Saturday, 28 February 2015

South India Trippin

Street art in Pondicherry. Relevant because Women and Gender Studies.
So the way our FSP is planned we have one class that we take with a Dartmouth professor, Professor Beasley, that incorporates excursions into our class structure. We have three trips planned and the 3rd weekend in India was our first. We went to Southern India, visiting Chennai, Pondicherry, Kanchipuram, and Mahabalipuram. I'm splitting this into 2 parts because this was a long 5 day trip with many photos being taken.

We left Thursday morning and arrived in Chennai after a short hour long flight. We got onto our tour bus where we'd be traveling the next couple of days and started immediately visiting special sites.

Kalakshetra! was the first site. It's a special arts school for traditional Indian arts. They have everything from dance, to music, to sculpture. The campus is beautiful and amazing. Everything is open and tries to incorporate nature. At the very center of the school is a banyan tree where a multi faith prayer begins the day for students every morning. Students range from elementary school age to late twenties. It seems like a place to be really dedicated to your craft. And what a beautiful locale to be taught in. They also have their own silk weaving across the street.

Special performance auditorium that uses temple architecture because that's originally where traditional arts were performed

Part of the old church
Our British Heritage Tour was next. We visited a complex where the British stayed. Its pretty close to the ocean and includes a nice church, several residences, and then a museum. Inside the complex there were a good amount of really old cars kept in working condition almost like they were preserving that old culture. Interesting. We also saw San Thome Basilica where relics of St. Thomas' are said to be. A wedding was actually going on at the time.

Sunset over St. Thomas' Basilica

Day over, we checked into the hotel and slept.

We got up early to drive to Kanchipuram which was about 2.5 hours away. First we visited the Vaikunta Perumal Temple which our tour guide Suresh gave us an amazing amount of information about. The temple is dedicated to the god Vishnu but it also features the very detailed story of the Pallava kings one of who commissioned the temple. This is the stuff of ~700 CE.  We went into the temple where there were a few people chanting and praying and then the rest of the time we circumambulated the center bit to see all the carvings on the wall. There are panels on panels of the Pallavas' story.

Next we visited the Kailasanathar temple which is dedicated to Shiva. Apparently it's the oldest structure in Kanchipuram. You can thank the Pallava kings for that again. Think ~680 CE. 

Later we visited a business of silk loom weavers. These are people that make all the silk scarves and saris that you see around India. They have a huge wooden set up, the pattern is run through by a series of cards and the weaver threads them all together. The whole process to make a sari this way will take several months.

Even later that afternoon, (these trips are packed to the brim) we visited a village to see the town's program to motivate children to succeed. We met with the officials who talked about keeping the kids in school and also giving them fun outlets and basically keeping them engaged in the community. There was a short volleyball game between some of us and some of the boys in the program. It was fun. Also another quick stop at a very large temple. Don't know very much about it. It's just really big.

That night we drove to Pondicherry where we would spend the next day.

Pondicherry is actually a city that was controlled by the French instead of the British. You can really feel that as you head towards the coast. There you have the French heritage district where they have made a concerted effort to restore old buildings and keep intact the French Indian style. Our guide Ashok was an architect who had started a project to preserve the French style of the buildings.

Our guide + students + street art
When building something new businesses or owners will consult with his organization on how best to conform to those old standards. It's resulted in a really beautifully done area. It's quieter as well because large vehicles don't drive down the residential streets. And after a certain hour they close the roads to cars so the entire boardwalk is pedestrian only.

You can go from this...
...To this
Of course many tourists are attracted to the area. We saw more foreigners in a couple hours than we have seen all our weeks in Hyderabad. It's a place where you can get the Western touch with an Indian feel which led to some conflicted feelings on the part of our group. What does it mean to enjoy the French part of India over other "more Indian" parts of the country? It's a very valid query but then you get into questions of what does it mean to feel/be Indian and that's not a question I would try to answer. So Pondicherry is just a great city where Westerners esp. the French might feel more at home. Very beautiful. I would recommend going.


Nearby is Auroville a town dedicated to pursuing a way of life. You have to watch a video before you enter about how Auroville is not a religion or a spirituality, but a way of life to "realize human unity". In the center of this town for all nations is a huge golden sphere where only special people are allowed to go in and "focus, not meditate but just concentrate". The lotus shaped gardens around the dome are also off limits. Their founder was a French lady who they call The Mother which I think says a lot without saying a lot. Maybe I'm a bit cynical but I do admire how they created a lush forest where before there was just desert.

To be continued!

1 comment:

  1. Sounds, so rich an experience. Look forward to more when you are able. LOVYA!