A goal yet to be achieved

India has always been in my heart which is why I decided to go there and prepare material for an exhibition. Nothing could have prepared me for what I have seen.

Here is a brief summery of our journey in India and where the footage was filmed and pictures taken. This summery has been written and prepared by Jeff and Eileen Schoenfeld who were travelling with me in India. Thank you Jeff and Eileen for allowing me to use much of your text.

We arrived in Mumbai in style and stayed the first night at the Marriot Courtyard hotel close to the airport. Things changed when we left Mumbai and flew to the city of Chennai, nearly 700 miles southeast.  Immediately, we could see the change from northern India to southern: the complexion of the people was much darker, the language (there are 235 official languages spoken in India) was no longer Hindi, and the religion no longer just Hindu, but rather a strong influence of Christianity in this region as well.

We met up with our driver for the next week, Dileep (pronounced “dee-leep”), and made our way down to Mahabalipuram.  Due to heavy traffic leaving Chennai and road construction that lead us to a detour through a couple of heavily congested small villages, we arrived late in the evening to our hotel, the Ideal Beach Resort.  As per the custom throughout India, we were greeted with a necklace of flowers and a welcome beverage, as well as some cookies and a cold wet towel to refresh ourselves after the bus trip.

On Tuesday, we toured the temples of Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram).  Our local guide met us at the hotel and first took us to visit the “Five Rathas” which are five monolithic temples that were carved out of a single rock hill between 630-668 AD.  They are called the Five Rathas because, of course, there are five of them and they resemble giant chariots.  Carved from a single piece of rock from the top down, you can still see the slope of the hill in the varying sizes of the five different temples.  The temples were erected to the Hindu goddess Shiva; however, these incomplete temples incorporate both Buddhist and Hindu design.

Next, we went to the “Shore Temple”, so named as it is on the beach next to the Bay of Bengal.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site was built during the reign of Rajasimha in the 7th century.  It has two very intricately-carved towers covered with figures of humans, gods and animals — however, because it is so close to the sea, the statues have eroded from the crashing waves over the 1400 years since it was built.  A large granite rock breakwater now protects it from further decay.  Inside the largest tower is a statue of a Reclining Shiva, one of a kind in the Hindu world.  Interestingly, there are other temples also built that were first discovered in 2004 during the tsunami that hit the area (and killed about a dozen people and destroyed about 100 buildings after the earthquake in the Indian ocean).  When the waters receded before the 50 foot high wall of water hit the town, local residents noticed several other temples a couple hundred feet from shore that were mostly submerged in the muddy ocean bed.  An archeological diving team has been working on excavating the underwater temples since 2005.

Finally, we stopped at a massive carving in town called “Arjuna’s Penance”.  Also carved into a rocky hillside, it tells a Hindu story about Arjuna and his bodily sacrifice to nearly starve to death to fight (and win) a battle against 101 warrior soldiers.  There are over 200 life sized carvings in this rock – which stands about 50 feet tall and is about 200 feet long – including 20 foot tall elephants.  On top of the hill is a temple to the Hindu god, Ganesha.  Next to this area is a giant boulder called “Krishna’s Butter Ball” – a 50 ton rock that is perfectly balanced on the crest of a hill.  Only about 2 feet of this boulder actually touches the hill, yet it is absolutely immoveable (the British colonists tried to topple the boulder about 100 years ago with a team of 8 elephants but couldn’t move it).

On Wednesday, our bus took us on a 6 hour, 180 mile ride to Kumbakonam.  Here, we stayed at the “Paradise Resort” – and the person who named it should be sued for misrepresentation as it is far from paradisiacal.  Our riverside rooms were way in the back of the complex (and ironically not really along the river as one might think) so we had to ride in a cart pulled by two bullocks, or ox-like creatures.

While there, we visited two temples built by Raja Raja II – grandson of the much-loved Chola emperor Raja Raja The Great – about 900 years ago.  We visited these two Hindu temples in the evening, which was pretty to see the sun set around these large temples.

Thursday, on our way to Madarai, we stopped in Tanjore to visit the enormous temple complex built exactly 1000 years ago by the aforementioned Raja Raja the Great.  In the middle of a giant courtyard surrounded by 1008 columns are a pair of Hindu Temples, one 108 feet tall and the other 81 feet tall.  They are completely covered in carvings and for being 1000 years old are in amazingly good condition.  This temple and fort complex – called Brihadishwara – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We were lead around the complex by a funny little local guide named Raja, who told us not a whole lot about the history of the buildings and the Chola dynasty, but was slightly entertaining nonetheless.  In the courtyard in front of the larger temple is a huge statue of Nandi, the bull that is the vehicle for the Hindu God Shiva.  This bull statue is carved from a single piece of rock, weighs in at over 15 tons and is the second largest of its kind in the world.

