Take your heart to India, not just your sightseeing eyes. Expect your ears to inform you of wondrous new notions.
Listening in India is fantastic: incantations and instruments in the places of worship, and in your inner ear once you learn that demons speak rudely, humans politely, and the gods in poetry.
Intentionally listen to people steeped in stories far grander than the tales of my youth.
Leave behind your notion of how people and places ought to function. In India — try to experience and accept.
It’s all holy. “Show me anything in India which isn’t sacred,” epic storyteller Sanjay challenged on my first morning of a two-week exploration of South India.
Coast-to-coast was my physical route in the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, from the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean and on to the Arabian Sea.
Crossing the Western Ghat Mountains was my breathtaking ride on steep, narrow switchbacks.
My emotional route seemed to be crossing from this world to the next, or a previous one.
Monuments, temples, altars on sidewalks, sculpture, festivals, candles, carvings in rock all abound at every turn, each holding faith-journey promises for somebody.
In India, people expect to find enlightenment a little bit along, all day long. It helps to have that frame of reference when you go.
It’s impossible for me to recall the grand epics I heard everywhere, but I figured out early on that everyone venerates the many gods and goddesses, expecting inspiration and life lessons.
I had to accept local truth like that to really experience India.
Otherwise the cows on the sidewalk, fingers-not-forks to eat lunch, walking barefoot in the temples, elephants giving blessings, and the constant hustle and bustle might have been off-putting.
“If the silence is not in you, you will not find it,” Sanjay taught.
If you grow up in India, you learn how to have it inside. I saw plenty of people in focused prayer or meditation, sitting or standing, solo or with family, in the midst of huge throngs in every temple I visited.
As a visitor I felt distracted — I kept looking every which way, following sound and light, color and motion, while the local folks remained focused.
Worship in South India is not Sunday 11:00 a.m. American-style. It’s all the time, any time. Visit a temple, see worship, participate. Always.
Places of worship here have many spaces—hallways, big rooms, little rooms, sections within rooms. Always in India there are many options for worship.
However, don’t count on entering every temple’s inner sanctum. Some are Hindu only. Here’s what I learned about that: a sacred vibration occurs through those with the faith, and those without might break the energy.
Colors are as remarkable as the energy and the silence. Sometimes temples and their art are bold primary colors and sometimes pastels. For certain, every inch contains a carving, a symbol, the potential for deep meaning to the beholder.
This isn’t about worshiping a carving or epic tale but rather about believing opportunity exists for inspiration and enlightenment.
When I grasped that this opportunity for inspiration meant me too, I transformed from sightseeing to simply being, from watching to engaging.
India taught me to be present in the moment rather than envisioning my next event.
That’s the way to do India to make it vastly different from other trips.
Temples, monuments and World Heritage sites in India are well described in guidebooks. Weaving them together on a journey to make sense of their connections to past and present India is a different story.
“India adapts,” says Mark Hennessy of Magical Journey, the trip designer I selected. “Modernity is not new here; it’s just happening side by side with ancient wisdom.
“Cultural, technical, industrial, agrarian revolutions are all happening together in India, not one after the other as in the west,” Hennessy said.
“Philosophy, science and religion share a life here while we separate them in the west. Merging as one is India’s way.”
Hennessy lives in South Africa and brings memories of vast reading to discussions along the way. He’s a bonus to the reason I chose Magical Journey to explore India as fully as possible — which is Carol Cumes. I stayed in Cumes’ guesthouse in Peru’s Sacred Valley previously where I observed her remarkable gift for meeting, accepting and admiring people as she finds them.
No need to improve, transform or enlighten others according to her worldview as many try to do.
Certainly hers is a spiritual gift to connect with people in their places.
Cumes’ journeys are practical too, like finding a guide with impeccable pronunciation, easy and entertaining to listen to. No straining to catch the words on a tour and missing many, as can happen in India.
City hotels in Chennai and Kochi offered fine what-I-expected five-star quality, but The Windermere Estate in Kerala and The Bangala in Chennai delivered local community too, allowing me to get closer to people in the places they live.
“The decoction is best when we serve you,” Dr. Simon John says of his coffee at Windermere Estate. “No pots in the room on purpose.”
The very congenial Simon, as he is known, calls his plantation a retreat, not a hotel. Choose from garden rooms, cottages or villas.
Simon fell in love with the 60 tea and cardamom growing acres 25 years ago.
“Good things have to be shared,” he says, so he added guest houses, a dining room, library and thatched roof tea hut. Ginger, masala and cardamom teas are poured every afternoon from a samovar into glass tumblers.
Walks with a naturalist through the spice fields shows off the shade-loving cardamom, and the tea and coffee. Banyan trees, along with red cedar, ironwood, rosewood and cinchona fill the grounds too, easy to walk through and spectacular with a huge view from Simon’s high rock promontory.
“Stay 10 days and the dinners will all be different,” Simon notes. Breakfast was abundant too, fresh and local. A trek to the top of the mountain gives views on both sides of this plateau and a national park, tea museum, paper-making business and interesting downtown offer plenty of diversion.
“Everybody from the U.S. should slow down,” Simon says, so maybe just stay put at Windermere Estate. “The staff are aware of you; nowhere do you have to sign in. Just receive.”
Meeting Mrs. Meenakshi Meyyappan at her boutique hotel in Chettinad is an altogether different kind of community. Hers is a merchant family, dealing in teak from Burma for more than a century.
Business transactions took place on the verandas of the very gracious homes lining the once prosperous street. Brimming with century-old charm, a feel of India an era ago, is The Bangala.
Furnishings of that teak fill each of the large rooms, air-conditioned with full bath. Charming shutters, plenty of light and Chettiar family photos.
Men in crisp white shirts and dhotis, the South Indian long skirt that hikes up into a short one with a clever flip of the wrist and one tuck in the waist, choreograph the serving of the meals.
Guests sit on both sides of a long table, covered but outdoors. The men appear all of a sudden, at least five of them, serving simultaneously in perfect rhythm. Celery soup, sailfish from the Indian Ocean, rice with carrots and lemon custard were among the many wonders I enjoyed on my first of two nights there.
Mrs. Meyyappan and her staff teach cooking classes; I learned how to do almond halwa (need ghee and saffron), tomato rice, potato masala, chicken pepper fry and prawn masala.
“The Bangala Table – Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad” contains 150 recipes with stunning photos.
This is India’s spice country and we used plenty of ginger, turmeric, cardamom, aniseed, cumin seed and coriander.
Will my life’s lessons be as vast when I visit India’s Northern neighborhoods? I know I’ll start with my heart and open attitude.