South India 2008
Part 2: Kerala and Karnataka - Palaces and Backwaters
Backwater cruise, Kochi, Blue train, Ooty, Mysore, Halebid, Belur, Sravanabelagola, Bangalore, Mumbai Elephanta Island.
To return to Part 1 - Temples and Beaches, click
on Hanuman ------>
Weds 13th. Kanyakumari felt like a clear boundary or turning point
in the journey - so far we had come down the Coromandel coast in Tamil Nadu
state, now we were turning round to go up the Malabar coast in Kerala state
which, according to the guide book, would have a very different feel to it
- less hectic, more geared to tourists, lusher than the rather parched landscape
of Tamil Nadu. Also, as it turned out, there were different preoccupations
in the two states - Tamil Nadu seemed to be all about religious pilgrimages
while Kerala was all about politics. And, we were poised for our first train
ride of the holiday (last year almost all of it was on trains).
At Kollam we went to look at a couple of hotels but weren't impressed,
so we ended up at the boat jetty and booked an exorbitantly expensive two-night
one day cruise along the backwaters in a rice-barge style houseboat.
||The barge was 40km away up-river so they took us there in a taxi, stopping on the way at vegetable and fish markets to buy the ingredients for dinner.|
||After our luggage was stowed on board, we went to the nearby black-sand beach to watch the sunset, and walked back through the nearby village.|
Although the houseboat had two bedrooms, and according to the guest book
had accommodated up to 8 people at a time in the past, we were the only people
on the cruise this time, with a crew of three to pander to our every need.
We sat in wicker chairs in the pleasant sitting area under a canopy on the
foredeck, sipping beer and lime soda listening to the jungle noises in the
palm trees around us, until they served dinner of delicious masala prawns
and fried king-fish steaks, with vegetable curries and accompaniments. It
was all extremely pleasant and relaxing, being waited on by the crew like
some relics of the Raj.
||Cruising down the backwaters in Kerala
||.... it was like a slow-motion television
documentary of waterway life.....
||.... it was very soporific!
We stopped and went into the Matha Amrithanandamayi Ashram, where people
come to meet 'the hugging mother', one of the few female gurus in India and
apparently a lovely, very popular woman who has performed many charitable
works such as building houses for tsunami victims. Our main impression of
the ashram was of tall, pink high-rise buildings which is where all the visitors
stay. Not long afterwards we had oranges and bananas before we moored up
for another delicious, huge lunch of prawn curry, tuna fish and various vegetable
and salad dishes.
||Nearby, women were weaving coir, dried-out coconut strands, into ropes using wooden winding machines on wheels.|
||Sheila had a go at driving the houseboat....
luckily we were moored up at the time!
We set off again in bright sunshine and it looked like being another soporific
afternoon until disaster struck - first a sudden tropical rainstorm broke
and rain poured down soaking some of the seats but mostly soaking the captain
who had no choice but to remain at the wheel getting drenched. When the rain
stopped he went to dry out while 'number two' took over, until possibly due
to inexperience he grounded the boat on some shallow rocks and bent the rudder,
so that we were suddenly drifting directionlessly across the river. The crew
poled the boat to the bank using long bamboo poles, and we moored up to undertake
repairs. They took the rudder away to the workshop in an auto-rickshaw and
an hour or so later we were on our way again, across the large lake Astamudi
to moor up for the night near a lakeside village. Once again the cook produced
a huge meal of fish stew as we sat in the foredeck cooling down.
We liked Fort Cochi immediately - it is a compact, relaxed, historic town
with lots of old mansions of former traders, now mostly up-market hotels,
and an interesting waterfront with Chinese fishing nets and fish-sellers who
will arrange for your 'catch' to be cooked and served to you in a nearby
local restaurant. We stayed at Chiramel Residency, another charming old house
on the edge of the town centre, although we were given a room in the modern
annexe rather than the old house itself. It was the first hotel so far that
really felt clean the minute we walked in.
||Fort Kochi. The chinese fishing
nets on the waterfront. You can buy your fish or prawns straight from
the fishermen and take them to a nearby restaurant to have them cooked.
We strolled around the town and had freshly-made tomato soup at the breezy
rooftop restaurant above the Elite Bakery cake shop. We looked at several
of the hotels in former merchants' houses, now beautifully renovated with
arched colonnades around shady central courtyards containing a restaurant,
or swimming pool, or both. In the evening we went to one of the most expensive
ones, Malabar House, which quotes its prices in Euro not Rupees and as Lonely
Planet says, 'if you have money to burn, let this be your pyre'! They have
an upstairs wine and tapas bar so I decided to give Indian wine one more try
(after not being very impressed last year) and this time I found a really
nice one - La Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz from Grover Vineyard in Nandi
Hills, Karnataka. It was selling at European prices (4 pounds a glass) but
I splashed out and had a couple of glasses and a mozzarella, tomato and basil
tower with pesto sauce which was very tasty.
