Friday 12 January 2007

Gingee and Tiruvannalamai

I chose well with the guesthouse Green Lands; I love my balcony and Balaji and his family and entourage are extremely pleasant. Even here, though, the mosquitoes are persuing me. I discovered too late that the window I thought was netted, wasn't. So back to my inefficient installing of net. AND I forgot to reopen the window, so I spent a rather sleepless, hot night. Stupid, because there was a bed with a mosquito net on the balcony, which I had not used because the wind was too strong. The wind of course died down in the night.

I left Mamallapuram with a good feeling, thanks to Green Lands, but I did find it over touristed and inclined to hike up prices.

Claire, my New Zealand friend, is sharing my car. She and the driver, Basha, arrived promptly and off we went. Basha is young, perhaps his early twenties, and friendly. His English is fairly limited, so we had some entertaining misunderstandings. He thought it was hilarious to have two back seat drivers who winced when he missed bikes, rickshaws and people by centimetres. Sometimes the misses were perhaps not misses (Claire didnt tell me about the dog until later ...)

I like the landscape: it is mainly flat, with rice paddy fields, brown earth, banana and coconut trees and what I think might be the occasional eucalyptus trees beside the road. We passed an endless straggle of poor shacks, many were rather low huts with steep thatched roofs. As we approached Gingee we began to see the occasional hill. They are amazing: they look like giant piles of boulders that have been dropped onto the plain.


Gingee (pronounced 'Shinjee') is the site of a huge fort with miles of ramparts, mainly in ruins. Baksha called this India's small answer to the Great Wall of China. It reminded me more of Hadrian's Wall. Built in the 15th century by the Vijayanagars, it has been the scene of endless battles, captured significantly by the Moghuls, who used this as an outpost for the southern limits of their empire, and in the 18th century by first the French and then the British (who beat the French in a bloody battle).

We were the only foreign tourists in sight, and there was only a handful of Indian tourists, mainly a party of schoolchildren. Indian schools seem to go into visiting their heritage in a great way, but I'm never quite sure what the children get out of it other than a jolly outing.

The main 7-storey palace tower was closed for restoration, but we were able to peer through arches at it, and noticed the first signs of Moghul architectural features since coming to South India, mainly the pointed arches which I love so much. The formerly great buildings are now nothing much more than picturesque, overgrown ruins, but fun all the same. Basha showed us a gigantic elephant bath, stables for elephants, and a gigantic marble rolling pin, which he said was a masala grinder - for grinding spices for curry.

Within the fort walls there are three hills, each crowned with a citadel. We were at the foot of the biggest, but it was a long, rocky ascent, it was hot, mid-day and we had limited time, so I passed on the climb. Claire couldn't resist a quick trip up the first stage, and returned definitely flushed with exertion.

We then drove through the town, little more than crossroads, but extremely busy because today was market day and further, people are travelling everywhere, mainly back to their home areas, for the Pongal festival, which starts on Sunday and lasts three days.

Pongal is a Tamil harvest festival. Many of the cows have had their horns painted gay colours, people have chalked designs on the street outside their houses, and apparently both people and cows will eat pongal, made from freshly harvested rice.

The first sign of Pongal for us was seeing a lorryload of people all dressed in brilliant red clothes. They look tremendous and this is proving a visual treat this weekend.

Basha drove us along an improbably narrow track, so that we could see the (very small) cattle market. At one stage we came face to face with a cart drawn by two huge bullocks. Who was going to back off? Neither - the market stands beside us were moved back ...

Then on to Tiravannalamai, one of the holiest places in Tamil Nadu. The town, and its main temples, nestle at the foot of a dramatic red bouldered volcanic hill, called Arunachala. This is apparently where Shiva asserted his dominance over Brahma and Vishnu by turning into a 'lingam' of fire. Fire is one of the five important elements in the Hindu religion.

The Arunachaleshvara Temple consists of three huge courtyards separated by giant towers, built over the past thousand years. I must admit that I have not yet adjusted to this southern, entirely Hindu style of architecture. The towers are amazing, as are the numerous shrines, statues and a giant tank (for the temple elephant). But the figures are very stylised and there is often an astonishing juxtaposition of older (nicer) carvings, with more recent ones, painted in the most extraordinary lurid colours. I expect to see more of this as we progress towards Madurai. But it's all very colourful, particularly since the place is crowded with the scarlet of people dressed for Pongal. We have become used to the delight that children in particular take in having their photo taken, and then examining the results. Claire's camera is more satisfying than mine for this, as it has a larger brighter LCD panel.

Then we wandered out of the temple and spotted a huge sign for bathrooms and toilets. Surprisingly acceptable - at least the toilet side. I dont think I would have fancied a shower, as this shares the same ground as the squat loos. (Definite advantage, by the way, in travelling in a skirt rather than trousers ...)

