2/19/2014 – During the past few days, we have flown to Chennai, India’s capital of IT industries and, apparently, terrifyingly nonsensical traffic. Chennai is considered a “small” city of only 8 million. It’s been interesting to observe the subtle differences between it and Mumbai. Chennai is farther south and on the opposite (East) coast. It’s in the state of Tamil Nadu, populated predominantly by Tamils who speak, you guessed it, Tamil. Tamil is a very old, Dravidian language, unrelated to the later Aryan languages of the North, such as Hindi. In fact, in Southern India, people tend to be much more likely to speak English than Hindi and many do it quite well. It’s always a bit disconcerting for a street vendor to approach you speaking fluent English, often with a charming British lilt.
Similar to Mumbai, Chennai is teeming with people, cows, dogs, goats (more common in the South) and overflowing with industry of every kind. Colorful stalls selling flower garlands crowd around temple entrances, fruit and vegetable vendors line every street and alley, modern mini-markets abut shacks selling huge bags of rice, cigarettes, cooking pots, toilet cleaner and pretty much anything else one could desire. On the outskirts, construction companies have set up shop alongside cement vedors, bicycle and motorcycle repair shops (I’ve seen more than a few names after the Hindu god Ganesh, remover of obstaces), shiny new car dealerships and sprawling mirrored glass office parks.
We had dinner with a local family in Chennai who had lived in England for some time. Our hostess declared that one of their major motivations for moving back home was that the English suburbs were far too quiet. Of course moving home has had its challenges as well—living on the same street as many family members has made privacy non-existant, rampant mosquitos make strolling anywhere near the riverside impossible and wedding invitations have taken over their life. Indian weddings are a multi-day affair involving many rituals and even more receptions, meals and parties and a virtual imperative to invite everyone you know. Our hosts, both in their early 30s, confessed that if they attended all the weddings to which they were invited, they would literally have time for nothing else—like making a living. As such, they have adopted a “ceremony only” policy, attending just the most important ritual. Chatting with them was full plenty of other interesting anecdotes about life in modern India and capped by an absolutely delicious home-cooked, many-dished meal.
We stayed outside of Chennai near the town of Mahabalipuram, the site of a collection of ruined temples granted UNESCO World Heritage Status. It is believed that the huge granite boulders that litter the area were used to practice new carving and temple construction techniques before they were applied on a large scale. In most places, the temples, including their frontal columns, were carved from a single piece of stone. The detail, composition and motion of the interiors carvings is truly remarkable. Simple human and divine figures and elephants, cows, moneys, lions, deer and rats are all depicted with such natural grace that they seem to watch you from their place on the walls. Docile cows lick their calves, deer scratch their noses and monkeys peek over the roof. A student of Western classical art, I immediately felt woefully ignorant of an entire world of ancient art and civilization that I never realized existed with such incredible beauty and complexity. In fact, this period of Indian art was directly influenced by Hellenistic art as both the Greeks and the Romans had long-standing trade relations with the sub-continent. Fascinating stuff…
We’re now flying to Madurai (I’m drinking a mango juice box and munching peanuts served by a sari-clad Air India stewardess as I type this). There we will visit a popular working temple constructed in much the same style as those practiced at Mahabalipuram–sure to be interesting. Then it’s on to the rolling hills and tea plantations of Munnar for a break from the oppressive heat and humidity!