Friday, 29 May 2015

Varkala and the Kerala backwaters

The last time I wrote I was in the town of Kanyakumari and somehow it required four different buses to reach the beach town of Varkala but what a wonderful place it is.  It seems a world away from the hustle of big cities; a place where travellers can catch their breath and relax before continuing the journey.  It was my first destination on the state of Kerala.  This narrow strip of land that runs beside the Arabian Sea is one of India’s most beautiful and successful states.  This success was evident as I passed through the relatively wide and tidy streets in the capital of Trivandrum. 

Varkala beach and cliff top restaurants
For the tourist, Varkala is a range of guest houses and restaurants that perch on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach and rocky shoreline.  Although there is ongoing development and prices are creeping up from what guidebooks indicate, it’s still a great place to spend some time.  If I had more of it, I’d happily spend it there!  Apart from the beach, there are a couple of temples to visit but the main focus here is relaxation, yoga, massage, spa treatment or getting that henna tattoo you’ve been thinking about since arriving in India. 

The relaxation was put on hold for a couple of hours as I crammed myself and backpack into a very crowded bus bound for Kollam.  There are many buses plying this route but I actually let the first couple go past me because they were packed to the rafters with bodies.  Time was pressing though and I had to take my chances on the next one.  So I inhaled deeply and compressed myself into the human sardine can.  I was travelling with two friends so our three backpacks didn’t really help but we didn’t have a choice.  There was a boat in Kollam that we had to catch.

Typical backwater canal

This boat was bound for Alleppy and would take us through the backwater canals that Kerala is renowned for.  After we extracted ourselves from the bus, it became an absolutely wonderful day.  It was, without doubt, one of the best I’ve ever had in India.  The scenery along the canals is beautiful and with views of lush bush, green paddy fields and countless palms sliding past it was the epitome of relaxation.  We made a stop for vegetarian lunch and another one mid-afternoon for chai tea.

The cruise took us past small villages along the canals which was an insight into the daily lives of the local people there.  Some were walking or cycling along the water edge while others were bathing or doing laundry in the water.  We received many enthusiastic waves as our boat passed by, especially from children.  We passed boats of different sizes and shapes; from simple dugout canoes to the large and distinctive Kerala houseboats which cruise the canals with their guests.  Another interesting part of the journey was seeing the large Chinese nets that are used for fishing.

Typical Kerala houseboat

It’s not a long distance to Alleppy if you are travelling by bus but the boat took eight hours.  We went through a canal lock at one stage which took some time.  The following morning I did a boat trip on a local craft and my plan was to then catch the ferry that runs across the lake to Kottayam.  That idea went out the window when I was told “very sorry sir but ferry is broken and not possible”.  That was eventually translated into ‘broken down’ and the service I wanted was cancelled.

That delightful little moment made me think about the people that I’ve met along the way in south India.  Before I left on this trip I was told by a few different people that those who live in the southern states are ‘different’ to those in the north.  When I asked what these differences were I was told things like being friendlier, quieter, more laid back, polite and respectful to each other.  Having already visited the north, I was curious to see how much truth was in these statements.

Relaxed south India lifestyle

Having now been on the road for a few weeks I can say that I agree with all of the above.  The locals that I’ve met have a distinct charm and are peacefully friendly in a way that I don’t recall on my previous trip.  By that, I mean that I’ve had genuine conversations and been wished well by people who don’t want anything from me in return.  Also it’s not overwhelming attention, which has happened before and can become tiring.  Often my contact with the locals is a polite nod, smile or wave which is comfortable and appreciated.  Chatting is great but there is a limit.

Anyway, with the broken ferry I had to abandon my plan for another boat ride and revert to the bus to Kochin instead.  I had to smile as this Kerala Land Transport bus pulled into the platform.  In faded red letters it had the words ‘Super Fast’ written on the side.  This was basically indicating that the bus was an express service with limited stops.  But I think super fast is perhaps a slight exaggeration of the truth in anyone’s language!  The journey of about 100km took over two hours.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Madurai and Kanyakumari

My journey through southern India continued in the ancient city of Madurai.  This could perhaps be described as the soul of Tamil Nadu and is one of the oldest cities in the whole of India.  Time has obviously brought with it many changes and the original aromas of saffron, sandalwood, musk and various other spices have long been overwhelmed by petrol fumes, dust and the pungent smell of urine if you walk too close to a large wall!  But that aside, there are a few relics of this glorious past to visit today.

