What would Tamil Nadu be without Kanyakumari
Tamil Nadu, the proud south of India
We are in the south of India. In the right south. In Tamil Nadu. A federal state as big as Bavaria, Baden-Württemberg, Hesse and Saarland combined. Far away from the metropolises of Mumbai, New Delhi or Kolkata, far away from the political circus, far away from the turbulent centuries that repeatedly overturned northern India.
Tamil Nadu is a proud region, the heartland of South Indian culture and tradition. Mighty temples stand here. On their gigantic, richly decorated entrance towers, the gopurams, crouch pot-bellied, mustached guard figures and brightly colored beings from Hindu mythology. They look down at the Tamils, who speak a language with their nimble tongues in which inexperienced people like us hardly recognize where one word ends and the next begins. Tamil is a carpet of sound without spaces. There is no need for breaks.
Ancient hymns of praise honor the gods Shiva and Vishnu, which are still sung in the temples today. Centuries-old writings are still part of the cultural commons in Tamil Nadu and even the dance and music traditions that go with them persist to the present day.
We are itching with Joseph in a rickety small car through the rural hinterland. It's gotten late, night is falling, and Joseph's heart is heavy. The young engineer had started his own business and was ripped off by his business partners. Joseph is not only broke, he is deeply in debt. He has to repay the bank loans he took out for his wedding a few months ago. He just doesn't know how. Hard facts. Our trip becomes a therapy session: Joseph lets everything out. We listen to him, are depressed and helpless at the same time. I would like to say something useful. But every clever sentence turns out to be an unimportant empty phrase. I remain silent. Tricky situation.
Kanyakumari and the Comorin Cape
We arrive late at Kanyakumari, a small, uninspired and mostly Christian coastal town. This is where the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal meet. Wash each other up and break into Cape Comorin, the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent. The horizon is so wide that sunset and moonrise can be seen at the same time. Kanyakumari is a geographically rare place and of spiritual importance for many Hindus. Just a few meters from the surfing sea, visit the temple of the goddess Kumari Amman. She is the ancient patron goddess of the coast, who is worshiped here in the form of Parvati, Shiva's partner.
The waves break on the rocky shore. The spray pours heavily over the strollers on the promenade. Young men and women throw themselves into poses that are sometimes funny, sometimes seductive and yet always the same. Selfies disappear in data stores. On the edge of the promenade, a few figures with digital cameras and color printers are desperate. Just a few years ago, street photographers had a monopoly on family pictures in front of a beautiful backdrop. But today hardly anyone attaches importance to their services. Photography has passed from the hands of a few into the hands of many.
Bony beggars sit in the dust. Deep wrinkles run through their faces. Leather skin curls over thin arms. Around them there are stalls selling all kinds of knickknacks. None of this has any value. Cheap plastic entertainment.
A lookout tower rises above the bank. From above the view goes to the south. There is the Indian Ocean. A blue giant. Nothing but water. In the east it waves somewhere on the shore of Sri Lanka, in the west it laps the soft, white sandy beaches of the Maldives in the distance. In the south, the Amsterdam Island rises out of the floods at a distance of 5,000 kilometers. It is halfway to mainland Antarctica.
Not that far away - only a few hundred meters from Cape Komorin - the statue of the Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar rises above a small rocky island from the sea. He is considered the author of the Tirukkural, the most important work of classical Tamil literature to this day. Tiruvalluvar is something like the Goethe Tamil Nadu; an idol of cultural nationalism with almost saint status.
Tiruvalluvar is an unheard of child from the relationship of a Brahmin with an untouchable one. Not ideal prerequisites for achieving anything in 5th century India. Tiruvalluvar is abandoned, grows up, writes the Tirukkural, a 1330 double verse didactic poem, and carries it to the City of Arts in Madurai.
