Southern India by Sea with Sri Lanka
Published on Monday, February 06, 2012
Friday, December 9, 2011 - Mumbai, India: Our independent arrival into Mumbai, the city of seven islands, allowed us to experience urban India at its most extreme, while based at the luxurious and world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel overlooking the ocean and the iconic Gateway of India.
Our afternoon excursion took us from the Gateway, past the University of Mumbai, with its Big Ben-like clock tower. When it was built in 1847 the university used to be on the foreshore when the city’s population was a mere 3,000; today it exceeds 20 million and much coastal land has been reclaimed for expansion. We drove past Mumbai Railway Station, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still known affectionately as Victoria Terminus, and admired its splendid Victorian architecture. One of our main visits this afternoon was a rare opportunity to enter an active Jain Temple. From the temple, with its ornate Mughal-style marble architecture and brightly colored paintings, we re-entered the bustle of the city. Making our way through the amazingly dense and varied traffic, bright in the sunshine and loud with the honking of horns, we headed for the Dhobi Ghat, the area of the city where the cast of laundrymen were hard at work, washing, drying, and ironing the city’s laundry. Few could fail to be moved by the final visit of the afternoon to Mani Bhawan (Gandhi Museum) where we learned of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and non-violent struggle to end British oppression of India and bring about its independence.
This evening we joined our expedition leader Lia Oprea and her team of lecturers and staff for welcome cocktails and dinner.
Saturday, 10 December - Elephanta Island / Mumbai: Sunrise over the Gateway of India was a superb way to greet another bustling Indian scene. From just beyond the impressive gateway, we boarded local boats for the relaxing journey to Elephanta Island, seeing on the way our vessel, the Clipper Odyssey, heading in towards its berth, followed by a surprising flight of 49 greater flamingos flying low across the water.
Upon arrival on the island we boarded a wonderful miniature steam train to the base of the hill then climbed the more than 120 steps to reach the temple complex itself, though the climb was made all the easier by those who hired sedan chairs to the top. Along the way, groups of irreverent bonnet macaques were ready to snatch any item of food, and were a reminder that in India wildlife and people live in close proximity. Just ten kilometers from Mumbai, Elephanta Island was named by the Portuguese, after a huge carved stone elephant found there, and is now famous for the caves carved into the hillside. The complex, another World Heritage Site, was excavated from the rock of the island during the 6th and 7th centuries, and dedicated to Shiva.
Returning to Mumbai for a late lunch of tasty Indian dishes at the Khyber Restaurant, we then headed for the port, boarded the Clipper Odyssey, and settled in to our comfortable home-away-from-home for the next ten days. Our serendipitous welcome display was a full lunar eclipse clearly visible from the ship.
Sunday, 11 December - Marmagao (Goa): On a bright and sunny morning with calm seas we commenced our series of lectures with Professor Ron Wixman’s entertaining, eclectic, and challenging introduction to Hinduism and the Origin of the Caste System. Later in the morning Shirley Campbell gave her broad sweep of human history of half a million years entitled Conquering the Sub-Continent: A Complex Peopling of India.
With our minds freshly awhirl with knowledge, and our stomachs replete from lunch, we disembarked for our afternoon tour of Panjim/Panaji, the official capital of Goa. We drove through lush tropical vegetation, passing coconut palms, mango and banana trees, and fields where water buffalo grazed surrounded by their retinues of cattle egrets. There were mangroves, flowering frangipani, and bougainvillea, and even yellow-flowering ype trees from Brazil.
Our visit to Panaji, with many old colonial government buildings, included a wander through the vibrant local fruit, vegetable, and fish market. We also saw several floating casinos in the mouth of the Mandovi River, and walked through the picturesque old Latin quarter with its strangely Indo-European ambience, its balconied buildings, whitewashed church guest houses and cafés, before returning to the ship where we were formally welcomed to the ship and to the voyage, with cocktails and dinner by Captain Peter Fielding.
Monday, 12 December - Marmagao (Goa): Our morning visit took us into old Goa to see the Santa Catarina Cathedral, the Archeological Museum and Basilica of Bom Jesus with the relics of St. Francis Xaviar. Today the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site owing to its historical and religious significance. On our way to our lunch venue at Chandor, we visited the 450 year-old Luis de Menezes Bragança Mansion, filled with priceless antiques, for a personally guided tour from Madam Menezes Bragança. We continued to the Palacio do Deao, now a private home, for a delightful lunch and home-cooking demonstration by the charming owners Reuben and Cecilia, who introduced us to the local mélange of typical Goan and Portuguese fusion cuisine for a sumptuous lunch and a stroll in the gardens.
Back on board Professor Ramamurti Shankar gave the first of his lectures about one of India’s most famous mathematicians: Ramanujan and Mathematics in India, following which our team gathered for the first recap of our voyage.
