Far to many hours after we left home we
finally set foot in India again. It had taken us almost 16 hours to get
to Chennai. Tired but happy we collected our luggage and went to the
exit of the airport where we were picked up by the travel company
representative and brought to the hotel. After a refreshing shower we
headed to the hotel terrace for a heartily welcomed Kingfisher beer. It
was only just past noon but it could not have tasted better. Welcome to
Not much later we were
greeted by Sylvan, our driver, who brought us to the government museum,
which contained one of the finest collections of bronze statues in the
country. The statues themselves, some hardly 4 cm big, others over half a
meter tall, were magnificent to see, the museum and the way the statues
were presented had seen better days though, it all came across as faded
grandeur. Brinda, our guide had many interesting stories to tell and
showed us much of the finer details we would have missed without her.
Next stop was Marina, the
beachfront. On the way there we saw many British colonial buildings
spread around town. The beach was getting ready for a relaxed Saturday
evening. Food stalls and small carousels were set up, awaiting the
crowds. Romantic couples waited for sunset, enjoying each other’s
company. A bit further though the beach showed a different face. It was
filled with fishing boats, nets and rubbish. Between the street and the
beach small stalls where setup where fishermen’s wives tried to sell the
catch of the day. On the other side of the streets we could not ignore
the neglected apartment blocks and small huts made of palm leaves. This
was the wrong part of Chennai, according to Brinda, one of the Chennai
slums. People and their cattle, mainly goats, are living in almost
inhuman conditions between piles of dirt with no electricity or
sanitation available. Although the government had built new apartments
and tore down the old huts, the people rebuilt them and returned as they
wanted to stay close to their cattle. It was good for us to see the
other side of the mirror but to be honest we we’re pleased to head on to
our next stop.
The San Thome Basilica,
built by the Portuguese in 1896 on the ruins of the first Portuguese
church in Chennai, at that time still called Madras. The most special
item to see was a crucified Jesus statue. The cross sprouted out of a
Lotus flower, with two peacocks around, a typical Hindu influence. Also
outside the church was a huge cupper flagpole, something that is also
normally seen as Hindu temples.
It now seemed not more then
logical that our next stop would be a Hindu temple. So we moved on to
the temple of Kapalesvara. Typical for the architecture in the south the
temple has many magnificent colorful sculptures and a towering gopuram.
The temple is dedicated to Shiva and is built in the form of a peacock.
The colorful sculptures could be found everywhere in the temple
complex. We loved to observe the interaction between temple Brahmins
(priests) and worshippers. It was a beautiful place to finish our city
tour for that day.
Back on our way to the
hotel we realized how tired we were as we could hardly keep our eyes
open. Our dinner was fantastic, papadums topped witch chopped tomato,
chilly, garlic and onion, tandoori style prawns, chicken curry, garlic
naan and rice. We were finished by 8pm and went to bed straight away, it
had been a long but interesting day. We now were ready for more.
Almost 12 hours later we
woke up again. I still felt exhausted but that could be due to the long
sleep. A shower woke me up halfway. The day started off great with
Indian style breakfast. Amongst other delicacies there was potato curry,
strangely enough, something we had been looking forward to after our
Sylvan was already waiting
for us in front of the hotel and he brought us to the memorials of
Gandhi, the father of the nation, and Kamaraj, India’s first
Governor-General and the Chennai Prime Minister. The memorials were
located in a nice park but it appeared to us that they had been
abandoned after the novelty had worn off. Gandhi’s memorial consisted of
his bust on a bridge over a, what must have been a once filled pond. We
could not get close as a grass field and hedge surrounded it. We had
come to this place to fulfill a special task for a good friend but
decided to postpone that till a better moment and nicer looking monument
of Gandhi, something that we will undoubtedly encounter in the next
couple of weeks.
After our visit to the
memorial park Sylvan brought us to the Indian Institute of technology,
which was not far away. It was supposed to be one of the premier
educational institutes of the country but we could almost not stop
laughing when we entered the museum. Like the government museum it had
seen better times and we felt we had just made a time warp into the
50ties. The exhibition was setup to be serious but for us it came across
as hilarious. Most of the things seemed not to be working but
nevertheless the staff was very enthusiastic and showed us around the
‘treasures’ of technology to be discovered. The museum also had it’s own
planetarium with a constellation show not to be missed… When we arrived
the show had just started so we were guided in total darkness to our
reclining seats to enjoy the show. On several highlights during the show
the room was filled by oohs and ahhs from the stunned audience, not
much later I could hear somebody snoring loudly next to me. As it
appeared Paul was not that stunned. Although I could not stop laughing I
decided to wake him up in order for him not to disturb the carefully
chosen audio effects of the show.
