Monthly Archives: February 2010


The Times of India, 2/23/10, dateline Mysore: The police launched a fitness training program for their personnel. Over 70 personnel who have been found obese have been selected for training.

Despite a seemingly healthy traditional vegetarian diet rich in vegetables, grains, and legumes, middle-class mature adults, both men and women, tend to be quite fat.

There are probably multiple causes: increasing prosperity, abundant use of deep-fry as a cooking method and butter as an ingredient, sedentary life style, a cultural sweet tooth attracted to the wide variety of confections on offer in ubiquitous shops and food stalls specializing in sweets.

By contrast, mature adult villagers are thin as saplings. During the heat of midday, village men often hike their dotis or lunghis above the knee. Flesh seem to be stretched over nothing but sinew and bone. Perhaps body fat is a traditional cultural sign of wealth and status.

According to Wikipedia, obesity is epidemic in India. Among the causes may be the increasing consumption of processed foods. Additionally, many Indians carry a gene that predisposes for fat accumulation, especially around the middle.

Oriental Dreams

British architects working as consultants for the Raj developed an architectural style now known as Indo-Saracenic. The style combines Mughal, Victorian and neo-Gothic elements with elements indigenous to a building's regional location.

The Maharaja's Palace in Mysore is an Indo-Saracenic gem. After securing dominance in this part of India, the British gave titular power to the local Maharaja. In the late 1800s his wooden palace burned to the ground. Working with a British architect, the Maharaja designed and built the present palace in the space of 15 years sparing no expense.

Completed in 1912, the new palace embodiies the European fantasy of Oriental opulence and spleandor. Sunlight shining through intricately worked, richly colored stained glass dapples a vast ceremonial hall. Pillars, each made from a single stone, soar upward to support multi-vaulted and intricately painted ceilings. Chandeliers suspended with heavy crystal hang from long chains. Delicate floral designs of precious and semi-precious stones are inlaid into marble floors. Inlaid ivory designs adorn heavy ceremonial doors of teak and rosewood.

From the beginning the palace has been electrified. On ceremonial occasions, and now every Sunday night, thousands of lightbulbs trace the palace's outline.

Until Indian independence in 1947, the Maharaja lived, received his subjects, and presided over both his family's and Mysore's ceremonial occasions from this dream palace. After independence the Maharaja was named Mysore state's first governor.

The palace is now a popular destination for both Indian and foreign tourists. The current Maharaja still uses an ancient temple that survived the fire and is incorporated into the new palace.

Meals Ready

Typical south Indian breakfasts and lunches are served on a banana leaf – placed either directly on the table or on a large round stainless steel plate.

For breakfast we can choose one or more of several standard menu offerings: masala dosa is a large thin, crispy crepe-like pancacke made from rice and lentil flour and filled with a spicy mixture of potato and onion; pongal is a porriage-like concoction made from rice boiled in milk and flavored with cashew nuts, curry leaves, peppers and ghee (clarified butter); idli is steamed bread made of a batter of special rice and lentil flours, fermented overnight like sour dough, and served with sambar, a spicy lentil and vegetable soup for dipping; vada is bread made from lentil flour and masala spices, deep fried in either a doughnut or doughnut hole shape; poori is puffy, deep fried circle-shaped bread, like American Indian fry bread but unsweatened; paratha is fried bread made from dough rich in ghee, may include egg or potato.

Filter coffee is strong, dark, sweet and mixed with frothy boiling hot milk. Both coffee and tea are generally served sweet, but I always request 'no sugar'. Coffee is served in a small, stainless cup set inside a small stainless bowl. The drill is to pour the coffee back and forth between the two vessels until cool enough to drink. Upscale restaurants serve milk coffee in a regular cup and saucer. It is usually Nes (short for Nescafe coffee powder), which costs more than the delicious filter coffee.

A thali meal is a fast food lunch, generally vegetarian, the south Indian equivalent of the American burger and fries. Restaurants specializing in lunch thali advertise 'Meals Ready'. First a waiter places a banana leaf in front of each diner. Then another waiter arrives carrying a bucket-like vessel with three compartments containing various masala-seasoned vegetable stews and scoops a portion from each onto the banana leaf. Next another server ladles out various Indian pickle condiments. Rice comes next. A waiter carrying a large pot of steamed rice scoops out a giant heap onto the center of the banana leaf. Another waiter follows close behind ladeling dhal, a thin, spicy lentil soup, onto the rice. Thali lunch may also include small stainless bowls of yogurt and a sweet, pudding-like dessert.

