December 22, 2004

Chennai Mayhem & Kerala Tranquility

It has taken me a few days to get my breath. Landing in the maelstrom that is modern Chennai, is like have a mallet land squarely on the forehead. At times the experience is stimulating, but at other times, totally overwhelming. However, that is why I am here, and absolutely loving it.

Yesterday, I took a motor rickshaw to the headquarters of the Theosophy Society, in Chennai. I have wanted to go there for some time, as I have had a lifelong interest in the enigmatic founder, Madam Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. After a long, dry journey through the smog-suffocating streets, my driver finally found the entrance. I leapt out, excited to enter the world famous library of mystic studies, only to find that it was closed! As I was leaving, I saw two stereotypical Western Indophiles, fully dressed in their more Indian than Indian clothes entering the gates on bicycles. Perhaps, it was not my day to visit.

Instead, I headed off to Fort St. George, which was built by the British, during the 17th Century. After security checks, as it is now an Indian military base, I was allowed to enter. Inside, is an excellent museum of colonial curios, from paintings of British dignitaries to Empire embossed porcelain. I was particularly interested in some original letters, written in the 18th Century, by the fort's chief officer. They detailed requests for further troops and ammunitions, as well as a fascinating account of a large battle. One letter also discussed the need to assist in skirmishes on the Northern Front, against marauding Afghans.

There was so much British pomp and confidence on display, that while I felt ashamed of our imperial past, I also felt a sense of loss; not about the vanquishing of the Empire, but rather our reduction as a culture.

In the afternoon, I walked about the streets of Chennai, bedazzled by all the stimulating sounds, smells and sights. I think I pulled off some very nice photographs on that jaunt, so look out for them here.

The rest of the day was spent passing time, before my 12 hour train journey through the night, to the opposite coastline in Kerala. When I arrived at the Central Station, I had no difficulty finding my train, as both the people around and the information boards were very helpful. Once on the train, I sat with a very nice Indian Christian, called Matthew, who could count back his ancestors to St. Thomas, who arrived in India many centuries ago.

I had no problem sleeping on the train, and found my fellow passengers to be engaging and good-humoured. A group of students from Chennai, were returning to Kerala for Christmas with their families. One of them, a bespectacled girl of perhaps eighteen, told me the legend of Kerala. A long time ago, Shiva was seeking a place to meditate, but he could not find an appropriate place. He asked Vishnu for guidence, at which the great god handed Shiva an axe. He told Shiva to throw it. The axe landed in the sea, and the land of Kerala rose from the water. To this day, Kerala is called the Land of the Gods.

This morning, after staring out of a train window for hours at the glorious misty dawn scenery, I finally arrived in Kochi. I did not know what to expect, but I assumed that there would be the usual mayhem. How wrong I was. Kochi is yet another blissful discovery of those little corners of earth, where one can find a moments peace. It is an idyllic peninsular, that also was used as a fort by the British. It also has an ancient Jewish community, as well as the first Christian church to be built in India. In fact, the Portuguese church housed the remains of the great explorer, Vasco Da Gamma, who was later returned to Portugal, some ten years afterwards.

Apart from the quaint streets here, there is also a beach that curls around from the wide bay into the Indian Ocean. Fisherman throw large nets into the sea, in hope of dredging up a successful catch. Some use a system designed by the Chinese, which uses a large wooden scaffold, nets, pullies and rocks. Visitors are welcome to purchase whatever they catch, and it can be prepared at one of the many small kitchens nearby.

I am staying at a "homestay" guesthouse, run by a lovely couple. In fact, everyone here is lovely. I am quite taken aback at how charming the people of South India are. In contrast to the north, I have really faced very few hassles.

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