||Our route from Chennai through Tamil
Nadu and Kerala, and up to Bombay.
Mon 28 Jan. Why do our flights to India always arrive at one o'clock in the morning? Nevertheless we had no trouble getting a prepaid taxi ticket from the booth outside the airport, and the taxi took us to the hotel in Chennai (Madras) that we'd chosen from the guide book. That one was full but they took us just down the road to the Hotel New Victoria where we got a spacious room for 28 pounds, including breakfast and quite a lot of local city taxes.
While Sheila had a nap I stepped across the road to the popular Saravana Bhagan restaurant, where I fell for the upsell - I ordered a marsala dhosa, but the waiter persuaded me to get some sort of giant dhosa which was half a metre long. It was very good, and fortified by that and a lime soda I walked the couple of kilometres to Anna Salai Road and the nearby Taj Connemara, the old-fashioned British-era hotel, which still retains its colonial charm in an up-market sort of way. I sat on the terrace under the palm trees by the swimming pool and had a pot of tea.
||Chennai (Madras). The Connemara
hotel still retains its colonial charm, while the street life passes by outside.
On the nearby main road I waited at a bus stop and fought my way onto a
packed city bus, which for 5 pence took me all the way back to Egmore station,
an interesting experiment which I probably won't repeat. In the evening we
walked up Kennet Lane, our local street, and negotiated a car for the next
day's tour, then I was forced by Sheila to have a haircut at the little booth
at the end of the street (30 pence). We had a very nice butter chicken curry
at the restaurant in nearby hotel Pandian.
Tues 29th. The taxi (all taxis seem to be white Ambassadors, in
a very 1950s-Austin style) took us the 2-hour drive to Kanchipuram, one of
the seven sacred cities of India, where we started our 'Temple Tour'. The
first thing we did as we got to the temple was to buy some leather sandals
from the shoe-sellers outside the temple, because the ones we brought with
us were killing us. Having bought two pairs for 250 Rupees each (3 pounds,
4 euro), another man immediately came up and hammered big tacks into the
strap joins to 'strengthen them' for another 50 Rs each!
The first temple, Sri Ekamberanathur, is large, with the standard plan
of Tamil Hindu temples. Inside the outer walls, a series of chambers in the
temple itself leads you towards the inner sanctum, which is only open to Hindus.
Around the central 'avenue' through the temple are side chapels and courtyards,
in one of which was a mango tree reputed to be 3,500 years old. Unfortunately
most temples close between midday and 4pm, and when we attempted to visit
the other temples in town we couldn't get in, so we carried on to Mahabalipuram,
stopping for a 'thali' lunch on the way, which we ate with our right hands
like everyone else in the little restaurant - it was very tasty.
||Kanchipuram. Gopurams above
the entrance and decorated chapels inside the Sri Ekambaranathuar temple.
We arrived in Mahabalipuram, now renamed Mamallapuram, and instantly liked
it. It is basically a fishing village but because of the picturesque 'shore
temple' perched on a rock by the sea, and because of the beach, travellers
and tourists have been coming here for years and there are now dozens of beachside
restaurants and small guest houses. It is very relaxed and we met people
who had been staying here for months. It's probably like Goa must have been
before the tourists started arriving in plane-loads.
||Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram). We stayed at the Santana guest house on the beach, with a view from our room of the fishing boats and the shore temple.|
||Mahabalipuram is very relaxed, with
plenty of beachside cafes and restaurants.
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling along the beach and up the
main street past sculptors, silk shops, cafes and restaurants. Back
on the beach we went for dinner at the Bob Marley restaurant where we had
huge tiger prawns, all caught that morning by the nearby fishermen. It's a
very pleasant spot and we spent some time chatting to the friendly owner,
except when he had to go to attend to a police raid - technically none of
the restaurants in town are allowed to serve beer but they all do, and everyone
knows they do, so when the police need to boost their conviction rates they
go and raid a couple of restaurants in a half-hearted sort of way. Luckily
we and the other diners had all finished our beers and the evidence had gone,
so this time the police went away empty-handed.
We walked down the beach and visited the famous shore temple, built on a small rocky outcrop beside the sea, one of the oldest temples in India which has amazingly survived all the ravages of wind, waves and tsunamis. Next we got a tuk-tuk for a tour of some of the other sights of Mahabalipuram, especially the 'five Rathas' which is a pretty group of small temples all carved out of bedrock, with incredibly well-preserved carvings because they were buried under the sand for hundreds of years. Other highlights were 'Siva's butterball', a huge round rock impossibly balanced on a steep rocky slope, and Arjuna's Penance, an elaborate and famous rock carving (shown on all the postcards) which uses a natural fault down the middle to represent the river Ganges. After the tour we walked around the town for a while then went for an early dinner at the Moonraker restaurant on the main street and had delicious butter egg marsala.
||One of the highlights of Mahabalipuram is the 'five Rathas', a pretty group of small temples all carved out of bedrock, with incredibly well-preserved carvings because they were buried under the sand for hundreds of years.|
||Another is Arjuna's Penance, an elaborate and famous rock carving (shown on all the postcards) which uses a natural fault down the middle to represent the river Ganges.|
||We were up earlier today so we walked over the beach to watch the fishermen painstakingly picking the prawns, crabs and little fish out of their nets, taking ages to accumulate a meagre catch that doesn't fill their small shopping bags.|
We had breakfast of marsala omelet (me) and banana pancake (Sheila) at
the Seashore restaurant opposite our guest house, then got a tuk-tuk for the
45-minute drive up the coast road to 'Dakshina Chitra', a 'village' created
from traditional buildings, arts and crafts from the south Indian states.
