Wednesday 20 to Saturday 23 February 2008, Sera, Kanataka
The bus trip to Sera was uneventful. This is the area given to the Tibetan refugees. They have built a temple, many monasteries, nunneries, houses and shops. They also have excellent interconnect services. The very first thing I noticed over the noise of the rickshaw I took from Kushalnagar to Sera was the silence. Of course it is not completely silent. You can hear birds sing, dogs bark, children laugh, adults talk and chanting. No traffic noise, no shouting, no honking, no whistles blowing endlessly. Heavenly. There were also prayer flags along the roadside.
It was also the last day of Losar, the New Year Festival. New Year started with the new moon and culminated with full moon. Buddha displayed miracles at this time and it is one of the 4 holiest days in the Buddhist calendar. For me it meant getting up at 2:00am and walking over 2 kilometres to the temple, glad it was full moon! The ceremony lasted from 3:00 to close on 7:00. It was a marvellous experience. As I entered I had to show respect by placing my hands in the prayer position, lifting them above my head, then down to the face, then to the heart and then kneel down and place my forehead on the floor - 3 times. Any one who did not do this was reminded. Non monks had to go to the side and sat on padded cushions. Conch shells were blown to herald the entry of the monks. The monks were in the centre, rows of them. In the middle was a table the length of the hall with all sorts of goodies on it. Throughout the ceremony several monks placed these in plastic bags. Yes it took them all of those 4 hours. Each side of the table sat the musicians with their drums, wind instruments and cymbals. The drums were almost always on the go, sometimes very softly sometimes loudly. The other instruments came in as required. The sparrows in the temple added their own chorus at dawn. Prayers continued throughout the ceremony. While all this was going on everyone was served some type of butter tea in cups. Unusual taste and I could get used to it. My empty stomach was very pleased with it as well. Holy water was also served in the hand to be drunk and the remains rubbed over the head, as the Hindus do. There always seemed to be something happening. Eventually the nuns arrived and sat behind us. There just was not enough space for them so the monks were moved up and the nuns moved into the reserved area with much giggling. I expect this does not happen often! Whispering went on the whole time, I am not sure how much attention the monks and nuns paid to the ceremony. There was plenty of incense wafting through the door behind us. At some point towards the end a group of senior monks went up to the Llama leading the prayers and received his blessing. They then went round to every one in the temple and blessed them. Again we received (in our hands) holy water and some type of fermented drink. The monk pouring the fermented drink did not stop poring so it made a bit of a mess. The people in the front row were not pleased. Two rows were blessed at the same time it was far too crowded for the monks to go down every row. Soon after we were all given a cake, more like a crumbly fudge and not very sweet. The the plastic bags, which I had assumed would be for the poor, were distributed to everyone. This marked the end of the ceremony.
After such a long night I spent the rest of my time relaxing at the hotel and doing some admin. I even managed to do some reading, something I never seem to have time for anymore. I was told that you could receive a blessing from the local Llama H. H. Penor Rinpoche every morning from 8:00 am to 9:00 am. I decided to do this and was up early once again to walk down to the temple complex in time. But no-one who could speak English knew about it. I was about to give up when the woman who had told me about it walked into the complex. Under her guidance I purchased a white Khata or shawl. This signifies the purity of your heart. She then took me to the correct place as she also wanted a blessing. I queued up with the Khata held in both hands, a monk took it and placed it placed it around my neck. The Llama then touched my head, I was given a packet of small brown pellets and left. I will have to find out what the pellets are, they do not seem to be edible.
Afterwards I felt peaceful and in need of a place to enjoy that peace. I tried the main Temple but it was still being cleaned by chattering young monks. Another had music students. The third seemed fine, until a group of young monks entered to practice chanting and playing musical instruments. Finally I found a fourth temple where there was peace. I spent about an hour just meditating. It was blissful.
Sunday 24 to Monday 25 February 2008, Kannur, Kerala
I felt very rested after my stay in Sera and ready to move on. I decided to go to Kannur in Kerala to see a Theyyam performance rather than to Ooty. There is a toy train from Ooty down through the hills but I had heard it was not working from a couple who had recently come through there. As it happened I saw plenty of lush scenery anyway. I was not sure I would be able to get to Kannur without going north via Mangalore but figured that there must be a bus from Madikeri. I had to go to Madikeri anyway. Sure enough there were both public and private buses going to Kannur. The private bus left at 12:30 and the public bus at 17:00. No contest I took the private bus. The trip took 5 hours altogether via a round about route. I have no idea where it went but there were definite sections where the bus was overloaded only to empty an hour along the way, then after a few more towns it would be overloaded again. Definitely a local bus for the people along the route! Definitely not a direct route either as I saw a few signs to Kannur pointing the other way! Basically the route went through the Western Ghats (hills) down to the sea. It was quite scenic in places and the vegetation was high in other parts. The road was good. At least until we hit the previously tarred section. This is always bad. A graded dirt road is better than potholed tar. Not only that but in some sections the tar was gone with half the foundations of the road. All vehicles kept to 10kph in these places. The dust was terrible at times, blowing in through open windows. But with a loaded bus (I felt sorry for those standing being jolted all over the place) we needed the fresh air. I was by the window and when ever possible I opened it up. By the time I reached Kannur I was filthy. The showerhead at the hotel was clear with lots of clean cold water coming through in a wonderful spray. I washed everything, me, my clothes and even my bags. The first time I have bothered with them but the dirt that came off meant it was absolutely necessary. I realised I needed to wash them down when the rickshaw driver who took me from the bus stand to the hotel got out and wiped down the seat! Subtle hey!
