Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 11 and 12, Jan 17-18, Chettinad

Day 11 - Jan 17, From Thanjore to Chettinad - Lots of notes from here and there - Third time this week: beyond expectations, way beyond - We’re in the clubhouse - Tile making - Pre-dinner fiesta - Dinner
- Who is next to be voted off the island
  • We finally figure out we can order moccachinos (S. Indian filtered coffee) at any meal (without the fancy juggling of the liquid back and forth), uh oh!
  • We are chatting up the couple from San Mateo and figure out our one degree of separation (C&S: they know Marilyn and Murray and I think knew C‘s dad)
  • Sometimes I see a derelict 2nd or 3rd floor covered with palm fronds; that means they are doing renovations, the fronds are the equivalent of the plastic tarps!
  • Martin reads a great stanza from a poem by TS Eliot that summarizes the point between which everything is growing and dying (I think he said the name of the poem is Burt Norton, without internet I can’t verify)
  • On the way out to our first stop today, we pass through a decent size town (whatever that means, headweave) and there are a large church, mosque and temple within one block of each otherAs we are on what passes for a superhighway under construction (not even sure what to equate it to, we don’t have roads this bad in the US anywhere), we see the construction crew unloading a large piece of equipment (tractor-like) by backing up to a large earth ramp, something that we now know was used a thousand years ago here…not a lot of progress!
  • For the first time, I send out things to be laundered (MHB has had this experience before). We get 11 items done for $6 and they somehow come out looking better than when I do the clothes at home, imagine that.
  • How I know Obama is going to be a) better than Bush and b) a really good president: One of the tour members works in the forest service and sez that the transition team has already gotten down to his level and is looking for ideas/proposing ideas on how to improve things that the grunts think should’ve been done long ago (hmmmmm…8 years ago?). OK, I know he’s gonna be better than Bush, now I know they’re trying to get ramped up on a number of levels to improve things, not just the obvious stuff,

On the ride out, we stop many times to ask directions to find this obscure set of cave temples we’re headed for, and Martin tells a long story about the birth of either Shiva’s first or second son. He tells it as the second son story and MHB (she is definitely listening) says that as Martin told the story, the kid was actually the first son. Martin is good, he immediately says that some stories have the kid as first, some as second son. Headweave here.

In the spirit of “pot kettle black” I will now recount the story. You’ll have to pay attention and then figure it out yourself. Spelling does not count. Here goes:

Shiva married first wife Suttee, father-in-law dislikes Shiva, Suttee self-pyres, Shiva grieving, gods need Shiva, hire Kama (god desire) shoot Shiva with sugar cane (bow) and flower (arrow), Shiva ejaculates, Shiva same instant desire Parvathi, Shiva next instant mad incinerates Kama with third eye, bit later Parvathi hugs six ejaculant sons, now one son with six heads. {Note: took 4 of us 15 minutes to recreate the lecture in condensed version, and I guess its better than a breach birth if the kid has six heads}

Not bad for about ½ hour lecture. Not good as far as how well Martin told the story.

In our itinerary, here is the description of the next activity: we stop at two out of the way cave temples. That’s it, total description. Let me see: we’re going to take a detour and take in a vista (Grand Canyon); we’re going to be detouring to see a house (Taj Mahal), we think you’ll enjoy the river here (Iguazu Falls). Unbelievable! Of course while caves aren’t as big as examples, they are just as impressive. We’re probably the only people that will come by today to see them, they are way off the road and there are no signs.

These caves are built into a large rock outcropping and contain carvings and paintings from the 6th and 7th centuries, beautifully rendered and “guarded” by some local guy. Original paint, eg, one figure is half lion half man, one is a boar, (both about 4 feet tall) both representations of Vishnu. There are several more impressive carvings including seven small carvings, mothers, guarded by two other carvings on the end.

In the second temple there, which is actually built up outside of the big rock with a small pre-room, there is a semi-circular “molding” in front of shrines, painted “brightly” if paint from so long ago can be called bright. The paintings on the ceiling in first cave are tremendous. You can really only see the carvings and paintings with aid of flashlights. There are “shrines” (smaller carvings) in each cave which are tended to by the priests, very black (continually coated with oil/ghee) over many many years. One of the more impressive things is that all these shrines we visit are active, and well preserved (in general).

We take an easy climb to top where we see 8 small (5 inch) holes pounded into rock in a circle, diameter maybe 8 feet. Conjecture: here’s where sacrificial goat (hmmmmm…human?) kept before the deed is done (inside poles and fencing put in connecting poles?). We see a goatherder on adjacent rock on his cell phone (EVERYBODY must have one) and we think maybe he’s calling his buddies to come quick, we got a couple of juicy ones ready to go for the next show, plenty for everyone, invite your friends.

