Saturday 27 January 2007

Verkala again. Sloth.

I'm halfway through another self-indulgent day. Claire and I had 8.30 rendezvous with the masseuses. I had a different, older one, who introduced foot and hand massages too, while Claire's treatment has resulted in her needing lots of hankies subsequently - she is hoping that she is successfully cleansing her systems!

Back to our breakfast place for a lengthy brunch. Another muesli concoction and I have invented a new drink: I asked the cook to add ginger to my mango lassi - Claire agrees. It was superb and I have suggested they add that to the menu. Have you noticed how often I am talking about food now? Must be feeling better, but it does rather put paid to the idea of travel in India having the side benefit of weight loss.

It is a curiously hazy, overcast day, but as hot as usual. So I think it is time for a swim.

I have a feeling that tomorrow will be more of the same, so dont expect much more until I have made the trip on Monday to Allepey, where I plan to do a boat trip on Kerala's famous backwaters.

Oh, there was one thing I forgot to talk about yesterday. We shared our breakfast table with a Belgian in his fifties on his 52nd trip to India. Until recently he was a trader in textiles, with Indian partners scattered around the country. He loves India and the Indians, even he has no illusions about the difficulty of trading as a foreigner. He recently sold his business to one of his business partners in Hyderabad, and was clearly hurt by the way a Rajasthan trader whom he had thought of as a friend is no longer interested in retaining contact, even though they have spent lots of time together over the past 20 years. In contrast he is clearly delighted that his Hyderabad friend turns out to be a real friend, so much so that he has sent him the air ticket to come to a family wedding (a huge affair, with 3000 guests!). He will be the only European there, and he has come to Varkala to reland get strength for what he knows will be a big event.

Friday 26 January 2007

Seductive Verkala

This place is paradise to travel weary travellers.

We started by having THE most delicious breakfast. I still have slightly dodgy bouts of nausea and we both feel that we are temporarily unable to take any more Indian food for a while. We love it, but are suffering an overdose of rice and the various variants on chapati. So instead, here I was eating a delicious muesli, fruit and yoghurt mix for breakfast, washed down by a cappuccino.

We have both bought new clothes (me, because I have been moving too often to wash and have run out of clean tops!). Claire can by cheaper off the peg, but my size means I have to pay double and get them made. I have said that I need at least one skirt for tomorrow morning (didnt say how many days I had been wearing the skirt I had on...).

Then I used Claire as my porter to carry my rucksack to the new place, and we both signed up for our Ayurvedic treatment, me for arthritis and her for asthma.We both have a pretty sceptical approach to mystical philosophies based on the balance of the forces of space, fire, earth, water and air. But Ayurvedic medicine has been around for a long time, and is particularly strong in Kerala, and we were attracted above all by the notion of relaxing massages.

First we had to see the Ayurvedic doctor. He turned out to be a young, gentle good looking man. As we were only here for a few days rather than the usual fortnight, we did not get the usual detailed interrogation of our family and history; instead we were each prescribed a daily massage followed in my case by a treatment whose name I didnt catch but seems to involve hot sponges, and in Claire's case, more massaging of the head. The doctor asked me if my arthritis was worse when in Europe, and when I agreed with surprise, said that the forces of cold and dryness contributed to my problems. I nodded, smiling.

Then off for my first session with a masseuse called Veena. I really didnt know what to expect: my only experience until now was partial massages, usually by friends. I suppose the most difficult bit for an overweight 63-year-old is stripping in front of this lovely young woman.

That apart, my main overall impression was of the pleasure of being covered by warm oil. The massage started with me sitting on a chair, while Veena first poured oil into my hair and massaged my head - a nice sensation (and what's more I am surprised to find that perhaps the oil is helping my overly dry hair). Then onto the leather cushioned bed for a full head to toe massage. She may be tiny, but Veena has incredible strength and energy! The second part of my treatment was similar, but instead of massaging, Veena patted a sponge covered in oil vigorously all over the body. All this is not only meant to redress the balance of the forces, but to encourage blood circulation and cleansing of the pores.

It did feel very good, though at the end of two hours (!) I was beginning to wilt with the strain of lying alternately on my front and back. We had been able to have very little conversation, given Veena's lack of English, but I did gather that she was 23 years old and, surprisingly, unmarried, and had followed a one-year course on massage before joining this centre.

She then helped me as I slipped gingerly off the couch and slithered across the oily floor to the adjacent bathroom, to shower off all this lovely oil. I asked the doctor afterwards what was in the oil and he explained that it was warmed sesame oil combined with the ancient remedies of Ayurvedic herbs. I later saw that beside his room there is a herbal garden where these are cultivated.

An interesting and on the whole pleasurable experience, which will be repeated daily. I think it is going to cost about 15 quid a two-hour session. Goodness knows what this would cost in Europe!

Well, after all that hard work, I treated myself to a delicious fish cocktail and fruit juice in the hotel garden. Claire indulged herself as well - even though she had not yet had a session.

