A Taste of Chettinad

“One is lucky to eat like a Chettinar” Ancient Tamil saying.

P1050031I’m lucky. A few weeks ago I received an email from Meenakshi Meyyappan. She wrote, “You probably might remember having stayed at The Bangala in Karaikudi in the Chettinad region of South India. At that time, you mentioned that you would be interested in a cookbook, if ever we did one. The Bangala Table a compilation of The Bangalas’ recipes has now been published.”

I bought the book that day and it is exquisite.

The Bangala is a small heritage hotel in Karaikudi one of seventy-six Chettinad villages deep in rural South India. And I will never forget it.IMG_7316

Ross and I arrived late for lunch our first day after a long, bumpy, hot drive through rural Tamil Nadu. Nothing prepared me for the feast of senses I was going to experience.

A calm, refined woman, Umma, greeted us warmly and handed us cool wet towels to freshen our hands and faces, served us tall glasses of lemonade and then invited us to follow her to the lunch area on the porch. They had been waiting for us and our places were ready at a long table set with the traditional fresh banana leaf dishes. A gentle water fountain nearby soothed my road weary head and the sweet scent of jasmine and roses from the garden filled the air. Servers, dressed in soft flowing saris, padded by and serenely spooned, one by one, dollops of the most aromatic and delicately spiced culinary creations I have ever tasted onto my banana leaf–fish curry, chicken Chettinad pepper masala, spinach Masiyal, mixed vegetable Kootu, drumstick sambar, yogurt. Then side dishes arrived. Vegetable fritters, coconut rice, mango. I was in paradise or was it home? It’s true. Home is where the heart is and the Bangala captured my heart.Image

Later Umma took us for a walk around Chettinad villages.Image 8 We talked about food and values, culture and art, family and traditions. We visited a home where a Chettinar family wove vibrant checked and striped cotton saris. IMG_7298

Image 1We shopped for vegetables and I bought a dozen tiny clay candleholders for Diwali in India or Christmas for us at our home in Canada.Image 4

Chettinad is known not only for its fine master chefs and cuisine, but also for its architecture. I listened to Umma’s stories about the eclectic historic palace homes we had never seen before that were built by Nattukottai Chettinar families. The palaces, ornately decorated with treasures–teak from Burma, coloured glass from Belgium, ceramics from Europe–reflect an exchange of ideas and merchandise that their trader/financier owners brought home from Burma, Malaysia, Ceylon and other parts of the world.IMG_7289

Image 5Now I too have a little piece of Chettinad to savour and treasure. The Bangala Table. Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad. The recipes, the photographs and writing are glorious. Thank you Meenakshi Meyyappan and all of you who worked hard to write this book and share your home with us.

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Lights Temples and Learning

IMG_2771Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and it looks twice as old as all of them put together.” Mark Twain 1897.

Day 1

Shrouded by the dim light of early evening I buck up my courage and walk down a crammed passageway to get to Dasaswamedth, Varanasi’s main ghat. It’s an important place on the Hindu divine cosmic road, and I’m trying to walk with purpose, to look as though I know where I’m going and what’s going on here. ( Although I don’t.)

I’ve lost Ross somewhere in the crowd but I’m determined to press my way alone through throngs of pilgrims, alms seekers, stretcher-bearers carrying covered corpses sadhus (holy men, most fake, some real,) locals and a few other stunned foreign travellers. IMG_2822The touts are aggressive and close. Too close. I turn my eyes away from them and whatever they shove in my face.

A putrid stench rakes over me.

IMG_2826I trip and slide around the garbage, some organic but mostly plastic. Plastic Bags. I do my best to dodge cattle dung, goat turd, dog poop and other unsavouries, including the plastic bags and what may be in them.

Will it ever end? Damn. I nearly stepped in it again.

