Picture a perfect tropical beach. The palm trees. The white sand. The sun in a cloudless sky above a calm blue sea. That’s Mamallapuram. Now look just behind the beach. Are those statues, monuments?
Yes, they are. This town was once a thriving international port. The Chinese came here. The Romans came here. Sailors and traders from around the known world came here. An 8th century text describes how ‘the ships rode at anchor bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, big-trunked elephants and gems of nine varieties in heaps‘.
And so it was that just before this time, King Navasimharavan and his successor Rajasimharavan built a series of magnificent temples portraying the events of a great Hindu epic Mahabharata. There are pavilions. There are shrines shaped as temple chariots. There are imposing carved elephants. Here: you can wander round as I did, together with many Indian Sunday trippers. I simply enjoyed these monumental carvings, without going deeply into their history. I was quite simply too exhausted by then.
The Shore Temple.
Sunday afternoon at the Five Rathas
Later I ambled round town. I bought soap and a toothbrush – remember, I hadn’t planned to spend the night here when I left The Hotel from Hell in Chennai. I got a few more souvenirs to take home. I ate on the open terrace of a sheltered restaurant, finding easy company in fellow-travellers. It was a perfect day. My last day. I’d be getting up in the morning to go back to Chennai, pack, get to the airport and … fly home.
I was off to Chennai because I’d found a CouchSurfing host – an Indian woman and her husband, not much younger than me. That would be interesting. What an opportunity! To stay in a real Indian household!
I had no idea what a confusing city Chennai is. It makes Bangalore look like a market town. Busybusybusy with chaotic housing and business districts jumbled together with shanty towns and piles of uncollected rubbish. I thought I’d got used to all that, but this was in a different league, especially after Pondicherry.
When I arrived chez my prospective host, she told me she didn’t plan to put me up, but had booked me into a local hotel, the only one in the area. I hated it. The traffic screamed and hooted all night. The shower didn’t work. I had to get up at 2 a.m to ask the manager to turn down his Bollywood DVD he was whiling away the night with, and the traffic and hotel clamour began well before 5.00 a.m., mainly men loudly clearing their throats, spitting and coughing. I stomped round the area looking for another hotel, but there wasn’t one, good, bad or indifferent (indifferent would do).
Later, I quite enjoyed being whisked round the city by my CouchSurfing host – highlights were the ancient banyan tree in the Theosophical Society Gardens …
Rather more of the banyan tree
Banyan Tree in the Theosophical Society Gardens…well, a tiny part of the tree, anyway
Gate by the banyan tree
… and sundry Catholic churches pretending to be wedding cakes. Lads on the beach playing cricket. Though I wasn’t allowed to pick my own photo opportunities. ‘ Here! Take photo here!’
St. Mary’s Chennai.
Inside St. Mary’s Chennai.
San Thome Catholic Cathedral: dating from the days when Madras (Chennai’s former name) was part of the Portuguese Empire.
Inside San Thome Cathedral
Oh… I can’t remember …
Um….I’ve forgotten. Another European style civic building.
A Hindu temple in Chennai. Which one? Can’t remember.
A game of street cricket
A family relaxing on the beach in Chennai
But at the back of my mind all the time, when I wasn’t fighting sleep, was the dread of spending another night at that awful, awful hotel. I was dropped off after our day out at 4.30 and fully intended to take a nap, but clamour prevented it. I gave up and went and rang dozens of hotels – no vacancies. My CouchSurfing host’s plans for the next day included a taxi to Mamallipuram, with, or apparently without her.
Night came and endless hours of listening to traffic and my fellow guests throat-clearing and spitting. So at 6.30 I got up, wrote and delivered a note to my host, and got a rickshaw to the Bus Stand. Let me tell you it’s not easy when three different people give you three different bus numbers, and three different stops, and the bus destinations are only in Tamil script, but I was determined to get to Mamallapuram good and early, so I coped. Chaotic Chennai traffic eventually gave way to palm trees, lagoons, and views of the sea, Finally I was happy.
Mamallapuram struck me as a more congenial place to be. It’s a small seaside town, albeit touristy, With Added Culture. It’s a World Heritage Site with fantastic temple architecture and sculpture which I’ll share images of in my next post.
Walking down the street, I suddenly thought ‘I don’t HAVE to go back to Chennai tonight’. The first hotel I called at had a room, monastically simple, but clean. Outside my room was a shady courtyard, and as I started to talk about Chennai to the American tourist relaxing there, I just burst into tears. I didn’t know just how badly the noise and exhaustion had been affecting me, but I DID know that a night at the seaside was just what I needed.