Gandhi Museum, Madurai

The first thing I did on arrival though was visit the Gandhi Museum.  This was rather appropriate given that it was India’s Republic Day.  Not to be confused with Independence Day, 26th January marks the day that the Indian constitution came into force.  I’m not sure that it’s guiding principles of justice, liberty and equality for all has quite come to fruition but that is what is being celebrated anyway.

The museum itself chronicles the struggles of India to break free from Britain’s ‘oppressive’ rule and the key part the Gandhi played in achieving independence in 1947.  There were a number of items belonging to Gandhi on display but the most important exhibit is the blood-stained loin cloth that he was wearing when killed on his way to a meeting the following year. 

The ornate ceiling of Tirumalai Nayak

The Tirumalai Nayak, or what remains of it now, is an impressive place to visit.  This Indo-Saracenic palace was built in 1636 by the ruler whose name it bears.  Although time has taken its toll, you can still easily gain a sense of how opulent it must have been centuries ago.  The huge central courtyard is adorned with faded yellow plasterwork, from which sculptures of lions and the makaras (mythical crocodile-elephant creatures) emerge.  The adjacent music hall is similar and now houses a display of sculptures.

Happy children at Sri Meenakshi Temple

Sometimes when you travel you are just in the right place at the right time.  And other times you are not.  Unfortunately the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai was one of those occasions.  When I arrived, I was told that it was closed for an annual festival holiday.  The only day of the whole year this happens!  That was the bad news but there was some consolation in that another entrance was actually open that allowed access to a few areas.  One of them was the Art Museum within the complex which was in a beautiful hall of 1000 carved stone pillars so I was satisfied with my visit.

That afternoon I took a bus down to Kanyakumari which is the end of the road if you are travelling south down this great land.  It’s a pretty area of green rice paddy fields and rounded granite mountains that eventually gives way to a town that looks out to the merging of three seas.  It’s a special place where you can watch the sunset over the rising moon but beyond that, it’s a friendly town that offers a nice respite from the dust of the Indian road. 

View of Vivekananda Memorial, Kanyakumari  

The most popular thing to do here is take a ferry out to the Vivekananda Memorial located on a large rock about 400 metres offshore.  This was constructed in memory of the philosopher Swami Vivekananda (also known as the Wandering Monk) who came to meditate on the rock during his travels.  There is a smaller island adjacent to the memorial that has a huge statue of Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar on it.  It was crafted by over 5,000 sculptures and honours his 133-chapter greatest work – hence the height of exactly 133 feet.

There is a temple on the waterfront of the town which I found an odd place to visit because all men need to remove their shirts before entering.  They also seemed to have a greed for money because there was an entry fee to see next to nothing and even then they attempted to charge more than what was correct.  The nearby Gandhi Memorial was more interesting in that it contains a plinth which was used to store some of his ashes.  Each year on his birthday (October 2nd) the suns’ rays fall through a small hole in the ceiling and fall directly on the stone.

A break from the dusty road

I took a walk just out of town to the ‘Madam Tussauds’ of India.  Okay…not really, but it was a wax museum and although it was rather tacky, it was worth the visit.  There were 16 figures, mainly Indian politicians, actors and musicians but also a random collection of others including Michael Jackson, Jackie Chan, the Pope and Albert Einstein.  It was as amusing as it was interesting and certainly something different!  On the way back I went to the town lighthouse where I got a fantastic view from the top.

Watching the sunset and rising moon over three merging seas was a great way to finish my journey south.  Tomorrow I’ll head north to the beach town of Varkala.  It’ll be the first destination in the state of Kerala where more adventures await.  One will be enjoying some boat travel in the beautiful backwater canals there.  Another story for another time so until then...

Friday, 15 May 2015


From Thanjavur, it was just a couple of hours to the large city of Tiruchirappalli, or as it is commonly known, Trichy.  Bus travel is always an interesting experience.  As far as I can tell, there are essentially two things you require as a bus driver.  The first is a loud air horn that you should use liberally at any given opportunity.  The second thing is trust that as you are blaring the horn and charging down the wrong side of the road while overtaking that anything coming in the opposite direction will pull right over to let you through.  Sometimes size does matter so in this perpetual game of chicken it’s nice to be in the larger vehicle!

