Saturday 20 January 2007

Train to Madurai

The night before I met a French couple who had just got off the train after a 16-hour trip from Mangalore. They had not been able to reserve but said if you get on, the ticket inspector usually finds a space for you. So I decided to risk this, while Claire continued with the bus trip, to save money and to get to Madurai in time for some initial sightseeing.

Neither of us had a smooth journey. Her bus was held up when the driver knocked over a cyclist (not serious) and all the men on the bus got out to discuss the event. She said the trip was a bit of a nightmare as the woman next to her took up most of the space, so she was squeezed against the open window. Now one understands why there are so many people leaning out of the windows in Indian buses. Also there is no room in these buses for rucksacks, so I was more than relieved I had not accompanied her with my TWO bags.

The train was not due till 12.45, but to be safe I got to the station at 11, just in case... Amazingly and unlike the day before, there was no queue at the ticket office and I bought an ordinary ticket to Madurai. costing 50 rupees (about 60p) for a journey of over 100 lm. No wonder the trains are so crowded.

Anyhow, I decided to instal myself on Platform 4, as directed, and do some people watching. The platform was already crowded nearly two hours before the train was due. Several family groups were seated in circles on the ground, eating a hearty meal. I've noticed a distinct enthusiasm for eating in public and everywhere there are men passing with trays of goodies. I joined in with a bag of bombay mix, which I reckoned would be safe.

I enjoyed watching the other trains passing through the station; Indian engines are great, romantic monsters. The most impressive of all was a goods train, which took over 15 minutes to haul its 45 giant wagons through the station.

Then the fun started. An announcement that our train would arrive at 12 noon - 15 minutes late. Then 12.10, then 12.25, 12.45... ... Then a different announcement and enough people spoke English to advise me to join the rush towards the steps: our train would be coming on Platform 3. Not so easy when you have to get one of these huge backpacks onto your back.

A little after 2pm there was another announcement: the train would shortly be arriving on platform 1! As I struggled again down the steps and along the subway, a kindly elderly Indian, struggling more than I was, said to me : "I apologise on behalf of Indian Railways".

L'm getting wise to the system now: you have to find out if possible where the AC compartments are likely to stop on the platform and work your way that end of the very long platforms before the train arrives. As an old hand I helped a young Dutch girl, still shell shocked after only a week in India, find the right compartment. Luckily the inspector was on the platform, perusing his huge printouts of seat reservations. He indicated to get in and he would find seats for us. I try to go for 2AC when travelling at night: the 2 refers to two tiers of bunks and the AC of course air conditioned. This is how most middle class Indians travel. In the daytime 3AC (three tiers) is OK because everyone is sitting on the bottom bunks, and this is where we were now.

There is something very pleasant about the way an Indian train ambles through the countryside. We passed through fields of rice, bananas, sugar, and coconut trees - plus lots of other things I couldnt recognise. How nice it would be to have someone to answer ones questions all the time. The scenery was more rural than when I travelled by road: there were obviously villages all the time, but not that endless roadside struggle of huts and stalls.

Men passed regularly down the train with enticing trays of things that looked like pakooras, chai, ice cream, and coffee. We resisted all these but I began to feel hungry.

At last we were in Madurai - only two hours late - and with great relief I took a rickshaw to Hotel Supreme. This was not as grand as the ones I had in Thanjavur and Trichy, but still catering for the same market, predominantly Indian businessmen, with a small sideline in tourists.

First impressions of my room were not good: it smelt strongly of cigarette smoke. Ugh! I made a comment which I think was registered as the next day it smelt of some scented spray. I was on the fifth floor but any eager expectations of a view on the temples was dashed: I was at the back, facing a blank wall. I have come to the conclusion that this is where you get sent if you ask for single non-AC. Still, cant complain at just under 500 rupees (about 5.60 pounds). And the bathroom was clean and the plumbing works.

Claire, who was as usual in a cheaper hotel, joined me for supper on the rooftop restaurant of my hotel, which is noted for its view towards the temples. Yes the towers of the temple are there, and were impressive, as was the panorama of a bustling city. Madurai is the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, with a population of 1.2 million people.

I have felt queasy and not hungry for a lot of my time so far and sadly not been able to sample as much South Indian food as I would like. Now at last I felt hungry and we tucked into a delicious meal: my old favourite from Edinburgh - a Navratan Kurma - and a hotter mushroom masala. I'm enjoying sampling the different types of bread too. We decided to take a risk and follow this with icecream, given the quality of the food.

