Sunday, January 06, 2013

Back on the rails, at last

From Trivandrum to Erakulam to Goa and back to Mangalore - all by rail, but then I took to the buses (perforce: few trains in the hills and long waitlists on those that are). Mangalore to Mumbai to Mananthavadi to Tholpetty and back, to Kalpetta, to Sultan Battery, to Coimbatore, to Madurai, all buses with some other urban ones thrown in. At last Madurai gave me the chance to get back on the rails and that's how I got to Tanjore/Thanjavur in time for my birthday.
(Ancient and modern: shoulder to shoulder)

I imagine most travellers in India would opt for rail over road when and where available. Trains have most of the usual advantages (although not reliably faster than buses or reliably on time). They're a smoother ride, more relaxed, offer better views (not ribbon development along the rail lines), space to move about, use the amenities, all in your own time. And apart from the passing scenery, there's. the passing show of on-board life, the vendors, the beggars, your fellow passengers, face to face not face to back. However, availability is the problem. Not only do trains only cover certain routes, as you might imagine, but they are generally overlooked, so that the only way to be sure of a berth on an overnight train is to book well in advance, frustrating the ideal of flexibility - unless of course you're willing to book several days in a scatter-shot approach and then cancel nearer the time.

One reason for overcrowding on the trains is that there are not enough to satisfy the demand. A given train may be very long but what it gains in size it loses in frequency - and punctuality. The trains are also cheap compared to the buses, again increasing demand and reducing the incentive to book only the tickets you will actually use.  What can be said for buses is that there are lots, they go frequently and they keep going!  And so, sometimes, they are unavoidable . .

(There she is: Parvati, Shiva's consort)

Anyway, as I was saying: back on track - I got a day train to Tanjore. It's a kind of birthday present to myself, as it is home to my favourite temple and the best collection of Chola bronzes, home to the original of the bronze I had made here in 1997 - see above. But having got here by train, I was afraid I would have to use buses to get back to Kerala, my chosen trains being full and long-waitlisted for days and days ahead ... but then Indian Railways came up with its very own birthday present for me too: a train I didn't know existed, starting in the middle of nowhere (near here) and going to the middle of Kerala! And there was space on Monday. It's called the Tea Garden Express. Perhaps I'll find out why . . .

[Later I also nailed a final link from Ernakulam to Varkala for a couple of days chilling by the sea near the airport. That leaves me free either to have a couple of days doing side trips from Kochi (backwaters? tea-plantations?) or to do a dash up to a "new" quiet beach place at Cannanore beyond Calicut (the old imperial names, of course - we're meant to call them Kannur and Kozhikode now).]

The last time I was here, my blog gave quite a lot of the story:
This time I'd repeat that the big draws are the temple and the "art gallery" of bronzes.  The temple stands out for its openness (literally much more open to the skies than the typical murky stone corridors of many a place) but also for having a tradition of openness to all-comers, specifically being open to "Untouchables" as they used to be called well before other places. This tolerance now extends to non-Hindus, who are welcomed into the heart of the rituals of fire, ash and so on - but that's all in the earlier blog. The openness extends to the atmosphere and the friendliness (perhaps the friendly ones are those who don't get in elsewhere. Certainly a few aren't friendly, and they look like brahmins or another superior caste, as visible from clothes (colours) and skin (paleness). This lot were a jolly crew:
although they don't necessarily show it!

Tanjore these days is a pretty extreme contrast (see top picture) between the noisy bustling town on the one hand (the noisiest, most persistent "horning" - honking - I've met this time anywhere) and the peace of the temple and the genteel decay of the old palace. But apart from the outstanding greed of the rickshaw drivers (of course piffling sums to us, I know), people here are charming and gentle and friendly - and so keen to have their photos taken, as we've seen: sometimes the camera builds bridges not barriers!

On Sunday, I benefited from Lady J's birthday bounty and had an extravagant day's taxi ride to a remote location (Point Calimere) and a bird and wildlife park and managed to track down a painted stork:
some distant flamingoes and spoonbills:
(yes, distant) and an unidentified ibex sort-of deer:

among other things. A lot of the pleasure of the journey was the view of the lush rice-fields of the Cauvery Delta (the same Cauvery we met at Mysore) and then the remote salt-pans and marshes as we neared the Point. Coming back a different way, we skimmed the coast and more salt extraction - as well as a Christian pilgrimage centre (about as remote as it could be) where a vision was seen way back, and like Lourdes, Knock etc. the place has grown around it.  and

Tomorrow I hope for a quiet day in preparation for a night rail ride (a.c. no less!) and an arrival back in Kerala, joining up the loop - and overlapping, in fact. The last few days are still open, but that's the way it should be, in my book.
(A doorstep decoration. I remember them as just white outlines but they've become more sophisticated in the meantime. Any chance of one of these on a street near you any time soon?)


Blogger reshma M said...

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Mon Jan 07, 03:40:00 am GMT  

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