who wants to go to South India?

Tamil Nadu to be exact.

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, 2006

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai, 2006

Nandi, Thanjavur, 2008

Nandi, Thanjavur, 2008

Last year I led a group of stalwarts to Chennai for private classes at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Madiram and then on to Varkala, Kerala where I led a yoga retreat.  You can read a review of that trip  here.   A few told me it was their trip of a lifetime.  :)

This year my friend and I were going to lead a two week yoga retreat in Varkala, Kerala but we had to cancel because there was no interest in it whatsoever.  We were both very bummed about it.

Ironically, after that cancellation three people contacted me about leading a trip to India in the future.

If you have followed this blog since 2005 you know how much I love India, especially South India.   The typical tourist trips to India usually go north — Delhi, Agra, Varanasi, Rajasthan, the Buddhist circuit.  There is nothing wrong with those areas, but in my opinion, the South is special and overlooked by the usual India tourist.  Actually, overlooked is how I like it because where I go I am usually the only Westerner.

I first traveled to Chennai to study at KYM in 2005 and have been returning yearly.  I always go to the South first.  I realized on my Rajasthan trip this year that I truly am a South Indian Girl.  I always tell first-timers to India that the South is a bit easier place to land.  I have been to Haridwar in the north, jumping into the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela in 2010.   I’ve been to the opposite side of India, in Calcutta to Kali’s temple where I got hit with a shakti blast so hard I almost fell down.  I rode a motorcyle into the Thar Desert in Rajasthan this year.  But Chennai in Tamil Nadu is my home.  One day I hope to live there for 6 months out of the year.

Tamil Nadu is rich in history and spirituality because of the multitude of important temple towns.    The history of the Tamil language and its literature is equally as rich as the Sanskrit language and its literature, but unless one travels to South India, it remains unfamiliar to many if not most.  An important Yoga text came out of  Tamil Nadu, written in Tamil.

Because I love showing people My India, I have decided to investigate leading a SPIRITUAL TOUR OF SOUTH INDIA in late 2015.  It would be 15 days which if you count the days on a calendar it is really two full weeks, not a full three weeks.  The trip would be a Tamil Nadu temple yatra and where possible I will lead Yoga classes.

I contacted the tour company I used for Rajasthan this year to put together a preliminary plan.  The time frame would be September 15-29 or October 1-15 or October 26-November 9, whichever they can do.   You would fly into Chennai and we would bus it around Tamil Nadu from town to town ending up back in Chennai.  I MAY do an extra week in Varkala, Kerala on the beach for people who wanted to stay longer.  Maybe.  That would be an extra cost.

The cities I have planned are (two days in each):
Chennai;
Tiruvannamalai — visit Arunachaleswara Temple,  climb or walk around Arunachala and visit the Ramana Maharishi ashram;
Auroville/Pondicherry — visit Auroville and relax, shop in Pondicherry;
Chidambaram; visit Shiva temple, where Shiva is in the form of Nataraj;
Thanjavur and Srirangam — side trip to Swamimallai and Gangakondacholapuram possible?  Rest in Tiruchirappali or maybe Kumbakonam?;
Karaikukudi and Rameswaram — the water ritual inside the Ramanathaswamy temple;
Madurai — temple rituals, shop — good day to have a South Indian cooking class OR have a South Indian dinner prepared for everyone for last night;
back to Chennai to fly home.

You can Google all those places to see what’s what. 

Right now I estimate the approximate cost to be $2000-2900, excluding flight, taxes, tips, meals (which are CHEAP in India.)  The optional extra week in Kerala would be an added cost.

Serious inquires only.  Let me know your interest.  It is never too early to plan your first trip to India.

If not now….when?

Gangakodaicholapuram, 2008

nandri!



Nandri is “thank you” in Tamil and I’m thanking Sindhu for giving me these blog awards. nandri, nandri, nandri, Sindhu! hugs to you, my Indian sister! I think you know how I love Tamil Nadu!

Please check out Sindhu’s other blogs, especially Flower Girl’s Rural India and Flowergirl’s Recipes (for all you Indian food lovers.)

