On a tem­ple cir­cuit of Tamil Nadu in In­dia’s vi­brant deep south, HE­LEN AN­DER­SON is buoyed by an­cient rit­u­als and ev­ery­day spir­i­tu­al­ity.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - Oct - Op­po­site: thali at Taj Coro­man­del restau­rant, South­ern Spice. Clock­wise from left: alleppey fish curry, broc­coli and pep­per usili, chut­neys, Andhra-style mut­ton curry, ama­ranth leaves in stewed lentils, black chick­pea curry, pachakari stew (veg­eta­bles sim

On a tem­ple cir­cuit of Tamil Nadu in In­dia’s deep south, He­len An­der­son is buoyed by rit­u­als and spir­i­tu­al­ity.

There’s noth­ing quick or sim­ple about a les­son in Hindu cos­mol­ogy. “First there’s Brahma, the cre­ator of the uni­verse, with his wife, Saraswati.” Charles points to a candy-coloured riot of gods and mon­sters gaz­ing be­at­if­i­cally from the tem­ple façade at My­la­pore, in old Chen­nai. “Then there’s Vishnu, with blue face and four arms, the pre­server and pro­tec­tor, with his wife Lak­shmi, god­dess of wealth and good for­tune, in the red sa­ree, though she changes with Vishnu’s in­car­na­tions…”

With roy­ally rounded vow­els, our guide con­tin­ues at length, de­scrib­ing the pow­ers of the su­per­gods, their char­i­ots of choice (ea­gles, bulls, rats, pea­cocks) and the names of their many avatars. And their chil­dren’s names. Some say there are 33 mil­lion Hindu gods; oth­ers 330 mil­lion. Oc­ca­sion­ally Charles will test me gen­tly: “And Shiva is trans­ported by which crea­ture?” He smiles gravely when I an­swer cor­rectly (“a bull”) and con­tin­ues de­scrib­ing the bull-rider’s in­car­na­tions.

There’s a lot to re­mem­ber and much that needs ex­plain­ing in a Hindu tem­ple, and the di­vine ge­neal­ogy is only the half of it. In the tem­ple court­yard, a pri­est wear­ing a flimsy white dhoti is mak­ing an un­holy racket on some­thing that sounds like a snake-charmer’s horn, and a long queue shuf­fles past a lit­tle red room full of sweat­ing priests and golden trea­sures. Peo­ple lie in front of shrines, daub ash on their fore­heads, sit in the shade and chat with their neigh­bours. A pen of holy calves ru­mi­nates. With great de­lib­er­a­tion, men smash co­conuts vi­o­lently into a trough, grunt­ing with the ef­fort, then stroll away calmly. Mean­while, oth­ers are do­ing cir­cuits of a shrine de­voted to the plan­ets, though a big­ger crowd is gath­ered around the shrine to the as­cen­dant Saturn. The air smells of in­cense and cow dung – like the pro­fu­sion of rit­u­als and ob­ser­vances, it’s a mix of the sa­cred and the pro­fane that per­vades al­most ev­ery­thing in In­dia’s deep south.

Though Tamil Nadu is big and pop­u­lous, a state ap­proach­ing 80 mil­lion peo­ple with the na­tion’s sec­ond largest econ­omy, it feels dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent to the “golden tri­an­gle” tourist cir­cuit of north­ern In­dia. In the cap­i­tal, Chen­nai, the traf­fic jams are more civilised, the touts fewer and less per­sis­tent, the dress code sa­ree-spe­cific. Sev­eral young women tell me they’re safer here than in the north. “Tamil is the world’s old­est lan­guage,” says one guide proudly, and points out that this is the one of the few In­dian states that doesn’t teach Hindi in govern­ment schools. This goes some way to ex­plain­ing the pal­pa­ble north-south di­vide that per­vades ev­ery­thing from pol­i­tics to cui­sine.

