Travelling to places, getting inquisitive of the lifestyle of the people staying in those places, the best sites to visit, the geographic, historic and demographic study is something that would love to do if my bandwidth would push me to the limit. Me and my husband , have this one liking which we undisputedly try to follow every year. It’s always on the agenda that one trip , an elaborate one, is definitely the award-winning trophy for the year gone by. In all my visits to the places that I have travelled and been there for a vacation I have tried to absorb the best practice of that place.
My cultural profile is an unusual blend of both dominating cultures of India. I am a Maharashtrian by birth and got to know the deeper and dense version of Tamil culture post marriage. After marriage,the culture, the rituals and a bigger challenge was to understand a new language !! After a decade of marriage, I have learnt most of the finer points of the Tamil culture but with great pride I declare that I have learnt the Tamil language. Though I cannot beat the typical Tamil accent but yes, it is a very faithful attempt every time from my side to speak flawless Tamil.
This year, we made a random plan to visit the South of India, Tamil Nadu to be more specific. Our sojourn began with the capital city- Chennai.We landed very early in the morning in Chennai. It was a fresh Sunday morning and the climate was very cool. The roads were busy with the city’s lifeline-the public transport buses. They were loaded with people and were speeding on the roads. One remarkable and an impressive feature of Tamil Nadu was that the roads were so smooth. No bumps, no patchy roads and no road repairs which cripple the city traffic. Every road was clean and it felt that the car was smoothly gliding on the road. As we neared the residential areas, I noticed the typical trait of a Tamil house- a beautiful kolam (rangoli) adorned each doorstep. Be it a shop, an eatery , a tea stall , a house or a temple, kolam is a must. It is very impressive and welcoming to the people climbing your doorstep. The hotel, where we were staying, was one of the famous ones. Since my husband knew his mother tongue well we really didn’t find it difficult to follow what the talks were. I tried very earnestly to pick up the fast words .We decided to kick-start the day with a wholesome, salivating and lip smacking south Indian breakfast. We really had our taste buds tickling. The spread was amazing and we chose to eat the best. Not a novice to the authentic food, I chose to be the food guide to my parents who were accompanying us for the southern sojourn and they too were open enough to taste each delicacy. The waiter serving our table was a bit old and had a smile plastered on his face every time we called him to get our next order. My husband, I noticed , on all his visits to south India gets invigorated and starts praising the food that he dumps in his belly. We ended the breakfast with hot piping filter coffee which was served in the traditional small size steel glasses and had a small flat based davra( small hollow saucer to pour your hot coffee to cool) . The first day we kept it very low, visited the house of our close relative and then to a famous Sai Baba Kovil (temple) which was close by to our place of accommodation . The next day we visited Dakshina Chitra which is a heritage village that displays the various caste of Tamil Nadu and it also had a display of the each caste’s lifestyle. Like the architecture and lifestyle of a Chettiar house, a Tam-Bram(Tamil Brahmin) house, the house of the potter community and many more cultural displays . I took a lot of time seeing each house as it was a wonderful treat to my inquisitiveness . This place was quite widespread and varied but you simply can’t get lost in it as there are sign boards to guide you through. There were photo shoots happening of couples who would be getting married as these would form a part of their photo memories or wedding albums. There are famous food outlets like Saravana Bhavan, Murugan Idlis and some small-scale lunch homes. Lunch plates would be dominated by variety of Kootu (country vegetables cooked in coconut gravies with minimum spice) , appalam (rice flour deep-fried papads ) ,sambhars and a variety of oorgai (pickles ). The plate is incomplete without rice which is the staple diet of south and it was served in huge amount in your plate. I am not a rice eater hence didn’t order it much. I substituted it with Kerala Paratha .After our lunch we drove to Mahabalipuram which had beautiful stone carvings and stone temples built by the King Pallava. The day ended with aching legs and tired faces but we had our fill of each ones likings that day. Our taxi driver too was very informative. His taxi service is usually availed by the politicians so we got a fair introduction of the political scenario as well. After Jayalalitha’s death , fondly called as Amma by people of Tamil Nadu, the city could preserve her legacy of helping and touching the classes and masses. You can see her photo being put up in cabs and hotels or even shops.Some fans would wear flashy Amma lockets or even coin sized rings with Ammas photo fixed on it. It’s really amazing to see a political figure carry such an aura and be famous among the people even after death. The next day we visited T-Nagar, the shopping hub of Chennai and promptly entered Sundari Silks , the huge saree shop in T-Nagar. The other saree shops each of them was multi-storeyed had a wide collection of sarees. Nalli’s, Noor Nalli, RMKV,Pothy’s etc.There were many jewellery shops as well.I was purely into window shopping as my wardrobe had it all!!