In the afternoon we had a brilliant session on the beach. The water is wonderfully warm, there is enough surf to be fun, and we found a quiet spot at the end of the beach where we could sit on the sand, leaning back against conveniently comfortable flat rocks. David Attenborough would have been proud of us as we earnestly watched and discussed the behaviour of the tiny crabs scuttling in and out of their holes just above the water, and wondered about the diet of the exotic but definitely mundane crow-like birds walking aimlessly on the beach. Suddenly the sun was setting, there was a lovely line of shimmering light stretched from the horizon to the sand, and the sun turned into a moulten red ball.

We finished this perfect day with a delicious meal. I had tiger prawns in an excellent spicy sauce, good vegetables and rice (so much that I actually left some prawns - unheard of for me).

Thursday 25 January 2007

Verkala - the beach break

Last hours in Trivandrum

A couple of annoying failed tasks before leaving.
I have filled my camera cards and have been trying without success for several days to find a shop which can burn a DVD rather than have to carry half a dozen CDs around with me. Then I met this rather bizarre Canadian, who came to Kerala to have 18 tooth implants (!) and is sitting in the YMCA twiddling his thumbs while he awaits the all-clear from the dentist. (He said that he was totally confident; the dentist had shown him papers proving that the implant materials came from Switzerland and the bone graft from California.) He had a brand new laptop and we spent an hour failing to burn a DVD. I wonder if his American PC didnt like my European zone DVD.

Then for the umpteenth time I tried to recharge my Indian phonecard. It turns out that the card I bought in Chennai cannot be topped up in Kerala. So once again I have had to buy a simcard, with a new number.

Travel companions
Then I had to dash to catch my train to Verkala. I had chosen this relatively small place (40,000) for my beach stay, rather than the better known Kovalam, as the guidebooks said the later was becoming very developed, with more and more package tours.

On the train I sat next to a really nice family from Hyderabad: grandparents, their daughter and two adult grandchildren. The grandfather had in public health, the grandson was a mechanical engineering student and the daughter was studying genetics.

As you gather, the family spoke some English and were clearly keen to practise. Once again I probed for views on the role of English, and suggested it had a value as the lingua franca. No need, said the grandson, most people already speak some Hindu. What about the Tamils in Tamil Nadu, I asked. Ah well, he said they are the exception....

I asked if they had been visiting family in Trivandrum. Oh no, he replied, they were simply exploring other parts of India. Indians like to travel, he adde3d, and they particularly liked to travel in family groups. I've noticed that!

Suddenly the train slowed and the grandson said we were arriving in Vwerkala. Panic as I had thought we had ages still and my camera (we had been swapping camera shots), ipod (I had been showing pictures of my family and home), water bottle and guide book were spilled out on the table. The grandchildren rushed to help me pack and all the family except granny, who used a rudimentary sort of zimmer, came to the door to carry my bags and wave goodbye.

I was lucky to find a rickshaw as there is apparently a strike at present. As a result I arrived just before some Italian women and we all found our hotel full as people had not been able to leave. Somehow or other a room was found for me, and the Italians were lodged nearby.

It is actually a pretty nice room, opening onto a communal balcony looking out over the thatched roofs of the huts I had hoped to be in, through the palm trees to the sea. I'm on the clifftop area, but the cliffs are not all that high, so one still hears the sound of the surf. Great.

Verkala clifftop turns out to be a non-stop row of guesthouses, stalls selling clothes, books, internet points, travel agents - all the usual tourist stuff. And pretty well everybody is a European tourist! At first I suffered a bit of culture shock. I'm so used to being almost the only European. And they all looked so sad.

In the afternoon I took a loooong walk, too long, along the clifftop path (well paved, somebody has paid for the infrastructure here) seeing if I could find another hotel in the guidebook which sounded more peaceful. Mine is one of the nicest I've seen, but a bit in the midst of the action.

At the end of the cliffs, as the path descended towards an enticing looking beach, I saw one which looked a bit upmarket, another which was too far from the sea - and then suddenly I had left tourist land and was passing rather scruffy fishermen's villages and a mosque (there seems to be a significant Moslem community here. Eventually I decided it was wise to turn. I had felt vaguely uncomfortable by men staring, though given my age and girth I should feel immune, so at first when three young men called out, I ignored them. Then I realised they were asking for water from my bottle. Well, that was a new line, so I stopped and offered the bottle and was pleased to note that they punctiliously poured the water rather than drinking from the bottle.

One man spoke quite good English and another understood it. The first explained that he was a student of civil engineering and his friend was studying management studies. But his family had money problems, so he had had to return to being a fisherman. He was clearly frustrated by this. Further, instead of having one of the larger boats with motors, which go out in the evening, he only had one of the skiffs with paddles, that fish nearer to shore in the early morning.

Then I fell in with a young Austrian and Belgian, conversing in English. I am noticing that quite a lot of the young are using English to cross the language barriers. But virtually no native English speakers, even here. Maybe they are all still in Spain, or Thailand. Maybe it is because Keralan licensing laws mean that this is a virtually alcohol free area (everyone is drinking lovely fruit juice cocktails) and the bookshops are selling an interesting eclectic collection, including Amartya Sen's 'The argumentative Indian' and various books by Arundhati Roy. I have just bought and started her 'The God of Small Things' and am instantly enthralled. It is an excellent book to read here, since it is about the stifling life in a small Keralan town.

