My hands-down (hands-in!) favourite feed in India was the Thali. These ‘set meals’ were always the best value and represented an assortment of typical, local food of the area, varying enormously between states and regions. Thali’s were always the most popular choice in cafes and restaurants so you were eating the freshest food, albeit often a mystery as to what would appear on the table in front of you. Thalis are incredible value, in Thokkilangadi, Kerala, we paid the equivalent of 45p for a Fish Thali, with as much as you could eat.
The word ‘Thali’ can be translated directly as the Hindi word for ‘plate’ or ‘tray’, on which the set meal is served. The only choice you generally have is Veg, Fish or Non-Veg, with vegetarian being the most common. As everything is prepared and bubbling away in huge pots in the kitchen, your meal is presented in minutes.
The meal is like a colourful, symmetrical, work of art; sometimes the selection of curries and dahls are ladled into small, round, individual, metal bowls, sometimes piled carefully directly onto a round metal tray or banana leaf, occasionally into pre-formed plastic trays. On the side, pickles, chutneys, sauces, salad, salt, fresh chillies, onion and yoghurt raita are carefully placed. Some Thalis include a desert also, a tidy portion of syrupy Gulab Jamun, sweet semolina rice, ice-cream or sticky Jilabi.
If you’re hungry, the Thali is a delight as once you’ve emptied one small bowl, it is re-filled; in busy restaurants men with narrow metal buckets filled with Sambar, Dahl and Curry fly round the floor ladling out top-ups to every table. Cutlery is not an option, locals expertly mix the components of the Thali together with deft fingers- food unanimously tastes better when eaten by hand.
Variations are endless, in the south rice is a more common accompaniment whereas breads feature more heavily in the north. Thali’s reflect the wide-ranging cuisine of the country, coconut-based down south with fish, and creamy, meaty curries in the north, every time is a surprise and a delight with no tough menu decisions to be made.
South Indian Breakfasts
There is simply no better way to start your day in the South of India than feasting on one of the regions fresh, mouth-watering breakfasts. Roadside, beachside, village, town or city, tiny cafes, restaurants and street stalls churn out simple breakfast staples to a steady flow of hungry morning diners. Varying from a simple shack with a single steaming pan of Idli to a shiny modern canteen with a Dosa list as long as the monster pancakes themselves, breakfast is a meal not to be missed when in the southern states.
Dosas are thin pancakes made from fermented rice flour batter, they can be crispy and plain (Saada Dosa), stuffed with spicy potato curry (Masala Dosa), made with semolina flour (Rava Dosa), a pile of thick and fluffy dosas with lentils (Set Dosa) or white and watery (Neer Dosa). Flat, round, rolled-up, triangular or conical, the Dosa shape is often as diverse as its filling. The same rice flour batter is also used to make Uttapam, a thicker crepe that often has onion or tomato mixed in with the batter.
Ubiquitously served with fresh coconut chutney and Sambar, the chutney is often so fresh we once waited for the guy to climb a nearby palm tree to cut down the coconut to make it. Sambar is a watery, spicy lentil-based vegetable stew which is synonymous with south Indian dishes, dunking your Dosa or Idli into a small metal bowl of piping hot spicy liquid is a standard part of the breakfast routine.
Idli are soft, white, steamed lentil rice cakes, like round fluffy pillows of deliciousness waiting to be dipped into fiery Samba and velvety coconut chutney. Vada are doughnut shaped fritters made from lentil or chickpea Dahl, deep fried so they are fluffy and light on the inside and golden and crispy on the outside. Sometimes served alongside Idli, they are also dipped in the universal Chutney and Sambar.
With plates of Idli or Vada costing as little as the equivalent of 30p and a Dosa around 50p, breakfasts in the south were fast, fresh, inexpensive and utterly delicious, we miss them already!
Only a few kilometres from one of the worlds most visited monuments, The Taj Mahal, lies the Agra Bear Rescue Facility on the peaceful Yamuna River.
