Over the past twenty years, to say India has changed is an understatement. Nothing evidences such change than the traffic, the number of vehicles, the roadways and the pollution. As we took the morning ride out of the city to Tumkur to visit my in-laws and their relative, it was around 10:00 AM. The NH-4 – once the most accident prone highway in the state, is now a six-lane highway in parts. Toll booths slow down the traffic as much as the occasional speed breaker. The lane markings serve no purpose really than aiding the drivers to stay within the right side of the road. In India, the right side of the road is the left side. While pedestrian traffic is not allowed on expressways in the west, such traffic is very common with people smarting their way across as the vehicles zoom by in excess of 80 kmph. To think this happens even at night just leaves you appalled. Add to this, the omnipresent cows. If the zipping vehicles don’t stop for human beings, they do stop for cows – the sacred animal. I even read about an order for drivers not to stop for dogs on the roads but no such order exists for other animals.
The new boom in highway construction definitely has made travel outside the city more convenient and faster. Many roadside restaurants have sprung up each trying to surpass the other in space and quality of food. That is the best part – now, one doesn’t have to worry about food as the weekend gets consumed by the driving. This is true even within the city. In fact, I have not seen so many restaurants close to one another and all of them teeming with people in any American city. There might not be space on the roads for the vehicles, but space isn’t an issue for someone to spring up a food outlet. The IT industry’s boom in the country has increased disposable income to such an extent that traditional cost-conscious hotels are no longer sought after. The more fancier the restaurant, the better to attract the young crowd.
After a short day visit to Tumkur, our next stop was God’s own land or the state of Kerala. The state is on the southwest border of Karnataka. We had booked out flights online while in the US. In fact, this is another thing that was unheard of just about ten years back. Booking on Priceline or makemytrip is no different. In fact, the prices in India are much more compitetive. The two-stop flight at Trivandrum and then at Cochin from Bangalore all costing about $210. Insane really speaking as I routinely pay $150 or more for an hour’s worth of flight-time in the US.
Wednesday wasn’t the best of days to head out. The country was under Hartal – in other words, it was a shut-out of all business due to the fact that the transportation sector, mainly the state run buses, were protesting against new laws that would hold the drivers more accountable. Only in India such lack of accountability can be sought after. The entire city of Trivandrum and the rest of the country was at a stand still. All shops were closed. In fact, we were lucky to have been able to catch the flight out of Bangalore on time. Lack of the buses on the street made the hour ride to the airport from home much smoother than normal. Since our first stop at Trivandrum after the flight was a visit to the famous Anantha Padmanabhaswamy temple, we were dressed for the occasion. The wait time at Bangalore airport gave us the opportunity for some vacation selfies with everyone watching. I wasn’t concerned to be the only one looking dressed-out as most others were all travel for work.
Our driver showed up on time and we headed to the temple. The roads were deserted and gave a false sense of calmness of the streets of Trivandrum. One thing you notice when you travel in Kerala is the abundance of coconut trees. Abundance might be another under statement. Literally every house has a coconut trees. Parks are lined up with these and so are the fields. Surpringly as we were to find out, the coconut water wasn’t the sweetest for which you have to go into the interior of Karnataka.
One has to be dressed in traditional Indian attire or acceptable attire to enter the temple. Men need to wear dhotis – a long piece of cloth made out of cotton or silk that is tied around one’s waist. The body above the waist needs to be bare. The women have to be in sarees. I thought I can get away with wrapping the dhoti around the shorts I had worn, but the guy at the gate literally pulled up my dhoti and pointed to the short and said – ‘No Bermuda’ indicating no shorts. So I had to walk back to the car in the hot sun and change which I did much in public. No one cares if one exposes their underwear while re-wrapping a dhoti as long as it is discreet or have a sense at least.
The metal detectors at many of India’s temples and shops are not diligently followed upon. Everyone walks in and out with a beep or a few beeps only to get a glance from the security guy. If he thinks one looks suspicious, he might stop and frisk you. In most cases, you can walk dignified or smile and escape the detector frisking your body.