When we got back to Fort Cochi it was around 3pm when the fishermen are
actively raising and lowering the huge Chinese fishing nets all along the
waterfront, so we sat in an open-air café on the front and had fresh
juice and a big slice of papaya while boats of all sizes went in and out
of the harbour and the nets went up and down, the weight of the net counterbalanced
by big rocks on ropes hanging down from the spidery wooden structures. The
catch was very poor however, and it hardly seemed worth the trouble for the
few fish that they got out.
||Boats of all sizes go in and out of
After dark we got an auto-rickshaw to the temple, but on the way we got
caught up in a fascinating procession with drummers and trumpeters leading
a group of twirling dancers dressed in strange costumes, some like fluffy
Christmas trees, others with archways on poles on their heads, and behind
them long lines of girls and ladies carrying offerings of food and candles
in coconut shells, all followed by the image of the god in a chariot being
wheeled along behind.
We went and had a drink at the Seagull restaurant, where the tables are
set out on a small boat jetty projecting into the harbour, then walked into
town along River Road and had a very tasty beef with ginger and onions and
a burned tandoori chicken, sitting out on the street at the Chariot Beach
||In the garden of the Grande Residencia was a Tamarind tree with fruit that grows straight out of the tree-trunk rather than on the branches amongst the leaves.|
||Near where last night's procession had been, we met a fantastic ritual in progress, with a drumming band leading the three elephants which were all dressed up in their temple bells and golden headpieces.......|
||.... the band included a front row of three horn-players, the next row of 5 or 6 drummers, then a row of cymbal players, followed by 3 or 4 big drummers - the noise was tremendous. They kept up a hectic drumming for nearly an hour, leading the elephants through the streets to the temple while three priests on each elephant waved decorated fans and twirled sticks with feathers attached.|
When the procession finally reached the temple there were offerings to the god and the drumming ended with a huge crescendo which left our ears ringing the rest of the day - it was really spectacular.After that we completed our sightseeing to the historic Synagogue in Jewtown, and a visit to a ginger warehouse where 'the ginger king' (obviously the main trader) was sitting on the floor picking out the choice pieces, while in an adjacent warehouse ladies sifted the ginger from one huge pile into another. It seemed to be a genuine trading activity, but they are clearly often visited by tourists because they were very ready to ask for some cash when we left.
We went back to The Teapot hoping to get a Samosa Chaat for lunch, but
the samosa maker had gone home because it was Sunday, so we went back to the
rooftop restaurant for some soup, then luxuriated in the swimming pool back
at our hotel, followed by a hot bath, a rare taste of luxury!
||We luxuriated in the swimming pool
at the Grande Residencia.
In the evening the fishermen at the Chinese fishing nets didn't seem to
be working because it was Sunday, so we walked about indecisively trying
to decide where to eat and drink. We went to the very nice Fort House Hotel
down River Road where their restaurant is set out on a jetty over the water
(like the nearby Seagull restaurant but much more attractively presented),
but the Fort House does not serve beer so we returned to the town centre.
We had a drink in the impressive and historic Koder House, the 200-year old
house of a former rich Jewish merchant (our hotel next door was his 'bazaar'),
and we also had a look at one of the hotel bedrooms which was amazing, one
of the best we've seen, with rich old-fashioned furniture, high ceilings and
lots of dark woodwork, and what seemed like a 5-minute walk from the balcony
through the bedroom and dressing room to get to the large bathroom, complete
with a Jacuzzi! However, we decided not to eat there because the restaurant
by the little swimming pool was surrounded by buildings and was rather airless
and mosquito-ridden. Sheila had a sudden urge for rice pudding which she
had seen on the menu of the Chariot Beach restaurant where we ate last night,
so we returned there and this time the waiter seemed more cheerful and, in
a very theatrical whisper, asked if I wanted a 'special tea', which is a
beer presented in a big teapot because they don't have a drinks licence! Looking
around, I saw that most of the tables had teapots and china mugs of 'special
tea', so of course I had one as well! I had a very nice chilli chicken with
peppers and fried rice, while Sheila had the rice pudding. Watching the tandoori
chef we saw that he consistently burned every chicken and kebab that he cooked,
so we decided it is a good place if you stay away from the tandoori dishes!
||I wandered round Fort Kochi taking
photos of the nice old buildings, including the Old Harbour Hotel near the
||.... and the Grande Residencia hotel
in the street nearby.
