The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India)

4th Mar 2014
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 1/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
A Hindu Wedding In Tamil Nadu
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 2/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Matrimandir in Auroville
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 3/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Fishing nets in Fort Cochin
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 4/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Beach in Pondicherry
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 5/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Shore Temple In Tamil Nadu
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 6/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Kathakali dancer in Kerala
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 7/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Backwaters of Kerala
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 8/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Beaches In Chennai
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 9/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Inside the Ramanathaswamy Temple
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 10/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Minakshi Temple in Madurai
Photo of The Big Fat Indian Adventure: Part 1 (South India) 11/11 by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Munnar Tea Gardens


India is a land of cultural, historical and natural beauty. There is probably nothing you wouldn't find in India. From Temples, forts, stupas, minarets to valleys, hills, waterfalls, mountains and deserts. This great expanse of land has so much diversity that every time to travel to a new state, you feel like you have come into another country all together. Culture, language, geography, customs, almost everything changes here at a few kilometers. But, there is still something that knits this vast country together. Its people. They are warm, friendly and always welcoming no matter what part you go to. And that is why India has enchanted so many western travelers for decades!

Coming from the West, we can't even begin to understand the Indian mindset. It is really important not to set foot on India's shores with our high-and-mighty western ideals. That was done for centuries with imperialism, and yet the basic fabric of life here remains unchanged. The checklist of needed changes, in the opinion of many western tourists would be long, but aren't we traveling as guests to observe the culture of this country?  (Besides, we really can't change anyone - only ourselves and our perceptions).  Instead, let's read about India's culture, religions, their belief in reincarnation, study Ayurvedic principles ("Training Your Mind, Healing Your Body" - Deepak Chopra is an excellent introduction).  Savor Indian food, travel light, take a deep breath and jump into the exotic river of life known in India. In the west, we spend a large portion of our energy keeping things clean and organized, but often we are stressed and our minds are cluttered. Indian cities are admittedly dirty and disorganized in places, but one look at the laid-back, genuine smiles of these beautiful people radiates that their minds may be freer from this internal clutter we often have roaring through our heads.  Who are we to say what is more important in life?  India is "in your face" and it is interesting to see how we each react.  We are forced to examine ourselves.  Modernization is occurring, but unlike other Asian countries, is overshadowed by their vibrant, persistent ancient culture. We always say, "You just never know what you are going to see in India".   We are never disappointed.     

Thankfully, some things in India remain unchanged, even in the current onslaught of modernization. A young Hindu woman asked us in Tamil Nadu if we found traveling in India uncomfortable at times. When we responded, "Yes" she told us she felt the same, as India is often just as uncomfortable for Indians. We parted agreeing that the unique sights that a person experiences in India make the effort worthwhile! 

