Palanquins, pakora and patu pawara – three weeks touring South India
The journey is the reward, part one
Friday the thirteenth is not, in our Western civilization, where certain superstitions still tend to prevail, everyone’s preferred time to start on a trip. For us it had the advantage that our first plane, from Munich to Doha, was only half-full. The disadvantage of flying on that date was that the awful turbulence that accompanied us from shortly after take-off for the following ninety minutes meant, as far as I was then concerned, certain death. So it was with shaking hands and a heart beating fast that I began this adventure.
In Doha the flight was delayed by six hours owing to “bad weather” in Chennai. This, too, did not portend well. We could not find any indication that this was actually true on the internet at the airport, but a fellow traveller retuning to Chennai suggested that the visibility was probably reduced because of the smoke caused by the local poonga tradition of starting the New Year by burning one’s old linen and clothes. This seemed likely.
We were looked after at the canteen where two ladles of rice and a dollop of lamb vindaloo were spooned onto our plastic plates and a bottle of water thrust into our hands. Waiting was no problem for me, a lover of people-watching. This could easily have been an airport in India, since around ninety percent of the passengers waiting were Indian. Those you could see were men, their dark feet curled up under them, peeping from underneath pyjama-clad bottoms or sitting upright in Western dress, some of them engrossed in e-books or tipping on netbooks, others draped in imaginative positions across two plastic chairs in an effort to snatch a nap. Women sat together in brilliant coloured saris, their glossy, black hair knotted into neat buns, sometimes rocking sleeping infants stretched across their knees, or snoozed behind burkhas. A group of Africans in woollen hats and thick winter jackets joked among themselves, whilst several fashion-conscious Japanese girls teetered past on dangerously high heels, revealing a surprising amount of thickly stockinged leg. European travellers, in anticipation of the exotic visions to come, did people-watching like me, drinking in the colourful trappings of foreign civilisations. The airline staff, dressed smartly in Burgundy, looked on, totally bored.
Dinner was later served at the unlikely hour of three in the morning on the plane and we finally touched down at around nine, local time, after circling round for a while to wait for acceptable visibility. As we stepped out of the arrivals building, a whole sea, an ocean even, of brown faces were peeping over a tarpaulin partition, many of them waving name-cards. Fortunately the representative who had come to meet us is a tall man, who made eye-contact with us immediately. Hareesh introduced us to Raj, the driver and we set off for the hotel.
Our first impressions of Chennai reminded us of our first visit to India a year ago. You would think we should have been used to the sight of more or less homeless people literally living, that is sleeping, cooking, washing and playing on the streets, by now. But the first day in a third world country always causes shock and pangs of mixed emotions. We were hit by the familiar sickly smell of rubbish, rotting ankle-deep on the crumbling pavements in a town that is, in places, falling to pieces.
Our hotel was hidden behind a wall, that in turn was concealed by trees and shrubs. Inside, deep sofas and armchairs relax in the inevitably huge, cold, marble lobby. We sank into these as Hareesh went through our programme with us, then he left us to settle in and have a good, hot shower to fight the fatigue. When we walked out of the lobby some two hours later, we were both feeling surprisingly refreshed and eager to discover whatever Chennai, formerly known as Madras, had to offer.
Chennai for beginners
Chennai offered a road that is impossible to walk down. We intended to withdraw some cash at the nearby ATM, which involved crossing the deadly thoroughfare in front of our hotel, and nearly got run over several times in the process. So it became clear that we could not keep refusing the offers of the autorickshas that tooted as they passed by. We accepted the offer of the one who actually caught hold of us and guided us physically across the road.
Selvam took us to see the Saint George American Cathedral first. Not far from our hotel and situated in peaceful gardens abounding in trees and chirping birds, the white, wooden building is full of light. A warm breeze entered through the doors, all of them wide open. We were immediately reminded of Nairobi. There was no service taking place but a few isolated worshippers were sitting quietly or praying. There was nothing at all spectacular about this church except the peace that exuded from it and the fact that bibles were opened in the porch on the wooden holders that you usually associate with the Koran. We stayed long enough to recover from our first ricksha drive – a dusty, windy experience that demands absolute faith – then squeezed into the backseat for the next etape.
Originally we had asked the driver just to take us to Marina Beach, but he tried to persuade us to give this project up as he anticipated huge crowds there, including unruly drunkards on this public holiday. He offered us a little tour instead, but first we insisted on our drive to Marina Beach so that we could stretch our legs on the promenade. The marble esplanade, clean and even, was almost empty when we got there and it was more than pleasant to enjoy a short walk in the breeze. The beach itself, fourteen kilometres long and very wide, looked rather pleasant with pale yellow sand bordered by stands selling crepes, sweets, sandwiches and snacks as well as sunglasses and toys. We would have stayed longer, but we had promised Selvam that he could show us some sights and returned after about twenty minutes, stopping to admire the Simpson clock tower and a lovely statue of Mahatma Gandhi before we got into Selvam’s vehicle. He drove us along the coastline that had been destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, reminding us that 1,200 people had died here. He also spoke of the recent hurricane which has destroyed most of the cashew nut plantations further down the coast. This is a real disaster for the countless cashew farmers there, since the trees take fifteen years to start producing their fruit.
We turned into a narrow alleyway that was peopled by the poorest of the poor going about their chores, passed the beautiful, crisp white edifice which is the Sao Tome church and entered into the rather untidy churchyard of the Luz Church, built by the Portuguese in 1516. Outside , a family was sharing food on the floor, next to a tall candlestick with several arms that were caked in hard, discoloured wax, watched by a couple of docile, stray dogs. Inside the church, a few people came in, placed a hand on the cross on the main altar and some of the images or folded both hands in a rapid prayer and left. By the side of the old building, a colonial-style presbytery rested in the shade.
Selvam dropped us off at a park, where we paid ten rupees entrance fees each, thirty for the camera and seventy for the video-recorder. It was a nicely laid out place, very green with many pleasant seating areas and a few playgrounds. We headed for the kiosk, where chat was being sold, scraped across a griddle over a burner. We settled for a bottle of water and one of Slice, a delicious mango drink. Many young couples were strolling in the gardens or laughing intimately on benches and most people smiled at us or greeted. We relaxed for a while on one of these benches, listening to the crows croaking above us and watching two sweepers in yellow saris, until one of these cheekily asked us for some water out of our bottle while the other laughed. We refused and she started to sweep furiously, sending dust into our direction. At the same time a wicked mosquito lodged itself behind the strap of my wristwatch and bit. The toilets proved to be virtually unusable, so we decided it might be a good idea to return to the hotel.
This was easier said than done, since the road back, simple by autoricksha, was complicated on foot. It involved walking along a road that we would normally have avoided at all costs, a road where hovels constructed out of coconut leaf and plastic sheeting served as homes and dirt of all imaginable kinds collected at the edges. People in rags were actually sitting in the rubbish, there being no other space or facility. Cows and dogs added to the chaos. A ragged sleeping bag peeped out of a pipe that we passed. The look on the faces of these poor people suggested that we were clearly out of place here.
We were pleased to be back in our hotel room for another shower before we tried the restaurant, which served an excellent Indian buffet, including some delicious sweet rice balls, which I had never seen before. The hotel was also hosting a “ring ceremony”, which I assume is an engagement, that evening. It was fascinating to see all the ladies troop in wearing the most costly saris and jewelry. Whilst we dined, rhythmic drumming from the nearby Jain temple kept us entertained. It was only nine o’clock as we dropped exhausted into our comfortable beds.
The following day was the third poonga day and the hotel staff were busy creating a beautiful rangooli, like a mandala, out of brightly coloured powder just outside the restaurant when we emerged for breakfast. Selvam caught us outside the hotel and we settled a price for which he should take us to several sights that we had selected from our guide book. Once the deal was done, he sub-contracted us to a small chap with no shoes and filthy trousers, whose English was hardly existent. The man, whose name was Murugan, wore a clean shirt, so we decided to give him a try. Only a few metres after we started, the engine began to jerk and Murugan had to park and fetching a tool out of the back, made some adjustments to the motor. Then he demanded a hundred rupees for some petrol. We carried on across the district in search of the Ramakrishna Math, a Hindu monastery. He drove past it. We managed to convince him to turn back and were rewarded by a visit to a very peaceful temple, where a service was going on.
We were attracted by the unusually loud and melodic singing coming from within. This was actually the only time we have ever experienced a service as such in a temple, so we left our shoes with the caretaker and tiptoed in, past a kolam, a mandala design in plain white colours on the floor. Willi sat with the men on the left hand side, while I joined the women, all seated cross-legged on a mat on the left. The devotees were following a song-book. The men who came in prostrated full-length on the floor in front of the altar, where a priest was performing some ritual. We later learned that this is so that seven points of their body touch the ground and the body can thus receive cosmic grace. Impeded by their breasts, women kneel down and touch the floor with their foreheads, thus “communicating” with head, chin, hands, knees and feet. We paused here for ten minutes or so, then visited the old temple, where the image of the mother of Ramakrishna, Sri Devi Sandhara, is worshipped. Outside this temple, a handcart drew up pushed by two strong men, bearing a huge steel pot of hot food and a plastic bag full of thickly sliced bread. This was carted to the monastery door. The monastery is also a printing works with bookshops attached. Every time a monk passed by, women would fall to their feet and touch the ground in front with their heads. It was fascinating!
Our instructions to Muguran had been to take us to a Shiva temple on the other side of the river, but he had misunderstood and led us to a temple that we were due to visit the following day. Unfortunately, we had already shed our shoes before we realized this. After Muguran had enquired about the way several times, we eventually turned up at the right place. Far from being a tourist attraction, this temple, 1,300 years old, was built in what is now a poor area in Tiruvanmiyur. It was full of local devotees on this religious holiday. A huge, stone water tank opposite the ancient site announced its presence. Elderly local women were crouched In front of the entrance selling flowers for offerings. We took off our shoes, but were reprimanded pretty soon by a devotee for leaving our socks on, so these also disappeared into our bags. There were a couple of shrines, one of them to Ganesh, in front. Here, priests with bare torsos smeared ashes onto the foreheads of the devotees. In the main temple, made of dark granite, black statuettes of deceased holy men lined the walls, lit by candles. We visited the temple clockwise. People were lining up to buy packets of fruit and flowers to offer as a puja or to have their offerings blessed and offered to Shiva. Foolishly I lined up with them, but nobody seemed to mind. Hindus were allowed to enter the inner shrine, the holiest place in the temple, for a fee of twenty rupees. We had a quick look in the cowshed – many temples keep their own cows and people bring handfuls of fodder for them – then made our way to the flagstaff. This, being made of bronze or copper and reaching up towards the sky, is supposed to be a good conductor of cosmic energy, so many of the devotees were prostrating themselves here. A funny little man noticed my camera and wanted to have his photo taken. Later, I took a snap of his whole family, who, like many others, were having a holiday day out at the temple and, like most Indians, were loathe to smile for the photograph.
We left the temple in search of the Kalashetra dancing school. The semi-rural area was totally different from the city, much poorer, but here, too, people were celebrating poonga. Whilst housewives everywhere had drawn a kolam in front of their humble houses, the shops had printed or hand-written signs wishing their patrons a happy new year. People were dressed in new clothes, the women in saris that were still slightly stiff, the children decked out in traditionally glittery fabrics or in modern T-shirts and jeans. Nearly all the women wore fresh red, white or orange strands of “December flowers” in their hair.
On reaching the state school of classical dance, we were disappointed to find the place closed. An Italian lady who had been similarly disappointed recommended that we drive up to the theatre anyway and ask to see it. The grounds were lovely, with green lawns and shady trees, but the watchman did not allow us to visit the theatre. Unfortunately, the Theosophical Society, which is a famous park area, as far as I can gather, was also closed, so we returned to the hotel.
Just next to the hotel is a Jain temple which I wanted to visit but Willi didn’t, so I went there on my own, fearing that it would be closed if we had lunch first. Chanting voices had been heard from the temple earlier, but by the time I arrived, the singing had stopped. The main temple was cool and still. Occasionally, women would come in and pray, their hands folded together like a Christian. I watched them place donations on the table in front of the altar and lift the candle there, circling it round their heads, then raise their praying hands and circle them anti-clockwise. Some of them “washed” their faces in candle-light, others prostrated. The outside walls of the white temple were full of beautiful sculptures of dancing girls. Behind the temple, the grounds were busy with cooks extracting juice from fresh mangoes by feeding them through a mangle, the stringy flesh hanging down like a goat’s beard. The rest, a foamy liquid, was swished through a sieve. A cheerful lad was baking naans. Little balls of dough were swiftly rolled out and slapped inside the tandoor oven. Others were washing steel glasses and plates and a gent in a red Rajasthan turban and a yellow sequined tunic was preparing to dish out ice-cream. I asked for permission to take photos and was promptly invited to come and eat! The food was intended for the numerous guests assembled in a side hall, to which my curiosity directed me next. All the men folk were crowded outside the hall. Inside, obviously rich ladies in saris rustling with silk and heavy gold jewelry were busy chatting. Two young ladies explained that this was a ceremony to welcome back a couple of pilgrims from the community who had climbed up to a famous temple on a hill on 99 consecutive days. Another older lady, all smiles but with no English, showed me a bowl of hot, white liquid, which must have been significant in this ceremony, and pointed to the many offerings of bags of fruit and coconuts bearing green leaves and topped with coins. After the religious part of the ceremony which I had not witnessed, the couple sat on a silver-coloured sofa with red velvet cushions and received presents of money and clothes.