I have to say the service was not up to the same standard as the food. We are beginning to learn that in these large business hotels there are staff all over the place, but each person seems to have a specific role. If you happen to ask the wrong person for a bottle of water, he nods, and later you discover does nothing. You have to suss out which is the one who takes the orders; others are there to bring the dishes, lay the table, bring you the bill etc etc (not to mention the people opening doors, pressing buttons in lifts and generally standing around to say good evening).

I finished with a cup of tea - yes, my habits are quite different here. I'm not too keen on the coffee one gets. I got into the habit of drinking chai (tea with milk and sugar) in North India. Here you have a choice of "black tea" or "milk tea". But I reckon it is safe to drink tea anywhere.

Otherwise we rely a lot on bottles of water which are sold everywhere for about 13 rupees - oh those mountains of plastic.

By the time we left we were surrounded by large Indian family groups. This is clearly a popular place for a Saturday night out.

More newspaper snippets
These come from the time when I lost a lot of text - so I may be repeating myself.

- during the Pongal festivities, in one town a bull charged the crowd, killing one man and injuring more than 20 others. In another town, a man released his neighbour's bull, causing a fight with clubs and sickles between the two families, the man was killed and his aggressors are in prison.
- a preservation society is pressing for plastic bags to be banned in the temples and the tanks to be cleaned. It is also concerned by a decline in the bird population and calls 'to preserve nature to nurture birds'.
- there is a national plan for ID cards, as much for the organisation of benefits as for security reasons
- Bangalore has got wimax (why not the Ceevennes??)
- the different states seem to be all preparing IT strategies and appear to some extent to be in competition with each other. One of the issues is the lower rate of tax levied as an incentive to software initiatives; another is the role and rights of trade unions.

Friday 19 January 2007

Trichy - temples

I felt we had to have a break yesterday, rather than risk temple-itis! This morning we felt strong enough to tackle the Ranganathaswamy Temple, in Srirangam, about six km out of Trichy. In case you think that when in Tamil Nadu these lengthy names roll easily off the tongue, they don't. And you may also have noticed that I refer to Trichy (which I can remember) rather than its other name, Tiruchirapali.

Anyhow, this temple complex is another huge one, built over several centuries starting in the fifth, but principally the 14th. As we walked through the crowded streets we could see the now familiar sight of gopuras, the high entrance gates, covered on what Claire and I now enjoy calling "Disneyland accretions" or just "accretions".

In this case there are rather a lot of gopuras, as the complex consists of seven courtyards, one within another, each one containing several temples and other buildings such as mandapas - the open halls filled with columns. The first three layers were essentially a town within the temple walls, bustling with life, as usual, and very much geared towards pilgrims, with stalls selling food and religious artefacts, and what we think were signs for cheap lodgings.

We knew we had arrived at the temple proper when we saw a sign, in English too, telling us to leave our shoes in a little booth covered in pigeonholes with shoes. At first when we did this we were a bit anxious we would not be reunited with our shows, but we now have more confidence in the complex systems of storing, plus the feel of honesty here. Just as well, as I have come to India with just the one pair of sandals (which are large, ugly and extremely comfortable - another good buy from Blacks Camping).

As we entered the next courtyard we came across an extraordinary sight: the centre of the entrance hall was filled with rows of men counting huge trays of money, presumably the collections from all the temples, as priests seemed to be surveying the scene. Then a new box of money arrived and was put into a giant sieve, held by several men. They rattled it vigorously for several minutes until all the coins had fallen through, leaving just the notes. During our walk through the temples we heard a louder mechanical noise and on our way out we saw that there was also a larger mechanical machine which rattled huge amounts of coins on a tray with several layers of holes of different sizes, sorting the different sized coins into different containers. The mind boggles at how many single rupees are collected in a day.

Most of the temples are not open to non Hindus, but we were able to wander through several, with yet more examples of the square-based Chola columns covered with carvings. Some of these appear to be late CHola, about the 14th century; the carving is more sophisticated, though very worn, and I noticed that some of the columns were round, or rather multi-facetted polygons.

The innermost temple, in the seventh courtyard is the most holy, and closed to non-Hindus. It used to be closed also to lower caste Hindus. One of the signs outside said in English "No entry for lunghis" (the long, wrap-around garments for men). Since we watched men wearing lunghis go inside, I assume that there was no equivalent sign in Tamil. Unlike most of the temples we have seen so far, this one is dedicated to Vishnu, not Shiva.

