our shoes off to the side (all temples require you to remove your shoes), we entered the courtyard. Off to one side we could see a few men and a couple of women engaged in construction work. It was reassuring to see maintenance and restoration efforts taking place. Some wore sandals or flip-flops, while others carried on their work in bare feet. The women wore saris and the men had dhothis tied around their waist.
Rubble or sand was piled into a shallow basket, placed on the head, and taken away. Like many Indians, they asked us to take their photos. By now my two friends were quite used to this request.
First we visited the mandapa, climbing up the stairs to reach the open porch. Each square pillar was filled with relief carvings of various sizes, from the top to the bottom. The bottoms of the pillars on the outside consisted of a rather large mythical creature that had the face of an elephant, horns of a goat, and body of a lion. Dancers and musicians, along with the usual gods and goddesses were common themes on the pillars. Even the stone ceiling was decorated with swirling designs, flowers, and dancers. One row of pillars led to the inner sanctuary, guarded by two sari-clad sculptures and a Nandi facing the dark interior. Along the wall I saw some fine figurative sculptures made in black basalt including images of various gods and goddesses.

Back down the steps, I pointed out that the mandapa was in the shape of a chariot, pulled by horses and behind these rearing creatures a wheel. An elephant was on the other corner of the stairwell, perhaps also pulling the chariot. Along the sides of the main temple one could see sculptures in niches and frescoes of other figures. Red appeared to be the dominant color, but green and gold were also visible. How beautiful must this temple have been at one time! Up higher, one could see a profusion of sculptures of figures, including some that looked more demon-like. Although mostly the color of the original stone, patches of faded color still remained here as well. Near the base of the temple, dancers appeared in motion, swaying to the music. Along a smaller stairway I saw a clever motif in which the head of an elephant morphed into that of a bull.

Unlike most places in India, we virtually had the temple complex to ourselves. This could make the visit enjoyable in itself, but the real draw is the temple’s beauty. The size makes it much more manageable than some of Tamil Nadu’s famous temples. Even if you only have an hour on your way to Thanjuvur, the village of Darasuram is worth the stop.

See more photos of Darasuram on my Flickr page

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Driving through Rural Tamil Nadu

After a quick breakfast at the hotel (the workers were still sleeping in on the restaurant floor when we entered), we began our day of visiting of several Hindu temples. Once out of Pondicherry, things became very rural. The road was narrow, making passing difficult and travel time longer. Some of the busses leaned precariously to one side, making it appear as though they could tip at any moment. Since the road was shared by many slow-moving vehicles (including bicycles, carts, tractors, large loaded trucks, etc.), passing was very common. Although there were many “close shaves” due to the large amount of passing (and at the last minute getting back in the proper lane), it was amazing that we never saw any accidents occur. Our driver calmly took all traffic engagements in stride, never exhibiting “road rage” or contempt over drivers who took unnecessary risks or butted in line.

Village Life
Throughout the day we would pass through many small towns and villages, each bustling with life and commerce. Piles of rope made from coconut fibers were coiled next to small shacks ready to be sold. Coffee stands abounded, gathering a large number of regular patrons who congregated and used it as an opportunity to chat and catch up on the latest news. Bollywood and Kollywood posters were plastered over walls. Painted sides of buildings and walls advertised underwear, cement, silk saris, and more. Some buildings were constructed with cement sides and thatched roofs. Women braided each other’s hair (or picked out lice) alongside the road. Children ran out of thatched huts wearing only a top. Colorful kolams decorated the entryways to homes and businesses. Women pounded and rung cloth over the washing stones, laying out the laundry on the grass, over walls, fences, or over string. Chilies lay drying in the sun, carefully arranged on a piece of cloth. Cows ambled about, eating garbage, sitting on the road, or pausing wherever they felt like it. When the road paralleled a river, we could see people using the river to bathe, wash clothes, clean pots & pans, and wash their hair. Long steps leading down to the river right next to the homes indicated that in these villages, such rituals were a part of daily life.