Willi was waiting outside the temple when I left. So was a very persistent beggar, a wrinkled old woman. We do not usually give money to beggars unless they are clearly disabled. Instead we headed back to our hotel and had lunch at the Royal Indiana restaurant, where beautiful but cool ladies in elegant turquoise saris with golden borders gave us a welcome concoction of coconut milk with salt and pepper and jaggery. Wiili had a milk-lamb curry while I chose chicken. After lunch, an English-speaking ricksha driver found a poorer driver named Velamudon to take us to a former ice-house, Vivekanda House, near the beach. Before ice was made in Madras, Calcutta and Bengal in the nineteenth century, it was imported from North America, where it arrived by ship packed in sawdust and stored in specially constructed towers. Later the house was extended, verandahs added and became the home of an internationally-known holy man and philosopher called Vivekanda. I had never heard of this man but his teachings, explained in this museum, make sense and are very modern. The museum also explains the history of Hinduism and is extremely interesting. Photographs document the life of Vivekanda and a 3D film in English makes the museum, in a building that looks as if it is covered in pink icing, extremely attractive.
Our long walk on the promenade, now thronging with families and groups of young people, did us good. There were a few drunks there. There were also balloon-sellers, a coffee wallah with his giant pot strapped to a bicycle, a lone cow, old men sleeping on grass or blankets, ladies wearing every conceivable form of ear and nose jewelry, dogs, a brass band, a few Muslims, mounted policemen and beautiful slender policewomen in smart khaki uniforms. Just outside the police headquarters, which resemble a five-star palace hotel, we hailed a driver with only one good eye and a pigment deficiency which left him with white patches on his face and white lashes and a white eyebrow over his good eye. He was seated with one leg folded under his bottom. Now driving through Chennai in the early evening with a one-eyed rickshaw driver using only one bare foot is really putting your life into the hands of God. But we arrived safely at our hotel in time for an indoor jog (Willi) and a crossword session from the excellent, rather intellectual The Hindu paper (me) before a buffet dinner on the roof of our hotel. This was Chinese food at its best – spicy and full of garlic!
Chennai – the official guide
Raj turned up at 8.30 next morning with our guide, Baluchandram, Balu to us. Balu is a dark, pock-skinned, stocky, middle-aged man, who has a tendency to walk on the inside of his right foot. He is intelligent, very knowledgeable and extremely industrious. Our first destination was to the Kapaleeshwa temple that we had almost visited accidentally the day before. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and you enter it via a colossal, most beautifully, intricately carved gopuram. Unlike the ancient temple we had seen the day before, the Kapaleeshwa temple is only 300 years old. It was throbbing with activity. As in most Shiva temples, the first shrine is dedicated to Ganesh and it was here that Balu received his blessing of white ashes made from cow dung, which is considered to be clean and holy. Other visitors were going through all sorts of rituals here, pulling on ears and crossing their arms and knocking their head with the knuckles and doing sideward knee-bends. But if there’s one thing we learned about Hinduism during our trip, it was that the religion is entirely free regarding how much and which rituals the devotees should go through and not everyone chooses the same motions.
Our attention was now diverted by the sound of drums and we turned to find a small procession approaching, bearing a statue of Ganesh in a palekin under a fringed sunshade. This disappeared through the entrance gate to be carried through the town. Around us were many pilgrims, dressed in dark blue dhotis, on their way to other sites after their visit to the temple. Some of these, all men and boys or women who have been through the menopause, walk barefoot across the country during their pilgrimage. We had a brief look into the kitchens and dining-rooms that provide for these pilgrims then visited the sanctum, where Shiva was surrounded by candlelight. In an open so-called preparation hall, a group of devotees were preparing a special bag of cooked rice with coconut, placing it in cloths and finally making a soft packet, amidst a great deal of chanting by a lead singer and repetition by the rest of the group. The pilgrim then walked away with this packet on his head and would be expected to continue his pilgrimage like this without dropping his precious packet. Ladies sat chatting and resting at the edge of this hall. At another temple, where Nandi, the bull god and vehicle of Parvathi, was decorated with garlands and traditional South Indian sweets for the fourth day of poonga , a skinny beggar wearing only a loin-cloth, sat leaning against a pole. A couple walked round another pole bearing the image of the monkey god Hanumann and stopped to pray. As non-Hindus we were not permitted to enter the main shrine.
Behind the Nandi temple we stopped to look at the cows in the stone shelter, where children and old ladies with white hair were feeding and stroking the animals. Beyond this, Dalit ladies were busily brushing the floor with their short, twig brooms while a couple of guinea fowl strutted along past Ganesh’s shrine. Cats wandered in and out of the crowds. We felt so at ease here in this strange culture where everything is possible, everyone is welcome and everywhere is so peaceful.
To reach Mamallapuram, a UNESCO world heritage site 61 km south of Chennai, we crossed the Aydar River and passed through endless villages and towns, all alive with activity. There was a lot of debris around. At a rather dirty water tank, women were doing their washing. There were forests of casurina, imported from Australia for firewood and various amusement parks, which were doing good business on this holiday. A desalination project was in force. The road runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal and passes several lagoons that feed the paddy fields beyond.
The site is an amazing collection of gigantic monoliths and temples carved into huge rocks and was full of noisy tourists and fuming vehicles. The first attraction is known as Krishna’s butterball. Krishna, the naughty little boy, is said to have been especially fond of butter and used to steal it from the kitchen. The monolith is a gigantic ball of granite counterpoised on the ground by a quirk of nature. We stopped at a cobra stone, where women go to pray for fertility, and clambered up a short stoney hill to where groups were posing for photos and local ladies were selling refreshing cucumber, fruit and buttermilk. On the way, many huge rocks were balanced precariously on hillsides where they have been resisting the forces of gravity for centuries.
The temples were all interesting in their own way, the oval faces of gods and demons and animals in the Pallavas style delicately carved into the granite, but one monolith stood out from the rest. It was a gigantic bas relief depicting the myth of the descent of the Ganges on earth. The river and elephants and snake gods and goddesses stretch on a single rock for 29 metres. The sculptures were so delicate, perfectly depicting the transparent apparel and jewelry of dancing girls and loving details such as a mother cow licking her calf. Young lads were climbing all over the rocks, heedless of the watchmen’s whistles.The local tradesmen and beggars were difficult to avoid.
We drove on to another site only a few metres away described as the five rattas or temple chariots. Having walked past more stands selling drinks and snacks and souvenirs, we were astonished to find these huge temples, hewn out of granite colossi, covered with clambering youths and even adults, one of them brandishing a cricket bat, as well as children with ice creams and footballs. It was bedlam; there was no respect for antiquity here. Instead this might have been a Disneyworld playground. I stopped to photograph a toddler with a newly shorn head in his father’s arms, his tonsure smeared with sandlepaste to protect his delicate scalp from the sun.
Our last stop, by the sea in the Bay of Bengal at a place where the undercurrents are deadly and the rocks infamous, was the late seventh century five-storeyed Shore temple dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. This temple is set in a lush green park where strange rules such as no cooking or washing clothes or shooting were etched onto a stone panel at the entrance. The granite here is rougher, dark when seen from the inside but light when reflecting the sun from the outside. Its carvings were deformed by weather and age. Scores of wild boars adorn the temple walls. We followed the procession of local people up and down worn steps and along short, narrow corridors to find the ancient lingam, which is surprisingly plain. We were beginning to feel hungry.
Our appetite was perhaps whettened by the smell of food bubbling in oil as we made our way past buses and taxis parked pell-mell next to our car. In the end we abandoned it to the traffic jams and squeezed our way through the crowds on foot to the cafe that Baku had chosen for us. The room was simple but clean with plastic-topped tables and wooden chairs. We left the choice of dishes to Balu, who ordered aubergine curry and mixed vegetable curry in a thick, spicy sauce with naans for us. His complimentary meal consisted of a thin bean and carrot soup and a dish of cauliflower with green pepper and rice. As usual, the toilets were aswim but basically clean.
Replenished, we drove back to Chennai and visited the brilliant white Sao Tome cathedral that we had seen from the street the day before. The crypt contains some relics of St. Thomas, who died on a hilltop near Chennai. Outside a statue of Maria in a glass cage is enrobed in a brilliant red sari. Time was passing much too quickly as we entered George Town, passing the city’s colonial buildings including the monumental high court, the second largest in the world after Old Bailey. Beyond the colourful markets of the poor, a place we would have loved to have lingered in, we could just make out the roof of the Armenian church. We continued on to Fort George, the previous seat of British rule that now houses government buildings. A strict military presence makes sure you don’t photograph where it is forbidden. Only Saint Mary’s church, a thick, white-walled building where plaques document the deaths of numerous British subjects who lost their lives through sickness and heat, may be photographed.
Our final destination was actually the State Government Museum, which boasts ancient bronze statues. Passing the pompous Central Station and later the rather pretty Egmore Station, we turned into the leafy driveway, only to be told that the museum was closed for a function. The Minister President was on his way to present some literary awards here. So we said goodbye to Raj and Balu and enjoyed a short rest before indulging in a delicious dinner of cauliflower florets fried with sesame seeds and ladies’ fingers in sauce, followed by some dry and crumbly sea-food with coconut and spices and a lamb dish with rice and chapatis.
The journey is the reward, part two
After a leisurely breakfast the following bright, clear morning we were picked up by Hareesh and Raj to be taken to the station. A slight dispute took place between our guide and the porters, who did not appreciate the fact that we were pulling our own cases along to the platform. Hareesh asked if we wished to wait in the upper class waiting room. This was a small, bare, linoed room watched over by two ladies, one of whom had a coat of turmeric on her face, with one plastic chair and a single coat-hanger on a single peg and a bucket with cleaning utensils on the floor. The platform was much more interesting. A female beggar wearing dowdy clothes and with wild hair passed us, scolding imaginary people and pointing to imaginary things. Pilgrims in black or blue dress moved in and out of trains, some bearing packets of coconut rice on their heads. There were many freshly shorn toddlers and small children, going back to their country homes after the ceremony in the city’s temples.
The air-conditioned compartment was quite full, with more suitcases and bags than space provided for them. The dignified and respectful behaviour between the travellers fascinated me. I watched as a couple of patriarchs with white eyebrows and moustaches distributed warm lunch packets amongst their large extended family. They all sat with their meals poised in front of them and waited. Gradually, other travellers rummaged around their hand baggage and brought out lunches wrapped in foil or packed in plastic pots. They also waited. Then I realized that we were being watched. We had no food with us and were actually pleased to be able to skip our lunch after the copious breakfast at our hotel. One of the middle-aged ladies facing me on the other side of the train asked me in sign language if we were ready to eat. It was only after I made it clear to her that we would not be eating, that she and all the others took the lids off their meals and began to tuck in.
The journey was punctuated by many appearances of rail staff bearing chai, coke and water or sambal and biryani, chapattis and samosas for sale and by frequent visits to the surprisingly civil train toilets. While mobile phones rang out in a wide spectrum of tones inside, flashes of colourful streets and bridges and hovels sped past on the outside. We noticed orderly slum residences made from corrugated prefabs. Eye hospitals were advertised in almost every town we passed. Very soon the landscape turned green and the rice-bowl of India, a never-ending area of paddy fields, came into view. White cattle egrets picked over the odd water buffalo. Ladies and children and some cattle crossed the rail tracks without any sign of haste, freshly washed clothes stretched over them to dry. Coconut palms and banana trees and sugar cane and acacias abounded in thick clusters. A wide river bed followed us for a while. On the outskirts of the towns and villages there were thatched mud huts but also cheerfully plastered brick houses in neon colours. On the table in front, now cleared of lunch packets, a baby slept soundly.
There was no one to meet us at Trichy station, but unfased, we waited on the platform as we had been instructed, near a woman in a deep orange sari who was seated on the floor, wailing despairingly. Before long, a young man in sunglasses, who introduced himself as Vijay, the representative of the tour operator and the driver as Kishan, sauntered up to us and accompanied us to a car with privacy glass. He left almost immediately afterwards and Kishan, tall, slim and constantly bearing the grin of the self-conscious, drove us along the main highway towards Thanjavur. We kept the windows down in order to be able to see our surroundings, but as the daytime turned into evening and the cool wind picked up, we decided to settle into the comfort of our privacy. It soon became apparent that Kishan did not have a clue where he was supposed to be driving and he had to ask the way several times, attracting the attention of strangers with a short ”ksss” hissed in their direction. He constantly repeated that there was no problem, proving there was indeed a problem, and gave us the ridiculous explanation that there were two hotels with identical names in the town! It was not until several days later that we realised that Kishan, who had travelled down from Kovalam in Kerala the same morning, did not speak or even understand much of the local language of Tamil.
And so it happened that our journey of an expected one hour took over two hours. Admittedly the diversion along the river bank caused by work going on on the bridge and the bumpy dirt track that led us to the Ideal River View resort in the dark did not particularly inspire confidence. But the warm welcome we received in the form of a garland of December flowers and the red and yellow pastes that were daubed on our foreheads quickly made us forget the tribulations of the car journey. Our room, in the new, less romantic wing, was massive and had balconies on two opposite sides and was also equipped with every conceivable facility, controlled by a platoon of switches.
