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.