Star Date: April 2008
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Greeting from the heart, used throughout India)
"Be the change
you wish to see."
Visions of 'lions and tigers and bears, Oh My', raced through our heads as we snaked our way along the gorgeous ridge tops towards the wildlife reserve near Kumily. The bus ride from Munnar over the mountains towards Tamil Nadu, was one of the most stunning forest rides we have been on. Slow and winding through tea plantations, forests and villages, it was a pleasure interacting with all the local passengers; from proper businessmen to women in bright saris returning from the market, to well sodden tea pickers heading home after a tiring days work. Arriving in the pouring afternoon rain and after a stop at the market for fruits and vegetables, we headed out towards Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The room that Joseph found was on the hill overlooking the sanctuary and before we had even settled in we spotted wild sambar deer with large antlers, wild bison, and were paid a visit on our balcony by a roaming band of 'bad monkeys'. What fun to be so close to the wildlife. It turned out that this early rain was bad luck as the footpaths were full of leeches and the 1000 or so wild elephants and 60 wild tigers no longer needed to go to the lake's edge to drink. We had to be content with a few assorted wild deer, boars, bison, exotic waterfowl and a whole gaggle of excited Indian tourists during our boat trip around the lake.
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.
The impressive and moving Gandhi Memorial Museum on the outskirts of town, gives a detailed account of India's struggle for independence from 1757 to 1947. "Right against Might." Although the British did a lot to establish infrastructure in India, as acknowledged by the citizens who are often proud of their British history, the English translations graphically outline the atrocities done by the British under their rule. Gandhi's commendable nonviolence movement stated that "Our quarrel is not with the British. We fight their imperialism." "In my opinion, non cooperation with evil is as much a deity as is cooperation with good." Gandhi led his country to freedom through a non violent revolution, proving to the world that passive resistance IS effective. Madurai is where Gandhi first took up wearing the 'dhoti' (long loincloth) in 1921 and the bloodstained dhoti he was wearing when assassinated in 1948 is on display.
A calm in the midst of the transportation storm in Trichy was provided in both the hill top Rock Fort Temple (437 stone cut steps leading up makes for a good work out & a rewarding 360 degree view) and the 11th century Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple. Flashing saris, intricately carved pillars, colorfully painted Dravidian towers, dancing elephants, rooftops at sunset, wild eyed 'sadus' (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. Thankfully some things in India remain unchanged, even in the current onslaught of modernization. The mazelike bazaar near the Rock Fort Temple is entertaining to poke through, while staying in the 'junction area' is a termite hill of activity, with insufferable bus horns blaring and black exhaust billowing, a recommended place in which to do a laboratory test on the efficacy of ear plugs. A young Hindu woman asked 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 makes the effort worthwhile.
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. Near the pungent canal is the small Muslim quarter and it was there that we found a 4th floor rooftop oasis. With the cool ocean breezes, shade of the thatched gazebo, the small garden and the friendliness of the family we quickly settled in and after 2 days our earplugs started to block out the daybreak call to prayer from the surrounding mosques. While we cooked our meals down in their kitchen we started discussing our different ideas on food and health and before we left Arifa, the wife, had been vegetarian for over 1 week. This was extremely brave in a totally meat eating Islamic household and we encouraged Ilyas to support his wife's journey towards better health and less bulk under the burka. Having spent the last 30 years in Paris they moved back to India to provide a better education for their 4 children in local private schools; building the guesthouse up 2 stories from the original family home.
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. One homeopathic doctor, who studied the required 5 1/2 years and had been practicing for over 10 years talked to me for over an hour, then sold me a remedy worth 25 cents. Amazing. In America a consultation would be $50 and each remedy $6-8. Thank goodness Ayurvedic and Homeopathic clinics abound in India because last years shoe store is now a "Modern Pharmacy" and without any formal training the proprietor can dish you any chemical prescription drug you desire for one fiftieth the price back home. It pays to research what you want to purchase when traveling and check for credentials hanging on their shingle out front. Sad that the change in lifestyles to western diets has once again brought the rise of modern non communicable, lifestyle self induced diseases with them (heart disease, high blood pressure, immune disorders, cancer, etc.). Thirty percent of all Indians now have diabetes - a condition unheard of even 10 years ago. These once healthy, strong mainly vegetarians are getting fat and sick as their budgets allow. Same story all over the world - emulate the west and people in 'developing' countries get more than chic clothes and good music!More than they bargained for!