There are too many tacky trinket stalls, too many people, too many piles of wood, too much smoke, too much of everything. I want to get out of here even though I’ve just arrived. So I ask myself. Why are you here, Nancy? What made you come? Where is the light in this City of Light you’ve finally come to visit?

For thousands of years literary masters have written about Varanasi (called Benares or Kashi by locals.) The city has inspired composers and musicians; been painted and photographed by famed artists; explained by philosophers; and spoken about in mysterious tones by my friends who have visited.

Varanasi is the zenith of the Hindu faith and is revered by Jains and Buddhists.

So here I am. But nothing I have seen, read, heard or imagined has prepared me for it.

Then, unexpectedly, the dark passageway opens up. There it is at the bottom of the steps. The River Ganges. It is wide and beautiful and shining in the low western sun.

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Along the broad stone steps, called Dasaswamedth Ghat, the Goddess River Ganga spreads out holding thousands of twinkling floating candles, rose petals and flowers. Eerie sounds of horns droning and symbols clanging resonate through the spaces. Smoke and the smell of sandalwood and incense drifts around everything.

I take a deep breath and inhale the moment. The noise, the garbage and even the touts are obliterated.

Ross comes out of the crowd and we stand at the top of the ghat.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” I whisper.

“Amazing. Listen,” says Ross in hushed tones. “The sound is supernatural.”

Our guide, Babalu, leads Ross and I down the steps. We work our way around small groups of musicians sitting crossed-legged around fires, chanting mantras as they play sitars and tablas. The sun will set in a few minutes and the Aarti Puja will begin, an offering to five great elements in the Hindu faith–fire, water, air, earth and the ether that is also known as space.

“For thousands of years this is happening everyday.” Babalu expounds. “We recite the Om loudly and pray for all people, for the well being of all.” And then he lifts his head toward the sky, clasps his palms together and shouts in a loud musical bass voice.

“Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva. Ommm ma ma Shiva.”

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I shiver, memorized by the mystical hold of Mother Goddess Ganga.

Ashish, our oarsman, holds our hands and helps Ross and me into his low-slung wooden boat so we can watch the Puja from the river. The ghats (there are eighty-seven in Varanasi) are busy tonight after days of rain and cold temperatures.

Peacocks, oxen, goats, and dogs stroll along. “Look at those animals.” Ross laughs quietly. “They have attitude. They know they belong, they’re looked after.”

Thousands of people sit on the steps waiting for the Puja to begin; others, women in colourful saris and men in white dhotis, are bathing in the river, believing the Mother Goddess Ganga purifies the soul. I wonder what it would be like to be in the river beside them, but even though I want to hear their stories I hold myself back. P1020334The Ganges is the fifth most polluted river in the world. Environmental efforts to clean it up have been a complete failure. So far.

Through the smoke and fires I see crumbling palaces in gaudy colours scrunched in between hundreds of temples. “We have 120,000 temples in Benares,” Babalu says, stopping his prayers. “We call it the City of Temples. It’s the spiritual capital of India, founded in 1200 BC. Three thousand years ago. Imagine. Many important people in India own palaces here. It is the city of the great Hindu god, Lord Shiva, the destroyer of evil.” He looks up to the sky. “We come to Benares to be healed, to be purified, to die. To be at peace.”

 

The jet-black boat we’re in slithers through floating grime and slowly moves down the Ganges. It has lost its glow now and is black like the night sky. The intimate rituals of life are close and very public. Death is especially close. We pause at a burning patch of land surrounded by temples and huge piles of firewood. This is the burning ghat, Manikarnika.

Babalu points to five or six sombre-looking men carrying a bamboo stretcher on their shoulders. “Look there’s a dead body,” he shouts, and Ashish enthusiastically joins in, directing us to look at a corpse shrouded in white. It seems as though they think that’s what tourists like me come here to see. “This is the place Hindus come for liberation from the cycle of life. The cremation ghat are busy 24/7,” Babalu says in a savvy tone.