Being peckish after a nine-hour journey with no refreshment, we went straight to dinner on the dimly-lit terrace. I foolishly ordered a gimlet, which turned out to be a sickly, sweet cocktail made of gin and undiluted lime cordial. To accompany our buffet dinner, we ordered a pricey Indian wine, which we afterwards vowed we would not do again. The nicest part of that dinner were the pleasant climatic conditions and the wonderful classical Karnatic music.This was performed by four musicians playing a whole selection of percussion instruments and a huge electrical instrument that resembled a sitar. The music was very melodious but sometimes sounded like hard rock and sometimes like jazz, with the performers at times working up to a trance-like frenzy. At any rate, the mixture of mediocre alcoholic drinks and excellent music proved to be an effective somnifer.
A rough guide to Hinduism in Thanjavur
Next morning, we got talking to the Israeli Haim and his wife, who were doing a similar tour, at the breakfast table. As we compared notes, Willi noticed a baboon enter one of the rooms above us. We expected to hear screams, but there was no reaction. On the opposite bank, beneath the mist, a bullock-cart splashed through the water and a peasant further up the bank washed first his animal, then himself in the river. The Kaveri was very full and there was clearly a tremendous current.
Kishan was just returning from breakfast when we met him at the car park at nine. (He had slept in the car and would do so every night until we reached Kovalam.) We set off for the town. The threatening dirt track from the night before turned out to be a pleasant country road full of banana plantations along the banks of the river, where men were bathing, in the light of day. It took Kishan some time to find the great Barashawida temple in Thanjavur, but fortunately our guide Annamalay was there to greet us and to give us a most fascinating insight into the Hindu religion. Malay, a very effeminate 35 year old who immediately told us that he didn’t like women enough to marry one, with the charm of a dancing cobra and sparkling eyes to match, is the only son of a Brahmin priest and the headmistress of a state school. He is very sure of himself, radiating that natural authority which comes with high birth, but not cocky with it. He told us they spoke Sanskrit, which I always thought was a dead language, at home. Apart from operating as a guide, he is an astrologer and a priest and an advisor to priests and a secretary, if I understood correctly. At any rate, he is a traditionalist and wears a few strands of hair that were left long in a tiny knot on the back of his skull. As a guide he is excellent, though his English is at times a little difficult to understand.
The immense, brown, elaborately carved granite temple that stretched into the clear blue sky was built by the Chola king Rajrajichola in the tenth century. It features a wonderful gopurama or elaborately roof sculptured in tiers and an equally impressive vivana over the sanctum with a bronze dome that weighs around eighty kilograms. Malay’s explanation for the reason why people were expected to visit the temples barefoot was in order to activate all the nerves in the soles, which, in turn, has a positive effect on the entire body. Reflexology springs to mind.
The first shrine we visited was dedicated to Nandi, the bull, a huge, black statue decorated with garlands of flowers. There was a small altar bearing a lotus-flower just outside the main shrine, at which the devotee could sacrifice his egoism, desire and all the senses before entering the holiest of holy places. Then we passed into the main temple, intricately carved with bulls and the various incarnations of Shiva and Parvathi set amidst huge granite pillars. The world’s largest lingam , or stylized phallus worshiped as a symbol of the god Shiva, seventeen metres tall, is worshipped here. Malay gave us a thousand explanations, the most important being that Hinduism incorporates a trinity, Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, representing creation, preservation and destruction respectively. As we approached the lingam, the priest refused to give us, as non-believers, the blessing of white ashes on our foreheads.
A recently constructed pavilion at the back of the temple complex houses the statues of major gods and goddesses and a series of lingams here represents the nine major planets revolving around the lunar system – our Western astrology is based on the solar system. Very gaudy paintings represented the wives of the main gods. The explanations became difficult to follow at this point, but as Malay went on to explain that the daily routine of temple life was based on the daily pattern of the lives of Shiva and Parvathi, my imagination jumped back into gear. The day begins with the ceremonial bathing of the statues in a mixture of water, honey, oil and spices. The residue of this mixture is funnelled into a pipe and used by the devotees who sip it or dip their fingers into it. During the day, offerings of meals are served to the statues and at night, they are placed back in the bedroom temple. At one point, Malay tried to twist my unpracticed fingers into the yoga position that he used to attain the highest possible amount of cosmic energy, but needless to say, mine were not supple enough.
With our brains full of new information, we went back to the car and Kishan drove us to the Palace of Sefoji, built in the 18th century in the Moghul style and used as an art gallery today. The gallery’s main exhibits are ancient bronze statues of Hindu gods – Nataraja or Lord Shiva as the cosmic dancer is a popular subject –and wonderful, fine sculptures of dancing girls. Malay revealed many details relating to the prevailing customs of former times, such as the toe-rings. These were only worn by men at one time and if a woman dared to look down at these rings, it was taken as a sign of agreement to marriage with the man concerned. He pointed out the stomach cloths, these days merely a chord, worn by all Hindu men to facilitate the digestion, and different necklaces, hairstyles and details in the dress. We could also admire garlands of cardamom and paddy seed made for the rajas of the day. From the tower, the non-visitable, blackened parts of the palace could be seen. Back on the ground floor there was a fascinating statue of Shiva with 2 faces, accompanied by ganas or attendant dwarf and maidens. And Malay plucked a blossom to show us a mini-lingam in its centre.
Most guides in India have their own financial interest in pointing out a handicraft shop, in the hope that their clients will do some souvenir shopping. So we dutifully traipsed round a fine art shop, with no intention whatsoever of buying anything. Undeterred, Malay then guided us to a tiny bronze-making manufacturer hidden away in a small yard with a huge jackfruit tree in a rather poor area. A bunch of sweet finger bananas, bought for poonga, was hanging up in the yard and the bronze-manufacturer offered us one each to try. One of the total staff of five was handling a pair of tongues to place a mould of molten bronze into a small fire whilst a second one was crouched on the ground chiseling away at the freshly moulded figure. Sadly, we explained that we did not require a bronze statue of Ganesh as a souvenir and left empty-handed. But our trial was not yet over, for Malay also knew a painting workshop, where pictures of Hindu gods painted in the natural colours of hibiscus, marigold and neem could be purchased. Again, we declined and took Malay to the station, where he was to take a train back to Trichy for his next customers.
On our way back to the hotel, the sound of a simple drumming made us turn our heads to witness a Hindu procession down the main street. A god, presumably Ganesh, was being carried down the road in a decorated palanquin. Then as we turned into the hamlet just outside the River View resort, two bullocks bearing garlands and cloths and heavily daubed with powdered paint sauntered in front of our car, blocking the way. I got out of the car to photograph them and was joined by a slim young man who bounded out of a gate and, grinning all over his face, made me understand that the bullocks belonged to him and that he wanted to be on the photographs as well.
It was so peaceful back at the hotel, where we sat by the swimming-pool, getting up from time to time to follow the butterflies and watch the birds and photograph the lovingly-planted shrubs and flowers. In the background, crows crowed and the sound of a flute sounded from far away. A Dalit gardener collected fallen blossom from the bougainvillea to make a swimming decoration for the restaurant. A very high-pitched singing voice reached us from the temple in the village. We relaxed for dinner, which featured freshly barbecued prawns and tuna steaks. The evening programme was a rendering of the classical Bharatanatyam dance, performed by two charming ladies. The skill of this dance is combining the slow arm and leg movements, which requires highly developed muscles, I should imagine, with the short, sharp facial and eye movements. The music was also live and it would have been a wonderful and very entertaining show had the noisy yoga group from Swindon not spoiled it by their incessant gossiping and disrespectful shrieks of laughter. When the dancers had finished, I treated myself to a rum and coke on the house, while Willi took a gin and tonic.
Hinduism – the advanced course in Trichy
Steam rose off the river Kaveri as we sat down to breakfast, lending the terrace a mystic aspect. There was not much time to dwell on this as we had an early start in order to meet Malay in Tiruchirappalli, which, thankfully, everyone calls Trichy!
The journey to Trichy took us along the Kaveri past the thatched mud or brick houses nestling on the edge of paddy fields or hidden in small palm hains. We were also surprised to see more industry as we approached the city, the fourth largest in Tamil Nadu. A factory producing the “trunks” of wind turbines caught our eye.The Rock Fort Temple, built 83 metres high, is situated above a poor area inhabited by day labourers who earn 200 rupees a day on building sites if they are lucky. Malay knew some short cuts, narrow streets partly strung with bunting. Then we discarded our shoes, keeping our socks on, in a hallway where a processional palanquin was being dismantled. Dead flowers and leaves were strewn on the floor and I couldn’t help but admire the intricacy of the tiny knotted bouquets of herbs woven between the floral arrangements on the cart.
The first of the 437 steps that are hewn into the hill of granite were generally speaking not too high and rather even and were built into a dark, cool passageway. We passed a Shiva temple, not accessible to tourists, where a black Ganesh statue in the passageway, swathed in a local-styled cloth watched over us, lit by an oil-lamp. Further up came a seventh century rock temple, at which we paused to admire the views across the city. The river could be seen clearly from here and we had a preview of the famous Sri Rangam temple just outside the city centre that we would be visiting next. It occurred to us that the houses in Trichy were exceptionally brightly coloured, like candies in a sweet shop. The best view came from the platform at the Vinayaka temple at the top of the hill. Here, a sturdy lady in a Bordeaux-coloured sari asked to have her photo taken with me on the steep steps and within minutes, the entire family was there to be photographed. I tried to remember all their names, which caused many laughs. One of the older ladies had white hair, only one tooth in her upper jaw and a white sari, which I think is worn by widows, and I cautiously asked how old she was. She was only a few years older than myself!
On the way down the steps, Malay stopped to show us the kitchen that serves free meals to pilgrims and the poor and to other devotees, as many as two hundred per day. It was spanking clean with stainless steel dining tables but there was hardly any furniture in the kitchen. The food itself was mainly stapled on open sacks on the floor, carrots and other vegetables. Closed sacks of rice lined the walls. One of the three ladies working there was tipping the water out of a huge pan of cooked rice into a concrete drain on the floor. A pile of banana leaves, which act as plates, were folded on a shelf. I was deeply impressed.
From the Rock Fort Temple we had seen three colourful gopurams in alignment at the Vishnu complex, the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, of Sri Rangam. In fact there are 21 gopurams here, one of them all in white, which was considered historically correct at the time of its renovation. The tallest gopuram measures all of 73 metres. From the terrace, we shared a view of the beautifully sculptured golden-domed sanctum with a group of converted Hindus from the States, all wearing Indian dress and pale orange shawls. Malay took our photograph, with my hair and shalwar-kameez billowing about in the strong breeze. I remember hopping about from one bare foot to the other, because the midday sun had heated up the concrete floor somewhat.
We wandered around the temple grounds. At a flagstaff, we were intrigued by the collection of house keys and padlocks left there by devotees who had placed them in the safe hands of Ganesh while they were vacant from their premises. A lady broke a coconut here, leaving the fruit on the narrow shelf of a black pillar as an offering. The largest temple here, the Ranghanatha temple, is a confusion of dark sculptured pillars, where crowds of people walk around or sit in groups on the floor, with a statue of the sleeping Vishnu in its centre. Not being allowed to visit this, we ventured on to the Temple of a Thousand Pillars, in which four thousand Vishnu verses from the middle-ages are performed with classical temple dances. Here, too, the images are brought on special holidays.
On our way to Horse Court, an open temple containing wonderful, dramatic sculptures, mainly of rearing horses, we more or less bumped into a group of local people celebrating a wedding, the pretty bride decked out in a costly red and golden sari, with countless strands of flowers in her dark hair.
I was sceptical about the visit to the squat-pan toilet here, but need not have been, for it was sparkling clean, though thoroughly wet throughout. It is not easy to use these toilets in Indian dress. We were on our way out of the complex at this point and passing by a multitude of temple shops, when a family group of Brahmans with two freshly shorn boys aged about 10, clutching toys that they had obviously just bought, caught our attention. We had our photos taken with them and hurried on to the shop where we had left our shoes, in the safe-keeping of an acquaintance of Malay. Amongst the beggars and traders on the street, there was a middle-aged man in a huge wheelchair of the kind used in third-world countries. He was selling postcards at a very reasonable price, so I bought a packet from him. Just before we boarded the car, another vehicle stopped to let out another wedding group. The bride and groom swiftly pulled a thick garland of red and white flowers over their heads and allowed us to take a couple of snaps.
The ultimate temple experience in Madurai
Having dropped Malay off at the station, we travelled along a motorway studded with coconut plantations to Madurai, a busy, thriving town with disastrous traffic management. Kishan had not been in this town for years and was forced to ask for directions several times before we eventually pulled up at the Heritage Hotel, a pleasant resort with a swimming-pool like a temple tank. After being greeted with wet towels and a mixed fruit drink, we were shown to our room, which had the disadvantage of being just opposite a rather noisy factory. The room itself was beautifully decorated, though not particularly clean. We passed away much of the late afternoon over a lime and soda, chatting to people from England, visiting the modest Chettinad “village”, (which, apart from pigeons that were very busy courting, was rather empty) and catching up on emails. At dinner, we braved the mosquitoes outside and enjoyed a plate of vegetable pakoras, followed by chicken murugh kurchan and paneer butter masala with rice and naans. As a treat, we ordered a portion of deliciously hot gulab jamun and a Sri Lankan speciality reminiscent of crème caramel called watalappam.
