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Report from the Field: Southern India by Sea With Sri Lanka
Published on Thursday, February 08, 2007
Chennai (Madras), India
Upon arrival in Chennai, we rested briefly in the luxurious surroundings of the Taj Coromandel Hotel before departing on our afternoon tour of Fort St. George and the National Museum. This was East India Company’s principal settlement and the British Empire’s first bastion in India until 1774 when they transferred to Calcutta. Within the district of the fort lies St. Mary’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in Asia.
This evening we enjoyed an excellent welcome cocktail party and dinner hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions, Harvard Alumni Association, and the American Geographical Society.
Chennai / Madurai
After a morning flight to Madurai, we checked in to our hotel and had lunch before beginning our exploration of the Temple City of Madurai. The Thirumalai Nayak Palace complex, built in the 17th century by King Thirumalai Nayak, is a fascinating blend of classical Indian and European influences. It was largely destroyed by Thirumalai’s grandson but has been partially restored, allowing a glimpse of the splendor of the great age of Tamil Nadu kings. We also visited the Gandhi Memorial Museum. It was in Madurai that Gandhi first adopted the loin cloth as his mode of dress, and it was also here that the doors of the Meenakshi Temple were opened to the Harijans, or Children of God, thus winning a historic battle against “Untouchability.” Among the exhibits in the museum is the blood-stained cloth Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated. We returned to our hotel for an outdoor buffet dinner and dance performance.
Madurai / Tuticorin / Embark Le Levant
This morning all enjoyed breakfast at the hotel before setting out for our visit to the Meenakshi Temple. One of the greaest living temples in India, the Meenakshi Temple is dedicated to Shiva and his consort, Meenakshi. We entered through one of the four major external gates, each of which rises nearly 200 feet high and is completely covered with vividly painted sculptures of gods and demons. Unforgettable highlights were receiving blessings from the temple elephant, listening to the chanting of worshippers echoing among the many shrines, and wandering through the huge Thousand Pillar Hall—each pillar a monumentally carved work of art. After leaving the temple we climbed to the roof of a nearby building to look out over the complex and were once again amazed at its scope.
The province of Tamil Nadu is in the rainshadow of the Western Ghats. After lunch we boarded buses for the drive through the arid countryside to Tuticorin to embark Le Levant, our home for the next seven nights.
This morning we docked as the rising sun illuminated a picturesque mosque. Brightly painted fishing boats highlighted the harbor anchorage. We disembarked for a journey into the farmland of the interior. When the buses could go no further, we hired about 30 motorized rickshaws (three-wheeled taxis), and puttered up the dirt roads into the midst of the plantations. We were given demonstrations of manioc harvesting, climbing palm trees to harvest coconuts, and rubber tapping. Most of us found the multitude of banana varieties tasted better than the “sweet” cassava. On the way back to the ship we stopped to see a lively demonstration of kalaripatu, a local martial art for which Kerala is known.
After lunch on board, we divided into two groups: one group went into the town of Thiruananth to visit the Padmanabhavam Temple and (horse) palace, while the other half took a walk through the picturesque fishing village where we docked. Large passenger ships are seldom seen in the harbor, so we attracted several hundred locals, who covered the breakwater and watched Commandant Erwann Le Rouzic nimbly maneuver the ship out of the narrow entrance to the harbor.
Kochi has long been a major trading port for India. Over the centuries its natural harbor has attracted Arab, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English mariners in search of spices. This cosmopolitan legacy is most evident in Fort Kochi where 14th-century Chinese fishing nets line the beaches and European architecture proliferates: St. Francis Church was the original resting place of Vasco da Gama in 1524; Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese for the rulers of Kochi in exchange for trading rates in the 16th century; and the Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in India or anywhere within the British Commonwealth. Today, Kochi remains a very important port with fishing and boat building as major local industries; it is also a hub for traditional Indian herbal medicines and Ayurvedic treatments.
During our afternoon visit to a local village, we had a demonstration of various fishing techniques, as well as the tapping of toddy from the palms, all within the breezy and beautiful setting of a small seaside resort. The day culminated in a demonstration and dance performance of Kathakali, Kerala’s classical dance-drama back on board Le Levant.
