Saturday 13 January 2007

Pondicherry - a French town?

After breakfast I felt strong enough to brave the streets to catch up on some shopping. I have two grotty teeshirts which is not enough. I found that there was a huge clothing bazaar just round the corner from the hotel, endless little material emporiums and tailors. Picking at random, I bought enough cotton (nothing special) from an emporium and went round the corner to find a tailor. I've negotiated that the three blouses will be delivered on Sunday evening. Not easy as the tailors are all busy making clothes for Pongal. The blouses will cost me a total of 770 rupees (about three quid each). My shampoo was quite expensive - 7o rupees (about 80p) but the eyedrops (I have either an allergy or conjunctivitis) were only 34 rupees (about 40p).

I then went down to the sea front to book tickets for our afternoon expedition from the tourist office. Apparently this was once a very French street, but now it lacks sadly in character and the 'shore' is an unappealing rocky beach. Still, it is popular with Indian families. Apparently this is true of all beaches; families travel from afar and fling themselves with abandon into the waves, often with fatal results, since they usually cant swim.

Claire and I met for lunch, in a totally Indian dive, where we had delicious thalis for less than a pound and ate of spotlessly clean tables. The young man opposite us was on a day trip from Chennai and laughed at our inefficient efforts to eat our rice (only three little dishes of sauces - in Chennai there can be dozens) with our fingers. We have learnt that there is always a sink where you can wash your hands before and after the meal, and that of course one eats only with the right hand. Not so easy when you are breaking up a chepati. As we left the restaurant we noticed that several people were eating their rice with the teaspoon provided with the sauces. Shucks!

Then back to the tourist office to wait for our bus tour price only 90 rupees). Apart from a garrulous retired Englishman, a self-appointed tourist consultant from Kerala, most of the fellow passengers were Indian families, and we wre treated throughout the trip to the most extraordinary exotic Bollywood saga. Well I think it was Indian, and the scenery often looked like the hills round Gingee, apparently a popular location for Chennai filmmakers. But every so often we looked up and the hero and heroine appeared to come from another part of Asia. Very weird, but funny.

The tour was bizarre, but then we are in India. The first stop was a boating lake. The others rushed off for a 20 minute boat trip. We passed on this, and contemplated life sitting on a bench beside the water. But we made damned sure we got back to the bus before others to get better seats.

The main destination was the model town of Auroville, a dozen kilometres outside Pondicherry. The story goes back to the early 20th century when a Bengali independence fighter and guru, Aurobindo Ghose sought refuge in Pondicherry. After his death in 1950, his ashram in the city continues to flourish. Indeed the Sri Aurobindo Society (SAS) is a rich, powerful political and economic force. Reading between the lines of the Rough Guide it is quite a sinister body.

Aurobindo's disciple was a French woman, the "Mother". She was the one who in 1968 began the foundations of the new city of harmony, Auroville. There were apparently 124 countries involved in this initial stage, today there are just over 2000 residents and the aim is for an eventual city of 50000.

The settlement is apparently an experiment in peaceful living - a non-religious movement, though there is a lot of talk of spiritual consciousness and inner peace. There are apparently experiments in ecological housing, eco-friendly agriculture, schools which have no exams and are orientated towards self-discovery rather than teaching, all energy is solar or windpowered - and so on. The philosophy is that you attain inner calm through hard physical work, though one of the small industries which earns them money is apparently a thriving computing business.

According to the Rough Guide, the residents are understandably pretty fed up with the stream of tourists, so we were not too annoyed (though frustrated) that we did not get to see any of their houses or work, and caught only the odd glimpse of a (usually European) resident.

Instead we were taken to Matri Mandir, the dwelling place of "Mother" and the heart of Auroville. There we saw a huge tree, the centre of the settlement, a huge Roman or Greek style amphitheatre, with at centre the post containing earth put there by the original 124 participating countries and as a backcloth a most amazing giant gold space-like globe containing a giant chrystal ball of special significance to the community. This is at present closed for restoration, but I fully expected to see characters in space suits emerging. Visitors were asked to be silent in the auditorium and by Indian standards they were. I did wonder what a predominantly Hindu people (though lots of Catholics in Pondicherry) made of all this, but it is clearly an extremely popular tourist destination. And really, despite our sceptical philosophies, Claire and I were both pretty impressed with the place.

