The first thing I noticed was the head bobble. That was what signaled, beyond equivocation, that we had truly arrived in India.
You’ve got to see it to believe it, but since it seems to frustratingly evade video documentation, I’ll do my best at a description. It’s a fluid head motion that somehow manages to be left and right, back and forth, nod and shake, all at the same time. It can indicate “yes,” “maybe,” “go ahead,” or simply the end of a statement, and probably countless other things. Picture one of those bouncy-head toys for the car dashboard, and you won’t be far off. Apparently, like so much else in the country, this simple mannerism is rooted deeply in Indian philosophy: All outcomes are possible, so how can we rightfully limit ourselves to yes or no?
We had just touched down in Chennai, formerly known as Madras, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu. It’s a loud, busy city, the fourth largest in India. Predominantly conservative and Hindu, it’s much more like the rest of the country than Kerala. And coincidentally or not, this is where the first person on our trip succumbed to the dreaded Delhi Belly.
We came primarily to visit Desikachar’s yoga center, the Krishnamacharya Yoga Madram, named after his father. Krishnamacharya has been referred to as “the father of modern yoga,” the principal teacher of Patthabi Jois, Indra Devi, B.K.S. Iyengar, and his son, all credited for disseminating the practice of yoga outside India. The teacher who spoke to us there about the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the quintessential text of yogic practice, gave the most concise and accessible explanation most of us had ever been lucky enough to hear.
Before leaving the city, we stopped for a typical thali meal. Throughout India, these are served on round, stainless steel plates, and contain bowls with various soups, chutneys, and curry dishes, accompanied by bread and/or rice. To add to the fun, in Tamil Nadu the latter are served on a banana leaf in the center of the plate, and all food is consumed with the right hand (it’s customary to wash your hands upon entering a restaurant). One of the bowls is usually reserved for yoghurt, and another for a sweet custard dessert.
On our way to the next stop of Pondicherry, we visited the ancient cave and shore temples of Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), constructed in the 6th and 7th centuries when the area was a bustling trading port. Some were surrounded by sand until the tsunami of 2004, but others were consumed long ago by the Bay of Bengal. It’s a site heavily frequented by Indian tourists, and only sporadically visited by Western tourists. Little children took advantage of our surprise appearance to practice shaking hands and waving hello; a family of four was fascinated by the zoom function on my camera. They gathered behind me, oohing and aahing as the stone carvings appeared ever closer, and then cried, “Ok, click! Click!” (You can see the finished product in the Tamil Nadu photos in our gallery.)
People are amazingly friendly here. In the North, as in many areas overwhelmed by stark economic disparity, foreigners can be subjected to a resentment or distrust that sometimes feels menacing. In the South, people smile and wave at our bus, and ask to be in our photos. They ham it up in our presence, practicing English and cracking jokes if their proficiency permits. It’s the children who are most open, and their parents and grandparents are only too happy to show them off.