Our next destination was Shankaran Kovil ( our family goddess temple ) which has Gomathi Amman (Goddess Parvati ) as the prime deity. The train travel to the district of Tirunelveli where the temple is located had got us tired. It was an overnight journey and we even the witnessed the very rare rain drizzle when we got off the train . The wet mud, the smell of burnt leaves, the local autos and the small huts and the localites getting to their work ,were seen on that busy morning. We checked in a new lodge to freshen up. The lodge seemed to be of much better standards to what this town could offer.It didn’t exist when I visited this place after marriage. I still remember ,then, after a train journey of 36 hours we were accommodated in the house of the priest. I was a complete novice to the place, people, language and customs. All I knew was that I had to observe and not show my hasty clumsiness in over excitement . I was told by my in-laws to be ready for the temple visit at as early as 6.00 am. The weather was pleasant and the temple premises had speakers playing devotional songs. The women were seen with wet hair and fresh flowers tucked in their long hair drawing the kolam outside the houses . They had the big red bindis on their forehead and above that would be a dash of ash which has to be compulsorily applied when you start your day or step out of the house. This time when I visited I didn’t see much change. We settled for breakfast at a local eatery. People of all castes, creed and religion were seen coming to this place. There was one peculiar thing of the eatery , the serving staff was very cordial and served food with extreme gratitude and warmth. I was sitting alone on the table and the waiter seeing me a misfit to the typical Tamilian appearance and dressing started communicating with me in his broken common words and made me comfortable asking every time on what I would like to be served. The service was quick and the food was very authentic. Delicacies like vadas,masala vadas and kesari (sweet semolina cooked in ghee ) were all served in banana leaf. We quickly got ready to visit the temple. Our family priest guided us through each ritual and we performed them praying for the wellness of our children and our family members. Our priest every time while saying prayers would ask the star signs of all our family members and would announce our presence to each deity. The temple architecture , like all south temples have a Gopurams( a layered structure with all idols depicting a scene) and the temple below were built with black rock. There are no wood carvings but only black stone. The idols were beautiful and pleasing . The rituals performed were very systematic and would teach you to be one with the Almighty. I had draped a silk saree and my both kids had worn silk veshtis (south indian style dhoti).My parents were taken aback by the enormous stone carvings and the entrance door itself was enormous. After the temple visit we were to head to Madurai. Our another close relative had his independent house in the small city. We reached Madurai in about three hours and really felt pleased seeing our uncle who was to escort us everywhere the next two days. He was staying alone in this house and had rented out the upper floor to a family. Ours kids were relieved seeing the home atmosphere and so were we. Our uncle was elated to receive us and we were planning to visit the famous Meenakshi temple the next day. The gentleman to whom our uncle had rented the upper floor was the eighth generation serving the temple. The next day we reached the temple a bit early as later the crowd would start picking up and at this time of the year there are Sabrimala devotees that travel around and visit lots of temple before they start for Sabrimala. Our uncle and the tenant accompanied us to the temple. He arranged for a smooth darshan as he knew the priests of each temple. The temple was amazing, had an unbelievable architecture and was built by black stone. The temple had all Gods but the main deities Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Shiva were best in their form. The goddess was so beautiful, her body was made of green stone and her stature was that of a divine appearance. I had tears in my eyes when I saw the almighty in such a beautiful form. Lord Shiva also was beautifully decorated . The huge mandapam ( an arcade which acts as a cieling to each sub-temple) made me wonder how were these idols carved. Each idol was carved out of single stone and the mandapam too was made out of single stone. The carving depicting the scene of Goddess Meenakshi marrying Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu carrying out the marriage of Meenakshi and Shiva was worth admiring. The facial expressions of newly wed – goddess Meenakshi and Lord Shiva showing his superiority is beautifully depicted in this temple. I am a big fan of history and archaeology and had innumerable doubts in my mind but had all my doubts were clarified by our escort and our uncle. Meenakshi temple is huge , what we saw was just a one-fourth of the area. I truly kept thinking that how was this temple built, how would the rocks be carried to the building of this structure. Also, it forces me to think that there were no great modernized equipment’s to carve out such structure with such finesse . Who were those skilled laborers who were involved in building this magnanimous sacred place? What would be the thought present in the mind of the people then to erect such structures and depict scenes with such beautiful carved idols. Each deity had an unusual significance and had a faith attached by the people visiting the temple. That day faded away with local market visit and with a beautiful memory of the temple. After Madurai trip we planned to close our sojourn by seeing the Goa of south India, yes, that’s right, we decided to spend the last three days in Pondicherry. It was a five-hour road trip from Madurai . The journey was really pleasant and hassle free . The road was so smooth and our hired car driver too was making it comfortable for us. Pondicherry has French colonies, churches and you see some influence of Tamil with French culture in this place. Basically, it was a relaxing time spent here. We all took a walk on the side of the sea and since Christmas was round the corner the places were lit bright. It was quite a serene time that we spent. An apt closure of the year and of course satisfying too.
South India, Tamil Nadu per se has a lot to teach. The people have a lot of stickiness to their religion, culture and lifestyle. And that’s best suited to them. Yes , there is a resistance to speak in the National language but I see the new generation picking up on it too. The rituals , the food habits and the authenticity of the smaller and finer points are followed diligently. The infrastructure is good, all of them owe all of this to their political goddess Amma. The people are cordial , very basic and prefer staying in their limits. Next time you plan to visit Tamil Nadu ensure you have done homework on the places of visit . For me, it never ends here, I always feel that there could be more to the time spent. Like after every place that I visit , I always say to myself ,” I shall come again”. My southern sojourn made me adopt to the cohesion and fondness to the good pieces of my married culture and this time I saw me mature in my relation to this culture.