Pil­grim­age, the world’s old­est form of tourism, mo­ti­vates most vis­i­tors here. Trav­ellers flock north to Ra­jasthan for crum­bling forts and desert palaces, and south to Ker­ala for lan­guid back­wa­ter cruises in the trop­ics. Tamil Nadu is of­fi­cially the Land of Tem­ples, some 33,000 of them, many dat­ing back 1,300 years to the hal­cyon days of the Pallava dy­nasty. Ka­paleeswarar in My­la­pore is the first of sev­eral tem­ples we ex­plore on a week-long road trip from Chen­nai, but

Tamil Nadu isn’t just tem­ples and tow­ers. The French left a strik­ing ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy and an an­thol­ogy of out­landish sto­ries in Pondicherry, since re­named Puducherry (though res­i­dents con­tinue stead­fastly to call it Pondy), about 170 kilo­me­tres south of Chen­nai. The city’s French Quar­ter is full of colo­nial-era man­sions in pic­turesque de­crepi­tude, while the much-di­min­ished Tamil Quar­ter has its own distinc­tive style fea­tur­ing deep ve­ran­dahs be­neath steep roofs and fringed by iron lace­work.

The Bri­tish left a florid ver­sion of Vic­to­ri­ana in their south­ern strong­hold of Madras, re­named Chen­nai in 1996. Charles points out the hand­some 19th-cen­tury ed­i­fices of the Madras High Court, Vic­to­ria Pub­lic Hall, and the Ice House, named for the huge blocks of ice that were once shipped from New Eng­land in crates lined with rice husks and stored here, be­fore chill­ing the colony’s cock­tails.

On the other, less or­derly side of Chen­nai we plunge into the al­leys of Sow­car­pet mar­ket with Lak­shmi, a guide and sto­ry­teller with a taste for Ta­mil­ian chaat, or street snacks. “Fol­low me and watch for the cows,” she says cheer­fully as we dodge free-range cat­tle and scoot­ers, past wig­mak­ers and ban­gle stalls and cos­metic turmeric out­lets. Most shop­pers have gar­lands of jas­mine pinned in their long glossy plaits, and they nav­i­gate the chaos with the poise of ha­bit­ual sa­ree wear­ers. We stop at a shop that has spe­cialised in bot­tle-gourd halwa, a Gu­jarati dish, since 1945. At Nov­elty Tea House we try the Por­tuguese-in­flu­enced pav bhaji, a tin plate of rich len­til gravy sprin­kled with chopped red onion and mopped up with soft white bread (when the Por­tuguese ar­rived in In­dia 500 years ago they brought their love of leav­ened bread – and, an oft-over­looked fact, chill­ies). And we sit on plas­tic stools near a stall whose name trans­lates as “the lit­tle fat shop”. The spe­cial­ity here is dahi puri: wafer-thin wheat-flour balls filled with potato and topped with a spicy tamarind chut­ney, diced onion and car­rot, co­rian­der, sweet­ened curd, crushed chick­pea noo­dles and pome­gran­ate seeds. It’s a mess of a dish, but tasty and cheap – five for 80 ru­pees, about $1.50.

Din­ner at the tem­ple-like South­ern Spice restau­rant, in the Taj Coro­man­del ho­tel, is a crash course in more re­fined fare. The suc­ces­sion of 15 cour­ses tra­verses south­ern In­dia’s great­est hits, start­ing with a lit­tle cup of rasam, a lamb broth tangy with tamarind, and fin­ish­ing with co­conut rice pud­ding, spiced with car­damom and

nuts and sweet­ened with con­densed milk. The side dishes are al­most as nu­mer­ous: a flight of chut­neys, flaky parota, and rice – served as idiyap­pam (string hop­pers), san­nas (steamed rice cakes) and curd rice, the lat­ter re­garded as an essen­tial di­ges­tive – with spiced podi pow­der, and a pot of ghee.

Break­fast be­comes a search for the per­fect masala dosa, the south’s crisp su­per-sized rice-flour crêpe, al­ways made to or­der, with a spoon­ful of potato stew and the cus­tom­ary chut­neys: co­rian­der, co­conut and tomato. I love watch­ing the rit­ual of dosa bat­ter be­ing poured, spread, lifted and folded like a parch­ment scroll. The more the­atri­cal morn­ing rit­ual, how­ever, is the mak­ing of fil­ter cof­fee, per­formed across south­ern In­dia. I fail to find a “me­tre cof­fee”, named for the length of the con­tin­u­ous arc of boil­ing milk and thick sweet­ened cof­fee that’s cooled and frothed as it’s poured be­tween jugs, but sev­eral cof­fee-wal­lahs come close. Their skill and speed is as­ton­ish­ing, and the cof­fee is very good, served in a stain­less-steel tum­bler sit­ting in­side a dabarah, a deep saucer in which the drinker con­tin­ues to de­cant and cool the cof­fee like a jug­gler.

