Caving in–Day 2, Aurangabad, January 25

After a morning massage (I wasn’t about to let Carol one-up me with hers, yesterday), I meet Carol for breakfast, a new (or at least less achy) man. We’re picked up and set out from Aurangabad to the caves at Ellora.

Now a city of two million, for 25 years, starting in the late 17th century, Aurangabad was established by Aurangzeb as capital of the whole mogul territory he conquered, that stretched from Kabul to Rangoon. Aurangzeb was the mightiest of the mogul emperors, and son of the builder of the Taj Mahal, Shah Jeham. Shah Jeham, which means, ruler of the universe, had intended that his older son succeed him. Aurangzeb begged to differ with Daddy, and fought and killed his older brother, then imprisoned his father in the fort at Agra. Aurangzeb ruled for 49 years, until 1707. He was buried, at his wish, among tombs of holy men in a plain tomb. After him, weak moguls ruled and were divided by the East India Company. The mogul rebellion in 1856 was squashed quickly and brutally by the East India Company. An angry Queen Victoria took over and put it under British rule, where it remained until indpendence in 1947.

En route to Ellora, we drive by a large, old English military garrison in Aurangabard, still used as such by the Indian army, and then past one of the gates of the city (there used to be 52, but most have been destroyed). Twenty or thirty minutes later we pass a 12th century fort, some of the walls of which are still there. The landscape is hilly with some hilltop plateaus.

Arriving at Ellora (about a 45-minute drive), we visit the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu caves. (The thirty caves at Ajanta are all Buddhist.) Dating between 600 and 1100 AD, the caves lie along an ancient trading route and are thought to be the work of priests and pilgrims who used this route. Though the caves at Ajanta were “lost” for a thousand years and covered by dense vegetation, before being discovered in 1819 by John Smith, the Ellora caves remained in view and, hence, we’re subjected to vandalism and the elements Twelve of the 34 caves are Buddhist created between 600-800 AD; seventen are Hindu and date between 600-900 AD; and five of the caves are Jain, carved between 800-1100 AD. domain ip .

The clear masterpiece of this collection, and the one we visit first, is the magnificent Kailasnatha, a Hindu temple. This is far and away the most outstanding of the rock cut structures at Ellora and is completely open to the elements. It is the only building that was begun from the top. To try to explain what that means, basically, they took a mountain of rock and, carving down from the top, created the entire structure, composed of multiple buildings, sculpture, columns, etc.. You don’t want to make a mistake on a job like that, because whoever is supervising is not going to be pleased. I imagine him saying, “Damnit, Harry, that’s not right. Now let’s just go find another mountain and start over, huh. And, next time time, please watch what you’re doing.”

Begun in 750 AD, Kailasnatha took 150 years to complete. The temple is carved out of 85,000 cubic meters of rock and required that 300,000 tons of rock be removed. Not to get too technical, it’s pretty friggin’ amazing.

20120126-080856.jpg

20120126-081102.jpg

20120126-081230.jpg

After Kailasnatha, everything else is bound to be anticlimactic, and it is. The Buddhist temple, which is carved out of stone from front to back, and top to bottom, as were all of the Ajanta temples and monasteries is excellent, but nothing we haven’t seen at Ajanta. The Jain temple is interesting because of its depiction of Jain figures and because it combines elements of the Hindu and Buddhist, being partially constructed from the top down, creating a building open to the air in front, and the rest carved into the rock in the manner of Buddhist caves.

On the road to and from Ellora, we experience more of the contradictions that are India. The landscape abutting the road is strewn with garbage throughout, migrant settlements dot the fields, yet women walk along the road, or ride on the back of motorcycles, dressed in beautiful, colorful saris. Driving seems suicidal, though we pass a stand built for police to direct traffic with three signs, “Wear Helmets” “Fasten Seat Belts” and “Avoid Sound Pollution”, all of which are uniformly ignored, along with any traffic rules that may exist. The only safe thing on the road is a cow. “Keep Our Containment Clean and Green” reads a banner strung across the road.

