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A Glimpse Into India's Past

Our visits to India usually center on family. But this time, I also wanted my children to learn some of the history of my homeland.

People usually get excited when they reach the top of something. Well, we got a thrill out of touring the southernmost tip of India. Though we are now U.S. citizens, my husband and I stay connected to our family back home by traveling to India every three years. Last summer, we included a sightseeing trip to Kanyakumari, at the tip of the state of Tamilnadu, which lies at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. 

Kanyakumari was referred to by the British as Cape Comorin and is a community rich in culture and trade. The land around the town is hilly, with commercial buildings and hotels covering the upper crest, and towns people living down below. Many natives are involved in fishing and maritime trades here, and since it’s a tourist destination, people do shell crafts as well. I discovered that Kanyakumari is also one of few places in south India where one hears many different languages. Its primary language, Tamil, is the one my family speaks as well. 

 

The author, Meena Viswanathan, with her children Anand (8) and Gita (12) at the Gandhi Memorial. "Standing in this spot game me goosebumps," she says.How To Get There

We leave Karaikudi (where my family lives in southeast Tamilnadu) on a sunny June morning and use all manner of transportation to reach the seaside town of Kanyakumari. First, we hop into a taxi for a two-hour ride to the temple town of Madurai, where we stroll busy streets, visit a palace, and shop (tuning into my 12-year-old’s passion for clothes) before boarding the afternoon train to Nagercoil.  

Riding the train turns out to be quite entertaining for my 8-year-old son. The neat thing about daytime train travel is that you see all kinds of vendors selling foods native to the towns along the route. It is interesting to hear them chant the food names as they walk through the train cars. Their chanting sounds funny to my son, especially when he hears snack names in Tamil, our native language. 

One food in particular captures his imagination and he repeats its sing-song name: “Kad-la-mit-tai, kad-la-mit-tai,” Tamil for peanut candy. He also enjoys climbing onto the sleeper (a bunk bed of sorts) which gives him a better view. In fact, the train becomes his jungle gym, one he enthusiastically explores.

Five hours later, we arrive in Nagercoil. From the railway station, we hire an auto to take us to the town bus stop for the final leg of our journey. My son thinks the auto is the coolest mode of transportation. This motorized, three-wheeled vehicle has open doorways which lets the air pass through and its bumpy ride reminds him of a roller coaster. As the cool sea breeze embraces us, we know we’ve finally arrived. A shuttle bus transports us to the resort. It is almost midnight.

 

A Land of Contrasts 

Even at this wee hour, the resort receptionist is all smiles, welcoming us with a shell garland. We stay at an eco-friendly resort that offers breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean, and is handsomely decorated in furnishings that use bamboo and straw. 

The next morning, we wake up to a beautiful sunrise. Hungry from our travels, we go downstairs and discover our resort serves both Indian- and American-style breakfasts. After eating Indian breakfasts almost every day since we arrived home, my son is thrilled to see this menu and shouts excitedly, “Mom, look! They’ve got bread for breakfast!” While my son munches on breads and muffins, my daughter quenches her thirst with freshly squeezed juice.  

After our meal, the kids enjoy roaming the lush grounds and chilling out on the park benches spread across the front lawn. Each sitting area has a treasure chest, statue, or clay utensils on display. The resort’s unique setting makes exploring it just as fun as checking out the local sites.

 

History Lessons

Our first stop is Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial, seated on a little rocky island just off the mainland. We take a ferry to reach the memorial, which was built in 1970. While waiting to board, we look out over the town harbor, where fishing boats and catamarans bob in the glistening emerald water.

By the time we reach the memorial, it is almost noon and the temperature hovers at 90 degrees. To enter, visitors must first take off their sandals, but the thought of that makes me cringe. Imagine, walking barefooted on a rocky surface in the middle of the day. Fortunately, special paint is used to create pathways that keep your feet cool. My son loves looking for those paint marks as he finds his way inside the memorial. 

It is said that on Christmas Eve in 1892, the great Indian philosopher sat on a rock in deep meditation here for three consecutive days. In the memorial’s meditation hall, visitors can do the same. I am surprised to see that even my youngest remains silent while we meditate here. This hall incorporates different styles of temple architecture from all over India as well as a statue of Vivekananda. Before moving on, we buy some books at the book store that will shed light on the life of this world renowned spiritual leader. I want my children to know at least one quote by Swami Vivekananda: “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached,” for it is the mantra that drives my life.

 

"A man should know something of his own country too, before he goes abroad." - Laurence Sterne

Great Tamil Poet

Another recently built memorial nearby is dedicated to the celebrated Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar, the author of classic of couplets Thirukkural. This work is regarded as the directory of code of conduct and ethics to humanity. The 133-foot statue connotes the book’s 133 chapters. The chapters are organized into three themes: Aram (virtue), Porul (wealth), and Inbam (pleasure). Each chapter contains 10 couplets, making for a total of 1330 verses. We climb the stairs to the pedestal of the statue to get a closer look.  

When I ask my son what statue this is, without wasting a minute he blurts out, “The Statue of Liberty.” We all laugh. According to him, all statues in the middle of the ocean refer to the one and only Statue of Liberty. We read the statue’s inscription which includes the first verse of the poem, one I have taught my children. 

We discuss the great poet and how he held a palm leaf manuscript and used a stylus to carve letters on a leaf. (He lived between the 2nd century B.C. and 8th century A.D.) His work, written in Tamil, has been translated into 60 different languages. A story goes that Russian writer Leo Tolstoy recommended this book to Mahatma Gandhi.

Mahatma’s favorite verse was: “The act that is done with a pure heart alone is termed virtuous; the others are all just meant to put up an empty show.”

 

Remembering Gandhi

Speaking of Mahatma, we next visit the Gandhi Memorial. The memorial was erected here because a portion of Gandhi’s ashes were kept at this location for public viewing before being scattered across the three seas. Built in 1956,  the three domes of the memorial represent the Gandhian principles of nonviolence, truth, and peace. Standing in this spot gives me goosebumps, and draws me closer to this great soul, who showed the world how to lead a country down the path of freedom using nonviolence.

The confluence of the oceans makes sunrise and sunset very special here. When we finally reach Sunset Point Park, it's just in time to catch the sun as it dips into the ocean. The sunset provides a spectacular ending to a fascinating destination.

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