(12th-19th April 2015)
We had an early start that day because we were going on a cycle tour of Mamallapuram, and it was going to get hot. Just incase I hadn’t mentioned it – India is H.O.T. Mamallapuram is a town with a population of around 18,000, where Sanjay (our guide) lives with his wife and son. The town was hit by the 2004 tsunami when the wall of water went in by about 200m, killing ten people there, and a (not so) grand total of 10,000 along the East Coast of India. Someone made the point that they didn’t remember hearing about India when it happened- it was all about Thailand. I don’t remember hearing about it either.
Our bike tour took us to several different places of historical interest in the town.
1. Vishnu’s Butter Ball
This huge rock is balanced on a close of solid rock. No one knows how! Legend has it that Lord Vishnu stuck it onto the hill with butter and it hasn’t been moved since. When the British gained power of India, they decided the risk of it falling was high and they worried about the safety of houses in the rolling line of the ball. They used 7 elephants to try and pull it free, without it moving an inch.
I tried really hard to push it, with the help of a few others and guess what?
We didn’t move it either.
2. Varaha Cave
They seem to like monolithic things in the south of India. I didn’t even know what it meant before I went there!
Veraha Cave is a temple carved into a huge big hill of rock. It depicts stories from Hindu mythology on the walls and ceiling. The pictures are not painted but are 3D carvings. Very clever.
On the other side of this mass of rock was a HUGE scene carved into its face during the sixth or seventh century. There were elephants, gods, devils, spirits, snakes, buffaloes… the guide pointed out Kant stories here too including the one of the birth of the Ganges river.
3. The Five Rathas
This was an incredible place. Yet another ‘monolithic’ attraction. There were five temples of different architecture (including Egyptian, Roman, Buddhist …) all of which were carved from one big rock! They were only excavated twenty odd years ago and it is clear they are joined by the rock underneath.
4. The Old Lighthouse
The description is in the name really! We climbed up to look at another temple carved into another rock, which was just as great as the others. At the very top of the hill there was a lighthouse where we could look right out over the coast.
5. Seashore Temple. Another place with a very interesting and unusual name!! Can you guess where it might be?! Well done. It’s on a point of land with a beach on each side. It’s surrounded by over 100 statutes of Nandi (Shiva’s bull).
We had noticed some waves breaking out in the sea, and asked Sanjay what was there. I’d assumed it was just some rocks, and so had everyone else. That was until the 2004 tsunami and when the water went out it revealed 6 more temples that have been under the water this whole time!
Once back at the hotel we all made the most rooftop pool. Most people were sensible and stayed up there for an hour, or two at the most. I was just so relaxed and didn’t want to leave – so didn’t. I stayed up there with another girl Becky for at least an extra two hours. I was careful to keep applying sun cream but it seems that I was just sweating it straight back off! My back was the colour of a cooked lobster. That’s not an exaggeration AT ALL. I. Was. RED.
Luckily it healed pretty quickly, but it was horrible at the time!
We went shopping in the late afternoon, before having a lovely dinner at a fish restaurant. I’d been warned off eating prawns in India, but I risked it (sorry, Dad!) and they were delicious. I shared them and a local fish dish with Becky.
We had an unusual drive this day. It was only two or three hours overall, but we saw some reallyinteresting things. We past by people up to their necks in the river, crab fishing. We saw pelicans swimming and flying.
We stopped by the side of the road and bought the fruit from a palmyra tree. That just showed yet again how kind Sanjay was. I’d asked what the stalls were selling, and he told us that’s what it was. Someone mentioned they’d like to try it at some point and so we pulled over one minute later and he bought some to pass round the bus! It had the texture of a lychee but not much of a taste at all, maybe very slightly sweet but not much else.
We also stopped at a salt farm where we watched them collecting salt. They have small fields, much like rice paddies, which have water pumped in. Then within two or three hours the water has evaporated and the salt is left! All that they need to do then is scrape it up and fill sacks of it. I tried a pinch of salt fresh from the pool! It was… Salty.
Our first place of visit was an ashram called Auroville (meaning ‘universal town’). I was very confused by it all. They said that it was started by someone, but they don’t have a god/guru/anyone who they are devoted too. The person who started it is called The Mother. There are staff there, who seem to be in charge, though they say nobody is in charge. Residents/ devotees or whatever have to pay to live there – who decides they have to pay? Who do they give their money to? There is a place in the centre of the ashram which is for deep concentration. The sphere in the middle has the Star of David on it. I’m so confused by this ‘no leader’ concept.
From Auroville, we travelled into Pondicherry itself. We were all very excited to get there as we’d heard so much about it. The first stop stop there was a lovely French bakery for lunch! Yes please!
After lunch we went to the hotel and dropped our bags before heading out a little later on for a walking tour of the French Quarter.
