Up early on Saturday in anticipation of our adventure to Pondicherry. We are leaving Chennai in high spirits with flowers in our hair. The road out of town is filled with new construction of apartment houses and businesses to meet Chennai’s growing Technology sector. We pass buses filled with students going to the many engineering colleges that look like large campuses off in the distance. Trucks pass us overflowing with hay and sand trucks zoom by. Our first stop is the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial. As Prime Minister, he was campaigning in this area when a suicide bomber attacked and assassinated him in 1991. His memorial is simple and peaceful and represents his ideals of strengthening India’s democracy while improving equality and education among her people. The largest flag in India floats above us in the serene park as we walk around reading the plaques and viewing the historical wall mural of his life and achievements.
Next we are on our way to Kancheepuram known for it’s temples and famous for silk. Along the highway, many walls of homes and businesses sport the freshly painted advertisements of the silk industry. Our first stop is the Kamakshi Amman Temple. Even with socks, our feet burn as we move around listening to historical information and some of the Hindu practices we are seeing the local people perform. They are friendly and open to our smiles and cameras. We pass by the Temple Tank, important for water storage and find our way to the elephant enclosure where Kavita and Judith stand on his leg and haul themselves up to his back for some impressive pictures. The rest of us are the photographers and have our pictures taken with the elephant receiving an offering and blessing us with his trunk. He has such sensitive eyes that you can’t help but wonder what such an amazing animal thinks of his plight.
Our next stop is the Ekambareshwara Temple, tallest in town and dedicated to Shiva. Temple gates are very high in part to conduct lightening to the ground and spare other buildings and people from a deadly strike. The Mango Temple has a live mango tree growing in its inner courtyard and is surrounded by a large exterior covered column walkway with 109 lignum in the alcoves. Temple floors are uneven purposefully to exercise your bare feet as you walk around them several time before the Hindus enter the inner sanctum where we are not allowed to go.
Then it is off to the oldest sandstone temple in the area dedicated to Shiva, Kailasanatha, where many of the carvings are of half man and half deities. We are able to see some faint original vegetable color paints but most have worn away from the stonework. There is restoration work in progress that helps to bring back the glory of the 8th century.. Stephen tells us the story of Ganesh as we stand in the shade trying to keep out of the sun and the 100 degree temperature. All of the temples tell stories about the Hindu Gods and as you become more familiar with them, you can interpret some of the stonework and their storyline.
Fortunately lunch comes next in a local restaurant where many people are eating at common tables and the staff walk around serving extra rice. We order the northern Tali plates and cold drinks and some adventuresome souls amongst us start off eating with their fingers before switching back to silverware. The food is good and spicy and the atmosphere is a bustling cafeteria with high stacks of Tali trays coming out from the kitchen. This is a unique experience because it does not cater to tourists and represents a genuine Indian experience.
From here we go to the silk store by rickshaw because our bus had a flat tire. We are shown a variety of their many silk wares with most of us indulging in gifts of scarves or shawls for ourselves or friends. By late afternoon we are on the divided highway zooming towards Pondicherry, a former French City that reverted back to India in 1954. The trip is a feast for the eyes as we pass lush vegetable and fruit markets, women with water jugs on their heads, fields with cows wandering home, local buses crammed with people and bright sherbet colors of lime green, lavender, lemon yellow, aqua blue and pink buildings.
After we check into the Lotus Bay View Hotel we walk down to the main boulevard that fronts the Bay of Bengal in Pondicherry. It’s Saturday night and everyone is out walking and enjoying the cooling breeze, including us. We have a lovely dinner on the 2nd floor of a restaurant that looks Tahitian with exotic fish tanks, but serves continental fare. Then we stroll back along the waterfront happy to be part of the Pondicherry weekend scene and eating Baskin Robbins ice cream as we amble home to bed, tired but happy.