Rarely, possibly once in a lifetime, does such a wonderful opportunity come along ~ a chance to take 2 of my very good friends from Taiwan along with me to visit my many very good friends in South India ~ YES! The opportunity came at Chinese New Year, and with the blessing of the bishop of Taiwan, Bishop David J. H. Lai and the rector of Advent Church, Rev. Lennon Y. R. Chang and all our friends and church members, off we went!
God has blessed me with many good friends in Taiwan, and my 2 traveling companions were 2 of the very best! Shu-Jing 薛淑靖 is my colleague here at St. John’s University Chaplain’s Office, and Hui-Ling 許惠苓 is Bishop Lai’s secretary and my colleague in the diocesan office in Taipei. Both are the first, and so far only Christians in their families, both are devoted long-time members of Advent Church, and very importantly, both very good friends with each other. So there was certainly never a dull moment on our whole trip ~ and rarely even a quiet one!
We set off together on Saturday January 21 for Bangalore, at the invitation of my very good friend from Tanzania days, Jyothi. Jyothi welcomed us all so warmly and graciously, willingly giving up 2 weeks of her valuable time to take such good care of us all. I first visited Jyothi in Bangalore in February 2013, also for the Chinese New Year holiday, along with New Zealand friend Ruth. This was my second visit, but the first ever for Shu-Jing and Hui-Ling. And what a great welcome we had from Jyothi and all her friends!
We arrived in Bangalore in the middle of the night and got to bed at 3:30 am, but a few hours later we were upright and wide-awake, all ready for the main 8:30 am service at St. John’s Church, Bangalore, part of the Church of South India (C.S.I.) We were there along with 600 others – and 300 in the Sunday School. The latecomers have to sit on chairs outside, there’s so many people. Amazing.
Amazingly also, the new pastor of the church, Rev. G. Wilson, studied for a year in 2004 at Tainan Theological College in Taiwan, and was delighted to tell us how much he loved Taiwan, and what wonderful people the Taiwan people are! One of his many gifts is preaching, and everyone enthused about his sermon after the service. Here we all are, posing for photos!
We met so many of Jyothi’s good friends at the church, including Asha and her family who took us all out for breakfast straight after church. Oh yes, and Nancy (and her daughter – both looking stunning in the above right photo) who was to accompany us on our 2 big trips! Then to lunch with Rhena and her family ~ ah, Bangalore people are so welcoming!
The next day, we were up bright and very early, along with Jyothi and Nancy, in time to watch the sunrise from Bangalore Station as we set off for the 10-hour train journey to Kerala. There’s nothing boring about spending 10+ hours on a train in S. India, we met and talked to everyone, smiled and played and laughed with the babies, took photos of and with everyone, ate, drank and even shopped onboard. Ah, it was such fun!
The terminus is at Ernakulam Jn, and from there it’s a short drive to Kochi (Cochin), the centre of the Indian spice trade for many centuries and the first of the European colonies in colonial India, first occupied by the Portuguese in 1503.
We spent 3 nights in a really great guest house in Fort Kochi and visited the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, one of 8 basilicas in Kerala and oozing with history – like everywhere else we visited! Also the Chinese Fishing Nets, and then the Paradesi Synagogue. This was THE most fascinating place to visit (do check out the Wikipedia page on the Cochin Jews), though no photos were allowed inside. There’s been trade going on between India and Israel since the days of King Solomon, mostly of peacocks, teak, ivory and spices. The synagogue guidebook says that the first Jews probably arrived in Kerala in King Solomon’s merchant fleet, and “the oldest Tamil word found in any written record in the world appears to be the word for peacock in the Hebrew text of the Book of Kings and Chronicles. The old Tamil word ‘Takai’ became in Hebrew ‘Tuki'”. These days virtually all the Paradesi Jews have moved to Israel, and there are only 5, 2 men and 3 women, remaining in Kochi (others from the wider Cochin Jewish community remain, but their numbers are dwindling fast too). We had the honour of meeting one of them, Sarah, who was seated in her living room, next to her shop, where she sells traditional Jewish embroidery. She sang to us one of the ancient songs ~ it was beautiful! And to finish the day, after a bit of spice shopping over near the CSI church in Ernakulam, we went to St. George’s Mar Thoma Church (facebook page here), founded in 1913, and looking stunning in the sunshine!