Besides Bon Appetite Organic Shop, Nilgiris Supermarket, and various restaurants
(including a good Pizza place in the French Quarter), one highlight of Puducherry is Energy
Home. 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 tasty but very different health drinks and safe raw food
entrees this was a great place to meet people as eccentric as the
shop. One day we met a Scandinavian mother who had been
traveling through with her husband and simply stopped, and have now
been living in Tiruvanamalai with their 2 children for over 4 years. We then met a high
powered Dutch woman whose fiancÚ and love of her life, was arriving
the next day, only 3 days before they were to be married; by a temple priest in a
marriage 'puja' ceremony. Not so unusual? Add the fact that he had
never traveled outside of Europe before, let alone experienced the
chaos or current heat and humidity of India. Unless it is a powerful puja it may well
be one of the shortest marriages to date. Immediately
following we also met Sukanya, a 28 year old psychologist with her
own practice. She was busily finishing chores for her upcoming
marriage. As we talked for over an hour she excitedly
explained the long, undeviating procedure followed for arranged marriages
Usually the word is put out to family, friends, neighbors and at
social functions such as weddings, that the bride or groom-to-be is
available. No suitable candidates? Then a village or
professional matchmaker agency is hired. Being a modern woman, Sukanya
helped her parents and the agency scour the thousands of ads gracing
the internet. A year later a short list of about 100
'possibilities" were selected and the parents rushed off to
the astrologer. This being the key step in the process,
candidates were scratched off the list left and right because their
astrological numbers didn't match. The shorter list of
properly aligned grooms was returned to the anxious family, along
with the auspicious date for the wedding (accompanied with a hefty bill
for these services). Contacting the parents of the potential
partners and eliminating mismatches is the next long arduous task of
the parents. Once the final list is secured the bargaining
begins. With a girl comes her gold and a dowry.
Although officials often say that this burden of a dowry is no longer
required or legal - the bargaining includes the groom's family asking for a
new motor cycle, land, money for a new bathroom, a car, etc to cinch the deal. Having many girl
babies can set a family up for a life of hardship, while the parents
conscientiously squirrel away the dowry money. Scandals have
hit the papers over the last decade explaining how girl babies often
died 'unexpectedly' or how in some villages new brides died
suspiciously, once the coveted dowry was tucked securely into the
pockets of the groom's family. Legislation has forbidden
mandatory dowries and Sukanya proudly announced that her fiancÚ's
family didn't require a dowry, endearing her new in-laws to her.
Sukanya's fiancÚ was flying in from Colorado, where he is getting his Engineering PhD in Boulder. He had chosen to have his parents arrange a bride for him, even though he could have done his own searching amongst fellow students or within the Denver Indian community. She excitedly added that she will be flying back to America to join him for 2 years, before returning to Delhi to settle down. Her life has been completely mapped out by her parents (with her final approval). She thinks both love and arranged marriages have their place in modern India. She is totally sure that when she meets her husband the day of the wedding, the arrangement will be perfect and they will be happy and married forever and ever. There is simply no other way to perceive it. Certainly done under such ideal conditions and with the bride's consent (they are even 'sneaking' a few emails back and forth) the chances look good. Maybe expectations are erased and as such disappointments are eliminated. What is - is. Accept it and learn to adapt. This marriage is not the case of the lecherous old businessman obtaining a young beautiful bride (and thus increasing the status in society of the girl and her family). The chance of success for arranged marriages is much higher than with love marriages in our culture - with over 50% ending in divorce. Sukaya invited us to the wedding in her home in southern Tamil Nadu, but when we told her we were heading north, she promised to send a photo via email. "Love was in the air" of Energy Home that day!