We started our India journey right after visiting Sri Lanka, thus this southern state seemed to be a perfect entry into the country. I think Kerala is the a great way to enter a country full of cultural contrasts and natural beauty. A laid-back state, one always feels that you are treated with the hospitality and smiles of a rural village. Kerala is best known for its 900 km long Backwaters. These waterways lace their way from the coast for miles inland. Long before roads, the people of Kerala used hand paddled boats to navigate from village to village. Deciding to catch a public ferry in the morning from Alleppey, we cruised with locals past mosques, schools, temples, churches, farms and fishermen during the 1.5 hours to Nedumudi.
Photo of Kerala, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
After a brief visit to the beach town of Varkala, we stopped by the historic city of Fort Cochin. The highlight of our daily explorations of the island sights was a sunset stroll along the oceanfront promenade, joining throngs of locals enjoying the vibrant colors and silhouettes of the massive Chinese fishing nets lining the shore. We spent our time exploring the historical sites of Ft. Cochin from Jew Town to 15th century Christian churches to Mattancherry Palace, the highlight there being a mural depicting a smiling Krishna keeping 8 milkmaids happy with his 6 hands and 2 feet.
Photo of Fort Cochin, Kochi, Kerala, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
This beautiful hill station of the south is covered with tea gardens that form a green blanket over its wonderful mountains. Climbing up into the verdant, green mountains of Munnar was a welcome relief from the coastal heat. Awakening to glorious, sunny mornings we were inspired to walk back into the green tea-lined hills beyond our guesthouse. We were soon enveloped in silence, awed by the spectacle of mile after mile of rich, lush tea plantations. Not a tourist in sight during our more than 10 mile loop, we got lost in another world, sharing our time and smiles with the tea workers and their families in this endless sea of tea. Demand for the brew, mainly from the U.K. and Canada, keeps these Keralans housed and fed.
Photo of Munnar, Kerala, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
The Sri Meenakasi Temple in Madurai, designed in 1560, is a colorful collection of Dravidian architecture with 12 'gopurams' or towers within a walled 6 hectare complex. With history dating back over 2000 years, when Madurai was a Pandyan capitol, this is one of the truly working temples in India and it is possible to take a step back in time as temple priests perform incantations and hundreds of Hindu devotees line up for blessings amid flowers, incense and wise old temple elephants.
Photo of Meenakshi Amman Kovil, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
We continued our journey exploring the temples of South India. We first stopped at the Rock Fort Temple, 437 stone cut steps leading up makes for a good work out & a rewarding 360 degree view. Later, we proceeded to the Shr Ramanathaswamy Temple. Flashing saris, intricately carved pillars, colorfully painted Dravidian towers, dancing elephants, rooftops at sunset, wild eyed 'sadhus' (eccentric holy men), fresh flower adornments, potent incense, bare-chested temple priests with their long hair piled atop their heads blessing Hindu pilgrims, intricate statues of deities, beggars with leprosy or deformed limbs; it has it all. Another vibrant example of a living, breathing Indian temple, such as if one could be transported back to the ancient working pyramids of Egypt.
Photo of Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
The effects of Sri Aurobindo and his devotees radiate throughout Puducherry and provide areas of refreshing infrastructure in an otherwise typical Tamil Nadu city. The eastern side of town, between the canal and the meandering promenade, along the ocean is particularly enjoyable, actually quiet is the key word. Tree-lined streets of this old French Quarter hide many exclusive boutiques, restaurants and hotels. I spent hours visiting different homeopathic and Ayurvedic shops and clinics in Puducherry learning more about these ancient Indian healing forms. Fascinating to think how much these healers knew thousands of years ago while our "modern medicine" was nothing to speak of and even slightly archaic at the turn of the 20th century.
Photo of Puducherry, Pondicherry, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
This totally eclectic vegan restaurant and herbal remedy shop was established by an Ayurvedic doctor who was spurred down his path of health by a life-threatening illness almost 30 years ago. Besides being tasty, but very different health drinks and safe raw food entrees this was a great place to meet people as eccentric as the shop.
Photo of Energy Home, Puducherry, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
We stumbled upon this amazing concept and community of Auroville. Considering the complexity of humanity and adding a spiritual foundation, the international community of Auroville was envisioned by spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo and Mother. It was born out of the idea that all communities should be allowed to live in harmony. Over 2000 'citizens' -1200 from Tamil Nadu and 800 representing 40 other countries- live side by side in 90 different communities - each emphasizing different arts, crafts, renewable energy, healing or cottage industries. In the center of this resurrected desert community, surrounded by millions of trees forming the 'green belt' lies the Matrimandir - "the soul of Auroville". This 10 storey high golden sphere houses a spiritual treasure, a silent inner chamber built out of white marble with 12 pillars spaced around the circular room (very Free Masonic). The floor is covered with white carpeting and pillows and the lights dimmed. Sunlight from above shines a beam through the darkness down into the world's largest glass crystal ball, at the center 50 feet below.
Photo of Auroville, Bommayapalayam, Tamil Nadu, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill
Chennai, formerly Madras, is a busy coastal city that has attracted sailors, cloth merchants, and spice traders over the ages. Around 2000 years ago Phoenician, Roman, Greek, Babylonian, Chinese and African traders sailed into this bustling port. Then came the Portuguese and the British, who decided to take over the place and overstay their welcome by 200 years or so. Chennai is hot and busy, but there are many temples to check out, colorful markets, and we spent the day at the 100 acre wooded Theosophical Society Center along the river in Adyar; enjoying the quiet, seeing the former meditative areas and graves of Blavatsky, etc., viewing a small display of handwritten or printed books dating back to 1490 and talking with some of the people running the place who were almost as old.
Photo of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India by Nancy & Joseph Gill