We also went on a boat tour of the famous and very beautiful Kerala backwaters, floating along all morning and disembarking to visit 2 small business ventures, one converting clam shells into lime for use in such things as whitewashing and pharmaceuticals, and the other, the coir industry, converting coconut fibre into ropes. We were in a group with other tourists, including several independent travelers from Israel and a Punjabi family – parents, daughter, and newly-married son and daughter-in-law ~ it wasn’t a honeymoon they said, this was their ‘family-moon’!
And our final stop was a performance of Kathakali, a traditional ‘story-play’ form of classical Indian dance, which included us watching the make-up session and then a demonstration of how the all-male team use their eyes and hands to convey meaning. Amazing ~ those eyes!
And so back to Bangalore by train, but this time in an A/C compartment, which is definitely more comfortable, but oh so boring by comparison to the one on the outgoing journey to Kerala!
Friday in Bangalore was a day of rest, and our first chance to go to visit my good friends, Varghese and Rachel, Kerala friends from Birmingham days – so wonderful to see them. And then a meet up with Rhena who took us shopping. The world’s best shopping assistant! And what a great way to spend Chinese New Year’s Eve – shopping!
On Saturday, the first day of Chinese New Year, we set off by car, again with Jyothi and Nancy, with Driver Joseph at the wheel, for Coorg (Kodagu) ~ a 3-day trip to Madikeri and Mysore, NW of Bangalore. Met our very first Chinese-speaking group en route, 7 adults and 3 children, all Chinese expats living in Bangalore and working in the IT industry, on their way to Mysore for the weekend. On the way, we stopped to visit the famous Hindu Temple, Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangapatna, dedicated to a manifestation of the god Vishnu, which saw us join a huge long line of several hundred pilgrims, all of them there to pay homage. No photos inside, this is the outside….
The journey from Bangalore was uphill all the way to our destination, Madikeri, altitude 1170 m, followed by a visit to Abbey Falls, where we joined thousands of people on a busy Saturday afternoon, including 200 girl guides and boy scouts and their 23 teachers, who all became our best friends within 5 minutes! Photos galore! We visited all the sights of Madikeri, the old fort, the viewpoint at Raja’s Seat, the toy train – and did plenty of shopping for spices and coffee. Note the petrol station pumps covered in tinsel that we passed en route!
Next day was really the highlight of the 3-day trip, and a visit to the Elephant Camp at Dubare. In 2013, we had visited but at the wrong time of day, but this time, we were right on time to see the elephants eating and drinking in the river. Spectacular. Loved it!
And this was followed by another highlight, the Tibetan Settlements at Bylakuppe, including the Namdroling Monastery – the largest teaching centre of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism in the world, with over 5,000 lamas (both monks and nuns), a religious college and hospital. We met a large group of pilgrims from Himachal Pradesh, the neigbouring state to Tibet, who loved posing for a group photo!
And so to Mysore via the garden centre for Nancy to buy some plants (from then on, we could always spot our vehicle by the orchids in the back window!), an afternoon visit to the Brindavan Gardens and evening visit to Mysore Palace, all lit up at night, and open for tours during the day. Loved it! We also visited St. Philomena’s Cathedral, the Chamundi Hills and Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, before arriving back in Bangalore in time to hit the Monday night rush hour. Ah, such fun – or not, as the case may be. Anyway it was an experience. The drivers are amazing, and there are so few accidents – we saw only one minor one on the whole trip!
On Tuesday, Nancy kindly took us on a tour of Bangalore, to the Lal Bagh Botanical Gardens, St. Mark’s CSI Cathedral and a look at the outside of Bangalore Palace – modeled on Windsor Castle…. and finally back to her home for a delicious lunch and to listen to her daughter, Vasanthie, playing the veena, a classical ancient stringed instrument, a bit like a zither. Ah yes, we had such a fun time with Nancy over the 9 days or so we were with her!