That afternoon, we made our way to Madurai, about another three and a half hours away.  Madurai has been an important commercial and trade hub of India since 550 AD — in fact, when the great European explorers (like Columbus, de Gama, and the like) were trying to find aquatic routes to India because of the important trade in spice and silks, this was one of the ports of call in which they were searching.  We’d been spending a lot of time in the mini bus lately and were thankful that we had two nights here to relax and not be cramped up all the time.  Our hotel is on the outskirts of the city, so we had another meal in our hotel, bought a 24 pass for the internet, and called it a night.

In the morning, we set out to explore the Meeakshi Temple — one of the busiest pilgrimage and tourist sites in all of south India.  Attracting up to 15,000 visitors every day, Meenakshi is a set of 12 temples that vary in height, but the tallest reaches 200 feet high and was for many years the tallest building in all of Asia.  It is set apart from other Hindu temples we have visited lately (and believe us, we have visited A LOT on this trip) by the colourful exteriors of the many towers (as pictured above).  The outsides of the temples are made of wood and are intricately carved and brightly painted.  In fact, the insides and outsides of the temples are completely repainted every 12 years to ensure they are bright and true to the original colours.

The temples are in the shapes of pyramids – and look almost Disney-esque.  Inside the inner gate, we passed the temple elephant who, for a few rupees, will “hear” your prayers and bestow her blessings by tapping you lightly with her trunk.  Just past that is the amazing 16th century “Hall of 1000 Pillars” which has 985 elegantly sculpted columns in the shapes of Hindu Gods, Goddesses and other mythical creatures.

There were dozens of shrines and smaller temples built throughout the complex.  One was a shrine to the goddess of fertility.  Another was a series of nine statues which symbolized the nine planets (obviously built before modern-day scientists determined that Pluto is not really a planet), in which after lighting an oil lamp and stating your troubles, you are to walk around the collection of statues 9 times in order to be granted the strength you need to overcome those troubles.

Meenakshi Temple is named after the God Shiva’s wife and consort, who is also known as the Goddess Parvati.  As our local guide explained the importance and significance of different areas of the temple, it was fun just to watch the hectic scene of it all.  Devotees were everywhere, tossing color dye on the statues, lighting oil lamps, presenting offerings of rice and food to 700 year old statues, kneeling and praying everywhere, and buying religious paintings, pictures and other knickknacks.

Saturday, we made our way to Periyar, in the Indian state of Kerala, which is home to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.  The drive from Madurai took about 5 hours until we reached our hotel, the Hotel Grand Thekkady. Periyar is higher in elevation so it was much cooler there than the hot, humid weather we had had throughout the rest of our time in southern India.

After a horrible lunch in town we visited a local spice plantation.  This area was especially important in supplying the world’s spices hundreds of years ago, and they still produce a wide variety yet today.  Our local guide showed us over a dozen different kinds of spice producing plants – pepper, curry leaf, coriander, jasmine, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and tea just to name a few.  And while it wasn’t so much a spice plantation as we envisioned (but more like his backyard) it was very interesting to see the many different kinds of plants that grow these spices and be able to break off little bits of the plants to see them up close, feel, and smell them.

After coming back to the hotel we set out to explore the town (which is actually the town of Thekkady – Periyar refers to the National Park which it borders) are lots of small shops, food stores, and bakeries that line the street.

We ditched dinner that night as after that horrible lunch, I needed a break from the restaurants that were recommended by our local driver.  That seems to be one of the ways that restaurants and shops help drive (literally) business their way is to have tour group drivers and local guides steer business to them.  As a benefit to the driver or guide, they either get a free meal themselves or if in a shop, they will likely receive a percentage of what the group purchased — which, we have learned, can be from 7 to up to 20%!

Sunday morning, we started early to set out to Periyar National Park, an animal preserve just a half mile down the road from where we are staying.  As it has been raining a lot here recently, as soon as we got there we were given canvas stockings to wear to help protect us against the leeches. Leeches? Oh great, we muttered as we put these on under our shoes.  We had been there and done that with these little parasites in Nepal — but Periyar is supposedly home to 55 tigers, and this might be our chance to see one in the wild.