I've noticed that this entry has not registered my final remarks, that Claire
and I had spent an 'interesting' time at the railway station, being shunted
between the reservations and ticket offices, only to discover that all trains to
Madurai are full for the next two days. Our last decision of the day was to take
a three-hour bus trip in the morning. Gulp.

Thursday 18 January 2007


First as usual, a word on my hotel. Tourism in India is hard work for the individual traveller and so hotels play a large part, ideally as havens of peace and rest between the different expeditions. I know from last time friends asked for recommendations, so it is useful for me to mention the hotel as an aide memoire.

The Hotel Femina was recommended in Rough Guide (which I am beginning to rely on rather than Lonely Planet) and apart from its attractive name, has turned out to be an excellent choice. I find that most hotels I am using are frequented more by Indian middle classes than backpackers. This one has a tremendously plush public area - acres marble floor and gaudy gold chandeliers etc and TWO lifts.

My room, a single non-AC is at the far end of a corridor, opposite the service lift, so a bit noisy. But impeccably clean, with armchair, telly, a table to write on and a comfy bed, the essential fan (not AC which I dont like anyhow), and all for 430 rupees (about a fiver) so I’m not complaining! Once again Claire is paying 100 rupees less for her hotel and says the bathroom is not particularly clean and her room is bang opposite the bus station and so very noisy. She tried to switch to mine, but now the only room available is 1500 rupees!

The two restaurants here are good as well; we have just had lunch (attended by five waiters because we were early) and it cost us 50p each! Better still there are two modern PCs with Windows XP for hotel clients (albeit a network collection which falls over from time to time) and I have just completed the Pondicherry to Trichy sections. Up to date at last! It has been such a shame that I had to keep repeating myself as I lost text again and again. It somewhat dampened the freshness I fear.

Anyhow I've spent the morning at the computer. This was intentional as I reckon I needed a break from sightseeing. Now Claire and I are off to see the Fort.

The Fort stands on a high, rocky hill in the middle of the Old City. Claire and I took a bus there. Quite an experience as nobody spoke English. There was no room for our knees but as the journey was only a few kilometers we survived. The conductor rushed up and down, blowing his whistle to get the driver to stop or start and yelling what sounded like “hurry. Hurry. Hurry” at every stop. At any rate, the bus would start before people had really got on and they had to cling on to avoid falling out of the open door. We had no idea when to get out, but luckily a schoolgirl plucked up courage to ask us “Where are you going?” and showed us when to get off.

We were still quite a way from the Fort; in fact including some wrong turns I must have walked at least three kilometres. At least, that is what my back tells me. We made our way through the Old City bazaar, which was humming with life and seemed more varied than the usual row of stalls selling the same things. We spotted a couple of bookstalls, selling such thrilling items as elderly physics text books and a manual for Cobol (a programming language which went out in the 80s). The stalls were interspersed with shops with actual shop windows, usually clothes or materials.

We eventually found our way to the foot of the hill. The way up was through a series of temples, so with much trepidation we had to leave our shoes at the bottom. However there was a railing up the 400 plus steps and although they were steep, they were relatively smooth, and I don’t actually find climbing uphill too difficult.

The view outside the Ganesh temple at the top was actually a little disappointing, not least because the city was shrouded in a dusty, polluted haze. It is not a romantic view, as over the blue houses of Jodhpur, but it did give us a good impression of the size of Trich (800,000 inhabitants) and we could see the towers of the temple we are visiting tomorrow.

As usual the way up was packed with Indian tourists as well as people coming to pray in the various temples (many of which, including the most ancient Pallavan ones, were only open to Hindus).

We wandered further in the Old City and came across a group of buildings containing a dilapidated Registry Office, a Police Office and museum, and looking as if they had seen better days in the time of the Raj. In the middle of this slummy area there was a surprising green pocket: public gardens. We didn’t like to explore them as it seemed a men-only area.

On our way back, Claire showed me her hotel room, which was the same size as mine but distinctly more grubby, with a front row view of the bus station below. We then decided to take a look at the ‘shopping mall’ next to my hotel. It made me think of a tatty bottom of the range Lidl. Lots of the brand names were familiar – Pedigree food for dogs, Kelloggs, Horlicks etc – though the actual products had clearly been made in India for the local market. Claire hankered after some chocolate, until I pointed out the Best Before date and reminded her what chocolate which has melted and then hardened again tastes like. I wonder if the staff, let alone the customers can read these dates, as they appeared to be in English only.