On my walk I stopped by an enticing looking garden (that of the upmarket hotel I had seen earlier) and collapsed with a fruit juice. It is an idyllic place: comfy chairs, lovely drink, and a beautiful view of the sea through the palm trees. I thought I would just ask about the price of rooms here.

To cut a long story short, I have booked into this hotel at the extravagant price of 1200 rupees a night (about 14 pounds) for the following three nights. What's more I am committed to spend at least the same amount per day on a session of massage. This appears to be the most reputable Ayurvedic centre in Verkala and I decided to take advantage of this. After all, my attitude to arthritis is that one must be game to try anything. But it is above all the garden and the view which have enticed me.

You see, I have overcome my initial misgivings about a touristy seaside sojourn and am becoming sufficiently seduced by the place to double the length of my stay and strains on my budget!

Back at my initial guesthouse, Bamboo Hut Village (which really is a very pleasant place, but without the peace, view and proximity to the beach of the new one) I decided it was time to try again to update this blog.

First I checked my email (a regular postponement ritual) and found a tragic message from Claire, whom I had left about to catch the bus for walking in the hills. She had decided to treat herself to an extravagant hotel with hot water, a balcony and beautiful views, but during the first night she had a really bad attack of asthma and hayfever and, realising that the woollen blanket was perhaps to blame, spent part of the night in desperation shivering on the balcony. She was not up to walking and decided to abandon the hills and head for the coast. On the way down she discovered that her bus driver had for some inexplicable reason offloaded her rucksack at the previous stop. So she had to go back and spent the rest of the day wandering around asking rickshaw drivers, the assembled crowds, and the police (singularly unhelpful) if they had seen the rucksack. And all the time still feeling low with her asthma. Every backpacker's nightmare!

She decided she must be positive and DO something rather than sit down and burst into tears. So first she got a statement from the police to try to get something from her insurance (even though this has lapsed because she cant update it from abroad). Nextshe cancelled her bank cards (and again, the bank refused to agree to send the new card to India rather than the UK). And then she kitted herself out with toothpaste, new underwear, a skirt and blouse.

Anyhow, she wrote, she was moving out of the hills, which were not helping her asthma, and down to the coast. Maybe we would see each other in Verkkala, she added.

I started to write a long, sympathetic reply to this dejected message, was just about to hit 'Send', when a voice behind me said 'Hello'. It was Claire! Of all the many internet places in town she should end up in mine. Well, not surprising, actually, as she too had chosen Lonely Planet's recommendation - only to discover that there were no rooms. So once again she is sharing mine for the night.

Actually her story has a happy ending. She was just beginning to get used to the rather nice idea that one could in fact exist on one change of clothes plus toothpaste, squeezed into her daypack (although she did mourn the loss of her chargers for phone, ipod and camera), when she bumped into a couple of Israelis who had been on her bus. They had seen the rucksack lying on the ground and taken it to a friend's room for safety. Only problem was that they had not thought how to get it back to her. If only they had told the rickshaw drivers (who had been extremely helpful and refused payment for driving Claire round town in her search) she would not have had a day's angst.

Wednesday 24 January 2007


The city
I'm very relieved that everybody uses this shortened version, as Thiruvananthapuram would be another impossible mouthful.

Although this is the capital of Kerala, it is a bit out on a limb at the bottom of the state, and my first impressions were that it was quieter and more orderly than its Tamil Nadu counterparts. Actually it was just too early int he morning for complete lunacy to have set in.

Palace of Padmanabhapuram
Today's project was a visit to the former residence of the local rajas, the Palace of Padmanabhapuram. I'd never make a linguist: writing that was more difficult than remembering a telephone number. I made my way (longer than I estimated) down the hill to the bus station, to take a bus to the palace, some 60 km away. Bad idea. The trip took over two hours and I was squashed up against the window bars, on a seat meant for three skinny women, not three large ones. It is much hotter than in Tamil Nadu, so I was in a bit of a daze when I staggered out of the bus, and made my second wrong decision: to walk the "ten or 15 minutes" (Rough Guide) to the palace.

It was worth the trip, even if my account is shorter than the original one (two computer shutdowns and one screen-freeze ago). Built in the 16th to 18th centuries, it is apparently one of the best preserved examples of Keralan architecture. The distinguishing features were the steeply sloping roofs, which I now spot elsewhere here, with a distinctive shape of tiles, and the magnificent carved wood of the doors, windows, columns and walls of the shady galleries that surrounded the royal rooms. I was told this was jackwood which is harder than teak. It had a lovely hew and gave the whole palace a warm, albeit extremely dark, ambience. I'm glad I saw it, even if I cant think of anything more interesting to tell you.

Curiously there seemed to be a few English here - almost the first I have come across. I suspect from their age and manner they had come from some distinctly upmarket establishment... Back at the bus station, the other foreigners were the usual Germans, a couple and two girls inappropriately dressed.

Nightmarish bus journeys
I had hoped that the return journey would have been easier, as this was supposed to be an express bus. Instead, l'inferne.