At midnight, I was disturbed by what I thought was a fire-alarm. A quick phone call to reception reassured me that it was nothing of the sort and I now believe the siren was to indicate the change of shift at the factory on the main road. We had plenty of time to taste the breakfast buffet, which included fresh guavas, before our guide arrived in reception. Bala, a smart, pleasant-looking young man, is 27, married with one child and speaks very good English. He guided Kishan through the streets of Madurai whilst turning towards us at the back of the car and checking our knowledge of Tamil words. By the time we reached the Tirimulay Naiker palace, a 16th century building featuring Hindu, Italian and Moghul elements, we were able to say nandri (thank you), nalairka? (how are you?) and nalairke (I am well) among other words.
On leaving the car, we were accosted by beggars clutching babies and irritable male vendors selling maps and trinkets. A school bus must have pulled up somewhere because a group of about 20 neat infant school children wearing pink gingham shirts and dresses materialized in front of us. The main open hall of the palace, which consisted of heavily decorated, cream-coloured arches over plain, white pillars, was filled with modern chairs as if a concert were due to take place. Most of the palace and its furnishings went back to Trichy when the capital moved back there with Tirimulay’s grandson in the late 16th century and was destroyed. A golden throne, replacing the original ivory chair which is hidden from the public in the National Museum, was the only exhibit in the giant throne room. We moved along into a dancing hall in which the stage was lower than the royal viewing area to show the ruler’s supremacy. Here we browsed round paintings and bronze sculptures, shocked by the bronze warrior, depicted cutting off nine-tenths of his head with his own sword to “ensure” his people’s victory.
In an adjacent museum hall that displayed the evolution of the Tamil alphabet over the past twenty centuries, a development from simple hieroglyphics to the present day 247 letters, a combination of 12 vowels and 18 consonants, we began to have a long discussion with Balu about education in India. He explained that Tamil Nadu boasted 82% literacy, while the percentage of literacy in Kerala is 100%.
Outside the museum, I bought a silk purse from a female vendor and she surprised me with a stick-on felt bindi for my forehead. We persevered through the busy, noisy shopping area of Madurai passing a huge Nandi statue wearing many necklaces including one full of little bells. Battling on between thousands of bicycles, Kishan eventually reached a chaotic parking space. There was quite a walk before we reached the Minakshi temple and I was glad we did not need to take off our shoes until just before the entrance.
A huge, cool bazaar conveniently precedes the actual temple building. Selling jewelry, garlands of flowers, sesame oil or ghee lamps, candles and offerings of every kind, it is set within the dark granite walls of the temple complex and is fascinating. Shoppers with carrier bags hurried this way and that. People sat in groups on the bare floor eating coconut or saffron rice off banana leaves with their fingers. In contrast to the dark, solemnly grey granite pillars, dragons and monsters with brilliant white teeth flashing off crimson, gaping mouths look down from the tops of the columns and the ceilings are vivid splashes of colour with abstract, flowery designs. The temple was renovated two years ago, which explains the freshness of these colours. I was persuaded to purchase a garland of pink flowers with a strong, pervading perfume not unlike roses, to offer to Ganesh. In huge gardens, at the Golden Lotus Temple, the baths are currently undergoing renovation. A statue of Ganesh is almost hidden beneath the coatings of snowy white ash that adults and children are applying to it.
What fascinated me most about Minakshi temple is that it is entirely functional. It was throbbing with activity and the rituals that are so significant in the daily life of the Hindu people. Behind a metal barrier, devotees were queuing in harmony to receive a blessing from the Minakshi shrine. Statues could be seen all over the place, on pillars and in niches. Around a Nandi statue, lovingly embraced by a red and yellow garland that was beginning to fade in the heat, several women were seated, crossed-legged, lighting small lamps. Some were just watching, nursing small babies on their laps. A ray of heat emanated from the hundreds of flames flickering on the floor. Hanumann stood stiffly on a pillar, symbolizing physical strength. I must admit, I was almost shocked when, at a statue of the female apparition of Shiva, dressed in an orange-coloured silk skirt, ladies were raising the skirt to rub her stomach and under parts with oil and turmeric powder, to ask for a good delivery for themselves or other women. Not far away, a couple of newly-weds showed me the bride’s ring on her red henna’d hand and the whole family assembled for a photograph with us while we congratulated them.
Bala had thoughtfully bought me a tiny oil lamp for my sacrifice. He led me to an altar at which several lamps were already burning on a stand. I gave my flowers to the priest who blessed them and reaching up to the black form of Ganesh seated in a golden niche, placed them round his head. In the meantime, I lit my small lamp from one of the others and circled it round my face, as I had seen others do. Many people were prostrating at the flagstaff and a couple of young children were trying to imitate the grown-ups. Pilgrims were everywhere. We passed many statues of lesser gods on our way round to the flagstaff and Balu continued to provide us with information but the scent and the non-stop flow of powerful images were making my head spin, numbing my ability to concentrate.
It was therefore a relief to leave the temples and enter the Museum, the Hall of a Thousand Pillars, an art gallery. Unlike the pillars in the hall in Sri Rangam, these were light in colour and sculptured with images of horses and the heroes of the Hindu epics that reflected in the shiny marble floor. Around the walls there were cartoon-like paintings of these epics. Balu drew our attention to a wonderful statue of a female musician, perfect in every detail.
Balu had promised us a treat at the end of our visit to the Minakshi temple. This was a visit to the banana market in the town. A covered fruit and vegetable market with a special corridor for the bringing in and storing and ripening of all kinds of bananas. The vendors were mainly women, crossed-legged, friendly women with golden jewels parked at each nostril. One of them was fast asleep, her head had fallen back slightly as she leant against a low concrete wall with a beatific look on her full but aged face. Plastic crates were stapled against the walls and from pillars, Hindu deities smiled down from crude, printed paintings. An elderly lady in a pink sari had no blouse on underneath . She had enormous holes in her hanging lobes and a henna tattoo on the still supple upper arm that lay on the bodice of the garment.
Brawny men pushed huge cartfuls of green bananas in heavy stems towards the banana area. Every few minutes, a deliverer would rush through the corridor brandishing several weighty stems on his bare back, panting and moaning under the weight, sweating with the effort, knocking into customers in the process. I was allowed to lift a stem to see how much it weighed and was surprised that I could, though it must have been at least twenty kilograms. The bananas would be plonked on the floor and the man would return for the next load. Nobody became angry, nobody shouted. Next to ripe, yellow fruit turning black, bunches of brown shiny bananas, a better variety, we were told, rested on the floor. In recesses behind the stalls underneath the floor, young boys were making small fires for the fruit that still had to be smoked in cow dung in order to ripen. Mats and baskets of banana fibre were stapled ready for sale. An old, bearded man with warts on his characteristic face, now smeared with red and white paste, gazed into my camera with fleshy lips. Balu told me he was a village priest as well as a banana merchant. Before we found the car again, we passed the baskets of bright green, rounded betel leaves arranged in a spiral, leaves that would be filled with lime paste and chewed as paan.
Back at the hotel, we watched, intrigued, as the gardening ladies, who had wrenched the overgrowing grass from another part of the lawns, now sorted it and selected young grass plants which they implanted into the sparse area near the footpaths. We had an early supper that night, consisting of kathi, vegetable and chicken roll with a delicious mint sauce and vegetable samosas with a sweet tamarind sauce and a delicious carrot halwa. Our tour included an evening ceremony at the temple, known as the bedroom ceremony. With a sikaram bunga (let’s go!) from Balu, we left the hotel in the dark and reached the temple area at around eight. There were only a few tourists around and the area looked pretty much deserted. The locals were going about their evening chores, many preparing for bed as there was no light.
There was time to peep through the windows of a lecture hall which shows a diorama of the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar before we went inside the Minakshi temple. Bala explained that this poet, who may have lived before Christ, wrote down three chapters of advice on ethics, economy and pleasure in 1330 Tamil couplets known as the Thirukural. This poem is read and revered even today and there are several versions of the verses available on the internet.
Inside the temple, Bala showed us where to stand to get the best impression of what was happening and warned us that we would have to move fast when the procession started. I stood in the middle of a group of French women tourists just outside the Minakshi shrine and the tension increased with every minute. Devout men and women in a variety of dress and exotic jewelry in their noses and ears were thronging around me or pushing their way into the holiest of holy places to see Lord Shiva. We were told that a bell would ring when the procession was ready to start. Minakshi is the local appearance of the goddess Parvathi, wife of Lord Shiva, and this whole procedure involves the “putting to bed” of the statues of the gods. Minakshi had already been taken to the bedroom temple and now priests came past to inform Lord Shiva. Then Minakshi was officially “asked” if her husband might join her and then the procession began.
And what a procession! Not only the loud clanging of the bell, but also the nasal sound of a wind instrument and the loud booming of drums preceded the heavy silver palanquin born by several bare-chested Hindu priests, dressed in beads and a short veshti, some of them pot-bellied, who passed from my left to enter the shrine just in front of me. Only a few minutes later, the priests came out of the shrine bearing the statue of Lord Shiva inside the palanquin. Embroidered cloth curtains hanging from each side prevented us from seeing the statue itself. Smoke rising from the many oil lamps and the burning incense, the sound of bells that people were ringing incessantly and the dullness of the lighting in the temple added mystery to the ceremony. The devotees were following every movement with passionate eyes and hands folded together in reverence. Once the procession was under way, there was no time to lose and the palanquin was carried at a swift pace to Lord Gansesh’s shrine on the other side of the temple so that Lord Shiva could say goodnight to his son. There was a murmuring of prayer, then the procession moved on again at top speed to one of the entrance doors. The tourist guides were beckoning to their clients, urging them to move fast and take the short cuts that they were proposing. It was nothing short of a miracle that I ended up more or less at the front of the crowd, my sight being impeded only by the tall backs of the friendly priests.
The palanquin was constantly being fanned by priests bearing fly whisks and simple fans. Now, where it had been set down, a silver tray and a silver stool with tiny golden flip-flops on it was placed ready for the god. An old man suddenly appeared with a huge fan on a pole that looked very heavy and started swinging it back and forth, an enterprise that looked extremely energy-consuming. After a while, offerings of water and food and flowers were also placed on the silver tray. And all the time, music flowed from the drums and the whiny pipe. Suddenly, the chanting came to an abrupt halt and the palanquin was carried out into the darkness. The ceremony had lasted about twenty minutes. We went to bed fascinated!
The journey to Kumuli, in the Periyar region, just inside Kerala, was very pleasant, though we had to keep the windows down to see anything at all. The rural scenery changed every few kilometres, revealing brick factories, corn fields, paddy fields and banana plantations. There was an old man sitting at his doorstep with a small baby on his lap and an old lady with no blouse. A little girl with flowers in her short hair and a satchel strapped to her back was all smiles as she waited for the school bus. Meat swang gently from hooks in the open butcher’s shop, with no sign of flies anywhere. Sugar-cane mangles stood at most street corners. We crossed a bridge at the Vaigai River, where women were busy slapping wet garments on flat stones to remove the dirt or washing themselves, completely dressed. When Willi filmed them they smiled and waved. In a busy town, a man coughed up a whole mouthful of phlegm and spat it out on the pavement in front of him, then blocked one nostril and projected a stream of snot from the other one to join it.
Soon vast grape vines could be seen stretching alongside the roadside and then we were in cardamom land. A few boys were playing cricket on a stretch of wasteland, where some poor people seemed to be living under a plastic sheet. Papaya and mango trees were laden with fruit. The forest appeared all of a sudden behind a bend where there was a checkpoint.
Our resort, in the Thekkady section of Kerala, consisted of comfortable little colonial-style cottages with a restaurant, an Ayurvedic spa and an organic farm specializing in spices, like all the farms here. We were greeted with a glass of fruit juice and sandalwood paste was smeared onto our foreheads. After a rapid lunch of vegetable curries and Indian bread, we met Kishan, who in turn took us to meet our guide, Chacko. Chacko is a dark-skinned, curly haired, very self-assured man, who did not appeal to me much at first. We drove with him a couple of kilometres into the forest and stopped at a clearing for our elephant ride.
What we saw was a platform, from which very amateur-looking helpers were leading about five female elephants around a glade. The elephants were not particularly large. No seat was foreseen, only a thick blanket over the animals’ backs and a metal ring to hang on to. Terrified as I am of these “gentle giants”, I knew I could not do this! So while Willi waited for a slightly larger animal, we all went to watch one of the elephants be scrubbed in a pool. An Indian tourist stripped off to scrub as well, and naturally ended up having the elephant shower him with his trunk. The man who alighted from the elephant Willi was due to sit on had difficulty walking, I noticed. An elephant has a very broad back indeed! Willi straddled the elephant and reappeared from the forest looking content.
