As my culinary extravaganza comes to an end we took one final day trip to the city of Pondicherry which is located 3 hours south of Chennai. It is a costal town known for its beautiful beaches that attract visitors from around the world. France ruled Pondicherry (the name for the region) on and off from 1674, alternating with the Dutch and English due to political disputes, until 1816 when it started its last rule that ended in 1954 when Pondicherry became part of India, seven years after the country was formed. 

 

I noticed the French influence right away in the architecture of many of the old buildings. In the downtown section near the beach, the buildings run continuously down the block with high garden walls and elaborate wrought iron gates, balconies with iron brackets, white painted columns built into the walls and wooden shutters. Many of these buildings have been restored and painted with bright colors while others appear to be waiting their turn for facelifts.
 

Street scene in Pondicherry that shows a definite French influence.

Street scene in Pondicherry that shows a definite French influence.

 

We toured the Aurobindo Ashram, a spiritual community that attracts people from around the world. The facility is beautiful and serene with the most beautiful gardens in the courtyard. Built in the 1920s, Sri Aurobindo led the ashram until his death; Mirra Alfassa continued in his footsteps. Very close to the city is an experimental town, Auroville, built in the 1960s by Mirra Alfassa (called “Mother”) with the mission to be a place where all people could live in harmony.
 

Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry is a popular tourist attraction.

Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry is a popular tourist attraction.

 

We had a lovely lunch sitting under the awning in the courtyard dining area at Le Club, the first French restaurant in Pondicherry. The menu includes Indian, French and Italian entrees. I don’t know why but we ordered Indian items: Pondicherry fish cutlets, Hyderabad Chicken Curry and Chicken Pulao. This restaurant caters to tourists who want international cuisine and offers a good, filling meal.
 

Entrance to Le Club, a French and international cuisine restaurant, in Pondicherry.

Entrance to Le Club, a French and international cuisine restaurant, in Pondicherry.

 

This was a very nice trip. I would like to go back sometime to spend more time.

 

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My sister-in-law, who visited Chennai a few weeks before we arrived, is interested in antiques from Kerala and Tamil Nadu so she spent a lot of time searching and buying brass and wood items that she remembers from her childhood at her grandparent’s Parapanangadi home. After shopping for paras in Kochi (Antique Shopping in Calicut), she hunted for barani and other items in Chennai. She was successful at Raja Stores in T. Nagar (a neighborhood in Chennai), just around the square from Saravanan Stores (more about this store later).

 

My husband and I visited the same store; I was stunned when I saw a barani right at the front of the store because it looked very similar to McCoy Stoneware jars that were made in Ohio back in the early 1900s, once popular now only available on ebay.com or at garage sales. The only major difference between the two pots is the color of the glaze: the Indian ones are tan and the American ones are dark brown. Most of the shapes are similar: cylindrical or round.
 

Barrony are used to store Indian pickles for years.

Barrony are used to store Indian pickles for years.


Baranis are kept in kitchens in Kerala, as well as other Indian states, to store sour items like pickles. Some people stored tamarind in them as well. As you can see from the photo the store had a magnificent inventory of baranis. It took me a while to decide which ones I would buy (and could fit in my suitcase); in the end I bought four different ones. I would like to know if the glaze on these pots contains lead. Since I only intend to use them for decoration, lead content isn’t an issue to me. One questions lingers in my mind: why are the American and Indian ceramic pots so similar in design? Who invented the original and how did it get to the other country? Hmm.

 

Traditional Indian brass lamp.

Traditional Indian brass lamp.

 
 
One other item on my shopping list was a pair of brass lanterns. They are incredibly expensive in the U.S. so I haven’t purchased them before. I found some pretty ones about a foot tall that would be perfect on a table or just sitting around for decoration. These lanterns are filled with oil and cotton wicks are inserted around the top bowl before being lit. People all over Kerala light them at night. I remember seeing the magical glow from houses out in the country as we passed by on the train from Chennai to Kozhikode. In the photo I have included the original brass lamp from Kachi’s house in Parapanangadi with mine. It is just half a foot taller but weights 6 pounds while mine weighs a mere 1 pound. The brass is thicker and the design is more sophisticated than my new ones. I suppose it was heavy so it would not blow over in monsoon winds.
 


