For a period of time my family felt like quite an international, jet-setting bunch. I lived in Paris and my Dad works in India for 3-6 months of the year. However due to my love of this lovely green isle as well as some of the lovely people on it I decided to return leaving my Dad as the lone, globe-trotting ranger.
Having heard an incredible amount about this wonderful, crazy, exotic environment my Dad works in we decided to plan a family visit.
This seemed like a great idea as we have all wanted to have a little nose at what our Dad is getting up to when he’s not here! Then we had to face the visa process! I have never been so confused by a website.
This was then followed by a change in the visa system which had my Mum running off to London in fear that we’d all be going on a trip without her. However we managed it and all ended up being granted our visas just in time for our flight.
The Arrival in India
Arriving in the airport in Chennai was one of the most physically imposing atmospheres that I have experienced. It was not simply the heat but the humidity. We arrived in the middle of the night and it felt like we were being steam cleaned.
Nevertheless seeing my Dad through the sea of people once we were the other side of the gates was pretty amazing. We then got into our first roller-coaster of a car journey! Little did we know, this would be one of the least white-knuckle inducing ride due to it being in the middle of the night. Despite this the city was still abuzz with noise, work and colour.
Upon arriving at our apartment the sheer scale of it was impressive. It was beautifully decorated with friendly staff and a lovely arrival drink. Michael and Dad were even presented with extravagant dupattas in green and pink (the traditional men’s scarves). It was also wonderfully air-conditioned which provided a great relief for Mike- we knew he didn’t suffer the heat well but this was something else!
We had a fabulous apartment with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a shared living area. A quite safe-haven from the hustle and bustle outside for my sisters, Mike and I. Mum would be staying in the small hotel my Dad was having to endure as part of his contract, the 5* ITC Chola – third largest hotel in India. I’m sure it was a tough choice.
A Shopping Trip Somewhat Local
Upon waking up in Chennai we took a drive into the centre and went to the largest shopping centre I have ever been in. The shops were an eclectic mix of traditional Indian dress, homeware and western fashion. Michael actually made his purchase from Marks & Spencer’s….yes in Chennai….a pair of linen trousers as he only brought jeans….yes jeans in 40 degree heat.
After all that shopping we’d really worn ourselves out. Naturally, we needed to unwind so we headed up to the pool. The views across the city to the Bay of Bengal were simply stunning. I felt incredibly lucky to be able to have such an experience.
We then got our real tourist on for the rest of the trip!
One of my favourite parts of our trip was a walking Bazaar tour provided Storytrails. This was a fun-filled, fact-packed tour that was thoroughly enjoyable and expertly explained by our guide. We visited temples and learnt about the Armenian community present in Chennai as well as the various colonial influences over time.
We then visited the spice and vegetable markets and the abundance of food was astonishing. The prominence of tamarind in the South Indian cuisine also became evident! The tour was finished by a ride in a rickshaw which was definitely an exhilarating encounter! Particularly when racing with the others in the group!
Dakshina Chitra Centre
Another of our outings was to a Dakshina Chitra Centre. A cultural living art museum which displays historical houses from around the region. This was a particularly interesting exhibition as homes are so personal. Particularly as an English homeowner it was so fascinating to see the different trends and important aspects of each of the homes.
Something that was of particular interest was the Kollam patterns at the entrances of doorways. These are drawn using rice flower and although beautifully decorative are also used to invite animals to eat at the doorway of the home, acting as an invitation to other beings into the home. This was also seen as a welcome gesture to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and wealth.
We also had the privilege of watching a traditional South Indian folk dance which was fascinating, particularly due to the inclusion of blindfolds!
We also visited the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Centre for Herpetology which was fascinating to see how another country was working towards conservation. The aim of the Crocodile Bank is to promote conservation and to protect the Indian crocodile from poachers. It was an extremely interesting and gave us a good opportunity to compare our jaws to that of a croc! Needless to say it wasn’t much of a comparison!
Auroville and Pondicherry
On one of our final outings we went to a remarkable place called Auroville. The concept of this township was a place for all to come under no judgement whilst seeking to enter a new level of consciousness. Its founder wanted it to be a place of human unity.
In the centre is a huge golden sphere called the Matrimandir. The quiet, reflective atmosphere of the area can be felt here. The gardens that surround the Matrimandir are silent and visitors can only look on from a distance. For me, there was a strangeness to the isolationism of the idea. The optimist in me liked the ideology of striving for unity of humanity and that someone believed in it so much to provide a township where it could begin.
After this we visited Pondicherry, a previous French colony. As a French speaker it was interesting to see the influence of the French had remained, with large sweeping boulevards lined with trees. The French quarter is now only a portion of the city but was maintained beautifully. We even ate in a French restaurant. I must say it felt odd to be in the middle of India eating traditional French cuisine. However I think it was one of my favourite French meals that I have had due to the setting of it.
Mahabalipuram and the Butterball
Throughout our trip we had a few private tours from our driver Rada who was exceptionally knowledgeable about his city. He took us to Mahabalipuram a few miles from the city. We watched men carving stones into beautiful pieces of art, I even had a go!
Krishna’s Butterball was a favourite of mine – apparently Lord Krishna had an insatiable appetite for butter! This alongside the Tiger Cave that was fully excavated in 2005 but is estimated to have been sculpted in 8th century AD had such a lovely, relaxed atmosphere.
We also stopped at the roadside for a cheeky, fresh coconut on the way back. Rada also took us around Chennai explaining the history of different parts of the city. Fort St George, the current seat of the Tamil Nadu Government, provided a really detailed review of the history of the British rule.
Our trip would have been a very different experience had we not been so lucky as to have someone so knowledgeable with us. He really enriched our trip.
Our brief experience of India was an amazing one. Full of history, culture, heat and food – I can thoroughly recommend Dhosa – try eating it with just your right hand! The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, history and modern times as well as many other contrasting elements make for an extremely interesting and enlightening experience which I would thoroughly recommend.