The reason for coming to Kannur was to attend a Theyyam performance. This is a religious performance believed to predate Hinduism and celebrate the harvest. It is an offering to the deities. There is one almost every night from October to May. The hotel manager looked in the paper to find the one being held on Monday night and wrote down the address in roman script. It was supposed to start at 4:00pm and I dutifully arrived a little early. I was the first one there. The drummers were practising and the first performer had not even started dressing. One man was in charge of lighting the candles. He had a hard job of it as the wind kept on blowing them out! Eventually by about 5:00pm other women had arrived and the first performance started. The audience consisted mostly of women. The performers were all men. The 'deity' or main performer (i was told he was Biyidaven) danced around the various small temples, he became quite energetic at times. He gave a sermon to devotees picked from the crowd of men, blessed them by touching their heads and then blessed the audience of about 20 women by throwing rice.
Because there were so few people the spare chairs were taken away. Then the crowds started to arrive! The second performance started with 3 men singing and drumming. I thought they were the main characters until a simply dressed performer sat on a palm leave blessed with water and waved a small oil lamp, then a large one over various objects. He also threw rice and flowers over the objects. Finally the men surrounding him threw rice all over him. He was being instructed most of the time by older men. He moved to a small alter and repeated the process. Lastly he repeated the process over a bowl with water flowers and some powder. This he then took around the various shrines, eventually he sat on the ground and threw the contents out in a frenzy, kicked through a small fire, picked up a knife and rushed back and forth between the 4 cardinal points of the compass. He looked quite scary. Eventually he calmed down and blessed everyone. All through the performance the 3 other performers kept up the chanting and drumming.
The third performance was similar to the first. Except there were fireworks included and the 'deity' (Riga?) was showered exuberantly in flowers. This time the audience paid for the blessing, it looked like 1 rupee. The drummers were fantastic. They could really get up a fast beat. They must practise a lot and be very strong in their arms. The performances were being televised. I would be interested to see the result, but that is very unlikely.
Then another performance started. By this time is was 9:00pm and I was very hungry. As I walked out to find a rickshaw I noticed costumes being made out of palm leaves and paint and crowds of people waiting to get in. I was told it would finish at 7:00pm at the hotel. The information at the performance was it would finish at 5:00 in the morning or maybe 9:00am. Three performances was sufficient for a non devotee! It seemed to me that they all had to do with the fight between good and evil with evil being vanquished by the 'deity' who then blessed everyone. It was fascinating though.
Tuesday 26 to Thursday 28 February 2008, Thrissur, Kerala
Thrissur is the cultural capital of Kerala because it has the dance schools. The performers from these schools go all over Kerala and overseas. It also has more festivals nearby than any other town. I asked the hotel management about festivals and they did not know of any, very disappointing. Next morning at breakfast I met Kevin, an American who has stayed in Thrissur for almost a year. He suggested that I talk to the Tourist Information Centre, obvious of course. He also invited me to come to the English school where he teaches to talk to the students. The Tourist Information Centre was a mine of information, all from the local language newspaper! They told me about a Kathakali performance that evening and a festival the next day. I then walked around to the Archaeological Museum in the Saktah Thampuran Palace. It is not that interesting but there were two exhibits that I loved. The first was a money counting board. The coins were so small they could not be easily handled so boards were developed with indentations the exact height and width of the coin. Each board contained a specific number of coins. Certainly would have made counting the coins much easier. The second was a chess board. The pawns were men in Lungis (a piece of material men wrap around their waist instead of trousers); the castles were Indian in design; the horse riders were dressed Indian style; The King sat on an elephant; the Queen was an elephant; I can't remember what the bishops were.
The next stop was the school, where I was warmly welcomed. All the students gathered in one of the classrooms and I gave them a potted history of my life. Then the questions came. Some were were quite thoughtful such as what is interesting about India compared to the west. Unfortunately only a few students asked questions. Kevin later explained that these were the ones studying for the IELTS. The is a language proficiency exam required to enter countries such as Australia and Canada to study further. It was great fun and I ended up spending a few hours there.
I was told the Kathakali play would start at 5:00pm. I dutifully arrived on time only to discover that it started at 6:30pm. I should know by now that the times given are never accurate. The actors were all busy doing their makeup! Dejavu! It takes 3 hours or longer for the actors (all men) to get dressed. The makeup is all natural products like palm leaves and natural dyes. The makeup artists are very skilled. Before the play started there were lots of speeches. It was the last night of a 3 day festival and was being televised. The performers were from the Kalamandalan School, the best in Kerala and therefore the world! The play lasted about 4 hours and they were really great performers - all of them. There were 4 actors, 2 singers and 3 drummers. Each one is an essential part of the performance. Two of the drummers were on the stage for the entire performance. The others at least got a break. Watching the play I thought I had figured out the story, but reading up on the meaning of the various costumes later I changed my mind. This is the story based on my reading and seeing it. The story was about a young woman (a Minnuku, symbolising gentleness and spirituality) who is told some bad news by a villain (Katti, green face for high status but with white knobs on the nose and forehead to signify their evil nature). Either he was her father telling her her intended was dead or a suitor telling her she had to marry him. The hero (Pacca, fully green face symbolising heroism or righteousness) came on stage and eventually wooed her and she agreed to marry him. The Tati (wild creature with red face and red beard symbolising a vicious animal force) gave arguments against this but the villain (father?) seemed happy. The hero then spent an hour having a long discussion with himself and decided not to marry her as it would not work. The young woman returns expecting to be greeted warmly and get married. She is rejected, she pleads and the hero succumbs. Then he rejects her again. The cycle goes on for a while until finally the young woman goes off to get the villain (or father). He and the Tati arrive and after much discussion and an attempt by the hero to kill the villain, gently prevented by the villain, the marriage is finally agreed to, the young woman cuts her thumb, puts some blood on the forehead of the villain and leaves, The men give a final dance. The narrative is done with song and the movements and expressions of the actors. The expressions can be very subtle but come through perfectly. Each movement means something from raising the eyebrows, opening the eyes wide, every gesture of the hands and movement of the feet. The drummers and singers with their cymbals were absolutely fantastic. They mimicked every movement even though they could not see what the actor was doing. If he threw his hands down there was a single beat of the drum. If he picked things off his clothes (lint, emotions I don't know what) there were a string of beats from the drums in perfect time. It must take years of practice together to become so perfect. Tension was relayed by having only the cymbals playing very quietly. Then an actor would stomp around the stage in perfect time to a drumbeat. Some of the audience were either actors themselves or very knowledgeable as I saw a few performing the same hand gestures. It was amazing to watch and kept me riveted for most of the time. The hour long soliloquy became a bit tedious though. I got the message quite quickly.
