My two boys are away heli-skiing in Canada, something the poor old hip won’t allow me to do at the moment, so what better plan than to have a girls’ jaunt round Tamil Nadu with my India-loving friend Hilary? As she lives in Abu Dhabi it’s only a short hop for the both of us.
We have a cheerful rendez-vous at the Chennai Trident, a surprisingly nice airport hotel, before embarking on our own Odyssey. Morning sees us doing a whistle-stop tour of Fort St George, the early administrative HQ of the British East India Company, established in 1640. We are both unprepared for the heat – its around 40 C with 95% humidity – as we stagger round the dilapidated remains, many closed off to the public as it’s an army base now, finding sanctuary in St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican Church in Asia (1678). We are saddened by the marble memorials to women and children who died so young.
By the way I have had a series of disasters on this trip – first, my borrowed Nikon camera refuses to let me download any photos from its disk, so the photo content of this blog is varied and taken with my Samsung Edge – e.g. no photos of St Mary’s Church and French quarter of Pondi; and secondly I deleted ALL my photos form my trusty cell phone, though luckily it had been randomly downloading some of them. AARGH! so the photos are rather eclectic Im afraid…
We repair to the cool interior of our car, and head south along the coast to Mamallapuram, passing resort after resort, many with garish Disney-style statues outside to entice innocent children. Mamallapuram is known for two things: firstly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an ancient port city built in the 7th century and with some spectacular temples worthy of its status;
and, secondly, for being the home of one of Rick Stein’s favourite restaurants, The Seashore Garden Restaurant, recorded for posterity in his Indian series. We treat ourselves to a large cold beer, some curried crispy squid and a fish curry – all delicious but vastly overpriced thanks to RS. It turns out to be the most expensive meal of the trip!
Onwards, onwards, sightseeing cut short by the heat, to Pondicherry, the old French capital – the French, Portuguese, Dutch and British all fought over these trade routes over the years. The French Quarter of Pondi is delightful – tree-lined- streets, all still with French names, old colonial style houses, and further reminders of its French heritage with a liberal scattering of Lycées and Biblioteques. Our hotel, The Mahe Palace, is a converted old house, situated round a courtyard, with a wonderful roof-top restaurant serving delicious food. It’s perfectly safe to wander around at night and Hilary and I take a stroll along the promenade, along with most of Pondi, before finding a tucked-away bar – aptly named La Vie en Rose – which serves Gin and Tonic.
After a fabulous dhosa – the first of many (my favourite South indian food)…
we make our way early to the market, before it gets too hot (faint hope). Like all Indian markets the air is heavy with a heady mixture of smells – fish, garlic, sandalwood, chilli, jasmine, putrefying vegetable matter and sweat. Not entirely pleasant, but we wander around, making friends, having ‘selfies’ (the Indian term for a photo with you) and taking pictures of others, only too glad to see their portraits. On the way we see a classic Indian sight:
Jess, our charming and skilful Keralan driver, eventfully locates us as we are about to wilt, and whisks us off to Auroville, ‘where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities’. This is a weird dystopian settlement, based on the beliefs of a mystic, Sri Aurobindo Ghose, and high-jacked by The Mother, his disciple. Now home to 2400 people from 49 nations, of whom about one-third are Indian, it run like a well-oiled machine, with shops and cafes; admission to see the Matri Mandir, the space-age meditation centre, complete with its crystal centrepiece, is only allowed once you have watched the propaganda video.
I am accosted by an elderly Frenchman, who asks me where I’m from. When I return the question he tells me he has been here for 42 years, and is in charge of the ‘administration’ of building the Matri Mandir, still a work in progress. No dorm for him – he lives in a nice little house, thank you. Just as I am asking some interesting questions about governance, ‘No’, he says, committee meetings are ‘not always harmonious’, he has to dash off. The security guard who chats to us as we wait for the shuttle (using a stick has some uses in this heat!) is less sure about its effect on the local community ‘some good, some bad. It is all about power.’ But, having said too much perhaps, he shuts up.
In the evening we take another stroll and visit Lakshmi the temple elephant, before having – you guessed it – another G & T
The road to the Chola Empire beckons and, as we drive through rural Tamil Nadu, we learn more about this area, one of the poorest in India. Everywhere we see statues to the former film star leader, M.G. Ramachandran, in his sunglasses, usually garlanded with flowers, but looking every inch the gangster. Now dead, his wife took over the reins of power but relinquished it to yet another female Chief Minister who, despite the continuing corruption which goes with the territory, seems to be popular as health, education and most importantly, agricultural loans are being delivered to the rural areas.
Young people as a result are getting lots of qualifications, and turning away from the land in order to do white collar jobs. Hence the need for the large combine harvesters we see trundling along – it’s rice and sugarcane harvest, although the latter is still largely done by hand. Everywhere we go we see people toiling in the fields, and selling their produce by the side of the road.