Quite suddenly and unexpectedly, one night in 1961, Berlin became a divided city. At first there was merely barbed wire fencing, then a wall. It was all done in such a hurry that mistakes were made. One tiny part of Kreuzberg that belonged to the Eastern sector got isolated in the West. The Americans – for it was in their zone – could do nothing about this unremarkable patch. It became an unloved and unlovely rubbish dump.
Then along came Osman Kalin, an immigrant Turk. He wanted a vegetable patch. He cleared the land and started to plant seeds. As his patch became productive, he gave vegetables to schools, to the local church, to anyone in need. He cobbled together a rather ramshackle tree house. He became something of a local hero.
Initially, the East didn’t mind. But when East Berliners successfully started to tunnel under his patch and escape he came under suspicion. The authorities came to interrogate him, and he welcomed them in his usual hospitable way. They gave up and left him alone.
In 1989, the Wall fell. A newly united Berlin City Council began to see Osman’s ramshackle domain as an embarrassment. They gave him notice to quit. The local and wider community was horrified. 25,000 people signed a petition demanding he be allowed to go on growing his vegetables.
He stayed. He’s 95 now, and doesn’t work so much on his vegetable patch, though his son does. He lives in a flat nearby rather than in the tree house. He’s still a much-loved local hero.
An entry for Six Word Saturday. In her post, Debbie too has chosen to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall
Pondicherry. Until 1954, a French Colonial settlement. I wanted to stay in this most French bit of India, and I wasn’t disappointed. Only its historic old town built, French style, in a grid pattern retains a Gallic flavour these days, but what fun I had there.
I think Pondicherry remains in my memory as a haven of peace because -well, it was. My solo Indian journey was stimulating, exciting, eye -opening: but exhausting. A solo female traveller had few options for daytime relaxation. I wasn’t spending my days in tourist Meccas, so there were no coffee shops for me to enjoy simple down-time. Men had their tea shops. Women – not so much. Pondicherry provided these, and the shores of the Bay of Bengal. And French patisseries where I discovered the joy of an Indian croissant and a strong shot of coffee as an antidote to spicy fare. I truly loved my spit-and-sawdust all-you-can-eat-piled-on-a-banana-leaf cafes, but they weren’t places to linger after you’d downed your food. In Pondicherry I went up-market, without the up-market bills.
I stayed in a hotel called Le Rêve Bleu, and was immediately transported back to the town’s colonial days. Older staff spoke French, because they would have been taught in French at school. Sadly, this no longer applies to anyone younger than 55 or so: it’s English now.
Looking through to the garden.
My balcony at le Rêve Bleu.
Le Rêve Bleu. The view from my room.
Rooms were large and elegantly proportioned, and there was a leafy courtyard. Christelle, the young and cheerful French owner whizzed me about on her motor bike on shopping sprees to make sure I wasn’t ripped off when choosing the textiles I wanted to take home. She found me a young local woman who gave me a couple of wonderfully relaxing and rejuvenating massages. And her male staff cooked up beautifully spicy breakfasts that I ate in that courtyard. Yet this was a budget hotel.
All the same, I didn’t sleep much there. My room overlooked a quiet road where from midnight, the female street cleaners would get busy. They spread themselves over several streets, and shouted conversations to each other. They’d sit down cross legged on the pavement near my window and chatter during their breaks. I was charmed by them. Night birds called. Dogs fought. At 5.30 there was the Call to Prayer. At 6.30, the (often female) builders showed up at the building site opposite. Hopeless really.
Building works opposite.
Delivery from the Builder’s Yard.
So I’d get up early and go for a walk along the seafront. I’d look as the schoolchildren piled into rickshaws or onto the backs of bikes arriving at school. I’d smile at the policemen in their fine French kepis, and enjoy passing public buildings still signed in French.
The Bay of Bengal.
The journey to school, Indian style.
Dept of Public Works, Pondicherry.
Pondicherry Police. Admire those kepis!
Children off to school in Pondicherry.
Lycee Francais, Pondicherry
To be continued….
New readers: This is Chapter Something-or-Other of an occasional series of memories of my month long trip to India in 2007.
I really don’t like November. It’s dank, dismal, dreary and depressing, despite being my elder daughter’s birthday month (my Bonfire Night baby). I need a project to cheer me up.
I’ve found one. I’ll take at least one photo in the walled garden, every single day throughout the month, come rain, come shine.
Then on Thursday I read Amy’s blog post in which she celebrates the changing season in Yosemite with a glorious gallery of photos. She’s joined Sue’s blogging challenge called, of course, Changing Seasons. That seems to be a perfect peg to hang my photos on.