 
 

Various antique Indian coffee caddies.

Various antique Indian coffee caddies.

Before leaving the store we noticed some tarnished brass pots in the corner of the collection of new brass and copper items. The salesman confirmed that these were antique coffee caddies that servants used to carry morning coffee to the man of the house generations ago. Under the lid fit a brass cup that fit neatly inside from which one would drink. My husband remembers the servant and the brass pot that transported his grandfather’s coffee to the courthouse. In the photo, you can see the tree antique coffee caddies. The two on the right have been polished while the one hiding in the corner on the left is untouched. The jar on the right now proudly resides in my kitchen.


 
  

Next, we visited Pondicherry for our last stop before returning home. What a trip this has been! 
 

 

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On our first day in Chennai, my husband and I walked around the area rather than take a car so we could take our time and check out the sights. One of our first stops was right around the corner from his parents’ flat. On Sardar Patel Road, we ran into three ladies selling flowers. In India, it is popular for women and girls to wear flowers in their hair. They do this partly for looks and partly for the scent. Since they were very inexpensive, we stopped and the ladies had a blast clipping a few strands of flowers in my hair. While I was facing the other way, there was a lot of laughing and giggling behind me. I think I provided them with their day’s entertainment. After I took their pictures, my husband and I continued our walk.

 

We walked a few blocks down to Grand Snacks, which in my father-in-law’s opinion is the best place to buy sweets. Here they sell vegetarian snacks like the curd rice and the Kozhi Paniyaram. Fresh and delicious, the menu is as good as the what ever else they sell.
 

An employee prepares Yogurt Rice at Grand Snacks in Chennai.

An employee prepares Yogurt Rice at Grand Snacks in Chennai.

 

Walking in the heat and sun made me thirsty so we purchased fresh coconuts from a vendor on the street. He picked out two good coconuts, cut off the top with his machete and inserted a straw. How easy is that? (Don’t try this at home.) Coconut water is a healthy alternative to soda and is much more refreshing. As an aside, on another day in T Nagar we tried the water from a red coconut. It is more delicious and sweeter than regular green coconut.
 

Nothing is as refreshing on a hot day as coconut water.

Nothing is as refreshing on a hot day as coconut water.

 

Before we turned the corner to go home, I had to stop at a large fruit stand attended by two parents and their cute little girl. The variety and quality of the items they had for sale was amazing. I picked a several pieces to eat for the next day’s breakfast because I couldn’t decide just what I wanted. The woman offered us fresh lychees that turned out to be, in my husband’s opinion, the best he had ever tasted. Of course, we added a bag of them to our order. I don’t know if you can see it here but every fruit stand we have visited in Chennai, whether someone just selling a few bushels of mangoes or a proprietor of a large stand like the one shown arranges all of their produce in an orderly and attractive fashion. If they have enough of an item, it is always arranged in a pyramid.
 

One of hundreds of fresh produce stands in Chennai.

One of hundreds of fresh produce stands in Chennai.

 

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My time in Calicut drew to an end far too quickly. On our final evening in Calicut, we walked along the boardwalk
that was filled with other families doing the same thing. Several years ago a huge investment had been made in this area with benches, beautiful lighting and a long pier out into the water. Unfortunately over time many of the lights have been broken and the boardwalk shows its wear. I hope that it will be repaired before my next visit.

 


 

The girls I met exuded an excitement that eclipsed the worn, tired boardwalk. They were happy and dancing around without a care in the world. When the group came over to talk to me, each wanted to hold my hand and ask me questions. They were such nice children. I tried to take their photo so I could remember them always but, unfortunately, I wasn’t proficient enough with night photography to capture them well.

 


 

I left Kerala with memories of meeting some of the friendliest people on the planet. Everywhere went both children and adults smiled and waved to me. The children wanted to talk to me (I think they wanted to practice their English with me) and have me take photos of them. I find it funny that these kids wanted to pose for photos they most likely will never see. Their parents were a little more reserved; when I smiled at them, they always offered a huge smile in return.

