2011 India & Dubai – Tamil Nadu

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 India!!!

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 last trip.

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 beer…

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 Shiva.

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 trunk.

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 on.

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 relaxing.

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 were.

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 us.

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 not asleep.

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 main quadrangle.

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