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Tamil Temples and Christmas in Karnataka

7th January 2011, Hassan, Karnataka.
It's been a while since I wrote, so I thought I'd better let you know what I've been up to since I've been back in India. I'm currently revisiting some of my favourite places in Karnataka, but before that I explored Tamil Nadu's temples, watched the sun rise and set at India’s southernmost point, and enjoyed a break from the road at Varkala over Christmas and New Year.

I wrote last from Kumbakonam, where I visited a trio of temples (but took no pictures due to a combination of dull, wet weather and photography being banned inside the temples – boo!). They'd not impressed me as much as the Natraja temple at Chidambaram, but were nice all the same. I wanted to take further advantage of Tamil Nadu's policy of letting non-Hindus into all but the inner sanctum of their temples, so headed next to Tanjore.

When I'd first arrived at Tanjore, after securing basic but liveable digs, I took advantage of the blue skies and sunshine, and rushed out to visit the Royal Palace. It was a fair hike away, a couple of kilometres through the busy, dusty city, and along the way I saw an old man knocked over by a motorbike. The bike rode off, while the man lay howling on the floor, before being assisted to his feet by passers-by. I'd got quite complacent about the Indian driving system, which looks like chaos, but surprisingly seems to work . . . most of the time. I took extra care after that incident though, which demonstrated that it doesn't always work.

The Palace was okay, but failed to pique much interest in me. It was a strange set up - instead of one entry fee, I had to pay a number of times to enter several different sections and museums. The usual two-tier system was in place, with higher costs for foreign visitors than Indians, but the prices were still low. After wandering around for an hour or two I was done with it, and starting to wonder whether I'd made a mistake in pre-paying for two nights in Tanjore. For some reason Tamil Nadu hotels insist on at least a deposit, if not full payment, in advance - in fact at one town I had to deposit Rs500 although the room only cost Rs350; I don't know what damage they thought I'd do. I considered waiting until the following day to visit the temple, but decided to make the most of the sunshine, as the weather had been so unpredictable, and pop in on my way back to the hotel.

I was glad I did, as the Sri Brihadeeswarar Temple at Tanjore blew me away. The temple itself is huge and impressive, with a multitude of stone carvings covering the outside walls, and sits in a spacious courtyard. Unlike many of the Hindu temples that are still used, the carvings are not painted in bright, clashing colours. For me this made it much more aesthetically pleasing than its garish contemporaries. It combined the subtle grace of ruined temples I love so much, with the vibrancy of visiting Hindus wearing their best dhotis and saris. The atmosphere was tranquil, yet the excitement of the pilgrims was palpable. It struck a perfect balance, in my eyes. I knew I could easily spend my time at the temple in Tanjore, and not feel as though I was wasting it.

As I was about to leave I heard beautiful singing, and went to investigate. In the corner of the courtyard stood a man in his fifties, hands pressed together in prayer. He faced a number of shiva lingas (phallic representations of the god Shiva) and sweetly sang a devotional song to them. He paused after a while, walking into the compound where the lingas sat and placed offerings of garlands around them, before resuming his position outside and singing once more. It was most moving, and I left the temple with a tear in my eye.

I returned the following morning, treating myself to another blessing from the decorated temple elephant - hand her a coin, which she'll pass to her mahoot before gently bonking you on the head with her trunk. I left my shoes on the grass outside, and passed through security, head-wobbling at the girl searching my bag, who recognised me from the previous afternoon. I walked slowly around the several buildings inside the compound, capturing the carved detail with my camera, and the colourful pilgrims wandering around.

My next destination was to be Trichy - or Tiruchirappalli as it is more properly known. When I returned to the hotel, I did a little research on the Internet, and discovered that the town has more visitors than hotel rooms; standards are low, prices are high, and places are often fully booked. I thought it best to call ahead, so started phoning those listed in my guidebook, and on the trip advisor website. My budget kept creeping up, as I received the same reply from everywhere: "fully booked." Trichy is only a couple of hours away from Tanjore by bus, so I figured I'd see it as a day trip instead, and paid for another night's accommodation at Tanjore - relived that I'd found out before I arrived in the city.