The highlight of Trichy is the massive Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple.  It felt more like visiting a self-enclosed town than a temple because to reach the inner sanctum you need to pass through seven towering gopuram, the largest being 73 metres high.  Once again, this most central area and a few other little shrines were off limits to all those who weren’t Hindu.  I was sightseeing here with an American guy and we were chased out of one by an old lady shouting and wielding a bamboo stick!

Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

We were both a little bemused by this and he told he wanted to try something.  He told me to wait for a moment while he went to another shrine and after giving a few rupees came back with Hindu markings on his forehead.  ‘Now watch this’ he told me with a smile.  We returned to the entrance of the inner sanctum and claimed to be Hindu.  “Look at my forehead” he pointed, “You must let me through”.  After an initial refusal and a rather confused look he was rather reluctantly waved through.  There’s nothing much to see inside but we enjoyed the moment of creativity anyway!

The majestic Rock Fort

We visited another similar temple in the city before going to the impressive Rock Fort.  Perched 83 metres high on a huge rocky outcrop, this temple is reached with a climb of 437 stone cut steps.  The temple itself is a remarkable architectural feat but the main reason to visit is the superb panoramic view of the city in all directions.  It didn’t take too long to reach the top but we were high enough to watch eagles circling over the rooftops below us. 

View of Trichy from the Rock Fort

To finish our day, we visited the Nathavala Dargah mosque where we were made surprisingly welcome in our shorts.  Outside we stopped at a little tea shop for a glass of chai tea.  As we sat there, I asked my friend if he thought the glasses we were drinking from were clean.  “Clean?” he said, “Of course they aren’t clean; nothing’s clean in India!”  I burst out laughing at the truth of his simple assertion and here we were in the midst of it.  Bottoms up!

Remarkably, my health has stayed perfect through nearly two weeks travel here.  There hasn’t been a hint of the trouble that plagued my previous trip here but I can’t help getting the feeling that I’m dodging bullets.  I went to a restaurant in Thanjavur where everyone was eating with their hands and I didn’t quite fancy the idea because my hands didn’t feel clean.  When I asked for cutlery the waiter promptly brought them out to me.  Only thing was I watched him cleaning the fork with his fingernail just before he gave it to me!  Which is worse I wondered…his dirty hands or mine?

Nathavala Dargah mosque

There are no food handling guidelines here.  If you buy anything, it will be handled by whoever is selling it to you.  There’s just no escaping the lack of hygiene so all you can do is hope things are okay before you eat them.  Just last night a meal came out to me from the restaurant kitchen with a black hair in it.  Sometimes it’s best just not to know certain things so I never take a seat in a restaurant where I have any view of the kitchen! 


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Chidambaram and Thanjavur

I did plan to stay at the small town of Chidambaram on my travels but when I arrived I found the streets to be congested with all manner of vehicles. I was immediately confronted with a constant soundtrack of engines and horns together with the smell of petrol fumes. I changed my plan. I decided that I could visit the Nataraja Temple (which is the only reason to be there anyway) and push through to Thanjavur that afternoon. I was fortunate with the timing because I arrived at 12pm and it closes between 1pm and 4pm. This is common for many temples because of the afternoon heat.

Holy cow!

The Nataraja Temple is acknowledged as being one of the greatest in southern India. It is constructed in Dravidian style with four towering gopurams marking the entrances to what is a huge 22 hectare complex. There is a large tank and an inner sanctum which is off limits if you aren’t Hindu. This is the case in a number of temples that I’ve visited and I think it’s a curious thing. How do they know I’m not? How can a man’s beliefs be proved either way? What proof do they have of being Hindu other than the way they look? Basically, what they are saying is no tourists are permitted entry and it is policed strongly.

Nataraja Temple

There are basically two reasons to visit Thanjavur; the Royal Palace and the Brihadishwara Temple. The palace was a disappointment but the World Heritage listed temple was quite simply amazing. The palace was a decaying reminder of a glorious era now well past. The central courtyard is overgrown with weeds and the inner corridors stink of bat poo. There is a gallery containing a collection of stone carvings and bronze images from the Chola period but the whole place was rather uninspiring. The highlight was a small museum that contained priceless old books, manuscripts and prints.