Instead we went had a cup of tea in my hotel. Actually Claire had an Indian snack and so liked the sauces that, much to the amusement of the five waiters watching us, asked for a dosa so she could continue sampling the sauces. I am suffering a rather mysterious loss of appetite, which I suppose I should be pleased about. So instead I looked at my recent output of photos. Very soon all the waiters were peering at them, happily identifying the various gods and temples. When they asked about our route I explained that I came from the UK and Claire from New Zealand and instantly one of them chanted the names of the key kiwi cricketers. They clearly regarded us as eccentric but amusing and bid us a cheerful goodbye when we left.

I’ve just been watching some Indian telly. They specialize in slow motion close camera work, with intense studies of people agonizing over someone or something, with more observation of behavioural conventions than realism. The plot is usually quite clear, which is just as well, since the films are in Hindi whereas the Tamils here speak Tamil…

Wednesday 17 January 2007


Not a bad night, apart from the mosquitoes (thanks for the net, Ed and Jude). AFter breakfast I was off to see the grandest of the Cholan temples.

The Bridharishwara Temple is immense, far bigger than either of the two previous ones, and very obviously more on the main tourist route; it was already crowded when we arrived at 10am. You go through two huge gopuras to the inner courtyard which is vast, which a cloister-like walkway the whole way round the courtyard, covered with fading friezes.

The first thing you see on entering the courtyard is, guess what, a huge black Nandi (Shiva’s bull), the third largest in India. Like so many statues here, Nandi was clothed in a white cloth, as well as the usual garlands and flowers. I do find it quite unnerving to come across dressed statues.

The main temple, built of granite, has the feeling of a gigantic cathedral. The passageway leading the the shrine (like all these temples, at the west end) is immensely long. I found myself in a long line of pilgrims slowly moving towards the shrine. They were all so friendly, even though our conversation was the usual “Coming from?” and “What is your name?”. Even the priests at the shrine beckoned me forward to have a better look. I stayed back a little, feeling intrusive, but did stay to watch devotees handing over what looked like garlands and receiving in return what looked like white grains.

Outside again I continued to enjoy the magnificent statues on the exterior, some of them in the same cobalt black I had seen elsewhere. People seemed to be in a particularly partyish mood here. I do love seeing the way Indians go out in family groups and the fathers take an active role in caring for and cuddling their children. I was approached endlessly by children calling out “photo photo” and when I took one and showed it to them they exclaimed “thank you. Thank you” – and rushed off to get all their friends for another photo. The parents are pleased too, and we have aimable language-restricted ‘conversations’. It reinforces one’s appreciation of Tamils as warm, gentle, friendly people. There were quite a lot of people dressed all in black (with a gold edging). I had seen them in Chennai and asked someone else where they were from. I think he said Yuppa, but I cant find any reference to this word.

One family was keen that I should go to the museum. The entrance was so small I would have missed it if not. It turned out to be a little treat: a wall showing high quality reproductions of the Cholan frescoes (now closed to the public), photos of the before and after of restoration, and some excellent panels explaining how the temples were built and illustrating the difference in design (the Gangawhatsit tower has concave sides, while the Thanjavur one is higher and with a more solid base). The granite comes from about 50km away. Rather than scaffolding, the Cholans built giant earth ramps round the tower and one illustration showed an elephant dragging stone blocks up to the top of the tower. Like the pyramids, the engineering of the towers is immensely accurate and complex. Sadly the recommended booklet on Cholan temples was out of stock.

A very good visit, though perhaps I retain greater affection for the two previous ones.

After lunch Claire and I went to the palace (the family of the former rulers still live in part of it). It showed sad signs of neglect and decay. However, my main objective was to visit the museum of Cholan bronzes, housed in an immense 17th century hall within the palace complex. This is perhaps the largest collection of Cholan bronzes in the world, and some of them were of exquisite quality although not displayed as well as those in Chennai. One of the officials accompanied me. He has worked there for 20 years and is clearly proud of the collection. Unfortunately his English was not very good, but he was very helpful. I fear that the glass casing may mean that my photos don’t do the statues justice.

Half way round a young Indian asked my guide a couple of questions – the same ones I had already asked. We got talking and I discovered he was an engineering student from Calcutta (also stuck on chapter 1 of Amyarta Sen’s ‘The argumentative Indian’!). I asked him if his impeccable English was typical of Calcutta or the result of a middle class background. He was clearly pleased and said it was thanks to his Jesuit teachers. I don’t know why he is studying engineering. He says he is not very good at it and would rather be a musician. We talked about politics, economics, and history. Despite the greedy East India Company, he thought India had a lot to thank the English for, in particular hits political and judicial institutions. And he too was despairing about the immensity of the problems facing the country, in particular water, sanitation and health. He gave me the name of two writers whom he thought had written well on the Indian character (Rabindranath Tagore and Anand Kentishcoomaraswami).

