Tall Tales from Tamil Nadu ... From the Thatched to the Experimental.
Kanniyakumari and the Men in Black
Across the border from Kerala, we ventured into the pilgrim state of Tamil Nadu. On the train we were surrounded wholly by men and boys, looking suave in black lungis and shirts - the Sabarimala pilgrims who at Divali end a 41 day period of penance before embarking on their arduous pilgrimage to various shrines one of which included our first stop Kanniyakumari.... not so us .... we were looking forward to seeing and being part of something different.
As per usual we were introduced to the next state on the train by a text message from Vodaphone welcoming us to Tamil Nadu and inviting us to spend. Kanniyakumari, the southernmost tip of mainland India is where the waters of the three seas - Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean all meet. The sunrises and sunsets are spectacular, it being (so we were told) one of the few places in the world where we could view both from the same point. If for nothing else, than being surrounded by hundreds of other people, Indian tourists and pilgrims, assembling at key points to watch the day break or end. We watched as the sun seemingly melted into the seas; as it finally disappeared off the horizon the crowd let out a cheer and applauded... Indians cheer as and when it is deemed necessary... we laughed but it was a great feeling. At daybreak we were woken by the regular knock on the door waking pilgrims and tourists in hotels to witness the sun rise again high above the horizon. We spent three days in Kanniyakumari staring in awe each day as the sun rose and set never ceasing to be amazed at something so ordinary. Vowing to never forget that despite busy jobs and lives we could always witness this where-ever we were.... albeit in not such a fanciful location.
We were introduced to the delights of real good food as we travelled further north to Tirunelveli, a town surrounded by rice paddies. Not aplace well visited by tourists, but all the hotels were booked for wedding parties. So we ended up in a not so good hotel, paying a not so good price. Here we tasted the famous Chettinad food, known forits spicy nature... it was delicious. Yum Yum.
Tenkasi - It was just Rubbish
Our standing one hour bus trip from there to Tenkasi to see some of the waterfalls in the area was scenic. However Tenkasi paled into insignificance...and we were somehow ruined... after seeing the stunning waterfalls of Sri Lanka. It felt a little intrusive to stand and admire the falls amidst the bathers... a regular feature of waterfalls in India... [people bring shampoos, go for a pre-fall tel maalish (oil massage) and then soap themselves into giant clouds of suds under different parts of a fall], so we walked further downstream. We were kept entertained by the ASBO monkeys and birds such as egrets foraging amongst the plastic bags, sarees, plastic bottles and general rubbish that had collected in the streams. As we stood and stared at the amount of litter, other people began to stop to see what we were looking at, but moved on obviously thinking we were mad.. or foreign! The level of rubbish in India has never stopped amazing us. In bigger cities there are attempts to manage it with collections, but there are still piles of rubbish, especially plastic bags, dumped on every street corner. The organic matter is dealt with swiftly by cows, goats, dogs and the not so odd rat. We were surprised that no money had been invested in caring for this small but popular tourist attraction which must take in some revenue. In smaller places and towns, where the messiness has not yet reached the propotions of the city, it is nevertheless startling to see the amount of plastic waste being dealt with in exactly the same way as the organic matter....that is simply dumped on street corners... we guess similar to how it has been in the west until recent initiatives. The pictures of a monkey and some birds scavenging amongst the plastic is a sad but stark reminder of our impact on the wider environment. We hope India learns from our mistakes as it progresses and takes advantage of the window of opportunity this transition presents.
