Posted by: glenswatman | March 2, 2011

20110221-28 INDIA Tamil Nadu

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SUNDAY 20 FEBRUARY – After breakfast at the hotel we drive to Bryant Park gardens but there’s not much to see as the new plants have only just gone in. For some reason people keep asking to have their photos taken with us, we almost feel like celebrities. Return to the lake for the boys to cycle whilst Steve and I walk along the shore doing the occasional photo pose with locals. After lunch at the bakery we begin the journey back pausing to photograph an interesting temple statue, a valley full of clothes lines (where all the hotel laundry is dried) and a couple of waterfalls including Silver Cascades. It takes 3 hours to get back to the heat of Madurai.
MADURAI 1, CS with Raj

MONDAY 21 FEBRUARY – We begin our city tour and opposite the main temple see a derelict one housing around 200 tailors all working in small cubicles. Sri Meenakshi Temple complex is an amazing spectacle with colourful sculpture clad tiered towers on each of the four sides. Inside there are some magnificent corridors with columns covered in more sculptures of the gods. Rs50 (75p) gets you into the additional art museum with even more sculptures and some interesting painted ceilings. There are many areas within the complex and we stumble upon devotees lying on the floors and a wedding taking place. A man with a decorated elephant charges people to have their photo taken with the elephant’s trunk on their head. We walk to Tirumalai Nayak Palace, Rs 50 (75p). Only about a quarter remains but the Moorish style architecture and painted ceilings are magnificent. Nearby we visit St Mary’s cathedral then take a rickshaw to the Gandhi Memorial and Museum. It is rather embarrassing reading how badly the British treated the people of India and this story leads up to Gandi who helped to gain Indians their freedom. It was in Madurai that he removed his western clothes in favour of the dhoti. Within the museum are some of the shoes and clothes that he wore including the dhoti he had on when he was assassinated. It’s a short but noisy walk back to Raj’s home. Wherever you walk you need your wits about you, traffic goes in all directions with a constant hooting of horns so you never know if anyone is honking at your or not. Underfoot there is rubbish, dead mice, cow poo, food and behind every tree a puddle of urine. In the evening Raj takes us out to do some shopping, first groceries so that I can cook everyone a chilli pasta. We need some tablets so call in to the pharmacy where you can buy almost anything cheaply in a blister pack. At the opticians I buy polarised UV sunglasses, Rs550 (£8) and Steve reading glasses Rs100 (£1.50). Sudha helps me in the kitchen and I am amazed to see her sit on the floor to chop the tomatoes against a long vertical blade embedded in wood. It’s after 9pm when we eat so I try not to make the pasta too spicy but Sudha takes some and reheats it with 2 more lots of chilli and some pepper to suit their taste.

TUESDAY 22 FEBRUARY – Raj arranges for his driver to take us to the bus station. It is quite complicated with different areas for different types of bus. We want the “point to point” bus to Trichy as it will not make any stops en route. It leaves around 10.30am once full. Rs50 (75p) covers the 2-hour journey of over 100km. Arrive at Trichy Junction bus station surrounded by many hotels but the first mid class ones say they are full as they are holding weddings this week. The rest seem to be lower or higher class (and price) than what we want. Check in to Hotel Mathura, Rs650 (£9.50) but a quick visit to the toilet reveals many leaks so we check out. At the next hotel I go cold when I realise my bum bag is missing. Steve races back to Mathura where I have left it in the room. Check in to the next one only to find there is no shower in the bathroom, the taps are there but the outlet is blocked off. Finally Hotel Guru is a modern western style hotel and fits the bill. It takes less than 10 minutes to shower and change but during this time the bellboys interrupt many times bringing towels, toiletries, toilet paper and twice asking if we want laundry doing. They are clearly doing this in hope of a tip each time. Catch a local bus out to the temple, Rs4 (6p). Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is probably the biggest in India and designed as ever decreasing walled courtyards leading to the centre. You pass through 7 “gopuram”, decorated entrance towers en route and each one is amazing. Beggars line the way and within each temple hall there are dozens of people lying down asleep. Rs10 (15p) gets us onto the roof for an amazing overall view. Returning up the other side we see the hall of 1000 pillars and another with wonderful carved pillars. Arrive back at the hotel around 5pm where Steve is happy to find the England v Holland cricket match on TV.
TRICHY, GURU HOTEL – Rs 1089 (£15) fan with TV

WEDNESDAY 23 FEBRUARY – The bus station is packed as are the buses with many people hanging on the outside. They tilt precariously at an angle and we almost expect them to tipple over at the roundabout. We manage to get a seat on our bus, Rs 3 (5p) to the centre of the city where Lourdes Cathedral dominates. Attractive outside but inside just a marble floor and no seating. It’s a short walk to the entrance to the rock fort. Over 400 steps later we are at the top temple with views over the city. Walking back through the streets we notice a predominance of fabric stores and a sign proclaiming Trichy to have the largest fabric store in India. We get the usual hustle and bustle, beggars approaching us, unsavoury smells and general noise. Back at the Junction we go to Banana Leaf restaurant, a haven of quiet, underground and with air-con. We are travelling tomorrow so order the non spicy mushroom in ginger sauce. Luckily the Manager comes to ask how we are enjoying it and when we say it is very spicy he takes it away and replaces it with a milder version. Returning to our room we are met with the standard smell of moth balls. Indians love these and put them in wardrobes, under beds and in the bathrooms. Not entirely sure they are moth balls but they are the kind of things you see in urinals and the smell reminds us of this. Luckily I have lots of perfume oils that I can splash around. In the evening we hear music and from the back windows of our hotel get a view of a wedding celebration.

