A Southern India Scavenger Hunt

When I Think of India
Friendly fact at the market in Kollam – Kerala, India

Bad luck in Berlin takes us on a flashback to southern India.

We set off to cross Berlin by bicycle yesterday. A few blocks into our journey, my back tire exploded. Literally.  It sounded like a gunshot.

A few minutes later, at a nearby bike repair shop, we met a fellow customer named Rajiv. He’d come to our rescue with a little German translation and haggling help. Originally from the IT-famed southern Indian city of Bangalore, Rajiv now calls Berlin his home.  

We asked him where to find the best Indian food in Berlin. “London,” he joked.

Later that evening, Audrey and I returned to reminiscing, well beyond food, about the time we spent in southern India.  These were the images and experiences – some from a guidebook, others from grace – that we turned over in our memories.

10 Favorite Experiences from Southern India (Kerala and Tamil Nadu)

1.  Kathikali Dancing – Kochi (Fort Cochin)

Audrey’s relationship with Kathikali dancers goes way back. Growing up, her family had a Kathikali dancer doll with one of those wobbling heads; it always spooked her.

Although we can be skeptical of ethnic dances served up exclusively to tourists, we enjoyed the Kathikali performance put on by Kerala Kathikali Centre in Fort Cochin.  Proceeds from their performances go toward training new dancers and keeping the tradition alive.  Go early so you can catch the elaborate make-up and pre-show.

Lord Shiva in a Kathakali Performance - Kochi, India
Kathikali Dancing in Fort Cochin, Kerala

2.  Street Cricket – Kochi (Fort Cochin)

The only way to find this: seek out the most unlikely alleyways in the city.  When you hear kids squealing in a courtyard, poke your head in and you may just be invited to a game of street cricket.

Ask for help on how to hold the bat properly. (You can see it did me no good.)

Cricket Excitement - Kochi, India
Street Cricket in Fort Cochin – Kerala, India

View a Photo Essay from Fort Cochin (Kochi)

3.  Kerala Backwaters Boat Trip – Alleppey

We did not opt for the traditional Kerala Backwater live aboard houseboat tour. Instead, we arranged a day tour from our guest house in Fort Cochin one day and opted to hire a man with a dugout canoe in Alleppey on another.

Coconut Boat: Kerala Backwaters
Canoeing in the Kerala Backwaters Near Alleppey, India

Our favorite:  the day-trip in a dugout canoe outside of Alleppey. Since we were in a tiny boat, we could get into small canals and get up close to homes and villages along the way. Our canoe captain introduced us to his family.  The mangroves and lilies were so thick that we even got stuck.  To give you a sense of how dire our circumstances, my manpower was required to extricate us from the mangroves and water lilies that had engulfed our boat.

View a Photo Essay of Kerala’s Backwaters

4.  Biryani Festival – Kollam

After emerging from one of the most incredible masala dosas in all of India (Sree Suprabatham Restaurant), we stumbled upon a group of men in a parking lot (isn’t all of India a parking lot?) stirring an enormous tin pot of biryani.

From what we could make out (not a lot of English was spoken here), it was a Muslim holiday and the men were handing out free vegetable biryani to anyone and everyone. They insisted we take a bag.  Tasty and unusual, it featured hints of coconut, star anise and mint.

Biryani Broth - Kollam, India
Stirring Biryani in Kollam, India

If you don’t happen to be in Kollam on a Muslim holiday that includes free biryani, have no fear, an experience still awaits.  Just head towards the market.  It’s terrific and winding, and the people are outrageously friendly and colorful.

View a Photo Essay from Kollam and Alleppey

5. Flower Market – Madurai

In Madurai, the Sri Meenakshi temple gets much of the attention (and rightly so).  In case you wonder where all the flowers and garlands in and around the temple come from, check the flower market on the outskirts of town. Flowers play an important role as offerings in Hindu pujas (prayers) and ceremonies.

Wipe those images of Dutch flower markets from your head.  The Madurai flower market is the antithesis –sensory overload, sweet flowers, trash heaps. Vendors stack flowers, everyone’s negotiating.  It’s fascinating and beautiful in that inimitable Indian fashion.

Red and Gray: Madurai, India
Flower market in Madurai, India

The flower market was actually listed in our Lonely Planet guide, but it has moved to “middle of nowhere outskirts” (yup, that’s it’s official address) Madurai. It took a small village of friendly locals and bus drivers to get us there. So, ask at your guest house or ask early and often how to get there.

View a Photo Essay of Madurai

6.  Momos and Pav Bhaji in Kodai (Kodaikanal)

Tibetan food and Bombay chaat (snacks) in a southern small Indian hill town? Kodaikanal’s cosmopolitan culinary selection is thanks to the diversity of the student population at the Kodaikanal International School; restaurants know that students like a taste from home.

Sev Puri in Kodaikanal, India
Sev Puri in Kodaikanal, India

We were in town to check out the town where Audrey’s mother went to elementary school.  Unfortunately, it rained buckets the whole time, so hikes and boat rides were out and eating round-the-clock was in.  We chowed down on momos (Tibetan dumplings) and Bombay street snacks like pav bhaji and sev puri.

View a Photo Essay of Kodaikanal, Mamallapuram and Pondicherry

7.  Elephant Blessing in Tiruchirappalli (Trichy)

Here’s the great thing about India: if you walk around enough and keep your eyes open, you are quite likely to run into an elephant at some point. (Actually, you could keep your eyes closed and run into an elephant, too.)