The other cultural thing to do in Thrissur is to go to a festival. The current season was over but I was told there was one on Thursday afternoon at 3:00pm. Since festivals involve elephants who do not like walking on hot ground I decided not to get there before 4:00pm at the earliest. I went to the appropriate destination as per the tourist bureau only to be told it was halfway back to town! I eventually arrived a the temple at 4:30 pm only to be told it would start at 6:30 or 7:00! Eventually one man who had spoken to me earlier and could speak English well came back to me and said the festival had actually finished the previous day and tonight there would only be one elephant walking around the streets, with a decorated head covering, blessing offerings outside the temple and outside the houses. I returned to the hotel.
Friday 29 February 2008, Cochin, Kerala
The bus trip was uneventful and the hotel right near the bus station. The reason to come to Cochin is to see the Fort area and a .... Kathakali play. The hotel was being renovated, I did not feel like seeing a tourist version of Kathakali nor walking around an old city. One night was enough as a stop over.
Saturday 1 to Wednesday 5 March 2008, Alapphuza, Kerala
This town is about 2 hours south of Cochin. It is a starting place to see the Keralan backwaters. The LP had no reasonable hotels so I was prepared to go the Tourist Office and ask for decent, cheap accommodation. As soon as I stepped down from the bus I was approached by a man from the Lemon Tree Guest House. There are 3 rooms and the price was right. It is a very peaceful place. I went for a walk around town to orientate myself. The idea is to take the local ferry to Kottayam and return the same day. I found the jetty, checked the times and continued on my way. Then I fell over on the uneven pavement and hurt my ankle. Anti inflammatory tablets from the chemist and ointment from a fellow guest helped but walking is out for a while. I seem to have hurt the same area where I had a small break some years ago. Oh well, I will catch up on some reading and admin, relax and enjoy the peace and quiet. Rickshaws can get me to restaurants. They can also take me to the jetty so I am not completely stuck.
After a day of complete rest I decided to go on the local ferry to Kottayam to see some of the backwaters. It involved sitting down most of the time so my ankle would not be unduly affected. It was interesting to see the local people going about their lives. There seems to be a fair amount of land reclamation in progress. The land is used to grow rice and is lower than the water in the canals. The canals are walled with rocks to prevent the water flooding the fields. Many of the houses are on spits of land between the canals and the fields. They are supplied with electricity but use the not so clean canal water for washing dishes, clothes and themselves. Canoes are used for transporting goods, people and for fishing. Both poles and paddles are used to propel the canoes. The ferry is the main means of transport. On the return journey many school children boarded and disembarked along the way. Near to Kottayam there are narrow roads used by cars, trucks and busses. The driver would not want to miss the edge though. There are also footbridges which must be lifted up to allow the ferry to pass by. Near Alapphuza there is a plethora of house boats. These are rented out by the night and sail around the canals, most of them in a loose bunch. The living section is made out of reed mats. Some can be quite fancy. Water hyacinth is a huge problem in the canals. Some are completely choked with the weed. The herons and cormorants make good use of them as a platform. I saw one magnificent kingfisher and a buzzard. Presumable there are many more species of birds to be seen, but not from a noisy ferry. The jetties are generally well constructed with a few exceptions.
Thursday 6 March 2008, overnight on the train
Nothing much to say except the train left Aleppy at 00:30am. A lot of time was spent sitting around the train station. At least everyone was asleep on the train and there was none of the usual pushing and shoving. The train is not in the 'Trains at a Glance' nor is it shown in the online systems. Shows that local knowledge is important. I had expected to have to take a bus back to Cochin, spend the night there and then take a 9 hour bus trip from there to Madurai.
Friday 7 to Monday 10 March 2008, Madurai, Tamil Nadu
My first action, after booking into a hotel was to have my ankle checked out. After all the rest in Aleppy it was still sore. An X-ray confirmed it was only soft tissue damage. I now have to wrap it up to prevent excessive movement and limp. I will continue to take rickshaws as well even though they are comparatively expensive in southern India. The sooner the tissue is mended the happier I will be.
The Sri Meenakshi Temple is the major sight in Madurai. It has 12 highly decorated 'gopurams' (entrances to various areas) ranging in height from 45m to 50m. It was designed in 1560 but used as a place of worship since about 0 AD when it was the capital of the Pandyam Empire. Unfortunately foreigners have to pay an entrance fee which allows limited access, basically to the area surrounding the Lotus Pool and the area between the inner and outer walls. This is because since 2005 there have been too many Christian missionaries converting Hindus. There were riots last year because of this. I was told this by Chander, a Hindu. He said I was the first foreigner who did not start talking religion and immediately bring out Christian pamphlets. It really is a pity as the inner sanctums are the most interesting to see even if photos are generally not allowed.
