Kanchipuram & Vedanthangal : Temples, silk & spoonbills

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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.

A Brahmin in the Tank

 
  
 

Another day, another Pooja

 
 

Outside the temple

 
 

Kailasanatha Temple carving

 
 
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.

 
 

Simple silk creeling wheel

 

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.
  

Lynne weaving a silk wedding sari

 

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

robdougallphotography.co.uk

Images taken with a long lens at the bird sanctuary will appear there once they have been processed on our return to the UK.

Vedantangal Bird Reserve

 

Rob Dougall Travel Photography

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Pondicherry 

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Pucucherry street market

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.

 

The French Quarter

The French Quarter, Puducherry

The French Quarter, Puducherry

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.

On the Promenade, Puducherry

Sunday afternoon in Bharati Park

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.

Life is full of disappointments

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.

Betel leaf seller at the Coubert Market

The fish market


  

The fish cleaners

The SITA South India cookery class – a little stirring and poking

 

It tasted a lot better than it looks

 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
robdougall photography.co.uk
http://www.robdougallphotography.co.uk

Mahabilapuram ….Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu

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Bas-relief carving on Ajuna’s Penance

Seaport of the ancient Pallava Kingdom, World Heritage Site, fishing village, renowned centre of stone carving, 70s hippy hangout, location of Krishna’s butterball, the Shore Temple and the beach restaurant which Rick Stein claims makes the best curry in India, Mahabilapuram or Mamallapuram is our first stop in Tamil Nadu.

We are taking the sight-seeing gently, happy to have found a refuge from the midday heat in palm thatched Le Yogi’s Restaurant, purveyor of cold ‘British Empire’ beer. We did try the Sea Shore Garden Restaurant, still basking in the fame of a stopover lunch with Rick Stein and his crew but they couldn’t find us a beer of any description, let alone a cold one. Things have slipped since Rick’s visit. He boasted in his TV programme of sitting watching the fishing boats on the beach, drinking cold Kingfisher beer and eating the best fish curry he had come across. I doubt it was any better than the snapper fish curry we had at Yogi’s. Perhaps we’ll give it a go before moving on, although there are plenty of other places selling good seafood.

 

Fine sculpture on the Manapans

 A guide book will tell you all you need to know about Mamallapuram’s sights so I’ll say little about them here save that although not as dramatic and impressive as, say Hampi’s, there’s some delightful stone carving. Naturally it attracts the tourists and our first impressions were not good. Coaches were disgorging crowds of tourists; there was a queue of people waiting to be photographed ‘holding up’ Krishna’s Butterball – see photo; the route to the Shore Temple was lined with garish stalls and choked with tourist groups and their guides. Returning in the early evening, however, and again in the early morning as the fruit sellers were setting up, it was a different story and we really warmed to the place. The carving on the Ajuna’s Penance frieze merits all the praise it has received. We loved those elephants.

 

Ajuna’s Penance

 The discovery of the ‘fishing colony’ area around Othavadai Street helped too. It was a joy to wander around the streets of this section of the town with their brightly coloured houses and doorstep kolam, the designs drawn in rice flour and chalk in front of the houses, or, at sunset, to sit in the Sea Rock restaurant (beer served in a teapot) watching the activity on the beach.

   

Kolams on the doorstep of houses in the fishing colony

 
 

Drying fish

 

Fishing nets on Mamamallapuram Beach

 

Beer in a teapot

 
  On the second day I did give way to the temptation to have that photo taken ‘supporting’ the butterball. The problem is that once you declare yourself as the sort of tourist who poses for this sort of picture you are fair game for every postcard, picture, fruit & trinket seller in the area. 

Obligatory!

 

 

 We had a stroll along to the site of the Five Rathas, past the row of stone carvers. The guidebook talks about the clink of chisel on stone from sunup to sundown being one of the distinctive sounds of Mamallapuram but these days it’s more likely to be drowned out by the shriek of an angle grinder and an electric drill. I can’t say I blame the sculptors.

