Week 1 – Welcome to Tamil Nadu

Earlier this week I posted the “to do list” to get ready to travel to India in Week 1 – Get Ready for India!. Although it needs a little more preparation than a regular trip to a beachy resort in Thailand or Hawaii, it is very easy to find any information you need on the web. So once the ticket is booked, the Visa is approved and your luggage is closed, let’s discover the South of India.

The itinerary

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A little bit of History

South India is the area encompassing the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, and Telangana as well as the union territories of Andaman and Nicobar, Lakshadweep and Puducherry (see colors on the map).

During its history, a number of dynastic kingdoms ruled over parts of South India whose invasions across southern and southeastern Asia impacted the history and culture in those regions. European countries entered India through Kerala and the region was colonised by Britain and other nations.

Languages

The largest linguistic group in South India is the Dravidian family of languages, a family of approximately 73 languages (!!!) although only 22 are registered in the Official Languages Act of India. A majority of the people in South India speak one of the four major Dravidian languages: Telugu (74,002,856 people), Tamil (60,793,814 people), Kannada (37,924,011 people)  and Malayalam (33,066,392 people)  while English is also widely spoken in urban areas.

This is interesting because even an Indian traveling through its country will not understand everybody and that is why most Indians know English but also some bits and pieces of languages of different states. Hindi, the main language in India (spoken by approximately 400Million people) and also  the fourth most-spoken first language in the world, is widely spread on the Norh part of the country but is not so much in the South. In fact, if in some states it is required to learn it at school, it is actuallty not in others like Tamil Nadu (where I was going of course). So the easiest way of communicating surprisingly enough is English. Most surprisingly for me: Bollywood movies are translated in the languages of the states if they are not Hindi speakers!

Economy and Population

After experiencing fluctuations in the decades immediately after Indian independence, the economies of South Indian states have registered higher than national average growth over the past three decades. While South Indian states have improved in some socio-economic metrics, poverty continues to affect the region much like the rest of the country, although it has considerably decreased over the years. HDI in the southern states is high and the economy has undergone growth at a faster rate than most northern states. Literacy rates in the southern states are higher than the national average with approximately 80% of the population capable of reading and writing. The fertility rate in South India is 1.9, the lowest of all regions in India. Unlike cities of North India the economy isn’t centered around tourism, so you see a lot of local life happening.

Religion

Hinduism is the major religion with about 80% of the population adhering to it. About 11% of the population follow Islam and 8% follow Christianity. Hinduism, often regarded as the oldest religion in the world, traces its roots to prehistoric times in India. The main spiritual traditions of South India include both Shaivite and Vaishnavite branches of Hinduism, although Buddhist and Jain philosophies had been influential several centuries earlier. Islam was introduced to South India in the early 7th century by Arab traders in Malabar Coast of Kerala and spread during the rule of Deccan Sultanates from 17th to 18th century and the Muslims in Kerala of Arab descent are called Jonaka Mappila. Christianity was introduced to South India by Thomas the Apostle, who visited Muziris in Kerala in 52 CE and baptised Kerala’s Jewish settlements. Kerala is also home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world who are supposed to have arrived in the Malabar coast during the reign of King Solomon.


Chennai – 2 days

Chennai (historically called Madras) is the 4th biggest city in India with 7 millions people so it can appear a little hostile to a tourist landing for the first time in India. It is not a meant to be a touristic place so clearly activities are centered around the inhabitants of the city. I decided to start from there because my company had an office in the city and the colleagues I was traveling with would start from there. Also it was a good way to start the trip and get in the mood right away. Traffic is heavy, walking is impossible and there aren’t that many monuments to see, however I see it more as a city to live in than to visit as a tourist.

What we did:

  • Visit Sri Parthasarathy Temple
  • Have a stroll to Gandhi Beach (near Gandhi statue)
  • Shop in Chennai Citicenter and Phoenix shopping malls – crazy Christmas decorations everywhere!
  • Watch a Bollywood movie (many Hindi movies have English subtitles as not all population understands it) at Escape Cinema which has the most luxurious cinema entrance I have ever seen.

Where we stayed:

  • Savera Hotel – One of booking.com top picks in Chennai. The hotel offers very good service with free Wi-Fi and TVs located one kilometer from Marina Beach (by walk is half an hour due to the difficulty to walk in Chennai). It features a spa, fitness center and outdoor pool but as a woman I did not try to swim in my bikini as the population is also local and very conservative.

