Someone once said if the Himalayas are the head of India, the south is her spiritual heart and soul. This couldn’t be more true. Coming to Tamil Nadu from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai marked the departure with urban India and encounters with its rural areas. The southern portion of India is unique: the Dravidian people and languages of Tamil and Malayalam (spoken in Kerala) are the oldest in India, if not the world. Tamil Nadu is more than 80% Hindu, and its culture reflects how important spiritual ties to this ancient religion still are in the 21st century.
What I imagined when I thought of South India was ancient stone temples, banana and coconut trees, and friendly sarong and sari clad locals. This “rootsy” depiction, a word provided by my own cultural upbringing in California, proved to actually be an accurate presumption–only the gaps in my preconceptions of Tamil Nadu would be filled in with kindness and beauty. But before getting to the deep south, we spent a few days in the city.
Chennai or Madras is the major urban center for Tamil Nadu. At 4.6 million, it is considered a “smaller” laid back city, as far as cities in India go. Despite this reputation, I still felt the urban rush of the rickshaw and sound of the honk of horns as we navigated its traffic congested streets. I noticed that plastic garbage is a huge issue in this city. All that aside, Chennai is steeped in history and has tons to offer.
Formerly the seat of the East India Company starting in the 17th century, there are a lot of buildings that reflect a meeting of English European and South Indian style architecture. Chennai is also has quiet back roads with banyan tree shrines, rivers and fruit salesmen. You just have to get away from the massive four story Spencer’s mall and the heart of the city.
We had a unique opportunity to see the Kalakshetra, India’s equivalent of Juliard, where both Indian and international students come to study forms of classical Indian music. Started by one of the most well known people in Indian history, Rakmini Devi, Kalakshetra was hands down one of the prettiest campuses I had ever seen. Little lily ponds and gardens are hidden between tiny houses and classroom buildings.
Maria Montessori, was a POW in British India during World War II, and was able to spend her time at Kalakshetra under Rakmini Devi. The famed Italian educator was inspired by the way in which students engaged with their teachers and their material there, as well as the campus that Rakmini Devi had established. The rest of the story, as they say, is history.
This is a short video of how students are taught the craft:
If you ever visit Chennai, pay a visit to Nalini, owner of Giggles bookshop, reputed to be one of the best in all of India. The books are piled so high that she can’t even make it inside of her own shop, but she’ll do a great job recommending you something based on your interests and then find you something to read. For food, check out Ashviti for modern takes on South Indian classics. It’s also an art gallery with some impressive local work.
We then headed down the coast to Mahabalipuram, a port city that grew in the 7th and 8th centuries, about an hour south of Chennai. I’ve heard modern Mahabalipuram compared to Goa before it became the beach retreat for an increasingly outstretched Mumba and thirstily mobile international tourist clientele. The town itself is filled with expats, yogis, fisherman and craftsmen and everyone seems to get along just fine. The highlight of Mahabalipuram other than its beautiful location on the Bay of Bengal flanked by palm trees and rice paddies are its immaculate granite temples.
Mahinda Pallava commissioned many of the older carvings in the 7th century, when Europe was in decline following the fall of Rome. These carvings are magnificent and certainly worth a visit. Some are slatted and chipped from granite boulders or caves on the spot, and others assembled.
Arjun’s Penance, possibly one of the world’s largest bas-relief carvings, shows an epic devotional scene to Shiva that includes but is not limited to elephants, monkeys, turtles as well as a faithful cat standing and stretching skyward in worship of Shiva. I’m still trying to understand Hinduism. A good place to start is that everything has spirit, its a timeless tradition, and their is a universal force, kind of like from Star Wars. It’s when you add all the gods that things get complicated for the outsider.
At their height, the Chola dynasty under emperor Raja Rajan was one of the most powerful in the world and his name belongs amongst Justinian of Byzantium and the like. There are some unbelievable buildings, one of which is called the Shore Temple. Seeing this edifice with waves from the Bay of Bengal crashing on the beach all around and a light breeze on our faces brought the image of this place in its height, painted in vibrant colors and filled with bronze statues and eager Cholan worshippers.
As we continued south and through the countryside, the seaside shops and hotels of Mahabalipuram were quickly replaced with green geometric rice paddies, thatched huts and palm and the occasional banyan tree. The rural parts of Tamil Nadu are breathtaking. On the bus, villagers will stare, most will wave. If they don’t wave first, giving a wave and smile almost always gets the same in return. It’s a pretty pleasant phenomena.
Going in further, we kept an eye out for terracotta shrines under trees that demarcate the outskirts of a town. The horse, known as an Ayyanar horse, is a common protector. We were able to see the biggest one known to be in existence in South India.
Dr. Stephen P. Huyler has written extensively about this in his book “Gifts of the Earth.” He has spent 40 years in India researching material culture across the country, and his enthusiasm for the Arayyan terracottas reveal not only his partiality for them as an impressive folk craft, but their unrecognized significance as ephemeral art. Ephemeral art, unlike the majority of Western art is not designed to last. It is made purposefully, and is often constructed symbolically or for a specific purpose, and then allowed to deteriorate.
This made me think of my own attachments to material beauty. “How reliant am I on it in my own life,” I thought. India has a unique concept of time and beauty, and I found I have a lot more to learn from this culture than I had previously thought.
After some chai masala, which in India is completely different from the bland and overpriced fancy version we get in America, we arrived in the town of Swamimalai. It is spiced with cardamom, fennel seeds, sometimes pepper, vanilla or cinnamon, and warm milk. And those are just the known ingredients
Welcoming smiles and greetings of namaskarum from villagers on the outskirts of Swamimalai hit me right in the heart. This is why I came to India. I was enamored by their kindness and openness to us being in their village.