This was really all Chacko had in store for us this afternoon. One can actually embark on boat tours through the Periyar National Park, but after a fateful incident on the lake some years back, Chacko is reluctant to include this trip on his tour. For a guided hike, there was not enough time, though we could have foregone the elephant ride if we had known. Instead, Chacko offered to take us on a spice tour, not much more than a short walk through the homesteads next to the elephant sheds, but nevertheless pleasant. Whilst discussing the pros and contras of arranged marriages with him, he showed us cardamom, turmeric, cloves, cocoa, pepper (the best Malabar quality!) Indian basil, mango trees, coffee (Arabic, Robusta and the Liberia bean which is usually mixed with chicory), papaya trees, ginger root and vanilla. Having dealt with spices all his life, he was well-qualified to talk about the spices and I was baffled by the complicated procedure concerning the vanilla-pod. We passed the simple house of a local peasant, who spoke to Chacko from inside the house. There seemed to be no furniture in the bare rooms whatsoever; some clothes were piled in a heap in the centre. Most of these houses had a well in the garden, but Chacko told us the water was not drinkable. At the end of our walk, Chacko invited us back to his home for a cup of tea, but asked us to have a walk round the town first, so that he could have his late lunch.
The town was clean and built around tourism, which was a change from the sprawling cities we had seen so far. Surprisingly, there were several chocolate shops here. Cocoa had once been a profitable crop. We passed a shop selling dried fish and two grinning lads amused themselves by pulling out increasingly large fish from the pile for us to photograph. After speaking to a French couple, we turned onto a street running parallel to the main road in a leafy area that looked almost alpine. Chacko had recommended a simple restaurant that we checked out, then we passed the tourist board and were amazed to find many activities posted. Officially 28 tigers are at home in this reserve. We made a mental note to visit the place properly if we ever come back!
Chacko’s pretty wife met us at the door with her husband, wearing very little make-up and dressed in a red embroidered kameez and black trousers with her black hair tied in a sausage at the back of her head. She made us masala tea, a black tea flavoured with dried ginger, cinnamon, star anise, vanilla pod, black pepper, cardamom and a little sugar, explaining every step. This was left to brew for three minutes and was truly delicious. Chacko’s house was lovely, equally as modern and clean as our own and well-organised, with sparkling steel pots and pans arranged on shelves in the kitchen, where wire netting had been erected outside the porch to stop the monkeys from entering. Chacko’s spice shop, next to the house, was modern and well-stocked.
Back at the resort, we stopped to have a look round the organic garden, admiring the red Helen butterfly, then ordered a beer at the pool bar, which we enjoyed in the company of a Mr. Raj Singh, who organizes trips to India in Germany and a Mr. Frühleinhaus, who was interested in going to Kenya one day. The buffet that evening included a succulent fish in a spicy, tangy tamarind paste cooked in banana leaf. We were also spoiled with freshly buttered paratha and a very good vermicelli milk pudding.
An Ayurvedic rest in Kovalam
The next morning, it was actually cold when we left our room. A couple of monkeys were grooming each other on the wall outside the room, with others watching from the treetop. Kishan did not smell as fresh as usual and it was the first time that we could really tell that he had spent the night in the car. He had felt the cold in the night and I guess he had probably overslept.
Within minutes of leaving the town, we had ascended to the tea plantations, acres and acres of them, with Catholic and Orthodox churches round every corner. Most of these were Portuguese in style, with a high flight of steps leading up to the building, very pointed roofs and painted in icing colours. We heard enthusiastic singing as we passed. After about one hour, we headed down some steep, bendy, nausea-making mountain roads where the rubber plantations started. The towns and villages in this part of Kerala seemed far better planned and better developed than the ones we had passed in Tamil Nadu. As we descended, there were more bananas and coconuts and Pentecostal ladies all dressed in white with their jewelry removed on their way to church.
The rivers we passed were all remarkably full and to our right, the boney mountains of the Westghats were just visible through a light mist. There were so many churches around and the voices of priests could be heard booming through the villages through loudspeakers. The further we got to the coast, the warmer and the more humid it became. We entered the very communist town of Kovalam and Kishan pointed out the place where he lives, a flat-roofed building right on the main road above a mechanic’s workshop.
We were now in the Travancore part of Kerala, where Kishan felt at home with his Malayalam language. We noted that the Malayalam “nanni” would now replace the Tamil “ nandri”, or “thank you”. Our resort was the luxurious Travancore Heritage Hotel, set in beautiful gardens some eight kilometres south of the main town in a leafy, rural area. In reception they gave us a tender coconut to drink through a plastic straw, after which we were shown our accommodation, a spacious room about five minutes walk away, with a large balcony overlooking the pool, conveniently near to the beach. For the next three days, we relaxed at this resort, taking time to get our bearings and relive some of the wonderful experiences we had shared, spending most of the time by the poolside. We read and did crosswords to the tune of modern music coming from behind the trees and the crowing of far too many crows.
However, we were anxious to visit the beach and decided to watch the fisherman pulling in their huge nets on the shore first thing the following day. I found the stink, obviously of faeces, quite disturbing and resolved not to set foot in the sea. The fishermen, from the adjacent village, were extremely poor and not particularly friendly, but had no objections that we were aware of to being photographed. Small fishing boats in bright colours decorated the shore and I suspect that these and the tent-shaped coconut matting huts were where the fisherman slept. The men, most of whom wore tatty cloths around their heads tied in simple turbans, worked hard in a long line to pull in the giant nets and I could not believe how few fish were floundering inside when they had finished. There was hardly enough for each man to fill his stomach. However, when a woman approached with a bucket of fresh betel leaves, the men seemed contented enough and each took his portion, some filling the leaves with a small knob of lime-paste that was produced out of a pocket, and rammed them into the corner of their mouths. I felt deeply ashamed of the Western women, who joined the group of hard-working men in skimpy bikinis.
One of the delights of staying at this resort were the excellent dhosas that you could order for breakfast. These are thin, crispy crêpes that one can eat plain or masala, filled with curried potato and are eaten with coconut chutney. To counteract this sumptuous meal, both Willi and I worked out on the treadmills at the humid sports centre that night, then enjoyed an evening at our table by the pool, listening to classical Indian music performed by two percussionists and a flautist.
The next morning, we resolved to get up a little earlier and have a stroll on the beach before it got too hot. We deeply regretted this decision, because the fishermen to our left were dotted about at the edge of the waves with their trousers and dhotis pulled down, brown buttocks hovering over the cool sand, relieving themselves in the most hygienic place they could find. We were naturally shocked, but even more shocking was the fact that the (mainly women) tourists, armed with walking sticks and jogging shoes, went about their early morning sport undeterred by this, encroaching on the privacy of these poor souls. As soon as we realized what was going on, we turned away from the men and walked in the opposite direction down the coast to where high-pitched singing could be heard behind another resort.
A German tourist told us that a local Shiva temple was holding a festival there, so we crossed the grounds of a hotel called Niki’s Nest and easily found the small but very gaudy temple, guided by the chanting coming from loudspeakers. We did not go into the temple, which was perched in a beautiful position on a cliff, but watched the goings-on for a while and went back to the hotel for breakfast along an enchanting path lined by some very pleasant-looking houses. It crossed my mind, photographing a washing drying outside a humble house, that all the women of the world could be united by the symbol of the washing-line. A tout offered to accompany us to the elephant festival that would be taking place there the following day, but we would have left the region by then.
Encouraged by Willi, I had booked in for a “rejuvenation massage”, supposedly consisting of a 60 minute relaxation massage followed by a 30-minute foot massage. I was actually very much looking forward to this, but the formidable woman who met me at the reception desk and escorted me, using sign language, to a simple, dark room, did not inspire me in the slightest. Once inside this room, she handed me a sort of loincloth and instructed me to strip off and sit on a stool. Then approaching me from the back, she prodded me in several places and started murmuring strange words, then took off my scrunchy and massaged my scalp and shoulders briefly with masses of oil. Weird, but not totally unpleasant. However after only a few minutes of this treatment, the woman asked me to lie on my back on a plastic mat on the floor and proceeded to untie a rope that was hanging from the rafters. She prayed for a while, then tied it up again. There followed more ritual ramblings, then she poured very hot oil onto my belly. What then happened scared me to death! She started to swing on the rope, massaging my poor belly with her rough feet, using quite a considerable amount of her corpulent body to weight her down! Now this was fairly unpleasant on my stomach, but when she reached my arms and legs, it actually became quite painful and I winced several times. She did not take the hint and rolled me over for the same treatment on my back. When she started to put her weight onto my back, expelling all the air out of my lungs, I seriously thought I would not be able to catch my breath back. Very sharply, she told me to close my eyes. Fortunately this torture did not last for more than twenty minutes or so, then I was told to lie on the massage table and was given a more or less relaxing treatment, ending with a pleasant facial. I never did get a proper foot massage though, unless this was supposed to be the quick tugging on the toes that I thought would pull them out of joint. Finally, my torturer ushered me into the shower and “helped” me get rid of a coating of oil with handfuls of body scrub that reminded me of Ajax. I was exhausted by the time I joined Willi back at the pool!
Convinced that the fishermen would only use their toilet in the mornings, we wanted to have a sunset stroll that evening. Heading immediately for the stretch of beach that they were not using, we managed to take a few snaps and had a pleasant conversation with a group of young policemen with a 24-hour shift at our hotel in case of any trouble. The most communicative of the three, asked if we were on Facebook and absolutely beamed when we confirmed that we were!
In the backwaters
The new driver who arrived to take us to Aleppey drove too fast for comfort. Tony, a thickset young man with frizzy, short-cropped hair that started growing just above his eyebrows, who wears bold glasses that give him a very confident look, was a risk-taker and the journey was hair-raising at times. We raced through Kovalam town, in which posters of fierce faces with hammers and sickles on red backgrounds flashed past us, was getting ready for a CPI conference. We could admire a few young ladies wearing the traditional silk patu pawara two-piece dress, but most were in Punjab suits or saris. Huge lorries passed by transporting colourful stage sets as temple decorations for the oncoming festivals and one was conveying an elephant. Bananas seemed to be spilling out of their transporters.
Fortunately we arrived in Aleppey with no incidents and were taken immediately to the backwaters, where some 700 houseboats are in operation. It all seemed very organized but was not particularly clean or tidy. Within minutes, two of the staff of our houseboat arrived to take our cases and hurried us along the riverside, past a pumping station that fills the paddy-fields with water.
Our boat was actually large enough for three couples. Apart from the three bedrooms, each with a private bathroom with shower, there was a stylish dining room, a living-room on deck and a kitchen and washroom at the back. We were welcomed with a mango juice and within about twenty minutes, our lunch of poppadums, rice, grilled fish and salads was served by Jay, who was actually the engineer, but took on the job of generally caring for our needs. The captain was a moustached gentleman called Vijay and our handsome cook was called Sachi.
We glided past the backwater villages watching the villagers washing up, doing their laundry, crossing the canals on longboat ferries, or just strolling. Every now and then, one of the staff would call our attention to a pretty bird, a kingfisher or a bee-eater, or show us the calabashes that were used to drain palm sap for toddy, the local alcohol. Mid-afternoon, we were given coffee and delicious banana fritters, far too many of them. When asked if there was anything we did not like, I mentioned my dislike of coriander, and Sachi, who had just prepared the daal for the evening, immediately started afresh, omitting the herb. Before dinner, we moored at a small village and we told to go for a walk at our leisure. As we set off, a longboat full of passengers arrived and a girl aged about ten years started speaking to us. She asked us to walk with her to her house so she could practice her English and when we got there, she wanted to show us her coin collection. Naturally her next step was to ask us for German coins. We obliged, but then she asked us into her house. By this time her grandmother and parents had arrived and they were obviously used to this. This would be a unique opportunity to see a villager’s house from the inside, I thought, and despite Willi’s skepticism, I managed to persuade him to go along with this. Before long, Elisabeth and her little brother Pius had produced a keyboard and were singing English songs with us. Willi and I sat on plastic chairs of the kind that Europeans use in their gardens. The room was otherwise bare except for a thin rug on the floor and a flat-screened television on a table in the corner. The walls were plastered, peeling in places and partly stained from the damp. From what we could see from the other rooms, there was very little furniture but everything was tidy. The neat garden was large enough to provide vegetables for the family with a little produce to sell. Elisabeth’s father, Tom, worked for a nearby resort, he told us.
After a time that we deemed respectable, we left the house and strolled through the village, along murky canals where ladies and gents alike were scrubbing their feet on flattish stones. There were a few general shops and a state primary school and several temples, from where piped voices reached our ears. Small groups of people returning from work elsewhere passed us on the ferries, greeting reservedly. It was a wonder they greeted at all, I surmised, considering that our fuel and our effluence must be polluting their water and our presence depriving them of privacy. It was almost dark when we passed Elisabeth’s house on our way back and in the dusk, midgets were beginning to play. Another couple were sitting on the plastic chairs listening to Elisabeth and Pius singing. The coin collection obviously attracted several tourists per day.
Dining in style on the boat, we thought it appropriate to order a bottle of wine to accompany our daal, vegetable curry and chicken in a delicious sauce. It was before nine when we crept into bed that night.