There was a frustrating lack of information about how Auroville actually works, so I studied the Rough Guide and pumped our guide with questions. I'm not quite sure how reliable his answers were, maybe he just wanted me to stop asking questions. The people live in a number of communities within the settlement, just like any town, and get paid 4000 rupees per month (seems quite a lot by local standards, given they dont pay rent) for their work.

Government is by a council. When I asked in what language, the guide replied, in English. When I expressed surprise, given the history of Pondicherry, he agreed, French and Tamil as well. So who knows.

After the Mother's death, Auroville fell out with the SAS,which blocked funds to it until after a law suit. Funding is now restored, but it still perplexes us as to how it survives. But all power to them.

The next stop was another bizarre one, to a huge temple under construction (no photos allowed, dont know why since usually you can photo the exterior of temples). We had to walk along way over pebbly sand (very painful for us softies), past a huge roofed hall which seemed to be decorated with newspaper, rather like papier mache. Weird. The main part of the temple was big but otherwise not impressive. So why were we there? And who pays for new temples like this?

The final stop was the SAS headquarters. We opted out of this and headed to a coffee shop to collapse. Joined by the garrulous man from Kerala.

Then on to an internet place where I totally failed to make a connection to update this blog. So I waited until Claire had finished hers and then we went off to treat ourselves to an Indian-French meal at the Rendezvous, an upmarket restaurant packed with more upmarket tourists in the more French area of town.

As we climbed the steps a couple leaving said to us "well worth it". They were right. I had delicious tiger bay prawns and boiled vegetables, washed down by a Kingfisher beer and finished off with a slightly less brilliant cheesecake. Claire had a fish curry followed by a more successful chocolate mousse. Naughty us, it cost 600 rupees each (7.20 pounds). But we deserved it, we said...

We sat talking for hours. I havent really said much about Claire, but she is tremendously good value. Her degree was in genetics, but as there wasnt much work in this area, she left NZ for her OE (overseas experience) assuming wrongly the same would be true in Britain. So she ended up in Glasgow working for a company which sets up and runs call centres for companies. As she says, she 'blagged' her way into IT jobs, starting by writing databases and progressing rapidly to project management. When her original company was bought up and went downhill, she progressed to similar work in Birmingham but finally left, partly because her sister was getting married back home and she wanted to use the journey to do the travelling bit of the OE, and partly because she really could not stomach the call centre industry any longer.

She is a highly intelligent, very forceful 32-year-old, who probably scares the pants of many of her contemporaries. The sort of person I would have loved to hire in the Edinburgh computing service.

We've teamed up for the next part of the journey too, but I have said that she should only contribute within her planned budget, as her savings have to last till her flight to the UK in April. It would be nice to share the costs equally, but her company is what I am really benefitting from.

Claire then went off to her downmarket guesthouse and I returned to my relative luxury.

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.

Thursday 11 January 2007

Mamallapuram: mosquitoes and monuments

Well last night I needed all the anti-grot and anti-mosquito kit I had brought with me: silk sleeping bag, pillowcase, flip flops for the shower (not that I fancied using it), net (thanks Jude and Ed)and spray.

I just wish i had done a trial run with the mosquito net: I set it up after the rather disappointing prawn and rice supper I had shared with Claire, my New Zealand friend. I had to climb to instal a string line across the room, and first put the net up back to front. It's not the same as the ones I am used to: it only seems to have rings at the top for the head end, so at my feet end the net was clinging to my body. I must get to bed earlier tonight: life closes down at 10 here, but starts up with a vengeance at 6am.

