Sunday, December 17, 2017

In Search of the Past: Part 9: South to Pondicherry

The Coromandel Coast of India. Doesn't that sound romantic? It always did to me, a realm of spices, silks, and warm sea breezes. During the European colonial period, the two main ports were British Madras and, further south, French Pondicherry

During World War II, my novel's character traveled by train south along the coast to Ceylon. Eager to follow her route, I've been trying for months to book seats. But even here, I am unable to crack the arcane procedures of Indian Railways, which, despite being the world's eight biggest employer, seems to have little interest in actually selling tickets.

Although I haven't given up, for this leg, at least, we will go by car. A few hours later, we arrive in Pondicherry, now called Puducherry. Our heritage hotel, Le Coloniale, formerly a private estate, has elegant period decor and a lush garden.

Once here we're eager to explore and begin by tuk-tuk. On the beachfront Promenade, we pass a statue of Gandhi.

French Old Town is a gracious neighborhood of courtyard gardens, tiled roofs, and arty businesses.

We continue on to the port.

Then we're off to the countryside to visit Auroville, a spiritual community based on the utopian ideals of Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Alfassathe Mother.

The path to the Matrimandir Temple.

The next day I explore French Town's small, leafy streets on foot. Some of the shops feature fabulous art pieces. I am smitten by this reclining Ganesha.

Another Ganesha.

A South Indian Buddhist figure.

A cool bar.

After a hot day of exploring, it's a pleasure to return to Le Coloniale, our biggest decision whether to eat in the courtyard or chic resto-bar.

Too soon we must leave Puducherry. We will drive across South India to Coimbatoremy last chance to obtain tickets for the steam train of my dreams. Filled with foreboding, I prepare for another encounter with the daunting Indian Railways.

Sugar canes are everywhere, in preparation for Pongal, the South Indian Thanksgiving.

Next stop: The Steam Train to Ooty

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In Search of the Past: On to South India, Part 8: Madras/Chennai

Continuing my book research, we fly from Sri Lanka to the old British port of Madras, now Chennai. During WW2, my character arrived by ship in Bombay, then traveled by train across India and down the southeastern coast en route to what was then Ceylon. 

Our hotel is Leela Palace, an elegant haven of art, flowers, and food.

Marigolds represent perseverance and good luck.

The elephant god, Ganesh, is also associated with good fortune.

This work combines the traditional sacred bull with modern iconography.

My breakfast dosa reminds me of an artist's palette. Almost too pretty to eat. Almost!

The hotel is known for its bakery. Cake, anyone?

In the morning we go to the Kapaleeshwarar Shiva Temple. Demolished by Portuguese invaders, this temple originally stood where the St. Thomas Church is now located. 

I wonder how often they have to repaint these marvelous facades.

Indian temples are more than places of worship. Beyond these columns and railings is an open-air space where people socialize.

A view into the central pavilion.

Do you think this fellow spent a past life as a carousel horse?

Everywhere, I marvel at the details.

Speaking of which...I am smitten by this old door.

Our next stop is the former British Fort St. George--and another grand old door.

I'm also a sucker for old beams.

A small outdoor shrine inside the fort grounds.

St. Thomas, one of Jesus's twelve apostles, proselytized through South India until his death in what was then Mylapore. Marco Polo visited the shrine that housed his remains, which were later moved to the Santhome Church, built over an ancient Shiva temple. Here, it is decorated for Christmas.

Evening is a special time in India, a respite from the day's often cruel heat. Water features are everywhere. The Leela Palace is magical at night.

Next stop: Down the Coromandel Coast to Pondicherry/Puducherry