In all I spent six hours travelling the next day, and a mere one hour inside the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple at Trichy. My guidebook bigged it up in a major way - it is apparently the largest temple in India, so I was expecting something hugely impressive. There were a lot of pilgrims visiting the temple . . . but a lot less for the non-Hindu to see. The courtyard was smaller, and the larger inner sanctum, which was out of bounds to all but Hindus, was plain on the outside. I was very glad with my decision to stay the extra night in Tanjore, and slipped back to the temple there on my return, to get my fix of sublime serenity at the Sri Brihadeeswarar Temple.

There was one more temple town on my list: Madurai. The Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple at Madurai was built to honour a tripple-breasted, fish-eyed goddess. The temple complex covers six hectares, although my guidebook had warned that much of the complex was out of bounds to non-Hindus. I loved it. The tall gopurams - ornately decorated gateways that lead into the complex - were an insane riot of colour, with multi-armed, many-headed gods and goddesses waving their limbs about frenziedly, shouting for attention. Its over-the-top style was at the other end of the scale to the tranquillity of Tanjore, but it was a fantastic place to explore, and probably more representative of India.

So that was it, my Tamil temple tour was complete. It was time to head down to India's southernmost point, Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin to the Brits), before starting my journey back up the western coast of India. Kanyakumari is a popular destination with domestic tourists, who visit the town's small temple, and enjoy themselves in the sea. There is something wonderfully naïve and endearing about Indians on holiday. Chris and I noticed it in Ooty, where the Indian visitors got so excited about the boating lake and the clapped out old fairground. We'd speculated that they would most probably explode with joy if you took them to Alton Towers or Disney World. I enjoyed watching the happy holidaymakers splash around fully clothed in the sea, and posed for photographs when requested, photographing families when they asked me (and sometimes when they didn't).

I attempted to visit the temple whilst in Kanyakumari. Cameras were not allowed, so I'd left mine in the hotel, and followed the crowds to the temple entrance. I was waved inside and found myself in a claustrophobic queue, corralled in my metal railings. I think I was in the darshan queue, where the faithful are allowed to parade past the resident deity. There were other gora (white folk) queuing, so I figured it must be alright to be there . . . but after a couple of minutes in the stuffy, crowded queue I bottled it, ducking under the railing to escape to the fresh air. For similar reasons I didn't visit the offshore temple and giant statue that perch on a couple of islands, a stone's throw from the coastline. I went to join the queue for ferry tickets a couple of times, but the long line which snaked through the bazaar was three or four people thick, and moving very slowly. I could see how overcrowded the ferries were too; I imagined the islands themselves to be stuffed like sardine tins.

Another big draw at Kanyakumari is the chance to view both the sunrise and the sunset. I'd missed sunrise by five minutes on my first morning there, rather annoyingly, but managed to make it a couple of days later. I went down to the sea front and joined several thousand Indians excitedly awaiting the arrival of the sun. I was keen to get a good view - and some photos, of course - but it was about five deep along the wall which had the best view, of the sun rising behind the islands. Undeterred, I spotted a break in the wall, and access onto the rocks. A few people were there, but not too many, so I headed on down. I soon discovered why the area was less densely populated . . . it was the unofficial open-air toilet! I was surrounded by turds - some still steaming and fly-blown, having been recently curled off. I was determined to get some decent sunrise shots though, so stood my ground - being very careful where I put my feet. I got my pictures, but the stench of shit did spoil the moment somewhat.

I also visited the Ghandi Shrine in the town, and allowed the caretaker to rattle off a brief history of Ghandi's life and assassination (for a backsheesh, of course), as I was rather ignorant on the great man. The caretaker insisted on taking a couple of pictures of me, and before I knew it he was racing around the grounds with my camera, snapping shots. He reluctantly returned it after I caught up with him and gave him a playful punch on the arm. "I like that camera!" Yes, I'd noticed. I also had my palm read, and was given a few hints on my future. "You will travel!" Well . . . yes, obviously, unless I stay in India for the rest of my life. "Do not sign any contracts now - January will be a good time for business. I foresee stomach problems for you." This is also practically a given in India!

In a lot of ways I should have hung around in Kanyakumari until the full moon on the 21st of December - then I could have watched the sun set, then turned around and see the moon rise. That would have been nice, but I wanted to get settled somewhere nice for Christmas. I had decided to return to Varkala - I'm such a creature of habit! I'd enjoyed it a lot last time (Christmas 2005), and knew I'd have a good time there. I caught a bus to Trivandrum in Kerala, which is just an hour or so away from Varkala. My main reason for going to Trivandrum was computer related. I'd been having a bit of bother with my beloved Samsung NC10 netbook over the previous few months - the screen kept turning white, causing me to restart, or waggle the lid in an annoyed fashion until I could get a picture. At first it just happened occasionally, but now it was more often white than not.

