Tamil Nadu, Kerala & Karnataka
06.02.2011 - 20.02.2011
We flew from Heathrow to Mumbai and then on to Chennai, travelling with Explore. The next morning we spent looking round Chennai, which is India’s fourth largest city. Founded by the British East India Company as Madras in 1639, it is the capital of Tamil Nadu. We started in Fort St. George, which is full of colonial mansions now used as official offices. The fort was the first structure of Madras town and the first territory of British India. We also went into St. Mary’s Church, which dates from 1678 and is crammed with plaques and statues commemorating British soldiers, politicians and their wives. It also has a long panoramic map of 19th century Madras. We continued on to St. Thome Cathedral, which dates from 1896. St. Thomas is thought to be the first Christian missionary to the Subcontinent, arriving in Kerala in 54 AD. His relics are kept under the nave and are greatly revered. Christianity is particularly strong in South India, where about three quarters of India’s 22 million Christians live.
We then went to the first of the highly decorated Hindu temples we saw, with their soaring gopuras or towers, all covered with brightly painted stucco figures. This was the Kapalishvara Temple, whose principle shrine is dedicated to Shiva, and dates from around the 16th century. The huge 40m gopura here was added in 1906. We also saw a nagaswaram being played, a large and strident type of shawm.
After that we stopped at the Marina Beach, one of the longest city beaches in the world. It isn’t recommended for swimming because of pollution, but the local fishermen operate from there and their boats and nets provide a colourful display. In the afternoon we left by train for Tiruchirapalli, or Trichy.
The following day began with a visit to the town’s pavilion, an area by the river where Hindus remember and venerate their ancestors. It has small temples and shrines and also features a temple elephant. The atmosphere there was especially moving.
We then visited the Ranganathaswamy Temple, which is one of the largest and liveliest in India and boasts a series of particularly impressive gopuras. It has homes, shops and markets within its outer walls, with seven courtyards and covers more than 120 acres. It is just north of Tiruchirapalli at Srirangam and stands on an island in the Cauvery River. It is among the most revered Vishnu shrines in South India and dates mostly from the late 14th century. Footwear is only removed at the fourth gopura, the entrance to the temple proper. The sanctuary, which is only accessible to Hindus, has a golden dome, which can be seen from the roof of the fourth wall. Notable features include the thousand-pillared hall or kalyan mandapa and the pillars with life-size rearing horses and hunters armed with spears, which adorn another mandapa. There was also a statue of Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi adorned in a real sari, a practice mirrored in other temples.
We then went up to the Rock Fort, which looms 100m above the banks of the river. On the way to visit the Grand Anicut Dam we witnessed the small-scale harvesting of rice by the roadside with cut rice piled up on half the road.
After our second night in Tiruchirapalli we travelled in our bus to Thanjavur. There we saw the 10th-14th century Brihadishwara Temple, which is a World-Heritage Site and Tamil Nadu’s most impressive monument of the Chola period, 897-1150 AD. Four hundred devadasis, or female temple dancers, used to work there, plus two hundred other staff; devadasi literally means married to the deity. The outer façade of the inner gopura has mighty fanged dvarpalas (door guardians), probably the largest sculptures in any Indian temple. A 16th century pavilion holds a large Nandi Bull (Shiva’s means of transport) and the third biggest in India. The central shrine has a very tall pyramidal tower, to protect the sanctum sanctorum from the gaze of outsiders.
A passage contains some beautiful frescoes dating from the reign of Rajaraja I, who founded the temple, but they are closed to the public to for protection. We then visited the art gallery, with its magnificent collection of Chola bronze statues of deities. Afterwards we went to see a small-scale bronze foundry and then continued our journey to Madurai.
One of the oldest cities in south Asia, Madurai has been an important centre of worship and commerce for thousands of years, trading with ancient Greece, Rome and China. We travelled around Madurai in tuk tuks, firstly to see long dyed cotton threads being washed and dried on the banks of a large lake or water tank.
We then visited the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, which dates from the 17th century, although there was a large degree of restoration and renovation work in 1858. Originally it had two residential parts, a harem, a theatre, a temple, a bandstand, an armoury and gardens. The existing building is the Swargavilisa (Heavenly Pavilion) and has tall colonnades surrounding a courtyard, where music and dance performances take place.