Today was much better weather: blue sky and a light breeze coming off the sea. And my day's sightseeing was far more successful than yesterday, perhaps helped by the weather. My first target was the Pandava Rathas. These turned out to be five magnificent monuments, hewn out of giant granite boulders. They were never actually consecrated as temples and it appears that the seventh (!) century stone masons were trying out various tenchiques before embarking on the first stone temples (earlier ones had all been in wood). They were in better shape than the Shore Temple, as they had been buried in sand for centuries until the British started to excavate them in the 19th century.Each temple or 'chariot' (dont ask my why they are called that) was intriguingly different in style; most of them had splendid figures carved on them, particularly on the exterior - the usual suspects - Shiva etc. , and beside them were some magnificent animals, in particular a giant elephant.

The technique used was impressive. This is an area with huge granite boulders and each temple was in one piece, cut out of the rock. They started the temples at the top apparently, so that the masons did not damage the work done subsequently further down.

The temples were all clustered together and it was a very pleasant site to wander round. At one point I was waylaid by the usual "Where are you from" opening, and ended up having a long conversation with three gentlemen from Orissa. We talked politics and I discovered that they very much admired "Tony Blair" (they didnt understand me when I first mentioned "Blair" - he must be given his full title). But I'm not clear why they admired him because they were absolutely adamant that British involvement in Iraq was a huge mistake. They were delighted to discover that I agreed.

I then strolled back towards the town, through the stonemasons quarter. Apparently the statues they carve here are sold to temples throughout the world. The air resounded to hundreds of hammers, chisels and electric saws, often two or three people would be working simultaneously on the same object. It would have been nice to have been able to buy a stone elephant...

Right next to the town is a large hill, littered with giant granite boulders, temples and monuments. My memory is a (pleasant) blur of numerous carved caves - the temples were literally carved into the granite hillside - with some splendid figures, usually reliefs on the walls or as part of the pillars, which were often of a square form. All these dated from the seventh or eighth centuries.

The hill was also the site for two lighthouses (the original 9th century one and a British raj replacement). Annoyingly my camera was playing up at this point (ominous err 99 messages) so I failed to capture photos of some impressive monkey fights. They were really quite scary for such small animals. Anyhow photography is in theory forbidden here (not that you would have guessed it) as the presence of a nuclear power station just visible on the horizon makes this a high security area. My walk over the hill ended with a view of Krishna's Butter Ball, a giant boulder perched on a slope, as if it is about to tumble down the hill - most impressive. Most of the tourists were Indian and I am amused by the endless taking of photos of each other in front of the various monuments. Very much an international habit these days.

I limped my way back to the guesthouse, stopping off for the invariable lassi on the way. I was now transferring to Green Lands, the guesthouse of my choice. I think I have one of the nicest rooms: a double room (not cheap) with its own balcony (and delightful swing chair) looking onto the garden, with the sound of the surf nearby. Balaji, the extremely efficient and helpful owner, then helped me book a guesthouse in Pondicherry. Once again the change in STD codes and individual numbers has made advance booking very difficult. Once again I was therefore too late to get into the guesthouse of my choice and have had to go for a more expensive one. I get the impression that I have hit peak time in South India.

In the afternoon I walked back to the granite hill, taking a delightful route through back lanes with an entertaining view of everyday life here. I think most people dont have their own water supplies, as there were frequent taps with women filling up large water urns (some traditional brass, most sadly ugly plastic).

My first stop was a bas relief celebrating Krishna lifting a mountain in one hand - made all the more impressive by the presence of the hillside above. It is a much more homely set of figures than the other monuments, with Krishna also milking a cow and of course surrounded by his milkmaids. But the final stop was one of the best: Arjuna's Penance (apparently Arjuna was an archer who journeyed through a forest hoping that Shiva would give him his magic bow and arrow (which he eventually did). There is a natural cleft in the rock representing the Ganges, complete with superb water cobras. The whole rockface of the hillside is a labrynth of figures - over a hundred apparently. On one side there is a delightful family of elephants.

I've written far too much and still havent managed to get any photos up. Tomorrow I have another extravance: I have hired a car to go to Pondicherry via Gingee and Tiruvannamalai. I can't see any other way to get to these without using extremely uncomfy local buses and probably having to stay overnight.