THURSDAY 24 FEBRUARY – Next stop Thanjavur, 1 ½ hours by bus, Rs15.5 (23p). Arrive at the southern bus station and quickly find a modern western style hotel that is either just finishing being built or being renovated. Either way the modern room is very clean and comfortable. Catch a local bus, Rs3 (5p) to Brihadishwara temple and fort surrounded by fortified walls. The sandstone glows like gold in the sun enhancing the architecture. Nothing is painted but the entrance gate and inner tower have magnificent sculptures. In a separate temple we find Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull, 6m long and 3m high. Round the inside edges of the fort are alcoves with murals and lingas (phallic symbols). There’s plenty to explore so we spend about an hour roaming round. A half hour walk through the noisy, dirty bustling town takes us to area of the royal palace and museums. The museums are closed until 3pm but the entrances of some are worth seeing. Run into fellow tourist Joyce from Victoria Canada who turns into a very interesting companion. She first started travelling 4 years ago age 70 and is still exploring Asia on her own. We manage to get inside one of the palace buildings but it is really derelict and stinks of bat poo. Mid afternoon we are back in the room and realise we have the most comfortable mattress of the trip so wallow and watch TV. We take our evening meal at nearby Hotel Ramnath. We order non spicy food and it blows our head but they are happy to change it. Everywhere the waiters are either all over you like a rash, standing and staring whilst you eat or nowhere to be seen.
THANJAVUR, A.S.K. Residency, Rs550 (£8) fan with TV

THURSDAY 24 FEBRUARY – Contrary to what we were told yesterday the next ½ hourly bus to Chidambaram leaves at 9.50am, it is now 8.45. An alternative is to leave now on a bus to Kumbakonam, Rs 15 (23p) and connect from there. The bus is packed with about 50 people seated, including us, and another 50 standing. Theses buses have 2 seats at one side and 3 at the other so it is always very cramped especially for westerners who are taller and bigger than the Tamils. After 1 ½ hours we arrive and make an immediate connection on to a “super de-luxe” bus, Rs 40 (60p) to Chidambaram. This turns out to be an ancient coach, filthy inside but with only 4 seats across and they are reclining – or not depending in which position they broke. 2 hours later we reach Chidambaram to find the best hotel in town is full. This is a pilgrimage destination with lots of guest houses ranging from Rs150 (£2.25) a room but most are grim – dark, dirty, damp and disgusting. Right now India is starting to get to us, we are fed up with the filthy stinking cities, rubbish everywhere and constant noise. Fortunately we find the rooms at Hotel Akshaya acceptable. In the afternoon we walk out to get a snack. In the street are some of the elaborate wooden chariots from a recent festival. As well as the normal cows, dogs and goats roaming the streets this place also has monkeys. Nataraja temple is famous for the “lord of the dance”. In a nearby forest Siva beat Kali in a dance off finishing with a high kick to the head earning the title Nataraja. The temple is thus named and the depictions are all of dance routines. Other than that is much the same as the others we have visited. Back at the room we must scrub our feet, we are getting serious temple foot problems. To enter a temple you must remove your shoes and the floors are filthy so we end up with black feet that are now becoming difficult to get properly clean. In the evening we return to see the special fire ceremony. This begins with lots of drum beats, bells and everyone congregating around a central temple closed off with ornate silver doors. Eventually the doors open to reveal the Brahmin priests (with their specific lopsided to the left half shaved heads) lighting fires with clarified oil and butter, passing it under the deities and lighting the floor. After this the Hindu’s file through saying prayers.
CHIDAMBARAM, HOTEL AKSHAYA, Rs 660 (£9.90) fan with TV

