We have a charming leaving ceremony at the Mantra Retreat: after being smeared with vermilion ash on our foreheads, a fragrant flame is wafted around and some coconuts smashed. We now understand why the geese and ducks have been waddling around expectantly all morning as they dive for the succulent flesh with cackles of delight.
It’s a short hop to Tanjore where we are staying in the newly opened Svatma. This is a converted old family house with an added wing. As the TripAdvisor reports on the new rooms are not great we are delighted to be the only guests and ushered into a gorgeous room in the old house, complete with our own salon. With bit of time to kill– it’s 40 C outside – we rest and swim in their opulent granite pool before setting out for the Palace and Brihadishvara Temple.
Our guide, Rajah, is very serious and quite hard to follow, but we manage to increase our knowledge of the Hindu deities, learning for instance that Ganesh and Murugun are the sons of Shiva and Parvati. I have always wondered about Ganesh, how an elephant became a deity and, in Madurai, a couple of nights later, yet another guide tells us a convoluted story about how Parvati’s son was guarding his mother’s ‘chamber’ while she bathed and Shiva, who had been off fighting, returned and, furious at being denied entry to his wife’s bedroom, unknowingly decapitated his son. So ‘grief-stricken’ (Raja had an archaic way with words, obviously learned by rote from some 19th century Hindu Myths and Legends book) Shiva rushed out, ‘slaughtered’ a loitering elephant and stuck his head on the body of his lifeless son and, hey presto, Ganesh is born.
Inside the old Palace is a wonderful collection of ancient Chola bronzes all rather haphazardly displayed and, hidden away, the jewel of the Maratha Durbar Hall, built in 1684, which we might not have found except for Hilary’s persistence. We sneak in, the only visitors to this magical place with elaborately decorated columns, pillars and murals.
On a roll now, we proceed to the Tanjore temple, another spectacular example of Chola architecture, with several huge gate towers and an enormous central pyramid or vimana. Despite being renovated it has been sympathetically done and the carvings are not daubed in mauve, pink and green.
The Brihadishvara temple is another living temple, which contains 208 lingas – the phallic male/female representation that is sacred to the Hindu faith – and the second largest Nandi bull in India. It is thronged with Kerala pilgrims – we are approaching the new year holiday – and I am whisked into the central shrine, along with the steady stream of pilgrims, where I receive a blessing and a dab of ash. After my purification (and a quick prayer for Louise) we wander round the back, admiring the vibrant 17th century frescos depicting stories from the life of the gods.
As we wend our way back in the golden evening light we see that dancers have arrived to entertain the pilgrims and we spend a pleasant half hour watching traditional dancing, performed by not-so-young ‘girls’, all heavily made up and beautifully dressed in luxurious silk.
Up early the next morning we practise a little breathing yoga with a tiny woman teacher, who is in fact a school principal, before having a final swim in the zen pool and eating another yummy dhosa.
Our next stop is Chettinad, an area where the prosperous 19th century merchants who traded in Burma and China settled and flaunted their wealth – some houses even have statues of Chinese and European couples on their turrets. We are the only guests in Visalam, one of the old merchant mansions that has been converted into a hotel. This one is from the 1930s and was built as a wedding present for a much-loved daughter. Sadly, she died a few months afterwards, giving birth, and the house was never lived in.
The mansions are all in decay as inheritance laws have resulted in them being spread over too many families, and are now mainly boarded up anjd inhabited only by caretakers. There are a couple of exceptions, including the Villa Lakshmi, which we visit, a baroque version of Visalam, which is being spruced up for a family wedding: an army of painters and scrubbers are vainly trying to dislodge the ingrained dirt and cobwebs. We are shown round by a pretty woman with a crippled foot, one of the very few people we saw with deformity on the trip.
Our best experiences of the Chettinad culture are from a delicious thali lunch at another mansion hotel in Karaikudi, the Bangala, run by a charming matriarch with, I suspect a rod of iron, and a late afternoon cycle round our village. The low evening light casts a golden glow on the buildings and the streets are almost deserted save for the odd cow, the ever-present boys lurking and larking, gangs of schoolgirls, homeward bound, all asking for pens, and a matt-haired toothless crone who jumps us at the tank. The occasional revving of a scooter and a surprising bus shatter the peace. The unnatural calm only adds to the sense of desolation of these once fine monuments to success.
