Kanchipuram, the Silk City, is also known by its abundance of temples from ancient times. I would like to point out two of the most memorable ones.
Ulagalantha Perumal Temple looks so colourful, you could imagine it would fit well in Disneyland or a cartoon-like world. Nevertheless this temple is about a thousand years old(although I believe not all parts of it). The brightly coloured building was rather spectacular.
I stayed in Kanchi just for two days. On the second morning I got up at 6 am to visit almost 1400 years old Kailasanathar Temple. The oldest temple in town was practically deserted early in the morning(it is open from 5.30am). I had the most serene blissful moment for myself, meditating in one of the ancient mini shrines, soaking up the very special energy of this holy place that has generated over the centuries.
Here´s my tip for travelers in hot countries: as for me it was usually too hot in South India between 12-4pm, I used to get up at 6am and do the sightseeing before the big heat arrived. So by midday I would be chilling out somewhere cool and dare to come outside again when the heat had given in, later in the afternoon. It is also a brilliant way to avoid the crowds, especially in touristy places.
Coming back to Indian fabrics, I would like to write about my visit to Indian saree capital a few years ago – a small town by the name of Kanchipuram, based on the East coast of India, just a few hours train ride from Chennai. This little town is known as a “Silk City”, as the main profession of the people living in this town is manual weaving of silk sarees, with more than 5000 families engaged in this industry for generations.
Every saree made in Kanchipuram is like a piece of art. The saree designs are traditional, inspired of temple sculptures – as Kanchipuram is also well known by its ancient temples.
I had an opportunity to meet Mr.C.R.Krishnan, the owner of „Sree Swamy Silk House”. Their family has been in the silk industry for five generations already. He told me more about Kanchipuram´s history as a silk city, its present and future.
He told me that all of the silk is hand made, with real silver and gold used for decorative patterns and images. Unfortunately on the day of my visit it was raining earlier, so i did not get to see the making process – too humid for weaving.
Saree is made up of a piece of fabric – 1m wide and 4-9m long that is wrapped around body in a specific manner, making it into a dress. Saree is worn on top of a long underskirt with a short top, called choli. Being almost 4000 years old fashion, it is still widely worn nowadays on auspicious occasions, such as weddings, festivals or on temple visits. Before it used to be that almost all women were wearing sarees daily, but fifteen years ago the number reduced to 30%, these days coming up to barely 5%. Traditional saree is being replaced by rather more practical salwaar kameez outfit(consisting of leggings, tunic and a scarf).
Mr.Krishnan sees the future of his company in preserving the fabric handmaking tradition and moving into lifestyle products market, producing curtains, bedspreads and furniture covers. Silk is marketed within India, as well as abroad – for example in London as fabric.
Victoria and Albert Museum is currently having India Festival and that got me reminiscing about my own travels in India. I will write down some of my memories later on, but for now a few words about the beautiful fabrics exhibition.
The show space, that just half a year ago was overtaken by Alexander McQueen´ s masterpieces is currently filled with the best gems from extraordinarily rich history of handmade textiles from India. The exhibition observes the development of the textile design from the earliest known fabric fragments of naif applique designs to contemporary fashion and the growth of traditional textiles to modern day.
All of the 200 objects displayed are made by hand – from ancient ceremonial banners to modernized saris.
The exhibition also sheds the light on how these handmade masterpieces were created, from the point of raising silk worms to gold weaving. Ancient natural dyes, such as chai plant roots for red color, tumeric for yellow and indigo for blue, originate from this country. Indigo even gave the name to this country!
The beauty and complexity of Indian fabrics has spread around the world and inspired many Western designers, as well as made the local ones reinterpret their own traditions. I would say my own personal favorite is New Delhi-based fashion designer Manish Arora, who has been successful showcasing at Paris Fashion Week. His innovativeness of combining traditional handicraft elements with crazy fantasy, using bright colors is quite remarkable.
The display reviews the history of how European industrialization made it possible to produce similar cloth at lower cost, especially in British mills, threatening to wipe out Indian handmade fabrics production completely. This lead to consequences where Indian fabrics played an important role in Indian independence. By the early 20th century, Indian textiles became a major symbol of resistance to colonial rule and a political tool, with people spinning and weaving their own yarn and fabric by hand, to produce a cloth known as Khadi. It is quite surprising to know that the wheel on Indian flag actually derives not from the “Samsara” – the circle of life – but it is the spinning wheel that has been incorporated into the design of the flag.
The history of Indian fabrics is extremely rich and is worth discovering!
Pristine white marble Hindu temple with exquisite sculptural carvings of deities and ornamental designs. Feels like real beauty of Indian cultural heritage! Except it is not in India, but in London! With Wembley Stadium peeking from behind the building.
An hour of tube ride(well, that depends on where you start from) to the West on Jubilee line, 15 minute walk from Neasden station and you are suddenly elsewhere! The terrace houses recede and give space to a large and amazingly beautiful Hindu temple.
A “secret” part of London you knew nothing about?
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is the largest Hindu temple outside of India. Hand carved by skillful artisans according to ancient temple building and decoration traditions in India, all of the marble pieces were shipped over to London and assembled according to old Vedic architectural texts(using no structural steel) like huge Lego blocks, back in 1995.
The temple consists of the Mandir(the main temple) and the Haveli(the “mansion”).
The entrance is in the Haveli part of the building- an intricately carved wooden hall and cultural centre.
The interior of the temple leaves you gasping for air with its beauty. Bright white marble and limestone sculptures with several colourful altars in between.
There is an authentic Indian restaurant across the car park. We had Malai Kofta and Paneer Sizzler with some amazing sweet mango lassi and naan breads.
This corner of London truly leaves you with an experience of a day trip to India, with less hassle tho.
The temple is open daily 9am to 6pm, with all respectful visitors welcome.
I think my most exotic Christmas Eve so far was 6 years ago in India, on the Eastern coast capital of Tamil Nadu region, Chennai.
Naturally you wouldn´t associate India with Christmas much, would you? Little research shows that India, being a melting pot of different religions living side by side peacefully(most of the time), has about 2.3% (24 million people) Christian population among its nearly 1.3 billion people citizens, with quite considerable amount residing in South India, including Chennai.
While travelling around Southern India, I had the honor to be invited to my Indian friend Susan´s house for Christmas Eve dinner, followed by the Midnight Mass at a beautiful white cathedral. Ladies in fancy colourful saris and a little less strikingly dressed gentlemen had gathered for a Tamil language sermon.
Next morning, on the Christmas day, there were bright-coloured mandalas sketched on the ground in front of the houses of the neighbourhood – known as Rangoli or Kolam. The festive “graffiti” is drawn by using chalk or rice flour and act as good luck charms at holiday occasions.