We moved on to the Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwara Temple. It is one of the largest temple complexes in India and was built mainly during the Nayak period between the 16th and 18th centuries, although parts of it are much older. The principle shrines are those of Sundareshwara (an avatar of Shiva) and his consort Meenakshi (an avatar of Parvathi). Unusually Meenakshi takes precedence and is always worshipped first. It has an estimated 33 million sculptures, surpassing by far the three million Hindu gods and their avatars. It is full of activity and people, with about 50 priests with bare chests and dhotis. Set into the outer walls are 12 gopuras up to 46m high and covered in brightly painted stucco gods and demons. These are repainted every ten years or so. One spectacular area of the temple is the Pottamarai Kulam or tank of golden lotuses, which is used for ritual cleansing. There is also a Nandi pavilion and the thousand pillared hall.
In the evening we returned to watch the procession, which carries movable images of Sundareshwara and Meenakshi to their bedchamber for celestial lovemaking (the lalipuja); Meenakshi’s nose ring is removed to avoid it cutting Sundareshwara in the heat of their passion. The procession is accompanied by music on nagaswaram and drums. Finally priests sing lullabies (lali), before the temple closes for the night.
The next day we drove to Thekkady and en route we stopped at a local market:
a small-scale brick-making concern:
and saw washing hung out to dry by the river:
Thekkady is a small town, but has two churches and one of them was decked out in Buddhist-style streamers and flags.
We went to a spice plantation nearby and in the evening were treated to a demonstration of how to cook a fish molie.
The following day we moved from Tamil Nadu to Kerala and headed for Chenanacherry, where we boarded a boat to cruise the inland waterways. We saw a variety of local life, including women washing clothes and pans, small fishing boats, boats carrying cargo and the regular passenger ferry. There was an eel boat moored at one point and these very long and narrow boats are used for racing. We also saw a number of birds, such as brahminy kite, blue-tailed bee-eater, Indian roller, egret and white-throated kingfisher. We docked at Alappuzha and then drove to Kochi.
This important coastal city is spread across islands and promontories. It was the focus of European trade from the 16th century onwards, especially for the spice trade, and has an unparalleled collection of early colonial architecture spanning the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras. Our tour of Kochi the next morning included the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, which are reputed to have been introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. They are suspended from poles and operated by ropes and weights, requiring several men to control them.
We also visited the Church of St Francis, where we saw an auction of fruit and vegetables under an awning outside, for the benefit of church funds. We visited the Mattancherry Palace, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, which has fine murals of the same era, illustrating stories from the Ramayana. They are full of detail and colour, but are now rather faded. There are also Dutch maps of old Cochin, plus coronation robes and other artefacts belonging to previous maharajas.
We finished the day with a boat tour of the harbour, before going to a performance of kathakali dance, Kerala’s unique form of ritualized dance drama, which depicts the struggles between gods and demons. The performance we attended was a scene from the story of Narakasuravadham. The actors are all men and are dressed in lavish costumes. Also there is virtually no action and no speech, the story being delivered by facial expressions with eye and hand movements. The Narakasuravadham is about the King of Heaven’s son being solicited by a beautiful woman. He becomes suspicious, because she is so passionate and determined and she is then revealed as a demoness in disguise. She changes to her original ugly form and the prince cuts off her nose and breasts, before sending her away from heaven. It was an interesting experience, but one scene was enough, as the whole story would take many hours.
The next morning we got up very early to see the fishing boats leaving. Later we set off for Mettupalyam, which is at the foot of the Nilgiri Hills. En route we stopped at a small rubber plantation and factory, to see the whole process from sap collection to the sheets of (white) rubber.
After a night in Mettupalyam we again got up very early to board a steam train on the narrow-gauge Nilgiri Mountain Railway for the five-hour and 46km journey up to Udhagamandalam, or Ooty as it was called during the Raj, when the British residents went there to escape the summer heat. The carriages are pushed up the mountain by the engine with a ratchet mechanism (the Swiss rack system), to prevent the train rolling back downhill. The engine was built in the 1930s and puffed its way through sixteen tunnels, eleven stations and over nineteen bridges, through the lush scenery and tea plantations of the Nilgiri.
The railway was built between 1890 and 1908, paid for by the tea-planters and other British inhabitants. It was fascinating to experience a real steam engine and the environment of the Nilgiri Hills, as well as a throwback to the Raj. Udhagamandalam is situated at 2270m and was planned as a very British town with churches, stone houses and an artificial lake. We went to a tea factory nearby and saw all the processes involved, including a woman sweeping up tea dust from the floor, presumably to fill teabags!
The following morning we left in our bus for Mysore and travelled through the Mudumalai National Park, where we saw cheetal (spotted axis deer), black-faced langurs with their young and some working elephants.