 


 

Next, I headed to Chennai…

 

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I was recently asked to write a post about South India for an Indian travel blog. I chose my favorite state to visit – Kerala, God’s own country. I hope you enjoy reading it!
 

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One occasionally reads about Indian festivals at which people dress in costumes, musicians play traditional elephants and huge decorated elephants march majestically down the street. I was always impressed by these stories and the photos that accompanied them but, never in my wildest dreams, thought I would find myself in the middle of one, or two.

 

The drive to Palakkad from Calicut was supposed to take four hours so I sat back in my seat for a long drive through small towns and farmland. After a pleasant ride I saw the strangest thing – an elephant climbing out of the back of a truck. What? I asked the driver to stop so I could watch for a few minutes. After at least 20 or 30 photos, I got back in the car so we could get to Palakkkad.

 

Unloading an elephant from a truck.

Unloading an elephant from a truck.


 
A few minutes later three of these dramatic tuskers in formal parade regalia walked by our car on their way to the local temple. Apparently the Mannarghat/Karimba Temple was holding its annual Ayeppam “Utsaram” Festival. Many people were accompanying the elephants to the temple while more awaited their arrival in the temple yard. As the elephants entered, they were greeted by a group of men dressed in white dhoti and playing various drums and horns.  I made my way to the back of the musicians and enjoyed the sights and sounds. I was amazed at the wondrous sights and sounds. After the performance ended I walked back to our car in a daze.

 

Elephants near Palghat are ready for the festival to begin.

Elephants near Palghat are ready for the festival to begin.



I thought my day had been made: Kerala temple festival, traditional music, and three caparisoned elephants on parade! I was very happy as we made our way to Palakkad. I have to confess that we were running a bit late but the traffic did back up due to the reasons I listed above; I wasn’t the only spectator.

 

After a delightful visit and delicious luncheon, we headed back to our hotel in Calicut only to have one more unsurpassable elephant encounter…

 

Half way back to Calicut the traffic on the main road (only one lane in each direction) came to a complete stop. Our wonderfully patient driver told me there was another festival ahead and the car would be stuck for a while. My husband and I jumped out of the car and joined all of the people walking toward the action. As we approached, the sides of the road were lined with vendors selling snacks and trinkets. People were dancing in the street wearing colorful headdresses and costumes; percussionists dressed in white kasavu mundu (traditional garb) played and danced. Hundreds of others watched the excitement with their children.
  

Drummers playing traditional music before the festival.

Drummers playing traditional music before the festival.


 
Soon the main attraction arrived. Yes, you guessed it, elephants. All of them were males with huge, magnificent tusks. This time, eight huge caparisoned elephants marched their way down the street toward the temple. Apparently it is a really big deal to have so many elephants at one event. Some of them are owned by temples, others owned privately. Elephant owners are proud to lend their animals and keepers for the day.
  

Caparisoned elephants are ready for their parade near Palghat.

Caparisoned elephants are ready for their parade near Palghat.

 

 

After the elephants passed by on their way to the Temple Utsavam, young men brought out their stereos and loud speakers loaded in the back of their trucks so dancing in the street could begin. One thing I noticed was how friendly the people were and how they wanted to include me in their celebration. Everyone was so excited by the celebration that the police had a challenge to control the crowds and get the traffic moving again. It took a while for our driver to get to us but we finally found him and headed back to the hotel.

 

 

I had a full day, visiting relatives and three pachyderm sightings in different locations along the Palakkad Highway. I wonder if I had seen some of the same elephants in multiple locations or if I had really seen 12 different elephants. I guess I will never know the answer – it is one of the mysteries of life.

 

 

What an amazing day!



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Palakkad is a town in central Kerala of about 3 million people situated in a gap in the Western Ghats where my mother-in-law’s sister lives with her family. My initial impression Palakkad is that it was a small town. With just a few tall buildings in the central part of town and shops and houses spread out from there, it retains a small town feel.

 

 

 

Since we were in Kerala, we thought we would stop by for a visit. We were welcomed with a magnificent and delicious lunch. My cousin-in-law, Chitra, served us a new dish she had created which we decided should be called Malabar Kofta. She made cabbage kofta (vegetable dumplings) and served them in a tomato and onion curry. I was impressed with her creativity in combining some of my favorite flavors into one dish. I plan on trying to replicate her recipe as my next Recipe of the Month.