The German couple and I struggled through the pushing crowd, and I just managed to get onto the bottom step as the bus moved off. Somehow I was squeezed in and the door was shut. The first few miles I clung onto the step rail, as the bus jerked its way forward. When you are standing like this you become more aware of how often buses have to jolt to a sudden halt as some other vehicle swerves across their bows. No sooner had I edged up off the steps than a group of men with huge drums climbed on board, so for the next few miles I had a drum rolling on my left foot. Then magic, a young girl offered me her seat, which I accepted with more gratitude than guilt.

It was not to be. Suddenly the bus stopped. We all had to climb out and wait for the next bus. When it arrived, it was already full, and the crowd did its usual surging forward. Somehow the Germans got on, though the man was still clinging to the bottom step when the bus left. I decided to be more assertyive when the next bus arrived, but there were women behind me who were even more aggressive. I only just made it, helped by the conductor of the original bus, who shoved me forward. Once again, a nasty time standingm and this time I only got a seat for the last few kilometres into Trivandrum.

At the time I occupied myself thinking, this is like being at the dentists - it will eventually stop. Looking back on it, I suppose I feel quite proud that I survived - Ive not done a trip like that for 40 years. And it is true, that journeys give a lot of time for people watching, even if much of it is watching their elbows. Incidentally I noticed that the women on the first bus were all at the front, with the men at the back, but the second half of the journey, such divisions were impossibleL the sardines remained where they were squashed, with no movement up or down the bus.

English on its way out?
The other thing I noticed was that yet again, nobody spoke English (Keralans speak Malayayam, rather than the more ancient Tamil). Just as I had been struck by the absence of French in Pondicherry, so I get the feeling that English might be disappearing in former British colonies. Good to lose the colonial trappings? Well, yes. But what does it doo for a nation where most people speak Hindi, but where significant parts of the country speak other languages, such as Tamil, Malayam and Gujeratyi? I wonder whether the lack of a common language serves to further separate states and cultures. It's not unlike the situation in Nigeria when we lived there, where English was indeed the language of the oppressors, but it was the only neutral common one.

Back in Trivandrum I first called in on what Rough Guide described as the main English language bookshop. In a city with at least one university I had expected something a little better than the curious, random collection I found up a dark, steep staircase. Authors like Bertrand Russell, Doris Lessing, A S Barratt, shared shelves with Harry Potter, Jeffrey ARcher, and there were books by someone called Danielle Steel - by the yard. What they didnt have in stock was the book I had come in for, a novel by a famous Keralan writer, Arundhati Roy.

The second abortive bit of shopping was to find somewhere that sells top-up cards for my sim card, bought in Chennai. I have been trying unsuccessfully for days and now I am told that I should buy another sim card (less than 100 rupees_ but it will only work while Im in Kerala. It's crazy, the whole mobile phone market appears to be run on state lines.

So I gave up on that, and tried, again without success, to find a shop that burnt DVDs rather than CDS. I have been gaily snapping away, have filled the cards for my camera, and had hoped not to have to carry a library of CDs around with me.

And the final irritation has been to swelter away in a cyber cafe noted as the best in town, only to lose much of what I had written as the computer flickered and died on me. Ive moved to another computer and am now saving every few minutes!

Anyhow, I must stop now, as tomorrow I move on from Trivandrum, for the beachside bit of my trip. I have decided against Kovalam, despite various friends saying how lovely it was, as the guide books all say that the past couple of years has seen a dramatic increase in hotel building and charter flight bookings. One referred to it as 'Kovalam del sol'. I fear I have missed the boat in experiencing an idyllic solitary beach hideawayL Kerala is following in Goa's footsteps. We will see when I get to a smaller place, Varkala, tomorrow.

Goodbye Tamil Nadu, Hello Kerala

The train was supposed to go at 7pm. why am I not surprised that it was over an hour late? Just as well there was no change of platformk given its immense length, though I did discover in daylight that nobody uses the bridge which is miles away - we all walk over the line.

Apart from the time, I had a smooth journey. Probably the only English speaker in the carriage helped me establish myself on a seat and the inspector passed in due course. I'm beginning to think one can get away without making reservations unless the train is really packed.

Lucky I had an Indian mobile as I was able to phone the YWCA, who said they would be closed when I arrived and to go to the YMCA instead. I rolled up after 11pm, with a rickshaw driver trying to persuade me the whole way it would be closed and he knew of cheaper places. Well, the YMCA has come up with the cleanest room since I arrived in India! And telly to boot. I have been astonished by the omnipresence of TVs and it has made for some entertaining snippets of bollywood.

I'm going to stick to the YMCA for my stay here.

Tuesday 23 January 2007

Down at the bottom of India

Train to Tirunelveli

The rickshaw driver did turn up and I arrived at the station in good time and for once my train was to come on platform 1. I made my way to the "Upper Class Waiting Room" for what I thought was going to be a brief wait. Ho ho, the train was an hour late and meanwhile the mosquitoes were having a rare old time. Luckily a couple understood English and reassured me that I had the right train when it finally drew up, and what's more a young man actually helped carry my bags to an empty seat while we waited for the conductor to allocate berths. One of the benefits of being over 60 is that I am ensured a bottom berth and finally crawled into it just after 2am.

