21 April –26 April
My first visit to Chennai (as usual, I am pretty behind), formerly known as Madras, on the Bay of Bengal.
I took the ridiculously cheap overnight train (I think about 150 rupees for a 6 or so hour journey). You just have to love the Indian railway system—it is so remarkable. Not sure if I ever mentioned this before, but it is the largest civilian employer in the world, with a staff of 16 million (yes, million)! I arrived pretty early in the morning and went to my friend, Gardner’s, place, but only stayed for an hour or two before heading south to Pondicherry. I had decided to take advantage of going to Tamil Nadu, and see some things around Chennai as well. Tamil Nadu is the easternmost southern Indian state. When people talk about south India, they are often referring to Tamil Nadu (well, that is what my guidebook says and I think it is true). It is known for its temples, statues, carvings, and people who vigorously guard their language and culture. In that context, I think of them as the France of India. They have a rich culture, tradition, and language, but again, I don’t really know that much about it. It is sort of funny that I am describing Tamil Nad (as it is often referred to) right before getting into my time in Pondicherry. This is because Pondicherry was a former French colony and people who visit if often do so to eat good French food, drink wine, and escape “India” for a bit. So, it is not your typical Tamil Nadu city.
I took the 2 ½ hour bus ride down along the ECR (East Coastal Roadway), which is a new stretch of highway leading south from Chennai. It is a beautiful road in both senses of the word. That is, the road runs along the beautiful blue water all the way to Pondicherry and provides pleasant breezes and lovely scenery (especially for someone like me, who loves the water—you can take the girl out of Long Island, but you can’t take the Long Island out of the girl. I have hated living so far away from the calming properties of the vast ocean). One amazing image that I wish I could have captured in a photograph was one of three graves, marked by white crosses (remaniscent of something you might see in Greece) standing alone on the stretch of land just in front of, but also the same color as, the beach. These white markers contrasted beautifully against the ochre sand with the bright turquoise/blue water in the background. Next time, I will have to get it.
The other way in which the road was beautiful, was one that in the US we would not even notice, but it is very much appreciated here in India. That is, it was incredibly well paved and entirely smooth. In fact, a few weeks later when Mitali went with two Indian friends, one of them kept saying how beautiful the road was. I had thought he was referring to the scenery, but then he told me they drove on it at night. Huh? I was surprised and was trying to reconcile these two facts when I overheard him mentioning to someone how there were reflecters all along the road. Aha! He meant that the road was new and perfect. That was more important in the Indian context.
I arrived in Pondy (as it is often referred to) and quickly put my things down to go get some lunch. I was staying at one of the guest houses of the famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram on the suggestion of a friend of mine from Calcutta. The ashram was started by the late Bengali guru who was equally known for his political activism as for his spiritual enlightenment. The accommodations were sparse, but fine, and I needed to rush if I wanted to get lunch at the ashram. The cost of lunch (and dinner, which I didn’t go to) was included in the tarif for the room. All of this was a wopping 92 rupees. For all of you not well versed in the currency conversion rates of the rupee to the dollar, that is about 2 US dollars. Haha. The meal was basic, but pretty yummy and while sitting cross-legged on the floor eating my lunch, a devotee started to talk with me. She, like so many of the followers, was Bengali and came down from Calcutta for a few days before heading back home to continue her job as a physicist researcher at a university. There were signs with encouraging words everywhere, quotes from Aurobindo or from The Mother. She was a French woman who came to India as a young woman looking for enlightenment (or something like that) and became Aurobindo’s second in command. She also led the movement after his death until her own passing and was the force behind the creation of Auroville.
Auroville is a new age attempt at a utopian society settlement about ½ hour from Pondicherry. Some claim it is the beginnings of a world where nationality, race, class, religion, and sex are all transcended, where peoples of the world can come together and be equal, living in a sustainable community. Others claim it has done little in its 30 years of existance except reinforce inequalities, become a glorified retirement community for Europeans to escape taxes and create screwed up, drug-problemed children who were raised there. I am probably inclined to believe the latter, but it is not possible to really know what Auroville in fact is if you visit for only a few hours. So, I will reserve final judgement. What I do know is that it has is a lovely shop that sells incense and paper goods (how they earn money for the community) and a pretty good coffee shop. Don’t you think that was what they intended to create when they started the society? It seems to me to be a bit ironic.