 

 

 Oldest Jain temple in Kerala

After lunch, Chitra and I took a walk after our huge feast. Right over their back fence is the oldest Jain temple in Kerala. Built 500 years ago, Digambara Jain Temple is a small and simple structure with some beautiful carvings in the granite columns and unadorned walls. Compared to most Hindu temples that are huge, this one is an intimate 20 x 30 feet in size. The temple is reaching the end of a multiyear renovation project and the idols have been removed for safekeeping. I was lucky to have Chitra with me who knows the groundskeeper and the pujari (the lovely lady who says pujas, or prayers, at the temple) who showed me the beautiful idols. I was greatly moved by their kindness to a stranger.
 

Digambara Jain Temple in Kerala is undergoing restorations.

Digambara Jain Temple in Kerala is undergoing restorations.

 

Palakkad Fort

All too soon, our visit had to end. From the Jainmedu area in Palakkad where Chitra lives, we stopped by an authentic fort before heading back to our hotel. The Palakkad Fort, was built by Haider Ali in the 18th Century, is located right in the center of Palakkad. It was originally named, Tipu Sultan’s Fort, which is the name of the builder’s son. Surrounded by a moat that once upon a time boasted crocodiles, it is one of the best-maintained forts in Southern India. The outside granite wall rises to a very tall height and was certainly impenetrable to invaders.  The interior buildings are in immaculate with the original carvings still clearly visible. Green grass and flowers dominate the ground inside. Today a jail is housed inside the fort.
 


 

Old Palakkad Fort

Old Palakkad Fort

 

 

One would think that I’ve had a very full day. Wait! There is more action and excitement on our way back to the
hotel.
 

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One of the things I had hoped to see was an elephant, up close and personal. During our drive out to Wayanad, we made a brief stop at Pookot Lake. Like most scenic parks, it had picnic tables, a playground and boating on the small lake. The park offered a unique feature: elephant rides.

 

 

 

Elephant ride at Pookot Lake in Wayanad.

Elephant ride at Pookot Lake in Wayanad.

As we walked around the lake to the ride, we noticed that no one was in line and there was no elephant. I was really sad because I wanted to play tourist and have my picture taken on the elephant so I could post it on Facebook and brag about my out-of-this-world trip. Our driver asked the park employees what happened to the elephant. He was told she had the day off. If I had been 5 years old, I would have cried and had a tantrum.

 

 

 

While walking back to the car, our driver made a few discrete phone calls. We left the park to head to our next stop. He told me that he knew where the elephant was – she had the day off and was having a bath in a nearby river. We immediately headed for the river. We left the car and walked through a soccer field down to the river and there she was!

 

 

 

My elephant, named Roopa, was eating a snack of leaves and playing in the water! When her keepers saw me, they yelled out to Roopa a command (in Malayalam since that is the only language she knows) to spray herself with water. I started snapping photos as quickly as I could. When the keepers realized that the bank was too steep for me to climb any closer, they walked her over to me. I stepped to the river’s edge and was able to pet and talk with my new friend.

 

 

Roopa plays in the river at Wayanad, Kerala.

Roopa plays in the river at Wayanad, Kerala.

Since I was too busy playing with Roopa, the driver and my husband had to take the photos. I had the time of my life! I didn’t get to ride her but I had a personal audience with a beautiful 20-year-old elephant named Roopa.

 


 

Ann Vinod and Roopa

Ann Vinod and Roopa

 

 

As we headed back for the hotel in Calicut, I decided this was definitely one day that I will remember for many years to come. Next stop: Palakkad to visit relatives and check out the oldest Jain temple in Kerala and a fort with a moat.
 
 

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Wayanad is a beautiful hill station in the Western Ghats Mountains of Kerala. This area is known for its beautiful greenery and perfect climate. Many people come to see the dramatic waterfalls and caves. With many wildlife sanctuaries, visitors are drawn here to see many different species of animals. It is a very pleasant place to live or visit since it is so quiet and peaceful. 