The first place we visited in the French Quarter was another ashram devoted to the guy who’s wife set up Auroville. I was really looking forward to seeing this ashram actually. For a few years now I’ve been interested in meditation, and have looked into doing retreats in various places, though the timing has never worked out. The retreats I’ve looked into doing are ten days and silent. Yes, probably impossible for me, but if it was with people I didn’t know and had never spoken too I don’t think it would be too hard. Saying all of this though, we walked into this silent ashram to take a look around, and it was like holding my breath. I can be quiet at times, but walking in there I suddenly had SO much to say to my new friends in the group. It was like coming up for air when we left about fifteen minutes later. I’m reconsidering the desire to spend ten days in silence!
After this, we walked along the sea front which I am told is similar to the south of France – I really have to go there if it is. We visited a beautiful church and then walked around some streets just looking around.
There was a dog that followed us from one end of the beach to the other, waited outside the church and then came with us through the old colonial streets until he got chased off by some other territorial dogs. I named him Sanjay, like our guide!
After breakfasting again at the French bakery we headed for Madurai. Our journey was broken up by various toilet/coffee/lunch stops.
On the bus we watched a Bollywood movie called ‘Happy New Year’, was was especially appropriate that day because it was Tamil new year, and we were in Tamil Nadu state. The night before in Pondicherry we had seen lots of pavement art for the new year in the form of rangoli or mandalas.
On arrival at our hotel in Madurai we were each given a necklace of gardenia flowers and a glass of watermelon juice (my favourite).
In the evening a few of us went to the cinema to see a local Tamil film called ‘Komban’, which had no subtitles or anything so basically all I know about it is what we were told at the end. Apparently, there were two villages fighting over some land, and a guy from one village fell in love with the daughter of the man from the other village who owned the land… Or something. Sanjay (that’s our guide, not the dog) had told us that when the hero came on we had to cheer and clap. In reality he was the only person to make any kind of noise or appreciation which was pretty funny!
Dinner on the roof of the hotel got pretty wet with a tropical downpour.
Our first stop that morning was Madurai Palace. I think it was built in the 16th century, and was nice but not even half as incredible as Mysore Palace. Only a quarter had been preserved, the rest had been left to crumble before preservation began.
The next place on our tour of Maduari was Meenakshi Temple. Anyone who has been there, or even seen pictures will know just how incredible it really is!
Meenakshi is another name for Parvati- the wife of Lord Shiva. The temple was built between the 12th and 17th centuries and has beautifully decorated ceilings painted in bright colours. Different areas of the 12 hectare temple are for different gods. There are many halls, one with 985 pillars is called the thousand pillar hall. The entire complex has 12 towers, each covered in a hundreds of mythical creatures made from mortar and painted in bright, vibrant colours.
From Meenakshi’s temple we went to the Ghandi Museum. We were all pretty hot and tired by this point and personally I didn’t really absorb much information. The museum showed his cloth that he was shot in, still with blood stains, and his glasses and sandles.
Later in the afternoon we went on a cycle rickshaw tour round the backstreets of Madurai. It was nice to see people just living their life, rather than looking at tourist things and being hassled by sellers. It was after school so there were lots of gorgeous kids out and about, waving and smiling.
We stopped at a place where we saw ladies spinning thread, sitting cross legged on the floor. There was a guy at the front with a huge wheel which he was winding the thread onto. In a house/ building opposite on their colourful little street we saw the thread being woven on a loom into cloth.
We stopped at a market and walked through the streets. Becky and I stopped to take a picture of a really smiley lady, and she chatted to us as best she could and gave us coffee. We turned round and the rest of the group were nowhere to be seen, except the Mexican guy Tut who was standing at the end of an alley everyone had turned down and was looking out for us, as he usually was! The alley they’d turned down was a banana market.
Again in the evening our dinner and beers on the roof got rained off!
In the morning as we were packing up I realised only one of my walking boots was attached to my backpack – queue panic!! That was until someone in the group mentioned that they’d seen one on the bus the day before, not to get my hopes up, but they’d seen a shoe. Turned out that it was the lonely boots happy partner and so I won’t be hopping up any mountains or volcanoes anytime soon.
Our journey to Periyar took us back into the Western Ghats – almost back in the west again! We passed through palm greaves, across huge plains filled with vineyards, banana forests, rice paddies and completely motionless wind farms, before climbing into the Western Ghats, where out first stop had been back in Wayanad.
Our first stop was the Connemara Tea Factory. For those of you who don’t know me – I am completely and totally obsessed with tea. The visit to the tea factory was probably as much of a highlight in India for me as seeing the wild tigers back north in Ranthambhore – sad fact but true.
First we were shown a video about the picking and processing of the tea leaf, and then we got to see around the factory. We were told what we would see before going in because the factory was so noisy.