All the locals, no matter what age, gender, or social class, dig in with gusto using only the right hand. I tried eating with my hand but after a couple of awkward meals gave up and used fork and spoon.

Everywhere, from upscale restaurants to open-front food stalls to push-cart street vendors, fresh fruit juice is available: orange, sweet lime, pineapple, grape, apple and sugarcane. Fresh lime juice with soda and sugar is a favorite all over south India. It's a favorite of mine too, but unsweetened so I can add just a touch.

South India

Of India’s 28 states, four are located in the southern portion of the Indian peninsula:

  • Tamil Nadu – about the size of Greece or Louisiana and stretching 910 km (550 miles) along the Bay of Bengal and across from Sri Lanka.
  • Kerala – about the size of Switzerland or Maryland and stretching 580 km (360 miles) along the Arabian Sea.
  • Karnataka – about the size of Syria or Oregon, Bangalore is its capital and high tech center.
  • Andhra Pradesh – India’s fourth largest state, larger than France and about the size of Colorado, Hyderabad is its capital and high tech center.

The States Reorganization Act created states along linguistic lines in 1956. In each of the four southern states the majority of the population speaks one of four Dravidian languages derived from ancient Tamil. Linguists disagree about the relationship of Dravidian languages to other language groups. Nothing is known about the ancient Dravidian parent language. It is widely accepted that Dravidian speakers must have been widespread throughout India before the arrival of Indo-European languages and Vedic Sanskrit from the steppes of central Asia.

State politics in southern states tends to be dominated by language-based local parties and by all appearances is a lively matter. Regional newspapers place heavy emphasis on local politics. In one of the towns we visited, a new bus station was about to open, with Tamil Nadu’s Deputy Chief Minister attending. In preparation, workers set up hundreds of huge placards with his picture all over the town and its approaches. The Tamil Nadu supreme court recently had to overturn a right-wing party’s attempt to require all people moving into the state to speak Tamil. Each political party is known by both its name and a symbol, which are both shown on ballots to help illiterate voters.

Because of its many seaports, southern India has a long history of trade-based relations with other parts of the world. In the ninth century BC, King Solomon may have had trade relations with a port along the coast of present day Kerala. Chinese, Arabic, Greek, and Roman texts provide first-hand accounts of lively trade and cultural exchange. Syrian Christian missionaries arrived in the first century AD to proselytize Kerala’s resident Jewish community. Islam arrived with Arabic traders centuries before Islamic Mogul rule. Portuguese, Dutch, French and English established trading arrangements with local rulers. Catholic and Protestant missions succeeded each other with shifting politically-based trade relations.

The current sari and salwar kameez traditional dress for women dates from the nineteenth century and was at least partly a result of Victorian prudery. In the heat of parts of south India, women and men traditionally covered only their lower bodies for all but ceremonial occasions.

Due perhaps to its ancient cosmopolitan culture, southern India tends to be more forward looking than the north. South India’s states have the highest literacy and standard of living. State and local governments tend to be less corrupt than in northern India, with more government resources going to infrastructure and social programs. It’s not surprising that India’s high-tech centers are concentrated in southern India.

For an interesting perspective on modern India, I recommend Financial Times journalist Edward Luce’s 2006 book In Spite of the Gods.

Kerala Backwaters

About a week ago, we moved across our first state border from Tamil Nadu into Kerala state. States are more like countries in India, with a new culture and often a new language each time you cross a boundary.

Kerala is a sleepy collection of wetlands that stretches along the western coast of the tip of India. It is actually one of the richest states but not thanks to its socialist, anti-business government. Being close to the ocean and western civilization, many people from Kerala have gone to work in the Middle East, sending petrorupees back from Dubai for their families to build modern houses.

