The penultimate post from this year’s trip and it’s a selection of photos taken of the boys playing on Chowara Beach, the catch being brought in there and various shots of Kovalam. The final installment will feature some of the processed images from the trip.
Thanks for following this year’s trip and blog
The weather report told us that it the temperature was 94deg but with a dense haze, a breathless atmosphere and 70 percent humidity we weren’t arguing with their assessment that it would feel like 101. Travelling north along the road heading to Kollam we sympathized with the policeman directing traffic with one hand and holding an umbrella above his head in the other.
This was a return to Varkala, first visited 12 years ago and again a year later. Inevitably the place has grown. The cliff top guesthouses, shops and restaurants now have a much more substantial air; many of the once flimsy stalls now have glass fronted windows and fan cooled interiors and everything has expanded, north and south along the cliff top path but also back from it through the coconut palms. The scruffy collections of thatched bungalows are now calling themselves resorts and there are some set ups that look as though they might just about merit the name. But there is still token homage to the hippy spirit that drew travellers here a few decades ago: in the restaurant and guesthouse names – Little Tibet, the Temple of Poetry, Divine Bliss, the Bohemian Masala Arts Cafe, Dream, Soul and Surf, although the Santa Claus Village Resort and the SS Beach Resort take some explaining, but this is India; the Tibet Market is still here, along with the Nirvana Yoga centres, the Ayurvedic massages, the Eco mud cottages and Tibetan Singing Bowl Therapy; on the beach below the cliff there are still individuals striking the meditation pose and sunrise and sunset yoga classes.
The bookstalls promote the usual stuff: Khalil Gilbran, the Mahabaratha, and, bizarrely, right in the centre of the book stand, Carol Thatcher’s ‘A Swim-on Part in the Goldfish Bowl’. India again. It had disappeared by the following day – bought or removed from the display as unsuitable. Who knows? In the restaurants, Nepalese waiters offer everything from momos to chow mien and spaghetti carbonara, Mexican enchiladas to Israeli falafel lafa and Keralan Meen moilee and palak paneer – and the best peanut masala we have tasted.
Varkala is laid back, comfortable, indulging. There’s no hard sell from the shop keepers: ‘Will you come and look at my shop, my lovely shop’. Many come here to chill out for weeks, months on end and, as seductive as the Land of the Lotos Eaters, you could see that you could quite easily fall under its spell. But the music that plays all day and into the evening in its restaurants is as likely to be Abba as a Shivan chant and that seems to sum Varkala today very appropriately.
The place we are staying, the InDa, is that sort of place, although with much better taste in music, jazz and French chansons. A collection of brick built white-washed cottages in a garden 150 metres back from the cliff top, it’s run by a delightful young Ukranian couple, Alorna and her husband, Alexei. In the shaded seating area you’re as like to hear Russian as well as French and English spoken and it’s a friendly place to while away a few hours, drinking masala tea or iced coffee.We breakfast In one of the cliff top restaurants watching a lone swimmer impossibly far out in the Arabian Sea down below us and above, on the uplift air currents above the coconut palms on the cliff top, soaring sea eagles harassed by flocks of Indian crows and an occasional paraglider.
Varkala is the site of the two thousand year old Janardhana Temple and a place of pilgrimage and on the sands at the end of Papanasam Beach where the road from the town runs down to the sea come a succession of families, the men in white dhotis, to receive blessings from the holy men who sit beneath their umbrellas and to carry the offerings of flowers on their head to the water’s edge where they turn and throw them behind them into the waves. The springs which run from the face of the cliff here are believed to have medicinal or holy properties, perhaps both, and these too attract a constant stream of pilgrims.
A few kilometres along the coast to the north is Edava Fishing village where the catch, baskets of small silver fish, is unloaded and spread out in the sun on nets to dry and sea eagles, fifty or more of them, swoop down taking what they can. Here is the best surfing wave we have seen in India although we are not the first to discover it. Between the fishing boats which come and go, and amongst the fishermen sorting their catch and mending nets, a dozen our so beginners are taking their first lesson on rented boards.