At the Chidambaram Nataraja temple, one of the great holy sites where Shiva is believed to have danced his holy danced immortalised in the ubiquitous Nataraja bronzes, you we are greeted by a midget with a gammy leg, who is to be our guide. I am not sure whether to be flattered or insulted when he grabs me firmly by the arm and steers me round like an ancient Granny!
Nataraja is said to be one of Michael Wood’s favourite temples. It is a bustling, busy place, a living temple devoted to Shiva, complete with its matchmakers doing a roaring trade in the Royal Hall, as well as being an historic monument. There is a large tank – putrid-looking and slick with dirt, where pilgrims bathe twice a day.
Everywhere there are self-important Brahmin priests, part of the family who still own this lucrative temple, clad in spotless white dhotis, and with effeminate hair styles – a shaved back and sides, with an elaborate top-knot, all shiny with coconut oil. The hair-do is representative of Shiva’s male and female side, having attributes of both sexes. The younger ones are lounging around, chatting and playing with their cell phones.
It’s a huge complex and the paving stones are fried-egg hot – I can almost smell the soles of my feet singeing – so we scuttle along in the shade, trying to avoid any open spaces. Unlike many of the other temples which are UNESCO protected, this has been loving ‘restored’ by re-painting the ancient Chola carvings in the most garish and vulgar colours imaginable. It is much admired by the devotees.
Temples are big business as we will see all over India. We are both reminded of the Catholic Church selling pardons in the middle ages, as ash bindis and blessings are given, and oil lamps wafted around, in exchange for rupee notes (we are taken for R100 in the temple in Darasuram by an elaborate con). Here in the Hall of Bliss, the antechamber to the inner sanctum where there is a secret Linga, we see an overweight Brahmin family having a special private puja, ending with offerings of coconut and bananas, effortlessly split and peeled by a temple minion before being blessed and consumed.
Outside we are besieged by several teenage girls with babies and bumps. It is pitiful. But with all that wealth one can only hope the pious priests find some charity in their hearts. Strangely it’s one of only two places where we see beggars.
In the heat of the day we stop at 11 century Gankaikondacholapuram (‘City of the Chola who took the Ganges’) temple complex to find all the sensible people asleep in the shade. The mad English girls, undaunted, leap from stone to stone to take in the vast, tranquil site where we are the only visitors – aside from the recumbent forms.
And so to Kumbakonam, where we are staying in an Ayurvedic resort (Mantra) in the middle of nowhere. Here we meet up with an elderly Irish couple form Pondi, who are about to celebrate their 40th anniversary with a full-blown Indian wedding. A strange place to do if from, we think but, hey, each to their own.
Kumbakonam is one of the most sacred cities in Tamil Nadu and home to more temples than we can even begin to count. Many are dotted around the huge tank, where every 12 years there is the Mahamam festival (which we have just missed) when they trundle the sacred statues and relics around on huge carts. We manage to visit only one, the 9th century Nageshvara Temple, which has some of the oldest and finest examples of Chola statues. It is here we see a devotee of Hanuman jumping up and down on the spot, as if on a pogo stick, while incanting prayers. And it is here that a burst of Ode to Joy (how weird is that in India!?) rewards us after giving R10 to a poor old man sitting hopefully by the temple gate. Good karma.
Nearby is 12th century Darasuram temple, dedicated to Shiva, a magnificent UNESCO site, beautifully and tastefully restored, despite the avaricious priest. Again, the paving stones are ouch-hot and we beat a hasty retreat to a silk-weaving workshop, where we see saris being made – a dying art due to commercial looms and synthetic materials.
The Chola culture is famous for its bronzes, and these are still made today, using the cire perdue or lost wax method. Most of these bronzes are still used in the temples, but of course many are made for the tourists. The workshop we visited was having a traditional Sunday lunch – four brothers and four sisters, with all their children playing cricket in the yard. Hilary was even persuaded to bowl a ball.
In the cool of the early evening we take a bullock cart ride around the nearby villages and paddy fields. Everywhere we go we afford the villagers huge amusement: betel-stained, toothless old men and women; mothers with naked babies; workers in the fields; spivs on motor bikes, in cars and moto-rickshaws; small boys on bikes and pretty young girls in Sunday best with intricately plaited hair, interwoven with jasmine – one and all come out to wave and smile. The lorries and buses honk loudly to try and scare the poor old bullocks.
But our driver, a delightful young man with his 7-year-old daughter, ignores them all, and thwacks the bullocks one more time, while chirruping encouragement. It’s a peaceful way to end the first half of our journey, jolting about the back roads, through villages, past temples, seeing daily life and enjoying the evening sun as it glances over the paddies. We are in the heart of rural India.
Finally managed to get photos from the Nikon…more on Fort St George, Chidambaram and Pondi:
We travelled with Points South a small, bespoke tour operator who specialises in India and Sri Lanka. Every tour is tailor-made to suit your wishes and represents very good value for the quality of service.