20120126-081436.jpg

Ali has been a very good guide. Very knowledgable about a wide range of subjects, ranging from history to archeology to religion to culture to agriculture and local customs. Interesting fellow, too, planning to go on for a PhD in politics. Lacks the warmth of some guides we’ve had, and speaks very fast, and so sometimes a bit tough to understand, but, overall, quite excellent.

So, is it worth two days out of your vacation to go see a bunch of caves? You betcha.

We’re now en route to Mumbai, where we’ll change planes for Chennai and head to the hotel, where we’ll meet the Sugarmans for breakfast tomorrow.

I must admit that this blogging is fun, if a bit time consuming. It compels you to digest and reflect upon what you are seeing and doing. It’s been gratifying getting some very kind notes from people in different cities and countries saying that they were enjoying the effort.

Gods, food and textiles, Chennai, January 27

Fond reunion with the Sugarmans for breakfast, then headed to the lobby to be picked up by our guide, Jay. We’re staying at Vivanti, part of theTaj Hotel group, like the rest we’ve been at. We have a very nice villa, looking out on The Bay of Bengal, with hammocks hung outside, beyond the patio. Place has a nice, resorty feel to it. (Karen says it reminds her of Hawaii.)

We are driven around Chennai, formerly called Madras and the capital city of the Southern state of Tamil Nadu. In the 17th century, Chennai was the economic and political capital of the East India Company, the British trading company which eventually led to the colonization of India. The history of this area goes back to the fourth millennium BC and the local language, Tamil, is the oldest language in India. Economically, Chennai is one of the fastest growing cities in the country attracting investments from both the automobile (known as the Detroit of India) and the information technology sector. Land is rather inexpensive and water, power and other infrastructure is either in place or being planned.

We visit the heavily carved and colorful 16th century Kapleeswarar temple at the Mylapore temple area. As today is the 63rd anniversary of Indian Independence, the Hindu temple is even more teeming with people off for the holiday than usual. The temple is not only a place for prayer, but also a place for meeting, celebration, shelter, learning, performing, and communication, but not for dating (95% of the marriages are arranged marriages). People come bathed and dressed in fine clothes. Jay stresses that the Hindu religion is very tolerant and respectful of everyone’s beliefs, giving people freedom to pray to whichever god they want in the manner that they choose. We stroll leisurely around the temple, observing the goings-on.

20120127-230202.jpg

20120127-230410.jpg

20120127-230541.jpg

After the temple, we continue to the home of Sabita and Kittu Radhakrishnan. Sabita is a charming woman, our age, a renowned chef who has published three cook books, including one for children. We are joined by her 91-year old mother and her 17-year old granddaughter, Aditi, who is considering going to school in Singapore. Sabi has prepared a delicious lunch for us. After lunch, Sabi gives us a slide presentation on Indian textiles and shows us pieces from her excellent collection. She started and ran a textile boutique, has written pieces on textile history and is now active in promoting Indian textiles through non-profits she’s involved with. In addition, she’s a playwright. After 2 1/2hours, we say goodbye to Sabi and Kittu and drive to a nearby crafts area she recommends, where the Sugarmans buy a number of pieces.

20120127-230701.jpg

We return to the hotel and rest for awhile, before going up to the lobby with the Sugarmans, taking the bottle of wine Carol and I have brought from the Taj in Mumbai. We’re told they won’t open our bottle, so we order some drinks, then go to the very good seafood restaurant in the hotel, where we sit outside, enjoy a lovely sea breeze and succeed in convincing the restaurant to open and serve our bottle of wine–YESSSS.