Almost all Hindu marriages, even today, are arranged and these marriages occur mainly between members of the same caste. Only a handful of young people make "love marriages" across caste lines and they can still suffer serious social consequences. In this way the caste system is perpetuated, along with the belief that if a person adheres rigidly to the rules of their caste, they will reincarnate up into a higher caste system next time around. The best way to control people is to get them to do it to each other. The caste system was created over 3000 years ago when Aryan speaking nomadic tribes migrated from the north into India. Around 200 BC the Aryan priests proclaimed themselves earthly gods or 'Brahmans', next down were the 'Kshantriyas' or warriors. Then came the 'Vaisyas' the farmers and merchants. The 'Sudras' were laborers, born to be servants to the other three castes. Far lower and in fact without a caste were the 'Untouchables' (renamed 'children of God' by Gandhi), limited to doing the most menial and unappealing tasks. These first Untouchables were the Dravidians, the aboriginal inhabitants of India, who had a highly evolved culture in S. India. To these Untouchable ranks of Dravidians, creators of the temples of Madurai, were added social pariahs or religious outcasts, expelled by the Brahman priests. Created by the priests, the caste system became Hindu law, rendered secure by claiming its origin of Divine revelation. Who is going to mess with the Divine and be sentenced to eternal suffering or chance reincarnation as a cockroach? Splat! Socially the caste system regulates everything in India and although it was legally abolished many years ago, social change comes slow with such chains of control. That is unless you happen to be a male descendant of one of those clever Brahman priests, who happen to like the current system. Our friend was taking care of a house for a couple, a deaf mute Caucasian French woman married to an Untouchable Tamil man. Life was made so difficult for them in the local Tamil Nadu village that they are considering not returning to India. But will life be any easier for this uneducated Indian man in France? Who can point a finger? Socioeconomic caste systems and racism permeate every culture on earth. He who controls the gold controls the future. The human race is such a strange organism.
Considering the complexity of humanity and adding a spiritual foundation, the international community of Auroville was envisioned by spiritual guru Sri Aurobindo and Mother. "An experiment in international living where people could live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, politics and nationalities. A place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world..." In 1968 representatives of 128 nations poured soil from their lands into an urn to symbolize universal oneness. Today over 2000 'citizens' (1200 Tamil Nadus 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. As westerners with money and advanced education come in and build homes (which become communal property) they in turn volunteer to help run Auroville and the less educated Tamil Nadu residents are often 'managed' by these outsiders, and resentment exists. Humanity struggling at yet another level. My heart soars at the concept of Auroville and if they are able to keep their focus this innovative 20 square km creation has the potential to be a model on which to rebuild society, an eye in the midst of the storm. In the center of this resurrected desert community, surrounded by millions of planted 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. It is a remarkable almost indescribable experience to meditate in this temple and thanks to our good friend Geri from Hawaii we were able to feel and connect to the "Oneness" referred to in all the great teachings through the ages.
Auroville is not a tourist attraction and only through perseverance is one able to glimpse what this community is all about - see below. Besides guesthouses, an informative visitor center and interesting shops the highlights of the community are the tasty vegetarian meals, featuring organic home grown lettuce salads of all types. Joseph went off with Prekash, to download mountains of programs and e-texts onto his computer to use at his little school for teaching English to Tamil Nadu children, while I spent the night catching up with my dear girlfriend. But not before taking a swim and having just one more delicious vegan salad. Sitting in the shade of the trees, listening to the ocean waves at Reppo Beach and visiting with Geri once again, Hooray, it was hard to believe that we were all in India; a little bubble of Auros in the fast flowing rapids of the river called Mother India.
After almost 2 weeks in Puducherry we didn't make it any further than Mamallapuram, 2 hours up the coastal road. Warned that it would be hot this time of year we had to agree, that is until we took a walk down to the end of the beach. There Joseph found us a room in a new, wonderful oceanfront guesthouse, second story with balcony, capturing every breeze possible. If we had remained in the little backstreet place from the first night we probably would have moved on but when we took our laptops to the rooftop, only to discover that we picked free wi-fi from the neighboring GRT Temple Bay Resort ($150-$500/night) we knew that it would be hard to pry us loose from this gem of a place (same beach, great room, more privacy and quiet for only $12/ night). We went for a swim every morning, took a walk on the beach, watched as fishermen sailed out to sea or pulled in massive shore nets, walked to town for fruits and vegetables and cooked in the little kitchen each night. Rooftop dining by candlelight and the light of the large yellow full moon on the water hold a lasting memory.
Just by chance we called our friend Geri still
back in Auroville to say "Guess what?