Onwards was Mad Madurai, Tamil Nadu's second biggest city, surrounded by mountains.... it was noisy, smelly, busy.... comprising the ever-present male contorting his body as he walked to deliberately brush up against you... and again full of pilgrims in particular visiting the ancient Meenakshi temple which was its epicentre. Meenakshi, an outstanding example of Vijayanagar architecture and a contemporary of the Taj Mahal ... we were informed. Whilst there were spectacular sculptures and shrines ... there were also gaudily repainted ceilings and a decorated temple elephant which was paid in bananas and rupees by visitors for a blessing which involved being tapped on the head by it's trunk... we felt a little sorry for it although it didn't look too unhappy as it munched away. Obviously it was thinking about what it would be able to buy later! One of the highlights of Madurai was the well organised and informative Gandhi Museum where we learned more about the revolutionaries and poets that contributed to India's independence. In particular we learned a little more about Gandhi's principle of satyagrahi.... resistance through non violent means and matching political gains with moral means. His ideas are still debated but we could see how in our trip through South India we had been wishing for more of this for India before it turned into another indistinguishable 'developed' country hungry for 'progress' by any means.
Teeth Chattering Kodaikannal
Onwards ... on a three hour tour bus to the (what felt like) freezing clime of Kodaikkanal ... a hill station built around a lake in the Palani hills. On route we were rushed through various local tourist spots, coerced into looking at a collection of local tourist shops and dumped with our backpacks in the centre.... exaggerating a bit... we were directed to a travel agent who could get us a hotel... but we stayed faithful to our travel guide and found a decent hotel nearby. The views were spectacular as you might be able to see from our photos.
During our time, inspired by a book she had been given before she came away, Sundeep had her palm read by a local sage... well he was dressed in orange and had long flowing hair. He spoke a little Hindi, and between us, we got the general gist of what he was saying about Sundeep's past and future. He kept refering to nazar (the evil eye.. a common concept in India), and how I need to stop wearing black and stop talking and start doing..... not sure how good this sage was!!
Bird Haven - Point Calimere
Our journey took us through Karaikudi where we saw the old Chettinad havelis (mansions) and palaces and from there to Thanjavur and to another highlight of our trip.... Point Calimere Bird Sanctuary. It was near a very friendly village where we stayed in very basic (200 rupee) forest department accommodation (Kodikkarai), with a very friendly labrador wearing a sandalwood bindi...we shared our room with a lizard and a frog; [the frog we are sad to report we found flattened and dead (or maybe it was just very still) the next afternoon in the corridor.] A guide took us through the sanctuary at dawn and it was spectacular.... a lonesome injured flamingo, sandpipers, bee-eaters, grebes, herons, painted storks, white storks, plovers, bulbul, pelican and wild buck deer. We were there for the first sighting in two or three of three white stork in a few years... fantastic! The ornithologists came to confirm it and we felt part of the sighting. We heard the call of the elusive Indian Pitta... arguably the most beautiful multi coloured bird in India, brahmani kites and the list goes on. We promised ourselves another bird sanctuary visit later in our trip....
East or West the East Coast Road was the Best
The journey up the East Coast Road to Pondicherry showed flatlands and the mountainous Eastern Ghats. Black and white pied kingfishers and the brilliant blue of the anything but common kingfisher flashed us by as we saw them perched patiently on electrical cables high over paddy fields and swamplands. There was little evidence of how the Tsunami had affected this area - not that we would know how to recognise such changes anyway... but Tamil Nadu's north east coast had been affected we read and the aid posters in smaller villages were the only clues we noticed. Thatched huts, animal shelters as well as storage areas for straw and crops with roofs of dried coconut leaves were an enduring feature along the ECR and we noticed these traditional dwellings throughout our visit to Tamil Nadu. We hadn't seen any of these anywhere else in South India, or if we had there hadn't been whole settlements... we wondered if this was indicative of the fact that Tamil Nadu was mainly agricultural, this was an effect of the tsunami or just poor... although they were a far cry from slum dwellings. There were cowpats drying in the sun, people cooking and eating outside the huts which when we caught a (voyeuristic) glimpse were sparsely furnished single room dwellings.Goatherds, shepherds and cattleherds, men and women took their beautifully cared for and decorated animals along the main roads jostling for position amongst the fast cars and long distance buses.
