Day 23 4 May Travelling to Tanjore
Long bus journey today stopping off at Pondicherry a former French colony. Still a French atmosphere to it even though it was handed over to india in 1954. We visit the former home (now a shrine and museum) of Sri Aurobinda a former freedom fighter turned philosopher who was a contemporary of Gandhi. Yet another Indian philosophy to try to get our heads around! The books on sale relate his thoughts on peace, war, women, business, and even shakespeare! In fact he was such a clever chap there doesn't seem to be anything he hasn't worked out.
We also visit a temple dedicated to the elephant god Garnesha, where for 10 Rupees or a piece of fruit, he obligingly gives you a good luck blessing by gently tapping the top of your head with his trunk.
Day 24 Tanjore to Madurai
More temples today when we stop en route at Tiruchchirappalli, or Trichy to you and me. These are live temples so we have to remove footwear as a mark of respect. Walking on these hot stones is hard enough already. Without shoes you stay in the shade and run like a cat on a hot tin roof when you have to cross an area in full sun. Any amount of chanting "cool wet grass' is completely useless in this heat! The guide takes great joy in pointing out the details of the erotic carvings and announces he is a student aged 32, would like to travel and marry but will have to wait for the next life as he doesn't have the money in this one.
We go for lunch in a typical South India restaurant, a bit of a dive but we trust the tour leader and his suggestion of trying a S India Thali. For just 40 Rupees (60p) we get a banana leaf placed in front of us which we assume to be a mat but turns out to be the plate. On this rice, pickle, a selection of small dishes of carrot, spinach and lentil curries are placed together with pepper water, coconut water, yoghurt and a dessert dish. This we eat following the local custom with the fingers of the right hand. It's very nice but you do wonder what it's going to do to your digestive system later.
I should mention at this point that I am now officially a vegetarian and a non drinker. I've decided that meat and alcohol are just not a good idea in this climate! Now I know why most Indians made the same decision!
On then to Madurai, a city of 2m with a large university that has been a centre of learning and pilgrimage for centuries. A festival to celebrate the marriage of Shiva, and his wife, Pavadi is in full swing and the place is packed. There is a huge temple complex here and the tour is fascinating after seeing so many of these places that are no longer in use. Some of the towers reach up 60m and they are painted in bright colours inside and out. Huge queues of the devotees stretch out, waiting to pray to their god and make an offering.
Shiva is the "destroyer God" (this is not as bad as it sounds for it is only by destroying things that renewal and rebirth can take place so he's a good guy really). He is one of the 3 main gods, the others being Brahma, the generator or creator and Vishnu, the operator. Hindu's see these 3 as representing the different facets of the one true god.
Day 25 Madurai 6th May
Cycle rickshaws at 8.30 around the city, first to see the festival procession that celebrates the actual day of Shiva and Pavadi's marriage. We get about 150 yds from the hotel and then gridlock. Then it's on foot and soon we're in the middle of a huge crowd lining the road waiting for the procession. Although early, it's really hot probably well into the mid 40's and sticky too. After standing in the sun for half an hour, we are told to follow an official through the crowd and are led on to what can best be described as a grandstand. We are welcomed like VIP's to the best seats at the front overlooking the crowd and the procession route. It turns out that we are guest of the Tamil Nadu tourist authority!
After a while the crowd starts to chant and excitement grows as the "chariot" of SHiva and Pavadi looms into view from just around a bend in the road to chants of "alaami-sangarrraah" amplified through a PA system on the chariot. The chariot is a temple like contraption on huge wheels that stands about 40-50 ft high, is brightly decorated with fabric and flowers and is pulled on huge ropes about 6" in diameter by a horde of fit and enthusiastic young men. As they spot us on the stand, they wave and shout wildly at us and become, almost impossibly, even more enthusiastic with their waving and jumping when we respond in the same way.
This is apparently the biggest annual festival in the Madurai calendar and we are privileged to witness it and indeed welcomed into becoming part of it. It is a truly incredible experience and possibly the No1 highlight of the whole trip so far. The devotion of the people is almost intoxicating and you suddenly understand why, despite all the poverty and other negatives, Indial is such an amazing place and so rewarding to visit.
We are told that there are upwards of 200000 people on the streets and with TV cameras everywhere, probably millions more watching on TV, so I could now be a star on Indian TV too!
Next step is the banana wholesale market then the Gandhi museum. Gandhi visited Madurai a number of times and it is the place where in 1921, he first donned th loin cloth as a sign of abandoning Western Values and to identify with the poorest in Indian society.
After lunch we make our way again to Thekkady, a hill station in the Western Ghats mountains for Periyar Wildlife Park about 3 hrs drive away.
After checking into the hotel, we go off for an Ayuvedic massage, much vaunted as an experience not to be missed. Ayurveda is the Hindu study of medicine and well being. I am treated to a head and face massage then oils and herbs are massaged into the body. It's a very relaxing experience (regrettably with a man doing the job!) ending with a steam bath in one of those wooden box things that you see in the old movies that you sit inside and is closed around you. The whole job takes around 90 minutes and costs just 900 Rupees (about 13 pounds sterling).
Day 26 Thekkady 7th May
Up at 6.00 and off to do a trek in the forest. It's 3hrs long and at this time of the day the scenery is absolutely wonderful. We don long socks over our own and the lower part of our trousers to keep the leeches out! We see wild boar, bison and lemurs and plenty of birdlife but no elephants or tigers. I am beginning to wonder if these elusive tigers are only a fiction, but I am assured they are here! The socks prove to be a really good idea as there are indeed leeches everywhere and we spend a good 15 mins at the end trying to rid ourselves of them!
In the afternoon we take an elephant ride, just 350 R per person for a 20 min saunter through the forest. A strange experience but fun although I cant help wondering if this is really responsible tourism! It seems wrong somehow to support the exploitation of wildlife even though the elephants seem well looked after and quite happy to do the job. They even pose for photo's!
At 6.00pm we take in a show of martial arts, it's a mixture of gym, yoga and fighting with strikes, kicks, grappling and various dangerous sequences with sticks, swords, spears and fire. It's exhausting just to watch.