Where we ate:

  • Sarvana Bhavan –  first night in Chennai we went to what seems to be one of the most famous restaurant chains in South India (they also feature restaurants in major cities all around the world). It is famous for its  typical South Indian dishes.
  • Sarvana Bhavan  –  same chain of restaurant but totally different atmosphere, more of a cantine, much appreciated by locals. It doesn’t look fancy but the meal was excellent (best at the end of the trip once you are more used to the local food).
  • Zaitoon – a fusion of Indian and Arabic food. Choose your meat at the entrance (everybody enjoyed the chicken marinated in green pepper) and they will grill it for you.

Mahabalipuram – half a day

Mamallapuram, also known as Mahabalipuram, is a town in that we visited on our way from Chennai to Pondicherry, around 60 km south of Chennai. There are many sites to visit so we just did 2 although you can clearly see everything in a few hours while also enjoying some rest under Krishna’s Butterball.

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The Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The most famous structures are:

  • The Shore Temple – is so named because it overlooks the shore of the Bay of Bengal. It is a structural temple, built with blocks of granite, dating from the 8th century AD, one of the oldest structural (versus rock-cut) stone temples of South India.

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  • Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) – five monolithic pyramidal structures named after the Pandavas (Arjuna, Bhima, Yudhishtra, Nakula and Sahadeva) and Draupadi. An interesting aspect of the rathas is that, despite their sizes they are not assembled – each of these is carved from one single large piece of stone. Also, each Ratha is sculpted in a different style.

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  • Thirukadalmallai, the temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu.
  • Descent of the Ganges or Bagiratha’s Penance – a giant open-air rock relief
  • Varaha Cave Temple – a small rock-cut temple dating back to the 7th century.

Pondichéry & Auroville – 1 day

Pondicherry was our last stop and unfortunately we only had one evening and one morning to explore it although it was maybe the city I preferred during my trip. The city is situated in Puducherry district of the union territory. It is affectionately known as Pondy, or Puducherry in Tamil (New Town).

Pondicherry is a popular tourist destination in South India. The city has many colonial buildings, churches, temples, and statues which, combined with the systematic town planning and planned French style avenues, still preserve much of the colonial ambiance. Funnily enough although the main language spoken is still Tamil, French is also understood.

Although the city is in Tamil Nadu, there is definetely a different sense of being and you do not feel the prohibition culture generally present in Tamil Nedu. Having joined India 15 years after independence, Pondicherry is a Union Territory, not part of any state. It really feels like being on the French riviera in some ways!

We visited the following sites although we could have done more as many attractions are close to each other and for once the city was made for walking with sidewalks and nice gardens.

What we saw:

  •  Mahatma Gandhi Statue on Beach Road

  • The Beach / Promenade – it is 2km long but there is not much sand left although the walk is nice

  • Barathi Government Park – very small park that can be crossed on the way to the beach, not much to see but it illustrates well that the city was designed for pedestrians as well

  • Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple – very nice temple, clean, colorful, with many lord Ganesh idols inside. Many people write about Lakshmi’s, the elephant at the entrance that gives you blessing. It was impressive but very sad to see.

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 What we should have done with more time (although everything is in the same area):

  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram
  • Churches – particularly Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus
  • Goubert market
  • The French Quarter
  • Botanical garden

If you are staying a few days in Pondy you can also make a trip to:

  • Oustery Lake
  • Paradise Beach – accessible from Chunnambar Boat House on motor boat 200/- per person
  • Villianur – St. Lourd Church (7Km from Pondicherry towards Villupuram)
  • Villianur Thirukameeswarar Temple

Auroville International city

Auroville (City of Dawn) is an experimental township was founded in 1968 by Mirra Alfassa (known as “the Mother”). As stated in Alfassa’s first public message in 1965, she states, that Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity. I am not a big fan of the concept seeing how rich and glorious it looks while being surrounded by so much poverty, but I was nonetheless astonished to discover that such a place existed!

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The 4-points Chart of Auroville

“Auroville belongs to nobody in particular. Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. But to live in Auroville, one must be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness.Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.Auroville wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and from within, Auroville will boldly spring towards future realisations.Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.”

Anyways, after decision was made, a site approximately 20 square kilometres of barren wasteland, some 10 km north of Pondicherry and 5 km from the coast was chosen for the city and construction began.

Residents of Auroville have to apply and are expected to contribute humanly and financially to the city when joining and with monthly contribution to the community.

Although the Government of India owns and manages the Auroville Foundation, it only finances a small part of Auroville’s budget: there are guest houses, building construction units, information technology, businesses, producing and re-selling items such as candles, incense sticks, Ayurvedic creams, clothes which can be bought in Auroville’s own shop in Puducherry, or are sold around India and abroad.