I turn my head away. The magic of the Ganges loses its hold, the intimacy of life and death is too raw.

“I rather like the matter of fact-ness of it all,” Ross surprises me by saying.

But I have to work hard to try to set aside the ever-present death, poverty and filth in Varanasi and hold onto the beauty of spirituality felt here.

The river is crammed with boats like ours; there is no more room for people to sit (or stand) on the massive ghat. The Aarti Puja ceremony we have come to see seems to me like a big glitzy commercial show. IMG_2709And maybe it is, although our trusted new friend Babalu tells us it is his duty as a lay Hindu priest in Varanasi to take his turn officiating at the Aarti ceremony four or five times a year. The young priests performing the Aarti tonight are dressed in matching cream coloured dhoti-kurta (skirts and scarves) with flashy deep red shirts and they are swirling giant rings of fire in a cloud of incense and smoke. Some bang cymbals and drums, the volume of their chanting rising to a crescendo. The noise is deafening.IMG_2708

Babalu rises above it all and chants Hindu prayers in a loud and fearless voice.

I feel “out of sorts.” In the City of Light I’m in a time machine of some kind, zinging from one century to another. In twenty minutes I’ve come from the bedlam of an ancient world with timeworn rituals to a quiet, pristine place. There is nothing out of place in the one hundred and seventy-five year old Nadesar Palace where we are staying but I’m still reeling from the hullabaloo at the ghat.

“Varanasi is being buried by poverty and filth,” I had choked out when we left the bedlam.

“Change is happening.” Babalu intoned, and then his voice quietened and trailed off. “But it is very slow in Varanasi. People from everywhere come here now. A few years ago we didn’t even have plastic bags. Now we have to deal with more garbage. It’s hard to make change here. The same things have been happening for thousands of years.”IMG_2776

IMG_2784He hesitated. I’m thinking is he hopeful? “My little grandchildren learn about the environment in school and the youngest one is working on a project to clean up the school yard.” Then he smiled and barked out in that deep strong voice of his, “But when you live here you don’t notice the garbage.”IMG_2748

 

I find myself thinking about my own home and how I reduce, reuse, and recycle. I’m no saint. My own private Puja is hope for the future.

I scrub, wash my clothes (including my leather walking shoes) and try to calm down with a glass of Sula, Indian white wine.

As the night sky slowly comes to life with stars and planets, the mystical hold of India grabs me again. A curry dinner, prepared especially for us with produce from the palace garden, is delicious and full of fresh herbs, aromatic cumin, turmeric and red pepper.

Illiteracy is the main reason for poverty and the statistics are daunting in this area of India. But they also tell a story of improvements in literacy since we visited twenty years ago. I need to take a closer look at Benares to see what’s been happening.

Day 2 of Lights Temples and Learning is coming soon.

What has been your experience in Benares? Let us know.

India: A Masala of Culture and Architecture. Guest Post by Ross E Hayes. Architect (retired) Urban Planner

IMG_0745The landscape of India bursts with energy. Travel tends to pull my mind in diverse directions so I like to look for patterns in the masala of architecture and culture I’m seeing here.

We have an assortment of elastic bands littering the area around the telephone in our kitchen at home in Calgary. The delivery person uses them to tie around the floppy morning newspapers transforming them into manageable projectiles that land with a thud on our front porch everyday. Perhaps an image of India as an elastic band that pulls pieces together will help me manage what I’m seeing.

Last week we attended an evening performance of Kodavas traditional tribal dance. The sky was black except for bright stars and a brilliant full moon. The dark skinned male performers danced by a blazing bon fire. With long sticks and metal swords they clacked and clanged while dancing in a big circle to the haunting nasal sound of a lone vocalist. The tribe is said to descend from Alexander the Great’s army that invaded India in 327 BC. They migrated down the Malabar Coast (the southwest coast of India) and settled in the fertile hills of the Western Ghats. Now, a hundred or more generations later, they are almost fully integrated into Indian society but they still bring something different, something Greek, into the spicy Indian mix.