The mon­soon is due to ar­rive within the week, and the heat rises like a wall, a lit­tle higher ev­ery day. It’s late af­ter­noon by the time we ven­ture to the 7th-cen­tury open-air gal­leries of Ma­ha­balipu­ram, about 60 kilo­me­tres south of Chen­nai. The set­ting sun gilds scenes of gods con­sort­ing with half-hu­mans, carved into pink gran­ite caves and rock walls. Stallin, our guide, pa­tiently in­ter­prets these sto­ries of di­vine ret­ri­bu­tion and re­demp­tion. There’s Durga slay­ing a part-hu­man, part-buf­falo de­mon; there’s Vishnu in­car­nated as the boar-like Varaha, rather sug­ges­tively en­twined with the earth god­dess Bhudevi – his ges­ture said to rep­re­sent the dis­pelling of hu­man ig­no­rance.

Stallin’s ex­pla­na­tions be­come even more com­pli­cated at a panel of bas re­liefs carved di­rectly into huge boul­ders, al­most 30 me­tres in length. More than a hun­dred life-size fig­ures of gods and crea­tures de­pict sto­ries within sto­ries from the In­dian epics, ev­ery char­ac­ter and finely hewn ges­ture freighted with sym­bol­ism. Per­haps the most el­e­gant of all Ma­ha­balipu­ram’s World Her­itage sites is the grace­fully tiered Shore Tem­ple, the last of seven pago­das doc­u­mented by early Euro­pean ex­plor­ers sail­ing past this stretch of the Coro­man­del Coast. Tem­ple foun­da­tions were ex­posed dur­ing the 2004 tsunami, sup­port­ing the be­lief that the other pago­das lie ru­ined and sub­merged just off­shore.

The sto­ries and the tem­ples grow taller as we head west. The streets of Kanchipu­ram are packed with the na­tion’s finest silk shops – some 5,000 fam­i­lies in the re­gion weave silk on hand­looms, as they have for gen­er­a­tions – but the busiest place in the noon heat is the Shiva tem­ple of Ekam­bareswarar. Be­yond the 59-me­tre gate­way tower is a tem­ple of a thou­sand

pil­lars, its cool dark halls lined with 108 phal­lic stone lingams, and a sa­cred mango tree said to be 3,500 years old. The place throngs like a bazaar, full of daz­zling wed­ding par­ties draped in gold and wrapped in neon-bright silks, and Shiva devo­tees with ash upon their fore­heads, pac­ing in ac­cor­dance with rit­u­als too com­pli­cated for Stallin to re­lay. Un­der our bare feet are the smudged re­mains of this morn­ing’s ko­lam, a rit­ual per­formed by mil­lions of women through­out Tamil Nadu. These geo­met­ric pat­terns are sketched with coloured rice pow­der or chalk on the thresh­olds of houses, tem­ples and shops as a sign of wel­come, a hum­bling ges­ture re­freshed ev­ery day at dawn.

At dawn in Pondy, the beach­front prom­e­nade is closed to traf­fic and fills with ladies wear­ing run­ners and sa­rees and chaps power-walk­ing in polyester track­suits. It’s not much of a beach – most of the sand washed away in a pub­lic works project gone wrong – but this is the place to catch the breeze from the Bay of Ben­gal be­fore pe­tit dé­je­uner in the French Quar­ter. We join flâneurs strolling past the Indo-French Notre Dame des Anges church and a statue of the colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tor Joseph François Du­pleix, whose nose, it seems, matched the size of his am­bi­tion, and into a grid of streets lined with man­sions of lofty ped­i­ments and colon­naded court­yards. In what might be In­dia’s most un-In­dian city, ac­cents are French, po­lice­men wear Gal­lic kepis, and cy­clists pedal sur les rues that are wide and shaded by trees.