We then sweated our way up the hill, primarily so we could admire the spectacular view over the temples. We climbed up a path which leads to cave where the 20th century sage Shri Ramana Maharashi meditated for 23 years. His teachings are apparently internationally famous and there are ashrams elsewhere in the town where according to the Rough Guide, new age followers, clad in white, can be seen "floating" about.

Visiting an Indian home

When Basha said his home village was just off the road to Tiruvannalamai, we suggested he stopped to say hello to his family. He was delighted, though became somewhat anxious as we approached in case we found his home too poor.

Along a dirt track for a few kilometres,we arrived in the (relatively) quiet village and stopped in front of a small thatched roof hut or house, with a tiny verandah in front, the father's sewing machine in front and next to it, the two plastic chairs set out for us.

Basha's parents and two of his four sisters turned out to be delightful. The father, who was in his forties but looked much older, had farmed but has clearly had health problems (a stroke down one side?) and has had to become a tailor, helped by his wife. I said "three hands tailor?) and he laughed. He spoke a few words of English, his wife none and the older of the two daughters was the main spokesperson. The daughters (18 and 15) were beautiful. The older is still studying. We asked what she wanted to do afterwards and she said instantly "Get married". Much to our surprise, as one of her older sister works and we thought maybe she was studying to do the same thing. The father looked faintly depressed and we reckon the dowry could be a problem. They all adore Basha and are very proud of him, the only son in the family.

We were served with bombay mix, sweet potatoes and chai (we realised afterwards that Basha had had to drive off in search of fresh milk).

I showed photos of my family on my iPod, which fascinated the family. And then we took photos of the family and their house, which I have promised to post back to Basha when I'm back in France.

It was getting dark when we left for the last, most hairy, stretch of the road to Pondicherry, with a combination of vehicles with undipped lights or no lights at all! We let Basha concentrate on the driving at this stage; earlier we had enjoyed interrogating him about life here.

Amongst the various facts which we have learnt is that a lakh equals 100,000. This is a useful word, given that 100 pounds is 10,120 rupees.

Basha's ambition is to own his own car. A good secondhand car, he said, could cost 2-4 lakhs. Our car, a small Tata, takes diesel, which costs 35 rupees a litre (about 40p). Cows can cost anything between 5000 and 15000 rupees, while bulls range from 1000 to 35000 (for the big cart-pulling bullocks). We had noticed what looked like small harvesting machines and these turned out to be rice-cutters. We failed to get an explanation of land ownership patterns but we gathered that rice cutters and the small number of small tractors we saw are usually bought on loans and that the loan rates are exorbitant (if we understood properly, about 10 percent for only three months on a 1000 rupee loan).

We never cease to be astonished at how many thousands of stalls there are in India selling exactly the same things - water, food, clothes, plastic goods, mobile phones... .. Not much signs of industry, although we did pass the factory which makes Kingfisher beer, a lager-like drink much loved by Indians and Europeans alike.

As we entered Pondicherry, our first impressions were of an all-Indian city (no signs of the French colony initially) with traffic if anything more chaotic than Chennai. OK it is the weekend of Pongal but the main streets have a constant line of parked bicycles and motor bikes on both sides of the road, making it yet more difficult to negotiate the traffic. Crossing the road is quite an undertaking and requires eyes in the back of your head, since traffic is moving in all directions, and the courage to put your hand out indicating that people should swerve round you.

I had failed to get into the guesthouse of my choice and again had to settle for a grander one and a room costing 650 rupees (about 7.50 pounds). The Surya Hotel has quite a posh entrance, with its own courtyard for cars, a bit like the hotel in Chennai. Helped by Balaji, I had booked a double non AC room (singles are rarely available). They took me to an AC room which costs 900 rupees and I had to have a little argument with the manager before he agreed to let it as a single AC, ie the original 650 rupees. Then we tried to persuade them to let Claire in for a small amount extra, given there was actually an empty bed. But no deal. She ended paying the difference to share my room, after failing to find a cheaper room elsewhere.

Quel luxe - air conditioning (telly =- which I hvent looked at yet), a bearable bathroom and little evidence of mosquitoes. I could get used to this. The view from the bedroom window is something else - a view over corrugated roofs and a litter-strewn yard.

We had supper in the hotel dining room. The other guests seem to be mainly Indian, and we had a passable curry each. We seemed to have our personal waiter: Johnny, from Mumbai. He seemed to think we wanted to hear his life story, so we learnt that his father was in the air force, hence his fluent English, that he spoke no Tamil (so couldnt talk to the other waiters, for whom he appeared to have some scorn), he loved serving westerners and had made great friends with a Canadian of Indian origin called Patty. He had learned to use the internet in order to continue to correspond with her. She apparently is like a child (I think he meant pure of spirit) and with great soul. Well, I suppose it was better to hear about Patty than find out whether we too had great soul.

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