Rocks and “rocking”, Chennai, January 28

After breakfast with the Sugarmans, we drive along the coast to Mamallapuram (formerly called Mahaballipuram). This is a kind of open-air museum of Tamil art in rock, which is the work of students under the patronage of the Pallava rulers. Strewn along the coast are some outstanding examples of 7th century sculpture – forms of temples (not used as temples, but which became the basis for the architecture of future temples), an enormous bas-relief depicting scenes from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, and an amphitheater of six chariot-shaped temples. Entering the first area, you are greeted by an enormous boulder, which appears to rest precariously on a slope, having apparently rolled down long ago from a higher perch. The landmark of this collection of works is the Shore Temple, located right on The Bay of Bengal, a world heritage monument, and the only surviving one from a complex of probably seven temples, the other’s having been claimed by the sea.

20120128-074122.jpg

20120128-074228.jpg

20120128-074319.jpg

We returned to the hotel, where we had several hours to lunch and relax, before being picked up and taken for a lecture/demonstration on the classical Bharatnatyam dance. Bharat Natyam is one of the oldest dance forms in India and was nurtured in the temples and courts of Southern India. The art was handed down as a living tradition under the “Devadasi” system under which women were dedicated to temples to serve the deity as dancers and musicians. They also tended to serve the priests, as unwilling concubines.

As we entered the parking lot of a complex that contained crafts and examples of the architecture of several areas in the South, there was a bus and many cars, which led us to think that, instead of a private demonstration, we were going to be part of a large group. Not so. We were treated to an hour and a quarter performance by girls from ages 9 to 19, who danced with great skill and enthusiasm. Our enjoyment of the program was enhanced significantly by Devika, a well-known former danseuse and an established expert on this particular dance form, who explained the dances and techniques to us.

20120128-074435.jpg

20120128-074535.jpg

Back to the hotel for a quick shower, then an excellent dinner outdoors, enjoying cool breezes and tolerating rather loud music from a party near the restaurant. Only disappointment was that they were out of the appetizer I’d wanted, seared sea scallops with Wasabi-infused swordfish roe. Damn.

Living in peace and harmony, Pondicherry, January 29

Breakfast at the hotel, and then on the road again, heading south for Pondicherry, which was ruled by the French until Indian independence. Along the way, we see a man on a moped, virtually hidden by the pots he is carrying for sale, and bullocks with colorful horns, painted for the harvest festival. We talk with Jay, peppering him with questions that occur to us from time to time to try to learn more about the history and culture of this region. As we enter Ponchiderry, we see policemen, still sporting bright red caps that were worn by the French.

Pondicherry is best known for Auroville, “The City of Dawn” which was established in 1968 to continue the teachings and beliefs of the Indian philosopher Sri Aurobindo who lived and worked here. Built as a utopian paradise by his disciple, Mirra Alfassa, also known as Mother, it was planned so that people could live and work here irrespective of religion, caste or nationality. More than 2000 people from some fifty countries occupy the area, the land donated and supervised by by India and the project recognized by UNESCO. We walk about a kilometer to the most striking feature, the Matrimandir, a large, golden sphere, composed of some 4000, gold-colored disks, which houses a white marble chamber (which we are not able to enter) that is a meditation center. Inside the chamber a crystal which reflects the sun’s rays serves as a focal point to aid meditation.

20120128-230408.jpg

From Auroville, we drive to our hotel Le Dupliex, a charming French house that has been converted to a lovely hotel. Because Steve taught a student whose family owns the hotel, they are upgraded to a very large suite. Our room, though, is more than adequate. We lunch in the breezy, open courtyard of the hotel, then relax for awhile before setting out for a walk through the former French Quarter with its elegant colonial mansions, tree-lined boulevards, bars and cafes, which provide a sense of the history of the town.

We stop and give an elephant minder a few rupees, so that the elephant will bless Carol by touching her on the head with his trunk. We walk around and stop in a rather upscale shop in which we buy some very nice scarves.

20120128-230433.jpg

We stop at an ashram, the former home of Sri Aurobindo, whose philosophy inspired Auroville. We walk through, silently and without photographing, as required. People file by the tomb of the philosopher, some bowing or praying to give homage to him, touching their heads to the flower petals that form an intricate design on the tomb. Many people sit in the room, meditating. We continue walking, past the bed used by Mother and the chair in which Sri Aurobindo used to sit. It really is quite moving, perhaps more so than our visit to Auroville.