In no time at all it was unfortunately 5.30 am and we had arrived in Tirunveli. I climbed down (literally - Indian trains have two very steep steps which can be precarious with a heavy rucksack on your back) and followed the crowd down what must be the longest platform in India, over the bridge and once again into the melee that meets one outside a railway station.

I was the only European in sight and so a natural target. I was immediately accosted by a taxi driver and negotiated the price of 450 rupees (a fiver) to take me the 25 km trip to the temple at Thiruppadaimarudur (impossible to pronounce and my driver did not read, so had to show my piece of paper to the assembled crowd).

Temple at Thiruppadaimarudur

We set off in the dark and it was rather eerie driving along almost traffic free roads, although people were already up and busy opening stalls or standing around at tea stalls. The road was very rural: lots of potholes or total disappearance of tarmac, and very little traffic. I bounced up and down in the back of the Ambassador, which had seen better days; its suspension hardly existed and the diesel fumes were a bit off-putting.

When dawn came, it cast a lovely hazy light on the rice paddy fields, banana plantations and coconut groves. I really must try to get up early more often...

When we finally arrived at Thiruppadaimarudur it was little more than a single road leading up to the temple, which turned out to be a little gem. Perhaps my mood was influenced by the almost total absence of people. Apart from temple workers washing the floors and a couple of priests getting ready for the day, there was just a handful of worshippers, mainly old men, purposefully doing their circuits round the various shrines.

I'm getting accustomed to the dark inside Hindu temples (a total hindrance for photographers) and was soon peering happily at the carvings on the lovely Cholan columns.

I was looking for the way up to the east tower, where there are supposed to be some magnificent medieval carvings (only Rough Guide mentions this place) but nobody spoke even a smattering of English. One toothless gent tried to be helpful, but never quite grasped that my Tamil is non-existent.

Finally I found the rickety ladder up to the next level. Its balustrades were broken, but I took a deep breath and climbed it - only to discover there was yet another precarious one and perhaps even more. Given my vertigo and hips, I very sadly decided it was too risky to continue. In a sense this was a failed expedition, but I had enjoyed being back in rural India and had enjoyed wandering round the temple.

On the journey back the road was filling up with oxen carts, bicycles and the occasional bus or motor bike.


I had hoped to stop off at the only hotel given any rating at all in Rough Guide and hire a room for a few hours to recover from the night, but it was full. So after breakfast (I left half, I can't cope with the size of portions they give me), I hired another car to take me to the other temple, at Tiruchendur, 60 km to the south east. The return trip cost 740 rupees (8 quid) and was in Tata - a smaller car, but in good nick. Still, cash flows are evidently low for all - once again we stopped at a garage and I handed over half the money for fuel.


How I wish I could have an English speaking driver to answer my questions: why, for example, were the bananas grown in huge plantations, invariably surrounded by coconut groves? Are there small banana farmers, or are they all working for some banana multinational? I stopped at one point to photo women working in the paddy fields. They spotted me and waved cheerily - and posed, which was NOT what I had wanted.

Very few villages, but plenty of interesting posters beside the road, including one which said "Long live classical divine Tamil". We did pass two colleges of education, one of physical education and one for women, all institutional concrete blocks plonked down in the middle of nowhere (which reminded me so of my school in Nigeria). Not much fun for the students.

The temple, originally built in the ninth century by the Pallavas, but heavily restored this century, was a most extraordinary affair, quite unlike all the others.

I approached it down an extremely long - over half a km - covered walkway packed with pilgrims souvenirs, flowers for the temple, and a wide range of plastic toys, balloons and what looks like pink candy floss. This is pretty standard for the temples here, but what made it feel different was that the temple is right beside the sea. I felt half transported onto Brighton beach! Beside the temple, crowds of people were enjoying themselves on the beach and quite a few were jumping into the surf. And there were 'professional' photographers taking family photos.

The temple is dedicated to Murugan, Shiva's son, and is one of the holiest shrines to him in India. So the place is packed with pilgrims, but I get the feeling that a pilgrimage is also a family outing, as everywhere there were clearly families enjoying a day by the sea.

Inside were the familiar carved columns, many badly damaged by the sea and neglect, or covered with oil and garments. I enjoyed trying to take photos of blackened statues in a totally impossible dark light because all around were encouraging me, including a party of jolly, fat priests. As usual I spent a lot of time responding to requests for photos. But I rather hesitate to snap the more extraordinary scenes of prostrated figures in fervent prayer. I also decided not to pay to go into the inner shrine; I didnt feel up to another dose of garlands, white ash and tipping priests.

Lunch was in a rather dodgy looking hotel. I went upstairs, along a pink corridor with dark, windowless hotel rooms on either side, into an equally dark dining room. (Actually all the hotel dining rooms go in for bad lighting.) I was the only customer and was wathced by the usual cheery crowd of three or more waiters, none of whom spoke English. My vegetable pulao was very tasty, though I only ate a third. I have failed to get over the concept of a small portion, and I hate leaving food.

Then back to Tirunveli, where I am marking time (five hours!) before my evening train takes me on to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala.

Well I have successfully squandered some time getting money out of a cash machine (always a bizarre experience as the ATM machines are invariably in a guarded glass cubicle, with only one person allowed in at a time) watched by the assembled crowd outside), bought a new spiral notebook (for 30 rupees), have spent a couple of hours at the computer, and am about to return to the hotel where I left my bags for a looong cup of tea.