For much of their 280-year colo­nial rule, French ad­min­is­tra­tors, sol­diers and traders ad­hered to a dress code bet­ter suited to Ver­sailles than the trop­ics. Our guide, Vivek, tells sto­ries of grand folly and mis­for­tune, with a soupçon of gos­sip: this street named af­ter a no­to­ri­ous slave trader, that mon­u­ment af­ter a rav­ish­ing cour­te­san. The city was razed, laid siege to and re­built sev­eral times dur­ing the long tug-of-war be­tween the French and the Bri­tish. Yet its ar­chi­tec­tural le­gacy is as vul­ner­a­ble now as it was dur­ing the An­glo-French wars. “There are no laws pro­tect­ing all this,” says

Ashok Panda, point­ing to a row of mouldy build­ings with the air of aris­to­crats fallen on hard times. As the co-con­venor of INTACH, the In­dian Na­tional Trust for Art and Cul­tural Her­itage, he ad­vises and lob­bies on her­itage is­sues and con­ducts reg­u­lar her­itage walks in the French and Tamil quar­ters. A trust sur­vey in 1995 listed 1,807 her­itage struc­tures in the city; by

2015 the num­ber had plum­meted to 442 – “and we es­ti­mate 75 per cent were de­mol­ished with­out per­mis­sion”, Panda laments. “What­ever we have man­aged to save is mostly by cre­at­ing aware­ness about the im­por­tance of preserving her­itage build­ings.”

Many of the most im­pres­sive restora­tions or “façade in­ter­ven­tions”, in which new build­ings are de­signed sym­pa­thet­i­cally with their sur­rounds, are restau­rants and small ho­tels. The trust worked with the In­dian ho­tel group CGH Earth to open Mai­son Peru­mal in the Tamil Quar­ter, a re­stored 10-bed­room Chet­tiar man­sion built around twin court­yards, and Palais de Mahé in the French Quar­ter, a new-build ho­tel with enough Old-World colon­nades and arches to please a mar­quis. Nearby, be­tel-leaf Mo­ji­tos and Gin­ger Sours are served be­neath six-me­tre ceil­ings at Coro­man­del Café, a cen­tury-old mag­is­trate’s res­i­dence re­stored with hand-painted mu­rals and tra­di­tional Athangudi tiles.

One of the most ac­tive forces for preser­va­tion comes from an un­likely source. Among the Gal­lic man­sions of mango-yel­low and peachy-pink are about 400 well-main­tained build­ings in the French Quar­ter painted a sober shade I now think of as Ashram Grey. A cou­ple of mys­tics – Sri Aurobindo and Mirra Al­fassa, the lat­ter known to her acolytes as “The Mother” – founded the ashram in the 1920s to wor­ship “the di­vine con­scious­ness” and study their be­lief in the evo­lu­tion of su­per­hu­mans in a su­per so­ci­ety, and it con­tin­ues to draw thou­sands of dis­ci­ples and vis­i­tors.

The com­mune of Auroville is an­other of The Mother’s spir­i­tual ven­tures. Founded in 1968 as

“the city the Earth needs” in des­o­late bush­land about 10 kilo­me­tres from Pondicherry, the ex­per­i­men­tal com­mune de­vel­oped on prin­ci­ples of peace, “re­al­is­ing hu­man unity” and a cash­less econ­omy. The com­mu­nity sur­vived an in­cen­di­ary split from its ashram founders in the 1970s, dur­ing which the In­dian govern­ment was forced to in­ter­vene, and 50 years later it has about

2,500 res­i­dents of 52 na­tion­al­i­ties, a cu­ri­ous mix of dream­ers, utopi­ans, odd­balls and vi­sion­ar­ies. Some res­i­dents are pi­o­neers in their fields; at the bush stu­dio of Aus­trian-born mu­si­col­o­gist Aure­lio (like many Aurovil­lians, he uses no sur­name), lo­cal ar­ti­sans and trainees are em­ployed to make mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, and a score of com­mu­nity and mu­sic-ther­apy projects are un­der­way. In con­trast, there’s un­earthly si­lence at the Mat­ri­mandir, a gi­ant, gold-plated golf ball of a land­mark rest­ing on im­mac­u­late lawn. Mean­ing “tem­ple of The Mother”, it’s the med­i­ta­tion cham­ber that aliens might have de­signed.

From Pondy we drive fur­ther south on coun­try roads shaded by bow­ers of tamarind trees, past goatherds and clapped-out trac­tors strug­gling un­der enor­mous loads of hay and tim­ber, and oxen with painted scim­i­tar horns pulling carts of river sand.

