Friday, March 03, 2006

Breathless catch-up (3rd March 2006)

Well, where was I?

Yes, Thanjavur among the bronzes. Madurai, mad mad Madurai, came next, home of the huge and hugely-impressive temple to the goddess Meenakshi. [Her husband - a version of Shiva - also gets a look-in but it's definitely her place. In an evening ceremony, he is taken to her place to pass the night.] The large campus is surrounded by a high wall and there are high towers (gopuram) in the middle of each side, brightly coloured swarms of gods, goddesses and all sorts of unearthly and earthly creatures. Much of the inside is dark enclosed halls with little or larger shrines candle-lit or spotlit among the murk - and all the time a tidal flow of pilgrims, worshippers and visitors. It's certainly a very actively used place of worship - although, disappointingly after the openness of Thanjavur, "non-Hindus (and wearers of lunghis!) are not allowed" in the two main holies of holies. There is also an impressive museum (more bronzes plus statues and ivory miniatures)

Then an excursion south to Tirunelveli to meet up with the daughter who has been volunteering at "SCAD" - Social Change and Development, which has a large campus in a village a little outside town, where a number of different categories of student are catered for - from post-secondary technology students to younger people with a whole variety of physically and/or mentally challenging conditions. There are also several other projects of a more community-development type nature, aimed at improving nutrition for outlying villagers, for example, or providing creative or other outlets to others. It was a really humbling experience to see how much could be achieved by dedication, vision and carisma in the 20 years since the place was set up in this deprived and relatively remote area. Very largely staffed and funded within India, it seemed to me through the tour I was lucky enough to be given that it was literally exemplary.

Escaping from Madurai (which I have to admit is now much less chaotic, much cleaner and better run than 9 and 8 years ago, when it was a severe stress-test), we headed up into the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs down the western spine-line of India and at this point separates Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Our destination was Kumily/Thekkadi/Periyar (variously referred to), site of a "Tiger Reserve" (although they are rarely seen by the paying public). The main way of seeing the park is by boat on the lake, an artificial construction from the imperial period, which now provides power and irrigation - principally for the state of Tamil Nadu over the border (a somewhat contentious issue, in the papers as I write this!). The lake excursion was quite pleasant - we saw deer and wild elephants - but we were disappointed in our hopes of taking a trek (either 3 hour or all day) - because there was a tiger census in progress. The trek I did last time was when there was much more wildlife to be seen - including a herd of elephants at quite close quarters. Never mind - just being in the park and exploring a little was a bit of a compensation!

The next day's activity was a rickshaw-borne trip to spice gardens and a tea factory. The driver/guide was quite pleasant, straightforward and honest (not always the case with those of his calling!) - and did a good job of showing us the range of spices and plants - with some fascinating aromas and tastes. The tea factory was less interesting and rather industrial (as you might expect) - what it seemed to produce was a sort of powdered tea in different sized lumps! No sign of a residual leaf form at all. Anyway, by the time we'd been thoroughly educated it was past noon and just time for a masala chai (spicy sweet tea) before crashing out for a slice of the afternoon. The spices we saw and tasted included cardomom, turmeric, ginger, cloves, all-spice, cinnamon, pepper, coffee (various sub-species), vanilla, curry leaf, and a herb used in Ayurvedic medicine with diabetics that neutralised sugar (P. tried it and couldn't taste sugar or bananas for an hour).

It was quite a wrench to leave the hills of the Kerala/Tamil Nadu border where we had such a good rest in our spice garden just outside the National Park - had a wildboar come rooting abround just outside the wall on the last evening! Calm, quiet, clean air, cool. Took the bus at 8.15 and careered downhill for two hours, it seemed, and then another 3 1/2 to get to Fort Cochin. Quite an urban sprawl just across the water from here (Ernakulam) but this place is relatively at the end of the road (albeit touristy). Down here it's much hotter and way more humid but the sea breeze lessens the impact a bit and the chance of eating fresh fish 50 metres from the shore is extra good. There is a much-photographed line of Chinese fishing nets - stretched on x-frames set on cantilevered structures - but although they are frequently operated (raised up from their position under water) the results seem hardly worth the effort - one tiddler or two a time, if that! More successful in their catch are the small fishing boats that ride in from the open sea and beach near an informal fish market, where their haul, whether a sack of crabs or a spread of tiger prawns or even a small tuna, is sold off to a few bidders for (we gathered) paltry sums. The buyers are the owners of the fish stalls nearby, who sell - among others - to tourists looking for a fresh fish supper cooked within sight of the beach. You buy, a rep. of a cafe whisks it away and quite soon you're having a tasty supper. The first night it was tiger prawns and a snapper - not totally cheap but utterly fresh (we have to believe) and simply but well cooked.The hotel was a bit of a rip-off (I realise Kerala's popularity enables them to hike prices but the combination of higher price and airless humidity got me looking for an alternative the next morning) but we did so well up in Kumily that the swings/roundabout calculation must come into it.

Yesterday we were doing what I almost like best of all in the tropics: cycling. After changing from the overpriced dank hotel room to a friendly much better homestay we set off through the crumbly ex-colonial-wholesale-traders streets to MatancherryPalace with its amazing murals (but no photos allowed and no p.c.s available) of the Ramayana and of Khrishna using his multiple arms (and two feet) to play the flute and titillate a bevy of cowgirls at the same time. Another mural had Shiva flirting with the female form of Vishnu while the whole of nature did what comes naturally(except for a snake more intent on catching a mouse) and except for wife Parvati who was distinctly not amused. Later, the oldest synagogue in South Asia and running the gauntlet of the Kashmiri handicraft-shopkeepers again. Then in the evening a Kathakali performance, quite as energetic and intense as I remember it - mime was never more meaningful or vigorous.

Today was the backwaters excursion, hurtling off through crazy traffic until fairly deep in well-watered countryside and then punted off in a covered boat (sitting in plastic patio chairs!), first across a waterway and down a side channel and into little narrow ways, the requisite stop for coconut juice etc and then another to learn about coir rope and get a bit of local village colour. I shouldn't be thinking like this but last time (9 years back) was better, smaller scale and more into the life of the villages. Today, after the coir spinning, it was out onto larger and larger stretches of water until we (well our punters) were battling whitecaps (slight exaggeration) and the tide to get across half a mile of open water to where I fervently hoped we would be having lunch -and so it turned out. An excellent thali - and, as should happen with thalis, the food just kept on coming. Plus we were entertained by the conversation of several travellers including a French couple who maintained, convincingly, that they were shepherds! After lunch only a small stretch more of waterway before we were disembarking and partly dreading the return battle with on-coming traffic. But, as the man said, cowards die many times before their deaths and the trip back was actually a relative (absolutely not absolute) cruise. We only nearly crashed four times - on the way out the number of near misses was uncountable!


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Madurai Hotels

Tue Oct 20, 01:36:00 pm BST  

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