Tuesday, 13 December - Mangalore / Karnataka: The west coast Karnatakan city of Mangalore, goes by many names in the various local languages of the region and the different ethnic groups that live here. The port sees considerable movement of the local cashew crop and our visit this morning included a visit to a bustling cashew factory. The experience allowed us to witness the whole process of husking, de-testing, sorting, roasting, and ultimately packing. We continued our journey out of Mangalore, winding through well-vegetated hills with fruiting trees and coconut and betel palm plantations. We learned about local culture, dances, and customs including buffalo racing.
Our destination was the impressive Jain Temple at Karkala, dominated by an enormous statue of the Jain saint, Gommateshvara. This 42-foot high monolith dates back to 1432. We climbed the rock-hewn steps and made further tentative steps into the field of Asian temple architecture. Behind the statue towering over the midst of the compound, were 24 smaller statues of Jain saints or tirthankaras, enlightened beings who guide others across the ‘river of transmigration.’ Following our visit to Karkala, we returned part way to the coast for a warm and very tasty welcome lunch at the 100-acre Soans Farm. This tropical farm managed by Dr. Soans produces more than thirty species of local crops, including pineapples.
Once back onboard, we continued our lecture series. First textile specialist Kim Saunders gave us her fascinating exposition on The Voyage of the Flowering Basket - Textile Traditions and Techniques from India to Southeast Asia; then art historian Allan Langdale combined art appreciation and the art of photography into one enthralling subject, Photography Tips and Art.
Wednesday, 14 December - Kochi (Cochin): Our leisurely arrival at Kochi, built around a saltwater lagoon of the Arabian Sea, allowed us to commence the day with Shankar's second lecture of the voyage entitled Globalization in Science and Math, before we set off on our tour of the city.
We began our tour with a visit to one of India’s oldest Christian churches, established in the early 16th century and dedicated to St. Francis, and the original burial place of Vasco da Gama. We continued our walking tour of the city passing the colorful street market on our way to the river with its enormous, Chinese-style fishing nets. Our next stop was Mattancherry Palace, with its impressive murals depicting elements from the great Indian epic tale of the Ramayana, and various royal artifacts. Then we walked through the Jew Town market quarter, with its maze of streets and innumerable stores. Some took the opportunity to explore further with Ron and visited the Paradesi Synagogue, India’s oldest. The warm weather was ideally suited for our poolside barbecue lunch following which our naturalist, Mark Brazil, presented an overview of the biogeography of India in his lecture, Wild India: A Celebration of the Wild Side of the Sub-Continent.
Our day ended with a Keralan dance extravaganza in the form of a Kathakali performance. Kathakali, a classical Keralan drama dating back almost 400 years, involves extraordinary makeup, colorful costumes, ornate headdresses, and traditional tales with a dramatic accompaniment of percussion and song. The traditional stories from the epic Mahabharata involve the eventual triumph of good over evil, and involve detailed hand and facial gestures.
Thursday, 15 December - Kochi (Cochin): Today we set off for a more rural experience, first heading south to the town of Alleppey where we boarded houseboats on the backwaters of this ‘Venice of the East.’ One of the main industries in this area is the processing of coconut husks into coir for making rope, mats, and other forms of floor covering. We dropped in at a coir factory where we witnessed the production of matting woven from the short staple fibers of the inside of coconut husks. In an extraordinary process, these short fibers are rubbed together to form longer strands, themselves spun into twine then ropes before being woven, dyed and formed into a range of products.
Rural Kerala is a maze of irrigated rice paddies and palm groves, and there is no better way to explore it than by houseboat. These Kettuvallam boats were originally used as ferries and to carry produce (mainly rice), but now many of them have been converted into houseboats so that visitors can enjoy the backwaters of Kerala and India’s second largest body of freshwater: Lake Vembanad. The experience of traveling slowly along past scenes of village life with kingfishers and bee-eaters overhead, provided a wonderful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the port of Kochi. Endless distractions included people wandering between their villages, and doing their laundry at the waterside, bathing and chatting. Beyond the banks we could see the almost endless rice fields, which produce the main crop of the region. Lunch was served on board, after which we took an opportunity to make a riverside walk through a local village before returning by boat to Alleppey and thence to Kochi. We enjoyed a relaxing evening cocktail party hosted by Zegrahm Expeditions and Yale Education Travel as we set sail for Trivandrum.
Friday, 16 December - Thiruvanathapuram (Trivandrum): We woke this morning to our most colorful harbor of the voyage; white sand beaches lined with palm trees and crowded with the population of a bustling rural fishing port. We were soon forced to choose either a city or a rural experience. For those choosing the latter, we drove along winding roads through innumerable villages, as well as coconut and betel palm plantations, on our way to Marnallor Village, the final part of the journey being made in tuktuks down a bumpy dirt track. There we watched a coconut harvester climb a towering palm, armed only with a band around his feet for grip and a machete for hacking off the fruit. We watched coconut splitting and were able to taste coconut and various other tropical fruits including butter bananas and jackfruit.