We rose to the sounds of a village waking up. To our right, a very high female voice was singing at a Hindu temple; on our left, the chanting of a Christian community in the church across the river wafted across the water. A line of passengers in the longboat ferry crossed the shimmering waters in front of us, Pius, sitting proudly at the front, assisting the ferryman to paddle so they would cross faster. A newspaper deliverer paddled along the canal, standing up to throw his papers into subscribers’ gardens as he passed. Someone behind the trees was chopping wood rhythmically. The engine of a nearby houseboat chugged. A flight of birds were squabbling as they flew overhead in a v-shaped cloud. Warblers were warming up in the cashew trees and the crows just squawked. A gun shot to frighten them away from the rice saplings echoed through the air. Although the sun had not yet lit up the pathways, most of the men passing by already had their dhotis folded up to knee length. Rucksacks of varying sizes and shapes bounced lightly on the backs of children who were already on their way to school. Our crew were chatting quietly and amicably at the other end of our boat, cutlery chinked against porcelain. From the open door, a bunch of coconuts on a young tree watched me jotting down my impressions.
Before serving our excellent breakfast of a prettily arranged plate of fresh fruit, omelette, the local speciality of coconut pancakes and toast, Jay placed the standard of India into a flag-holder at the stern of our houseboat. This was Republic Day in India.
Our driver for the remaining days in South India was Abelash, who, because of his size, his insatiable appetite and his innocent clumsiness, we soon referred to as Baby Elephant. At 27, Abelash is not fat but very big-boned, a committed Communist with a red mark on his forehead and red thread wound around his wrist. He originates from the Periyar district, where his father still owns and runs a spice farm.
As we drove past the backwater area south of Cochin, I was reminded of Arundhati Roy’s descriptions of the pickle factories in her only novel, “The God of Small Things”. Cochin is divided into three parts, two of them islands. Our hotel was, unfortunately, on the mainland, in the busy, dusty city centre. At this time, the town was particularly dusty and smelly, because many roads were up for the drains to be renewed. All over the place, the traffic police were busy holding up little round stop signs that could be held in the palm of the hand and blowing ecstatically on whistles.
Our hotel was one of those modern business hotels with luxurious lobbies, spacious rooms, old bathroom fittings and a terrible view from the window. We had a few hours to ourselves and wanted to get some exercise. A pleasant receptionist suggested we might like to walk to the Subash Park. The walk along the main road took us past countless beggars, several coconut vendors, traders in shops and on the street, tremendous traffic and awful smells every time we passed a drain. Thankfully we got talking to a girl from Huddersfield on holiday here with Scottish friends, which took our minds off the unpleasant aspects. After separating from this group, we paused to have a look in a book fare. Here, one could have snapped up several of Salman Rushdie’s works for a couple of Euros, but my suitcase was heavy enough. Nevertheless, the incredible range of really good modern literature and many classical works impressed me deeply.
The park was closed for Republic Day. Unmotivated as we were, we retraced our steps and I managed to drag Willi into a silk shop. I pointed out that other men had to accompany their wives on much worse window-shopping tours and an American man who overheard remarked, sagely “Happy wife, happy life!” The shop, a Jayalakshmi store, was an up-market place that was crowded with middle-class Indian men and women and I am sure I would have found a number of good bargains here had my mind been really focused on the range of goods available. However I do already own four Punjab suits that only ever get worn in India and most of the people I know have many, many silk scarves.
A representative from TCI met us at our hotel and accompanied us to Mattancherry across two bridges to meet Jacob, our next guide, at the so-called Dutch palace. The Mattancherry Palace, as it is officially named, was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and got its local name from the typically Dutch roof that appeared under the Dutch colonial rule. The home of Chola kings for generations, it now houses a wonderful museum, exhibiting photographic material about the Cochin royal family, their system of matrilineal inheritance and the significant advisory part played by the rajas’ wives over the centuries. Objects relating to dress, jewelry, weapons and the martial arts, for which Kerala is still famous, were on display as well as magnificent palanquins and howdahs. Photography is not allowed here, which is a pity because the king’s bedchamber boasts not only a beautiful low, teakwood ceiling, but also 300 sq feet of fantastic murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Although Jacob, our Hindu guide, tried to fill us in on as many details as he thought we could take, one really needed to browse here at leisure to appreciate the magnificence of these paintings.
From the entrance to the halls, Jacob pointed out the clock tower that peers over the rooftops and belongs to the synagogue in the picturesque Jewish Quarter. It was only a short walk to the busy, touristy Jewish Quarter with its antique and handicraft and spice shops, its cafés and art galleries. Jacob and I entered the synagogue barefoot, crossing the cool, blue and white Chinese floor tiles to rest under the Belgian chandelier with its Murano glass. Jacob showed me the only coconut oil lamp in the entire world that was burning near the altar. To the right of this were the Ten Commandments and to the left, the song of the day, while the thora was hidden behind green curtains. We sat down to admire the synagogue and ended up discussing religions of India and the caste system and Salman Rushdie, who was in the news after being excluded from a literary festival in Jaipur, and Arundhati Roy, who now lives in Calcutta.
Joining Willi outside, we proceded to stroll down the main street. The street itself is full of colourful old houses, nicely renovated, and sometimes hidden by chiseled screenwork. Great ugly knots of electric wiring hang down threateningly over the heads of passers-by. Postcards, cotton garments, fans and ayurveda products spill onto the pavements. Jacob told us that only five of the original Jewish families still lived in Cochin, along with nine newcomers. Sara Cochen, a seventy-something year-old who owns a lace shop and was crouched in an armchair in the shop sewing sequins onto a kippah, or Jewish cap, is one of the oldest members of the Jewish community. She would have liked me to buy teacloths, but I managed to divert her attention by talking about my own mother and comparing notes. Then Jacob pushed us into a shop that specializes in the bleached linen moondoo, worn more or less like a sari and decorated with golden borders for special occasions. A saleswoman went to great length to explain to me how this, and the more modern version of a two-piece moondoo, should be worn, but we left the shop empty-handed.
Abelash was waiting to take us to the Fort Cochin area, a few kilometers away. We parked outside St. Francis’ Church, the oldest Christian church in India. Originally built by Franciscans, it then became Protestant and is now an Anglican church, set in a pretty green churchyard behind stern grey walls. To the right of the church are the Dutch tombstones, the English ones are on the left. Vasco da Gama was also buried here, but his remains are now in Lisbon. Inside the church, huge punkahs or long, fans hang from ropes on the ceiling, would have been swung by hand to keep the colonials cool during the service.
We dodged the map and postcard vendors hanging round the car and took a little detour to check out the Old Courtyard Hotel mentioned in the guidebook before driving on to see the so-called Chinese fishing nets on the promenade. The nets are actually Mongolian and fascinating. These vast nets, placed at the end of short piers and held by huge bamboo sticks, are lowered into the sea for only a few minutes, then hoisted to reveal their harvest. Fish stands were offering the catch to tourists to take back to their hotels to have cooked. On the quayside, a few girls were wearing the traditional patu pawara dresses. I asked one family if I could photograph their daughter in one and was told that this would cost 400 rupees. The scent of roasted peanuts on other stands reminded us that we had skipped lunch. So we had an early buffet dinner in a three star hotel affiliated to our own that evening. It was freezing in there and the food, though not bad, was not of the standard we had enjoyed so far.
The place where coconuts grow
After fortifying myself on idli and sambar with coconut chutney and steamed banana, whilst Willi settled for a more English breakfast, I packed my suitcase for the umpteenth time for the car journey to Kadavu, near Calicut.
The journey northwards to the Malabar area showed us a completely different picture of Kerala. We had been used to observing Christian churches. 25% of Keralans are Christian but the Malabar section is predominantly Muslim. Abelash told us that Kerala means “the place where coconuts grow” and today’s journey presented us with the whole range of coconut products. Self-confident signs along the way had described Kerala as “God’s own country” and the description “Beautiful today – Perfect tomorrow” also had a positive ring to it. Kerala has a Communist government, so it came as no surprise that not far from Calicut, a board outside the University announced that Marxian Studies were taught there.
Not far from Cochin, a dull noise next to us roused us out of our complacency about having survived the unruly Indian traffic so far. A lorry had just banged into a bus, surprisingly not injuring anyone. However, the flow of traffic would be bound to stop, as the two drivers left their cabins to have a calm discussion. Abelash sensibly swerved out of the lane of vehicles that was building up and, perhaps a little jolted, drove off towards Calicut. But not for long. Baby Elephant had had no breakfast and was clearly in need of a snack, so he pulled up in a village called Valancherry where he disappeared into a café. Willi and I took the opportunity to have a rural walk. A group of children on the other side of a gate giggled at us and a teenager on the other side of the village got into step with us and exchanged a few shy words. by the time Abelash had eaten, we were chatting away to a local guy who worked in Dubai and wanted to give us some tips for the rest of the journey. At the next large town we drove through, we were surprised to see several agencies for labour in the Emirates. It made sense that these opportunities would appeal to the Muslim population.
Jacob had recommended we try a sweet called halwa – nothing like the powdery sweet we know from Turkey – that is made in Calicut, so Abelash drew up outside a shop outside the city and asked the man behind the counter to let us have a piece of the black, jelly-like mass. It was indeed very sweet and not unpleasant, but we did not want to transport this for the rest of the trip, so we gave the man a sum that Abelash judged would cover our free taste and we drove a further couple of kilometres to Kadavu resort.
The ladies in the large, airy lobby gave us a pleasant green and minty home-made lemonade and plastered sandelpaste on our foreheads, then we were shown to our room, which Willi immediately took a dislike to, owing to the noisy air-conditioning. To cut a long story short, we were given another room on the other side of the hotel, looking onto the salt-water river. While the room was being made up, we wandered round the pretty, very natural resort, with its dark stone walls and paths, speaking at length to a young man on the jetty who proudly showed us the photograph of his Muslim fiancé on his mobile. Somath was actually the captain of the hotel’s own houseboat, which we were invited to look around.
Abelash had agreed to take us into Calicut, as this was not included in our programme. He did not appear to know the city very well, so it was not surprising that we lost our way back to Kadavu on the return journey! First he dropped us at the main bazaar street, agreeing to pick us up some 30 minutes later. I would have liked to have seen the old Parsi temple, but the few people we asked knew nothing about it. If we found the Muslim population slightly exotic, they definitely found us equally so and judging by the sensation we caused, I doubt if many Europeans visit Calicut town, more famous for textiles than for tourism. We had a good walk, though it was difficult to do so without making a great deal of physical contact on the crowded pavements. However, the people were, as usual, very friendly.
On the sea front, a few minutes later, it was beginning to get dusky. The beach was full of people from all walks of life, waiting for the sun to set over the horizon. It occurred to me that this was Friday, a Muslim holiday. These were people who had a little money to spend and they were spending it on sodas, chai or coconut milk and pakora or samosas or roasted chickpeas and sweets. A flute seller passed us by with a bunch of crude, painted wooden instruments tied together like a feather duster under his arm. The skeleton of a former pier jutted out of the murky waves like burnt trees. It was breezy and many of the children and younger people were flying kites. The local people were sitting on the cool sand or crowded round benches on the modern promenade. I was surprised at the number of policemen who were patrolling conscientiously and asked why they were there. The answer also surprised me: they were there to ward off pickpockets. Two vivacious and attractive young ladies accosted Willi and asked him to give a donation of 50 rupees for a project organized by the local school of nursing. As we turned back to find the car, we noticed work going on at a building right on the promenade and enquired about it. We were told that a film set was being made for a production with the popular Durgha Selman.
Confused by the heavy traffic and the dark, Abelash must have taken a wrong turning somewhere. At any rate we found ourselves in a very different area of Calicut than the one we had experienced on the way in. Here, broad streets were lined with posh, modern shops all lit up and grouped together according to their specialities. First we passed shops selling gold, then came travel agencies and they were followed by one bookshop after another.
Our dinner that night, taken outside on a table we had thought to reserve, was incredibly delicious. The dishes lined up on buffet tables and around the walls were never-ending. There was an excellent choice of starters, but the main course easily numbered thirty different dishes. An attentive waiter also brought us the local appam, a fermented rice pancake, to try. This was no evening for holding back and I have to admit that I made several trips to the buffet. This sumptuous feat cost us a mere 400 rupees.
Heaven and Hell in the Westghats
I was not particularly looking forward to snaking up the mountain roads the following morning and made sure I was sitting at the front of the car. Fortunately the nine hairpin bends we had to negotiate had to be taken very slowly because of roadworks. Once in the mountains, we crossed endless Muslim villages in which green flags bearing the Islamic crescent and star stood out. At a larger town, we stopped to watch a group of predominantly women percussionists, with sleeveless blue blouses and a fuschia-coloured sash over their traditional dhotis beating chendra drums and dancing. They were very good and quite a crowd had gathered, but we never found out what the occasion was. We followed the van in front that was broadcasting classical Hindi songs in which we could identify the names of the gods and goddesses.
Our destination was the Orange County resort in Coorg or Kodagu on the coffee-growing eastern slopes of the Westghats. Long before we reached the border of the State of Karnataka, Abelash pulled into a side road that led to the Pookot Lake Thalipuzha, a lovely refreshing lake resort in the Wayanad district that offers walks, boating, playgrounds and a nursery. Willi and I got out and spent a pleasant half an hour there, admiring the beautiful long hair of a group of pretty young girls who were enjoying their day out. A young couple asked if we would photograph them.
The area was amazingly fertile and offered orange, mango, papaya, cocoa, rubber and cashew trees as well as pineapples and coffee and rice. But on these country roads we also caught sight of a wedding vehicle packed with chairs and pans and firewood and all you need for a huge wedding party. A vendor of what looked like feather dusters on metal poles trudged along at the side of the road.