The houses range from a middle-class merchant's substantial house with heavy
dark-wood timbers and elaborately-carved doorways, to a simple, circular
mud-built hut with a conical thatched roof which is designed to float during
||A traditional house in Dakshinachitra,
with canoe at the ready.
||If you thought British imperial
measures were complicated, what do you make of these Indian weights and measures?
Fri 1st Feb. A day at leisure chilling out in Mahabalipuram. We
strolled through the village and had breakfast at the Nautilus, a bustling
café apparently run by a Frenchman, then Sheila went to the beauty
salon to have her eyebrows threaded (40 rupees, about 50 pence). After a
nice lunch at the Gazebo restaurant Sheila had a leg wax for 495 rupees and
then a nice acupuncture experience for her bad leg (200 Rs) from a Swedish
lady with a very nice lifestyle, she worked at home for 6 months then on
holiday in India for the other 6 months of each year. While all this pampering
was going on, I read and had cups of tea in cafes. We had our most 'south
Indian' meal so far at the Galaxy restaurant, sitting upstairs watching the
world go by in the street below.
Sun 3rd. It was time to move on, so we got a taxi to Pondicherry
(now apparently spelled Puducheri officially), 100km for 1,300 rupees. We
had heard from many people how all the hotels in Pondi are full, so we were
pleased when the taxi driver took us to his favourite, the Malar guest house,
which was very new and clean for Rs 1,000 a night. Sheila was still suffering
after-effects of the lobster so I went and had breakfast at 'Hot Breads',
a café and bakery, then walked around the town, meeting Lakshmi the
temple elephant at Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple where there was a service
in progress, with lots of loud drumming and horn playing. I walked along the
beach in the hot sunshine and back up de Bussy street to the hotel. In the
cool of the evening we walked back to the beach, stopping at Madame Shanthi's
café for a soup and creme caramel, then took part in the evening promenade
along Beach Road, with most of the town's population. After a pizza and
a beer on the way back we retired exhausted.
Huge tiger prawns by the bagfull in the fish market.
||Or you could have this one for a
||After brunch we set out again to visit Lakshmi, who will bless you with a tap on the head if you put a coin in her trunk.|
We carried on Sheila's shopping spree, visiting various clothes and jewellery
shops, then stopped at the up-market Promenade Hotel on the seafront for a
drink on the terrace at dusk. After walking along the promenade, which had
been closed to traffic, we stopped for dinner at Madame Shanthi's where we
had pepper chicken south-Indian style and an egg curry.
Wed 6th. We went by taxi to Thanjavur (1900 rupees), stopping on
the way in Chidambaram to look round the ancient and very impressive Nataraja
||Chidambaram. Part of the
elaborately decorated gopuram at the Nataraja temple.
We were able to walk all around inside the temple (sometimes parts are
closed to non-Hindus), along dark elaborately carved corridors, past colourful
shrines to various deities up to the edge of the inner sanctum where a service
was in progress with bells and lamps and anointings with milk, and we peered
with the crowds right into the sanctum when the priests lifted the curtain
to reveal the god.
Thurs 7th. Sightseeing in Thanjavur, first the very impressive Brihadishwara
temple which has a World Heritage listing. It is another large complex which
is still under renovation but is also a functioning temple. Facing the temple
is an enormous 'Nandi' (the bull) statue which was carved from a single block
of stone and weighs 25 tons.
on the wall of the Durbar hall in the former Maharaja's palace.
Fri 8th. The Temple Tour continued, as we drove in an Ambassador taxi to Madurai, stopping in Trichy (Tiruchirapparri) on the way (2,500 rupees). Trichy has two very impressive sights, firstly the Sri Rangam temple which is huge, busy and full of well-preserved carvings and small shrines and pillars where people worship and leave flowers and little butter candles. The vast complex has seven concentric walls, but the area within the first three is full of bazaars and houses and is more like a town within a town. The area within the last two walls is reserved for Hindus so you cannot even see into the inner sanctum, but there is plenty going on outside including the mandatory temple elephant to bless you with a tap on the head. In one of the large halls was a group of temple priests who seemed to be challenging a small crowd of spectators seated cross-legged on the floor in front of them. I thought it might be a theological debating society, until Sheila worked out that they were actually auctioning cloth and saris!
|Trichy. The Sri Rangam temple is huge, busy and full of small shrines and pillars where people worship and leave flowers and little butter candles.||... It also has some impressive,
well-preserved stone carvings.
