about We are Akila and Patrick. Our minds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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airavatesvara temple

Gopuram in Kumbakonam

Temple in India
Upiliappan Temple Upiliappan Temple

Kumbakonam Adi Kumbeswara and Upiliappan temple interior

"What should we see in Kumbakonam?"  I asked my cousin, as we planned our family excursion through South India.  There would be 13 of us traveling, ranging in age from my 94-year-old grandfather to Amara, our not yet 1 year old, packed in a mini-bus to see the best of Puducherry, Kumbakonam, and Tanjore in one week.

"Temples, of course," he responded.  Kumbakonam is a town of temples so his answer was no surprise.  Almost 200 temples are packed into this 25 square mile town at the intersection of the Kaveri and Arasalar Rivers, deep in Tamil Nadu, the most southern portion of India.

Adi Kumbeswara Temple

Detailing on the gopuram of the Adi Kumbeswara Temple

My cousin reeled off the names of temples, each with both historical and religious significance.  But, there was one I found in my Internet research that he never mentioned.  "What about Airavatesvara Temple?" I said, stumbling over the long word.

"I don't know it," he responded.  He paused for a second and said, "It must not be very important.  It is named for Indra's white elephant --- the steed that carried the Lord of the Devas."  My grandmother whose earliest childhood memories are swimming in the Kaveri River and going to school in Kumbakonam, didn't know the Airavatesvara Temple.  No one in my extended family --- most of whom visit South Indian temples on their holidays --- had heard of Airavatesvara, either.

But, I insisted that we go and visit.  It was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the Wikipedia page made it sound interesting and, after all, it was only a few miles away from our hotel.

Adi Kumbeswara Temple

Elephant blessing at Adi Kumbeswara Elephant blessing me and Amara

Elephant blessing at the Adi Kumbeswara Temple

We reached Airavatesvara after a long day visiting temples, temples, and more temples, each blending into the other.  Amara was tired and annoyed and both Patrick and I were pretty unimpressed by that point.

There's a difference, you see, between visiting temples for their religious value and visiting, as we did, for purely the aesthetic and archaeological interest.

Airavateswara Temple sunset

Airavateswara Temple sunset

My extended family is religious in a way that I will never be.  It's something that I think comes with growing up in India whereas growing up in the United States.  Religion in India is not optional.  There is no delineation between church (or temple) and state.  Religion is integral and integrated into every part of every day life in India.

Tanjore Temple
Tanjore Big Temple Tanjore Big Temple
Tanjore Big Temple Tanjore Big Temple

Tanjore Brihadisvara Temple

In Chennai, we woke in the morning to the sound of bells clanging at the temple.  Our auto rickshaw drivers had small pictures of Vishnu, Lakshmi, or Shiva on their dashboards.  Every store has a small shrine in it, as does every home have a puja or prayer room set aside.  My extended family avoids garlic and onions on certain days of the week and avoids meat altogether.  Muslims are equally devout at their mosques as are the Christians at their churches.  It is a country where religion pervades every moment of every day.

And, Indians are passionate about their temples.  At the busier and more important temples, such as the Tanjore Brihadisvara Temple, the packed crowds suffocate me.  One of my earliest memories of India is a frantic devotee pushing my seven year old self to the ground inside the Mysore Chamundi Temple so that she could get a closer glimpse of the Goddess.  Even now, as an adult, though I use my elbows to mark my own space, the press of unwashed, undeodoranted people in the stifling interiors nauseates me.  And for what?  The crowds come together for a momentary glimpse of a tiny statue or figure in semi-darkness.

Amara at the Tanjore Big temple Amara at the Tanjore Temple
Patrick and Amara at the Tanjore temple Patrick and Amara at the Tanjore temple

Patrick and Amara at the Tanjore Temple

Devoutness to the point of fanaticism does not appeal to me, which is perhaps why I have never truly appreciated the large South Indian temples.  I can admire the gopuram, the intricately carved exterior pillar at the top of the temple, and the exterior painting.  But, in most temples, the interior has been built on the original structure, over and over again, so that the ancient beauty of the temple is lost in expansions of cement and ceramic tile.  Others are rarely cleaned, leaving grease marks at the bottom of my feet as I walk through their interiors.