This is the third time in the first week we have seen/experienced something that is totally unlike anything else we’ve seen, and get so close that you can in essence be a part of the experience opposed to just watching behind gates, fences, etc., because these are living shrines and temples.

We stop at a “guardian” shrine where 12 year girls greet us and try and hold hands and chat us up as we walk down about a quarter mile stretch with 4 foot terra cotta horses (some painted, most not, some broken off heads, most with heads) with grinning mouths packed solidly on either side of the road the whole way. About halfway, we take off our shoes and meet a group of macaque monkeys running around the trees. At the shrine, our guide turns out to be our driver, who has accompanied (most on the tour do not realize it is the driver because he’s usually up front with his back to us, and the driver and assistant have their own little compartment separate from the van. More blessings, then we head back. Girls accompanying the whole way. Now they are becoming more interested in getting gifts. By the time MHB is on the van, here accompanist has a very sad and pathetic look (chocolate? Pen? Rupees?). There is a longish sidebar here which I will not provide (finally, he’s skipping one?) about the emotions of this sort of event mash-up: tourism, interesting to fascinating sites, “begging,” all mixed together. It is a major part of this trip, I’ve been underplaying it (blah, blah, blah), sort of like the weather (I thought he said this wasn’t a longish sidebar?) and getting 9 things to eat with every meal. Maybe later….

Off to Chettinad and our hotel, which has been converted from a “clubhouse” where the original owner put his guests. The main house is down the road. We’re in an area where there’s not a lot of agriculture and the spice trading families, mostly from around here, would get their families back together periodically from their posts all over Asia and Africa, where they had dispersed to be on the front lines. The local houses were called mansions and quite large between the grounds and houses. Our room is quite nice, second floor level with a gorgeous sitting area in front (from where I am now updating the journal).

As we are driving through town to the hotel, we hear (faintly) music, like it’s coming from a loud car stereo next to the van. Comes and goes. When the van parks at the hotel, we realize it is coming from loudspeakers around town, including one RIGHT at our hotel. Loud!! Something by out-of-fave political party honoring past leader. Loud!! On and on it goes.

We’ll tour some of the houses (my fave: house tours!!) tomorrow. We have a very good lunch on the “veranda” off the gardens. Banana leaf plates and many recipes we haven’t seen. This is the epicenter of good S. Indian cuisine. Ice dream for dessert. Music still blaring outside.

Then a longish ride out to see local tile making. All by hand, no heat other than natural, fascinating patterns done on glass and then affixed to concrete, all tiles either 8x8 or 4x8 and heavy, so heavy nobody buys anything. Longish ride back and group is wiped out. Music still booming outside.

After recovering, we meet up in sitting area with young couple for beers (this is when we concoct Shiva mini-version), then another couple joins up with scotch they’ve brought on trip and pretty soon everybody seems much less wiped out. Off to dinner (young couple doesn’t show up, I’ve always said that generation couldn’t hold their liquor). Music still blasting away outside.

At dinner (at some point, music is turned off) another excellent meal, this time on fancy china with corresponding silverware including the deepest soup spoon I’ve ever used (think mini-ladle). Food excellent, we’re all decoyed into thinking the first plate is dinner and then on to dessert (bread pudding and ice cream, heaven, heaven is the name of the bar….pop quiz: name that group!). Oops, that first plate of prawns, eggplant, and two other things plus roti and toast is the opener, here comes a fresh plate and 4 more helpings of excellent food. I am definitely noticed the Indian freshman 15 starting to build up, hastened by the lack of fitness centers in the last two places.

Two of our tour don’t make to dinner, the pre-dinner fiesta does them in. If you made it this far: we are now both suffering from slight colds, that scratchy sore throat and running noses. We think (based on one of tour members earlier bout) it is a 2-3 day mild course, we’ll find out.

Scratchy Ralph and his slightly hurting MHB

Day 12 - Jan 18, Chettinad - Notes - house tours - lunch - Weaving and Antiques - Dinner
- Soon we'll be adding members of the jury