Rice Bowl
This area of Tamil Nadu is known as the “rice bowl.” Indeed, the flat land is perfectly suited for rice growing, provided that ample rain and irrigation is available. Palm trees lined some fields. Others were merely broken up with raised areas. Some fields were completely flooded, with the water nearly extending to buildings. I shuddered to think of how bountiful mosquitoes must be in these homes! Pigs seemed to enjoy themselves in the paddies. Men could be seen plowing fields with a tractor having specially designed wheels for the very wet soil. Others used cattle to do the job.
Hungry and needing to stretch our legs, we stopped at a local “hotel” (which is what they call places that just serve food) for a quick meal. It served a typical South Indian meal on a banana leaf. Workers came around with buckets and heaped on large amounts of rice, idli, vadas (fried lentil doughnuts), sambhar, and chutneys. The food was tasty and filling. Thankfully my two Serbian friends were adventurous and not only tried the food, but enjoyed the meal. At such places, the meal of the day (almost always vegetarian) is the only thing they serve! To be on the safe side, we avoided the poured water and instead purchased bottled water. Sharing a bottle of water, the meals typically cost us $1 or less.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pondicherry - Christmas Day

Hungry after our visit to Auroville, we had the driver drop us off at La Terrace restaurant in Pondicherry. Knowing that most of the meals we would have on the trip would likely be Indian, I chose to order a pizza. Refreshed once again, we walked along Pondicherry’s seafront. Closer to the road, a promenade was available. Or, one could walk on the sand. Waves crashed up onto the large black rectangular rocks, occasionally sending fine saltwater sprays up by us. Ice cream vendors with their pink bicycle-style carts dotted the sand, as did fruit sellers, those selling cotton candy, legumes, and even pinwheels. Health-conscious eaters could even buy peeled cucumbers from a sari-clad woman. People were strolling along, some holding hands. One young couple sat quite intimately and close to each other near the top of the rock embankment – a scene not very common in South India. Women in saris & jasmine in their hair seemed mesmerized by the waves. Kids eagerly licked their ice cream bars, only to find it dripping down on the sand moments later. About halfway down was the black Gandhi memorial statue. Kids climbed up the marble ramp to reach the statue, climbing over its feet, posing by the statue, and then sliding down the ramp.

From there, we headed into the French Quarter and proceeded towards the Ashram. Seeing the long lines, we decided to skip that visit. We walked to the gate of the paper factory, but found that it was closed as it was Christmas. Nearby vendors were selling clay figures, ghee lamps, and small clay bowls in carts. Racks of clothing made for export but perhaps with slight imperfections were being sold at cheap prices. Trying on the clothing wasn’t possible, but the seller with a tape measure could give you a fairly good idea if it would fit. Back on the main streets of the Indian section, we saw men ironing clothes, others making fried foods, selling bananas, and people generally going about their daily chores. Right across the street from the Immaculate Conception church, women set up brightly painted nativity scene figures for sale.

That evening, we once again went out for a walk. Lights illuminated the several churches in the town. Large colorful stars cast tinted light on carved household doors revealing Christian symbols. Others were placed in front of businesses, hotels, etc. Several of the churches were going to hold midnight Mass (albeit in Tamil), but already there were many people inside, quietly meditating or going up to the statues of flower-adorned Mary or Jesus. Huge sprays of flowers adorned the altar area. Outside one church, the figure of baby Jesus was now in its cradle, signifying that Christ was now born. Walking past a smaller church, we noticed that there were events going on in its front area. We were invited to come in and watch the festivities. First, some young men tried their hand at “hit the pot,” in which the blindfolded, spun-around individual attempted to use the stick to locate and break the clay pot hung from a high string. Only a short amount of time was given and only one strike allowed. One man did succeed at hitting the pot and was rewarded by getting wet from the water-filled pot. Giggling and laughs filled the air. After that two rounds of “musical chairs” were played, first by women aged 35 and up and then by the men. After some women were finally cajoled to come over and participate, it was quite amusing to see how some acted like shy schoolgirls as they attempted to scramble for a chair while in their saris and then giggle when eliminated. After a tasty treat at a small chocolate shop, we headed back to the hotel and enjoyed a movie and chatted.

See more photos of Pondicherry on my Flickr page

Thursday, January 21, 2010


After complimentary Indian breakfast, we drive to Auroville, located about 12 km north of Pondicherry. An experimental township in communal, ecological, and spiritual living, Auroville attracts people around the world. Currently there about 2,000 people from over 40 countries living and working in this “New Age” metropolis. It was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (known as “The Mother” around the region), who, along with Sri Aurobindo, believed that human evolution was not yet finished and that a “supramental consciousness” could be achieved by living in such a focused community.