That was the first of two very pleasant discussion with Indians that day; the second was with a Goan couple on the train.

We were due to catch the 7.15 express to Trichy, a daunting task as it turned out as the rickshaw driver delivered us to the ticket office on one side (which turned out to be for non AC seats) and the correct ticket office was the other side, over an immensely long bridge – with the platform in the middle section. Thank goodness I was with Claire. I guarded our luggage on the platform, while she went in search of tickets.

I sat down next to a pleasant, English-speaking woman, who turned out to be a Goan with a British passport, living in London, and travelling with her partner (!), a Goan on a Goan passport, working as an aeronautical engineer at Croydon. They had been visiting a Catholic shrine near Trichy and were returning to her family in Goa (via Bangalore, where they fly to Kochin – the complication of interstate connections). While Al went off to find out where we should be (they didn’t speak Tamil either), Patricia, Claire and I had a jolly discussion about Indian loos and the advantages of travelling in a skirt …

Thank goodness Al was there: the train turned out to be totally full and we had to struggle with bags (he carried my heavier one) through to the non-AC class. Apart from the smell as you switch from one carriage to the other, these are fine by day – it is the nights which can be a trial. The journey to Trichy is only an hour and passed quickly, thanks to Al and Patricia.

Then an expensive (60 rupees) rickshaw trip (our first woman driver) to my hotel via Claire's.

Tuesday 16 January 2007

Gangaikondacholapuram & Darasuram

We set off early in the morning to continue our Cholan temple trail. There was a particularly beautiful hazy light over the countryside which was predominantly fields of rice, patches of sugar cane, palm trees and picturesque but clearly manky pools. The high pothole count indicated this was definitely a minor road and for the first hour we passed just a few buses and motor bikes, though a larger number of local bicycles and oxen carts. This may be the country, but we passed what seemed to be a continuous stream of villages and the road is of course never empty of people.


This must surely be the longest name for the site of a temple. We resorted to calling it Gangaburbleburbleburble, which highly amused our driver. It apparently means "the town of the Chola who took the Ganges" referring to the 11th century king Rajendra I during whose reign it was built.

The Brihadishwara temple stands peacefully in the countryside rather than in the middle of a town and there were far fewer visitors - Indian or other - than elsewhere. We instantly warmed to it. We walked up to the huge wall that encloses the temple complex and entering through the gateway saw that the temple was surrounded by well maintained lawns and gardens. In the centre is a huge tower over the main shrine, and in front an enormous Nandi (Shiva's bull) facing towards the temple - so your first view is of Nandi's bum.

The Nandi dates from the seventeenth century and to its right there is a an equally big statue of a lion, facing respectfully towards Nandi. Lots of people appear to pray to Nandi, so having a closer look involved squeezing between crowds lighting their candles and praying. It was worth it, as the carvings at the foot of the bull and lion were beautiful.

The exterior of the temple is also covered with carvings of lions, ornamental scrolls and endless statues of Shiva in his various incarnations. Huge statues of guards protect the entrance. Inside I am becoming familiar with the church-style layout: a long, multi-columned dark "nave" culminating in the main shrine.

I won't bore you with further detail about the temple; suffice to say seeing it was an eminently satisfying experience (more about beauty than the ritual we had witnessed in Chidambaram) and we continued on our way thoroughly satisfied.


The Airavateshwara Temple in the little village of Darasuramis later than that of Gangawhatsit: it was built during the 12th century reign of King Rajaraja II. It also was surrounded by a huge wall, indeed it felt more like a citadel than a temple complex, with just one wee tower peering over the height of the walls.

This is a smaller, cosier sized complex, focussing very much on the charming
temple in the centre, preceded as usual by Nandi. The memorable thing about Darasuram was the fine quality of the carvings. In front of the temple there is a mandapa - an open multi-columned hall. Here and everywhere were beautifully sculpted columns, fine black basalt statues, charming lions, bulls and other figures.

We wandered around for a long time, reluctant to leave this delightful place. It was difficult to decide which of the two temples of the day was more satisfying, as they were the same (columns, figures etc) yet so different in character.

