Splendors of India with Sri Lanka

Published on Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Thursday, February 3, 2011- Chennai (Madras), India: Almost everyone had arrived at the luxurious Taj Coromandel Hotel by lunch time and our introduction to India’s long history and spectacular cultural legacies began with a visit to the National Art Gallery to view the very fine collection of bronze Hindu gods and goddesses dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries.

The museum at Fort St. George documents the first bastion of British East India Company rule in India from April 23, 1640. It remained the principal settlement until Kolkata (Calcutta) was established in 1774. The Church of St. Mary’s is the oldest Anglican church in Asia built in the late 1670s.

Most Indian cities are a juxtaposition of the very wealthy and the very poor. A drive along Marina Bay through the spectacular colonial Indo-Saracenic and neo-Gothic architecture of government buildings, train stations, and seats of learning, followed by the shanty towns of the fisherman who suffered so much in the 2004 tsunami, illustrated just this.

A visit to the magnificent Kapalesvara Hindu Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, completed the afternoon. The gopuram (tower gate) to the temple provided a very visual introduction to the distinctive art work of Tamil Nadu style temples, and removing our shoes introduced us to correct temple etiquette. The original temple was built in the 6th century and rebuilt after the Portuguese destroyed it in the 16th century. Mylapore is the oldest area in Chennai and the temple is decorated with the peacocks that gave their name to the area.

A very tasty Indian-style welcome dinner was served, most appropriately in the Clive Room, (Robert Clive of India).

Friday, February 4 – Chennai / Madurai: Negotiating Chennai Airport was a very interesting introduction to domestic air travel in India, complete with understandably heavy security screening combined with crowds and crowds of people. Once safely ensconced on our Air India flight to Madurai, we were no sooner settled than landing and preparing for the next adventure. Having come from a city of 7 million people, driving through rural fields was a treat. Our overnight venue was the Taj Gateway Hotel Pasumalai, a charming former business tycoon’s hilltop residence. Having checked in and enjoyed local cuisine for lunch it was time to continue the learning journey.

The afternoon excursion took us back into the town of Madurai to visit the remains of the 17th-century Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Granite, limestone, sand, and bricks were used in the original construction and Antonia Ramono designed the palace in Hindu Saracenic style, combining Italian and Islamic architectural influences. The most interesting sculptures are the mythical yalis: with a lion’s face, crocodile teeth, the body of a horse, an elephant’s tail, and bird’s wings. Lord Napier was so impressed that he authorized the funding of renovations in the mid-19th century.

Saturday, February 5 – Madurai / Tuticorin / Embark Clipper Odyssey: Madurai was the capital of the Pandaya Kingdom from the 7th-13th centuries and is home to one of the most spectacular and colorful living Hindu temples in India, the Meenakshi Temple. This very sacred temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, as Sundareshvara the handsome god, and his female consort Parvati. Building began during the 7th century by the Pandayas and it was extended from the 14th – 18th centuries. There are five entrances: north, south, west, and two on the east—one for Lord Shiva and one for Parvati. Their central shrines are only open to Hindu worshippers, and are distinguished from the outside with gold leaf domes. Within the temple complex there is also a large water tank. Today the temple is very popular for weddings and receiving blessings from baby elephants. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Gandhi Museum provided very interesting insight and background into the importance of the work of Mahatma Gandhi in nurturing a non-violent path towards Independent India. Huge numbers of school children were also there, studying their modern history. The museum contains several artifacts that belonged to Gandhi, including the blood stained dhoti (loin cloth) that he was wearing when he was tragically assassinated in Delhi in 1948.

Following lunch it was time to check out of our breezy, leafy, hilltop resort and head for Tuticorin, the second largest port in Southern India, to board the Clipper Odyssey.

Sunday, February 6 – At Sea / Galle, Sri Lanka: It is always so nice to have a leisurely morning at sea. Puneet Dan, our wonderful local expert and coordinator, provided a most entertaining and highly informative introduction to both India and Sri Lanka, followed by Ron Wixman who provided us with a very timely and educational view of the importance of Traditional and Modern Rice Growing in Southeast Asia. Pilot whales and a pod of dolphins were also sighted during the morning.

There are wonderful coconut palm-fringed white sandy beaches along the relatively unspoiled and yet to be developed coastline just outside Galle. At the village of Koggala it is possible to watch the fishermen fish from stilt poles, a unique and traditional technique to the area.