SATURDAY 26 FEBRUARY – It’s a 2-hour uncomfortable crowded bus ride, Rs 22 (33p) to Pondicherry. Pondy is popular at weekends so we have booked ahead at Santhi Inn. It’s a clean modern type air con room that we take for 2 nights. Pondicherry is divided by a canal, to the east is the French quarter and to the west the Tamil area which is where our hotel is. In fact we are on the main thoroughfare with all the clothing shops. Nothing is far away and we stroll past the beautiful Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception en route to the French Quarter. The French influence is obvious not only in the street names but also the buildings but better still the area bans horns and has a tidy street policy. It’s like another world and a real pleasure to walk the shady streets. Rendezvous restaurant is recommended for the steaks and mine is typical French style hammered flat but tastes good whilst Steve gets one that tastes off. He makes up for it with 2 for 1 pizza hut takeaway. He brings a whole new meaning to pizza hut by sitting in a beach hut to eat it. It isn’t really a beach just rock with a sandy promenade above but a nice walk with a number of statues to look at. The handmade paper factory is interesting and we see a display of marbling with each sheet made individually.
PONDICHERRY, SANTHI INN Rs1000 (£15) air con with TV

SUNDAY 27 FEBRUARY – Just around the corner “Hot Breads” is a wonderful French bakery where we get croissants, quiche and cake for breakfast. At the tourist office we sign up for the full day tour, 9.45am – 5.30pm Rs 200 (£3) including lunch. A late start as 4 of the group are delayed having breakfast. Opt out of the Government Museum visit and walk around nearby Bharathi Park with a fine monument in the centre. The bus has to stop down a side street when thousands of people on motorbikes come towards us waving flags to support the new political party. Head out to Auroville, an international township of humanity begun in 1968 by “the Mother”. Today it is still far from complete but 1800 residents from 40 nationalities live in rustic harmony. You cannot enter the township but you can view the outside of the centre piece the spiritual Matrimandir – a massive Epcot style gold ball with a meditation chamber inside. Back in Pondy lunch is at a posh hotel with excellent thali. Sacred Heart Church is very impressive both inside and out. The botanical gardens are pretty much overgrown but film crews were here recently for the movie “The life of Pi” based on the book. In the story Pi grew up in Pondicherry and his father worked at the botanical gardens which had a fictional zoo. South of the city we take the optional extra boat ride, Rs40 (60p) for 15 minutes from Chunnambar. All you do is get a closer view of the local fishermen in the river and locals bathing. The nearby beach is grim, full of rubbish and not at all appealing. Our bus driver is pushing his way along a street and forces a motorcyclist to take evasive action. His only escape is into a pile of sand which forces him and his passenger, who is holding 10 foot lengths of piping, to fall off. The driver is trapped under his bike but they manage to get themselves untangled and simple re mount and drive off with not a word spoken. The tour finishes early at 3.45pm when we are dropped by the last 2 attractions, the temple and ashram (spiritual centre). Founded in 1926 by Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwoman known as “the Mother” you can file past a flower festooned Samadhi (the place where a holy person has been cremated) of Aurobindo and the Mother. At the temple we see just a few interesting pictures on the wall. We are more interested in returning to Hot Breads to pick our food for supper, cheese straws, quiche and cheesecake. On the corner of our street is Hides a 3 story leather store with a roof top restaurant and free wi-fi. The coffee is superb and we manage to make it last for 2-hours.

MONDAY 28 FEBRUARY – Arriving at the bus station we ask if there is a de-luxe bus to Tiruvannamalai (pronounced tiru va nomoly). The conductor points to the Bangalore bus but says it doesn’t leave for over 1-hour. In fact it leaves in 5 minutes. It is a proper de-luxe clean coach, reclining seats, electric sockets, air con and free water – but at a price, Rs 153 (2.25)! We ride past Gingee with a couple of interesting hill top forts. It is a very comfortable journey, these buses must have suspension that works, and only takes us 2 ½ hours. It is nice to arrive with clean hair and face and not sweating. In TV Malai we phone our American friend Carol who sends her rickshaw driver Rajan to pick us up. He takes us around until we find suitable accommodation, a basic room but almost new and nice and clean. We meet up with Richard and Carol for lunch at a nearby restaurant. They have lived here for 4-years and were drawn here by the spiritual feeling for Mount Arunachala. Carol stays with us after lunch not only shows us around but is a mine of information. Their devotee is Ramana Maharshi and his Ashram is nearby so she talks us through the different rooms. Not only is he buried here (in the lotus position) but also his pet cow, deer, dog and crow. At another ashram we see a tree with lots of bags tied to it. You buy a bag, make a wish and put it on the tree then remove it when your wish comes true. Judging by the number of bags still there the success rate is not high. We see women working very hard moving heavy stones. Carol explains the women get this work as their labour is cheaper than the men at Rs75 (£1.05) a day versus Rs 100 (£1.50) – yes that is per day not per hour. We meet later at the ashram for the evening chant. Around 6.30pm we are seated on the floor of the main hall, men opposite women, and the singing begins. The women chant a few lines and the men bounce back with their response, all in Hindu but Carol tells us it is some kind of romance story. Carol & Richard are renting a house about 2km from the city and it is an interesting building. Built deliberately to what Indians perceive to be western taste it is seriously over the top with huge pillars inside, non matching fancy coloured tiles in the bathroom and kitchen and very big furniture. It is near to a hotel that has a garden restaurant with an enormous screen showing the cricket.


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