But we pulled ourselves away to continue the road to Thanjavur. It was dark when we arrived in what appeared a huge, bustling town. I had been sorely tempted by the guide books' (and my friend Rose Marie's) description of a luxury guesthouse outside the town, complete with eco farming and bicycles to visit nearby villages. But since the price has apparently soared recently, I settled for a more modest place, down a dirt-track past welders and garages. Hotel Valli was at first unprepossing, but the woman running it was hard-working and spoke some English and the rooms were very clean and satisfactory if you ignored the mosquitoes and the window opening onto a blank wall. Can't complain for 315 rupees (under 4 pounds)!

Monday 15 January 2007


Our car is luckily a roomy Ambassador, the classic Indian car. They are heavy monsters and I dread to think how much petrol they consume. The driver doesn’t speak a word of English (a pity – we miss Basha’s little nuggets of information) and drives like a maniac. He goes right up to the vehicle in front and attempts to overtake even when there is a bus careering towards us. When he wants to turn right, he turns right – and the oncoming traffic swerves to one or the other side of him. That is how most people drive here, but he takes it to extremes.

After an hour of negotiating Pondicherry traffic, we drove along a highway (definition of a road with fewer potholes…) to our first destination, Chidambaran. Our first impressions were not promising: the usual mad, noisy traffic and smells, but as one of the Belgians said to her friend, if you reacted to these first impressions and headed out of town, you would never see India.

It was a particularly hot, enervating day, so we started by collapsing in the most promising restaurant in town. No English spoken, but we gathered that since it was Pongal, the menu at my hotel (Saradharm) was rice – or rice. At least Claire and I had some lunch; the two Belgians had not been able to find anywhere open in the town.

One problem with temple touring is that they tend to be closed between 12 and 4, so Claire and I filled the time with a stroll round the town. Once you get off the main traffic arteries, the town immediately assumes a different ambience. It was much calmer, the houses were extremely poor, usually little more than shacks with thatched roofs (even a tall stone temple had a thatched roof, curious since we reckoned that underneath the roof was stone too). The people were, as usual in Tamil Nadu, extremely friendly, and one man rescued us when a cow with a crumpled horn decided to charge us (didn’t know that cows were xenophobic). There were temples everywhere and lots of houses have their own personal temple, invariably decorated in lurid colours. We passed a huge tank, with carved bulls on the walls. I wish I knew about the history of these tanks, whether they were simply water supplies or whether they have some religious significance.

Now it was time to head for the Sabhanayaka Temple complex. This is a 55-acre site, with four giant gopuras (gateways) in its surrounding wall. At first sight these are a little disappointing: they appear to be entirely covered in what Rough Guide described somewhere as “Disneyland accretions”. These in your face, voluptuous luridly coloured figures (eighteenth century or later?) do take some getting used to. But then we saw that the lower storeys, up to about 5 metres, were still covered in the original, more restrained, Cholan statues of about the tenth century. The statues were worn, but still beautiful.

Inside there is a gigantic outer circle, with a large tank, and several temples, a middle courtyard and at the centre the third, most holy place. Walking round the outer circle was quite tiring, we had already had to leave our shoes outside and the ground was quite pebbly (remind me next time to train barefeet on rough ground before going to India).

We went into one of the temples, devoted to Parvati, Shiva’s wife. The shrine was guarded by rather fierce looking young priests, with white loin cloths, stripped to the waist, and their hair in top knots. They demanded that we sign the visitors’ book which indicates the size of donations of other visitors. Luckily Guide Routard had warned me to deduct a zero from the amounts fabricated in the book. The priests accepted our 20 rupees with bad grace. We are becoming accustomed to the dark interiors of Cholan temples and their generally run-down feeling, but I do like the carved columns, which are basically square in contrast to the European round ones. I particularly liked the roof of this temple, which had some excellent sixteenth century friezes, side by side with some horrible, lurid 20th century ones.

We then passed through the middle circle into the inner sanctuary, for a memorable experience of intense religious fervour. The three most important Hindu gods are Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Sabhanayaka Temple is the most important in India for the Shaivites (Shiva worshippers), identifiable by the horizontal stripes painted on their foreheads. These gods have a confusing number of identities and Shiva is also Nataraja, Lord of the Dance – and as this is the main temple of Nataraja, many of the carvings here depict dancing figures.

Curiously the first temple we came to in this inner sanctuary was actually dedicated to Vishnu. As we arrived there was a bustle of priests rushing around and bells clanging, the sign that some sort of ritual was being performed. The crowd surged towards the shrine, the men in particular praying fervently. We could also hear the chanting of ancient Tamil verses.