The Martin Wickramasinghe Museum of Folk Culture at Koggala affords a fascinating insight into the folk culture of the area. Martin Wickramasinghe is considered to be Sri Lanka’s most outstanding writer of the 20th century. He was born in Koggala and since his death in 1976, the Trust has built a museum depicting folk arts, crafts and technology. Of note are the wonderful masks used in local dances and the elaborate marionette-style puppet tradition of the area.

Our first evening in Sri Lanka was rounded off with Captain Peter Fielding’s welcome cocktail party and dinner as we made our way north to Colombo.

Monday, February 7– Colombo / Kandy: As Sri Lanka is synonymous with being home to Asian elephants, a visit to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage is a must. Increasing population and demand for land is taking its toll on these wonderful animals. Pinnawala, near Kagalle, has been set up by the government to protect abandoned or orphaned elephants. Their mahouts (keepers) make sure that they are fed at the correct times.

Upon arrival in Kandy it was time for a Sri Lankan-style lunch at the Queen’s Hotel, followed by the key attraction in Kandy—Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This is the most important Buddhist relic in Sri Lanka and is a site of pilgrimage as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before a wonderful buffet dinner we enjoyed a spectacular Kandayan private dance performance. Kandayan dance and mask traditions are rooted in village culture and folklore. The dancers wear stunning costumes in black, white, and red, heavily adorned with bells and sequins, and accompanied by drums, the heartbeat of the dance performances. All dance and drama performances begin with a ritual prayer and paying respects. The program included feats of acrobatic dexterity, the spinning of multiple lacquerware plates, the peacock dance of worship, a masked dance, and a dramatic village festival dance.

Tuesday, February 8 – Kandy / Colombo: The day dawned fair and bright. The intrepid early birders set off with Kevin Clement to maximize the visit to Kandy’s Royal Botanic Gardens followed by the rest of the group. The gardens were established in the 14th century under King Wickramabahu III, and it became a royal garden in 1780. British presence in the 19th century saw the establishment of many gardens and early documentation of the flora of Ceylon. Today the gardens remain famous for their orchid collection and their memorial trees. The 147 acres are home to some 4,000 species. The Mahaweli River runs around the gardens. It was here that the film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which told the story of the building of the Burma Siam railway during World War II, was actually filmed. The temperature in the gardens was perfect for strolling through the tropical greenery, affording excellent sightings of active fruit bats returning to their roosts.

All too soon it was time to drive back to Colombo, stopping en route to purchase freshly roasted chili cashews from the batik-clad, bare-midriffed cashew nut ladies who vie for business along the roadside.  Making good time we arrived at the Clipper Odyssey in time for a hamburger and hot dog buffet lunch served on the pool deck as we set sail back to India. Ron gave a very illuminating presentation on The Caste System and Culture in India, followed by Kim who introduced everyone to The Dynamic and Diverse Traditions of Indian Arts and Crafts.

Wednesday, February 9 – Thiruvananthapuram, India: Thiroo-vanantha-puram, easy when you say it slowly, Tri-van-drum if you prefer, our gateway to Kerala was a picture postcard view of sandy white beaches lined with palm trees and a bustling rural fishing port. A beautiful orange sunrise lit up the early morning fish sales from ship to shore and the fish market awash with people. Along the coastline of the bay were two ornate mosques, looking more like palaces, and two Christian churches. This tranquil little port however, is destined for bigger things over the next few years as it is slated to become the largest international port in Kerala. In an exceptional feat of navigation, Captain Peter got the Clipper Odyssey alongside despite very shallow waters.

A colorful ride through rural countryside, provincial towns, and markets took us into the heart of Kerala. Boarding the distinctive yellow and black motorized local rickshaws, we made our way along sandy lanes to a local farming community where we learned how coconut palms are climbed, coconuts are opened, how many varieties of bananas are grown, how rubber trees are tapped, and how the latex is processed.

Following our village visit we were treated to a unique demonstration of the traditional Kalari Payattu martial arts of Kerala. The afternoon excursion began with a visit to the Government Arts and Crafts Museum, a remarkable piece of 1880s architecture that houses some fascinating wooden, ceramic, and bronze artifacts.

It is only possible to view the Gopura of Anatha Padmanabhaswamy Temple from the outside as the interior is open to Hindu worshippers only. However, watching beautifully clad worshippers making their way to the temple dressed in traditional saris and dhotis (hip wrappers) provides a fascinating cultural experience. Beside the temple is the 18th-century Kuthirmalika or Puthan Malika Palace. The Palace, a fine example of Kerala architecture, now houses a museum of royal regalia including a magnificent ivory throne carved from fifty tusks and a solid crystal throne from the Dutch.