Last but not least, the symbol of Auroville: The Matrimandir, a golden metallic sphere in the center of town designed for meditation and enlightenment. Inside the Matrimandir, a spiraling ramp leads upwards to an air-conditioned chamber of polished white marble referred to as “a place to find one’s consciousness”.

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The globe is equipped with a solar power plant and is surrounded by manicured gardens. When there is no sun or after the sunset, the sunray on the globe is replaced by a beam from a solar powered light. It is a place of meditation where you can access only by requesting entrance 2 days in advance. Here is the link to the video shown during the visit and explaining its construction for almost 30 years. This appeals to my engineering mind because the design & process is extraordinary, but it made me question the good use of so much money from international authorities and energy from local labor.


 

How to get around
To finish the post I just wanted to include some practical information for newcomers. First if you are like me a fan of exercising and walking, forget it. Not only for the crowd but also the pollution you breathe in when in the street. So for us the cheapest and most comfortable way to travel was to use online cab services (cheaper than rickshaws and normal cabs).  Usually, travelers were at the mercy of taxi or auto rickshaw drivers but there are now many apps to order your cab from anywhere in the city (exactly like Uber):
  • Ola Cabs: With easy to use app and options to pay by cash, credit, and debit cards, city traveling has become hassle free and comfortable at reasonable prices with fare structure for standard cars at around Rs. 100 for the first 4 kilometers and then Rs. 2.75/- per additional kilometer traveled above 4 kilometers, which is a very reasonable.
  • Uber Cabs: Uber in India provides well maintained and well behaved drivers with a reasonably competitive fare structure with roughly Rs. 100 as base fare and minimum fare is Rs. 150/-.  Uber services can be booked through mobile apps and payment through pay, e-wallet is accepted apart from cash.
  • Meru Cabs: One of the largest radio taxi operators across all the cities in India, Meru Cabs was one of the first services to gain popularity in India with splendid customer services and having a large following with clientele from airport areas of all the Indian cities as they focused heavily on this segment of travelers.  Payment can be made by cash or credit card.
  • Easy Cabs: The fare structure is slightly higher than Ola and Uber cabs.  The Easy cabs company has been around for quite a long time since the year 2000 and has a strong, loyal regular customer base under their belt in all the major cities of India.

Phone and internet

 

When you are traveling abroad you either have international data service or you look for Wifi everywhere. I landed in Chennai a week after a big storm so Wifi was not working properly anywhere in the city. I decided to connect less than a minute to write to my family that I was ok. The day after I did the same knowing that I would have some extra costs. I received almost immediately a text from my operator to inform me that I had reached a 50EUR extra expense and that roaming was not available anymore. I later discovered that for internet use I paid 10,24EUR/Mo – as a comparison it is 0,54EUR/Mo when I travel to the US!!. So as soon as you land, buy a SIM card (you can buy it at the international airport from the kiosks of mobile service providers or at a cell phone store).You need to be prepared to submit the following documents to the vendor along with an application form.

  • 2 color passport photographs ,
  • photocopy of the personal details page of your passport,
  • photocopy of your Indian visa,
  • photocopy of the proof of your home address in your country of residence (passport, driver’s license or any other Government issued document)
  • a proof of where you will be staying in India.

Once the documents are verified, you can purchase the SIM immediately and will get a 10-digit mobile number. Usually, the SIM is activated within 24 hours, after a confirmation call is made to your mobile phone for verifying the details provided in your application.If you plan on traveling to several locations in India, be sure to get roaming activated on your SIM. Otherwise, you will have to buy separate SIM cards at every new place that you visit (the SIM is valid only for a three-month period after which it will have to be reactivated).The most popular mobile service providers in India are Airtel, Vodafone, Reliance, Idea, Aircel and MTNL/BSNL (the latter is government run). In terms of costs, the rates and packages are similar: we bought a prepaid SIM card with Airtel operator which although it had quite a limited network coverage  was very cheap and for 500 MB 3G /4G data plan we have spent 5EUR in 2 weeks (including 3 recharges – see tariff here).


To summarize the first impression I had about India: it almost felt like home immediately. Maybe I traveled in the best conditions but it is a very welcoming country, especially the South. In Pondicherry we had the chance to stay in some friends house and had an amazing night grilling fish in the garden while the cook/professional singer was singing Tamil songs for us. You just have to “go with the flow” and enjoy the experience!

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