Tourists flock to Kerala to see the “Backwaters.” For about 150 kilometers, the coast is so flat that water goes nowhere. Over time, people have organized canals and levees to separate the waterways from the fields, and these waterways provide a fascinating glimpse into rural life. It isn’t exactly untouched, since tourism is the largest industry, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

Our first boat was the full-day ride the 70 km from Kollam (Quilon) to Allepuzza (Alleppy). We took the more expensive and comfortable craft, but the program was essentially the same as the local ferries. A few ports of call for lunch and tea. Cormorants and eagles flying and sitting on posts in the water. No one in a hurry.

The next day, we hired a canoe. Although I love to paddle, in this heat I left the work to the local driver. It felt a bit colonial, but the driver made good money and sweat less than I did sitting on my butt in the shade. Silent and moving at a walking pace, we were able to see the smaller channels where real life still happens. Men and women washing clothes. Canoes loaded with bricks and sand almost to the waterline. A village ceremony where a man lit a small flame on a pot of flowers on his head and then splashed backwards into the water.

The one thing we didn’t do was rent a tourist houseboat. To feed the tourist hordes’ desire for “authentic” experiences, local people have built over 500 of these imitations of traditional working vessels. Although they make an interesting sight, they inflict serious environmental and cultural damage and just didn’t seem like the way we wanted to spend our holiday. Though I must say, they look like fun.

Kerala palaces

The capital of Kerala is Trivandrum, and it lies at the southern tip. This is a historical accident due to its long-time rule as the small kingdom of Travancore. Here and a few other places, the British found it more efficient to rule through a nominally independent puppet state. In a caste-oriented society, they could control everything if they simply controlled the guy at the top. In Travancore, the guy at the top was more interested in music than in war, which made it easy for all concerned. Descendents of these kings still live in these palaces, though they were stripped of their status after independence.

We visited two Travancore palaces. The one in Trivandrum is more modern and only partially open. Built in the Kerala style with carved horses and slatted woodwork around all sides to promote native air flow, the palace stayed remarkably cool inside. Exhibits included thrones in gold and crystal – gifts from European powers to sweeten the local raja.

More interesting was the older palace 60 kilometers to the south in the older capital Padmanabahapuram. Some of its column carvings dated back to the sixteenth century. The king’s bed was similarly well carved.

We later spent a day in Kochi (Fort Cochin), the historical capital of another small kingdom north of the Backwaters, which was the beachhead for the Portuguese and later the Dutch and English. Here the palace contained extensive religious murals, only a few of which are visible to the public.

The beach temple festival

While we were in Kochi, a taxi driver told us about a festival happening at a beach village 16 kilometers to the north. We were initially skeptical but decided to take the chance on traveling up in the sweltering heat of the afternoon. We were glad we did.

The festival was in full force when we arrived. Several thousand people were gathered around a small temple and we could hear the sounds of music and fireworks from afar.

The centerpiece of the festival was two teams of seven elephants each. Elephants are sacred due to their association with Ganesh, and large temples often have a temple elephant who delivers blessings with his trunk in exchange for a few rupees. But here they had assembled 14 of the huge animals with gold-colored trunk ornaments and colored tassels. Three people stood on top of each elephant with ceremonial parasols and yak-hair shakers.

In front of each team of elephants played a band of drummers, trumpets and double-reed horns. Each drummer would improvise a few seconds, and the others would answer. The trumpets and horns blared single notes repeatedly as the intensity grew. To each side of the temple, fireworks wallahs set off explosions every few minutes. These bombs were capped metal containers about 15 centimeters high, which they filled with gunpowder in a tent nearby. The man lit their fuses from less than a meter away. The temple elephants seemed quite used to all the noise.

After dark was the real fireworks show. It began with a string of thousands of firecrackers and cherry bombs that stretched most of the way around the temple. I tried to film a video, but it was so loud that I had to cover my ears. This led to a full fireworks show, with rockets launched from ten-centimeter-diameter pipes. Safety precautions were limited to a rope and fence about 5 meters away, and the fireworks professionals were much closer than that. My dad would have enjoyed my front-row seat.