Airavatesvara Temple Airavatesvara Temple
Airavatesvara Temple Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple

But, then, we arrived at the Airavatesvara Temple.  It flew in the face of everything I've ever known --- or thought I've known --- about South Indian temples.  It was built in the 12th century by the powerful Chola empire, who ruled much of present day India and many of the surrounding islands from their headquarters in present day Tamil Nadu.  The Chola empire might hold the record for the longest dynasty in history: this family ruled southern India for almost 1,500 years, beginning in the 3rd century BCE until the late 13th century AD.

The Cholas believed in building, trading, and the proliferation of art and music.  Much of the Hindu art and belief in Southeast Asia, including the adoption of the Ramayana by the Thai, was due to the efforts of traders, artisans, and teachers during the Chola empire.  But, empires crumble and temples disappear.

Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara gopuram

There are three --- only three --- of the great Chola temples still standing and without remodel, reconstruction, or alteration since the days of the Chola kings.  The three temples have been listed together as the "Great Living Chola Temples" as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and include the Tanjore Brihadisvara Temple, the Airavatesvara Temple, and the temple at Gangaikondacholapuram (yes, that's a mouthful) near the Ganges River.  (This has a great list of the Chola temples found in Bangalore though all of these temples have been renovated, refurbished, or repainted, so it is difficult to differentiate what was original versus modern.)

Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple

The steps at the Airavatesvara Temple

The Airavatesvara Temple is the smallest and least important of the three.  Legend has it that a sage cursed Airavata, the white elephant who was steed to the king of the gods, turning Airavata black and mottled.  Airavata bathed in the sacred waters here and prayed to Lord Shiva, who turned the elephant's skin white again.  Unlike the Brihadiswara Temple which was built to celebrate the Chola Empire's communion with Lord Shiva, the Airawatesvata Temple was meant to relate to the populace.

Airavatesvara Temple pillar Airavatesvara Temple

Pillars at the Airavateswara Temple

Pillars Pillars at Airavadesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple Pillars

We climbed up the staircase written in ancient Tamil script, flanked by carved elephants and horse-drawn chariots on each side, with the elephant's trunk acting as the bannister.  We stood in a hall of pillars, each pillar carved with scenes of daily life at the time of the Chola Empire.  One pillar showed crowds of people arriving, throwing flowers, and dancing near the king sitting on a bull.  Many of the figures on the stone are no bigger than my thumbnail and the priest inside acts also as our guide, pointing out the intricate details in the temple.  He was clearly proud of this strange, small temple.

Bull and horse in Airavatesvara Temple

Bull and elephant in one figure at Airavatesvara Temple

And, rightly so.  We walked outside and soon fell into conversation with one of Tamil Nadu's archaeological experts, who has been spending a significant amount of time excavating and analyzing the grounds near the temple.  He showed us this beautiful spot where, from one angle, the figure looks like a bull, reaching his head above another animal, and from the other angle, looks like an elephant laying her head on her baby's back, with her trunk spread out before her.

Airavatesvara Temple

Airavatesvara Temple back

We exclaimed in delight and he showed us more of the temple's features, eager to share his discoveries with others.  Once, he complained slightly under his breath that nobody sees these things.

I got that.  In the hour we spent there, we had the place to ourselves.  Once, we saw a tour group of Westerners who dashed in and out of this place, checking it off their list of India's World Heritage Sites.  There were no devotees pushing, shoving, or clamoring to see the God.  This place was quiet and empty, a rarity (impossibility?) in bustling India, and waiting since the days of the Chola kings for people to appreciate it.


The Great Living Chola Temples are located around the cities of Kumbakonam and Tanjore (also known as Tanjavur), about 275 kilometers south of Chennai.  Most go directly to see the Brihadisvara Temple in Tanjore which is, admittedly, gorgeous and immense.  But, I think that the Airavatesvara Temple should not be missed, especially for the lover of arts, architecture, and antiquities.