Madurai, the nursery of Tamil culture
Madurai, 250 kilometers north of Kanyakumari, is the nursery of Tamil culture. It is considered one of the oldest cities in southern India and was an important religious and commercial center over two thousand years ago. This is where the royal court of the Pandya Empire is located, which was widely networked in ancient times. Greek ambassadors reside at court. Roman soldiers guard the city gates. Trade relations range from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, which are supplied with silk, pearls and spices, to China.
Madurai has been a rich, influential city for over a thousand years. Foreign merchant ships regularly dock at the ports on the banks of the Vaigai River. Merchants examine horses and precious stones, but also dried fish and tamarind, which are traded here for export.
In this cosmopolitan city, classical Tamil literature is summarized in academies in a canon that continues to this day. Whoever wants to be accepted has to convince the established poets. A guy like Tiruvalluvar who has run along is at best ridiculed, but probably openly hostile.
The poets reject the Tirukkural without having read a single word. The son of an untouchable is just not worth it. So Tiruvalluvar puts his writing on the bench in front of the academy on which the important poets sit. Suddenly, it is said to this day, the bench shrinks to the size of the book and throws the writers in the dust at Tiruvalluvar's feet. The rest is history. The Tamils still honor the Tirukkural and its author Tiruvalluvar.
At that time Madurai is the Weimar of the Indian south. Only much earlier and much larger. Several thousand poets moved to the city during the long period of prosperity. They write about life and love, the rulers and the ruled. Madurai himself also appears in the ancient verses. The rich city is extolled in heroic poetry. They tell of high protective walls and strong gates, of streets as wide as rivers. The king's army marches on them with elephants and chariots through the city. A diverse range of languages is permeating the markets.
Old, hunched over women sell colorful flowers and perfume to pretty young women who, adorned with jewels, watch the hustle and bustle in the streets from balconies. In the evening wealthy aristocrats take trips in noble bodies. Royal advisers and ministers have delicacies served in restaurants. Music can be heard in the temples, and sacrifices are made for the gods. The moon is rising. Oil lamps flicker in the houses. Women entertain their husbands by playing the harp. Others prostitute themselves in the dark streets and court the favor of drunk suitors. Around midnight, when the city is asleep, robbers and thieves sneak through Madurai. Night guards patrol until sunrise.
Then the Brahmins sing in the temples from the Vedas, the religious texts of Hinduism. Mahouts feed elephants and horses in the royal stables. The first shops open early in the morning. The city is slowly waking up. Doors creak, let the light of day into the houses. Hungover men grumble while their wives do the morning chores. Someone calls out the time. Cocks crow. Temple drums roar through the city. Outside the gates are the hunters with last night's prey.
Madurai is famous. The city grows, arouses desires, is attacked, captured and recaptured. Where to put all this wealth, the kings ask themselves and begin with a gigantic building project in the 12th century. On an area of six hectares, they are building the Minakshi Temple, which still shapes the cityscape of Madurai to this day. Twelve huge gopurams, soaring entrance towers from the 16th century, adorn the complex. Countless mythological stucco figures in bright colors crouch, stand and dance on them. Gods and demons play jokes with and against each other here.
At 46 meters, the towers are the tallest sacred buildings in southern India and protrude far beyond the modern concrete blocks of the megacity of Madurai. Every day around 15,000 people pray in the temple complex to Minakshi, a local form of the goddess Parvati and her husband Shiva, who according to Hindu mythology are said to have married here in Madurai.
Around the temple, Madurai is an ordinary big city. As ordinary as a big city in the south of India can be. It's loud, hot and stuffy. Mopeds and motor rickshaws rattle on the dusty streets. The drivers are waving at potential customers from afar. Billboards hang on dirty, washed-out walls. Men in lungis and plaid shirts push mobile stalls past potholes. In doing so, they keep getting into oncoming traffic, which they either don't notice or ignore. The late afternoon light bathes the streets in warm colors and gives the chaos a dreamy appearance.
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The Minakshi Temple in Madurai
The entrance gates of the Minakshi Temple grow out of the alleys between the houses of the old town. They tower above the crisscrossing power lines and shoot like colorful mushrooms over the city.