No-one asked to see the ticket and although there is a camera charge I did not pay it as I had already taken photos of the ceiling decoration before I found the ticket office. Unfortunately the gopurams are being covered in preparation for their 8 year (or 25 year according to another source) paint job. So even those were not visible. They are being painted for a special Ponga (harvest type) festival which is held about every 25 years. Next one is on 14 January 2009. The palm leaf matting is to provide shade for the painters, It can be very hot in the sun and the surface of the building must also get very hot. It is just a pity they first cover them all before they start painting. It would be better for tourists if they covered and painted one at a time. The Hindus at least get to see the inside. Later in the year the sight should be spectacular. The gopurams are covered with intricate carvings, colourfully painted, very much Dravidian style, very baroque. The top of a goporum still has a link to the large picture to enable you to see the detail, which no-one can ever really see without a ladder, binoculars or a camera.
I went on a tour to see the sights around town. Walking long distances is out at the moment and rickshaws are expensive. The tour was good value. The most memorable stops were:
The Gandhi Museum which showed the struggle for India from the first time the British East India Company arrived up until independence. The story was in English and Tamil, which Hindi speakers can't understand even if they could read the script. A lot of resentment of the British came through with emphasis on the taking of resources, destroying local farming and manufacturing and replacing these with goods from Britain. Stories of the killing of Indian fighters and the various wars and skirmishes were told. The story of Gandhi came at the end as part of the overall struggle.
The Alagar Temple in the hills. This is 2000 years old and is covered in matting. The painting is almost finished though and some of the matting had come away showing what it will look like. There were many people there enjoying a picnic. One little boy was having his ears pierced, not a happy chappy. There were plenty of monkeys around, quite well fed. Further up the hill was a much newer small temple which was not covered up. At least I have some photos of this.
I stayed an extra day as the coconut juice I drank upset my stomach quite badly. Anyway my ankle could do with the rest. I had also just exchanged some books with a fellow traveler so had plenty of reading matter. One day is quite enough though!
The pictures below show various forms of transport.
Tuesday 11 to Monday 17 March 2008, Trichy, Tamil Nadu
I discovered that the bus for Trichy leaves from the New Bus Stand some way out of town. A rickshaw was quite expensive but another traveller told me to get one to the local bus stand and then get a bus from there to the New Bus Stand. It is at least 10k out of town so it is no wonder the rickshaw driver asked so much. Anyway the bus for Trichy was waiting and left quite soon. The trip was normal for India. The roads are being turned into dual carriage ways so things will improve eventually. In Trichy there are at least a dozen hotels right next to the bus stand. Great I thought! They were all full or over my budget limit! Except for one, I decided to take the room and was told I could only have it for 1 night! Back to my search. I finally located the cheapest hotel I have ever stayed in about 500m from the bus stand. It is clean, the electric plug works but it only has a bucket shower. Oh well, I've done that before in more expensive hotels. The bed bugs came free but a change of room solved that problem.
Once again my first stop was the doctor. My stomach was not coming right. I took the tablets I had been taking along just in case. The doctor took one look at them and told me they were laxatives! No wonder I had problems. At least the solution was simple, stop the tablets. My insides must be really clean by now!
There are 3 temples in Trichy. The first is the Rock Fort Temple. The rock is supposed to be one of the oldest in the world, 3,500 billion years, older than both Greenland and the Himalayas. Guess the writer of the pamphlet did not think about Australia and Africa. There are 3 temples built on a the rock. The view from the top is the most interesting aspect although it is not very photogenic.
The middle and top temples are the most important. They were built sometime after 850 CE. The middle temple is devoted to Lord Shiva who became midwife at the birth of a woman's child as her mother could not cross the flooded river. Hence the Lingam plus the Lady worshipped there. Non Hindus are not allowed in but they do have a photo of the statues. The top temple is devoted to Ganesh. On the way up I was invited to lunch by men who work in the temples i.e. cleaning and other menial tasks. Presumably the priests are served somewhere else being of Brahmin caste. Palm leaves are used as plates and / or placemats in the good restaurants, so I was eating off a standard plate. At least they are easy to clean away and more eco friendly than paper plates. Other animals eat them, better for them as well than paper plates. They are also much cheaper, just climb a nearby tree! I find the amount of rice eaten by the Indians to be enormous. They all eat at least 4 times as much as I do, in half the time. I am getting quite good at eating with my fingers or with roti (flat bread), not half as messy as I used to be.
I popped into Lourdes Church nearby, built in 1812 and currently being repainted inside with pink pillars. An Indian touch to a western religion.
Next stop was the Sri Jambukeswara Temple. Legend says that the lingam of Shiva was created by his wife Parvathi from water. It was worshipped by an elephant that used to offer water from the Cauvery river nearby as well as flowers and fruits from the Jambu tree. The temple honours water, one of the five elements and the lingam is apparently partially submerged in water (non Hindus are not allowed into the inner sanctum). The temple is dedicated to Shiva and named after the elephant. The temple was started some time after 850 CE and added to by successive rulers.
The last temple is the Sri Ranganathswamy Temple (or Sri Rangan). It is dedicated to Sri Ranganthar who was worshipped by Brahma and the ancestors of Rama so he goes back a long way in the texts. The temple is here because Rama gave Vibhishana a Ranga Vimana (a special chariot like conveyance with Vishnu inside) to take to Srilanka. Vibhishana stopped here and contrary to instructions placed it on the ground where it became rooted. The next time the chariot is on show will be 22 March. I would like to see the festival but think I will rather move on. The temple was started in the 10th century and is still being worked on. The 7th gopuram (main entrance) was completed in 1987 and measures 73 meters high. It is plain compared to the older structures. There are 7 concentric squares. 6 and 7 include houses, businesses, restaurants and many shops. Presumably the walls came after the people. Some of the decoration is in the Vijayanagar style. The rest is Dravidian.