We spent an hour or so searching out the highly recommended ‘Indian Seashell Museum’. Following the directions on the many posters advertising it we wandered about crossing our tracks time after time until we came to the conclusion that the posters had been printed off as a job lot with the arrow on the bottom pointing left and then put up around the town indiscriminately. We never did find the place.

Tamil Nadu beach clean: On a long late afternoon walk on the beach we spotted, floating just beneath the surface of the waves, what we first took for a ray, then a jelly fish. It turned out to be the plastic lid of a toilet seat. Walking back an hour later we saw one one the locals heading off homewards with it under his arm. That’s recycling.

 
 

Fishing boats, fishermen & cows

 Walking on that beach and looking at the single storey restaurants, bars, houses and chalets, the thought struck: how vulnerable they all were when that Tsunami wave hit on Boxing Day in 2004. Looking out to sea today it’s not difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see that wave racing in. You can’t help but feel a cold thrill. There were only three fatalities though apparently and miraculously, the retreating sea revealed archeological ruins that some have speculated about but never discovered. It made world headlines. 

Not our hotel

 

Overheard in the crowded reception area of our hotel: 

Solicitous hotel manager to one of his guests: ‘Good morning sir. How is the diarrhoea this morning?’

Pondicherry, two hours by bus, tomorrow. 

Obligatory photo with Krishna’s Butterball – not pretending to support it though

 
   

Street market Mamallapuram

  

Street Market

  
 
 

Street shrine

 
 

Ganesh

 

The photos here were taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob ‘ s travel and landscape photography website for the ones taken with a camera:
robdougallphotography.co.uk.

The Anantapuram Express : From the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal

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   …. and from the Malabar Coast to the Coromandel Coast. The Anantapuram Express pulled out of Thiruvannanthapuram station at 4.30 in the afternoon, twenty minutes late, and headed south west to Nagercoil Junction, a little short of the southern most point of the sub continent, before swooping back north east through the famous temple cities of Madurai and Tirruchchirappalli towards Chennai on the Bay of Bengal 16 hours or so later. We had tickets as far as Chengalpattu, an hour short of Chennai, the best on offer in 2nd Class AC sleeper, 699rps for Lynne and, inexplicably, 833rps for me.

For the the first four hours of the journey the carriage was half empty and quiet but at Tirunelveli everything changed. Suddenly we were surrounded by clamour and bustle as the train filled up. In the compartment opposite the two young people sitting there were joined by three generations of a family who squeezed themselves into the two remaining seats. Babies screamed, men shouted into mobile phones, passengers argued or called farewell to relatives out on the platform. Bulky cases and cardboard boxes tied up with ropes piled up in the crowded gangways where passengers attempted to reach their seats, some with suitcases and bags and some with the food they had stepped out on the platform to buy. Food sellers with bags of samosas and foil containers of rice and sambar, and chai wallahs with portable urns of hot milky chai, squeezed through the mayhem, keen to make their sales and be off before the train departed.

If this was second class where everyone ought to have a reserved sleeper, goodness knows what it was like further down the train.

But just as suddenly, everything resolved itself. The guard sent two generations of the family – along with the screaming baby – off down the train somewhere leaving granny and grandad to sit cross legged on the seat eating idlis and sambar, the gangways miraculously cleared, bags and boxes were crammed under seats, people began to make up their couchettes with the sheets and coarse blanket provided. Granny and grandad each donned a modish headscarf cum nightcap, curtains were drawn and lights were dimmed and soon there was nothing but quiet conversation, a soft belch and gentle snoring from behind the curtain opposite where grandad was now sleeping, the rumble of the wheels and the mournful hooting of the train’s whistle as we moved through the dark countryside towards Chennai.

We pulled into Chengalpattu Junction the following morning just as the sun was coming up and took a tuk tuk to Mammalapuram, 600 rps for the 45 minute drive, checked in to the Mammalpuram Heritage and took breakfast – idlis, sambur, vada, chutni, tea and coffee – and set out to explore.