The temple legend is completely absurd in a classically Indian way. She tells of a childless king who asks the gods for offspring and burns a sacrificial fire for them. Minakshi, a girl with three breasts, emerges from the flames. At the same time, a heavenly voice predicts that the child will lose the excess breast as soon as she sees her future husband.
Minakshi grows up, is crowned queen and goes with her army in all kinds of wars. So she arrives at Mount Kailash, the seat of the gods, and challenges Shiva. The god of destruction enters the battlefield and flop, the third breast is already in the bloody earth. A few days later, Minakshi and Shiva get married in Madurai. Here they perform some divine miracles, have a son named Murugan and at some point retire to the Minakshi Temple without ever going public again.
Like all Hindu stories, this legend is bursting with madness. The temple complex is extensive. Corridors and porticos surround the two main shrines dedicated to Minakshi and Shiva. Far more than thirty thousand representations of gods are in the winding temple complex and religious ceremonies take place everywhere.
Ganesh and the legend of the Laddu
Not only to Minakshi and Shiva are worshiped here. The bulbous elephant head god Ganesh also has a shrine in the temple. Like his brother Murugan, Ganesh is a son of Shiva and Parvati (or their manifestation Minakshi) and at the same time the guardian of the gates and conqueror of obstacles.
But Ganesh is also a voracious connoisseur. One day Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth, builds a new palace made of pure gold. He is so proud of his home that he invites Shiva, the god of gods, to show off a bit. But the sullen Shiva doesn't feel like playing and sends his son Ganesh instead.
When he arrives at the golden palace, he is absolutely not impressed. Kubera tries hard, but nothing impresses Ganesh. Then the two of them enter the large dining room, where the most delicious delicacies await on a long table. Already hungry with boredom, Ganesh immediately starts to eat. He eats and eats, shoveling everything into himself with his trunk. Ganesh devours delicacies intended for a thousand guests in a few minutes.
Then he runs into the kitchen, where he cleans up raw vegetables and all other supplies. He munched on the golden plates, forks, spoons, and cups; anything that can somehow get into his mouth. He eats the pictures from the walls, the curtains from the windows, the tiles from the roof. Ganesh is intoxicated and Kubera fears for his wealth. In his panic he calls Shiva: “Dude, your son is eating the hair off my head, do something!” And Shiva, who still doesn't want to see Kubera, sends his wife Pavarti.
When she reaches the golden palace, Ganesh is nibbling at the front door. Parvati hands her son a laddu, a sweet, deep-fried ball made of chickpea flour with nuts and dried fruits, which disappears instantly between Ganeshˈ's tusks. Suddenly Ganesh feels deep satisfaction. "Ah, that's exactly what I needed," he murmurs, happily caressing his stomach and turning his back on Kubera's devastated palace.
Since then, Ganesh has always carried a basket full of Laddu with him. The south of India offers completely different delicacies. Dosa, Idli, Uttapam, the local cuisine is very different from northern India. It is shaped by rice and coconuts. Curries are served on banana leaves, which we mix with the right hand, form small balls and put them into our mouths with our fingers.
In the north we were told how terribly unaesthetic the food culture of the south is. How uncivilized it would be to only eat with your hands. Now we are sitting here with fingers sticky with rice and reaping appreciative looks from the locals. Change of perspective. We are in Tamil Nadu, in the proud south of India.
If you liked this article and would like to travel with us, then support us with a small tip. Donate us a coffee cup, chocolate cake or a decent rambazamba - anything is possible.
From the far north of Germany out into the world: In 2011, Morten and Rochssare will be hitchhiking and couch surfing on the South American continent for two years. It goes on in exactly the same way. But now in the other direction. The two have been hitchhiking overland from Germany to India and on to Southeast Asia since 2014. There is still a lot to discover.
They tell of their adventures and encounters in their books "The Hitchhiker's Guide to South America" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to India", both published in the National Geographic series by Malik.
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