We arrived in Pondicherry, a complete contrast to the rural vista and further evidence of the co-existence of contradictory and extraordinary mindsets and lifestyles in India. The French had certainly left their mark, with tree-lined avenues and beautifully crafted mansions mostly turned into heritage hotels. [That was in the french quarter, there was a stark difference across the dividing drain on the Tamil side which was India's usual chaos.] It felt so not Indian - the streets were clean, the bougainvillea and blossoms in flower, the local ashram having taken responsibility for keeping it all so picturesque... and of course the Bay of Bengal beckoning us, yet again. We celebrated Col's birthday here, with Sundeep going to great lengths to keep a secret bottle of champagne chilled, as a surprise, only for the hotel manager to let the cat out of the bag in the final moments!
Star Trek Auroville and Lost in Space
We paid a visit to Auroville on the outskirts of Pondicherry, an experimental futuristic enclosed settlement funded by the UN in 1968 and set up by Aurobindo Ghose, one of the great philosophers and reformers of the post independence period. Apparently after spending 14 years being educated in England he returned to India with a utopian vision of setting up a unique community based on the pre-hindu principle of 'earth as mother'. He wanted to create an ashram utopia, and people could (and still can) join, so long as they share a commitment to the aims of Auroville.
On arrival we were ushered into an exhibition and cinema hall for a short video on the ethos and purpose of the place where we learned that a french woman Mirra Alfassa had shared and helped to develop Aurobindo's utopian vision and continued their work after his death. The founders had created a whole community from scratch testing out different ways of building houses, using different materials, and thinking about how to lessen their impact on the environment and it seemed, trying different ways to create a co-operative spiritual and harmonious community. The land they had built on had been wasteland and it was evident that they had succeeded in rejuventaing some of it. The area had been replanted with indigenous trees and plants, with a strong ethos on sustainability and minimal impact on the environment. Auroville environmentalists had taken ideas that worked to other areas of India to help farmers and other communitites to benefit from their experience. There were electric cars taking people who could not walk the 1km to view the main attraction. We walked through woodland and part of the settlement to get a closer view of this attraction the Matrimandir ... although the actual centrepiece of the settlement was a magnificent and ancient banyan tree. The golden golf-ball you can see in the pictures is the Matrimandir, a 30m high globe shaped mediation hall, a description of its interior sounded fantastical, and surely a place we could at last find peace. Alas, we did not have the time to book a week ahead for a meditation so we missed out on this!
We left feeling a bit bazoinged ... okay that's not a word.... but it describes how we felt... it was such a contrast to everything else we'd seen. The complexity of the utopian vision and how people lived together and worked together left us wondering who beyond the privileged would be able to access and live in such a place... if only it was in whalley range... we could try it out and see! And if it was working why wasn't mainstream India/the world taking note....??? Not capitalist enough? I guess we needed to spend some time there to overcome our cynicism and believe that such a utopia could exist.... why were we so cynical... is it just us or a result of our own failure at creating a utopia or was at an inbuilt western reaction to all that 'new age' stuff.... are we really that mainstream?Or was it that the noticeboard for workshops on various aspects of self development in the cafe area resembled the notices in the shops down on Beech Road, Chorlton or the Northern Quarter and did not appeal to our inverted snobbery? Maybe it was just too trendy for a couple o' old farts like us. Anyway, it left us with questions... that we soon forgot as we realised we'd not got transport back to Pondicherry and had to walk in the wilderness to a local village as darkness approached in this eerie, Star Trek series 1 type planet, to catch Beelzebub's bus back.
Dirty Chennai Luvvies
Following a day or two of recovery, we set forth to Chennai, the state captial, with a brief stop on the backpacker's trail of Mahabalipuram. Nothing much to write about the place, other than 'dirty, dirty beaches' and rock temples that are not very well kept.
Chennai, formely Madras, was another story. We stayed in the south of the city, sampling the delights offered by the nearby Music Academy..... well the one Hindi play, Ismat Apa ke Naam -based on the writings of Ismat Chugtai, directed by Naseeruddin Shah (that's the older guy in Monsoon Wedding - a respected Indian independent and masala (light bollywood) film actor... and we saw him perform live!) A wonderful play which involved story telling by three different narrators - including Naseeruddin himself. A short introduction, by himself, suggested that the two had been contemporaries in Lucknow and despite her controversial writings she was well respected and known to be the spinner of a great yarn, and that some of the essence of her writing had been lostin translation - evident to us in the way her stories were brought to life through the conversational, gossipy and humourous style of the actors. The whole event was so cultured that even though the 'management' made some attempts at forming an ordely queue, hordes of people bypassed the 'system' to form their own haphazard rush to the best seats in the house!