Thanks for messages

Heyho. Here we go again. Another silence caused by not being able to log on to the blog site. I switched to Google blogger site for this trip but it is proving a bit of a nightmare. I'm beginning to suspect it does not like computers running Windows98 and using an ancient browser.

Anyhow, before I continue, I just want to give a big thanks to Clare, Heleen, Margaret, Paul and Wenol - and of course Chris - for your encouraging remarks. It's good to feel there is an audience, almost like a conversation.

Monday 22 January 2007

Madurai - more temples and Gandhi museum

Another temple
Today's programme started with another temple: a much older, eighth century temple a few kilometres outside Madurai. Luckily I had an above average autorickshaw driver who didn't hoot all the time and only had a few hair-raising narrow misses. Pity he didnt have any mirrors... I somehow get the impression that the traffic in Madurai is even denser than Chennai and Pondicherry, if that is possible.

This temple was in a (relatively) quiet location and I was almost the only non-Indian in the crowd. The temple is literally carved out of the rockface of a huge granite hill. An elderly man who spoke some English attached himself to me as a guide. I allowed him to and it turned out to be a good decision. He led me past the rows of people doing the weekly counting of the takings from the temple collection boxes, up stairs pass a succession of shrines to the main shrine, high up in the rockface.

In theory this area is closed to non-Hindus, but on our way out, my guide instructed me to pay the guard 10 rupees, so this must be a regular 'arrangement'. Inside the shrine, the atmosphere was dark, hot and smelly (all the things put on statues and people). I was pushed forward to the priest, who proceeded to put a garland round my head and mark my forehead with the Siva rede and white markings (for which honour I was then expected to hand over more cash).

We passed the temple holy tree with a shrine to the six-headed god Murugan (who had two marriages, one arranged and one for love). There were various garments and objects left on the shrine and tree, left by women wanting to marry, have children or a long life. The best of the statues was one showing the vehicles of three gods: the mouse of Ganesh, the bull of Siva and the peacock of Durgan. As in Madurai, there were images of the planets, one for each day, with Jupiter being the most important. As Raj had said, the Indians knew about the planets long before the Europeans.

I came across some boys wearing yellow robes. My guide explained they were Brahmin boys learning sanskrit. They are admitted to the temple school between the ages of 10 and 20 and stay there for five years before becoming priests. I met the teacher, who spoke some English and was taken to see the groups of boys quietly studying. I wonder if it was like this in an RC seminary?

Gandhi Museum

My second expedition was to the Gandhi Museum, the other side of the city. The first part, in a series of well presented panels with text and photos, consists of a story of India's subjgation to British control. The text was written with passionate - and justified - indignation as it told the story of the brutal and cynical exploitation of India by British interests, primarily the East India Company, followed by only slightly less insensitive administration by the British Government, ending with the messy period when the British had to be dragged unwillingly to grant independence. It ends however, with a quote from Gandhi that we should hate British control of India, not the British.

The second part depicts the life of Gandhi, from his childhood as a shy boy in Gujerat, an indifferent law student in London, and an unhappy victim of racism as a young barrister in South Africa. It covered in some detail Gandhi's growing involvement in politics in South Africa and his key role in organising and rallying the Indian population there.

His return to India was more complex; as well as his championing of non-violent passive resistance and call for an end to the caste system, there was his growing ascetism. I wonder whether the very qualities which make him so revered in India also prevented him from being a totally effective politician. The tragedy of the failure to prevent partition is still with us. I think I really must learn more about this period of history when I get back.

The exhibition ended rather gruesomely with the relic of the loincloth Gandhi had been wearing when shot - appropriately as it was in Madurai that he first started to wear it.

Buying a railway ticket

I have decided on a rather rash project for tomorrow: a train journey to Tirunveli, where I hope to hire a car to see my final two temples of Tamil Nadu, before taking the evening train to Trivandrum, capital of Kerala. Rash, because the train leaves at 2.15am! That's why I'm having a quiet afternoon.

But first, I had to get my ticket. The first thing you have to do is filling in a reservation application form, including details like the number of the train. I was helped by a young woman in front of me, who turned out to be a third-generation Gujerati who lives in Leicester, but returns with her family to India each year. She and the woman in the ticket office were probably the only people there who spoke English. I am becoming increasingly aware of how little English is spoken. I wonder indeed if, like French in Pondicherry, it is on the decline as colonialism recedes into history.

I joined the queue in the ticket office at 12.26pm. For ages the queue didn't move. My one wish was to advance enough to join the lucky ones on the seats. When it was my turn, the whole operation was very smooth. The computer was working slowly (I had been told that Indian Rail is in the middle of upgrading its system) but it worked, and soon I had my printout. The whole journey in 2AC - the best class - is costing me 456 rupees (about a fiver), including my concession for being over 60. The two journeys will take about seven hours in all. Time is only relative...

I've booked a rickshaw, I just hope the driver turns up at 1.30 as arranged.