For a real blast, play this video:

(click here if the you cannot play the youtube video)

Rough and ready internet

The idea that India is leading the flat world electronically into the 21st century is a bit of an exaggeration. Although Indians are well educated in the sciences and large parts of the growing economy depend on the internet, these cluster in large cities and isolated groups. Much of the country lies 10 to 50 years behind in infrastructure and sophistication.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the challenges of getting connected while traveling. In the West, we are used to connecting our laptop to a wifi service in any hotel down to the cheapest Motel 6. And during the day, a visit to Starbucks or a quick scan will usually yield an open hotspot, often free.

Not in India. Most hotels haven’t even got the idea that travelers might want to connect from their rooms in the middle of the night. I’m sure it would be different if we were staying at the Taj, but we’re not being cheap, either. We are staying at midrange hotels that cater to foreign and domestic tourists and business travelers, often a business hotel near a train station. But there is nothing in the room and not even a business center or lobby hotspot. Hotel staff generally smile and say no problem – there’s an internet café down the street.

Internet cafes are everywhere, but they are really nasty places. They are rarely air-conditioned, so the heat of the computers adds to the native swelter. Mosquitoes abound. The machines are often five years old and half are broken. Viruses are rampant. Trying to use these machines for anything more than webmail is an exercise in frustration.

Many internet cafes in India refuse to let people connect their own laptop through either a cable or wifi. I’m not sure if it’s fear of viruses, terrorism, bandwidth abuse or just extra work, but they simply refuse. So each time we come to a new town, we have to interview café owners to find the one that will let us connect.

I use my iPhone a lot, though it too has challenges. I have to adjust settings and watch usage to make sure I don’t run over the 100 MB that I’ve paid for. And half of the time it insists on connecting to a carrier that doesn’t include data service or won’t connect it to an international phone.

Despite all this, we have managed to stay connected to both email and the real world. We pay all our bills through the internet. Efax sends me all my junk faxes by email. We get our postal mail thanks to our housesitters and a wonderful service called Earth Class Mail that acts like an electronic PO Box, opening our postal mail and scanning, forwarding or shredding it on our direction.

It all works, but we’re still a long way from a truly flat world.

Kattai Kuttu Performance

Soon after arriving in India, we got an opportunity to attend an authentic kattai kuttu performance at an all-night village festival.

Kattai kuttu is one of several traditional Indian entertainments and is indigenous to Tamil Nadu state. A mixture of music, dance and theater, kattai kuttu performances enact well-known mythological stories from the Mahabharata, making the legends accessible to the people.

We arrived after dark and the festival, honoring the village goddess, was already in progress. A tractor pulled a large flower-decorated float carrying an image of the goddess and many children through town. A man with a long pole hoisted electrical wires so that the float could pass underneath.

Then villagers set off fireworks and tremendous firecracker ‘bombs’, all the more impressive because we could have walked right up to the exploding shells.

The kattai kuttu performance began at 11pm and ended at 7am without a break. Along with 200-300 villagers, we sat on the ground under the stars. From time to time we lay down and napped or got up and walked around. Some villagers slept, but a good core paid rapt attention through the night. Audience members sometimes came on the stage to give money to the actors playing their favorite deities.

Performers wore elaborate makeup and costumes dictated by the kattai kuttu tradition. The actors spoke, sang and danced accompanied by a chorus of singers and an orchestra of a harmonium, finger cymbals, drums and a loud oboe-like instrument.

Most of the actors, chorus members and musicians were students at a boarding school founded by a hereditary kattai kuttu actor. The school’s mission is to pass on the kattai kuttu tradition and to provide young performers with an education so they can qualify for good jobs in India’s growing economy – performing alone will not provide a living.

Temples, temples, temples

We started in Tamil Nadu state because it is the closest to the start of Indian history. The Dravidian culture traces its roots through several thousand years of unbroken history, since this remote area was never overrun by the Aryans, Moghuls, and other waves that swept across the rest of India. So it is like a time capsule with thousands of well-preserved temples, some of the holiest in India.

The capital, Chennai, is huge but hardly historic, since it was founded and built by the British. There are of course many temples and they were built to the same design as temples a thousand years older. We visited several during the two days we stayed there, and they gave us a taste for what would follow.