The leaves are picked, fermented, dried, crushed, torn and curled before being sifted by size into bags. The whole process takes 17 hours, and we were lucky enough to enjoy some fresh tea at the end.
I was completely hyper at the sight of so much tea… I could make tea angels!
My parents were lucky enough for me to send them a tin each.
Some of our group were going on a boat cruise in the national park, but Becky and I went for a mooch around the shops, before a torrential downpour began and were headed for a massage.
This was a bit of an odd massage. It was an Ayurvedic massage, and nothing like any massage I’ve experienced before. I felt very uncomfortable the whole way through, it wasn’t a nice massage at all. It left me with very little dignity of which I am not going to write on here! I will not be having another of those.
In the evening a group of us went to see a traditional show of Kadathanadam Kathali fighting which is an old Keralan martial art. It included sword flighting, kicking and punching and… Jumping through hoops of fire!
At one point one of the fighter/performers was spinning a stick with fire at both ends, and a bit of fire landed right beside my foot. I got such a fright! One of the girls volunteered when they were jumping over lines of people, and a group of them went down and took pictures with the fighters and weapons at the end.
The first stop this morning was a visit to a spice garden, which was just fifteen minutes from the hotel. We saw so many different things growing: several types of chilies (I tasted one- HOT), coffees, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, all spice, cloves, lemon, pineapple, grapefruit, pomelo, cocoa, rose apples, turmeric….. The list is almost endless! I bought some masala chai (for me- of course) and some spices to send home.
Our journey was along a very hilly and windy road, which lead to the majority of us feeling pretty horrible, and needing a good few stops for breaths of fresh air and leg stretching! We drove through some beautiful mountain scenes, tea, coffee and rubber plantations, before the land reached out before us, flat and green.
I’d fallen asleep and when we woke up we were nearly there. We pulled off the road and stopped beside water, where in two groups we were ferried over the water onto an island in the Kerala Backwaters in a dug out canoe.
We were staying in two homestays by the water. After a cup of masala chai we went back over the water in the canoe and went for a walk round to see some everyday local life, people, animals etc.
It was a really lovely walk through villages and rice fields. We watched the sunset and met a group of children who had a fantastic collection of coins from all over the world. They wanted to know if we had any, but as it was the first country of my trip I didn’t… I didn’t even have pounds with me. Sorry kiddos.
The waterways here are used as roads, but they have one problem – water hyacinth. It is a plant that spreads like wildfire and is very difficult to control. It blocks canals and waterways to the point of not being able to use them. The only time they can get any control is once a year when they open the gates between the backwaters and the sea and they let in salt water to clean the backwaters. If the salt water is let in for a few days at a time it will rot the water hyacinth meaning that it dies. People spend many hours tying to scoop it out, but it only horned back worse, and the salt is the only really way to clear it.
We had a lovely home cooked dinner by the ladies who ran the homestay. One of the curries we were given was water buffalo curry. We tried the locally made liquor after dinner. It’s called ‘toddy’ and is made from the stalk of the coconut flower. It wasn’t nice at all. Even just the smell made some people retch. It tasted very yeasty.
Our last day together!
After a very hot night with no fan or AC and hundreds of mosquitos we woke. I had a huge bite on my arm, a circle of maybe 5cm across. We had a breakfast of deep fried banana and sambar curry before boarding our transport to Allepey. It was a day cruise boat. We sat on chairs on the roof under a canopy, though I sat on the floor and dangled my legs over the side. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we saw people doing day to day tasks as we passed by their islands. We passed across the second biggest freshwater lake in India, shortly before arriving in Allepey town.
In Allepey we were met by our mini bus and the driver Ansari. It was a two hour drive back to Kochi. We were all feeling pretty emotional and sentimental about the most fantastic two weeks we had had.
Back at the hotel in Kochi we began our goodbyes. It was sad! I’m sure we all stay in touch, or at least I know some of us will. The tour felt like less much than two weeks but I felt that I’d known the people I was with forever.
Becky and I headed off in a heavily laden tuktuk with all of our bags to a hostel we’d booked for one night, while the others from the group gradually headed off to their respective hotels/airport for flights home or to their next stop on their travels.
The two of us spent the day shopping around town. We went back out to Jew town to look at the shops there, and spent some time in markets around the Chinese fishing nets too.
In the evening we met the only guy from the tour – a lovely Mexican called Tutehnkamun and we went for dinner together.
The thought of leaving India was almost too much to bear. We spent a final few hours wandering town looking for some henna, but the lady who we wanted to go back to was shut as it was quite early, so we gave up as nowhere was really open.
After issues paying at the hostel, we finally headed up to the bus stand where we said our sad goodbyes. Becky was heading to a hotel for some last minute sunbathing by a pool, and I was heading to the airport and on to Bangkok.