The centre houses and cares for 211 Indian sloth bears, all rescued from the horrendous former practice of ‘dancing bears’.
Historically, Indian Sloth bears cubs were stolen from their mothers, their muzzles pierced with a red-hot iron poker and a rope attached through their nose to force them on to their hind legs to ‘dance’; first for Mughal Emperors, then for local crowds and tourists. The bears endured a life of pain and suffering with health problems, cramped cages and poor food.
In 1996, research carried out by the non-governmental organisation Wildlife SOS revealed 1,200 dancing bears in India. Over the next 12 years, Wildlife SOS achieved the incredible task of rescuing and rehabilitating more than 600 bears until the last dancing bear was rescued in 2009.
We had a tour around the rescue centre in Agra, where groups of rescued bears roam in large enclosures, each group cared for by dedicated keepers. Their health is continually monitored as years of abuse and malnutrition, plus the physical scars of their nose piercings and canine teeth removal can cause them ongoing problems.
In a sad reminder of their past lives in servitude, their noses still show tears and holes where their ropes were tied and some bears still sway repeatedly, still haunted by years spent in confinement.
A visit to one of the centres two kitchens revealed the enormous scale of feeding over 200 large mammals; huge vats of wheat and millet porridge with honey and milk sat ready to be distributed to the bears for one of their three daily feeds, alongside boiled eggs, fresh fruit and cooked vegetables.
It was amazing to watch these majestic animals, finally free from their lives of painful performance and torture, now able to enjoy social interaction, good food, natural behaviours and a life in peaceful nature.
It’s an incredible success story for conservation and animal welfare in India and demonstrates what can be achieved in a relatively short space of time by dedicated and passionate individuals Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani and their team. Volunteers from around the world come to the facility to give their time to help feed and care for the bears, as well as raising awareness and much-needed funds for the ongoing work of the organisation.
Despite the trade in dancing bears being over, the threat of poaching of Indian Sloth Bears still remains. We met ‘Elvis’ who was recently confiscated on the border with Nepal on his way to China where there is still a lucrative market in bear ‘parts’ for medicine. Fortunately he was rescued in time and is now in quarantine at the centre where he is doing well.
You can visit the Agra Bear Rescue Facility and even arrange to spend a day with keepers to learn more about their work caring for the bears; http://wildlifesos.org/agra-bear-rescue-facility or follow their fantastic work with wildlife on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia
Le Corbusier In India
Not having done much research prior to arriving in Ahmedabad I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the city had four Le Corbusier buildings. With a love of architecture and full of intrigue I had to find out more about why these buildings were here.
In post-independent India of the early 1950’s Le Corbusier had been involved in planning the city of Chandigarh and designing several prominent government buildings. During his time in India he was commissioned by the president of the Mill Owners’ Association to design the organization’s headquarters in Ahmedabad along with 3 other domestic buildings.
The secretary of the Millowners, Surottam Hutheesing also commissioned Le Corbusier to build him a house that showcased his social and economic position and reflected his modernist lifestyle and beliefs. The building symbolized Le Corbusier's domestic architecture whilst integrating the traditional features of Ahmedabad design. However, the plans were sold to fellow millowner, Shyamubhai Shodhan. Despite his different lifestyle and an entirely new site for the project, Shodhan elected to retain the original plans.
Of the four buildings in Ahmedabad the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan are accessible to the public. Despite Villa Shodhan still being a private residence we managed to sneak in and have a look around!
Constructed in 1954, the Mill Owners’ Association Building is considered important as it clearly demonstrates a period of re-evaluation and reassessment for Le Corbusier. This is clearly evident through the drastic changes to his style from the previous decades and glaringly obvious in the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan.
During the period between 1945–1956, Le Corbusier started to incorporate and consider nature more frequently into his designs. The considerations of light, wind, rain and the addition of plants into the buildings in Ahmedabad are clear. Within the Mill Owners’ Association Building a rhombus of sunlight penetrates deep into the concrete structure whilst beautifully sculpted staircases seemingly float between floors. Working in predominately warmer environments Le Corbusier took his cues from traditional Indian architecture emulating large pillared halls and shady areas created by overhanging ledges.
