(Published in the NOW! Jakarta Magazine, September 2015)


Cheeky player in roadside Ramayana on East Coast Road, Tamil Nadu, India

Driving through the Tamil Nadu South Indian countryside at night can be perilous — Hindus on high beam, I call it — but during the temple season (June, July) this peril is offset by the joy of coming upon a plethora of ministreet theatres that pop up in front of roadside temples.
Last month, driving from Chennai’s smart new international airport to the old French colonial enclave of Pondicherry, I happened upon a fabulous roadside Ramayana where half of the audience were asleep on the dirt. The actors (mostly in drag) stopped and posed for my camera. There was a violent wife-beating scene which featured a big whip — this woke people up — and a love scene involving a roman soldier and a heavy-set seven-foot woman. The temple itself was tiny, but the enthusiasm of the temple priest in extracting 50 Rupees exemplary. The dance play was very similar to Prembon plays in Bali.

Roman soldier and giant drag queen in the roadside Ramayana,
Tamil Nadu, India

Midnight Proto-Janger ‘hula’ dancer at roadside temple north of Pondicherry, India

Further down the road I found a chubby hula troupe, obviously an ancestor of the Balinese Janger, who wiggled and wobbled to the sound of trumpets and drums (see photo this page). It all helped keep my driver awake, but only just.
Basically, it’s better not to drive at night in India.
I stayed at the charming French-owned Mango Hill Hotel on the outskirts of Auroville — the famous commune where Kanye West was sent recently to calm down.
Auroville is odd: despite all the meditation and colon-cleansing going on, there is a lot of hysteria, and not just of the roadside dance-drum vanity.
The traffic in town has to be seen to be believed: all those Facebook videos of men being mowed down by crazy cows ain’t nothing compared to Pondicherry during peak hour.

View from dining room at Mango Hill Hotel, Pondicherry

Pondicherry is one of very few colonial-era townships in which much of the 19th century architecture has survived intact — thanks to the wisdom and good taste of Sri Aurobindo and his French spiritual consort ‘The Mother’, now long dead.
The other towns would be Galle in Sri Lanka, Luang Prabang in Laos, and Sabang in North Sumatra.
Many of the old French mansions have been converted into boutique hotels with restaurants serving excellent French food. The shopping is great too — if you are into lightweight colourful tropical clothes and ethnic jewelry.

Two of the charming colonial mansions in Pondicherry that have been converted into boutique hotels

Detail of the entrance foyer of the Maison Perimal hotel, Pondicherry

Auroville itself (pop. 25,000) is a fascinating mix of old hippies gone feral and modern folk on a spiritual path.
The commune in town is well worth a visit especially for the amazing vegetarian lunch served in the vast dining hall adjacent to the beautiful garden where Sri Aurobindo and the Mother are buried. The esplanade on the Indian Ocean, with the giant social-realist Gandhi memorial, is fun at sunset, too.

Gandhi memorial

From Pondicherry I took the new Alliance Airlines flight to bustling Bangalore, the IT capital of India, but once a hill station for British colonial housewives exhausted by the Madras heat.
Bangalore is almost unrecognizable compared to the first time I visited in the 1980s — like Bandung and Malang, it has undergone a major facelift.
I stayed at the delightful Taj West End, India’s premier garden hotel (I spiced up the garden, together with four Balinese, some years ago), the former Robson’s Inn (1860), which was a hostel for passing soldiers.

Bangalore’s new International Airport, by GVK

I swept in through the wrought-iron gates — made by French-Lebanese in Pondicherry to my design, by the way — and flew into a white rage: the vast lake I designed in 2004 has been blocked from view by order of a local geomancer moron (Vastu, it’s called — the science of making ugly).
“But God loves beauty,” I screamed in the lobby.
The next day Prabath the head gardener liberated the lake and peace reigned.