I googled, and discovered that the WSOD (White Screen of Death) is a common complaint with the otherwise-brilliant netbook. It was quite easy to fix - all you had to do was take the laptop to bits, wiggle the wires a bit, and Bob's your uncle. Hmmmm. I was a little apprehensive, but thought I'd give it a go. I normally carry a set of small screwdrivers with me; they came out of a Christmas cracker a few years back, and have proved very handy when I travel. Unfortunately I must have left them at home when I popped back to the UK. I was still in two minds as to whether I should tackle the problem myself, or get an expert to have a look. Either way I figured my needs would be met in Trivandrum.

I found a hotel that was a short way off the MG (Mahatma Ghandi) Road. The room was pretty dire, and the mattress was quite possibly the thinnest I've ever come across - it provided the equivalent comfort as folding a blanket in two and laying it on a concrete floor. I enquired with the management as to where I'd find a laptop repair shop, and was sent north along MG Road. A kilometre or so later, three very helpful boys in a menswear shop asked if they could assist me, randomly, and sent me back down MG road a couple of kilometres past where I'd started. They wrote the name of the district I needed down in English and Malayalam, the state language. Shops providing similar services tend to cluster together over here.

After a good while dodging the traffic and choking on the fumes, I spotted a Samsung shop. It sold fridges and TVs, but I popped in on the off chance, and was given the address and phone number of the Samsung repair centre. It was almost six o'clock, so the guy suggested I try the next day. Safe in the knowledge that I could get the laptop fixed by experts if I screwed up, I decided to give it a go myself, and bought a set of screwdrivers in an electronics shop. Both angles covered, I returned to my hotel, stopping off at a rather posh hotel on the way to have dinner. Back at my grotty room, I got to work with my screwdrivers, only snapping off a small piece of plastic in the process (d'oh!). Astoundingly I managed to fix the problem - and I felt quite smug about it, I can tell you!

A short while later my feelings of triumph were replaced by nausea . . . which was soon followed by severe vomiting and diarrhoea; it was undoubtedly food poisoning. That would teach me to mock the palm-reader's powers! After a couple of hours spent almost exclusively in the toilet, I summoned up my will power, clenched everything, and ventured out for water. I was badly dehydrated and knew I needed to replace the fluids lost. It was eleven at night, and everywhere was closed. Ironically the only place I could find to buy water, was the posh hotel that had made me sick. I got through the bottle quickly, but couldn't keep it down. I still felt incredibly thirsty though, so filled the bottle with tap water, and put ten drops of chlorine in, hoping that it wouldn't make me worse. My body expelled each sip of water within a minute - in the end I had to ignore the desperate thirst I felt. I tossed and turned on the uncomfortable bed, shivering and sweating, feeling utterly wretched and unable to fend off the mosquitoes that were feeding on me. I managed to get a brief period of broken sleep, but woke up much the same, unable to keep water - let alone anything else - inside my system.

As a general rule I avoid antibiotics, preferring to suffer a little and let my immune system deal with things. But after 48 hours of the worst food poisoning I've ever had, with Christmas just around the corner, I happily took the drugs I carry in my first aid kit. They started working quickly, and soon I was able to retain the water I drank. I added dehydration powders, and then experimented with some biscuits I'd had in my bag for a few days. Near to the hotel was a juice bar, and the nice man in there made me a carrot and ginger juice, which gave me my a little of my strength back. I bought more biscuits and bananas, and popped back for another juice the next morning. I didn't fancy risking my first meal for days in Trivandrum, and decided to high tail it to Varkala.