  

2AC Side lower

  

South India 2016 Kerala & Tamil Nadu

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Another year and we’re back in south India, washing the English winter blues away in the warm Arabian Sea, acclimatizing to the heat, lounging the days away reading or sauntering along the beach or following the walkways that run beneath the coconut palms behind the beach and between the marshy ground and jungle pools. Long late breakfasts – banana porridge and black tea, grilled tomatoes and pressed coffee; a mid morning fresh lemon ginger soda on the veranda at the Lonely Planet restaurant watching the birds around the jungle pool, the kingfisher and the cormorant diving for fish, the squacco heron stalking through the reeds, the bee-eaters swooping from the palms, the kites and sea eagles overhead; a little shopping – five made-to-measure shirts for the price of one in the UK; fresh fruit, a jaffle or dhal and chapatti for lunch; a cold beer, a lemon soda or a gin and tonic in a rooftop restaurant above the beach watching the sun go down and, as dusk falls out at sea, the lighting of the fishing boats’ lamps; and then dinner – fresh fish: kingfish, marlin or sea salmon in lemon butter garlic or in the tandoor, fish tikka, Keralan fish molie (unidentified fish in coconut sauce), squid or, for some variety, to the vegetarian restaurants in the back lanes for palak paneer, Kashmiri stuffed naan or perhaps a vegetable thali.

A week of this to restore the soul and then it’s off to Tamil Nadu.

We’re not the only ones happy to be here

 

 
 

Fish, fish, fish

 

At the jungle pool – washing the tuk tuk, his clothes and himself

  

Waiting for breakfast at the Lonely Planet

 

The photos here were nearly all taken with a mobile phone. Check out Rob ‘ s travel and landscape photography website for images taken with a camera at

robdougallphotography.co.uk
robdougallphotography.co.uk

Munnar Hill Station : Tea and Spices

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 This was an unaccustomed luxury, a hired car and driver. At about £30 a day it’s an extravagance by India standards but there is no train up into the Western Ghats where we were headed. The bus would be a tedious and crowded slog and would leave us without transport to get around once we were up there. Our driver was Michael and he had just finished a 25 day tour around southern India with a French couple. Having a car and driver means we travel in comfort and can reach otherwise unreachable places, stop en route and pick the driver’sbrains about the countryside we pass through, but it can also be a bit of a fencing match. The car doesn’t belong to the driver but the company he works for. He gets only 15% of what we pay for hire and so here in India as elsewhere in the world he is looking to supplement his income with commission from the shops, attractions and hotels he takes us to, which are not always where we want to go. We don’t want to be taken advantage of but we don’t want to lose the driver’s goodwill either.

So it was, we thought, with our first stop on the road to the Munnar Hill Station, four and a half hours’ drive from Cochin on the coast high up in the Western Ghats. We pulled into the Vrindhavan Spices and Ayurvedic Garden. We anticipated a quick tour and a hard sell in the spice shop, from which the driver would get his cut. In fact, it was a fascinating tour of the garden by a well informed guide and no pressure to buy at all. We’re getting too cynical. There were all the well-known spices, cardamom, cloves, pepper, arrowroot, cinnamon, nutmeg and some we did not know. The guide was keen promote their use in Ayurvedic medicine: ‘Take this in hot water for 30 days and your arthritis will be gone … Your memory will improve … Your heart problems will be no more … Your hair will grow again … Your diabetes will go. This is for skin problems … For eye problems ….take for 30 days and it will go.’ If only.

Such abundance – sacks full of cardamom

 As we drove on up the air became cooler and the landscape greener. The phrase ‘fresh air’ took on new meaning after the sultry heat of the lowlands. The rugged Mahindra jeeps raced past us on the bends, packed with passengers and even here the wonderful little auto rickshaws chugged gamely up into the hills.

Stacking and lighting the brick kilns

 We drove past men loading and lighting huge smoking brick kilns, past toddy shacks, past monkeys sitting in groups beside the road, past stalls selling chocolate made from locally grown cocoa beans and stalls with piles of white tapioca root, past banana, tobacco, mango and rubber plantations, through glades of huge bamboo and coconut palms and forests of eucalyptus and then we were in what they call tea country. The hills around Munnar Hill Station are covered in the highest tea plantations in India, mile after mile of hillsides covered in neatly clipped tea bushes like sculpted topiary.

