Wednesday, January 02, 2013

And suddenly I'm in Madurai

This could be entitled "Through the hills from Mysore to Madurai" but - as so often happens here - things didn't go exactly to plan.

(Mysore Palace)

Having missed trekking opportunities in Coorg (between Mangalore and Mysore, as you may remember), I was intent on heading back into the hills (the Western Ghats) in search of wildlife. First it was a bus over seriously broken-up roads across the Keralan border to Mananathavadi (takes some remembering - but then it rolls off the tongue) and thence to Tholpetty to a charming villa very close to the gate of the park and therefore convenient for late evening and early morning jeep rides. Almost certainly I have been spoilt for Indian wildlife by spotting tigers most days at Kanha, further north, another year, so I was underwhelmed (if you allow the word) by only seeing deer and bison on two very bumpy drives through the forest. OK, tigers were unlikely (although two had been seen the previous day (isn't it ever so?) but this area has large numbers of wild elephants which are seen more often. Not by me, though.

Promises, promises! (but I did see bison, up close: like huge cattle, really.)

(tiger food)
(more tiger food:spotted deer - but relaxed: no tigers around!)

The bouncing around in the jeep added to the lack of hope of larger wildlife set me off on the road again. But had I learnt my lesson? Do not sit at the back of the bus, particularly in the bone-shakers that Keralan State Transport use for public conveyance. The back seat is convenient for stowing baggage - and the front is reserved for women - but for one's stomach it's bad news.  After three buses and three such seats, I had the first case of travel sickness I can remember ever having (it was either that or my once straying from my veg-only rule - as far as chicken - was coming home to roost - ha ha!). I was really a bit of a wreck by the time I got to Sultan Battery (suitably named) and I crawled into the nearest half-luxury hotel room I could find and crashed out.  I owe to my nephew Nicholas the advice that however big a pickle you are in in India you can get out of it with the expenditure of relatively little money - so I went for the best place in town!

The next day I felt fit enough to face the road again and had the luck to catch one of the few direct buses from Sultan Battery to Coimbatore just as it was pulling out. I was heading for another sanctuary, Anamalai. I fell into conversation with an English couple heading my way but only part of the journey - so after 3 hours standing I could have their seats. They worked in IT and were interesting for the thoroughness with which they had pre-researched and booked their trip, right down to booking their bus seats from the UK (asking for trouble in India, I'd say, but so far no glitches) At that stage, they were heading for a reservation on the "toy-train" up to the British hill resort of Ooty (a.k.a.Oudhagamandalam - no wonder they shortened it). The bus trip went through sensational scenery, mainly tea plantations at the lower levels until we approached the clouds where they gave way to euchalyptus , but lush, green and varied. The man was recording slices of the view on a videocam: not a bad idea, really: still photos could never do it justice, especially from a moving bus. (He also records street scenes and markets similarly, but with the camera held inconspicuously at his side: crafty!)  

After they got off, I was soon joined by an Indian medical administrator, who, despite having wonderfully Victorian English was an interesting conversationalist. After some chat, he lent me his English Language newspaper - a point scored, I think, that he wasn't reading in Tamil or Malayamalam. Call it luck or call it ill fortune but when I turned to the second page, there was an article about the annual wildlife count in Anamalai sanctuary - starting that very day and closing the park for 5 days. I wasn't really disappointed although I was looking forward to staying overnight in the park in a treetop shelter: that could have been something!

So, instead of the telephoning that I had planned to do, I was able to change plans and go straight on through from Coimbatore to Madurai. A typical narrative: my seat-mate had waxed confident in his knowledge of transport arrangements in the area, and assured me that I could get a connecting bus from the same bus stand as the one we arrived at (there are several in Coimbatore) but when we pulled in he was gone with the wind and, would you believe it? - the connecting bus left from a place the other side of town, a 20-minute bus journey. No matter - the staff at the bus stand were very helpful and there was no real hold-up, buses leaving almost as soon as I boarded them, and the last one being fairly empty.

And now I'm in Temple-Town Central, arguably the South Indian answer to Varanasi or at least a very important spiritual centre, along with the other temple-towns of Tamil Nadu, of which perhaps more in another blog. The huge temple here is dedicated to Meenakshi, one/the wife of Shiva (who also gets a secondary place in this ancient seat of worship: the compensation is that the images get to spend the nights together: nice for them!).  It's impressive to walk barefoot through the dark vaulted stone corridors that have been down the ages and still are trodden by many thousands of pilgrims every day, some walking barefoot from location to location, town to town.

The temple also has the bonus for a lover of bronzes from the Chola period: it has an interesting museum with some excellent examples.

Many of these bronzes (made by the lost wax method 800 or so years ago) were later hidden (by being buried in the ground) when the iconoclastic Moslem Mughal emperors pushed their empire southwards.  Some, perhaps most, are still lying hidden today.

(Nataraja: Shiva dancing the dance of creation)

I think of Madurai as the quintessential South Indian town, teeming with life, noise, disorder and vitality, with spiritual Old India mixing side-by-side with the new modern India (symbolised, for example, by black or orange-clad, face-painted pilgrims in the temple whipping out smart-phones to capture their visit). It's an exciting place but one where you have particularly to keep your wits about you, not only for traffic from any direction but also to be alert to touts and scam artists and, allegedly, the odd pickpocket.  The roads are quite as littered as anywhere, although clean for a brief blissful period in the early morning when the dustcart comes round to collect the piles gathered by the sweepers. Perhaps, in fact, littering is simply job-creation for the sweeper caste?  There must be a better way!

I am staying in the same place I stayed back in 1997 and I could swear not one thing has been done to maintain or even clean the place (apart from sweeping and changing the sheets) in the interim.  I thought it was OK then but it's really pushing my, admittedly high, levels of tolerance now.  If I ever come to Madurai again, it won't, I think, be to stay at the Hotel International!

One last thing to say about Madurai is the food - a great selection is available - although I am tempted to keep on ordering my favourite: masala dosa.
(half-eaten already!)


Anonymous Liz said...

The post box in Agonda has had at least one collection since you were there!

Thu Jan 03, 10:41:00 am GMT  

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