The Mill Owners’ Association Building sits between Ashram Road to the west and the Sabarmati River to the east. Openings on the west of the building are placed diagonally to obstruct views and noise from the street. The introduction of these angled thickened concrete facades and a brise-soleil, incorporated with the use of plants diffuse direct sunlight and prevent the inner areas from becoming too hot whilst still allowing a breeze to pass through. At the rear of the building a cool wind blows from the river through deep reveals and openings that also allow light to enter the lower spaces. Here the apertures frame views to the river below. Up on the parasol of Villa Shodhan there is a roof garden camouflaging the building with its environment.
Le Corbusier’s work during this time took on many influences from the De Stijl movement. The parasol roof and the connectivity between the interior spaces in Villa Shodhan clearly reflect this. The window configurations and the asymmetry of the brise-soleil reflect the key symbols of the De Stijl movement that can be seen in the paintings of Mondrian.
The Mondrian-esq rectilinear plan and grid of the Mill Owners’ Association Building’s exterior stand in stark contrast to the interior spaces. Inside large convex and concave volumes panelled in wood veneer act as lecture halls and meeting places whilst the interplay of harsh concrete shapes toy with ever-changing geometric sunlight that pierces the shade.
Both the Mill Owners’ Association Building and Villa Shodhan are both fine examples of mid-century Le Corbusier modernism. These two fascinating and slightly unexpected buildings, in my opinion, are equally as historically important in the history of architecture in India as all the temples we visited!
As we travel overland we often notice quirky idiosyncrasies about the world around us. It’s no mystery that India is unlike any other country and respectively our observations here are quite unique. In Kerala state in particular the Indian definition of ‘cool’ has seemingly manifested itself in the shape of a slightly overweight, smiley, 30-something, moustached - ‘Kerala Man’. The trustworthy Kerala Man ‘look’ is literally plastered everywhere in Kerala and is used to sell all manner of products from movies and diamonds to politics.
India's Painted Trucks and Buses
There is no denying that India is a colourful country. The dress, Holi celebrations and painted temples all display colourful characteristics that wouldn’t be out of place in an art gallery in Europe. This exuberant love of colour, coupled with the practice of traditional crafts and signwriting mean that surfaces that would typically be unpainted, including animals, are often covered in intricate artwork.
The trucks of India are no exception and display a truly unique decorative style that varies slightly from state to state.
Despite slight variations in style, a few mottos are always omnipresent. The rear of the vehicles are typically covered with instructional slogans like “HORN OK PLEASE”, “USE DIPPER AT NIGHT” or “WAIT FOR SIGNAL” characteristically painted in typefaces that wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional fairground in the UK. Brake lights are often labelled with the words “STOP SIGNAL” painted above them – ironically brake lights never work!
Intricate decorative patterns and animal & floral motifs cover virtually every square inch of the vehicles which have often been custom built onto a pre-existing chassis. The cabs of the trucks are usually constructed from wood and adorned with elaborate metal-work. Again, commonly decorated with the company name and featuring required information like “All India Permit” or “Goods Carrier”.
The buses and coaches of south India have embraced newer spraypaint and airbrush techniques resulting in some exceptionally distinctive and often bizarrely irrational paint jobs! Why wouldn’t you want a portrait of a white toddler dressed as a pirate over a garish psychedelic background painted on the rear of your tourist coach in India? Other designs feature unrelated pop-cultural references like Angry Birds and Mickey Mouse. No matter what design is chosen, it is certain that the paintjob will be colourful!
Possibly our favourite ‘spot’ was an open-sided hearse airbrushed (badly) with a white galloping horse!
In a world that is constantly looking to technology to improve production speeds it is nice to know that traditional brush-painted signwriting is still thriving in India. Hopefully this craft will continue as this out-dated medium oozes more character, style and finesse than it’s modern day replacement!