From the ashram, we walk by the sea. Large crowds of families stroll along the walk and beach, dressed in their fine clothing on this Saturday evening. We discuss differences with Jay in our cultures, how nobody would dress up in the US to walk by the beach, and how this serves as the major source of entertainment for Indians, other than going to movies. Eating out is not common as it is in the States, and, in fact, is thought by many to signal a problem in the family. Only the rich would think of going to the theater, or a concert or dance, except for periodic festivals at temple.

20120128-230455.jpg

We return to the hotel, where Karen is waiting, having gone ahead in anticipation of receiving a call from a friend of a friend, who is a ceramicist living in Pondicherry. Karen tried, a number of times to reach her by email from the States and had tried to call before, all unsuccessfully. A last try this afternoon, managed to connect with Deborah Smith, who said she’d call later. Karen told us that Deborah was coming by in 15 minutes and wanted us to drive her by her house for a quick look.

Our experience with Deborah is a testament to the virtue of (Karen’s) persistence. A Stanford graduate, she studied pottery in Japan, before moving to join Sri Aurobindo. Her now husband, Ray Meeker, a talented ceramicist and architect, joined her in Pondicherry, where they’ve lived, worked and taught for more than forty years. Their house, in the French Quarter is absolutely stunning, modern, high ceilings, large rooms and an open atrium. The house would have been more than worth the visit, but the collection of pottery they had displayed, almost all of which was done by former students, some of whom are now nationally-known potters was just fantastic. Carol and I, and the Sugarmans, we’re blown away by it, and Deborah was most gracious in spending an hour or so showing and talking to us about the collection. This was a truly unexpected delight.

After, we had an excellent and very reasonably-priced dinner in a restaurant called Le Club, recommended by both Deborah and Fodor’s, half a block away from Deborah’s house, then walked the five blocks back to our hotel to retire.

Stars of the show, Tamil and Chola, January 29

After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for the capital of the Chola Empire, Chidambaram, one of Tamil Nadu’s most important holy towns. We are traveling comfortably in a minibus, which has a capacity of ten. With Ravi, our driver, and Jay, our guide, we are only six. Ravi has done an excellent job of driving. He’s friendly, but doesn’t say much. I’m gaining confidence that we’ll probably survive the constant threat of oncoming traffic on our side of the road, though I have asked Jay for the Hindu word for death.

We pass a wedding hall, and Jay asks if we’d like to go in. Of course, we would. Outside the hall is a big poster with pictures of the bride and groom, as well as smaller pictures, below them, of men who have contributed to the cost of the poster.

20120130-083233.jpg

We’ve seen these posters elsewhere, and sometimes they contain a picture of a movie star, as well. (Tamil Nadu people are crazy for movies. Jay says that people will watch a movie fifteen or more times. We’ve seen people sitting parked in cars and vans, watching movies.)

We are welcomed into the wedding hall, where the wedding ceremony is just ending, and the bride and groom are receiving guests up on a stage. Gifts lay piled up on the floor beneath the stage to help the couple start their new lives together. Weddings are huge events in India, with families saving for twenty years to pay the cost. A modest wedding may have 1,000-1,500 guests. Everyone wears their finest dress–a new sari is a must–and gold and jewels abound. A photographer and videographer are recording the event on the stage, and Jay encourages me to go up to photograph with them. The crowd parts to allow me to do this.

20120130-183716.jpg

Guests at the wedding insist that Steve, Karen, Carol and I go up on the stage to greet the bride and groom, which we do. We’re invited to have breakfast several times, but Jay explains to disappointed would-be hosts that we’ve just eaten and must leave. Before we go, we pose for photographs with the bride and groom. On our way out, we’re given gift bags from the wedding, which include a cocoanut and other goodies. As we drive away from the wedding, we pass many guests, women with flowers in their hair, jewels and fine saris, riding on back of motor bikes. In the car, Jay tells us that DVDs will be made of the festivities and sent to wedding guests, and that we will be the stars of the DVD.

