April's Notes From The Road: Tamil Nadu 1 (2008)

The memorable experiences, sensory overstimulation, subtle-yet-poignant observations and travel adventures in South India continue. Over the weekend we were able to venture further afield in Tamil Nadu and visit Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram) and the old French colony of Pondicherry (Puducherry). I was reminded of how much I prefer traveling outside of big cities, and how especially in places like India rural and village life and its rhythms are so wonderfully distinct.

Before heading south however, a few final notes from Chennai. One phenomenon that I continue to marvel at is the Tamil film industry. In addition to Bollywood (based out of Bombay / Mumbai) there are also Kollywood (named for the Kodambakkam neighborhood of Chennai where most of the Tamil-language film studios are located) and Tollywood (named for Telugu language films also prevalent in South India). Tollywood apparently now outpaces Bollywood in terms of number of movies produced, and Kollywood is second only to Bollywood in terms of gross film revenues. The Tamils are seriously passionate about their beautiful-boy-meets-beautiful-girl marathon song-and-dance epics! With respect to Indian movie length (I think the average is something like 3.5 hours long) we also learned that one reason for this is because cinemas are air-conditioned and hence movie-going is one way to beat the relentless heat in the south – regardless of what the movie may be about. Since films in India are financed by the theaters directly, this is a way for the venue to guarantee more rupees from concessions (and also why filmmakers are less inclined to take a risk and vary from the tried-and-true romance/song/dance plot line).

We managed one shopping trip while in Chennai, to the massive “T Nagar” commercial area. To call it a shopping center would not do it justice. It’s more like six full blocks full of people teeming out of every corner, massive multi-story shops where you are assigned a “personal shopper” (ours was a girl of about 12 with freesia in her hair) and it takes approximately 11 steps and people to actually complete a transaction. I counted:

(1) one person to greet you at the store counter

(2) one person to select the items you would like

(3) one person to do a fitting, if you are shopping for clothes

(4) one person to check inventory if what you want is not in stock

(5) one person to carry your items for you as you browse the store

(6) one person to count your items at the register

(7) one person to divide your items (foodstuffs, clothing, cosmetics etc. are rung up separately)

(eight) one person to ring up your purchase

(9) one person to take your money

(10) one person to re-count your items after you have paid for them

(11) one person to bag your items

And viola' – purchase complete (though exhausting)! Interesting to note was that only women were to be found on the store floor, while only men were at the registers or handling bags.

From Chennai, at last we headed south down what is called the Coromandel Coast. Our first stop was Dakshina Chitra, “a nonprofit community service project of the Madras Crafts Foundation for the preservation of cultural diversity within India” (with particular emphasis on the four South Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andra Pradesh and Karnataka). A wonderful place for children, field trips and foreign visitors alike, Dakshina is a “subcontinent in miniature” and includes examples of the architectural styles, home layouts, handicrafts (weavings, toys etc.) and livelihoods that are found in the different regions. We learned about kolam, the intricate geometrical drawings that are commonly found in front of home entrances (they are drawn with rice powder, typically by women and as a way to greet the day and honor the gods) and pattachitra, the ornate and detailed engravings made on palm leaves. A resident artist also enlightened us as to the symbolism of some of the most important animals in the country, including:

  • Elephant: good luck
  • Horse: power
  • Camel: love
  • Peacock: happiness
  • Tiger: prosperity
  • Cow: humanity

Which explains (among other things) why beef is not eaten and cows are allowed to wander aimlessly through the streets – I think that they are the one thing that a careening Indian bus driver would stop for.

Shortly after Dakshina we arrived at Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram), home to some 1400+ Pallava-era temples and enormous rock carvings. We made it to several of them, including the famous Shore Temple right on the beach. It was here that we also did tandem handstands for our photo collection – and attracted quite a crowd of Indian men, women and children as a result!

Perhaps one of the most striking things I noticed after time in business-class hotels was the huge price differential between them and “normal” life elsewhere (and my previous travels). A sweet lassi went from costing 100 rupees at the Raintree Hotel to 20 rupees in an average café. Our entire meal in Mamallapuram – two local fish entrees, two drinks, iced coffee and mineral water, all eaten at a thatched-roof café 20 meters from the water – cost 260 rupees (approximately $5). That would have gotten me only half a samosa elsewhere.

And speaking of food, we have continued to marvel at the cuisine here. As we move further south we have found more fish and otherwise the same spicy palate of cumin, curry, coriander, cinnamon and chilli. Just for fun, a few additional favorite dishes sampled in the past couple of days:

  • Baingan bartha: minced roasted eggplant puree with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and fiery mixed Indian spices
  • Curd rice: cold rice dish made with fermented milk, whole mustard seed and shaved raw carrot, red grapes and cracked pepper as garnish
  • Indian-style vegetarian lasagna: made with tofu, nuts and rich paneer (cheese)
  • Pakora: vegetables (e.g., usually onion and perhaps bell pepper), green chillies and mixed spices doused in chickpea flour and deep-fried
  • Khadi bhendi: Sautéed okra in cool yogurt-mint sauce

I believe that Indian chefs are some of the most creative in the world. Even mediocre and budget hotels have amazing kitchens, and so long as you avoid some of the sketchy fried-and-refried street food stalls it is difficult to eat poorly here.

On that note, until the next post – or the next meal, whichever comes first!

TraveloguesApril Rinne