The temple on the other hand was probably the most impressive I’ve visited in all south India. Whether you visit in the morning when the sandstone begins to assert itself against the white dawn sun or late afternoon when everything is illuminated in beautiful golden colours, it is an absolutely wonderful place. As I was there for the whole day I visited twice and was fortunate to watch a Hindu ceremony there in the afternoon. This involved ‘washing’ the large statue of Nandi the bull with different coloured liquids and chanting between rinses.

Colourful saris at Brihadishwara Temple

Taking about ten years to construct, it was commissioned in the year 1010 by king Rajarara, whose name literally means ‘king of kings’. He was a remarkably organised and even meticulous monarch who had the names and addresses of all his dancers, poets, musicians, watchmen, barbers, gardeners, cooks etc inscribed into the temple walls and columns. In addition, he also kept accurate records of how many gold and silver items his empire possessed. Now, that’s better than what many modern Indian institutions can manage!

Elephant blessings outside the temple

Something I loved about this temple was the elephant standing at the front gate. It had been trained to touch the heads of people with the end of its trunk for good luck. I watched for nearly half an hour as people paid their rupees and received their blessing. Seeing their reactions was just as much fun as watching the elephant itself! 


Friday, 1 May 2015

Mamallapuram and Pondicherry

Just a couple of hours south on a rattling old bus is the small and much more relaxed destination of Mamallapuram.  It reminded me a little of Udaipur in the northern province of Rajasthan.  As you wander past shops selling toilet paper, hand cleanser and used books listening to the mellow sounds of Jack Johnson you know that, once again, you have landed in the Kingdom of Backpackistan.  But there are plenty of genuine reasons to visit. Mamallapuram was once a major seaport, a second capital to the Pallava kings and today is a World Heritage site for its great carvings and temples.

Five Rathas Temple

Perhaps the most impressive of these temples is the Five Rathas which, as the name would suggest, is five separate temples each carved from single pieces of rock.  Each of these shrines represent chariots (ratha is Sanskrit for chariot) and were actually hidden under sand until discovered by the British 200 years ago.  They are remarkable pieces of work considering everything is created from monoliths.

The Shore Temple is different in that it was created from individual blocks of stone and put together near the beach.  Its location overlooking the ocean is one of majestic elegance and although it is constantly exposed to the wind and salt air it is enduring well.  It is actually believed to be the last in a series of temples that extended along a since submerged coastline.

Shore Temple
There are various other temples carved from monoliths around the town and an interesting highlight is the massive round rock that appears delicately balanced on the one below it.  Some time ago, there were concerns that it could be unsteady and roll down the hill so seven elephants were brought in to see if it could be moved.  Even with all this power, it didn’t move an inch so has been left in place for all to admire with a curious wonder.

If you are travelling southern India at this time of year there’s a reasonable chance of catching a festival of some description.  In Mamallapuram I was fortunate to catch a large dance festival which was a wonderful slice of Indian art culture.  For nearly three hours from sunset, I watched traditional dancing done to live music and singing.  The dress was brilliantly colourful and the dance routines often appeared to be telling a story.  I had no idea what the tales were but it was captivating to watch anyway.


My next destination was the colonial city of Pondicherry.  Originally settled by the French, it is a place of contrasts.  On one hand you have the traffic noise, petrol fumes and general chaos of most Indian cities but if you can escape into the quieter leafy streets of the old French Quarter it has some genuine charm.  These streets are characterised by lovely pastel coloured buildings with brown window shutters and wrought iron lamps hanging over doorways.  A few streets are even cobbled which adds a greater sense of past glory.

I visited the Botanical Gardens which were established in 1826 by the French and to be perfectly honest I think they’ve been left to deteriorate ever since!  They are quite honestly the most shambolic and untidy ‘botanical gardens’ I’ve ever visited.  Weeds have overgrown crumbling walls and there were only glimpses of the flora that actually should be growing there.  That aside, it was the middle of the day when the sun is always hot so a shady place to wander for a while was appreciated.

French Quarter, Pondicherry

As expected, there is a sprinkling of attractive churches and a temple in the town.  I visited the museum which was a rather random collection of French colonial furniture, pottery, coins and stone sculptures.  Although Pondicherry is a seaside town it doesn’t have a beach.  Instead, the ocean slurps into a seawall of jagged rocks but it is still a lovely walk in the late afternoon or early evening.  Halfway along is a towering statue of Ghandi surrounded by a number of market stalls.