Vicky & Hilary in Tamil Hadu
This blog post was from one of Points South Holidays clients Vicky
We have a cheerful rendez-vous at the Chennai Trident, a surprisingly nice airport hotel, before embarking on our own Odyssey. Morning sees us doing a whistle-stop tour of Fort St George, the early administrative HQ of the British East India Company, established in 1640. We are both unprepared for the heat – its around 40 C with 95% humidity – as we stagger round the dilapidated remains, many closed off to the public as it’s an army base now, finding sanctuary in St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican Church in Asia (1678). We are saddened by the marble memorials to women and children who died so young.
We repair to the cool interior of our car, and head south along the coast to Mamallapuram, passing resort after resort, many with garish Disney-style statues outside to entice innocent children. Mamallapuram is known for two things: firstly, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, an ancient port city built in the 7th century and with some spectacular temples worthy of its status; and, secondly, for being the home of one of Rick Stein’s favourite restaurants, The Seashore Garden Restaurant, recorded for posterity in his Indian series. We treat ourselves to a large cold beer, some curried crispy squid and a fish curry – all delicious but vastly overpriced thanks to RS. It turns out to be the most expensive meal of the trip!
Onwards, onwards, sightseeing cut short by the heat, to Pondicherry, the old French capital – the French, Portuguese, Dutch and British all fought over these trade routes over the years. The French Quarter of Pondi is delightful – tree-lined- streets, all still with French names, old colonial style houses, and further reminders of its French heritage with a liberal scattering of Lycées and Biblioteques. Our hotel, The Mahe Palace, is a converted old house, situated round a courtyard, with a wonderful roof-top restaurant serving delicious food. It’s perfectly safe to wander around at night and Hilary and I take a stroll along the promenade, along with most of Pondi, before finding a tucked-away bar – aptly named La Vie en Rose – which serves Gin and Tonic.
We make our way early to the market, before it gets too hot (faint hope). Like all Indian markets, the air is heavy with a heady mixture of smells – fish, garlic, sandalwood, chilli, jasmine, putrefying vegetable matter and sweat. Not entirely pleasant, but we wander around, making friends, having ‘selfies’ (the Indian term for a photo with you) and taking pictures of others, only too glad to see their portraits. On the way we see a classic Indian sight.
The road to the Chola Empire beckons and, as we drive through rural Tamil Nadu, we learn more about this area, one of the poorest in India. Everywhere we see statues to the former film star leader, M.G. Ramachandran, in his sunglasses, usually garlanded with flowers, but looking every inch the gangster. Now dead, his wife took over the reins of power but relinquished it to yet another female Chief Minister who, despite the continuing corruption which goes with the territory, seems to be popular as health, education and most importantly, agricultural loans are being delivered to the rural areas.
Nataraja is said to be one of Michael Wood’s favourite temples. It is a bustling, busy place, a living temple devoted to Shiva, complete with its matchmakers doing a roaring trade in the Royal Hall, as well as being an historic monument. There is a large tank – putrid-looking and slick with dirt, where pilgrims bathe twice a day.
Temples are big business as we will see all over India. We are both reminded of the Catholic Church selling pardons in the middle ages, as ash bindis and blessings are given, and oil lamps wafted around, in exchange for rupee notes (we are taken for R100 in the temple in Darasuram by an elaborate con). Here in the Hall of Bliss, the antechamber to the inner sanctum where there is a secret Linga, we see an overweight Brahmin family having a special private puja, ending with offerings of coconut and bananas, effortlessly split and peeled by a temple minion before being blessed and consumed.
Kumbakonam is one of the most sacred cities in Tamil Nadu and home to more temples than we can even begin to count. Many are dotted around the huge tank, where every 12 years there is the Mahamam festival (which we have just missed) when they trundle the sacred statues and relics around on huge carts. We manage to visit only one, the 9th century Nageshvara Temple, which has some of the oldest and finest examples of Chola statues. It is here we see a devotee of Hanuman jumping up and down on the spot, as if on a pogo stick, while incanting prayers. And it is here that a burst of Ode to Joy (how weird is that in India!?) rewards us after giving R10 to a poor old man sitting hopefully by the temple gate. Good karma.
You can read all about here travels here https://vickygoestravelling.com/ plus there are some fantastic images for you to see as well.