En route to Auroville, we drove through tree canopied narrow lanes, some of which were dirt roads. We passed by women carrying bundles of twigs, men hauling large cartloads of wood or grasses pulled by hitched cows. Thatched huts and cement buildings were intermingled. Along the way, we passed by stores with brightly patterned “hippie” type clothing, Ali-Baba pants, colorful bags, and other textile crafts of India out on display. For those hungry for pizza, plenty of restaurants also indicated they specialized in this. Other signs pointed to pottery and crafts endeavors. Many of the shops included “Auro” in their name, indicating that we indeed were close to this alternative community.

After watching the mandatory short video introduction to Auroville and its vision, we received a free pass to visit the Matrimandir area. Along the 1 km tree-lined path, we saw some beautiful beds of flowers, many planted trees, a huge 100-year old banyan tree, anthills, and other signs of nature. Solar panels in an open area revealed one of many environmental projects Auroville was undertaking. Considering that the area once was rather barren and devoid of many trees, it was amazing to see how the efforts of Auroville volunteers have transformed the area into one of lushness and productivity. A sign revealed that over 1.5 million trees were planted, 500 alternative energy installations set up, numerous schools for Auroville residents established as well as others for the nearby community, clinics, and outreach centers. It was quite evident that Auroville was giving back to the local community and making the entire area a better place.

From the end of the path, we had a good view of the Matrimandir, a gold-colored spherical structure described by some as a golf ball. To me, it looked like the toy that has suction cups all over it. Men were mowing the perfectly manicured lawn, some using push mowers and others using riding ones. Some of the twelve planned gardens were underway, but the project was not completed. As our visit did not permit us to go closer and enter the structure, we had to rely on the images included in the video that described the interior as an air-conditioned white marble meditation room with a spiraling ramp leading up to the center with a 70 cm crystal ball glowing as sunlight hit it.

Feeling at peace, we headed back to the main buildings and peeked inside some of the shops & boutiques. For those who like incense, candles, bulky jewelry, artsy clothing, and paper lantern coverings for lights, it was a great place to buy – albeit at boutique prices.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pondicherry - Christmas Eve

Late that afternoon we arrived in Pondicherry. We began exploring the streets of the town, first paying a visit to Lakshmi the elephant at the temple. We walked along bustling MG Road with its many shoppers right up to its end where we reached Sacred Heart Church. The air was one of anticipation, excitedly making final preparations for the celebration of the Birth of Christ. Lights were strung up outside. Both the exterior and interior were illuminated. Large bouquets of flowers filled the altar. Inquiring about services, we were told that Mass would be performed in Tamil at midnight.

After supper including a lassi at the restaurant I had visited on my last excursion to Pondy, we headed into the quieter French Quarter. Colored kolams, some with a Christmas message were in front of a few places. Large colorful stars illuminated the doorways of many homes and businesses. Ahead of us, the Immaculate Conception Church glowed in the clear dark sky, all lit up for Christmas. Here too they were preparing for midnight Mass. Music was playing. In the courtyard of the church was a Nativity scene illuminated by nearby candles. The manger was empty, with the figure of Jesus to be added on Christmas Day. We entered a grocery store to buy water and were greeted by a Santa with plastic mask handing out inexpensive chocolate. For entertainment that evening, we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol DVD on my computer. Our first of many days of adventure had now drawn to a close.

See more photos of Pondicherry on my Flickr page

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mahabalipuram - the Journey Begins

In the days since my two friends arrived, they had been kept busy seeing some of Chennai’s religious and natural sites, dodging bicycle rickshaws and cows on colorful Mint Street, attending a Bharathanatyam classical dance performance, and of course – shopping. Early morning on Christmas Eve day, we began our journey of South India. The driver I had pre-arranged from Tamil Nadu Tourism had arrived relatively on time and with a larger car than I had anticipated. Great!

Located about 58 km (36 mi) south of Chennai right off the ECR road was Mahabalipuram. I had already visited Mahabalipuram before, but still couldn’t help but be awed by the rock-cut temple architecture built by the Pallavas between the 5th and 9th centuries. What dedication it must have taken to carve such hard granite structures (and some without an apparent purpose), many of which were carved from single stones. The pleasant temperatures made it enjoyable walking along the paths and climbing up rocks to reach the structures. Chipmunks scurried about structures, climbing on top of their stone sculptures of gods. Newborn puppies whimpered quietly near a temple with a prominent Shiva linga in the shape of the male body part. Goats scampered down granite rocks and over to some plants. Under the massive boulder known as Krishna’s Butterball, goats lazed in the shade.