It was time to go on to
another remainder of the British Empire; Fort St George, where the city
began. Although it’s an ancient monument life flourishes within. It’s a
fortified city by itself: we could still see government officials,
military and churchgoers, each of them having something to do over here.
First we visited the museum, which is a treasure trove of British South
Indian memorabilia. On the ground floor there was a nice collection of
coins, weapons, costumes and chinaware from the East Indies. On the
first floor there was an impressive collection of Aquarelles and
paintings. It was highly interesting to see.
After the museum we went
for a short stroll through the fort. We saw some old buildings, which
were quite nice but most interesting was St. Mary’s church. Originally
built in 1680 it is now tended carefully for. Part of the courtyard is
paved with tombstones and just whilst we were admiring them we were
drawn towards the interior of the church by music coming out of there.
The organ player was playing an old Georgian melody which most of you
will now recognize better as the soundtrack of “Pirates of the
Caribbean”, it was more than hilarious and both of us were humming the
melody with big smiles on our faces whilst exploring the small church.
We could hardly believe
time was flying by so quickly but it was time already to go for lunch.
Sylvan brought us to Kabul, a fantastic restaurant where we more than
enjoyed black pepper spiced chicken kebab, lamb in a spicy spinach
curry, rice and a selection of garlic and stuffed naan. Life’s good…
At 3pm we headed towards
the railway station as we had to catch the Pallavan express which
covered the distance of 336km to Tiruchcirapali, better known as Trichi,
in less than 6 hours, quite fast for Indian standards.
On arrival we were picked
up by Jackson, a tiny little and very funny Indian man who was going to
be our driver for the rest of the tour. He brought us to our hotel. As
it had just been refurbished everything was spick and spam, perfect. A
quick shower and we were ready for what we decided was a well-deserved
And that is where the fun
started, as it was election period in Tamil Nadu the whole state was put
on an alcohol ban for 5 days. But the manager told us that for special
people like ourselves there was always a possibility and he brought us
to a hotel room at the far end of the hotel where an improvised bar was
set up. A waiter carefully opened the door, inside a man was lying on
the bed, another sitting in a chair franticly talking on the phone and
zipping from his Scotch, it felt like we had entered some kind of
illegal opium den during the time of prohibition. Whilst our beer was
served we could not stop laughing about the situation we got ourselves
into this time. It was a lot of fun anyway and as the manager had gone
through such effort to bring us here we honored that by finishing 2
beers before we went to bed.
After another good night of
sleep we fully enjoyed our Indian style breakfast again. Jackson was
already waiting for us so not much later we were on our way to Thanjai
Rajajesvaram, which according to the sign we saw when we arrived was a
world famous big temple… Impressive it was indeed, built by one of the
greatest and most gifted dynasties which ruled in India. The temple
complex consisted out of several temples and shrines, each dedicated to a
different God or deity, the biggest one of course was dedicated to
We were welcomed at the
gate by a friendly elephant, which tried to touch each person passing.
As soon as we passed the gate we could see the temple in its full glory.
It was magnificent. Built of sandstone and covered with carvings all
over the roof. Frescos decorated the alleys of the great surrounding
outer wall. The best thing however is was that the temple wasn’t just a
monument of the past but still a living monument. In each temple
offerings were made and Brahmins and worshippers joined in their
prayers. Of course the both of us got blessed as well with the
traditional dot of ash on our forehead, which would bring us a long,
prosperous and happy life.
Somewhere else there was a
group of people chanting on front of a Deity. The atmosphere was magical
and Paul and I spent more than an hour and a half in this fantastic
temple complex. During one of the blessings we had received some holy
ash to take home, a flower to offer to one of the Gods, and a banana of
which we were not sure what to do with. The elephant at the entrance
highly appreciated our gift and thanked us with a wet touch with his
Next stop was a gallery
with beautiful statues for sale, after we had seen a large collection of
antiques we could not decide between two of them but the choice was
made easy for us when we heard the price so we left with none…
Another nice place we
visited was a small family run bronze statue factory, it was very
interesting how the figures were molded in wax, then covered in clay and
finally baked in an oven so the clay would get hard and the wax
disappear. The finished mold was then brought to a different place where
the liquid bronze at 1200 degrees Celsius was poured into the mold. It
then still took several days to cool down before the clay was removed
and the bronze statue could be finished.