Before I went into this temple I once again asked a dealer with a big Vodaphone sign to explain why I had no coverage in Tamil Nadu. Up until now I was told that there were no dealers in Vodaphone in Trichy, so why all the signs? He not only sold Vodaphone but knew how to get help. Unfortunately he could not actually help and directed me to the Trichy branch. After visiting the Sri Rangan temple I had to return to the Rock Fort Temple and walk a block from there. Yes there is a Vodaphone branch in Trichy! The problem is the sim card. Because I purchased the sim card in Rajestan, they have to provide a new one! This will take 2 days to arrive. More R & R. So much for Vodaphone being country wide! Certainly their systems and organisation are not. I have been having problems on and off so hopefully this will sort them all out. Next time I come to India I will try AirTel. The problems were not sorted out and I had to wait for Monday.
So on Sunday I went on a day trip to Thanjavur, once capital of the Chola Kingdom.
Brihadishwara Temple, built in 1010 is the crown of Chola temple architecture. It has as much detail as the Dravidian style temples but it is not painted. Another difference is that the gates (goporum) are not as high as the tower over the inner sanctum. The temple is dedicated to Shiva. There is of course a temple elephant to provide blessings for 1 Rupee.
The monolithic statue of Nandi is the first thing you see. It is cut from a single piece of rock, weighs 25 tonne and is 6 meters long by 3 meters high. It is also licking its lips. The dome on top is carved from a single piece of granite and weighs 80 tonnes. It was moved into place using an earth rampart and muscle power. The inner sanctum has a lingam 4 meters high and 7 meters in circumference. It has garlands and other decorations. Each of the gods have their own vehicle. The bull, Nandi, is the vehicle of Shiva. Though that is not why cows are sacred. Cows are sacred because they were the first animal to help man by providing milk and are therefore considered godly.
Around the walls there are galleries containing 250 linga.
Everyone gets dressed to attend the temples and perform puja (prayer). This time I tried to capture the colour of all those saris. They can be made of very elaborately decorated material ranging from silk to cotton. Gold is a favourite colour for trimmings.
Outside the usual religious artefacts are for sale. This time I also saw a bird being used to tell fortunes. Palmistry and astrology are very popular. I have had my hand read several times by non professionals, just because they insisted. At least they all agree the reading is good and the money will flow in. Since Pieter is in England at the moment selling the Renault I do hope this prediction is true.
The Royal Palace was built around 1550. It now houses several museums.
The most expensive ticket allows you into the Darbar Hall, the clock tower and another place I did not visit. The Darbar Hall was used for audiences with the king. It has not been restored but is well preserved. The clock tower has notices asking visitors not go to the top but there they were right on top. To get up can be quite scary as the first part of the narrow stairs is completely dark. I felt they were not worth the money
The Art museum with bronzes and stone sculptures was much better value. But the best was free.
The library has some magnificent documents. It is the collection of various Maharajas. The highlights for me were: The Mahabarta with each verse on its own illustrated page, like a stack of cards. There were wooden covers top and bottom some covers had gold leaf. It is the same system still used by Buddhist monks at Sera; A 10 meter long paper astrological document; Miniature paintings that could only be seen with a magnifying glass; A 3cm by 2cm approx verse with the letters and decorations formed by scores of the word Shiva. There was a copy blown up to A4 size so you could see the word Shiva; Palm leaf manuscripts of Sanskrit documents from 1719 using various scripts e.g. Grantha, Oriya, Burmese, Telegu, Bengali.
To reach the Palace you have to go around the back through an open field with hundreds of cricket matches going on. It was Sunday so all the young men and boys were out practising. Fielders were next to other pitches. A group would take any small space and use it. When walking across the field there was no way of knowing where a ball would come from. Marvellous to watch a tour bus get through.
It has been raining on and off for a few days. One hilarious sight was a motorcycle with the passenger holding an umbrella over both himself and the driver. At least the showers are short and if you do get wet, drying is quick.
Monday I chased up my cell phone problem. Apparently there are two kinds of sim cards, a normal one and a special one which allows internet access. I had bought the special one in expectation of buying a new cell phone. The palaver of buying a cell phone put me off entirely. Rajastan had sent the normal sim card, hence it did not work. In the end I was given a new Tamil Nadu normal sim card free but I still had to fill in the form, provide a copy of my passport and a photograph. I did not leave the office until it was all sorted out and I had successfully loaded some money onto the card. I now have a new number. The downside is the special sim card cost quite a bit but you do not pay commission on talk time purchased. You pay commission each time you load talk time on a normal sim card. At least I have a working cell phone again! I just hope it stays that way because I tried using the SA sim card and it has been blocked for outgoing messages because I have not used it for a while. I can still receive messages though. I guess I will now have to sort that out or cancel it all together.
Tuesday 18 to Wednesday 19 March 2008, Pondicherry
Pondicherry is not in Tamil Nadu. It is its own little old French enclave with bits and pieces scattered around the countryside. The dusty bus trip took 5 hours so I was ready for a decent shower, clean clothes and a meal when I arrived. I came here for 2 reasons, to upload the website and sort out my chronic medication. I managed both but did not want to stay as there seemed very little to do except visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram with its tomb of the founders, walk around town and listen to speeches in Tamil because two different Christian churches had a dispute. It was also raining half the time.
Thursday 20 to Saturday 29 March 2008, Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu
It was time for some R&R and I chose Mamallapuram because it was a tourist spot and would have things to see and do plus second hand bookshops along with European style meals. I managed to exchange my books, keep up with e-mail, rest and see the sights. I ate Indian meals though because I find I prefer them at the moment. The area has been a showcase for sculptors for over 2,000 years. Their work is on display and it is then bought or ordered and sent to temples and other places throughout India and the world. Of course the tourist trade is catered for with small sculptures. There are plenty of shops run by Kashmirees with the usual variety of tops, pants, shawls and embroidered cloths. They are such smooth talkers it can be a delight to talk to and listen to them - as long as you do not believe 90% of what they say. The beaches are not for swimming as seems to be the case along most of the Indian coast due to the very strong undercurrents. Paddling is OK though. Goats, cows and monkeys are everywhere.