 

  

 The Green Valley Vista hotel, twenty minutes or so outside Munnar, was our driver’s choice. At first glance we weren’t especially impressed. Soulless and unprepossessing with a sickly yellow green exterior, it wasn’t dissimilar to other establishments spaced along the roadside. Chittarapuram, a few kms down the road, was the nearest village and there was precious little there. We felt very much in the hands of the driver and the hotel. Once again we had misjudged the driver. We had a very friendly welcome from the smiling man on reception who allowed us to see all the vacant rooms before making a choice. The room was spacious and cool but, best of all, we looked out from the back of the hotel through the floor to ceiling window and balcony down on the palms and jackfruit trees immediately below to the Green Valley and the hills beyond that. I suppose we should have taken more note of the name of the hotel.

Trek is too ambitious a term to call the walk we had in the afternoon along Tea Valley between the tea plantations. It was very quiet, the only sound the clipping of the shears of the women.

 

 Driving back at the end of the day I asked Michael if I would be able to get a cold beer at the hotel. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You want beer I take you to buy. Not cold.’

A twenty minute drive later we were parking in a road outside a shabby collection of shops and street stalls. ‘Follow me. Better Lynne stay in car,’ said the driver. I got out and dutifully followed him up a narrow alleyway. At the end and well away from the road, two dozen men men stood in a silent queue. They cast a sly glance in my direction as I approached and lowered their heads again. This was the Government Liquor Shop. At the head of the queue a man was taking orders and collecting money from an opening in a metal grill just big enough to poke a fistful of rupees through. Behind him in a darkened room, boxes and crates of booze were piled and on a set of grey metal shelves at the side, quarter litre bottles of spirits, brandy, whiskey and others and none with a recognisable brand name. At the second grill, slightly larger, a second man handed over what the men had paid for, wrapped in newspaper and immediately put discreetly into bags. I joined the queue and shuffled forward with the other sinners to the grill. ‘Kingfisher beer?’ I asked. ‘Two?’. He took my rupees and I moved on to the second grill where the second man handed me my two bottles of beer. ‘Er, this is Kingfisher Ultra, the super strength version. Do you have the ordinary?’ I asked wimpishly. ‘No!’ And moved on to serve the next customer.

I walked back down the alley with the driver, furtively trying to conceal my two bottles of beer.

‘Is there a problem with alcohol in India, then, apart from getting hold of it that is?’ I asked him. ‘Yes. Certainly,’ he replied shortly.

At the end of the alley, out in the road lay the evidence of what the driver was talking about: stretched out on his back, arms flung wide, eyes closed and dead to the world and surrounded by a few mildly interested bystanders was a half naked man. ‘My god! Is he ill?’ I asked, shocked.

‘No. Drunk.’ It was 5.30 in the afternoon.

In India’s defence I have to say that if alcoholism is a problem it’s a discreet one. It’s the only time I’ve seen anyone drunk in public.

Back at the hotel the beer went into the fridge in the kitchens to come out again later, and colder, to drink with a passable dinner.

We were woken to an exotic dawn chorus of watery warbles, piping, whistles and chirrupping.  Out on the balcony as the sun was coming up there was a hint of a chill in the air, like first thing on a summer morning in England, something we haven’t experienced for a while. In the palms, jackfruit trees and jungly undergrowth there were flashes of blue, green tangerine, red and yellow as the bird life flitted about below us. The sun came up beyond the mountain on the other side and in the valley the mist hung like cobwebs in the trees.

We set out early on the road winding the 36kms up to Top Station through the tea plantations and some of the most beautiful man made landscape we have ever seen, sweeping green waves following the contours of the hills, carefully manicured by the teams of women working between the rows of tea bushes and occasionally the shocking violet of a jacaranda tree in flower. When we stopped the car to get out and gaze, the distant sound of the clipping of the shears was all we could hear. At Echo Point we watched the kingfishers fishing in the dammed lake and at Top Station we sat and drank sweet cardamom tea and took in the view.

