26.12.2016 - 22.01.2017 32 °C
Monday 26th December
Whoever put the "mad" in Madurai knew what they were doing. It's noisy, dirty, chaotic and crowded. People, people, people everywhere. And quite a few cows into the bargain. While Goa and Kerala are "India lite", Madurai is the full on, in your face, Indian experience. They say India is an assault on the senses and nowhere is that more true than Madurai. I walk it's narrow streets dodging cars, rickshaws and the ubiquitous motorbikes, pushing my way through surges of pedestrians, picking my way past piles of rubbish and the cows chewing on the tastier morsels, skirting filthy puddles and cow pats and the patches of phlegm (spitting is a common habit), on my way to Madurai's great treasure, the Meenakshi Amman Temple. Enclosed by red and white candy striped walls and overlooked by four towering gopurams adorned with gaudilyy coloured figures from the Hindu pantheon at each of its entrances, it stands at the centre of the huge city drawing worshippers like a magnet, as it has done for the last five hundred and more years.
I leave my sandals and camera (for some reason I can't fathom, cameras are forbidden but mobile phones, which of course all have cameras, are not) at the the east entrance and pad barefoot beneath a gopuram into another world. A caparisoned elephant and a camel lead a procession of men pulling a temple chariot containing the small figure of a god around an inner courtyard and I follow them for a while before finding my way into the inner temple. I make my way through a series of dimly lit, pillared halls and corridors where the smoke from hundreds of ghee lamps, offerings to the gods whose images reside in dozens of niches and sanctuaries, darken the walls. Pilgrims queue patiently to receive darshan at inner shrines which are, sadly, forbidden to non-Hindus, while others prostrate themselves before an idol as an elderly sadhu sits cross-legged, deep in meditation and oblivious to the crowds that swirl around him. I spend hours wandering the labyrinthine corridors, disoriented, both in time and place, watching the life of the temple unfold - scenes that have remained unchanged for centuries.
In addition to the elephant and the camel the temple has a small herd of cows within its walls. Cows, of course, are holy and worshippers can buy a clump of vegetation from a vendor with which to feed them. In another part of the temple are stalls selling all manner of religious artefacts, pictures, puja sets and musical instruments. Nearby, merchants are seated behind mounds of briliantly coloured flowers whose scent mingles with that of incense and burning ghee.
Sated with the sights, sounds and smells of the temple I roam the bazaars that huddle in its shadow, soaking up the atmosphere and revelling in the opportunity to take photographs filled with such vibrant colour.
Madurai is undoubtedly one of the highlights of my trip so far and I am sorry to leave. Despite the chaos it has an almost palpable energy that lifts the spirits. But although there are days that excite and enervate there are also days that can overwhelm, when the traffic, noise and dirt wear down one' s patience and a desire to be anywhere else but immersed in the lunacy of India takes hold. Fortunately, days like these are few and far between but my next two stops see me reach a low ebb.
Firstly, the few days I spend up the Nilgiri hills at Kodaikanal are hugely disappointing. I remember it from 1981 as a pleasant hill stations and I hope to spend a few days relaxing and walking. But like Ooty it has become an ugly sprawl, the nights are unpleasantly cold and so is the shower, and I leave after a couple of nights for Tiruchirappalli, or Trichy, as it is more commonly known. Here, there is a temple even larger than that in Madurai, but much of it is forbidden to non-Hindus, and when I do wander accidentally into a shrine I am shouted at by a priest. There is a strange atmosphere and an unusual lack of friendliness. Dejected, I wander the bazaars of Trichy where my humour is further eroded by the dirt and sqallor, the traffic and the sheer number of people that I have to fight my way through. Worst of all is the deafening and ear-splitting blare of car, bus and motorbike horns which reach decibel levels that are nothing short of unbearable. If I could get on a plane now and head home to the peace and quiet of England I'd jump at the chance. Instead, I head to yet another temple town, Tanjore or Thanjavur as it has recently been renamed. The renaming of places in India has become common as the authorities seek to remove traces of the colonial past. Personally, I think this is a shame as it denies India's history. I am glad to say that most Indians still use the old names.
Tuesday 3rd January
Tanjore restores my spirits. The traffic, the noise and the crowds are just as intense and the dirt and squalor, the spitting and the cow shit are jusr as plentiful but the temple is stunningly beautiful in the late afternoon light and its grounds are a refuge of peace and tranquility. Nowhere is off-limits and everyone seems happy and relaxed. Even the priests seem pleased to see me after I queue for darshan, which is free, unlike many other temples which can charge up to 200 rupees for communion at the more popular shrines. I am captivated and quickly fall back under India's spell. All negative thoughts are banished.
I then spend a few days in Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherri), a French administered colony until independence in 1947. Much of the architecture in the old town is redolent of a Mediterranean seaside town but other than this there is little to see. I do, however take the opportunity to go diving at a small man-made reef a few kilometres off the coast. It doesn't compare with diving in Indonesia or Borneo but nevertheless it is good to keep my eye in and I see quite a few interesting fish including large barracuda, huge groupers and some mating cuttlefish.
