Here are a few highlights from the places that we are going to in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in South India.
Highlights of South India
The Backwaters of Kerala
Kerala’s heart is interlaced with an extensive network of canals, known as backwaters, spanning hundreds of miles. These waterways serve as the lifeline for the region’s inhabitants, irrigating lush green rice fields, facilitating transportation of people, livestock, and supplies, and fostering an unparalleled ecosystem. The backwaters connect five expansive lakes via natural and artificial canals, and are fed by 38 rivers, stretching over half the length of the state.
Towards the west, at lower elevations, Kerala’s indigenous landscape is dominated by evergreen rainforests. Meanwhile, in the highlands towards the east, deciduous and semi-evergreen forests are prevalent, providing ideal conditions for tea, coffee, rubber, spice plantations, and wildlife reserves. The midland region comprises rolling hills and valleys, and is renowned for its cashew, coconut, arecanut, tapioca, banana, rice, ginger, pepper, sugarcane, and vegetable plantations.
A World of Spices
Kerala is renowned for its rich history of spice cultivation. Some of the most famous spices grown in Kerala include pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric. These spices were highly sought after and played a crucial role in the global spice trade of the ancient world. Kerala’s strategic location on the Malabar Coast made it a vital hub for the trade of spices, and it was known as the “Spice Garden of India.”
Spices were prized for their medicinal properties, as well as their culinary uses, and were traded for gold, silver, and other valuable commodities. Today, Kerala remains an important center for spice cultivation and trade, and its spices are widely used in cuisines around the world.
Mouth Watering Treasure
Tamil Nadu, the land of the Tamils, was dominated by Dravidian culture for 2,500 years. The cuisine is distinctly different from that of the north, and is based primarily on rice rather than wheat and an abundant use of coconut. With a largely vegetarian population like much of India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have a particularly elaborate vegetarian cuisine.
The classic foods of Tamil Nadu center around rice and lentils. Famous throughout India, and, increasingly, in the rest of the world, idli and dosa are both made from a fermented batter of ground rice and lentils. For idli, the batter is steamed into small puffy disks while dosa batter is spread thinly on a griddle and cooked into a crispy pancake. Both dishes are traditionally eaten with coconut chutney and sambar, a thick soup of lentils, tamarind and vegetables.
A Tamil meal is traditionally served on a banana leaf, with each dish placed in a particular spot on the leaf and designed to be eaten in a certain order, with specific combinations of the dishes mixed together with the fingers. Before eating, a small portion of each food is set in the upper corner as an offering to God. Meals are taken seated on the floor and, traditionally, the host continuously replenishes any food that is finished until the diner folds his or her leaf in half. We will have many opportunities to explore this unique style of eating.
The Meenakshi Temple
Madurai’s Sacred Citadel to the Goddess
Madurai’s Meenakshi Temple in South India, Hinduism’s grandest citadel to the goddess, is a sacred place of pilgrimage for Hindus the world over and one of the most famous temples in India. This temple, centuries old and hand carved out of granite, covers an area of 16.5 acres. In Madurai, the Goddess Meenakshi is considered to be queen and the temple her home. The hallways and chambers are crowded from dawn to dusk, filled with pilgrims eager for darshan (sight) of the Goddess Meenakshi in the sanctum sanctorum. Pilgrims come offering prayers, to have wishes fulfilled, to atone for misdeeds or simply to offer their love to the Goddess for Her presence in their life.
The Meenakshi Temple in Madurai has 14 gopurams (gateway towers), ranging from 45 to 50 meters in height. The oldest of these towers was built by the King Maravarman Sundara Pandyan during the period 1216-1238, and this tower is located on the eastern side of the temple. Of all the towers in the temple, the tallest one is in the south side and reaches a height of 51.9m (170 feet).
It is estimated that there are about 33,000 sculptures in the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. The towers of the temple are colorfully painted and display countless deities. The hallways within the temple display monolithic carvings of angels (devas) and great angels (mahadevas). It is by far Hinduism’s most impressive ancient temple.
The temple attracts 15,000 visitors a day and around 25,000 on Fridays. As you walk the hallways, meditate in a quiet corner or worship at one of the many shrines, you will experience the devotion that has been poured into this hallowed sanctuary over millennia by the countless millions of pilgrims. The Hindu religion is alive in this temple and the emanation of Shakti (manifest energy of God that pervades all of existence) from the sacred sanctum sanctorum is a life-transforming experience in this divine citadel.