 

 In the afternoon we took a tour around the only tea processing factory to allow visitors and the company credited with planting the first tea estates in Kerala in 1857, the Lockhart Tea Factory, in a building constructed in the 1930s using machinery made by the British 70 years before that and processes that can’t have changed much since then. Apparently it’s the only factory still using the ‘orthodox’ methods used in Victorian times. It was all a lot more interesting than I’ve made it sound.  

Next a drive to a cardamom spice plantation where the women working in the field, the Spice Girls I suppose, were happy to pose for a photo and finally, an Ayurvedic massage in Munnar itself. Then back to the hotel for that other cold beer.

Tomorrow it’s back down to the coast and the Nevrati Express to Thiravandrapuram.

The Hampi Express to Bangalore … and on to Fort Cochin

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It was 7 am when the train pulled in to crowded Bangalore City Junction. A 450rps ride took us the 7 klms to the Springs Hotel and Spa, a pretty swish establishment for us but at 2900rps cheap by UK standards. We’ve learned from experience that it doesn’t pay to go too downmarket in the big cities, particularly if you’re expecting to spend some time in the room as is likely when you’re passing through. We’ve stayed in some real dives in the past but those days are over.



The Glasshouse at Lalbagh

The real draw of this place though is the location, a few minutes’ walk from the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. That’s another thing we’ve learned over the years. A green space in a big city is the best way to while away the hours. Besides, these gardens have the largest collection of tropical plants in India and though they don’t quite live up to the guidebook’s description of India’s Kew Gardens, we loved the place. At the entrance gate is a signboard saying: ‘ Lalbagh has been called the lungs of the teeming metropolis. So breathe long and deep. The oxygen here is free.’


Fan club. ‘Please may we have photo with you?’

We had a leisurely walk in the cool of the evening taking in the rose garden, glass house, bonsai, the impressive collection of trees and the Brahminy kites swooping over the lake. Others were there to keep fit. Unsurprisingly it’s a popular place for power walkers and joggers. Whilst there were some attractive displays of flowers and shrubs, (the Jacaranda and Frangipani in particular we’re lovely) what made the visit memorable were smells and sounds: fragrant blossoms, some familiar and others unknown, and the delightful birdsong. There are over 45 different species in the garden apparently.



Lalbagh Gardens, Bangalore

So, at 5pm we set off with a manic tuk tuk driver through the manic traffic back to Bangalore City Junction station for (as it usefully says on the ticket) the 6.45 Eranakulum Express Train No 12684, total distance 625 kms, scheduled to arrive at 06.05 at Eranakulum Junction South with Side Upper and Side Lower bunks in AC2, one Senior Male, one Senior Female, total price Rs 1600 – or about £8 each for the best seats on the train.



Another day , another station. waiting for the Eranakulum Express







Side Upper, Side Lower

We arrived at the Aroma Homestay in Fort Cochin at 7 am and, despite being dragged from their bed to answer the door, our hosts Joseph and Elizabeth gave us the kind of warm welcome that online reviews had suggested we could expect and which had brought us there.



Iced tea at the Tea Pot cafe, Fort Cochin



The Chinese fishing nets

Located in a residential area near the Pattalam Market but within walking distance of the seafront and main sites of the town and with a community life of its own, the Aroma Guesthouse was a good choice. We enjoyed the traditional Keralan breakfasts prepared by Elizabeth and the time we spent talking to her and Joseph about their lives and their family. 



Rain trees in the street outside the Aroma Guesthouse



Fort Cochin may not be to everyone’s taste but we dawdled happily around its relatively quiet streets, shaded by the huge spreading rain trees, stopping for a drink in the cafés and tea shops and looking at the art exhibited in locations around the town as part of India’s second Biennial.