I then head to another town famous for its temple, Tiruvanamalai. My visist coincides with full moon when thousands of pilgrims descend on the town
However, this has its downside as, in order to control the huge crowds and get them from one place to another as quickly as possible, the temple grounds are fenced off into different sections and one is not able to wander freely. Again, the crowds and the traffic take their toll on my frame of mind and I am glad to escape the mayhem for the peace and quiet of the seaside town Mamalapuram. This is another favourite of western travellers and the tourist enclave boasts the usual tourist shops, restaurants and hotels but I am glad of some comfort and non-spicy food and revel in the opportunity to walk the streets and the beach, unthreatened by speeding motorbikes. During my few days there it is Pongal, or harvest festival, a three day holiday and everybody seems to be in a good mood. Large crowds pour in, mostly from Chennai which is a couple of hours away by road and the town assumes an atmosphere of carnival, especially at the beach. Interestingly though, very few of them stray into the "western area" which retains its tranquil aura.
Friday 20th January
I didn't like Madras, or Chennai as it now is, when I was here in 1981 and grew to detest it on this visit. It is a huge urban mess which seems to go on forever but there is little to see. My train to Jaipur is due to leave at 5.40 in the evening and having checked out of my hotel i leave my pack at the claokroom at Chennai Central station and set off to walk the two miles to one of the few attractions. This is Fort William, established by the British in the 18th century to protect their newly established trading post. It soon becomes clear that there is a demonstration going on as hundreds of people are all heading towards Marine Beach either on foot, on the back of trucks or, of course, by motorbike. Horns are blaring even more insistently than usual and placards are being waved but the crowd thins as I head in one direction and they in another. Hot and sweaty, I reach the fort's museum only to discover it is closed in Fridays. I curse myself for not consulting my Lonely Planet more carefully and decide to go to Triplcane Road which according to LP has a few decent restaurants. It soon becomes clear though that I am heading towards the heart of the demonstration as the crowds thicken. At first I am heading in the same direction as everyone else but soon I need to fight my way against the flow and progress becomes painfully slow. Eventually I reach my goal but every shop and restaurant is closed. It seems that the demo also encompasses a general strike and every shutter is down. There is nothing else to do but walk two miles back to the station, where i retrieve my bag and settle down to wait the three hours until my train is due. I find a seat in the terminal where I can keep an eye on the digital display and time passes slowly. 5.20 arrives but still there is no information about my train. I am beginning to get a little concerned and ask a fellow passengers if he knows what is happening. He consults the Internet on his phone and tells me the train is running 2 and a half hours late. I resign myself to waiting even longer but still nothing comes up on the display. The station is becoming extremely crowded. There are no seats left and hundreds of people are standing or sitting and lying on the floor. there don't seem to be any trains arriving or leaving. A "D" keeps appearing next to those trains that are on the display which I take to mean "delayed" but still there is no news of my train. It is now four hours late and another passenger advises me to go to the customer care centre. I am reluctant to give up my seat but see no other option. I find the customer care counter, elbow my way through the crowd and give my train number to the harrassed looking man behind the metal grille. He makes a phone call and then says, "Train not coming to Chennai." I point to my ticket, "Look, it says here that it should be in Chennai at 5.30." "Train not coming," he repeats disinterestedly , and turns to deal with someone else. Instinctively knowing it will be futile to pursue the matter I turn and shove my way back through the crowd of frustrated passengers, wondering what to do now. There is only one direct train to Jaipur a week and I certainly don't want to be here that long. Another alternative might be to take a series of trains but at such short notice a reserved seat will be next to impossible to book and anyway, that would mean travelling in unreserved and overcrowded carriages. As the journey is about 1100 kilometres and would take at least two whole days, I dismiss the idea instantly. The only option is to fly and luckily a travel agent is still open (no doubt cashing in on business from thwarted train passengers) and I manage to get one of the last tickets available for a flight in two days time. It costs ten times as much as the train and knocks a large hole in my budget but I am glad to pay up just to get out of the hell-hole that is Chennai.
It seems that the protests have been widespread throughout Tamil Nadu and not just confined to Chennai. In addition to closing all the shops, protesters have managed to completely disrupt the rail system, causing delays, cancellations and diversions (which is what has happened to my train). Their aim is to overturn the government in Delhi's decision to ban the traditional sport of Jallikattu on the grounds of animal cruelty. Jallikattu is a little like the running of the bulls in Pamplona and a little like a rodeo. It involves young men trying to hold on to a bull's hump for as long as possible in order to win a prize. The bulls don't much like this and become rather angry with the result that serious injuries and deaths from trampling and goring are common. But the practise has been going on for over two thousand years and many people in Tamil Nadu resent Delhi interfering in local affairs. I suspect that this has more to do with the protest than any real desire to reinstate the sport. Whatever the reasons, the pressure exerted on the government is so intense that they give way almost immediately and Jallikattu festivals take place the following day. The last I hear before flying out of Chennai is that two men have been gored to death. In my current frame of mind, my sympathy is with the bulls.