I also know that they have spent millions on this space station looking huge golden orb structure that serves as the center of the spiritual life of Auroville. It is really quite interesting, let’s say. You must walk on a flower-lined path for about 10 minutes in complete silence to get to the globe. You then must leave anything you have outside, remove your shoes and walk (still in complete silence) into the structure, along corridors, up a ramp (it is all still under contruction so it looks like a work site inside) to get a viewing of the inner sanctum. This stark white, luminous, utterly immaculate circular room has 6 (I think) pillars around the room surrounding a large, glowing, perfect crystal sphere in the center. It really doesn’t get more new agey than this. But I have to admit, there was something magnetic about it. Perhaps it was the cool, fresh air coming from the airconditioning inside the room contrasting to the sticky, humidity outside of it. Or maybe it was the purity, the cleanliness, the stark whiteness that had some appeal in comparison to the dirt and messiness of outside, of India. I am not sure, but I wouldn’t have minded hanging out in front of the room for more than the 10 seconds each was allowed in order to keep the line flowing. There is a meditation time, when you can stay in there and meditate? Think? Or whatever it is one actually does when one does that (I haven’t figured out yet, but I think you concentrate on breathing). But to take advantage of that I would have had to stay beyond my tour and figured a way to get back to Pondy on my own and I would had to be there with this annoying man who was there with his wife and daughter, but couldn’t get enough about asking me questions about India and American and what I thought about the two. Ahhh! He was driving me crazy, so I opted to pass on the meditation.
Some photos from Pondicherry (I have none of Auroville)
After the jaunt to Auroville, I went back to Pondicherry and then caught a bus back to Chennai. After the much longer journey by bus to Chennai than I had had from Chennai (we made a ridiculous amount of stops), I was so pleased to be able to take a nice, cool ride along the beach with Gardner on his motorcycle. Ahhh…
The next morning we went over to another Fulbrighter’s place only two blocks away so that I could finally meet the infamous Blake. Who is the infamous Blake, you ask? Well, for those of you who don’t know the story… (by the way I feel like I may have told this before. If so, sorry.)
October 2003, a few weeks before heading out on my way to India, I met up with my friend Holly in NY. Holly is a good friend from college who was two years ahead of me and in my sorority. She lives in LA now, but was coincidentally in NY while I was there in between my time in Europe and my time in South Asia. We went shopping in the city and then I dropped her off to meet another sorority sister of ours, Julie, for lunch. Julie brought her brother, Eric, with her. When she said outloud that she heard I was going to India on a Fulbright and how exciting it would be, Eric looked surprised and added that he, too, had a good friend from college who was in India at that very moment on a Fulbright. How funny! Quite a small world (but let’s not get into that age old discussion)! He took my email and then sent me his friend’s email address so I could write for advice before I left. And I did write.
What a treasure trove of information I got in response! He was the one person who actually answered the question I had been asking every Indian or person who had lived in India—what should I know before I go? Most people answered, “Don’t drink the water.” “Be careful what you eat.” Hmm, nothing much new there. But Julie’s brother Eric’s friend, who was also on a Fulbright in India, now he, he knew how to reply to that question and did so in a 4 page email on everything from cell phones, clothing, tools to bring, visa issues, flights and just about anything else you can imagine. What luck for me!!! I was eternally grateful to him and printed out that email and carried it around with me for days into and out of every shop I went to for all the things I needed to get before I went to live in India for 9 months.
Julie’s brother’s friend and I continued to email even when I arrived on the subcontinent. He was staying in a city nearby that I knew I wanted to visit so we talked a few times about when I would come and crash at his apartment (he had two extra rooms). I had thought I would maybe go at the end of January, but it didn’t work out. So, we continued to email every now and again, but never did meet.
Then I went to Goa for the Fulbright conference (there is a whole posting on that from February). Julie’s brother’s friend didn’t make it. So, still we didn’t get to meet. How ridiculous was this? I made a lot of new friends, and particularly hung out with this one bunch of PhD students for a good portion of the time I was there. In fact, we got along so well, that a few came to visit me in Bangalore and then I stayed with one, Gardner, when I went to Chennai.