 

With just one day planned for our visit to Wayanad we had to spend our time wisely. We hired a driver who knew this area very well. He found everything I had on my list to see. His knowledge of tea, coffee, spices, produce and everything Kerala was very impressive. We drove up into the mountains that were covered with a light mist that made the trip more amazing and mysterious.

 

A beautiful morning from the top of the Ghat Mountains in Wayanad, Kerala, India.

A beautiful morning from the top of the Ghat Mountains in Wayanad, Kerala, India.

 

Tea plantation

Our first stop was at the Ripon Tea Estate.  We arrived just as the crew of women harvesters was finishing their morning work. Apparently, tea can only be picked in the early morning and the late afternoon when the juices in the leaves are at their peak. The women pick only the top two bright green leaves and the tiny bud of new growth as they are the most tender. These leaves are collected in mesh bags that are carried back to the central loading dock on top of their heads. Each bag is weighed and then loaded on to a truck so the tealeaves taken to the factory to be processed and aged.

 

Freshly picked tea leaves in Wayanad, Kerala.

Freshly picked tea leaves in Wayanad, Kerala.

 

 

Professional tea pickers have just finished their morning work.

Professional tea pickers have just finished their morning work.

Tea bushes are about 2 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide. They are planted close together with just enough room between them for the women who harvest this precious crop to pass between them. Fields of tea plants run up and down the hills of the Western Ghats for drainage. The green fields are absolutely gorgeous as the elevation changes. As a farm manager, I have to admit this is just as beautiful as an Iowa cornfield in July.

 

Tea bushes grow up the hills in Waynad.

Tea bushes grow up the hills in Waynad.

 

Coffee plantation

Our next stop was a coffee plantation. The Cottanad Plantation was situated on hillsides to allow the rain from the monsoons to run off and not swamp the trees. 

 

Entrance to the Cottanad Coffee Plantation

Entrance to the Cottanad Coffee Plantation

 

The plants grow to a height of about 10 feet. One thing I noticed right away is that several types of trees, including spices and palm trees, grew right along side the coffee trees. At first glance one would think that various seeds were mixed together when the trees were planted but that is not correct. It was intentional. The intermixing of trees of various heights and the shade they offer, do two things. First, the flavor of the coffee beans is enhanced when planted by spice trees. Second, planting under the canopy of taller trees creates shade that improves the yield of the coffee fruit. When the coffee plant fruit turns red (after 7 or 8 months) it is time for them to be picked by hand as they are gathered in buckets and then taken to the factory where they are dried in the sun before they are roasted.

 

Coffee tree with its fruit ready to be harvested.

Coffee tree with its fruit ready to be harvested.


So much of the land in Wayanad is under production with coffee, tea and spices that it is absolutely stunning.

 

The next stop: Meeting Roopa. 

 

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While still planning my trip last fall, my sister-in-law, Bindi, told me that she was going to be antique shopping when she went to Kerala. I thought that was a good idea that sounded like fun so, when my husband and I were in Calicut, we did the exact same thing.

 

Back again on S.M. Street we stopped in at Indian Metals (yes, that is the real name and, no, it is not very original but it is clear) that sold many different types of metal home products. From the brass lanterns, candlesticks and bowls to aluminum pots, this store was crowded from floor to ceiling with merchandise. 

 

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

The Indian Metals store sells new and antique brass items.

 

After we entered the shop, we asked the salesman if he had any paras. A para is a fairly large container (looks like a bucket) that was used to measure rice over a hundred years ago when farmers took their crops to market. I am told that each one would hold about 15 pounds of paddy. They are no longer used for measuring rice since India adopted the metric system. Paras had additional uses as well. They would be filled with rice at the end of harvest and used as an offering to the gods. Also, they are filled with rice and topped with a few flowers to welcome important guests to one’s home. The original paras were made from a single hollowed out piece of wood and decorated with bands of brass around the top and bottom for support. Today they are made out of brass.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

The salesman showed us several versions of the modern brass paras in various sizes but only had one antique. I deliberated for quite a while because the modern ones looked like really good quality brass that I would be proud to display in my house. Finally we decided to buy the antique one because it was so lovely and unique.

 

New brass parras.

New brass parras.

 

Now we head to Wayanad for coffee, tea and an elephant…

 

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