||We crossed the river into the main town where the other impressive sight in Trichy, the Rock Fort Temple, towers over the old city. The massive rock outcrop rises abruptly from the plain, and there are 437 steep stone steps up to the top, where there is a great view and a refreshingly cool breeze.|
When we arrived in Madurai after several hours driving through continuous
road works (they are turning the road into a dual carriageway) we found that
all the hotels were full, as we had been warned they might be because the
town fills up with visitors at the weekend. One full hotel recommended the
Temple Park hotel and called to make a reservation for us there, and it turned
out to be a nice hotel in a great location, near one of the entrances to the
main temple. After checking in we went to the railway station to try to book
the train to our next destination. There was a very efficient and well-organised
computerised booking office, with orderly queues, but unfortunately it turned
out that the train we wanted is a 'passenger' class, meaning it is a local
train with no reservations and a free-for-all scrummage to get one of the
wooden seats when the train arrives. We decided against that and went to
the rooftop Temple View restaurant at the Hotel Park Plaza to consider other
options. We had an excellent meal of tandoori chicken and chicken do piazza
- north Indian rather than local dishes, but very nice.
||Madurai. In the daytime market
(not the night market outside our window, which kept us awake all night!)
||Then in the afternoon a tropical rainstorm appeared from nowhere.....|
||The 'golden dome' above the inner
sanctum of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. This view is only available
from the roof of nearby shops, so you have to be prepared to go through the
sales pitch to see it.
Sun 10th. The night market didn't just happen in the street, it
took over the whole street. When we went down to reception to wait for the
minibus which is coming at 'seven o'clock' the entrance to the hotel was blocked
by cauliflowers and the whole street was completely blocked by lorries, sacks
and piles of vegetables, with people fetching and carrying in all directions.
The minibus arrived at 7:45 with two other English tourists, then we went
to pick up the remainder of the passengers, an extended Indian family and
friends with their luggage, who seemed to be on a pilgrimage. Once we got
going, the drive to Rameswaram was fine, 3 hours along a good road and over
the Indira Ghandi bridge onto the island, but when we got there we spent ages
waiting about while the pilgrims tried to find a hotel cheap enough to stay
in. Eventually we went to do the promised sightseeing, including a good view
from a small hill and the Temple of the amazing floating stones (they were
pumice). The bus then dropped us at the Tamil Nadu hotel, a typically run-down
government hotel in a lovely position by the sea. We had lunch in the hotel
restaurant where the only option was a 'thali meal', the standard south Indian
plate of rice and several tasty little curry dishes. Any leftovers
were quickly eaten by the crows whizzing through the windows and dive-bombing
||Rameshwaram. After a rest we set off in a tuk tuk to the fishing port, which was still bustling with activity late in the afternoon. Baskets of small fish were everywhere........|
||.... men were unloading them from boats and carrying them through the shallow water to the shore......|
||.... where other men were piling them onto carts pulled by oxen who appeared to have mutant chilies on their heads (actually brightly-painted horns) and when the cart was loaded the oxen plodded lazily away and another took its place.|
..... while all the time ladies were sifting through a layer of small fish
spread all over the sandy shore. We stood and watched the activity for some
time, taking photos and enjoying the atmosphere (despite the strong fishy
We walked round the small town looking for something to eat but this was
less successful - Rameswaram caters for pilgrims not tourists and all we wanted
was a bowl of soup to get rehydrated, but there was no soup to be had anywhere,
so we settled for a Mars bar.
It was a long, dusty and bumpy 10-hour ride to Kanya Kumari but although
other passengers did get on, it never filled up so we had room to spread out
and doze, which almost made it bearable. The bus took us right to the centre
of town and from there we let a tout guide us to the Hotel Maadhini where
we got a reasonable room with a fabulous view for Rs 1200. Kanya Kumari (Cape
Cormorin) is the Lands End of India - the southernmost point on the landmass,
and from our balcony we had a wide vista of the sea and the illuminated memorial
on the island just off the end of the cape. We went next door to the rather
more expensive Sea View hotel for a nice meal in their restaurant, our first
food since yesterday lunchtime.
||Kanyakumari. The Vivekananda
Memorial on a rocky island off the coast, seen from the 'land's end'.
||Where the three seas meet - Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.|
When we returned to dry land we had idli and dhosa (south Indian snack
meals) for lunch at a little local restaurant in the tourist street, then
we went to the railway station to buy a ticket for tomorrow's train - again
there are no reserved seats but he promised us that the train would not be
crowded and the seats would be 'comfortable'. We got a tuk-tuk to the hotel
Tamil Nadu, which is in a nice position overlooking the sea and looks much
better cared for than the one in Rameswaram. As well as normal hotel rooms
you can stay in 'cottages' which are very nice self-contained suites in separate
buildings in the grounds. We walked back into town along Beach Road, stopping
to look round a very interesting aquarium and to buy a little paper cone of
chickpeas with onion and coriander from a street stall, and a mango Mivvi
ice lolly from an ice cream vendor.
||The bathing beach at the southern tip of town was packed with people paddling and body-surfing or dodging the waves, just like Blackpool in saris, and we sat and watched the fun as the sun went down.|
This time there was a bank of clouds in the west, so we were unable to witness either a sunset or sunrise over the sea, which is promoted as a unique combination only visible from this place.