Sindhu honored me by asking if I would write something about my Indian adventures so mine was the first post in her Travelogue section of her blog. anytime I feel “homesick” for India (although I’ve only been to Tamil Nadu three times I consider it my second home), I go to Sindhu’s Rural India blog. my most wonderful experiences have been in rural Tamil Nadu, and I’ll tell you a secret: my dream is to open a yoga shala in Kumbakonam, teaching western visitors and helping the locals with therapeutic yoga. sigh…if only…hey, there’s a donation button in the sidebar, hint, hint…maybe I’ll get an anonymous benefactor…sigh….

People talk about wanting to go to India to see the “real India” — people think that the “real India” is all about naked sadhus, spirituality, yoga, and temple incense. but all of India is the “real India” — from the $200 a night hotel rooms to the rich Bollywood movie stars to the street beggars to the naked slum children using garbage for their toys. one of the things that I love about India is that nothing is hidden, everything is in your face 24/7, life and death on the streets. that can be very hard for westerners to get used to, if they ever do, but for me, it is liberation.

you either love or hate India, there is no in between. as soon as I put my feet down on Indian soil, I feel as if I have come home.

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Gandhi: the movie

For those of you who loved the movie Gandhi — or those of you who have never seen it — there is a 25th anniversary special edition DVD. it came out in 2007 but I just found out about it! the 2-disc set has interviews about filming in India, about finding the right actors, along with archival footage, plus the picture and sound have been digitally remastered.

from the reviewing website:

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a labor of love that took nearly 20 years to make it to the screen, is one of the last true epics that spans decades yet keeps you tied to an emotional, human anchor. That anchor would be Gandhi himself, Mohandas Gandhi or Mahatma “Great soul” Gandhi as he was referred to later on in his life by the people of India.

Winner of eight Academy Awards including Best Picture (1982), Best Director (Attenborough) and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley as Gandhi), Gandhi has been released for a second time on DVD, this time however as a glorious 2 disc set celebrating its 25th anniversary that has to be one of the best DVDs released in 2007.

The film chronicles the leader of the nonviolent resistance movement against British colonial rule in India during the first half of the 20th century. It opens with an appropriate statement from Attenborough stating, “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling…least of all Gandhi’s….”

I have never been to north India where Gandhi spent most of his life. but what many people don’t know is that he also spent time in Tamil Nadu, the state that I travel to in India. I have been to Madurai twice, the last time just this past January, and I always make time for the Gandhi Museum. It is a place where I find peace in the riotous city of Madurai. the exhibits tell the story of Gandhi’s life in south India and how important Tamil Nadu was in the India’s struggle for independence. the last exhibit is in a room that is painted black — it is a glass case that contains the dhoti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated and it still contains his blood stains.

I can not describe how much I love spending time at the museum, just walking around the grounds, visiting the bookstore, buying chai from the chai seller, who can’t speak English but always has a big smile for me when he gives me free pictures of Gandhi.

During my 2006 trip, on the train ride back to Chennai from Rameswaram (a 17 hour ride), my compartment mate was a businessman who started a conversation with me when he saw me reading Gandhi’s autobiography that I had bought in Madurai. It was the first time that I heard about how some Indians hate Gandhi. It really surprised me. I asked him why and he said that many Indians blame Gandhi for the Partition: “The partition of India left both India and Pakistan devastated. The process of partition had claimed many lives in the riots. Many others were raped and looted. Women, especially, were used as instruments of power by the Hindus and the Muslims; “ghost trains” full of severed breasts of women would arrive in each of the newly-born countries from across the borders.”

The Partition is still a very sensitive subject for many Indians. my compartment mate told me that many Indians hate Gandhi the same way that many Americans hate George Bush. those of us who know how much Martin Luther King, Jr. admired Gandhi will find this sentiment shocking.

some photos of the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India….






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"you are all Gandhis"





Pongal festivities were in full swing when I arrived in Madurai in January. India has thousands of festivals and Pongal is an important one in Tamil Nadu. it is a harvest festival and I had read in the paper that it is similar to the American Thanksgiving because it is a time to give thanks and hope for a bountiful coming year. wherever I went in Madurai people would wish me “Happy Pongal!”