We read in The Hindu that the first ever recorded fatality from an object from outer space took place in the grounds of a college in Vellore in Tamil Nadu. And to think, if it had been only 100 kilometres closer – and hit six days later – it could have been us. In the grand scheme of things, in astronomical terms, that’s got to be a very close shave.
South again from Varkala Station to Trivandrum, 10 rupees for the one hour journey.
….by the very skin of our teeth. Having misread the departure time on the ticket we arrived by tuk tuk at the station to read on the Departures board that our train, the Guruvayar Express, was due to depart in two minutes … from Platform 5! We were on Platform 1, separated from our train by three tracks and two standing trains and the crossing bridge 500 yards away in the opposite direction. It would be unthinkable in England but we took what we saw as the only option, climbing down onto the track, along it and around the engine of the first train, up on to the platform, across it and down again, across another track and, fuelled by a mixture of panic and adrenaline and with Herculean and, in retrospect, unaccountable strength, hoisting our bags and our exhausted and sweating selves up five feet onto and into the carriage of the second of the standing trains, through it and out on to Platform 4 and across it to Platform 5 – where the Guruvayar Express stood, straining at the bit as seen through our eyes. Our carriage, A1, seemed a mile off and we raced, burdened as we were with the packs and flipflops in hand, along the length of the train through the chai sellers, passengers and porters, ready at each second to dive into the open door of the nearest carriage should the train begin to move. And finally, collapsing into our seats, Side Lower and Side Upper, we sat there panting and shaking with relief and disbelief at what we had just done, waiting for the train to depart. Which it did. Twenty minutes later. Indian readers will, of course, be wondering what all the fuss was about.
It was a 10 hour journey to Thiruvannanthapuram, a Saturday afternoon turning to evening and then night as we traced our route back south east towards the tip of the subcontinent and up the west coast, passing through paddy fields, fields of sunflowers, corn, cane and cotton, dry scrub, herds of grazing goats and wallowing pigs, wild peacocks, quiet rural villages, boys playing cricket, past lorries packed with standing passengers waiting at crossings and through deserted stations. At Madurai, whose temple we had visited some years ago, we bought sweet milky coffee and fried savouries wrapped in brown paper from the sellers on the platform, then on through Satur and, as the daylight began to slip away, Kovilpatti and into the night towards Nagercoil and Thiruvannanthapuram.
It was after 11 when we arrived. We negotiated a 500 rupee ride in our old friend the Hindustani taxi with its comfortable bench seats front and back and its springy suspension and bounced our way down to Lighthouse Road Kovalam to Shida’s place, arriving at just after midnight, woke the sleeping houseboy who let us into the room, took a shower to wash off the grime of a day’s travelling in India and collapsed onto the bed under the fan and slept soundly until seven the following morning.
The next day was what we told ourselves was a well-earned day of rest, falling easily into old routines: a long lazy breakfast at the Swiss Cafe, grilled tomatoes, banana and cashew nut porridge and good press coffee, a welcome change after days of idlis, sambar and fiery chutnis; a slow stroll along the beach, a swim in the sea, a cold beer for lunch and a few hours reading in the shade; a gin and tonic at sundown on the roof of a beachside cafe and fish tikka and calamari for dinner. Heavenly.
Tomorrow – on to Varkala.
Apparently, and unsurprisingly, everyone calls Tiruchchirappalli Trichy. It’s just under an hour by express train (30 rps) from Thanjuvar and we arrived at Trichy Junction at 10 in the morning and took the tuk tuk straight to the hotel. After our experience in Puducherry we are much better at negotiating a good rate with the driver although we suspect that a local would laugh at what we settle on.