Time flew by, time for
lunch again, and what a wonderful lunch it was. Chicken coriander, a
spicy vegetable curry, rice, a selection of naans, and…. Water, yes we
can be good sometimes 😉
By three we were back at
the hotel, as there’s only so much you can see during a day we decided
for a relaxing afternoon at the pool. It was a bit cloudy so we found a
couple of comfortable chars under some trees and relaxed. Paul was
reading a book while I worked on our travel story.
It had only three days
since we arrived in India but we were amazed by the amount of things we
have already seen and experienced. It did not take us long to fall in
love with India again. The South is completely different from Rajasthan
and Utar Pradesh that we visited two years ago.
On Tuesday, after our Indian style
breakfast, Jackson picked us up and brought to the rock fort, which is
located on a monolithic rock almost 80 meters above Trichy.
We had already met our
guide; Pademini, a charming Indian lady and she had lots of stories to
tell on the region, the religion, and of course the rock fort.
Fortunately we did not have to climb the full 90 meters as Jackson
dropped us off somewhere halfway. The houses surrounded the fort and
they were present up to where it became to difficult to built them. We
were friendly greeted by the temple elephant after which we had 422
steps to climb. We passed a 100-pillar mandapan (a hall that was used
for music concerts and religious ceremonies) and several statues,
carvings and frescos.
The vertical parts of the
steps were painted in red and white, typical Hindu colors. From a small
plateau we had a magnificent view over the city and the river. As we
climbed further to the Ganesa temple, which was built at the summit of
the rock, we could already see the first outlines of Srirangam at the
other side of the river, which we would visit later on the day. The
Ganesa temple was small but interesting; also over here we could see
Brahmins say prayers for the worshippers. Back down we said goodbye to
the temple elephant and made our way to the riverbanks.
At the riverbank was a
collection of small temples and places where priests preformed special
ceremonies for the deceased. 16 days after the cremation it’s the oldest
son’s duty to perform certain rituals for his deceased father or
mother. (In case there is only a girl she will take the honors). The son
has to have his hair shaved (Girls are exempt from this) and together
with a dedicated priest perform the rituals.
Strangely enough at the
other side of the complex rituals are performed for couples that are
already set up to wed in order to prepare for the big day. I say
strangely enough, but that is from a western perspective. We tend to
hide everything that has to do with death but in India it’s an integral
part of life. It’s part of the circle of reincarnation and dealt with as
such. I could have stayed at this place much longer but we had to go
From the rock fort we had
already seen the first glimpse of Srirangam, a temple town sacred to the
God Vishnu. It was an enormous complex on a 1.6 sq km compound. Coming
from the south we had to pass under 7 ornamental towers before we
arrived at the center of the complex.
After the 3rd
tower we were lead to a viewpoint from where we had a magnificent view
over the temple and it’s 21 surrounding towers. Only from here we could
get a real impression of the size, it was enormous.
In the sanctum, to central
temple Vishnu is depicted in as Rangatha (one of his many
manifestations) in a reclining posture on his five-hooded serpent. As
non-Hindus we were not allowed in but we could get a small glimpse of
what was going on inside.
There was a 1000-pillar hall, which similar to the smaller version we had seen in the fort, was used for concerts and ceremonies. Opposite of I were some beautifully carved monolithic pillars. We had a good view from here to the only tower that was totally painted in white in order to celebrate a victory to the Muslims in an ancient battle.
Most interesting though
were the many people resting, begging, praying and offering. Just
outside the compound were lots of stores, which sold offerings, food,
drinks and memorabilia for the devoted pilgrims. Once again this was a
place where I could have stayed much longer and made many more pictures.
There were so many interesting people around I could easily have spent
the rest of the day over here, but it was time to say farewell to
Pademini and travel further south to our next destination: Madurai.
Shortly after we left the city we were
driving over an astonishingly well-maintained highway, which made the
drive extremely comfortable. So comfortable it did not take long before
the both of us dozed off. Guess we must have slept over an hour or so
and by the time we woke up we found ourselves in a totally different
landscape. It was green and lush with lots of palm and banana trees.