  • MHB is feeling a bit worse, I am in day two of a cold. We’re both suffering from just a touch of “loose bowels” syndrome. One of our tour doesn’t show for breakfast, four don’t make it to lunch (including MHB who opts for plain rice and a nap in the room). Three skip dinner, it is starting to look like a game of Survivor.
  • Another ex-Levi’s guy, Albert Moreno, has taken a tour with Carol and Martin and they stay in touch, both of us know him, he’s a great guy
  • Martin met Allen Ginsberg back in the day in America, after the 1962 Ginsberg trip through India
  • We see very few smokers, looks like even fewer than in US
  • We get verification that families are getting smaller, our guide for the morning says that families of her generation (she is about 40) are comfortable with one or two children, even if they are girls. For the generation above hers the norm was 4 children.
  • In our room is something that looks like a ping pong paddle with metal strings (racketball racket with more than normal strings), it is used, when turned on - battery powered, to lunge and swing at mosquitoes. Hmmmmmmm….more risk of hitting yourself or someone near and dear than a flying insect.
  • When we wake up, there is an army of dead bugs in the sink, not sure how they died (self-immolation on the racket?)
  • The local roads are so bad that a new sport is starting here: on-road moto-biking.
  • Cows wake up about an hour after roosters
  • We see wild peacocks, purple moorhens, and gorgeous white shading to pink lotus flowers (growing on top of water like water lilies)

We start with house tours. This area is populated by the spice traders and money lenders. They spread throughout Asia and built large houses in the 18th and 19th centuries in about 100 villages nearby, some 75 of which are still around. Some of the houses are in continual use, most of them are used only to celebrate births and weddings, and for funerals. The family gathers for 1-2 weeks at a time. The floor plans are very similar: rectangular, two large internal courtyards, two stories, kitchen in back, and around the first courtyard a number of small rooms, one for praying and the rest for storing dowries, of which there may be 4 generations worth put away. That really makes the houses a combo rec hall and warehouse. Our hotel, the clubhouse, was actually on the grounds of very large estate, most of the others are now just the main house abutting other nice houses.

One of the long enclosed hallways is reserved for men and their meals, another for women and children. Women do not enter the men’s rooms. We were fed a line about what wonderful exercise the women got doing the cooking and serving, with much stretching and walking. I did not ask what the men did for exercise besides lift their hands to their mouths and play cards and chatting away…or what great shape all the servants must be in.

Lots of the local tile on the floors, looking wonderful 200 years later, and much use of Burmese teak. The spice traders brought back the teak for their houses, The construction often took 9-10 years, always designed by women (hmmmm…doing architectural planning helps develop hand - eye coordination? More likely the men were overseas trading away). Every minute of the work was supervised by someone from the family. The wooden carved front doors are quite special, often taking a carpenter and assistant 3 years to complete as they are very intricate. Because of the attention to detail, the houses are very low maintenance (they did look good, even the one being lived in full-time).

Another quirk: there’s no furniture. They eat and sleep on the floor, even the kitchens don’t have much in the way of tables. The courtyards have mesh coverings to keep the monkeys out. In the outdoor covered walkways, hooks hang from the beams, these are used to hang the babies in hammocks (babies are held constantly, and all that lifting makes the mothers strong as bulls).

For deaths, the house is closed to all but the family for 11 days and on the 12th it is opened for the celebration/wake (not sure what they call it here, though I swear Martin called it a shivah, maybe he met Shiva, who is also the god of death, but I am not sure about this). The funeral pyre is lit by the eldest son. If there is no son in the family, one is often adopted (and the family doing the adopting pays the one giving up the son - who is often NOT the first born son).

Our guide, Mina, speaks excellent English and she takes us to one of the houses being lived in full-time and which belongs to her husband’s family. She is married to her uncle, her mother’s brother, who somehow is not in her same clan. Much discussion here, I think semantics of family is what makes it confusing.

Back for lunch, we meet the owner, a woman whose mother-in-law is pictured as a girl in a photo from 1915. This woman could be 70, very much in charge. Lunch is quite good, many things we haven’t seen before on the usual banana leaf, followed by a thin slice of tangerine on top of very good coconut crème/pudding. Four of the tour don’t make it to lunch, including MHB (and she misses the afternoon activities, good call on her part).

First stop: a weaving shop (house in a low-income level neighborhood) with 4 looms, they are making saris, which usually take about 2+ days. Most of the men wait outside while the shopping is done. Much buying is done. The next stop, antique shops that would never see the light of day in the US, sort of like if Urban Ore threw out the bottom 10% of inventory, then it was trashed and sent to India.

Back to rest up for dinner, three missing and MHB can’t talk above a low whisper. We’re all eating much less, and somehow the food doesn’t taste quite as good. Passionfruit pudding for dessert, MHB takes hers in the room.

Later, Ralph and MHB


  1. ralph, do you ever give money/food to the beggars (i.e. those girls along the road)? what's the protocol?

  2. I thought you should know that the Maienschein-Clines are in possession of 2(!) of the ping-pong bug zappers you describe (tho' ours are more the size of badminton racquets).

  3. I never give money to the beggars, in fact don't give anything at random except donations at the temples periodically...

    Lisa: do you USE these zappers? maybe we should get one for Sharry?