In Trichy, however, we did most of our travelling around the city’s far flung sites by public bus, beginning with a 7 rupee trip on the No 1 bus 6 Kms north through the city to Srirangam. After our encounter with the motor bike horns on the streets of Pudicherry’s French quarter, this was revenge time. The bus’s horn sent out a deep deafening boom more suited to a fog warning for North Atlantic shipping than a city bus and we thundered through the streets scattering pedestrians, cyclist and rickshaws as we went, past the preserved steam locomotive outside the station, through the traffic fumes and under the sign which optimistically read ‘Green Trichy Clean Trichy’ and into the Bazaar District. We squeezed through streets lined with wholesale onion sellers, onions and shallots in vast quantities, white, pink-skinned and red in mounds on the street or piled in hessian sacks; there was what must have been a lorry load of dried red chillies heaped on a street corner; open fronted shops displayed coils of jute and shiny metal boxes; there were timber sellers and carpenters turning out simple tables and stools. We passed the cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Rock Fort Temple and then took the bridge over the almost dry bed of the Kaveri River to the island of Srirangam and the Sri Ranganasathwamy Temple.
Sri Ranganasathwamy has the reputation as the largest temple in India and is almost a city in itself with 49 separate shrines and seven gopuram or temple gate towers leading to the inner sanctum, forbidden to non Hindus. We entered through the first, a gigantic 71 metre gopuram, ranked as Asia’s tallest temple tower and passed through lanes lined with shops, flower and religious trinket sellers and restaurants until we reached the temple proper at the fourth gopuram where we left our shoes.
The temple is dedicated to Vishnu and large Vishnu symbols are painted on the high walls. Perhaps we are being unfair, perhaps it was the heat, or perhaps we were just templed out, but we were a little underwhelmed and didn’t give the place the attention it almost certainly deserves.
That couldn’t be said of our impression the Jambukeswarar Temple or Tiruvanacoil which we visited the following day after our climb up the 400 plus steps of the Rock Temple, a Puja blessing en route, and its view over hazy Trichy.
Sri Jambukeswarar was without doubt the best we had visited in Tamil Nadu. Partly it was the approach through the two gopuram and the quiet green courtyards that separated them, partly it was the attractive play of light and shade in the colonnaded temple itself, but principally it was the sense of the temple going about its own day to day life in a way that is often missing from some of the temples that attract many tourists.
Men and women sat making flower garlands; others sat and chatted on the distinctive red and white striped steps; devotees bought the little offering candles and set them glowing in steel trays; men and women stood in groups of two or three before the shrines waiting for the priest’s blessing; a mound of hay was piled against the temple wall and, in a room off the temple itself, we could see the cows in their stalls being milked. A man with a microphone made an announcement and two others unrolled and held up to view a six yard length of saree cloth, wrapped it and repeated the process with other lengths of cloth. It may well have been part of the pre-nuptial ceremony that was taking place in the temple.
A group of families and friends was gathered around and taking photos of a young man in white and a bashful young woman in a stunning blue and gold saree who were seated on a mat waiting to receive the priest’s blessing. Seeing our interest, the friends invited us over, made way for us to take photos and told us that the couple were due to marry on the following day and that this was part of the extensive ritual. There was nothing solemn about it. There was a lot of laughing and joking from the young men and smiling from the young husband to be but, to be truthful, the young bride seemed a little overwhelmed by it all, understandably so perhaps.
We spent the best part of two hours wandering around Sri Jambukeswarar and took away some of our best memories of Tamil Nadu. Tomorrow, back to Kerala.
The photos on the blog were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob’s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera of travels in India and beyond at
An hour by passenger train from Puducherry to Villaparam Junction, 10rps (10p) each, where we picked up the Trichy Express for the four hour trip south to Thanjavur, ‘rice basket of Tamil Nadu’, former capital of the great Chola Empire, location of the World Heritage designated Brihadishwara Temple and, naturally, another hot, dusty, crowded and noisy Indian city. We followed the injunction of the guide book and visited the famous temple twice. In the cool of the morning we entered through the massive Nayak gateway and the two gopuram to the vast open area within surrounded by colonnaded cloisters with their lingam shrines.
In front is India’s largest sculpture of Nandi, Shiva’s sacred bull, and beyond it the temple itself with its majestic 61 metre high vimana, a tower adorned with a dazzling display of carvings and sculptures. It was this that fixed our attention when we returned in the evening to watch the setting sun turn its stones from umber to pink to a glowing red and, high above us, the kites circling around its decorated top.