After the check post we reached a deep forest area, where Baby Elephant needed a meal. While he was eating, we walked a little way to where an old man was selling chickens in a stinking coop filled with lethargic fowl that could hardly move. Willi stopped to watch the monkeys eating presumably stolen vegetables in a dried-up bamboo grove while I fixed my camera on a lively little toddler with kajal painted exes and eyebrows with her parents at a bus stop.
Our resort lay outside a poor village called Siddapur, where we took the wrong direction and ended up in a lowly market at which chicken feet, for example, were lined up for sale at a stand. The contrast with our luxury resort could not have been greater. Having been welcomed with a coffee milkshake by a slightly arrogant receptionist in a golden-edged robe, we were shown to our cottage. There was absolutely nothing that one could have wished for that was not already waiting for us in our room. There was fruit and sodas and drinking-water on tap and French press coffee and home-made cookies and cashew nuts and chocolates. In the bathroom, which was situated in a private little garden, hibiscus blossom rested on each of the towels and Ayurveda sandel soap provided. We had wondered if Abelash could be persuaded to drive us around during the coming afternoon and the following day, but when we read the list of activities the resort was offering, we realized that there would be no time to explore the area outside this resort.
We could not wait to explore the beautiful, extensive grounds, lovingly planted and documented, at the edge of a working coffee plantation. Kitchy “wise” sayings painted on wooden boards provided food for thought. There were several swimming areas and even a small prayer hall in a tiny garden. Having checked out the three restaurants, we sat down in the reading room where we were served with coffee. A lovely lady named Saraswathi, after the goddess of education, made me a very strong espresso which kept me awake for much of the night. It was all so peaceful and elegantly relaxing – a real gem and a highlight of our trip. That evening, we watched the cultural programme, the Kolkatta dance using sticks and ribbons that would become plaited like those on a Maypole. The male performers, dressed smartly in red shirts and yellow trousers were not especially good singers and one voice droned painfully off-key several notes lower than his companions. The buffet dinner by the poolside was excellent and the chilly wind partly counteracted by a brazier placed by our table.
The bird watching activity next day started at 6.30. Along with a group of about ten other adults and children, we waited for Ganesh to accompany us. Ganesh looked like a young sergeant-major and spouted knowledgeably about the red-whiskered bulbul, the parakeet, the kingfisher, the tailor bird and the spider hunter, the coppersmith barbet and the jungle mynah, the babbler and the drongo that we were to spot in the early light of the morning. But Ganesh’s speciality was imitating the birds he was describing and in this he was a very entertaining master. After breakfast South Indian-style, we hurried to get ready for the nature walk.
The walk of 7 km in the forest seemed to me to be easily possible but many were apprehensive and finally there were only four of us willing to go, ourselves and an Indian couple called Manju and Ramesh. Our guide stalked off in front at a pace that was not very comfortable to follow. We left the plantation and stood on a tiny bridge that led into the thick of the forest, when he turned and informed us that if we encountered elephant, we would be turning back immediately. Elephant! Never had I even dreamed that we would be walking anywhere near the “gentle giants”, but it was too late to turn back now. We were to be absolutely silent and check that our mobiles were switched off. In my panic, I stumbled over some roots, emitting a dull “oomph” as the air left my lungs, injuring my knee and a finger but neatly catching my camera on the way down. On the elephant track we were following, we found several piles of dung, getting fresher every time and it was clear that the elephants had passed only minutes earlier. Our guide kept looking all around and going on ahead to check that the coast was clear and I could literally feel the blood draining from my head. At one point we encountered a difficult patch of terrain, which caused problems for Manju, but on the whole, the going was relatively easy. You could easily smell the elephant from here. Then we heard a series of loud cracks, the sound of dry branches being wrenched from a tree and knew that the animals could not be far away. My knees were uncontrollably wobbly as our guide left the party to see where they were. At this point, an electronic sound came from Manju’s bag.
Instead of switching her mobile off as she should have done, the foolish woman actually had a conversation on the phone. I could not believe her stupidity and my fear actually turned to anger. However the elephants were far enough ahead not to have been disturbed. Our guide decided nevertheless that we should turn back, for which I could have kissed him! He made sure we were relatively safe under a large acacia, then he and Willi walked via a different path to see if they could spot the elephant. They did not.
Back at the resort, I was completely shattered and we resolved to take the rest of the day quietly, strolling round the resort and taking photos. We watched the roofs of the cottages being thatched with dried rice leaves. Our walk took us to a tree-house which functions as a private dining-room if required and we sat here for ages, bird watching and following the comical antics of a family of mongoose in the shrubs below us and the guinea fowl taking a dust bath before the sun went down.
Before dinner, the cultural programme included a legend involving gods and a beautiful woman explaining how the Kaveri River got its name. We were then treated to another dance show, a slow dance called Kodava involving sticks that looked like divining rods and cutlasses. The dancers in their black tunics worn over white shirts and white turbans, had travelled 80 km on these bumpy, bendy roads to perform for us, we were told. Our meal at the Peppercorn restaurant was enormous. After a chicken soup, we had fish, prawn, chicken and lamb kebabs, followed by a lamb “sizzler” served on hot stones with various side dishes, then a chicken biryani served in the traditional clay pot, sealed with roti. During the meal, a couple from Mumbai who said they were restaurant testers among other things, asked if they could photograph us at the table. We later joined them at their table and were the last to leave the restaurant that night.
The Hoysala temples
A thousand bird voices woke us in time for our breakfast before the journey to Hassan. The area Abelash drove us through was much poorer than any region we had passed in Kerala. Not far from the resort, there was a huge coffee-drying area, where the beans were spread out on the concrete tiled floor with simple wooden boards on wooden handles by jolly men in a crouching position who responded happily to our waves. The dried beans were then heaped manually into huge synthetic sacks. There was also a great deal of cattle, fat healthy-looking animals, that grazed next to teakwood forests. In the schools, uniformed pupils were lined in playgrounds and outside, small groups rested by their state-provided bicycles grinning at us. The houses we passed were very humble, mainly thatched with coconut palms and scraps of plastic sheeting. We paused to admire a Banyan tree on the road hanging full of honeycombs.
Hassan is a busy, rather ugly, built-up town. Our resort was a small and simple, but quite pretty collection of bungalow-type rooms filled with the sound of birds and tourists that turn up by the coachload. There is nothing to see here, but the nearby ancient temples of Halebeed and Belur are popular tourist magnets.
After a lime-soda in the basic restaurant, we set off for Halebeed, capital of the Hoysala kings in the eleventh century. The twelfth century temple complex that took 190 years to build during the Hoysala dynasty has been kept in its original colour. The soapstone temple is decorated with carvings in friezes that follow a prescribed tradition in Hindu architecture. The lowest frieze depicts charging elephants which symbolise strength and stability, above which are lions which symbolise courage, floral scrolls as representing beauty, horses for speed and progress, another band of floral scrolls, depiction of Hindu epics, makara or beasts composed of parts of different animals and finally a frieze with swans. At the very top, some of the carvings portray the Kamasutra. These are clearly erotic representations that to the Western mind have no place in a religious building. Our guide maintained that in the twelfth century child marriages were quite normal and this explicit art was a way of preparing very young girls for their marriages.
Whatever the reason, the carvings are amazingly intricate, many of them with gory detail showing entrails and eyeballs that have fallen out of their sockets and some of them humorous or ironic. A group of attentive lads followed us around with our guide Ragu, until he lost his patience and asked them to leave. They were still with us when Ragu explained the two giant Nandi were dedicated one to the King and the other to his queen. Inside the temple we admired the dancing platform and caught a glimpse of the lingam shrine. I felt a pang of shame when Ragu explained that most of the inner shrines had been stolen by the British and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum. However most of the destruction took place when the Muslims invaded two centuries after the temples were constructed, beheading many of the sculptured warriors in the epic frieze. Indeed the name Halebeed means “destroyed place”.
As a contrast to the ancient temple, Ragu took us to a local, open-air jaggery production. To be honest, I had never heard of jaggery before. Wikipedia describes it as a traditional, unrefined, non-centrifugal whole cane sugar. It is sold on every street corner in South India and used in many sweets. We watched as women fed the furnaces that burnt the dry sugar cane leaves and men stirred the boiling hot cane juice in vats over the fires. At some point, salt is added and the boiling mixture, once thickened, is poured into forms and sets. It was also packed on site, in cardboard boxes with no other packaging. This is really hard work, performed from 7 am until nightfall for a penance of 150 rupees per day. Alongside the factory were the tent-shaped hovels that the labourers lived in during the sugar cane season.
When we reached Belur, the sun had lost much of its power of light and the colours were dull. Whereas the temple in Halebeed is a monument, the Chenna Keshava temple here is functional and a vital part of the small town. Although the kings were traditionally Jains, Vishnu Vaardhana was converted to Vishnuism. The temple, built on a star-shaped plinth like its sister in Halebeed, and flakned by two wonderfully intricate carvings of the doorkeepers, is popularly known as the templeof beautiful girls. We walked round the outide first, admiring the beautifully carved, sensuous dancing girls, the most famous one of which is known as the lady with the mirror. But the sculptures also represent the Hindu epics. As we walked, we met three high priests, and Ragu explained that a ceremony would be taking place that evening.
Even more treasures can be seen inside the temple. Ragu had spotlights lit inside so that we could really appreciate the fine work of some really spectacular statues. They say that the dancing girls inside are so fine, that you can actually turn the bangles on their arms. 48 jet-blackpillars of various sizes, shapes and designs, each one a unique piece of art, bear testimony to remarkable skills. One of these used to be able to revolve on its ball bearings. Another pillar, known as the index pillar, is covered with writings that record the history of the temple.The most famous pillar represents Mohini, the ideal woman, with perfect body proportions and the stylised fish-shaped eyes, a moon-shaped face and rainbow-shaped eyebrows.
The throngs of tourists that we had seen on entering the impressive entrance had disappeared when we left at twilight. We were silent on the way back to the hotel, worn out by the impressions and explanations of the afternoon. Squirrels in the grounds of the resort were making an incredible squeaky din. Before dinner, I picked up a book lying next to a Good News bible and a headless flower in a tiny vase next to my bed. Named Bhagavadgita it was a Hindu ethical guide published by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and rather interesting. But we were hungry and soon headed for the simple restaurant, where we ordered vegetable pakora. Willi had a very good chicken chettinad afterwards, but my Narvatan korma , vegetables and fruit in a thick white sauce, was rather tasteless. The cooks came round with little treats before and after the meal. We were to have an early start the next morning.
Although we expected to be too early for a proper breakfast, everything was laid out and there was a chocolate loaf with spices, nuts and fruit that was particularly delectable. While we were waiting for our car, a headscarved lady was creating a brown and white rangoli at the entrance to our resort. It looked simple enough, so I asked if I might have a go myself. I made a complete mess of it! Letting a fine trail of powder slip between thumb and two fingers to make a perfect line is a thing you have to practice! My admiration for this art increased immediately.
The Jain temple at Sravanabelagola was not on our programme but I badly wanted to visit it, so the tour operator allowed us to make a small detour to include this on our trip. In the Karnataka language of kannada, the name means “holy man by the white pond”. About 50 km from Hassan we could see this impressive place of pilgrimage silhouetted 438 metres high on Vindhyagiri hill overlooking a huge walled water tank. They say there are 647 steps up to the top. I did not count them. The first flights were simple to climb, not too steep and evenly cut, but as we ascended, the regularity of the steps disappeared. We plodded on gently, noticing that more people were on the way down. Only foreign tourists seemed to be going up as the sun increased in strength. Amazing views back down over the village and across the plains gave us plenty of excuses for stopping to catch our breath. Various shrines along the way, some of them dedicated to those who died the ritual death by starvation, made the going interesting. Ancient writings and symbols were etched in the granite. We got chatting to some Indians that worked at Siemens India and a Scottish tourist.
At the top of the hill, the most amazing 17m high and thousand year-old stautue of the holy Gomatesvara smiled down at us in its nakedness, portrayed deep in meditation. The stone is almost white and is cleaned and annointed every twelve years. It is very simple in style and has a very classical but modern look to it. The temple is a still place of pilgrimage and it is, apparently, not unusual for strict Jain devotees to climb to the statue in their birthday suits. Two women were seated cross-legged on a mat in front of the staute and praying. A “temple guide” took us round the smaller statues of lesser saints that surround Gomatesvara in cave-like niches. A yellow-clad monk gave us a single, tiny, delicate jasmine flower, with which he had sprinkled saffron water on our heads, and smeared our foreheads with saffron paste before he suddenly left to have breakfast with the other temple staff on the floor in the sun. The experience was quite moving and one could have stayed there all morning had the way down not loomed ahead.
Our knees survived the 647 steps back down the hill and Abelash, who had purchased a kitchy jewelry box, lost no time in setting off for the city of Mysore. From the car windows, we could see the plantations of mulberry bush that heralded the silk-producing area we were driving into. The drive was wonderful, through an agricultural area where friendly labourers smiled and waved to us. At the roadside, four or five ladies were winnowing millet, using dustpan-like trays. For a handful of sweets, they agreed to let us take photographs and even stopped their work to communicate with us. Further along, two ladies doing their washing actually stepped up the shallow river bank to be photographed. We saw boys and men ploughing their fields with bullocks and men and women harvesting sweet potatoes. Abelash was keen to buy some of these and was given a present of three vegetables. In a gaudily painted bullock-cart, a smiling farmer was taking his wife for a ride. Goats painted bright pink straggled at the roadside. This sweet world was at peace.