In Mysore we visited the huge and ornate Maharajah’s Palace. The present palace was rebuilt in 1912 by Henry Irwin, the British consultant architect of Madras State, after the previous wooden structure had been destroyed by fire in 1897. It is in the hybrid Indo-Saracenic style, bringing together architectural features from India and Islam. The Kalyana Mandapa, or royal wedding hall, has oil paintings of the great 1930 Mysore Dussehra festival all round the walls. In another room are two cut crystal chairs, made for the Maharajah and Lord Mountbatten. The Public Durbar Hall is a riotous fantasy of brightly painted and gilded colonnades, as well as white marble, inlaid with delicate floral scrolls of jasper, amber and lapis lazuli in the Mughal style. It is often compared to a setting from A Thousand and One Nights. Here the Maharajah gave audience, whilst seated on a throne of solid Karnatakan gold.
We then drove up to Chamundi Hill, where the main feature is the view over Mysore and especially the walk down past an enormous 5m Nandi Bull. This bull was carved from one block of black granite in 1659 and is adorned with bells and garlands.
In the evening we went back to see the Maharajah’s Palace illuminated by five thousand light bulbs, an amazing fairy-tale sight against the night sky.
Keshava Vishnu Temple at Somnathpur
The following morning we visited the Keshava Vishnu Temple at Somnathpur and on the way stopped to watch paddy fields being ploughed by bullocks. We met the owner of these fields, who hailed us effusively and couldn’t hide his pride at being the owner.
The delightful Keshava Vishnu Temple was built in 1268 by the Hoysalas and is the finest example of that style. It is built on a star-shaped plan in the style of a trikutachala or three-peaked hill, with a tower on each shrine. The shrines are each dedicated to a different avatar of Vishnu. Unlike the majority of other southern India temples, this one is in plain granite and there is no painted stucco, although the exterior of the temple is covered in sculptures. These sculptures depict numerous scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana along with deities and animals, as well as a scene from the Kama Sutra. All the sculptures were the work of one man.
Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace near Srirangapatnam
Driving on towards Srirangapatnam, we stopped to see cane sugar being processed in a small hangar beside the road, before arriving at Tipu Sultan’s Summer palace (the Darai Daulat Bagh). Tipu Sultan ruled Mysore from 1782 to 1799 and was a greater threat to British plans for Indian domination than any other Indian ruler. Popularly known as the Tiger of Mysore, he was an educated, cultured man, who introduced radical agricultural reforms. Along with his father, he was responsible for transforming the small state of Mysore into a major Muslim power. He was killed in battle against the future Duke of Wellington in 1799. Set in a formal garden and with a finely carved gateway, the palace is a low, unimpressive, wooden and colonnaded building, which is largely obscured by sunscreens.
However the interior is a very different matter. Very well preserved, it has ornamental arches and tiger-striped columns, whilst the teak walls and ceiling are covered in floral decoration. There is also a mural showing the victory of his father Haider Ali over the British at Pollilore in 1780. Arriving back in Mysore we saw about 15 school children climb into one tuk tuk, which then set off with all their bags hanging on the outside, before taking the overnight train to Chennai.
From Chennai we drove 58km south to Mamallapuram, the main harbour of the Pallavas Kingdom some 1200 years ago. It is now famous for its carved monuments and some of them date back to that period. Over two days we visited the Tiger Cave, plus Arjuna’s Penance and the Krishna Mandapa bas-relief temples with their detailed carvings.
We also went to the Shore Temple and the Pancha Pandava Rathas. The Shore Temple dates from the 8th century and is thought to be the earliest stone temple in southern India. The design with its two delicately carved towers was even exported abroad to Southeast Asia. The Pancha Pandava Rathas consist of five sculptures of temples and animals (elephant, lion and Nandi Bull) all life-size.
On the last day before flying back to Mumbai from Chennai we went to a school that had been set up for the fishermen’s children after the tsunami and run by the Hope Foundation. Although it was a Saturday and the children and staff had come in especially for our visit, their enthusiasm was overwhelming. The children start at the age of two and a half and are taught in English as well as Tamil. Currently the children go up to age ten, but the school and the Foundation are raising money to build another classroom and thus educate them for another year. It was a magical experience and of course the older children all wanted to practise their English, show us their work, get us to write our names in their exercise books and have their photos taken.
South India is a magical kaleidoscope of colours, sights, sounds and smells. Also there is a constant awareness of its long history, culture and religion, alongside all the modern 21st century aspects. Highlights and reminiscences include the friendliness and warmth of the people, the delightful school children, the beautiful saris, the brightly painted temples, rural and village life and the teeming city life with its chaos and traffic, as well as the mountain railway trip. The food was particularly good throughout and the hotels were of a very high standard.