This is a major holiday in India, Republic Day. On this date in 1950, the Constitution of India came into effect and a new country’s principles could be celebrated.
The floral display in front of our hotel was just one of many we saw today, as Indians enjoyed their achievements as the world’s largest democracy. The road to this point was not easy, but very good leadership and a will to succeed meant the end of British rule and the beginning of a new experiment in self-government. As with several holidays we have encountered so far, alcohol is forbidden in honor of the event.
The most touching moment of the day came when our tuk-tuk driver asked, “When is your Republic Day?”
We don’t really celebrate that day, which we now know is September 17, but, yes, we do have a lot of history in common with India. (Dear Brit friends – I mean that in the kindest possible way.)
On to our first stop. Maybe it was extra-crowded because of the holiday, or maybe it was just the normal Saturday turnout. But the Kapaleeshwarar Temple was really bustling today. This is the largest temple in Chennai, believed to have been built after the Portuguese destroyed the original in 1566. Its main entrance is amazing, and the many pavilions inside, along with huge “tank” that is an immense lake make it an incredible religious center. It is dedicated to Shiva, who turned his consort Parati into a peacock and commanded her to worship him here. The peacock motif shows up often and in some very unexpected places in Chennai.
As with all temples, we abandoned our shoes and walked barefoot through the temple grounds. Both of us were wearing socks, but it is still a very painful experience – not to mention hard on the socks.
Our next temple was a bit easier to navigate. We went to the beautiful Sri Ramankrishna Math, a much more serene environment. The Math is a monastic order who preach the essential unity of all religions. We sat in the Universal Temple to “clear our minds,” at the direction of our guide. Have to confess that the concept of religious unity rings loud and clear here with me. The rituals in a Hindu temple are so similar to those of Christian churches that one has to conclude that there is something primal about the ways humans show homage to a higher being.
And then there was San Thome Cathedral. Founded by the Portuguese in 1523 then rebuilt by the British in 1896, this church is said to mark the final resting place of St. Thomas the Apostle. It is believed he came to India in 52 CE and was killed nearby. His tomb is in the Cathedral.
Now, here is where it all got interesting. We had heard that this church was modeled after London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields but that turned out not to be accurate, in our view. It is high neo-Gothic, with lots of Indian touches. Most of the visiting Indians left their shoes outside, as they do for all their religious buildings. Marigolds adorned the statues, and the saints were draped in India cloths. Observe the peacocks at the feet of the cross. This is definitely high Indo/Anglican, rather than the colonial relic we were expecting.
Speaking of relics, the museum downstairs held an interesting artifact – the spear point that supposedly killed poor Doubting Thomas. The tomb chapel was nearby and it was packed with worshipers. Workers were busy painting in the noonday sun, keeping the church pristine and sparkling white.
St. Thomas and Shiva both shared in the adoring crowds today.
Don’s Food Corner
Today was another slow food day. It was slow because we were faced with an elaborate buffet breakfast on which we feasted, and we ran on the fumes of it for the rest of the day.
Thinking back on the variety of hotel breakfast buffets we’ve experienced over the years from the sausage gravy and biscuits at Holiday Inn Express locations all over the South to the French delights at the Grand in Paris and the incredible dim sum at the Grand in Hong Kong to the other hotels grand and decidedly not-so-grand in Greece, France, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere, I am struck how basically they all follow the same format. I mean despite the marginal differences in country-specific specialties featured on these various buffets (and you will not find sausage gravy and biscuits in any other country than the U.S.), they all deliver a recognizably universal presentation — main dishes in one place, fruit in another, breads and pastries in yet another, and a station devoted to beverages.
Perhaps this conformity is simply the result of western influence in hotel and restaurant management. (Or maybe, like the religions of the world, there is a primal and unifying expression going on.)
We’ve had feasts in some countries (like France, where I gained 10 pounds) and not-so-favorite food options (like Portugal, where I lost 10 pounds) but everyone did their best to send you off for the day with the best they can offer. And the people running them are anxiously proud about their breakfast food and are always grateful for any compliment. In some of the more elaborate buffets, like the one at this hotel, the staff is more than pleased to give you a tour of what they consider the best and most characteristic of the foods of the country and the region and how the different foods can combine to complement each other. So many choices, so little time.
Please remember, dear reader, that we are simply consuming all these calories in the spirit of reportage in a wholly selfless manner, saving you from the torture.