We stayed at Paradise Resort in Kumbakonam which is a cute hotel geared toward tourists and tour groups.  Guests can take a traditional bullock cart (or the much faster golf cart) to get to and from their rooms and there are onsite artisans who produce certain goods, as well as a menagerie of farm animals.  While the rooms were nice, the reason I would recommend this hotel is for the food.  If you want to try authentic home cooked Tamil fare, this is a great place to get your fill.  Their lunchtime thalis were especially good.  Every single person in my group --- most of whom are very critical when it comes to South Indian food --- liked the food here.

pregnancy is like backpacking through southeast asia

Children in Cambodia A baby in Cambodia

I've spent about as much time backpacking through Asia and Africa as I have been pregnant and, to be honest, there isn't all that much difference between the two.  Pregnancy is like backpacking through Southeast Asia because:

  • in the beginning, you're disoriented, exhausted, and disbelieving ( Did I really just cross over two continents in 17 hours?  Is there really a tiny human being growing inside me? )
  • you could wake up on any given morning and vomit
  • after a little while, things even out and you start to feel great and love this place
  • it's January and the ceiling fan is running on high
  • fantasies tend to involve wine, really good soft cheeses, and Kosher dill pickles
  • personal boundaries disappear as strangers ask about every element of your life ( What is your job?  How much do you make?  Did you plan this pregnancy?  What are your labor and delivery plans? )
  • soon, you're carrying an extra 25 to 30 pounds of luggage, making you wobble like an ungainly penguin

  • forget the books; Google and message boards become the most up-to-date and important means of information
  • size XL becomes the minimal acceptable t-shirt size for any average-sized American ( Thai size XL = American size S; pregnancy size Akila = taking over all of Patrick's t-shirts )
  • you become a minor celebrity: strangers will stare at you, open doors for you, and ask after your health and welfare (In the extreme cases, you might have folks pose for pictures with you or rub your belly.)
  • sneakers and boots are forgotten and discarded; flip flops and slip-on shoes become the footware of choice
  • toward the end, family and friends crawl out of the woodwork to find out your status ( When are you heading home?  That baby out yet? )
  • as you look back at your journey, you realize how far you've come and that this experience has changed you . . . for the better, you think

Baby M is due on Sunday on St. Patrick's Day but we'll see when she actually decides to make her appearance!

Kid in China

the taste of two years

The savor of the last two years lingers on our lips.  We have eaten countless meals at street stalls, restaurants, cafes, cooking classes, and homes in 19 countries but no meal has been the same as any other.  This post collects the most memorable tastes of our travels and we hope that you enjoy this (mostly) salivating journey through the world, as seen by our cameras and remembered by our stomachs.

Drinks outside of Sydney Opera House

The effervescence coating our tongues and minds from our first champagne and beer toast to our round-the-world trip. Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia.

Mamak roti canai

Impossibly light, flaky, and sweet roti canai with vanilla ice cream that we tracked down on three different nights, claiming that we had "photography issues" and needed to take better pictures. Mamak, Sydney, Australia.

Mangoes and papayas

The weeks spent in small towns in Australia where we ate EVERY SINGLE meal with french fries (even my lasagna came with fries), and our relief at finally finding fresh fruit. Port Douglas farmers' market, Port Douglas, Australia.

Charles Melton vineyard

The explosion of strawberry and flowers in the dry 2009 Rose of Virginia wine , which continues to be the best rose we have ever tasted. Charles Melton vineyards, Barossa Valley, Australia.


The creamy, oniony, and healthy mujadara we made with our own hands while camping through New Zealand, a much needed respite after a month eating restaurant food. Our kitchen.

Milford Sound

The fact that we were too exhausted from flipping over our kayak in the frigid Milford Sound to photograph the best meal we had in New Zealand , including a beetroot cream cheese, a basil pesto, and a white bean hummus served with wheat bread on a rustic plank, roasted and stuffed red peppers, and venison with roasted portobello mushrooms. Redcliff Inn, Te Anau, New Zealand.