Sunday 21 January 2007


The day did not start auspiciously. I was sitting down to a modest, cautious, continental breakfast, when I suddenly felt sick. I called hastily for my bill and rushed back to my room. Just in time. Sat feeling miserable for half and hour, and then decided that yesterday's supper was well and truly away (I blame that rash decision to have ice cream) and set off for my 9am meeting with Claire.

As usual I take a rickshaw, even though our hotels are only about a kilometre apart, partly to save my energies (in the case more than usually depleted) but partly because walking that distance in an Indian city can take a looong time. You are constantly weaving a dangerous route between broken drains on one side and loony traffic on the other, hassled by rickshaw men, people wanting to sell you something, and children asking for pens (I always refuse) and then to have their photos taken (which I often do). Madurai seems to be particularly hectic, even - especially - round the temple area.

Madurai has been a holy city for over 2000 years, and there are records of trading by the Greeks, Romans and CHinese since the fourth century BC. For over a thousand years, until the tenth century AD, it was the capital of the Pandyan empire and developed as a centre of Tamil culture. There followed a period when the Pandyans and Cholans fought for supremacy, with the Cholans eventually winning out.

Today the city is dominated by the awe-inspiring Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, built mainly between the sixteenth century but with parts dating back to the 12th century. Outside there are more touts, beggars and people inviting you to see special dancing or views of the temple complex from their shop rooftop. We walk firmly past, find the official place (one beside each of the temple's five entrances) where we leave our shoes (in theory free, but Europeans are invariably asked to pay something), take a deep breath and with guidebooks in hand, enter this giant complex.

We realise within minutes that this is one occasion when it would be a good idea to have a guide and go back to an official guide who had already approached us. It turned out to be an excellent choice. Apart from the fact that he spoke good English, Raj turned out to be articulate, knowledgeable and informative. He was also a thoroughly entertaining character. A lot of what follows comes from his tour, and I'm writing it to remind myself of this visit, so apologies if it bores.

You simply cannot avoid having to understand something about Hindu religion in order to appreciate Hindu architecture. I'm beginning to get the hang of the principle characters in the vast cast of Hindu gods and godesses, though it doesnt help matters that they have several names and personae. A reminder that the three principle gods are Brahma, Siva (wife Parvati, sons Ganesh and Murugan) and Vishnu (wife Lakshmi).

Well, just when I thought I had got that straight, I have been confused by Raj's explanation that the temple is named after the godess Meenakshi (fish-eyed - which is regarded as a beautiful shape for eyes), noted for her beauty except she had a third breast which, according to prophesy, would disappear when she met her future husband. She defeated Siva in battle and on meeting him, the third breast disappeared and they were married in Madurai. So, I think Meenakshi is also Parvati. And this temple is therefore dedicated to Siva and Parvati, each having their own important temple within the huge, maze-like complex.

The first sight of the temple complex is over the top ice-cream 'accretions'. The focus for these is on the giant gopuras - the tall towers containing the entrances into the temple complex and to subsequent courtyards. At Madurai there are 12 gopuras in all and they are huge. The largest, on the east side, is 46 metres high. The base is made of solid granite, while the towers on top have hollow brick interiors covered in a higgledy piggledy, almost random crowd of figures - gods, their guards, and various significant animals, in a huge range of well-known (to Hindus) fables.

Raj explained that the temple is now owned by the state government, which is responsible for its upkeep and administration (rather like the partnership between church and state in France) and they decided in the 1980s to restore and paint the gopuras, and they are now on a ten-year repainting programme (the last time this cost 23m rupees). Indians like their gods to be coloured, said Raj, but the government also knows that most foreigners like them plain, so - to please all, many of the statues within this (and other government owned temples) remain unpainted.

At this point we passed the temple elephant. Elephants are a symbol of royalty and importance, and hence it is appropriate that the gods are treated as royalty. At first I had thought that people were feeding the elephants, but Raj explained that people were offering money, which the elephant took in his trunk, and tapped the donor on the head in gratitude. We saw camels too and Raj said that this was to signify that Siva was a protector of animals.

We passed through a dark but hectic shopping arcade, selling mostly temple artefacts. Bizarre to see these stalls perched in front of ancient Cholan columns, many covered in garlands and blackened with frequent doses of camphor oil. Raj explained that a temple is as much a social centre as a place for praying and the Hindus see nothing incongruous in shopping and indeed eating within a temple complex.

We saw a group of women sitting round a chanting priest. This was the Hindu equivalent of a funeral, Raj said; the priest was praying for the dead person. The length of his prayer depended on whether you have paid the 35 or 20 rupee tariff!

This was when we began to have an inkling of Raj's politics. The prayers are said in Sanskrit, he said, which nobody but the priests understand, and the priests work on a shift system 'like a factory'. You notice, he added, that many of them are fat - only the rich are fat in India. This temple complex collects4m rupees amonth in its collection boxes and this goes towards paying all the people working in the temple as well as associated tasks like running schools. The government is trying to get the temples to have non-Brahmin priests, but is not having any success, at least not in Madurai.