Just when I thought India had thrown me for a loop this third time around —

a stolen necklace in Chennai…
a four hour bus ride from Thanjavur to Madurai watching cheesy Tamil videos from the ’70s played at full blast, tissue stuffed in my ears all the way…
an Indian cop who wanted to take my swiss army knife I always carried when I tried to re-enter the Meenakshi Temple on one side when I was allowed to enter with it on the other side –

something wondrous happened. that’s what always happens to me in India — my best experiences are born from serendipity.

I had hooked up with a regular rickshaw driver for my stay in Madurai and we were driving through the slums along the river. somehow I always get drivers who know I am not afraid to go off the beaten path into the places that tourists usually don’t go.

We drove past a small school where I saw children in a doorway dressed in their dance clothes. the little girls were beautiful and I told the driver to turn around for a quick photo. of course, as soon as they saw me stop about 10 kids ran outside and surrounded me. some of the teachers came out to see what the commotion was. I saw a stage inside and a woman talking into a microphone. I apologized to the teachers, I said I did not mean to cause such a ruckus and disturb their show by taking a photo.

A male teacher came up to me and said “no problem, madam” and he invited me in to celebrate Pongal with them. he said they had planned a special celebration and it would be their honor if I came inside. I tried to beg off because I knew the commotion my presence would cause and I’m not one to have people fuss over me, but the children grabbed me and the teachers insisted. I had planned to sit in back and watch quietly, but I was led to the stage steps. I stopped and turned around and there had to be at least 100 kids sitting on the floor, all eyes glued to me, big smiles on their faces. I was stunned, and I kept shaking my head no, but the teachers kept pushing and pulling me until I was given the guest of honor seat, between the principal and the head mistress. I felt like a rock star.

The teachers asked where I was from and what I did. they introduced me, telling the children that I had come all the way from America for them, then they asked me to get up and say a few words. I was still in shock so I mumbled something about “stay in school and get a good education” and that got a huge round of applause.

it is the Pongal custom to boil a pot of rice and when the rice boils over the sides, that signifies a fruitful coming year. as the Pongal pot of rice was boiling, the teachers presented me with a Pongal gift — a towel that they draped over my shoulders. the price tag was still attached and it said 20 rupees which is about 50 cents, but to me it was priceless.

as the children danced on stage the teachers told me that these were slum children, that the school gets money from the government to educate them. there are about 600 kids in the school and they are taught English, computers, reading, and math, among other subjects. one of the teachers took my camera and took pictures of the dancers for me. when he returned my camera I took the perfect Pongal picture — a picture of the pot just as the rice started to boil over. serendipity.

finally, the teachers wanted me to say some last words to the kids. by this time it was over an hour later and I was composed enough to say something intelligent. I spoke and it was translated into Tamil….

I told them that I had read in the paper that morning that Pongal is like the American Thanksgiving and I explained a little about what Thanksgiving meant, about giving thanks, having gratitude. after wishing them Happy Pongal, I told the children that their teachers teach from their hearts and to never take their education for granted. I told them that they were the future of India and with their education they could change the world, that they could be anything they wanted to be. I told them, “you are all Gandhis, never forget that.”

When I finished I saw some of the teachers dabbing their eyes and I thought about how some upper caste Indians would look down on these children and down on me for even being with them. I thought about how so many people in my white bread suburban community have no idea, or worse, don’t want to know, how the rest of the world lives. here I was in a slum school half-way around the world and I felt blessed to be with them. all things happen for a reason, there are no coincidences.

a teacher then told the kids how it was their privilege for the American yoga teacher to visit their school today. I said, no, it was MY privilege to be treated with such graciousness, a total stranger. The principal took my hand and said I was a gift from God for them…and that’s when I started to cry.

the principal and I walked off the stage as the Pongal lunch was being served to the children. we went into her office and she asked me to write in their guestbook so I wrote what I said at the end of the program, about changing the world. I was also given the special Pongal lunch, as was my driver, and the principal told me more about the school. before I left I gave her a donation and said she should use it for whatever they needed, food, books, anything. the principal told me she would make sure that each child got a pen, so I bought about 600 pens that day. you have to travel in india to know the significance of the question “one pen, madam?”, so when she told me she would buy pens I thought it was a very appropriate purchase.

the principal wrote the address of the school for me and told me I am always welcome to return. I told her that I had a beautiful time with them and that I would always remember them as long as I live. I got back outside and into the rickshaw as children and teachers came out to wave goodbye to me. the driver started his rickshaw and we left, and when I turned around about a block away they were still waving goodbye.

this is the India that cracks open my heart and makes me count the days until I can run back into her arms and lose myself all over again.