And then, there I was, in Chennai, a few months later, staying at Gardner’s place and going to meet another Fulbrighter who was studying similar things to him, who had the same professor, who was living two blocks away. A Fulbrighter who happened to have a friend Eric from college whose sister went to Cornell and was two years older me and met up with a friend visiting New York from LA for lunch in October. A Fulbrighter named Blake.
After meeting Blake, we went to a posh café called Amethyst in this old mansion that was converted into a café and a “lifestyle” shop. These are stores that sell trinkets for homes, journals, trays, vases, clothes, jewelery, candles and the like. Is this phrase used in the US? I never heard it before, but not sure if it is b/c it is used only in India or if it came into use since I have been here.
Then we took the motorcycle, battled through incredibly trafficy streets, and went to an area of the city called Georgetown. It is an old part of the city with crowded, small streets, designated by the type of goods you can find in the unending lines of shops. You can buy tiffins (and all the steel containers one could ever need to hold food—our version would be Tupperware); wood carvings; posters of any and all of the gods sitting stoically staring out you from their two dimensional space, waiting to be placed on your shrine, surrounded by flowers and incense; plastic goods; and just about everything else.
It was hot and there were lots of people, cars, scooters, bicycles, carts. It barely was noteworthy to me and I realized how different it would have been to have gone there soon after my arrival to India. It was not the kind of place you take a newcomer. Too much chaos, too many beings, too much heat. But I was okay. It felt good to know that I had adjusted to life in India (well, at least somewhat).
We had a nice drive along the water back to his place and then met up with the other Fulbrighters for dinner. We had Indian kababs and thin, flat bread called romali roti (I am sure that spelling is wrong), but rolled up the chicken into the bread like a burrito. Three of the five of us live in Austin and just really miss Tex-Mex food. This was the next best thing. Before we had gone to dinner Gardner asked what I wanted to eat. I said I didn’t care, but the one condition was that it had to be a place where there was no chance at all of me getting sick. Obviously, you never know for sure, but I was particularly worried because of my plans for the following day. Well, we get to Dhaba Express, sit down and all start talking. Within 5 minutes Gardner mentions this one time he got incredibly sick from eating at this place. What?! Didn’t I just say I wanted to go to a place where I couldn’t get sick? Why on earth would we then go to a place where you had gotten sick? Hahaha. It was pretty funny and luckily I didn’t get sick.
The following day I did what I actually went to Chennai to do in the first place—take the Foreign Service Written Exam. This is the first step in the process to try and enter the Foreign Service and work in an embassy or consulate somewhere in the world. For those of you who don’t know, I already have taken this exam, and its successor, the oral exam, and even passed. But right now there is a glut of candidates and so I am pretty far down on the list. The only way to improve my odds is to take the exams again and try to do better. For me, it has become something of a habit at this point. There is no penalty to taking the exam (it costs nothing, for example), so, if you have any interest whatsoever, it makes sense to try. Because the process to actually become a FSO (foreign service officer) is so long, you really have to think ahead. If you aren’t sure you want to do it and then don’t sign up and take the exam, you will have to wait a whole other year to take it (it is now offered only once a year). Okay, enough about that. I will just like to add a few funny comments about my experience taking the exam this time.
I got to the consulate early in the morning. After giving the guards pretty much everything in bag (including a bottle of water), I went inside and sat next to three women. That was it, there was only four of us taking the exam. This was quite cosy I thought. I wasn’t nervous, but thought it would have been a good situation for someone who was—not overwhelming at all. Anyway, we started talking and it wound up that of the four of us, I was the only American born! One woman had just become an American citizen two weeks before! Haha. She was from Germany and was married to an American who worked at the consulate. They had been in Chennai for about 5 months. The woman next to her was Chinese and was also the wife of a consulate staff member. She had just arrived in India about a week before. The third woman was Indian. She was working at the consulate in the legal division. She was Indian born and had been in the Indian foreign service. She and her husband then moved to the US, lived there for over 10 years, became US citizens and were now back in India taking care of his parents. She was even living in Bangalore, but commuting each week to Chennai for work. So there I was, only American born, and the only one not previously connected to the consulate. I thought, ya gotta love America. Here we were, a native German, a Chinese woman, an Indian and a Jew, all together, all equal and all wanting to serve our country, whether it be our new country or our old country (well, to be fair I am not sure how much anyone’s reason for wanting to be an FSO had to do with serving the country or other personal reasons). But it was still pretty cool.