We are still here." We convinced her to join us for a night on
her way flying back to Turkey and just as we finished dinner a spectacular
fireworks display exploded next door, so close it seemed as if we
were inside the show. Walks down the beach, stopping into the
shops or watching the tap tapping of the cities famous stone
carvers, looking at the old Shore Temple, or talking with and
receiving blessings from the friendly devotees of the "Oneness" community in
our guesthouse were highlights. With one final South Indian
Masala Dosai under her belt she headed to the airport in Chennai.
Chennai, formerly Madras, is a busy coastal city that has attracted sailors, cloth merchants, and spice traders over the ages. From 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 hand written or printed books dating back to 1490 and talking with some of the people running the place who were almost as old. May we all be doing something "from the heart" and enjoying life at 84!!
And so it goes.........................................Next exploring the seldom reached North Eastern states between Burma and Bhutan -Nagaland, Megalaya and Assam. Until next month let's remember to "Be the Change We Wish to See!" We are glad you stopped by. Thanks for remembering us and keeping in touch. We Love hearing from you! Take care & Keep smiling.
Love, Light &
$1.00US = 39 Indian Rupees.
The bus ride between Munnar and Kumily (2 direct buses 8:30 recommended before the afternoon clouds, and 11:30, was one of the most beautiful ridge top forest rides in Kerala.
A good route, if heading up the west coast would be from Allepey, by ferry through Kottayam, bus to Kumily (mainly for the scenery) and after a stay near the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary continue by bus on to Munnar and back to the coast at Ft Cochin. The hill stations are a cool change from the hot coastal weather and worth the trip up if you have the time.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary: Expensive to enter (400r) it is probably worth just staying on the edge of the reserve and going in to take a jungle trek if they can 'guarantee' seeing wildlife. The boat trips every 2 hours (100r) are pleasant but not much in the way of wildlife.
Park Guesthouse is right on the ocean and in demand,(400-600r) Goubert Ave. Phone # 233644
New Guesthouse, 64 Rue Romain, phone # 0413 2221552 has spotless rooms in a large peaceful environment for only 150r per person. Most visitors are attending classes at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, etc and you need to 'fit in to get in' - get the drift. Talk quietly, live quietly, no smoking, and be in by 10pm. A great place but of course it was full and is, up to 1 month in advance.
Both take reservations and
because they are usually full
Energy Home Vegan/Raw Food
Restaurant & Health Food Ayurvedic Store: 35-a Chetty Street (&
Just catch a bus from Pondicherry (7r) and get off at the Auroville Junction. Reppo Beach is 50 feet beyond, down a lane to the right. We rented a motorcycle in Puducherry - which was one of the craziest and most dangerous things we ever did. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. It only takes one speeding bus coming at you to confirm this! From the junction you can rent a motor scooter for 80r/day and drive safely within the 20km radius of Auroville - to the visitors center, etc. You need transport out there. The Auroville taxi service is almost as cheap as an auto rickshaw and at the junction you can ask around for the travel agency run by Prekash - helpful, dependable, and he will arrange anything for a fair price. Also his profits help run a school to teach English to the Tamil Nadu children. Worth supporting.
We recommend staying on the beach because back is noisier and no breeze. Green Woods Beach Resort is a good try - but almost the same as bargaining for on the beach. Can't bargain? Pay more (which hurts the next traveler behind you) or learn the game. It is expected that you bargain in many countries!
There is an
interesting crocodile farm 12 miles north of Mamallapuram on the
main road to Chennai. Just catch the bus for 11r each
direction. A close up look at a wide variety of these hardy
prehistoric fellows. Entrance 30r.
At the end of the alley turn right on the main street - down about 2-3 blocks on your left - under a tall white building is the tastiest pure vegetarian restaurant in Chennai - cheap and good. Don't miss the guy turning a large wheel powering his friend sharpening anything dull, on the way down on the right side. To the left from the end of the alley is Woodlands (a chain of sorts) - a tasty alternative.
Apollo Dental Centres, 110 G. N. Chetty Rd, T. Nagar, Phone # 91 44 42121111, 28343151. Good choice for dentist and teeth cleaning. Came highly recommended by some friendly and interesting Swedes we met. They have been traveling around the world visiting all the "power or high energy" centers of the world. A fascinating hobby!