At dusk down at the Chinese nets, small silvery fish were literally jumping
out of the sea - as each wave came in they were jumping and splashing and
getting left behind on the sand, while fishermen simply picked them up and
put them into carrier bags and the crows wheeled around trying to get to
them first. We bought some huge tiger prawns from a stall at the sea shore,
and took them along to the Marina restaurant where they cooked them beautifully
with garlic and butter, and they were delicious with lemon rice and salad,
and more 'special beer' in a teapot! The Marina restaurant is built over
yet another boat jetty next to one of the ferry docks, and we had a good view
of the ferries and other boats coming and going and the lights of Ernakulam
at the other side of the harbour.
We got the 11:35 Hyderabad express and sat comfortably in 3-tier A/C class,
which was a nice temperature unlike the last one which was over-A/C'ed to
freezing point. When the ticket inspector came we paid 50 Rs more to reserve
our seat numbers so that we didn't have to worry about someone getting on
at the next station and making us move, and while Sheila dozed on the upper
bunk I sat below having samosas and chai from the train sellers and watching
the world go by outside the window.
||The Blue Train is another of the small, steam-powered mountain railways up to one of the former hill stations, in this case Ooty (Udhagamandalam).|
Because we had no reservation we got to the booking office as it opened
at 5:30, but then the booking clerk immediately went away for coffee and
didn't come back until 6:05. First class was full but in fact the little
second-class carriages were just as good, and we were first on the train to
establish ourselves in good seats next to the door for quick exit at the
various photo and snack stops, and on the lefthand side for the most impressive
views as the train shunted its way labouriously up the mountain. The carriage
was full of a couple of other Europeans and lots of Indian people who were
all enjoying the ride and were most impressed by the various waterfalls,
including the one at Runnymead station. Two-thirds of the way to Ooty, at
Coonor station, the track levelled off and the steam engine was replaced
by a diesel.
||Ooty. We got the best room
in the Regency Villa, room 2 in the southeast corner.
While Sheila had her afternoon nap I walked through the grounds to Fernhill,
the actual maharaja's palace, which was an enigma. It's a huge, lavishly decorated
place with delicately carved woodwork around the windows, and it is now part
of a hotel group who have been renovating it for at least 10 years, but I
couldn't work out if it was finished yet!
||Most of the Maharaja's palace at Fernhill seemed to be deserted, especially the great galleried Durbar hall with its prewar style chairs, sofas and card tables and a piano under a dust cover, as if the Maharaja had left a few years ago and it was waiting for his return as the dust gently settled.|
... yet down the long rambling wings were beautifully renovated hotel rooms with flatscreen TVs, apparently ready for guests to check in tomorrow.On the way back to Regency Villa I saw two ladies walking up the driveway carrying bundles of sticks on their heads and sure enough this was the firewood that we ordered for the fire in our room. Sheila woke up and we went to have another look at Fernhill palace, and this time the friendly security guard who showed us round told us that it is due to open for guests next month, and he opened the enormous, lavish king's suite and queen's suite for us to see.
We walked down the driveway through the eucalyptus forest to the main
gate, where we got an auto-rickshaw down to the bazaar where Sheila was on
a mission to buy some coal for our fire, because the 'firewood' that they
delivered was really just twigs and would be burned up in 20 minutes. We
found the improbably named 'IBM Firewood Depot' and there a man was busy
chopping logs and loading them into someone's rickshaw, while they sold us
a big bag of coal. Back in our hotel room, as it got dark and cold the hotel
man came and lit the fire, and sure enough the sticks burned fiercely, showering
the room with sparks, then were gone, while the coal burned nicely through
the evening giving the large room a warm glow. We ordered dinner which they
served at the little dining table in our room by candle light.
||It was a slow day down in the vegetable
market at Ooty.......
||.... until a major order for chillies
||We collected the firewood and somehow got it and us into an auto-rickshaw and back to the Regency Villa, where it took four people to unload it all into the room ready for tonight, while all the hotel staff looked on in a mixture of amusement and horror.|
About 5pm the lady came and lit the fire and we spent the evening basking
in its blazing glow while we read or watched television.
We stayed at the Adhi Manor hotel in Mysore, a clean, modern hotel well-placed in the centre of town, and I had a walk round the pleasant, compact centre through the big bustling market and looked at the palace through the impressive but closed north gates.