Lakeview at Taj West End entrance, Bengaluru (Bangalore)

I was in Bangalore to give a talk on Exotic Gardens to the Association of Indian Architects. The night’s other speaker was Madhurani, a conservationist who had worked for years at the Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Museum in London, learning about paper and paint conservation. Her lecture was like a ray of hope — if only Indonesia had conservationists of this calibre, and a heritage trust like India’s marvellous Intac. Intac restored the incredible ruins at Hampi (Vijayanagar Empire — India’s answer to Majapahit), which are a short trip away from Bangalore (fly to Bellary)).

Front office angel at Taj West End, Bangalore

It was Lebaran in Indonesia the day I was in Bangalore, so I grabbed the nearest pretty Mohammed I could find and did a Hindu-Islamic Lebaran greeting card in front of the lobby. It was a huge success.

Mohamad and me — my Idul Fitri greeting card this year

Over the years I have found little to do in Bangalore other than shop for clothes. The parks and museums are a bit grim. There are lots of fun restaurants in hotels, however. My favourite is the Karavali (Mangalore cuisine) at Taj Gateway and the Spice (Asian) at Taj West End.
For clothes, the boutiques in the Atmosphere building on Vittal Malya Road are great — Rohit Bal and Prapat Sing have high fashion shops in the same building — plus Atmosphere have fabulous textiles. Classy factory outlets are just up the road. Shopping at the smart modern new international airport is excellent too, particularly for Indian clothes.
There are many charming temple-towns in the vicinity of Pondicherry: Kanchipuri, famous for its vast elephant-guarded temple and for silk saris; and Mahabalipuram, which is down the coast, halfway between Chennai and Pondicherry. Mahabalipuram has a magnificent shore temple from the 7th century Palava dynasty era in a style very similar to the 10th century temples of the Sanjaya dynasty on Dieng Plateau, Central Java. It was a bustling seaport during the time of Periplus (1st century CE) and Ptolemy (140 CE). Ancient Indian traders who went to countries in South-East Asia sailed from Mahabalipuram.

Shore Temple Mahabalipuram Famous Temples In Tamilnadu (courtesy of www.http://kumbakonamtemples.in)

The group of temples at Mahabalipuram has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
South of Pondicherry one finds the Pearl Coast and the Gulf of Mannar, a paradise for Marine biologists. Chinese traders from ancient times visited Kanyakumari to buy pearls. Today the picturesque coastal town is home to a Muslim community (the Buharis), who have intermarried over the past 500 years, and diversified into the energy and shipping sectors. The present patriarch helped found Dubai Corp.!
I had some Buhari clients once, and I asked why they always married their cousins.
‘In the days when we were mostly sailors,’ came the reply, ‘so many were lost at sea, and it seemed better that widows were left with family rather than potentially grievous in-laws.’
Visitors to India should be aware of the e-Visa now available to travellers from most countries. Be careful not to go to India visa online as I did, as one ends up for days at an Indian Consulate being fingerprinted etc.

Indonesia’s new Ambassador to Bulgaria Astari Rasjid (left) with the R.I. Ambassador to France and his wife in Paris, August 17 2015

8 August 2015:
Back in Bali I am invited by Australian Consul-General Majell Hind to the annual Ubud Village Jazz Festival at Arma Museum in Pengosekan.
It’s a fabulous event with over 100 musicians: the garden venue is superb. Many of Ubud’s top restaurants seem to have stalls.
Majell has set up a great, slightly-raised, VIP pavilion with food from Bali Buda. Wholesome and organic, like our host.

9 August 2015: To Happy Chappy Chinese restaurant at 12 Jalan Bratan, Seminyak
 Jero Asri Kertyasa has asked me to join writer Nigel Barley and his partner, exotic dancer Dian Abdullah Sani, at her son Max’s new restaurant. The food is great and the interiors by Mz Candra of Jakarta inspired.  I’ll be back.
Asri has the popular Biku tea rooms on Jalan Petitenget.

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