The next day, Gardner and I went down to Mamallapuram (aka Mahabalipuram) on his motorcycle. So nice to take a drive along the water and feel the breeze on your arms (don’t worry, Mom, not in my hair b/c I was wearing a helmet). This was on the same road I mentioned earlier on the way to Pondicherry. You pass Mama (that is what we will call it so I don’t have to write it all out each time) on your way down to Pondy. It takes about an hour to get there by motorcycle and I really enjoyed every minute of it.
Mama, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, has four main things to see. One is the carvings on huge rocks (my guide book calls them “open-air bas-reliefs”), one is the Shore Temple, one is the Pancha Pandava rathas (five separate free standing sculptures), and then just watching the stone carvers, still famous after thousands of years and working their magic making hard, dead stone come to artful life.
First we had lunch. Because there are so many tourists flocking to Mama (haha, it looks funny to write that line), it is known to have good food catering to western tastes. And then we went to see the bas-relief Arjuna’s Penance. You see this image in pretty much every guidebook, but my photos didn’t come out too well. I was there in the afternoon and the light was bad (note to anyone going there—go in the morning). But here is a photo anyway.
This is a famous piece because of its workmanship and because of the subject matter. I seem to recall about some debate regarding whether it is about Arjuna worshipping Shiva or something to do with the origins of the Ganges. Both images are carved there, and reading my guidebook now, it just describes the carvings without mentioning controversy. Who knows? Maybe I am making that up. But it is thought that the carvings here were not necessarily done for any religious or ritual purpose, but more to just display the great talent of the local sculptors. Pretty unusual here.
When you walk right around Arjuna’s Penance you see other carvings and many rocks to climb around. You can walk on top of the boulders and get a beautiful view of the sea. Then we walked over to another area to climb up a small hill to walk around a structure that also gives you a beautiful view of the lighthouse and the sea.
And you can be sure to meet lots of Indians on the way who want to take a photo with you. Or take a photo of you holding their baby. Hehe
Around this area is where you find the sculptors. It is amazing to sit there and watch them work. Unfortunately, I read that they make a little too much use of children to do the majority of the first steps of sculpting and then the adults do the more intricate details. Here you can see one boy with thick glasses doing work.
They produce so many pieces small and large and are the major suppliers to temples all over India. This stone-carving tradition remains intact since the Pallava dynasty of the 5th to 9th centuries (when Mama was a major port). Of course I had to buy a small sculpture myself so we went shopping.
A lot of these sculptures sit on shelves for some time and therefore collect quite a bit of dust. Gardner was looking for a Shiva, and I was just looking around checking it all out. There was a statue of Durga that the salesman was showing me. He said, “Wait a second, you can’t see the real color of the beautiful stone. “ He then proceeded to rub the statue against his sweat-ridden cheek to wipe off the dust. How gross! I said, “uh, thanks,” as I desparately tried to get out of taking it from his hands. The same thing happened in another shop, but this time the vendor rubbed the small statue against his oiled hair to make it shine. Hahaha. Gardner and I had to try very hard to keep from cracking up in his face. Yuck!
We then went to an even more famously photographed site, the Shore Temple. This place is quite incredible because it is considered the earliest stone-built temple in south India and, probably even more so because of its locale. This temple is situated right on the beach so you can see crashing waves to your left and to your right. Apparently, it used to look even better because now they have a fence around it, but I still think it was pretty amazing.
Here you can see carvings that remind you of the incredible influence the Pallavas’, particularly because of their “maritime activities” (as my book says), art had on other parts of India and especially Southeast Asia. I know there are so many times when I see figures, such as dragons, and designs that I always associated with Southeast or East Asia. I found out that so many of those originated here in India and spread to other areas.
Lastly, we went to the Pancha Pandava Rathas (the five chariots of the Pandavas, who were the brothers in the epic Ramayana). I ran out of film here so don’t have much to show, but these structures date back from 630-670 AD and are forerunners to the typical southern Indian, Dravida style of architecture.
And that is the end of my first trip to Tamil Nadu. Since then I have been back once and will be going again in another week or two. So, you should hear about those in about month or two’s time. Hahaha.