People spend their time lighting the equivalent of the Catholic candles in front of the many shrines within a temple. They seem to either buy little pots already prepared with a central wick and what looks like melted wax, or to produce a length of wick from their bag and make their own.

As we passed to other bits of the inner sanctuary, we came across one of the Belgian women sitting quietly on a step, doing a sketch/water colour. She does this as her visual blog in each temple she visits and you would think that this was a way of quietly melting into the background. But no, there was a non-stop stream of passers by – adults as well as children – who stopped in front of her, peering transfixed at her canvas.

The main shrine (which we could not get near to because of the crowd) has images of Nataraja and his consort, and behind them a curtain hiding some sort of (invisible) symbol of the basic elements of life (fire, water etc) and also an actual crystal which the priests bathe in oil several times a day. We knew that 6pm was the time for one of these rituals, and indeed the temple was filling up rapidly. We chose a quiet discreet (we thought) corner to sit and observe.

We noticed that a lot of the men here seemed to have fat Buddha-like stomachs, in contrast to the predominantly very thin Indian population, and debated the reason. Was it over-eating? A heavy rice diet? Or a genetic disorder??

One woman, accompanied by an older priest, stopped to chat to us. She told us she was from Chennai and doing a doctorate on this temple. When I asked about the priests, she said they were of course Brahmins and trained for seven years, during which time they learn by heart extremely lengthy ancient Tamil verses (which we could hear as one of the background noises as we passed through this and other temples). They could only perform puja on behalf of devotees once they were married.

At 6pm priests suddenly rushed around and there was a sudden explosion of sound: the giant bells (just behind us!) began to swing causing a relentless, deafening ear-splitting noise, a huge rattle in front of the shrine was being rotated, there were bells everywhere, priests chanting and lighting torches and doing some sort of rituals around the various figures in the shrine, people praying, some intoning verses, others prostrating themselves. The men seem to press forward in front of the shrine, with the woman praying more discreetly behind. Electric lights attached to the ancient Cholan columns were flashing.

We were overwhelmed by the charged atmosphere, much of it incomprehensible to us two doubters. The Hindus sure do beat the Catholics at this game of ritual!

As we left many of the devotees were settling on the ground within the temple complex for family picnics. Claire and I adjourned to my hotel for a delicious supper (although I chose ginger chicken, which turned out to be too hot for me, so we did a swap!). We decided this was a clean restaurant and took the risk of indulging ourselves in kulfi malai, the Indian ice cream I so loved in Edinburgh. It was delicious.

Once again I had chosen well: my hotel cost 475 for the night (a little over five quid). We have come to the conclusion there is a significant jump in quality if you pay that extra 100 or so rupees. Neither the Belgians’ nor Claire’s were anyway near as comfortable as mine and their mosquito count was higher.

Sunday 14 January 2007

Computers rrrrrr!

Thanjavur. Tuesday

I have just spent the past hour writing the same thing again and again, each
time a leetle shorter. I've had a bad time with internet places. In
Pondicherry I spent quite some time trying to connect to my site before
discovering the manager had blocked the google blog site. Something to do with
Saddam Hussein. Then in Chidambaram I gave up when the ancient Windows 98 machine
hung for the third time. Now in Thanjavur on a computer with a faulty shift
key, every time I SAVe everything disappears!

Thanjavur. Wednesday
Well I wrote that yesterday. Here I am on another ancient slooow computer in
another place. My feet are being devoured by mosquitoes, but at least the
keyboard works. Here goes: this is what I wanted to say about Indian newspapers in Pondicherry (I've added the end of my stay in Pondicherry to the previous posting).

Indian newspapers

In the larger hotels I find a newspaper pushed under my bedroom door in the
morning and I've become quite attached to reading them. The indian press
appears earnest, with very little silly gossip. Here are some snippets whih
have interested me:

- A government ministry in Chennai announced that henceforth all bids for
contracts had to be done online and gave the site address for downloading the

- the Sunday paper reported that Pondicherry had been exceptionally busy with
pongal shoppers (sounds familiar?) buying mainly clothes and food. There are 15
varieties of rice for sale. One man interviewed (a taxi driver with his mother)
said that Pongal was more important than the festival of Deepavali "for those
who toil".

- the mosquito problem is getting worse, with many more in the day as well as
night 9I can vouch for that) and there have been 61 cases of Chickungune,
whatever that might be. The mosquitoes are proving resistant to pesticide and
desilting (canals) programmes ahve failed. Nobody can come up with a solution..