We hiked through the woods for nearly 2 hours with cameras, tripods and big bags containing lenses .  We had never been on a nature hike before and we talked (sometimes quite loudly) as we trekked through the forest.  Animals of course have a much better sense of hearing than humans, so we were destined from the beginning to not have a very successful sighting.  We did see a couple groups of sambas, which are really large deer, slightly bigger than the north American white tailed version.  Used to humans over the years, these animals just stood and stared at us (from a distance of about 100 feet, of course) as we stared back.

Alas, no tiger sightings — but we had less than a 1% chance of actually seeing one to begin with.  Tigers tend to be nocturnal animals, have amazing senses of sound and smell, and tend to avoid humans (after so many years of being hunted) at all costs.  We did however see leeches – dozens and dozens of them.

That evening, we set out to the nearby Kadathanadan Kalari Centre for Martial Arts where we watched an hour long program of local martial arts which dates back nearly 3000 years.  It obviously had some choreography to it, but it was really interesting to see them fight each other with sticks, daggers, metal poles, and swords.  When two swords would strike each other or when a sword would hit a metal shield, sparks would fly!

On Monday, we drove about 4-5 hours to Kumarakom to catch two houseboats that took us through the backwaters of Kerala.  As we floated on the calm waters past small villages, we could see kids playing in the water, people fishing, or going about their daily lives.  It was a really relaxing time on the boat – and the food they prepared for us was very delicious especially the fresh fish.

We then headed to the city of Cochin (also known as Kochi), a city with a population of more than a half million people (1.5 million if you count those who live in the larger metropolitan area) located on India’s western coast.  This area has a long and vibrant history and was the centre of the Indian spice trade with the Greeks, Romans, and Europeans since ancient times.  From 1503-1663, the area was ruled by the Portuguese, and then for a hundred years by the Dutch, before becoming its own kingdom in 1773.  Nowadays, it’s a city largely focused on the fishing industry which makes up nearly one quarter of all the jobs in the area.

We took a walking tour of the harbour area on Tuesday afternoon.  We first visited St. Francis church, built here in 1503, the oldest Christian church in India.  It’s most famous, however, for it’s former resident: the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.  Da Gama was the first explorer to sail from Europe (Lisbon, Portugal) all the way around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and make it to India in 1498.  He made two other trips here and died in Cochin in 1524 and was buried inside this church.  The Portuguese later dug him up in 1539 and brought his remains back to Lisbon, but his grave marker is still in the floor of the church.

We then walked along the harbour to see the huge Chinese fishing nets.  These are shore operated lift nets that measure about 60 feet across.  They are lowered into the water and then about 6 men pull weights on the opposite side of the net to lift them (and the fish in them) out of the water.  The shoreline here is lined with a dozen or so of these large contraptions.  There were also a handful of stands set up with people selling their daily catch – fish, prawns, lobster, langoustines, crabs, and oysters.

I have met one of the writers who will help getting the script for the footage done there in a very western style café/restaurant.

We arrived into Goa late in the evening on Wednesday and after an hour long ride in a van made it to our hotel, the Varca Palms Beach Resort.

On Thursday, we took a tour of Old Goa, mostly a collection of churches that date back to the 15th century which are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The first church we visited was Se Cathedral, one of the oldest buildings in Goa and one of the largest churches in all of Asia.  Construction began in 1562 and finally completed in 1619.  The exterior is bright white with a single bell tower on the left hand side — there used to be matching towers, but the other was struck by lightening in 1776 and they were unable to rebuild it.  The interior is as strikingly white as outside, with a huge crystal chandelier at the end of the middle aisle by the floor to ceiling golden alter dedicated to St. Catherine.  In one of the 14 side alters is the “Growing Cross” or “Cross of Miracles” – a crucifix that has healing powers in which Christ appeared at in 1919.

Across the square is the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a large wooden Catholic church that houses the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier.  Construction here began in 1594 and was completed in 1605.  Francis Xavier died in 1552 and his remains were later transported to Goa.  His body is said to have never been treated, but still remains intact and recognizable to this day.  There’s a huge alter in the church dedicated to him with a solid glass sarcophagus with his body in.  Every 10 years, they bring him down for the public to view and, even though we couldn’t get closer than 50 feet from him, he looked pretty together for someone dead more than 550 years.

Goa was the final stop on our odyssey through India.  We stayed there for another week mainly to review the material and also to have a break. We took a flight back to Mumbai in the end as we could not get good train tickets.

Very exhausting 21 days providing me with so much material for an exhibition and also for a documentary.