Once inside the temple, one can’t but notice how grand it is. The courtyard is lined with walkway with pillars of stone lining every few steps. It is one of the most grandest walkways I have walked on. And all the carvings are in stone and nothing else. While the Versailles palace is grand due to the amount of gold and ornate display, the Padmanabha swamy temple stands out as grand due to pure simplicity of material used and the expanse of work. All four sides of the courtyard might add up to about 800 meters of walkways. Even the roof is lined with stone slabs. How such massive stones slabs were raised about 20 feet high isn’t really evident. Each of these slabs are at least 10 feet in length and the walkway is about 15 or so. And no two carvings are the same as with the traditional at many Indian temples. The gopuram or the temple tower is also a bit different that it has a much broader base than other temples.
Unfortunately, the additional time I had to use to pass security, had an effect. The sanctum sanctorum was closed and we could no longer have darshan – or view the main deity. We had to make another trip in the afternoon for this purpose. No temple visit in India is complete without viewing the main God. This particular temple is famous for at least two things now. One is the statue of Lord Vishnu (a.k.a Anantha Padmanabha Swamy) lying down sideways on the multi-headed serpent god – Adisehsha. He holds up his head with his left had resting on the elbow. The other reason the temple has become famous is due to the unearthing of a vast treasure of gold and precious metals. The estimate of the unearthing puts the value anywhere between $40 billion to $$190 billion – possibly making it the richest temple on the planet.
The gold was kept under lock and key with an ordinance not to be opened. A recent Supreme court intervention in a case filed against the temple made it possible for the public now to know the extent of the treasure. Of the six vaults of the treasure, five have been opened. The sixth one apparently has no door – at least visible and is still a mystery. A serpent is supposedly guarding the vault and ill-fate would befall the one who opens it. Thus it is left to the scientist and archealogitst to figure out the mystery by themselves though the descendents might know the true secret but are unwilling to reveal it due to their beliefs.
It was about 1 PM when we checked into the Leela Kovalum beach resort. We were welcomed by a hostess who garlanded both of us in a necklace of sea shells. Then we were asked to wait while we were provided tender coconut to sip off of. The pleasant staff is there all to please you as much as you would like. We were led to our room on the third level below lobby. That is as close to the water you can get on the rocky ledge by the beach. The hotel is designed such that it looks much like the front of a ship with rooms tiered one above the other and each having a full view of the ocean. That is at least on the side we were on. About seven stories of rooms all jutting out one below the other given exclusivity to the occupants from both above and below.
The view of the water from outside the room was just spectacular. I have know beaches in India to be typically dirty and the waters muddy. Kovalum waters is much different and very appealing. This was my second visit to Kovalum and I noticed the rough shore waters. A few fisherman boats were fighting the waves away from the beach. The rocks below the hotel provided the barricade for the splashing waters. The perfectly manicured lawn was lush in green and of course, lined with coconut trees.
I soon lost track of the number of items in the lunch buffet. There was no point keeping track as one certainly can’t eat all of the food available. The restaurant staff keen to serve and I loved the local Appam – a crepe made out of rice flour and coconut gratings, thin at the edges and full in the middle. The vegetable stew, the chutneys, the curry were all laden with some amount of coconut and that is Kerala food for you.
After a sumptuous lunch and walk in the hot sun on the resort grounds, we headed back to the temple. The resort itself was about 21 kilometers from the temple and it took a good 35 minutes worth of driving to cover the distance. Shops remained closed. We bought a special ticket at a price to get into the ‘fast lane’ to view the deity. As one nears the deity, the frenzy picks up. As my friend put it, there is some sort of push-pull scenario with bodies pushing against each other. Add to this, the humid weather and you will soon forget the sense of hygiene or privacy of space. The Fast lane merges with the regular lane close to the deity. We were allowed to view the god from the closest point having paid for the darshan. The regular line has to go in the line behind the special line. If you think money can buy anything, you might be wrong, but it surely can buy a closer visit to Anantha Padmanabha Swamy!
Since the city was shut down, our driver drove us through the city and showed us the highlights – the city hall, university buildings, a college for studying Ayurveda – the traditional Indian medicine, the library and a few other places of note for the city. We finally ended up on the city beach. It looked like all the people of the city had converged here – there was no other place to go and it so happened there was a motorbike race convened on that day on the beach. People were everywhere. It was dark and we spent five minutes or so by the rather rough shore. Even in the dark, there were people playing catch and Frisbee. It had been a long day starting with the flight out of Bangalore. A super dinner at the Leela for all of $25 and I was ready to settle down for my sleep.