Wednesday 10 January 2007

Goodbye Chennai, hello Mamallapuram

The main bus station at Chennai is on the outskirts of the city and I wilted at the thought of another battle with the traffic, to be followed by a two-hour trip in a local bus. So I copped out and hired a car to take me the 50 km to Mamapalluram.

What luxury. This is the way to travel, and quite reasonable at 800 rupees (about 9 quid). Even Chennai looked better because I could see more than in the rickshaws, where your head bangs against the roof and you are so busy looking at the one centimetre gap between rickshaws that there is no time to look up. Even in a car it took over an hour to get through the traffic of Chennai and then we were on the straightish highway south, passing through the familiar Indian highway sprawl of shanty towns - and verges covered in plastic... What an ecological disaster the use of plastic has been in the third world.

The landscape was predictably flat, with a generous scattering of palm trees but not much sign of agriculture. The red soil did not look particularly fertile. Maybe there are crops during the monsoon season but just now it looks like semi-desert. I caught occasional glimpses of the sea, which looked incredibly green.

When we arrived in Mamapalluram I was immediately struck by the ubiquitous western tourists, some clad in what I regard as inappropriate wear (shorts etc) for India. A contrast to Chennai where I caught only a rare glimpse of non-Indians. The streets are filled with the usual collection of stalls selling fruit, bottled water, sim cards and internet access. My car took me to the guesthouse I hoped to stay in (my failure to phone ahead was explained by the fact that they have changed just changed the STD code!).

Unfortunately Green Lands (which appears in all the guidebooks) was fully booked, though I will transfer there tomorrow. Meanwhile I am in a much grottier place across the road. I think my silk sleeping bag, pillow case, mosquito net and flip flops for the shower will all come into use tonight... No sign of mosquitoes yet, but I'm not keen on the ants crawling over the floor. Still, its costing 350 rupees (less than a fiver).

This afternoon I walked to the beach - about 300 metres away. There is a line of fishing boats. I don't know whether they went out today, because there is quite a wind and the surf looks quite challenging. I looked to the right and there was the majestic sight of the 8th century Shore Temple, perched on a wave-lashed promontory.

I had of course approached the temple from the wrong side and had make my way through a depressing area of plastic refuse, through a hole in a fence and back towards the proper entrance to get my ticket (turning down the guard's offer to let me in for half-price without a ticket).

This is a region of south India where the Pallavas reigned in the middle ages. Mamallapuram, formerly Mahabalipuram, was an important port at that time and the route by which Pallavian ideas were exported to other parts of Asia.

The Shore Temple - probably the oldest stone temple in South India - is actually three temples, so worn by sand, sea and wind that the figures are rounded, ghostly shadows of their former glory. But still there was something very moving about wandering over this archaological rather than religious site and the temples stood out dramatically against an increasingly menacing black sky. The rows of Nandi (bulls) indicate that Vishnuwas worshipped here. I was tagging behind a group of French visitors in order to listen to their guide, when the heavens opened, cutting short my intended wandering round the site. But it was still very impressive.

On the way back I passed endless workshops where the stonemasons continue to drill, carve and chisel out sculptures. I think the rock comes from the volcanic hill which I will be exploring tomorrow.

I treated myself to another lassi (and unfortunately a dose of mosquitos treated themselves to me under the table) and got talking to a nice young New Zealander from Blenheim. She is taking a leisurely route from the UK to NZ for her sister's wedding and we discussed the pros and cons of travelling on ones own. The freedom to do what one wants when one wants is a great plus, but she agreed that the evenings can be lonely. And now here she is - two seats away from me in the same internet cafe!

I'm just going to have a quick look at my photos so far (not many)and then the idea of shell fish at a shoreside restaurant beckons.

Well I looked at the photos - not great - and failed to upload one. shellfish here I come

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Chennai: traffic - and dentists

Despite my excessive amount of baggage and some anxiety about the dental problems caused by the temporary crown I received in Brighton last week, I had an amazingly smooth trip to India.