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losing myself

namaste, namaste, namaste!

It has been a while since I’ve posted — the closer it gets to blowing this American pop stand at the end of December, the more I have felt the need to take a break from blogging.

I’ve posted a map of the Indian state where I will be waking up less than two months from now, and believe me, it can’t come soon enough.

I’m going to a wedding in Chennai, and although it won’t be a Hindu wedding, I’ll still wear a sari. It is the wedding of my friend’s son and she said I can borrow one of her saris. She has already told my usual rickshaw driver that I am returning and she said he is happy I am coming back. He has three young daughters, and I want to bring them silly presents. They will be a big hit in their neighborhood when they walk around blowing bubbles from those soap-in-bottles I’m going to bring them. Maybe it’s time silly string hits Chennai.

My friend calls me “akka” which is “older sister” in Tamil. I call her “thankachi” which is “younger sister”. My thankachi told me she can not wait to see me, she has much to tell her sister. She loves birds and listening to them, so I am bringing her a DVD of Midwestern birds.

Then I spend five days at my yoga school in private classes — asana, pranayama, meditation, and a Sutras class. One of my students is meeting me, he is bringing his girlfriend, and they have never been to India before. I told him a long time ago that I don’t mind him meeting me as long as he doesn’t cramp my style. We will all take the classes together at the school and I will do things with them everyday until I feel stifled and encumbered by them, then it will be time for me to be alone. I have found a Buddhist temple in Chennai that I want to visit everyday, along with a Kali temple, jai ma!

After 10 days of Chennai (Madras on the map), I will tell my student what bus to take to Pondicherry and I will tell my driver to take him there, then I hop a 10:30 pm train that takes me off the beaten path in Tamil Nadu so I can explore temple towns. Not before I get mehendi on my feet though. My student and his gal will have to make it back to Chennai on their own, because I will be long gone. But he’s a big boy, I went to India the first time all by my lonesome and this woman of a certain age was fine. More than fine.

If you click on the map, you can see a route that meanders down to Madurai, where I will hop on another train to take me Kerala, on the other side of South India on the Arabian Sea, where I have never been. I plan on lots of yoga and ayurvedic massage. And being alone. Another new experience for me will be flying domestically in India — I’m flying back to Chennai from Kerala. A 90 minute flight costs $75.

As my gal pal in India, Sirensongs, says “Why do people go to India to find themselves? India is where you go to LOSE yourself.”

45 more days and I step into my freedom. India nourishes me and I need to visit Ma India as much as I need air to breathe. Mike says it all for me: “…if I don’t follow my Heart, I will lose a piece of my aliveness. It doesn’t take too many compromises to become a walking dead person…”

I do not belong here. Ma India, I’m coming home.

I heart Rameswaram

I arrived in Rameswaram about 3 pm on a Saturday after a 7 hour car ride from Kodaikanal. The ride was interesting as I watched India flash by. . .being caught in a “cattle crossing”, eating lunch for 10 rupees at a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere where the proprietor took me in his kitchen to show me what he was cooking since he did not speak English. I can’t remember what it was called, all I remember is that it was delicious. I was famished and scarfed it down as all four people in the restaurant stood around my table with big smiles and watched me eat.

Got to the Hotel Tamil Nadu in Rameswaram, showered, and took a nap. Woke up about 5 pm and was going to walk to the temple and find dinner somewhere. The phone rang — being alone in India, getting a call in my hotel room was shocking — and a man told me “if you want to see the temple, I can take you.” Still groggy from my nap, I thought how did he know that’s what I’m going to do? I babbled something like who are you, who’s calling, where are you, what….? The man said he was downstairs at the desk, and I said, yeah, whatever, and hung up.