Everywhere we could see big monolithic rocks raising out of the
landscape, some were huge. It was a beautiful area to travel through, a
journey that we thoroughly enjoyed.
Late afternoon we arrived
in Madurai. At the hotel we met Yusuf, the travel representative and
from him we received the travel vouchers and detailed itinerary for the
rest of the trip. We enjoyed a beer from our minibar (the bars are still
closed) and went to the pool for a swim. As it started raining we did
not stay long over there but headed to the lobby of the hotel for some
The rain did not last long
so we decided to go for a leisure stroll through the area. It was
crowded, there was heavy traffic and not 2 seconds passed by we could
not hear a horn beeping. The noise was horrendous; first we thought it
would have been nicer if the hotel were a bit closer to the center of
town but at second thoughts… It was a great experience though, this was
the real India; hectic, noisy, colorful…
As we had not seen a
suitable restaurant we decided to have dinner in the hotel, which was a
bit of a disappointment. A buffet, not our thing, most of the dishes
were to cold and lacking taste. The first time on this trip we were not
entirely satisfied with our meal.
We seem to sleep extremely
long and deep whilst in India, daytime is full of experiences and
somehow this seems to trigger the weirdest dreams you can imagine.
As we already expected
breakfast wasn’t special either so we opted for the continental version.
Jackson picked us up and we were introduced to Wasan, our guide for
today. Whilst we discussed the program for the day he found out the both
of us love markets so before we started the official part of the tour
we visited a flower market.
As there was a vegetable
market nearby we also stopped over there. It was photographer’s heaven
and if in case we would not have more plans for the day I could easily
have stayed here much much longer…
The first official stop on
our day tour was the Gandhi museum where we had come for a special
reason. After we got permission from the curator we were allowed to go
the Gandhi statue and lit a candle and incense. This was done In memory
of the brother of a very good friend of ours and it was a very special
moment we were able to do this at such a special place.
Next place was the Minaksi
temple. Madurai is also known as the temple city and it’s brightly
painted gopurams (temple gates) are one of world’s greatest sights. A
wide area surrounding the temple was blocked off for traffic so it was
nice and quiet.
Everywhere there were small
shops where devotees could buy flowers, offerings and memorabilia
before they went to pray. After we left our shoes behind we entered the
temple through the southern gopuram. We arrived in a majestic alley with
beautifully carved pillars and painted roofs. Still there were plenty
of shops to see for last minute offerings.
With the upcoming Diwali
festival I was extra crowded which gave a lovely and vivid atmosphere.
We encountered a couple of newly weds who looked beautiful. Everywhere
we could smell Jasmin, which must be the favorite flower for offering.
Flowers are important for Hindus as during their short life they share a
lot of beauty and fragrance with the rest of the world; this is an
example for all Hindus (Although we must admit that some are a bit too
enthusiastic sharing their fragrance).
Myths and legends take
concrete form at the Minaksi Sundaresvara temple. It is probably the
biggest temple in the country. It is told there are about 33 million
statues in the temple, now that might be a bit exaggerated but there
were certainly enough to keep us occupied for a while. Wasan told us a
lot of Hindu stories and legends and showed interesting places to see.
The primary deity in the temple is not Siva but Minaksa, as the name
already reveals. We passed the golden lotus tank, in which the God Indra
as believed has once bathed. Yearly there is a floating procession
where the statue of the God, which is located on a floating platform, is
pulled three times around the tank.
Even though as non-Hindus
we were not allowed to go to he main sanctum there was enough to
explore. We witnessed a pregnancy ceremony from a couple that just found
out they were expecting; it was great to see how happy the both of them
Of course the temple would
not be complete without a hall of 1000 pillars (although actually there
are only 985 remaining). The hall now serves as an art museum.
Sculptures of Gods, Goddesses, as well as human beings, paintings, coins
and other artifacts of Tamil culture were tastefully presented here,
The lightning effects over the pillars were superb, what a contrast with
the dilapidated museum in Chennai. Shame that some of the display
cabinets did not receive the same attention.
It did not take us long to
get to our next destination, the Tirumalai Nayak Palace. Although
currently there is only one third left of it’s original size, it was
still a fine example of achievements of the Nayak Dinasty. Huge pillars,
built to Roman example and a big central courtyard. There is a small
museum in one of the rooms but that did not leave a big impression with
Time was passing far to
quickly and it was lunchtime already, instead of going back to the hotel
we opted to stay in town and Jackson dropped us of at the Bell food
court. That turned out to be a perfect place. Again a selection of
naan’s, butter chicken massala, and mixed vegetable fried rice, this was
so much better, just as we like it.