The restoration of Thanjavur’s Royal Palace, built by the Nayaks in the fifteenth century and later extended by the Maratha dynasty, is a work in progress. There was a gang of lunghi clad labourers toiling away in the midday heat carrying baskets and basins full of building sand on their heads and much of the site is overgrown. A 50 rupees ticket gave access to the Mahratta Durbar Hall where the Maratha rulers gave audience in the pavilion with its murals and brightly coloured columns, the Art Gallery with its bronze sculpture and, most interesting, the library that displays some of Serfoji II’s remarkable collection. This Nineteenth Century ruler had a real passion for collecting – some 65000 books and 50000 palm leaf and paper manuscripts and looking at some of the more fascinating ones on display occupied us for some time.
The sign beside the half open gate proudly announces that the Sivaganga Waterpark and Gardens is a Thanjavur City Corporation enterprise, and the entrance price – 30 rupees. It’s also the location of the Sivaganga Tank, built in the 16th Century to provide water for the city, so definitely worth a look. Someone had high hopes for this place once. To mark the 1994 World Tamil Conference, motor boats offering pleasure rides on the tank were introduced and they still seem to be here, beached and abandoned on the overgrown bank of the tank.
Through the half open gate we are greeted by an eight foot fibre glass giraffe a dinosaur and a gorilla. A sorry looking red toy train sits rusting and detached from its carriages, its wheels silted up with sand, and looking as if it’s been a long time since it carried passengers on the track that runs around the water park. There is is still water in the pool at the bottom of the slides which sit drunkenly on their supports but the tiles are green with algae. Washing hangs from a line above the empty ticket office. The ‘Canteen’ is padlocked shut, the chairs and tables stacked in the dusty forecourt.
Then there are the animal cages. One says ‘Pigeon’. It seems to be empty but it’s too dark to see inside. The next says ‘Rat’ and ‘Rabbit’. We can see half a dozen rabbits but no sign of a rat. In a cage that says ‘Parrot’ there are three white geese. But the park hasn’t been entirely abandoned. Bizarrely the water sprinklers are spraying an island of grass and two women are sweeping up fallen leaves. There must be a story to the park’s sad demise but we don’t know what it is.
Outside is the entrance to Schwarz’s Fort Church. Built by an 18th century Danish missionary, polyglot and sometime diplomat, it’s a place full of atmosphere; inside the plaques and tablets poignantly prompt questions about the lives these early missionaries and colonists led and the deaths they met so far from home: ‘….. aged 32, wife to the Chief Engineer ….’
Market Street comes alive at night, a raucous carnival of colour, light and noise. Hanging above the shops that stretch along it are flouncy girls’ dresses in garish lime green, tangerine, canary yellow, electric blue, candy pink. Music blares out from the stalls selling mobile phones. There are people crowded around the food and chai and coffee stalls, carts piled with grapes and pomegranates. A cow helps itself from a heap of shallots on a hand cart and a woman rushes to shoo it away. There are open fronted shops selling gleaming steel and copper pans, stacks of clay pots, huge sacks of rice, trays of spices and women sitting with a paltry selection of vegetables, beans and onions, spread out on a mat and dimly lit by oil lamps.
We leave in the morning for Tiruchchirippalli.
The photos on the blog were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob’s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera of travels in India and beyond at
Kanchipuram, a couple of hours from Mamallapuram, is famed for its temples and for the production of silk saris and we spent a day exploring both. It’s a typical Indian city, bustling with energy, chaotic and noisy and the temples are sanctuaries of quietness in the middle of it all. This is particularly true of the Devarajaswarmi Temple, built in the Pallavan dynasty and extended during the reign of the Cholan Empire, with its tank of tranquil green water. Here we chatted with one of the Brahmin monks; he told us that he has a sister in Manchester. On a raft of floating oil drums some kind of deconstruction was going on, what we don’t know. The guide book tells us that the waters of the tank are drained every 40 years revealing a huge wooden statue of Vishnu that is worshipped for 48 days before it disappears under the water again. It will be 2019 before it’s seen again.