Nearby we watched rubber tapping in the plantation followed by the rolling of latex, which is formed from the rubber tree sap, mixed with formic acid, and into sheets which are sun dried before shipping to market. On our return we witnessed a demonstration of an ancient precursor of many modern martial arts. Returning to the coast and our harbor, there was time to wander this picture perfect image of a bustling fish market harbor awash with local people.
Those who opted for a visit into Kerala’s capital of Thiruvanathapuram learned that the city was built over seven hills, and is known as the Holy City of Anatha. Our excursion began with a visit to view the outside of the Gopura of Anatha Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Continuing our tour, we visited the 18th-century Puthan Malika Palace which now houses a museum of royal regalia, including a magnificent ivory throne carved from fifty tusks and a solid crystal throne received from the Dutch. We made our way to the Napier Museum, a remarkable piece of 1880s architecture combining Persian, Muslim, and Italian features in Indo-Saracenic style.
Following lunch onboard our lecture series continued with Ron explaining the global impacts of Trade and Colonialism. Allan provided a visual exploration of Ritual and Architecture in India with his presentation on a wide range of religious structures around the sub-continent. Recap, complete with a sari demonstration from Shirley Campbell, continued our educational afternoon, before we ended the day with a distinctive Keralan dinner provided by our onboard team of Indian chefs.
Saturday, 17 December - Colombo, Sri Lanka / Kandy: From Sri Lanka’s capital of Colombo we were able to travel into the hills at the heart of this teardrop-shaped country to visit its premiere Buddhist site, the Temple of the Tooth. As we boarded our buses local drummers and dancers welcomed us and saw us off on our journey.
By mid-morning we had reached the Pinnawalla Elephant Orphanage, to see the elephant herd and observe them bathing in the river. Originally established by the government to protect abandoned, injured, and orphaned elephants, it now houses them and their offspring in an extensive herd kept under control by their mahouts (keepers).
From there we continued on to Kandy, where we strolled in the extensive Royal Botanical Garden admiring the plantings from around the world. Once we reached downtown Kandy through the dense weekend traffic, a splendid Sri Lankan-style buffet lunch was served for us at the imposing Queens Hotel in a wonderful old colonial-style building situated just across the street from our destination Sri Dalada Maligawa – the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. This World Heritage Site is the most significant pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Sri Lanka; it was constructed from the late 17th to the late 18th centuries by the Kandayan kings and originally formed part of the Kandayan Royal Palace. Along the lake shore troupes of toque macaques were much in evidence, as were roosting flying foxes, though we were to see many more as dusk fell during our drive back to Colombo.
Sunday, 18 December - Galle: Our tour of Galle began in the small town of Koggala where we saw both the traditional way of fishing, men sitting on poles planted in the reef, and a fabulous museum of folk art. The private collection of Martin Wickramasinghe included various tools used in a range of trades to create masks and folk costumes. From there we went to the town of Galle and saw colorful textiles, gems and jewelry, lace and a wide diversity of local traditional crafts. Returning to the Clipper Odyssey for lunch, we set sail along the southern coast of Sri Lanka ultimately bound for Chennai, India. Our journey had barely begun, when Mark announced the first whale report from the bridge and soon we were treated to an extraordinary and rare opportunity to enjoy not one, but multiple blue whale sightings. These, the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth, migrate off the southern coast of Sri Lanka at this time of year and we were lucky to encounter an astonishing 30-40 whales during the course of the afternoon. By the time the sightings had slackened off it was time to recommence our indoor education, with Shirley discussing The Peopling of Sri Lanka: a Prehistoric Encounter with the Mahavamsa, and Kim giving us her presentation entitled Star of India, Gandi Tandoori and Delhi Darbar – The Spicy Adventures of Curry.
Monday, 19 December - At Sea: With a penultimate day at sea, there was time to relax and reflect on our journey from Mumbai to Sri Lanka. Our onboard lecture series began with Mark, who gave his presentation on The Dwindling Dinosaurs: Birds in Peril, followed by Shankar who looked ahead to the end of our journey with his lecture on The Nobel Family from Chennai. As a precursor to our final recap and review of our travels by our lecturing team, Allan showed us his collection of images from our Southern India by Sea voyage. Our day concluded with farewell cocktails and dinner hosted by our captain, Peter Fielding.
Tuesday, 20 December - Chennai, India: Bidding farewell to the Clipper Odyssey, its officers and crew, we set off on our morning tour of Chennai, including a visit to Fort St. George Museum, the bustling, fascinating Kapaleeshwar Hindu Temple, and the Bronze Museum, before gathering for lunch in the city. All too soon our journey around southern India and Sri Lanka was concluded and it was time for us to transfer to the Trident Hotel to relax, prior to our flights home.