Kochi / Cruising the Backwaters of Kerala
The state of Kerala—“God’s own Country” as it is known locally—conjures up images of canoes, palm thatched house boats known as kettuvallum and snake racing boats, or chundanvallam, plying their way through the labyrinth of Kerala’s backwaters. Cruising in the comfort of the kettuvallum did not disappoint. A most relaxing day was punctuated by a stroll in the countryside to visit Chavara Village, the birthplace of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara, the founder of the Carmelites in India, as well as a traditional Keralan lunch on board. Coconut features greatly in the cuisine of the state and also in the cottage industries such as the hand production of mats and ropes made from coir.
Urban India once again gave way to rural and religious India upon arrival in Mangalore. Leaving the hustle and bustle of yet another of India’s many commercial ports our guides, clad in saris and kurtas, set the scene for a truly Indian experience. Driving through lush green paddy fields lined with betel nut, toddy, and coconut palms, led us to the first of our Jain religious experiences: a visit to Karkai to see the statue of Gommateshvara (also known as Bahubali), son of the first Tirthankara (Jain prophet). We then visited the elaborate 15th-century 1,000-Pillar Chandrantha Basti at Mudabidri. The diversity of flora and fauna continued after a picnic lunch at Soans Farm and a first hand glimpse of the labor intensive production of cashew nuts.
Goa (Marmagao) / Cruising the Arabian Sea toward Mumbai
We arrived in Goa this morning, where the Hindu festival of Holi was being celebrated, with participants, including many of our own group, being painted with flour dyed many vibrant colors. We explored Panjim and the market in the morning, witnessing large crowds of celebrants on our return in a riot of color.
This afternoon visual and cultural immersion in the strong Portuguese legacy in Goa continued with a walking tour of the churches of Old Goa (a World Heritage Site): Basilica Bom Jesus, a Catholic pilgrimage site and resting place of St. Francis Xavier;
Se Cathedral, reputedly the biggest Christian church in Asia; the delightfully decorated St. Francis of Assisi Church; and the Museum and St. Cajetan’s Church which is modeled after St. Peter’s in Rome. Along with its Portuguese ancestry, Goa is probably best known for its beautiful white sand beaches lapped by the Arabian Sea, which was a popular second option for the afternoon.
The next morning’s drive south through paddy fields and coconut plantations culminated in a tour of the lovingly preserved old Braganza family Mansion and taking tea with the nonagenarian owner. The 17th-century Portuguese mansion offered a glimpse into the lifestyle of the colonial Portuguese sojourners 300 years ago. The remainder of the afternoon was filled with a relaxing and educational afternoon cruising north along the Konkan Coast as we prepared for disembarkation and the captain’s farewell dinner.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is the capital of Maharastra, the commercial capital of India, the heart of the Bollywood film industry, and home to some 15 million people. After disembarking Le Levant this morning, many colonial architectural delights unfolded during our city tour including the Indo-Saracenic Prince of Wales Museum and the neo-Gothic Victoria Railway Terminus (a World Heritage Site). A drive along the Queen’s necklace, or Marine Drive, to the Malabar hills showed how the affluent live in the city. From the Hanging Gardens we learned of the Towers of Silence where, in Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, the dead are exposed to the sun and birds of prey. Continuing our tour through the city, we stopped to take in the sights and sounds of Dhobi Ghat, where the majority of Mumbai’s laundry is cleaned. We also saw the dabba walas bringing thousands of lunch boxes from the suburbs to the offices. The Mahatma Gandhi Museum brought India’s struggle for Independence sharply into focus.
As it was our last night together before heading our separate ways the following evening, we enjoyed a festive farewell dinner on the top floor of our hotel.
This morning, a local boat ride took us across the bay to the 6th-century Hindu cave temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva on Elephanta Island (a World Heritage Site). The magnificent carvings hewn from solid rock included one statue depicting the three faces of Shiva as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer.
Our boat excursion also offered excellent views back into Mumbai from the bay. The iconic Gateway of India is the city’s signature landmark together with the world famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Both built in the early 20th century, this eclectic mix of 16th-century medieval Gujarati architecture designed by George Wittet and the distinctive red Moorish domed hotel define the cultural diversity that is both Mumbai and India.