At the cor­ner of ev­ery rice paddy and peanut field is a dusty lit­tle shrine, al­ways strewn with fresh flow­ers and sweets. In the town of Chi­dambaram we stop at the big­gest tem­ple yet, de­voted to Shiva in his guise as cos­mic dancer. Ev­ery carv­ing, ev­ery ar­chi­tec­tural fea­ture at Nataraja is sym­bolic. The nine stu­pas are said to rep­re­sent the nine ori­fices of the body; the 21,600 tiles on the tem­ple roof rep­re­sent the av­er­age num­ber of hu­man breaths in a day. In­side, in sepul­chral halls, women cir­cle shrines

as­so­ci­ated with child-bear­ing, the whorls of jas­mine tucked into their plaits glow­ing palely.

There are rose petals and more jas­mine on ar­rival in Than­javur, home of Tan­jore paint­ing, clas­si­cal Bharatanatyam danc­ing, Car­natic mu­sic, and bronze cast­ing – and, of course, lots of tem­ples. We’re greeted with gar­lands and a red-pow­der pottu dot on the fore­head at Svatma, a fam­ily-run her­itage ho­tel that em­bod­ies the city’s re­fine­ments. The old wing, re­built from ru­ins, holds arte­facts, an­tique veenas and a grand gold-em­bossed Tan­jore paint­ing; the new wing houses con­tem­po­rary art, a rooftop bar and on-trend spa. Its veg­e­tar­ian fine-diner spe­cialises in re­fined ver­sions of Tamil dishes rarely seen out­side homes, and guests can join cham­ber recitals, classes in Vedic chant­ing and south­ern cook­ing, and lec­tures on bronze sculpt­ing.

Stun­ning 9th-cen­tury bronzes are dis­played in a rather gloomy gallery at the Royal Palace, and an equally poorly lit li­brary nearby holds palm-leaf manuscripts. The city’s premier at­trac­tion, how­ever, is the mighty 11th-cen­tury Bri­hadeeswarar Tem­ple. A moat and two sets of for­ti­fied walls sur­round pala­tial gate­ways lead­ing to five tem­ple com­plexes cov­ered with exquisite stone carv­ings and topped by a mas­sive cen­tral tower. Sun­dar, our guide, knows all the most In­sta­grammable an­gles, po­si­tion­ing me in front of stone guardians and at the en­trance to long arched ar­cades. He ex­plains the pur­pose of dozens of shrines – the most pop­u­lar to­day be­ing the “Shrine to Pass Ex­am­i­na­tions”, crowded with teenage stu­dents – and the re­la­tion­ships of the gods and mon­sters in­scribed in stone on tow­er­ing façades.

Oc­ca­sion­ally he’ll test me: “And Gane­sha is trans­ported by which crea­ture?” He smiles when I take a guess (“a pea­cock?”). It’s a rat, Sun­dar cor­rects me – though he con­cedes one of the god’s eight in­car­na­tions gets around on a pea­cock – and he con­tin­ues to de­scribe the rat-rider’s var­i­ous guises.

The happy ele­phant-headed Gane­sha is the re­mover of ob­sta­cles, the god of be­gin­nings, the pa­tron of learn­ing. And, clearly, I have much more to learn.

Pho­tog­ra­phy ALI­CIA TAY­LOR

PRE­VI­OUS PAGES from left: Ka­paleeswarar Tem­ple façade at My­la­pore, Chen­nai; ko­lam pat­terns. Clock­wise from far left: the 11th-cen­tury Bri­hadeeswarar Tem­ple, Than­javur; shop­ping for sa­rees at Sow­car­pet, Chen­nai; a shopfront shrine at Gou­bert Mar­ket, Pondicherry.

Clock­wise from far left: auto rick­shaws in the French Quar­ter, Pondicherry; a carv­ing at Bri­hadeeswarar Tem­ple, Than­javur; Royal Palace, Than­javur; fil­ter cof­fee served south­ern style; cy­clists pass Raj Ni­vas, the colo­nial-era gov­er­nor’s palace, in Pondicherry.

Un­der our bare feet are the smudged re­mains of this morn­ing’s ko­lam, a rit­ual per­formed by mil­lions of women each day.

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