I got downstairs, still trying to wake up, and there was the clerk behind the desk and another man waiting, as if just for me. I had my torn out page from the Rough Guide that said “R. Kannen, who can also be contacted through the Hotel Tamil Nadu, happily gives foreigners advice, even if they do not use his services.” I asked the hotel clerk if he knew R. Kannen, and he pointed to the man who appeared to be waiting for me and said, “this is Kannen”. Wow. He materialized out of nowhere. But how did he know exactly what time I was going to leave? Ah…delicious serendipity. No….most likely he got the call, “foreigner in da house, come on over!” I stood there, thinking go with the flow, whatever happens tonight, happens…

As it turned out, I spent about 4 hours with Kannen that night. We went to the Gandhamadana Parvatam, where I took pictures of a beautful sunset, and to the Nambunayagi Amman Kali Temple, where I saw a man with a pet egret, and sat with him as he fed it worms he dug for in the sand. Kannen and I planned my weekend all within one hour — I was to spend it with him.

As we were driving back, Kannen asked me if I wanted to see the children dance — of course I did! We stopped at what looked like a school, the yard filled to the brim with people — local business people, politicians, parents, and children. The little girls were dressed in their beautiful South Indian dance attire, their hair and makeup perfect. One little girl was so beautiful I wanted to take her picture, but there were so many people, I got pushed along with the crowd. We ended up at the back of a long, narrow lot.

So many people, and me, the only westerner, once again. But the difference between where I was now and where I had been in the morning, Kodaikanal, was amazing. The energy, the attitude, the graciousness, was totally different from Kodaikanal. I did not feel claustrophobic here, even in this crowd of people.

We sat down and after a number of speeches, the show began. Little girls and boys dancing beautifully, carefully, with a few missteps that added to the charm, music that blasted my ears. Unfortunately I was sitting too far back to take any decent pictures. Then one group of kids dressed in street clothes started dancing to music I recognized from a Vijay movie. The only Vijay movies I had seen were on the Lufthansa flights from Germany to Chennai, but I know who Vijay is — a very popular Tamil actor. You’ve heard of Bollywood? Tamil movies are Tollywood with their own set of popular stars.

There was a group of boys sitting behind me and as soon as the Vijay music started, they got up on their chairs, and started clapping and dancing, hooting and hollering. I got up and started to take pictures. Of course that started a riot! “Madam, Madam, take me, take me!” I yelled “dance like Vijay!”, and put my hand to my forehead in the gesture Vijay uses in his movies. All their eyes got wide and suddenly I was in the midst of hip shaking, pelvic thrusting Vijays. It could not have been choregraphed any better. As soon as I took a picture, they all ran over to me wanting to see it, then ran back to start dancing again. I loved it. Kodaikanal was already a distant memory. The people in the immediate area weren’t watching the stage anymore, they were watching all this commotion and laughing.

We all sat down again to watch the show, and by this time of night, I was exhausted. Kannen asked me if I was OK, and I said we should go back, since I was dead on my feet, and we had an early morning walk to Danushkodi the next day. We started walking toward the front, but people were sitting on the ground, shoulder to shoulder. It was packed and not an inch of space between them. There was no way we could walk out through the front without doing major damage to someone’s hand or foot on the ground. It was also hard to see because it was pitch black with only the lights on the stage.

We turned around and Kannen asked “can you jump?” “Jump?” “Yes, climb and jump,” and he pointed to the brick wall topped with three strands of barbed wire that was our enclosure. “Sure, why not, what choice do we have?”

Kannen jumped over the wall and I threw him my camera. The wall was about four feet high, barbed wire on top. This woman of a certain age is very flexible so I put one foot on top of the wall. Suddenly I heard a low “ooooohhhhh” coming from all the young Vijays. I grabbed a corner pole as I pulled myself up and put the other foot on top of the wall, straddling the barbed wire. A louder “ooooooohhhhh” now, mass rumbling coming from the Vijays. Louder and louder whispers in Tamil. Now how often do these boys see an American woman straddling barbed wire on top of a brick wall? Making sure my salwar would not catch on the barbed wire, remembering that I had my tetanus shot, and hoping that I would not land in a big pile of whatever, I lept over and landed on my feet in a beautiful squat on the other side.

The young Vijays exploded! Laughing, clapping, cheering me on, fists pumping in the air yelling “Yes, madam!”, as the music blared and the little girls danced on stage, furious swirls of rainbow colors.

I turned around, curtsied, and ran into the Rameswaram night.