The Trapeze Artists – installation under the raintrees on the waterfront at Fort Cochin

In the mixture of Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture that line the streets there’s evidence everywhere of its colonial past and its importance as a trading centre for spices, tea and coffee. The Portuguese came here to trade in 1503 and Vasco de Gama died and was buried in St Francis Church, the oldest European church in India.

In Jew Town in nearby Mattancherry, a 40rps tuk tuk ride away, we explored the dilapidated former spice and ginger warehouses along Jew Road, some now converted into shops selling spices from the sacks of star anis, turmeric, long pepper, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and many more that we did not recognise. Such abundance! Such wonderful smells!

On this, our final evening in Fort Cochin we went to see a performance of the Kathakali, the Keralan dance drama telling the story of Shiva, Parvathi and Arjuna from the Mahabharata. The audience were invited to arrive early to watch the process of putting on the elaborate make-up for the characters. The performance itself was a thrilling spectacle of colour, histrionics and frenetic drumming. Dinner followed, pumpkin soup, a really mean Meen Moilee, the Keralean speciality of fish in fragrant coconut milk, and mutta kuzhalappam, coconut filled pancake.

The Kathakali

Tomorrow morning we’re escaping the 100+ degree heat and heading for Munnar, the hill station in the Western Ghats – and the tea plantations.

The Howrah Express to Hampi



Morning on the ghats at Hampi

Once again we were moved effortlessly from Waiting List to Confirmed, this time at about 8.30 on the evening before our 7.50am departure from Madgaon Junction station, an hour away from Palolem. We’d arranged a taxi to pick us up at 6am and it was still dark when we set off. It’s not difficult to see why the figures for casualties on Indian roads are so catastrophically high. In the dark there seem to be only two vehicle light positions: full beam or complete black out. The crowded bus which we overtook on a blind bend had no lights at all and nor did the family of four on the motor bike. Looming out of the darkness in front of us were unlit rickshaws, wandering cows – a whole herd of them at one point, wandering pedestrians, thundering trucks, hand-drawn carts, bicycles, dogs, goats and pigs.

There was light in the sky when we reached the station. We bypassed the information office, pausing briefly to watch a tremendous shouting match between the official and a customer, and found our way to Platform 2 where we drank little paper cups of hot sweet cardamom  chai at 10rps from the tea wallah’s portable sliver urn.



On the platform at Madgaon Junction



On time to the minute the Howrah Express, which had started its journey from Vasco de Gama station in Mumbai the evening before and would end its journey in Calcutta, pulled in. Now there was a moment of frenzy. We couldn’t see our carriage. ‘Where is AC3?’ we asked the guard. ‘Backside! Backside!’ he shouted, pointing to the end of the train, 30 carriages or so away at the far end of the crowded platform. ‘Quick! Quick! Train going!’ Clutching our baggage we puffed up the platform against the flow of people, dodging the luggage carts, chai wallahs, vagrants, and sleeping families. At what point do we cut our losses and get on the nearest carriage? The problem is that we could be stuck there for hours until the next stop and the opportunity to change. This was the express. The doors are locked between carriages. Another guard stood and watched our breathless approach. ‘AC3?’ ‘Backside! Backside!’ he shouted as the first guard had done, pointed at a carriage behind him and began waving his flag. ‘Please to get on now sir!’

And we did, throwing up the bags into AC3 and climbing in after them as the train began to move off. We found ourselves in the fan cooled semi darkness where the passengers were stretched out and, for the most part, still asleep on the bunks and benches, including the ones we had reserved. But there was no problem. A little reorganisation and we had our seats and everyone went back to sleep, leaving us sitting looking out of the window as the train climbed up away from the coast through jungle and towards Hubli, Gadag and Hospet.

For mile after mile work was in progress on a new track running parallel to the one were on. We passed pile after pile of concrete sleepers, length after length of iron rail, mound after mound of stone ballast. Cuttings and embankments had been widened, countless new bridges and sluices were under construction, there were bulldozers, diggers, cranes, engineers, labourers and groups of spindly men constructing mile after mile of spindly split bamboo fencing to separate the old from the new. What a gargantuan project the building of the first railways in India must have been.