On our first evening we have the great good fortune to be taken by Shiva, one of the members of staff, to a rain festival, an annual tribute to Varuna. Shiva is a lovely man: when we ask ‘How are you today?’, he replies, ‘I am happy; I am always happy’ and has a stock of jokes that he regales us with at every opportunity. ‘This is one I made up: what does the zero say to the eight?’ Of course we are hopeless: ‘Can’t guess’. ‘Nice belt.’ Really smart guy who went to college for eight years and ends up working in the hotel as a waiter. The trouble with India incarnate.
Jess gamely drives us all there, and our two escorts stick to us like glue as we meld with the 4-500 villagers enjoying a great night out, all dressed in silks and fine array. And what a festival it is! Eight communities are congregating, and they stream in village by village, led by frenzied boys drumming, men blowing horns, the women and girls each balancing a palm flower, intricately garlanded with jasmine, on a water pot, which they will get sanctified before offering some and taking the rest home.
Now watch the video for all the fun of the fair!
Toys, balloons, ice cream and candy floss all compete for custom with the central shrine, which the villagers gravitate towards carrying their water, coconuts, bananas and of course, cash, to receive their blessing and propitiate the gods. It’s a riot of colour, laughter and excitement – as the only foreigners we are source of great amusement and in demand for ‘selfies’; children delight in staring at us before waving shyly or bursting into tears. The women are charming and graceful; of course there are always lads who are a bit over the top – and we are glad to have our two protectors. We feel truly privileged to have participated (although extracting the car is a challenge!).
From Chettinad to Madurai, our last stop. We only have a night here and annoyingly the Gandhi Museum is closed for New Year. Instead we enjoy a fragrant hour at the bustling, wholesale flower market, source of the temple jasmine, marigold, lilies and roses – much of it exported to France for perfumery.
In the afternoon we visit the great Madurai Nayakar Palace, a much later building dating from 1636, now sadly in decline and decay. Pigeons desecrate the floors and pillars and some of the fine old Chola carvings – a metaphor it seems to me for how India struggles to cope with its heritage: good intentions spoiled by insufficient funds.
The Minakshi temple – another working temple – is in full fig for the annual celebration of the wedding of Minakshi to Murugun (alternate incarnations of Parvati and Shiva). Although this is the Minakshi temple, with special fertility shrines, of course the Murugun central shrine is far bigger and has much more gold on it than Minakshi’s! Why am I not suprised?
While admiring the huge pillared hallways (one has 1000), one of those damn pigeons rains his worst on my head and arm. When I think what they eat…YUK! We wander round for a couple of hours, being jostled and carried along by the seething hordes of devotees rushing to queue up for the holy of holies, the Hindu-only shrines to Minakshi and Murugun. Sadly, we miss the parade, where the effigies are brought out to bless the crowds, which was due out at 7 pm but we are told won’t leave the temple until at least 8 or 8.30. It is so hot Hilary and I are just dripping wet and my leg and back are giving up – we simply can’t wait, the G&T calls.
We have chosen to return to Chennai by train, and as the time nears I begin to feel nervous about the state of the loos. My memories of Indian trains as an 18 year-old doing the hippy trial are still fresh, as you might say. However, our Chair Class seats are almost comfortable (they do, in fact, recline) but we make the tactical error of trying to swap them for a pair with a window, only to be ousted and end up sitting either side of the aisle.
Nevertheless, we enjoy the ride, chatting to our neighbours – a proud couple with a daughter in London at Accenture, a mother and baby, and a huge Mumbai lady, whose wobbling arm and thigh keep spilling over onto my seat and making contact with my own. The food looks delicious – dhosas, idlis, omelette, ‘biskit, kek, kotlet’, puri, pakhora, biryani, tomato soup with croutons, but we only dare have the samosa, and eschew the drinks so as to minimise trips to the loo (which is thankfully clean!)
And so here I am on the flight back to Singapore, having had a wonderful 10 days with my chum Hilary in Tamil Nadu. We find the Tamils charming, friendly and kind, despite the desperate poverty – it is one of the poorest states in India, and source of much of the Gulf and Singapore hard labour. Everywhere we went, we were met with smiles and graciousness, even the endless demands for selfies were polite. We both loved Pondi and wished we had spent longer there, but I wouldn’t have sacrificed the temples and palaces.
Like every holiday, you just wish you had longer! The more time I spend in India, the more I grow to love it despite the poverty and filth. It has a limitless capacity to fascinate and seduce.
And a couple more from the Tanjore temple
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.