In Mumbai, we visited the newly renovated Magen David Synagogue. IMG_0029A friend of mine helped with the renovation, and I wanted to see it first hand. It is an open, brightly lit beacon in a crowded neighbourhood. We could hear the sounds of school children singing in the adjacent Muslim school and the children played in the courtyard in front of the synagogue. Chairs and carpets, the aftermath of a major social event, were being removed from the rear of the building.

In the middle of the 19th century Jews escaped persecution in Iraq (which was their home at the time) and came to Mumbai to settle. The congregation of 20,000 persons was reduced substantially after the chaos resulting from partition of India in 1947. Families dispersed to the far corners of the globe where they flourished. However the Jews left a legacy in India and the renovated synagogue is a good example of continued investment.

The Qutb Shahi Tombs are set in a peaceful landscape in Hyderabad that, in the late 17th century, was overrun by the Mughals, creating a dynasty that lasted until India’s independence. IMG_0379The traditions of Islam flourished and the city became a focus for the arts, culture and learning.

Toward the back of one of the tombs, a small patch of brilliant turquoise mosaic reflects the intense sunlight. Persian, we are told. From Isfahan. (Isfahan is several deserts and a few mountain passes away from south India. And as dedicated as the artisans may be, I wondered how they ended up in India.)

IMG_0375The story is a sub-plot of a bigger cultural flood, that of the invasion of India by the Mughals in the 15th century, adding one more piece to their vast empire part of which included Persia. While less kind to other prisoners, the Mughals recognized the importance of artists and craftsmen in the embellishment of their capital, Samarkand, then one of the most beautiful cities in the world and Persians artists were brought to that city to contribute their talents to its magnificence. As the Mughal influence spread across the sub-continent, the work of Indian stonemasons was combined with the talents of the Persians. And what a legacy they left; elegant expansive palaces, impenetrable and ingenious fortresses, delicate domes silhouetted against the blue sky and elegant details. Mughal architecture has today become the icon of Indian design.IMG_0833

The English also left no less of a legacy. An English architect designed the Wodeyar dynasty Palace at Mysore in 1915, replacing an earlier structure that had burned down. IMG_0837I am told that it is in the Indo-Sarcenic style. Perhaps. But I cannot help but feel that the term itself cages the enthusiasm and spirit of the design that probably should be left untamed. It is an exuberant collage of fortress-like corners, broad arches, light domes (I counted 10). Colonnades defy gravity, resting on pillows and lotus leaves with arches that spring like the ruffle of a peacock’s tail. Cast iron columns, fabricated in Scotland, rise to support a delicate glass roof. To remind the viewer that this is not frivolous business, the walls a lined with a brilliant display of paintings with troupes on foot, horseback and elephants.

The architecture of the English colonial period is seen across India and like the Mughals before them, they have made a lasting contribution.

Is the elastic band I’m looking for to wrap up my understanding of architecture and culture into a pattern in India a broad one, like the masala of Greeks, Mughals, British and the Iraqi Jews, all of whom came and injected their vitality into the heart of the sub-continent?

Wait a minute. I’m in a small village outside Tellicherry in Kerala and a Theyyan Dance is in full swing. IMG_0735The whole village is in attendance to witness the spirit descend into the bodies of the five dancers. Their enormous red headdresses gyrate in the hot sun to the erratic beat of drummers and a short, and very odd sounding trumpet.

A group of elders comes out to push back the crowd. The wild erratic movements of the dancers need space as they leap into the air and run clockwise, then counter-clockwise around a small temple.

As quickly as the dance takes hold, it comes to a stop. Villages seek advice from the dancers, and judging from the expression of their faces, receive sage counsel. They have been blessed. The spirits have returned to their village once again.

I think about my elastic band analogy. It would not fit this one. No band would stretch that far.P1060092