We not only found an elephant at the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, but he was offering blessings to boot! (A few rupees to his owner for the privilege, of course).  It was fun to be blessed, but even more fun to watch kids like these being tickled by the trunk of an elephant.

Indian Pigtails: Trichy, India
Girls in Trichy

View a Photo Essay from Trichy (Tiruchirappalli)

8. Cows Licking Their Chops in Puducherry (Pondicherry)

It is well known that cows are sacred in India.  What you may not know, however, is that there is often a system at work of shopkeepers and vendors feeding random samosas and food bits to these sacred cows. It’s as if the cows have a routine; they know which vendors have the best snacks and hit them up first. For the vendors, it must be good karma to give food to a sacred animal.

Bull Lickin' His Chops - Pondicherry, India
Bull Licking His Chops in Pondicherry

So when we ran into cows in Pondicherry licking their chops, we began to wonder who’d just fed them.

9.  Entertain a school group – Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram)

What do you do when you meet a group of school kids on a trip to the rathas (rock-cut temples) in Mahabalipuram?

Up Close and Personal - Mamallapuram, India
School kids in Mamallapuram, India

Pull out the camera and have some fun.  (Truth is you pull out the camera wherever you meet a group of schoolkids in India.).  While the engravings and Krishna’s Butter Ball are worth a quick look, the kids on the field trip stole the show.

10) George Town market – Chennai (Madras)

Audrey lived in Chennai until she was two years old, so her memories of the city are, shall we say, a little vague.

So we paused our temple hopping and paid a visit to the George Town market (behind Fort St. George) and we asked around there to see if anyone remembered her.  

Beautifully Done Up - Chennai, India
George Town Market in Chennai

Unfortunately, no one remembered Audrey, but that didn’t prevent them from offering a smile.

View a Photo Essay from Chennai (Madras)

And if you happen to embark on your own scavenger hunt to southern India, we’ll be curious to know what you find.

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Comments

  1. says

    You know what’s funny? When Patrick and I travel around the world, we are always looking for those “authentic” experiences with the locals. But, when I am in Southern India, because I spent so much of my life there visiting family —- we go back every 3 to 4 years to see everyone — I don’t think of playing cricket with the kids or the flower markets as authentic interesting experiences. They are just things we do . . . things I did . . . when I spent my summers in Chennai.

    Next time you go to Chennai, go to Marina Beach and find the vendors who sell salted boiled peanuts or chaat in paper cones. You have to be a little careful because some of them aren’t all that clean but the ones that are . . . yum!

    On a related but unrelated note, if you haven’t been to southern India in a while, you’ll be amazed when you go back. We were there two years ago and then went back this January to Chennai. The city is now looking way more like New York and less like the India that I grew up with.

  2. says

    @Jenny: Thank you. Once you get to India, I cannot imagine you’ll be disappointed. If you enjoy traditional tourist sights, go for it, but if you like to go a bit off track, India is a never-ending treat.

    @Akila: I really like having your perspective here. I think it’s easy for all of us to take for granted, at least to some extent, the things that we grew up with. I refer to this in Curiosity Begins At Home. But I never really imagined it applying to someone growing up in India!

    Each time I go to India, I come away with dozens of other ideas of places I must visit. During our this last trip to India, we deliberately began in the south and avoided the Golden Triangle. Turned out to be one of the most enlightened travel decisions of our journey.

    I’m really interested to hear that in just two years Chennai has turned New York. Nothing against New York, but gentrification and hipstering doesn’t always equal improvement. How have the changes been in Chennai?

    @Veggie Belly: Glad you enjoyed the photos. Coming from Madurai, your compliment means a lot.

    @Andi: Kerala indeed was great. A very laid back re-entry into India for us.

  3. says

    Beautiful post guys. I didn’t know that Audrey was born in India and that her mom grew up there. How wonderful to be able to go back to your roots.
    I do regret not going to the Kathikali Dance in Kerala. Sometimes we are just too lazy when we travel.
    The south of India really was wonderful!

  4. marylouise sillman says

    Delightful account of South India! I have been to North India 6 times, never to the South, so I enjoy your colorful photos and ideas for travel in the South. My 7th trip to North India will be for 4 months in 2011. Any plans for travel there in 2011?

  5. says

    I didn’t have any bad luck today but it was still wonderful to think about South India while reading this post! Just the thought of stumbling upon a biryani festival is enough to put a smile on my face…and make me want to eat some good biryani.

  6. says

    @Bessie:  Thanks.  When you visit Trichy, may you be blessed by many elephants.

    @Dave and Deb:  Southern India was a revelation, wasn’t it?  We really enjoyed it and the north, but in very different ways.  And it was nice to go with a sense of history or attachment to places like Chennai and Kodai, though they’ve changed so much since the old days.  By the way, if the kathakali dancers in Kerala have their way, they’ll still be there when you return.

    @marylouise:  Wow, good for you.  I completely understand the need to return, repeatedly.  I would put our chances at visiting India in 2011 as slight (we are currently noodling a visit to Bangladesh).  We should definitely stay in touch.

    @Sonya: Thanks!

    @Earl: Glad we could assist.  Yeah, who knew?  Free biryani festival.  The people there were having a terrific time and they were so excited to share…the food, themselves, everything.  That is the spirit we travel for.

  7. says

    Walking down memory lane is always fun!

    We have only just left India, but what you mentioned here about Southern India, reminds me of our travels too!

  8. says

    @Elise: Probably a little too much to ask for a biryani festival. In any event, I’m glad you had a chance to see southern India, a nice compliment and contrast to many of the traditional tourist destinations in the north.

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