Thursday, February 10– Kochi (Cochin): In the small courtyard of Mattancherry Palace, there is a shrine dedicated to the goddess Bhagavati and the museum contains a rare collection of fine Kerala art murals depicting the great Indian epic tale of the Ramayana and some royal artifacts.

The cultural and culinary afternoon program began with an introduction to the spices used in Indian cuisine by Puneet. Essential ingredients include turmeric, coriander, cumin, and much more. Then it was time to watch the actors participating in the Kathakali dance applying their elaborate makeup. Kathakali is Kerala’s classical dance drama which dates back almost 400 years. A play involving male actors in exceptionally colorful and skirted costumes, incredible ornate headdresses, and stunning makeup backed with percussion instruments including drums, gongs, cymbals, and singers. The stories told are largely from the epic Mahabharata, a story of good eventually triumphing over evil. Traditionally performances lasted all night and were held in temples.

The highlight of this exciting day, was undoubtedly our Executive Chef Sajeev’s Kerala Dinner Expedition. Devised and hosted by Sajeev and his executive chef friends Jibi and Kenny, the grounds of the Kochi Gymkhana Club provided a perfect backdrop for the evening.  The extensive menu consisted of no less than nine appetizers, a soup, eight salads, fourteen local Thattukada dishes, fourteen regional dishes from Kerala, and five desserts accompanied with Kingfisher Beer and local Indian wine. An army of chefs was on hand preparing many dishes from scratch, grilling freshly caught fish and making assorted fresh bread.

Friday, February 11– Kochi: The backwaters of Lake Vembanad provide a wonderful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the port of Kochi. Kettuvallam boats were originally used as ferries and to carry rice; many have now been converted to houseboats to carry visitors through the Kerala backwaters. Canoes made from a single log transport coir fiber from the coconut palm, fresh fish, and mussels. The snake boats, Chundanvallam, with their exceptionally high sterns decorated with brass studs and inlay work, carry about 20 oarsmen synchronized with several singers. In traditional boat building no nails are used and the planks are stitched together with coir fiber.

According to legend, Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, created Kerala by throwing his battle axe into the sea thus explaining the abundance of canals, lagoons, and lakes. The backwaters are a network of waterways weaving through the rice paddies of rural Kerala. Vembanad Lake is 57 miles long and at its deepest is 39 feet. River taxis connect the villages to schools and towns. Most people who live along the backwaters tend the rice fields and farm coconuts which yield not only coconut fruit, but also toddy tapped from the flower. One of the main cottage industries in the area is the processing of coconut husks into coir for making rope, mats, and floor coverings.

Our backwaters expedition was very leisurely, complete with a local lunch prepared and served aboard consisting of rasam (pepper water), sambhar (lentil puree), meen varuval, fried fish, kozhi varuta, chicken curry, avail, a mixed vegetable curry cooked in coconut milk, green beans, cabbage, rice, poppudoms, and paratha bread followed by sweet pineapple and rice vermicelli pudding with fried bananas.

Saturday, February 12 At Sea / Mangalore: The luxury of another morning at sea provided the opportunity to hear from our guest speakers, firstly Professor Ralph Gakenheimer, emeritus Professor from MIT,  speaking on one of the major problems confronting urban development in India—that of traffic management—in his lecture India: Population and Mobility. This was followed by our second guest speaker, Tripti Pandey’s interesting insight on India’s Elephant Legacy.

By lunchtime we had reached Mangalore—the city of seven hills. A most interesting drive through the fairly arid forested hills of the Western Ghats  brought us to Karkala, site of a 42-feet high Jain Gomateshwara monolith dating from 1432. The granite stone statue in the middle of the temple is surrounded by statues of 24 Jain saints or tirthankaras, enlightened beings who guide others across the ‘river of transmigration.’ The monolith is accessible via 182 laterite steps cut into the side of the rock. Jainism, founded in the 6th century, is based on a doctrine of non-violence towards all living beings. Jains are strict vegetarians who cover their mouths to avoid accidentally inhaling any living creature.

A very warm and tasty welcome was awaiting us at Soans Fruit Farm. Fresh pineapple juice, masala spiced chai (tea) and a wonderful array of snacks: vadas (fried lentil doughnuts) with hot and spicy sambhar, and lentil rissoles with coconut chutney, coriander chutney, and the ubiquitous tomato ketchup. Kevin and the local guides then led a nature walk through part of the gardens and orchards of the 100-acre farm which produces not only pineapple but also cashews, nutmeg, and cocoa.

Sunday, February 13– Marmagao (Goa): Goa is renowned for its beautiful beaches, attracts tourists from all over the world, and is the site of some magnificent churches including the Se Cathedral dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, and the Basilica Bom Jesus.