I staggered out into the midday sun with my pack, and flagged down a rickshaw on MG Road to take me to the bus stand. The driver turned round with a twinkle in his eye, and offered to take me to Varkala for Rs700. At first I said no, but then reconsidered, and we agreed on a price of Rs600 - about £8.50 for the journey of nearly fifty kilometres. He had very little English, but we laughed and joked along the way. He dropped me where the road ends at the section of beach used mainly by Indian tourists. I checked out the first hotel I came across, which had nice rooms at a reasonable rate . . . but I wanted to be on the cliff, surrounded by Westerners and eating Western food. The Muslim owner very kindly offered to look after my bag while I found somewhere else, and I set off along the beach and up the steep steps to North Cliff. After looking at a dozen or so rooms I settled on Cliff Manor Ayurvedic Beach Resort, where I got an airy room in bright colours with a balcony. The price was Rs400 for the first two nights, then up to Rs700 - everywhere I'd looked at was hiking their price for the busy Christmas and New Year period . . . and I'd looked at enough places to know that this was pretty good value.

I returned for my bag, and stupidly balked at paying Rs50 for a rickshaw to the cliff. Instead I stumbled across the sand and up the steps with my pack, feeling that I could expire from heat and weakness at any moment. I made it though, and within half an hour of settling in I'd had my first dip in the sea . . . and suddenly everything was right with the world. As the water embraced my body I watched the golden light from the setting sun dance on the surface of the sea, giving it a metallic sheen. I felt a huge grin spread across my face; returning to Varkala was the best thing I had done, I was very happy with my decision. I managed my first meal - pad thai - and only felt slightly poorly afterwards. I was on the mend, and after a few more days of feeling rough, I felt fit and healthy again - and very happy to be in Varkala.

The days slipped by easily: a bit of sunbathing here; a refreshing swim in the sea there; a nice stroll to take a few photographs . . . and relax. I spent Christmas Day munching on pineapple on the beach, with a Thai green curry for Christmas Dinner. I discovered body boarding, and spent some fun hours being propelled towards the shore by the foaming waves. I felt comfortable and at home on the cliff, enjoying the quiet life, and relishing the fact that I could walk around with less clothes on than I normally do in India. I recognised some of the old faces - like the rival pineapple ladies - "don't buy from her - she crazy!" And the calm chai lady (although I did feel that her chai had gone downhill a bit) - even the "many seeds" man was there. I made new friends too, particularly Billy, a lovely lady from Melbourne who's married to Max from Kerala. The two of them run Southern Cross Rock & Roll Cafe, and I arrived as she was getting the free wifi up and running. I didn't envy her frustrations as she struggled to overlay some Western organisation in her little corner of chaotic India.

Cliff Manor Beach Resort, where I stayed, had a spa and ayurvedic centre attached, so I treated myself to a couple of massages, to further enhance the relaxation. The boys working there teased me as I was often in early of an evening, chatting to Chris and my parents online rather than out partying like most tourists. I showed them my other side on New Years Eve by getting riotously drunk. I'd gone to Southern Cross where Billy had flown in an Australian DJ, who really rocked the place. I hung out with three lovely girls who'd lived in Vietnam for several years, and the four of us got on with the serious matter of drinking. By an unfortunate accident, I found myself with five drinks lined up just before midnight, and downed three of them, so I could carry the remaining two into the groovy dance floor at the back of the bar; with hindsight that was probably a mistake. Oh well, I had an awesome night . . . what I can remember of it. I woke up with a few cuts and bruises, but that's pretty much par for the course - at least I didn't fall off the cliff!

I'd loved Varkala just as much - if not more - the second time around . . . and I'm sure I'll be back again one day. But there's a lot more to India than surrounding yourself with foreigners and lying on a beach. I've been loving India since I returned - helped in part by the insight I've got into the Indian psyche through the last three books I've read. The Bloodstone Papers, written by an English Indian guy, whose parents were Anglos (mixed Indian and white blood), and set around the time the British left India; The Alchemy of Desire, written in English by an Indian journalist - saucy and blush-worthy all the way through, but very well written; and the infamous Shantaram. The latter is the part-fictional part-factual story of an escaped Australian convict, who worked as a doctor whilst living in a slum and became a major player in the Bombay Mafia, amongst other things. The three have combined to give be a better understanding of the Indian mindset.

I was keen to enjoy my last weeks in this fascinating country, that has once again got me under her spell. There's so much I'm going to miss about India: the ubiquitous headwobble; the brightly wrapped women in stunning saris; and the feeling that I'm sneaking a glimpse of the past, as my bus overtakes an oxen cart piled high with crops harvested by hand. It was time to leave my safe haven at the beach, and return to the real India, so on the 3rd January 2011 I boarded an overnight train, bound for Karnataka.


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