There are Ganesh shrines all over the place - he is a much loved god. We stopped in front of the largest and most impressive (although I still cannot get over the practice of modestly covering Ganesh in a skirt) and watched people praying. The camphor candles are lit, because light is sacred (sounds familiar?). But instead of crossing themselves, worshippers pray, they may prostrate themselves on the ground, walk several times clockwise round the statue, and then bang their knuckles on their head, a humbling gesture, to signify there ignorance in the presence of a wiser god.
Praying is predominantly an individual act, hence people praying all over the place, though on occasions worshippers are responding to the prayers chanted by a priest.
Then we came to a huge tank. Outside the temples these have a second value, as water stores. Within the temple they are an essential part of the ritual: worshippers purify themselves by washing in the water before going to pray - except that here the water is so stagnant that they only do a token wash. I'm afraid the tank has seen better days, though the gold-leafed lotus in the middle is impressive, and from one point you can also see the two gold-leafed towers of Visa's and Parvati's temples. On the walls of the passageway round the tank are stone panels engraved with ancient tamil scripts - the equivalent of the psalms.

We constantly see worshippers dipping their finger into bowls of white and red powder and marking their foreheads. The white ash is in fact made of cow shit, said Raj, and is a reminder of mortality, while the red is a symbol of the body, of life. Life-death, the very Indian love of complementing opposites. This is also why we see so many places in temples painted with red and white stripes.

There are apparently over 30,000 sculptures in this complex, and one does tend to feel somewhat punch drunk looking at them, particularly as so many are difficult to see, given the dark columned interior of temples and the tendency to cover revered statues in oil. But Claire and I are particularly fond of the strange horse-like statues we have seen here and at other places like Trichy. Raj explained that they are mythical creatures - "yalis" which are made up of six animals, including the head of a lion, the body of a horse, the trunk of an elephant and the tail of a cow.

Outside the two main shrines, entry forbidden to non Hindus, were some more extraordinarily good statues, in particular one of Siva and Parvati getting married, with Vishnu blessing them. Raj pointed out Parvati is looking down, in pleasure but modestly, while Siva is looking ahead with pride. (Lets hope my photo works.)

This was a very busy place as a large group of people were sitting on the ground engaged in a communal chant in front of another shrine. There was no priest present this time, the chant seemed to be led by a succession of the participants, including women, reading from what was presumably a book of Tamil rather than Sanskrit verses.

Raj said that every morning rice was handed out in front of the Ganesh statue, ostensibly to the poor, but others took advantage of this. He's good on figures: India has 1.2 billion people and 70% live in villages. He comes from a village, his parents were primary school teachers, he was the ablest of the children and so sent to a Jesuit college, which is where he learnt such good English and a critical view of all religions, and then university. He did indeed know the Marxist quote "Religion is the opium of the masses". But at the same time, he said, where would all these poor people be without the comfort of religion?

We then passed on to India's problems and his view that the main one is overpopulation. There must be birth control and the solution must come through education.

He was considered a rebel in his family, a socialist, who refused to carry on the family tradition as a teacher and marry until he was 40 (he is now 44) and then insisted on looking for a wife himself. His wife is five years younger than him and they both agreed before marrying that they didn't want children. But this is unheard of in Indian families -Hindu or Christian - so they have not told anyone of their decision and the families continue to be concerned at his wife's barren state.

An excellent guide and I said I would publicise his cellphone number on my website - only I've lost his card. Will add this when I get it from Claire.

Talking of cellphones or mobiles: these are VERY popular in India, leading to some incongruous sights of men wearing traditional clothes, their ear pressed to a mobile. In this internet cafe I'm beginning to tire of the tunes of the mobiles on either side of me. As Amartya Sen said at the start of 'The argumentative Indian': "Indians like to talk".

Our visit concluded with Claire and me losing each other, compounded by my inability to grasp the layout of the whole complex, so I walked round three sides of the outer wall before finding the exit where we had left my shoes. So we each spent half an hour going round in circles and were ready to collapse. So time to go back to my hotel for a delicious lunch - or rather lunch for Claire (I risked a cup of tea). The waiters clearly like her enthusiasm for the Indian half of the menu. Claire went on for a late afternoon's sightseeing, while I concentrated on recovering. I did this rather well, as I too tucked into another good meal in the evening. We shared a table with an elderly Parisian couple travelling round Tamil Nadu with their own driver, a guide in each town and staying in more upmarket hotels than ours. A different experience :-)

In the evening Claire and I returned to the temple to witness the evening ceremony of the images of the Siva and Parvati being removed from their shrines and taken to their bedchamber. It was supposed to happen at 9pm and indeed we did see some sort of movement of images, but we don't reckon this was the real thing, as there was no accompanying ringing of bells and drums. We were getting eaten by mosquitoes and increasingly anxious that the shoe place would close down (I have come to India with just the one pair of sandals!) so decided to call it a day. Ours were indeed the last shoes left.

So, the last rickshaw drive together. In the morning Claire sets off to walk in the hills, while I continue further south. Meeting her has made travelling round Tamil Nadu a very pleasurable experience. She is half my age but we were on the same wavelength all the time (she was tolerant of my more limited physical capacities), with similar reactions to what we were seeing. She is going to be jobhunting when she gets to the UK in late spring and I will be passing her CV to friends and relatives - she is the sort of person I would have loved to have had in my team at the University.