Blue cheese souffle Wairau River

The sinful smoothness from eating a blue cheese souffle under a deep blue New Zealand sky with fields of vineyards at our feet. Wairau River vineyard, Marlborough region, New Zealand.

St. Joseph's Belgian Tripel

The rich nuttiness of a MOA Barrel Reserve beer, each aged in a wine barrel from the Marlborough region. MOA, Marlborough region, New Zealand.


The wormy appearance and texture of the delicate whitebait , which tasted somewhere between crab and a white fish, and is much sought after in New Zealand. Cafe de Paris, Hokitika, New Zealand.

Hangi sweetpotatoes

Our amazement that noxious sulfur makes vegetables and chicken taste delicious when cooked hangi -style. Cosy Cottage International Holiday Park, Rotorua, New Zealand.


Learning how to make sweet kozhakattai (coconut dumplings) from my grandmother, the woman in whose kitchen I first learned to appreciate food. Patti's house, Chennai, India.

Noodles at Wat Chedi Luang

The generous welcome from the Thai people as we arrived for the feast at the head monk's funeral at Wat Chedi Luang , and ate plate after plate of noodles and rice with masses of Thai people dressed in black and white. Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Red chili paste

The eye-blistering smell of red chilies being mashed for what would become the best Thai curry we have ever eaten. Asia Scenic Cooking Class, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Mushrooms on a stick Lampang

Pulling semi-dried mushrooms off bamboo skewers with our teeth while wandering around the colorful throngs as night fell on Lampang. Weekend night market, Lampang, Thailand.

Bamboo in elephant's mouth

Sharing a meal of vegetarian fare, bananas, and bamboo with our elephant friends --- and, yes, they ate way more than we did. Patara Elephant Farm, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Spring rolls Rice fields
Spring roll dough Rice paper wrappers

Realizing that the rice paper wrappers we use to make simple spring rolls take months of toil in rice fields and hours of back-breaking labor over a fast-spinning stove in Southeast Asia. Rice fields, Sukhothai, Thailand; rice paper wrapper visit, Battambang, Thailand; spring rolls made in our kitchen.


The joy of purposeful charity as we watched Cambodian street children make and serve us amok , a stew of coconut, fish, and curry, as training for future jobs in the hospitality industry. Romdeng and Friends, restaurants run by Mith Samlanh, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Introducing our traveling friends to the best vegetarian restaurant we have ever tried ; their mushroom and eggplant dips were akin to the nectar of gods. Chamkar, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (sorry, no picture here)


Tofu fried Tofu flecked with vegetables

Awakening to the power and beauty of tofu , boiled and served with soy sauce, served as cold yuba (tofu skin), grilled with miso paste, flecked with vegetables, or any of the other innumerable ways it may be served. All over Kyoto, Japan.


Discovering that though okonomiyaki --- a light pancake filled with cabbage, cheese, meat, barbeque sauce, and mayonnaise --- may sound disgusting, it is actually one of the most delicious food finds in this world. Okonomiyaki joints, Hiroshima, Japan.

Sashimi bowl

Eating the best sushi ever in a bar with laminated countertops and stools that could fit no more than 20 people at any given time, right outside the Tokyo Fish Market. Tokyo Fish Market, Tokyo, Japan.

Kaiseki dinner

Indulging in a kaiseki dinner , the ultimate Japanese meal, at a traditional ryokan after spending the day relaxing in mineral baths. Kamesei Ryokan, Chikuma City, Japan.


Adjusting to the sweet and squishy world of Japanese desserts . All over Japan.

South Korean food

Ordering four items that appeared to be vegetarian in order to find one Korean vegetarian dish because vegetarianism simply does not exist in South Korea. Busan and Seoul, South Korean.

Pizza Hut South Korea

Our ninth anniversary meal: an amazingly delicious Pizza Hut pizza , with a crust ringed by cheese and sweet potato puree, found in a South Korean subway station after five exhausting hours spent on a bus. Seoul, South Korea.

Lays potato chips

The bag of potato chips and Coke that burst all over my lap on our worst travel day ever in China. On the way to Hohhot, China.