An immersion in Goa’s Portuguese legacy continued for some with a visit to a traditional Goan residence in the village of Quepem. Once the official residence of the local Bishop and lovingly restored by Reuben, our charming host and his wife, we enjoyed a guided tour of the mansion, a cooking demonstration in the manicured gardens, and tasting fresh toddy from the toddy palm. This was followed by a sumptuous lunch of traditional Goan cuisine which included kaleen of prawns, a delicately flavored coconut curry, rosemary sausage pie, chicken vindaloo, and Bebinca, traditional Goan layer cake.

A visit to the magnificent Braganza Mansion at Chandor gave us a glimpse of the grandeur of the successful Goan landowners of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The Braganza Mansion was extended to accommodate the increasing numbers of descendants and boasts a mirrored ballroom, Goa’s finest private library with over 5,000 leather bound books, fine rosewood furniture, and some wonderful Chinese porcelain.

The alternative enjoyed by many was to sample firsthand, Goa’s famed sandy beaches at the Taj Exotica Hotel, swimming in the Gulf of Arabia followed by a traditional British high tea.

Monday, February 14– Panaji: In 1843 Panaji became the official capital of Goa. Situated at the mouth of the Mandovi River it has a picturesque waterfront, a lovely park, many old colonial government buildings, and an attractive old Portuguese Quarter which is now filled with guest houses, caf├ęs and art galleries. An early morning visit to the vibrant local fruit, vegetable, and fish market at Panaji was followed by a walk to and through the picturesque old Portuguese quarter before returning to the ship to sail for Mumbai, our final port of call in India.

Our last day aboard was rounded off by a wonderful afternoon with Rudyard Kipling presented by the incredibly talented Kevin. Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay in 1865 and was so enamored with the country he returned to work in India as soon as he had left school. Kevin’s presentation included recitals of some of Kipling’s best known work The Appeal, If, How the Whale Got His Throat, The Law of the Jungle, We and They, Gungadhin, and a clip from the 1975 film The Man Who Would be King starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine with Kipling played by Christopher Plummer. The captain’s farewell cocktail party and dinner brought to an official end the cruise portion of our adventures.

Tuesday, February 15– Mumbai / Disembark Clipper Odyssey: Mumbai is the commercial capital of India and home to 17 million people. Red Tape completed, ‘i’s dotted and ‘t’s crossed, we bade a fond farewell to the Clipper Odyssey and headed for the city. Crawford Market provided a glimpse of the hustle and bustle of a working fruit and vegetable market.

Safely cocooned on the bus, a drive along Mumbai’s famous Marine Drive, also known as the Queen’s Necklace, and Chowpatty Beach and on to the Malabar Hills showed us all how fast the city is developing, with new commercial and residential high-rises sprouting up all over the horizon.

At the top of the Malabar hills are the Hanging Gardens and just beneath them are the Parsi Towers of Silence, where the dead are laid out for vultures to devour their mortal remains according to Zoroastrian tradition. Back in the center of the city and past the Turf Club is one of the most unique sights of Mumbai, the open air laundry at Dhobi Ghat.

Mani Bhavan is one of the most important Gandhi Memorial Museums in the country. It was here that Gandhi took his first lessons in carding and also learned to spin, activities which were to become symbols of truth and non-violence in his quest for independence.

Khyber at Fort Restaurant is one of the leading restaurants in the city. A sumptuous lunch consisted of the best of north and south Indian cuisine including tandoori chicken, lamb dhaba, vegetable pulao rice, daal, and nine jeweled vegetable curry.  Then time to check in to the top hotel in Mumbai, the world renowned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel with its wonderful seafront location overlooking the iconic Gateway of India.

Wednesday, February 16– Mumbai: A beautiful sunrise over the Gateway of India set the scene for our visit to Elephanta Island via local chartered boats. The Gateway to India was originally conceived for the Royal visit in 1911 of George V and Queen Mary.

The Elephanta Caves on Elephanta Island were named after a huge elephant was found on the island, known locally as Gharapuri. The 135 steps can be made easier by hiring a sedan chair which is carried to the top. A sacred Shiva lingam is enshrined in the main cave. Although the caves are no longer a living temple, they are revered locally and are deservedly a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

An afternoon at leisure gave us time for last-minute souvenir shopping, sightseeing, pampering, packing, and time to absorb the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences that make India and Sri Lanka so splendid. Upon travelling in India, an old Indian saying:“Travelling in this part of the world is no bed of roses but a bouquet of experiences.”