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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The Taj Mahal: A Tear Drop on the Face of Eternity

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It takes my breath away.

I’m totally unprepared even though I’ve been here before and have seen it thousands of times in photos.

It’s true. Described by an Indian poet as a “Teardrop on the Face of Eternity”  the Taj Mahal is the most beautiful building in the world. The pure white marble domes, arches, and minarets, the lattice screens and bas-relief carvings of flowers and the massive, welcoming and comfortable proportions startle me.

I’m taken aback; it is so perfect I hardly notice all the others here although, like every other day of the year (except Fridays,) there are thousands of visitors. Do they all feel like I do?IMG_2480

The Taj Mahal mausoleum houses the remains of a much-loved woman, Arjumand Bann Begum, who died when she was thirty-nine years old after the birth of her fourteenth child in 1631. She’s best known by her palace title of Mumtaz Mahal that means “Chosen One of the Palace”; her husband was Shah Jahan, the Emperor of India.

It is said that Mumtaz Mahal was one of the most beautiful woman in the Mughal world and I think she must have also been beautiful inside her heart. Unlike most marriages at the time hers was a love marriage. The Shah was twenty-one when he first met her in a jewellery market. She was pretty, friendly, talkative and smart but she was not a member of the royal family so the Shah’s family forbid him to marry her until he won a couple of wars. Which he did. Promptly.

The Shah was devastated when she died twenty years later and to her memory he set out to construct the most beautiful monument in history. He hired 22,000 craftsmen and other workers who travelled to Agra from all over Central Asia to work on it. Twenty years later it was complete.

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I don’t know Mumtaz but I feel her presence here at the Taj Mahal. Did she love her gardens and nature? Yes, I’m sure she did; I can see it in the beautiful design and flowers carved into this pure white marble that is the hardest, most non-porous marble in the world. Iris are inlaid with lapis lazuli, orchids with amethyst, daffodils with jasper, tulips with coral and leaves with jade. Are they examples of the flowers Mumtaz loved from the palace homes of her ancestors in Persia?

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Her tomb, the Taj Mahal was built to last. Now it’s simply washed with soap and water every few years. There are 5-6 million visitors a year (it’s one of the seven wonders of the world) and to get into the Taj complex we’ve all been through a serious security check (after being told not to bring in any food, electronic devices, knives, weapons, or pencils.) We walk through a bomb checker thing-a-ma-jig and then guards with big guns search every bag; other security people (one line for men and one for ladies) pat us down. (Ross had the glue he carries for his journal project taken away yesterday and today they wouldn’t let him in with his sketch book and pencils.) Then we put special covers on our shoes.

I’m glad the Taj is being taken care of. Pollution from traffic and thousands of tourists is threatening it. Several factories in the city of Agra have been moved to help curb pollution and only electric carts are allowed near the entrance to the Taj. (We went by the hotel golf cart!)

Strangely the magnificence of the Taj for me is not diminished by all of this. In fact I feel as though I’m all-alone here … it’s just me immersed in the beauty of the Taj so that I can enjoy my imagination and the stories of history it holds inside.

IMG_2456     Namaste

Coming soon to Travel Musings: Benares (the City of Light)cropped-p1020350.jpg

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