Even though I had taken quite a few photos of the relief carvings at Arjuna’s Penance as well as the Five Rathas, I felt compelled to take more. There were more visitors at the Five Rathas and at the Shore Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site), but overall it wasn’t nearly as crowded as last time. Children climbed up and slid down the huge stone Nandi bull sculpture. Photos of friends and family were taken next to the elephant and Nandi sculptures as well as between the pillars of Bhima’s Rath. Many school groups were here, with the children coming up to us to ask what our names were, where we were from, and if we would be willing to take their photo. At the Shore Temple (700-728 AD), I noticed for the first time that portions of this highly influential Dravidian style temple still was covered with a white limestone-like surface – and was quite detailed. Most other portions were very soft and worn by sea.

For lunch we ate at rooftop restaurant by sea, tasting some calamari prawns as we enjoyed the sea breeze. While in town we also spent a few minutes visiting the marble and granite carvers. Some used powered tools sounding like dental drill to quickly transform a large block into a Hindu god sculpture. For visitors unable to haul such heavy souvenirs, plenty of palm-sized pieces such as reclining Ganeshas with a computer or spherical tea light candleholders were just waiting to be purchased.

South of Mahabalipuram, the scene became more rural. Cement buildings were replaced by thatched huts. Men tended cows alongside road and in fields. Cows ambled across the road or lay in middle, seemingly aware of their elevated and protected status. Women were busy sweeping courtyard of their house. Many of the rice paddies were flooded, with a few workers in the fields.

See more photos of Mahabalipuram on my Flickr page

Monday, January 18, 2010

My Serbian Friends in India

One of the wonderful things about teaching internationally is meeting others who are not only talented, dedicated teachers and wonderful people, but also share a fascination with other cultures and places. Two dear friends of mine from Serbia came to visit me this past Christmas break, enabling us to engage on new adventures through South India. Come join Pat, Olja, and me as we travel through Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, as presented through a series of blog posts.
In the photo above, Pat and Olja pose in the waters at Marina Beach in Chennai.

You can also find more photos on my Flickr site.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More photos of the Streets of Agra

For those who enjoyed seeing the photos in yesterday's post, here are a couple more scenes in the streets of Agra. You can find more on my Agra Flickr set.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

Walking Through the Streets of Agra

Walking back down the stairs, I proceeded to wander through the streets. At first I was fairly close to the walls of the mosque. Wanting to explore more intimate alleys, I headed just a bit away and soon found myself in narrow alleys, some of which had dead ends. Here I found some beautiful doors and windows – along with rubbish, etc. Kids in their school uniforms smiled shyly as I passed by. Having a fairly good sense of direction, I was able to correctly make my way back to larger streets. Here things already were abuzz with activity. Muslim fried breakfast foods were being fried in large woks. Meat was being chopped on platforms outside of narrow stalls. Legs of goats were piled up, ready for sale. Rice was being weighed on a scale, dished out to hungry customers. Produce was being laid out ready for the morning sales. Children wearing bright uniforms and matching winter hats walked as small groups in the street, eager to have their photos taken. Other kids were working in the stalls or pushing carts. While walking along, people stopped me and asked if I would take their photo, to which I always obliged. It is so satisfying to see their joy and excitement as I show the photo to them and others around them. Meeting such local people is always one of my favorite parts of traveling. Alas, it was time to head over to the train station. A short auto rickshaw ride later, I was on the platform for the train headed to Delhi. A three hour ride to Delhi and then a plane ride back to Chennai, my trip was almost finished.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Solar Eclipse in Chennai

All eyes were peering into the sky around the noon hour today. Starting about 11:30, the moon began covering the sun in a solar eclipse. This was a special one, called the Annular Solar Eclipse, as the moon's disk was a little smaller than the sun's disk, leaving a thin rim of the sun all around the moon's disk. Even though we didn't get to experience the full eclipse here (as it was in southern parts of Tamil Nadu (of  which Chennai is located in the north of the state) and in Sri Lanka. Still, what we saw (with the aide of special glasses, of course) was pretty cool. Here are some photos taken at school. Although it might be hard to see in the photo, even the shadows looked rather "funky," having a slight halo, additions and crescent-shaped highlights.

Thanks Joel for sharing the one photo.