A group of women pilgrims, young and old, and all dressed in yellow and rust saris, arrived by bus and processed through the huge gopurum and into the courtyard. We moved on. There are so many temples to visit in the city.
In the late morning we visited the home of a silk weaver. Kanchipuram silk sarees are renowned throughout India. The mulberry silk yarn comes from the neighbouring state of Karnataka. It is woven through with filaments of Gujurati zari, a silk thread electroplated with copper, silver or gold, and woven on hand looms into the ‘six yards of magic’. The gorgeous sarees, or Kancheepuram pattu are sought after by brides in South India to wear on their wedding day. A saree shot through with gold can weigh one and a half kilos and cost £500. We read that at one time 80% of the people in Kanchipuram were involved in the silk business in one way or another, most in the weaving process itself which takes place on hand looms in the family home
The silk weaving enterprise in Kanchipuram has, in the past, been surrounded by controversy. A Tamil Nadu film, ‘Kancheevaram’, documented the exploitation of the pitifully paid silk workers, and child labour was prevalent – 4,000 or 40,000 children according to two sources, some as young as five, working 12 hour days in appalling conditions and suffering from burns and blisters from the boiling water, infections from dead silkworms and cuts from the threads. All that has changed thankfully.
Our visit was to a family house in a narrow lane in ‘Little Kanchipuram’ the area of the city where most of the family looms operate. The father evidently took great pride in his loom and his craft, smiling broadly as he showed the loom where an employee sat weaving a beautiful wedding saree in crimson, shot through with a pattern of gold thread. It had been ordered by a father for his daughter’s wedding, would take ten days to weave and would cost him £350. The teenage son of the weaver was helping out, showing us the bicycle wheel creeling wheel based on Ghandi’s cotton spinning wheel design, but, as his father proudly told us, he had an IT qualification and wouldn’t be working the loom for a living. We left, without placing an order.
We took lunch at the very popular Saravana Bhavan vegetarian restaurant, packed and noisy at lunch time with workers and scurrying waiters. We took the only free table and in minutes the house staple, vegetarian thali, was served, 16 little silver dishes of dhals, sambars, coconut and spicy chutnis, rasam, curd, a sweet doughy dumpling in syrup , poppadum, a huge bowl of rice, a metal tumbler of water and no cutlery. This was eating Indian style, with the fingers. Not bad for under 200 rupees though. It wasn’t the sort of place to linger. There were people waiting to be seated. The waiter appeared with the bill as soon as we’d eaten and before we’d left the room our table was occupied and the waiter was already serving up their meal.
We arrived at the Vedanthangal Bird Reserve at 4pm not quite knowing what to expect. It has the reputation as the best bird watching site in south India and late afternoon from November to March was a good time to visit to see the huge flocks of birds that migrate here to breed apparently. Even so we weren’t prepared for the spectacle that greeted us. From the pathway that runs alongside the lake and from the watchtower we were astounded by the quantity and variety of the flocks roosting on the scattered islands: spoonbills, pelicans, ibis, cormorants, grebe, egrets, snake birds, shovelers,several species of heron including the squacco and the night heron, and of stork including the huge and distinctive painted stork. They had flown in from Europe to escape the winter frosts, but some, according the the official website, from as far away as Canada, Bangladesh, Siberia, Sri Lanka, Burma and Australia.
If the sight was memorable, so was the sound of squawking cries and clacking bills and smell: the stench of guano from upwards of 30,000 birds will stay with us for a while. Yet it was the guano that brought about an early success at conservation. In the late 18th Century the locals complained that the British soldiers were shooting the birds and scaring them off and thus depriving them of the guano that was so rich a source of fertiliser for their fields. A ‘Cowie ‘ was issued by the collector of Chingleput making the place the sanctuary that it is today. Even now locals have agreed not to burn funeral pyres within a certain distance of the sanctuary for fear of scaring the birds away.
Those richly fed paddy fields surround the sanctuary and as we made our way out the women who had spent the day there planting rice were making their way home too, silhouetted figures against the shining waters.
The photos on the blog at the moment were taken with a mobile phone, not good for photographing wildlife. Check out Rob’s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera of travels in India and beyond at
Images taken with a long lens at the bird sanctuary will appear there once they have been processed on our return to the UK.