The first hotel I stayed at was very noisy because its construction ensured quiet conversations echoed everywhere, and the conversations at midnight were anything but quiet! Luckily I met up with Harry, an Australian I met in Madurai. He showed me his hotel for the same price but with a mosquito net, what bliss. I still got bitten during the evening even with anti mosquito cream, but at least I was safe at night. I use plug in repellents at night but in the previous hotel I also had to have a coil in the bathroom with its broken window. Coils always make the room smell disgusting.
Fishing is a family affair. Two people straighten the net while others work on removing the catch, crabs when I was there. The rejects, small stingray(?), half eaten fish, molluscs etc are all buried in a deep hole in the sand.
There are many sculpture shops where the artisans work and display their work. They use hammer and chisel but also modern tools such as grinders and attachments to drills.
The main attraction is the Shore Temple. It used to be cut off at high tide but has been fenced in for over 20 years. There is a large bastion of rocks to prevent the sea from inundating it. Helpful when the tsunami hit. The temple represents the final phase of Palava art. It was originally built in the 7th century but reconstructed later. I did not go in (there is an entrance fee) as you can see most of it from the outside, although there are sculptures inside which I obviously missed.
There is a park enclosing many of the original sculptures done to showcase the artisans skills. It contains temples, Mandapams (buildings) and carvings in the rock.
The 5 Rathas is an example of Pallava architecture. There are 5 rock cut temples resembling chariots. The entire set of structures was cut from a single rock. They represent the champions of the Mahaharata, Shiva, Vishnu, Surya (the sun god), Indra (the rain god) and their collective wife Draupadi in the form of Durga
I have actually planned my trip until 11 April. This is a real first for detailed long term planning. It started about 2 months ago with a decision to accompany Jim Richardson and 2 others to the North East Provinces. There are areas where 4 people are required to obtain permits. Gradually dates were worked out and set. This meant I had to be in Calcutta by 7 April to allow a day to purchase a helmet. The hotel has been booked for both of us. Originally it was to be a bike trip but this has since fallen through. Jim is arriving in the early hours of the 9th and we leave on the overnight train for Guwahati in Assam Province on 10 April. What happens from there is still a subject of discussion. In any case it meant organising our tickets from Calcutta to Guwahati and my tickets to Calcutta. I managed to purchase the tickets to Guwahati from the local office as they were under the general quota. However there was a waiting list for my tickets to Calcutta. This meant a trip into Chennai to the main railway station to make use of the foreigners quota. I did not know you had to take your passport so I could not get onto the quota! But I am a woman and there were seats available on the women's quota. Phew! Otherwise I would have had to take second class and sit up all night or perhaps go by bus. Train is much more pleasant! The trip involved a bus to the main bus stand in Chennai. It is the largest bus stand in India and looks it. There are buses arriving from all over India on one side and local buses on the other. It is still new, clean and has all the conveniences including clean toilets, retiring rooms, shops, stalls but not a decent restaurant that I could see.
Sunday 30 March 2008, Chennai, Tamil Nadu
I was in no hurry to leave as I had all day. However I went to the bus stop around 11:00 and was told the next bus would leave in about 20 minutes. Fine. I took off my backpack, sat down and relaxed. The next minute an announcement was made for the Chennai bus which was actually moving! I dashed onto the bus, unhooked my wheels, stowed the sports bag and only then realised I had left the backpack behind. My laptop, important papers like train tickets, electronic gear!!!! I have never left a bus so fast. and started running back. Of course it soon occurred to me it would be even quicker if I took the time to reattach the wheels to the sports bag as the weight of carrying it was definitely slowing me down. I arrived at the bus stop to discover my backpack was exactly where I had left it. What a relief! This time I put the backpack on top of the sports bag so I would not forget it. Once again the call for Chennai only came once the bus was moving but at least I had everything with me. The trip passed without incident. I caught the local bus to Egmore train station from the main bus stand with 2 Danes and then a rickshaw to the hotel with them. The Cristal Hotel in Triplicane is a lovely hotel, clean and spacious.
After having a very welcome shower I set off for Spencer Plaza, a shopping mall. It was quite a bit further than I had expected so I ate a good 'meals' along the way. In southern India 'meals' are served at lunchtime. They are in fact Thalli and on a par, if not better than the one in Mysore. This 'meals' had 6 side dishes plus a popadom. You can have more rice and side dishes if you want, in fact you can eat as much as you want and it is cheaper than any other item on the menu. I will be sorry when I reach north India and it is no longer available. Spencer Plaza is a western space in India. It is just like the shopping centres in SA with a food court and lots of upmarket shops. I couldn't resist the bookstore and bought an abridged version of the Bhagavad Gita. I almost succumbed and bought a huge bag of Australian biscuits, the smell was delicious. But I knew that in this heat I would not eat them before they turned to crumbs. It was difficult though. The shop keepers are naturally all Indian and Kashmiri and the prices of goods reflect the upmarket venue. I will have to wait with replacing my sports bag. In the rush earlier I pulled the wrong place and now one zip no longer functions. I have made a plan with plenty of safety pins but it is not ideal.
Monday 31 March 2008, overnight on the train through Andhra Pradesh
I had to be at the station in time for an 8:45am train, so it was a matter of being up early to be at the station by 8:00am. The train was already waiting which meant there was no rushing, pushing and shoving to get on. It was a woman's carriage without the mountains of luggage normally filling every spare space, but the majority of passengers were men. I assume they were the people on the general waiting list that I bypassed to get my seat. The journey was uneventful. I finished one of the books purchased in Mamallapuram, did some puzzles from a magazine I had purchased in SA, snoozed on the top bunk and watched the uninteresting scenery pass by. This included young men playing volley ball, what happened to cricket? I decided to order dinner from the pantry car. It finally arrived after 8:00pm, was quickly eaten by those who had ordered meals, then everyone went to bed like well behaved people. Lovely. Unfortunately I had to be up in time to pack up and leave the train at Bubaneshwar at 4:55am. Not ideal.