Fake Peking duck

Peking duck
Discovering the beauty of mock meats and Chinese ingenuity, as we tried flavorful "Peking duck" and crackling Peking duck , both two of the best meals we had in China. Beihai restaurant, Peking Duck restaurant, Beijing, China.


Savoring jiaozi (dumplings) whether made by tiny wrinkled men with swift moving hands or by our own much slower fingers. Hutong Cuisine, Beijing, China.

Nausea sauce park

Laughing every time we opened a Chinese menu with English translations ( nausea sauce pork , anyone?). All over China.

Bunny chow

Believing that discrimination, division, and dissimilarities can be overcome by experiencing the unity of food --- especially bunny chow --- in South Africa. Oriental Restaurant, Durban, South Africa.

Beetroot tart La Colombe Risotto La Colombe
Beef La Colombe Chocolates La Colombe
Reveling in our first experience in a top 100 restaurant in the world by eating far more than any one person should eat at a single sitting. La Colombe, Constantia Uitsig, Constantia, South Africa.

Village Bistro

Discovering one of the most beautiful (and tasty) desserts we have ever seen --- a thick chocolate mousse in a peanut brittle pot held up by chocolate stands with spun sugar curls and baskets --- in a local restaurant with little fanfare and a humble name. Village Bistro , Bergvliet, Constantia, South Africa.

Cake Africa-in-Focus

Delighting in the puddings made over a campfire by our Africa-in-Focus cook and then grumbling over having to wash those pudding dishes afterwards. Africa-in-Focus overland expedition.

Chopping vegetables like a Zambian

Chopping vegetables like a Zambian, without a cutting board and a single knife, and eating greens and vegetables with circles of creamy soft nsima. Zambian cooking class, Victoria Falls, Zambia.

Chocolate chip cookie dough cupcake

Biting into a soft chocolate cupcake and finding a thick fudgy layer of chocolate chip cookie dough at the bottom. Mabel Francis Potter's Cupcake Emporium, Savannah, Georgia.

Mrs. Wilke's

Sitting with eight strangers at a table groaning under true Southern fare , with at least twenty different platters of vegetables, three types of meats, biscuits and cornbread, and as much sweet tea as a man could consume. Mrs. Wilke's Dining Room, Savannah, Georgia, United States.

Fig vegetable plate

Discovering the beauty of the Jerusalem artichokes , a vegetable we had never tried, fried with butter and salt, in one of the best vegetable plates I have ever tried. FIG, Charleston, South Carolina, United States.

Kulfi chocolate Sipping chocolate
Indulging nearly every other day in the best sipping chocolate we have ever tasted, flavored like kulfi with rose water, pistachio, and cardamom. French Broad Chocolate Lounge, Asheville, North Carolina, USA.

Sunny Point cafe Sunny Point cafe
Papa's Papa's
Putting away our credit cards and relishing cheap and phenomenal cuisine : huevos rancheros that I would go and stand in line for every weekend, and Tex-Mex so good that we would have sworn we were in the Southwest. Sunny Point Cafe, and Papa's, Asheville, North Carolina.

Being surprised when a waiter brought me a gold anklet wrapped around an orchid-strewn napkin with a bottle of champagne at a nice restaurant for our tenth anniversary. Couples San Souci, Jamaica.

The best fruitcake we have ever tasted --- which would surely convert any fruitcake naysayer --- at high tea served by white-gloved waiter. Queen Mary 2 cruise ship.

Cream tea

The joy of clotted cream , which I would put on just about anything if I had my way in this world.  As far as I can tell, it's the only good reason to brew a cup of tea. Cornwall and Devon, England, United Kingdom.

Cheese festival

Stumbling upon a cheese festival where we tried sheep's milk, cow's milk, and goat's milk cheese aged traditionally and produced by farmers. Tavistock, Devon, England.

Chocolate con churros

Reminiscing about being in Spain fourteen years ago on my first night in Bilbao as I indulged in my favorite Spanish dessert, chocolate con churros , and introduced Patrick to the same. Cafe del Arenal, Bilbao, Spain.

