At long last and after a brief respite, we’re back in the U.S. and in the process of planning the next trip (a cross-country drive). But before that, here’s a recap of our final, lovely and restful days in India:
After the short flight from Cochin to Chennai, and then the inevitable 3+ hour drive to Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it’s known these days), we arrived at the lovely Hotel de L’Orient (http://hotel-de-lorient.neemranahotels.com/) in the evening – leaving the pleasure of discovering the city to the morning light. After checking out our lovely room we walked the block or two to the promenade – and strolled along the Bay of Bengal, along with hundreds of residents who were enjoying the refreshing breeze.
The hotel is another Neemrana Hotel project; the “de L’Orient” was converted from an 18th century school building into a gorgeous, unique guesthouse. We had dinner in the outdoor dining room the first evening, under a shady neem tree, and enjoyed a great buffet breakfast the next morning in the loggia – so that we could have breeze from the overhead fans…it was HOT! Person after person told us that we were visiting at what is considered the end of the real tourist season (the first week in March.) Breakfast had a particularly French feel – delicious croissants, pain aux chocolate, yogurt, baguettes and Neemrana’s housemade pear, plum and mixed fruit jams, which we’d enjoyed at the other properties in Bangalore and Coonoor.
Walking in Pondicherry was a real treat – the former French colony has lovely old homes, many painted in a lemony yellow color to designate that they are still owned by the French. Our guide told us that there are 5,000 French families in Pondicherry, and it seemed like there was a Lycee Francais on every other street corner. A favorite visit was to the Sri Arulmigu Manakular Vinayagar Temple, celebrating the Hindu god Ganesha. There are 32 sculpted reliefs of Ganesha on the wall of the temple, which are incredibly detailed and colorful – http://www.manakulavinayagartemple.com/Types.htm. At the end of the day, an elephant is brought to the temple and offers blessings to those who bring appropriate offerings of grass, nuts or flowers. My handful of grass resulted in a good tap on my head from Lakshmi’s (the elephant) strong trunk.
Another incredible visit was to the Sadhana Forest (www.sadhanaforest.org) outside Pondicherry, where we visited a young relative who was starting an environmental internship. Sadhana is 70 acres of formerly arid, eroded land that is being transformed into an indigeneous tropical dry evergreen forest through the volunteer efforts of dozens of people from around the world. Over 29,000 trees have been planted over the past 10 years, watered and cared for by the volunteers. Through water management and retention efforts including building earthen dams and trenches, the organization has raised the aquifer’s level by 6 meters, and dramatically improved the water table for the rural residents. I walked around in awe – from the handbuilt bamboo and coconut palm multi-story buildings and dormitories to the communal kitchen, recycling center and solar array, the entire enterprise is an incredible, inspiring testament to what can be accomplished through devoted, passionate, hard work, and many many caring people.
From Pondicherry we went north to Mahalbalipuram (arghh, once we’d finally figured out how to say that correctly, we learned that this town is now called “Mammallapuram”), a fishing village with a quaint French flair, a nice beach with traditional fishing boats, and good restaurants. Mammallpuram is known for its shore temples and ancient outdoor sculptures carved from single enormous boulders and rock formations. Generations of stone carvers have thrived here, and as you drive the narrow streets there are dozens of small businesses with sculptures ranging from tiny, easily transported carvings to enormous sculptures that you’d need a crane to lift into your garden, assuming you’ve got both the garden and the budget to transport it there!
Our too short visit to Pondicherry and Mammallapuram ended with a late night dash to the Chennai airport for our long flight home. Five weeks in India were not enough, by far, and we’re already thinking about where to go when we return! The far north and the distant south. I’ll post a selection of India photos in the next blog, without the lengthy text. I hope you enjoy…Namaste.