Check out Vasanthie’s You Tube Channel: HimalayanPeony Peony and this:
Wednesday was shopping day with Rhena (ah, how we loved those auto-rickshaws – oh, and how we loved Rhena too of course – always laughing and always on hand for shopping advice!) In the evening, Shu-Jing and Hui-Ling had to return to Taiwan – oh, we were so sad to see them go!
I still had a few more days, and on Thursday, Jyothi and I took the train down to Madras / Chennai for 2 nights to visit her good friend, Josephine and her family. They welcomed us so warmly, and we stayed in the neighboring church hostel, next to a church building used as a wedding hall, which was quite an experience in itself, a busy busy busy place! We visited San Thome Basilica (St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica), one of only three known churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus (the other two being St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain). St. Thomas is buried there in Chennai, and it is fascinating to link his early ministry in India with the Jewish community in Kerala, where he found his first converts.
Josephine’s son, Andrew kindly took us to visit St. Mary’s Church, Fort George, the oldest Anglican church (C.S.I.) east of the Suez and also the oldest British building in India, and where Andrew’s father was the first Indian priest-in-charge, from 1972-75, the 98th priest-in-charge in total; he later became bishop. Very meaningful and moving to visit with someone so directly connected.
Then we went to the Armenian Church in Chennai, constructed in 1712 and reconstructed in 1772, ‘one of the oldest churches on the Indian subcontinent’, famous for its belfry of 6 bells. The caretaker was on hand to welcome us and inform us that these days sadly there are no longer any Armenians resident in Chennai, but twice a year they hold a service, and he was cleaning the church, getting ready. The service was to be held the very next day, and at that very moment, the Armenian pastor for all India and a group arrived from Calcutta to prepare for the service. Amazing.
And so to buy some leather goods, famous in Chennai, and back to our accommodation, where another wedding reception was taking place – lights and glamour galore!
And so we returned by train to Bangalore on Saturday night, and said our fond farewells on Sunday to all Jyothi’s friends, especially Asha, who kindly invited us out for breakfast, and later to her home for lunch, sooooooo yummy!
I left Bangalore late on Sunday night, and arrived home on Monday mid-afternoon. Despite being warned by so many people here in Taiwan of the dangers of India, and experiencing for ourselves the thrills (?!) of road travel in Bangalore, Kerala, Coorg and Chennai ~ in fact we traveled everywhere so safely, only for me to get all the way back to Taiwan and almost home, when the bus I was on from Tamsui managed to crash into a road sign right outside St. John’s University – the sign came crashing down into the front windscreen, which took out the lights and shattered all the glass. Fortunately we were all at the back of the bus and nobody was injured. Ah, perhaps India is not so dangerous after all. Certainly the drivers are all amazing, weaving in and out at tremendous speeds with non-stop horn-blowing, but oh so safely!
So what else did we notice? In great contrast to Taiwan, we saw hardly any young people wearing glasses, hardly anyone smoking, hardly any young men (or old men even) wearing shorts, hardly anyone wearing face masks (only the traffic police at busy road junctions, in fact), hardly any corrugated iron buildings. Ah, such a break not to have to look at miles of grey corrugated iron! I loved the colours of the S. Indian buildings, bright and bold! And what did we miss? Well, noodles and dumplings, of course! Actually Shu-Jing didn’t really miss anything food-wise, she loved it all and made the most of every opportunity to enjoy the array of foods on offer, and Jyothi spent several evenings teaching them both to cook some delicious dishes, ready for their return to Taiwan. Yes, we loved the food, loved the weather, loved the churches and scenery, and most of all, loved the people! So friendly, so beautiful, so elegant, so lovely!
Apologies to many friends and former pupils in S. India who I didn’t get a chance to see, or even contact. Sorry about that, hopefully there’ll be a next time, one day!
And a very big THANK YOU to Jyothi and all her friends for their gracious hospitality, warm welcome, kindest generosity, endless time and abundant energy in giving us such a wonderful time, and THANKS BE TO GOD for His protection and safekeeping, good health (yes, even though 2 of our group got a little sick, it was only for a day or so – and that’s all part of the experience, or so they say, ha ha!) and oh so many good friends!
Happy Year of the Rooster to you all!
YES to India, YES, YES, YES!