Tuesday 1 April to Sunday 6 April 2008, Bubaneshwar, Orissa
Naturally I was not my best when we arrived. I thought I was going in a rickshaw to one of the hotels in the LP but it was actually a taxi (car) which is more expensive. The hotel had no space so I told the driver my budget and he took me to Hotel Atithi Nivas. The room was small, virtually the size of the bed plus a small table with a TV, with no windows but I decided I could sleep then look for something better. We had already had problems finding some-one to assist at both hotels. It was only after I woke up that I realised the toilet leaked (one of the reasons eastern toilets are so much better, they can't leak) and the floor had not been washed in a month or more. The sheets were clean, I know I watched them being changed, but so grey with even greyer patches that nothing will ever make them look good. Really I had to move. I found 2 places for the same price both very nice. I decided to take the one at the hotel Upasana. It is a large room with windows with mosquito netting on 3 sides and a shared bathroom and balcony. Since I am the only occupant it is almost like having an attached bathroom. It is at the back of the hotel as well so I do not have to get dressed but just put a towel around me when I go to the bathroom. It includes a TV, hot shower and without asking for it I was supplied with a towel and soap. Unfortunately the door is not mosquito proof but I have both a top and a bottom sheet so I can cover myself at night and with all the open windows it is not too hot. I am glad I found it, especially since I thought I had 4 days here but in fact have 6 days. Hopefully I will become sufficiently bored to finish the income tax. The SA tax year ends at the end of February and I have all the information, I just have to put it together and send it to my trusty administrator, David.
Very often the hotels are not properly clean, 95% of the time in budget hotels. It would not take much effort if chemical cleaners were used instead of only water. However the damage to the environment would be enormous. Already the use of plastic bags and bottles plus other modern packaging clogs the streets, canals and waterways. Soap used for washing clothes helps create scum in the rivers and bathing areas. So I guess I will have to keep looking the other way.
Bubaneshwar is a strange city. The main street has all types of shops from street food stalls, restaurants, hotels, car and scooter repair shops, a clothing store, medical stores, the State Museum, massage parlour, bars and so many others. There are 2 internet cafes that I have found. The lassie and juice stalls are the best. Plain lassie is not just curd, ice, water and sugar like everywhere else. There are at least 2 different syrups and Maltese granules. Nuts and candied cherries may also be added. I tried one of the more expensive ones. They added some jackfruit and condensed milk. Plain lassie is better. I tried a Bela juice as well. It turned out a little hot and not very sweet even after 3 heaped tablespoons of sugar.
There is of course normal sightseeing. Konark is a temple town about 65 k away on a bus route. The road has quite a few curves and on both the forward and return journey at least one person was sick. Not surprising the way the bus drivers turn corners and overtake at speed against oncoming traffic.
The Sun Temple was built in about 1250 AD by the Eastern Ganga King Narasimhadev l to enshrine the image of the sun, Surya, the patron deity of the place. I hired an official guide and the following information came from him. Konark is made up of the Sanskrit word arka for sun and kon for angle or corner, hence sun corner. It took 12,000 artists 12 years to build using local iron rich stone and blue granite from Chennai for the main entrances. The stones were held together with iron pins of various sizes. There were 3 building originally, the Hall of Dance, the Hall of Audience and the main temple. The main temple collapsed firstly because the Mughals removed the copper cupola in the 16th century, then the Portuguese removed the lodestone because it interfered with their compasses. The lodestone is thought to have been important for keeping the major iron beams in place. Cyclones did the rest but also covered the other structures with sand, thus preserving them. Excavation began in 1901 by the British. They filled in the Audience Hall to prevent collapse.
The Hall of Dance has 3 isles. They are placed so that the mid winter, mid summer and mid rainy season rising sun would shine through to the statue of Surya in the Audience Hall. The light would then reflect up onto the inside of a gold cupola and there would be sunshine inside. The Audience Hall also had 3 statues of Surya on the outside to catch the morning, midday and evening sun. The statues show a very young Surya, an adult and an old man riding on a horse.
The Audience Hall is built like a chariot with 12 pairs of wheels and 7 horses pulling it towards the rising sun. There are 24 fortnights of 15 days in the old Indian calendar and 7 colours in the rainbow - both numbers relate to the sun. There were 4 horses on the left, representing women and 3 on the right for men. This made the sides equal as men are stronger than women and the Audience Hall represents life. The wheels act as sundials. They have 8 spokes for the 8 divisions of the day (in ancient India) and little dots on the outer rim of the wheel each one representing 3 minutes. As you can see it was just after midday when I took the photo. Each wheel has a different set of carvings on the spokes of the wheel.
Right in front are two statues of lions (Hinduism, strength) crushing elephants (Buddhism, prosperity) crushing man, who has to be humble and give up his ego. Ashoka converted to Buddhism in 260 BCE and by 1250 CE there was a resurgence of Hinduism.
The Audience Hall reflects the 3 stages of life, child at the bottom, adulthood and old age. Most of the carvings are from the adult phase. The sculptors depicted their fantasies and sometimes their hopes. One is of a wife waiting for her husband - for 12 years! Others are of women washing their hair and displaying it to, or presenting food to, or dancing for the husband. Then there are the various forms of sexual intercourse; monogamous, polygamous, homosexual, lesbian, with animals, animals mating, teaching the young adults, all repeated many times by different artists. There is one with a dog licking a women to cure her from venereal disease, wonder if it worked? Behind many of the statues are small holes in the wall. These were to allow for the expansion and contraction of the stone with changes in temperature.