After our late lunch we
took a auto rickshaw back to the hotel and relaxed at the pool. Election
time was over, which meant the bar opened at 5pm, with other words, old
monk rum and coke…
By 8:30pm we were picked up
again to return to the Minaksi Sundaresvara temple. Every evening a
special ceremony takes place that brings Shiva to his bedroom to sleep
with his wife. Wasan, our guide told us we were not supposed to ask what
they were doing once the curtains were closed but we guessed it had
something to do with little Shiva’s…
It was a short but very
impressive ceremony. There was lots of incense, drums and horns. The
Brahmins rushed through the long corridors with a palanquin in which a
statue of Shiva was placed. As curtains covered it we could not see the
actual statue. In front of the “bedroom” another short musical ceremony
took place. Lost of candles were lit (we wondered whether this was
supposed to make Shiva sleepy or get him in a romantic mood) and then as
sudden as the ceremony started it was over.
We said goodbye to Wasan,
after which Jackson brought us back to the hotel. As the day after would
be an early rise we showered and went to bed straight away.
At 6 o’clock we got our
wake up call, a quick shower, an even quicker breakfast and just before 7
we were on our way. We had a long drive today; it was almost 4 hours to
Ramesvaram, a small island in the south east of Tamil Nadu from where
we could see the coast of Sri Lanka. Once we left Madurai the landscape
totally changed, we passed through a lot of small villages, rice fields
and were able to enjoy some of the country life. That is, when we were
We crossed the bridge from
Mandapan to the sacred island of Ramesvaram, a holy place for Hindus.
Most of the places on his island are associated with Lord Rama. If all
the different deities confuse you now, believe us, so are we. Hinduism
is not an easy religion to understand, there are thousands of deities
and by now we can only remember a handful of them.
First stop was the
Ramanatasvami temple. As it was very close to the sea pilgrims first
take a purifying bath into the see before doing their punyas (prayers)
in the temple.
The temple was a wet
temple; at several places pilgrims could take a holy bath or were poured
over with water from a holy well. The floor was dripping with water as
most of the pilgrims walked around in dripping clothes. They only
changed into dry clothes before entering the central sanctum. It took
350 years to complete the temple and maybe the most impressive part was
the magnificent 1220 meter long pillared corridor that surrounded the
Next temples to be visited
were the Kotandrasvami temple and the Gandamadanam temple where a
footprint of Shiva could be seen. Both were relatively small temples so
we did not spend too much time over there. One final stop to see the
floating rock, something that did not impress us much and then it was
time to get a tasteful vegetarian lunch.
On the way back to Madurai I
slept most of the time. We’re traveling and seeing a lot and that comes
at a price… being tired. Back at the hotel we had a refreshing shower
and headed to the bar to enjoy old monk rum, read a book and work on
this travel story. Then it was time for a good nights sleep.
It took us almost 4 ½ hours
to get to Peviyar, the first hour or so was used by getting out of the
city of Madurai. As the result of the elections were expected today huge
crowd gatherings took place everywhere and the police blocked all the
main roads, which resulted in chaos on the smaller roads.
We made a quick stop at a
teashop close to Jacksons house where we were introduced to a group of
friends of his. We had a nice conversation with them. When we finally
left town the landscape changed drastically. Lots of coconut and banana
trees were to be seen, as well as rice fields and numerous plantations
for spices, cardamom, coffee etc. We even saw several grape yards, which
made us wonder whether wine was made over here.
There were also lots of
brick factories to be seen beside the road, making bricks is all manual
labor over here. Clay and sand are mixed by the women and then formed
into a mold in bocks of four. The bricks were then let to dry in the sun
after the men stapled them in the form of a huge oven where gaps were
left for firewood. Once the tower was completed the wood was lit to fire
the bricks and make them ready for sale. We were demonstrated the
process of molding which was nice to see.
In the mean time kids
gathered around us asking for pens. As we did not have enough with us we
went back to the car where our suitcase with the magic pen supply was.
The pens found their way to the greedy hands and although we made sure
each kid got one some of them ended up with two or three.
Continue the journey in Kerala