Farewell to Southern India

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Tiruvannamalai is an important Hindu pilgrimage sight, as it is said to be where Shiva appeared as a lingam of fire, atop mount Arunachalam. I had being using the word lingam for four months, with no idea what it meant, until I learnt here that it is a phallus that people often pray to for fertility (it must be working in India) and this slightly altered my perception of a lingam of fire and the pilgrimage Hindus make here.

There is a huge ceremony here every full moon, where people walk around the mountain bare foot, and people surge into this small town from across India to take part. Sam and I rocked up with no idea just how popular the place would be with pilgrims and travellers alike. Every single guesthouse we tried was fully booked; each of them stranger than the last. The buildings themselves were elaborate and unusual, and not in the Indian architecture style you would imagine – they were bright orange, blue, pink – with weird steel barred-balconies and staircases seemingly growing out of the sides of walls. And if I thought the buildings were weird, that was nothing on the people. (We found a place to stay eventually, it was crap, full of mosquitoes and really far out).

Pilgrims aside, the vast population of travellers had the average age of 60 and I only had to sit in a cafe to overhear some of the weirdest conversations I had heard in my life. These ranged from a relatively ordinary comparison of the virtues of different gurus, to full blown madness. I heard a lady tell her friends that her guru had told her that as her thumbs were such and such a shape, this was a sign of an interior struggle and a willingness to be used as a doormat. She clearly thought she had been given an insight with which she would have been unable to live her life without. Oh wise guru. I walked past a pair giving each other a deeply meaningful hug on the way to dinner, ate my meal, had a drink and then passed the same two locked in an embrace on the way back out. There was some serious spiritual affirmation going on.

Needless to say I hated it there and demanded to leave immediately. The agreement was that I could be released from this insanity after the full moon and if we moved somewhere nicer in the meantime. Sam took part in the pilgrimage barefoot alongside Sadhus (holy men who have renounced material life to get closer to god) and other Hindus (see picture of his feet below). Whilst he was having this meaningful experience, I had locked myself in our hotel room as small children had instigated a stake-out outside the room as they were demanding pens in high squeaky voices, and I wasn’t giving up my one gel ink roller ball that easily, but couldn’t face my own selfishness.

I didn’t find anything of appeal to me in Tiruvannmalai, despite the pilgrimage sounding like an excellent experience and so I eagerly awaited our next destination Mamallapuram – which was 2 bus journeys away. One catch was that the first bus ejected us in the middle of the motorway without giving us a clue as to where we where, and we had to pay a tuk tuk driver exorbitant amounts to get us out of this pickle (always a good laugh).

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Mamallapuram
I’ll keep this one brief, as the place just served as a base for nearby Chennai where we would be getting our flight back up North. As we were sick to death of temples and the beach was pretty rubbish, there was nothing to do but drink coffee, go shopping and twiddle our thumbs expectantly for Rajasthan. But on the upside, I had sandals tailor made by a lovely charismatic cobbler called Mittu. Speaking to him and his wife was often the highlight of my day and made me truly sad to be leaving to friendly and relaxed folk of the South.

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Tamil Tour Part 2

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Cardamom House
On the road in our Nandi, a very spacious minivan for the four of us, we made our way back into the foothills of Western Ghats, to Cardamom House, our next stop on the Tamil Tour.

We stumbled out of the minivan into an explosion of vividly pink flowers, green bushes and all manor of flora and fauna. The shelter of plant-life and the surrounding hills, folded Cardamom House into a comfortable cocoon of rustic bedrooms and patios. Everything about the place was peaceful and relaxing, the cane furniture and beautiful garden, the bright blue pool surrounded by sun loungers – the fact that meals were served to us at regular intervals in the day by charismatic (and at times sassy) waiters (one of whom was aghast that I had repudiated my gender role and not made my bed whilst the gentlemen were out – and wasn’t afraid to tell me). We took walks through the surrounding palm trees and Sam wrongly assumed that throwing a coconut at a peacock would make it show us it’s feathers.

In short, it was the perfect place to celebrate Michele’s birthday, with some deliciously tasty mango juice and rum, that tasted more like Mango than rum and hence more than a few glasses were raised to toast the big day. The waiter made up for his sexist slip by arranging the surprise of a beautiful birthday cake with party poppers to be brought after the meal – Happy Birthday Michele!

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Trichy
Trichy (Tiruchirappalli, hence the short name) is another large city in Tamil Nadu, with temples and the largest textile store in the South. We had a new guide Sudha, who as well as guiding us through the features of the temples, enjoyed snatching our cameras from us to take pictures that only he had the skill to capture. Unfortunately, the temples were covered and under construction, so we had to exercise our imagination as well as our patience with the snap-happy Sudha.

In the afternoon, after a traditional South Indian Thali (little bowls of different local curries with rice), we got lost in the textile store (Sam treated himself a man-sarong) and then climbed to a hill top temple with panoramic views of the city. The day was busy, and at the end we bundled into Nandi to be taken to our next stop Thanjavur, where we would be sleeping for the night.

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Thanjavur
Thanjavur – the home of temples, a palace and lots of chola bronze artefacts. It is also home to Tanjore-Hi, one of the most experimental hotels I have ever been in. It featured dark blue glossed walls and floors, and a futuristic, illuminated, x-Ray vision photo panel , the size of half the roof, suspended above our bed. But they really knew how to serve a good breakfast.

Sudha was back and better than ever, warning us away from the ill intentions of Hindu women that brushed arms with us (?) and single-handedly directing and coordinating a photo shoot, with vision that Mario Testino would have been proud of. The city temple was resplendent with high towers, bare stone carvings and beautifully peaceful gardens.

We visited the city palace and then confused the hell out of waiters in a restaurant by trying to ask if there were nuts in the thali, and just about every vegetable variety, and even cheese was mentioned before we eventually reached an understanding. We were all very relieved.

Thanjavur was a busy but pleasant place to walk around, and we enjoyed sharing our extensive curry knowledge with Sam’s parents over our evening meals and confusing yet more waiters with my nut allergy. After a busy day of tourist activities, we thoroughly enjoyed our company and playing card games together, before turning into our room to sleep under the sky of the glowing blue-light-x-Ray-modern-art and awoke feeling cultured to our very cells.

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