On Friday it rained, exactly the right type of day to go to Museums.
The Orissa State Museum was built on the ruins of an ancient fortification and has 2 step wells in the grounds. I had heard about these in Rajastan and now I have seen a very plain one. The main attraction is the statues from many sites spread over a 3,000 year period, arranged in chronological order. The main difference between the old and the new is the weathering and material used. The older artisans were as skilled as the modern ones. I liked the handicrafts, as usual, but also found the Anthropology section interesting. It depicts tribal life as it is today! There are models of cottages and dancers as well as ornaments and clothing. There is also a section on Patta Paintings. These are made by gluing fibres together, painting the scenes and then varnishing the finished product. The detail is exquisite including the mandatory border. There were also palm leaf manuscripts about serious subjects. Modern ones are available outside with depictions of various positions from the Karma Sutra.
The other Museum I visited was the Museum of Tribal Arts and Artefacts. There are 62 tribes in Orissa comprising 22% of the population. Naturally they are 'scheduled' tribes i.e. untouchables. I find this number surprising as I had not realised that there were so many primitive peoples in India. I gather other states have many more. These tribes live as hunter / gatherers or farmers. Their clothing can be very skimpy for both men and women and they have primitive home-made tools. Education means the younger people do not always want to stay with the tribe so the tribes will eventually disappear. It is always sad to see cultures go but that is called progress. Being untouchables though they may not find life outside the tribe that easy. There was an article in the paper recently where a group of Buddhists were threatening to become Hindus if Buddhists from the scheduled classes (Dalits, untouchables) took their funeral procession through a main street. The Hindus said even they no longer applied such strict laws to the Dalits anymore! The caste system is alive and well in India. It is found in all religious groups. Dalit Christians also have their own churches so as not to pollute the non-Dalits.
Of course I had to see some of the main temples in Bubaneshwar. These are about 3 k from the centre and I decided to walk rather than take a rickshaw. The drivers are quite open about charging a premium for tourists so I avoid them whenever possible and use the bus or walk. The major exception is when I have luggage to cart around. The temples, about 50 in all, are built around the Bindu Sagar. This is a large pool reputed to contain water from every holy river, stream, pool and tank in India. During the Ashokastami festival at the end of April the deity from the Lingaraj Mandir is brought here for ritual bating then to Rameswaram Temple for a 4 day stay.
The Anarka Vasudeva Temple was built in the 13th century. One side of the temple grounds is devoted to cooking food. This is done in large pots over wooden fires. There is rice and many different vegetables. The food is offered to the god and then purchased by devotees and eaten. I was allowed to go inside but a black faced monkey decided I had food and kept on running after me and grabbing my legs. Obviously if I went inside the temple he would be after the blessed food so I was forced to leave. Pesky creature. The Indians were actually afraid of him and ran away when he approached.
The main temple is the Lingaraj Mandir. This is a Hindu only temple to the extent that Indira Gandhi was not allowed inside because her husband was a Parsi (Zoroastrian whose ancestors came from Iran centuries ago). Obviously they do not agree with Lord Krishna who said everyone is a Hindu. Non-Hindus can look over the complex from a viewing platform for a fee. The temple is dedicated to Shiva and was built between 1090 and 1104. It is considered the epitome of Kalinga style architecture.
I was not sure where the other temples were and the thought of walking around looking for them was too much. A rickshaw would definitely be a better way to do it. In any case 2 temples in a similar style is enough for me.
Monday 7 April to Wednesday 9 April 2008, Kolkata, West Bengal
I had heard about clay cups being used on trains to serve chai (sweet milky tea). I came across them on this train. It seems to be a feature in West Bengal as they can be found on the railway platforms and throughout Kolkata.
I finally met up with Jay on Tuesday. His train was leaving from Sealdah, another main train station and he stayed in a hotel closer to other tourists and the station. We had a long chat and lunch together. The next time we meet will be in Guwahati. I ate and drank my way to the ferry to Howrah station. No real touristy stuff just looking at life in Kolkata. I did look in on the market but the hustlers are very persistent which makes it unpleasant. It is pretty average as markets go. The crows are the most interesting aspect, they were in the meat hall sitting on the chopping blocks picking out leftovers. Most of the meat had already been sold.
They still have rickshaws pulled by men. The customers that I saw were all Indians, maybe because tourists walk every where, especially the backpackers around Sudder Street.
The pavements are taken over by businesses, so pedestrians walk on the streets. Cars can have major problems getting through when the businesses over flow onto the streets. This of course happens throughout India. There are primitive water supply system still even in a big city. Not only are there hand pumps but some women took water from a hole in the middle of the road. I wonder if it was from clean water or waste water? Unfortunately I was not close enough to find out. Then there is Howrah bridge just like the Sydney Harbour Bridge! Well it is a single span bridge! It is also very busy as the new bridge built to reduce traffic volumes on Howrah Bridge charges a toll so everyone still uses the old bridge. The Kolkata is close to the sea and the Houghly river is tidal here. It is extremely muddy and leaves a very tick layer of mud on the lower pontoon where the ferry lands passengers at low tide. At least it provides employment
Wednesday I met up with Jim. I expected him to sleep for hours and only got up kate. He had already been awake for ages. His room is in a very noisy area so it is no wonder. He had a few things to buy and money to exchange so we headed back to the Sudder Street area. Most of the day was spent walking around the area and back to the ferry.
Thursday 10 April 2008, overnight train
Jim and I had side seats which meant 2 tier and he bottom seat just for us. What can I say? It was a typical train journey in Sleeper Class. There were more people than beds as usual but the extras left the train before bed time.
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