- doctors have expressed concern at the number of fatalities from head injuries
caused by motor cyclists not wearing helmets. It is apparently the sixth
highest cause of death.

- a woman has lodged a harassment complaint at the All Women Police Station
against her husband (the son of a former minister) and his mother. She said
that when she married last year she brought a car and gold worth 100 sovereigns
as her dowry and now they were demnding a further Rs 10 lakhs.

- a BJP leader spoke out against the proposed Indo-US deal for genetically
modified seeds to be sold by multinationals. He said that apart from anything
else, the seeds had been developed in totally different climatic conditions.

Pondicherry. Chilling out

I've spent the morning washing clothes and catching up on a LOT of this blog. I just wish I could find the time and place to put up some photos. Still I'm in a very French style cafe, frequented mainly by young backpackers, with the most delicious cappucino (must have another before I leave). My first was at a table shared with a very attractive black woman from New York. She is a commercial lawyer taking a year out to travel, rather hoping that her career wont suffer too much. Initially I thought she might be Indian, given her hairstyle and clothes. When I said this to her, she said that she too ex0pected to merge into the landscape more, but was constantly stared at. And people find it hard to accept that she comes from New York, suggesting that maybe she comes from AFrica or Jamaica.

In the afternoon I walked over a lot of the area of Pondicherry which still has a French feel about it. It is a bit like a run-down version of Montpellier or another city in the Midi: there are signs of gracious walled gardens and grandiose stuccoed fronts, and the street signs look French. One street had a canal running down the centre which would have been very picturesque if hadn't stunk. Many of the mainly middle class homes are occupied by doctors and lawyers. It is a very Catholic area: Mission Street is home to a giant white cathedral, its ornate front reminding me a bit of some of the Afrikaner architecture I saw in South Africa. I passed quite a lot of French Indian ladies walking slowly down the street and noticed that they went into a very grand building beside the Cathedral - a convent perhaps? Yet at the same time it is essentially Indian: the colours are more vivid, the houses more chaotic, often with ornate iron gates with Indian figures intertwined with the metal lacery. The streets were cleaner: I noticed quite a few street cleaners, all women, patiently stooping as they used a bunch of twigs (like a broom without a handle) to sweep.

I then wandered through Government Place, a series of roads through a large, formal ornamental garden - or at least one half was, the other half had been turned into a fairground area, with a catherine wheel and familiar looking stalls, mainly selling things like candy floss. (That was where I also noticed posters advertising inoculation programmes, and an advert for 'Nop scalpel vasectomy'. The formal gardens were in front of Raj Nivas, a magnificent, gleaming white nineteenth century edifice, which is the official residence of the Governor of Pondicherry.

Most of the other tourists in Pondicherry are, predictably, French (though I still don't understand why, given that apart from the French-Indians, nobody here seems to speak French. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, there seems to be a proponderance of Germans, some Italians, and only a handful of Brits. Claire (my Kiwi friend) and I have noticed that amongst the independent travellers (as opposed to tour groups) women far outnumber men. We speculated as to why, and wondered if women actually prefer travelling to men.

Claire and I went back to our favourite restaurant, the Rendezvous, for our last meal in Chennai. I indulged in "Sizzling prawns", a heated plateful of Tiger Bay prawns on a base of sizzling lettuce leaves. Delicious.

ps A bit more from my many lost writings.

- I hadnt realised that before the French, Pondicherry had been a stopping place for the Romans! They used it en route to the Far East. Then came the Pallavas, Cholas, Portuguese, French and British (the latter two had a bloody battle in the 18th century, after which the French retained Pondicherry until 1954, when it joined the rest of India).

- Watching women pumping water in the street, where does the water come from? I would like to know more about water supplies, sanitation schemes etc.

- I saw two very different Catholic churches. In one the service was not in Tamil (the language everybody speaks here) but in English (why not French??). The other was in English. Both had loudspeakers blaring out the service to the neighbourhood. Both churches seemed completely full.

We are continuing the next bit of the journey together, hiring a car to tour the Chola temples, as the alternative is lots of bone-rattline local buses. Not an option for me, I suspect, besides taking too many days. I booked a car and driver for two days, for 3,300 rupees (about 40 pounds) and at the hotel offered a lift to two Belgian women in order to help cover the cost.

Although Pondicherry was not quite the laid-back French/Indian experience I had expected and there was a definite lack of obvious things to visit, I could see its charm and can understand why people dally and recover here, particularly if in a comfortable hotel like mine (Claire's was cheaper and less comfortable).