Fellow passengers included the Rough Guide's man in South India, Nick Edwards, whom we all pumped for information. And an Indian woman sitting near me gave me the name of her dentist.

I decided that because my tongue was being lacerated by the temporary crown, I would spend the first day in Chennai, rather than going direct to Mamallapuram as planned.

Well, here I am at the end of the first day, absolutely exhausted. but pain-free. Our plane arrived some time after midnight but it was after 2am before I reached the hotel I had picked out, hoping they would have a spare bed.

The rickshaw journey from the airport made the memories of Indian cities flood
back: the warmth, the noise and the smells (though so far I have not seen any
cows mingling with the traffic).

It took some time for the guys at hotel reception to switch from "we are full" to "follow me". I think they realised that I was ready to sit on the ground in front of the hotel and sleep there till dawn! It turns out to be a good if impersonal hotel (Chandra Park Hotel, near Egmore Station. Most of the other guests are Indian businessmen. I am booked in for tonight as well, and will travel to Mamallapuram tomorrow.

My first task of the day was to get some passport photos (taken by a guy with a small digital camera and then cropped to the right shape on his elderly PC), and to take them across the road to get an Indian sim card for my mobile - needed in order to ring the dentist.

The rest of the morning was taken up with the trip to the dentist, starting with a long hair-raising rickshaw journey. I have come to the conclusion that the traffic here is madder than in Delhi, and the levels of pollution and dust meant that my eyes are stinging with what could turn into conjunctivitis if I am not

'JGHR Total Dental Care' turned out to be a clinic with an evidently middle class Indian clientele. I was treated like an honoured guest by Dr Janakiranaman, the founder of the clinic and he and his sons took me on a guided tour of the consulting rooms - each decorated in a different colour to create the appropriate ambience for the specific treatment. Dr J not only sorted out my rough crown but also took a panoramic xray - and pointed out that I have an infection beneath one of my implants :-( All this for a generous special price of 500 rupees (the equivalent of six quid)! I've spent more than that today on rickshaws.

Jetlag set in after my dental experience and I returned for a quick siesta, overslept and missed the afternoon tourist bus tour of Chennai. So I decided to go to the Government museum on my own.

The main part of the museum, which has a combination of archaeological exhibits and natural history rooms, was fascinating and frustrating. It is in really bad shape: the labelling is old, difficult to read and not informative, the exhibits are badly organised and mainly in very bad shape. Nevertheless, I was impressed by some of the very early sculptures, many dating back to the 2nd century AD. Curiously the natural history section was also quite fun; I particularly liked giant skeletons of an elephant and a whale.

I then moved on to the Chola bronzes, housed in a separate, modern gallery. What a contrast: the exhibits were in extraordinarily good shape and the gallery was well lit and displayed. I overheard a woman giving an excellent explanation of the signficance of the various Shiva figures and tagged on behind her clients (an Indian family from, I guess, the US). I learnt a lot and thoroughly enjoyed these beautiful bronzes, many of which were stolen from temples during the middle ages so that the various marauding armies could smelt them down to make arms - or sell them to buy arms. Definitely the highlight of the day.

I then had another nightmarish experience with a rickshaw driver who got totally lost and then tried to double my fare to cover the extra mileage. So after a quick look at the 10th century catholic cathedral dedicated to St Thomas, who is supposed to have died there, I cut short my trip round the other, somewhat
limited, sights of Chennai and called it a day.

My first supper has been "idly" (?) in a very busy restaurant near my hotel. It seemed to be a couple of balls of some dough stuff, a little bowl of something or other, and three sauces, all perched on a green leaf. Clearly I have to master the southern Indian cuisine vocabulary, but I was proud of myself, eating this all with my right hand. The idly and a lassi came to the princely sum of 62 rupees (about 75 pence).

Final task of the day was to find a local internet post - and it turns out to be my friend with the digital camera. Ancient machines and dodgy keyboard, as per usual, but the luxury of individual cubicles and a fan. Sadly I have discovered the computer is too old to have a usb port, so I cant download any photos.