We were now in fertile central Karnataka travelling through groves of mango trees and acre after acre of cotton bushes and sugar cane.

It was late afternoon when we pulled into Hospet Junction, picking up a rickshaw ride out of town and then turning off on a road cut through jungle in the 1950s taking us though an extraordinary landscape to bustling, noisy, colourful Hampi Bazaar and to our room at the Gopi Guesthouse.



The Gopi Guesthouse, Hampi

Hampi was the location of Vijayanagara, the 14th century capital of the largest Hindu empire in Indian history. At its height some 300 years later it was a wealthy place with half a million people trading in its bazaars and with the world outside. It all came to an abrupt end in 1565 when Deccan sultans attacked and destroyed the city. What’s left is what drew the hippies here in the 70s and keeps the travellers coming today. Amongst a bizarre landscape of vast boulders and between the green paddy fields, palm trees and banana plantations, some 3700 monuments, temples and ruins are scattered over 36 square kilometres, most now abandoned to nature.

Hampi Bazaar is now at the centre of things, a low key collection of guesthouses and eating places around the stone flagged streets of the 14th century bazaar in the shadow of the towering gopuram of the Virupaksha Temple. 



… and from the south



Our room was basic, clean and cheap. Three days we spent at Hampi, getting up early to see the day start on the ghats on Tangabhadra River, taking a leisurely breakfast, exploring the temples and monuments before the day got too hot, in the afternoon taking the 10 rps ferry across to the other side of the river where the pace was altogether slower and to drink a watermelon juice or lemon mint soda in the roof top cafe overlooking the paddy fields. It’s not difficult to see how some travellers come here and, like the Lotus Eaters, end up chilling out for weeks on the low cushions beneath the fans while the world goes on outside – well, apart from the wifi that is.



The coracle crossing point at Hampi. The original 15c bridge is now just a ruin




Daybreak on the ghats



Sundown on the Tangabhadra River, Hampi





At the tank



Frangipani & the Vittala Temple





Temple watching

Outside the temple



The Offering Tree – piles of stones and bundles of rags





Above the ghats





Sunset watching



Taken on the ipad. Hoping for better things from the camera



Above the paddy fields

We watched the sun setting over the boulders and monuments from a hill top temple and then went to eat at at the Mango Tree, all vegetarian fare as Hampi is a sacred centre and meat and, sadly, alcohol, are forbidden. I can’t say we’ve missed the meat. The coconut curry, vegetable biryani and the Mango Tree special pizza were terrific and though the lemon mint soda and watermelon juice were good, nothing beats a cold beer at the end of the day’s site seeing in temperatures of a 100 degrees.



It’s now ten in the evening and we are sitting on the platform at Hospet Junction station waiting for the Hampi Express which should have come in an hour ago. It’s still hot. There isn’t a breath of wind and the fans above on the roof of the platform are spinning away without making a difference.  We’re looking forward to getting into the cool of the carriage and finding our beds and waking up at Bangalore at 6 am tomorrow morning.

The Rajdhani Express to Goa

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And miraculously, at just an hour before we were due to set off for the station, we got the email from India Rail to say that the second ticket had been confirmed. Had we ever doubted?



Lynne at Trivandrum station

We shared a 2AC compartment with two Indian gentlemen, one, a government official from Trivandrum who was curious to know all about England. ‘What is the difference between an English village and an Indian village? What will you have for breakfast in England? …. And what will you have to eat in the evening?’ He was surprised to discover that we sometimes eat rice but I don’t think we succeeded in conveying the concept of ‘going out for an Indian on a Friday night’ to him

Dinner, served by the boys from Meals on Wheels, the company which had the catering franchise on board, came on a tray in the compartment, airline style, a little paper cup of thin spicy Keralan soup called rassam, rice, curried chicken and dal

We passed through Mangalore in the early hours of the morning, woken briefly as some passengers got off and others boarded, and then slept until the waiter arrived with a jug of hot water, a tea bag and a plastic cup at just after daylight to find ourselves travelling through the Karnataka countryside, past the farmers already at work ploughing with oxen, past the rice paddies, over the wide estuaries where the fishermen were out in their narrow boats, stopping briefly at the quiet station at Udupi and on towards Karwar and Madgaon.