We leave Ponchiderry, which was granted independence from the French in 1956. Goa achieved its independence from Portugal even later, in 1963. Both are now separate union territories governed by India, but not states. They do elect representatives to the government.

Arriving in Chidambara, we head to the Nataraja Templ, which is dedicated to Shiva in his form as Lord of the Cosmic Dance. Shiva was the patron god of the Chola kings. The temple area covers sixty acres, dwarfing the temple we saw in Chennai.

Jay had told us that it was the goal of every dancer to dance at the temple of “The Dancing Shiva” and we witness several young girls fulfilling their dream. Because of the dance recital we attended in Chennai, we’re able to appreciate the dancing much more than we otherwise would have.

The temple is run by dikshithar priests who have beards and hair tied with a knot in back. They are Brahmins and wear a string around their body as a sign of their status. At this temple, any married dikshithar can serve as priest for any god, so they rotate around to different shrines, but serve the gods 24/7, 365 days a year. The temple is a hubbub of activity, people old and young, priests, families, beggars. Bells clang, and people crowd to see the priests inside the shrines waving oil lamps in circles.

20120130-184517.jpg

20120130-184637.jpg

20120130-184821.jpg

We leave the dancing Shiva and drive a short distance, stopping at a restaurant for lunch. Steve, Karen and Carol all have local, Tamil food on a metal tray, with rice, all of which they eat with their hands. I opt for Chinese–hot and sour soup and Chinese vegetables with rice, all of which is surprisingly good.

After lunch, we drive through the heart of Tamil Nadu, just missing buses, trucks and motor bikes, passing through small towns with markets, seeing damage from the recent cyclone, tractors loaded high with sugar cane, trucks stacked with hay, oxen ploughing rice fields, moving stores of materials carried on bicycles. We talk with Jay about everything from trees we see to snakes, rats and mongoose in rice fields to corruption in government and 20-year delays in court cases to the Tamil Nadu political party’s pledge to give poor families a color TV, if elected. This pledge has been honored, with millions of color TVs given to everyone with electricity. The populace favored this over the opposition party’s pledge of rice for one rupee (two cents) a kilo. Who needs rice when you can watch your favorite movies in color?

20120130-184058.jpg

20120130-184216.jpg

We stop at Darasuram to see the Airavatesvara Temple, the third of the great Chola temples after Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. Originally called the Rajarajesvaram temple when it was built in 1146, it was renamed Airavatesvara Temple after Indra’s white elephant, who followers of Shiva claim, worshipped Shiva at this temple. Built mainly of granite, the temple has pillars with beautifully carved Apsara and friezes of lively dancing figures and musicians. Each of the pillars within the temple illustrates mythological stories showing the penance of Parvati, Shiva’s consort. Though the temple was largely destroyed, it has been carefully reconstructed as an archeological site, not a living temple, allowing us to photograph shrines that we could not take pictures of in a temple that was being used. The temple is definitely worth seeing, but not nearly as interesting as living temples.

20120130-184936.jpg

20120130-185053.jpg

We continue on towards our hotel, Hotel Mantra Veppathur. Because the hotel cannot be reached in our vehicle, we stop by the side of the road and are ferried in on a large golf-cart type vehicle. We check into a very nice two bedroom villa with a large, tiled common area, which we share with Steve and Karen.

Steve and Karen scout out the pool and spa, making massage reservations for themselves at 6:30, and for Carol and me at 9:00. Steve, Karen and I have the large, lovely pool to ourselves. They go for massages, we hang out at he room, then go for a fair dinner at the hotel’s vegetarian restaurant, are joined at our table later by the Sugarmans, leave them for our (excellent) massages, then reconnect briefly in our villa, before retiring.