My shots today show the garden on a thoroughly Novemberish sort of Friday: raining, of course. Later on this month, I’ll post again. Whatever the weather, I hope it’ll show that even in November, beginning with the final vestiges of summer, and winter setting in towards the end of the month, that the walled garden is a fine place to be.
After I’d left my new English friends to do solo travelling, my first stop was Thanjavur. I wanted temples in Tamil Nadu, and it seemed to be a toss-up between Thanjavur and Madurai. Thanjavur won, because I suspected it was less on the tourist trail.
In case you don’t know, CouchSurfing is an online community in which travellers offer and make use of hospitality offered. It’s based on the premise that this makes travelling more affordable, but more importantly, gives travellers the opportunity to experience the community they’re visiting at first hand, rather than in the somewhat detached way hotels can offer.
So I stayed with Gwen, an American doing post-graduate research at the University there. We’d exchanged emails over a month or two, and she didn’t feel like a stranger when I met her. She gave me a wonderful welcome and few days with her. Gwen had made it her business to be part of the community she lived in. She’d learnt fluent Tamil, so had good relationships with her neighbours. So while there, I had the chance to mooch round and enjoy with her the rangoli decorations and lights put out at night for a Hindu Festival of Light (not Diwali, yet another one).
I met the neighbours and was invited into their homes. I narrowly avoided a big faux pas with one household: a young couple, both teaching at the university. Invited to sit down, I nearly plonked myself in the nearest vacant place on a sofa. I recovered myself in time and did not sit, after all, next to the husband, but squeezed onto the other sofa, with the women. Gwen said it would have seemed very odd to them if I hadn’t remembered in time. We chatted to another neighbour, a Christian, who explained that she liked to keep the Hindu festivals too, and showed us her Hindu decorations taking their place alongside her pictures of the Pope.
I ran errands for Gwen, and in that way had several language-less conversations in the food market, where everyone was keen to shake my hand, because tourists in Thanjavur don’t generally go and buy half a kilo of carrots.
We zipped round on her scooter and bought takeaways. These are known as ‘parcel meals’, and neatly packed up for you in a cotton cloth. We caught local buses together and visited temples. We had meals, served on a square of banana leaf, in local cafés. I wandered round her neighbourhood when she wasn’t there, and saw a small community going about its day-to-day business.
Street scene, Thanjavur
Another street scene, Thanjavur.
Goats eat breakfast in Thanjavur
I was woken in the morning to local sounds: the Muslim Call to Prayer transmitted by loud microphone at, erm, 5.30 a.m. : the church bells ringing a few minutes after that (20 % Muslim and Christian communities here): the street hawkers who kicked in at about 6.45: the day-today noise which seems to begin so early in Indian communities.
And of course it was interesting to talk to Gwen, who knew exactly what I would be finding difficult, and could guess what assumptions I might be making. She gave me the odd Tamil lesson, and more importantly a gesture one (‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are the opposite way round from ours, I learned rather late in the day). She was much the same age as Tom and Ellie, but that didn’t seem to matter – it didn’t to me, anyway.
I’m ashamed not to be giving you an art history lesson involving all those temples. Quite simply, I didn’t label my photos well enough. Instead, I’ll give you a picture-show: From Thanjavur itself; from the small town of Kumbeshwara which has eighteen temples; from the exquisite temple at Kambakonam; and from Dharasuram. Sadly, one of my main memories of Dharasuram was the astonishing pain of trying to walk round the site. One always leaves ones shoes at the entrance to a temple, and the paving stones were fiery hot and burning. As usual, no surface remained unadorned, but studying them in detail proved impossible.
Besides the detail of the sculptures, enjoy the temple elephant giving us a blessing, and the bronze worker busy working at the bazaar within the Nageshwara Shiva temple in Kumbeshwara. Don’t think of these places as simply being lavishly decorated places of worship. They’re living communities, with bazaars, sometimes cattle and elephants. Some, such as the Chola Temple at Thanjavur, have inviting grassy spaces. Bring the family for a picnic!
Chola Temple at Thanjavur.
A blessing from the temple elephant.
Temple detail at Kunbakonam.
Bronze worker in Kumbakonam
Chola Temple, Thanjavur.
Chola Temple, Thanjavur.
Dharasuram. The pavings were SO HOT on our bare feet!
Kumbeshwara and its water tank.
View of Nageshwara Temple, Kumbakonam
Kumbeshwara Temple, Kumbakonam, the Shiva Temple.
Temple elephant, Thanjavur
Trompe l’oeuil: Is the cow’s head resting on the elephant, or is it the other way about?