From the sublime to the ridiculous then... we went to see Slumdog Crorepati (Millionaire) ... we enjoyed it but didn't think it was fantastically amazing or anything.... We saw some of the architectural delights on offer; the magnificent High court buildings, which we visited a week before Tamil lawyers took to burning judges cars as part of their protest against events in Sri Lanka.... Then the awful fort area, built up hugely in tourist brochures but smelly and dirty... the only thing of interest was St Mary's the oldest British church in India. And the final ridiculous nail in the bizarre coffin for Chennai was ...it was ridiculous how many times a day we had to wash our feet after venturing out, it was so dirtyfying!! Photographic evidence available.
Cholamandal Artists' Village
Then back to the sublime... We went to a small settlement (again) of artists to have a gander at some of their work and lives. Cholamandal Artists' Village is built over eight hectares of land in the Injambakkam region 8 km outside of Chennai city on the coastal plains of Chennai and lies close to the Bay of Bengal. Prior to its inception in 1965it was a sparsely populated region. The village came into being following the initiative by a group of artists to set up a self sustaining arts centre; at the same time a group of regional artists bought the land here and started the institution. Senathipathi, the present President of Cholamandal is quoted as saying 'In the 1960s we had no outlet for artists to exhibit or pursue a career in arts... the students after the completion of their graduation joined some job and were gradually lost in the crowd.' So forty students of the Arts and Crafts College of Madras got together and resolved to create their own environment, wherein they could retain their freedom and devote their life to art. The first president was KCS Paniker an accomplished artist who hadapparently already started his search for an art, as he described it, "Indian in spirit and world wide contemporary." He came forward with the concept of living as a community based on the principle of mutual help.The place was named after the regional historical patrons - the Cholas, who had made significant artistic contributions in the past.
The Village is a serene environment with small residential cottages for the artists. Each resident has his own gallery and studio housing his personal contributions. There is an open air theatre meant for performances by the artists.It was really awe-inspiring. The art galleries blew us away... more so than any other gal lery we'd been to in India. The huge scale and diversity of the work... the mediums that people used...it's hard to describe... we derived a pleasure from the paintings, sculptures and installations... more so than the western art we had been exposed to... it was contemporary, spiritual, fantastical, aesthetically pleasing... although not as much multimedia influence. Perhaps it was the context that excited us ... Cholamandal was an artists collective set apart from the rest of society.... most of the artists were from the Madras School of art... one of the artists took time to talk about what it meant to allow his creativity to continue to develop in this setting and by seeing art every day. Again it felt achingly privileged and we wondered how one could live like this... obviously needs of artists are met practically by their wives (they were mostly men) and the hired help/staff on site... so they have more time... they are surrounded by art from morning to night. The ground work for shaping someone's scultpural vision from giant pieces of rock was done by anonymous helpers it seemed. The artist we spoke to talked about how aging had resulted in him changing his medium from painting to sculpting because it was easier to handle than the fine art he had been doing. He had been interested in clay initially as he had lived in a village where he was surrounded by potters and pots and this had influenced his early art. It was a vey stimulating place to be and we felt ourselves come alive with questions about how the outside world and world events affected the artists and their work... what did they think they could achieve that could not be achieved by living out there, were there negative effects of setting themselves apart...but we found it difficult to get our questions understood and answered; he appreciated our interest and said the validation through peoples' attention was always encouraging. He did say that what started out as an experiment in the village was increasingly attracting attention from different parts of India and the world raising its profile and success. Afterthis satisfying tourist experience we headed off to Andhra Pradesh.... watch this space as we get nearer to heading home.