Patatas bravas

Rediscovering the joy of tapas, pintxos, and two hour dinners spent lingering over slow-cooked food and good conversation in the pleasant evening air. All over Madrid and Barcelona, Spain.

Jamon iberico

Stumbling upon jamon iberico , cured meat from acorn-fed black-hoofed pigs, which left Patrick saying for weeks on end, 'Man, that jamon literally melted in my mouth.' Mercat de San Miguel, Madrid, Spain.


And there you have it: forty-five tastes of the last two years.  Thank you for joining our journey to find great and memorable food all across the world.

December 2010

china: the low-down
a wrap up
December 8, 2010

November 2010

chinese cuisine
diversity in deliciousness
November 19, 2010

unbelievably beautiful
huang shan mountains
November 15, 2010

crazy politicians
the terracotta army
November 10, 2010

edamame and pea dumplings
November 2, 2010

October 2010

when travel sucks
datong to hohhot
October 29, 2010

jiaozi (chinese dumplings)
October 25, 2010

the great firewall of china
circumventing censorship
October 19, 2010

lost in translation
a bit of chinglish
October 12, 2010

progress hungers
yungang grottoes and datong
October 7, 2010

the aliens have landed
October 5, 2010

September 2010

favorite world expo pavilions
surprising beauty
September 07, 2010

August 2010

arts and crafts
in beijing
August 31, 2010

1.3 billion people
and beijing
August 27, 2010

rainbow beijing
colors in a city
August 24, 2010

the locals' route
at the great wall
August 20, 2010

the absurdity of the dmz
in north korea
August 17, 2010

transnational fast food theorem
in south korea
August 13, 2010

south korea in a whirlwind
1 week around
August 10, 2010

japan: the low-down
a wrap up
August 6, 2010

turning japanese
at the end
August 2, 2010

July 2010

japanese desserts
sweet and squishy
July 30, 2010

is a japan rail pass worth it?
transportation on a budget
July 28, 2010

paper cranes and peace
July 23, 2010

splurge japanese cuisine
so worth it
July 20, 2010

buddha deer
July 18, 2010

hot tub monkey machine
July 15, 2010

budget japanese cuisine
many ways to eat
July 8, 2010

12 hours in nikko
day trippin'
July 1, 2010

June 2010

kyoto for free
japan on a budget
June 22, 2010

kyoto in photos
streets and gardens
June 15, 2010

powered by tofu
in kyoto
June 11, 2010

rainy days
in tokyo
June 8, 2010

that alternate universe
June 5, 2010

May 2010

cambodia: the low-down
a wrap up
May 24, 2010

4 countries, 40 hours
the journey back
May 18, 2010

vegetable summer rolls
May 6, 2010

April 2010

on the bamboo train
in battambang
April 26, 2010

unexceptional wonder
kompong chhnang
April 20, 2010

silky stylings
artisans d'angkor
April 16, 2010

how to avoid temple fatigue
in 5 easy steps
April 14, 2010

the color of resiliency
the people of Cambodia
April 9, 2010

March 2010

art of man, power of nature
at angkor
March 31, 2010

the currency of kindness
at angkor
March 26, 2010

thailand: the low-down
a wrap up
March 23, 2010

the scuba saga
koh tao
March 15, 2010

just another city
March 9, 2010

how to not be a stupid tourist in thailand
March 4, 2010

February 2010

the importance of doing nothing
in mae sot
February 24, 2010

sukhothai in sepia
filtered ruins
February 19, 2010

lovely lampang
undiscovered charm
February 16, 2010

trained by elephants
at patara elephant farm
February 12, 2010

elephant beauty
at patara elephant farm
February 4, 2010

January 2010

thai feast
asia scenic cooking class
January 29, 2010

unexpected funeral
at wat chedi luang
January 26, 2010

at mahabalipuram
January 22, 2010

kozhakattai (sweet coconut dumplings)
January 18, 2010

the low-down
a wrap up
January 11, 2010

June 2009

ready to go
June 9, 2009