Although there are many variations on the design that later spread throughout Asia, most Dravidian temples are laid out as a series of concentric rectangles that lead into the central image of a god, usually some manifestation of Shiva or Vishnu. Often the central object is a lingam, a simple post that represents Shiva's power and many other things. This male symbol is usually centered in a basin that represents the female and channels water and holy oils out to a spout. Here in southern India, the whole inner temple may act as the basin with a spout coming out of its side.

Each of the four entrances is usually capped with a high tower called a gopura. In the south, these towers can rise as high as 60 meters (200 feet) and they are often covered with colorful statues.

Our first stop after Chennai was Mamallapuram, a small city two hours to the south. For more than 1300 years, this has been the stone-carving captal of India. In addition to its famous Shore Temple, Mamallapuram houses a set of five “rathas” (chariots) that are small temple buildings carved out of a single rock. They were models and not used as temples; indeed some speculate that they might have been advertisements for the local stonecutters' craft.

We next traveled inland to Kanchipuram, one of the ancient capitals of India. This is now a small city that boasts many large and ancient temples. One of these called Kailasanatha was built by the Pallava civilization in the 8th century and has remained largely untouched except by some clumsy recent efforts at restoration.

Our next temple city was Tiruvannamalai, the place where Shiva is said to have demonstrated his supremacy as a lingam of fire. We arrived just after a huge festival where thousands of pilgrims lined up to receive blessings from the priests at the center of a dimly lit hall. We were sorry to have missed the spectacle, which culminated in a fire at the top of the mountain overlooking the temple, but we were glad not to have to battle the crowds.

We took a brief break from the temples in Pondicherry, the capital of the small French colony in southern India. Pondicherry is an incongruous enclave with Catholic cathedrals at its center and Parisian street names like Rue Suffren. Yet even here the local ashram owns most of the town.

The next town south was Chidambaram, considered the place where Shiva won a dancing competition and became Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. Six times a day for more than a thousand years, the local priests have been performing a ceremony to help Shiva continue the cycle of creation.

We witnessed two of these almost Dionysian ceremonies. In preparation, the priests lit a large number of oil lamps inside the temple. Then, the ceremony began with priests ringing large and small bells in the courtyard and intense rhythmic drumming. Inside the temple, the chief priest lifted one burning lamp after another in a blessing motion. At one point, the drummers led the crowd of worshippers on a procession clockwise around the temple. Finally, two priests ascended into the innermost sanctum and did some more invocations culminating in a circle with the largest burning lamp. This completed the cycle, and the worshippers dispersed satisfied that the world can continue until the next ceremony.

Our next stops were a group of three temples built by the 1000-year-old Chola civilization. In this early period, the central tower dominated the building. Tanjore (Thanjavur), the most famous of these, had the tallest tower in India at the time of its construction. We were struck by the elegance of both its architecture and its many statues.

Tamil Nadu's largest interior cities also have its largest temples. At Trichy, a huge temple dedicated to Vishnu has high gopuras at its main entrances leading to not less than eight enclosures around the central shrine. The outer layers almost blend into the city, with priests and holy object hawkers living and working within its walls. Most of this temple was relatively modern, with the largest South gopura finished only twenty years ago.

After a short break, which we'll describe in other postings, we went to Madurai, a 2500-year-old city that was capital of several civilizations. Its central temple contains areas for both Shiva and a manifestation of his consort Parvati. During the day, each is worshipped in its respective inner sanctum, but at night there is a ceremony to allow them to sleep together. At 9pm, the priests ring a bell at Shiva's temple to signal the start of a procession that brings his traveling image out in a silver sedan chair. The priests are careful to fan the box to keep the god cool, and they provide flowers and food such as a banana. Finally, when Parvati is ready, they take the image into a special room inside her temple and sing lullabies.

The final stop on our temple circuit was Rameswaram, a pilgrimage town on an island that almost forms a land bridge to Sri Lanka. It is here that Rama was thought to have built a lingam of sand to make up to Shiva after rescuing his wife from the monster Ravena, who was a brahmin and therefore not entirely cool to kill. This is a big stop on the Hindu pilgrim trail, with thousands dousing themselves with the water from 22 tanks around the temple, each thought to have a different shealing property. The temple itself is famous for its long corridors built in the 16th century. Several of them are over 200 meters long and supported by 1216 carved pillars.