Just before the historical town of Srirangapatna, where we were due to meet our next guide, we had to stop to let a train pass by. A vendor tapped at the window to give Abelash a fruit that resembled a potato that none of us knew. Abelash peeled it with his fingernails and gave us a piece to taste. It was juicy and slightly sour, refereshing in the heat. We later discovered that the local name was chicko and now know that it is a sapodilla. We carried on to the Summer Palace, trying not to notice that two ladies had stopped close by the bushes outside the gardens, crouching down to relieve themselves, not easy in Indian-style dress.
Our guide, named Nataraja after the cosmic dancer, is a dark-skinned man of 65 with badly clouded irises and an impressive command of the English language, which he spoke with a very posh accent. The toilets at the Summer Palace at Srirangapatna were disgusting, but the rest of the palace, or at least what is left of it after the British destroyed much of it, was beautiful in its own way. Built by Sultan Tipu, son of the famous Hyder Ali, in the eighteenth century, in accurately set Moghul gardens, it still boasts wonderful wall paintings that extoll the lives and deeds of the great sultan and his forefathers. Crowds of school children made trying to see the exhibits difficult.
At Gol Gumbaz a few kilometers away, the mausoleum where Sultan Tipu and Hyder Ali and their families were put to rest with the closest members of their armies, school children continued to pour in, filling spaces between the black pillars in the cloisters with laughter and gaiety. The creamy stonework embellished by floral designs, arches and arabesques set off by green vast lawns, looked quietly elegant. At the ritual washing place, below the graves of the rulers’ wives, a woman in a yellow patterned sari and a man in Western dress were washing their feet. We walked to the opposite side of the magnificent building and admired it from the other side of the lawns, away from the crowds.
On our way to our hotel in Mysore, Abelash spotted a stand selling the strange fruit we had been offered on the journey and we stopped to photograph them. Nataraja knew them well wand was able to identify them for us. He gave us tips for eating that evening, indicated where the supermarket was and pointed out the sights on the way to town, then left us at the hotel on a street where a black-spotted cow painted completely yellow was finding bits to eat.
It might seem strange that we wanted to find a supermarket of all things in South India, but Abelash had mentioned the Kerala delicacy of bamboo rice on the way down. Nataraj was sure we would not find this in the market, but we hoped a supermarket would stock it. It didn’t. (I imagined this to be a product of the bamboo tree, but it turns out to be rice imbued with fresh bamboo juice.) The experience was nevertheless most interesting. At the supermarket door we were bodychecked, then our bags were fastened with a twine that could only be opened by a special cutter on the way out of the shop. This was to prevent pickpocketing, we were told, but I thought it was also a good way of preventing supermarket goods being smuggled out of the shop. The supermarket was very well-stocked, with about twelve sacks of different loose rices and an incredible range of spices. We bought fenugreek and dried ginger and cardamom to take back home.
A one-man magic show was waiting for us at the hotel door, but we managed to shake him off and head for the bar, where we had a gin and tonic with two English couples. We had dinner outside, ordering vegetable kebabs, then charcoal dishes of tawa gosht and khas murgh. It was very pleasant. We watched a group of French tourists, who had a private dinner on the lawn, all turn up in saris. They did look lovely and for a moment I wished that I had also had one made. Unfortunately for us, the group had ordered a firework display which was executed just above our heads on the roof of the café. Not only was it extremely loud, but tiny, still burning sparkles and particles kept descending on us ond our food, so we were forced to take umbrage inside.
Towards the end
Next morning Nataraj met us in the lobby and we drove with him to the wholesaler vegetable market, past very a modern hospital, the zoo and bird sanctuary, the racecourse and the golf course, a brand new shopping mall and the luxury Lalitha Mahal palace hotel, a former summer palace. Decidedly, Mysore has a great deal more to offer than could be packed into our short one and a half day programme. The peasant market was already full of activity when we arrived with the first of the tourists seeking exotic images and the cows, which sauntered amongst the crowds looking for titbits. The smell of fresh coriander – great bushels of it tied to a bicycle – tickled my nose. Not all the wares were fresh I noticed, critically eyeing some black spots on the small cauliflowers stacked on the bare ground. But everyone was friendly and keen for us tourists to get what we were looking for. Nataraja explained the various types of vegetables to us and told us that when the market closed at the end of the morning, the wares would just be covered over with sacking and left for the following day, under the protection of watchmen, of-course.
Our second destination was the Hoysala Keshava temple at Somnathpur, 33 km east of Mysore. The journey was fascinating. We watched as a herd of pigs was being driven on like a cow herd across a field and saw the round coracle boats, made of bamboo, plastic and tar, being punted down the river. There were fields of marigold, the first we had ever seen in India despite the huge quantities of them that fill the flower stalls in front of the temples and heaps of rice husk ash, rich in silica and used for fertilization and in bricks. Fields of sugar cane stubs were being burnt, whilst cows and sheep alike were grazing on the stubs in paddy fields. We saw fields of mulberry bushes and lines of tamarind trees.
The temple itself is situated in a small village, where an angry man and woman were turning a private dispute into a public row. A school bus turned up to collect the village children. Monkeys were playing on a beautiful 200 year-old banyan tree with no aerial roots. Raised on a platform guarded by elephants, this Vishnu temple, the last of the Hoysala temples, is a perfect example of the Hindu geometrical architecture of the times. Facts relating to the history of the temple are inscribed on the dark soapstone slab in old Kannada script at the entrance.Like the other Hoysala temples it is richly decorated with statues depicting the Hindu epics. The details of the elephants, decorated with chains and tiny bells, and horses in their finery are both incredible and endearing, each statue unique, of-course. Vishnu is portrayed in each of his forms and in one statue, he is clearly performing narayana, the yoga breathing exercises. Having been destroyed by Muslim invaders, the temple is now a mere monument. All around the temple, statues of lower deities look out from cubicles.
On the way back to the Chamundi hills surrounding Mysore, a discussion about the use of the tamarind fruit took place, culminating in our stopping at the roadside, where Abelash climbed on top of the vehicle to pick the fruit of a tree growing there. Nataraj peeled several pods with his fingernails and we felt obliged to sample the sour fruit.
The vast open square in front of the Chamundi temple was alive with pilgrims and tourists. On the road leading to this square we passed the sari auction, a fascinating hall in which the gifts of the devotees were being sold to dozens of ladies, eagerly inspecting the lovely cloths and silks, whilst the auctioneers were talking into microphones or recording the sales in a ledger. The temple is dedicated to the patron deity of Mysore, Chamundeshwari, an incarnation of Parvati. I was glad we had come by car, as the alternative would have been the thousand steps that lead to the temple from the city! A yellow coloured gopuram, granite with moulded plaster decorated with shining white figurines, stood boldly against the clear blue sky and can be seen from miles around. A few traders were selling offering baskets with fruit and flowers and coconuts and garlands of flowers and the usual souvenirs. Isolated cows wandered around. Despite the mainly local tourists, the place was quiet. The feature of the temple that impressed me most were the beautiful silver doors at the entrance, donated by the maharaja after he was finally blessed with a son in 1952.
Nataraj urged us along to a much older Shiva temple, the Mahabaleshwara temple, a few metres further on. On the steps at the entrance to the temple, a trader tied an orange thread bracelet round my wrist, which I could not pay for, as I don’t usually carry cash. Willi obliged as we came out a few minutes later, after I had sprinkled the holy water given by the friendly priest over my head. Nataraj sipped his water out of the cup of his hand, but I did not dare to do so, knowing that it had been used to wash the idols with. Abelash drove us down to the Nandi statue, the pride of Chamundi hills, some 300 steps down the hill. When we stepped out of the car, the delicious, sweet scent of fresh pineapple filled our nostrils. Vendors were everywhere selling slices or juice. The statue itself, sixteen feet high and twenty-five in length, is a loveable, black monster bearing wonderfully carved tassels and bells and flowers and with three horizontal Shiva stripes painted in white on its forehead. The white tips of teeth jutting out below its upper lips give Nandi a slightly goofy look. Garlands of fresh yellow marigolds were hung on its chest and there were offerings of various kinds left around the base of the statue.We had a little sit in the sun here, before driving into the town, where a visit to the palace was programmed.
Photography was strictly forbidden here. The palace is still home to the Wodeyars, the former royal family of Mysore. The present palace, completed in 1912, was built by a British architect, Henry Irwin. This really surprised me, considering the style of the palace, known as Indo-Saracenic, with Hindu, Rajasthan, Muslim and Gothic elements. There are three halls here that are particularly individual. We first visited the marriage hall, an octagonal-shaped public reception-room in peacock colours, with peacock motifs, featuring cast iron pillars and a magnificent stained glass ceiling from Scotland. The peacock theme is repeated in the English floor tile. All around the walls, oil paintings illustrate the royal processions and dasara festivals. This wonderful hall leads onto the ambavilasa, used by the king for private audiences. Entry to this opulent hall is through an elegantly carved rosewood doorway inlaid with ivory that opens into a shrine to Ganesha. It glows in yellow colours that are reflected in a beautiful mosaic floor. Finally, we admired the so-called dolls pavilion, which contains ceremonial objects including a wooden elephant howdah decorated with 84 kilograms of gold. Willi and I resolved to return to the palace that night for a son et lumière show. For the time being, we were glad to return to our hotel via the market place. At some road works, we could not help noticing that the women labourers were doing the hard, physical work, breaking up the road with a pickaxe, while the men had the jobs of overseers.
Willi jogged and I put my hot, sore feet up, before doning a Punjab suit for the evening show. We had not realsied that the show that evening would be in the local kannada language. Nevertheless it was most impressive. The building was bathed in floodlight when we took our seats on the lawn, on the front row, as the all-Indian audience insisted that we should. The seats quickly filled up. Suddenly, and dramatically, the lights were extinguished and the air filled with the booming and tremour of loud music. It was like being in ten cinemas all at once. Drama and melodrama were performed with colour and light and sound, perfectly co-ordinated. The few words that we understood (Shiva, Chamundi, Tipu, Hyder Ali, Mahatma Gandhi, Britisher and a few others) were underlined by crashes and demonic laughings, galopping horses, flowing rivers, lightning and thunder, firing arms and shouts and cries, pleading voices and reasoning ones. The music was beautiful and many of the songs executed with admiral voice control that must require years of yoga exercise. In a word, the show was impressive and enjoyable, despite the mosquitos and the rather cold evening breeze.
Our buffet dinner included delicious lentil dumplings in a yoghurt sauce, as well as chicken chettinad, and two delectable sweets which were new to us: pumpkin halwa and rasmalai with saffron sauce.
Our breakfast next morning would be our last on this trip, so I ordered a dhosa, which was served with a green ginger chutney. Afterwards Willi and I had a walk down the main street to a huge square with a colourful, oriental clock-tower that led to the market. Before we reached the square, a man on a bicycle ricksha warned us about the perfume vendors, “all cheats”, he called, them. Apparently some rogues put acidic oils on your arms. At one corner, two men were selling herbs from a huge pile on the pavement. Opposite, two ladies were busy snipping threads on the back of piles of carpets. Two others were moving through the crowds selling fruit from baskets balanced on their heads. Policemen in white helmets were directing the traffic. At the entrance to the market, a small boy nabbed us and spoke to us in German, but lost interest in when I lied that we had no money with us. We avoided eye contact with the salesman that were selling tourist products and headed for the banana market, where deliverers were tripping to and fro with heavy piles of fruit in wide baskets on their heads. Coloured powders were heaped in cones at shops also selling incense and oil-lamps. At the flower shops, garlands of red and white December flowers, yellow marigolds, fuschia-coloured daisies and delicate white jasmine were neatly coiled in baskets. In the vegetable market, there were tiny aubergines the size of cherry tomatoes. A lady bore a pile of lentils, still on the leaf, which you can eat raw. Like all Eastern markets, it was thrilling.
But tiring. Ouside the market, we watched a paan vendor make up a parcel with betel leaf and limestone paste and other mystifying ingredients for a young man, who pushed it into his cheek and started chewing. At another shop, large, dry, round leaves were stacked in plies about 10 cm high, to be used as plates. I intended to purchase scarves of the famous Mysore silk here, so we crossed the road to a standard shopping street and we picked out a shop selling materials for saris and Punjab suits. The salesman took us upstairs to a room filled with silk articles and informed me that it would be possible to make a silk sari with a blouse and underskirt for around 30 Euros in two days. Next time.
We just had time for a hurried lime juice and soda at the hotel before it was time to drive to the station. Porters in red jackets heaved our heavy cases onto the luggage racks on the Shatabdi Express., a service for which they demanded 100 rupees each, then asked for pens and sweets for their children back home. In front of us, a mechanic was making adjustments to a seat. The train slowly filled up. We were most surprised that our ticket included refreshments, which included a full, hot lunch and several snacks and drinks. The seven hours passed quickly, giving us time to digest the amazing trip – our first, but certainly not last, to South India.