At 10.15am and on time almost to the minute we arrived at Madgaon City Junction where we got off, leaving the Rajdhani Express and its passengers to continue the journey to Delhi, 24 hours away. 

An 880rps taxi ride took us to Palolem an hour away and back, briefly, to the Blancmange Pink cocohut that we had left just over a year ago. It’s only a brief stop of two days then it’s on to a Hampi on the Howrah Express.



Goa





The Attakul Pongala

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It’s a strange admission to make but until the evening before we knew nothing about the Attakul Pongala. At that point four million women from all over South India and beyond were preparing for the journey to Thiruvananthapuram only a few kilometres away, or were en route or, more likely, were already there. According to Sachin who mans the desk at Hotel Aparna and who told us about it, this festival has made the Guinness Book of Records as the largest congregation of women in the world, a claim supported by the websites I’ve looked at since.





The focal point of the Attakul Pongala is the ninth day of the ten day festival in the Bhagavathy Devi temple. In a radius of six kilometres out from the temple the roads are closed and the devotees gather. We sensed the significance of the event as we approached in a tuk tuk a long way out from that perimeter. The verges of the roads and every patch of waste ground were double and triple parked with trucks, buses, cars and minibuses and, long before we arrived at our drop off point, we passed rows and rows of women setting up their ‘hearths’ for the ritual Pongala.

The roundabout where we got out had been commandeered by the police and, at the entrance to the streets beyond, banks of speakers had been set up, each blasting out music at such an ear splitting volume that we could only make arrangements with Asam, the tuk tuk driver, for a later pickup with hand signals. I read later in the Hindu that laws had been introduced this year to limit the decibel level but to no avail.

A quick glance at the internet will tell you all you need to know about the significance and rituals of the Attakul Pongala so I won’t go into that here. What we saw when we walked beyond the police cordon were streets empty of traffic but lined with women of all ages, and not just on the roadsides but in the alleys running off them, in school grounds, in fact wherever a space could be found, to set up three bricks and place an earthenware or metal pot on it and to light a fire. Some had arrived days before to make sure they had a spot in the shade, under a palm or in the shadow of a building, but most stood in the scorching heat of the sun, cheerful and uncomplaining and enjoying the holiday atmosphere.





At 10.15 the hearth in the temple had been lit and fire from this was passed along the 25 kilometres of streets surrounding it to four million or so hearths where four million women – the figure seems extraordinary, but this is India, were boiling up a mixture of jaggery, rice, spices and coconut to make a devotional offering.

The smoke from the hearths made life even more uncomfortable for the long-suffering women and our eyes were soon streaming as we stopped to talk. It added to the otherworldly atmosphere of the day however and I’m looking forward to processing the many photos I took with the camera (as opposed to the mobile!).

When we left just after midday the women had abandoned their hearths to form long patient queues for food and water. What a remarkable logistical exercise it had been for the organisers



The following day The Hindu devoted several pages of text and pictures to record what it described as the ‘Wave of Devotion’ which had engulfed the city, to the successes of the authorities in coping with it – and to the hours of traffic chaos as the women set off home in the late afternoon.

For the last two days the seas have been up. Some of the surfers have even managed to catch a decent wave and the lifeguards have been busy rescuing swimmers from the beaches where there are several drowning a each year. We witnessed one of these rescues yesterday and another this morning.



This is life guarding Indian style. In his speedos and vest and with a paunch he may not be the Hoff but he bravely went into heavy seas this morning to pull a swimmer from the heavy surf.





In an hour’s time we are due to catch the Rajdhani Express for a 15 hour overnight trip to Goa. In the four weeks or so since we booked the sleeper tickets we have shuffled up the Waiting a List from 10 and 11 to one confirmed place and one still waiting. So one of us can definitely travel. What will happen to the other we shall have to wait and see when we get to the station. But this is India and anything is possible ……