||We got an auto-rickshaw out to the Lalitha Mahal Palace hotel, another of the maharaja's former palaces which appeared to be a copy of the US Capitol building, with a huge white dome at the centre and wings at each side, set in an impressive position on top of a hill.|
||Mysore. This morning was the highlight of our 'Palaces Tour' segment of the holiday; we spent the morning at the Maharaja's Palace and grounds, which occupy one whole quarter of the town, and it was amazing.|
||The size, the opulence, the craftsmanship in wood, marble and stone, were all indescribably impressive - we thought it was great.|
||And, as the final cherry on the cake, for only one pound Sheila went for a ride on an elephant through the gardens!|
Sun 24th. We could see from the postcards that the Maharaja's palace in Mysore is lit up like Blackpool tower (but more impressive) on Sunday nights, but we could not wait. We went from Mysore to Hassan by taxi, a very easy 3-hour drive along excellent, smooth, traffic-free roads through an agricultural landscape. We stayed at the Suvarna Regency hotel which was nice, but the rest of Hassan was a grubby, fly-blown place with nothing to recommend it. We only came because it is the jumping-off point for the next stage of the Temple Tour, and our main task was to walk up to the taxi rank at the top of the town and engage in half an hour of play-acting as the taxi drivers competed for us and told us how great their cars were and how bad a driver the other guy was, until we established what seemed to be the lowest price they were prepared to go to for the tour tomorrow, and the winning driver gave us a free ride back to our hotel to remove us from the competition who were still pressing round the cab trying to persuade us to change our minds.The hotel has a very large bar and a small adjacent restaurant in the basement, but when we tried to go into the bar the waiters rudely hustled us out because it seems to be a men-only place, so we settled for a meal in the restaurant where the food was very good.
Mon 25th. Altaf, our taxi driver to Halebid and Belur was indeed
a very good driver and a nice chap, and his car was very comfortable (car
number KA03 U2492, in cast you are ever there).
||The temples at Halebid and Belur were smaller than the others we have seen, but the stone carvings were fantastic. They covered the whole of the outside and inside of each of the temples, and included friezes of elephants, mythical creatures, armies in battle, musicians and dancers and a huge variety of Hindu deities. They were mostly fully three-dimensional, carved front and back, and were very well preserved even though they are about 800 years old.|
||Beside each of the entrances to one
of the temples are statues commemorating the king who defeated a tiger in
one-to-one combat. Looks like he had a sword and the tiger didn't,
so maybe it's not so impressive.
Tues 26th. This morning Altaf took us to Bangalore,
with a short diversion to Sravanabelagola on the way. We started early, so
it was still cool as we climbed the 600+ steps up the rocky hill in Sravanabelagola
to the gigantic ancient monolithic statue of Gometaswara at the top. Gometaswara
is the main pilgrimage destination for the Jain religion, but on this particular
morning all the other people climbing up the hill were energetic, enthusiastic
parties of schoolchildren and their out-of-condition school teachers who
were struggling even more than us to get to the top.
||Sravanabelagola. While we were there a puja (service) started, with lots of drumming and trumpet playing from a band seated at the side, while chanting priests anointed the feet of the giant statue with a variety of liquids and flower petals.|
We continued our relatively easy and uneventful drive to Bangalore, where we went through the process of trying to confirm our Coupé class seats on the train by visiting the Regional Divisional office, filling in a form and giving it to the very nice lady Divisional Officer, who said that we were first on the list and would be OK as long as a VIP didn't turn up wanting a place. The Coupé is a very comfortable separate 2-berth cabin with its own washbasin and wardrobe, but there is only one of them on the train, so it will be a tense wait until the seating list is finalised later this afternoon.With no time for any real sightseeing, we took an auto-rickshaw through the polluted Bangalore traffic jams to the Forum Mall, a westernised shopping mall where Sheila went on a shopping spree to really fill up the suitcase. When she finally couldn't buy any more we had a snack at the food court and went back to the station to find that we were in luck and our place in the Coupé was confirmed.
When the 20:10 Udyan Express to Mumbai pulled into the station we found
our Coupé and settled in for a cosy night of dozing through the Indian
Thurs 28th. We walked down Causeway Road to our favourite breakfast place, a French-style café called Mondegar where the spicy baked beans on toast with coriander were still great.We went down to the ferry dock at the 'Gateway of India' and caught the ferry to Elephanta Island, an hour's ride across the large, busy Mumbai harbour for 120 Rs, plus 10 Rs to the boatman to use the breezy upper deck where there was a much better view. On Elephanta Island we climbed what seemed (in the heat of near-midday) to be a long flight of steps while monkeys terrorised the tourists and tried to snatch their drinks bottles, up to the ancient temples, cut into 'caves' in the rock face.
||Elephanta Island. The first cave is the most impressive, with a huge area hewn out of the solid rock, supported by great rock pillars and with carved panels of Shiva and his supporting cast all around the walls, including a triple-headed representation with a wonderfully serene face.|
Fri 29th. After another nice breakfast at Mondegar we
went on the long, hot, polluted drive to the airport for our flight home.
It was the perfect illustration of the saying "if God had meant man to fly
he would have made it easier to get to the airport".
If you would like to see our other travels,
click here ...................