We travelled here by bus, a one and a half hour teeth rattling, spine jarring 30 rupee ride south from Mamallapuram, warm air and traffic fumes blowing in through the open windows, arriving at a bus station in the centre of a city as jostling, noisy and chaotic as any other in India and, having done a particularly bad job of negotiating a good price with the cartel of drivers, got an auto rickshaw to the French Quarter and our hotel, the very unIndian sounding Le Chateau.
How to pronounce it? With a French accent? Or Franglais? The driver understood neither so we gave him the name of the street – Rue Romain Rolland – and drove along it until we spotted the hotel and pointed it to him. ‘Ah, Lee Chatty!’ Now we knew.
The French Quarter lies in the area running back from the seafront and its promenade, white and yellow ochre painted buildings dating from the French colonisation of the city (the French were in charge until 1954) and roughly separated from the modern bustling Indian part by a rank smelling, rubbish filled canal which presumably gets flushed clean in the annual monsoon rains.
The narrow streets of the French quarter are shaded by tamarind trees, jasmine, frangipani and bougainvillea, there are courtyard Arts cafes selling good fresh coffee and baguettes, rooftop restaurants and antique shops, boutiques selling clothes and objets d’art. Surprisingly there are number of derelict colonial buildings too and, behind high walls, abandoned and overgrown gardens.
It ought to be a peaceful area of the town and relatively speaking it is. There’s very little traffic but what there is – mostly scooters and motorcycles – seem unable to ride for more than 20 yards without sounding their horns at approaching crossroads, passing pedestrians, fellow scooter riders, parked cars and stray dogs, shredding the tranquility of what ought to be a quiet pleasant place to stroll in. My instinctive reaction as they pass with a hand on the horn is to knock them off their bikes and scooters. A more modest proposal for the authorities here in Puducherry is that the horns be removed and replaced with bicycle bells or those squeakers they have in rubber ducks and soft toys. Everyone would be happier. The Promenade which runs along the seafront is an antidote in the evening however. At 6 o’clock the barriers are erected and all traffic stops until 7.30 the following morning and the world and his wife come out to stroll along in the cool of the evening.
We spent a pleasant idle four days here, taking in the main sights on the first day: the cathedrals built by the French missionaries, the French Consulate and Hotel de Ville and the cool green space filled with picnicking families that is Bharathi Park. We’d been looking forward to spending a morning in the Botanical Garden, started in 1826 by the French colonists to explore what might be grown in the region and handed over to the city in 1960. What a disappointment. Our visit to the fabulous Botanical Garden in the Bangalore had raised expectations, a genuine green oasis in the centre of a busy city. The Puducherry Botanical Garden was a sad affair. Apart from a display of bedding plants at the entrance and a hothouse with orchids it was dirty, tired, neglected, strewn with litter and abandoned building material and, unsurprisingly, almost empty of visitors. We stayed no more than half an hour.
There’s a limit to the amount of time you can spend lounging about in cafes and walking on the Promenade so we signed up for the cooking class at Sita, the South India Traditional Arts centre. What a good decision. There was a trip to the Goubert Market to buy spices, pulses, vegetables, banana leaf plates and fish, twelve sea carp, which were then taken along to the ladies to gut. They sit all day in front of a bloody chopping block beside a basin of discarded fish heads and intestines, quickly and deftly cleaning the squid and descaling and gutting fish that customers have bought elsewhere in the fish market. In our case the service cost 15rps.
Back at the Sita centre we set to as directed by the tutor chopping and grating vegetables, soaking and squeezing out the tamarind pods, adding spices and jagaree to pots of bubbling lentils or sizzling ghee, stirring and poking and then sitting down to eat what we had cooked: fried fish, coconut cabbage, dhal, coconut fish curry and, for dessert, carrot halwa. The dishes set out on the banana leaf plate, it tasted a great deal better than it looked.
On to Kanchipuram tomorrow.
The photos here were taken with a mobile phone. Check out my travel and landscape photos taken with a camera at